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Book Review: The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

76bb0ddee4f2bc28810f6a7067006eeb1Title: The Courtesan

Author: Alexandra Curry

Publisher: Dutton [imprint of Penguin Random House]

Date Published: September 8, 2015

Format: Hardcover

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Sai Jinhua is only seven-years-old when her father is executed and leaves her all alone. As the daughter of her father’s adored concubine, she may have been his treasure, but his first wife does not see her in the same way. Left in ruins with a girl she despises, she sells young, sheltered Jinhua for seven silver coins. Jinhua is eventually sold to a brothel and her life takes an ugly turn. From having a father who refused to let anyone bind his little girl’s feet, she has her feet broken and destroyed. For their investment in her, she is expected to become a “money tree” at the brothel when she reaches the ripe old age of twelve. Her only joy at this time in her life is her friendship with the crippled maid (crippled by a foot-binding gone wrong) at the brothel, who becomes her sister.

The Courtesan is a beautifully written novel inspired by the real-life courtesan Sai Jinhua. She lived during a tumultuous time in China’s history (end of the Qing dynasty, the Boxer rebellion, and invasion by European powers, for example) and tended to find herself in the middle of it. Eventually she is taken out of the brothel and an old, peculiar scholar makes her into his concubine. With him she travels the world. He is named the ambassador from China to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and while he dreads leaving the homeland, Jinhua flourishes abroad. She tries her hardest to learn about this new world while her husband will not allow her to leave the house or take guests. However, little by little Jinhua starts to find her freedom.

Curry takes many liberties with the life of Jinhua, but there is not much concrete known about her life in the first place. She has become a figure of legend in China where people debate the veracity of almost every aspect of her life. I wasn’t bothered by this, though. Curry embraces this mysteriousness in the novel. She skips time periods in Jinhua’s life and at times (especially towards the end of novel) the novel feels like a series of elongated vignettes and poetic moments. This novel excels in my favorite part of historical fiction novels, which is crafting a character that feels real. Sometimes this genre gets so bogged down by accuracy that it neglects to make these legendary figures feel human and to give context for their world and actions.

This novel is truly about the search for freedom. Jinhua was owned for most of her life. She was either paying off a huge debt to a brothel or being a concubine to a man who saw her as something she wasn’t. She pays some huge prices for this throughout the novel. Her strife is mirrored by her friend, Suyin, who does not have the luxury/curse of being beautiful and desired. While Jinhua is the lead character without question, Suyin does play an important role in the novel and without her I feel that it would’ve been a lesser book.

Cover Critique: It’s so beautiful. I love the painting they chose for the cover. She looks so guarded and shy, while still being beautiful and intriguing. I also really like the title and author’s name on those two strokes of paint. The painting behind them is so realistically done and perfect, and those two slashes show a impulsive and emotional quality to the book.

Quick Version: The Courtesan is a book about a near-mythic, mysterious, controversial figure of Sai Jinhua. She went from young “money tree” at a brothel to a woman who traveled the world and influenced key political figures in early 20th century China. Curry weaves her tale with a focus on poetic language and immersing the reader into Jinhua’s emotions and experiences. I sadly didn’t know anything at all about Jinhua before reading this book and I’m left with a desire to learn more, which is something that all good historical fiction does.

Score: 5 stars 

 

 

Book Review: Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

Title: Wolf by Wolf

Author: Ryan Graudin

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers [imprint of Hachette]

Date Published: October 20, 2015

Format: ARC {Received in exchange of a fair review}

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Yael wants Hitler dead. She is willing to do anything to see this man pay for what he has done to the world and her people. When she was a little girl she was taken to a death camp and after a being subjected to horrible experiments, she managed to escape. It’s now 1956 and Germany and Japan have carved up the world between them. A rebel group sees their chance to execute the Führer by entering Yael into the annual motorcycle race that crosses Asia, from Europe to Japan, which if she wins, we get her close enough to end him. The Nazi experiments left Yael with the ability to change her appearance. She must imitate last year’s female victor (Adele) to try to win again, but she does not anticipate Adele’s twin brother and a jilted boyfriend to also be in the race testing her cover at every moment.

I’m not usually into alternate histories. Alternate WWII stories, especially, tend to be everywhere and after a while they just seem to have more fun playing with ‘what-ifs’ than actually telling a good story and developing intriguing characters. Wolf by Wolf does an excellent job of not falling into that trap. It is original, clever, fast-paced, and the world is very well-developed.

Yael is a well-crafted character. She is damaged and because of her abilities she has spent most of her teenage life pretending to be the enemy. She can’t even remember what she used to look like before the experiments erased her identity, but Yael still manages to have a strong sense of self. The one thing that she cannot erase when she changes skin are the numbers stamped into her skin. She decides to hide these with elaborate wolf tattoos to represent people she has lost and what she is fighting for. It helps her remember who she is and even though it would be so easy, she doesn’t just run away from it all and blend in with the population. While racing and interacting with other racers we see her world expand and her character grow more and more.

Cover Critique: It looks like a WWII propaganda poster (what a surprise! 😛 ). I think it works perfectly for this book. I like it.

Quick Version: Really interesting and entertaining take on the Axis powers had winning WWII. The world is interesting and thought-provoking, the motorcycle race is entertaining, and the protagonist, Yael, made you want to keep reading and rooting for her. I didn’t know until I was at the end of the book that this was part of a series and while that lead to this ending being a bit anti-climatic, I still really enjoyed it and will definitely be reading the sequel.

Score: 4.5/5 stars

You can buy it here: Amazon

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon 

 

18692431Title: Everything, Everything

Author: Nicola Yoon

Publisher: Delacorte Press [imprint of Penguin Random House]

Date Published: September 1, 2015

Format: ARC {Received in exchange of a fair review}

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When I started this book I really thought I would enjoy it. It is sweet, charming, and has a unique story to tell. But about halfway through the book, a series of twists and plot developments left me sorely disappointed. I’m not going to spoil what happens, but the story just becomes increasingly cliché and unrealistic—especially after the so-perfect, yet oh so forbidden, love interest is introduced.

Madeline is not allowed to leave her home—severe allergies that were discovered when she was an infant have kept her cooped up for most of her 17 years. She’s basically a “bubble boy” and fills her days reading books, taking online classes, and hanging out with her mom and nurse, who are the only two people she has regular contact with. One day she glances out the window and sees a family moving in next door. Last time the neighbors left, it really devastated her, so she promises herself she won’t get too attached. Then she sees Olly. He only wears black, because of course that’s what brooding boys do. They begin talking over email and IM, but eventually that is not enough for them. They want to meet in real life, but Madeline knows that’s a slippery slope.

Their romance is too syrupy sweet for me. Writing limericks and haikus to each other somewhat ironically and stuff like that. It was only as the novel progressed that it got to be too much for me. I really dislike where the plot went and I went from enjoying the book, to being completely disappointed in the span of a few pages. I feel like Madeline went from being a character with potential charm and personality, to one that was making all these outrageous decisions without much founding. Later in the novel, Yoon gives a reason for these, but I felt that this twist cheapened the plot and relationships in the novel. It seemed to be a plot device thrown in so she could get the ending she wanted, rather than what would make the most interesting story.

Cover Critique: The cover for Everything, Everything is gorgeous. I love the white with the colorful pencil drawings outlining the text. It looks like a special book and I can imagine it’ll inspire many readers to pick it up.

Quick Version: After a promising start, I was left disappointed by Everything, Everything. What was initially charming about the novel began to grate on me, especially after some plot choices I found pretty questionable. I do admit that I am not the audience for this book, stories about sick teens have never been my favorites, but I had high hopes for this one. Yoon is an excellent writer and even though I was not a fan of this one, I look forward to what she does in the future.

Score: 2/5 stars

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Title: Dumplin’

Author: Julie Murphy

Publisher: Balzer + Bray [imprint of HarperCollins]

Date Published: September 15, 2015

Format: ARC– Received in exchange of a fair review

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I’m so glad to be back to this blog! It’s been way too long and I am looking forward to getting Curiously Bookish back in action. I’ve had a crazy year that involved getting married and finishing grad school, so I’ve been understandably busy! 😛 I’m in the middle of restructuring this blog and getting some more exciting plans underway (I’ll have some exciting news to share with you guys soon!), but for now we’ll start with a book review:

Willowdean is a self-proclaimed fat girl who lives in Texas and is obsessed with Dolly Parton. If you don’t like her, too bad. She’s happy with her high school life (as much as anyone could be). But the summer before Junior year, things start to change. Her best friend, Ellen, and her are growing apart. Ellen is the typical all-American beauty and is becoming friends with the popular girls in her class, who keep acting like Willowdean and Ellen’s friendship is more of a charity case than a legitimate relationship.  On top of this, Willowdean’s new job at the fast food place comes with a super cute coworker, Bo. To her surprise Bo likes her, and instead of feeling elated, the normally confident Willowdean feels insecure. She begins to doubt herself around him and think of her body in negative ways when she’s with him. She’s desperate to get her old confidence back and she does the last thing she thought she would ever do, enter the local beauty pageant. To make things tougher it happens to be run by her former-beauty-queen mother.

This was a very entertaining read! Willowdean is definitely not the typical YA protagonist. She is very opinionated, confident, and clever. The story deals with body image in many different ways and with all kinds of characters. It’s about not being perfect, or what you see as perfect, and finding out that everyone can be just as insecure as you are. Murphy did a good job of balancing the message of being happy with who you are, with also being able to admit your faults and doubts.

I really enjoyed the way friendship was handled in this book. Willowdean and Ellen were everything to each other when they were younger, but now that they’ve gotten older, it’s not working out well. Willowdean feels like Ellen is leaving her behind and she doesn’t even feel comfortable talking to her about her maybe relationship with Bo. They drift further and further apart as Ellen makes friends with the popular girls that don’t like Willowdean, and the feeling is mutual. This forces Willowdean to make friends with some of the other girls in her class, the other girls who don’t fit in. This group is a bunch of girls who get bullied and teased, but unlike Willowdean, they don’t have the confidence to stand up for themselves. At first, she treats them with disdain and frustration, especially when they all decide to join the pageant along with her. Eventually, she begins to like them and sees the value of having different kinds of friends. That was probably my favorite part of the novel; you don’t need to have just one friend who is everything to you. Especially as you get older, your best friend and you may grow up to have different interests and like different things. You may drift apart, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t still friends. You can make different friends and so can she, but you are still always there for each other.

Friendship is where Dumplin’ is at its strongest, but I wasn’t as big of a fan of the romance. I really just didn’t like Bo as a character. He was the brooding, mysterious boy and he really didn’t have much of a personality. He started the story as a transfer student who had some secrets, but it never progressed from there. He was also quite cruel to Willowdean in the early parts of the novel, he wants to keep their relationship a secret and only hangs out with her at work and by the dumpster or in his car afterwards. It just has so many red flags that even when he apologizes later, it still doesn’t sit right with me. There is another boy introduced later in the novel, Mitch, who I thought was a more interesting character. He really likes Willowdean and is very open about it, but she simply doesn’t like him like that. I guess that is very high school, though. Making the wrong decisions about boys is pretty realistic sometimes!

Cover Critique: I’m a big fan of the cover. It’s so graphic and simple. Willowdean in that pose in the red dress really does represent the novel well. Everything is clean and simple, which makes that red stand out even more. I also really like the crown at the top, it’s cute and combined with the image, really lets you know that this is a pageant book.

Quick Version: Dumplin’ is a charming, easy read. Willowdean is a girl you don’t see a lot in fiction, especially as the main character. Friendship and the issues that come with growing up and maintaining friendships are really a bright point in the novel. While I didn’t like Bo and the romance, the true heart of the novel lies with Willowdean and Ellen and learning how to be confident and love yourself, faults and all.

Score: 4/5 stars

The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

Title: The Awakening of Miss Prim

Author: Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

Publisher: Atria Books [imprint of Simon & Schuster]

Date Published: July 8, 2014

Format: Galley– Provided in exchange of a fair review

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Prudencia Prim is a young woman who is looking for something different from her life in a big city. She moves to a remote village in France, San Ireneo, to work as a librarian in a large mansion. She is a highly intelligent woman; she has a great knowledge of literature and philosophy as well as holds a few different college degrees, but she also allows herself to be a little sentimental. When she arrive at the village she is surprised at how backwards everything is. This is a town were tea-time is taken very seriously and everyone seems to be able to quote Thoreau and Dante with ease. Miss Prim clashes with them often and the novel is full of philosophical debates and arguments about everything from home schooling to the necessity of having young girls read Little Women (any book that mentions how awesome Little Women is as a plot point is a total win for me).

The Awakening of Miss Prim is a very thoughtful book. There is not a ton of plot here. Not much actually happens in San Ireneo. At first I was bored with this book; I was waiting for something to happen. When I had gotten about a third of the way through, I realized that it wasn’t going to pick up, it just wasn’t that kind of book. And you know what, after I had that realization I started really enjoying it. This book will make you think, and it’s been a while since I’ve had a book do that. It presents all these different topics and the characters debate them endlessly. They never really give a “right” answer, which encourages us to come to our own conclusions.

You can feel how influential both Lousia May Alcott and Jane Austen were to Fenollera. She constantly alludes to them in the story and at times points out when she “rips them off.” If you enjoy the works of either of those authors there is a good chance you will like what Fenollera does here. The romance in this book is lovely, but you shouldn’t go to this book looking for something sweet and light. Miss Prim and her “Man in the Wingchair”, as she calls him, have their fair share of disagreements and different stances on big issues, but you’ll have to read the book to see how that all works out!

Cover Critique: I really like this cover. It’s colorful and sets this book apart from everything else out there. It is a little busy, but it’s done well and is perfect for the type of book this is.

Quick Version: The Awakening of Miss Prim is a book that doesn’t just want to give you a light-hearted romance, it wants to make you think. There is very little action in this book, I mean there is a whole plot point that is about whether or not Mr. Darcy is the “perfect man” and another about the pros and cons of matchmaking, but if you accept that, I believe this can be an enjoyable read.

Score: 4/5 stars 😀

Thief’s Magic, Trudi Canavan

Title: Thief’s Magic

Series: Millennium’s Rule #1

Author: Trudi Canavan

Publisher: Orbit, imprint of Hachette

Date Published: May 13, 2014

Format: ARC– received in exchange of a fair review

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Tyen is crouched in an ancient tomb when he comes across someone who will change his life forever. This someone is Vella. She isn’t exactly a person, but rather a book that was a young woman many millennia ago. She holds the secrets of fantastic sorcerers who have become little more than legends in Tyen’s time, and he has no clue what to do with her. He is a student at the Academy, studying archaeology and magic. He knows that his professors would love to see this book and use the knowledge it contains, but is afraid that they won’t understand it. He fears Vella will be locked up in the archives or destroyed from expressing ideas considered heresy in their current age of industry. When his worst fears are proven correct, he decides he must do whatever it takes to protect her and the knowledge she contains.

Trudi Canavan’s Thief’s Magic alternates POV between Tyen and Fielle, who lives in a world were magic is only used by the Priests. To practice magic is to steal from the Angels, and it’s a major crime. She can see the Stain, a dark mark that shows the area where magic has been drained from the air, but must keep this skill a secret, as it’s a sign that a person can use magic and will send her into exile.

Fielle has begrudgingly accepted that she will never be able to use her latent skill and is trying to focus on being a good daughter. She comes from a family of fabric dyers, and even though they have significant wealth, they don’t have great social standing. An advantageous match could give them the respect they desire, but Fielle cannot help but fall in love with a talented, struggling artist. While she is concerned about her personal life, there is a corrupter making their way around the city putting them all in danger. This person is teaching people magic and creating issues for the Priests.

In Thief’s Magic, Trudi Canavan crafts worlds were magic is a non-renewable resource like oil or coal. Whenever someone uses magic, it leaves behind a stain, which is later filled in by more magic. The authorities of these worlds deal with this issue differently.

Tyen’s world is in the midst of an industrial and scientific revolution. Inventions are powered by magic, which is drained rapidly from the air. Authorities have responded by conquering other lands and stealing their magic, but it is still only a matter of time before it’s all gone. There are rumors that magic can be replenished, but these are dismissed as backwards conjecture.

In Fielle’s land, magic is more plentiful – but only because no one is allowed to use it. Readers are led to believe a war long ago drained almost all the magic from the land, so now only the Priests are permitted to steal it from the Angels.

Canavan does an amazing job creating the worlds these characters live in. The magic system in the novel is fascinating and unique. There’s no way to hide that magic has been used and at times the characters’ “reach” is not long enough to access it.

While the worlds are interesting, the pacing is a little slow. The first part of the book doesn’t have a lot of action, particularly Fielle’s half of the story. Tyen’s journey was more interesting throughout. The stakes felt much higher, and Vella is such an enchanting character. Her presence really elevates his story and their interactions are some of the best moments in the novel. As Fielle meets different people, her story improves greatly.

Another issue I had early on is that Tyen and Fielle are just so… good. They have a really hard time questioning, much less rebelling against, authority. To the reader, the Academy and Priests come across as corrupt and despicable the second we see them, so it’s hard to suspend disbelief that they would blindly believe in these systems. When their eyes finally do open, it’s such a relief. I could stop thinking about how naive they were, and start taking them seriously.

Cover Critique: The cover is pretty standard. Any book that has a thief or an assassin for some reason always has a hooded guy/girl on the cover, even if it has nothing to do with the story. It’s just a little boring. Those flames, though… those are really dumb looking. It just takes it down a notch.

Quick Version: Thief’s Magic is a beautifully written novel about what happens when magic is not in infinite supply and corrupt governments and churches control the use of the resource. Tyen and Fielle both notice this injustice — even though it takes them a while — and try to find ways to improve the situation. Tyen’s companion, Vella, is the most fascinating character and this book only scratches the surface of the secrets she contains. Even though it was slow to start, Thief’s Magic was a very engaging and entertaining read. I’m really looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.

Score: 4/5 stars 😀

I reviewed this book last week for Girls in Capes! You should go check out their site; they are really awesome. They are also hosting a giveaway for a hardcover copy of this book until 5/16!

Hey, it’s worth a shot! Free books are the best 😎

 

The Here and Now, Ann Brashares

Title: The Here and Now

Author: Ann Brashares

Publisher: Delacorte Press, imprint of Random House

Date Published: April 8, 2014

Format: ARC—received in exchange for a fair review

 

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Prenna is a teenager from the future. Her world was ravaged by a mosquito-borne plague and an environmental disaster. She has come to the present, with a large group of people from her time,  to escape this world and find a way to change the bleak future. This group is not really all that great, though. They are more of a cult creating a set of rigid rules for all from this group to live by. One of these rules is that there cannot be any relationships with “time-natives” (people from the present)— and OF COURSE this rule is going to be a major issue.

I am a big fan of time-travel stories. It’s one of my favorite things to read or watch. I do like it when they make some sense scientifically, but mostly that doesn’t even matter. I just want it read a great story with well-developed and likable characters. Brashares’s The Here and Now did not do any of those things for me.

The science in this book is awful. They never even try to explain how they went back in time— or how some other random people not in the group managed to get back as well. We are also expected to believe that about 80 years from now the world has changed so completely that a Dengue-like disease has almost completely eradicated humanity. Let’s not think about how Dengue is a very curable disease even with little to no fancy medical treatment, *sigh.* Also, people’s pronunciation of American English managed to completely change in this time as well. So much that when they arrived in the present they had to learn how to make the “th” sound. :/ Really? If you go back 80 years from today I doubt that language would be all that different. When you watch films from then you are not struggling to understand what people are saying, so why would that be the case in the future?

Now to the actual story, and it doesn’t get any better here. It starts off strong and has an interesting premise, but once you get to the middle it just falls apart. There is no real conflict and we spend a lot of time with our protagonists playing cards, trying on bathing suits, and going to the beach. When we finally get to the climax of the novel, it doesn’t even matter to you. Prenna’s voice is so dull that she makes everything boring.

I had a major issue with the romance in this book. It is total insta-love between Prenna and Ethan. Their relationship has no depth. They just mope around, play cards, and talk about how much they love each other and how much it sucks that they can’t be together. Ethan just loves her from the moment he lays eyes on her and has some unexplained special abilities to be able to see when people are from the future. He is just so super perfect and does everything right. He is handsome, understanding, a physics genius, and also a master hacker. Prenna is supposed to be really smart, too, but you never see it. She is so inept and if it weren’t for Ethan, she would not accomplish a thing.

Cover Critique: The cover is eye-catching. The colors are very pretty and I like what they did with all the triangles (random fact about me: I really like triangles, for no reason in particular). The girl’s face takes away from this and makes it look too much like a corny, YA book— but seeing as it is one of those, I guess it’s appropriate.

Quick Version: A time-travel, YA book that starts off strong and falls to pieces. The plot is poorly constructed and the characters are weak and underdeveloped.

2/5 stars 😡