The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, classic collection of Middle Eastern folktales from days of old. Sadly, I never read A Thousand and One Nights, although I’m much more inclined to after reading this book. But even without having read the original work this book is inspired by, the premise was one that was familiar to me due to the ever-constant presence of stories within our world.

The land of Khorasan is under the rule of the mad boy-king Khalid, who strikes a blow at the hearts of his people every sunrise. For months now, the cruel caliph has taken for himself a new bride, a new young girl to wed, only to have her strangled to death with a silk cord come the dawn. When her best friend becomes Khalid’s newest victim, 16 year old Sharazad vows vengeance on the boy-king, making herself his next bride and using her skill at weaving stories to entice him and keep herself alive for one more day, hoping to find a way to destroy Khalid’s grip of fear on her people once and for all.

I remember when I was little and first heard the premise of A Thousand and One Nights and being amazed that a young girl telling stories could soften the heart of such a cruel man. How could only words and the promise of hearing what happens next in the story be enough to prevent her death? Thinking about it now, isn’t that what all good stories do? They weave a magical world that doesn’t tangibly exist and yet keep the reader entranced and enthralled and wanting more even when the story is finished. The Wrath and the Dawn did precisely that for me. The word I best can use to describe it is “magical” even though actual magic are only hinted at at best. But the book entranced me, pulled me in and caught me in its spell until it was over. And just like Scheherazade in the original tale, it left me before the story was finished, but with the promise that more will come.

The characters of The Wrath and the Dawn are far more complex than their folklore counterparts. Sharazad is not simply a weaver a words, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She holds her own in a world that wants to chain and silence her. She refuses to be a quiet little pet of a seemingly mad king and demands to be heard and valued equally. Khalid is not just a single-minded cruel boy, caring so little for the wives he’s killed. There’s suffering behind his callous exterior, reasons for the deaths, pain and sadness and remorse even while he continues to destroy lives. There’s layers to him to understand, even while his tendency for violence horrifies and disgusts. Similarly, the advisors and servants within the palace each have their own stories, their own wants and needs outside of our main characters which add a richness to the story. Even the family Sharazad leaves behind is not a forgotten sidenote in her life. As her understanding of Khalid grows, her family rears their heads, reminding her of what she has sacrificed to be in this position, scorning her for feeling any sympathy for the king who murdered so many.

I will say not everything worked perfectly in this book. Although I appreciated Sharazad’s journey of emotions as her time with Khalid grew, I found the jumps back to Tariq and her family a bit confusing to follow. Once the storylines converged more, things fell more into place but whenever we’d cut back to them, I’d find myself growing restless as I cared much more about Sharazad and her journey than I did anything Tariq was planning. Although I understand and appreciate the importance he serves in Sharazad’s backstory, I found him more annoying than anything else, a smaller player in a much larger story that he didn’t fully understand.

I loved this book, although I didn’t realize how much until it was over and the story was not yet done. I wouldn’t use the word cliffhanger to describe the ending, for there wasn’t any singular event cut short. The story of Sharazad simply wasn’t done yet. But the spell had already been cast and there was nothing I could do but wait until the Renee Ahdieh came back to me with more magical words to weave and a promise of a conclusion to the story.

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s always disheartening for me when I pick up a book by an author whose previous work I love and the book just… isn’t that good. A sense of guilt overwhelms me as I trudge on and on, continuing to dislike the book and wishing it wasn’t the case. Such has happened with Paolo Bacigalupi and The Doubt Factory as I really kinda hated this book. In fact, I’m very thankful that I read Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities before I read this novel, because there’s a good chance I’d have not continued on with any of Bacigalupi’s other works, which really are quite good. But as it stands, very little about The Doubt Factory landed for me, and reading it left me only tired and frustrated at the characters and the plot. (Sidebar: I will attempt to not spoil major plot points but in order to detail what about this book annoyed me so much, I’m going to have to explain certain character actions in vague generalities. Please be warned if you wish to remain completely spoiler free).

The Doubt Factory follows 17 year old Alix Banks, daughter of a fairly affluent and powerful PR executive. Living in her sheltered and privileged world, Alix doesn’t particularly bother herself with worries over how most other people live. Not out of a calloused and uncaring worldview, mind you, she just hasn’t had anyone challenge her view of the world. She’s a child living in a pristine house where the reality of life hasn’t broken in and soiled up the place yet. But when an underground protest group called 2.0 start threatening her and her family, Alix is forced to confront what exactly her father does and how it affects those less fortunate than her.

Paolo Bacigalupi tends to write message fiction. I’ve recommended him to my father many times due to his heartfelt passion for environmental problems and fixing climate change. His books tend to be set in the not too distant future where Earth as we know it is gone, ravaged by floods or a lack of water or a mass shortage of food where everything is genetically modified. The books are close enough to recognize our society and culture but far enough to allow for elements of the fantastical/dystopian to drive home the point of “we need to fix this NOW.” And similarly, The Doubt Factory also has a message Bacigalupi wants to impress upon his readers: that of how much power lobby groups and PR companies have over organizations like the FDA. That the general health and safety of the public is compromised by greedy capitalistic corporations who are well aware that their drug has serious and/or deadly side effects, but hire PR companies to bury the evidence in order to squeeze out more years of sales before they are forced to put warning labels on their products. An easy example of this would be the amount of marketing work done for cigarette companies in the 50s and 60s when science was coming out about how dangerous smoking actually was.

Now the message, although somewhat heavy handedly driven home, is not the reason I hated The Doubt Factory. I fully believe and understand that government is controlled by lobby groups and PR firms are masters of spin and influence and trick the consuming public every day. No, my problem was that every single one of our characters seemed to be as intelligent as a bag of bricks and only half of them operated in the real world.

The main issue I have is with our main character Alix, and not just because of her incredibly millennial spelled name. I do not understand any of Alix’s decision making. When 2.0’s leader starts enacting “pranks” (more on whether or not I consider these instances pranks later) at her school and essentially begins stalking her, she is drawn to him, entranced. Time and time again she defends 2.0 and his actions, balking at the harsh labels her father and his security company use to describe him (terms like, say, terrorist). She feels a sense of teenage allure to him as he’s a slightly older handsome black man and she a VERY sheltered rich white girl. He’s the dangerous bad boy she’s never experienced. That part is fine… up until he starts assaulting people and continually threatens her and her family. About then is where she logically should stop sympathizing with him and start fearing him.

The reader might feel sympathy for 2.0 because we’re getting POV from him and understand some of the pain he’s gone through to lead to this point, but Alix knows none of this. All she knows is that a scary and clearly physically strong black man is threatening her and her family and appears to want to kidnap her to get at her father (I’d like to clarify that I’m not bringing up the stereotype because I believe it true, but because in the book, Alix makes it clear how incredibly sheltered and white her upbringing has been. There are only a very VERY small amount of black people at her school, and she’s barely interacted with them. In this context along with the context of the world we’re operating in (our own), that stereotype and prejudice would be in the forefront of her mind). Throughout the book Alix routinely withholds information from her father and the security people set to protect her and her family for no good reason, other than she doesn’t want to get 2.0 in trouble. Screw getting him in trouble, he’s threatened your family and assaulted a person! Why are you behaving like this?

Earlier I described 2.0 as an “underground protest group” but that’s… not entirely accurate. It’s just that I don’t know how else to classify them without either sugarcoating the ramifications of their actions or using extremely harsh language (like, say, terrorist). The book too seems to struggle with how dangerous 2.0 is, or should be perceived. Alix refers to all of their actions as “pranks.” Except that the actions include things like: assaulting a person, calling in a bomb threat at a high school that isn’t entirely untrue, causing a literal explosion when security enforcement attempts to protect Alix and apprehend 2.0, and, of course, kidnapping. The reader gets POV of the group and understands their motivations and they truly do not seem to understand the seriousness of what they are doing and brush off any terrorist-esque label as PR spin meant to make them the bad guys. But…. they kinda are. Their actions are very serious. They assaulted a SWAT team called in to protect the school. They are implicated in multiple kidnappings and keep one person locked up in a cage for periods of time. They are doing things specifically meant to cause fear and, well, terror, in Alix’s household. They are trying to punish Alix’s father for things they believe he has done. They are a serious threat and rightfully are treated like one by the security team and Alix’s parents. It’s just that the book seems to have missed that memo because time and time again I’m meant to feel sympathy that they’re being treated this seriously.

I think this all could have been resolved with a few changes. If, for example, Alix had an established difficult relationship with her father when the book began, we might believe her withholding information from him. If she already was suspicious of his job and what he does for a living, it’d make sense why she’s so sympathetic with 2.0. But as it stands, she and her father have a good relationship, if a little strained by how busy he is. But when Alix’s life is threatened, he immediately comes home and calls in as many favors as he has to to keep her safe. He worries and cares for her and goes to great lengths to protect her. 2.0 even comments on how good of a father he is.

Another solution would be to do what so many other Bacigalupi books do and set this in the not too near but not far off future. Make this a world that isn’t present day. Because it’s set in 2014 America, all of its actions are painted by how 2014 America would behave. A very rich, very privileged white girl with little to no interaction with people who aren’t her race or financial bracket WOULD be scared of a threatening black man. The actions of 2.0 WOULD be labeled as terroristic and threatening acts. A 17 year old girl WOULD NOT be able to enact any real change on how her father or the world operates in regards to PR spin. But every time Alix behaves strangely or reacts not in our reality, I get confused because we’ve gone out of our way to establish this as present day America. If this was the year 2050 or something and PR spin has gone amok, endangering the lives of Americans nationwide on an exaggerated scale, I’d have a much easier time sympathizing with 2.0’s actions, or believing Alix’s behavior, because it wouldn’t have to make sense in our current world.

This book was the biggest disappointment I’ve encountered this year. I loved Paolo Bacigalupi’s previous works but there’s very little about this book that I enjoyed. Pretty much the only part that worked for me was near the middle where Bacigalupi went on a rant about PR firms covering up the dangers of aspirin. When in full blown message mode, the book works. I understand and agree with the point Bacigalupi is trying to make. It’s just the plot that continually falls apart at every turn.

A review of Reality Boy by A.S. King

I am not the type of person to denounce the existence of reality tv as the worst thing to ever happen to modern entertainment. Frequently in college you could find me and my friends huddled around our dorm tv, watching marathons of America’s Next Top Model and arguing over who we think should be eliminated that episode. My netflix queue is filled with shows such as Chopped, Kitchen Nightmares, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Say Yes to the Dress. But one area of shows I’ve stayed away from are ones involving children. Dance Moms, Toddlers in Tiaras, Nanny 911 and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo felt overly exploitative in the manner which children were being used as entertainment.

But what happens to those kids after they’ve grown and come to the realization that the world now has seen a highly edited version of their actions and behaviors, and know them only as “that kid on the tv show?” In Reality Boy, Gerald Faust was one of the featured children on a Nanny 911 equivalent. Known for his extreme anger issues and over the top tantrums, 5 year old Gerald quickly became known as “the crapper” due to his habit of expressing his immense anger by pooping on things throughout the house. Now 16 years old, Gerald still is known around his hometown as “the crapper” and is still very, very angry. He is constantly teased at school, causing him to get into more and more violent outbursts, simultaneously pushing away anyone who tries to get close to him and making him unable to escape his reality television days.

Everyone knows that reality television is scripted and edited for maximum entertainment value. But in Reality Boy you really get to see just how much of Gerald’s outbursts were at best staged and at worst manipulative of what was really happening in the Faust household. Seeing him deal with this unresolved anger and finding out why he’s so angry was the driving force of the book for me. As we continue deeper into the book we start seeing just how bad Gerald’s life is, and realize along with him the situations he’s been manipulated into that have been contributing to his easily angered state.

Gerald’s relationships with his classmates, school crush, and therapist were secondary to me. I found myself only caring about their reactions to Gerald and the pain he was going through. Would they believe his claims? Would they get him the help he needed? Or would everyone fail him and just watch as he self imploded in a firey ball of rage? These are interesting and compelling questions but also left the secondary characters feeling less fleshed out to me.

In the end, I was both pleased and disappointed with the ending. There is a sense of realism that the reader is left with and I appreciated the author’s avoidance of a wish fulfillment happily ever after. Gerald is dealing with serious issues both internally and externally and they cannot be resolved with the wave of a wand. But on the same token, I really wanted to see what happened after the book was over. I wanted to see the reactions of those secondary characters to events leading to the book’s ending.

I greatly enjoyed Reality Boy and thought it offered a very interesting and unique point of view from a troubled teen who the entire world know only as “the kid who crapped on everything when he was 5 on that tv show.” It simultaneously explores issues of constructed reality television and its effects on the child participants along with internalized anger and what can cause extreme boughts of violence in troubled teens. I wish we had explored more of the aftermath of Gerald’s actions, but cannot be fully disappointed by the ending. A.S. King proves once again her expertise at telling complex and interesting stories about non conventional teens.

Falls the Shadow by Stefanie Gaither, a review

Everyone has those moments where you go down the internet rabbit hole and you’ll start off searching for who directed Captain America Winter Soldier and suddenly 30 minutes have past and you’re looking at a wikipedia entry of a list of every guest appearance on SNL ever. Somehow I went down one of those rabbit holes and ended up in the backlog of a website interviewing illustrators of book covers and 5 more books magically appeared on my TBR. Falls the Shadows was one of those books because oh my goodness, that cover. I love this cover so much I wrote an analysis of the design work because every time I tried to write this review I started gushing about typography. Also because there wasn’t a lot I felt I needed to say about this book.

Cate is only 12 or so, her sister Violet dies. Before the week is out, however, Violet is back with the Benson family, as if nothing had happened. When they were both born, Cate and Violet’s parents had them cloned and a chip was implanted in the original daughters, wirelessly transmitting each of their memories to the lab where the backup of the children remained in stasis. Violet’s clone is a perfect copy. She behaves the same way, remembers everything Violet did, and to the Benson family, it’s like she never died. But one day Violet never shows up to school and Cate learns that a girl in her grade has been murdered and suspicion turns towards the Benson family and their returned daughter.

I’ve never felt that I was particularly skilled at writing plot summaries but this book specifically is putting up a struggle. There’s just so much happening! It starts off with Cate and Violet’s classmate Samantha being murdered and Violet is under suspicion, but it’s not really a murder mystery because then more plot happens and underlying machinations happening with the cloning facility and there’s an anti-cloning quasi resistance group and also Cate’s parents are politicians so there’s that familial struggle element and there’s a boy she likes so romance subplot… so much happening. I found it hard to follow sometimes. Multiple double-crosses happen, we have a briefly mentioned chemical warfare backstory that comes into play later on and peppered throughout all of this is Cate swooning over her crush, Jaxson.

Surprisingly, I didn’t hate the book. I for the most part enjoyed it, although in a very shallow way. The more I think about it, the more I feel I should have hated it, but it never amassed enough effort for me to care one way or the other. I’m a master at the backhanded compliment, I know. The part of the book that I felt worked the least for me was the relationship between Cate and clone Violet.

The phrase “in late out early” is often times referenced for writing introductions. You want to start your book as far into the “action” as you can with it still making sense, and end the scene early enough that your readers are left wanting more. This book started a little too late and left a little too early. We start off in the drive after Violet’s funeral to pick up clone Violet. From there we meet her and then there’s a time jump of 5 years and Cate and clone Violet are in high school the day Samantha is pronounced murdered. The relationship between Cate and Violet and then the relationship between Cate and clone Violet is what drives this book. Cate will make decisions based off of her feelings towards her dead sister’s clone or her sister proper. But we never get to see Cate and Violet interact, don’t get to see the awkwardness immediately following clone Violet being brought into the house, the angry fights that must have ensued for a grieving and confused not yet teenaged Cate being told to pretend that her sister didn’t die. Cate tells us these things happened, sure, but we never get to see them. So when all I have to go off of for Cate and clone Violet’s relationship is how I see them interacting after Violet’s under suspicion of murder? I don’t really understand where Cate is coming from in her decision making.

Falls the Shadow is a perfectly acceptable YA book. It is a fairly standard near future quasi dystopian complete with teenage love interests and emotions. I don’t have anything against the book or think it’s a waste of time to read it, but it also didn’t do anything I hadn’t seen before. I appreciate the cause of Cate’s “stand up against the establishment” actions is based off of her relationship with her sister and her sister’s clone, but wish we could have seen more of that actual relationship instead of being told about it. Sometimes a book is unremarkable but that’s okay.

Quick reads and DNFs for the week of 05.02.2015

Yay for a new section on the blog! So sometimes I read things that I for the most part enjoyed, I just have not a lot to say about them. Normally I’d try to write a review anyway but it’d be a struggle because really, there wasn’t much analysis to go into. Sometimes a book is just a book.

Moving forward, whenever I have books such as those I’ll summarize them here. And on top of that, I’ll briefly list books I started but decided to not finish for whatever reason. Let’s get started!

curtsiesCurtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger is the 2nd book in the Finishing School series. In it, our teenage victorian spy named Sophronia has moved onto her 2nd year of studies and has new challenges to deal with. There’s a floatation device that will allow the steampunk airship school to fly up into a different part of the atmosphere and all the politics entangled with that, the tensions between the vampires is increasing and on top of that, Sophronia has to deal with more internal school drama. Curtsies & Conspiracies feels like more of the same. The plot of this book is very similar to the plot of the previous, even going as far as the climax revolving around nefarious goings on happening in the midst of a coming out ball. Sophronia feels much more mary sue esque in this one. There’s seemingly nothing she can’t accomplish. On top of that, the book starts introducing a love triangle and lord knows I have little patience for that. But in the end, it was still a really fun YA steampunk spy book. I’m still enjoying the characters, the love triangle right now is less misunderstood drama and more a challenge for Sophronia’s espionage skills. Soap is still great. I’ll probably continue this series whenever I’m in the mood for something light and fun.

conoollyTemptation Has Green Eyes by Lynne Connolly. So, last year my mother got me to accept the romance genre as a thing I can enjoy. I’ve had many a struggle finding my likes and dislikes but I’m expanding my reading life. I still haven’t gotten over my internal embarrassment whenever I see some of the book covers (this one included) but I’m attempting to look past that. Anyway. Temptation Has Green Eyes is the 2nd book in the series, although I have not read the first. Another thing I’ve discovered as I read romance: series don’t have to be read in order in this genre. The plot of this one is pretty self-contained: Max and Sophia have an arranged marriage, learn to care for each other over the course of 6 months or so. There’s a bit of a political subplot involving Sophia’s parentage and Max’s family feuds but the majority of the book is just about the two of them navigating their marriage and developing feelings for each other. Oh, and having sex. There’s lots of sex, just thought I should mention. However, the lack of intense plot works in the book’s favor. It knows what it wants to do, which is tell the story of two people falling in love and sorting through their differences. It doesn’t get bogged down with empty attempts at world building it doesn’t care about. Also! Max isn’t an alpha male domineering possessive love interest!! He respects her and her right to consent! In a historical novel! It’s a wonderful thing. Sophia also has opinions and interests outside of her wanting to bang Max which I greatly approve of. I’m staring to like the romance genre, if I can find the right sort of romance book.

DNFs:

irondukeThe Iron Duke by Meljean Brook. *gag* As evidence by my other two books, I was wanting to read something light and romancey this week. I think the disappointment of The Hollow City got to me because I needed a palette clenser. And oh god, was this book not the right way to go. Halfway through reading Curtsies & Conspiracies, I decided I wanted to read a steampunk romance novel and… ugh. Plus side, this was a book that clearly did want to spend time developing a unique world, and I was enjoying that world but… how exactly do I put this… the main lead was very… rapey. Actually, no, he’s just straight up a rapist. Remember how excited I was not a paragraph early about Max being a human being who respected his partner and made sure to get consent before engaging in anything? Rhys, the main male lead in this book, does the opposite of that. Here is the set up: we are in steampunk London and a body has fallen from the sky. Our main female lead, Mina, who is a captain and detective within the police force, is investigating the murder which happens to have landed on Rhys’ property. And literally as we’re inspecting the body, Rhys is suddenly overtaken with primal urges and tells her that “I will have you in my bed.” He proceeds to say this throughout the remaining 50 or so pages that I read. He even goes so far as to blackmail her by saying the only way he’d help her rescue her kidnapped brother (he’s a duke and has better resources than the stretched thin police force) would be if she has sex with him. Pardon me while I vomit. So yeah, definitely not touching this one with a ten foot pole dipped in bleach.