Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Review - Somewhere Only We Know

Original Title: Somewhere Only We Know
Series: 
Author: Maurene Goo
Published: May 7th, 2019

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

That was one cute, wonderful book! I don’t know where this Maurene Goo reading rush came from, but I don’t regret a second of it. Her books were never in my TBR in the first place, as neither is the contemporary genre, but you know, the unexpected sometimes is the best that can happen to you. And this is, precisely, the point of this lovely story.

One of the best aspects of Somewhere Only We Know is the fact that it is neither set in the US, nor in high school. Refreshing as that is, it is also a wonderful way to walk through Hong Kong as we go with Lucky and Jack in their one-day detour, and it is nothing short of fascinating. After I finished the book, I learned that the author based the general plot on the 1953 classic movie Roman Holiday, with Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck, but until then, the first thing I thought was that it felt like a ‘Notting Hill meets Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist’ kind of thing (only k-pop themed). And even when I know that this novel doesn’t have the most ground-breaking plot ever, it is its simplicity, and its message, what makes it beautiful.

Normally, stories set in the course of one day are not my favourite thing, as they often feel rushed, and in general, for me, they tend to be hit or miss. But this one is definitely a hit, as, even if I didn’t go for the insta-love between Jack and Lucky, it is necessary to see beyond the teens falling in love to understand the whole point of the story, because, for such short amount of time, Maurene Goo managed to write fully meaningful dialogues, and a true connection between the main characters, making me love them, even if they were far from being perfect.

Let’s talk about Lucky, our heroine, for a minute. She’s a k-pop star with a million fans and followers, that is finishing her Asian tour, as the book opens with her final concert taking place in Hong Kong. Right after it ends, we get see how her life really is off-stage, how her every move is a part of a carefully laid out schedule, in which she doesn’t have a say. I honestly don’t know much about the k-pop world, as it is not my preferred music genre, but I do know that it is terrible in terms of abuse. After I finished the book, I was able to read about the starvation, the eating and sleeping disorders, the exhaustion, and the plastic surgeries Lucky mentions, among other things that go on in the k-pop industry, and I guess that, even sad as it is, it’s not that strange in the show business. I mean, as fans, we only get to see the finished product, where everything is perfect and seems effortless, but actually, that perfection has a price, and that is the part they don’t tell you. As Lucky tells us her story, we get to know that her fame and success mean she can’t see her family, neither have any real friends nor lasting relationships, nor make any long-term plan around other areas of her life. Her music career is literally everything, and it consumes her identity. And Maurene Goo illustrated it perfectly with the jazz bar scene. After Lucky leaves her room in search for the hamburger she’s not allowed to eat, and is under the drowsy effects of her sleeping pills, she and Jack go to a bar where dead butterflies are a part of the decoration; she snatches one, and says:

Were these killed on purpose? To display here for our viewing pleasure? Like barbarians?!

And I think, it’s not too different from her life. She was that butterfly in the first years of her k-pop career, young, pretty, filled with hope, happy in the music world as she lived her dream, but now, she does things robotically, with her eyes empty of that initial enthusiasm, as everything is controlled by others. In the process that took her to the top of her field, her essence was killed for the pleasure of others. But I liked that, as the story progresses, we get to see how she finds a way to remain loyal to herself, and has this star quality that makes Jack fall for her, eventually realizing she can be so much more than just the product she was made into. Her attitude, her way of seeing things, even if they were buried by the pressures of her way of life, is untouched, and that is the source of her bravery, the one that leads her, by the end, to make her own decisions and take charge of her public image.

On the other hand, we have Jack Lim, the hero of the story. Even though his world and Lucky’s are complete opposites, their lives are not that different. They both feel lost, adrift in a world they can’t control, living day by day, without any long-term plans, and dreading what comes next, even if they don’t know what that is. I personally loved Jack’s passion for photography, and even though, at first, his intentions with Lucky are far from honourable, as their day together progresses, he gets to see things differently. The fact that, by the end, Lucky finds out his real intentions, and all the pictures he took of her during the day, to sell to the tabloid, is absolutely predictable, a rom-com trope you know it will happen eventually. But the important things lay elsewhere, in my opinion. At one point, as they are sitting on the tram, Jack says:

We were both quiet, sitting with our lies.”.

Do you know the famous quote that says “give a man a mask and he will show you his true face”? Well, it was my first thought when I read that. They are lying to each other the whole time, as Lucky pretends to be a girl who came to Hong Kong with her church choir, and although Jack knows it isn’t true, he still plays along to get the photos he needs. And yet, through those masks they put on, they can show themselves as they really are, to be honest as they never are, sharing their passions and thoughts, and building trust. And although I think that creating such a bond between them should take more than one single day, it’s still really well done.

And yet, even though I do not agree with saying that you love each other at the end of one day, as it feels rushed and unrealistic, I do believe it can be interpreted beyond the literal meaning of it. True is that both Lucky and Jack are better when they are together, they bring the best in each other out, and their honest conversations and exchanges are what, at the end of the day, pushes them to be themselves in a world that is constantly trying to change them, and define their paths for them. So, the love declaration, in my opinion, feels more like an “I love who you are”, or even “I love all about this version of you.”, rather than expressing the pure feeling itself.

Moreover, after she finds out about the tabloid and leaves the bar in a rush, not even knowing where she’s going, Jack goes after her, and spots a cat, finding her next to it. And I think it was incredibly meaningful, because later, her real name is revealed to be Catherine, so I think it was a way of showing us that Jack was going after the real person. Not the insanely famous k-pop star Lucky, but a simple girl named Catherine who helped him make life decisions and taught him the importance of doing what gives his life meaning. It’s simple, and beautiful.

I don’t know if I’m right with that interpretation, but it’s just the way I see it.

Overall, I think the story sends a very good message. Being the real, authentic you, is far more valuable than money, fame, or the blinding lights of a stage. Even when making the final decision is not easy, your talent and the things that make you happy should be your priority, in a life controlled by yourself, and not by others. Lucky had given up everything for a chance in the music world, and by the end, exchanging her stardom for a quieter, more authentic way of sharing her own art, she found herself, and the possibility to balance her passion with her family and friends, and even her physical and mental health. Same as Jack, who found the courage to say no to the path he knew would make him miserable, getting to live his own passion for photography, and so, finding his own self in the world.

Oh, and by the way, I loved the little cameo of the Shin food truck by the end of the book! The KoBra family is there! It made me smile, like I just had seen a friend. Lovely detail.

So, in short, this may be not be a world-changing kind of book, but it does encourage the reader to change their own, to be brave enough to let go of the things that are easy, for a chance to let your passion bloom. And I agree. I honestly think Maurene Goo has become an author to look out for, and I will happily read more books by her in the future.

***

Thank you for reading!
See you soon!

Friday, September 18, 2020

Review - The Way You Make Me Feel

Original Title: The Way You Make Me Feel
Series: 
Author: Maurene Goo
Published: May 8th, 2018

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Wow. I mean… wow. I don’t know what I was expecting from this book, but it was definitely not this. I thought it would only be a cute, fluffy book about a summer romance and food, and instead, I found a novel that is surprisingly deep on the psychological aspect, tackling complex issues, with realistic, relatable characters, and a plot that is both believable, and incredibly well written. You don’t find this often, and, in my experience, much less in YA.

I read reviews on this book saying that it was impossible for some people to finish it, due to the totally hateable heroine, and how hard it was to tolerate her. And I agree, because Clara Shin is a selfish girl who can’t take anything seriously, and actually puts effort on ruining things that are important for others, just for the sake of it. Which is basically the beginning of the novel, as she takes a prank a little too far, almost setting her school on fire, and fighting with Rose Carver, a girl that is her complete opposite. I mean, from the moment we meet her, we can tell Clara is not a good person, and even more after she tells us that, after Rose caught her smoking once, and told on her, she has dedicated a lot of time and energy to ruin everything that was important to her. And it’s not just that, but the fact that she knows she creates chaos, and yet, doesn’t actually care about being a better person.

And let me say, of course we do not like Clara! That’s pretty much the point. She’s deeply flawed, but all those shortcomings and negative traits have roots, and the plot of the novel is, precisely, finding them out. I’m no expert in psychology, but I can tell when someone needs therapy as soon as they can get it, and that is the case with her. Her rebellious, insolent attitude, the things she says and does, go far deeper than just her being a good or bad person, as I read them as both a vulnerable girl trying to get attention from adults, and at the same time, as a self-protection mechanism, in which not caring means less hurt when facing loss. And those are both natural responses to a life in which very little is solid, with an absent mother, and a father figure that is more of a friend to her than a parent.

At one point, she tells Rose:

The smoking. It was something I could control.

And I think, is there any clearer way to tell that someone needs therapy, and that is not just about the smoking itself, but an attitude rooted in deep-seeded issues? Which leads me to talk about Clara’s parents. Even when in the previous book by the same author, I Believe in a Thing Called Love, Desi Lee and her dad have a lovely father-daughter relationship, loving and supporting each other after their loss, in this book, the bond between Clara and her dad takes the center of the stage. At first, I thought Adrian Shin was a total joke, that he only grounded her and forced her to work on his food truck because he saw Rose’s parents being… well, parents, and he didn’t want to look bad in front of them, instead of doing it because he thought Clara deserved it, or had gone way too far this time. But then, as I read on, I was able to understand him better. Clara is not exactly the easiest girl to parent, as she is strong-willed, and often disrespects her dad, calling him a jerk, and even using his mental disorder against him, making me want to slap her all the way to Korea. But my point is that, while Clara’s mother is little else than a guest star in her life, her dad is there for better or worse, no matter what, struggling to make sure she lacks nothing, and overall, figuring out how to be a father along the way, as Clara is the result of an unplanned pregnancy when they were only eighteen years-old. Of course he’s gonna make mistakes!

And that’s basically the difference with Clara’s mother. As we read, we hate Clara, when in fact, we should be hating her mom. She’s the truly bad person here, because both her and Adrian had their own dreams, but Adrian was the only one who truly assumed the responsibility of their actions, and put them on hold, to take care of their daughter, while Juliana practically abandoned young Clara, to go and live her dream life. It can’t get more realistic than that, and with a selfish mother who is never there, and a father who can’t discipline her because he doesn’t know how, no wonder Clara is out of control. And it’s amazingly well written.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m all about following your dreams, and living your best life, but to the point of ditching the responsibility of a child to prioritize social media followers, is nothing short of selfish, in one of its worst versions. Clara and her mom don’t have a very intimate relationship, as Juliana never sets time apart to devote exclusively to her, always mixing her with work, sharing everything with a thousand strangers online, with whom she is closer than with her own daughter. And, even worse, all her motherly attitudes over the years never came naturally to her, but were the result of Adrian prompting her to remember important dates and events on Clara’s life, so she wouldn’t miss them. Even the promised vacation together in Tulum, is something to Story on Instagram, instead of the purely mother-daughter time Clara needs. I mean, she suddenly ran away from L. A. in distress to find her, and her mother says she should have told her so she could have “sent a car” to the airport instead of picking her up herself! This seems small but hits hard, so I just have to mention it. It’s so sad! Everything about Juliana Choi says that Clara isn’t a priority in her life. Plus, her hypocrisy during the interview in Tulum is unbelievable! As she is praised for balancing her busy life with motherhood, she says she had Clara when she was very young, and then:

But, with Clara’s dad’s support, I was able to strike out on my own.

Support’? She just calls ‘support’ to the fact that Adrian had to be a single parent for both of them, and did everything for Clara so she didn’t have to? Oh my God! I hate her. I want to punch her, because, while she may have given birth to Clara, it was Adrian who was the real parent there, the one who raised her, and made all the sacrifices needed to give her a good life, in a country that wasn’t his own, no less. So, it’s not surprising that Clara lives in the moment, doesn’t take anything seriously, doesn’t make long-term plans, nor has any meaningful relationships in her life. It’s the example she has always seen. And if you think about it, it’s terrible.

So, in short, patience is key with this book, because although Clara is highly unlikeable, the point of the plot actually is going with her on her journey of self-discovery and self-improvement, finding her own self in the midst of chaos, and giving her life a new meaning. Appreciating her transformation is what gives the story its depth.

As for the rest of the characters, save Clara’s friends, Felix and Patrick, all the relevant ones to the plot are not just background noise (something that happens more often than not in YA novels), and they all have an important story to tell. Like Rose Carver, a character I liked very much. She is everything Clara is not, and for me, she was the most relatable person in the entire book. For one, her description of how anxiety feels like is the most accurate I’ve ever read, and through their forced proximity, Clara gets to know her for herself, instead of seeing her through the lens of the things she saw her doing in school. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the point of writing about friendship, that many authors miss, choosing to write about cat fights, slut-shaming, and girl-hating. Because, although at first Rose and Clara were sworn enemies, the fact that they weren’t trying to get to like each other made them be their authentic selves, and so, they realized that the other was not that bad, after all. Even when they don’t seem to have a lot in common, you see how they slowly become better as individuals when they are together, taking things from each other, which is the point of any good relationship. As their bond grows, Rose learns to relax and have more fun, and Clara becomes more responsible, truly caring about others, and stops taking everything as a joke. Their lost summer wasn’t so lost after all, and they send the very good message that people can get along and settle their differences, in despite of prejudice.

The only thing I didn’t particularly loved about this book was the romance part. Not because of Hamlet, though. He is a very nice, gentlemanlike guy, and genuinely likes Clara. The way he asked her out was the sweetest thing ever, all dressed up and with flowers, and as their bond grew, I was fascinated with how much respect Hamlet had towards her. He never forced to do anything, and always had her well-being in mind. I just didn’t quite like that, only after a couple of dates, he already could instantly notice that something was off with her. It felt too soon. Like, you could expect that attitude from her dad, because he knows her since birth, but Hamlet has only known her for a couple of weeks, she flinches, and he already knows something is wrong. That doesn’t quite work for me. However, I liked that Maurene Goo wrote this couple with zero drama and unnecessary, tacky horniness, and although Clara feels all the time that she’s not good enough for Hamlet, and that she doesn’t deserve him (which is kind of true), I liked how the bond with him helped her get away from the shallow, unfulfilling relationships she had had before him.

I think is beautiful how the author did the whole “Love has a way of finding you” thing the book cover mentions. Because finding love, in Clara’s case, didn’t mean just finding a boyfriend, but actually, getting to love and take care of herself, making true friends, and realizing how much her father loves her, through noticing the many things he did for her, even when she wasn’t aware of them. The fact that things have a bad start doesn’t mean that they can’t lead to something good. That little, tight-knit family that grew around the KoBra, where everyone had something to say and became an inseparable part of each other’s life, is the best aspect of this book, because Clara was finally able to find people worth keeping in her life, that were worried when she disappeared, and actually tried to find her when she put distance between them (unlike her mother).

So, to sum up, this book was a beautiful surprise, and I liked it very much. I’m not usually a contemporary reader, but I’m happy I gave this story a chance. It sends a wonderful message, while it also is a great display of diversity, tackling issues such as family, parenting, immigration, friendship, cultural differences, and even mental health, all wrapped up in a context of hard work, not just on the food truck, but in every area of life.

I highly recommend it!


Monday, September 7, 2020

Review - I Believe in a Thing Called Love

Original Title: I Believe in a Thing Called Love
Series: 
Author: Maurene Goo
Published: May 30th, 2017

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Byr)

*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I have mixed feelings about this book. Sure, it made me laugh, and had a lot of heartwarming moments, but it also made me remember why I don’t usually read YA contemporaries. It wasn’t even on my TBR, although, as you know, sometimes you need a dose of romcom to leave the world outside and forget what a mess everything is around you.

After reading this book, at first, I didn’t know what to think of it. But I knew I couldn’t say I loved it, nor that I hated it. It had some good things, but an equal amount of moments I wish it didn’t. Let’s go by parts.

Desi Lee, the heroine, is a funny, lovely girl with a bit of a dork in her. She made me laugh out loud, and overall, she was a good character to read about. But sometimes I just couldn’t help but wanting to slap her in the face, because, for such an academic overachiever, she was not using her head. Still, I loved the relationship with her dad, even more than the actual romance. It’s nice to see how they only have each other, and, unlike in many other YA books, the relationship is pretty healthy. There’s mutual support and love, instead of a toxic “no, dad, it’s just you don’t understand me” kind of relationship. Thank you, Maurene Goo!

But, aside from that, I think Desi’s overall behaviour made me see her more in need of a therapist than a boyfriend. I honestly don’t know why is such a big deal to be seventeen, and never having had a boyfriend. The fact of having (or not) a relationship doesn’t make you a better or worse person, and if you can’t see that… well, try. I promise it’s worthy. Desi has a ton of other achievements and talents, she’s smart and wants to become a doctor. But no, she never had a boyfriend, so that makes her a failure. Right. Wonderful. And when she meets Luka Drakos, her control-freak attitude leads to an obsession that becomes almost psycho, to the point of causing nothing short of a car accident, just because she wants him to walk her home afterwards. If that’s not going too far, then I don’t know what is. Getting Luka as her boyfriend becomes her everything, and not so much because of her feelings for him, but because she can’t tolerate not being good at flirting, in despite of being top of her class, and amazing in every other area. I mean, she joins the Art Club just because Luka is there, in despite that she doesn’t like painting nor drawing, and even when it is Luka’s passion, she doesn’t try to appreciate art to at least get a glimpse of how he sees things, completely focused on getting him. And, in my opinion, a part of getting to know one another in a relationship is showing genuine interest in what the other one loves, and trying to see things through their perspective, for a lot more reasons than just snagging him/her.

Plus, Luka left impossibly clearer that he doesn’t want a girlfriend. He doesn’t! And it’s not your job to force him to like you just because you know you are not like his ex, and would never do anything to hurt him. That, other than being something he has to discover by himself, is what being friends is for. It’s not up to you to make him change his mind. Plus, honestly, guys, there’s nothing wrong in not finding the love of your life at seventeen, you know?

A very good thing, that many times gets glossed over –or plainly ignored– in YA books, is that both Desi and Luka have plans and dreams for their lives that go beyond their high school experience. Even though Desi misses her interview, she still gets the chance to study to become a doctor, and manages to balance it with her personal life, instead of just quitting because she didn’t get into the school she wanted; and Luka gets his scholarship to follow his passion, which, considering the number of books out there that focus on teens, their horniness and their making out sessions, with very little plot points and details, it’s a positive aspect. Bravo, Maurene Goo!

As I said earlier, I liked Desi’s relationship with her dad, with zero drama and mutual support and understanding, as they moved on from the loss they suffered, together. But that aspect got soon compensated by Luka’s backstory. Same as with Desi, I overall liked him, but not so much. He’s this brooding guy who thinks himself misunderstood by the rest of world, with art dreams, but other than that, he’s not interested in anything else (besides Desi, that is). He lives in this kind of dark, little bubble, from which Desi helps him get out. And I felt it was a little hypocrite from him to complain that his father isn’t interested in him or his art, when in fact, Luka himself is not that much interested in bonding with him, either. You can’t blame another person for not doing something you are not doing yourself in the first place! Logic, please. However, I do understand how art became his refuge, the place he goes when he can’t deal with his situation anymore. That is well done.

Something I really liked were those moments in which she dropped the act and got to be authentic, doing things that weren’t in her K drama schedule, and yet, were the most meaningful ones, like when she’s drawing with the kids, or cooking at home with Luka and her dad. Those situations made her look real, with zero stress over her love life, instead of coming from a carefully planned scheme. And yet, she didn’t learn anything from that, keeping up the K drama charade until the very end. And that bothered me very much. I absolutely hated that she decided to go for the damsel in distress situation, to get him back, letting herself fall in the pool, ruining her dress, and almost drowning Luka in the process. It’s such an immature thing, really. Because even after the whole K drama steps ended up breaking both her heart, and Luka’s, Desi still didn’t drop the act, keeping it up to the last minute. Didn’t she realise that it was what got her in trouble in the first place? I know she loved Luka and all, and I know she wanted a chance to explain herself, but, in my opinion, placing herself in such position wasn’t exactly the best way to do it. I honestly thought that she, being so smart and having so many resources thanks to her own efforts, wouldn’t be desperate to the point of defining her value by Luka liking her or not.

As for the other characters in this book, there’s really not a lot to say about them. Emily Fairchild, Luka’s ex-girlfriend, is the fullest cliché stereotype I’ve ever read. Blonde, beautiful, social media-obsessed, with lots of followers… Completely self-absorbed. Desi assumes all kind of things about her when she checks her online profiles, and when she finally shows up, she is exactly what she thought. There’s no room for possibilities there. I thought that her prejudice would be proved wrong, but Emily is exactly the selfish, pretty girl Desi guesses she is from her pictures, without really knowing her at all. And that, honestly, isn’t fair. In my opinion, that kind of thing creates a huge contradiction. Nowadays, everyone looks for diversity in literature, and get angry or disappointed if there’s not an accurate representation, this being people of colour, cultural differences, disability, members of the LGBT community, and so on, so authors definitely have to get that right. But on the other hand, there’s things like this one, placing all the pretty girls under the selfish, vain banner, and I don’t see anyone complaining about that.

Just sayin’, guys, and it’s ok if you disagree.

Anyway, let’s go to Wes and Fiona, Desi’s best friends. They are there for her in her romantic misadventures, but they are basically background noise, just like this girl, Violet Choi, who used to study Korean with Desi when they were children, and is a character I could erase from the book, with little to no disruption on the plot. And, again, perhaps it’s just me, but I think that making a character diverse is the only purpose authors have when they write one. As I said, it’s like the representation HAS to be there, so they create characters that don’t do much for the story itself, but yes, they are diverse. And I felt that was the case with Fiona, who is both gay and Latina, and, just like Emily, felt stereotyped, because when they go to her house, her grandmother is making tacos, and not once it was said Fiona was Mexican. For what we know, she could be anything: Belizean, Honduran, Salvadoran, Puerto-Rican, Costa-Rican, Cuban, Guatemalan... There’s an entire continent with unique countries she could come from, being a Latina. But she’s only referenced as that, and perhaps, only perhaps, Mexican. And being Latin is way wider than just a couple of cliched traits (and dishes, for that matter). I’m not angry at it, I just wish her character could have been a little more accurate about it, instead of going down the obvious, zero-effort path.

As for Wes, other than posing as Desi’s boyfriend in that party she only went to make Luka jealous, he doesn’t do much, and gets Violet as his girlfriend by the end of the book. I wish I could have cared a lot more for them, but I can’t do it if I don’t really know the people I’m reading about. Sorry.

So, in short, I Believe in a Thing Called Love is a funny, fluffy and somewhat predictable book, that will help you get your mind off things, and if you like to watch K dramas, all the better. It’s like one of them, in book form.

Thanks for stopping by!
See you soon!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Quick post

Hi, guys!
How are you? 
Well, I guess it is a tricky question, considering how things are in the world right now, but still, I hope you are all safe and sound, at home. And thank you, as always, for stopping by to read my little corner of the web. You can't imagine how much it means to me.

So, I come today to tell you I haven't left you, guys! I know I haven't been posting, but that doesn't mean I haven't been reading. I've read two short books I will talk about today, but first, a quick explanation. Many people have asked why I'm not reading, given the huge amount of time that came with quarantine, and I have to say, it was a bad time to fall into a reading slump. But it's not just that. I happen to be using these time to work on my thesis to finally graduate college, and that, folks, takes a lot of time and energy. When I spend a lot of time researching, writing, editing, and translating, I end up with zero energy left to concentrate on reading, preferring to watch a movie or cartoons, or listen to music. I do however, plan to continue reading, but so far I think my focus should be on my thesis right now. Obviously my TBR keeps growing, and I've been adding a lot of books lately, but I want to be able to fully enjoy them, and meet my 2020 Reading Challenge with plenty of great books. 

However, just as I said, I was able to read two short books, both in Spanish. The first one was this one:


Tales and Legends of the Maori (2009, hardcover)

It's basically a compilation of traditional folk tales from the vast mythology created by the Pacific islanders. This definitely has to do with watching Disney's Moana, a movie that instantly became a favorite of mine, and if you haven't seen it, just go for it. Do it! It's not your typical princess fairytale, and the visuals are among the most beautiful I've ever seen. 

Anyway, upon watching it, I remembered I had this book, and with a whole new interest in the demi-god Maui and the traditional Maori folk tales, I swallowed this book in a very short amount of time. It's really amazing, and I'm glad the authors decided to put together these stories in one volume, because they are so worth to be remembered, keeping this culture alive. I'm personally fascinated by traditional legends, and how the different communities explained natural phenomena that we today don't even question, like the path of the sun in the sky, and the origin of fire; stories that were narrated and passed from generation to generation, and became a part of a entire people's identity. It's nothing short of amazing, and so, the book was impossible to put down. 

The thing is, I don't know if this book is available in English (although I know it is in French), but wherever language you speak, I encourage you to look for the Maori legends and give them a read. It's absolutely worth it (and for the love of God, watch Moana!)

And the other book I've read, over an hour and a half, is this one:


Tales and Legends of the Armenian (2010, hardcover). 

This one hits close to home, and it brought back some wonderful memories. I don't know if I've mentioned before that I come from an Armenian family, but I do, and storytelling is an essential part of our identity. Many of the legends compilated in this book come from oral tradition, as, perhap, the people in Armenia, in the first couple of centuries, couldn't read or write, but they knew the stories by heart, and told them to their children and grandchildren, passing them through generations the same way they would leave inheritances and heirlooms. I myself spent a big part of my childhood listening to my grandmother as she narrated these kind of stories, about kings, and lost rings found in a fish's belly, and little old ladies with big hearts... Needless to say, I love my heritage, and I'm proud of my people, even after being raised in a different country, and without having endured the difficulties war and genocide put my ancestors through. 

Through this short volume, the oral tradition can become immortal, and that's the best part of it. The Armenian culture is vast and rich, and not just because stories like the ones in this book, but also, because of the delicious food, the beautiful music, the rich language, the amazing dancing, and the fascinating architecture, among many other things. After all, it is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and one of the first Christian ones in history. 

So, in short, the stories in both books are captivating, and once you start reading, you just can't stop, as they suck you in and keep you glued to the pages until you are done. Even if they are not available in your language, I sincerely encourage you to look up for these traditional legends, and spend an hour or two getting lost in both the Maori and Armenian cultures and mythical universes. 

Today, more than ever, we need the escape of fiction, don't you think?

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Thank you so much for stopping by! I can't believe the amount of people who stop and read these little articles I write, but I'm immensely grateful to all of you. 

I'll try my best to keep reading, but obviously, thank you for your patience and support!

I hope you have a great week, and stay safe! 
'til next time!

 

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Review - Strands of Bronze and Gold

Original Title: Strands of Bronze and Gold
Series: Strands, #1
Author: Jane Nickerson
Published: March 6th, 2013

Publisher: Random House Children's Books

*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I will start this review by saying I have absolutely no idea why I read this book. It wasn’t even in my to-be-read pile, although I’ve known it for quite some time. So basically, reading this was the epitome of a whim. Nothing more.

First, you should know, Strands of Bronze and Gold is a retelling of a French fairy tale, Bluebeard, which I read in the middle of reading this book, and it is probably one of the darkest stories I’ve ever read. As for the book, it is YA, and upon asking myself if it is historical fiction or not, I would say yes, and no. Yes, because, on the one hand, there is an entire subplot around slavery, so you can tell more or less in which time period we are in. Plus, we get an specific location for Wyndriven Abbey, in Mississippi, and an specific year (in Sophia’s letters to her sister, which not only helped us see de Cressac through her eyes, but also, was a good idea to pass through months, instead of having a row of useless chapters filled with lengthy descriptions of Sophia’s daily life). And no, because there are no specific historical facts the story could have been built around, except for what you can guess, if you have an understanding of American history.

Ok, the setting. It was amazingly done. The writing is good, the descriptions are detailed and wonderful, and the dresses, the jewels, and the rooms in the Abbey were absolutely beautiful. But sometimes they were too long. Lots and lots of descriptions forced on the reader when the story would have benefited from more action to move the plot forward. Yet, even with all those details, the creepy atmosphere is really well done. You can never shake the feeling that there’s something sinister in the air, everything is a massive gothic stage ready for the creepy to occur, including the classic element of the pretty girl running away from the monster.

Another thing I appreciated is that, even though I knew the fate of de Cressac’s wives because I had previously read the fairy tale, all those women got to have their own voice and name, and, even if briefly and superficially, a personality of their own. Just, everything was definitely creepier than I was expecting, but again, what good can come from marrying an obsessive psychopath with a redhead fetish?

As for Sophia Petheram, the protagonist… She was a test to my patience. The first thing I will say is that she could definitely have used her brain more often. I didn’t completely hate her, but I didn’t love her, either. Sometimes her naivety was too much; events would just happen right in front of her, and she still wouldn’t realize things. She and Bernard de Cressac have nothing short of an abusive relationship, when he showers her with things she doesn’t ask for, nor needs, not allowing her to have a say in the matter, and getting angry when she doesn’t react the way he was expecting. I get that, at first, de Cressac is captivating for her, and she kind of thinks herself in love with him, to the point of saying:

It was as if I were only truly alive when I was with him.

Even through her fascinated perception, the sense of dread continues, like there’s something really dark there, that those feelings aren’t natural. It’s easier to believe it’s a spell. And it’s not long before de Cressac reveals himself as an obsessive pervert, something that was left very clear in the scene in which Sophie and de Cressac play music together, which, if I understood correctly, it’s a metaphor for sex (starting with his cello mentioned as the “instrument between his knees”). Besides, there were moments in which I literally asked Sophie “Are you an idiot?”. She wasn’t even smart enough to shut her mouth when she had to, going to de Cressac to tell him her every thought. Plans to leave and go back with her siblings? Tells de Cressac. Meets Gideon Stone in the forest? Tells de Cressac. *face-palm* Seriously, girl, don’t make me punch you in the face, haven’t you learned so far that he’s a control freak and a jealous, dangerous man, who had no qualms about killing an innocent cat just because you were nicer to it than to him? Do I have to be the one to tell you to just act, instead of babbling about your intentions?

True is that Sophie goes through the loss of her innocence as the story progresses, but sometimes I wondered, does she really not realize how creepy her situation is? She doesn’t think for a second that what de Cressac is doing is wrong. His horrible temper aside, forcing his presents on her, making her dress for him in the outfits he chooses, his forced kisses, later licking her fingers (and other areas)… And this:

I have told you, ma belle, you do not need to be anything but decorative.

It can’t get more direct than that. She can’t be told in any clearer way that she’s just a doll for him. And still, she doesn’t think there’s anything shady there (let alone does something). And at one point, she thinks:

Perhaps it wasn’t true, but it seemed as if I were as much in Bernard’s power as any slave on the plantation.

*face-palm*

I don’t know what’s worse here. The fact that she still thinks it may not be true, or how long it took her to finally understand it. When I read that, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes, like, really, Sophia, did you JUST realized that? I honestly thought she would be smarter than that, because it’s not like he disguises his obsession, and literally calls her “decoration”. As I told you, things would happen right in front of her, impossibly clearer, and she would still doubt them. And one of the most idiotic ways in which she did that was near the end, when she goes to the garden folly (which de Cressac had previously forbidden her to visit), finds the door open and enters, not thinking for a second how strange that is, like saying “oh, this perpetually closed, forbidden place, that I shouldn’t be in, is open. Maybe I shouldn’t go in there.” Anyone with half a brain would realize it is a trap, after de Cressac left her the keys. But even that was too much to ask from Sophia.

As for finding out de Cressac actually killed his other wives, I definitely think she could have figured it out way earlier in the book, instead of needing to see things as literally as finding their teeth in de Cressac’s room. I mean, the clues were all over the place, and with the wife named Tara –who presumably killed herself–, more than with the others, as it literally says that the housekeeper doesn’t know how “she was able to use one of the armory’s jeweled knives when it was always kept locked.” *face-palm* Oh, my God, DUH!! You have to be kidding me. It can’t take you THAT LONG to figure that out. It just can’t. I mean, I get that Mrs. Duckworth refused to see her master was evil, denying his wretchedness to the very end, but Sophie, please, connect the dots, and don’t do this to me!

Bernard de Cressac is one creepy character, and I really hated him (which is pretty much the point). He has a horrible temper, is unpredictable, and multi-faceted. Right from the get-go you can tell he’s a pervert, and that being Sophia’s godfather is something he assumed as a start, his intentions being very different from the duties of a father-like figure. He’s already creepy in the way he talks, all smooth compliments, and in the topics he chooses. And if it wasn’t enough to bring up the topic of Sophie’s underwear before one of her first dinners in the Abbey, he makes her dress in the revealing outfit of an Indian dancer, when he isn’t dressed in the same fashion (bear in mind Sophia is only 17 years-old). And, to one’s surprise, Sophia’s does not catch on his dark intentions, doing as he says, without questioning.

Last night he told me he liked me in white (“so pure and innocent”). Something white, then…

Really? You just don’t see it? It’s not like he’s very subtle. And if that wasn’t enough, not even de Cressac being angry at her because she kept old love letters, his selfishness, his temper, his constant presents, making her believe her siblings have forgotten her by keeping their letters from her… are clues to her. None of them. He’s not a love interest, but their relationship is abusive, and insanely obsessive. And Sophia is not the strong heroine I thought she would be, ready (or at least willing) to fight it.

By saying things like “I want you simply to enjoy yourself all the day long and then dress yourself beautifully at night to please me”, he’s not only clear with his intentions, but he’s also disgusting, and completely irredeemable (which is the point of the book). Nothing happens with his character, not there’s a revelation about his past, that could possibly redeem him. He not only forces himself on her, but he also backs her into a corner by using her love for her family against her, helping them with their financial problems, so she can see that, by marrying him, she could save them. And, in a subtler note, at one point Sophia thinks roses are common in romance, and later, for the ball, her sister Anne appears with them in her hair, sent by de Cressac, which I interpreted as him marking the difference between her and her sister, like Anne is the common one, who does not stands out, and Sophia is the star of the ball, and of Bernard’s “affection”.

Am I looking to much into it? I don’t know, maybe.

As for Gideon Stone, the love interest, I don’t think there was enough about him, he felt depthless and brought out of nowhere, and aside from their friendly conversation in the forest, he does NOTHING. Not to help her, or save her, or anything. I feel the story could have been told perfectly well without him. Sophia says she loves him, but they don’t even kiss, not even after they agree to marry, and there’s not a solid reason why they like each other to the point of love. They start exchanging letters in secret, and the only one we read by him is about an incident with a man from the village and his oxen cart, and I… *face-palm* I mean, yes, it’s the start of trust between them, but it would have been better if the author had decided to show me some of the later letters in which there’s already a relationship between them, instead of dumping that random event on me.

Another thing I noticed was how many side characters the author introduced, like Talitha, Charles, Odette, Daphne, Peg Leg Joe… All of them having little to no influence on the main storyline, just like the slavery subplot. With the main characters reduced to heroine and villain, and little else, so many side characters weren’t really necessary. Among them, only Odette –Sophia’s French maid– has some meaningful role, before dying. We don’t even get closure around Talitha and Charles’s dilemma, because although they managed to escape, I really thought they would be back to help Sophia, but they didn’t.

Another thing I noticed was that the mystery seemed to be permanently growing, but without answers, and without taking the opportunities given by the circumstances, to deepen the plot. For example, more than once, de Cressac both didn’t show up, and went away, because of his business. He’s always doing something around that, and, I believe, it could have been an opportunity to make him even worse. We know he owns a plantation, and that doesn’t ask for a lot of questions, we wouldn’t really look into that, and, in my opinion, it’s a good opportunity for a shocking plot twist. You know, he’s shady, and disturbing, he’s always out in business… But that is exactly what he’s doing. The chance to make him even creepier went down the drain.

And finally, a word in a couple of things I noticed. Sophia said a million times that she was using the dead wives’ hair for the tapestry she planned to give him as a gift, and for that, I really thought one of his lines in the chapel scene would be “you thought I wouldn’t realize those are my wives’ hair”, or something around it, as de Cressac seemed to always be up to everything happening in the Abbey. But it didn’t happen. And, by the end, when de Cressac got his leg trapped in the forest, and Sophia ran away, the suspense was going great, I felt scared for her, in that dark, creepy surroundings. But when she reached Anarchy’s house, and she gave her the tea and left her alone, shaking with terror, I was not expecting such an abrupt end. You move to the next chapter, and everything is already passed. It’s a new day, the sun shines, de Cressac is dead, and she and Gideon are finally together.

WHAT?

No. It doesn’t work for me.

So, those are my thoughts on Strands of Bronze and Gold. Good atmosphere, well done setting and mystery build-up, and a terrible villain, but with a heroine who lacked a functional brain, a lot of side characters who did nothing, and an under-developed subplot that could have been interesting, but it wasn’t. Add to this a dash of wasted opportunities to make the book richer, better, darker, and there you have it: a not so great gothic retelling of an already creepy fairy tale.

As for the rest of the series, having such a start, I don’t think I’ll read them, unless I have another weird whim moment, and I pick them up.


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Thank you so much for reading! I hope lockdown is not being to harsh on you, guys.
See you soon!