Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Whistling Women by Kelly Romo

Whistling Women by Kelly Romo. Lake Union Publishing, 2015. 404 pages. Ebook. 

**I received a copy of Whistling Women courtesy of NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing.**

Whistling Women is a story centered on two sisters, Wavey and Addie, who have had a troubled history together and no longer speak or see one another. Addie has joined the Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony in San Francisco while Wavey has remained in San Diego to raise her two daughters, Mary and Rumor. Addie's nudist colony, however, decides to join the 1935 world's fair in San Diego as a nudist exhibition that people can pay to view at the fair, which of course is extremely controversial in the year 1935. 

I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. Whistling Women is told in a somewhat leisurely pace, but it is still gripping and hard to put down. Each of the women in the novel were multi-dimensional, and Romo shows great dynamics and complexity within each character as the story progresses.

The story is told from the perspectives of Addie and Rumor, Wavey's youngest daughter who is sixteen years old. The perspective of Addie switches back and forth between the present year, 1935, and brief excerpts of her past in order to explain her and Wavey's complicated relationship and falling out in 1918, as well as a bit of background about Addie's upbringing. Rumor's perspective is told entirely from the present 1935 perspective. I struggled a bit with remembering exactly how old Rumor is, but I think that this is likely more of a product of the time period than the Romo's writing. Rumor is fifteen years old, but due to her innocence and way of speaking I often felt she was much younger; however, her bravery and brash actions are certainly those of a teenager. I also would have loved to read more about Wavey and Mary, as I feel that they had deep personality struggles and changes that I think would have been intriguing to read about in more depth.

Addie is an though-provoking character because although she does not appear overly strong-willed or outgoing, she is in fact part of a nudist colony, something that, at the time, was extremely subversive and controversial within many societies and likely would have taken a certain amount of courage or care-free attitude to take part in. From the beginning, we can see that Addie is lost. Though she considers the nudist colony her home, she knows that she can't stay there forever and will eventually be pushed out, but she also has no idea where to go or who she belongs to. Her past haunts her and is the cause of inability to fulfill her desire for a stable, loving, family. 

Rumor, however, is strong-willed and rebellious from the start. She sneaks away to visit her Aunt Addie, sneaks off the Fair, and is generally more adventurous than her sister, Mary. She is still a shy and rather demure girl, but she is also willing to fight for what she wants and believes is right. 

This novel was entirely enjoyable and acted as a complete, satisfying story. However, there are a quite a few characters and events that I would have loved to have more information on. For instance, there are a few moments mentioned from Addie's past that make me wonder what more could have been explained, or certain gaps in time that I would have loved to hear more about. There were also some characters, such as a young boy named Daniel from Addie's childhood, that I would have loved to hear more about, for he was mentioned in an important way, but there was no elaboration. He may not have had a larger role than that in Addie's life, but I felt that there was more to say about him.

Overall, I am giving Whistling Women four stars, as I was truly entertained by the story and found myself enraptured in the characters and their complex lives.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates. Picador, 2015. 352 pages. Softcover/paperback. 

I am a major sucker for books like Black Chalk, and by that I mean books that center around a group of friends at a college or boarding school that become involved in some secret club or game or something oddly unnerving and mysterious - something that just expels mystery and darkness and secrets, whether in an overtly obvious  or hidden manner. Black Chalk did this perfectly.

I'd first like to say that The Secret History by Donna Tartt is one of my absolute favorite books, so when I read the back cover summary for Black Chalk and found a distinct-yet-subtle The Secret History vibe, I became extremely excited to read it. Of course, this made me nervous that it would not live up to my expectations, but thankfully, it exceeded them.

In Black Chalk, six Oxford University college students decide to create a game for the them to play. This is not just any game, however, for this game has high stakes and high money attached to it; it is, quite simply, a game of consequences. These consequences, of course, range from the mild to the extreme and are meant to be more psychologically difficult than physically challenging or any other manner.

Black Chalk is written in alternating viewpoints and is divided up quite intricately; some sections are written in a form of third-person narration, while others are first person, though I won't say who the first person narrator is because this is a rather vital part of the book. Because of this, actually, I'm going to try to keep key plot points and summaries of Black Chalk to a minimum, because honestly, just about every aspect of this book is important to the story, and half of the entertainment and thrill value is in reading along and discovering the various secrets and hidden meanings delicately placed throughout.

That being said, Yates has a very distinct writing style. At times, it is elegant and free-flowing with breathtaking sentences and deep musings. Other times, it is abrupt and sharp in order to match the current tone or setting of the story. However, these two styles are written in such a way that everything flows in a smooth and effortless manner as a result. There are almost constant twists and turns throughout the story that definitely kept me on my toes and increased my enjoyment immensely simply because most of them were sincerely surprising and unexpected. There were many times where one little sentence would be uttered, or one thing would be explained and I would have a mental (or verbal) "ah-ha" moment and sit back, smile slightly to myself, and shake my head as I tried to work out this complex story.

Yates' characters are all wonderfully vibrant and quirky, and each one harbors deeper personalities than they let on. We have Chad, an American student studying abroad; Jolyon, a quick-witted and charismatic young man; Jack, a humorous-to-the-point-of-offense friend; Mark, a perpetually sleepy friend; Dee, an eccentric young woman that vows to commit suicide once she has written her five hundredth poem; and lastly, Emilia, the studious and most innocent of the lot who attempts to keep everyone in line. Together, this cast of characters makes for hilarious and witty dialogue, of which Yates give us plenty of material. If it weren't for how charming and sophisticated the dialogue is between these friends, I might have gotten annoyed by the sheer quantity of it at various points in the novels. However, Yates' sharp tongue - or pen, rather - keeps it lively and a thrill to read. These characters also provide an abundance of emotion and drama as a result of such strong-willed characters.

Overall, I am giving Black Chalk five stars and will be adding it to both my favorites shelf on Goodreads and my 'Top Books of 2015' post. I found Black Chalk extremely hard to put down, and it allowed me to delve back into those feelings I experienced while reading The Secret History and A Separate Peace. I really cannot recommend it enough.

You might also like:
Slade House by David Mitchell
Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

  The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh.  G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, 2015.

As The Wrath and the Dawn was preparing to be released, the hype surrounding this novel skyrocketed and continued to do so for weeks after its release. During these times, I heard nothing but great reviews, and the summary sounded great, especially due it being a Thousand and One Nights retelling, so I finally got my hands on it. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this nearly as much as I had hoped.

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of the Arabian Nights that centers upon the Caliph of Khorasan, Khalid, who is known for taking many new wives and having them killed by the morning after their wedding night. Shahrzad is a sixteen-year-old girl who has lost a dear friend to Khalid, and vows to willingly become his next bride in order to take revenge for her friend and all of the women Khalid has killed. And then, of course, there are a variety of complications and events that make this a much more involved story.

I wanted to like this so badly, I really did... but I just didn't. The writing was beautiful, but the content of the story did not match the quality of the writing itself. Retellings are supposed to be imaginative and colorful, and this simply wasn't either of those. I felt very detached from the dialogue, characters, and plot, and I felt like once I was finally beginning to get to the meat of the plot in the very last few pages of the book - poof, it was over.

One of my biggest issues was with the magical elements that were so incredibly sparse throughout the story; they almost acted as a tease. There was enough magic to make it noticeable and, of course, useful, but it was severely lacking. It was used so briefly that I was left wondering what its purpose was and why it wasn't brought in sooner. Khalid's issues with magic seemed odd, and Shahrzad's own traits were hardly developed and only created more questions. The only good side to this is that there are plenty of topics to cover in the second novel.

The most disappointing thing is that Shahrzad is all talk and no bite, which I both liked and disliked. It's realistic, because many people (including myself) often talk fiercer than we actually are. However, in this book  and with this character, I expected more. She vows and threatens to kill the caliph to avenge her friend countless times through the story, but I don't recall her every making one serious attempt. She considers it and even "plans" out ideas to assassinate him, but she never does anything. She doesn't even start to carry out a plan and stop - she just doesn't do anything at all. It's incredibly frustrating. It's not that I'm so desperate for bloodshed and murder, but that that's what I was promised and would have actually made this book interesting. Also, if you're planning to kill a king, do not draw attention to yourself by showing your strengths - such as great archery skill - and stop being so defiant and breaking rules!

Also, I did not understand the relationship between Shahrzad and her handmaid, Despina. There was just something that never really worked between, and despite their banter that I think was meant to be endearing, they didn't ever fit together. I couldn't always discern the meaning behind her snide comments to Shahrazad either, but maybe that was just my misunderstandings.

Oh, and what about Shahrzad's original boyfriend? He appears to have been totally forgotten. She was 'so in love' with him, but spends some time with the caliph and suddenly forgets about him and no longer cares for him. But then we have Shahrzad and the caliph, but their chemistry was.. odd. I felt like we went from zero to hundred in no time, and it simply did not flow or convince me in the slightest.

Despite all of this, I did somehow manage to finish this book, which is interesting because I'm not the type to waste my time. I think the saving grace to this book was Ahdieh's prose, which was wonderfully descriptive and smooth. While this made The Wrath and the Dawn a readable novel, it created too much focus on irrelevant details that weren't necessary to the story.

Will I read the sequel? Honestly, I'm not sure. I'm not particularly convinced by the this one, but Ahdieh has left plenty of plot points to delve into for the next book, so I'll probably give it a shot. Overall, I have to give The Wrath and the Stars two-and-a-half stars because it simple was not a solid book that I enjoyed or felt had more going for it. However, if you do enjoy some dramatic romance and lovely writing, then perhaps you should still give this book a chance - everyone has different opinions, and there are plenty of people out there who did actually love this book.

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You might also like:
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Hidden Huntress by Danielle Jensen

Friday, December 11, 2015

My Top Books of 2015!

After reading so many good books this year, I can't help but want to share them with everyone, so I have decided to create a best books of 2015 list or you all!

First up, we have my favorite books from this year were just released this year. (These are listed in no particular order.)

Best 2015 Releases:

1. Slade House by David Mitchell
I really don't want to say too much about this book, so I think the best way to lure you in is to say that this centers around a house on Slade Alley that only appears when it is ready to feast...
This is a short read made even shorter by how compelling it was and easy to get through. This is the first book I've read by David Mitchell and his writing and storytelling just blew me away.

2. Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray (review to come)
I read this immediately after finishing The Diviners and it completely lived up to its predecessor. Libba Bray drags you into her full-fledged 1920s setting with complex and strong-willed characters that are so unique and full of life that you never want to stop reading.

3. Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashley Vance
Even if you don't give a hoot about Elon Musk or know who he is, this is still an incredibly fascinating look at a determined man who will stop at pretty much nothing to get what he wants done. Ashlee Vance writes in an extremely readable and entertaining manner that made it impossible to put down.

4. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
This was one of the top YA fantasy releases this year - and with good reason. Sabaa Tahir has created a brutal alternate world modeled after Ancient Roman elements, and within it we delve into the lives of a slave, Laia, and a soldier, Elias, where the two eventually become intertwined in each other's individual quests.

5. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
If you love Throne of Glass, you'll probably love this one also! Sarah J. Maas does not disappoint with her first novel in a new series that embodies a wide-ranging cast of characters, each with their own strong and unique personality. I really enjoyed this one and breezed right through it thanks to Maas' vivid writing and compelling plot.

6. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
This was my first Margaret Atwood book and I loved it! I've been burned out on the whole 'dystopian' genre for a while, but Atwood has brought it back with a vengeance. This is fairly short read, but it is still extremely gripping and deeply complex as we discover what happens when a society attempts to become 'perfect.' We all now how that normally goes, don't we?

7. Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
I just recently read this one and I had to add it my best of 2015 list. If you like The Secret History, then I highly recommend you give Black Chalk a go. This story is centered around six college students who develop a game to play that ends up wreaking much more havoc on their lives than they could have ever imagined.

Best non-2015 releases:

1. The Mysterious Benedict Society (review to come)
I always like to add in some middle grade books to my reading each year, and this was the perfect addition! Trenton Lee Stewart has created such a unique and delightful world with dynamic, engaging characters to match. If you like A Series of Unfortunate Events or intelligent, quirky children, then this is the perfect book for you as well.

2. The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd
Modeled after H.G. Wells' masterpiece, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Madman's Daughter is a haunting yet beautiful story of a young girl who discovers that her father is not the misunderstood scientist that she thinks she is. Megan Shepherd has expertly retold this story, and I absolutely loved it.

3. The Diviners by Libba Bray
I picked this one up because I kept seeing rave reviews for the recently released Lair of Dreams. First off - wow! I was not expecting this book to be so good, mainly because I did not really enjoy Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle Trilogy, but I was extremely wrong! Bray has developed such a complex storyline with a rich array of diverse characters in a strong 1920s theme. Highly, highly recommended.

4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I really have no words to describe this. But finding the words to describe books is sort of what I do, so I'll try. Tartt employs her mad stream-of-consciousness skills throughout this huge, exceedingly intricate, and well-developed novel.

5. The Paying Guests b y Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests is a hefty novel, both physically and mentally. Frances Wray and her mother have decided to take in boarders in their house in the years after the war in order to pay for their expenses. And this is where the drama all unfolds. I am saying nothing else because it is best left to find out on your own. Just read it and be prepared for intense events.

6. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami's intricate magical realism elements are strong in this book, and are complete with plenty of cats - talking cats! - and cooking. I can't help but love each one of his books, and Kafka on the Shore was just as good as all the rest. I absolutely love the way he delves into the human mind and sort of plays around with our thoughts and emotion. Oh, Murakami...

7. Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
I'm a pretty big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, so when I saw this fictionalized tale about Mr. Poe himself and his wife, I had to pick it up. This story is told from the perspective of Frances Osgood, an aspiring writer who observes Poe and his wife and becomes caught up in the midst of their mysterious lives. Cullen has a hauntingly beautiful prose makes this a breeze to read!

8. The Kindly Ones, Sandman Vol. 9 by Neil Gaiman
The concluding tale (at the time) to Neil Gaiman's illustrious Sandman series, and also one of the best, though it would be absolutely impossible for me to pick a favorite from the bunch.

9. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
A devastatingly beautiful tale of two sisters struggling to make their way in the United States. This tale will give you strong emotions as you journey with these two sisters and their new struggles in America. Despite the many hardships they face, and despite the many times they may have almost hated each other, they know they're always sisters and will always be there for one another. Seriously, it's a great book.

10. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
See, I'm not lying when I say I have a problem with Murakami.  I just can't help but love everything he writes - at least not yet, anyway. (*sweats nervously at the thought of reading a bad Murakami book* - does that even exist!?) Not as many cats as Kafka on the Shore, but still plenty of cooking!


The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
The Wolves in the Walls is one of Neil Gaiman's finest books for younger fans, as its wonderfully creepy and charming at the same time and will definitely keep you flipping pages! The illustrations are also the masterful work of Dave McKean, who has done other artwork for Neil Gaiman's work, such as Coraline, and is wonderfully haunting and unique, a perfect fit for Gaiman and this book.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by Joao Cerqueira

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira. River Grove Books, 2012. 188 pages. Ebook.

**I received a copy of this book from the author, João Cercqueira, in exchange for an honest review.**

This was a hefty read. Not in length, as it comes in at a slight 188 pages, but rather in content, for this book is overflowing with political and religious satire and complex writing. 

You are warned that this is a fictional book from the very start of the novel, and that fact should definitely not be forgotten. This is a very hard book to summarize, so I will provide a link to Goodreads for those who wish to read a quick summary of the book before continuing this review. If not, let's dive in!

The main characters of this book are JFK, Fidel Castro, God, and Jesus - but none of them are the real people they're modeled after since this book is extremely satirical, and I certainly found myself laughing along the way at their antics. Just the thought of Fidel Castro and JFK in a heated out-gifting war is hilarious. Our immediate introduction to this book is a bit daunting and some disorienting as we try to figure out exactly what Jesus and God are doing and talking about, but eventually, as Fidel and JFK are introduced, we are slowly introduced to the main story and themes themselves. 

This is not a light, easy read - this is a book where every single sentence is important and holds important meanings, and some of these sentences are long. These sentences became a bit hard to follow at times and I often found myself rereading sentences or paragraphs to make sure I understood what was being said. I've read a fair share of satirical books and publications, but never anything quite like The Tragedy of Fidel CastroCerqueira is an obviously talented writer who knows exactly what he wants to say and wastes no words in saying it. 

Cerqueira is fair in his satire, for he takes aim at the capitalism of America, the communism in Cuba, people in general, and a fair amount of different religions. Everything was equally up for the mocking, and I loved it. He incorporates striking elements of magical realism that truly lights up the novel and brings life to it. 

This isn't exactly a book that I would pick up for pleasure, however. This book is definitely not for anyone, but if you're feeling snarky and mocking and want some good satire, this is a great book to pick up. Overall, I am giving The Tragedy of Fidel Castro four stars, for although is wasn't exactly my cup of tea, I still greatly appreciated the strong themes and writing, as well as the intricate characters Cerqueira has created. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Update from upcoming YA novelist Sacha Rines!

Back in early September, I wrote a mini-review of three sample chapters from an upcoming YA novelist Sacha Rines. Well, a little over a month later I received another email from Rines informing me that she had finished the draft and would like me to do a review of the full manuscript, which I was excited to do, so here it is!

The remainder of this story was just as enjoyable as the beginning. Venia is as sarcastic and snarky as always, and I loved every page of it. What strikes me the most is how relatable Venia is. I really felt like I was in her thoughts and had a solid grasp of her personality and who she really is as a person. It made me want to be her friend because of her wit, realistic outlook, and lively commentary.

As she continues the story, the pacing continues to be upbeat and moves at a quick pace, but this is still a fitting style for the story, and I never felt lost or confused in the plot. There is a greater amount of detail added into the story that provides more information important to the understanding of the story. Rines continues to develop the special gifts of her characters, and she does so in both entertaining and informative ways. Creating any sort of new world - especially one that includes special gifts, talents, or magic - is always difficult, but Rines pulls it off with grace - and a great deal of humour. This is the perfect book for you if you enjoy humor and lightweight plots. However, this doesn't mean that the characters are lightweight, as they are, in fact, quite complex and multi-dimensional, which is what can truly help to bring a story to life.

Rines' voice is as strong as ever, and her characters continued to delight me. As a draft, there are still some areas that could use a bit of strengthening, and there are a few minor mistakes here and there, but I find this to be completely expected and it truly did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. Overall, I'd give this story four stars for it style, plot, and engaging characters, but three stars in regards to its overall construction and grammar. I hope everyone else has the chance to read this story soon, so stay tuned!

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