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: We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

ARC provided by NetGalley!
★★★☆☆

This was a cute, short read (more of a novella than anything) written in verse, about two outsiders and the bond that forms between them. Jess comes from a violent household and can’t wait to escape, and Nicu recently immigrated from Romania and is having trouble fitting in, and when they both get sent to a youth correctional program on Saturdays, they quickly become friends.

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The book, though short, had a poignancy that some long YA books struggle to achieve, and it managed it in half the words. It’s easily a book you can read in one sitting (I finished it in a few hours). I didn’t realize until I began that it was written in verse; at first I thought my Kindle formatting was messed up. Honestly, I didn’t care for it, but I didn’t actively dislike it either. I don’t think it added anything to the story, but it also didn’t take away from it—overall it was a good thing in that it enabled the story to develop quickly and shed all the excess weight that most YA books have.

Nicu as a character came across as a bit too naive, especially for someone his age—he felt like some kind of innocent baby rather than a teenage boy. I don’t think being a teenager changes much between cultures, so this felt weird, like they were infantilizing him just because he couldn’t speak fluent English. Other than that, he was easily the best character because he was so forgiving and adorable.

Jess on the other hand was hard to care about, because she was such a mean person in some respects. For one, there’s active portrayal of domestic abuse in the book, and Jess continually thinks that her mother is the problem, that she’s not strong enough to leave Jess’ step-father, which is pretty insulting. (Also, I’m not sure I understood the whole obsession her step-father had with Jess filming him while he hit her mother. It was weird and it made me wonder why Jess, who apparently is so talented at stealing, didn’t just take his phone and go to the police with all of that evidence.) In the same vein, she ignores Nicu even when they’re established friends, letting him get bullied in front of her without saying a word. (Later in the book she speaks up, but it still annoyed me that she thought her mother was the weak one when she allowed her friend to be ruthlessly bullied.)

The climax came about pretty quickly, without much explanation, and it all felt a bit rushed, but I think that can be expected from the storytelling method: it was quick and to the point, focusing on feeling rather than details.

In the end it was a nice, quick read, timely in its depiction of racism and a poignant portrayal of love and loss.

Review: If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

If on a winter’s night a traveler
Outside the town of Malbork
Leaning from the steep slope
Without fear of wind or vertigo
Looks down in the gathering shadow
In a network of lines that enlace
In a network of lines that intersect
On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
Around an empty grave
What story down there awaits its end?

★★★★☆

Writing reviews for terrible books is easy, but trying to gather my thoughts about good books is so much more difficult for me. Because I loved this—it was brilliant. It was also boring (not in a bad way, oddly enough). So those two words are what I’m sticking with: Brilliantly boring. Or boringly brilliant? It reminded me a lot of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, though with a definite plot and a lot more intrigue.calvino

It was a book about books, about beginnings, a book in which any reader will doubtlessly see reflections of themselves. (Half of my copy is dog-eared and highlighted.) The story revolves around a main character (“the Reader”) who begins reading If on a winter’s night a traveler only to find that his copy cuts off just as it gets interesting. When he goes on a journey to find the rest of the book, he manages only to find a trail of other story beginnings, each of them just as magnetic as the last, and each cutting off just when the story really starts to suck you in.

I’ve always found myself uneasy about the “beginnings” of stories. I dislike the weightlessness of it, the feeling of being on the edge of a cliff and deciding whether or not to jump. This probably sounds like the antithesis of what a reader should be, but let me explain: I’m one of those readers who likes to be in the thick of things already; it’s one of the reasons I disliked the first ASoIaF book but have loved the rest of them (and would probably love the first, too, if I ever get around to rereading it). I hate not knowing what’s going on, though I do love the slow discovery of it.

But somehow, Calvino transformed this uneasy feeling of the “beginning” into an entire book, making a novel that never fully moves past that act of initial discovery. Every time the Reader and I set out to begin the next story, I found myself embracing the weightless, ungrounded feeling, and every time, just as my environment slipped away and I entered the story fully, it was ripped away. Calvino succeeded in this every time, with every new story, easily making the Reader’s struggle, his irritation at being interrupted right when it was getting good, my own.

Now, I could have probably given this five stars, because it was, as I said before, brilliant. It’s one of those novels where, as I was reading, I was consumed by it, but after I finished I had to admit it wasn’t an all-time favorite.

So in the end, it’s not a book I’ll feel a connection to down the road, although I’m glad I read it and will definitely recommend it to others.

Review: Air Awakens by Elise Kova

★☆☆☆☆

I really tried. I mean I really really really tried to find something good about this.
But it’s a day after and I’m still sitting here like

HOW DOES THIS HAVE A 4+ STAR RATING???

Listen. *deep breath* I am. IN LOVE. With Avatar. It’s one of the biggest influences on my own writing. So whenever I hear of an elemental fantasy I PICK THAT BITCH UP AND READ IT. I read it because I already have a pretty heavy inkling that I’ll love it, but ALSO because I’m writing an elemental fantasy and reading other books in the same vein is a bit like studying. How does the author pull this off? How do they explain this? You know, that kinda thing.

ANYWAYs.

This was a dumpster fire. And I hated it within one chapter. So why did I torture myself through the whole book? Because everyone on this godforsaken website gave this book shining stars and said it was fantastic!!!! Was I reading another book?? Idk man. Air Awakens was basically a bastard lovechild between Avatar/The Phantom of the Opera/Twilight. Yes, Twilight. And you know what? I LIKED Twilight.

[ThoughasanadultIcanlookbackandseeitsflawsitstillretainsitsentertainmentvaluekbye.]

So for starters, the main character, Vhalla, is a Mary Sure to the extreme. She’s got messy hair that omg never cooperates, she’s seemingly plain but actually totally beautiful once she puts on a dress and makeup, and—perhaps the worst part—she has literally three guys fawning over her throughout this entire novel. Three. Separate. Men. You thought love triangles were bad, enter THE LOVE QUADRANGLE.

Vhalla (which my computer keeps trying to correct to “Veal”) finds out the superhotprince (literally nicknamed ‘The Heartbreaker Prince’ by the citizens) has been injured in the war, so she does what us nerdy girls do best: she stays up all night reading, trying to find a cure for the poison in his system. Somehow this Awakens her powers, she’s kidnapped for some reason to The Dark Spooky Tower of the Sorcerers, and she finds out the person she saved was actually the ALSOHOTDARKSPOOKYFIREPRINCE and that’s how the story begins. She spends the entire first 25% of the book saying, “NO I CAN’T BE A SORCERER. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE,” just over and over… for probably about 100 pages.

The next 50% of the book is spent falling in and out of the love quadrangle—she gets asked on a date by her friend Sareem—of course hot dark fire prince sees them and narrows his eyes broodingly; she dances with the Heartbreaker Prince (I’m glad I don’t have to come up with a goofy nickname for him since the author managed that for me) and then sex scandal spreads because she was in his room?; and last but not least, of course, the dark hot fire prince tutors her through letters and finally in person and they fall in ~~instalove~~. I skipped a ton of this because I just couldn’t take it.

Aaaand the last 25% of the book was—gasp—actually decent! For a second, at least. The fight scene was great! Really! It was awesome and we finally got to see some of the “dark” side of the prince, some gritty action, as well as Vhalla’s courage. Unfortunately that was short lived; she got thrown in prison afterward for a crime she didn’t commit, and of course there’s an evil senator guy (whose hatred of Vhalla is never really explained?) and this situation was dragged out for days for some reason.

See, I get it. When I started writing my elemental fantasy I thought, “Wouldn’t it be, like, super cool if I had 4 books and each of them had one of the elements in the title?” Seriously, I considered this… And then I MURDERED MY DARLING. It was a bad idea, and it didn’t need to be done to tell the story, and it just makes the concept more cutesy than anything. So I killed the idea and moved on. Unfortunately this author didn’t, and so she had to stretch the first book out exponentially to make the title (“Air Awakens”) work. It’s ridiculous, it’s kitschy, and it ruined a potentially awesome idea! I really wanted to love this story, but I simply couldn’t because the first book was so incredibly tedious and unnecessary (kind of like this review—cough cough).

Anyway, god, I want to read the next book, because the action scene at the end was pretty great. And I want more of that. What I don’t want to do is pay for a book that ends up being a stretched out account of a bunch of characters flirting. I mean, I can get straight romance if I walk into a mall. I don’t need to pay for that. Idk. I might go for it, because elemental fantasy is my THING Y’ALL. But we’ll see.

Review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

★★★★☆

This will be a semi short/messy review since I already did a proper one for Six of Crows here.

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LOOK AT THIS BEAUTIFUL BOOK. LOOK AT IT.

This was super enjoyable; I read it in the car, at work, till two in the morning, in the bathroom, while stuffing Chipotle into my face, etc. (None of those things at the same time, though, just to be clear.) BUUUTTTTTT, for the sake of honesty, it didn’t blow me away, even though I’ll say I loved the duology as a whole and Bardugo is a god damn genius when it comes to crafting characters.

To begin, there was a loooooot of deus ex machina going on here. I mean truly every scene where the odds were totally beyond their scope, where everything was hopeless, one of the characters would find this new power inside them and it would work! perfectly! each time! For instance, [SPOILERS BELOW]

  • Jesper learned that one of the reasons he might be such a good shot is because he’s a Fabrikator. Cool idea, and I’d assumed from the beginning that that’s why he was a sharpshooter, but then he went on to make an impossible shot where the bullet actually curved in midair around a corner and hit the person in the chest. SO YEAH it was cool, but like… too cool and too convenient. I have a problem with that.
  • Nina learns that after using jurda parem, she can’t control her powers like she used to. Then, against impossible odds, she finds she’s able to control dead bodies. Which was super gross to begin with, but she uses these CORPSES to not only defeat her enemies but then miraculously carry a net out under Inej right when she falls off a grain silo (this probably sounds super weird if you haven’t read the book, lmao). I’ve read other reviews for Six of Crows that mention the total lack of morals that these characters have, and I hadn’t had a problem with it because that’s the story, and I’ve read Game of Thrones which is a hundred times worse. People are sick and self-serving for the most part (can you tell I’m an optimist?), so these lawless characters didn’t make me grimace. But this… using dead people as props and controlling them… I had been gobbling up the pages and then that happened and I was like

It threw me off to such an extent that I wondered if I could recover from it and still enjoy the book. There are other instances too, but those are two that really annoyed me. And I mean, it wasn’t TOTALLY terrible because inklings of these abilities were sprinkled through earlier on in the story, but it was still just cringe-worthy in my opinion.

Other than that, the book was good but long and rambling in a lot of ways. It didn’t have a clear plot like Six of Crows; it was more a jumble of a bunch of Kaz’s failed plans and then the gang recovering from the previous heist and doing something else to get their money back. It wasn’t that it wasn’t fun to read, but it seemed like the book was a lot longer than it really needed to be and like the author couldn’t come up with one central heist to cover the length. It was a lot of back and forth, and that constant planning, executing, OOPS WE’VE BEEN BACKSTABBED or OOPS IT’S A TRAP, failing, replanning got dull after a while, to the point where I was skimming the more politic-driven scenes to get to the parts I cared about, aka the action and the kissing. (I’m not too ashamed.)

Last but not least, perhaps my BIGGEST issue was (pretty major spoiler ahead so don’t click unless you’ve read the book) Matthias’ death. It was, to put it shortly, completely random, out of place, and wholly unnecessary. It added absolutely nothing to the plot, it was brought on by a random character that was never explained or even reintroduced or ANYTHING, and it was just hard to read because of how forced it was. I have this very strong feeling that Matthias was killed off because someone, probably an editor or something, was like, “Listen, your readers are probably expecting one of these guys to die in the end, so we’ve gotta kill someone off. Who’s your least favorite?” The problem is that he was killed off in the most random way possible, like the heist was done, everything was falling into place, but NOPE: [insert random character death here]. I HATED IT. HATED IT.

Honestly though, the terribleness of those few things was BY FAR made up for by the adorable romances between Wylan/Jesper and Kaz/Inej, the wonderful character development, and the exquisite world-building. I’m not exaggerating when I say that these are some of the most believably invented characters I’ve come across lately. I’ve been so fed up with YA books lately; it’s all so boring and manufactured. But this wasn’t at all. I couldn’t contain the ~~feels~~. Also, Wylan and Jesper honestly overtook Kaz and Inej as my favorite pairing in this, and I ended up liking Wylan even more than Kaz.

Okay, enough fangirling. GO READ THIS DUOLOGY. YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.

Review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

★★★★★

God. Damn. I love Leigh Bardugo so much.

I went into this book with such impossibly high expectations. I mean, a band of ragtag orphans, thieves, and cutthroats; an impossible heist (even the word ‘heist’ gets me riled); elemental magic and mayhem and unrequited love—it’s literally my book wishlist all wrapped up in one. How could I not love it?

Even the books themselves are freaking gorgeous. They have dyed black and red edges. I cry.

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And with my employee discount, I nabbed a beautiful boxset at B&N for $20. Can’t say no to that!

So to recap: everything I’ve ever wanted in a fantasy book + unending media hype + one of my favorite authors + books as beautiful on the outside as they are potentially on the inside = insanely high expectations.

So the fact that I, though seemingly impossible to please, came out of this book glowing with the perfection of it all, is noteworthy.

six of crows

Art by @kevinwada

Bardugo has crafted an awesome, diverse cast of characters that you can’t help but root for. Each character has a defining characteristic, something that makes them memorable instantly. Bardugo splits the story up masterfully between them all, with each chapter told from one of their POVs (except Wylan, for some reason). This is a storytelling technique few authors can pull off, so it could’ve ended badly, but those defining characteristics I mention aren’t abused and they never feel gimmicky, so the characters don’t come across as caricatures. Each of them is wonderfully fleshed out, with vivid pasts and individual problems they need to solve.

Did I mention that Kaz Brekker is the newest addition to my “book boyfriends” list as well as my “favorite characters ever” list? I mean… look at him. I have a type, ladies and gentlemen, and apparently it’s pale, emotionally-stunted pickpockets.

 

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Six of Crows never never got stale, and it never failed to surprise. Every time I thought, “That’s it, they’re done for,” Bardugo pulled out another risky maneuver or cunning plan. When you read enough YA fantasy, plot twists can start to get a lot less twisty; you realize that half of these books have “twists” that are the same across the board. Not so with Bardugo. She just has a way of making everything fresh and exciting, the same way she did with the original Grisha trilogy.

I can’t wait to read the next book in this duology, and I highly, highly recommend Six of Crows to anyone with a book wishlist like mine. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Review: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Book & TV Show)

Loaded (and controversial) subject matter, obviously, so be prepared. 

Let’s forge ahead, shall we?


THE BOOK:

First of all, let me be real: I completely hated the book version of Thirteen Reasons Why.  I originally gave it 2.5 stars out ofThirteenReasonsWhy 5, but looking back, I truly can’t remember a single remarkable thing about it; YA books are one of my easy-to-read/enjoy genres, so that might have been part of it. However, I feel I should lower my review to 1 star. (Maybe 1.5 stars, because it was at least compelling enough to finish.) I read this book in November of 2016, so obviously I didn’t feel driven enough to review it. (And, admittedly, I didn’t want to write a review that would potentially offend the hardcore fans.)

Since its publication in 2007, Thirteen Reasons Why has gained a fanatic, cult-like following. Over the years, I’d heard nothing but rave reviews for it (which, funny enough, was also the case with the irritating Gone Girl; maybe I should stop listening to raving reviewers?). So when I found a perfect condition hardcover at Goodwill, I decided it was finally the time to check it out.

Right off the bat, I’ll admit that it’s been many moons since I read the book, so my memories are a bit stale. But I can tell you one thing: it held me captive only because I’ve dealt with depression and wanted to see Asher’s depiction of this illness. So although I ended up disliking the book, one of the problems was probably that I read this as a (mostly) mentally stable 22-year-old rather than in my much-less-mentally-stable high school years. Then again, had I encountered this book in those darker times, I can’t say for sure if it would have resonated with me, helped me, or caused me to believe suicide was a viable option.

I consider myself not easily moved by social cues, so I doubt a fictional character would have convinced me to kill myself, but other youngins may not be as resilient. I very strongly believe this is not a book for high schoolers unless they are mature, or unless they are planning on discussing their thoughts on the book afterward. Though the consensus will never be in, there’s no doubt in my mind that this book glorifies the act of suicide. Hannah Baker, the main character, is a decidedly selfish individual and either ignorant or blind to anything but the nastiest or most careless acts of her peers. Clay Jensen, the awkward, caring, gangly love interest, is even worse. Hannah I couldn’t stand. Clay I despised.

Hannah goes through the novel detailing every wrongdoing from her thirteen classmates/peers, and the reasons they are ultimately responsible for her death. That’s right: Hannah, in her last act of selfishness, displaces the blame of her own suicide onto the hands of thirteen high schoolers, who will then have to live with the knowledge for the rest of their lives. The reasons for these people being on the tapes varies greatly; some, I can understand how the acts were no doubt malicious (for instance, the photographer stalker who took pictures outside Hannah’s bedroom, or her first date where the guy insinuates to his classmates that they went way further than just kiss).

But ultimately, the tapes are a last act of pettiness: I’m going to kill myself, so now you’ve got to listen to everything mean you did to me so you’ll feel bad forever; otherwise they’ll be released unto the world and everyone will know. Hannah never took the time to actually sit down and have a discussion with any of these people, mind you. Even the scene with the guidance counselor, where he asked pointedly if anything is wrong, illustrated this point. Hannah mumbled her way through a non-explanation, then ran out of the guidance office. When the guidance counselor didn’t follow her and demand (for the tenth time) an explanation, she put him on the tapes.

The fact is that Hannah didn’t want help. She didn’t want to give an explanation to anyone, she didn’t want to talk it out. She wanted to die, and she wanted to place the blame for that on anyone’s shoulders but her own.

hannah baker


Now, on to the horrible Clay Jensen. Because beside the annoyance that is Hannah Baker, Clay is the second most intolerable aspect of this book.

Clay has a complex. To be specific, it’s a nice guy complex—potentially the worst complex one can have. Clay received the tapes and starts them, and his first thought is, There must be some mistake. I had a giant crush on Hannah—surely I can’t be one of the reasons she killed herself!!!1!

Well, as I discussed earlier, nobody was really the reason Hannah killed herself—but that’s beside the point. Because yes, Clay, regardless of how much you lubbed Hannah with all your heart, loving someone doesn’t make them any less depressed. Being nice to someone doesn’t make someone less depressed. Just because someone smiles at you and jokes with you doesn’t mean they’re not depressed. You get the picture. Clay repeatedly wonders why he’s on the tapes, going so far as to say he could have “saved” Hannah if she’d only come to him. Honestly, I can’t even remember the reason Clay ends up being on the tapes (again, it’s been a while), I just remember despising his attitude toward the whole thing. I do remember, however, that Clay’s chapter is completely disappointing, because we find out something along the lines of “Yeah, Clay was a great friend and he didn’t really do anything to make me want to kill myself, but he also didn’t stop me.”

So, like, he was basically on the tapes so that we could have a sympathetic main character bear witness to everyone else’s wrongdoings… All right. Wouldn’t want to mess that up halfway through with a big reveal that the main character is actually flawed!! Clay’s seeming “perfection” killed the book for me more than Hannah’s insufferableness.

The book ended on a high note (sarcasm, mind you) because Clay realized the error of his ways and saw that one of his old friends, Skye, might also be suffering from depression because—I kid you not—she wears baggy, unattractive clothes…

Christ. Sigh.

Anyway, Clay decides to sit by her on the bus and be her friend, like the true messiah he is, because if he couldn’t save Hannah he can at least save this poor, ugly creature.

So there’s that. I really disliked the book. I’m not sure I remember why I gave it 2.5 stars out of 5, because it feels much more like a 1 star to me after writing this.


THE SHOW:

The good news is that the Netflix show sucks, but it doesn’t suck quite as much. While it sticks pretty closely to the books, each 45-minute episode expands deeply on the incidents that Hannah talks about in her tapes, all while exploring the ways Hannah’s death not only affects her classmates, but also her community and her grief-stricken parents (an area the book lacked in). The longer episodes give the story room to breathe and expand on some of the relationships between the characters, and especially the relationship between Clay and Hannah, which is another thing the book lacked in entirely. Clay came across as less a friend and more a casual stalker who had barely interacted with Hannah enough to be so infatuated with her. The show makes this much more palatable and has regular scenes of them interacting, going on cute “dates” (like star-gazing), talking at their mutual workplace, etc. Their scenes together are adorable and make the subject matter even more heart-wrenching.

clay jensen

I haven’t finished the show yet, but I appreciated that it also normalizes mental illness in smaller ways. Mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean being suicidal: in one scene, Clay’s parents present breakfast for him, and he notices a pill bottle on the table spread. Later, it’s revealed that he hasn’t been taking his anxiety medication regularly—he’s prone to panic attacks—and since Hannah’s death, his parents have worried about him. Not only does this normalize the stigma against such medications, but it instantly makes Clay a more relatable and sympathetic main character; he’s not a perfect character who thought he could have saved Hannah if she’d only have given him a chance, he’s a normal human with personal issues to deal with.


FINAL RATINGS:

TV SHOW: 3/5 (Although it’s much better than the book, it obviously can’t escape the book’s curse of badly presented subject material. Also, some of the acting is pretty cringe-worthy.)

BOOK: 1.5/5 (I give it this much because, again, it was for the most part well-written enough to hold my attention, but in the end it handled heavy material in a way that made it feel more melodramatic than sincere.)

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 Meek by Der-shing Helmer

★★★★★

My favorite webcomic has finally made its way into print (I DID MY WAITING. SEVEN YEARS OF IT–), and what a print it is. I am truly dead. It has beautiful spot gloss, especially this super creative bit on the back cover that I almost didn’t see:

Dreamy sigh. The artwork is so friggin’ beautiful and dynamic, the colors vibrant and knock-out gorgeous, the characters all soooo lovely and well-designed… I could go on.

And did I mention FRENCH FLAPS?!

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(Why do I love French flaps so much? No idea.)

So of course the minute it arrived on my doorstep I had to drop everything and read the whole thing again. Since I donated to the Kickstarter, I received a few extra goodies as well: Three beautiful bookmarks and a gorgeous postcard (that I’ll never send—it’ll be on my wall next to my desk from now on).

The Meek has a big cast of characters and a few storylines going on at once, but it hinges around a young girl named Angora who has been sent by her “Grandfather” on a quest to find “the center.” The only problem is she has no idea what that means, or that she’ll probably end up needing to save the world (dun dun dun!). And if you’re wondering why I said “Grandfather” in quotes, it’s because “Grandfather” is actually a giant lizard with trees growing out of his head. (I love this design so, so much—but please ignore the grainy, badly lit iPhone picture.)

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Oh, and Angora has the ability to control plants. They even live in her hair (which is why it’s green). On this page she wakes up on a previously dead stump, now covered in tiny new trees:

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(She also spends the entirety of the book naked, because why not.)

I love this story so much. ~*~*~(っ˘ω˘ς )~*~*~

I’ll be recommending this graphic novel up and down for the rest of my life. The gorgeous art, the lore, the cool powers (There’s a character with microwave hands. MICROWAVE HANDS.), the politics, the humor—everything just hits the sweet spot for me. (It doesn’t hurt that it reminds me so much of Avatar: The Last Airbender which will forever be one of my favorite shows.)

So yeah, take my word for it and go read this comic. This beautiful print edition includes the first three issues (introducing three of the main characters’ plot lines) but you can also read online for free HERE until volume 2 is published!

Review: The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

 

★★★★☆

I have a lot of books. Last I counted, it was nearly 250—and about 98% of these are Goodwill or secondhand finds. The problem with this is I’m a notorious procrastinator when it comes to reading the stuff on my shelves. With so many new, shiny books cominnew-policemang out constantly, and so many more popping up on my Goodreads suggestions, it’s hard to get around to actually reading the things I already own. Besides, what’s the harm in buying more books? So although I bought The New Policeman and its sequel, The Last of the High Kings about four or five years ago (purchased for probably a dollar or so each at a library book sale), they’ve ended up sitting on my shelf ever since. I was interested enough to buy it for a bargain, but I guess I couldn’t muster enough interest to put the time into reading the first one. Series are such a big time investment that I always hesitate to start.

Luckily, this year I decided on a new method of choosing my next book. Using a cute wooden bowl I found at Goodwill, I filled it with all the titles of the unread books on my shelves, so now whenever I’m ready to read a new book, I just mix the names around and pluck out my next book title.

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This method has worked so wonderfully and has actually gotten me to start reading some of the books I’ve either been hesitant to read or uncomfortable with for whatever reason—my next book, The Devil in the White City, is in a genre I’ve always been wary of: nonfiction. But because of this new method I’m going for it instead of opting for something more familiar, like YA fantasy (which, admittedly, I’m starting to detest).

Either way, I’m glad I finally got around to it! The New Policeman was a really fun middle grade novel set in Ireland, and it centers around a boy named J.J. who feels stretched too thin in a world where there is simply not enough time. (Obviously this main conflict makes it instantly relatable to basically any reader in the world.) So when another year rolls around and his mother is on the verge of celebrating yet another birthday, she wishes only for more time. When J.J. sets off on a mission to buy her some time, he soon discovers that the time from their world is leaking into Tír na n’Óg, the land of eternal youth, and he has to find a way to make it stop.

The book had a great balance of realism and fantasy, and it focused heavily on traditional Irish folklore, music, and dance. For people who can read music, the book includes after every chapter a short scrap of traditional Irish sheet music, so it might be fun to play along.

Overall I found this to be a wholesome middle grade book that shows the loving and trusting relationship between a mother and her son. This is one I’d suggest to any parents looking for reading material for their children, and especially any parents looking to introduce their children to Irish mythology or perhaps traditional Irish music. Even if you’re not Irish, this was simply a great, quick read with an interesting premise, and concise, effective writing that made me keep turning pages to solve the many mysteries. I’m definitely going to be reading the next two in the series!