Winter

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Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: Winter, the finale of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, neatly ties up all the loose ends of the previous three books. The novel effectively concludes the main conflict and follows the four central couples (Cinder & Kai (& Iko), Scarlet & Wolf, Cress & Thorne, and Winter & Jacin) to the end of their story.

Because the tale jumps between four sets of characters and the antagonist Levana, there is not as much room for character growth as there was in the previous books–disappointing because even Meyer’s novellas had strong characterization. I understand that it was necessary to follow all pairings, but this is the same problem I had in Avengers: Age of Ultron; characters were sacrificed for plot.

*spoiler*

Not literally sacrificed, though. Every protagonist survived despite apparent massive casualties in battle. The only character we lost was an adult who was only just introduced to the story. And while the happily-ever-after ending fits the Disney-fied fairy tale feel of the series, it disappoints me–it’s not the ending I expected Meyer to choose. To have one character (or a full pairing) die in the war seems natural and makes the characters more heroic, gives them more to fight for. Moreover, it would resolve the problem of a lack of character growth, shaping the main characters through the loss of their comrade(s). Original fairy tales, after all, often ended in loss.

*end spoiler*

I do appreciate some of the nods to fairy tales, though; Meyer has a knack for subtlety. When Winter eats the poisoned apple treat, for example, she is placed in a stasis chamber which opens into a bed of sorts.

But Winter doesn’t seem like the main character, though the title suggests otherwise. Since the previous three books were titled after their protagonist, this was disappointing. Winter had great potential as a protagonist, but she ends up a sidekick to Cinder, which just made me annoyed with Cinder and anxious to get back to a chapter with the Luna Lovegood-esque Winter. I expected the Lunar sickness to turn her into some sort of oracle. I expected Jacin to sacrifice himself for her. But I suppose I expected too much, and Winter did not become all she could be.

Recommendation: This book is worth reading for those who have come this far–and everyone should come this far because the series is incredibly well-constructed. But be warned that it will likely disappoint readers who have been in awe of Meyer’s strong characterization, which gets lost under the dense plot and large cast.

The series should be safe for advanced middle schoolers and up; it’s enjoyable for all ages.

 

[apologies again for the month-long silence; sophomore year gave me quite a heavy workload! These silences are likely to occur more often as I jump from study abroad trip to a full credit load and four jobs to studying for the GRE, but I will read and review as much as I am able in the meantime.]

 

Bone Gap

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Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Review: Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap is hard to define. It has a touch of magical realism, which I certainly appreciated, along with some fairy tale, coming of age, and feminist elements, but it has enough of a realistic fiction feel that it’s difficult to categorize, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much (remember my review of a similarly difficult to categorize book).

In the book, Finn O’Sullivan, a quirky teen, tries to find the captor of Roza, a mysterious girl Finn and his older brother Sean took under their wing a while back. The catch? Finn can’t remember the captor’s face, leading the people of Bone Gap to dismiss what he saw as delusional. It’s a book of love, true beauty, and perseverance in the face of obstacles.

While I felt like the plot was hard to keep up with at times, I was able to push past my confusion and enjoy the characters and themes. Ruby has some fantastic feminist characters, and keeps them in touch with real problems like the harm of societal expectations of beauty and sexual harassment. She also tackles other large problems like mental disorders, parental abandonment, and the struggle of living in a small town.

Ruby’s novel performs well on a line-by-line basis, too. The constant referrals to the absurdity of college application essay prompts are humorous and, later on, heartbreaking. More than that, they keep the book relevant to its target audience.

The main flaw in this book is the lack of explanation for certain central problems, but I think that’s always an issue for books with more magical realist qualities. Readers should go into this novel prepared to go along with certain ideas without questioning them.

Recommendation: Those who dislike magical realism should stay away from this book. Teens aged 14 and up would probably appreciate Bone Gap most. There are possible triggers in the chapters covering Roza’s time in college, but Ruby is not graphic. Fans of Magonia will likely enjoy this read (and vice versa).

A Court of Thorns and Roses

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Review: Another book I was so ready to love–but didn’t.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge fan of fairy tales. I love how everything has a purpose even if it seems completely random. I love how they can turn so quickly from romance to tragedy. I love how occasionally–not often, but occasionally–a subtly empowering female figure steps into the fray.

It’s no surprise, then, that I also love adaptations of fairy tales. And, props to Sarah J. Maas, her adaptation draws more from Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast than the Disney version. When “Beauty” (Feyre) mentioned her older sisters, I squealed. That’s how excited I get when authors adapt the original stories. From the first few chapters, I was hooked. I wanted to see this strong, independent hunter girl take down the beast.

But the beast (Tamlin) didn’t need anyone to take him down. In fact, he’s the one who seems to take Feyre down, and even that doesn’t take as much work as I’d like–it’s not so hard to get a human to fall in love with you if you look like a freakin’ god.

Another YA book, another instalove story.

So the first couple hundred pages of the book is that constant “he loves me, he loves me not” questioning where the readers complain about the protagonist’s blindness. Yes, he loves you. We get it. He’s handsome, he thinks you’re beautiful, move on already. In spite of the hostilities and mystery surrounding her, Feyre allows romance to take the central theme of the plot.

And why does Tamlin constantly blame Feyre for being attractive to him? Like he can’t control himself, but he can control Feyre? He tells her “don’t ever disobey me again” and says he “can’t be held accountable for the consequences” even when the consequence is his own lust for her.

I’ve said it. This story doesn’t show love–it shows lust. Aside from one scene where Tamlin notes how easily Feyre understands him, there’s nothing more to their romance than mutual passions. More than lust, it shows the sort of dominant-subordinate roles common in abusive relationships.

And then action happens again and Lucien is amazing and Feyre’s sisters are amazing and Rhysand is amazing and Amarantha is–well, terrifying–and every character seems multi-faceted EXCEPT Feyre and Tamlin and I want to yell at this book because is it really so hard to stick to a strong, interesting female character?

Not to mention the fact that the trials and the riddle are way too predictable.

Why two and a half stars out of five, you ask? Why not lower? Like I said, the rest of the characters are amazing and complex and Maas clearly worked hard to weave the original into the adaptation. The setting is gorgeous and Maas has created yet another fascinating world for this series. I’m hopeful that the second book will focus more on the war in the plot rather than the romance, and from the way the first book ends, it looks like some of my favorite characters will play a larger role in the next book.

Recommendation: Fans of Alex Flinn and Donna Jo Napoli‘s fairy tale adaptations will likely enjoy this read.

I would recommend those interested in fairy tale adaptations to look into Marissa Meyer’s YA sci-fi Lunar Chronicles, Ruth Frances Long’s stand-alone The Treachery of Beautiful Things, or Shannon Hale’s fantasy MS series Books of Bayern instead.

The Courtesan: Biographical historical fiction in the voice of a tragic fairy tale

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Though its voice is reminiscent of a tragic fairy tale, Alexandra Curry’s debut novel The Courtesan is actually a work of biographical historical fiction.

The story begins in 1881 with the execution of young Sai Jinhua’s father and her subsequent sale to a brothel. Under the cruel eye of Lao Mama, Jinhua endures footbinding and “bed business” with the support of her maid Suyin. The two girls become like sisters to one another until the haunted Sub-chancellor Hong makes Jinhua his concubine, taking her away from Suyin and brothel life.

When her new husband is asked to serve the Chinese empire as an ambassador to Vienna, Jinhua accompanies him on the journey, where she is drawn to European culture in a way he does not understand. Defying her husband’s wishes, she obsesses over learning German and even begins to fall for a Prussian count.

In keeping with the tragic fairy tale style, Jinhua does not have the blessing of a happily ever after.

She returns to a changed China as a changed woman, and her new-found Western sympathies threaten herself and those dear to her under the rise of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists.

From the beginning, it is clear that Curry conducted a lot of research for the novel. She pulls idioms from the German as well as the Chinese language. She threads other historical figures through Jinhua’s story and holds to her understanding of those figures. Her depiction of Chinese and Viennese culture of the late 1800s is rich enough that I can imagine it without much difficulty.

Still, The Courtesan is not Sai Jinhua’s story—it is what Sai Jinhua’s story might have been. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Curry filled in the holes and questions of Jinhua’s story with her own imagination and interpretation. This did not deter my enjoyment of the story, but those who prefer historical fact over historical fiction might not find the book so pleasurable as a result.

One of my favorite traits of the book—second only to Curry’s fairy tale voice—is her constant movement between characters’ perspectives. While most of the book is told in third person limited from Jinhua’s angle, other chapters explore the minds of side characters like Suyin and Jinhua’s Viennese maid.

My favorite chapters, though, are the ones that tapped into the viewpoint of characters who stand in the way of Jinhua’s desires. The first chapter, for example, details the death of Jinhua’s father from the executioner’s eyes. Other chapters look through the lenses of Jinhua’s father’s First Wife, the go-between who brought Jinhua to the brothel, Lao Mama, and Sub-chancellor Hong’s First Wife.

The constant movement between characters humanizes those who don’t deserve to be humanized and adds gravity to the novel.

That is not to say the book lacks gravity without these chapters; on the contrary, it takes every grim turn a story can take.

The scenes of footbinding and “bed business” are graphic and characters—particularly those from the brothel—swear intensely. These details made the book difficult to read, but I believe they’re necessary for the portrayal of Jinhua’s environment in this novel.

The most important judge of any historical fiction piece, in my opinion, is that the reader wants to learn more about the figures and events covered in the piece by the end than they did when they began.

For this reason especially, I belief The Courtesan is a success. I’m now far more interested in Sai Jinhua the events leading up to the Boxer Rebellion than I was before reading the novel. I’ve already begun poking around to see what others believe to be the true story of Jinhua and to learn more about the Boxer Rebellion.

Though I love the novel’s style and believe it to be a successful work of historical fiction, the novel fell short in the realism of its main character. Jinhua herself is ever-changing—a trait Curry likely instilled to emphasize her “many lives.” It may be less poetic, but I believe the depiction of Jinhua as having one life with many phases would have saved her character from frequent contortion.

Aside from this fault in Jinhua’s character, The Courtesan is a masterfully written novel with a great love for tragedy.

Recommendation: Fans of Amy Tan, Chinese fairy tales, and the historical context of this novel will likely enjoy it.

I would not recommend this book to victims of abuse or those sensitive to a gritty narrative.

The Courtesan will be available for purchase September 8th.

The Pros and the Cons of The Wrath and the Dawn

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: I was so ready to love this book. I mean, it’s an adaptation of one of my favorite fairy tale collections. One Thousand and One Nights may be the most misogynistic story I’ve read, but in spite of everything I love Scheherazade.

In a brief summary, the original story is about a king who discovers his wife is cheating on him with slaves and decides to wed a new girl each night (and, yes, that also means consummating the marriage) and kill her in the dawn. Because, you know, all women are evil. Then the clever Scheherazade volunteers to marry this mass murder in order to prevent more deaths. She tells him a story each night and leaves it on a cliffhanger so he has to let her live until she finishes the story the next night. Many of the fairy tales are familiar (like this somehow less sexist version of Sleeping Beauty) and *spoiler* the king pardons her in the end. So though I don’t like the depiction of women as evil creatures, I love that Scheherazade steps up for her fellow women and is clever enough to come up with a plan to postpone her death day after day after day.

From Renee Ahdieh’s adaptation of the book, I think she is equally fascinated with the character Scheherazade (whom she calls Shahrzad or Shazi). I love this main character Ahdieh has recreated; she’s just as brave, cunning, and sharp as I had hoped. Her sharp tongue made me smile more than once and I find her individuality refreshing.

I’m also really glad this adaptation didn’t try to make the story white. Ahdieh paints ancient Middle Eastern culture beautifully.

BUT I can’t base my rating off just the protagonist and the story concept.

While I love Shazi and think Tariq, Jalal, Khalid, and Despina are well-defined characters, many of the other characters lacked development. It would have been better, for example, if Ahdieh wrote more between Shazi and Shiva. As it is, I know very little about Shiva aside from the fact that she was kind and much loved. But what about this girl would lead Shazi to put her life on the line to avenge her death? Shiva is Shazi’s main motivator (at least to start) but I don’t know enough about her to relate to Shazi.

Also, I know absolutely nothing about Shazi’s sister, Irsa. Perhaps she will play more of a role in the second book, but I don’t see the point of her now.

Shazi’s father, Jahandar, is a bit of a mystery, as well. I only know what motivates him but it doesn’t seem to fit together well for me. The image I have of him in the beginning changes very quickly. Without giving anything away, I feel like his character should’ve changed when he heard Shazi’s vengeance plans, not after, when it would’ve been too late. It’s too convenient for the plot as it currently stands.

Tariq’s friend Rahim isn’t well-defined, either. He doesn’t have much of a purpose other than to agree to whatever Tariq suggests (or disagree and provide friendly banter to further define Tariq). I hope to see him play a larger role in the second book, as well.

Tariq’s rebellion isn’t fully-formed, either. Shiva’s father’s involved, which is made out to be important, but he doesn’t really do anything. Tariq wants to rally support but *spoiler* he doesn’t even use that support. Maybe it’ll make sense in the next book, but I didn’t see the point of bringing it up in this book–just save it for later if it’s important then.

While I love that the plot changes the character of the king into less of a jerk (and women to be less unfaithful), I can’t help but wish it had more. More magic, more wit, more royalty.

And perhaps my wish for more will be granted in the sequel. Regardless, this book could’ve had more in places. Magic, for example, is really only important for Jahandar’s role, but *spoiler* it’s revealed that Shazi has magic. And that reveal could’ve packed a punch, but it felt more like a poke. Like, oh, cool I have magic. Oh, cool, I can make this rug fly. It’s not like that would be useful to kill this guy I want vengeance on or visit my family and tell them I’m okay or explain everything to my ex. Nope. Not at all. 

Moreover, Khalid, though well-defined, was not the burdened, intelligent heartthrob I hoped he would be. For someone who’s supposedly a good strategist, Khalid doesn’t let his wife know his big secret, which *spoiler* isn’t even his fault. He could’ve done more, yes, but it’s not like he killed her or caused the miscarriage.  For all the hype, I hoped Khalid’s reason for killing so many women was his own fault. As it stands, I don’t think he would be so protective of something–especially when Shazi’s the one asking (and when she has death on her mind).

I can overlook a couple plot holes–it is based on a fairy tale, after all–but unreasonable or underdeveloped characters and misused suspense? That’s something I can’t ignore.

Recommendation: It doesn’t give readers a play-by-play of Shazi and Khalid in bed, its implications are clear. Not explicit, but certainly not a family read-aloud and probably best fit for ages 15 and up.

This book is best for anyone who loves fairy tale adaptations, Middle Eastern culture, romance, and sassy female leads. While it’s not as deep as I’d hoped, it makes for a good light read.

Into the Woods, Into the Theatre

SPOILER ALERT: Please note that the content below may contain spoilers for the Disney production of “Into the Woods.”

I knew very little about the plot of “Into the Woods” before… well, before I went into “Into the Woods.” All I knew was that the musical involved quite a few fairy tales. Still, I suppose I knew more about it than others. (shoutout to my friend who did not know the film was a musical until she saw it)

Though I believe the Disney movie “Into the Woods” preserved the atmosphere of original fairy tales and wore its music beautifully, the characterization didn’t strike the right chord. (I mean the phrase figuratively, of course; the singers can really hit those notes.)

Let me take a moment first to fangirl about the fact that this movie actually tied closer to the Grimm’s tales than to the Disney adaptations. Cinderella’s birds helped her pick lentils from the ashes, Cinderella’s mother’s grave grew a tree, Cinderella lost her golden (not glass–golden) shoe in pitch, Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet, and Cinderella’s birds pecked out her stepsisters’ eyes. Rapunzel’s story was also true to the original Grimm tale in the reason for Rapunzel’s kidnapping and the sorceress-mother blinding the prince-lover. Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood were also true to their respective tales. Disney let the fairy tales keep their violence! (They didn’t actually show any of the violence–this is a PG movie, after all–but it was all stated clearly enough.)

To reiterate, a live action Disney fairy tale film did not draw from previous Disney fairy tale films. (Quite the shock, since the ABC TV series Once Upon a Time seems to only speak in Disney.)

The movie did not just draw from the original tales themselves; they also drew from the undercurrents of fairy tales. Some scholars believe the wolf’s devourment of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother is suggestive of a double rape, which certainly seems to be the case in “Into the Woods.” Though this PG-rated movie wouldn’t dare say so, it is suggested through subtleties; for example, the wolf’s introductory song is titled “Hello, Little Girl” and Red’s song after she is pulled from the wolf’s corpse is called “I Know Things Now.”

I did not like that they showed Red and her grandmother “in the wolf’s stomach” during the latter song, though. I know scholars draw similarities between Red in the wolf and Jonah in the whale, but in a film like “Into the Woods,” which highlights the realisticness of fairy tales, the image of Red and her grandmother inside the wolf seems only to highlight how unrealistic the story truly is. The scene felt more like Alice in Wonderland than Jonah in the Whale, though that may just be because of Johnny Depp’s presence. In any case, I felt the story and, thus, the morals, would have been more relatable if that scene were excluded.

I walked into the theatre expecting a cliche Disney fairy tale adaptation with music. Halfway through the movie, that’s what I got. But then something hits the fairy tale world and knocks down everything I expected.

I’ve never been so glad my expectations weren’t met.

Prince Charming’s later encounter with the Baker’s wife may only show a kiss, but what happens when the scene fades is obvious enough to the adults in the theatre. Both characters cheated on their spouses, and, though the Baker’s wife seems to regret it in her song “Moments in the Woods,” their interactions did not seem entirely in line with her character. Though she was characterized as a strong, brave woman, nearly all her actions were justified in her desperation to have a child with her husband, the baker. I understand that the woods is a magical setting which amplifies the characters’ more animalistic traits and that the prince was dazzlingly rich and charmingly deceptive, but I thought the baker’s wife was stronger than all that. I mean, would you be seduced to do what you know is wrong at these words?: “Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods, / Only feelings. / Let us meet the moment unblushed. / Life is often so unpleasant- / You must know that, as a peasant- / Best to take the moment present / As a present for the moment.” Yeah, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think a prince pointing out my low social status would get me all hot and flustered, even if he did look like Chris Pine.

It’d be one thing if Cinderella’s Prince took her unwillingly, but it didn’t seem in character for her to cheat on her husband (who was my favorite character) AND her newborn child willingly.

Then again, maybe it’s just “something about the woods.”

While we’re on the subject of Cinderella’s Prince, what was wrong with Chris Pine? His big gestures would have been fine for a play, but this production of “Into the Woods” was actually a movie, and if his gestures had been more subtle, perhaps I would have no qualms with his part in the movie. As it stands, I’m disappointed in his casting. His singing was not as brilliant as the rest of the cast, nor was his acting up to their par.

I did enjoy Pine’s character in the song “Agony,” though. Watching the two princes brag about whose love was fairer and whose agony was worse was very realistic, and mirrors what I’ve seen of boys talking about girls. And the shirt-ripping scene was a nice touch.

While we’re on the subject of great songs, check this out–all my favorite characters meshed together in my favorite song(s).

Despite my distaste for the “inside the wolf” scene, the uncharacteristic adultery of the Baker’s wife, and Chris Pine’s dramatic acting, I do recommend the movie. If the songs and fairy tales aren’t enough, “Into the Woods” should draw you into the theatres with it’s strange cast–The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly, Young Victoria’s Queen Victoria, Doctor Who’s Craig Owens (you may remember him as the father of Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All), Pitch Perfect’s Beca, Les Miserables’ Gavroche, Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, and Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow–all of whom can apparently sing.