Review: Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner

★★★☆☆

This was… not at all the book I was expecting it to be. (Hint: It was better.) I figured, when I saw the cover and the blurb, that I was going to be reading a cutesy, easy romance book about two teenagers. And part of it was (sort of) like that, but only the second half.

vaclav and lenaVaclav and Lena is basically split into two halves: the beginning focuses on Vaclav and Lena’s friendship when they’re young (age 10 and 9, respectively), and ultimately what tears them apart. The two are both Russian immigrants living in NYC. Both are outsiders, who find somewhat of a shelter in each other. The first half is super, super cute, because Vaclav is such a sweet little kid and he loves Lena with all his lil heart. The two spend every day after school together, doing homework and practicing magic, because all Vaclav wants is to grow up and be like Harry Houdini, with Lena as his “lovely assistant”.

Where Vaclav’s family is loud and loving, Lena’s life has been spent being passed from household to household, never really being loved or wanted. At the start of the story she is living with her aunt Ekaterina, who works as a stripper and doesn’t provide for Lena and is almost never home. When the popular girls at school accept Lena into their group, she clings to the feeling of belonging and begins distancing herself from Vaclav.

The book takes an omniscient approach to narration, switching back and forth between Vaclav, Lena, and Vaclav’s mother Rasia. Rasia was perhaps my favorite character in the book, because she was just louder the life and so full of personality. She was loyal and loved Vaclav immensely, as well as feeling a motherly protection for Lena. She walks Lena home most nights, tucking her in and telling her stories until she falls asleep in the empty house.

When Lena is sick one day, Rasia goes to check on her—and ends up seeing something that changes all of their lives forever. Lena is taken away, and then the story skips ahead to when Vaclav and Lena are both 17. From there we get to see the two reconnect and the pure love that binds them together.

The first half was sweet and innocent, and the second half felt gritty and real, while still harboring the childlike purity of the beginning. Overall this was an exceptionally written book that dealt with much darker subject matter than I was expecting—a beautiful portrayal of the healing power of unconditional love.

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Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

★★★½

I dislike non-fiction. There, I said it. I’ve always disliked it, I probably always will, but alas, I know I have a problem and I know I need to widen my literary horizons. So this year I set out to read more books that are out of my comfort zone—that is, books that aren’t fantasy and young adult. I can’t say this was strictly by choice; it was more like I was getting sick of YA and fantasy novels following the same 5 devilplot points across the board. I would read a book, like it, then pick up another book that—although the names and setting had changed—felt exactly like the last. Some authors, like Leigh Bardugo, pull it off (which is why I binged the Grisha trilogy back-to-back and am now currently reading Six of Crows). Others don’t. I seemed to be reading more of those that don’t.

I read to be transported. Not to escape, but to experience. My whole life is based around collecting experiences. It’s the reason I’ll never commit to being a vegetarian—there are too many strange, foreign foods I haven’t tried. It’s the reason I never want to end up settling in one place for too long. And fantasy, the genre that used to transport me, was beginning to feel as familiar as reality. So, feeling miffed and bored with the types of books that used to make my spirit soar with geeky abandon, I vowed to set my sights higher this year: not only would I read more books than last year, I would read books I already own but have been too wishy-washy to begin.

Out of my handy dandy book-title dish I pulled The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a book touted as one of the best introductions to non-fiction. Perfect. So I dug in.

I was hesitant, to be sure, but I was quickly engulfed in the picture Larson painted of late 19th-century Chicago, complete with evocative descriptions of filthy streets, destitute workers, the rank smell of horse dung and the slaughterhouses, and, of course, the complement to all of this darkness: the White City, the location of the 1893 World’s Fair.

The story follows three separate plot lines; one of the trials and tribulations of the builders of the fair, another of a deranged young man who goes on to commit a terrible crime, and the third, of course, about the infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, who built a sprawling murder hotel and used the lure of the World’s Fair to ensnare women.

Again, as one who reads to be transported, this book was phenomenal. It was vivid and rich with trivia. For instance:

  • Olmstead, the man who designed the grounds of the White City, also designed Central Park, the Biltmore, and many other gardens and grounds.
  • Shredded wheat was introduced at the World’s Fair in 1893.
  • In an attempt to outdo the centerpiece of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair (the Eiffel Tower) the designers of the Chicago fair went all out and eventually invented the Ferris wheel.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright worked under one of the architects who helped design the fair.
  • The “snake charmer” song (also called “The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid”) was a random, spur-of-the-moment creation by the young, brilliant Sol Bloom who helped design the Midway of the fair. He then went on to become a politician in New York and a delegate at the convention that established the United Nations; he also suggested the first words to the Preamble to the United Nations Charter.
  • Burnham, one of the original designers of the fair, went on to design many other buildings, including the Flatiron Building (originally known as the Fuller Building).

There were about a hundred other interesting factoids that I can’t seem to remember now, but it seems to me, a casual know-nothing, that this point in history had its fingers stuck in about a hundred other points in history, and went on to change our world in ways we may not recognize. Reading, I wanted nothing more than to step back in time and experience the whirlwind of change undergoing the country (and then promptly return to 2017, where we have sanitation laws).

This is where my enjoyment of the book comes to a relative halt. Because, if you recall, I can’t stand nonfiction. So for me, the majority of this book was a bore. I wanted to know more about H.H. Holmes and his crimes, but I didn’t want to know quite so much about all of the old white guys building the fair. Unfortunately, two of the three storylines had such tentative connections to the fair that their inclusion felt more like a way to add drama to the otherwise quite dull account of old men trying and repeatedly failing to build this fair. Without the inclusion of Holmes’ or Prenderghast’s chapters, of which details are scant, the story would have been a fairly tired, hum-drum collection of newspaper clippings tied together with bits of prose detailing the slow and often unfortunate creation of the Chicago Exposition.

So although the book was interesting, I wouldn’t quite be able to call it fascinating (there is a large gap, in my mind, between those two words). It taught me a lot of cool, historical facts (which I’ll be sure to fling out the next time I’m at a highbrow dinner party), but I do wish more focus had been placed on exploring the crimes connected (however slightly) to the fair, as I find that more interesting than a bunch of aging architects with cataracts and gout (be they geniuses or not). Overall, it just didn’t hold my attention.

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

★★★½

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told to ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

the-bearFirst of all, what a gorgeous, evocative book this was. Everything about it—from the cover to the writing to the entrancing main character—had me soaking up every word. As someone who is pretty sick of the YA/NA genre in general, this appeased me for a few reasons:

  1. We had a fantastic, strong, bold main character, Vasya, who is frequently described as ‘ugly’, although the way she commands herself and her presence is captivating to nearly everyone around her. She also refuses to accept her ‘lot in life’, aka being married off to a man, getting fat, and popping out a few kids, or alternatively going to a convent to live out her years as a quiet, docile virgin.
  2. Vasya doesn’t get all swoony over men. In fact, though there is some kissing and hinting, there’s really no romance in this book. *fist pump*
  3. Although I really don’t know anything about Russian culture (and I should probably change that), the lore and mythology in this book were fascinating and easy to understand for a noob like me.

Okay, now why only 3 stars? I was wondering that myself, because as I was reading the last few chapters I was thinking, “This is awesome. It’s well written. Vasya is authentic and I want to chill with her. So why do I kind of just want this book to end?”

I guess my problem was that a few things throughout the story were compounding and made the ending lackluster. Here are a few (spoilers below, obviously):

  1. A big subplot through the story is that Vasya’s father is given a necklace from the winter king to give to his daughter. Instead, Dunya, the nurse, keeps it to give to Vasya once she’s older. Dunya repeatedly has dreams where the winter king comes to her and, in a pretty threatening manner, demands that Vasya receive the necklace. Dunya begs him, a few times, to give her “one more year,” because Vasya is still just a girl. This all makes it sound as if the giving of the necklace will mean something terrible for Vasya, like the winter king is going to steal her or she’ll be sent on some dangerous mission or something. Well, the giving of the necklace happens finally, and … nothing happens. Maybe I’m missing something, but basically the necklace didn’t do anything or change anything in any way, since what was coming was coming not due to Konstantin’s meddling, not anything Vasya could prevent (even with the assistance of the necklace). The evil force in the book wasn’t deterred by the giving of the necklace, nor did the necklace protect Vasya from harm. Sometimes the necklace would burn like ice against her skin but I’m not sure what exactly that was supposed to … mean. Sure, it sounds cool (pun not intended, but I’ll roll with it), but overall the entire necklace subplot had no purpose other than keeping readers wondering what would happen once Vasya received it. And the answer is … nothing.
  2. At the battle in the end, Vasya calls on the household spirits to come and aid her fighting against Medved/the Bear/the one-eyed man. Then she realizes that’s kinda fruitless, since the household spirits are bound to their hearths and can’t leave. But then they arrive. Somehow. I kept waiting for there to be an explanation for this, but there wasn’t. Further, the spirits don’t even do anything in the battle other than look ragged, enforcing the idea that, if Vasya wins, her victory will have been again nearly unbeatable odds.
  3. I was ridiculously excited to see Vasya kick some evil spirit ass at the end of this book, because she was truly an awesome, strong character. I wanted to see her prove everyone wrong and save the village. But in the end, who does the saving? Her father. UGH. Her father, who was away on some journey to help out a village that had burned down (and this didn’t factor into the plot at all), comes back in the nick of time, barrels into the fight, and gives up his life to save his daughter, which apparently binds the Bear from doing any more harm. Think Lily Potter binding Voldemort with her love for Harry. So yeah, viola, fight scene is over, father is dead, evil force is vanquished, etc. This would’ve been sad because her father was a kind character, except it happened so fast and was so completely random that I barely had time to process it. Adding insult to injury is the fact that we didn’t get to see Vasya beat the odds. Instead, a man saved her. This annoyed the crap out me, because I LOVED this line that Vasya said right before the fight:

    “To the oak-tree. To the Bear’s clearing,” said Vasya. “As fast as you can run.” (…)
    Solovey put his head up, a stallions scenting battle. But he said, You cannot do it alone. (…)
    “Cannot?” said Vasya. “I will do it. Hurry.”

    What a BAMF! Alas, her BAMFness was foiled by a middle aged man.

  4. Konstantin, the priest who is basically bringing about all of this evilness by making the villagers afraid (that is what the Bear feeds on), is tossed from the story at the end in almost a throwaway scene: Vasya and the winter king go to his room, and the winter king stands behind her menacingly, projecting himself like a flame-eyed skull, and Vasya basically tells the priest to get lost, which he does. This happens right after Vasya is supposed to be mourning her father’s death, and instead the scene came off as comical—they walked out of the room laughing. I feel like this was included because there was no other way to wrap up Konstantin’s plotline.

Overall, the book had so many loose ends that I can’t even count them all. As I was writing this, more and more kept popping into my head. The gorgeous writing honestly made up for a lot of what it lacked in plot, but in the end I didn’t feel connected to anyone in the story but Vasya, none of the deaths affected me, and the climax/battle scene was a let down.

Still, I encourage you to read this if you’re looking for a beautifully written book with a strong main character. On both of those fronts, The Bear and the Nightingale is gold.

ARC received through Barnes & Noble. The Bear and the Nightingale goes on sale January 17, 2017.

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

★★★☆☆

Long overdue!! I finished this in MAY and I never got around to writing a review. (And this isn’t even the longest overdue review I have to do. Augh.)adsom.jpg

This was one of those books that I just couldn’t wait to get my hands on. Every time I saw a picture of the (ridiculously gorgeous) cover design or fan art of the characters, I was in love with the promise of it. I read the blurb on Amazon after swaying between “I need it right now” and “I need to save money, damn it!!” But after one page I immediately decided to drop some money for a hardcover.

Blurb: 

Kell is one of the last Travelers-magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes, connected by one magical city.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad king-George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered-and where Kell was raised alongside Rhys Maresh, the rougish heir to a flourishing empire. White London-a place where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.



The good:

  • The cover designs are beautiful for both the US and UK versions of these books, and I seriously want to collect them all.

    adsom-holland

    Holland and the Dane twins. Art by Victoria Ying.

  • Kell was a fantastic main character, and I found him very sympathetic and easy to root for. His character design was easy to imagine (and easier to fan girl over, because who doesn’t love a man in a well-made coat?).
  • Holland was the same. I love the concept of him being bound to his duty by an enchantment, and it made me feel understanding of even his most evil actions.
  • The world-building was well-done, although I think I’ll need to read the sequels to get more of a sense of the history. The language and magic were super cool.

Annnndddd the parts I didn’t like so much:

Unlike every other reviewer, I couldn’t stand Lila. I found her overbearing and irritating, like a squeaky, angry mouse hell-bent on proving something to everyone. I think that was the point. She was tom-boyish and brash and said those super-quotable one-liners like, “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.” Unfortunately I’ve always hated super-quotable lines (except for like everything Dumbledore says), because they feel cheesy and make me scrunch up my face like
ew.gif
NOBODY TALKS LIKE THAT IRL!!

 


 

Caution: Spoilers below!

Biggest let down: I found the ending very dull. There were a lot of interesting scenarios set up, but they all fell a bit flat. For instance, Holland dies. Or at least we’re led to believe he dies. Athos and Kell fight, and then Athos summons a huge serpent to kill Kell but the serpent kills Athos instead. (????) I found myself going “Uh… What? Why?” Then, in what I thought would be a great plot twist, Astros knocks Lila out and assumes her body and face to trick Kell, but Kell immediately knows it’s her and kills her. So every one of the antagonists is all of a sudden dead. Where’s the drama there? And the ease with which they were defeated was totally anti-climactic.

Smaller let down: I really, really wish there hadn’t been any romance, ESPECIALLY between Kell and Lila. They had zero chemistry and their kiss just made me roll my eyes. Augh. And I wanted some gayness!! C’mon!!!

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

★★★☆☆

I don’t have much to say that hasn’t probably been said by a million othergonegirl.jpg reviewers, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Basically, this book was crazy (in every sense of the word). On one hand, the author is masterful at getting deep into these characters’ psyches and exploring their minds and motivations. For the first half of the book, I was hooked. [Side note: One of the reasons I read so fast is because I often skim boring parts, and since I have the attention span of a gnat this usually means “almost everything other than dialogue”.] With Gone Girl, there was no skimming. I was reading every line word for word, examining these weird, fascinating, very human thoughts, seeing ideas that I recognized put into words.

Unfortunately, then it got to the big reveal: Amy is a nutcase. Yep, it was her, all along, just being a crazy, possessive, jealous, vengeful wife. Surprise surprise. Once this was revealed, I was pretty much done. Uninterested. Because as it turns out, every single other woman in this book basically followed the same pattern: Jealous. Money-grubbing. Vengeful.

Crazy.

(And no, I’m not using words like “crazy” and “nutcase” insensitively — she literally framed her husband for her murder in a state with the death penalty because he cheated on her.)

I am siiiiicccckkkkk of this “crazy woman” trope. Sick of it. Maybe that’s the point? I have no idea. I’m trying to find something redeeming about the way women were written here. The author touched on stuff like the “cool girl” trope, but then she turns around and shows how Amy uses that trope to get men, and then acts petty and vengeful when they fall for it because that’s not who she is and she just wants someone to ‘get’ her. Is the author trying to show the destructiveness of stereotypes like this? Is she trying to paint a “worst possible scenario” picture? I don’t think so. Because Amy is consistently painted as the epitome of crazy. She plans Nick’s downfall for upwards of a year. She poisons herself, then hides her poison-laced vomit in the freezer to frame him again if he ever leaves her. She cocks her head to the side in a bird-like, non-human way clearly meant to show her inability to feel what others are feelings. She’s a sociopath, through and through.

Of course, Nick has craziness in him too. In one scene, Nick has a jolt of pleasure realizing that he actually married a “crazy woman”. Every guy, he says, thinks his wife is crazy. He feels satisfaction at realizing that his actually is. By the end, [[more spoilers??]] he’s having vivid fantasies of strangling Amy, or bashing in her head, or realizing that no matter what he couldn’t ever go back to a “normal” girl [read: not a sociopath], because that would be so boooooring. But he’s given a redeeming quality: he doesn’t want to end up like his woman-hating dad. Boo hoo. Poor, noble man.

Sigh. What a trip. So basically the whole thing revolved around this couple who hated each other and often wanted the other dead or in jail or what have you, because it was fun for them to be constantly on edge around each other.

Idk mang. I’m not very well-versed in thrillers, but my feelings for this one kind of fell apart once I realized the stance it was taking. I honestly expected better coming from a female author.

Review: Bad Boy by Elliot Wake

★★★☆☆

**ARC courtesy of NetGalley.

I have mixed feeling about this book. I seriously couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, so perhaps I went into it with my hopes too high. First things first: I’ve only read Cam Girl so far, and if I had known that this was a continuation of several characters from Wake’s previous novels (published under the name Leah Raeder), then I probably would have elected to read the books in order. It doesn’t really affect your understanding of the novel, but I think that now that I’ve seen the characters “down the road”, it may affect the way I read his other novels, Black Iris and Unteachable.

bad-boyThat aside, I flew through Bad Boy in about two days. The writing was more of the flowery, poetic style I had grown accustomed to in Cam Girl, although in my opinion it was a bit more subtle in this book compared to CG (which makes sense because the narrator in CG, Vada, is an artist). There definitely wasn’t as much ~sexy time~ as in CG either, but what there is is as swoon-worthy as I’ve come to expect. Basic synopsis: Ren, the main character, is transgender and makes a living off of vlogging about his transition on YouTube. When he’s not on camera, he’s a vigilante with Black Iris, scaring some sense into abusive, misogynistic trolls who threaten women online.

My biggest issue with this book is that it’s so heavy handed and laden down with explanations; about feminism, about misogyny, about transitioning — everything. The explanations of concepts sometimes detracted from the story in such a way that I would skip them. As someone already familiar with a lot of these ideas, I found it to be overkill. A large majority of the book felt more like it was the author teaching the reader what feminism is instead of showing it in action. In fact, at least two of the characters aren’t very feministic at all. Ingrid is by far the worst; she was just a mean person and I didn’t enjoy any of the scenes with her. Cam Girl has this “co-dependency” friendship angle as well, but where I could understand why Ellis and Vada didn’t want to be apart, I seriously couldn’t understand why Ren didn’t drop Ingrid like a hot coal. She was nasty, oppressive, invalidating his identity at every turn—it often came as a shock to me as a reader, because she was supposed to be his “best friend”. Honestly, it seemed the only reason she was in Ren’s life was [[MILD SPOILER]] as a plot device.

Biggest takeaway: Bad Boy included a lot of sections labeled “vlog #__” where Ren would talk directly to the audience as if through a vlog. Especially in the parts where he’s describing how certain things work (for instance, the vlog on detransitioning), it felt much more like I was reading a how-to article rather than a book. Because of this style, the plot felt shaky and strung-together by these vlog sections, which made it seem almost as if the book was written solely to explain trans* people rather than to have a cohesive book featuring a transgender person. I understand that some readers might need some extra education on the subject, but that’s what Google is for.

And I know I shouldn’t keep comparing this to his other books, but I likedCam Girl a lot more (of course, that’s not my reason for rating this 3/5, but it bears mentioning). With Bad Boy, I guessed a lot of the plot twists about halfway through the book, and I had a hunch who the “bad guy” was as well. This made the eventual reveal a lot less powerful, for me at least.

Don’t get me wrong; I still really liked the book (although I wish Ellis was more prominent, tbh; she’s my favorite character and the one I identify with the most, and I also want to kiss her right on the face). Wake’s books feature a great cast of lgbtqa+ characters, with lots of lessons to be learned by the reader and truths for them to think about. Seriously. This is stuff that will make you question your own identity and sexuality. And I love books like that; books that make me think, that make me wonder and question and realize truths about myself and other that I may not have known before. I’m just a fan of subtlety. The lesson learning was heavy inCam Girl as well, but Bad Boy seemed much more heavy-handed with it.

Bad Boy comes out December 6, 2016. Go give it a pre-order if you’re interested!