Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review - Dare to Be Kind

Original Title: Dare to Be Kind: How Extraordinary Compassion Can Transform Our World
Series: -
Author: Lizzie Velásquez
Published: June 6th, 2017

Publisher: Hachette Books
Let me clarify something. I never read nonfiction. I know some people love it and prefer it over any type of novel, short story, or whatever writing form you can think of, but I’m not one of them. I just need a good plot to keep me engaged and passing one page after another wanting to find the answers to an amazingly concocted story. Or at least, that’s what I expect every time I pick a new book. However, I had to make an exception with this one. 

I’m a big fan of Lizzie Velasquez and I consider her one of the bravest, most beautiful women in the world. In case you don’t know who she is, Lizzie is an American author and motivational speaker who, at the age of 17, was labeled by Internet bullies as “The World’s Ugliest Woman”, due to a very rare and only recently diagnosed syndrome she was born with, that doesn’t allow her to gain weight and only a few other people in the world have. You can find her talks online, she has several in which she explains her syndrome and tells her story, and she also has her personal YouTube channel, here, if you want to take a look. But my favorite is her TEDx AustinWomen talk, that truly left me speechless and gave me a lot to think:

In this book, Lizzie tells us her story and her memories, not only on bullying, but also about the circumstances of her birth, how her syndrome affects her life, and how it doesn’t define who she is. She talks about her family and friends, and although I don’t know them, I can relate to the feelings and situations she went through, especially around finding friends who are truly worth keeping. And also, I could relate around chapter 8, when she talks about her dog, Ollie. I can truly understand what she means when she says that the puppy saved her life, as my own dog, a beautiful, loving black giant named Loki, came one day, and since then my home is a different place, for the better. I didn’t really know how dogs could be, as I never had one that lasted long, but now I see that they are little angels sent to teach us about unconditional love, loyalty and friendship. Everything she says about Ollie is true, and if you don’t have a dog, I sincerely encourage you to adopt one. You will have found your best friend.

The reason why I grabbed this book is because, recently, I’ve been hearing of a lot of bullying cases, in the news, and online, that, sadly, end with kids or teenagers attempting to take their own lives, due to their suffering at the hands of their peers. I myself, back when I was a kid, had to go through many years of non-stop bullying, and although I thank God that I never suffered physical violence, the truth is that words and attitudes can cut as deeply as the sharpest knife, and scars take an eternity to fade, if they ever do. So as Lizzie shared her story and her darkest moments in her book, I want to share some of mine, to all of you out there who think that there’s no case like yours, that this is never going to end. Your situation, if you are bullied, are a lot more relatable than you think, and let me tell you, it’s not an endless darkness. I know it, because I’ve been there, and I got out. Of course, I know that things were different back then. Every time I look back when I was 8, 9, 10 years-old, I feel grateful that we didn’t have social media back then, or things could have gone out of hand very easily. When I was a kid, bullying didn’t have a name. It was just something kids do in school, that it’s normal, because it’s just a part of it. But the truth is that it’s not that easy, and Lizzie explains adults’ attitude towards it in the clearest terms, that I saw with my own eyes:

Some people believe bullying is a normal part of childhood—so normal, in fact, that they might not even consider certain behaviors to be bullying at all.

Just as Lizzie, I have a few stories of my own. As a kid, in middle and high school, I did what all of us do: try to fit. Needless to say, it didn’t fully work. I had friends, yes, but not a best friend, not someone I could talk to, and share everything I loved. Since forever I’m a reader and a writer, I love fantasy and romance, but in school, I was just the “book swallower”, the nerdy, unremarkable girl that no one noticed, except when there was a test, or a book we had to read and they didn’t understand it. I was laughed at, and called names, on a daily basis, and more than once I heard insults towards my family. I got asked why I was that fat, when I really wasn’t. I once was called “uglier than a bat”, by this guy who said he would take me to the field trip we were going to, so I could scare bats away with just my face. Another time, I fell into a sewer, as I was so angry with my bullies I didn’t watch my step, and as I clung to the sidewalk to get out, they just laughed and pointed at me, instead of helping me. I spent one PE class after another, as teams were being formed, left sitting there, humiliated as the last one, as I watched the captains looking at each other to decide which team would take me, as none of them wanted me, and I came home crying my eyes out, and wondering why I just kept going to school.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For the sake of brevity, and my own heart, I won’t delve deeper. So, what’s the point of that bunch of bad memories? Not to make you feel sorry for myself, because I don’t want that. Just to tell you that I get it. I know what bullying means, I know what it is not wanting to go back to school, and repress your anger as tears go down your cheeks. And I also know how it is to defend yourself, and having adults take the bullies’ side, when your life is a living hell. Even now, sitting here, a new memory comes to me, when a teacher yelled at me as I was standing in front of the entire class, for everyone to see, because I had failed an exam on verb conjugations. I was 12 years old. My heart still aches a little bit when I remember that, proving that teachers are as capable of being bullies as kids are, and in a worse kind of way, because they are supposed to be the mature adult in the situation. But I power through all these memories, because as Lizzie says, they are not going to win. They don’t define me.

Have you ever looked for a book’s genre? When you go to GoodReads you can see them listed in each book’s individual page, so you can know if it is fantasy, romance, mystery or whatever genre you can think of. But, did you notice that, when you read that book, that little word didn’t truly cover it, that the book was far more complex than just a fantasy, or a romance, that it had many subplots and a ton of characters, each deeper than the other? The same happens with us. When we are bullied, names are applied to us, and hurtful things are said about us. But the truth is that, just like those books, that doesn’t describe us. We are far, far, more complex than whatever name we are called by, and it is our responsibility to make our story shine. Now, I’m not saying that we are books, or intend to compare people to them. But I do like to say that we are all writers in some way. We, and no one else, is in charge of writing our own story, and NO ONE is allowed to stop us. I decided, a long time ago, even when things were really tough, that I am the only one in charge of my story. Lizzie even says this in her book:

Wherever you are right now, you’ve gotten there because of your own remarkable qualities and experiences. You are the person who led the way to where you are today. The good choices you’ve made and the bad ones, the positive experiences you’ve had and the negative ones—all of it is your story.

You, my friend, that you are reading this, and can relate to what I’ve told you, need to know that you are more than just the bullied boy or girl, and that everything is about choices. You choose to let the bullies win, or not. Please, don’t sink into silence. Speak up. Ask for help, and don’t be afraid. Just as Lizzie says, you decide if your path is going to be good or bad, and I believe that all of us were born for a reason, among the trillion possibilities of coming to this world being who we are, with the body type, the eye color, the personality and character we have. Even when we don’t notice at first, and the bullies’ voices and opinions fill our head and seem to be louder than a thunder, they are just that. Noise. An annoying cacophony that you can shut up with your personality and qualities, your talents, and the fulfilling of your goals. You can fight back by not letting them define you, just as Lizzie says in her TEDx talk, and remarks in her book:

I am here to tell you: It is fine to be who you are. It is a good thing not to be just like everybody else. What makes you unique is what makes you beautiful, because it’s what makes you you. And the world needs you, exactly as you are. That’s the truth, plain and simple.

I spent years of my life bullied by classmates and even college professors for what I liked, and especially because I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Stories are my passion, my best way to communicate with people, but some college professors literally laughed at my face and didn’t take me seriously when I said it, convinced that I was in the wrong place, that because they couldn’t teach me how to do that, it was a delusional thing, a fleeting dream in the head of a naïve teenager, and that I would eventually give up. But, just like Lizzie says and explains, the best revenge are your accomplishments, and a happy life. My work was never good for them, because it was too “literary” for their taste, and they gave me every reason not to try. But they never, and I mean, NEVER, could slap the pen out my hand, because that’s my decision, and they don’t have a say in the matter. It wasn’t until years later, when I chose a different course of studies, when I truly found a voice. The voice of the storyteller I never stopped being, and although at first I was overly shy, and scared of being laughed at again, I found people who truly saw me, the real me, and for the first time I was told, as I was close to tears, that “if they don’t or won’t listen, it’s their loss.” And now, I say the same thing to you. Your voice is worth to be heard. You were born unique. Your talents and virtues do not have a match out there, and no matter what, you are a full human being for who there’s no barriers if there’s determination enough. And I tell you what, the world is depending on whatever purpose you are meant to achieve. Get rid of all those thoughts that eat away your brain, because nothing, and I mean NOTHING they say or do, is worth your life. I don’t know your story, but I know mine, and I finally come to understand that I’m more than that bullied little girl, and that if I don’t move forward because of those jerks, they would be winning a match that only should be my victory. Have things hurt? Yes. There were dark times? Yes. But they didn’t, and won’t, define me. 

About this, I would love for you to listen to Andrea Pennington in her TEDxIUM talk, where she encourage us to become who we really are, to LOVE who we are, in direct connection to Lizzie's words. It left me speechless, they are twenty minutes of PURE GOLD.

The world would be a very different place if we just replace three of every five hurtful words with a kind one. Just as Lizzie wants to tell us in her book, something as simple as kindness can save us, and change the world around us. 

Also, what Lizzie tries to tell us with every word, is that true beauty comes from within, and that's what we all need to understand and remember every single day. This world is too demanding in terms of physical perfection, and the standards are unattainable, so I won't waste the only life I've got trying to fit them. The only people in our lives that are worth keeping around are those brave enough to look past all of our physical imperfections (because everyone has them), to the person we really are, because all of us are worthy of love, and love creates beauty. 

Finally, one more thing. Adults, especially teachers, DON’T IGNORE BULLYING. Don’t pretend it’s not there, just because you think you can’t handle it. Step forward, and take the bullied person’s side. Take action, because this is literally costing lives. Stop what you are doing, and listen. LISTEN. Pay attention. Do your job as a grown up and look for the roots of the problem to take it out. Use your place as an educator, as a mature person, to spread kindness and respect, from whatever position you are in. If we unite, and for once we do not respond with curt language, cuss words, insults, or even physical violence, this world would be one step closer to be a better place.

Please. Take the brave decision. Love and forgiveness are ALWAYS the right choice. For the sake of the world, Dare to Be Kind

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review - Threats of Sky and Sea

Original Title: Threats of Sky and Sea
Series: Threats of Sky and Sea, #1
Author: Jennifer Ellision
Published: May 16th, 2014

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

What a pleasant surprise! I was looking forward to a good fantasy novel, and this one came out from my to-read jar. At first, I hesitated, but I decided to give it a shot, and, although this book was fantastic, it wasn’t perfect. However, it has a lot of potential in the world it features, and I will for sure read the rest of the saga. 

I love Elemental powers, even when they are somewhat overused in fantasy, and I’m pretty sure that, in any world I could live in where people could wield such powers, mine would definitely be water. In Egria, Torchers (fire) are the majority, although there’s some Riders (air) and Shakers (earth), but no Throwers (water), and everything around this people made me so curious! I want to know more about them, and why some things happen, like, how can anyone wield more than one, like Katerine? Is there someone able to control the four elements? Some deepening on those topics would be great, and I definitely want to know more about the Shakers, that barely appear in this book, and may be the most powerful of them all, as the Earth is at their command. 

I really liked the main character, Breena Rose Perdit. Even when a sixteen-year-old barmaid from a tiny village –in a forgotten corner of the realm–, embarking on an unexpected adventure, feels kind of trait, that didn’t deter me, as she is a very witty narrator. She has this frank attitude and curt responses, and from the first moment she makes it clear that she’s not to be toyed with. She has her own will and brain, she’s smart, and knows how to act sensibly, ready to defend the innocent and do what’s right. I loved that she doesn’t need anyone to make her decisions for her, nor she seeks other people’s validation before following her head or her heart. She’s throughout a great heroine, and I want to read more about her, especially after everything there’s still to uncover about her life and her family, that was left in suspense. As for the two big reveals around her, they are somewhat guessable; if you pay attention, you can totally see them coming, e.g., as she watches de ocean:

It crashes, roaring mightily and lashing its frothy waves against the cliffs. […] It wants me.” (Chapter 16).

This told me right away she was a Thrower, and when she was revealed to be the true princess of Nereidium, I, honestly, wasn’t entirely surprised, because it’s easy to get to that conclusion, especially with the hints about her family not being the one she thought it was, and her father’s lies. By the way, I liked her bond with him, their closeness, but their conversations, as he was imprisoned, made me lose patience, as he didn’t say anything useful. I understand that he did that in case Katerine was listening, but there was a point in which the mystery grew and grew and no one revealed anything, but kept dancing around the topic. And even with that, Bree’s father died before I could know more, and I really wanted to. I hope we get a deepening in his past, about how he managed to sneak Bree from the king’s grasp and raise her as his own daughter. It’s an interesting plot point, and I hope it gets further development.

Overall, I wish there was some more action, in the entire novel. There’s a bit too much explaining the everyday life in the castle, and Elementals, but not as much action as I would have liked. Some things take forever, like Breena and her father being taken as prisoners to the palace, as they walked for days, and spent one chapter after another on the road. In general, the characters are a bit two-dimensional, but I do hope for a deepening in their stories and motivations, especially with the bad guys. The king is a great, hateable villain, and it’s definitely well written, as he has no qualms on putting one or many lives on the line just to get what he wants. And Kat also made a great villain, but I would have loved to know more about her, and I didn’t want her dead (if she is, in fact, dead), because she had a lot of potential, and I’m really interested in her past at the Egrian king’s service. Even if she’s not around, I hope to know at least a little bit more, as she is the only one, so far, able to wield two Elements at the same time (air and fire). That raises some questions, don’t you think?

As for the other characters, I really liked Aleta. I wasn’t expecting her to be a Torcher (a Thrower, in any case), but it was a great twist. I loved her attitude, her defiance, in despite of her situation, and this was my favorite line,

They think I am glass,” […] “But I am not. I am not delicate. I am stone. If they want to break me, they will have a hard time of it. I am unbreakable.

She’s strong, and has the temper to be a queen. True, her legacy is a lie, but that just made me more interested in her story, because now I want to know who her parents are, if they are alive, if she’s ever going to find them, how she will react when she finds out Nereidium isn’t hers… I can’t wait to know. Honestly, I thought she and Bree would never be friends, that there would always be some rivalry between them, but I thank the author for saving us the trouble of reading a cat fight. I was glad to see how they managed to forge a bond, and be friends in despite of everything going on around them, with everyone pushing and pulling them in every possible direction, and trying to take control of their lives. It is great that they are both strong, independent women, capable of making their own decisions, and fighting their own battles, ready to take the reins of their lives no matter what. That’s a heroine for me.

Finally, we get to the love story, and once again, we face a poorly developed relationship in which the characters fall in love for absolutely no reason. I don’t deny that Prince Caden is a sweet, brave man, and overall an interesting character, but he and Bree didn’t have enough encounters and conversations for me to see their connection, their reason to fall for each other and be together. I need more to be able to root for them, to eagerly wait for that first kiss that shouldn’t happen, but will spark the fire… But it didn’t happen. Some lingering looks and brief conversations, meant to be intense, aren’t enough. I really hope to see more development between them, and find out the reason why they like each other, because, honestly, I couldn’t see why they should be together. Moreover, judging by the first part of the book, I honestly thought she would eventually fall in love with Tregle, as it makes so much more sense: he’s an Elemental like her, they are both prisoners in the castle, in one way or another they have to obey every order they receive, putting their powers at the service of the king, they are both in training around their element… It’s a lot more logical, if you ask me. But that’s just my opinion.

Oh, and I liked the names borrowed from Greek mythology, scattered here and there, mixed with regular names, it was a nice touch. I specially noticed the name Aleta for a princess from Nereidium. For those who don’t know, “aleta” is the Spanish word for “fin”, and she comes from a realm named entirely after the Greek water nymphs. Well played, Jennifer Ellision. 

So, long story short, I really liked this book, even with all those things I mentioned, and I will definitely read the next books in the saga, as they seem so promising, and Bree is a very funny, engaging narrator. I love to find new authors and get to know the ideas they turned into novels, and I really hope this saga gets better with each book!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review - The Queen's Handmaid

Original Title: The Queen's Handmaid
Series: -
Author: Tracy L. Higley
Published: March 18th, 2014

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Seriously, this could be the most boring book I’ve ever read. I rarely give one GoodReads star, normally reserving it for when I truly don’t have anything good to say about a book, and this, sadly, is one of those cases. Every time I put it down, it pained me to think that I had to go back to it, I literally did it grumbling. But I’m too stubborn to leave unfinished books, even when I truly wanted to drop this one every few pages, and never pick it up again. The Queen’s Handmaid has the merit of being the only book that ever kept me up at night in a bad way, because I just wanted to finish it to be over with it, or I would have to bear another day of trudging through this story. 

A quick disclaimer: in this review, I won’t be delving into this story's historical or biblical accuracy, because I simply don’t know enough about those topics as to make a valid point. With that said, let’s dive in.

This book wasn’t a nightmare, but a sedative. It is probably one of the slowest I’ve ever read, and after four hundred pages of absolute boredom, I have a few things to say. The Queen’s Handmaid feels more like a history book than a novel, and precisely, it should have the opposite effect. Simply put, if I wanted a history lesson, that’s what I would have read, but I grabbed a novel instead. As I passed the pages, I often had to re-read chunks of information and paragraphs because my mind wandered, and if your thoughts are clearly more interesting than the words you are reading, I think that speaks volumes. One of the first confusing things I found was the dialogue between royalty and servants, as it felt informal, and way too modern for the time period. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think that, in other stories, if a servant talked to a royal the way it happens in this book from time to time, they would probably be executed, or at least severely punished. And although, yes, Cleopatra executes this Andromeda girl on the spot for that, we don’t ever see something like that again (by the way, that scene was also the one that made me think this book would be different than it turned out to be after a few chapters).

The second thing that bothered me may sound very technical, and it has to do with show vs. tell. For those who don’t know, a quick explanation: showing means vivid, impactful moments to get the readers invested in the story, for them to remember the important things and connect with the characters and the plot, while telling basically means stating facts, and providing information**. In this book, there’s a telling abuse. Most of the worthwhile content is delivered as facts and historical data, like the battle in Masada. Perhaps it’s just me, that, as a fantasy reader, I’m used to be in the center of the fight and experience everything firsthand, but here, we see the entire battle from Lydia’s point of view, and although the telling isn’t wrong, I can’t feel anything, it’s like watching a very boring movie filled with dialogue in a moment in which I should only be seeing and hearing the clash of swords and shields, the screaming... It’s a siege, for God’s sake! Also, there’s too much telling on the time jumps. In a moment, we are here, and in the next, one or two years have passed. E. g., we get a very intense scene with Lydia in the temple as the battle rages on around her, and in the next page, it’s the same place, only a year later, and the author has skipped all the good stuff, like Herod and Mariamme’s wedding, for example, and I do like a royal wedding in historical fiction from time to time, I mean, imagine the picture that could be painted with the right words! But no, there’s nothing about it.

In this story, lots of things happen for no reason, and that’s especially noticeable after Lydia leaves Egypt. The author dedicates five whole chapters to their stay in Rome, and I felt that the whole thing could have been easily removed from the book, and absolutely nothing would have changed. Nothing comes from Lydia serving Octavia, nor from the insinuated attraction between her and Varius, the poet, so why making me read all these chapters to no point? Because there isn’t one, no matter how hard you try to find it. The whole Rome part got me completely lost with so many names and characters, and I ended up bored sick with the political negotiations between Herod and Marc Antony. Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok to show these things, but there’s a point in which enough is enough, you can’t rely on your readers’ patience forever. The only thing that happens during those chapters that is worth reading is Riva being attacked by the man we later find out had been sent by Salome to find the scrolls. But asides from that, nothing changes in the general plot, I could have just skipped the five chapters, and it would have been exactly the same.

If we are talking about pointless scenes, after the Rome part, the one that definitely made me want to flush the book down the nearest toilet was the childbirth scene. So, Mariamme has decided that she wants to escape her husband, so she, Lydia, and Simon get on a cart and secretly leave Jerusalem, but in the nearest inn, Mariamme goes into labor, and then finds out Herod is coming back alive to the city, so she has to go back too. And I was like, "why on Earth, why??" Why did I have to read that? The exact same thing could have been told without changing locations, and without exhausting the reader, perhaps saying that Mariamme was about to leave the palace, and then her water broke, and so on. But no. They left, but they had to return anyway, so why making them leave in the first place? Seriously, it made absolutely no difference to the story that she had her baby here, or there. But it did make me angry. What a waste of page time!

Can we talk about the “romance”? Because it really disappointed me. As I said before, at first it seemed the love story was going to be between Lydia and Lucius Varius Rufus, the Roman poet, but aside from letting us know that Lydia is attracted to passionate men, it’s just another piece of the novel that could have been cut from the book and nothing would have changed. After him, she meets Simon, who serves Herod as a soldier, and although we see that something grows between them, this book is so boring that even the supposed romance fell flat. They don’t have enough chemistry, there was nothing for me to root for their relationship, and their first kiss just left me with a puzzled expression on my face, over this:

And in the kiss something was unleashed within her that had little to do with the way of a man with a woman, and everything to do with the way of an Israelite passionate for her people and her land.” (Chapter 19)

Seriously? You kiss the man you are falling in love with, and that’s what you are thinking? If you ask me, I normally would say it’s the other way around. But, see what I mean? For things like this, their moments together are ripped from everything that could be remotely romantic between them. 

But the last point is the worst. First, Samuel dies before giving further explanations about what he wants Lydia to do, that is finding this Chakkiym people, but it bothered me that he was literally dying, and he kept talking and talking without giving any piece of real, useful information! He didn’t let Lydia interrupt him, but he talked non-stop without getting to the point! Man, you are dying, please say what you mean to say once and for all! *Deep breath* As I said, this book was a huge trial to my patience. After Samuel dies and Lydia leaves Egypt, she spends literally years of her life searching for the Chakkiym, never finding them where she was supposed to, doing what she was told, praying to reach her goal, etc., and we only find out who and where they are in the very last chapter! After that, there’s not even a resolution, because she still doesn’t find them! This seriously pissed me off. After year after year of searching and waiting for Lydia, and painfully boring chapters for me, I don’t even get a resolution? What kind of ending is that?

Finally, a quick word on the character building. Lydia is a cardboard character, and I didn’t fully like her. Everyone loves her, she doesn’t have any faults, and everyone who gets to know her can’t help but loving her *eye roll*. No one is like that, as far as I know, and although I was mildly surprised by Lydia’s parentage and royalty, I was too bored to care. At the point in which that’s revealed, I just wanted to be over with the book once and for all. My point is that she, and the rest of the good ones, are very good, nothing is ever their fault and they possess every virtue. That’s their essence, and they don’t feel even remotely human, because no human being is just a big pool of goodness and love. On the other hand, the villains, like Cleopatra, Herod and Salome, are bad, and only bad, they are never humanly vulnerable or show any concern in regards of those around them, their only worries are about their power and the things that could threaten it, and for me, that’s not enough. The worst of them was, definitely, Salome, she’s the witch in every fairytale, she’s nothing more than pure evil. Both her and Herod are not far from the stereotypical villain who creates suffering for no reason, and sometimes it felt like the only thing they had left was to twist a handlebar moustache and tie a woman to the train tracks to fully complete the villainy chart. 

Phew! That was long, and without covering the details (please don’t make me). I just want to add that this is definitely a no for this author. I tried, and I just couldn’t. If all of her books are like this one, I think I’ll pass. Sorry.

**For a deepening on show vs. tell, I recommend watching Jenna Moreci’s vlogs on the topic, here:
- Show.
- Tell.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review - The Hundredth Queen

Original Title: The Hundredth Queen
Series: The Hundredth Queen, #1
Author: Emily R. King
Published: June 1st, 2017

Publisher: Skyscape

I don’t usually read new releases, given my long, long list of to-read titles; I normally go for one of them, but this book was fixated in my mind for some reason, and honestly, I needed a good dose of fantasy after so many books about Regency England in a row. I have to say that I liked it, but I didn’t love it, for several reasons.

For starters, a good aspect. The worldbuilding is definitely different from the usual, because it’s not based on Europe, but on India, with everything it implies: names, society, clothing, food, traditions... It’s a good change, it breathes originality into the story and the genre. However, it fell short, because that same originality opens up a lot of possibilities to know new places in the world that’s being built, but this story doesn’t take place outside the Turquoise Palace in Vanhi, and Samiya, where Kalinda lives with the Sisterhood. On the other hand, I’ve seen reviews criticizing the mistakes on recreating India, especially on the fact that India is not a monolith, but I won’t delve into that because I’m not qualified to judge, as I’m not an expert on Indian culture and history. I’m just going to say that the author’s research, if not enough, at least it is visible, and even though there are mistakes in the accuracy, I feel like I have to say this: Tarachand may resemble and be based on India, but it’s not India, so the author was in her right to take liberties and throw her own spin on the world she created.

As for the protagonist, the orphan, eighteen-year-old Kalinda, I liked her, and I want to know how her story will continue, even when she seemed a little dumb at times. However, I went to this book looking for originality in the storyline and characters, and I stumbled upon a not very extraordinary MC. Her type seems to be a theme in YA books, as she is this low-profile kind of girl, with no remarkable beauty or talents, that manages to attract a rich, powerful, handsome man for no reason, who obsesses over her, and, by the way, already has hundredths of other women, both wives and courtesans, that, of course, are a lot more beautiful and talented than her, not to mention experienced and dangerous fighters that could easily kill her in combat, in the blink of an eye. The man could have anyone, as he is the rajah, but chooses her, among all women at his disposal… Right. It’s not badly done, but it has been read before, lots of times, and it cuts the originality a little bit.

And the romance…! Oh, my good Lord, the romance! Can we please talk rant about it? Normally, it is my favorite part in a novel, but here, it was the worst, and it got ruined as soon as it started. It was the worst case of insta-romance I’ve ever read, and not once it stopped feeling forced and unrealistic. It was bad for several reasons: everything happens way to soon and for no reason, I mean, Kalinda –just like most of the girls in Samiya– never saw a man in her life, but one glimpse, and she’s lost? Literally, it is one look, as she sees Captain Deven Naik from afar, as a part of the rajah’s entourage, and notices how handsome he is, which is ok, but jumping from there to love is all sorts of wrong. I think the author tried to show the spark between them, but she didn’t do it right, because Kali and Deven didn’t have enough encounters and conversations for me to say “yes, I want them to fall in love”. They don’t know each other! Their dialogue is poorly written, and I was never given a reason to root for them, as I couldn’t understand their attraction. Suddenly, they are madly in love, but I can’t see what they even like in each other, especially because he tells her that he fell in love with her since the first moment he met her in Samiya, and she liked him since she first spied him from the temple. And their kiss! It happened too soon, way before I had the time to start rooting for it! It really bothers me when the characters aren’t evenly matched, and I can’t explain their chemistry and their love. I just don’t buy that suddenly they can’t resist the pull to each other. And of course, as it never fails, this was another story in which I was not saved the trouble of reading about one of them, in this case Deven, saying, over and over again, that nothing should be happening between them, because she’s the Viraji, the rajah’s betrothed, and so on… It’s true, but, oh, my God, we get it! Please, talk about something else! 

Phew, that feels much better! Moving on. During the whole book we get to know more about the main villain, Rajah Tarek, which is well done, as I got to hate him. Power, greed and lust rule his life, as he has all those women for both pleasure and might, wanting to equal the gods. But later we find out that, although he wants many, he loved only one: Yasmin, his first wife, and he plans to bring her soul back to occupy Kalinda’s body as his hundredth wife. So far, so good. I credit to the author that I was very surprised by the plot twist of Yasmin being Kalinda’s mother, I honestly admit that I didn’t see it coming, and it left me with my mouth open. But… *deep breath* Kalinda isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. She had previously found out that Yasmin, being married to Tarek, was in love with Kashin, who was a bhuta, someone born with powers and control capacity over one of the elements, in this case, fire, which makes him a Burner. From the bhutas’ very first appearance, we know that Kalinda has fire in her, and we are able to connect that with the fevers that plagued her since forever. She even admits to herself that she’s a bhuta, which means a pariah, an enemy of the Rajah, and later, when she finds out Yasmin was her mother, I just can’t believe she still doubted her father’s identity! I mean, come on! Can’t you just connect the dots? It’s there, right in front of your nose! Yasmin was a regular woman, and your father was a Burner, you have power over fire, and you still think Tarek could be your father?? *Eye roll* I can’t. No. Just no.

As for the other characters, I’ll go by the most relevant ones. Lakia –Tarek’s first wife and Yasmin’s sister– is also a villain, but I didn’t hate her, although she was violent and vengeful, I rather pitied her, because no one ever loved her, she always had to share her husband with other women, knowing he never stopped loving her dead sister, even after two decades. She’s well written, and I was sorry to see her dead, because she made a really good villain that could have gotten better in the future. As for Natesa, the girl chosen along with Kalinda to become a courtesan, at first, I didn’t feel anything in particular for her, but I was surprised to discover that I had grown to like her, and I want to read more about her, to see how her story plays out now that she’s free. As for Jaya, there we are talking about pain! I was really sorry to read her death, but I would have loved to know more about her before that, because I can’t feel anything for a character I don’t know, and there’s nothing more than what Kalinda tells us about her in Samiya. As Kali’s voice of reason, Jaya had lots of possibilities for character development, she seemed very interesting, and I would have loved some deepening on her story before losing her, but I guess Kalinda needed that final trigger to stand up to Tarek, keep fighting, and fulfill her deal with the bhutas.

Honestly, I was not particularly eager to read about Kalinda and Tarek’s wedding night, as he was such a disgusting character, but I found original the way to kill him, instead of poisoning his drink, or a stab in the heart, as I was expecting. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable, we are talking about a murder, but still. And… well, I feel like I have to mention this. On their way to Vanhi, Kalinda and her guard meet this old couple on the road that give them food as a way to honor her as the Viraji, and later, they come back to see her in the tournament, but nor them or their scenes serve much of a purpose. Their return could have been easily cut from the book, as it is useless for the plot, because, if at least Tarek had used them to threat Kalinda, like “they will pay if you don’t do as I say”, that would have been something worthwhile, but no. They just appear, nothing comes of it, and they never show up again, so… why are they there in the first place?

Even so, it wouldn’t be fair if I don’t say that this book had good things. I ended up really interested in bhutas, as I like elemental powers in fantasy, and I’m curious about what they can do with them. Also, the tournament scenes are fast-paced and got me at the edge of my sit (though they made me think more of Rome and gladiators than of India). And finally, as I have probably mentioned before, I’m a fan of all kind of costumes, and I particularly enjoyed those brief but wonderful descriptions of clothing (especially Kalinda’s tournament and wedding saris), jewels, and weapons. I could truly see the locations the author painted for us, it was great.

So, in short, this isn’t exactly the best book ever, nor the first to grab me with a beautiful cover and an interesting blurb. It has a lot of flaws, and it’s clear that it is a debut novel. Yes, I will give the series one more chance, reading the next installment, although the promise of a love triangle isn’t the most appealing thing in the world, after that horrible insta-romance. I hope it gets better, though! Crossing my fingers!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review - The Dancing Master

Original Title: The Dancing Master
Series: -
Author: Julie Klassen
Published: January 7th, 2014

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers

It could be my least favorite book by this author. It’s impossible not to notice that she has written novels that are a lot better than this one, and although I liked it, and Julie Klassen is an excellent narrator, it didn’t grab me or kept me reading late at night, unlike her other books. The impeccable research and the amazing details make up for an enjoyable read, but The Dancing Master isn’t a five GoodReads stars book, and I’ll tell you why.

Dancing is, hands down, my favorite part in every piece of historical fiction. Nothing is more exciting for me than a ballroom scene, with all the lights, the beauty, the dresses, the jewels, the music, and of course, the dancing that always brings two people closer to fall in love, when something as little as a look, a mere touch of the hands, can be deep and beautiful, and speak volumes. *sigh* Alec Valcourt, the hero in this story, is a dancing and fencing master –a profession that runs in the family–, who comes to Beaworthy with her mother and sister, as an attempt to escape a shameful scandal that forced them to sell their academy in London, and move in with their uncle to start over. But the problem is that, of all the villages in England, they moved to the only one where he can’t practice his profession, because dancing has been forbidden for two decades by an unwritten law established by Lady Amelia Midwinter, following a tragedy involving a dancing master. That doesn’t mean there’s no people interested in dancing, but everyone is too scared of Lady Amelia as to disobey her. And here I get a few points to discuss.

Alec needs to work to support her mother and sister, but no one wants to hire him as dancing master, because of the prohibition. Then Lady Amelia herself hires him, as a clerk, only to prevent him from teaching dancing lessons, but he’s still in need of extra funds, and upon befriending the Allens, he learns that they, besides fencing lessons, would like some private tutoring in dancing, in despite of everything, but Alec doubts, because he doesn’t want to risk his job at Buckleigh Manor. And here it is when Lady Allen says: “Perhaps if I spoke to Lady Amelia, explained that we only want private lessons in our own home, not a public dance. Could she really object?” That line had me rolling my eyes, and l literally yelled at my book “She doesn’t need to know!”. I mean, she forbade dancing, but is she also the owner of everyone’s freedom? Why telling her in the first place? After the end of his working hours in the service of Lady Amelia, she can’t keep telling him what to do, or at least she shouldn’t.

Can we talk about the ban on dancing? In Beaworthy, everyone is scared even at the very mention of the word “dancing”, but nothing, or no one, ever tells me which are the terrible consequences of breaking the [unwritten] law, like if Amelia is some sort of witch or mind reader that can appear summoned by that word, and turn them all into toads if they dared to dance on her watch. Later on, we find out that it has to do with the duel between Amelia’s brother and her former dancing master, John Desmond, to defend her sister Anne’s honor, who was pregnant at the time and pointed at Desmond as the father of her child. As Graham Buckleigh died in the duel, Amelia, in her grief, forbade everything related to dancing masters, to prevent anything like that from happening again. And I, honestly, couldn’t take that with the seriousness it was supposed to have. During the entire book, Amelia complains about Julia being a rebel, always trying to get her way, and having this “unladylike” attitudes, but, how could she expect her daughter to be anything else, if she was raised by one of the biggest brats I’ve ever read? I mean, I understand that Amelia resents everything related to dancing in general, but, why on Earth that meant that every single person in Beaworthy had to stop with their traditions because of it? It’s ok if you don’t dance, but speak for yourself, lock yourself at home if you want to, and don’t attend another ball in your life, but you can’t force everyone else to share that decision. That attitude of “I won’t dance ever again, so no one else can do it either” pissed me off! She made an entire village pay the price of her broken heart, she made her pain everyone’s pain, and then complains about her daughter being a brat! Come on!

But, putting that aside, I actually liked how Lady Amelia is written, as a character that it is both strong and fragile. Her tyrannical stance hides her heartbreak, because she was in love with the man that killed his brother and supposedly was his sister’s lover, and after that, she entered a loveless marriage with a man who didn’t want her, or Julia, knowing that he was raising a child not his own. She always lived ruled by duty, and that doesn’t make her an especially sweet character. Amelia always wanted the best for her daughter and I get it, but her chosen method definitely isn’t the way to proceed, because it’s in human nature to go for that thing that is forbidden. The sterner the prohibition, the bigger the curiosity and the wish to rebel will be. As for Julia Midwinter, Lady Amelia’s daughter/niece, she isn’t the expected heroine you can read in other books by Julie Klassen. I didn’t fully like her. She’s that girl that normally opposes the sensible, levelheaded, and demure protagonist, being a flirt and a rebel. Although I considered her very human, given that, even though a main character has to be likeable, the truth is that not every person out there is likeable. People in real life are selfish, stubborn, and changeable, and very rarely we come across a paragon of virtues. But that doesn’t mean that I liked Julia through and through. She is insufferable at times, always wanting to rebel against her mother’s despotic behavior, and flirting with men in order to catch a husband to get her out of that stifling household she lives on. But, even though she proves herself capable of hitting the Wilcox brothers with her whip and I like that attitude of “you messed with the wrong lady”, she doesn’t do anything of the sort again. Pity, because that could have led to really funny scenes. 

The story revolves more around Julia trying to discover her true parents, after discovering that Lady Amelia isn’t her mother, but her aunt, than around the love story, unlike other books by Julie Klassen. Which isn’t wrong, but I felt that the romance had a lot of potential and wasn’t fully exploited. It’s dancing, after all! One of the best forms of deep touch and romance in historical fiction! I was definitely expecting more. Alec and Julia’s relationship is basically physical, mostly at first, and I just couldn’t buy that instant attraction Alec feels towards her in church the first time he sees her and notices her beauty. After that she proves to be the kind of flirt for which Alec’s family’s reputation was ruined, asking for private dancing lessons she uses to get closer to him than it is appropriate, so he tries to put distance between them. There’s pretty much no reason for their attraction. When they finally kiss, it is truly sigh-worthy, passionate, and not at all what Julia was expecting as she flirted with him, but… they never kiss again. It was so disappointing! In the the epilogue, Julia says that they are engaged to be married, but that kiss, by the middle of the book, was the deepest interaction they had, sharing only a few dances after it, without a truly heartfelt moment before the ending with only the two of them, save for the scenes in the bell tower and in the graveyard, but they barely talk about themselves and their feelings, there’s almost no chemistry between them... And I was looking forward to it. They always struggle to keep their distance, so nothing really allowed me to say, “yes, this two are made for each other, they have to get married”. It’s the first couple written by Julie Klassen that didn’t have me rooting for them. This story is more about Julia’s growing up and finding herself than romance, and honestly, I wanted the romance, especially after having a man like Alec Valcourt, a true gentleman, as protagonist, and the promise of dancing in the title. 

The plot around Julia’s real parents is engaging, and I was truly eager to find out who her father was. Julia finally was content knowing that she had been loved by her parents, but that’s all, her life doesn’t really change after her conversation with Lt. Tremelling. Honestly, the mystery and its resolution wasn’t so engaging as the mysteries Julie Klassen wrote in her other novels, that are gripping and you just need to keep reading to find the answers. There’s a reason why this book took me longer to finish than the others. Again, I’m not saying that I didn’t like this book, but I couldn’t help noticing a few things that contribute it to make it my least favorite by Julie Klassen. First of all, Alec and Julia’s riding scene, Alec’s horse breaks his legs trying to jump a wall, and then, as they can’t save him, Barlow shoots him. Besides being sad, it felt useless, because nothings comes from it, except Alec’s minor injuries, and another scolding for Julia from her mother. I felt that scene could have been cut from the book and nothing would have changed.

After that, already by the end of the book, some things fell a bit flat, when I really wanted more development on them. Like Alec’s father, after that big scandal that drew the plot in the first place. The man just comes back, saying that God’s grace saved him, regains his wife’s love, and then every conflict gets solved. And how…? There was no reunion scene, he just comes back redeemed to close that part of the story, and that’s it, there’s nothing else. As for the other love stories, at least we are told that Walter Allen and Tess Thorne started courting, and eventually they would get married, but what about James and Aurora? I really, really liked that pairing, and I was hoping for a little romance between them after the big finale. But nothing happens, except that James doesn’t make a move to try to court her because she’s still very young, which speaks of a gentleman, but of boredom for me as a reader. After all, we get to know that Uncle Ramsay and Mrs. Tickle got married, when they barely appeared a few times in the entire book, but there’s almost nothing about James and Aurora, that have more page time than them. I know that they aren’t the focus of the story, but I’m just saying that I would have liked a happy ending for them.

Oh, and Amelia and John Desmond! I utterly loved John, he was everything a man should be at the time, a true gentleman ruled by his honor and sense of duty, and any woman he loved would be very lucky. Even though he and Amelia fell in love, and even twenty years later they still loved each other, it disappointed me that they didn’t end up together. After such a drama, it’s not enough for me to read that he spends a lot of time “admiring a certain woman’s auburn hair and dainty figure, her quiet smile and fine eyes”. Seriously, that’s all we get? I wanted something more! Amelia forgave him, yes, but it would have been great if they actually had gotten married, taking that second chance to be together after all those things that delayed it, finally leaving the past behind and accepting the grace bestowed upon them. It was sweet, yes, but definitely scarce.

Finally, not too much to add, except that, as always, Julie Klassen’s research shines on its own. She doesn’t start writing a book without a good foundation, and this one isn’t the exception. However, I feel like it could have been a lot better, that there was a lot of potential in the topics she chose, and it wasn’t exploited. From the books by her I’ve read so far, this one is my least favorite, though it doesn’t mean it sucks. Julie Klassen is a good author, and all her books are good. Consider this the weakest among the great ones, that are all of them. Of course, I’ll continue reading! As I said before, I won’t stop until I read each book by this author, as she is one of my favorites, and one of the most talented I’ve ever read!