Monthly Archives: January 2017

Dreamers Often Lie

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If I had to summarize this novel in a couple of words, it would be intensely trippy. Think Shakespeare and brain damage and hallucinations and then throw in the usual teenage angst and drama, and there you have it.

17-year-old Jaye doesn’t know how she ended up in a hospital bed with a blinding headache, but she’s pretty sure that characters from Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be there with her. So probably best not to tell anyone about that little problem. Her one pleasure in life right now is her work in the school play, so as the star of Midsummer Night’s Dream she has to convince her doctors and her family that she is ok to leave the hospital before she loses her prized role.

But she has personal demons to deal with on top of everything else. A broken family and feelings of loss and abandonment fuel her struggles. Her life becomes intertwined with Shakespeare’s plays and she can’t keep the two of them straight. Especially when Romeo walks into class on her first day back to school. Where does reality begin and fantasy end?

Jaye is a totally unreliable narrator, which has possibly become my favourite kind. I love getting into the head of someone who thinks completely differently than I. I even like that I don’t like her. She is extremely self-centred and immature. Where I do have a problem with her is the lack of growths she displays throughout the story.  Yes, she has a severe head injury, but it seems like it knocked all the sense out of her. She does not develop or change, and she doesn’t seem to learn from her mistakes, acknowledging them and then going on and repeating the same ones over and over again.

And although I understand why she wants to keep her hallucinations secret, and she is afraid of losing her role in the school play, that motivation loses it’s believability as the story continues. There is a certain point where you have to let it go. Certainly when you can no longer remember what role you are playing and in which play. At some point, healing has to become a priority. There is always another play.

The secondary characters are widely varied, and I found the real ones less believable than the hallucinated ones. Pierce is a bit of a sociopath, and it is never clear whether he is truthful or not. Does he actually like Jaye, or is it an ego thing? Is he telling her the truth about her dad? He is not a likeable character at all.  Jaye’s mother and sister are a bit one-dimensional, and her mother is not believable, letting her severely head-injured daughter call the shots about leaving the hospital and going to school.

But the way the Shakespearean characters randomly pop up throughout the novel is unexpected and creepy and so well done, keeping the line between fiction and reality blurred. Ophelia is awesome. She appears soaking wet and cold and white and her mind is distant and confused, straight out of the play. Hamlet fluctuates from mad to lucid and back with each appearance, talking to the ever-present skull, while the Bard himself personally questioned Jaye’s actual desire to return to full health.

The plot explores conflict of many kinds, including the dysfunction present in even a “perfect” family, Jaye’s troubled relationship with her father, her difficulty in facing that conflict, being torn between what you want and what you can have, and of course, reality versus fantasy.

And the storyline itself reflects Jaye’s state of mind. There are secrets and twists and confusion, building tension and leading to an… ending. The story just stops. And I’m not entirely sure what happened. Perhaps everyone died? Perhaps everyone lived happily ever after? It is certainly Romeo & Juliet-esque. (Oh! Maybe it is Newhart all over again! I jest. And show my age.)

I like this novel, but don’t love it. It is not for everyone. You must enjoy being off-balance to get the full effect.

Dreamers Often Lie was published April 5th, 2016 by Dial Books.

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And I Darken (The Conquerer’s Saga #1)

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Told from the alternating viewpoints of Lada, Princess of Wallachia, and her younger brother Radu,  And I Darken re-imagines Vlad the Impaler as a girl. With lots and lots and lots of stabbing, both of the physical and the back variety.

Lada Dragwlya is the daughter of the Prince of Wallachia, but he sold her and younger brother Radu to the Ottoman courts to pay a debt and buy favour. Lada turns her feelings of abandonment and loss into aggression, while gentle Radu takes the diplomatic approach, charming and listening and learning about his enemy. She becomes the solider, he becomes the spy.

When lonely young sultan Mehmed enters the picture, everything changes. The heir to the Ottoman empire becomes one of the three, but their loyalty to each other is always tempered by the fact that he will be sultan one day, and the siblings are essentially his property. And both Lada and Radu love and admire him in their own way, which might be the force that tears them all apart.

Lada is an epic anti-heroine. She doesn’t just say she is badass, she is fierce and resilient, and on the surface, perhaps a touch psychotic. But while she is cold and calculating and has no qualms about killing, it is only to serve a deeper purpose. She has her own moral code she lives by and never wavers from, even as it makes little sense to anyone else. As she matures, she begins to recognize what her place is in the world, and not accepting it, must find a way to change her world or herself. She is committed to her kingdom and will defend it at all costs.

Lada fights for everything. She is cunning and aggressive, hot-tempered and intelligent. Dismissed by her father at birth as useless until she proved beautiful enough to marry off, he soon discovered the girl possessed the strength and fierceness he had hoped he would pass on to his son. She looks down on women, having seen her own mother beaten down by her father, and considers them weak. But whereas she begins by denying her own feminity, desperately wanting her father’s approval and seeing his own thirst for power, she learns that power takes many forms, and women have their own source and ways of wielding it.

Lada shares the spotlight with Radu. Unfortunately, not the strong aggressive son that his father wished for, he is graceful and gentle, weak in their father’s eyes, and thus rejected. His sister is both his protector and his nemesis. Their relationship is filled with frustration, jealousy and misunderstanding, underscored with a deep bond. He seeks her approval even as his perceived weaknesses frustrate her, and she feels possessive of him without really understanding why.

But Radu also grows and develops and learns to wield his own influence, a different one than Lada possesses, and maybe ends up the more powerful of the two. He fades into the scenery, listening and sorting through facts and innuendo, and learns controls through subtlety.

OK. Is there a love triangle? Yes and no. There is the unrequited love that Radu has for Mehmed, so strong that Radu leaves rather than be around the one he knows cannot return his desire. And while Mehmed and Lada share a strong attraction, their deepest feelings are truly for their kingdoms and their power.  Wallachia holds Lada’s heart, while Mehmed craves the power of his throne.

Set in Eastern Europe, this is not a fantasy. It is more a historical retelling, a gender-swapping political thriller. It’s about power and the many ways in which it can be used and gained and lost, and fighting to be and get what you want.

This is not a short, quick read. At nearly 500 pages long, there is a LOT of information in it, and as a historical retelling, there is much fact that needs to be sifted from fiction. Author Kiersten White takes the time to develop her characters and follows them through the first decade and a half of their lives, exploring how their worlds intertwine and separate, how power and influence shift and wane and intensify.

If you want something light and fun, this is not for you. If you like a rich history and complex characters and plots that build slowly, this book is the start of a trilogy that will keep you captivated.

And I Darken was published June 28th, 2016 by Delacorte Press.

If I Was Your Girl

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18-year-old Amanda Hardy is the new senior at Lambertville High School in Tennessee. She just moved down there to live with her dad, after her time at her previous school ended in a suicide attempt and left her scarred and too terrified to return. High school should not be dangerous, but for Amanda, it is. Because she was born Andrew.

But Lambertville is a new chance, a new opportunity to fit in and make friends and have a life beyond Saturday evening take-out with her mom. As the new girl, she is automatically intriguing to both boys and girls alike. And not only does she make a circle of friends in the close-knit conservative town, she also meets the boy of her dreams. But how close friends can they be, when she can’t be honest with them?

This is the story of a girl who wants to fit in, have a “normal” high school experience, and not have to look over her shoulder. It is the story of family. And it is a fun boy-meets-girl-and-they-fall-in-love story. It is the story of a girl who hasn’t received a lot of love and respect in her life, and is now surrounded by friends and family who give it to her. And what is awesome is she realizes she deserves it.

Despite a suicide attempt and some quite graphic violence, the novel isn’t that dark.  It has moments of light and joy and humour, and real-life high-school experiences that took me back to those years, hanging out with friends, shopping for prom dresses with giggling girls, first kisses.

There are tons of characters that surround Amanda in the novel – her mom and dad, the girls who make up her circle, Bee, Grant, Parker, and so many more. The friends run the gamut from religious to fashionista to closeted lesbian to bi. Some are judgey, some accepting. Grant is sweet and protective. Her parents are present throughout, and although her mom struggles at first to understand, in the end just wants her child alive and happy. Dad takes longer to accept her and vacillates between feeling self-righteously unsupportive one moment, and in the next, trying to find a way to accept and protect his child.

The big reveal was well done and not in the way I expected. And as much as I always want closure, the open ending is perfect for this story.

This is a story about a trans girl written by a trans woman, with a cover that features a beautiful trans model. Read the author’s notes at the end. She writes separate messages to both the trans and the non-trans community and explains her motivations for writing the novel the way she did. Incredible.

Is the portrayal of Amanda’s life as a trans woman realistic?  Not totally, according to author Meredith Russo, but life can be difficult enough for trans teens, and perhaps reading something that is not 100% true to most experiences can give hope, and offer the belief that life can get better and there can be acceptance.

If I Was Your Girl was published May 3rd, 2016 by Flatiron Books.

One Half from the East

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Happy 2017, everyone!! Here’s to a great year of reading.

In many places, life is just easier if you are a boy. For you and for your family. Afghanistan is one such place.

10-year-old Obayda lives in Kabul with her mother, father and three older sisters. She loves to go to school and wear dresses and dance and swing her beautiful hair around. Her father is a respected policeman, and the family is content and prosperous. Her future looks bright. But the future cannot always be predicted. 

One day, as she waits outside the pharmacy for her father to pick up a prescription for her illness, a bomb blows up and changes everything. Her father lost a leg and his will to live, and the family had to leave their life in Kabul to move in with his family in a small village.  Life is so different now. Her father refuses to leave his room and barely speaks to the girls.

Obayda’s aunt, the nosy, bossy one, has an idea to change the family’s luck. Obayda is to becomes Obayd, a bacha posh, or girl who dresses and acts and becomes, for all intents and purposes, a boy.  Because a boy in the family brings luck. And maybe, just maybe, Obayd can turn the family’s bad fortune around.

This is a fascinating story, and I wasn’t sure whether it was based in fact, or was just an incredible idea. I had never heard of such a thing. But a quick google search gave me a ton of information. (I do miss the trek to the library to research, I have to admit, although my would-rather-spend-a-snowy-day-inside-in-pyjamas self has no complaints about the internet). Having a bacha posh in the family is not an unusual practice in Afghanistan. Not to say that every family does it, but it is not uncommon.

In Afghanistan, decisions are made by men. Women and girls have comparatively less value, and an Afghan girl is born with little control over her own life. She looks forward to a life of essentially servitude, having her life in the hands of first her father, then her brothers or husband. This would affect a family with no sons. So in some families, mothers dress a daughter as a boy, give her a short haircut and boys’ clothing, and treat her as a son. To the world outside the home, and even within the home, bacha posh are boys.

For the Afghan girl chosen to become a boy, a whole new world is before her. She can now get a job, run around without an escort, play sports, go to school. She gets to live a life unknown to Afghan women.

Obayd is one such bacha posh. She becomes he, not only in the eyes of the village, but in her family’s as well. He is given the first choice of meat at the table at dinner, is not expected to help with chores, but to run off and explore and play. He goes to school with boys, he is a boy. But at first, it is not that easy. Obayd is sure that everyone knows, and, having no brothers and an absentee father, is unsure how to behave. But then he meets Rashim, who knows at a glance what he is, and the two become inseparable. Rashim teaches Obayd how to be a boy, how to embrace the freedom, and Obayd enters a world he never knew existed.

Author Nadia Hashimi got right into the mind of a young girl and her portrayal of the conflicts that Obayd/a faces are honest and poignant. With Obayda’s change of clothes and hairstyle, she also gets a change in perception and potential. She can now do things that before no one thought her capable of trying. Sports, designing and building a crutch for her father, shopping in a store by herself. But with the new advantages also comes a certain loss; she can no longer be one of the sisters, she is now more worthy than they and their former close comradery is ruined. Obayda sees the oppression she lives under with new eyes, as she gets the rare chance to leave it behind and live it from the other side. Her character has the true flaws and childishness that makes her authentic, she has the excitement of trying something otherwise forbidden. The new experience also gives her a new maturity to face her life when she realizes the freedom may end.

The other characters were as well drawn and real as Obayda, and round out her experience beautifully.  Her sisters go from close confidants to remote roommates. Her father takes a new pride in her, her mother sees the problems and the rewards.  Her friends are wonderful; while they may suspect her true nature, they treat her as a boy without question.

Hashimi also transports the reader right into Afghanistan with her impeccable and polished prose. The story is told without ever obviously dumping information, but rather minute details are woven throughout about the culture and traditions and landscape that bring the novel and the people within to life. She draws vivid pictures of the dusty roads and crowded market, the separate buildings for boys and girls to attend school, the religious practices, the mealtimes and division of chores, and the visceral terror the population has of the warlord that reigns over the village.

The pacing of the novel is equal to the characters and setting; it moves quickly through Obayda’s transformation and education as a bacha posh, the freedoms attained as a boy, the realization that it might not last, and the desperation to make the newfound liberty permanent.

The questions this book raises about gender and perception and equality are relevant for any age to consider. While this is a middle-grade novel, it is a fantastic read for everyone. I couldn’t put it down.

One Half from the East was published September 6th, 2016 by HarperCollins.