Review: And I Darken

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Review:

ETA: I wrote this review after I finished an advanced copy of the book in April, before the Pulse shooting in Orlando that claimed 49 lives. As I’ve been reflecting on this novel, the political climate, and the impact of the shooting on the LGBT+ community as well as the Muslim community, I wanted to add something: a thank you to the author. We need books with queer characters. We need books with Muslim characters. We especially need books that let these two identities intersect, and we need ones that handle religion with all of the nuance and complexity that it deserves. Writing any of those things is risky in the current market, though, and I applaud Kiersten White for doing it anyway.

You are standing on the peak of a cold, northern mountain. Below you, a wilderness spreads out over the foothills like a quilt. You see a castle, crumbling; the prince within it is not a prince, but a servant to the overwhelming power of the Ottoman Empire. War broils outside the walls of Constantinople. The Pope prepares for crusade. And at home, you and your little brother are leagues away from safe, even if you do not know it yet. What role will you play in your own future?

This is the world Kiersten White presents in her new historical thriller, And I Darken, a daring retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler — except, in this world, Vlad was born a woman.

I know. I was skeptical, too. My first thought was, Oh, God, not more vampires. My second thought was, How could anyone possibly pull this off? The good news is that (so far) there are no vampires. The better news is that White pulls this unconventional concept off with flying colors.

Every so often, an upcoming YA book is touted as Game of Thrones for teens. Usually that just means it’s vaguely medieval and a lot of people die. This is the only one I’ve read so far that truly captures the kind of intrigue and rich characterization that makes GoT such a perennial favorite, instead of just the violence. Not that And I Darken is lacking in murder. Between assassinations, wars, coups, and the heroine’s own bloodlust, this book definitely has a body count.

Our heroine, Lada, is zealously devoted to proving herself better than the men in her life. And she is, in every aspect of her harsh medieval life: she’s a master tactician, a cunning politician, and a fierce warrior. She ruthlessly denies herself any attachments in order to protect herself from manipulation and “weakness.” I expected to find the latter trait obnoxious — how many times have I read a book with a “cold-hearted” character who melted at the first smile from a cute boy? — but what makes Lada so delightful is that she is uncompromising. Where she has convictions, she sticks to them, even if she burns the world and all the people in it in the process. Did you wish there was a whole book about Arya Stark kicking ass and taking names? Well, here you go.

(I’ve seen other reviews complaining that Lada is game-breakingly unlikable, and I call sexist bullshit on those reviews. First of all, she isn’t. Second of all…did you not read “gender-swapped Vlad the Impaler” in the blurb? Third of all, you know you wouldn’t say that if “she” was “he.” Come talk to me when you’re as harsh with Ender Wiggin or Holden Caulfield.)

Her brother, Radu, who provides a vivid counterpoint to Lada’s viciousness, is a kind and charming boy who is no less devious for it. Bullied by his sister and considered the “soft” one of the pair, he nonetheless brings a quiet strength of character to the story — that is, the strength to be himself, even behind an unshakable courtly mask.

Both siblings contrast beautifully with Mehmed, the future ruler of the vast and fierce Ottoman Empire at its height of influence. He’s ambitious, sometimes foolishly so (or is he? History will tell.) He’s also a devoted friend to them both at a time when they need a friend the most. He arrives partway through the book, but his impact is immediate: Lada and Radu find a companion and patron in him, but also a rival and a potential enemy. The trio begins a toxic balancing act of power and loyalty even as Lada and Radu both begin to fall helplessly in love with Mehmed.

At that point, I set the book down and said, Whoa.

(I also gave myself a moment to cry happy tears, because medieval gays. I guess Santa decided I was a good girl this year.)

There aren’t enough good things I can say about this novel. I wish I’d had sticky notes with me when I read it, because I would have passed it on to the next bookseller fully annotated.

It is a great, great pity that a lot of adult fans of historical fiction will likely ignore this title just because it’s sold as Young Adult, because their bookshelf will be lesser for it. I’m not an expert on the late 1400s, but White’s world-building and attention to detail is so razor-fine that I can only assume she is. From the brooding forests of Wallachia to the opulence of an Ottoman palace to the siege-grounds of a Bohemian castle, the history in this novel is viscerally alive. This is a novel to be savored. Readers of The Historian, Outlander, and (as mentioned) Game of Thrones should snatch up this gem and treasure it.

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It’s Not a “Them” Problem

It’s hard to find the words.

Early this morning, 50 people were murdered at a club in Orlando, Florida. I didn’t know them, but it doesn’t feel like a stranger’s tragedy. They were my family, my lovers, my friends, my community. I am an accident of birth away from being one of the victims.

Maybe because it hits so close, my stomach turns at each new disgusting tweet or Facebook post from people falling over themselves to place the blame for this violence on Muslims. As if our “Christian nation” would never conceive of such an act.

You can go fuck yourself.

You have spent decades seeding your hatred and bigotry through our culture and politics. You called for the extermination of the LGBT community, fought for pro-discrimination laws, made us targets of bombings during the battle over harmful bathroom laws, driven us to suicide through conversion therapy, or left hundreds of thousands of children to starve on the street because Billy Graham told them a dead kid was better than a gay kid.

Did you think we just forgot?

I will not stand by while you turn that same hatred and violence against others. Muslims didn’t do this. You did this.

Review: Doreen

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  • Release Date: June 7th, 2016
  • Author: Ilana Manaster
  • Website: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25361916-doreen
  • ISBN: 9780762459629

Review:

If you’ve ever wished that Oscar Wilde could have taken a crack at writing Mean Girls, do I have a book for you.

Doreen takes place in a New England prep school for the luxuriously wealthy and follows the (mis)fortunes of three students: Heidi Whelan, a vicious socialite hiding a modest background and immodest secrets; Biz Gibbons-Brown, an awkward but talented photographer struggling to find her muse; and Doreen Gray, Biz’s younger cousin, a shy, bullied, and plain-looking girl who is only there on the whim of her estranged father. After Biz photographs Doreen and doctors the final image, Doreen wakes up the next morning and finds that she looks like the beautiful, photoshopped girl in the picture.

As you may have guessed, the novel is a modern, gender-swapped retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it plays out exactly as you might hope it would. The prose leans heavily on Wilde’s style, particularly in its elevated and pointedly formal dialogue, but it never feels like an affectation. The characters are complicated and mostly unlikable, but they are not necessarily people — just as in Wilde’s original, they are larger than life because their story is more allegory than novel. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but Manaster makes it work for her. The modern American setting brings Wilde’s original dissection of the upper classes back to the forefront of the story. Though it doesn’t talk about the 1% or the Occupy movement, Doreen shines on a spotlight on the ugly lives of people who are simply too rich to care about consequences.

There is a lot of aspects of the novel that I didn’t care for. The addition of the character Roland only harms the novel. Dorian and Henry had the luxury of being morally bankrupt for the sake of being morally bankrupt. Doreen and Heidi need an overwrought backstory with a cruel, distant father figure to motive their actions. It’s a dull and disappointing loss of agency that serves no purpose except, I suppose, to reinforce the idea that girls are only villainous if they’ve been corrupted. Heidi even has a passing encounter with redemption through true love.

Worst of all is not one, but two false accusations of assault in the book. I understand that it shows how truly horrible the characters are. They’re lying about something you should never lie about. I get it. But I can’t tolerate it. You don’t get to use that as a plot device until we live in a world where people don’t assume sexual assault allegations are false, especially not when you’re writing for and about teenagers, who are the most likely to be disbelieved and silenced.

So, overall, did I like Doreen? I did. Its flaws don’t outweigh its moments of brilliance, and I’d like to see more YA books experiment with the style and the kind of narrative. However, its flaws are still pretty big and glaring, and for some readers, they’re going to be as impossible to ignore as the monster Doreen sees in her photograph.

Review: You Know Me Well

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  • Release Date: June 7th, 2016
  • Author: Nina LaCour and David Levithan
  • Website: http://davidlevithan.com/ and http://ninalacour.com/home
  • ISBN: 9781250098641

Review:

At the end of the day, all you really need to know about this book is that it’s a fantastic collaboration between two of YA’s best and brightest, Nina LaCour and David Levithan. There is no question of the quality of the work with this one — these two are at the top of their game, and You Know Me Well brings the best of their styles together seamlessly.

The breezy novel clocks in at a little over 250 pages and cheerfully sprints after Kate, an artistic lesbian, and Mark, a gay boy from the baseball team, as their relationships and their lives start to fall apart around them. Oh, and it’s set during Pride Week in San Francisco, with all of the celebrations and other rainbow characters that implies. Doesn’t it sound awesome? Well, it is.

To give a bit more detail, this is a novel about uncertainty. Mark is in love with his sort-of boyfriend, sort-of best friend Ryan, but the two are drifting apart and Mark is desperate to figure out a way to bring the two of them back together. Kate is a talented artist with the biggest case of impostor syndrome I’ve seen in a YA book — something I’m sure lots of teens will relate to, even if they don’t yet have a name for the feeling — and she’s been nursing a crush on her best friend’s cousin to keep herself distracted from the start of her new life at UCLA.

These characters are a trainwreck. They’re dysfunctional. They hurt themselves and each other. They fall in and out of love. They sneak into elite San Francisco parties. They make mistakes that have real consequences. It’s all gloriously messy, just like real life, and I wish more YA books captured the chaos and the anxiety of early adulthood as well as LaCour and Levithan have.

Best of all, the ensemble cast is almost entirely queer. I think the kids’ parents may be the only straight characters in the book. Some people might think that’s somehow excessive or unrealistic, but for me, it’s incredibly real. Even before I came out (to myself or anyone else), I was hanging out with the queer kids at my college. We gravitate toward each other like light towards a black hole, except that the black hole is actually rainbow flags and hugs and acceptance. The message to queer kids is: don’t worry, there’s a place out there where you won’t be alone. We need that message badly.

Review: Outrun the Moon

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  • Release Date: May 24th, 2016
  • Author: Stacey Lee
  • Website: http://www.staceyhlee.com/
  • ISBN: 9780399175411

Review:

San Francisco, 1906. On the eve of one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history, racism against Chinese immigrants is at an all-time peak. Strict, prejudicial laws work to keep the city’s non-white citizens in drudgery even as they work harder and harder to break out of poverty and segregation. A bold teenager named Mercy Wong hatches a daring plan to earn a place in a prestigious school for girls — a school for white girls. Despite the odds, her plan works, but her success is soon overshadowed by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Now Mercy may be the only one who can help the people who revile her the most.

I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction, but Stacey Lee brings the turn-of-the-century city to life. You can feel the hot California sun on your face and see the bustle skirts and ridiculous hats as if you were there yourself. The emphasis on the social issues of the time brought to mind A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray or Lee’s other excellent historical drama, Under a Painted Sky. Readers hoping for an idyllic glance at history won’t find it here: Lee doesn’t smooth over the blemishes. The everyday racism Mercy faces hits like a slap, and it hits often.

However, the book does not take a melancholy tone. Mercy is a determined, driven young woman with a big heart and a fierce sense of justice, and the narrative allows these qualities to shine. Readers will have no trouble connecting to Mercy and cheering for her triumphs, even if they also weep for her losses. The message of the novel is positive: people can overcome their hatred and band together in times of crisis, and that might be enough to enact change. That said, I’m not sure that message worked for me. Without spoiling anything, it felt like some of the tragedies in the second half of the novel soured the hopefulness of the conclusion. Maybe that was the point, but either way, it didn’t sit well on my stomach and I found it hard to rejoice with the characters on the last few pages.

Nonetheless, we need more YA that focuses on historical voices that are all too often forgotten. We can’t move forward as a society if we forget the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and Outrun the Moon reminds us of those mistakes through a thrilling, heartfelt story. Readers looking for a unique voice in an exciting historical setting will adore this novel.

Review: The Crown’s Game

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  • Release Date: May 17th, 2016
  • Author: Evelyn Skye
  • Website: http://www.evelynskye.com/the-crowns-game/
  • ISBN: 9780062422583

This review was originally written in January, 2016, after receiving and advanced reader’s copy.

Review:

I’ve been eager to get my hands on the advanced copy of this title for some time now. Evelyn Skye is a local author, a delightful host of many of our YA events, and a lovely person.

That said, a good heart doesn’t guarantee a great writer. I was cautious about The Crown’s Game even though the premise tugged at all the parts of me that loved fairy tales and The Night Circus and the animated film Anastasia. My coworkers who had already read it had spoken highly of it, but I wanted to see for myself.

I cracked it open when I got home from my closing shift around 10:30pm. Four hours later, at a bit past 2:30am, my roommates were sleepily asking if I planned to turn off the living room lamp and go to bed any time soon. It was, after all, a work night.

I did, but reluctantly. I was enthralled. I woke before my alarm the next morning and toddled out to finish the book over my coffee, which was quickly forgotten.

The story follows a fiery young enchanter named Vika and her counterpart, the reserved and gentlemanly Nikolai, as they are drawn against their will into a deadly contest to decide which of them shall become the next Imperial Enchanter of Russia. Neither can afford to lose: only the winner is allowed to survive the Crown’s Game. But, because all the best 19th-century stories are about forbidden love, Nikolai begins to fall for Vika — as does his best friend, the future tsar, Pasha.

Now, I don’t typically like romance, especially not in YA. The mention of a love triangle put me on guard immediately. Triangles are too often a source of cheap interpersonal drama to liven up dull characters, usually at the expense of whatever interesting motivations or traits they had in the first place. So, naturally, I was pleasantly surprised when I found my heart racing at each new spark of attraction that flew between the characters. Skye found the golden ratio between making the characters individuals and developing their group dynamic, and she doesn’t pull her punches.

My favorite aspect of the novel, though, was the world it inhabited. Setting is hard to pull off: I’ve read too many historical novels that drown the reader in details of a cityscape and forget to let them come up for air through a plot. Not so here. At every turn, I felt I was walking the streets of Saint Petersburg in 1825, but I never felt disconnected from the story. The characters inhabited their world as if it were a living, breathing thing, so as a reader, I could, too.

And the magic. Oh, my word, the magic. Perhaps not as eerie as the circus acts in The Night Circus, but every ounce as lush and opulent and marvelous as the Russian court it is meant to impress.

In short, this is an engrossing, charming novel with the bones of a bestseller. It strikes the perfect balance between historical fiction, fantasy, and romance, and I highly encourage fans of any of those genres to mark their calendars for the release date.

Review: Places No One Knows

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Review:

Brenna Yovanoff is a seasoned author at this point, but Places No One Knows is going to be her break-out hit.

People who know me in real life know what a fan I am of the Merry Sisters of Fate, a trio of authors comprised of Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff. All three write a particular brand of eerie, unconventional modern fantasy that draws me in like nothing else. Although I’ve read most of Stiefvater’s work and am working my way through Gratton’s, so far I have only had the opportunity to read one of Yovanoff’s novels, The Replacement. Its blend of personal drama, fairy intrigue, and horror prepped me to expect (and enjoy) more of the same from Yovanoff. You can imagine my surprise when I got a copy of her newest novel, Places No One Knows, and realized it was primarily a high school drama. But oh, was I delighted when I delved into it and realized it was so much more than the stereotypical school angst I have — perhaps wrongly — come to expect from contemporary YA.

My first thing to say about this novel isn’t a criticism, but a caveat. I love lyrical prose, the slow burn of good character development, and watching a story unfold a piece at a time. Not everyone does. If you’re looking for something with snappy action and a quirky premise, this one probably isn’t for you — it takes its time getting to the end, though I think it’s a better book for it.

The heroine, Waverly, seems ordinary to her peers: high strung, maybe, but aren’t they all? Yet inside her head, she is a calculating, marvelous wonder, just one accident of birth away from being a great political or military strategist in another era. She reads The Art of War and Machiavelli to understand how to navigate the interpersonal complexities of high school. She plots with her best friend to carefully dethrone and replace other girls in the social hierarchy as ruthlessly as she might plan a coup. And, gripped by nightly insomnia, she runs through her suburban neighborhood every night like a person possessed. I’ve never encountered a heroine like Waverly in contemporary fiction, and she is so deliciously startling that you can’t help but love her, flaws and vicious streak and all.

Meanwhile, our troubled hero Marshall would be easy to fumble in another author’s hands. He parties, drinks too much, and makes out with girls he doesn’t really care about to cover up the stresses of his home life. He doesn’t care about school and school mostly doesn’t care about him. He is, by our academic-driven standards, a failure. It would be easy to loose him in stereotypes about dark, brooding love interests, but Yovanoff plucks him from his wallowing and gives him something few YA love interests have: personality. By the end of the novel, I couldn’t help loving him, too.

Star-crossed lovers are always a fun plot to play with. How do they meet? Why should they care about one another? These two in particular have no reason to know each other’s names, much less to become friends. So what happens when Waverly starts dreaming herself into Marshall’s bedroom at night?

It would be wrong to label Places No One Knows as an urban fantasy. “Magical realism” would be closer. The splash of fantasy that drives the premise is a clever, dangling “what if?” that comes to life on the page with both dream-like prose and a cutting look at the characters at their most vulnerable. It doesn’t stop at the heroes, either. The entire novel is an excruciatingly beautiful portrait of life in a modern high school, with all the anxieties and triumphs it encompasses. It’s no secret that this is what grips me most in novels: the ability to take any setting, any plot, and crack it open to show us what the people are really like inside, as if they breathed the same air we do. At this, Yovanoff excels.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway

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  • Release Date: April 5th, 2016
  • Author: Seanan McGuire
  • Website: http://www.seananmcguire.com/
  • ISBN: 9780765385505

Review:

I was one of those kids who tested wardrobe walls and kept an eye on looking-glasses, just in case. I devoured The Chronicles of Narnia and Into the Land of the Unicorns and Harry Potter, wishing the whole time that something so marvelous would happen to me. Many times, though, I felt disappointed by the last page. The child-heroes of these stories always returned to their mundane lives at the end. It annoyed me. Who would want to come back?

Every Heart a Doorway raises this very same question.

We meet our heroine, Nancy, on her first day at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Her parents think it is an upscale rehabilitation facility that will bring back the girl their daughter was before her “kidnapping”. In reality, the Home is there to help children who can’t find their way back to the magical worlds that once welcomed them. Some of them will never go back. Some of them will do anything to try.

If you like Neil Gaiman or Holly Black, this should be your next pick. Every Heart is the perfect thing to hand that precocious 11-year-old who reads too much, but don’t be fooled: this is an adult book about teenagers, and kids are not necessarily the intended audience. I would have loved this novel when I was a preteen, but it wouldn’t have punched me in the gut in the same way it did now that I’m an adult. McGuire’s prose ensnares your heart and squeezes it every time you think you’re done feeling poignant and mesmerized. It’s not a long book — 173 pages — but she works every sentence to the bone.

But best of all? The representation.

I know, I sound like a broken record. If you spent most of your life fighting to see people like you and your loved ones on the page, you’d sound like one, too. That’s why McGuire’s inclusion of diverse characters is important, but more pressingly, it’s important that it’s so well done. Every Heart a Doorway is a story of (and for) the marginalized: heck, it’s the mythic archetype. What else would you call a novella about misfit kids pining for a home where their quirks will be embraced?  This isn’t an unusual trope, of course — every “chosen one” narrative from King Arthur to Harry Potter hinges on an out-of-place hero — but McGuire doesn’t let the metaphor stay a metaphor.

We’re seeing a shift towards more content with marginalized characters — especially gay and lesbian characters — but not the same shift toward content that respects or understands marginalized characters. If a show promises me lesbians, it has to prove it wants to do right by them (and its audience) before I’ll take the bait. Every Heart a Doorway passes that test with flying colors.

The other kind of flame war.

I have to apologize again for the lack of content. There are a few reasons: most of what I’ve been reading lately are ARCs for upcoming titles, not a lot of books have inspired me enough to review them one way or another, I’ve been picking up extra shifts at work, and — most dramatically — I just spent the weekend stuck in a hotel because of a fire in my apartment building!

This is fine.

Pro tip: if you’re running out the door, leave it open. The firefighters can and will break it down if you don’t.

As of today, I am back home and getting settled. No one was hurt and the damage to the building was minor, so they let us back fairly quickly. I’m exhausted. A cleaning crew of angels scrubbed the entire place while I was gone, so fortunately all I have left to do is laundry, but my altered sleep schedule and the anxiety of having been almost literally set on fire have been draining.

Everyone has been so supportive and kind, though, and that warms my heart. I couldn’t ask for better coworkers and friends.

However, I do have some things planned! May is a big month for book releases and I have several reviews already queued up. I’m planning a write-up of a few late April titles, too (The Lie Tree, mainly) and soon I’ll have my hands on a copy of the much-anticipated conclusion to Maggie Stiefvater’s hit Raven Cycle series, The Raven King.

Stay tuned!

 

I’m still here!

It’s been about three weeks since my last post, but I’m still here and still writing. I’ve been reading a lot of ARCs (advanced reader copies) for titles that come out in May and June, so I have several reviews written and queued up to be published the week of the official releases.

A teaser of what’s to come:

  • Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee, a historical YA drama set in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake.
  • You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, a charming coming-of-age novella that follows two gay teens through heartbreak and self-discovery during Pride Week.
  • Doreen by Ilana Manaster, a modern gender-swapped retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray set at an exclusive New England boarding school.

Stay tuned!