Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Houghton Mifflin Court, 2007. 184 pages. Hardcover/Hardback.

I actually read this book quite a few years ago, but recently came across an old review I had written for it. After much re-writing, I decided to post this review here on my blog in order to share a book that I found wonderfully well-written and intriguing.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist was the first book I read by Mohsin Hamid, and I was not disappointed. This is a rather short, easy read that comes in at just under 200 pages. Hamid has an extremely unique way of telling a story that makes it impossible to put down.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist has a very basic premise: the entire story is a conversation that takes place in a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan between a Pakistani man, Changez, and an American visitor. Changez relates his story as an immigrant in America, from his rise to the top to the tragedy of 9/11 and its effect on his position. Changez lays out his life, opinions, and relationships to the American. 

The point of view is written as if to imagine that the reader is the American visitor and Changez is speaking directly to you. This is a style that can be easily poorly executed, but fortunately Hamid does it beautifully; it is simply captivating. In fact, Hamid's entire prose is undeniably beautiful. He writes with a strong, almost lyrical touch that makes this book so instantly compelling. I also enjoyed Hamid's portrayal of the two men, along with their subtle tension towards one another. Each character mentioned within this story is very carefully crafted and developed with very distinct personalities.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a book that will make you think. There is an abundance of symbolism on every page to discover and ponder. There are some things in this book that may ruffle a few feathers, but it is important to stop and consider the meaning and the reason for various statements and actions. The purpose of this book, I believe, is to explore the emerging class of "reluctant fundamentalists," those that would not necessarily consider themself a fundamentalist, but when faced with a desperate time begin to realize their own tendencies. How does one stay true to their roots while also staying true to what is 'right'? With that in mind, I think Hamid wrote a successfully thought-provoking novel. 

I initially gave The Reluctant Fundamentalist five stars for it's immense symbolism, honesty, and passion, and for now I believe I will stick with that rating. 

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Monday, April 18, 2016

The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse by Brian Farrey

The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is out Tuesday, April 19, 2016!

*I received an ARC edition of The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse courtesy of Algonquin Young Readers in exchange for an honest review**

The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse by Brian Farrey. Algonquin Young Readers, 2016. 256 pages. Paperback/softcover. 

While perusing my Goodreads shelf for this year, I realized I have read quite a few younger-aged aimed books this year - and that I have been enjoying it immensely. These books aren't just fun to read, they are also extremely well-crafted stories that handle a variety of difficult topics in a way that younger audiences can understand. The most interesting aspect in each of these books, however, is that they seem to have messages for all ages and can be easily enjoyed by adults as well as younger kids.

The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is an exciting fairytale that unfolds itself in a variety of delightful layers as the story progresses.  It covers a variety of heavy topics in imaginative ways with such a deft hand that I am simply in awe of Farrey. The story focuses on Aon, a girl living in the town of Emberfell, and Jeniah, the princess of the land who is soon to become queen as her mother passes on.

Everyone in Emberfell is happy. If someone dies or goes away, that person is basically forgotten about so as not to have any sadness regarding their loss. Sad things do not happen and there is no crying because everything is happy. This sounds like it could possibly be a good thing, but it also sounds, quite frankly, creepy. Aon, however, does feel sadness, which thus makes her feel like an outcast and that something within her is 'broken.' I assume the author intended to use this as a metaphor for depression, but even if he didn't, I think it works itself into the storyline extremely well. While awareness for depression is increasing in the media, it is still somewhat of a taboo in certain families and culture, which makes those that do experience such negative feelings feel like there is something wrong with them. I felt that Aon's struggle with feeling differently than the rest of her town shed an interesting light on how experiencing different moods or emotions than what others think of as 'normal' can really make you feel alienated. I think this book does a good job showing that feeling differently from others is not wrong, but is instead normal and it is important to talk to others about these topics.

Jeniah, on the other hand, is largely separated from the town (until she goes to explore the Carse and meets Aon) and struggles to come to terms with her impending status as queen. Jeniah does not feel that she is mature enough to yet be queen - which I actually find to be quite mature of her - and she struggles to come to terms with how to be responsible for an entire kingdom, as well deal with her newly appointed tutor that does nothing but frustrate her. Throughout the course of the story, Farrey subtly and expertly crafts Jeniah's character from an insecure and unaware girl into a more self-aware and knowledgeable young woman.

Farrey's writing style is very accessible and a joy to read. It is not written in an overly simplistic manner, nor is it too advanced. His words flow smoothly, and there are moments of true beauty within his writing.

I feel as though every kid - or adult -  should read this at some point because of the important topics it covers and for its reminders that it's okay to be sad, it's okay to be inexperienced, and it's okay to not always have the answers. 

As a result, I am giving The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse five stars!

You might also like:
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania del Rio, illustrated by Will Staehle
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

More than Monsters by J.M. Riou

**I received a copy of More than Monsters in exchange for an honest review**

More than Monsters by J. M. Riou. 2015. 123 pages. Ebook.

At only 123 pages, More than Monsters is a short novella that begins a gritty fantasy series in the flintlock fantasy genre, also often described as "muskets and magic" fantasy. More than Monsters is set in the 17th century ad centers on a young woman named Cora who is sent by the baron to join a group of sicarian men to go scouting for his stolen treasure. Besides dealing with potentially dangerous monsters, Cora must deal with a strong, dangerous company of men who are just as dangerous - if not more - than the monsters they must fight on their journey. The cause of the entire scouting expedition, however, ends up being quite a disappointment to Cora - and me as well - and adds an entirely new element to the political and male-oriented issues within this world. I was captivated by this overarching theme off male power and dominance and how she attempts to deal with and work around it.

Riou has created a gritty world full of dark, shady characters that tend to create danger unease at every corner. The characters were each made with their own unique touch, and I felt that Riou was very precise in his creation of varying and obvious personality differences among the sicarians, who could have otherwise easily fallen into appearing too similar to one another. Orthane, for instance, is the worst of the crew, constantly threatening and taunting Cora while also engaging in odd, somewhat psychotic activities involving healing potions. I liked this added element, which made Orthane a much more well-developed three-dimensional character and brought him to life in unexpected ways. He also does this with other members of the company, such as another sicarian known as Menton, who I will leave you to discover for yourself.  The monsters described within the story are mainly orcs, though there are also plenty of ogre variations to be found as well.

Cora is also a well-developed and entertaining character, and I found myself very engaged in discovering how she handled every dangerous and unexpected task presented to her. From the start of her journey, Cora realizes that she will be dealing with an unruly band of men and knows that she will have to take extra precautions to protect herself from both them and the monsters they attempt to seek. Throughout the events of this story, Cora more than proves herself as a powerful, capable woman who refuses to back down from a fight.

The most prominent aspect of Riou's writing is his deft skill at writing action sequences. Each battle was extremely fleshed out, with no detail or swipe of a weapon left unsaid. Riou's talent for clear, engaging writing is evident most strongly within these battles that perfectly describe the actions, movements, and emotions experienced throughout. Personally, I am not overly fond of action or fighting sequences, not because of gore or violence, but just as a matter of preference, so I did struggle a bit to make it through some of the longer episodes. However, if you do enjoy that sort of event, you will certainly appreciate the obvious knowledge and skill that Riou has regarding combat.

Another area of More than Monsters that I appreciated was his mixture of time period and magic. There is not too much of either element; instead, there is a perfect mixture of magical elements, such as the healing potions used, with the historical setting of the frontier.

Overall, I am giving More than Monsters four stars, because although not every aspect was of my preference, the writing was very skilled and the story, setting, and themes created were very high quality and well-developed and I can easily see this story and world being continued.

You might also like:
A Vanishing Glow by Alexis Radcliff
Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Treading Twisted Lines Story Cycle by Beth Madden

**I received free copies of "The Chosen Voice." "The Rat," and "Under the Bright Water" in exchange for honest reviews**

I was recently contact by author Beth Madden regarding her fantasy series, Treading Twisted Lines, which takes place in a technological advanced area known as Four Free Areas. Within this world are wizards and priests that you are introduced to through a variety of short stories. For this review, I read the first three short stories form this fantasy cycle and have reviewed them below. In brief, this was a refreshing and delightful surprise of short stories that I am sincerely looking forward to continuing. I am not always a big fan of short stories, as I find it difficult to immerse myself in such a short amount o time, but I had absolutely no problem with that in these stories, and instead found myself immediately drawn to each setting and story.

These stories are all connected through the setting and perhaps later events in later books, but they are also independent from one another, which makes them easy to pick up.

"The Chosen Voice" (#1) 
The first thing that stood out to me in this short story was Madden's wonderfully crafted characters. She is able to develop strong, interesting personalities in a very short amount of time, something that takes a great deal of skill to do. The main character of this story is Christine, a bold young woman who knows what she wants and will do whatever it takes to do her job in order to get ahead. We are also introduced to Darren, a man with a special singing power that makes him rather exceptional and stand out among others. I won't say what this power is, but suffice to say it is something I would have never expected and is a brilliant idea. Christine is sent to interview Darren for his abilities, and the meeting between these two creates a powerful conflict of personalities that somehow works out really well.

In regards to these two characters' personalities, I can't say I would necessarily want to be their friends in real life, but they were perfect for this story and I loved learning about them through their actions and thoughts. I don't feel the need to "connect" to every character in a book like most people (for some reason) do, so the fact that I didn't see a personal connection with them was no problem at all. "The Chosen Voice" is clever and unique, and the characters  have a sense of realness to them that makes it much more realistic entertaining. I felt like I could actually encounter any number of these people or circumstances (minus the magic parts) on any regular day.

The setting is a somewhat alternative yet still normal world, though the inserted elements of fantasy stand out in a good way. It's a gritty and dark setting, and I felt some Asian (Japanese?) vibes from it; it's uncertain yet still interesting. I am hoping that a longer, continued story would expand more on this setting, because so far I am extremely intrigued by it.

The story is told mainly in the present with a few flashbacks that confused me at first, but I eventually caught on and actually grew to enjoy them - which is saying something, considering I'm not normally a huge fan of flashbacks in stories. "The Chosen Voice" was very engaging and I was impressed by how high quality this story was - I highly recommend it.

"Under the Bright Water" (#2) 
Under the Bright Water focuses on Kai, a young boy who is afflicted with a curse that causes him to constantly feel dirty and to see dirt and grime in all places; he struggles with the constant need to feel clean. 

I felt immediately drawn to Kai and sympathized with his constant internal conflictions. His solution to this problem is the Bright Waters. His actions almost turn into an addiction, and following along with the emotions and struggles that Kai faces were extremely compelling. 

In "Under the Bright Water," we are also introduced to a wide variety of various magical priests, which added a new element to this fantasy story cycle and brought so much more depth and intrigue overall. I did feel that there were a few too many characters crammed into this story, and at times I found it difficult discerning exactly who was who and what was going on. I understand that this  adds to the air of intrigue and mystery, but it made it somewhat difficult to follow along at times. 

"The Rat" (#3) 
If you read the first two stories and felt like you were missing some of the darker, bleaker atmosphere of this world, "The Rat" will deliver. This is much more depressing story, but it still kept me hooked on every page. I felt that although Madden's writing skills are blatantly apparent in her other stories, I feel that this story in particular shows her full depth and quality of writing, as this story takes the reader to an entirely different level.

"The Rat" tells the brief story of an unpleasant trip across the country with the Rat and his cruel father. We start off being introduced to a character known as the Rat, who is actually a young boy. What I loved about Madden calling this character 'the Rat' is that for the first few pages, I genuinely believed that the Rat was an actual rat. It took me quite a while to transfer my mental image, and even then I still view him as a rat of some sort, so kudos to the author for that stroke of genius. 

The other main character we are introduced to is the father, a dark and unappealing man. He's clever, I'll give him that much, but certainly not someone you ever want to have to deal with. His treatment of the Rat is horrible and disheartening to read.

I think my only problem with this story is similar to that of the second one, which was that I felt a bit lost with the different characters and in trying to discern what was really going on without it being explicitly said. Again, this seems to be a stylistic choice that is effective and well-written, but it does leave things a bit uncertain.


Overall, this is a series that I would highly recommend to anyone looking for an intriguing, unique, and well-written new fantasy series that will continue to surprise and intrigue throughout the entire story. I look forward to continuing these stories! Altogether, I am giving these first three stories a combined four-star rating.

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