Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

“Hope is a powerful thing. Some say it’s a different breed of magic altogether. Elusive, difficult to hold on to. But not much is needed.” 

Caraval is a wonderous place of magic. Scarlett has always dreamed of going, but her Caravalcruel father will never allow it. When she receives tickets to Caraval as a gift from the infamous Caraval Master Legend himself, Scarlett and her sister Tella run away to attend the show with the help of a handsome sailor. Shortly after their arrival however, Legend kidnaps Tella, and Scarlett soon learns that Tella’s disappearance is part of the Caraval game, and whoever finds her first wins. With the help of the mysterious sailor and other characters of intrigue along the way, Scarlett embarks on a dangerous adventure into the heart of Caraval to find and save her sister.

I am not a big fan of young adult novels (yet I somehow keep reading them), so my expectations of this book were somewhat low simply based on the genre, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I really enjoyed this reading experience. Yes, the protagonist is frustrating in her naïveté at times, but I understand that’s part of her figuring things out and growing as a person in the YA experience. Despite that, I loved this book and could not put it down! It is captivating and imaginative and kept me wondering and guessing at every twist and turn as to what would happen next.

Marketers have heavily compared this book to Night Circus, and there is a little bit of truth in that, mostly in the sense that there is magic and mystery and secrets. There are also complicated relationships, both romantic and familial, but the premise is not so much a competition between star-crossed lovers but rather a race against time for a girl to find her sister as part of an elaborate game.

The descriptions in this book of the many sights, sounds, and characters conjured fantastical images in my mind. I loved imagining all of the costumes and dresses specifically. The story is visually very interesting, and I can easily see this book made into a movie.

The story is magical, creative, dark, and even a little racy via the dark allure of some characters and some passionate romantic scenes as well. There are endless twists and turns that play out in a magical world so you can never be sure what is real and what is true. It is a fun and exciting read that kept me guessing and wondering to the very end.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

“We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.” 

The setting is war-torn Chechnya in 2004. Explosions and disappearances are a way of life. After watching the Russian feds arrest his friend and set his house on fire, Akhmed is relieved to find his friend’s 8-year old daughter Havaa hiding in the woods and knows he must take her to a safe place. Sonya, a talented and overworked surgeon who is Constellationhaunted by the disappearance of her sister, agrees to take in Havaa in exchange for Akhmed’s help at the hospital. Meanwhile, someone is still looking for Havaa.

The heart of the plot takes place over only 5 days, but the whole story unfolds through various character perspectives and flashbacks throughout the previous ten years. At first the setting distracted me from everything else. I knew next to nothing about the Chechen wars and paused in between chapters to do some research and get a better understanding of the history. I was shocked to learn how much of the historical context of the novel is true, but it helped me grasp what the characters were facing and trying to endure.

The book gracefully dives head first into the strength and resilience that people are capable of when duty and dignity calls for it while highlighting the lasting effects of traumatic experience.  The story comes full circle, intertwining together the fates of the characters, materializing meaning in unexpected ways. While there is some hopeful resolution, there also remains a sense of emptiness and loss, which solidifies the book’s powerful impact.

In this book war is life. It’s a haunting story that transported me to a place I’m thankful I’ve never actually been, but it’s important to have exposure to perspectives and experiences different from your own to see what the world for others can be like. This book provided that for me, and it still left me hopeful.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

“They’ll wait until I’m asleep – or nearly asleep – to strike. That’s how they do it; they blur the line between reality and nightmare. They give me bad dreams, and then they make them come true.” 

Twelve contestants compete in a new survivalist reality TV show, one that is rumored to LastOnehave unprecedented reach and special effects. As the contestants compete in teams as well as individually, they begin to understand the lengths to which the show producers will go. After the solo challenge begins, catastrophe strikes, and the contestant we know as Zoo struggles to decide what is reality TV and what is true reality.

Two words: dramatic irony. Dramatic irony exists when the reader knows things that the characters inside the story do not know. This book is dramatic irony to the extreme. Through most of the book, the reader has highly important information about which the protagonist is in the dark. For me personally, I struggle with dramatic irony. I prefer to learn information at the same time as the characters so that I’m embarking on their journeys with them. Knowing things that the characters don’t is a major source of anxiety and frustration for me as part of the reading experience, and it is not a style that I particularly enjoy. It was a hard book for me to endure.

That said, this book is still great. Aside from my own struggles with dramatic irony, this story is interesting, entertaining, and does a great job of exploring the psychological aspects of human nature and behavior under duress. It’s dark and captivating and attention grabbing. I really liked the varying reality TV personalities. Their characters and actions were consistent with a reality TV setup, and the insight into editing and production manipulation was on point (speaking as someone who worked in reality TV production). Zoo’s internal dialogue felt repetitive and a little long at times, but I like the juxtaposition of her solo journey with that of the reality show plot and how they unfolded together.

If you like dark books laden with suspense, unease, and exasperation, this book is for you. The agony of the anticipation lasts all the way to very last page. It’s an intense read that is very well written and grabs ahold of you from the start.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

“The law of probability combined with the law of large numbers states that to beat the odds, sometimes you have to repeat an event an increasing number of times in order to get you to the outcome you desire. The more you do, the closer you get. Or… basically, sometimes you just have to keep going.”

Ed is a software company mogul accused of insider trading, suspended from work, and OnePlusOnewho is avoiding facing his family. Jess is a single mom working two jobs and struggling to provide for her daughter Tanzie, stepson Nicky, and giant dog Norman. When Tanzie, a child highly gifted in math, has a chance to compete in an elite math competition and potentially win enough money to secure a place at a respected private school, Jess will do what it takes to make it happen. Her world collides with Ed’s through a few chance encounters, and Ed suddenly finds himself invested in helping Jess and her kids (and Norman) make it to the math competition, which is just a road trip away. Shenanigans ensue, secrets are revealed, and bonds are forged and strengthened.

Jojo Moyes is a talented writer who creates interesting and memorable characters. This book is no different. Although for me it didn’t quite have the emotional impact as some of her other books, this one is still a rollercoaster ride as the characters struggle to overcome personal challenges. None of them are perfect, and that’s what makes them so relatable yet also unique.

I’m a sucker for the dog in any story, especially a lovable one like Norman who plays a part in the family dynamics and in the plot. I love Jess’s supermom character. Her desperation to provide sometimes propels her forward without thinking her decisions all the way through, but her heart is always in the right place. She is the guiding force for her kids Tanzie and Nicky and is an easy character to root for, even when she’s kicking in the side of someone else’s car. Ed, who is much more selfish, is less likable, but he grew on me through redemptive interactions with Jess and her family. All of the characters learn, grow, and change, which makes for a satisfying read.

This book explores the concepts of family support systems, unconditional love, honesty, and forgiveness. The bullying plot line is a hard and frustrating one, as it should be, but it emphasizes the important themes of leaning to be true to oneself, regardless of the opinions of others. It’s a great story complete with fun, laughs, tears, and drama, and it’s another great book by Jojo Moyes.

4 out of 5 stars

The Unseen World by Liz Moore: A Book Review

“Only humans can hurt one another, Ada thought; only humans falter and betray one another with a stunning, fearsome frequency… She would fail other people throughout her life, inevitably, even those she loved best.” 

Ada’s father David is the most important thing to her. For thirteen years David has beenUnseenWorld her teacher, her best friend, her guide. Ada’s life has revolved entirely around him and his work in his computer science lab, so when David begins to forget things and disappear for hours at a time, Ada’s world as she knows it rapidly changes. As David’s mind disintegrates, Ada must navigate the coming years without him. Life grows more complicated as she moves in with her father’s long time friend, and evidence surfaces that David may not be the person she thinks he is.

I think the experience of admiring and idolizing a parent and then gradually realizing that parents are fallible human beings is something to which everyone can relate.   The reverence with which Ada views her father is so powerful that it’s easy to feel the confusion, frustration, and protectiveness that Ada feels when her father’s health begins to decline.  The relationship between father and daughter is the foundation of the story, and the author does a wonderful job of portraying some of the complexities of that relationship.

The characters are clearly written and consistent, their actions aligning with their personalities so the interpersonal dynamics work well and were convincing. The last third of the book felt a less cohesive for me during the jumps in time back and forth to Ada’s adulthood. I didn’t connect as strongly to the older Ada as I did to the younger one, but perhaps that that’s because we spend less time with her in her adulthood than in her youth.

Still, I liked this book much more than I anticipated. The pacing was consistent through most of the book, and the cryptology as well as the mystery surrounding David’s history and eccentricity kept me interested. As the beginning of the story unfolded, I had so many questions about Ada and her upbringing. I felt like I was slowly turning these small corners, each one revealing another piece of the puzzle, which kept me wanting to keep going along with Ada as things began to unravel.

4 out of 5 stars

 

Book Review: A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Cline

“I want each day to last forever . . . It’s a peculiar kind of dissatisfaction, a bittersweet nostalgia for a moment not yet past.

Inspired by the true story of famous painter Andrew Wyeth and the muse for his PieceofWorldpainting “Christina’s World,” this work of historical fiction ventures into the life of Christina herself. Struck by a degenerative disease at a young age that continued to worsen as time progressed, Christina spent most of her days on her family’s farm, struggling through the hardships of her physical challenges and the relationship challenges in both her personal and familial life. By the end of the story, one has a complete and insightful picture of the woman who became the subject of a piece of art that now hangs in MOMA in New York.

My favorite parts of this book are the ones that describe the simplicity of the sweeping landscape beside the ocean. It conjured images of Maine in my mind, though it’s a place I have never been. I loved the imagery of Christina and her mom venturing to the shore and collecting shells. The Hawthorne farm sounds like the foundation of a peaceful existence, though Christina’s struggles and the family hardships bring one back to a more realistic view of things.

Christina’s defiance of her condition as well as her strength to manage on her own are courageous. Her physical degeneration clearly takes a toll on her mentally and emotionally as well, though I came to realize that gradually, just as I imagine Christina realized it herself. She is determined not to let it affect her but it does anyway. While she wants so much for people to see past her ailment and see her for who she is, she struggles with the exact same thing.

It’s a beautiful but also tragic tale in many ways. I’m not sure I could have moved on so easily from the same missed opportunities in life. The end of Christina’s story however is a loving and satisfying one when she finally gets the thing in life she has always truly wanted. It’s a lovely and wistful book.

4 out of 5 stars