Feast by Hannah Howard

In Hannah Howard’s powerful memoir, she writes about her love affair with food. She writes about her tendency to hurt herself with food. Food fills an unfillable hole for Hannah, and when she doesn’t think she deserves to be hole, she deprives herself of it as a punishment. Hannah is open and honest about her experiences and she delivers one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

The writing in this novel is beautiful. She writes so descriptively, you can taste what the food Hannah is eating. Whether or not you’ve been through the things that Hannah’s been through, her thoughts and feelings are laid out so bare for the reader to see. It’s impossible not to empathize or relate. And for those who have been through something similar to what Hannah’s been through, she’s right. You feel so alone, until you realize that you aren’t alone, and then everything becomes about something so much bigger than you.

It’s so refreshing  to read a book featuring a person with an eating disorder that doesn’t end in the character having a starvation-induced, near-death dream sequence and realizing they want to live. The strength of Hannah’s story comes from her learning to love herself over time. Every thing she’s learned, every ounce of self-worth and perspective she’s gained, Hannah’s had to work for. That’s what’s so powerful about her story. That grit is the reason anyone who reads Hannah’s story should love it.

 

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The Martian

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Astronaut Mark Watney is the 18th man on Mars. He’s a member of the manned Mars mission Ares 3. Or he was, when the mission was aborted on Sol 6. After an accident during the crew’s unplanned departure, Watney is presumed dead and left alone on the desert planet. Many ordinary astronauts would have given up; the situation certainly seems hopeless. But Mark finds the will and resourcefulness he needs to keep fighting for survival.

 

I don’t feel bad if I spoil this for you. It’s a Matt Damon movie, and a damn good one. It also nearly follows the book to a T. Many of Watney’s clever one-liners even make it into the movie. If you haven’t seen it or read the book, you’re honestly missing out. 10/10 would recommend this story, in book or movie form.

Mark Watney’s voice is full of dry humor and life. He manages to maintain hope in a hopeless and dark situation. Like the psychology on staff in Weir’s NASA said, Mark’s response to extreme stress is to make light of the situation. Any time it feels like our hero is a goner, he cracks a joke, lightens the mood and then solves the problem. Watney is a protagonist in the most definitive sense of the word; he is the human we all want to be; kind, compassionate, intelligent. He’s forgiving and believes the best in humanity as whole. Even so, he’s not naive. He knows life isn’t fair, and he’s quick to point it out, usually involving some kind of humor, and moves on. My friends consider me to be one of the most cynical people they know, and I’d love to be a little more like Mark.

It’s initially very difficult to relate to the characters on the ground. Their voice isn’t as strong as Mark’s, so his story drowns theirs out. It’s not until they’re sure that Watney is alive and kicking that any of them develop any personality. Placed in contrast with Mark, some of these mere mortals come off as cowardly or selfish. They make questionable decisions and they fuck things up.

Finding Pathfinder was such an important step in this journey for a few reasons. 1) It established communication with NASA. This is very practical (now he can talk to the smarted people in the world. They might help him get out of this mess), but it’s also incredibly symbolic. Mark thought he was the only one who knew he was alive on Mars. Now he’s not alone. 2) It established just how resourceful Mark Watney is. Even the folks at NASA didn’t consider him finding Pathfinder until Watney figured it out. It’s the first time it makes you think, this man might make it out alive. 

Sure, this is a survival story. I could draw many parallels between The Martian and Life of Pi, or any other castaway story, really. But like Mark says at the end; he was never alone. His success and survival in this story hinged on the human tendency to help other people. Without thousands of people back on Earth working around the clock to save him, Mark would’ve never made it home. Without their unswerving determination that Mark Watney would not die alone on Mars, he would have. So yeah, this is an epic survival story. But the success belongs to the collective rather than one man whose life should’ve ended in a dust storm on a distant planet.

 

 

The Glass Spare by Lauren DeStefano

The Glass Spare by [DeStefano, Lauren]
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You’re wind. You’re everywhere 

Wilhelmina Heidle is a princess. She is the third spare child of the king of the wealthiest nation, and she will never inherit the throne. Wil is a force to be reckoned with. Her greatest weapon is her anonymity. Rumors have the princess of Arrod sailing the seas or attending boarding school, but in reality Wil has been training with her older brother Owen and venturing into the slums of the capital city to retrieve chemicals for her other brother Gerdie. Her father sends her into the city to spy on his enemies and one day she hopes he’ll send her into the world.

When a deal goes wrong, Wil earns her first kill, and realizes her terrible power; any living thing she touches turns to gemstone. Soon after, tragedy strikes her family and she gets her wish. Her father banishes her, tells her that she’s cursed and if she ever returns to Arrod, he’ll kill her himself.

DeStefano, as always is original. Even when she’s appropriating a myth, like King Midas, her characters and settings are unique. Wil is not your average angry teenage protagonist. She’s connected to her family and relatively happy, relatively willing to ignore blatant injustice in her own kingdom, trusting that things will get better for her. Loom is not a revolutionary. He’s a boy who saw what was wrong with the kingdom he was meant to inherit, and he wanted to change something. His trust that Wil will make the same choice is refreshing.

So many will see Wil in themselves. Those struck with impossible wanderlust will see themselves in her need to get out and experience the world. Those who struggle with their own minds will appreciate the clear metaphor Wil’s curse is. Wil is proud and stubborn and fierce. Despite her belief that she is a monster, and time and again she makes personal sacrifices that prove otherwise.

I honestly had a difficult time writing this review, because the writing is so pretty and the premise is so interesting. But it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of development and memorability. It’s clearly setting up for a sequel, but in the process, it leaves many of the characters feeling flat and unrelatable. I’m excited to see where the rest of this series goes, but I was a little disappointed by The Glass Spare.

 

 

 

And I Darken by Kiersten White

Souls are irreconcilable with thrones.

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Ladislav Dragwlya is the daughter of Wallachia. Her and her brother Radu have been given to the Ottoman Empire by their father as payment for his throne. As wards of the Sultan, they grow close to Mehmed, a young prince of the Empire. Mehmed is the bastard son of the Sultan, never meant to take the throne. Until one day his brothers are dead, and he’s the only son left. As Lada, Mehmed and Radu grow older, the brother and sister play key roles in his regime, serving as protectors and advisers. They both fall in love with the sultan.

 

This is a work of historical fiction based on the stories Vlad the Impaler, reimagined as a girl, Lada, and Mehmed the Conqueror. This is a reread. I thought I’d share my thoughts before reading the sequel (which I didn’t know was planned when I read this book the first time. Very exciting!)

Lada is mean. She’s aggressive and vicious and unapologetic. Lada spends the entire novel rebelling against her femininity and shying away from the wives and concubines of the harem. She refuses to be used as a tool by the men who she thinks control her (her father, Halil Pasha, the Sultan). She trains with the Janissaries, the military slaves of the Ottoman Empire, eventually becoming one and becoming the head of Mehmed’s personal guard.

Lada is uncompromising in her resolve. Her rise to any kind power is only made more significant. because it is in spite of the fact that she is a woman, constantly underestimated and undermined by the men of the Ottoman Empire. Even Mehmed, her closest friend and eventual love interest, tries constantly to control her and restrict her. During her time in the Ottoman Empire, she sees these people by the number of threads of power they hold and by who and what they can control. As a woman and a ward, she holds almost nothing. So she fights for what she wants and she seeks power where she can get it. Hers is not a Mary Sue story, but a story of struggling and fighting and taking what is hers

On top of the novel being feminist at its core, it also addresses other issues of the Ottoman Empire like imperialism and religion in ways that make the complexity of these issues clear. Lada has mixed feelings regarding religion, but she does recognize that it is a means to control people. It can be used as a justification (for the rampant imperialism that, for better or worse, made the Ottoman Empire what it was, for example) or a motivator for those who are willing to be used by religion. Radu uses it to find some comfort in this strange country; the first place he was ever shown any kindness in Edirne was when he wandered into the mosque with Kumal.

On the topic of imperialism, Mehmed believes he will conquer Constantinople. He thinks its his birthright as the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He doesn’t seem to understand that Constantinople is not his to take. And I’m not here for it. People will die so Mehmed can take what isn’t his, just like people have been dying for centuries to expand lines drawn in sand. This is the cause of two revolts by the Ottoman military against Mehmed. It pisses Lada off too, for a long time. After all, Wallachia is hers, not the Ottoman Empire’s, even though it is a vassal state. But it’s too easy for everyone to justify it on the grounds of keeping safe what is already theirs.

If we were not pushing, fighting, claiming what is ours and challenging what is not yet ours, others would be doing it to us…. They would come with fire, with disease, with swords and blood and death. Weakness is an irresistible lure.

It’s hard to write a historical fiction because where does the story start? Where does it end? What’s relevant to include? White does a good job of selecting important moments and leaving other moments out, but this is a monster of a book (in terms of length). I remember being around 60% through and thinking this would never end. Real life rarely has a plot, even historically, so sometimes its difficult to feel like we’re keeping on track, but again White does a stellar job. This novel was also unique in terms of the YA genre because of its complexity. It featured romance, politics and violence, but through the eyes of the children/teens/young adults (because we got to see Lada, Radu and Mehmed as children/teens/young adults) who were present and had to deal with these situations.

TL;DR

  • 5/5 would recommend
  • Looking forward to the sequel
  • Lada is no Mary Sue, she’s a magnificent, vicious beast
  • Relatable commentary on imperialism, politics, religion

 

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I think I might be a fiction.

 

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Aza Holmes is a young girl struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anxiety. She is consumed with a fear of contracting C. diff, a bacterial overgrowth most commonly developed in a hospital (which she hasn’t been to) and by people on antibiotics (which she’s not on).

Aza’s supporting cast consists of Daisy, who she’s been friends with forever, so she “gets it”, and occasionally Mychal, the artist who sits with them at lunch. When Richard Pickett, billionaire, goes missing (and a reward is offered), Daisy insists that Aza reconnect with his son Davis, who she met at “Sad Camp” years ago. So Daisy is trying to solve the mystery of where Pickett Sr. is, Davis is trying to keep his younger brother from falling apart over their missing farther, and Aza is trying to escape the ever-tightening spiral that is her mind.

I love John Green. I really do. And as I love John Green, I loved Turtles All the Way Down. But it is a John Green novel, complete with the same grievances and praises I sing every time he writes a new book.

It may not be the same book he always writes, but it features the same cast of characters. You’ve got your main character who is just looking for something more (Miles’ Great Perhaps, Colin’s eureka moment, Aza’s proof that she’s real), and the eccentric supporting cast member (Alaska, Hassan, Margo, and now Daisy). It even comes complete with the supporting actor’s strange fixation (Radar’s parents and the Black Santa, Gus’s parent’s Encouragements, and Tua, Richard Pickett’s tuatara). Thankfully, he’s abandoned his usual storymap for Turtles, and he’s done so very successfully.

This is easily the most mature of his novels. Green manages to flesh out so much material that shouldn’t work together into one novel. Mental illness is obviously the center piece here, but there are also characters dealing with loss, poverty, and wealth (and the challenges it brings). As usual, this book should be much heavier than it is, and that lightness is a function of Green’s writing. If any writer besides Green tried to tackle so much in one novel, it wouldn’t work. Somehow, he makes it all palatable.

Turtles All the Way Down reminded me of Perks of Being a Wallflower. They both feature a main character with a mental illness and a car ride late at night that spurs deep, existential thinking (Comparison: “But the world is also the stories we tell about it,” vs “This moment will just be another story someday.” “that just repeated, ‘you’re everything, everything, everything,’ and I felt like I was,” vs “I was really there. And that was enough to make me feel infinite.” Who wrote which?). Aza and Charlie both struggle to participate in real life and are pushed into it by there friends. If you’ve ever read/enjoyed Perks, I’m sure you’ll draw your own parallels, but it’s very easy to see where some of Green’s inspiration comes from.

Turtles raises some important points about being in a relationship (especially non-romantic) with someone who is suffering with a mental illness. They’re not necessarily going to get better, and even if they do get better, they will likely never be well. Being close to someone who is ill can be burdensome, but if they “get it” (the way Daisy is supposed to), that’s something they understand and signed up for. Daisy has no right to be as bitter as she is, and Aza is a much kinder person than I ever would be for forgiving her so easily. Aza could stand to learn a little from Daisy in the friend compartment, though. Aza is so busy struggling within her own head that she doesn’t have any time to worry about any one or anything else. It’s not something that she can help, but when she’s not spiraling, it would be nice of her to show some gratitude to the people who are there for her.

 

 

Winter by Marissa Meyer

This is the epic conclusion of The Lunar Chronicles. Will Cinder reclaim the Lunar Throne, her birthright? Will Kai ever marry Levana? Will Scarlet and Wolf ever see each other again? Will Cress ever stop being so damn clueless when she’s thinking about Carswell Thorne? Will everyone make it out of this adventure alive? Some things we do know: Kai has been kidnapped by Cinder and the crew of the Rampion. He’s now solidly on Cinder’s side. Scarlet has been taken in (as a pet) by Princess Winter. She is crazy-pants. Letumosis, a disease plaguing the Earthen Union, has mutated and can now infect Lunars. Luna is the only place able to manufacture the cure to letumosis. Levana isn’t just sadistic and cruel, she’s becoming unhinged. And it seems these days like it’s more of a matter of who can take who down first.

In Winter, Cinder is reassembling and redistributing her allies. In the resistance, everyone has a role to play. Rally enough sectors to overpower the thaumaturges, and Cinder wins. Convince enough Lunar citizens that Cinder is the lost princess Selene, and Cinder wins. Avoid run ins with Levana and stay alive long enough to take the throne from her, and Cinder wins. The hard part now will be hitting all of these goals.

Winter fell flat of my expectations, at least in quality of story-telling. It felt like a step backward in all the pacing and character development we’ve learned in the last 3 adventures we’ve taken together. I will admit, though, this book it much swoonier than any (maybe all of) the last books in the series. Cress and Thorne are my favorite. I’m a sucker for a good redemption arc. But I also imagine Kai to be the sweet and concerned, but also aware of a woman’s independence kind of man, and I dig that too. Wolf and Scarlet are so devoted to each other, and Jacin and Winter are definitely the star-crossed lovers we all hate to love.

I liked Princess Winter a lot; she’s kind and she’s broken. This makes her relatable in a way; though many non-fictional people don’t suffer with delusions like Princess Winter does, they do have to fight with the demons in their mind just to get through their days. What’s unique about Winter is that this mental anguish is self-imposed. It’s a result of the Lunar Sickness that develops when somebody with an active Lunar Gift doesn’t use it for long enough. It’s common in Lunars who are hiding on Earth, but why doesn’t the Princess use her gift when not using it causes her so much strife and pain?

 

Jacin has always guarded the Princess, both from threats others who would wish her harm and threats from herself. Jacin is her crutch; he gets her through her hallucinations and allows her to maintain her functionality. They also happen to be madly in love with each other, although they are from two different classes on Luna, which makes any relationship they may have entirely improper. Because that’ll stop them.

This book either needed to be shorter, or it needed to be two books. On the one hand, it had the feel of Harry Potter and the Endlessly Long Camping Trip. Cinder and her merry band of misfits were shuffling back and forth between the sectors and Artemisia and things weren’t really happening sometimes. But on the other hand. A lot of stuff happened. This is the first time we really had a chance to get to know Princess Winter. The entirety of Cinder/Selene’s rebellion happened in this book.

This is stupid, but I don’t care. I wanted them to spend more time on the dresses and the crowns. Selene is a queen, for goodness sake. Give me royalty. Give me regality. I’m with Iko; I’m here for the gowns.

Someone should take the time to explain those Sailor Moon references the Acknowledgements in these books keep alluding to. It’s not like I’ve never seen Sailor Moon, but I’m just not catching them. That’s not actual feedback, I’m just lost.

Cress by Marissa Meyer

Thorne has rescued the hacker locked in her satellite and they’ve crashlanded to Earth. While they’re making they’re way through the dessert, fighting for survival, Cinder is flying Wolf to Africa to find Dr. Erland and save Wolf’s life. Along the way they’ve gathered a guard who says his loyalty lies with his Princess, and they’ve lost Scarlet who was taken by Thaumaturge Sybil Mira. In the middle of all this, they’re still struggling to come up with a plan to stop the royal wedding, overthrow Levana, and put Cinder on the Lunar throne.

We finally get a glimpse of the brutality of the Lunar Court. Scarlet was taken, given as a toy to be tortured by some terrible Lunar boy, and brutally interrogated by Queen Levana. When the Queen was through with her, she gave Scarlet to her step-daughter who is slowly losing her mind.

Thorne is rightfully struggling with self-esteem. Cress worshipped him when she was on the satellite. One-by-one he debunked all of the heroic ideas she’s had about him, and doing so has really hit his ego. His honesty only seems to make Cress like him more. With his remorse, and his concern for Cress and the other members of his crew, he seems almost swoonworthy (instead of being a giant eyeroll as per usual).

The point of this book is assembling our Avengers. We’re getting all of the necessary pieces in the same place so we can put our big plan into action. We got rid of some dead weight, used knowledge from other characters to advance our cause, and now we’re ready for the big boss battle. Because of that, most of these plot lines are continuations without major development.

Marissa Meyer’s story writing ability continues to improve with every novel she puts out. Cinder’s finally turning into an interesting character. The pace of the novel makes more sense. She’s beginning to show us how important political events of the past are especially relevant to current events in the Earthen Union. Each of these books has continued to improve and I’m excited to read Winter next.