Book Reviews, To My Reader

Book Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

27190613Published: June 28th, 2016 by Delacorte Press.

Format: Hardcover, 475 pages.

Goodreads Summary: No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.

Thoughts: And I Darken follows two siblings who find themselves prisoners of the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s. It is most notably described as a gender bend of Vlad the Impaler, a brutal ruler of what is now known as Romania. As soon as I heard about this novel I couldn’t click ‘read’ fast enough. It’s refreshing to see YA branching out and covering a topic of history that not many people know about. Kiersten White has done her research, for the book stays consistent in historical accuracy throughout. While reading, I felt like I learned more regardless of my prior knowledge of this time in history. It’s fascinating! The author has mentioned that she will take more creative liberties in the next two books to make her story work.

Our two main characters captured my attention instantly. Ladislav is an unattractive young woman fighting to be a warrior in a man’s world. She demands respect and breaks every rule of the Ottoman court as she attempts to return to her homeland. On the other side of the coin, her brother Radu must find strength in a different way. Although he has the benefit of being a handsome male, Radu is punished for his kindness which many around him perceive as a weakness. Unlike his sister, he finds a place in the Ottoman Empire despite other misfortunes. Lada and Radu both find themselves at the mercy of their emotions and this acts a catalyst for much of the novel. They will work with and against each other to secure their place in this society. Both characters are complex and illustrate important gender themes highlighted within the novel.

“As the baby latched on with surprising fierceness, the nurse offered her own prayer.
Let her be strong.
Let her be sly.
And let her be ugly.”

And I Darken transports readers into a vivid world of castles surrounded by mountains and ornate buildings containing harems. The writing was dense, but this seemed fitting for the story. When I was reading I was completely enveloped by the setting and found it difficult to pull myself out of it. I will admit that the plot is slow and meticulous. Therefore, it requires your utmost attention as every sentence reveals pieces of the story. Knowing this, And I Darken may not be for everyone. The first book covers a large amount of time in the span of roughly 500 pages. The Conquerors Saga will consist of three books, the next one releasing in Summer of 2017. For readers who enjoy Historical Fiction, Fantasy, or YA this is a novel you don’t want to miss. This brutal novel will gut you.

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Book Reviews, To My Reader

Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

15507958Published: December 31st 2012 by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking.

Format: Kindle, 385 pages.

Goodreads Summary: Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life—steady boyfriend, close family—who has never been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex–Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life—big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel—and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.
Will is acerbic, moody, bossy—but Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.

Thoughts: What a bittersweet read this was. Technically Me Before You would be considered romance, but I’d argue that it focuses more on self-growth and the prominent role of family. The story follows the life of Louisa Clark before and after she meets a wheelchair bound quadriplegic named Will. He is moody and quite mean, but Lou doesn’t let that stop her from getting her job done. Her lighthearted spirit and unique clothing choices are magnified from the very first page as she attempts to cheer Will up. I loved the interactions between these two characters and just how important the dialogue was. While I was reading, I could vividly picture every scene. And although the writing isn’t delicate prose, it is still lovely and distinctive.

One of the things I really liked about this story was the inclusion of family within the novel. Both Lou and Will are constantly surrounded by their families and these other relationships are not sidelined. Too many books these days don’t even include the role of family at all and I find that incredibly unrealistic. Lou’s relationship with her sister and Will’s relationship with his mother are at center focus in this novel. I also like that this book features a main character with a disability. It provides readers with a wider perspective of mankind, but even in 2016 there aren’t many books tackling the topic of disability. It’s incredibly important to try and understand the struggles of others, and reading can be a perfect way to do that. JoJo Moyes does a fantastic job keeping Will’s life as realistic as it can be.

I still had a few issues regarding decisions made within the novel, but at the same time I can understand why certain choices were made. In the end, I wished that we had gotten just a little bit more before the ending. I’m sure I’m not alone on this. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book! It emphasizes the importance of living in the moment and spending your life walking outside your comfort zone. I recommend that you have tissues with you while reading.

“Push yourself. Don’t Settle. Just live well. Just live.”

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I haven’t see the movie adaption yet, but plan on doing a movie review when that time comes. Have you/ Will you see the movie?

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Book Reviews, To My Reader

Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

25614492Published: February 2nd 2016 by Philomel Books.

Format: Hardcover, 391 pages.

Goodreads Summary: Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.

Thoughts: Ruta Sepetys needs to stop stomping on my heart. This story follows a lesser known tragedy in the 1940’s and ups the anti by looking at the event from the perspective of young men and women whose lives have been destroyed by war. Sepetys never ceases to amaze me with the amount of emotion she is able to portray in each one of her novels. This one in particular quickly introduces lovable characters who all have their own motivations and voices. They react realistically and bring the novel alive. The story tests their limits of survival to the brink. The author is truly gifted when it comes to storytelling, but she also manages to keep her stories grounded in historical context which I believe adds to the overall emotional core of the novel.

The novel features short chapters that I believe work to increase the pace of Salt to the Sea. Because the chapters are so short you will have the desire to find out what will happen next. (After all the chapter was only two pages.) Why not continue? The faster storyline parallels the speed of the book’s main event on the Wilhelm Gustloff. Even though the ship is doomed to sink, there is a part of you that hopes everything will work out. – It took this ship less than an hour to sink below the depths of the icy water. The story had me on the edge of my seat and witnessing the war through four very different perspectives was clever on the authors part. It added suspense and a wider understanding of all sides.

“How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or the sky.”

At the end of the story Ruta Sepetys talks about the importance of history and how she hopes that, although the story itself is fictional, the presence of humanity and the shadow of war will inspire readers to learn more about other stories lost in history. I am a huge fan of the Historical Fiction genre, and Ruta Sepetys hasn’t let me down yet. If you are interested I highly recommend you read this one. It is beautiful.

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Book Reviews, To My Reader

Book Review: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

42672Published: September 21st, 1937.

Format: Hardcover, 278 pages. 75th Anniversary Edition.

Goodreads Summary: Whisked away from his comfortable, unambitious life in his hobbit-hole in Bag End by Gandalf the wizard and a company of dwarves, Bilbo Baggins finds himself caught up in a plot to raid the treasure hoard of Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon.

Thoughts: I cannot tell you how much I adore this book. It became a huge part of my childhood and my parents read it to me more times then I care to admit. It wasn’t difficult to immerse myself in a world of magic, Hobbits, Wood Elves, and Dwarves. The author J.R.R. Tolkien spent a majority of his life creating a universe that is beloved today by readers all over the world. And although the story was originally written as gift for his children, it became a gift for many others too.

The thing that J.R.R. Tolkien does masterfully well is world building and description. It isn’t difficult to visualize the lush green hills of Hobbiton, or the chilling peaks of The Lonely Mountain. The world and those who dwell in every part have been created with detailed care. The characters are magnificent and there is an underlying history to uncover. It’s difficult to review a story you have loved since you were a child. The characters may be small in proportion, but they are strong in willpower and ambition. The story itself is a charming and at most times lighthearted adventure story. So often we fantasize about broadly built warriors and women who appear angelic and lovely. These characters are widely recorded in all cultures in one form or another, and these tales have likely helped bring into fruition our modern standards of beauty. J.R.R. Tolkien takes another path. He introduces main characters who are anything but beautiful or strong (at least physically), but nonetheless they steer the story forward. They are portrayed and understood as tiny and mundane. The Hobbit is a story about finding bravery in all forms. Even the tiniest creatures with hairy toes. This message was no doubt beneficial to the children who read this book when they were younger, but I would argue that adults need to be reminded of this too.

For those of you looking at reading The Lord of the Rings I would recommend that you read The Hobbit first because it will introduce you to the world and a few terms and histories important to continuing the trilogy. You can’t go wrong with the movies either. I admit that I am biased in writing this review (if you can even call it that). Forget that this is a children’s book, although some older readers may look down on the story because of it’s lighter nature. Maybe you should look more carefully then. If you have yet to read anything from  J.R.R. Tolkien then I believe you owe it to yourself to try. Who knows, you could eventually challenge Stephen Colbert in a “Tolkien Showdown.”

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Book Reviews, To My Reader

Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade final for IrenePublished: February 24th 2015 by Tor Books.

Format: Kindle, 401 pages.

Goodreads Summary: Kell is one of the last Antari, a rare magician who can travel between parallel worlds: hopping from Grey London — dirty, boring, lacking magic, and ruled by mad King George — to Red London — where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire — to White London — ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne, where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back — and back, but never Black London, because traveling to Black London is forbidden and no one speaks of it now.
Officially, Kell is the personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see, and it is this dangerous hobby that sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to take her with him for her proper adventure.
But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save both his London and the others, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — a feat trickier than they hoped.

Thoughts: I was a huge fan of V.E. Schwab after reading her urban fantasy novel Vicious –  a novel of anti heroes who worship self inflicting pain. After reading and loving her first novel I had to give her new one a try. This is a story about power at it’s most basic form and how it can corrupt the human spirit. Set within the backdrop of four parallel cities, A Darker Shade of Magic has the potential to capture its readers in a world of magic and adventure. Unfortunately, I didn’t find myself as taken by the novel as other readers had. The writing was perfectly fine and in most ways exceeded the standard for sentence level quality in the young adult genre. And although I liked the plot, I wasn’t invested in it.

The main characters Kell and Lila felt like characters I’d read about before. One being the “the chosen one” who suddenly stumbles upon an extremely powerful object and takes it into his own hands to see that the danger is destroyed. Kell was a character who knew he was powerful and although I liked how kind he was, I couldn’t help but think I’d read his storyline before. Lila, on the other hand, was a troubled young woman who wanted adventure and wasn’t very girly. She was stubborn and unafraid of dangerous situations. Here’s the thing, I have nothing against strong (kickass) female characters in books, but it’s starting to become common in this genre. It’s as if we have found something that works and now that’s the only route we can travel. I would hate to see strong females turned into literary tropes.  Writers of young adult we’ve been here before. That’s not to say I didn’t like Lila. She was spunky and knew what she wanted. However, I found that in all 401 pages both these characters never went through any noticeable character development. That is vital to a story.

I know V.E. Schwab released a second book in this series titled, A Gathering of Shadows and likely worked on character development later on in the story, but with little to none in the first book there’s nothing pushing me to continue. I don’t think I’ll be picking it up anytime soon. If you enjoy magical worlds then I suggest you give this book a shot. As I’ve gotten older I have come to appreciate darker and more complex plots. This tells me that our reading tastes can change as we are introduced to more works. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of A Darker Shade of Magic I will be looking out for more from V.E. Schwab in the future. Give this one a try.

“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

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Book Reviews, To My Reader

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little LifePublished: March 10th, 2015 by Doubleday.

Format: Hardcover, 720 pages.

Goodreads Summary: When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

Thoughts: I didn’t know what to do with myself after finishing this novel. My heart is still heavy with a sorrow so profound that it has enveloped me. It took me six months to complete this story, and I have no regrets.

Although this novel follows the lives of four friends fresh out of college, you will learn quickly that the story centers mostly around Jude. He is the most secretive of the bunch and must carry memories full of terror and devastation that latch onto him like a parasite. I hadn’t discovered this novel until about a year after it was published and realized that it had made its way onto the best-sellers list for 2015. Unlike many others, I went into this book completely blind after hearing such high praise from reviewers and readers alike. Everything about this story is devastating. The story, characters, and, prose have been permanently seared into my mind. Fair warning: This book is not easy to digest. It contains references to self-harm, physical and psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and other triggering subjects.

With all that said, the darkness presented by this story doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Hanya Yanagihara has written a book about life in it’s most raw and unsettling form. This is story about the importance of friendship and how much power it does and doesn’t have. The friendships layered within are steadfast, broken, envious, and above all, honest. I suggest that you read this book slowly because it’s woven together so intricately. It’s a work of art, really. I have heard some readers complain about the sheer size of this book, but I believe that every word has a role, and it all works together to create a story that is utterly poetic. From the first page it’s easy to become enthralled in the story of Jude, Willam, Malcolm, and JB, with the people they meet along the way.

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

This is not a book you can just pick up and read. It requires your utmost attention and will fold your insides in on themselves, until everything aches. My tears were relentless in their flow and there were moments so relatable that I thought the author had gotten into the deepest parts of my mind somehow. I have never cried so hard in my life. It was constant. –I can’t stop thinking about this novel and it has jumped to my number one spot for favorite books. Although A Little Life is difficult to read and full of strong emotion that forces you to confront all that is ugly in this world, it is exquisite. This character driven novel keeps you invested until the very last word. If you get a chance to read this one, I highly recommend it for those who are ready. Hanya Yanagihara has written a novel so raw and poignant. One that tries hard to discover the good things in life. This novel will stick with me for the rest of my own little life, and makes me want to be a better person. Isn’t that all we can hope for?

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

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Book Reviews, To My Reader

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

18047651Released: August 26th, 2014 by Ecco.

Format: Paperback; 416 pages.

Goodreads Summary: On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Thoughts: This book has been sitting on my shelf for the longest time. I was surprised when it appeared on my Second Semester English syllabus for this year.  Now, I don’t know much about the country of Amsterdam or its full scale involvement in the Dutch East India Company, but this story did shed some light on my lack on knowledge. I found this story easy to read and believe the author did an impeccable job researching the topic. This is all great, but I can’t shake this feeling that the novel fell short somewhere.

As Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist is vividly rendered with the magic of 16th century Netherlands. Nella Oortman has been preparing for her inevitable role as a wife and mother. Anticipating the moment when she reaches her marriage bed and can contribute something to her new household. However, events don’t unfold as she hopes. I found this book to be deeply rooted in the many aspects of gender roles and attitudes of human sexuality. We are met with a outspoken protagonist that must figure out how she fits into an influential family.

The novel has this underlying magical element to it, that ultimately becomes the source of mystery for the entire plot. How does this miniature doll house affect Nella’s new life? With the help of a stranger she is able to bring life into her dreary home. Although I enjoyed this aspect, I found that the novel lacked an important emotional element to it. I also found myself somewhat confused by a few parts, but maybe that means I need to read the story again. I may do that at some point. Burton has no shortage of shock worthy twists, but ultimately I didn’t feel a sense of closure. At least not in a way that satisfied me. That’s not to say that the author didn’t wrap up the story nicely.

Each character is unique and the story is easy to to get immersed into. For me, the most fascinating part of this novel was the author’s inspiration for it. I loved hearing about how Burton came across an intricate cabinet while on vacation, and built her entire story around an inanimate object. You can tell she took great care in the creation of the story.

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Yes, I will decorate my house, Marin, Nella thinks – with all the things that you detest.”

This just goes to show that writers can take inspiration from anywhere. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction novels, and although The Miniaturist didn’t make it onto my favorite books list, the story is full of intrigue and magic. Readers will have no problem getting swept into this sixteenth century novel. A stunning, and historically accurate debut by author and actor Jessie Burton. I look forward to reading more from her.

Let me know what you think.

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