Blog Tour: By a Charm and a Curse by Jaime Questell

Book Review: By a Charm and a Curse by Jaime Questell

By a Charm and a Curse
by Jaime Questell
Goodreads | Amazon
Series: no
Published: February 6th 2018
Rating: Charming

Entangled: Teen gave me an ARC copy of A Charm and  Curse through NetGalley.  This review is honest and reflects my true feelings about the book. 

Anyhow... I wasn't expecting that.  Probably because I read "carnival" and say the cover and that was all that it took to convince me to read it.  Sometimes I am that easy.  By a Charm and  Curse is the story of Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic, a boy who works it and a girl who is pulled into it told in alternating first-person chapters. The blurb gives more away, but I am not going to say more because I would like this to remain as spoiler free as possible.

Emmaline spends the first third of the book in shock so it took me awhile to warm up to her.  She has a fairly difficult moral dilemma. Either she is stuck with the curse forever or she has to pass it along to some unsuspecting undeserving soul. It takes her awhile to overcome her natural passivity to search for a solution.

Benjamin works at Carnival Fantastic but has a long-term plan to leave it for "the real world". He is adorable and sweet and I am so glad that he didn't have to be the dark and broody misunderstood bad boy to be the hero.

Have I ever actually been to a carnival?  Reading this book, I have been thinking about it, and aside from a visit to the County Fair in high school and the Christmas Markets in Germany, I am pretty sure that my life has been carnival free. Is it different than a circus? Is the carnival just the traveling rides and rigged games? Or am I thinking about sideshows? An even better question: Is there a portrayal of a carnival in books or cinema in which the carnival isn't supernaturally creepy?  

As a "Circus Book" By a Charm and a Curse almost inevitably going to be compared to other YA books on similar themes. This book is not as immediate or modern feeling as That Time I Joined the Circus. The carnival in this book feels as if it exists in this weird timeless limbo where it is eternally 1919. The writing isn't as lush and visual as The Night Circus.  While I love The Night Circus, I found that the more straightforward and less lyrical writing is appropriate to this story.  The plot and characterization are far stronger that Caraval but the writing is less visual. 

A carnival is a sad and desolate place on a weekday morning. No matter how brightly painted the stalls and booths are, no matter how loud the music..., it’s still an empty carnival. It’s veins withough blood. It’s lungs without air.

The carnival is the perfect metaphor for one's attempt to escape a problem rather than staying and trying to work it out. Both Benjamin and Emmaline start the book intending to escape their current lives. Emma is contemplating leaving her small town existence them minute she graduates and Ben has been tinkering with a broken down car for months with his best friend in order to leave Carnival Fantastic for "the real world." The carnival is their desire to escape made physical and figuring out how to escape it means figuring out how to face problems rather than run from them.

It is written in third person present tense. This makes the action of the story both more intimate and the books outcome more uncertain. When a book is written in past tense there is always the comfort that if the main character doesn't survive of course there wouldn't be a book (we have all been burned by this assumption at one time or another). With the present tense, you don't have this subconscious assurance which heightens the reading tension. 

The carnival setting might feel timeless, but the cast of characters in the book was fresh and diverse.  The main characters were white (pretty sure) and straight, but there is no set default for the people around them.  

While the writing itself wasn't standout for me one of the best parts of this book was how uncertain I was about what was going to happen in the story.  More than once I was genuinely surprised.  Since I read a lot (a whole lot) I have internalized enough tropes so this doesn't happen often. Particularly with YA genre. Well done, Jaime Questell! 

I would recommend this book to anyone who is attracted to books set in a circus/carnival.  Those who like a bit of fantasy and something of a fairytale atmosphere will also enjoy it.

By a Charm and a Curse by Jaime Questell

From Goodreads:

blurbLe Grand’s Carnival Fantastic isn’t like other traveling circuses. It’s bound by a charm, held together by a centuries-old curse, that protects its members from ever growing older or getting hurt. Emmaline King is drawn to the circus like a moth to a flame…and unwittingly recruited into its folds by a mysterious teen boy whose kiss is as cold as ice.

Forced to travel through Texas as the new Girl in the Box, Emmaline is completely trapped. Breaking the curse seems like her only chance at freedom, but with no curse, there’s no charm, either—dooming everyone who calls the Carnival Fantastic home. Including the boy she’s afraid she’s falling for. 

Everything—including his life—could end with just one kiss.

Book Review: American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda
by Gloria Chao
Goodreads | Amazon
Series: no
Published: February 6th 2018
Rating: Hao

American Panda is yet another book on my most anticipated of 2018 list. It is the story of seventeen year old Mei who is starting her first year at MIT while still under the strick rule of her very traditional Taiwanese family. This is an #ownvoices book and yes, I read it in one sitting.

I was surprised by this book.  I expected it to be a very light coming of age with a bit of romance thrown in because, you know, that's always fun.  In the end it was the story of a girl trying to figure out who she is and how that affects her relationship with her mother. This is one of the best mother/daughter relationship books that I have read in a long time.

I really liked Mei. She was super relateable. Or at least she was for me. I am a sucker for an introvert reader with a hidden snarky side. She is ackward and shy and never quite sure where she fits in.  I teach at an international school in China and I know that this book will resonate with many of my students who are stradling multiple worlds. 

There is a "child of immigrant in America" aspect of the book which I am not familiar with.  This is the fourth book in a row about children of Asian immigrants where the family pressure is almost a seperate character.  It is something that interests me because I have never felt that pressure.  Even if there had been pressure I was culturally able to shrug it off and go my own way without cosequenses. I love when you read a book with a character who has grown up in a completely different enviroment from you and yet you connect with them as if you could be long lost friends.

Before, I had blamed my culture, but that wasn’t the problem. It was so much more complicated than that. It was a clashing of personalities and interpretations of cultures.

The seconary characters are very well fleshed out and developed. 
Mei's mother is alternatively hilarious, enraging, and terrifying. I feel as if I met her.  And also that she isn't very impressed with me or my life choices. Darren was a nice love interest. He has his own things going on but also seems to genuinely enjoy all of Mei's quirks. That being said my favorite part of their relationship was the fact that he is just a bonus.  He might be a catalyst for change in her life but she doesn't need him. Mei's older brother Xing was admirable in his determination to be true to what he wanted and needed from life. 

There is a bunch of Mandarin (pinyun not characters) sprinkled throughout the book and most of it you sort of have to infer the mean from the context of the sentence.  I like when books do this. If you are not part of the Taiwanese culture you can look up the words easily enough and if you are it is like a secret handshake with the author.  

This is Gloria Chao's first novel and I hope not her last.  Her warm sense of humor and unique voice are a great addition to the YA book world. I will be on the lookout for what she does next.

From Goodreads:

An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents' master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can't bring herself to tell them the truth--that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

Book Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

The Dangerous Art of Blending In
by Angelo Surmelis
Goodreads | Amazon | Audible
Series: no
Published: January 30th 2018
Rating: it hurts to read but can't stop

So. Many. Feels. The Dangerous Art of Blending In is the #ownvoices telling of Evan Panos a seventeen-year-old Greek American living under the specter of horrific family abuse complicated by the fact that he is gay and fears what will happen if the world, or more specifically, his mother finds out. Yeah, you are going to ugly cry.  Accept it as the gift that it is. 

This book was well written.  I stopped and reread in a couple of places because the phrasing was so beautiful and touching.  The plot and conflict were character based which I love but can feel a bit meandering. The Dangerous Art of Blending In was fast paced. It was made up of intense emotional beats so when I try to summarize "what happened" in my head, the plot is a bit hard to pin down.  I'm okay with that.  The characterization was well done. It is easy to become fully invested in them. In the back of my mind, I was trying to come up with a plan to get Evan out of his home situation the entire time I was reading.  Actually, the back of my mind is still doing that. 

Mostly, I’m scrambling to do different things to please different people. I wonder what would happen if I only spent time doing what interested me.

In some ways, Evan remains a mystery even to himself throughout the book.  This seems deliberate. So much of how he identifies himself (Greek, Christian, straight, perfect son) are merely costumes that he has been forced to put on to survive. The things that he loves, such as art, writing, and Henry are the very things that put him most in danger. The more he learns who he is the more he risks become a target. That he still dreams is amazing.  That he survives and does become his true self is a miracle.

This is an #ownvoices book, so the rep for Greek Americans, abuse survivors, and being gay are legit.  Evan does have sex which made me realize that I haven't read many YA LGBTQIA books where the MC do have sex and even fewer where the sex is a positive experience.   I was especially touched be the "morning after" scene.  I was going to say that the sex isn't graphic. But then I wonder if I would have felt the need to say that with a straight couple in a YA book and if I don't there why would I here? On the other hand, the scene is very delicately and masterfully handled, and that deserves kudos. 

This isn't a happy book. The abuse is described in graphic but not sensationalist detail and was hard to read. I spent a good portion of the book in tears. And yet it is also hopeful?  How does that even work?  I internally pulled for Even from the first page to the last. However bad his situation becomes hope is never out of reach. This book isn't cynical and is all the better for that. This book is recommended for readers looking for a hard-hitting emotional journey.

From Goodreads:

Seventeen-year-old Evan Panos doesn’t know where he fits in. His strict Greek mother refuses to see him as anything but a disappointment. His quiet, workaholic father is a staunch believer in avoiding any kind of conflict. And his best friend Henry has somehow become distractingly attractive over the summer. 

Tired, isolated, scared—Evan’s only escape is drawing in an abandoned church that feels as lonely as he is. And, yes, he kissed one guy over the summer. But it’s his best friend Henry who’s now proving to be irresistible. It’s Henry who suddenly seems interested in being more than friends. And it’s Henry who makes him believe that he’s more than his mother’s harsh words and terrifying abuse. But as things with Henry heat up, and his mother’s abuse escalates, Evan has to decide how to find his voice in a world where he has survived so long by avoiding attention at all costs.