Book Review: Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

This book redefines heart-wrenching. Rarely do I get to read a book that packs so much emotional turmoil into a standalone story.

5/5 stars

cover black dove white raven

Goodreads Description

Emilia and Teo’s lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt pilot mothers were flying. Teo’s mother died immediately, but Em’s survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother’s wishes-in a place where he won’t be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adoptive son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat.

Seeking a home where her children won’t be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and each other be their downfall or their salvation?

In the tradition of her award-winning and bestselling Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein brings us another thrilling and deeply affecting novel that explores the bonds of friendship, the resilience of young pilots, and the strength of the human spirit.

My Review

Everything about this book is breathtaking. It’s hard to know where to start.

The characters are the most amazing part. I am head-over-heals in love with Emmy and Teo–they are the cutest and bravest sibling ever. Emmy is bold and daring socially, unafraid of standing out from the crowd or of standing up for those she loves. More reserved, Teo is constantly aware of the effects his race has on his life, but he still has a fierce determined streak. I completely understood each of their characters and my heart broke trying to keep them safe. I loved how they didn’t agree with each other 100%, but that they always stood by each other anyway. None of the motifs surrounding their relationship felt forced; they simply built upon a magnificent story to make it stronger.

Though I would categorize this book as YA, the characters start out very young. I loved watching them grow up; it was honest and believable. As teenagers, I could still recognize the kids that they used to be in their actions. I’m glad that there was never any romance between them–or anywhere in the story, for that matter-because it let their friendship take center stage.

Momma–Emmy’s mom and Teo’s adoptive mom–was a powerful characters as well. I usually don’t love parental characters in books because they get in the way, but Momma did the exact opposite: she enhanced the story. She’s trapped between conflicting loyalties and desires, but at the center of everything is her maternal need to protect her children. An American in a small Ethiopian village, with ties to both the Italian and Ethiopian governments, she was put in a position that had no right answer, but she somehow keeps her head above water. She is far from a perfect person, but she is the epitome of “making it work.” Rarely does an entire family get to be the protagonist of a book, but Wein did it perfectly.

The setting of this book is obviously the source of the most conflicts: Ethiopia on the verge of WWII. The conflicts surrounding the family’s ties to both Italy and Africa were emotional, and the scenes that involved mustard gas broke my heart. As historical fiction, BDWR does an incredible job of showcasing the struggles and horrors of Mussolini’s invasion, as well as all of the motivations involved.

As always with Wein, vintage planes play a major role in this story, and I loved every single scene that involved flying. The imagery was so vivid that I honestly felt like I was flying over Ethiopia with them.

However, the most emotional part of the book for me was its discussion of racism and sexism. Obviously, there was a prevalent discussion of racism, both in America and Africa. What killed me about this book was the catch 22 the siblings faced: they left America to save Teo from racism, but in Ethiopia, Emmy was constantly held back by the society’s sexism. I loved that Wein took the opportunity to make the book about more than the predictable racial conflicts and to highlight the heart-wrenching impossibility of living in a prejudice-less society in the late 1930s.

BDVR is a book that I honestly believe everyone should read. The writing is poetry, the story is powerful, and the characters are alive. This is the kind of book that sticks with you, the kind of book that your heart will always be scarred by. However, even with all the emotional turmoil, this book as a positive message of empowerment, and it left me with a smile on my face (and tears pouring down my cheeks).

Book Review: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

This book surprised me with its grown-up Harry Potter fantasy feeling and the social commentary it subtly worked into the gorgeous story.

4/5 stars

Release date: September 1, 2015

cover sorcerer to the crown

Amazon Description

The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

My Review

I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House at SDCC. This in no way affected my review.

 I was drawn to this book by the alternate historical setting. Just the name–The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers–made me want to read this story.

I was not disappointed. The historical setting was well-crafted and felt realistic, even with the addition of a hierarchy of magical men. Set in Britain during the Napoleonic times, the political landscape that Zacharias faced was the epitome of “rock and a hard place.” The situation Zacharias found himself in was believable and appropriately complex; it easily connected to the modern political dilemmas faced in the Middle East and around the world. There was no perfect solution, which added depth to the plot and separated it from the YA world (where I would have expected some magical “fix all” to appear).

I loved the fantasy portion of this book. The different levels and types of magicians are briefly described, but they aren’t important to the story. The parts of the world building that you need to understand are clearly laid out, and the rest of the details are left vague, masterfully giving the reader a sense of a complete universe without overloading their memory.

The magic itself is based on compiling and combining magical formulas. I liked the original concept of constructing spells in an almost arithmetic way, and I enjoyed the fact that different magicians would create the same effect with different formulas. I only wish that the mechanics behind the formulas had been explained a bit more; I wanted to understand the magic more, so that I could feel more connected to what the main characters were doing throughout the story. Familiars, sorcerers’ “pets” that provide them with magic, were a great addition to the story, adding both a sinister plot angle and a level of cuteness.

Sorcerer to the Crown is strong in the character department. Zacharias was a good protagonist: duty-driven, reserved, persevering, and clearly intelligent. I appreciated that he didn’t love his job as the Sorcerer Royal; he wasn’t motivated by a love for power or prestige. His down-to-earth scholarly nature made me love him, and provided a foil for Prunella, the female lead.

Prunella was great in her own way–definitely the most surprising part of this book. She is freaking ruthless. She isn’t evil, but she has a strong Machiavellian side. Her moral code–while existent–was focused on different things than normal protagonists. As I said, Prunella was never vicious or psychopathic, but she was willing to go to extreme lengths to have the life she wanted for herself and her loved ones. While she was focused on being a proper English lady and desperately wanted a husband, she also maintained a strong and rebellious side. Prunella shocked me at first (and never really stopped), but she was such a fresh and original personality for a love interest that I ended up loving her. I wouldn’t invite her to Girl’s Night, however.

Prunella’s magical ability was, of course, amazing, and I liked the dynamic it created with Zacharias. Both of them were powerful, though Zacharias had more classical training, while Prunella’s magic was more instinctual. I liked the subtle romance that grew between them. The only problem was that Prunella overshadowed Zacharias, and by the end of the book, she had eclipsed him to essentially take on the role of protagonist.

By far the most interesting part of the story was the discussion of racism and sexism. Zacharias was a slave boy raised by the former Sorcerer Royal as a son. He was freed when he was a young teenager and got the best training and upbringing money could buy, but white English society still viewed him as an outsider and a usurper. Continuing to break barriers, Zacharias takes in Prunella as his apprentice. In this society, women born with magical ability are trained to suppress it, so Zacharias bringing a woman into the most prestigious group of magicians in Britain is unheard of. (It’s kind of an Obama/Clinton situation, to be honest.) While the sexism and racism presented in this book are set hundreds of years ago, the discussion of these social issues remains applicable to society today. These subplots added well-needed depth and originality to the plot. I wish I had read this book sooner, because it would have easily made the top of my TTT list about diversity.

The plot of Sorcerer to the Crown is based mostly on a three-sided political disaster, tied into England’s mysterious decreasing amount of magic. There was nothing addictive or particularly gripping about the plot, but I never considered DNF-ing it. The story was always moving along, just not at any breakneck speed. There were numerous mysteries presented at the beginning of the book that built suspense throughout; the reveals they resulted in were surprising and worked together to create a satisfying climax. Fans of fast-paced fantasy books would probably be disappointed by this book, but people who prefer a complex and nuanced plot to action scenes should pick this book up. 

Sorcerer to the Crown felt underdeveloped for a standalone book–not quite enough happened plot-wise–but I don’t think there should be a second book. Everything was wrapped up very nicely, and if a second book were published, it would have to have an amazing plot description for me to ruin the happy ending that this book left me with.

Though this book is clearly not YA, fans of the YA genre could still enjoy it. (I certainly did.) I would recommend this book to fans of historical fantasies who value plots that explore societal issues over action-packed stories.

Book Review: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This book impressed me with the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of its social message, but I think I would have enjoyed the story more if I hadn’t read it in school.

4/5 stars

cover to kill a mockingbird

Amazon Description

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

My Review

Unlike everyone else who has recently read this book (or so it seems), I didn’t pick up To Kill A Mockingbird because of the announcement of Go Set a Watchman. I read it for school–10th grade Honors English–and it is easily my favorite book we’ve read this year.

It’s hard to talk about a book that is so popular, so influential, and so timeless. It feels strange to break it down as I do other books into plot, characters, themes, and writing style. But I’m not sure how else to talk about it, so here goes.

I loved Scout. I connected to her on many levels–she is an endearing child, her innocence and optimism make the book what it is today, and her simple rejection of Southern femininity speaks across decades to my feminist side. Rarely do I pick up books with young protagonists, mainly because I feel I’ve outgrown middle grade, and it was a pleasure to read a book whose themes were adult and whose plot pulled no punches, narrated by an elementary-school age child who made the whole book bearable. I feel like authors today don’t break the rules governing the relationship between the age of a protagonist and the content of the plot as often, and I wish they did. It is wonderful to read about young, innocent, energetic protagonists who get in fistfights and make up “haunted” houses.

And then there’s Atticus. He is amazing. Many people in my class had trouble with his somewhat distant relationship with his children, but I understood and loved it from the beginning. He couldn’t have been the lawyer or righteous character that he was if he was a super hands-on father, but that isn’t to say that he was a bad father. He was actually the best father that Jem and Scout could hope for–teaching them lessons so subtely that they followed them instead of rebelling against them. This, incidentally, also made sure that the reader didn’t want to strangle Atticus for being “preachy,” something I was afraid would happen if Harper Lee had not been such a gifted storyteller. Atticus’s relationship with guns was one of the most powerful parts of the book for me (and not just because it is where the title came from). The scene where he shoots the dog was one of the most dramatic and thought-provoking scenes in the book, and I know that in “X” amount of years it will be one of the moments that stays with me.

The rest of the characters in Maycomb were simple but alive. Though there are tons of side characters, each one of them is memorable and well characterized. Miss Maudie was one of my favorites; I loved the solidarity we got to see with Atticus and her sweet relationship with the children. Miss Stephanie Crawford and Aunt Alexandra drove me crazy, but in a good way–the story would not have been believable without their deeply Southern input. Jem and Dill, honestly, were some of my least favorite characters. I liked them, and they obviously contributed to the story, but their treatment of Scout bothered me, and I just never connected to them the way I did other characters. Calpurnia, on the other hand, was one of my favorites.

On to the plot of this book. It is a complex plot, not the kind of thing that can be described with any other term than “growing up.” The beginning’s focus on Boo Radely did a good job establishing a basis for Maycomb and Scout, though I preferred the scenes that focused more on Scout’s personal life than the Boo Radely “myth.”

Of course, the trial was the most powerful portion of the plot in terms of social commentary. I admire that Harper Lee didn’t shy away from making it a rape case, and that she was willing to make the truth of the case as “scandalous” as it would have been during the 30’s (when it is set) and also the 60’s (when it was published). Tom Robinson’s plight got to me, as well as the horrible position Mayella was in. The hatred I feel for Bob Ewell surprised even myself–I am extremely emotionally invested in this book. Atticus came into the spotlight and validated the hero-worship that comes his way. And Scout was simultaneously forced to grow up and strengthened by her youthful innocence.

The repercussions of the trial were important, but it was clear to me that the book was winding down. The attack scene, which I guess functions as a climax, felt like it was in the falling action portion of the plot, and ended up being lost a bit for me. Still, I loved that Harper Lee brought Boo Radley back, just to validate the beginning of the book and to show Scout’s growth. I was genuinely proud of Scout in the last pages of the book.

I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t read it in school. Not because of annotating it or of beating it to death with class discussions, but because of how slow we read it. The plot felt very disjointed as we read it, chapter by chapter, with shot breaks between sections of the plot. I’d like to reread it at some point, on my own time, to really absorb the story as a whole. I think the plot would seem more continuous, and I would enjoy the impact of the story more fully.