Review: Truthwitch

 

truthwitch

Details: Dennard, Susan. (2016). Truthwitch. New York: Tor Teen.

Keywords: Fantasy, Young Adult, Magic, Witches, Friendship

Review:

I have to admit that sometimes I am swayed by the opinions of others in regards to books. I try not to be but sometimes it just seems easier to not read something based on bad reviews. I usually don’t go out of my way to read reviews when making a decision about reading a book, but I do glance at them, and sometimes (I’m looking at you Tumblr) you come across them without meaning to. Truthwitch had decidedly mixed reviews, so when I checked out the book, I was expecting a meh read.

This expectation was turned around from page one. I found myself grinning as I was reading because I was totally in the genre I loved: true blue fantasy.

I’m going to forgo a summary here because it’s a little complicated, at least to fit into one paragraph, but basically this book follows the exploits of two young magic users Iseult and Safiya as they navigate the dangers of rare magic and political complications that they are mercilessly thrown in the middle of.

Things I loved: The characters! Iseult and Safiya were both unique enough so I didn’t feel like we were reading about the same person, but they also reflected the world in which they lived and their different upbringings. It was great to watch how they each played their roles in their friendship, but also how they each reacted to situations based on their personalities. There is also feisty Prince Merik and a healer monk lady whose name escapes me at the moment, but both were awesome, well rounded characters. My favorite, besides Safiya and Iseult has to be Aeduan, a bloodwitch who has conflicting motivations, so, helloooo moral ambiguity. My favorite!

The themes of the story are also quite satisfying. Safiya comes from a noble background that she eschews and Iseult comes from a group that is racially looked down upon so we get discussions of class and race. Many other reviewers (see, I am affected by them!) also pointed out that the main relationship in the book is the friendship between two women, and it is true. It is the friendship that drives the story, even when the characters are separated. It is always great to see female relationships portrayed in any story, but especially when it feels so genuine. The author never had the women fall into pettiness or jealousy, as is often how female friendships devolve in media.

My only real issue with the book is that the magic system was slightly confusing. There are a million different kinds of witches and each has distinct magic even within their own kind. There were also relationships that were defined by magic, which was not explained very clearly. But this is easy to ignore and you kind of get the point as you read further. It does not take away from the story very much. Also, there was slight insta-love, but I could ignore it for the way the relationship developed through the rest of the book.

Now I will say, I can see how this book isn’t for everyone. If you are not into fantasy or YA, it would be kind of disappointing (although, why you would then read a YA fantasy and then get whiney about it is beyond me). But for me, Truthwitch was the perfect blend of swashbuckling fantasy, with political intrigue, badass ladies, and romance. Sign me up!

Excitement Level: Five truthful stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

 

Review: A Criminal Magic

a criminal magicDetails: Kelly, Lee. (2016) A Criminal Magic. New York: Saga Press

Keywords: Sorcery, Magic, 1920’s, Mob. Fantasy

Review:

I have to admit this book left me feeling a little bit stumped. The concept is amazing: prohibition era, but instead of alcohol being illegal, magic is what has been forbidden. I mean, come on. That is genius right there. And it was a really fun read for sure, but after finishing I felt like it wasn’t as memorable as it could have been.

The story follows two characters: Joan, a young woman with a dark past who finally embraces her magical powers in order to help her poor family; and Alex, whose father was arrested for a magic racket in which Alex was the key sorcerer. He has since joined the Federal Prohibition Unit, the force dedicated to taking down magic. Both end up working for the mob (Alex as an undercover agent), and the stakes get increasingly high as Joan’s dark past comes back to haunt her.

Again, I loved the concept of this book. And I think that Lee Kelly did a great job of building her own unique style of magic. It was both something that could be beautiful and really scary, which lead to some fascinating great scenes. The use of magic as a drug, the so-called “shine,” was also a brilliant plot point. The draw to using magic and the danger that it posed was a perfect juxtaposition, mirrored especially in Joan’s character. She was both naive and worldly and this comes through in the choices she makes surrounding her magic.

I can understand that Joan might be a frustrating character for some people. She makes some pretty poor choices and continues to justify them to herself throughout the novel. But I found that her choices, though bad, made sense in the context of how broken she was in some ways, so I thought it lent credence to the character that she wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. Besides, there wouldn’t be much of a story without those decisions.

Alex was also an interesting study in juxtapositions. In some cases he could be quite self-destructive, but his drive to do well by his family and escape his past put him in positions where he had to be more careful. When Joan and Alex finally meet, it makes sense that they would be drawn to each other based not only on their pasts, but also on this inherent tension in what they want and need versus the actual reality of their lives at the moment.

So this book has a lot going for it, and the story and characters were definitely intriguing. I’m not sure what it is that is missing that made me want more from the story. Another review I read mentioned that they thought Kelly did not use the setting of the 1920’s enough, which I can see. To add to that, I also think it could have been a little grittier, what with the mob playing a pretty big role in the story. Sometimes it just felt too clean.

But I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. The danger felt real and I was invested in the characters and their relationships. Based on the writing, I am curious to read Kelly’s other novel City of Savages.

Excitement Level: Four “Shine” induced stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Haruki Murakami

A while back, I was reading Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of short stories. I have read a few other Murakami books (including his non-fiction Underground, about the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, which I highly recommend. I think sometimes American’s forget that terrorism exists in other countries—what? Other countries?—and this book is a testament to global violence). I would consider myself a fan of his work. But about halfway through the book, I realized something: I didn’t understand about 60% of what I was reading. And that is probably being generous.

For those of you that don’t know, Haruki Murakami is probably the best known Japanese author outside of Japan. He studied at Waseda University, and I only mention that because I made a little pilgrimage, and their literature department has its own library. A library only devoted to works of fiction to be used by writers for reference purposes. I may have peed my pants a little. Got to hand it to the Japanese, they appreciate their art. Here, have some of my pictures, because everyone loves to look at other people’s travel photos.

Anyway, Murakami has won a million awards, including the Franz Kafka Prize, which Wikipedia tells me that to win, your work has to exhibit “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times.” Haha, no problem! I bust crap like that out every day! I’m just filled with human validity. Now, excuse me while I partake of some ugly sobbing.

Murakami’s writing is filled with all of those themes, all beautifully crafted in a gloss of post-modern melancholy that I find both appealing and so damned frustrating, because sometimes YOU JUST WANT A HAPPY ENDING! STOP WHINING YOU OVER EDUCATED, OVERSEXED PROTAGONIST! His themes include violence, loss, and the subconscious. He is ridiculously well versed in Western culture, especially music, and interweaves this knowledge without you ever thinking he’s name dropping just cause he can. He plays around with reality and fantasy in ways that will blow your mind. So basically, Haruki Murakami wins. At life. And is better than you could ever hope to be.

Going back to my original point:

I could not make sense of a lot of what was going on in The Elephant Vanishes. But I still enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed what I did understand. I enjoyed the language. I enjoyed the different world view of reading a non-Western author. Murakami is a highly celebrated author, and my permanent “what?” face while reading should have made me feel like my AP English tests should be revoked. But I ended up not caring, and just reading.

What I am trying to say is I think that we are trained from an early age that everything must have some kind of deeper meaning. And if we don’t understand that meaning, we must be uncultured idiots. Even if you didn’t go to college, this idea was hammered in by high school. I still have my 12th grade English teacher’s horrible voice screeching in my brain when I approach a difficult book: “What’s the undergirding, overarching theme?” To which now, in the safe anonymity of the internet, I can finally reply you can take your undergirding and shove it up your overarching. And I say good day, Madame. I said good day!

So we get scared to explore challenging material, because of the fear that we won’t be able to identify and analyze the one sentence that that one character said on page 360, that other people have told us is important. And it probably is. But guess what? It’s not so important to be able to comprehend every microcosm of Heart of Darkness. What is important is whatever you end up getting out of it. Whatever speaks to you personally, as well as going out and finding stuff you may never have read because you thought it would go over your head.

Basically, go read. Read all the things. Try long books and poetry. Try philosophy and science. Hell, try a Murakami. Find what meaning you can and just enjoy the thrill of reading beyond your comprehension. I am someone who believes deeply in the power of books as a medium of learning and growing. So read. And grow. And learn. And don’t ever apologize for what you chose to take away from a book.

Review: Passenger

passenger
The cover is pretty bitchin’ though

Details: Bracken, Alexandra. (2016). Passenger. Los Angeles: Hyperion.

Keywords: Young Adult, fantasy, time travel, romance

Review:

I heard mixed things about Passenger from many different sources. Some people loved it, and some were more meh about it. I decided to try it out because the premise sounded interesting and I’d heard good things about Alexandra Bracken’s other books series, starting with The Darkest Minds.

In a nutshell, the book follows Etta, a budding virtuoso violinist, after she is forced through a time passage back to the 1700’s, where she discovers she is a traveler, someone who can use these passages to jump through time. When she is blackmailed into finding a magic astrolabe, she is sent on a whirlwind journey through time, accompanied by sailor Nicholas Carter, who has an agenda of his own.

Mixed is about how I felt about the book. It was entertaining and well written, but nothing about it really stuck with me. I think a part of this was because of Etta. While I liked her as a character, I felt like she wasn’t as well rounded as she could have been. I wanted to know more about what motivated her besides the situations that she found herself in. I did like that she was no nonsense, and was able to handle herself in some pretty terrifying and confusing situations, and I thought that the theme of music in her life carried nicely through the book. I just wish that her characterization had been more robust.

I also had a hard time with the extreme insta-love between Etta and Nicholas. While I understand that they had an immediate connection, it was hard to believe the deep feelings they magically had for each other, to the point of making some fairly major sacrifices for each other. I know there was a timeline (hah!) that the author was working with, but I think their relationship would have been more believable had they developed feelings a little slower.

That being said, I really liked Nicholas. His background and upbringing was compelling and made many of his action understandable. His discomfort with himself and his unwillingness to let himself get involved with Etta at first were pretty heart breaking, and served the story well. I also like the discussion of race and race relations through different time periods, and how Etta especially has to come to understand how deeply affecting those kinds of social boundaries can have on a person.

I also enjoyed seeing the different time periods represented. It was enjoyable to see how Nicholas and Etta had to navigate through time periods that they might not fully understand or be prepared for, like the London Blitz. I think Bracken used these settings well to move the plot along in a well paced way.

If you are looking for a fun and action packed book, I would recommend Passenger, but my opinion is that it was not as memorable as I would have liked. I am interested to see how the sequel plays out though, so I suppose that says something about the quality of the writing.

Excitement Level: Three stars to starboard!

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Star Wars: A Love Letter

So. This is the first of a series that we are going to have here called Love Letters. Basically, it is our gushing in the direction of things that we love. A lot. Things that have had particular impact on our lives as nerds and in general. Not much more I can say really, just be prepared for a lot of high pitched squeeing. So without further ado:

Star Wars: A Love Letter

Everyone has some idea about Star Wars, whether they like it or not. Even if they have never seen it, the space opera has been so deeply embedded into our cultural psyche it’s impossible to escape. With the release of The Force Awakens, that presence has been stirred up again, and the Star Wars train is at full steam ahead for the foreseeable future. And I plan to ride that train all the way to a pandering blog post. Choo choo!

luke-skywalker-on-tatooine
So Romantic!

My Star Wars story is similar to a lot of other fans’ experiences. I was introduced to the movie by my parents when I was tiny, and it’s one of the earliest movie watching memories I have (along with Beauty and the Beast…I feel like this reveals a lot about my personality). My biggest memory is being scared shitless when Luke comes home to find Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen’s burned bodies (spoiler alert?). But I also remember the sheer enjoyment of the films, as well as the camaraderie I felt with my brother while watching them. We didn’t get along too well back then, but we always seemed able to watch movies together. And Star Wars (and the beloved Ewok movie of course. Ahem.) was a common choice.

On a side note, my Dad recently told me an anecdote about my Grandmother who passed away last year. Apparently she wasn’t that impressed by the movies, but went on and on about how much she loved the opening, how the words scrolling diagonally and disappearing into the distance was the coolest thing ever. I just thought that was sweet, and somehow very her.

I was 12 when The Phantom Menace came out. I preface the next part of this story with that fact because I would like to say that as a 12 year old I might have had questionable tastes. Meaning, I liked the movie when it came out. I saw it several times in the theater, bought a lot of the merchandise, hung posters on my wall. Basically, I was the target audience for that movie. I am not (that) ashamed of liking the first prequel because I think that while there are probably plenty of 12 year olds with great taste, taste is something that can change dramatically as you grow. While The Phantom Menace holds a special place in my heart, I don’t think of it as a movie that I love, and I have the vocabulary to back up why. But we all know why the prequels are weak. Maybe a blog post for another time.

But the real reason I am not ashamed of my Phantom Menace period is because it shaped me as a fan. I began to create art seriously for the first time, from tracing magazine photoshoots featuring Queen Amidala’s fabulous wardrobe, to drawing my own Jedi characters. I began writing and reading fan fiction. While I had been dabbling in writing since about age eight, fan fiction was actually an important step in the process of my original writing. I was engaged creatively in the Star Wars universe, and I grudgingly have to thank George Lucas for that.

Another, probably more important byproduct of this mania (a mania that would re-emerge with subsequent fandoms, but maybe never to the same extent) was that I found my people. Before the movie even came out, I connected with two girls at my school who already loved Star Wars like me. And we were excited. We would talk about the details excessively. We would make up cooperative stories. We would geek out about the expanded universe and about how cool Mara Jade was, and how Luke was so whiny, and oh my gosh they actually get married? (as I have gotten older I have grown to love Luke a lot more than I used to). It was my first experience of how loving something could be so exciting, and how you could share that excitement with other people, and make real friends.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Star Wars allowed me to be the kind of girl that I think is not encouraged in mainstream society. That is, I could be a girl, but still kick ass. I could like spaceships and lightsaber fights, but still think Ewan McGregor was so dreamy. I could want Princess Leia’s hair, but still think it was so totally awesome how she took charge and just ruled everything. While Star Wars still has some representation problems (something being beautifully addressed in the Force Awakens), I think it’s a good place for girl nerds to start realizing that they can be a girl and a nerd, whatever that means for them.

I realize all of this is very idealistic and maybe ignores some of the major problems with the franchise. I plan on writing some other blog posts about that, but this was really an exercise for me to understand how fandom fits into my life, especially a fandom that has affected so many other people.

So yes. I plan on doing a couple more blog posts on Star Wars, but in the meantime, thus endeth the inaugural love letter.

XOXO