Caraval: Book Review

Caraval by Stephanie Garber published in 2017.

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“Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over. But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner. Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.”

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When people talk about Christmas magic, I doubt that they’re talking about the same kind of magic found in Caraval.

The main protagonist Scarlett lives on island Trisda with her little sister Donatella and their abusive father, who also happens to be the Governor of this small island. Scarlett has been writing letters to a man by the name of Legend, the leader of a spectacular called Caraval, a game that melds fiction and reality together with a winner that is granted a magical prize. After seven years of writing letters with no response, three invitations to Caraval arrive in the mail, one for each of the sisters and a special guest of their choice. Yet Scarlett is concerned with consequences of disobeying their father and leaving the island, so Donatella enlists the help of a charming sailor, Julian, into forcing her less adventurous sister into seeking the magic of Caraval. When Scarlett arrives with only Julian, she soon discovers that this game centers around finding a kidnapped player, who just happens to be Donatella. Scarlett goes about playing this mysterious game alongside Julian desperately trying to find her sister. The line between what is real and false becomes more blurred as the game continues, and the relationship between Julian and Scarlett grows more complicated.

I have a pretty equal amount of good and bad things to say about this novel, so I might as well get the bad stuff out of the way first and end this review on a good note. The writing style itself was not my favourite and it really affected how I absorbed the story. I kept comparing it to the likes of a fanfiction; granted not a poorly written fanfiction, but a fanfiction nonetheless. It was high on emotions but not as much on substance. Kind of immature at some points and overall simplistic (simplistic writing can sometimes be a good thing, but in this case, I wasn’t feeling it). From the little fantasy books that I’ve read, I know that there’s a lot more imagery involved than contemporary novels. I’m pleased to say that the imagery was handled well, not too overwhelming but really paints a picture in your mind.

Speaking of its fanfic-ish vibe, the budding romance between Scarlett and Julian was a bit too much for me to handle at some points. Granted, the book is much more than their romance, but the parts in which Scarlett is affected by Julian’s “charming good looks and dashing personality” grow very tiring very quickly for me and I found it quite unrealistic. A lot of damsel in distress vibes that I’m not really into. Even the characters individual personalities were not something that was very desirable in the first place. I mean, I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t necessarily love them either.

Now onto the good stuff. I really liked the entire concept of the Caraval, especially the whole idea of blurring the lines between reality and fiction. This is a very smart theme to incorporate into a story and must have taken the author a lot of planning and storyboarding in order for it all to even out and make sense in the end, so props to Garber on that. It made me feel very immersed in the story since as a reader I was just as clueless about the world as Scarlett was. It kept me on my toes and I appreciate that in a book.

The ending tied things up nicely, even though some scenes leading up to it were somewhat confusing. Although by the time I shut the book most of my major questions were answered yet an air of mystery remained around Caraval that leaves you wanting more. It had a solid cliffhanger that leads nicely to another book, which makes sense since it’s the sequel came out about a year and a half later.

I’m planning on expanding my reading repertoire into some more fantasy based novels, and I think this was a decent introduction to the genre. In regards to me reading the sequel and eventually the last novel in this trilogy, I probably will sometime in the future. It’s not high on my list, but I’ll most likely get to it eventually. I mean, who doesn’t love a good ol’ trilogy?

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Turtles All the Way Down: Book Review

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green published in 2018.

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“Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis. Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.”

Trigger warning JG

John Green, a 41-year-old man, never fails to perfectly embody a teenage girl and all her possible problems.

This book follows Aza, a high school student suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) while trying to navigate the already challenging life of a teenage girl. Things get more complicated when billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing and a hundred thousand dollar reward for information on his whereabouts is far too tempting to resist. Aza and her best friend Daisy try and get close to Davis, an old childhood friend who happens to be Russell’s son, in an attempt to solve this mystery. Yet when Aza develops a unique relationship with Davis, her motives start to change as her thoughts begin to spiral out of control.

As I mentioned above, the main character has OCD, which Green brilliantly portrays throughout the story. It’s a really good look into mental health for those who don’t understand what’s happening in someone else’s head, and furthermore even better for those who do have these feelings, as they can easily relate to Aza. Such common feelings that are too complicated to express for most are beautifully articulated in this book, which is such a relief for someone who experiences anxiety. I also recently learned that Green has lived with OCD for the majority of his life, and I think that he was successful in integrating his own emotions and thoughts into Aza.

Another note on mental health that I was really impressed that he included: the treatment side of it all. So much of popular culture focuses on the endless suffering of mental health that seemingly has no solution, but Green incorporates different ways someone can get treatment for their distress. The main character goes through therapy and struggles with taking her medication, and in the end, discovers that not all treatment out there suits everyone the same. He also paints a great picture of the healing process; it’s not linear but rather scattered and unpredictable, and how sometimes you’re not really getting better, but just not getting worse.

As much as I really liked Aza, I didn’t have the same feelings towards her friend Daisy. I understand her entire character was supposed to be comic relief with the sort of outlandish and quirky behaviour that Green is known for, but I found her rather annoying. On top of being annoying, she was also kind of rude and insensitive to Aza’s distress. I kept waiting for Aza to turn to her and say “I don’t need this kind of energy in my life, peace out Daisy”, but that never happened. Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but as someone with anxiety, Daisy is the last person I’d want to be around.

I did like Davis, and more specifically the relationship that Aza had with him. It was a unique kind of love, a solid mix of puppy love and something deeper that can’t be described. He was sensitive to her issues (unlike some people) but also forced her to step outside her comfort zone. As I’ve said many times in my reviews, I’m not a big fan of romance, but the love that Davis and Aza share is refreshing special.

It took a while for me to just sucked into the story, the first half was kind of lost on me. Though as it approached the climax I entered the realm of not being able to put it down. Green has a very distinct writing style that I do enjoy very much but is not my go-to favourite. So if you’re a John Green fan, you’ll definitely like this book. If you’re not a fan, some aspects of it may go over your head, but it’s overall a charming read.

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Surprise Me: Book Review

Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella published in 2018.

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“After ten years together, Sylvie and Dan have a comfortable home, fulfilling jobs, and beautiful twin girls, and they communicate so seamlessly they finish each other’s sentences. They have a happy marriage and believe they know everything there is to know about each other. Until it’s casually mentioned to them that they could be together for another sixty-eight years…and panic sets in. They decide to bring surprises into their marriage to keep it fresh and fun. But in their pursuit of Project Surprise Me—from unexpected gifts to restaurant dates to sexy photo shoots—mishaps arise, with disastrous and comical results. Gradually, surprises turn to shocking truths. And when a scandal from the past is uncovered, they begin to wonder if they ever really knew each other at all.

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This book stayed true to its name because it definitely surprised me.

The reader follows Sylvie as she navigates through her picture-perfect life with her husband Dan and two young children. This is until they get the news that they’re going to live for another sixty-eight years, which is a dauntingly long time to be married to one person. To fix this dilemma, Sylvie starts to implement a plan to regularly surprise her spouse, and he to do the same towards her. After one momentous surprise, her husband Dan starts to stray away from her, both physically and emotionally. The only logical explanation Sylvie can think of is that he’s having an affair with an old flame. It also doesn’t help that there’s tension between Dan and her parents, even though her father died in a car accident years before. Sylvie is convinced that Dan is jealous of the abundant charm and wealth that her father possessed. As the gap in their relationship grows, Sylvie is driven to discover a family secret that she did not see coming.

Unfortunately, this book did not start off on the right foot for me. I did not like the characters at the beginning, specifically the main character Sylvie. I found her annoying and spoiled, the kind of person I would try to avoid in my real life. I mean, what grown adult calls their parents “Mummy and Daddy”? (Is it a British thing?) Either way, I found myself raising my brows and rolling my eyes that Sylvie’s mentality for most of the novel.

So because the main character has all these qualities, it spills over into the actual narrative of the book, since it’s written from her perspective. The writing style sort of sounded like a thirty-something-year-old trying to sound younger while gossiping over a wine lunch. This sort of quirky-ness could be charming for a bit, but for me, it grew old quickly. Maybe I’m just not the target demographic though, which I can accept.

Now I do understand that the character was created to be imperfect for the sake of the plot, because (without spoiling anything) she goes through somewhat of an epiphany near the end when secrets are revealed. After this breakthrough, her personality does a 180 turn and it’s almost as if a new person is narrating our story. The character development in Sylvie was ideal because her eyes were opened to becoming the best version of herself that she can be, which, granted, wouldn’t be possible if she hadn’t started out annoying and spoiled. It’s just that it took almost three hundred and fifty pages for the secret to be revealed that caused her big change in attitude, and I was getting a bit impatient.

Regarding her father, Kinsella made it quite obvious that something was going to happen with him. There are countless times throughout the book that it’s mentioned, either in dialogue or Sylvie’s inner narrative, how absolutely spectacular, amazing, wonderful, beyond perfect he was. Every single positive adjective in the English language was used to describe Sylvie’s late father, so you don’t have to be a literary genius to know that Kinsella wasn’t being subtle when setting up a future plot point revolving around her father. That being said, she did throw some curveballs when the actual secrets were revealed, so that was a delightful way to shake up the story.

The last one hundred pages or so was definitely an improvement from the first three hundred, as I eluded to above with Sylvie’s character development. Not only did I warm up to the characters, but the theme became much more solidified. I quite enjoyed the theme of focusing on the present and it was delivered really well near the end. Kinsella wrapped up everything in this book nice and neatly.

Surprise Me tricks you into thinking it’s a quirky love story of a happy couple trying to spark up some excitement in their marriage. Problems slowly start to trickle in though, starting off with a light suspicion of infidelity, to something a bit more serious. Sadly, for me, it took too long for this build-up to go anywhere substantial. Even though the character development was well done, it didn’t make up for the lack of plot development until the end. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, summer read that will inspire you to live in the present (but also want to skip to the future of the book when the plot becomes relevant) consider picking up a copy of Surprise Me.

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