On “Ruin and Rising” by Leigh Bardugo

ruin and risingAfter finishing Siege and Storm, I thought I had a pretty good inclination as to how the third installment of the Grisha trilogy, Ruin and Rising, would conclude the story. As it turns out, I was way off. Way, way off.

I thought Bardugo would go against the grain and have Alina end up with Nikolas, so they could rule Ravka with equanimity and grace…But maybe that was just wishful thinking on my end. (Scratch that–it definitely was. Team Nikolas for life.) At the end, I love that she was the only person alive who could understand the darkness that he still felt in himself. Let’s just say it’s an ideal Fan Fiction avenue that I intend to pursue.

By the end of the second novel, I truly hated the idea of Alina ending up with Mal, or having their lives intertwine any more than was strictly necessary to advance the plot. Alas, Bardugo threw it back in my face in Ruin and Rising where the reader finds out *SPOILER ALERT* that Mal is the descendent of Bagri’s oskatzatsy’a (sp?) sister.

Through the use of merzost, Morozova resurrects his daughter after Baghra, in a fit of rage, uses the Cut on her. Without meaning to, Morozova turns her into the third amplifier, and her descendent, Malyen Oretsev, is destined to follow Alina Starkov wherever she goes and eventually die at her hand.

This twist in Alina and Mal’s fate was unexpected at first, but quickly became the obvious conclusion if the two were going to end up together. While I hate obvious conclusions, Bardugo does an amazing job of building the story up and letting the plot reach its end naturally.

That being said, some of the threads that Bardugo attempts to tie together at the end seem a little far fetched. The idea that Morozova and his human daughter never died when they were thrown into the water in chains feels unlikely. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that a small girl who had just been cut in half could survive with merzost alone.

I was moved, however, at the final resting point of Alina and Mal’s relationship. After all that, they know there weren’t brought together solely by forced beyond their control, but by their own choices. Plus, their supporting cast is one of the best in YA fiction. Tolya, Tamar, Nikolas, and the others are written with outstanding empathy and depth, which adds much needed nuance to what can become a formulaic YA plot.

All in all, it was a solid conclusion to a very well done series, and I can’t wait to start on Six of Crows.

On Rick Riordan’s “The Lightning Thief”

Photo courtesy of Goodreads.com

You could say I’m a little late to the game when it comes to reading Rick Riordan‘s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. What can I say? I was all about the A Series of Unfortunate Events books back in my day. Alas, the only reason I’m reading them now is because a friend and I have started a snail mail book club. The book she’s sent me is related to the Percy Jackson books, and she insists that I read the original series first.

To be clear, I love children’s and young adult literature. I believe both Maurice Sendak and John Green have, at different points and under different circumstances, asserted that a good book is a good book no matter the intended age demographic. But I never thought I would be interested in Riordan’s books. If they didn’t appeal to me as a kid, I was certain I wouldn’t like them now.

Turns out, they are so worth reading no matter how old you are.

The Percy Jackson series is considered classic children’s literature now; it’s in a canon that includes Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and Judy Blume’s books. All these novels have stood the test of time, and a place on the list for these books is well deserved. I honestly expected to have a hard time getting through the book, though. But I found no hint of juvenilia.

The Lightning Thief shows that the best books for children do not contain language and themes specifically designed for children. They contain the same language and themes that are true and realistic for people in all walks of life. Like Harry Potter and Lyra Belacqua, Percy Jackson knows much more of life than he should at the age of twelve. And I haven’t read another children’s book that deals with ADHD and dyslexia in a constructive and creative way. (Though I’m sure there other novels out there that do.)

The thing that compels me the most about children’s books is the depiction of rage in young children. Many books I read when I was the same age as these protagonists did nothing to reflect the burning anger that built inside me because of issues in my family. I found an outlet in music. So it was refreshing to encounter a book that I know many children at that age will relate to. Nevertheless, Riordan manages to characterize this angst with a great sense of humor, which is one of the book’s greatest assets; it never takes itself too seriously.

I’m happy to say that I get to spend my evenings reading books at home, and I have a huge stack to get through, but I plan to make room for Percy’s next adventure in The Sea of Monsters.

Happy Reading!

On “The Guineveres” by Sarah Domet

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

I don’t want to mince words when it comes to this book; The Guineveres was beautifully written. Sarah Domet possesses the envious ability to produce pristine and controlled prose that—at many points in this story—turn the mundane beautiful.

It was the story itself that left me feeling lukewarm throughout the book. That’s not to say it was bad. In fact, it was sturdy and competent; Domet’s writing served it well. But it did nothing to grasp my attention in the ways I thought it might.

I decided to read The Guineveres because one reviewer compared it to Jeffrey EugenidesThe Virgin Suicidesone of my favorite books. Here’s an important lesson: Don’t put faith in those comparisons. I would say the only similarities between the latter and Domet’s novel is the fact that four girls stand at the center of each their narratives; and that various religious elements are present in both. As a coming-of-age story, though, The Guineveres is decidedly better than most.

Domet does an excellent job of developing each girl’s personality. Vere, the novel’s narrator, Win, Ginny, and Gwen complement each other and influence the group’s actions in distinct ways. As the novel reaches its climax, the reader understands almost instinctively how things will start to fall apart once the girls start going their separate ways.

However, there were a few elements of the story that prevented me from connecting with it the way the author probably intended. The four comatose soldiers become an integral part of the plot—a way for the Guineveres to escape the convent. This plot convention rests on the naivete of these 15-year-old girls, something that I grew impatient with. The girls believe the soldiers will wake up, and then they will be allowed to go home with them.

Their hope and faith (of course, the main theme since they’re in a convent) is equal parts touching and repellent. It’s upsetting that they see this as their only way out, but I couldn’t help but think that if they could just wait until they turned eighteen, the world would be their oyster. It’s also fairly obvious what’s going to happen later in the story when Vere and Gwen realize that one of the boys can still be sexually aroused.

Which leads to a clumsy ending. I was surprised when Vere decides to stay at the convent and raise Gwen’s baby, but it is disappointing nonetheless. Of all the Guineveres, Vere and Win were the ones I wanted to make a successful life for themselves the most, outside the convent. Vere isn’t unhappy. She seems satisfied with her decision, and she knows young Guinevere will leave and discover the world. But it still seems Vere got trapped in the convent, forever in love with a comatose soldier.

Though I appreciated Vere as the story’s narrator, I think it could have been interesting to tell the story from each girl’s perspective. It could have given the story some extra dimension when things start to unravel. Of course, the reader does get four chapters interspersed throughout the book, which explains how each girl ended up at the convent—each story as heartbreaking as the other. I can’t help but think if all the Guineveres had a hand in telling the story, I might not have hated Gwen and Ginny as much as I did. But here we are.

When it comes down to it, the detail with which Domet renders life in the convent redeemed many of the story’s pitfalls for me. In fact, I got a few flashbacks while reading; I thought I would go my entire life without seeing detentions called JUGs again, which is a Christian school’s form of after school detention. It made me laugh out loud! Everything from the daily catechism lessons to the uniforms to the short descriptions of the lives of certain saints throughout the book made me keep reading, and in the end, they made it worthwhile.

On “The Tequila Worm” by Viola Canales

Courtesy of McAllen Public Library

Over the weekend, I decided to take a break from The Guineveres so I could make a dent in the Young Adult books that are starting to pile up around the house. The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales was at the top of my list.

I have to admit that I placed it there intentionally because I had a feeling that it would resonate deeply with me considering the state of current affairs, and I wasn’t wrong. This book should be a standard part of curricula in middle schools across the country.

As with anything else, there is no better way to understand other people than by experiencing some of the culture they hold dear. Canales’s book is the perfect blend of coming-of-age story, Mexican-American culture, and humor, with just a touch of the magical realism that makes Latin American literature churn.

At one point in the story, when the main character/narrator, Sofia, has started school at St. Luke’s in Austin (where she has received a full scholarship), a fellow student attempts to degrade her culture, telling her to go back to Mexico. Fortunately, everyone knows this girl is an attention-seeking child born from wealth; her mailbox is flooded with hateful letters, reprimanding her for what she has said and done. But in the immediate aftermath, Sofia says that “the border” crossed her family; she explains that they had been in the country for 300 years before the United States took the land from Mexico that now comprises large parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

We would all benefit from a little reminder that the people we wish to deport/ban/block have roots in this country just as much as anyone else. Land was stolen, cultures  appropriated, and labor exploited–all around the world. At the hands of this country.

And it’s only convenient that so many people have forgotten they came from somewhere else before they came here.

This book is by no means political; it is far more about the personal–I would say a final love letter from the author to her father. But–not to sound trite–that simple goodbye is the thing that makes the book essential and universal.

It is, quite simply, a story everyone should know.

On Veronica Roth’s “Carve the Mark”

Courtesy of Goodreads.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

As far as unpopular opinions go, thinking that the Divergent series is better than The Hunger Games series borders on blasphemous in the world of young adult fiction.

Alas, I am one of the people who thinks Veronica Roth‘s series was more powerful. But I concede that my preference for the series rests on a personal bias for the whole concept of factions (the Dauntless are my people) and the genetic engineering that comes about in the third book.

Because of my love for Divergent, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Roth’s new novel, Carve the Mark—the first book in a new series. Unfortunately, I was forced to learn a valuable lesson upon finishing this novel: always go in with low expectations.

That isn’t to say that this book is horrible; it certainly isn’t. But it gets off to a slow start. Roth—whom I’ve always considered a great technician when it comes to language and pacing—falls into a style that’s a little sloppy in the first fifty pages or so. The plotting is off-kilter, and so many things go unexplained before the novel’s first major event goes down.

The novel (and the overall pacing) would have benefited from a more in-depth study of Akos and his relationship with his family. That pivotal moment in the first part comes so quickly that the reader barely has time to adjust to the new setting and character introductions in part two. And–this could just be my impression—but I felt like too many consecutive chapters from Cyra’s perspective blocked proper development of Akos’s character.

I did, in some sense, approve of this tactic because Cyra is the driving force that kept this novel interesting for me. Her development as a character ends up turning into a physical transformation that I found moving; oftentimes, these developments in young adult novels can be trite and insincere, but hers is gut-wrenching and born from a real, painful love.

In her acknowledgment section at the end of the book, Roth makes a dedication to women who suffer from chronic pain. Roth clearly found inspiration in their suffering. Enough to create one of her harshest, most complex characters. As a reader who was forced to bear witness to Cyra’s endless agony, I could practically feel the dark mass of her currentgift swirling underneath my own skin.

The whole idea that a person’s currentgift serves as an extension of who they are becomes especially fascinating when Cyra’s changes as a result of her friendship with Akos and her growing selflessness. I especially love the way Roth’s characters have a self-awareness and moral obligation that people outside of fiction often have the luxury of forgetting. Many of them see that dying for someone or something greater than themselves is admirable and sometimes necessary.

This seems to be a theme that Roth will continue to grapple with in her fiction. None of her readers will soon forget how the Divergent series ended. And, in that respect, despite this novel’s clumsy plotting, I look forward to the rest of the novels in this series because the exploration of those high concepts is enough to keep me coming back for more.

On “Unmentionable” by Therese Oneill

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Let’s imagine you’re one of those people who spends the weekend reading your favorite Bronte novel with a glass of wine in hand, followed by a long binge watching session of the new ITV series, Victoria. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Therese Oneill is all too keen to remind you that your weekend enjoyment is a 21st century luxury, and everything you love about the 19th century is pretty much a game of smoke and mirrors.

So I’ve been lied to all this time?!?! All those films, books, and television shows were a lie? I’m afraid so, mon amie. The 19th century was a bitch.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners serves as a time traveling machine, taking you back to the beloved years under Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. Oneill is our sarcastic, all-knowing tour guide. She takes us through nearly every aspect of a Victorian woman’s life—that is, a wealthy, white Victorian woman, of course. A female from another race or class was practically living in a hell on earth.

In the book, the reader learns what a woman wore (crotchless undies, anyone??), how she spent her day, what was expected of her in the bedroom, and how her uterus is the only important thing about her, so sit down and shut up. It was such an amazing time…

Oneill, a go-to lady for lesser known historical facts, comes to us with a feigned British matron type of humor that serves its purpose fairly well. I particularly appreciated the captions she uses for the photographs and illustrations interspersed throughout the book. They’re often cutting, and witty, and vaguely meme-ish.

As someone who has the same Victorian era guilty pleasure as you good folks, I was really looking forward to sinking my teeth into this book. I hoped/expected to be equally entertained and horrified by what I read. Turns out, many of the revelations weren’t so shocking.

If you’re truly interested in the era, or even come across any Victorian texts at school, you will probably already know many of the “ghastly” things in this book. The truly interesting bits of information involving how people bathed and the “scientific” ideas behind sex at that time were sometimes buried beneath forced humor or the poor integration of humor and fact.

It’s certainly a delicate balance to strike—one that she hits more often than not—but it was difficult at times to focus on some of the passages when her tone wavered.

One of the book’s best qualities, though, is its intrinsically feminist approach to what life was like for women at the time. Women of the upper classes had it a lot better than other women, but they were still held to unfathomable expectations. If, for instance, you had a husband who wasn’t fond of abstaining from sex to prevent the conception of children, your uterus was basically a baby-making factory until you a) could no longer bear children, b) you died in childbirth, or c) you suffered from a prolapsed uterus, and doctors had to pin your organs back into place. Nice, right?

If you didn’t have the fortune of being pregnant for most of your miserable life, you probably had the joy of contracting a venereal disease from your philandering husband who has sex with prostitutes in dank alleys.

Life was rough, but Oneill’s book is not. Anyone interested in the Victorian era, women’s studies, or feminism in general will probably appreciate this book. Sometimes the jokes aren’t all that funny, and it might get a bit tiresome, but it’s worth your time if these things interest you.

On Justin Torres’s “We the Animals”

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This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

I’ve become wary of reviews or lists that describe certain books as essential to a particular racial, ethnic, or religious experience. Individual novels cannot speak for any group that containsoftentimesmillions of people because experiences are only shared in part.

Junot Diaz, one of the greatest writers I’ve ever encountered, frequently discusses the impact his 2008 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has had on discussions of race, diaspora, and the Dominican experience. Many people have told him that their lives as Dominican immigrants or Dominican-Americans in the United States are nothing like what was described in Oscar Wao, while many others have hailed it as THE definitive novel of this shared experience. Diaz rightfully describes this label as daunting, but points to an interesting phenomenon among readers who encounter a book that’s so specific in its detail that it becomes universal.

Three years or so ago, that was my reaction to Oscar Wao when I read it for the first time. Never before had I encountered a book that rendered language with such precision. I felt like I was reading conversations that occurred within my own family. Oscar’s bat shit crazy family, separated from its island and forced to dwell in urban misery, was my family. I knew those people. I had heard their stories.

But that connection is tenuous. I keep reminding myself that there’s this overarching Latin American tradition when it comes to storytelling that stems from post-colonial traumathat way of recounting the most mundane occurrence in such a way that it becomes otherworldly.

I imagine to outsiders listening in, these stories would seem fantastical, but to us–that is, those of us whose upbringing was built on these family mythsthey’re just stories. Diaz captured this essence in his novel, and since then I’ve kept an eye out for novels that might accomplish the same thing.

That’s why I read Justin Torres We the Animals.

It’s difficult to write about and discuss books with impartiality when you’ve read them with a distinct personal interest. I am a reader who will, at times, pick up a novel because something about it mirrors my own life. Perhaps in an attempt to make sense of things that have never been clear to me, or to reaffirm my suspicion that there might be other people around who share my VERY specific ethnic and cultural upbringing.

And so I encountered the trio of animals, raised by their parents, Paps and Ma, in upstate New York. Paps is a dark, Afro-d Puerto Rican. Ma is a bird-like Italian. They were teenage parents from Brooklyn.

Our narrator asks, “Who knows this mutt life, this race mixing?”

I know how to answer that one:

My father is a dark, mustachioed Puerto Rican who got himself through a lot of weird shit. My mother is a half Italian/half Yugoslavian powerhousean aggressive and loving woman.

As a child, I used to bring my ethnicity up in conversation as much as possible. It was the glittering jewel that set me apart from everyone else in a predominantly white Catholic school. My ethnicity gave me “other” status, which I wore with pride as something that made me unique until I realized I couldn’t communicate with anyone.

You realize you’re not really Puerto Rican enough.

You’re not really white enough either.

When you’re ostracized from the parts that built the whole, you get weird.

You’re a half-breed.

And where you’re growing up, not a very common one.

Your parents are from the city, and they sound funny to other people. Rough around the edges. Street-wise. Ready to cut a punk who gets in their face.

All of these thoughts kept floating through my head as I read this slight, beautiful book, and to those experiences of mine that the narrator and his brothers were also had, I felt connected.

We were animals tooraised in an area of sprawling farmland to cagey, displaced urbanites.

But these boys were allowed to ravage things and rebuke their parents for releasing themthe animalsonto people who had history; white trash roots.

We were contained.

Probably for the best.

These three boys tear up everything. Smashing, screaming, and ripping their way into being. It’s jarring to witness, but they make quite an entrance.

Torres has a stunning command of poetic language. Every action a character takes in the novel creates an almost palpable sensation in the reader. There are images he evokes that pierce through the pages.

Those elements make this brief story transcend the 144 pages in which it’s bound.

But these little boys grew up in the blink of an eye. There was very little to bridge the gap between the young animals smashing through things and the teenagers smashing through things.

Toward the end, our narrator’s brothers have noticed that he is different from themnot quite as keen on exerting his physicality. He’s a scholar. His parents tell him he’s going places.

Torres doesn’t spend much time documenting the changes, and develops a convention in which the course of one night damages his relationship with his family of animals forever.

The narrator leaves his brothers at the moment when they begin to hone in on how different he is. He finds a lover, and goes home to discover that Ma has found his journala sordid book that documents his darkest sexual fantasies with men in the town’s bus station bathroom.

They have him committed to a mental institution, and he never sees them again.

What becomes of an animal when it’s separated from the ones made like it?

On a hopeful note, Torres posits the image of one finding a home in others.

Maybe they’ll smash through things. Maybe they won’t.

Maybe our narrator will rest.

On Carrie Fisher’s “The Princess Diarist”

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com.

Dear Star Wars fans: This one is for you.

It’s really strange writing a review for a memoir written by a person who died earlier today. For a few days, Carrie Fisher’s voice–her humor–filtered through my head, and it was more than welcome. It’s hard to overstate how much I related to her 19-year-old self.

I have to be clear about this, though: I’m not one of the Star Wars fans for whom this book would have been a real delight. Those films–though I do recognize them as iconic–did little to capture my attention when I was a child, and I haven’t really bothered with them since.

I only decided to pick up the The Princess Diarist after seeing Fisher’s appearance on the Graham Norton Show a few weeks ago. Something about the way she discussed the book must have piqued my interest. I found it fascinating that she had forgotten keeping journals during her time filming the first Star Wars installment.

And, because I’m a perpetually unobservant person, I always assumed the affair between Fisher and Harrison Ford was a matter of public knowledge. I guess if Leia and Han were together in the film, there was something going on off-screen, right? Apparently, yes. I’m certain most people will pick up this book for what they will see as a titillating tell-all about their affair.

I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but it isn’t that. It might change the way you view their interactions in the film, but she does not write about it for the sake of giving people something to talk about. She was 19, and what happened happened.

What I like most about this book is how much Fisher let things remain as they happened. She did not glorify the past as a golden era before Star Wars became the phenomenon that it did. Her account of the affair with Ford is almost scientific, though not without trademark sense of wit and a little bit of heartbreak.

Fisher tells us she tried to act like an adult, but her naivete, confusion, and insecurity are palpable on those pages that contain transcriptions of her diary. Some of what she writes reads exactly like some of the things I’ve written in the past, and it makes the reader take notice of her quiet intelligence. Even though she was beautiful and talented and independent, she couldn’t see herself that way until she had aged into a period of maturity (or nostalgia) when she could finally look back at herself with something resembling approval.

The beginning and end of the book were a bit rocky. I found her writing difficult to follow at times, and some of her jokes fell on a confused brain. I think, perhaps, the book would have meant more to me had I possessed a better knowledge of Fisher’s performance of Princess Leia, but this books has made me reconsider those films and how they came to be and what they mean to people.

Now that Fisher has passed, the world will commence with its standard period of mourning, which usually lasts a few days. We’ll talk about how 2016 has been the worst year in recent memory and how it has taken the best among us–the ones who had the most to offer.

Star Wars fans will surely never let her memory fade, but I hope they remember she wasn’t just Princess Leia Organa.

She was Carrie Fisher. She was 19 once. She loved, she cried, she smoked, she drank, she made art.

And she let the world love her.

Reviews to come in November

Over the past few days, I’ve received by first few galley proofs from NetGalley.com. I’m really excited to dive into them, but I have a stack of library books that I need to get through first.

Though I love the idea of other people finding this blog and using it to make decisions about what to read, I’m using it as an opportunity to keep myself writing and thinking about things critically. I’ve fallen off the wagon in that respect since I graduated from school last December, so it’s time to pick it back up again.

I’m currently working through Philippa Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers about Jacquetta of Luxembourg. I file these types of historical romance novels under “guilty pleasures.”

So far, it’s an enjoyable read, though I do have a few minor issues with it that I’ll get into when I write up a full review.

Anyway, here’s my tentative reading list for the next few weeks. It comprises some eclectic choices. I get in the mood to read something, and request it from the library as soon as I think of it.

As you can see, I put myself in a pickle with all these books! But it’s great, of course.

(Titles in bolded font are reviews for NetGalley):

  1. Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron
  2. Where She Went by Gayle Forman
  3. Just One Day by Gayle Forman
  4. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  5. Prep: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld
  6. 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
  7. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
  8. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
  9. Trainwreck by Sady Doyle
  10. The French Impressionist by Rebecca Bischoff
  11. Framing the Black Panthers by Jane Rhodes
  12. The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost by Lucy Banks
  13. The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
  14. Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
  15. Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler