Books: Blood for Blood

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(The following may contain spoilers for Wolf by Wolf.)

Blood for Blood was one of my most highly-anticipated sequels on my to-read list. I really enjoyed Wolf by Wolf, the first in this duology, and wanted to see more exploration of Yael as a character and her relationships with the people around her in this novel. Like with Wolf by Wolf, I found Blood for Blood to be extremely readable, in the sense that I was able to read it pretty quickly and never got bored or felt like the plot dragged. However, it lacked a certain spark so while I enjoyed it, I didn’t love the book as much as I wanted to.

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Books: Beartown

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Out of all the books I’ve read by Fredrik Backman so far (and I’ve read all of them except for A Man Called Ove), Beartown is definitely the best. The subject matter is darker than Backman’s previous books, dealing with topics are difficult, but also extremely relevant to the real world, and there’s a certain realism to it that makes it more impactful and stand out more than his other novels.

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Books: Strange the Dreamer

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(Any potential spoilers will be blacked out. Highlight at your own risk!)

Strange the Dreamer is another fantastic fantasy novel from Laini Taylor, full of the same beautiful prose and familiar themes as her Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, but this time with a new cast of characters and a different, colorful world.

In this world, humans have two hearts and two bodily fluids that are the force of life–blood and spirit. Lazlo Strange is an orphan from the kingdom of Zosma, a librarian by trade and a dreamer in spirit. He has long been obsessed with Weep, or what he calls the Unseen City, a place that disappeared two centuries ago and exists only as a fairytale in the minds of most people. But one day, the mythical Tizerkane warriors of Weep appear in Zosma, and Lazlo Strange finds that his dreams are very much rooted in reality as he grows closer to unlocking the mysteries of Weep.

It took me two books to fall in love with Laini Taylor’s previous trilogy, but I was immediately drawn to this one. Daughter of Smoke & Bone reminded me a bit of an anime, but Strange the Dreamer reminds me of a fairytale, with a fantastical, dream-like quality to the storytelling and writing that fits the title. Part of what immediately drew me to Lazlo as a character is his love for books and storytelling–give a reader a book about a reader and she will immediately fall in love. But also because so much of the novel is focused on Lazlo and his story and his adventure. He views the world in terms of stories, myths, and legends just waiting to be written, and we are immersed into this worldview of his.

There is a hint of instalove here, but that doesn’t appear until much later in the novel, and the relationship is so beautiful and so sweet that I can forgive the instalove. It doesn’t appear early enough to annoy me, and instead we get to spend that extra time really getting to know our cast of characters and the history of Weep and the world around them.

Exploring the relationship between “good” and “evil” and the two sides of every story is a theme that Taylor seems to be constantly exploring in her novels. There is also a recurring theme of exploring one’s own identity, and a questioning of what constitutes humanity. These themes all appear in this world and allow the novel to transcend fantasy and look at issues that also exist in reality.

What I found particularly interesting is how Strange the Dreamer looks at the dynamic between two groups of beings who have a long history of prejudice, power imbalance, and violence between them, who are both “human” in many ways but have also done terrible things that are inhumane. The individuals in these two groups are very much the same on the inside: they both have two hearts that pump blood and spirit, both feel emotion and have relationships and want to live, but their main dividing feature is the color of their skin, and with that color comes so much history and prejudice and hatred. Seem familiar? The exploration of this dynamic is most obvious when Lazlo comes into his power and finds that he has become blue, and the people around him–who have gotten to know him so well–are unable to see past the new color of his skin.

Strange the Dreamer is a must-read for lovers of Laini Taylor and/or a good fantasy. It’s a beautiful story on its own, but the ending will leave you hungering for more.

Books: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

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My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman does it again. Unlike most people, my introduction to Fredrik Backman was his novel Britt-Marie Was Here (and not A Man Called Ove), mainly because that was what was available when I was looking for books to read. With My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Backman gives us another beautiful, feel-good novel that explores human relationships.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is narrated by Elsa, an extremely astute seven-year-old who is bullied at school for being different and very close with her (slightly crazy) grandmother. Her grandmother is the one who introduces her to the fairytale world of the Land-of-Almost-Awake and all the stories of the heroes and characters within that fairytale world. When Elsa’s grandmother dies, she entrusts Elsa with a grand adventure of giving letters to the people around her. These letters are the grandmother’s way of saying sorry, and through them, Elsa learns a little more about the secret life of her grandmother as well as the people around her.

Although this novel is narrated by a child, it’s hardly a children’s book thematically and content-wise. But regardless of how intelligent Elsa is, she is still a child, and that fact, along with her grandmother’s fairytales, adds a simplicity and purity to the novel and narration. The stories and characters are complex, but can also be distilled into simple fairytales.

I love how Backman tells a story. The novel begins as just a tale of a girl and her crazy grandmother living their life, along with the fairytales that the crazy grandmother fabricates, but gradually develops into something more, looking at their family history and family dynamics, and eventually encompassing the larger family of their neighbors in their building. One of my favorite parts of the novel is how the fairytales bleed into reality in a way that isn’t magical realism, but approaches it in the way that Elsa views and interprets these connections. Is the wurse just a big dog or is it really a wurse? We will never know.

It was also really interesting reading this novel after Britt-Marie Was Here, because Britt-Marie is one of the many supporting characters here, and is at first characterized as an antagonist, especially from Elsa’s perspective. The Britt-Marie of this novel is very different from Britt-Marie Was Here, mainly because the latter’s story begins where this novel ends, and is the story of Britt-Marie’s transformation. It was interesting reading this novel and gaining a different perspective on Britt-Marie, while already knowing and having sympathized with her in Britt-Marie Was Here.

Already, I see a certain formula to the way that Backman writes and structures his stories, but it works so I won’t complain. They might be a bit formulaic, but the characters, relationships, and stories themselves are complex and feel real.

Books: Afterworlds

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Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld was one of the first YA authors I ever read with his Uglies series in middle school, and one of my favorite authors growing up. I loved what he did with Uglies and what he did with Leviathan. Which is why I had high hopes for Afterworlds, in which he tackles the YA genre itself, but I was a bit disappointed.

Containing two novels, one which is the “real” one about teenage writer Darcy Patel who just signed a huge two-book contract with a publishing company and is now moving to New York, and another that is the novel Darcy wrote, also titled Afterworlds, which follows protagonist Lizzie Scofield after she survives a terrorist attack and discovers the ability to see the dead. The concept of the book is meta, as it’s about the YA world itself–readers, writers, and publishers–and having just read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (by Gabrielle Zevin, a great book that I sadly won’t be fully reviewing here), I had high expectations for meta novels about the world of novels and novel-writing.

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Books: The Rose & The Dagger

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The Rose & The Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

In The Rose & The Dagger, Renee Ahdieh gives us a lovely conclusion to Shahrzad and Khalid’s love story. This sequel to The Wrath & The Dawn features yet another beautiful cover and more of the magic, romance, and intrigue that I loved in the first book.

The Rose & The Dagger picks up from where the cliffhanger ending of The Wrath & The Dawn left off. We get to meet some new characters out in the desert, such as Shazi’s sister Irsa, and a new magic wielder. Shazi is officially a guest of the Balawi tribe in the desert, but she feels like she is among enemies and must carefully navigate her relationships with her former lover, former friends, and family, people whom she once loved and who once loved her, but who now don’t necessarily trust her.

The story covers a lot of ground in its 400-some pages, but is a pretty quick read, with much of the story and plot propelled by dialogue (some which can be a little cheesy at times.) Perhaps because it covers so much, I felt that the ideas, emotions, relationships, and plot were at times a little too simple and too perfect. In particular, I felt that both Tariq’s and Jahandar’s actions and decisions were explained away too simply. They both suffered from loving too much, or loving too simply. So much of what happens in their decision-making and thought process boils down to love, which makes sense given that this is a romance (although not all of the love is romantic/sexual love). But I wanted them to have a little more complexity, and they seemed a little too simple and single-minded. There were some pretty shocking betrayals and plot twists, but even those were explained away a little too simply and a little too cleanly.

The one aspect of Ahdieh’s writing that first captured my heart in The Wrath & The Dawn and did so again in this book is her ability to make me feel for the characters. Very few books can make my heart ache for the characters and their situations and their heartbreaks, but both books in this series have succeeded in doing so, and that’s so important to me in reading a good romance. These books make me feel, but not in a melodramatic way that involves tears and heaviness, but in a lighter, feel-good way.

For all my talk of how the plot, emotions, and ideas are a bit too simple and perfect, they also make for a nice, feel-good, fluffy romance. This series is a worthwhile read if you love YA, romance, and delicious descriptions of food.

Books: The Wrath & The Dawn

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The Wrath & The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The young adult genre is full of fantasy romance novels that all have pretty similar storylines and characters, and The Wrath & The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh is no exception. But this book is also an exceptionally well-written one that stands out among its peers and is exactly what I wanted it to be. The cover is beautiful and there is magic, politics, secrets, and intrigue, but for the most part the story is light and at its heart is a beautiful love story that transported me to another world and into another life.

The Wrath & The Dawn is pitched as a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights and I definitely had Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphony playing on repeat in the background as I listened. Shahrzad lives in Khorasan, where each night the young caliph Khalid weds a new bride and each morning that bride is killed. When her best friend becomes one of the caliph’s victims, Shahrzad voluntarily enters the palace as his next bride and vows to be the last one. Her plan is to assassinate him, but instead she finds that the mystery behind the dead brides is not as simple as she thinks, and she slowly falls in love with Khalid. Of course, her family and friends outside the palace have no idea what’s going on and think she’s lost her mind or been manipulated by Khalid. Both her father Jahandar and her childhood sweetheart Tariq take it upon themselves to rescue her from the caliph, and both Khalid and Shahrzad face enemies and threats from all sides.

The story is well-written and full of vivid descriptions, which was a welcome change after reading a lot of literary pieces that were minimalist in their visual descriptions and didn’t waste words. Ahdieh has a fascination with eyes in her writing, and sometimes I was a bit skeptical as to how eyes can shimmer and shine and express all sorts of emotions just by sparkling and existing. It wasn’t quite enough to make me annoyed, but it was enough to get my attention (in a bit of a bad way…)

The plot is captivating, but it’s mainly Shahrzad who steals the show and my heart in this novel. She is pretty much my ideal female protagonist: she’s strong and sarcastic, she can handle difficult situations with elegance, but she’s not flawless. I could feel the strength of emotion and magnetism between her and Khalid.

The ending is pretty abrupt, which is perhaps the worst part of the novel, but I also like these kinds of endings, and I have the sequel readily available to read, so I probably don’t hate it as much as someone who would have to wait a year or two to get a continuation of the story. Overall, The Wrath & The Dawn is a great romance that is definitely worth a read if you’re looking for a lot of romance and a little bit of something more.