A book based on a fairy tale

Photo on 2-28-16 at 8.38 PM #2

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.

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A YA bestseller

“When did we see each other face to face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade, but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”

-John Green, “Paper Towns”

Rating: 3 stars
Days to read: 3

It should be no surprise that one of the categories I checked off first was a YA novel (any good suggestions for ‘a book that takes place on an island’? I have a feeling this will be the last one I get to!). I loved A Fault in Our Stars in so many ways and was excited to explore the rest of John Green’s work. Teenage angst is such a universal and relatable theme but it tends to feel stale and overdone in most writers’ hands, and I felt like TFiOS captured so much without falling into many predictable character black holes that plague a lot of other YA work. In passing I’d seen trailers for the movie adaptation of Paper Towns, so I used that as a pseudo-endorsement that this might be another great story.

At the end of his senior year of high school, Quentin is taken on a wild, one night adventure with literally the girl next door, Margo Roth Spiegelman (the number of names you use for a person is correlated with your love for them, clearly), a girl with whom he has been infatuated with since childhood. There were many things I liked about Margo; she is a force to be reckoned with, she seems aware of the temporary nature of high school and its dynamics, and for the most part she rises above being motivated by the approval of her peers. Her function in the story, though, is to be a distant but dizzying mystery to Quentin (and thus, the reader), that of course in turn requires an epic obsession. After their one night adventure, Margo disappears and Quentin embarks on his own adventure to find her, sometimes enlisting his friends in various capacities and who are often nonplussed at Quentin’s devotion to solving the mystery of Margo’s disappearance.

In the end, when Quentin finds Margo through a series of both intended and unintended clues on Margo’s part, the result is anti-climatic. This is in many ways purposeful on Green’s part– Quentin has built up Margo and what might come after finding her, and he’s let down by reality. In that sense the ending is really quite fitting, but I felt frustrated by the pace that the adventure unfolded. At first when Quentin is going from clue to clue, I waited in suspense as he struggled to decipher the meaning of each clue and often went through several rounds of failed attempts before being able to continue. The final road trip felt frantic though, as if the plot just needed to be wrapped up and it was time to call it a day. Instead of building suspense I felt like I still had no idea where the plot was going, we were just going a lot quicker.

In a discussion with my little sister I brought up that one of my chief frustrations with the book is that I’ve become incredibly weary of the manic pixie dream girl. Female protagonists/main characters become relegated to some ethereal mystery status that is revered but results in extremely shallow character development. We allow ourselves to go no deeper than scratching the surface of a person, as long as that surface is really pretty and fun to think about. My sister argued that the point of this book is the deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl. Indeed, I did enjoy Green’s exploration of how the way we see each other and even ourselves is wrapped up in our ideas of each other almost more so than the actual person (for a beautiful exploration of this as it pertains to missing loved ones who have passed, read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis). It is not until these ideas are cracked that we truly can connect with one another; almost ironically it is sharing brokenness that forges bonds. In Green’s hands this topic was beautifully done and without boring platitudes, and for me these passages were the highlight of the book, especially the imagery with cracked vessels and internal “strings” that cross within ourselves and between each other.

Would I still read another John Green novel? In a heartbeat. There’s a lot to take away from this book even if it wasn’t my favorite. It’s hard not to stay endeared to a fellow nerd.

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.