A book you could finish in a day

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“Have been unavoidably detained by the world. Expect us when you see us.”

-Neil Gaiman, “Stardust”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 4

Gaiman is one of my best friend’s favorite authors, and I have been quite a delinquent friend in not reading him sooner. When she hooked into my family’s monthly book club recently this was her first pick and it did not disappoint! Bonus points that it’s the first book everyone finished in its entirety in about two years. I’m being a bit generous with the category here because I technically did not read it in a day.. but I did read 80% of the book in 24 hours (including plowing through the last 100 pages in the hour and a half immediately before book club), so we’re going to rock letter of the law here with “could” finish in a day.

Stardust is the story of a young man named Tristan Thorn who lives in the town of Wall in Victorian England. On the edge of the town is, you guessed it.. a wall. Through a small hole in the wall is the passage to the land of Faerie. Every 9 years the villagers of Wall (and travelers near and far) are allowed to gather for a festival in the meadow just beyond the wall and purchase food and goods from the merchants of Faerie. In an effort to impress the most beautiful girl in town, Tristan offers to go to Faerie one night after the festival to bring her back a fallen star.

(In my best Stefon impression) Witches, pirate ships, ghosts.. this book has everything. It’s like the style of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy meets a fantasy world like Alice in Wonderland. The world Gaiman creates is imaginative and cheeky. I especially liked the little details, like that the conversations of the ghosts of dead brothers (who have all killed each other vying for the crown) sound like leaves rustling to the living. There’s a love story that runs throughout the book, and dare I say, it might be one of my favorite literary romances. No love at first sight, no I’m attracted to you and don’t know a damn thing about you.. rather, it’s a slow building trust and an epic adventure. As true love should be.

I tend to be attracted to books where the plot serves as a greater commentary. The first 50 pages felt slow and I found myself frustrated with the story (it’s just a weird interesting place with weird interesting people?) but I slowly came around to wanting to read every Gaiman book that exists. There is a kind of simple charm and sarcasm that I had somehow stopped pursuing in my reading habits that I was happy to re-discover with Stardust. Next on my list is Graveyard Book and probably my own Gaiman obsession will follow soon thereafter.

A book based on a fairy tale

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It’s important to accessorize properly while reading..

“So you would have me throw Shazi to the wolves?”
“Shazi?” Jalal’s grin widened. “Honestly, I pity the wolves.”

-Renee Ahdieh, “The Wrath and the Dawn”

Rating: 3.75 stars
Days to read: 5

I first received this book as part of my Uppercase Box subscription many months ago (hence the cute matching scarf!) but finally got around to reading it just this month.. which is a complete shame, because I’ve liked all this girl‘s picks! It was a perfect fit for this category and I already owned it, making it a win/win on my goal of getting through the year only on books I can borrow or already own.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a re-imagined One Thousand and One Nights. In Khorasan, each new bride taken by Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, is strangled at dawn after their wedding night. Dozens of girls have been murdered. The latest victim is Shahrzad’s best friend, and she decides to volunteer to be Khalid’s next wife with the sole plan of murdering him in revenge for killing her best friend. She does so of course without consulting anyone in her life, least of all her father (who is still grieving over his wife’s passing many years ago) or the boy she loves. This is incredibly dumb but I’m willing to suspend some disbelief for love of a best friend. She manages to survive the first night by telling an intriguing story about a thief who gets lost at sea, stopping right at a cliffhanger. Khalid is interested enough to let her live to the second night. In addition to Khalid, most of the staff at the palace seem thoroughly taken by Shazi and genuinely care for her. She has an incredible wit and a lot of tenacity. I particularly loved the back and forth with her handmaid and the unlikely friendship they forge.

Eventually Shazi begins to see a little more to Khalid than a completely evil monster, and she finds her resolve to kill him wavering. This would less infuriating if it was not so strongly tied to being incredibly attracted to Khalid as well. Girl, you have been there for less than a week and you already want a makeout sesh with the guy who murdered your best friend? Sounds like a great idea. For a character we are continually told is a complete force of nature and the definition of a strong, independent woman, this part of the plot felt lame. Meanwhile, Shazi’s father and childhood friends are running around trying to literally start a war to get her back. For someone stubborn enough to walk into a near death trap to avenge her best friend, her surrender is maddeningly premature.  The attraction precedes most of the glimpses of understanding she gets about his true character, which would have been so much more powerful the other way around. Over time though they have misunderstandings, frustrations, and moments of true friendship, which slowly redeemed the book for me.

After much prodding, Shazi finally learns the secret Khalid has been hiding from her. She sees his predicament and his guilt for what he’s done, and she comes full circle to loving him in full and all his flaws. I have mixed feelings about this because I think the ‘I’m attracted to you because you’re broken’ deal is overplayed and is often a really unhealthy foundation for a relationship in YA literature (and life). However, there are some really beautiful passages about the power of forgiveness and mercy and needing the company of others to understand yourself as a person which I really enjoyed.

The Wrath and the Dawn is part one of a duology (are single book stories outlawed in YA fantasy literature? Did I miss a memo?) but it sets up its successor quite well for some great action. With the coming war Shazi’s friends and family make an unfortunate ally out of what they think is a shared enemy. Despite my protests to some aspects of Shazi and Khalid’s relationship, the world Ahdieh sets up is beautifully described (make sure you’re well fed when you sit down to read this, the descriptions of the food alone are to die for and rival watching Food Network at midnight) and I found the tension of the brewing war and nuanced politics genuinely interesting to watch evolve. The Rose and the Dagger is due in May and I’d be lying if I said I won’t try to scoop it up soon thereafter.

A dystopian novel

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

-Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

Rating: 3.5 stars
Days to read: 8

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to cling to YA in many of my book selections. For this category I specifically wanted to avoid YA, because as much as I loved Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner, I need to branch out a bit. When I was researching possible selections for this category I came across Brave New World, and it dawned on me that this is a classic that I really should have read a long time ago. Being a product of the International Baccalaureate program, a lot of my high school reading lists concentrated on translated works (no complaints here– it was great exposure to a world of literature!), so it wasn’t really on my radar until college. I think it’s really important to read the classics and I’m glad I did, but I don’t think this book will crack my list of favorites.

The story begins at a Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in central London in the future where we follow a tour of the facility with a group of young boys. In the future children are no longer born but rather ‘decanted’. We have apparently learned so much about development that the entire process proceeds from start to finish in a lab. People can be created by the thousands, often in identical batches. Not only can humans be created, they are tailored for designated social castes. For example, Epsilons are purposefully deprived of oxygen to their brains for a brief period of time, making them ‘well suited’ to the mundane labor jobs to which they will be assigned later in life. These descriptions are enough to send chills up your spine. As a scientist, there are times I think we fail to think about whether or not we should create a technology, only if and how we can. Because of these technologies and the control they allow society, words like ‘mother’ become dirty.

Most of what shapes society in Brave New World is indeed built around convenience and carefree living as the supreme goal. Solitary pursuits, including reading, are discouraged as they tend to take away from time people spend money on entertainment and material things. The majority of the plot revolves around two characters. Bernard, an Alpha, is a bit shorter than the rest of his caste (rumor has it there was some alcohol in his ‘blood surrogate’) but perhaps because of this he is naturally a bit more secluded from the rest of society in a quite unorthodox manner. He doesn’t get the same enjoyment as everyone else from mindless consumption of material goods. He also doesn’t rely on soma, a drug that provides a hangover free mental retreat and is poised as a cure all for any negative feelings. This relative social isolation provides the substrate for the beginnings of the realization that this consumerist world is not quite as fulfilling as it could be and he seems at first to escape the mindless conditioning that rules society. On the other hand, Lenina (a Beta) is interested in Bernard but confused by his continual refusal of her advances. She is the ultimate product of of her environment– completely unquestioning, content with the world she has been designed for, and troubled by Bernard’s unorthodox comments.

Through a series of events Bernard and Lenina take a vacation to one of the ‘savage’ reservations still left in America. Certain areas of land have been designated as almost a living museum to the “old ways” where people are allowed to live in something that vaguely resembles our current world. People age naturally, procreate naturally, and they follow a bit of a weird mix of all the world religions as one. During this trip Bernard finds Linda, a Beta who used to live in London but became lost on the reservation during a trip there many years ago and was abandoned. While she was abandoned she gave birth to John, who was actually fathered by the director of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in Central London.

Linda and John come back to London with Bernard and Lenina. John provides a little bit of political cover for Bernard spouting his unorthodox views (especially as it ‘outs’ the director for having fathered a child), and John becomes a spectacle for people to meet and comment on. Not surprisingly John becomes tired of being a tool for Bernard and is increasingly frustrated at the strange ways of the ‘new world’ (especially the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else”). Eventually John lives on his own in a remote cabin without the luxuries of the new world but he is still an object of intense fascination and bullying from people.

Although the plot felt a bit stilted and meandering, I found the theme of forgoing truth for happiness to be incredibly fascinating. In essence, if we want to know truth and grapple with it then we will know suffering as well. We could numb the suffering but that requires numbing truth, and the World Controllers in Brave New World know this and have explicitly chosen to do so as the greater good. Of course, the happiness that results in this scenario is false or at least incredibly shallow. There is something deeply satisfying about stumbling (and I truly mean stumbling) to figure something out your own way– it’s hard and it’s messy but you learn in a profound way so much about yourself and about the world. Convenience, for all its glory, can never give you this. One of my chief frustrations was that Bernard at times felt so close to grasping this concept but was more concerned with flaunting the superiority if his unique intellect and ideas rather than truly wanting truth. This perhaps is a fascinating warning in itself, that our intellectual pursuits can either truly be ordered towards pursuing truth or a false cover for our own ego.

Like 1984Brave New World is one of those books everyone needs to read for the sole reason that history repeats itself. It was written in 1932 but might be even more applicable now that our technologies are even closer to the fantasy world described in the book. The intersection of happiness, truth, consumerism, and mass culture is an interesting and worthwhile examination.

A book that’s becoming a movie this year

“…so one day my mother sat me down and explained that I couldn’t become an explorer because everything in the world had already been discovered. I’d been born in the wrong century, and I felt cheated.”

-Ransom Riggs, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 4

Part of my attraction to the POPSUGAR Book Challenge was that I tend to read heavily from two genres: young adult fiction, and sci-fi/fantasy (combine the two? I’m in book nerd heaven). The list forces me to pull from other genres, and often researching what book I want to fill a particular category has been half the fun. I started looking up movies coming out in 2016 at the end of 2015 and found a lot of really great options. Of course without trying what do I get for my first book of the year? A fantasy young adult novel. Go me. However, one thing that I loved about this book was that it avoids many of the current YA tropes. No dystopian future, no love triangle (ok, maybe a tiny bit, but no cries of TWO HANDSOME SWEET GUYS LOVE ME WHATEVER SHALL I DO BESIDES WALLOW IN INDECISIVENESS FOR 3 BOOKS?!), and no whiny over the top teenage angst. The book angels sing hallelujah.

Without realizing that this book is actually part 1 of a trilogy, I really enjoyed that Riggs takes a long time setting the scene with Jacob’s character and his world. Jacob is in many ways a quite ordinary teen but thankfully Riggs allows us to explore a part of his life that does not solely revolve around budding romantic feelings and the accompanying misadventures. He feels burdened by his seemingly ordinary life and longs for the extraordinary. For the longest time I wasn’t completely sure that the book was a fantasy novel (is his granddad crazy? Does he really see monsters?) and I think therein lies the beauty of Riggs’s storytelling. We have to learn, with Jacob, whether or not to trust his granddad’s crazy stories. Once Jacob finds a way to visit the orphanage in Wales where his grandfather grew up, I felt with his character the anxious desire to explore and discover and break from the ordinary.

At a certain point in a reader’s life you begin to feel like many stories are just versions of each other. We love those stories though, and so we keep reading and enjoy each new take. In many ways this book seemed new (see lack of YA tropes above), mostly because I really loved the time travel loop that governs the orphanage and the ongoing battle between hollowgasts and the ymbrynes. Of course, the structure of the book can be well placed within a more general narrative arc as with any fiction work, but this particular showdown between good and evil (especially the desire for power and immortality) feels fresh. I can’t wait to learn more about the hollowgasts and watch Jacob’s character transform through the adventure.

My one reservation is that I’m not sure what to make of Jacob falling in love with his grandfather’s old flame… it feels like a plot element you’d find in a Palahniuk novel (see: Rant). Throughout this first book their interactions have been fairly tame and Jacob and Emma seem to be slowly processing the complicated (understatement) feelings they have. I’m slightly wary of this subplot becoming a large portion of the narrative but hoping the main focus will remain Jacob’s development as he takes on the responsibility of a dangerous but exciting mission. The movie is scheduled for a Christmas release and although I’m happy to have imagined everything on my own first as a reader, I’m really looking forward to experiencing this world through Tim Burton’s eyes.