[Now I Rise: The Conqueror’s Saga II] Kiersten White

This review contains some minor spoilers for the first novel in The Conqueror’s Saga. This review is also long because I loved this book so much.

One of my minor complaints about And I Darken (the first in the series) was that it got a little long purely because there’s a lot of unfamiliar names, places, and events that I had to first get through in order to get to the story. That was not the case with the second novel. Now I Rise benefits from the world building that was done in the first novel and further expands on locations that had smaller parts in the first novel. It balances character growth with action, creating a thrilling story that had me questioning characters’ motives. It is a a great continuation of a series that is set in a historical context that is real, yet also genderbends a historical figure. It made me more excited about a series that I already loved.

Lada and Radu burst back onto the scene shortly after where And I Darken left them. Radu remains in the Ottoman Empire, and Lada is trying to regain what she believes is rightfully hers: Wallachia. They’ve taken different paths that are still connected to each other, but Radu uses gilded words and Lada uses cold steel. Mehmed remains, but Now I Rise quickly becomes about Lada and Radu. Mehmed takes on a role in the background but occasionally comes back to interact with our main characters. And even when he’s not physically there, both Radu and Lada often think about him. Sometimes he still affects how they act, but gradually that changes.

Shortly into the novel Radu is sent to Constantinople to act as a spy for Mehmed. Although he has quite a bit of worries about going there, he follows Mehmed’s orders because he loves him. In the first novel, Radu learns how to use his skills to further Mehmed and through close proximity, himself. He is very charismatic, and it was interesting to read how he grew into it in And I Darken. This novel finds Radu questioning much of what he believes and who he believes in. Radu is semi-stranded in Constantinople for months. At first, he eagerly awaits a war that he knows is coming, playing his role as defector to the Christians as he secretly plots to bring Constantinople down. The longer he stays in Constantinople, however,  the more he questions the motives of Mehmed and what he’s doing.

He had imagined Constantinople, had wanted it for Mehmed. It had been simple and straightforward. But now he knew the true cost of things, the murky horrors of the distance between wanting something and getting it.*

Radu is becoming a part of Constantinople and being accepted by people there, but he knows that he ultimately will betray them. It begins to wear on him. Reading this expanded his character in a new direction that was so raw I was heartbroken for him. While this series does tend to focus more on Lada as the female Vlad, I feel that Radu has the greater emotional response in Now I Rise.

Radu had seen what it took to be great, and he never again wanted to be part of something bigger than himself.*

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[Aftercare Instructions] Bonnie Pipkin

Ever since the death of her father, Genesis has had to take on more than the average seventeen-about-to-turn-eighteen girl should have to. When her mother fell into a depression after her father’s death, Genesis took on the responsibility of taking care of her family. She can’t just leave her mother to her grief. But then Genesis gets pregnant. It’s not how she expected her year to go–pregnancy in high school was never her plan. She and her boyfriend, Peter, decide that getting an abortion is the only option for them because they’re seventeen and not ready for a child. After the procedure, Genesis expects to find her boyfriend waiting for her in the lobby of the Planned Parenthood. Instead she discovers that Peter abandoned her there. She’s alone. It’s something that she hasn’t really addressed before.

The girl and her escort have the same wild hair and deep-set eyes. This has to be her mother, and I try to imagine my own mother helping me out, escorting me. But I can’t conjure the faintest image of this. Not anymore.*

What follows is a heartfelt exploration of first loves, friendship, and understanding that your–and others’–actions may not be so black and white.

While Aftercare Instructions puts an abortion at the forefront of the novel–and indeed the opening scene takes place at the clinic–it’s very decisively after: it focuses on what Genesis is going through after the abortion and after the realization that her boyfriend has abandoned her. She needs to learn how to move on from both events and figure out how they’re going to change her. Genesis doesn’t always address everything, but since the chapter titles deal with aftercare and details about what your body goes through after an abortion, the reader is constantly reminded of where the novel started and what Genesis will eventually have to come to terms with.

I thought that Bonnie Pipkin did a good job of showing Genesis’ processing; she goes through an array of emotions from betrayal, to second guessing, to wanting to forget, all while trying to hold herself and her family together. She’s very much a girl who thinks that she has to keep it to herself to protect others, even her best friend. I think there’s an important release when she’s able to confide in others. I also think it’s equally important that she wasn’t shamed for having an abortion. Instead we were shown female relationships where there was only concern.

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[Patchwork] Karsten Knight

Patchwork is said to be like several popular young adult novels, which is something that often bothers me. I feel that it can set up the book to be a failure if it doesn’t meet my expectations–made higher by people touting it as the next Game of Thrones or Gone Girl. It may perhaps be lucky that I haven’t read any of the books that this one is said to be similar to, because for once I don’t have that complaint. In Patchwork, Karsten Knight takes the myth of the Phoenix and puts it in a modern setting, blending past and present in a time-traveling book that sends Renata Lake into her memories for a chance to change a moment. Her power comes to the surface after an attack at prom kills all of her friends and classmates. Suddenly she has a new power that she doesn’t understand. What she doesn’t have is time–Renata must try to figure out how to use her powers to discover who is after her and her friends before it’s too late.

I really enjoyed the world of Patchwork. Knight created a world based on Renata’s memories of the past, knitting together her reality and the mythos of Patchwork. I hesitate to say more because I don’t want to have heavy spoilers in my review. Patchwork functioned as a way for Renata to time-travel, allowing her to walk through memories to find a point in her past that she could try to change, but she can never go back to the original point where her powers manifested: the attack at prom. She can continue going backward to try to save her friends and discover the assassin, but it erases her future. She has to make new memories from whatever point she stops at. Fortunately, she remembers everything. Unfortunately, no one else does. I think that everyone wishes at some point in their life that they could go back and change something, but they maybe don’t consider what would happen if they could change a moment but then they’re stuck and have to start over from there. I thought that Knight did a great job of portraying this by using Patchwork and Renata’s reaction to it. I’ve read a few time-traveling books before, but I thought that this was a unique way to portray it.

The one very slight problem I had with Patchwork was the blending of Greek and what I see as Egyptian mythology, namely the choice of Osiris. There’s an Amaranthine Society, the Minotaurs, and Daedalus, which are decidedly Greek. I love that Greek mythology was woven throughout the story because it’s always been something I’m interested in. The inclusion of Osiris, an Egyptian god of the afterlife, really confused me. I did some research (i.e. read the Osiris myth on wikipedia), and apparently the myth of Osiris traveled to Greece with the worship of another goddess, Isis. The Osiris myth was also written about, where Greek writers viewed the Osiris myth with a Greek philosophy lens. So it does technically fit with the Greek mythology aspect of Patchwork. Even still, I would argue that Osiris is well-known as an Egyptian god with most people being unaware of the connection to Greece. Ultimately, my only quibble is that I wish Knight had chosen another name.

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[The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women] Kate Moore

Radium: the wonder element. It was used to battle tumors, which meant that it had health-giving elements. It was a cure-all, treating cancer, gout, constipation…it even was said to restore vitality. This “liquid sunshine” couldn’t possibly be bad…

I went into The Radium Girls with absolutely no knowledge of what I was in for other than the vague sense of dread that the synopsis gave me. I have never studied this particular part of history, though I have studied other parts of the same time period. During World War I, women were toiling away at factories where they painted the luminous dials of watches that were used by troops abroad. The substance glowed in an otherworldly, magical way, lingering on the girls’ skin, their hair, their clothes, a light that marked them as special as they shone faintly in the dark. They were on top of the world doing a job that paid better than most jobs they could get at the time and the substance made them beautiful.

Some of the products you could order that had radium in them.

Kate Moore tracks them from 1917 up to 1938 with mentions of World War II; the three parts of the novel follow them as they begin work, as they begin to develop strange illnesses, through their attempts to get justice, and finally the end result. The girls–for some of them began work when they were fourteen–and women take on form through research–letters, newspaper accounts of the time, and legal documents–as well as interviews with descendants. This is extremely well researched. I could feel the depth of the research, even the pieces that likely didn’t make it into the end product. Moore took a vast amount of information about these cases and the history surrounding them and made it readable for the layperson. As someone who hadn’t know about the Radium Girls, it was very informative without losing the heart of this real story. There were so many women that it would be impossible to focus on them all, but by focusing on a small group of them, Moore was able to craft a narrative that was engaging and emotional.

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[The Suffering Tree] Elle Cosimano

Warning: I discuss cutting and the inclusion of it in The Suffering Tree in this review.

This cover is really nice. The colors are so lovely.

When I finished The Suffering Tree and read reviews of it I asked myself if I read the same book as these other reviewers because I absolutely do not have feelings of this being a five, four, or even three star book. The initial look at the book, aka the summary, had me hooked. It seemed right up my alley: it has a curse, a mystery, and a character coming back from the dead coupled with the outsider / outcast aspect. That summary was what led me to request an ARC on NetGalley. Sadly the summary led me astray.

The things I liked about this book are slim compared to the problems I had with it. It’s exceedingly frustrating as a reader to have most of the excitement about the book explained in the summary, because I found the actual book quite slow and boring at times. Even though the writing had beautiful and sometimes poetic moments, I couldn’t shake the disconnect from the characters despite following Tori throughout the entire novel.

Normally this is where I’d go into talking about the characters to keep with the flow of my writing, but I wanted to talk about the things I had issues with in order of importance. Because all of my issues with the characters and the points of view pale in comparison to this:

Using cutting as a way to have magical things happen is a HUGE problem

There was no indication going into The Suffering Tree that Tori self-harmed. Like this review here, I agree that self-harm is not something that should be completely erased from young adult books, but it does need to be done in a way that doesn’t glorify it the way that I felt The Suffering Tree did. The inclusion of self-harm was completely unexpected. I’ve read a few other books with self-harm in them, and generally there’s something in the plot summary that indicates to the reader that it will be discussed in the book.

I hated that other characters, namely her mother and brother, seemed to ignore that Tori was hurting. Tori had been caught before and was required to talk to someone (she no longer is talking to someone ) and Tori’s mother counts the knives in the drawers, but there’s just something so dismissive about how it was handled in the book. They just scurry out of her way in their attempts to not talk about it.  With the death of Tori’s father, subsequent eviction, and move to a new home and town, you’d think that Tori’s mother would be aware of the stressors in Tori’s life that would lead to more cutting. There’s absolutely no discussion about how Tori is doing and there’s no therapy, even though the discussion of therapy is halfheartedly made later on. Nothing comes of it, however.  It made me feel like the author just used it as a way to further the story rather than call attention to the real harm it can be.

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[Geekerella] Ashley Poston

Geekerella is the most adorable book I’ve read this year. It is full of geeky references to BatmanStar TrekStar WarsFireflyThe Lord of the Rings… and so many more. It embraced fandom and all of the different facets of it: how you feel when your favorite thing is remade or made into a movie for the first time, fanfiction, reaction posts, cosplaying, and connecting with fans across the world with something you’re passionate about. Ashley Poston takes all of that and writes a retelling of Cinderella that fits in with this geeky culture that is often written off by people who don’t understand it.

The novel is divided between two points of view, Elle and Darien. Elle is our heroine who lives and breathes Starfield, the show she shared with her late father. Starfield is getting a reboot and Elle is equal parts thrilled and worried. She wants it to be for her generation–it’s bound to be better than the cardboard cutouts they had to use for props in the original–but worried about who will be cast as the main characters. When teen actor Darien Freeman is cast as her favorite character, her hero Federation Prince Carmindor, she thinks that everything Starfield will be ruined by this teen actor who only knows the basic answers to questions about the fandom. Elle wants a fan to play Carmindor–or at least someone who took the time to learn about what he’s stepping into–is that too much to ask?

As for Darien, playing Carmindor is his dream role. Like Elle, he grew up with Starfield. Only no one knows that. No one believes that this teen heart-throb with his screaming legion of fangirls has any depth. He used to love the geeky culture of Starfield, back when he wasn’t famous. Now that he’s famous, he can’t be Darien Freeman, geek who  likes Batman and Starfield. He has to be Darien Freeman, teen actor who lives for being in the spotlight, who took on this role because it would catapult him into fame. More and more, Darien feels that he is losing himself.

I was worried that Geekerella was going to be an instant-love story. With how it was described in the summary, it seemed like Elle and Darien wouldn’t meet until the convention. Thankfully it was not the case. In a world where sometimes we only interact with people through a screen, I thought that Poston’s use of a mistaken number worked really well for this novel. The reader knows the whole time of the identity of those texting, so it was nice to see how their relationship grew without having prior knowlege of who they each were or what they looked like.

While Geekerella did follow the expected points of Cinderella, they were changed to fit into Elle’s world. Instead of a pumpkin being turned into a carriage, there’s a food truck that’s painted like a pumpkin. It’s an eyesore. And loud. It made me hungry for vegan tacos. I loved it. There’s the expected mean stepmother and horrible stepsisters who share a slightly dilapidated house. But there’s no magic. The only magic that comes into this story is the magic you feel when you fall in love and when you have the hope that dreams can come true. It was modern and wholly passionate.

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[Goodbye Days] Jeff Zentner

Goodbye Days immerses us in tragedy. There’s no warning, much like how the tragedy unfolded.  Carter is at the final funeral of his three best friends after a horrific car crash claimed them all, contemplating carpet patterns in an effort to put-off the impending wave of grief. He’s numb and worried about how many people blame him, because he certainly does. When Mar’s phone was found, he was replying to Carter’s message. So yes, Carver believes that he “wrote his friends out of existence.”

In The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner introduced how tragedy can come at any moment and how coming to terms with it–if you even can–is something that you can only do yourself. Of course, the people around you suffering from the same tragedy can help you, but ultimately, we all internalize tragedy and how we deal with it differently. This is constant in Goodbye Days. It’s in the moments of forgetting right when Carver gets up, in the moments when he’s doing something mundane–just living–and it comes crashing down on him that his three friends will never be able to complete that comic they were drawing, never participate in another joke, never write another song. Grief and forgetting comes in waves, and the guilt for forgetting is crippling.

Gradually, the grief becomes manageable, but it never leaves. I felt that Zentner was able to convey that perfectly with his writing as he illustrated the different forms that grief takes after a tragedy. Like The Serpent King, it felt real. Contemporary novels tend to deal with real problems that teens go through (the ones that aren’t only about romance, at least), but sometimes there’s an element of it being contrived that keeps me from truly enjoying it. Zentner’s work is not that way. His characters would have no trouble walking off of the pages and onto the streets. They’re that realistic. They breathe. You ache and cheer with them. It’s absolutely incredible and a treat to meet his new characters.

This book is unique in the sense that it has both living and deceased characters. Through Carter’s own words and memories we’re introduced to Sauce Crew: Eli, Blake, and Mars. As he remembers them we’re shown just how amazing they were to the people around them and what their loved ones lost when they died. And that’s where the name of the novel comes in.

“Goodbye days” are a way to say goodbye to the one you’ve lost. For an entire day, you do the things that remind you of them or what they liked doing. Whenever we lose someone, we wish that we could have just one more moment with them. These goodbye days are a way to remember them as you try to let them go. Everyone holds a different part of their loved one–you may know that your friend loved dancing, but didn’t know that they were a secret enka fan. In a goodbye day, everyone comes together and shares those things so you have a complete picture of the one you lost. And then you say goodbye.

Goodbye Days is a beautiful novel that has many heart wrenching moments of the reality of death and how suddenly it can come. It’s even more tragic when people the lives of young people are cut short. It’s a novel with a message, but not one that takes over the narrative. Texting while driving is something that occurs every day, though it shouldn’t happen at all. When it’s a habit to have a phone in our hand, we don’t always think of the consequences of our actions. Carver constantly goes back to that text. Where are you guys? Text me back. It follows him throughout the novel. It’s there in therapy, where he tries to reinforce his guilt instead of forgiving himself for a mistake and it’s there in the threat of a criminal investigation. Zentner shows just how tragic the consequences can be. And there’s no taking it back.

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