Thursday, September 24, 2015

ARC Review: A Thousand Nights

Title: A Thousand Nights
Author: E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Goodreads | Book Depository
Source: eARC/Netgalley

“Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next. And so she is taken in her sister's place, and she believes death will soon follow. But back in their village her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air in its place. Lo-Melkhiin's court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun sets and rises, and she is not dead. Night after night Lo-Melkhiin comes to her, and listens to the stories she tells and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong. The words she speaks to him every night are given strange life of their own. She makes things appear. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to rule of a monster.”

Ok, so I have to admit that I went into this book with the highest of hopes. After reading The Wrath and the Dawn earlier this year (and being massively disappointed by it), I desperately wanted this A Thousand and One Nights retelling to be amazing. And in many regards, it was.

A Thousand Nights is, at a very fundamental level, an ode to women and the strength of the bonds between them. Women are the ones who get stuff done in this book – and it’s largely the reason why I enjoyed this story so much. The reader never learns the name of the main character/narrator, or the name of any woman, for that matter. For me, it symbolized the fact that women have been largely written out of or diminished in history, and that any woman could have stood up and done what the women of this story did. To be entirely honest, I hadn’t even realized that I didn’t know the narrator’s name until nearly halfway through the story. Even though I don’t know their names, I know those women. Our narrator, her sister, their mothers – they are all so well sculpted by the text that I had a clear idea of them in my head while reading, both their images and personalities.

Johnston’s writing in A Thousand Nights is beautiful, with lyrical passages that caught me off guard with their rich descriptions. The world building was equally wonderful, and the culture and history Johnston presents are truly immersive.

That being said, I did have some issues with A Thousand Nights, mainly regarding the “magic” system. It’s not really clear what possessed Lo-Melkhiin (that’s not a spoiler, you find out pretty much right away), other than some demonic spirit-thing. I definitely would have appreciated a bit more explanation there. The narrator’s “powers,” while interesting and well described, felt a bit…too convenient. At times it felt like a heavy-handed plot device, and that happened rather unfortunately often. I did, however, really enjoy the concept of “smallgods” and that through the love and devotion of a loved one, a person could become a smallgod and develop these powers. The scenes when the reader realizes how much work the women in the narrator’s family have done while she’s been at court are powerful.

Personally, one of my favorite aspects of A Thousand Nights may be what others take issue with: there is no romance in this novel. And why would there be? The women in this story are too busy saving the day. The narrator knows that Lo-Melkhiin is possessed, and she is too strong in her resolve to be wooed by pretty words. Lo-Melkiin, for that matter, is not the type of demon-possessed king to do any wooing. (take note, The Wrath and the Dawn!).

A Thousand Nights was a powerful, beautiful read that surpassed my expectations. From the lyrical prose to the strength of female characters, this book was a really lovely read. If you’re interesting in reading a One Thousand and One Nights retelling, this should be the one you pick up.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: Mad About the Hatter

Title: Mad About the Hatter
Author: Dakota Chase
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Publication Date: August 20, 2015
Source: eARC/Netgalley*
Goodreads | Book Depository

“This isn’t his sister’s Wonderland….

Henry never believed his older sister, Alice’s, fantastic tales about the world down the rabbit hole. When he’s whisked away to the bizarre land, his best chance for escape is to ally himself with the person called the Mad Hatter. Hatter―an odd but strangely attractive fellow―just wants to avoid execution. If that means delivering “Boy Alice” to the Queen of Hearts at her Red Castle, Hatter will do what he has to do to stay alive. It doesn’t matter if Henry and Hatter find each other intolerable. They’re stuck with each other. Along their journey, Henry and Hatter must confront what they’ve always accepted as truth. As dislike grows into tolerance and something like friendship, the young men see the chance for a closer relationship. But Wonderland is a dangerous place, and first they have to get away with their lives.”

The premise of Mad About the Hatter totally had me hooked. A LGBT story set in the world of Alice in Wonderland? Please and thank you. While I adore the original story, I was intrigued to see how successful a Wonderland story would be without the original Alice. Ultimately, Wonderland itself was my favorite element of this story.

Mad About the Hatter follows a dual perspective – on one hand we have Henry, Alice’s little brother who never believed in Wonderland until he woke up there, and the Mad Hatter, who will lose his head unless he brings “Boy Alice” to the Red Queen. From there, the two navigate Wonderland and despite their tense first meeting, become close. While I appreciated what the dual perspective intended to accomplish, there were chapters were it was difficult to tell their voices apart, and by the end it felt a bit unnecessary. The Mad Hatter was by far the most interesting character in this story, and it was fun to follow his thoughts and slippery language. Henry, on the other hand, often fell a bit flat, and I couldn’t really tell you about his personality. Their relationship was rather cute to follow, if a bit hasty.

Although this is Henry’s story instead of Alice’s, she is still present in Mad About the Hatter. Married with twins (named Louis and Carol, excuse me whilst I roll my eyes) at twenty-two, it’s hard to reconcile the Alice of lore with the domestic picture Chase presents. That connects directly into a bigger issue I had with this book: Henry and Alice live in the modern world. I understand why it was done, for many reasons, but it created an odd disconnect for me as a reader. It was almost impossible for me to accept that Henry’s Alice was the same girl in the original story, and I think that some of the magic got lost in the jump to 2015.

As I said earlier, Wonderland is truly the star of this book. The reader is treated to so much world building; all these parts of Wonderland that make it feel even richer. The thought behind these new areas of Wonderland fit in perfectly with what you’d expect from the original, and I eagerly anticipated the next stop in Henry and Hatter’s journey. I love the intricacies of Wonderland, and that came across really well in Mad About the Hatter.

Ultimately, this was a cute and enjoyable book, and if you want more Wonderland in your life, it’s definitely worth a read. The inclusion of a LGBT relationship in this world was great, and I would actually really like to know more about Henry and the Hatter’s story after this book ends.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

*I received this ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: Drift & Dagger

Drift & Dagger
Kendall Kulper
The Novl/Little, Brown
September 8, 2015
Goodreads | Book Depository

“In Mal’s world, magic is everything. But Mal is a “blank,” the anti-magic. Blanks can’t be hexed or cursed or saved or killed by magic. And everyone is afraid of them – Mal included.  So Mal hides what he is – except from Essie Roe, a witch and his best friend. On the day Essie reveals his secret and casts him out from the only home he’s ever known, Mal experiences the true shock of betrayal.

Now Mal travels the world in search of rare, illegal magical relics. When his partner in crime, Boone, hears rumors of a legendary dagger that can steal a witch’s power, Mal knows he’s finally found his means of revenge. But as the chase for the fabled knife takes them from Boston to Paris to Constantinople, Mal realizes there are secrets afoot that he’s only beginning to understand – and all the while the blank monster inside him threatens to escape.”

Drift & Dagger is the companion novel to Kendall Kulper’s 2014 debut Salt & Storm. Set in the same world of whaling and witches and magic, I was intrigued to get another perspective from a different generation after reading Avery Roe’s tale in Salt & Storm. Salt & Storm was good – an enjoyable historical fantasy, even if I couldn’t quite connect with Avery. But after reading the synopsis of Drift & Dagger, I couldn’t pass it up. Excuse the awful sea pun, but Drift & Dagger blew me out of the water.

Drift & Dagger manages to combine all of my favorite things: heists, morally ambiguous characters, magic, and a protagonist who suffers greatly. And it works, wonderfully. Mal is tortured by the betrayal he experienced at the hands of his first and only friend, Essie Roe, when she exposed him as a blank. Unaffected by magic, Mal is ostracized, as his very existence threatens to undermine the entire magical system upon which society depends.  Mal is convinced that his blankness is an evil inside of him that will eventually take over and turn him into a monster. His continued struggle with his looming fate adds a layer of depth to his character, and gives Mal a rage that propels him throughout the story, all to get his revenge on Essie.

Drift & Dagger was fast-paced, and I couldn’t get enough of the heist scenes and action throughout. The reader travels the world in this novel, from New York to Constantinople, and the travel brings a richer world to life beyond tiny Prince Island. The magic system itself is really wonderfully fleshed out in this book, and the reader encounters different types of magical ability and perception. The grounding weight to all of this, of course, is Mal and his blankness. Ironically, in a world where people can charm speak or raise the seas or suffocate a person by controlling air, Mal is the biggest threat, the scariest possible rival. It’s difficult to see Mal struggle with his identity and what he fears he’ll become, but he is an infinitely likable character. He’s even worked his way into book boyfriend territory. I adored Mal, and I still want to know more about his story.

I expected to like this book, but I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. There were no awkward lulls in the story – I couldn’t drag my attention away from the pages. The only down side to this book is how close of a companion it is to Salt & Storm. If you read one, it will spoil the other. These stories take place during one generation to the next, so the events of one have bearing on the other. I read Salt & Storm first, so I knew, to an extent, how Drift & Dagger would end. If you’re interested in these books (which you should be), I’d highly recommend reading Drift & Dagger first, then Salt & Storm. Fewer spoilers, and I think the stories would flow really nicely that way. At then end of the day, I really loved this story and Mal. If you like magic and historical fiction, Drift & Dagger needs to be on your TBR list.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

ARC Review: Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between

Title: Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between*
Author: Jennifer E. Smith
Publisher: Poppy/The Novl: Little, Brown
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Goodreads | Book Depository

“On the night before they leave for college, Clare and Aiden only have one thing left to do: figure out whether they should stay together or break up. Over the course of twelve hours, they’ll retrace the steps of their relationship, trying to find something in their past that might help them decide what their future should be. The night will lead them to friends and family, familiar landmarks and unexpected places, hard truths and surprising revelations. But as the clock winds down and morning approaches, so does their inevitable goodbye. The question is, will it be goodbye for now or goodbye forever?

Charming, bittersweet, and full of wisdom and heart, this new irresistible novel from Jennifer E. Smith, author of The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, explores the difficult choices that arise when life and love lead in different directions.”

It’s been…several years since I stood on the cusp on my freshman year of college, so part of me worried that I wouldn’t be able to connect with the sentiment behind Jennifer Smith’s latest novel. Thankfully, that proved to not be an issue after all. I haven’t read any of Smith’s previous novels, but they’ve all been hailed as wonderfully cute contemporary goodness. I found it interesting that this book isn’t about meeting a boy and falling in love – Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between is about deciding whether or not to break up with said boy, even when you still love him.

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between did not remind me of my own experience leaving high school and starting college. I graduated from a boarding school, so by the time I left for college I’d said goodbye to my friends months before, and my hometown years before that. Rather, this book reminded me of my last night of college. Freshly graduated and facing the unknown horrors of the real world that awaited us, my friends and I spent one final night together. We walked around campus, tried to complete any remaining senior challenges, and remembered four years’ worth of memories while ignoring the fact that we’d be separated that next morning. We shunned our parents and their hotel rooms in favor of one last night together. Huddled with all of our blankets on the floor, we barely slept because there was so much left to say. It’s that night I couldn’t help but think of the entire time I was reading Hello, Goodbye.

Clare and Aiden only have one night left – a mere twelve hours to say goodbye to their friends, hometown, and potentially each other. I really liked this concept (many of my friends went through the inevitable long distance break up during our first semester of college), and that they stood so firmly on opposing sides. Clare has a schedule and a plan, and she knows they should break up (she is, in my opinion, totally right). Aidan thinks they’ll make it and should stay together. They rehash the same conversation throughout the night, which made this brief novel feel repetitive. They went to a new location, had the same argument, rinse and repeat. But the times when they broke this repetitive cycle, the novel, and Smith, really showed some strength.

Their friend Scotty is staying behind, and this causes a secondary layer of tension throughout the evening. It also highlights the difficulty in moving away when your best friend is staying behind. Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the novel was the “surprising revelation” alluded to in the synopsis. I completely understood why that character made that choice, and also why they wanted to keep it a secret. That revelation brought some much-needed depth to the story and to that character. While I wasn’t sure how to feel at first, I ultimately enjoyed the way this book ended, and what Clare and Aiden decided would be the fate of their relationship.

This novel wasn’t perfect, and I did have some problems with it, mainly regarding the main characters. I never really understood why Aiden and Clare were together, or why they even liked each other. Neither of these MCs felt particularly likable, and I found myself unsympathetic to Clare, especially after the way she treats her best friend. That being said, I still think this book is very representative of that “end of high school” experience. It’s a time when people have to be selfish with their time and attention, and often struggle with letting go of high school and being excited to start college. I feel like that is something Jennifer Smith did extremely well, capturing that anxiety and excitement of the in-between.

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between is a must-read for people starting college this fall, because it very accurately portrays the transition from high school to college and how relationships inevitably change because of it. This book has tempted me to read some of Smith’s other novels, so I think fans of contemporary YA will greatly enjoy her work.

Rating: 3.5 stars

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review from the publisher.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

#SummerOfSarah Check In: August

The Summer of Sarah has come to an end. Back in May, I decided to reread all twelve of Sarah Dessen’s novels this summer, to relieve the summer stories of my teen years and revisit that magical always-summer town, Colby. August was the final month in the #SummerOfSarah, so now I have the last three books to discuss.

Along for the Ride: There are several layers to this story, and I appreciated the depth in Along for the Ride that we don’t get in all of Sarah’s novels. Auden doesn’t sleep – hasn’t since before her parents divorced – and when she decides to spend the summer before college with her dad, his new wife, and their new born daughter, Auden meets fellow insomniac Eli. Along for the Ride has some of my favorite Dessen themes: female friendship, great tension between the MC and love interest, and a realistic protag. I remember relating to Auden when I was younger, because I was an insomniac and did everything I could to avoid sleeping. I loved, and still do, the idea of going on a mini-adventure every night while everyone else is sleeping. Like most of Sarah’s books, the family dynamic is tense in this one, but Auden’s parents felt so…self-absorbed and pretentious, it infuriated me to read. Ultimately this was a middle of the road Dessen novel for me: not the best, not the worst, but overall somewhat forgettable when lumped in with the rest.

What Happened to Goodbye: After her mother’s public affair and her parents’ subsequent divorce, McLean and her dad have moved – a lot. Every town is an opportunity to become a new version of herself: Eliza, Lizbet, each with different interests and personalities. When McLean and her dad move to Lakeview, she meets brilliant but accidental delinquent Dave and makes friends, while still trying to deal with her incessant mother’s attempts at reconnecting. If Along for the Ride didn’t signal a bit of a decline for Sarah, this book did it. While it’s an unique enough concept, in execution this book falls flat and forced. I found this book to be rambling without much of a focus, and it never feels as if the story has a clear direction or motivation. The “climax” didn’t make sense, and while I enjoyed the characters enough, What Happened to Goodbye was just okay upon a reread.

The Moon and More: Emaline has always lived in Colby, the beach town where most people just breeze in and out for the summer. But she plans to leave Colby for college with her boyfriend at the end of this summer, and nothing will stop her. Until, of course, her biological father shows up, a cute filmmaker arrives in town, and her boyfriend cheats on her – that’s when things fall apart. I’m just going to come out and say it: this is my least favorite of Sarah’s novels, by far. This is a rather long book in which nothing happens. It feels even longer when you don’t particularly like any of the characters, and don’t really care what happens to them. This is the only one of Dessen’s dozen that I don’t own, and never intend to read again. The Moon and More is different from her other novels in that it doesn’t follow the same formula, but straying from that formula clearly fails Sarah. It’s unfortunate, but true. I struggled through this book because I didn’t feel connected to the story, and Emaline might be my least favorite Dessen MC to date. This is one I’d say you’re safe to skip.

I hate to end #SummerOfSarah on a negative note, so I want to reiterate how much I adored Sarah Dessen’s books when I was a teenager (and I still do!). Sarah is capable of truly representing the teenage experience – from the intense loyalty of friendships to underage partying to the unbearable pain of heartbreak. In that perfect always-summer world of Colby and Lakeview, Sarah’s novels provide readers with relatable characters who struggle with the same insecurities and families, and who need a story in which everything turns out alight in the end.  I imagine I’ll keep reading Sarah’s books as long as she publishes them, or until that fearful day when I’m too old to enjoy contemporary YA at all. If you need a lighthearted read, or a reminder of that one summer, then a Sarah Dessen novel will do the trick.