Review: The Weight of Feathers

The Weight of FeathersTitle: The Weight of Feathers
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Genres: Romance, Fantasy, Magical Realism
Pages: 320
Publisher: A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: For twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught from birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep can be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees.

Beautifully written, and richly imaginative, The Weight of Feathers is an utterly captivating young adult novel by a talented new voice.

Review: The Weight of Feathers is a beautifully written book that depends not only on a cast of memorable characters but also a vivid, magical world. I purchased this book because I needed something to read on a late-night, three-hour airplane flight, and it kept me entertained the entire time.

The star-crossed lovers setup can lose a lot of its punch when the feud appears ridiculous or is easily circumvented, but Anna-Marie McLemore neatly dodges that trap with the tension between the Palomas and the Corbeaus. With the “inciting incidents” for the feud within living memory for the bulk of each large, tightly knit family, the conflicts feel immediate and raw. Deaths, sabotage, serious injuries, assaults—many members of each family have been perpetrators, victims, or indirectly affected. So when Lace is “cursed” with a feather mark during the disaster at Almendro and gets kicked out of her family, it takes no small amount of courage for her to venture to the Corbeau camp to try to earn her way out of the curse.

McLemore’s strength in creating engaging characters is immediately apparent with our two protagonists, Lace and Cluck. Their circumstances and personalities are well crafted and the arc of their friendship and romance felt believable and appropriately complicated due to their feuding families. There are a number of memorable characters in the supporting cast, though Cluck’s grandfather is easily the most interesting. Due to Lace’s exile, getting to know the other Palomas is a little harder, but I appreciated how McLemore compared and contrasted the two families. It was particularly interesting to me that each family thought the worst of each other, yet both were more than willing to do horrible things to their own people.

While my experience with magical realism is limited, I was immersed in The Weight of Feathers. McLemore created a world where magic ranges from practically mundane things like pairs of mermaid scales on skin or feathers hidden in hair to curses to radical transformations. It feels both surprising and expected at the same time thanks to being grounded by characters who worry about less fantastical things like fitting in, becoming an adult, stage makeup, family abandonment, abuse, and rape.

The Weight of Feathers has a few flaws—luckily, this book hit me at a time where I was in the mood for this style of prose. I imagine others will not be as thrilled, but that is something that can easily be found out by reading the preview chapters on Goodreads. Also, initially I was a little disappointed with the ending confrontation, but upon a second reading of the final chapters, I found myself far more satisfied with it.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you’re a fan of magical realism or star-crossed romances. While The Weight of Feathers isn’t perfect, it is a strong, engaging work that serves as a great introduction to magical realism. I look forward to future works by McLemore.

Extras
Where Our Magic Lives: A Queer Latina on Magical Realism at Diversity in YA

Magical Realism & Culture: Author Anna-Marie McLemore at YA Interrrobang

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Review: Never Always Sometimes

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Title: Never Always Sometimes
Author: Adi Alsaid
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 308
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Review copy: Purchased by reviewer
Availability: On shelves now

Summary:

Never date your best friend.

Always be original.

Sometimes rules are meant to be broken.

Best friends Dave and Julia were determined to never be cliché high school kids—the ones who sit at the same lunch table every day, dissecting the drama from homeroom and plotting their campaigns for prom king and queen. They even wrote their own Never List of everything they vowed they’d never, ever do in high school.

Some of the rules have been easy to follow, like #5, never dye your hair a color of the rainbow, or #7, never hook up with a teacher. But Dave has a secret: he’s broken rule #8, never pine silently after someone for the entirety of high school. It’s either that or break rule #10, never date your best friend. Dave has loved Julia for as long as he can remember.

Julia is beautiful, wild and impetuous. So when she suggests they do every Never on the list, Dave is happy to play along. He even dyes his hair an unfortunate shade of green. It starts as a joke, but then a funny thing happens: Dave and Julia discover that by skipping the clichés, they’ve actually been missing out on high school. And maybe even on love.

Review: As I started the book, I figured that I knew where it was going. I did anticipate many things accurately, but Alsaid managed to throw some curves in there. I appreciated that he mixed it up a little. The first part of the story is told from Dave’s perspective. I really enjoyed Dave as a character. He’s a nice guy and the comfortable friendship he has with Julia is appealing. They read each others’ silences, know each others’ quirks and have been best friends for years. They seem the picture of soulmates. The torture of being so close yet unable to profess his love, does have its downside though.

This seemed to be gearing up to be a fairly typical romantic comedy as Dave and Julia lightly hopped through their list of Nevers bantering along the way. Humor can be found in many places. Without giving too much away, I will just say there is even a poem that manages to make math sexy. The scene is more than a little bizarre, but definitely has comedic potential for readers.

The romance did not go the way I expected though. First, a third party became involved. Love triangles are not a favorite for me. Also, as the novel progressed, the story switched to Julia’s perspective. That was where I started to lose a little interest. Julia did not have my sympathy. Yes, Dave was a follower so maybe he should have shared the blame in my mind, but he just wasn’t as conceited as Julia. She started the Never list because she didn’t want to be like all those other high school students who were clichés. She looks down on nearly everyone in the school. As their relationship became increasingly complicated, I enjoyed the book less and less. I can’t go into the details of why without spoiling the book, but the second part of the book was not nearly as entertaining as the first. In addition, the conclusion made sense and felt right, but seemed rushed.

Recommendation:  If you like light romances, this might be something that you will want to get soon. It has humor and a romance with unexpected twists and turns. The twists may put you off though. Otherwise, for most readers, this is one I would recommend you borrow someday when you are looking for a bit of a laugh. It was fun, at least for the first part, and was a quick and easy read, but wasn’t particularly outstanding.

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Review: Out of Darkness

darknessTitle: Out of Darkness
Author: Ashley Hope Pérez
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 408
Publisher: Carolrhoda LAB
Review Copy: ARC received via NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

Review: I knew walking into this story that I was being set up for tragedy and thought I was prepared; I was not. While the New London school explosion kicks off the final act of the book, the meat of Out of Darkness is centered on Naomi and her struggle to survive in her stepfather’s home as more of a maid than a family member. This is a dark, difficult book, and in addition to the racism mentioned in the summary (which escalates to beatings and lynch mobs), it also deals with topics including child sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and marital rape. Ashley Hope Pérez does not pull her punches in Out of Darkness, and it makes for a raw, brutally honest (and brutally bleak) look at systems of inequality, entitlement, religious fervor, toxic masculinity, and other above-mentioned “forces that destroy people.”

Naomi is a compelling narrator, and her character arc from an observer who endures what she can to someone who seeks after friendship and love is mostly a satisfying one. Her grief for her mother and her difficulties in trying to preserve something of her mother for herself while simultaneously sharing those memories with Beto and Cari can be heartbreaking. While Pérez also enlists other points of view, such as Wash, Henry (Naomi’s stepfather/the twins’ father), and Beto, some of her most memorable scenes have multiple or first-person-plural points of view (e.g., Naomi and Wash, The Gang). “The Gang” scenes are particularly interesting as we get an outside look at what the other kids at school think of what’s going on with the main characters and provide a feel for the mood of the oil town. Wash’s constant negotiations between how he was expected to act around white people and what he actually wanted to do made for some great (and tense) character moments. I also liked the glimpses we got into Beto’s personality and his struggle with his father’s expectations of what a man ought to be.

I really enjoyed the development of Naomi and Wash’s romance and felt that the transition from strangers to friends to lovers was a comfortable process, despite the many social (and personal) forces arrayed against them. Pérez did not shy away from having Naomi experience sexual desire or giving her a loving, respectful, sexual relationship with Wash, which is something to be appreciated in romantic plotlines.

Despite all of the many things I enjoyed or appreciated about Out of Darkness, I will admit that the ending soured the experience for me. There isn’t much I can discuss that won’t spoil the ending, so I’ll simply say that the hope spot offered between two fraught, potentially tragic moments felt like a cheap setup for shock. I disliked the epilogue immensely, mostly because it struck me as a last-minute patch to lessen the impact of what had happened and thus finished the story angry instead of sad-but-hopeful/moved/etc.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a big fan of dark historical fiction and tragedy, but borrow it someday otherwise. While Pérez offers engaging protagonists, heartwarming romance, interesting prose, and complicated sibling relationships in the midst of an unflinching look at racism and other systems of oppression, the ending of the book felt like it was written primarily for shock value. Undoubtedly, readers’ opinions will vary on this point, as will how it influences their opinion of the book overall.

Extras
NBC interview with Juan Castillo about Out of Darkness

Conversation with Edi Campbell about Out of Darkness and growing up

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Review: Everything, Everything

EverythingTitle: Everything, Everything
Author: Nicola Yoon
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 320
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC received via NetGalley
Availability: Available September 1, 2015

Summary: This innovative, heartfelt debut novel tells the story of a girl who’s literally allergic to the outside world. When a new family moves in next door, she begins a complicated romance that challenges everything she’s ever known. The narrative unfolds via vignettes, diary entries, texts, charts, lists, illustrations, and more.

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

Review: I was surprised by how quickly I was charmed by Madeline Whittier (AKA Maddie), the biracial heroine of Everything, Everything. The first person point-of-view, which was threaded through with wit, loneliness, and later a fierce longing for the outside world—and Olly—combined with the sometimes cute, sometimes painful, but often hilarious illustrations/book reviews/etc. made for a heroine with a compelling personality and unique voice. Due to Maddie’s Severe Combined Immunodeficiency diagnosis, the bulk of the book’s action took place within her childhood home, online, or via the view from the windows, which furthered the intimacy of Maddie and her story. I looked forward to every commute so I could read more, which is definitely a win in my book.

Carla and Olly were the two other standout characters in this book, though I was particularly fond of Carla. Her mixture of roles as nurse and companion provided Maddie with face-to-face friendship, a sounding board, and a co-conspirator. I loved the affection Maddie and Carla had for one another, especially when Carla repeatedly proved she wanted Maddie to be happy. As for Olly, once I got over how quickly he and Maddie fell for each other, I grew to like him a great deal. He isn’t as interesting as Maddie, troubled family situation notwithstanding, but he fulfilled his role in the story and had several wonderful moments—both friendship-wise and romantic—with our heroine.

However, I do have one major concern with the story, which is practically impossible to discuss without ruining the book. (I did a brief search for other reviews, and the event in question appears as divisive as I anticipated it would be.) Suffice it to say, I came down slightly more on the side of thinking this event was a “cheat” as opposed to a paradigm shift that I enjoyed. It left a somewhat bitter aftertaste, but many other people seemed to love it, so your mileage will vary. I would love to see a contributor at Disability in Kidlit tackle this book, actually, for a more informed opinion. Edit: Here is Disability in Kidlit’s review of the book, which I suggest you read.

Recommendation: Get it soon if quick, sweet romances are your thing. Nicola Yoon’s prose and David Yoon’s illustrations have created a lovely portrait of a young woman who deals with both isolation and love so deep it can be painful. Maddie is a wonderful character, and her involvement with Olly hits many of the best romance notes. Unfortunately, the ending of this book kept me from completely loving the story, but I am still looking forward to Yoon’s next book.

Extras
“YA author Nicola Yoon on diversity and her new novel, Everything, Everything by MJ Franklin

“Ask the Author: Nicola Yoon” by Alice Reeds

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Review: Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars
Title: Written in the Stars
Author: Aisha Saeed
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Pages: 284
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Review copy: Library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?

Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.

Review: The story opens with Naila and her friends talking about dating, soccer games and prom. Things seem light-hearted even though readers know Naila’s parents don’t allow her to date. Then Naila’s parents find out about her secret boyfriend. From that moment on, this story is intense. There are a few times when Naila relaxes a little, but for the most part, she is trying to figure out how to get her life back under control.

In Naila, Aisha Saeed has created a character who loves her family and wants to please them, but is trying to balance that with what she knows about herself and what she believes will make her happy. She truly tries to be a dutiful daughter. She studies hard, she does many things that they ask, but she fell for a boy at school. This leads to a star-crossed lover situation. It also damages the relationship with her parents. By going on the trip to Pakistan, Naila hopes to regain their trust.

I appreciated that Naila makes the best of her situation. She has hope and decides to take this time in Pakistan as a gift. She enjoys getting to know her extended family and begins to understand some of the reasons why her parents love their home country. This was part of the book that I really welcomed. There are very few times that I hear about or see Pakistan in the media as anything other than a dangerous place surrounded by war. To see the everyday life of a family can help readers remember that there is more to Pakistan than what we see in the news. The sugarcane stalks and orange groves along with laughter of family members gathered together show Pakistan as a place in the world where people are living and loving.

The story doesn’t end with the family reunion though. Naila’s parents have a plan and now it is they who break her trust. They’ve arranged a marriage without her input or consent. Naila’s trials have only just begun. What follows is a dangerous and frightening time for her. When I read in the summary, “Her only hope of escape is Saif,” I was worried that this would be a classic damsel-in-distress situation. I wondered if she even would try to help herself. This is part of the struggle though. She does want to please her parents, but she does not just give up and wait for rescue. She also makes an attempt to change her circumstances.

I applaud Aisha Saeed for writing a beautiful book that also shines a light on the issue of forced marriages. As Saeed explains in the Author’s Note, she is Pakistani American and had a semi-arranged marriage. That meant her parents arranged it, but she and her husband-to-be did have some say in it. She made it clear that an arranged marriage and a forced marriage are two very different things. A forced marriage happens when one or more of the participants has little or no choice due to “coercion, pressure, threats, and sometimes, outright violence.” She also makes the point that forced marriages are not limited to any one race or religion, but happen all around the world. She wrote this story to give girls like Naila a voice.

Saeed shares this story in a way that helps readers see how and why characters are making certain choices. The characters have some depth and aren’t all simply the good guys and the bad guys. It would have been easy for Saeed to paint the man Naila’s parent chose as an ogre and an awful person. He’s not perfect by a long shot, but he isn’t the embodiment of evil either. Life is complicated and messy because people are too.

Recommendation: Get it soon – especially if you enjoy contemporary novels. This is a strong debut and I look forward to reading more from Aisha Saeed.

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Review: The Wrath and the Dawn

wrathTitle: The Wrath and The Dawn
Author: Renée Ahdieh
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 388
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.

She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.

Review: When I was in junior high, I read a (sanitized) abridgment of One Thousand and One Nights, and I loved Scheherazade. I admired her bravery and cleverness in using her sister and her stories to buy herself one day after another, thereby putting a stop to the horrific marriage-then-execution merry-go-round. So when I found out that The Wrath and the Dawn was going to take Scheherazade’s frame story and run with it, I was thrilled.

Shahrzad is a compelling heroine, and I loved the mixture of bravery and vengeance that fueled her for the beginning portions of the book. Her mission to exact revenge on the man who murdered her friend and many other girls drove all of the characters forward, from her father, Jahandar, to her boyfriend, Tariq. In addition to Tariq, I was particularly fond of Shahrzad’s handmaid, Despina, and Khalid’s cousin, Jalal. However, many of the other side characters introduced fairly early on in the narrative, like Omar and Reza, were essentially put into holding patterns for future books instead of taking a more active role in this book. I thought that the rebellion plot would have gotten a lot further along than it did for how early it was introduced.

While Shahrzad is the main point of view, we do get occasional glimpses into other characters, including Khalid. Khalid was an interesting character, but I wasn’t willing to give him nearly as much as empathy as I think I was supposed to. I can’t go into depth as to why Khalid killed dozens of girls (there are many book-ruining spoilers there), but at the end of the day, I’m not particularly inclined to forgive him. Luckily, Renée Ahdieh doesn’t let him off the hook easily and has both him and Shahrzad point out his own hypocrisy. Still, part of me wishes that Shahrzad had taken a lot longer to fall in love with him than she did.

The world Renée Ahdieh built is infused with (mostly) behind-the-scenes magic. It quietly simmers for most of the book, showing in smaller ways, with occasional glimpses into just how dangerous, far-reaching, and catastrophic it can be. The finale is an exercise in destruction and is one of my favorite descriptive sequences in a book filled with many memorable passages. I’m looking forward to seeing how the role of magic will expand in future books—I hope it will. Khorasan is a well-developed world, from strife with its neighboring country to the intricacies of palace life to smaller things like the descriptions of clothing and weapons and food.

Recommendation: Get it soon, if you’re a fan of revenge-turned-to-romance stories or One Thousand and One Nights. If you’re uncertain about a romance where the heroine falls in love with her best friend’s murderer, I would suggest you borrow the book from a friend or the library. While The Wrath and the Dawn suffers from the fact that it leaves several beginning plot points unresolved so they can be dealt with in later books, it is a mostly satisfying story with a fascinating world, a brave heroine, and the promise of a broader story in the future.

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