Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

Title: The Wrath and the Dawn (The Wrath and the Dawn, #1)

Author: Renee Ahdieh

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Though I have long been a fan of the Arabian Nights, re-tellings of this classic have often fallen short of the sheer magic contained within the original. Whether it be Disney's re-imagining of Aladdin or even the numerous references to Ali Baba, Sinbad, and other stories that litter modern literature, there remains a uniqueness to the original Arabian Nights that cannot be matched. Whether that be the simple story-telling style that allows the reader to weave much of the magic into their own minds or whether it be the stories within the story that compel the reader to keep turning the page, I have not found its likeness yet.

The Wrath and the Dawn does not even pretend to try to compete with the Arabian Nights. Although it draws on the basic premise of the folklore we have come to know and love, it fills in the gaps we cannot see, introduces characters we never came to know as deeply, and manages to be a separate novel in its own right. It is not so much a re-telling as a novel that is inspired by the Arabian Nights and I prefer my re-tellings like this; two parts original with one part inspired. With this formula, I can see traces of the tales I already love woven together with a wholly new story that I am learning to fall in love with, page-by-page.

From the beginning itself, it is not difficult to become consumed by The Wrath and the Dawn. After all, the city of Khorasan is cursed with Khalid, a Caliph who marries a new woman every night, only to have her executed the next morning. As the women of the city perish and families grow to resent their new Caliph more and more, the beautiful Shahrzard is determined to exact her revenge. In volunteering to have herself become the next bride of the Caliph, she garners the suspicion of those within the castle and the fear of those outside. When she survives her first morning as Queen, and the second, and the third...that's when the whispers begin.

What I love about The Wrath and the Dawn is that it's filled with flawed characters whose passions rule them. Shahrzad, whose anger and grief must be avenged, defies her family and betrothed by marrying the Caliph. Her hatred for Khalid is glaringly obvious within the first few chapters but it is a naive, impetuous kind of anger. Neither Shahrzad nor the citizens of Khorasan understand why their Caliph is such a cruel, cruel man. Within the palace gates, Shahrzad can see that the deaths of his previous wives bring the Caliph no pleasure. Why, then, does he subject both his citizens and himself to such atrocities? Against her will, Shahrzad finds herself digging to find the man beneath the monster--and the reasons the monster had to be born in the first place. And, against her will, Shahrzard finds herself falling in love with a man who kills, and kills, and kills.

Shahrzad's initial anger, her fear at waking up every morning not knowing whether or not she will live, her curiosity, her inner battle between learning more about her husband and vowing to extract her revenge, and then her eventual feelings of love...all of them are so sharply felt. I picked up The Wrath and the Dawn and felt a plethora of emotions in such a manner that I hadn't felt before. Moreover, it is not only Shahrzad who compels and inspires; it is her husband, too. Much like Shahrzad, who seeks answers, we, too, cannot help but look for the humanity in Khalid. And as we get to know him better, Shahrzad's danger at losing her heart becomes a very real danger we face as well. After all, how can one ever justify falling for a murderer?

The Wrath and the Dawn is more than just the relationship between Shahrzad and Khalid, however. It features a host of secondary characters, many of whom Shahrzad befriends during her time at the palace as she tries to understand her husband better, and, furthermore, the novel harbors a political agenda that isn't obvious from the synopsis. The kingdom of Khorasan has its neighbors and its enemies, both within and without, and alongside the tumultuous emotions expressed by Shahrzad and Khalid are the slow rumblings of a different type of conflict altogether.

Ahdieh has written a near-perfect debut. I adore the complex characters and well-fleshed world she has created, not to mention the ending that leaves readers on the cusp of so much more to come. The Wrath and the Dawn is the perfect mixture of lore, romance, and originality with a sprinkling of politics and the promise of even better prose to come. I trust this story in her capable hands entirely and am already counting down the days until I can read its conclusion. Ahdieh's debut is among the few novels I've truly loved this past year and, if I'm to be perfectly honest, I am off to re-read it this very second. Just thinking about it for too long makes me want to re-visit these characters. If that isn't convincing enough about the quality of this novel, then I'm not quite sure what is.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Discussion: On YA's Tropeyness

I often write drafts on Blogger simply ranting about the issues prevalent within the Young Adult genre. Don't get me wrong: I love YA. But, let's just be honest and admit that there are some messages that are becoming trope-y and repetitive; lessons that shouldn't be pervading the minds of Young Adults and skewing their world-view.

First of all, I really need to address the issue of romance in YA. Before Twilight, having a central romance was exclusive only to contemporary novels. Even then, the story would often end with the protagonist acknowledging her crush; talking to him, becoming his friend, and maybe with the possibility of a relationship in the future. Now, however, there is a romance in every single YA novel. Irrespective of the genre, a central relationship--or, god forbid, love triangle--features prominently in the story arc of a novel culminating in the heroine finding her "true love", complete with a hot kiss and a make out scene if we're lucky.

Like any girl, I love a good romance. Give me a rom-com over a horror movie any day, friends. My issue with romance in YA, however, is that all too often it feels forced. I appreciate the authors who don't hesitate to throw their romances into the backseat. Or, better yet, don't introduce one until late in the series and leave us with a hint of possibility. The YA romances I've loved and returned to and appreciated are the ones in which the relationship aided in the growth of the main character. I want young readers to be able to pick up a novel and appreciate that finding love as a teenager is a rare and wonderful thing. I want them to read and glean that there are so many lasting and important relationships that one can formulate at this age; parents, teachers, friends. It isn't all about the romance, not in real life, so shouldn't literature be a reflection of that reality?

I just fear that the young girls I meet today are too wrapped up in finding a boyfriend instead of their bridesmaids. I attend an all-women's university and one of the most eye-opening experiences I've had lies in forging friendships that have nothing to do with the opposite sex. You wouldn't believe the number of female friendships which have begun from mutual like or dislike of a guy. You wouldn't believe. Still, though I firmly believe that there is a large place for crushes and romance in YA, particularly the New Adult age group, there is also room for more.

One of those more items, in addition to friendships and parental relationships and teacher interactions, are role models. Mindy Kaling has swiftly become one of my top role models this past year. Not only is she a woman, a minority, and not the classic hourglass-shaped model, but she's highly intelligent and incredibly successful in a field she is passionate about. Moreover, she doesn't hesitate to portray her characters, such as Mindy Lahiri on "The Mindy Project" as unconventional. Dr. Lahiri may be a gynecologist but she's also unapologetically into Hollywood and cares little for politics; stances that aren't popular or accepted but are, unabashedly, the truth. Mindy Kaling, quite simply put, is confident. She's comfortable in her own skin and that shows in the characters she plays, whether it be Kelly Kapoor or Mindy Lahiri.

I want that in YA. I want more confident protagonists. I feel as if the all-too-familiar trope in YA is to have a protagonist who is shy and unpopular and generally friendless and make her, within the span of a few hundred pages, become widely social and gain a boyfriend. Why can't we have a variety of heroines, each confident and comfortable in their own skin? Maybe the goal shouldn't always be to get teens to identify with YA protagonists but to show them that, no matter how introverted or extroverted you are, you are perfect the way you are. I feel like shaking so many of these heroines for falling trap to fear and insecurity time and time again. While these are valid and honest emotions, I also want to see confidence in my protagonists. Why is it that the "bitchy" cheerleaders are the only confident women in these novels? Why is the underlying message that to be confident is to be bossy and horrible? Let's see some more inspirational protagonists, YA. I don't just need heroines I can identify with; I need heroines I can look up to.

And, let me make this very clear: my heroines need to be real people, not models. I find that this is an issue more prevalent in Adult Romance than YA (seriously, you expect me to believe that every single character in these Adult Romance novels is stick thin with "just the right" curves and that their hunks have six-packs?). Whether it is unintentional or not, all too often the heroines and heroes of YA are beautiful and tortured. A dark past they're overcoming, a beautiful tear-stricken face, a tragic romance... Yeah, I want to read that book too. But, I also want to read the book about the not-so-perfect teens; the ones who defy Hollywood standards of beauty to be beautiful and fall in love anyway. Occasionally I'll come across novels like these but they're in the minority. Weight loss isn't a bad thing and novels about athletes with killer bodies is realistic enough, but I simply feel as if YA is underrepresented in more areas than just ethnic and sexual diversity.

It's not just about the fact that women of color don't write enough books or that women of color aren't represented enough in books or that multiple sexual orientations aren't discussed enough in novels or that people of multiple sexual orientations can't find characters to identify with; it's not just about that. It's also about taking the characters we already have--white, heterosexual--and making them rise above the status quo of tropes. Even better, writing about characters of ethnic and sexual minorities who further defy classic YA tropes. I think YA is an incredible genre--it's compulsively readable and covers such a wide range of topics that pertain to teens all over the globe. But it's been too long that we've been stuck in a rut of romance novels with introverted protagonists who are all secretly sexy.

What do you think? Are we really stuck in a cycle of repetitive tropes? Do you know of any titles with the types of protagonists I outlined above? I'd love to hear your opinion on my rant-y thoughts, dear readers! :)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Mini-Reviews: Jackaby & Rook

Title: Jackaby (Jackaby, #1) 

Author: William Ritter

Rating: DNF
“Miss Rook, I am not an occultist,” Jackaby said. “I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion--and there are many illusions. All the world’s a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain.”
Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny. Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.
I nearly made it to the half-way point of Jackaby before admitting that I didn't know the contents of the last six chapters I had read and, really, should just give up. With such a captivating cover and compelling plot line, you'd think Jackaby would enchant me; hook, line, and sinker. Unfortunately, however, I found this novel to be just a tad too--dare I say it?--unoriginal. Ritter's concept of creating a character like Jackaby, a detective who could see the supernatural realm and used those skills to solve crime, is nothing short of brilliant. I've heard this be described as a cross between the two hit BBC shows, "Sherlock" and "Doctor Who", and as a fan of both, I have to admit it's an apt comparison.

However, I didn't much enjoy the narrative perspective this novel is told from. Abigail Rook, a young woman seeking employment, decides to become the assistant Jackaby needs in his work and though her voice is affable and perceptive, detailing the oddities that set Jackaby apart from every other human, it lacked emotion. Ultimately, I just didn't feel for Abigail or grow to know her intimately, as a character, despite the fact that it was she who narrated the tale. Although I found Jackaby to be fascinating and thought that many of the secondary characters introduced were charming, there was something a little too rote-like about the manner in which information was departed through this novel that left me unable to connect with the story line.

Whatever it is that didn't allow Jackaby to join my favorites shelf, I am the most sorry for it. I wanted to love this novel, desperately, and I am distinctly in the minority in my opinion of the characterization and prose. As such, I recommend that readers give this one a try for themselves. If you wind up liking it even a fraction more than I do by the half-way point, chances are, you're going to love this. I'll just waddle into my corner labeled "Black Sheep" now, shall I?

Title: Rook

Author: Sharon Cameron

Rating: 4 Stars
History has a way of repeating itself. In the Sunken City that was once Paris, all who oppose the new revolution are being put to the blade. Except for those who disappear from their prison cells, a red-tipped rook feather left in their place. Is the mysterious Red Rook a savior of the innocent or a criminal? Meanwhile, across the sea in the Commonwealth, Sophia Bellamy’s arranged marriage to the wealthy René Hasard is the last chance to save her family from ruin. But when the search for the Red Rook comes straight to her doorstep, Sophia discovers that her fiancé is not all he seems. Which is only fair, because neither is she. As the Red Rook grows bolder and the stakes grow higher, Sophia and René find themselves locked in a tantalizing game of cat and mouse. 
Oddly enough, I don't have much to say about Rook. I really enjoyed it--thoroughly, in fact--and though some readers argue that its length is its downfall, I can't admit to having found it a problem. The characters and world that Cameron builds is so wildly entertaining and imaginative that I simply didn't want to leave. I adored this enemies-to-lovers romance, the spying, the twists and turns, and, of course, the lady savior at the heart of it all. Rook is every bit as intriguing as its synopsis and cover promise and though I find Cameron's debut duet to be of stronger stock--simply more memorable, although perhaps because the characters stayed with us for two books opposed to one--this is an extremely well-written stand-alone. I look forward to Cameron's future endeavors very much; her brand of steampunk is unique and unparalleled.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review: Say Yes to the Marquess by Tessa Dare

Title: Say Yes to the Marquess (Castles Ever After, #2) 

Author: Tessa Dare

Rating: 4 Stars

Say Yes to the Marquess is easily one of my favorite historical romance novels, right up there with Courtney Milan's Unraveled. I often struggle with historical fiction because every series is composed of a series of companion novels--and that, frankly, bores me. Quite simply put, I am not suited to such a dull series of companion novels. I enjoy the secondary characters to a love story well enough but, when I find out that there's an entire novel devoted to their romance, I either envision that scenario myself--so much so that the actual novel pales since it doesn't follow the structure in my mind--or I simply fail to connect with that character on a level stronger than "secondary character." Thus, with historical romances, I wind up having to read every single novel an author writes since I never fall in love with an entire series. It's always two books from their debut quartet, one book from their sophomore trilogy, and a novella from their current assignment; I will be the first to admit, it's a chore. After all, it's not the authors I love but the romances and if I'm not on board with the characters, I drift off for their epic love story.

With the Castles Ever After Series, though, each companion novel is composed of a completely different heroine. The only similarity between these novels which cause them to be bunched together is the fact that their setting is at a castle and, for each heroine, this castle represents something completely unique and revelatory about their personalities. In Romancing the Duke, the predecessor to Say Yes to the Marquess, the castle was--literally--the fairy tale the protagonist dreamt of and never attained. In Say Yes to the Marquess, though, it represents freedom to Clio, an intelligent woman who has waited eight years for her engagement to Piers Brandom to culminate in marriage. When Clio's uncle passes away and leaves his castle to Clio, she recognizes that she no longer needs marriage to support her; she has a castle. But Rafe Brandon, the notorious younger brother of Piers and his complete opposite in every way--a rake and prizefighter where Piers is a diplomat--won't let Clio call off the engagement. Piers is finally returning to England and Rafe is determined that Clio will marry. But years of restrained passion lie between Clio and Rafe and in Rafe's determination to make Clio marry, he just may want her to marry him instead.

Say Yes to the Marquess is the perfect slow-burn, forbidden, friends-to-lovers romance. Clio and Rafe grew up together and have always had an easy rapport between them. Though they have had little contact over the years, particularly since Rafe grew estranged from his family, the situation at hand has them in closer proximity than ever before. It is impossible not to love the relationship between Clio and Rafe from the start. Both wear facades; her of societal gentility, him of rakishness. In reality, though, Clio isn't the perfect gentlewoman others believe her to be for she aspires for more beyond the confines of society; of a marriage with love, of freedom to run her own business, of a life spent pleasing herself, not others. Similarly, Rafe hides behind a tough, manly facade despite the fact that all he wants is the love and affection denied to him as a child. Clio and Rafe understand one another in ways others do not and that deep-seated comprehension, alongside their burning sexual tension and the impending marriage of Clio and Piers looming ahead all makes for a highly entertaining read.

What's more, Say Yes to the Marquess is one of the most empowering novels I've come across. When asked if there is another in her life, Clio replies that yes, there is--her. Clio yearns to put herself above all else for once in her life and her journey to attaining that confidence--confidence not only in her abilities to provide for herself but confidence in her curvaceous figure as well--is deftly handled and inspiring. If there's one thing that the Adult Romance genre excels in, it is in writing headstrong feminist heroines who fall in love with equally strong male counterparts who, above all else, respect not only them, but their dreams as well. (If only we could see more of that in every other genre too...) Nevertheless, Say Yes to the Marquess is another resounding triumph for Tessa Dare. Truly, I cannot recommend this series enough.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

2015 Favorites (So Far)!

Whether I've just gotten pickier over the years or had less luck in 2015, I've only got six favorite novels to celebrate this half-year mark. I'm sure I'm going to come across plenty more in this second-half of 2015, seeing as many of my favorite authors are releasing their latest novels, but as of now, these are the six that have enchanted me, moved me, and made me think deeply and laugh heartily.
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What have been some of your favorite reads in 2015? What have I missed (so far) this year and any recommendations? I definitely need some new authors to try out so don't hesitate to hit me up with all of your favorite books of the year up until now! :)