Juliet Takes a Breath

Juliet likes to fantasize while she’s on the metro, about a book. A book by white feminist icon Harlow Brisbane. Even as she’s learning how to tap into Brisbane’s ideas of feminine power, she’s struggling with admitting to her parents she identifies as a lesbian and, not just that, but she’s in love with another girl. After she lands an internship with Brisbane in Portland, she decides to come out to her family.

Now states away, Juliet must maneuver between new responsibilities, a long-distance relationship and a newly complicated relationship with her Puerto Rican family back in the Bronx. In many ways, Juliet Takes a Breath functions as an introduction to the intersections between race, gender, and sexuality. As Juliet confronts the harsh  unreliability of heroes, and impermanence of love; as she reconciles her understanding of how the world sees her with the reality, she must learn to cherish her own space, develop her voice and choose which relationships are worthwhile. Juliet’s journey to self-acceptance and understanding of the complexities of the world is not meant for the character alone. I suspect many young women will find Rivera’s book inspiring and self-affirming.

Roxane Gay said, in her review, she could have done without as much social science 101, and I agree. Adding to this, Rivera  relegated secondary characters to plot devices, another stepping stone in Juliet’s growth. These problems, combined with the dreaded telling instead of showing misstep, weighed the plot down. I recognize, however, that I am not the intended audience. Juliet Takes a Breath introduces various ideas and theories for young adults which they likely have not been exposed to– at least not in the way this book does. In that respect, the author’s choice makes sense and I think younger generations may see themselves in this book.

A Court of Thrones and Roses

A Court of Thorns and Roses suffered from problems similar to Throne of Glass. The characters had lackluster moments. the plot dragged in sections and some of the solutions to the main characters challenges felt too easy. Frankly, the last pages of the book saved it.  No one can deny that Sarah J. Maas write action well. Those scenes made the book worth while. They also, in part, explained why so many of the previous obstacles Feyre overcame were so simple. Part of me just felt relieved that the author explained it; the other part of me felt it didn’t completely excuse the ease with which Feyre did almost everything.

Plot & Writing: 

Gosh, like Throne of Glass there is so much wish fulfillment. The other characters love Feyre almost instantly, even though she killed their friend. This is given few sentences of explanation at the end, but Maas just doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s not enough. Moreover, the characters consistently give her information the moment she asks (this also functions as a not-so-well-hidden infodump). Maas justifies this in the end too, but she does not justify Feyre’s ability to use that information with relative ease. The tension leading up to the big bad was overshadowed by scenes where Feyre paints, and goes to rituals she’s been forbidden from, and dives into springs, and spends days ‘hunting’ (it is revealed she actually hates hunting). During those scenes, Feyre could have spent so much time using her smarts to figure out information she was freely given.
Simply put, the main character isn’t present for most of the real action in the book, and when she is the tension snaps because of her abilities or she is immediately saved and scolded for her foolishnees. In fact, Feyre hardly faces any true obstacles (no tragic backstory does not count) until the very end.

The end hinged on a   Feyre completing three tasks or answering a riddle. The riddle was painfully simple. Now, I could understand not being able to think straight because of the impending doom hanging over your head or, hey, not being able to remember the parts of the riddle (it was long!), but Maas didn’t try either of those explanations. No, she remembers it perfectly. She doesn’t struggle to think about it because of panic. She just can’t figure it out.  Nevertheless, the end highlights some of Feyre’s best qualities. She is truly resourceful, brave, even clever during the trials and I hope we see more of that Feyre in the second book.

Characters:

Sarah J. Maas’ biggest weakness lies in character development. She doesn’t leave enough crumbs to lead the reader through their development. They, therefore, feel like they have flipped personalities or shed some of what made them essential. Characters almost never feel more than one thing in any moment. Either they hate someone or they love someone.

Tamlin, the beast, wasn’t convincing. A few growls and random attacks do not a beast make. His erratic behavior is not explained until the end and, indeed, it hardly registers with the other characters at all.  Except for Feyre, but I’m not sure her reactions are much better. She oscillates between fear and love and anger and sympathy, but not in a convincing way.  Much of her fear is derived from thinking about how powerful her captor is.  Maas’ chosen method of bringing the characters closer is for Tamlin to reveal his tragic past.

Like others have noted, Feyre is presented as a strategic thinker, but this is undercut by some of her more foolish choices and the ease with which she achieves everything. Again, telling us characters are complex because of something in their past does not actually make them so. The author must demonstrate it.

There were several moments when I wanted to shout where is your editor. Many of  the characters surrounding Feyre functioned to prop her up. Her sister’s behavior emphasizes Feyre’s strength and virtue. Lucien’s behavior underscores Feyre’s own witty remarks. Maas uses Alis to demonstrate her selflessness. Some of them get extra layers slapped onto them at the end, but I struggled to hold on to those layers because the sudden addition felt jarring.

A final character introduced in the end, of the bad-boy archetype variety, offers some of the complexity many of the other characters are sorely missing.  Unfortunately, Feyre’s reaction to some of his more questionable decisions is steeped in the same inconsistency and development problems as before.  Like Tamlin, this character’s worst actions are excused In Feyre’s mind because of his intentions.  I’m not buying it.

The strength of this book should have its foundations in the romance– after all it is sold as a romance book– yet, I felt next to nothing about the main pair.

I have heard the next book improves upon these problems a great deal, but I’m not sure if I’ll pick it up.

Review: The Underground RailRoad

Colson Whitehead’s novel the Underground Railroad relays the story of a Cora, a slave whose mother is purported to be the first and only slave who escaped to freedom on her plantation. This legacy follows Cora for the entire novel and in some ways is the reason for her escape and for her troubles on the Underground Railroad. Unlike other novels tackling this subject matter, the Underground Railroad is not a network of people hiding behind code words– though the author does include a clever reference to towards the end of the book– but an actual, literal railroad. The consequences of this switch from information network to physical path crop up from time to time throughout the novel. At times, they allow him to switch the focus from Cora’s escape to the culture that pervaded the United States at the time.

Whiteheads’ recount of pre-civil war America is blunt, unwavering and, perhaps, even cynical. This cynicism is most memorably  captured in his motif of darkness. In the beginning of the novel one of the conductors of the railroad tells Cora “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” It is only later that Cora realizes , through riding rails again and again that the true face of America is the darkness inside them.

As Cora continues her journey North, her understanding that “one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality” is only reinforced. The myth of the North outshines its reality. Even characters’ who help Cora have their vices laid bare: perhaps they envision themselves the white savior of what they call a ‘lesser people’; perhaps they  are cowards; perhaps they desire too much, too fast; perhaps they don’t fight at all.

He does sprinkle strands of hope through the novel. They are often shredded, sometimes even moments after they are delivered. This leads the reader to guard their hope and tamp it down, much like the main character of the novel. I cannot truthfully say that this novel was a hopeful one and I’m not sure I could use the word “enjoy” to describe my experience with this novel. Nevertheless, I recommend it. It is skillfully written.


Plot: 

I actually gasped, exclaimed even, during some parts of the book. Whitehead plays with the readers desire for the main characters’ success. He lulls you into a calm, albeit a tense one, then wrenches any security you felt away from you. In terms of building suspense, Whitehead succeeded, I hovered between anxious and horrified through the entirety of the novel with only one moment of true calm.

The structure of the novel may bother some as he jumps between characters and moves back and forth in time, but it never seemed he did so without reason. In fact, he would often add a new character chapter right before an important event. For someone who is often a character-driven, world-driven reader, this technique worked well for me.

Characters:

Don’t be fooled by the back flap description, there is only one true main character in this story: Cora.  Some have complained that the style of writing, coupled with Cora’s reactions to obstacles, hardships and tragedies, removed them from the story. They  felt unable to sympathize with Cora’s plight because she– or the narrator–  relays events in a distant manner. While I understand their perspective, I didn’t feel bothered by this. On the contrary, I found her reactions realistic and varied. For me, Cora is sustained by a mix of defiance, resilience, bitterness,  regret, desperation, and hope.  Her perceived stoniness is a result of the atrocities she has bore and witness, but it is not all she is.

The villain, Ridgeway, is not the typical story villain. He is to “return escaped slaves”  through a much more sinister form of hatred and racism.  His belief in the order of the world is an almost effortless, lazy acceptance that slavery exists for a reason and the “institution” was infallible. To be sure, Ridgeway hates a number of plantation owners and is disgusted with them. He is aware of the cruelty, he recognizes it and he participates in it. His conversations with Cora are underlined by the specter of “practicality”. He admits the system is cruel, but he actively benefits from it. This, for me at least, was what made him the more terrifying villain. That he found atrocities an acceptable method to achieve personal goals, that he was clever enough to understand it and to find ways to benefit from it. Ultimately, it is his pride that leads to his obsession with Cora not  his desire to protect a system.

A note on other reviews I’ve read: 

Sorry, this is something that has annoyed me about some other reader reviews I’ve read. They have claimed that particular scenes where in black bodies are harmed by doctors  are inaccurate; that they have no basis in history. In fact, they are not inaccurate. Perhaps you could argue they are anachronistic– I’ve only read accounts occurring after the time period the story is written in– but you can not argue that comparable things never happened to black people in the U.S..

Makin’ a Plan

So, I’m doing a TBR list. We will see how laughable this decision is next month when I discover how closely I followed my plan. I am very much a book flitter;I flit between books. Plans do not work for a free soul like me. Actually, plans are the only thing that get me through most days, but let’s ignore that.

  1. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas16096824

Back in the Fictionpress days (Fictionpress still exists, Leah), I used to  take twenty minutes of our precious dial up diligently loading new chapters from an epic, sprawling novel called Queen of Glass. Later that novel I adored so much became Throne of Glass, and the sequels. To my disappointment, I felt less than enamored with it.  I expected a grand adventure, what I got was mainly a romance. Now that I’ve readjusted my expectations, I am willing to give Maas a second chance.

2. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

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People have described this book as one of the most positive of 2016 and, let’s be real, after the year we’ve had, we all need a little bit of positivity.

The main character, Juliet, has recently moved away from home after telling her parents she’s a lesbian.  Now  in Oregon, she’s landed her dream summer internship, but she still hasn’t figured out how different parts of her identity– Puerto Rican, Lesbian, undoubtedly other elements I don’t know about yet because I haven’t read the book— fit together.

3.  White Rose: Munich 1942-1943 by Inge Scholl
The White Rose

The White  Rose was an underground organization in Munich, comprised of students and professors, dedicated to opposing Hitler’s fascist regime and the atrocities committed under him.

Now the sister of two of its founders has compiled letters, flyers and stories into this volume to preserve an account of courage in the face of  horror.

History, for me, has always been a collection of stories and I’m hoping to spend more time this year learning them.

4. Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee 

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1849. A young girl dreams of going to New York to become a musician. But life doesn’t afford many opportunities for Samantha, a Chinese girl, living in Missouri. Samantha discovers how many difficulties society can erect after the tragic loss of her father. Now in danger, she is forced to flee. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, she leaves Missouri behind. The two invent new identities, Sammy and Andy, and head west for the gold rush. On the run from the law, the two form a deep bond.

Stacey Lee, one of the founders of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, debuted with this book  two years ago. I’m only catching up now.

5. Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco 30095464

Oh, come on, you didn’t seriously think I would only read one fantasy this
month? Fantasy will almost always be my #1

A witch. A war. A  world on the line. Tea is born special in a world full of witches. While
others might control the Air or the Water, Tea can control the dead themselves. This makes her feared but also powerful. Now with the eight kingdoms on the edge of war,  Tea must hone her skills to defend her family and her home.

Mixed reviews on this one, but the concept is just so intriguing. This one will be released this month so it depends entirely on my ability to get it from, y’know, another country.

Wow I should write blurbs. Just kidding 

And that’s it for this month! What are y’all planning on reading? Tell mmmeeeeeee. Or don’t, I get it. (But actually, do, please )

Everything Everything

I’ll admit it. I picked up Everything , Everything after watching the trailer with Amandla Stenberg. I am not ashamed.I listened to the full audiobook in about a day. This meant I missed some of the graphics and added art, but I console myself with the amazing reading by Bahni Turpin.

Being someone who does not read contemporary often, I had no expectations but, in spite of some of its problems, I enjoyed it.

Madeline, Maddy really, owes her life to HEPA filters, decontamination rooms, her nurse and her mother, the doctor, who helped diagnose her with Severe combined immunodeficiency or SCID. For much of her life she is content with her books, architecture classes and games of honor pictionary with her mother. Then a boy moves across the street.

Nicola Yoon penned some memorable moments and charmed me with her main character. Maddy’s voice is so pleasant to read  listen to that I didn’t even mind when her and the boy’s, Olly, relationship teetered toward the border of instalove.

Everything Everything has been heralded by some as one of the best reads for representation of biracial characters (Madeline).  Madeline’s race is neither ignored/tokenized nor is it made her most defining feature. On the other hand, Yoon’s plot choices and those choices effects have been sharply criticized by some who face similar health challenges (spoilers on this site).

Yoon tried to tackle some pretty big themes in Everything Everything, and how these themes are handled are usually front and center of the criticisms. The book after Olly revolves around Maddy’s internal conflict, namely the choice between risking her life and living a life full of wanting to do things she cannot. The post-Olly part of the book is scattered with quotes like:  “Just because you can’t experience everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experience anything.”  and You’re not living if you’re not regretting.” and “I was happy before I met him. But I’m alive now, and those are not the same thing.”  or even “There’s more to life than being alive.” Yoon wrote so many lines like that I felt as if she reached her hand out and pasted “grow and live” across my forehead. It is fortunate, for most of the book, that these are only scattered and Yoon has a number of other strong lines and quirky moments that are classic contemporary YA. What is unfortunate is the message she spent so long constructing, the internal struggle Maddy spends most of the book struggling with, is perhaps a little cheapened by the end.

 

 

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3.5 stars to Uprooted by Naomi Novik


Uprooted
is an award winning stand alone fairy tale influenced fantasy novel by Naomi Novik. The story centers on a small village on the edge of an encroaching malevolent wood.  The villagers lived by three rules: Don’t go in the wood, kill those who do before they kill you and, when it gets bad, send for the Dragon.
The Dragon, a cold, distant figure, had lorded over their village for centuries. Though he protected them from the wood, the villagers did not love him. Every ten years he asked only one thing of them: a girl. Every ten years, they obeyed. After ten years, he would release her from the tower, changed.
Agnieszka has grown up knowing her best friend, Kasia, will be chosen by the Dragon. Good, kind, brave Kasia would disappear to the tower and, after she is freed, leave the village for adventure.
The day of the choosing arrives and Agnieszka discovers she was wrong.I’d recommend Uprooted for lovers of fairy tales and classic fantasy.

Plot:
The plot over all was well-structured; the reader could trace almost each event to a clear cause. In other words, the plot made sense. Some have complained that it followed too tried and true a fairy-tale formula; however, I disagreed. The writer noted that the story was influenced by the Polish fairy tales her grandmother told her when she was young, but Uprooted still felt original. It mixed cozy nostalgia, a creep-crawling villain, tragedy and redemption. Most of all, however, Uprooted was a tale of friendship and bravery.
There were a few moments where the story faltered– the world slipped or the character’s relationships felt strained, a scene went on too long– but, overall, I really enjoyed this story.

 World and Writing:

The rules of the world were, mostly, consistent. Naomi Novik’s writing shone the most in this section. The wood felt spine-tinglingly creepy.The wood had a darkness which added a dark undertone reminiscent of Grimm’s fairy tales. And, following in true fairy tale form, The Wood had a lesson; the story a moral.

Characters:

My main complaint with Uprooted lied with Agnieszka’s relationship with the Dragon. Here, the Beauty and the Beast influences were most evident; however, the transition felt much less believable. More on that can be found in the spoiler section.

On the other hand, one of the highlights of the book was Agnieszka’s relationship with her best friend, Kasia. The support they show for each other and the unshakeable bond between them is something I’ve sorely missed in other fantasy novels. Honestly, I would have been more than satisfied if the book focused more on their relationship instead of Agnieszka and the Dragon’s.

Continue reading 3.5 stars to Uprooted by Naomi Novik

New Favorite!: Crooked Kingdom

I was going to call this a review, but let’s be real here, this is pretty much a fan-girl moment.

Without giving away any spoilers to Six of Crows (if you haven’t read SoC, YOU SHOULD!!!!) Six of Crows went broad, Crooked Kingdom went deep. Not only did Bardugo amplify the characters’ internal lives and dilemmas but she also delved deep even deeper into the setting– Ketterdam, a city filled with inequity, crime and cash.

Plot

Kaz Brekker and his crew return for another daring heist with bigger stakes, fewer resources. But this time, the consequences of their failure dwarf lost funds and reputation. Turns of events and shifting alliances foil the Crew’s best laid plans  time and time again even as time is running out.

Characters & Themes:

Bardugo’s efforts to  create characters with depth is even more apparent in Crooked Kingdom. While Six of Crows introduced several distinctive  characters and hinted at their backstory, the book overall still felt more like a high-stakes heist novel. Though each character had different motivations for joining the crew, and different roles, the members depended upon one another mainly to reach their goal.

Crooked Kingdom, in contrast, focused more on friendships and personal relationships within the crew. The arc of the story depended more on character’s moments of introspection. This, for me, made Crooked Kingdom a perfect companion for Six of Crows. Bardugo didn’t simply jot down another heist novel (though one could hardly “jot down” a novel that requires as much planning as a heist). No, she introduced new themes, changed the dynamics within the crew, and added history to better frame  character’s motivations and development. These moments of vulnerability and self-doubt; of epiphanies and  acceptance; of fear and hope strengthened the relationships forged in Six of Crows.

Fear– its presence and overcoming it– was an undeniable theme in this book, as was sacrifice, both for the greater good and as a result of change. Each character had to confront their past and present fears or prejudices in the course of the book. They all needed rediscover or choose what defined in order for the crew to succeed.
While  Bardugo pulled the world and characters of Crooked Kingdom from her imagination, the lessons, dilemmas and themes in this story echo those found in modern events in our own world. This book reminded me of the power of stories to reflect humanity in  all of its complexity and to push us in the real world to question our situation and our society.

To put it plainly: I adore this story. I love the characters. Their interactions with each other, and with their world, felt authentic and genuine. I haven’t cried upon finishing a book in years, but I cried at the end of this one.

On top of all this, Leigh Bardugo seems like an amazing human.Loving art is made so much easier when the artist is a decent human being.  I give myself three months before I re-read the books. I fully expect to cry again.

For a more in depth Book discussion– fraught with spoilers– check back here next week!

BUT ALSO, SERIOUSLY, READ THIS BOOK. THEN FAN-GIRL WITH ME IN THE COMMENTS. If you wanna, or whatever, I mean.