Just like last month, a theme seemed to emerge as a common thread in all the books I read this month, and it was quite apropropriate considering this was the month of Cupid’s birthday. (I just threw two The Office references into one sentence, and for that I am not sorry.)
All the books I read in February had something to do with love. Yeah, that’s vague, because you could argue that every story on a cosmic level is actually about some form of love, but just go with it, OK?
February reads included two for my 2019 Reading Challenge, four other new books (including two ARCs, and one of which I got to meet the author! Exciting!), and three rereads.
1. Pride, Ibi Zoboi
Reading Challenge: A contemporary YA novel (because I already read tons of genre YA)
I absolutely loved this book, though I may have had some preliminary bias given its source material. Pride is a retelling of Pride & Prejudice, set in modern-day Brooklyn and featuring Zuri Benitez, an Afro-Latina teenager, as our Elizabeth Bennet character.
Zoboi is incredible at evoking setting; the Brooklyn neighborhood where Zuri lives, in a tiny apartment with her parents and four sisters, feels like another character in the story. Just like the town of Meryton in P&P, everyone in the neighborhood knows all about everyone else’s business, and gossip and chatter abound when a wealthy new family and their two teenage sons, the Darcys, move in to the newly-renovated house across the street from the Benitezes’ apartment building.
Much like Pride & Prejudice, Pride explores issues of class and economic disparity through the clash between its heroine and a seemingly snobbish young man. Pride also delves in to the debate surrounding the gentrification of historically lower-income and minority neighborhoods in a really interesting way, subtly showing two sides to an argument that is beyond the complexity often found in writing aimed at teenagers. (But side note: teenagers are far wiser and able to grasp these complex concepts than they are often given credit for, so kudos to Zoboi for that.)
My favorite thing about the book was definitely Zuri. She is such a perfect modern manifestation of the spirit of Lizzie Bennet. She is flawed and vulnerable and strong and confident and loving. Zuri is 17, so she is several years younger than Elizabeth’s 21 in Pride & Prejudice, and she is a believable 17-year-old. She makes teenager mistakes and shows a greater level of naiveté than her counterpart.
The one thing that prevented me from giving the book a full five stars was actually the love story. I liked Darius, the Mr. Darcy counterpart, just fine, and I liked him and Zuri together for the most part. But I wished that they hadn’t so unquestionably ended up together at the end, if there was going to be a romance at all; I wished it had been left a little more ambiguous.
I understand that to be true to Pride & Prejudice, there needed to be at least a little romance. But Pride & Prejudice is a romance almost out of necessity; what it’s truly about is a young woman choosing to forge her own path despite the expectations of her family and society. She chooses marriage in the end, because that is the only realistic way that the story could end happily in the early 19th century, but it is marriage on her own terms.
In Pride, however, there is no societal or cultural reason at all for Zuri to have to choose to be with Darius. It’s the 21st century, she’s planning to go to college and work and provide for herself as an adult, and she is 17 years old. So I wished that even if there was a romance, that it would have been left open-ended whether or not they actually end up together, but they say to each other that they will be together forever. But maybe this goes back to her being a realistic 17-year-old. At 17, your romance may feel like it is forever, even when it’s usually not.
Overall, though, Pride was a delight. I think Jane Austen would approve.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
2. Battle Royale, Koushun Takami
Reading Challenge: A book in translation (Japanese)
I chose this as my book in translation partly because I have been curious about it for a long time, and also partly because I was preparing and researching for the Hunger Games episode of my podcast, and Battle Royale has a very close and tumultuous relationship with The Hunger Games. It was virtually impossible not to compare the two when I first started reading, but as I got deeper into the story, the differences started to emerge.
From the back cover:
Koushun Takami’s notorious high-octane thriller envisions a nightmare scenario: a class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill until only one survivor is left standing. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan–where it became a runaway best seller–Battle Royale is a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world.
While The Hunger Games tends to keep its violence at arm’s-length, critics of Battle Royale have noted its disturbing violence and bloodiness, graphic descriptions of carnage, and nonstop action. It’s hard to discern any deeper “meaning” in Battle Royale, perhaps other than how easily humans can slip into inhumanity when given the right push.
I never found the violent murders entertaining. At first, the violence and graphic descriptions were shocking to me. But after awhile these gratuitous scenes started to take on a numbing quality, as if I became desensitized to the inhumanity and gore. And maybe that was part of the meaning, a meta-experiment in how easily graphic violence becomes mundane after frequent exposure.
The fast-moving action in Battle Royale made it a quick read, despite its 600-page length. I can’t say that I really had a lot to think about when I finished, though.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Other New Reads:
3. The Wrythe and the Reckoning, Yvonthia Leland
I posted a review of this ARC previously, which you can read here.
4. Cruel Beauty, Rosamund Hodge
I had the privilege of meeting Rosamund Hodge at Doxacon Seattle a couple of weeks ago and having her sign my copy of this book, which I also purchased at the con. She was super nice and we had a short but interesting conversation about S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass (the sequel to which came out recently but I’ve yet to pick up!).
I loved the direction Hodge chose for this fairy tale. I’m a sucker for a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling and this one did not disappoint. The world is reminiscent of maybe 17th or 18th century Western Europe, but with deeply rooted influence from Greek and Roman, as well as maybe Germanic or Anglo-Saxon/Celtic folk mythology. It’s an interesting mix, and serves the story well I think.
The main thing I love about the “Beauty and the Beast” tale is that each element can be interpreted in so many different ways while retaining that recognizable story. Retellings can explore the themes of the old, primeval stories, or even infuse them with new themes, in a way that inventing an entirely new story cannot.
To me, “Beauty and the Beast” is about transformation, of the obvious, physical kind, of course, but also of the heart, mind, and soul; it is about redemption and forgiveness, and also beauty and love. I’ve always seen it as a very spiritual story, and maybe in part because of Hodge’s Catholic faith, I see that spirituality reflected beautifully in Cruel Beauty, much more so than I’ve seen in other “Beauty and the Beast” retellings I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them! More on that in a later post, maybe…).
This definitely goes on my list of favorite fairy tale novels!
Rating: 4 out of 5
5. The Wicked King, Holly Black
This is Black’s follow-up to last year’s The Cruel Prince, which I definitely read, but did not remember a lot about before diving in to the sequel. The things I remembered while reading The Wicked King were:
- “oh, yeah, I hate this guy,”
- “I thought I liked this girl, but now I’m not so sure,” and
- “how did Holly Black make me care so much about characters I don’t like?”
Black is one of the best in the YA world at writing deep and complex, yet fast-paced fantasy novels about compelling human characters thrown into the world of the Fae. In Black’s novels, fairies can be pretty mean and mysterious, but they’re a little more “human” than the Fae in Under the Pendulum Sun, for example. I’ve also read her The Darkest Part of the Forest and really enjoyed it.
I don’t know if I can adequately express how I felt about these two books, and The Wicked King in particular. On the one hand, I flew through it, reading almost the entire book in one morning, so clearly I enjoyed it. But on the other, I came away with such a weird feeling about the overall story that I don’t really know how to describe. Maybe it goes back to the characters being unlikable; the two protagonists (well, sometimes the protagonist and antagonist; it’s sketchy) do terrible things throughout, and yet, I want them to succeed? And that makes me feel weird?
It’s definitely a testament to Black’s talent that she pulls this off, and I’ll definitely read book three when it comes out next year.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
6. Loving My Actual Neighbor, Alexandra Kuykendall
I posted a review of this ARC previously, which you can read here.
Catching Fire and Mockingjay, both by Suzanne Collins (in preparation for the February episode of Pop DNA)
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare (because it’s never not a good time to reread Shakespeare)
I think my favorite reads for the month were the books that retold favorite old stories: Pride and Cruel Beauty. Both stayed true to the spirit of the original stories while adding something new and significant in the retelling. I’m looking forward to reading more from both authors!