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.

Advertisements

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 10.00.25 AM.png

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.

crookedkingdom.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 11.54.12 AM

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.

 

kaz.png

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: 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.

Screen Shot 2017-01-21 at 5.38.45 PM.png

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!

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: City of Thieves by David Benioff

★★★★★

This is one of those books that isn’t going to be a life-long favorite or one I remember forever, but it’s one that easily earns five stars in every other department. Based on a true story of the author’s grandfather’s late teen years, City of Thieves depicts the Siege of Leningrad, and the mission that two young men go on to find the holy grail: one dozen eggs for a wedding cake. It’s this slightly ridiculous plot, set in a starving, war-torn city, that sets the tone for the entire novel. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s moving in such a way that your heart hurts but tears don’t come to your eyes.cityofthieves

The author doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific aspects of the war and its effects on families and individuals—starvation, cannibalism, rape, murder—but quickly bounces back with raw levity. This back and forth doesn’t feel forced or erase or diminish the sadness of the story, but shows the reality of life at this time in history: the people of Leningrad survived, and they survived by making do.

Despite the content, the way it’s written makes it feel jolly, almost like a (very dark) fairy tale or fable. Lev Beniov, the quiet, careful main character, is such a good kid that you can’t help but root for him as he falls in love with every girl he sees (until he lands on “the one”). Kolya, who was my favorite character, supplied the comedic relief, making me laugh out loud more than once with his bawdy pointers for Lev (and his unwarranted gastrointestinal updates: “You know I haven’t had a shit in nine days?”). The slow build of their friendship was heartwarming to watch and provided the book with a consistent undercurrent of love.

This fine balance between humor and war was what made City of Thieves a great book, as Benioff took the horror of war and masterfully flipped it on its head to show the goodness simmering underneath.

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.