Book Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

27190613Title: AND I DARKEN
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 475
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

And I Darken is a clever gender-bent retelling of the tale of Vlad the Impaler. I actually hadn’t realized this when I started the book, so it was a pleasant surprise!

Lada Dragwyla, Daughter of the Dragon, is introduced to us as a fierce, ferocious young girl who grows into an even fiercer teenager. Her character was a joy to behold: she is truly ruthless and pragmatic to a fault. At her core is her intense loyalty to Wallachia, her country of birth, and her desire to one day reign there.

And I Darken starts at the very, very beginning: with Lada’s birth, quickly followed by her younger brother Radu’s birth. After a few chapters of adjusting to the setting and character, the story quickly moves on to the main plot: Lada and Radu are delivered to the Ottoman sultan as hostages by their father to ensure Wallachia’s loyalty. Teeming with fury at her father’s betrayal, Lada, unlike her brother Radu, never comes to see the Ottomon Empire as home, despite her love for Mehmed, the young sultan.

This book is unusual in a lot of ways, the first being the plot itself. The author accurately follows the thread of history, for the most part, bringing to life a largely unknown chapter in the lives of Vlad the Impaler and Radu the Handsome. Another unusual aspect is the various relationships in this book, which are intriguing and complex. Lada and Radu care for one another, but their relationship is fraught: Lada hates Radu’s timidity, and Radu is put off by Lada’s viciousness. At the same time, they are both in love with the same man, Mehmed, though Mehmed seems to only have eyes for Lada.

Something else I thought was wonderful was the portrayal of Islam. Upon coming to the Ottoman Empire, Radu almost immediately falls in love with Islam. Eventually, he converts, and his appreciation of Islam’s beauty was really refreshing to see. He talks often of the peace he finds in prayer and the call of the athan, while at the same time he worries about Lada perceiving him as a traitor because he embraced this aspect of their captors. It’s an intriguing personal struggle.

I absolutely loved Lada, an unapologetic and unlikable protagonist, but I also found Radu a fascinating character whose growth was deftly done. Though Radu starts out as naive and weak, he eventually grows into a skilled politician, able to navigate treacherous court politics in the subtle way Lada lacks. In the midst of it all he retains his loyalty and kindness; he actually reminded me a lot of Sansa Stark. He also struggles with his sexuality (insomuch as it is understood in such a way back then) as he comes to terms with his love for Mehmed.

The book also features some wonderful nuanced discussions of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in a world of men. Lada struggles constantly with the contradiction of who she is and how people want her to be because of her gender. She does not embody traditional femininity in any way and scorns this in many other women. However, this stops short of “I’m-not-like-other-girls” because of the way the narrative interrogates the various ways women carve space for themselves in the world. Lada muses on the ways in which women wield power, whether with a sword or with their femininity. She doesn’t necessarily come to any particular conclusion, but her confusion is sure to ring true with many young women who read this book.

One of the things that may perhaps be considered a weakness is the somewhat plodding pace. Personally, I didn’t have too much of an issue with this because I really enjoyed and connected with the characters, but it is not an exaggeration to say this book moves very slowly. Again, it begins with Lada and Radu being born, and the author does not spare details about their childhood. Pacing was odd as well; I couldn’t really identify any one particular moment of plot climax, but I think that might be because this book is very, very character driven. It is focused mainly on Lada and Radu’s growth and development and how they affect the history of the Ottomans and the reign of Mehmed. And of course the plot is constrained by history, which doesn’t follow traditional plot structure.

In short, I’m very excited to read the sequel!

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Book Review: Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

31123249Title: SAINTS AND MISFITS
Author: S.K. Ali
Release Date: June 2017
Pages: 352
Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I loved this book. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.

I will try to write a coherent review, though mostly I just feel like squeezing this book and hugging it tight and typing something nonsensical in all-caps, so forgive me if this isn’t especially eloquent. As a Muslim woman (and Egyptian! like the protagonist of this novel! I’ve literally never read about an Egyptian girl before!), this book meant so much to me. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, but I do not recall ever reading a book where I saw myself and my community represented. Especially not in such a positive light. I am so happy this book exists now. Not only that, I am so happy that it is a good book. A positively excellent, hilarious, entertaining book that I will be recommending to every single Muslim girl I know.

Janna Yusuf is a high school sophomore with plenty of wit and snark to spare. The story is told entirely in her perspective, which is fantastic, because Janna is one of the most realistic, likeable protagonists I’ve ever come across. She’s hilarious, sarcastic, intelligent, and oddly self-aware for a teenager. She’s also half-Egyptian, half-Indian, Muslim, and a hijabi. She’s a part-time photographer, part-time graphic novelist, part-time Flannery O’Connor geek.

There are no stereotypes in this book. Out of habit, I tensed when the older brother Muhammad was introduced, because I am so used to Muslim men, especially older brothers, portrayed as misogynistic oafs. But Muhammad is delightful – your typical annoying older brother, sweet, charming, caring. He wants to study philosophy and marry his “girlfriend,” whom Janna refers to as “Saint Sarah” because she seems to be perfect (though there’s more to her than meets the eye)!

Janna’s uncle, an imam at the local mosque, answers religious questions with humor and wisdom. Janna’s father is ultra-liberal and secular, now married to a white woman. When we first meet him, he loudly proclaims to anyone who will listen that he would rather his daughter wear a bikini rather than a burkini – not the best thing to say, but still, a refreshing change of pace from what we’re used to seeing of Muslim fathers.

Another great character is Sausun, a niqabi girl who also wears Doc Martens and is the Muslim equivalent of goth/emo teen. She’s tough as nails, hosts a YouTube show about niqabis, and absolutely shatters any stereotypes about women who wear niqabs. The niqab itself, the act of wearing one, is given nuance: Sausun implies she wears it because she wants to decide who is worthy of seeing her face. Janna talks about the protection the niqab offers, to someone who perhaps might wish to see but not be seen.

And then there’s Nuah! A black Muslim boy who clearly has a crush on Janna (though she doesn’t see it until the end of the book), he’s sweet, optimistic, and silly. I loved him so, so much. Please, give me a sequel to this where Janna and Nuah are dating!

Not all is rosy, however: the main conflict in the book is that Janna has been sexually assaulted by Farooq, a boy who has memorized the Qu’ran and is seen as the most pious Muslim around. For those of you non-Muslims out there who don’t know, memorizing the Qu’ran is a big freaking deal. Doing it pretty much guarantees you’re untouchable, which is why Janna has such a difficult time telling anyone what happened. She worries people won’t believe her, especially as Farooq has started talking about how Janna is “straying” from Islam. Janna is also hesitant to say anything for fear of making her community look bad.

There are two important things I want to say about all this:

1. There’s a slang term in the Muslim community called “wallah bro.” It is used to describe a Muslim man who thinks waaaay too much of his own alleged piety and takes the time out of his day to admonish Muslim girls on how they should behave. Wallah bros, a side effect of patriarchy as it manifests in Muslim communities, are pervasive and annoying as hell. Now, Farooq, attempted rapist, takes this to a whole new level, but he still displays the utter hypocrisy of a wallah bro when he posts vague statuses on Facebook about how it’s “sad” that Muslim girls are straying from their religion (in response to Janna accidentally being seen without her hijab), when he’s literally going around assaulting women. Growing up Muslim, I’ve witnessed this hypocrisy so many times that it was so validating to see it utterly destroyed here on the page.

2. When Janna talks about not wanting to make her community look bad, my heart hurt. I completely understood. No community is perfect, but non-Muslims are always so ready to talk about backwards Muslims and men who beat their wives and savage religions that it’s difficult to say anything in criticism of your own culture, for fear of it being co-opted by others. It’s not that our cultures shouldn’t be criticized – but these outsiders looking in, blinded by prejudice and ignorance, simplify an enormously complex issue to suit their racist existing narratives.

I fully expect this book to see criticism from such people who will insist that the representation of the Muslim community in this book is “too positive” or “unrealistic” or whatever. To those people, I would say two things: first, screw you for thinking that Muslim communities can’t be good and kind and supportive. Second, yes, Muslims communities have their issues. You know what? So does literally every other community. We’re not special. What is special about us is that we’re nearly always portrayed negatively, so let us catch a fucking break for once. We don’t always have to talk about our intra-community problems just because that’s the narrative that people have come to expect.

This is one of very, very, very few #ownvoices books about Muslims by a Muslim, and it’s lost in a sea of books written by non-Muslims that portray us as violent sadists at best, ignorant savages at worst. It’s nice to have some positive representation for once. We deserve it. If that bothers you, work hard to make sure that thousands of other #ownvoices books about Muslims flood the publishing industry, so we can see more variety of stories.

Anyway: you guys, this book was so, so, so good. Every time I read something in this book that I related to, I got this…jolt. Like, hey, yeah, that’s me! That’s my family! That’s my community! It was an amazing feeling. Is this what everyone feels when they read books with people they can relate to on such a personal level?

Read this book. Even if you’re not Muslim – actually, especially if you’re not Muslim. Especially if you don’t know much about Muslims or have conflicting feelings about Muslims. You’ll learn a lot. And even if you rarely read YA contemporary, I highly recommend picking this book up. It’s worth your time, I promise. It’s not juvenile or overly preachy and though it discusses many heavy topics, it’s never heavy-handed with them. And I literally could not put it down. Janna’s hilarious and deadpan narration kept me hooked, in a book where not too much happens! This is one of the few books I can see myself reading again and again, and I can’t wait for it to come out so I can buy a copy for my bookshelf.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Book Review: Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

28818313Title: IRON CAST
Author: Destiny Soria
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 384
Publisher: Amulet Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This book takes a long time to find its feet. Though it opens with an asylum breakout, the plot slows down from there. Hints are dropped as to what the main conflict is, but it builds up very slowly, as the author takes her time to establish the setting (Boston, 1919) and introduce the magic system. Ordinarily, this would be the type of book I would abandon, but what pushed me to keep going were the characters, which are really the best thing about this novel. Every single character was vibrant, complex, and compelling, and many of their narratives subvert common tropes and stereotypes. The word “diversity” is used a lot these days as kind of a nebulous buzzword, so I try to shy away from using it, but it really fits here. I was ecstatic to be reading a about a 1920s Boston that wasn’t all straight white people.

There’s Ada Navarra, daughter of a Portuguese father and a Mozambican mother, both immigrants. Ada is biracial, and her struggles with this are alluded to in the novel, but never in ways that feel ham-fisted. Ada ruminates on her place in the world because of the color of her skin. The narrative doesn’t shy away from this; incidents of discrimination against Ada are mentioned more than once throughout the book. And though she’s got a quiet strength, she is also allowed to be vulnerable and hurt by what she endures. She is also in a steady relationship with a black boy, Charlie, a musician who is several times described as Soft and Sweet. Patient, sensible, methodical, and reliable, Ada is a steady presence.

Then we have Corinne Wells, the opposite of Ada in so many ways. Corinne is white, wealthy, loud, impulsive, and sarcastic. She has a little bit of a chip on her shoulder, but it makes her endearing. She rushes into things headfirst and doesn’t often think things through – she leaves that to Ada, her best friend. The girls’ bond was so wonderful to read about – they love and support each other wholly. One thing in particular I liked was that Corinne’s privilege over Ada was alluded to several times throughout the book, and Corinne was, in a way, called out (and calls herself out) for various microagressions.

Another character is Saint, a young gay man who takes some time to find his courage (not to “come out” or anything). There’s Gabriel Stone, a terse, seemingly aloof guard who develops into a love interest, but is given his own backstory (he reminds me a little bit of Grant Ward, but I digress). There’s James and Madeline Gretsky, a delightful married couple who run a theater, only James is in love with Saint and his marriage is one of convenience – for Madeline. There’s Eva Carson, who is a minor character, but also the head of a gang and shines like the moon on a cloudless night.

Then there’s the families of all these characters! Ordinarily, in YA, parents and/or families are dead, nonexistent, or flatly written. Not so in Iron Cast. Though Ada’s father is in prison, her mother features prominently. Corinne’s family is initially presented as your typical wealthy white snobs, but towards the end Corinne’s mother is shown to have independent political opinions and to be much more perceptive than Corinne has given her credit for. Corinne’s older brother, Phillip, is also initially presented as a stereotypical, power-hungry white man, but his layers are peeled away to reveal a compassionate brother who loves his sister dearly.

And on and on and on! There are a lot of characters in this book but they all stood out to me so clearly I felt like I had known them all my life. Every single one of them is vivid and memorable, and uplift what is an otherwise somewhat dull plot. Even as I was reading about Corinne and Ada simply talking to each other or going to dinner parties, I was enjoying myself, because I had so quickly come to care about these characters.

So: the plot. Well, it definitely had the potential to be exciting, but I’m not sure what happened. Ada and Corinne are hemopaths, which means they have the power to craft illusions using words or songs (or other forms of art). It’s certainly an interesting and original magic system, but for some reason it never really grabbed me. Hemopathy is illegal in Boston and hemopaths are being persecuted left and right – by “ironmongers” who deliver vigilante terror, by HPA agents who arrest them, and by doctors who want to perform experiments on them. Ada and Corinne are caught up in some of these dangers, but the way the plot is structured makes it difficult to keep your attention for very long. However, as I said, the characters make it compelling, and admittedly, there are some good twists and turns throughout to keep you engaged!

Overall, a solid little book! I will definitely be reading whatever Destiny Soria writes next.

Book Review: Desolate by Amy Miles


21869767Title:
DESOLATE
Author: Amy Miles
Release Date: 2014
Pages: 288
Publisher: Createspace
My Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)
Review on Goodreads

TW: rape, violence

The only reason I made myself finish this book was because I received a copy from Netgalley, and it was cluttering up my Dashboard and sinking my review rate. Initially, I had requested this when I first joined Netgalley, and I didn’t spend too much time looking at the summary. I saw a pretty cover and that it was “read now” and that was that.

The book opens with utter carnage. The protagonist, Roseline, wakes among the bloodied and burning remains of her family members. Her new husband, Vladimir, has murdered everyone who gathered for their wedding and turned Roseline into a vampire. The opening chapter is engaging; Miller is good being descriptive. That is the only good thing I can say about this book.

After a wedding that puts the Red Wedding to shame, we are treated to hundreds of pages of Roseline being raped and tortured by her husband and his brother, Lucien, for no reason at all. In fact, very little of what the characters in this book do makes sense except to contribute to the utter bleakness of the plot. There are no nuanced characters here. All the men are rapists in waiting, all the women are jealous whores. Too many characters are introduced for no reason, as they are all essentially cardboard cutouts of each other. Fane, the love interest, is inexplicably a Good Guy, despite also being a vampire. Why has he alone managed to remain kind? Because plot.

And speaking of plot. I may have been stomach all the gratuitous torture and sexual violence had there actually been a coherent plot. It is only once we are three-quarters into the book that a hint of plot is even mentioned – apparently Roseline has to compete in some sort of hunt in order to win the right to be Vladimir’s wife for eternity. Not only is this mentioned way too late, the hunt itself begins 90% into the book, which leaves very little time for closure and means the narrative structure of the book is way, way lopsided. The ending is abrupt and answers little. The hunt itself makes no sense, and its rules seem to contradict each other.

There is no chance for us to get to know Roseline. Almost every scene she is in involves her being tortured in some way. She is constantly terrified, constantly abused. I’m not sure what the author was going for here – in the foreword it seems like she hopes this will be an empowering novel for abused girls, but I see very little of that here that isn’t badly written. Even Roseline’s supposed development from scared girl to “confident woman” happens abruptly and seems to hinge only on her relationship with Fane, Inexplicable Good Guy. There is mention several times that Roseline was chosen by Vladimir and Lucien for some kind of “destiny” but this is only hinted at seemingly to make Roseline seem more special than Vladimir’s previous wives, as we are given absolutely no clue as to what this “destiny” might be or how Lucien discovered it.

I had hoped that perhaps since this was the first in a series, that the second and third books would deliver more on their message of “empowerment” with Roseline now in her position as Vladimir’s wife. Unfortunately, according to the second book’s summary, it contains more and more torture of Roseline. It seems that her elevated status has granted her no respect and little protection, which really makes me wonder what the point of this entire series is. I know it’s a prequel series for another set of novels, so does it really just exist to take us through Roseline’s constant torture in excruciating detail?

Sometimes, random, obscure books turn out to be gems. Other times, like this one, they turn out to be horrible little books that make you grimace and roll your eyes as you force yourself to turn to the final page.

Book Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

24763621Title: WINTERSONG
Author: S. Jae-Jones
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 436
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Let me begin by saying: this is a beautiful book. The writing is lush, lyrical, elegant, sensual. This is the sort of book I would give to anyone who made the sweeping generalization that all YA is badly written. The story itself is also beautiful: it is a coming-of-age story, about a girl who grows into herself, who finds her confidence and self-worth, who changes from girl to woman with the passing of the seasons. Wintersong is almost phantasmagorical in its telling; reading it felt like reading a dream, or singing a half-remembered song. Jae-Jones has brilliantly composed an absolutely atmospheric story reminiscent of an ancient fairy tale. This is the sort of book I can imagine being read as a classic one day.

That said, I am so, so relieved to be done with it.

The story begins when Liesl’s sister Kathe is kidnapped by the Goblin King, and she descends into the Underworld to retrieve her. This book is supposed to be inspired by the film Labyrinth, a film I pretty much despised, and so the first half of the book was, for me, the more difficult part to get through. At the book’s midpoint, Liesl becomes the Goblin Queen, giving up her life to save her sister, but also because she wants to be with the Goblin King. More than that, she wants to be wanted, desired, loved. It is a desire so very flawed and human and understandable and one of the reasons I loved Liesl. After this, the second portion of the book is essentially a love story between Liesl and the Goblin King, as well as a story about Liesl’s growth and development. It is beautiful, yes, in writing and in story, but it’s also boring as hell.

Let me be clear: this is an objectively good book. I can’t really find much to critique about it besides the snail-like pace that drags it down. It’s also a very long book – too long, I would say, for a book in which so little happens. Liesl spends most of her time pondering over her fate and crafting her music. For someone who knows next to nothing about music, this grew tedious after the first few times. Not to mention, with how quiet the plot was, I just couldn’t feel any tension at all, which ultimately meant I struggled to finish it.

This book reminded me a lot of The Star-Touched Queen, which I just read, but the main difference is that The Star-Touched Queen’s second half was all high stakes, whereas Wintersong seemed to grow quieter and quieter as the plot went on. There are also too many unanswered questions about the Goblin King’s origins. Perhaps that is the point, as this is a fairy tale retelling and those are never meant to be crystal clear, but it frustrated me nonetheless, particularly with the disappointing plot structure. I kept wanting more, some big reveal, some cliffhanger, some excitement.

The most engaging scenes, and some of the most beautifully written, were the sex scenes (well, and most scenes between Liesl and the Goblin King, but I digress). Though rather demure and clearly toned down for YA, they conveyed much while giving away very little. I had no idea sex could be written so elegantly, but Jae-Jones managed to do it. Something else she has done very well in this novel is characterization. It was not only Liesl who felt real to me, but Kathe and Josef and the Goblin King and even Liesl’s parents and grandmother. I could see each and every one of them as a real person with their own faults and desires.

Overall I will not deny that this is an absolute jewel of a book, a beautiful creation crafted with love and skill. As a writer myself I have learned so much just from reading Jae-Jones’ words. I wish I had enjoyed reading this more, but ultimately the pacing and lack of plot did not work for me.

Book Review: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

25203675Title: THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Release Date: April 26, 2016
Pages: 342
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

It’s strange going into a book when most of what you’ve heard about it is negative. Mainly, I’d heard that the writing is too purple, the main character is stupid, the romance is terrible, and overall the book is uninteresting.

None of that is true.

First of all, the writing is beautiful. I mean, I will admit, I’m partial to purple prose, but Roshani Chokshi’s writing is like a dream come to life – she laces words and images together with such skill. I literally had to pause and reread so many paragraphs because I was just awed at how she spun words together to create a gorgeous image.

Second, the main character is not stupid, or any of the other negative things I’ve heard. I liked Maya a lot, actually. She’s kind of bitter, kind of cynical, but it makes sense that she is – it makes sense that she doesn’t trust people easily. But I found her a riveting heroine, particularly given that this book is driven by her decisions. Too often protagonists simply react to events, but here, Maya is the one who instigates, and the plot reacts to her. This book is all about Maya finding herself – the main conflict is really within herself, which is what makes this book a slower read than most. Things happen, sure, but plot comes secondary to Maya’s growth and personal realizations. This is, in a way, a coming of age story, done deftly through a clever Hades and Persephone retelling seeped in Indian myth. It’s really about a girl coming into her power, finding her confidence, and becoming who she is meant to be.

As for the romance, it was actually really well done? Normally romances frustrate me, particularly these types of over-the-moon romances, but I thought it worked well here. It made sense, given the plot, but also – it’s not like Maya falls head over heels and stops using her head. She’s attracted to Amar, but is still incredibly suspicious of him (as she should be). It is her distrust of him that spurs the second half of the book, in fact.

Finally, to the criticism that the book is meandering. I will say, I wouldn’t call this book a page-turner. It’s definitely more of a slow-burn, but it also felt kind of like a fairy tale. The gorgeous prose helps to elevate this to a kind of ethereal, not-really-there kind of story where not everything has to make perfect sense, where you’re expected to suspend your disbelief just a bit because this is magic and myth. Sometimes that can seem like the author is taking the easy way out, but it works really, really well here.

Overall, I think this is a really well-written book, and I use that phrase very specifically. I think this isn’t what you usually find in YA, and it’s a lot more cerebral and introspective. In a way, it kind of reminded me of The Bone Witch, but I liked this a lot better, mainly because Maya was a more fully realized character.