The Diviners

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Libba Bray
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Historical Fiction, YA, Paranormal
Pub. date: Sep. 2012 (read Aug. 2020)
Series: Diviners #1

The Diviners has been on my TBR for AGES, so I’m thrilled that I finally got to it. It took a little bit longer than I would have liked, but it was a good read! I heard that the book has a slow start, which was definitely the case, but if you’re willing to stick with it you’ll find an impressive cast of characters and a unique plot.

This is definitely something I haven’t seen done before in YA. It’s paranormal, which I’m not really a fan of, but setting is key. The Diviners is set in 1920’s New York and Libba Bray does a wonderful job capturing the atmosphere of the time period. Our story centers around 17 year old Evie O’Neill. She has a quirky habit that she can read people’s history from objects, which until now she’s only used as a harmless party trick. But when she accidentally spills the local town gossip, her mother ships her off to New York to live with her Uncle.

Evie is quickly drawn into the glamour of New York and gets into all kind of shenanigans with her best friend Mabel and mischievous Sam. But her Uncle is the curator of the museum for the supernatural and when the police approach him about a ritualistic murder, Evie is drawn into the murder investigation.

This book covers so many genres. It’s YA, but mystery is a key element of the story, as well as the fantastical elements, historical content, and even a bit of horror. The story is downright creepy, though its characters keep it light. The plot is slow developing in the first half, but I quickly went along for the ride in the second half.

What makes this a winner though is the characters. It’s a large cast of characters and every single one of them has a richly imagined backstory. I feel like I’m still getting to know most of them, but this is one of those series where you can tell the first book is really only the tip of the iceberg for the plot. Bray introduces the idea of diviners and that something dark is coming on the horizon. We don’t really know what it is, but can feel it looming throughout the course of the book.

Lastly, I have to commend Bray on the representation in this book. It would have been so easy to write a book about 1920’s New York and have absolutely no representation, but here we have a black numbers runner, a queer musician, and all kinds of immigrants and misfits. The plot maybe could have done with a bit of trimming, but overall a fun read – can’t wait for the next one!

Stormcaster

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Apr. 2018 (read Feb. 2020)
Series: Shattered Realms #3

Stormcaster is where the characters all finally start to catch up with one another and we get an idea of where the story is really going. I’ve read a lot of reviews from people that think this is the strongest book of the series, but I think I still preferred Shadowcaster over this one.

Stormcaster starts out with yet another character POV, Evan Strangward. We’ve been introduced to Evan in other books, but here we finally get to learn what team he’s actually on and all about his history. Plus we finally get to learn more about Destin Karn! Evan and Destin feature heavily in the first 100-150 pages of the book, which I thought was really strong and exclusively tells Evan’s story, before Chima finally commits to the multi-POV book and starts alternating between all of her characters. We finally get to return to Ash, Hal, Jenna, Lyss, and Lila, but with so many characters constantly changing and with the plot going in so many different directions, I feel like not a whole lot was accomplished in this book. It was a relief to finally get the merging of stories, but in my opinion Stormcaster felt like a bit of a filler book with just enough action to progress the story. I still loved it, but I was left feeling the tiniest bit disappointed.

I don’t have a whole lot more to say about the plot; the characters continue to be the highlight of the series for me because there is no shortage of complex and interesting characters. I’m excited to see what happens in the final segment – but find it hard to believe so many character arcs and plot threads can be resolved in just one more book!

Girls of Storm and Shadow

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Natasha Ngan
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Nov. 5, 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

I read and liked Girls of Paper and Fire last year. It was a dark fantasy that featured a queer female protagonist – something you don’t see too much in fantasy. So I was really excited to receive an advance copy of Girls of Storm and Shadow from Hachette.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get on board with this sequel. It felt a bit like a parody of the first book and I felt that Ngan’s writing left a lot to be desired. I’m not sure if maybe she was rushed in writing the second book or whether I got caught up in the hook of the first book and didn’t notice, but I found her writing very lacklustre in this book. I thought it didn’t have a lot of style and the dialogue could have been stronger. The writing was just kind of boring, as was the plot.

In Girls of Storm and Shadow, Lei and Wren have escaped from the King’s Court and are trying to win themselves more allies so that they can finally take down the king once and for all. It’s more of a political book, with our gang of misfits traveling from Court to Court, trying to win favour from other demon clans. Ngan does do some interesting things with her characterization of Lei and Wren towards the end of the book, but I felt it took too long to get there. Lei and Wren are just a happy little couple for most of the book and I’m sorry but, even if it’s a groundbreaking queer relationship, you need tension to keep romantic relationships interesting.

Both the character growth and the plot progression of this book are slow. It reminded me a bit of the second book in the Belles series, because in both these series, I really liked the first book, but found the sequel entirely lacking. Even though we had a roughly outlined plot – get more allies – I felt like the story was just too one dimensional in all aspects. I wanted more depth from the plot, more tension between characters, and more overall nastiness. This was just too vanilla and generic of pretty much any other YA fantasy novel. It no longer has anything to set it apart from the rest of the pack.

My hope is that it’s simply a victim of second book syndrome. I’m sure it can be hard to follow up a successful first book. First books generally read kind of like standalones and it’s not until the 2nd and 3rd books that we actually get into the meat of the story or the saga. I’m hopeful that Ngan has a clear vision of where she wants to take this series, but it didn’t come across in this book and honestly, the whole thing felt like filler. I think it’s easy to fall into that trap when you’re writing a traveling book because everything that happens on the way to the destination can just feel like unnecessary, added drama. I know lots of people read fantasy for the action, but I still want my thinking to be challenged and I expect multi-book series to have much greater depth in the plot. There just wasn’t a whole lot else happening here.

The one part I did like is the slow conflict that starts to wedge its way between Lei and Wren. I think it was too long in coming, but I liked the new darkness in Wren that Ngan introduces. It brought more intrigue to the story and I am interested to see where she may take that in the next book.

Anyways, I hate writing downer reviews like this, especially about a book I was really excited about, but unfortunately it just couldn’t live up to the first book. The story and characters have lots of potential, but I think Ngan needs to put a bit more thought into both her characters and her plot and spend a bit more time honing her writing skills.

Internment

Rating: ⭐
Author: Samira Ahmed
Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian
Pub date: Mar. 19, 2019 (Read Feb. 2019)

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

I was really excited about this book, I thought the premise sounded super interesting and appropriate for the current political climate. I read Samira Ahmed’s debut novel, Love, Hate, & Other Filters, last year and didn’t really like it, but I was super optimistic about this book and even included it on my most anticipated books of 2019 list. I’m still really glad a book like this exists, but sadly I was very disappointed with it. I may just not be the intended audience for this anymore as someone in my late twenties, but it really didn’t work for me.

Like I said, the premise of the book is great. It’s about Muslim teenager, Layla Amin. Since the inauguration of the new president, America has seen a lot of changes. Muslims were asked to identify themselves in the latest census and with the creation of the new Muslim registry, Layla has been forced out of school and her parents have been forced out of their jobs. Then one day, the police show up at her home and escort her entire family to America’s first internment camp in the middle of the California desert.

The camp is called Mobius. At Mobius, Muslims are divided into blocks by ethnicity and forced to live in small trailers. Her parents do their best to adapt to this new life and keep their heads down, but Layla misses her old life and boyfriend on the outside and starts to rebel against the camp’s Director and his racist policies. But what will be the cost for her rebellion and as a teenager, does she really have the power to change anything?

I’m really glad a book like this exists and I hope it gets into the hands of the right people. But what I struggled to understand was who the intended audience is? Is it meant for the already liberal-minded? Is it hoping to expand the opinions of those who are unsure where they sit in the current political climate? Is it targeted at the MAGA faction that is scared and hateful towards those who are different from themselves? Or is it just meant to give voice to the rage and pain of American Muslims? As an already liberal minded person, this didn’t really challenge my thinking or offer me any new insights, but I think it could be a great book for younger teens who are confused by politics or whose views may differ from those of their parents and they don’t know where to turn for information. So I’m really glad this book exists and I hope it can help inform teenagers or just support Muslim American teenagers in feeling heard.

The reason I didn’t like it is because it’s so heavy handed. Nothing about this book is subtle and I felt like the author was just trying to beat me over the head with her politics. It’s the prime example of why “show, don’t tell” is so much more effective and enjoyable. I don’t think Ahmed trusts her readers at all. She spells out every single point and action of her characters and doesn’t trust her readers to come to their own conclusions. She is constantly telling us how Layla is feeling rather that letting her circumstances and actions speak for themselves. Layla also didn’t feel like a teenager to me. She felt a bit like a 17 year old espousing an adult’s viewpoints. I like to think teenagers are this woke, but she knew a lot of random historical facts about Japanese internment camps and other politically motivated rebellions around the world. Overall it added to the book, but felt a little forced coming from a teenager who mostly just seems overly into her boyfriend.

I went back to look at my review of Ahmed’s first book and I have similar complaints with this book. I felt like her characters were so 1-dimensional and that the emotional connection to them was just really lacking. Her characters feel more like caricatures and it made it hard to relate to any of them. I was frustrated by how obsessed Layla was with David when she had so many more pressing concerns. All of her relationships felt extremely surface level and I never felt that any of her relationships had any great depth. She talks about how she’s worried about the impact her actions might have on her parents, but I never really felt any tension because I didn’t feel any connection between the characters to begin with.

I thought the Director was the greatest caricature of the novel. He was too classically evil for me to ever take him seriously. I thought the Director represented a great opportunity to influence your readers and hopefully alter their mindsets. But the Director is too much of a villain that he doesn’t incite that feeling of righteous anger or conflict. If your goal is to alter someone’s mindset or opinions, you need a more nuanced villain. Someone who you can almost relate to, but highlights the flaws of conservative America. No one will relate to the Director, so it’s easy to dismiss him as just a hateful asshole. He doesn’t make you question your thoughts or views and that was the main way that this novel failed for me.

I think liberals will read this book and be reminded of why they are frustrated with the current administration, while conservatives will read the book and think it’s ridiculous and Muslims just trying to paint white people as the bad guys. Just to clarify, I do not think that’s what this book is doing at all. I think this is actually a story to give voice to the feelings that Ahmed has about the direction America is going. And if this story gives voice to that rage and pain for Ahmed and for readers like her, then I think this book has achieved something great. I am not American and I am not Muslim, so who am I to say that this book doesn’t have value? I do believe it has value, I just wanted it to be more nuanced because I want white Americans to pick up this book and read a viewpoint that they hadn’t really thought about. I want them to see Muslims as people and that their viewpoints might be changed by reading about this horrifying near-future scenario. I guess I just don’t have very much faith in people’s ability to change and I thought this book was just too surface level to change the viewpoints of people that don’t already agree with this book.

However, it is unfair of me to put that responsibility on the author. She is not responsible to change people’s minds. It’s why I question who her audience is? As an Own Voices book, I can really see this working for some people and I really hope that it does. If you are an American Muslim feeling outcast in your school, or your community, or your country, then I hope this is the book that you needed to pick up to feel seen and understood. This book wasn’t what I was hoping it would be, but I am probably not the intended audience. I fully support the themes Ahmed tackles in this book, her writing style and methods just aren’t for me. I hate to be critical of books like this because I do think they are extremely important and authors need to be supported to write them. But I also don’t want to give good reviews to a book just because I’m glad it exists – I still want it to be a thoughtful and well-written book. I thought this book had so much potential and honestly, I just wanted more from it. But hopefully it will make its way into the hands of the right readers!

One last criticism I have of this book is that I’m uncomfortable with the number of famous quotes and ideas that Ahmed includes without referencing the source material. I think she is paying homage to some great people, but it rubs me the wrong way when those individuals are not referenced. The tagline on the back is “rebellions are built on hope”, which is obvious to me that it’s from the Star Wars Rogue One movie. The characters repeatedly joke about their love of star wars, but this quote is used without every directly attributing it to Star Wars. Two others that I picked up on were that she has one of her characters reference how “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”, which has been attributed to Hamilton and Malcolm X among others, and Layla repeatedly says “the people united will never be defeated”. Please reference these individuals because otherwise it seems like you are trying to pass these ideas off as your own.

September Summary

I was on vacation for 2 weeks in September, so I’m pretty satisfied with what I read this month. My monthly challenge was to start re-reading the Throne of Glass series in anticipation of the series finale coming out at the end of October. My monthly summary is:

Books read: 8
Pages read: 3,312
Main genres: Fantasy
Favourite book: Wuthering Heights
Favourite Re-read: Crown of Midnight

Like I said, I started off the month with the first 3 books in the Throne of Glass series: Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, and Heir of Fire. I’ve been dying to re-read this series for a while now, but I made myself wait until closer to the release of the last book so that it would all be fresh in my mind. Throne of Glass was one of my first major fantasy series, so I was curious if I’d like it as much the second time around, and I absolutely did! I’d forgotten just how epic Crown of Midnight was and I even upped my rating of Heir of Fire from 3 stars to 4 stars the second time around. I enjoyed it a lot more this time.

I read two audiobooks this month as well. I bought a copy of Wuthering Heights on Audible on impulse when they had it on sale for $5. I listened to Emma earlier this year and was keen to try out another classic. What I was not expecting was how much I absolutely adored Wuthering Heights! I know it’s a polarizing book and I know a lot of people who hate it. I kind of anticipated I wouldn’t like it as I don’t love a lot of classics, but I was so very wrong. I won’t go into detail what I loved about it though as I wrote a very detailed review about my thoughts.

The second audiobook was Neverworld Wake, a young adult/sci-fi/mystery thriller novel about a group of teenagers forced to live the same day over and over again. It had an interesting enough plot, but I didn’t love it because I thought it could have been better executed.

I also read two ARC’s this month, although I was a bit late reading the first one as it’s already been published. I read The Lost Queen, which is the first book in a new historical trilogy about 6th century Scotland, and Girls of Paper and Fire, a new YA fantasy book that I’d been hearing lots of good things about. The Lost Queen fell into the trap I’ve been having with a lot of my books lately in that I liked it at the end (appreciated the story), but found it kind of boring to read. In contrast, Girls of Paper and Fire was wonderful and kept me on the edge of my seat with the most wonderful queer relationship at the center of the story.

Finally, I read a short graphic novel/web series that’s set in Vancouver called Always Raining Here. This one was a quick read to boost my numbers, but I keep seeing it at my local bookstore and was intrigued about it. It’s about two gay high school students and the pressures of succeeding in high school and the struggles of being a gay teenager. I had mixed feelings because I liked parts of the story, but found other parts extremely problematic.

Anyways, I read some pretty large books this month, several were over 500 pages, so I’m quite happy with what I read and thrilled to be heading into October and November, which are easily my favourite reading months!