30 Apr 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Release Date: 8th January 2015
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 388
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Summary (from GoodReads): Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister's recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it's unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the 'natural wonders' of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It's only with Violet that Finch can be himself - a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who's not such a freak after all. And it's only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet's world grows, Finch's begins to shrink.


My thoughts: This book will do to suicide what The Fault in Our Stars did for cancer.  If you're into what I like to think of as 'hipster YA' - John Green, Rainbow Rowell, any contemporary YA author that a teenager trying to be 'indie' will enjoy - then you will probably enjoy this book. I enjoyed this book. That said, I  kind of knew where this book was heading from the blurb in the back - when something is described as a cross between The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park, it's probably going to end badly.

When we first meet our narrators, they are both up on the bell tower at their high school, contemplating jumping. Finch talks Violet out of jumping, while framing it so their classmates think that it is Violet who saves his life. Violet has a reputation to uphold - she is popular, and a people pleaser. Finch is known as 'Theodore Freak,' and possibly has untreated bipolar disorder. It puzzles me that although his counsellor tells Finch that he shows the signs of bipolar disorder, it was never addressed in the book. Given Finch fights so hard to stay 'awake,' as he calls it, you would think that he would look into it further, regardless of how his family feels about mental illness. In the end, everyone fails Finch: not just his counsellor, who tells Finch he has bipolar disorder, but also Finch's friends and family, who normalise Finch's behaviour and say, "It's just Finch's thing, it's just what he does." His father is physically abusive; most of the adult figures in Finch's life don't understand mental illness and don't make any effort to. I get it: there's a lot of stigma around mental illness. There are no physical symptoms, so people insist it doesn't exist. It's just - for a book about suicide, it sometimes feels like Niven is romanticising suicide, rather than open up dialogue about it. 

There is a lot to love about All the Bright Places, though. There is some strong characterisation in there: I think out of all the characters, Finch is the most well-developed. SPOILER ALERT: weirdly enough, it was not when Finch was present and narrating that I got to know him - for a lot of the book, I found him hard to read. Perhaps that was Niven's intention - he is suffering from undiagnosed, untreated bipolar disorder, after all. I got to know Finch in the aftermath of his death. Finch sets up a treasure hunt for Violet, and she has to decipher his clues and figure out where he went. Finch ends up being defined by what he leaves behind - the ways in which he changes the people in his life and how he transformed their lives, particularly Violet's. 

The secondary characters had the potential to be a good supporting cast, but they fall to wayside as Finch and Violet's relationship take centre stage. The only one that really stood out for me was Decca, Finch's little sister. The dynamics between her and Finch - it seemed to me that Finch could identify with Decca's low points, and he didn't want Decca to live life the way he did. Charlie and Brenda could've been great characters who provided comic relief when necessary, but they were only ever defined in terms of Finch and Violet, and I never really got to know them. The adult figures in this novel just angered me, because ultimately, they failed Finch.

A lot of reviewers have commented on how beautiful the story is, and how much it affected them, and how it blew them away. In my opinion, All the Bright Places was beautiful and heart-wrenching, but I think it's a book that will divide readers, based on their experiences with mental illness and suicide. For this alone, I would suggest you ignore the reviews and pick up this book for yourself to see where you fall. 




26 Apr 2015

#Reread 2015: World After by Susan Ee

World After by Susan Ee

First published: 2013
Country of Origin: United States of America
Pages: 438
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Summary (from GoodReads): In this sequel to the bestselling fantasy thriller, Angelfall, the survivors of the angel apocalypse begin to scrape back together what's left of the modern world.

When a group of people capture Penryn's sister Paige, thinking she's a monster, the situation ends in a massacre. Paige disappears. Humans are terrified. Mom is heartbroken.

Penryn drives through the streets of San Francisco looking for Paige. Why are the streets so empty? Where is everybody? Her search leads her into the heart of the angels' secret plans where she catches a glimpse of their motivations, and learns the horrifying extent to which the angels are willing to go.

Meanwhile, Raffe hunts for his wings. Without them, he can't rejoin the angels, can't take his rightful place as one of their leaders. When faced with recapturing his wings or helping Penryn survive, which will he choose?


I first read World After back in 2013. As I was late jumping on the Angelfall wagon, I was able to read it pretty soon after reading Angelfall (I think there was only a couple of months in between me finishing Angelfall and World After being released) and have the events of Angelfall fresh in my mind, and I remember World After being one of my most anticipated releases of 2013. While I didn't enjoy World After as much as I enjoyed Angelfall, it's definitely a fantastic read and Penryn and the End of Days is one of my favourite YA trilogies.

I actually didn't remember that much about World After going in - I'm not sure if it's just because it's been two years since I first read World After, and I hadn't reread it since. The one thing that stuck out was Penryn going to Alcatraz and the events at Pier 39, but otherwise, it was like I was rereading it for the first time. 

I was reading this as part of Hodder & Stoughton's Penryn and the End of Days reread, although I pretty much gave up following their schedule for this one (I somehow still managed to finish ahead of schedule, though).

One thing that stuck out at me was that Penryn is once again spurred into action by Paige disappearing - in this case, to find Beliel, who basically treated her as a pet after she was kidnapped in the first book (and then took out his rage on her). I'm not sure how I feel about this - while I appreciate that Penryn has a 'higher purpose,' so to speak, I think the fact that Penryn's hero complex in regards to her sister bothered me a little.  That said, I appreciate the fact that once Penryn has decided to go after her sister, nothing will distract her from finding her. Penryn's first priority is always, always keeping her family together. Penryn is obviously thrown, as the angels have operated on Paige, and Penryn struggles to treat her sister the way she did before. We got to see Penryn's emotional vulnerability, and it served as a reminder that no matter how badass, how resilient, resourceful, and independent Penryn comes across as - she is still a seventeen year old girl with her own fears and worries.

The romance was kept kind of in the background, which I appreciated - Penryn's a girl whose family comes first, and I appreciated that that wasn't swept aside for the romance to take centre stage. Even when Raffe makes a reappearance, Penryn is focused on getting her family back together, and Raffe his wings. That said, it is obvious that they care for one another - I think that Raffe was genuinely heartbroken when he thought Penryn had died - and that Penryn and Raffe are a good match for one another. They work well together.

Penryn's mother, despite her religious rantings and schizophrenia, was able to provide some comedic moments. She's surprisingly resourceful and quite clever, and despite her failings as a parent, has obviously taught Penryn some things - most probably indirectly, but still.

Absolutely - Ee is a fantastic writer. She manages to balance the grotesque and dramatic with the comedic, create three-dimensional characters with strong ties to one another, and keep the reader on the edge of their seat. All in all, I'm glad that I reread Angelfall and World After before the release of End of Days, and I cannot wait to see what Penryn and Raffe come against in the final installment.









25 Apr 2015

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Release Date: 7th April 2015
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback | Purchased



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Plot Synopsis (from GR): Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.


My thoughts: "White shouldn't be the default any more than straight should be the default. There shouldn't even be a default.

I am always suspicious of a contemporary YA book that, somewhere on its cover, claims to be the literary love child of John Green and Rainbow Rowell, if only because Green and Rowell are arguably the two biggest names in contemporary YA right now. So I was surprised to find that Albertalli's voice is actually quite similar to Green and Rowell's. This book is probably one of my favourites that I've read this year, and it manages to address some serious themes without ever really losing that fluffiness factor. 

Simon Spier is being blackmailed. If Simon doesn't help Martin talk to Abby, then Martin's going to publish Simon's emails to Blue, an anonymous boy he's been emailing (and who Simon's falling in love with), and everyone in the school will know Simon's gay.

 If you know me at all, you will know that I'm a peeker. Sometimes the suspense just gets to me and I have to have a look. This was one of those times, and I REALLY regretted it. Even though I peeked because I had a hunch about who Blue really was... it really did affect my enjoyment of the book. Moral of the story (quite literally, in this case?): don't peek. It'll be interesting to see how much I enjoy this book in subsequent rereads (because, oh, this one is going to be reread. Multiple times. And loaned out to all my John Green and Rainbow Rowell loving friends, if I can bear the agony of parting with it). It was definitely a fun, quick read - I managed to read it in one three-hour sitting.

The entire cast of characters were incredibly well-written. Like so many other readers, I found Simon to be incredibly endearing. I also loved the dynamics between Simon and his friends and family. Simon comes from an incredibly supportive family, but that doesn't mean that they don't have their own issues to work out (mostly in regards to boundaries, I would think). Simon's friendships with Abby, Leah and Nick all had their ups and downs - as you get older, people come and go out of your life and watching them deal with that for the first time and the affects that it had on their relationship with one another was saddening, but it was nice to see Simon trying to figure out how to redefine the grounds of their friendship, rather than let it fade away.  My favourite, of course, was Blue and Simon's relationship. A lot of Simon and Blue's relationship developed through their emails to one another, and I loved being able to watch that relationship grow and the dynamics change. I loved being able to watch both Simon and Blue let their guards down and write things that they wouldn't usually write to one another, and feel around for where the other is at. At one point, Blue knew who Simon was but Simon didn't know who Blue was, and it was... interesting. My favourite part had to be Blue revealing himself to Simon, of course (and watching them figure out what that meant for their real-life relationship). It was extremely heart warming to read. Bonus - unlike a lot of YA, there was no white-washing of characters. There was PoC representation, and they were clearly stated as being PoC. I appreciated this book all the more for it.

If this book isn't on your TBR list, make sure it is. You will not regret it. 

★★★

The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski

Release Date: 12th March 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 400
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Summary (from GR): Lady Kestrel's engagement to Valoria's crown prince calls for great celebration: balls and performances, fireworks and revelry. But to Kestrel it means a cage of her own making. Embedded in the imperial court as a spy, she lives and breathes deceit and cannot confide in the one person she really longs to trust ...

While Arin fights to keep his country's freedom from the hands of his enemy, he suspects that Kestrel knows more than she shows. As Kestrel comes closer to uncovering a shocking secret, it might not be a dagger in the dark that cuts him open, but the truth.

Lies will come undone, and Kestrel and Arin learn just how much their crimes will cost them in this second book in the breathtaking Winner's trilogy.

 
My thoughts:

This review contains spoilers for both The Winner's Curse and the Winner's Crime.


 I was a huge fan of The Winner's Curse, and The Winner's Crime was at the top of my "2015 Releases that I'm Fangirling Over" List, so it was kind of awkward when the release date came and went and I COMPLETELY MISSED IT.  Now that I've read it (and mulled over my thoughts a little), I can honestly say that Rutkoski has upped her game with this one.

The ending of The Winner's Curse completely made my jaw drop. Kestrel sacrificed her own freedom in order to ensure Arin's by agreeing to marry the Valorian prince, and The Winner's Crime sees her deal with the ramifications of that decision. It's a lot darker and more tightly plotted than its predecessor, and Arin and Kestrel's romance is pushed aside in order to put the politics of this world on display. If you saw my reaction to Jaclyn Moriarty's The Cracks in the Kingdom, you will know how much I love political intrigue. Needless to say, I loved watching Kestrel play the game: Rutkoski has taken the time to let us see the full scope of Kestrel's intelligence and cunning. Now that the stakes have been upped for Kestrel, now her relationship with Arin and high society life are no longer her primary concerns, we are able to see her plot and scheme and spy. Even though we see Kestrel as "good" and we are supposed to want her to succeed, she is a three-dimensional character who is filled with shades of moral greyness and who is forced to make hard decisions, and sometimes that means she makes decisions that the reader doesn't necessarily agree with. Sometimes she makes decisions that will make your stomach turn... until you realise the alternative is still worse. Kestrel doesn't have the luxury of having friends or allies to count on - she can only rely on herself. I was less impressed with Arin - I spent most of the book being emotionally detached from his plight, if only because a lot of his problems would be fixed if he bothered to listen to the people around him. Actually, I spent most of this book wanting to smack Arin, if only because he is impatient and allows himself to be blinded by his emotions.

Rutkoski may be writing for a YA audience, but she doesn't make the mistake that so many YA authors make, and assume that just because her (demographic) audience is younger they are less intelligent. Her writing is mature and while she drops clues for her more attentive readers, she won't spell it out for them until the big reveal comes. That said, there are moments that genuinely surprised me. From the ending, it appears we'll get a new setting (or two) in the final installment, and watch Kestrel and Arin tackle a new array of problems (and not in the Veronica Roth "I'm just going to drop the plot of the last two books" kind of way).

★★★★

17 Apr 2015

A Collision of Myth, Magic, and Russian History: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Release Date: 20th June 2013
Publisher: Corsair
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Synopsis (from GoodReads): A glorious retelling of the Russian folktale Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, set in a mysterious version of St. Petersburg during the first half of the 20th century. A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya's fate. For years she follows him in love and in war, and bears the scars. But eventually Marya returns to her birthplace - only to discover a starveling city, haunted by death. Deathless is a fierce story of life and death, love and power, old memories, deep myth and dark magic, set against the history of Russia in the twentieth century. It is, quite simply, unforgettable.

My thoughts:

Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak. 

I’ve been sitting at my computer for the last fifteen minutes, trying to express how I feel about this book. For me, that is definitely a sign of a good book. I usually make notes while I read, and know exactly what I want to say about the novel – things that I liked, things that the author could’ve done better… I didn’t do this with Deathless. I got lost in Deathless, and didn’t want to leave.

It is categorised as a fairy-tale retelling, when it seems to be telling the history of Russia using characters and features of the Russian folktale The Death of Koschei the Deathless (sometimes called Marya Morevna). I wasn't familiar with the folktale before reading the novel, so I couldn't say whether or not it is a good retelling. I have read reviews from people who have grown up with these stories, and have been impressed with the way that Valente has embraced Russian culture - it appears that Valente has really done her research; I have also read reviews from people who have grown up with these stories and accused Valente of cultural appropriation. The historical accuracy of the novel – the Russian Revolution,  the eastern campaign of World War II, The Leningrad blockade – sometimes makes it feel like it’s more of a historical fiction, there are elements of realism that turn it into magical realism… Valente seems to effortlessly blend together Russian folklore with Russian history.  The writing is almost lyrical, yet describes brutality and horror in great detail.

The story that Valente tells is layered, poignant, painful and beautiful. It is humorous - it uses black humour, but humour nonetheless; it is bittersweet, it is brutal and strange and complex and intimate. It captures Russian folklore - tales of rusalkas and leshy, firebirds and domovye - and uses it to tell the story of life and death, war and loss. But it is Valente's writing of this book that makes it so enjoyable. The characterisation leaves me... scratching my head a little. My impression of the original folktale is that Koschei was the villain of the story, and it seems odd that in a retelling that gives him the Regina Mills treatment, there is very little attention paid to the new villain, Viy. The secondary characters are one-dimensional and fall a little flat. Most of them are killed off at some point, but it's difficult to care when I'm not given any reason to care for them. The only I really cared for were Kseniya and Sofiya, the rusalka mother and daughter who lived with Marya and Ivan, but that was probably because I was given reasons to care about them.

And then there's the biggest problem I have with the novel: the relationship between Marya and Koschei makes me uncomfortable. I cannot believe that they are starcrossed lovers or meant to be.
 Marya would be better off without Koschei, but this point seems to be ignored for the sake of the plot. For most of the book their relationship doesn't seem to have any kind of emotional connection, and at times just feels... rape-y. They emotionally abuse one another, and are constantly locked in a power play. Marya's other love interest, Ivan isn't much better. He treats her horribly and lacks any kind of common sense. Marya deserves to be the warrior queen she was originally depicted to be, kicking butts and taking names.

Read Deathless for the beautiful writing and strong story-telling, but beware the characterisation.


9 Apr 2015

Howl by Allen Ginsberg



Release Date: 1956
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 119
Format: Paperback | Purchased 

Synopsis (from GR): Beat movement icon and visionary poet, Allen Ginsberg broke boundaries with his fearless, pyrotechnic verse. This new collection brings together the famous poems that made his name as a defining figure of the counterculture. They include the apocalyptic "Howl", which became the subject of an obscenity trial when it was first published in 1956; the moving lament for his dead mother, 'Kaddish'; the searing indictment of his homeland, 'America'; and the confessional 'Mescaline'. Dark, ecstatic and rhapsodic, they show why Ginsberg was one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century.

My thoughts:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...


Disclaimer: I have never reviewed a collection of poetry before. I am not a poetry person - I have always preferred prose. Aside from a brief interest in Banjo Paterson when I was about eight, and an ability to recite a handful of lines from Dorothy Mackellar's 'My Country,' my poetry knowledge is incredibly lacking.

I read this book for Brain Soup Goes Gilmore - it's National Poetry Month over in the US, so naturally, a collection of poems was picked! I've had an interest in the Beat Generation for awhile, although if I'm being honest Kerouac and Ginsberg intimidate me - I've been afraid I wouldn't "get" them - so I'm glad Brain Soup pushed me to pick up this book. Ginsberg writes beautifully - he's passionate, and opinionated, and he obviously pushed boundaries at the time. He can really write a sentence. There are a lot of allusions to Judeo-Christian texts, and Greek mythology, as well as political and cultural references. I'd love to reread this collection again after I've done some deeper research and see what I think of it afterwards, because I'd probably appreciate this collection a lot more. I think the hardest one to read was 'Kaddish,' which was an attempt to mourn his mother. In telling the reader his memories of his mother, Ginsberg gives you a look at his childhood - you feel his pain, his suffering, his disappointment in his parents... there's a melancholy tone to this poem that comes not just from the death of his mother, but the feeling that he deserved more from his parents as a child, and the guilt he feels because of it. The description of his childhood experiences is painfully good, and will leave you feeling emotionally exhausted by the end of it. I was left feeling confused and empty by the time I'd finished - probably how Ginsberg felt as a child.

 'Howl' was another one I really enjoyed - it really set the tone for this collection. It's a poem I'd previously known by reputation only, used in an obscenity trial in the late 1950s due to its references to illicit drug use and homosexuality. It was an intense read, and a fascinating attack on the hypocrisy of the time. 'America,' 'To Lindsay,' 'To Aunt Rose,' and 'In the Back of the Real' were also good reads. That said, there are some poems I read ('The Lion for Real,' for example) and I just went "um, what?" I don't know if I was missing what Ginsberg was trying to say, or if he just wrote them in a drug-induced haze and nobody is going to get it. All in all, a nice introduction to the Beat Generation and poetry in general. I'm definitely eager to read more!

5 Apr 2015

TBR piles and reading slumps

 Like most book lovers, I buy books fully intending to read them sometime in the near future, and then they sit on my shelves for months collecting dust while I buy more books (and the vicious cycle continues). This tells me that:

                    a) I need to be more picky about the books I buy and
                    b) I need to try and make a dent in my TBR pile

So April is the month that I try and knock out some of these books! Below are the books that I have bought in the last six months and have yet to finish:



It's highly doubtful that I will get through all of these books in April, but here's to being a more productive reader!

3 Apr 2015

#Reread 2015: March Recap



Aaah, I have been so lazy with my reading this month! I feel like I fell into a reading slump, and I just can't get out of it. I only completed reading two books in March - both of which were rereads - although I was reading The Kingdom of Little Wounds for almost all of March (and only finished today). Hopefully I'll be able to kick my reading slump in April!






March Re-Reads: Two Books

1. Angelfall by Susan Ee (Review)
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (Review)

Reread 2015: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

First published: 1891
Country of Origin: Britain
Pages: 253
Format: Paperback | Purchased

Summary (from GoodReads): The Picture of Dorian Gray was a succès de scandale. Early readers were shocked by its hints at unspeakable sins and the book was later used as evidence against Wilde at the Old Bailey in 1895. Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray sells his soul in exchange for eternal youth and beauty. Under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life, where he is able to indulge his desires while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only Dorian's picture bears the traces of his decadence. A knowing account of a secret life and an analysis of the darker side of late Victorian society. The Picture of Dorian Gray offers a disturbing portrait of an individual coming face to face with the reality of his soul.

 I first read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I was at uni. Wilde was one of those authors/playwrights that I've heard about, but never read his works. The Co-Op Bookshop had a sale on classics, so when I was purchasing my textbooks, I picked up a few classics I had on my TBR list as well! Although I've only read this one a handful of times, I'm always blown away by Wilde's prose and his gift for dialogue.
I read this as part of Brain Soup Goes Gilmore.
 The one event that sticks out in my mind is when James Vane meets Dorian Gray by chance and swears to kill Dorian because it was Dorian's rejection of Sibyl that caused her to take her life, and Dorian telling James to look at him in the light because he has not aged a day in twenty years. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a study of hedonism, selfishness, vanity and shallowness, and this is the event that kind of... epitomises that for me. Also, Dorian's death. It's just creepy.

 I'd forgotten how much of a psychological horror story this book is. There are moments of comedic relief thrown in - Wilde has a way of putting in witty, biting one liners at just the right moment - but mostly I walked away from this book feeling depressed and slightly horrified.  I think it's because this novel came across as a personal novel as well - I had familiarised myself Oscar Wilde before my reread, and subsequently read this as a novel about the naivete of youth.

 Yes, most definitely.

A display of darkness: Susann Cokal's The Kingdom of Little Wounds

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

Release Date: 8th October 2013
Publisher: Candlewick Press/Walker Books
Pages: 576
Format: Hardcover | Purchased

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Synopsis (from GoodReads): A young seamstress and a royal nursemaid find themselves at the center of an epic power struggle in this stunning young-adult debut. On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the Scandinavian city of Skyggehavn prepares to fete the occasion with a sumptuous display of riches: brocade and satin and jewels, feasts of sugar fruit and sweet spiced wine. Yet beneath the veneer of celebration, a shiver of darkness creeps through the palace halls. A mysterious illness plagues the royal family, threatening the lives of the throne’s heirs, and a courtier’s wolfish hunger for the king’s favors sets a devious plot in motion. Here in the palace at Skyggehavn, things are seldom as they seem — and when a single errant prick of a needle sets off a series of events that will alter the course of history, the fates of seamstress Ava Bingen and mute nursemaid Midi Sorte become irrevocably intertwined with that of mad Queen Isabel. As they navigate a tangled web of palace intrigue, power-lust, and deception, Ava and Midi must carve out their own survival any way they can.

My thoughts: 

 I wasn't really sure what to expect from The Kingdom of Little Wounds. I've seen it shelved on GoodReads as historical fiction, a fairy tale, fantasy and paranormal. It is published by Candlewick Press (Walker Books in Australia), a publishing house that specialises in children's and young adults books, yet many reviews have suggested syphilis as a central metaphor. Generally speaking, young adult novels features characters and issues that the targeted demographic can understand. While two of the central characters are considered to be young adults, I'm not really sure the book's subject matter would be of interest to young adult readers. For the record, I would consider this title to be a general lit + fiction title, rather than falling exclusively in the young adult realm. However, I think the difficulty assigning a genre to The Kingdom of Little Wounds comes from the fact that it is completely different to a lot of what's out there.

Admittedly, I picked up this book because of the cover design - it is stunning. The hardcover edition features a dust jacket that appears to have been inspired by something out of the Harry Potter films, and underneath features a copper foil design on the spine. I'm not usually a fan of page staining - I think it looks tacky - but I don't mind the burgundy-stained edges. I have a history of picking up beautiful books and being disappointed by the content. Never fear! Cokal is definitely talented - the writing is every bit as beautiful as the cover design. Cokal's writing is a throwback to 19th century British literature, the plot moving slower than what I expected and the unpleasant realities of life in 16th century Scandinavia on every page. At times it feels as if Cokal is describing another world; telling a story that doesn't belong in our universe. It is a story of another time, but seemingly for all times.


The narration flips between Ava Bingen, a seamstress whose entire life changes after she mistakenly pricks the Queen with a needle, and Midi Sorte, the mute royal nursemaid who was taken aboard a slave ship from an unnamed part of Africa. There is also some third person narration, meaning we get a few more perspectives, including the ineffective King Christian V, secretly in love with a male advisor; the half-mad Queen who is accused of poisoning her own children; and the petty Princess Beatte, who is placed on the throne far too early and who appears to be a bloodthirsty psychopath. The book is also split into four volumes or parts, and each volume is begins with a little fairy-tale that somehow relates to the events of the upcoming volume. The Kingdom of Little Wounds tells quite a bleak story - it is startling to read about a ten-year-old Princess gleefully watching the executions of her citizens, or reading a fairy-tale about a woman cutting off her own body parts to cook for her daughter's wedding feast. The female characters are regularly dehumanised, and exist within an oppressive patriarchy that has routinely broken and shamed them. Cokal has created memorable characters that you become emotionally invested in and their stories ring with authenticity. Regardless of whether you are reading the story from the perspective of Ava or Princess Beatte, each character has their own distinctive voice, which is often difficult to maintain in a novel that has multiple narrators. The characters are flawed and three-dimensional, and even though they are not always likeable, you can't help but admire them.

Nevertheless, this book is quite depressing and dark, and I found I had to read this book in small doses (it took me almost a month to read, which is quite slow by my usual standards, even with a book of this size). The book ends on a comparatively lighter note, so if its unrelenting darkness is overwhelming or putting you off - please know it does get a little better for Ava and Midi. In a show of female empowerment, the two band together in an effort to escape their oppressive lives at court and seek a better life elsewhere. It is amazing to watch the relationship between these two changes, especially because it begins with Midi disliking Ava and Ava longing to be friends with her.

I would say give this book a go - while the violence is sometime gratuitous, the writing is beautiful and the characters memorable. It is one of the most original offerings in the young adult genre, and between The Kingdom of Little Wounds and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I will definitely be keeping my eye on Candlewick Press/Walker Books' future releases.




★★★★★

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