Immigration and Loss in “The Last Days of Café Leila” by Donia Bijan

I picked up The Last Days of Café Leila by Donna Bijan based on a hope to find something engaging, well-written, and mature but clean. I was in need of a change of pace from the last couple of YA books I’d just finished. So, skimming the new part of the adult section at the library (while also trying to keep my toddler from pulling down shelves of books) I picked up this one, read the back, found out it partly took place in Tehran, and brought it home.

Since my senior year of college when I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, a book that has forever changed my life, I have been especially interested by the middle east, and most especially Iran.

The main character of this book grew up in Iran, and then attended college in the United States and is living there when the book begins. As an immigrant to the US, Noor holds on to some of her family’s culture she has left behind, but also becomes thoroughly westernized in her ideals, way of living, and expectations of life.

Consequentially, when Noor returns to Iran with her US-born daughter Lily to visit Noor’s father after discovering her husband’s infidelity, she sees Iran with new eyes: the perfect lens for an American reader.

As Noor quickly sinks back into her childhood role, Lily struggles to transition to a new culture and environment, and their mother-daughter relationship is brought to an all-time low. As Noor attempts to salvage their relationship, she discovers the importance of standing your ground not only as a parent, but as an individual.

The Last Days of Café Leila is predominantly a story of family with underlying political undertones. While Noor and her father rekindle their relationship, we are brought to feel the tragic loss of beauty and common decency in the recovery stages of revolution.

These political undertones brought depth to this family drama, grounding the story in a very real setting.

While this book definitely had a pro-western bias, the fundamental themes of insecurity, the messiness of life, the difficulties of immigration and assimilation, and ultimately the sacrifice needed to achieve self-actualization were powerful.

This book consumed me until I had read every page. And while I loved the prose, I did feel that the ending left something to be desired. Ultimately, I would rate it a 7/10. I would recommend The Last Days of Café Leila, but I won’t be adding it to my personal collection.

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SPOILERS AHEAD!

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YA Fiction from Germany: “The Book Jumper”

I picked up The Book Jumper by Mechthild Gläser on a whim while at the library. Honestly, that’s how I find most of my books with varying results. In this case, I was thoroughly pleased. A book about living in books was just what I wanted to read.

An award-winning German author, Gläser makes her debut into English readership with The Book Jumper, a book about a girl who discovers that she can jump into books and interact with the stories and characters. As she learns more about her unusual ability, she also discovers that someone is stealing from the stories she visits, damaging and changing beloved classics such as Alice in WonderlandPride and Prejudice, and The Wizard of Oz.

Perfect for anyone who loves reading, has felt ostracized or betrayed by someone they love, or loves reading books set in Scotland with romantic sub-plots, this book is a solid 8/10 in my mind. Gläser beautifully imitates characters canonized in time like Sherlock Holmes, and Alice from Alice in Wonderland and I loved how many famous books Gläser incorporated into The Book Jumper.

While reading it was a fantastic journey that I wish I had written myself, I have to say I was not satisfied with the ending. It felt too easy and too predictable. Such an amazing story deserved an amazing ending. Instead, we got an okay ending. Which was . . . okay.

Overall, this is a book I would love to add to my collection. It felt fresh, vibrant, and yet so familiar (what book-worm doesn’t feel at home in a book about books?). And I loved the characters, the adventures and the setting. It is definitely a book I could see myself reading again as soon as I add it to my own little library.

 

 

Garth Nix’s Fairytale Cliché “Frogkisser!”

I first discovered Garth Nix with his Old Kingdom Trilogy (SabrielLiraelAbhorsen), and found that he had a distinct flavor to his books that I found alluring and intelligent. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Old Kingdom Trilogy, I never got into any of his other series or novels, perhaps due to Nix’s focus on story and lack of complex character dynamics.

So when I picked up his latest novel Frogkisser! I was unsurprised to find these same traits inherent throughout the story. Despite somewhat flat characters and a distant tone, I found this book charming and enjoyable. In fact, his use of uninteresting characters helped create a cohesive tone throughout the book. It felt like reading a drawn-out, very detailed, comical children’s fairytale.

Let me preface my review with this warning: do not take this book too seriously. It is sometimes slow, and silly, and definitely a just-for-fun read. Nix took fairytale clichés and used them in particularly obvious ways that poked fun at more traditional uses. I loved the reasons Nix gave for the evil sorcerer clichéd cackle, the use of Quests (v. quests), the retelling of Snow White (not a princess), and the beautiful and hilarious portrayal of dogs.

Dogs play a huge role in this book, both in plot and character, and really help to drive the story forward and bring life to the pages. Nix captured all the lovable, infuriating, and odd characteristics of man’s best friend, and anyone that is a dog-lover or even likes dogs a little bit, will find themselves giggling at Ardent and the other royal dogs through to the end.

While this book begins quite slowly, it picks up about three-quarters of the way through, and ends quite decently. Personally, I think it would be ideal for reading aloud (lots of fun voices to do). Younger children, and adults will love the comical fairytale world Nix has created, I know I did, and I hope to see more like this from him in the future!

Vivid Writing and Complex Characters in The Winner’s Trilogy

The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski made me sleep-deprived for three whole days, that’s how badly I wanted—no, needed—to finish those three books. Each book was fast moving, beautifully developed, and highly addictive. I’ve been on a high fantasy kick, and this trilogy has only made my love for the genre greater.

The premise is this: A general’s daughter buys a slave and finds that the price she paid for his life is much higher than she ever could have imagined (it basically turns her whole world upside down). This trilogy delves into intriguing strategy and deadly politics, and is overall slightly reminiscent of Kristin Cashore and Rae Carson’s respective novels.

I loved the characters, the world, the plot, the intricate details Rutkoski wove throughout the trilogy and the themes she incorporated into her stories.

Throughout the trilogy, Rutkoski used themes such as: the value of human life,  being true to one’s self, independence, the meaning of loyalty and love, and the importance of familial relationships.

The first book especially focused on the value of human life and the importance of equality within relationships. The relationships displayed in Winner’s Curse were complicated, and yet quite tangible. I fell in love with the main characters, and I hated the villains.  Rutkoski drew me in to her world with these complex and vibrant characters who cultivated beautiful and sometimes problematic relationships in a world reminiscent of ancient Greece and Rome.

The second book, Winner’s Crime, was, perhaps, my least favorite, if only because my hands were stiff from clutching the book for so long. The tension within this middle installment filled my mind and body through to the end, making it almost impossible to put down. I loved the change of scenery and the depth that Rutkoski continued to give her characters and world they live in.

The final installment in Winners trilogy, Winner’s Kiss, was beautifully done as well. Rutkoski masterfully wrote fast-paced action sequences that cut between parallel plots in the best, and most intense, way possible.

I don’t want to say too much about the last two books and give anything away, but I will say that I would highly recommend this trilogy.

Weight and Religion in High Fantasy with Rae Carson

Rae Carson has a talent for creating interesting main characters. In The Girl of Fire and Thorns I was impressed by her creation and development of a dynamic character who, in a world so different from our own, struggles with something so relatable as body weight.

Problems with weight loss/gain topic is quite common within contemporary YA literature but I don’t think I have ever encountered it within the high fantasy YA genre. However, this topic fits within another, more general theme, that is perhaps more common: feeling comfortable in your own skin.

Carson did an excellent job in the first installment of this trilogy of creating a believable and relatable main character, Elisa. While she struggles with her physical appearance and health, mentally she is at the top of her game.

Not only did Carson tackle body image issues, she also delved into the ever-controversial topic of religion and faith. Throughout the first installment, Elisa is devoutly religious, but as the story progresses, she is plagued with doubts about the religion she grew up with, and her faith in her God is tested.

I really enjoyed Carson’s courageous effort to create a book that addressed so many controversial topics. It could easily have turned into an offensive mess if done carelessly. But Carson was very tactful and thoughtful in her development of themes and storylines. I really enjoyed this book,. I felt is was very original and excellently executed.

If you are looking for a thought-provoking high fantasy book, I would definitely recommend The Girl of Fire and Thorns. As for myself, I am looking forward to starting the second novel in the trilogy, The Crown of Embers.

Third-Person Omniscient in “Underland” and “Unenchanted” by Chanda Hahn

Homeless and alone, fifteen year old Kira finds herself kidnapped from her cardboard home and enslaved to an underground group of monsters, doomed to spend the rest of her life doing the bidding of hideous snake people, vampires, witches, and zombies. After failed escape attempts, Kira is forced to participate in “the games”—a chance to make a name for herself and possibly earn her freedom.

This fantasy YA book was an intriguing read if you can get past the first couple chapters (they drag). While the excess of back story interludes initially weighed down the narrative, the payoff was surprisingly rewarding as it differentiated her character from that of other popular YA novels such as Katniss from Hunger Games and Mare from Red Queen. While it was nice to have a different kind of character, Kira oscillated inconsistently between being brave and vengeful, and frightened and sappy. The inconsistencies drove me a little crazy, and took me out of the story.

I enjoyed that this book was set in similar world as our own — that Kira comes from the world we already know and love. This gave me a shared perspective with Kira as I experienced the new world of Underland through her eyes.

However, Hahn’s use of third person omniscient surprised me. By jumping from Kira’s perspective to other characters’ perspectives for short periods of time, the reader ends up knowing quite a bit more than Kira. I worried that Kira’s lack of knowledge (or my excess of information) would make me frustrated, but I was pleasantly surprised. While third person omniscient still bothers me a little bit, Hahn did a decent job.

I recently read another of Hahn’s books titled Unenchanted in which she again uses third person omniscient, but much less frequently, and it bothered me much more in that book. She changed perspectives just enough that I noticed it, but not enough that it felt consistent or useful. I think that because Hahn used third person omniscient more frequently in Underland, it felt more purposeful.

Unenchanted‘s premise is that the main character has inherited her family’s curse: that she will relive all of the Grimm fairy tales until she dies or until the fairytales run out. I enjoyed this premise and the book, but I felt it fell short of what it could have been. The book felt childish at times with the main character wavering between mature and inexperienced, naive, and ignorant.

Overall, Unenchanted was a fun read because of the premises but it was not intellectually stimulating, and it felt a bit overdone (cliche’s galore). This was a clean book, but it’s not one I’m rushing to reread or recommend. Unfortunately, while the original ideas behind Unenchanted and Underland were good, they were not executed well, and both books felt inconsistent with character and relationship development.

My recommendation: if you have some extra time to burn, pass on this book, and try a different one.

Welcome to “The Night Circus”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern has given me withdrawal. Since finishing it, I find myself pining after a story that has sadly ended. I know I should move on, but instead I spend keep thinking of all the nuances of the story, the characters, the writing.

The Night Circus is a beautifully crafted story of a circus, two magicians, romance, and fate. Written in first, second, and limited third person, The Night Circus brings the circus to life through the written word, with complex characters and a mysterious story line.

I loved the gorgeous prose. Each chapter and section of prose was carefully and purposely placed, bread crumbs that when added together create a beautiful and delicious cake (I know that’s not how it really works, but just roll with it). If you are in a rush to read, then it may seem a bit slow at first. But if you are in the mood to savor each lengthy, yet beautiful description with little thought for plot, this is the book for you. If you aren’t in the mood for a slow book, but you still want to read The Night Circus, then read the first third of it as quickly as you can, and enjoy the wonderfulness that is this book.

A large part of what makes this book so awesome is the characters. Morgenstern has done an excellent job of creating complex and realistic characters, many that we love, some that we hate, but all that we believe. The main characters Marco and Celia have unconventional childhoods, and we see how their upbringing affects the rest of their lives, allowing us to also understand their actions. Each side character is detailed in such a way as to allow us to get a good grasp of who they really are and how they are important in the story. Because each character, no matter how small their role, is incredibly important to the storyline. If a character is included, they are important.

I absolutely loved this book. While I was somewhat disappointed by the ending, the journey was incredible enough that it made up for it, and I can’t say that much for a lot of books. Normally the ending makes or breaks a book for me.

The magic in this story is contagious, it refuses to stay contained within the pages it was written. I find myself thinking about the world of The Night Circus, wishing I could visit. If you are looking for a beautiful work of art with gorgeous descriptions, you will definitely enjoy this book.

**FYI: For those who are more sensitive to language, there is one strong swear word in the first chapter, but after that it is completely clean of swearing.**