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: 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: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnson

★☆☆☆☆

Ithousand-nights can count on one 6-fingered hand the number of 1-star ratings I’ve given (at least of the books I’ve rated):

  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman (although I may need to reread this now that I’m in the intended demographic)
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Choke by Chuck Palahnuik
  • The Maze Runner
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • Fifty Shades trilogy (which were mindless, stupid fun to read but awful in general)

And now this.

I considered giving it two, because it wasn’t awful, it was just ridiculously boring, but I really need to start being more harsh in my critiques and not rewarding mediocrity.

Basically, the story is a reimagining of A Thousand and One Nights, and centers around a girl (who is never given a name) who takes her sister’s place and weds an evil king. The king marries one bride from each village and they all die, normally after one night. But the girl lives and keeps on living, because she tells beautiful stories to her captor. Inspirational, right? It might have been, except literally this entire story is a slow, drawn out monologue on the boring parts of this character’s life, and she never actually got around to telling any of these beautiful, entrancing stories. To summarize, here are some things this character does:

  • Weaves things
  • Has dreams and visions that come true. Repeatedly. (The novelty of this wore off after the first time.)
  • Talks about her village
  • Remembers things about her village
  • Worries about her sister
  • Has her hair done
  • Talks about goats
  • Does some random, unexplained but super helpful magic (??)
  • Weaves some more

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And of course, there’s some intrigue mixed in to keep you reading: How did Lo-Melkhiin become possessed by this demon? Will he ever be free? How will the girl escape from him?

Listen, I love me some magical realism. It’s my thing. But if that magic isn’t ever explained, or if it has a really flimsy explanation, I’m instantly turned off. The girl gets her powers from the prayers of her people, who believe her to have become a smallgod. So when she weaves a tale, the tale comes true. It’s an interesting premise, but the execution was so slow and boring that I could not hold my interest for long. It took me like two weeks to finish this, which is ridiculous for a short, easy-to-digest YA book.

The girl is a good heroine, of course. She’s brave, she’s strong, she’s calm in the face of danger and fear, she sacrifices herself to save those she loves. And I think these qualities are some of the reasons this book has so many fans. But is a strong female character really enough to carry a book? I don’t think so. If it had been flipped and the protagonist were a young man, I have a feeling this book would have bored a lot of its readers. Simply the presence of a strong female character seems to be enough for some people, but it wasn’t for me. I was bored to tears.

Another issue for me is that I had figured a vast majority of my issues with this book would be explained in the sequel (which I’m not going to read), but apparently the sequel is set generations in the future. So all of those questions I had are probably never going to be answered. Maybe I missed something vital in the reading of this, but it was just incomprehensible for me.

Anyway, on to the next one. My next book for 2017 is The New Policeman by Kate Thompson! Check back for my review of that soon.