Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel, The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom, The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren and The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

Today I have four books to review, so I'm going to get right to them.

Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel is this author's first YA novel, and it's amazing. I wasn't sure what to expect from this novel, but it reminded me of Baum's Wizard of Oz stories, with some fairy stories woven into them, like Seanan McGuire's cruel and capricious fey, not the pretty happy non-threatening fairies in some children's stories. Here's the blurb:
Fans of Libba Bray’s The Diviners will love the blend of fantasy and twentieth-century history in this stylish series.
Callie LeRoux is choking on dust. Just as the biggest dust storm in history sweeps through the Midwest, Callie discovers her mother's long-kept secret. Callie’s not just mixed race—she's half fairy, too. Now, Callie's fairy kin have found where she's been hidden, and they're coming for her.
While dust engulfs the prairie, magic unfolds around Callie. Buildings flicker from lush to shabby, and people aren’t what they seem. The only person Callie can trust may be Jack, the charming ex-bootlegger she helped break out of jail.
From the despair of the Dust Bowl to the hot jazz of Kansas City and the dangerous beauties of the fairy realm, Sarah Zettel creates a world rooted equally in American history and in magic, where two fairy clans war over a girl marked by prophecy.
A strong example of diversity in YA, the American Fairy Trilogy introduces Callie LeRoux, a half-black teen who stars in this evocative story full of American history and fairy tales.
The first thing I noticed about Dust Girl was the elegant and mesmerizing prose, which grabs the reader and doesn't let go until you've reached the end of the whirlwind plot. Callie's encounter with Coyote, who healed her of dust pneumonia was just the first of many bizarre and fascinating encounters with odd fae creatures, including a family of locusts, and scary racist humans like Bull Morgan. Somehow Callie, along with her scrappy Jewish friend Jack, manages to escape the clutches of the bad fae and return to Kansas City to search for her mom and dad. The "happy for now" ending is slightly abrupt, but it also leaves a door open for sequels that I will be eagerly anticipating. Zettel's excellent storytelling grants this book an A, and a recommendation to those who like historical YA fantasy with diverse characters.

The Time Keeper is the 4th book that I've read by Mitch Albom, and I assumed I'd know what to expect because of that, but this book surprised me. This book is a fable of the beginning of time and Father Time, as told through his eyes during the Babylonian era, and several other people in the modern era. This book is more religious than his previous works, and God is often present as a punishing figure who doesn't approve of Dor/Father Time's hubris in trying to stop time and save his wife from plague. There are more than a few "preachy" moments that slowed the plot for me, and I didn't appreciate the interruption of the story. Here's the blurb:  
In Mitch Albom's exceptional work of fiction, the inventor of the world's first clock is punished for trying to measure God's greatest gift. He is banished to a cave for centuries and forced to listen to the voices of all who come after him seeking more days, more years.
Eventually, with his soul nearly broken, Father Time is granted his freedom, along with a magical hourglass and a mission: a chance to redeem himself by teaching two earthly people the true meaning of time.
He returns to our world—now dominated by the hour-counting he so innocently began—and commences a journey with two unlikely partners: one a teenage girl who is about to give up on life, the other a wealthy old businessman who wants to live forever. To save himself, he must save them both. And stop the world to do so.
Told in Albom's signature spare, evocative prose, this remarkably original tale will inspire readers everywhere to reconsider their own notions of time, how they spend it, and how precious it truly is. Publisher's Weekly: Bestselling author Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie) turns his attention to Father Time in his new fabulist page-turner. Long ago—before a word like "ago" had any meaning—a man named Dor began to chart the passage of time, immediately realizing that "all his days were numbered," and so were his wife's. When she falls deathly ill, Dor climbs the Tower of Babel to beg the gods for help. But as a result of his brazenness, he is banished to a cave where he must endure listening to humanity plead for "more hours, more years, more time." After 6,000 years of torment, Dor is finally released back into the modern world with an enchanted hourglass and a mission: to teach two wayward souls the true value of time—Sarah Lemon, a distressed teen, who wishes the end would come quickly, and Victor Delamonte, a prosperous aging businessman trying his best to keep the end at bay. With a clever conceit and frequent shifts in perspective, Albom deftly juggles multiple narratives to craft an inspiring tale that will please his fans and newcomers alike.
I loved Tuesdays with Morrie, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, but honestly, this book felt condescending and heavy-handed (with religion) to me. I didn't understand why God would see fit to punish Dor for seeking to save his wife, and for measuring time. Why would God care about such a thing? An infinite being would surely have better things to do than torment a man for 6,000 years. It seems beneath a supreme being, to me. Also, the cliche of the old rich man who wants to cryogenically freeze himself until a cure for cancer is found, and a teenage girl who is bullied and harassed online and off by a popular jerk boy at her school, so she wants to commit suicide to end the embarrassment is just too easy, too unimaginative to really resonate with readers. Why is cryogenic suspension such a sin? I could see how the old rich guy wanted to live forever, but just because he didn't consult his fanatically religious wife, knowing that she would keep him from freezing himself at the moment of death, doesn't sound like he was in the wrong. So she stops him from freezing himself and he dies, and that is better how? I can see saving the teenager and letting her know that the jerk boy at her school isn't worth her life, but did we really need Father Time to bolster her self esteem? Isn't that overkill? This dissatisfying book left me with more questions than answers, so I'd give it a C, and only recommend it to those who like boring Christian pablum in book form.

The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren was exactly that, an enchanting book that takes readers on a fascinating personal journey. Full disclosure, I won a copy of this book from the Author Buzz section of the Shelf Awareness e-newsletter. So that was the first of many unexpected delights that I uncovered with this lovely trade paperback book. The second was McLaren's warm, elegant prose that reads like silk and glides along a beautifully-paced plot with the greatest of ease. Another joy was reading that Willow grew up in Enumclaw, Washington, which is one of my favorite towns nearby (its only 15 miles from Maple Valley, WA, where I live), so I had an extra frame of reference for the character. Here's the blurb:
As a young girl, Willow watched her mother leave their home in Washington State in a literal blaze of glory: she set the mattress of her cheating husband on fire in her driveway, roasting marshmallow peeps and hot dogs before the fire department arrived.
And with that, she and Willow set off to New Mexico, to a new life, to a world of arroyos and canyons bordering an Apache reservation. Willow was devastated. Her eccentric mother believed in this new life and set about starting a winery and goat ranch. But for Willow, it meant initially being bullied and feeling like an outsider. Today, as a grown woman, Willow much prefers Los Angeles and her job as a studio musician. But things tend to happen in threes: her mother dies, her boyfriend dumps her, and Willow discovers she is pregnant.
The DeVine Winery and Goat Ranch is all she has left, even if it is in financial straits and unmanageable back taxes. There is something, though, about the call of “home.” She's surprised to find that her Apache best friend Darrel along with the rest of the community seems to think she belongs far more than she ever thought she did. Can Willow redefine what home means for her, and can she make a go of the legacy her mother left behind?
Told with Kaya McLaren’s humor and heart, The Road to Enchantment is a story about discovering that the last thing you want is sometimes the one thing you need.
“This is a potent coming of true age novel. One that gently leads us to leave behind all we imagined as lost, encourages us to embrace what adventure of the simple day lies ahead. The Road to Enchantment carries us into that place beyond the dark hour where the power of story reigns, truth will not be denied, and all the magic of this life will be remembered.” –River Jordan
My only problem with the book was my dislike and disgust of Willow's mother Monica, who was selfish, delusional and cruel enough to leave her daughter with tons of debt, a broken down farmstead and winery and a bunch of old useless animals that should have been put down. The blurbs call it a "legacy" but I honestly can't imagine why anyone would see the disaster that Monica left behind as any kind of asset. She also didn't treat Willow kindly or show much compassion to her daughter at all. Most mothers are more than willing to make sacrifices for the comfort and well being of their children, especially after divorce. To be fair, Willow's father wasn't too interested in his daughter, either, once he'd started a new family, and his rejection and abandonment of his first child was made all the more bitter because it left her without anyone in her corner. It was perfect then, when Darrel and his family stepped up and saved Willow from bullying, harassment, near-starvation and isolation by basically adopting her. Darrel brings Willow a horse, and the two go riding and discuss her problems. When a pregnant Willow comes back to settle her mother's debt-ridden estate, Darrel and his family step up the plate once again, letting her know that she's supported and among family if she wants to save the winery and take over the business. I was rooting for Willow all the way, and found the ending to be as gratifying as the rest of this well-told tale. A definite A, with a recommendation to anyone who likes female protagonist "rising from the ashes" kinds of stories.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh is a new and fresh YA take on the Thousand and One Nights tales of Shaharizhad, who told stories to the prince or sultan in order to keep him from executing her at dawn. Among the stories she traditionally told is the story of Aladdin and the Genie. These tales take on a different meaning when it is revealed in this retelling that the prince/Caliph has no choice but to execute 100 young brides or thousands of his people will die, due to a curse placed on him by the father of his first bride, who killed herself when she discovered that the Caliph didn't love her. Here's the blurb:
Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.
She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.
The vivid and bright prose keeps the rapid-fire plot zooming right along, and Shazi's an excellent protagonist who, though she faces multiple road blocks and problems, still manages to find out what she needs to know about the curse on Khalid and the political machinations of all his relatives, who are poised to pounce on his territory and throne, once he's overthrown. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Tariq, and Shazi's father will stop at nothing to save her from the Caliph, not realizing that by starting an uprising they're putting her in more danger than ever. I was not a fan of Tariq, who seems like a bully who always gets his way, and I wasn't too thrilled with Shazi's father, either, who seems to be working blood magic and wreaking havoc on everyone. If I were Shazi, I would never have left with Tariq, and I would have explained the situation with the Caliph, who she's in love with, so that Tariq can go off and wage war for his own bloody reasons and leave her alone. I have the second book in the series coming today, and I'm looking forward to the further adventures of these intriguing characters. I also found it odd, by the way, that the magic carpet never really was used in the book after it was introduced and shown to be able to fly. I would think someone as sharp as Shazi would be on that thing in a heartbeat to escape both factions.Still, this legendary retelling was well worth an A, and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys reboots of old tales in exotic locales. 

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