Black Iris by Leah Raeder

Black IrisBlack Iris by Leah Raeder
My rating: 5 of 5 teacups


Two girls, cherry-mouthed, glitter-lashed, our skin luminous with moonlight and sweat, making out beneath pennants that still shivered with the afternoon’s boy bravado.
If only you bastards could see me now.

You want to know the bad thing about this book? I must have spent hours trying to single out the quotes I wanted to use from all this BLOODY PERFECT writing. It’s like Leah Raeder thinks about every single word – simultaneously telling a story AND writing poetry. It’s after books like this that my words seem inadequate, but I have to review this somehow… I’ll try my best to do it justice.

For a start, this book is nothing like Unteachable; in fact, it’s just a completely different animal. The pretty writing style is still there, but this book is much darker, more painful and more, um… important, I guess. It’s nasty and there are no heroes and villains, just some majorly screwed up, complex and way too relatable characters.

I have gone on and on about the author’s writing in my review of Unteachable and in the little pre-review I wrote for this book, but I have to reiterate again that her books are nothing short of intoxicating. That’s the perfect word for it. You close the book after the last page and it’s like coming down from some kind of crazy high/blood rush. So I have to take that feeling and try to sum up in a few mediocre sentences what is so amazing about Black Iris.

Atmospheric. That was a word I used for her first novel and I’m going to bring it up again. Though this book spans many months (in non-linear form), I especially love the way Leah Raeder captures that late summer feeling: it’s still warm, not quite as bright, the days are fading into darkness earlier and the happy memories of summer are behind you. It’s my favourite time of year but it also carries something melancholy about it. In Unteachable, I thought this was shown perfectly in the heady descriptions of the carnival. In Black Iris, summer becomes even more of a metaphor. Laney tells us:


The whole summer was inside of us.

And then later:


Leaves drifted from a tree. Everything was coming undone, tearing itself into little piles of red and gold. The slow disintegration of summer. The slow disintegration of my body as she pushed my legs apart, exhaled against me. I closed my eyes.

This book turned out to be a lot of things I wasn’t expecting. It’s a suspense novel that looks at the dark depths of the human mind; it’s also a contemporary that explores mental illness, intense female friendhsips, being gay, and not quite being able to fit yourself under any sexual label; and it’s also a love story, woven with references to poets and philosophers. There was never a dull moment.

As with Maise in Unteachable, Ms Raeder has crafted yet another unconventional (HELL YEAH) narrator who takes drugs, sleeps around, is easy to dislike at times, and still earned my sympathy. I like it when the heroine is a bit of a villain. I wonder what that says about me.


Girls get under each other’s skin. We get too close, too attached, too crazy, and then we can’t let go. Our claws sink too deep. When we separate, we tear each other apart.

I think it’s fascinating the way the lines between friendship and love are blurred in Black Iris. When I was growing up, the few female friendships I had tended to be intense. I think a lot of girls experience this, especially as teenagers. We’re very touchy-feely, we trust each other with our secrets and desires and it’s like hell has been unleashed on earth when we fall out. It was interesting, exciting and captivating to watch the relationship dynamic between Laney and Blythe. And I think I was a little bit in love with the latter too.

I haven’t said too much about the plot because you can read what the blurb tells you and I want to avoid spoilers. Also, I’m starting to realise that LR’s books are the kind that you remember most because of the way they made you feel, so I will just say that this book made me feel sad, angry, worried, excited, breathless, intrigued and thankful. Thankful that there are NA writers like Leah Raeder.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn (The Wrath and the Dawn, #1)The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
My rating: 4 of 5 teacups


“Make sure they never forget. You are the Calipha of Khorasan, and you have the ear of a king.” She bent forward and lowered her voice. “And, most important, you are a fearsome thing to behold in your own right.”

My original plan was to finish this book tonight and then write up a review tomorrow, but after that ending, I just can’t stop thinking about it and I need to get my thoughts down right now. In short: I enjoyed this book very much. Way more than I expected to, to tell the truth. And I guess you should know that, though there are many elements of fantasy and action, it is primarily a romance. And yet…

It completely melted my cold, unromantic heart.

Where should I start? The Wrath and the Dawn was a deliciously angsty, sexy romance inspired by A Thousand and One Nights. If you know me, you know how often I complain about romances – either the guy’s a jerk, the girl’s annoying or they fall into some crazy instalove that just leaves me bored. Well, I finally found a romance where I just loved the characters, totally obsessed over what would happen, and finished the final page with a pounding heart.

My god, what has this book done to me?

This story is about Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, who takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. When Shahrzad’s friend becomes the Caliph’s victim, Shazi volunteers herself with a plan to outwit the evil ruler and exact revenge. In a similar way to Keturah and Lord Death, Shazi extends her date with death by telling Khalid a story and promising only to reveal what happens next if he should let her live another day.

As it turns out, of course, nothing is as it first seems and Khalid is hiding many secrets. The relationship between the two develops from seething hatred (on Shazi’s part) to reluctant companions to something much more. I’ve been craving a romance that feels genuine in its development and actually has me wondering how things will turn out (and, god help me, the jury’s still out on that last point). The dialogue between them is addictive and feels natural… and don’t you just love stories within stories?

Though I said this book is primarily a romance, there are many other things that need mentioning. There are some beautiful descriptions of the palace, for one thing, and a wonderful cast of secondary characters that all feel important to the story and not just throwaway. Jalal is charming and hilarious, Despina is a source of much-needed female friendship for Shazi, Yasmine is intriguing and bitchy (but kinda in a good way) and Tariq inspired a mixture of love/hate feelings in me.

Sure, it’s not a perfect book. I definitely think Shazi didn’t try so hard to get her revenge and missed a bunch of opportunities, and I was a little frustrated with how long it took Khalid to trust her with his secret. But, oh well.

If you’re partial to a bit of romance, then hear me out. A book which contains lines like the following and manages to make me swoon instead of rolling my eyes must be something kind of special:


“My soul sees its equal in you.”

and


“What are you doing to me, you plague of a girl?” he whispered.
“If I’m a plague, then you should keep your distance, unless you plan on being destroyed.” The weapons still in her grasp, she shoved against his chest.
“No.” His hands dropped to her waist. “Destroy me.”

God, I love the two of them. And I need book two.

5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

5 to 15 to 1 by Holly Bodger
My rating: 3 of 5 teacups

Seriously, this book. I don’t even know how to begin trying to describe how I feel about 5 to 1. Let’s look at all the great points. It’s a super quick read that I powered through in one sitting. It has so much girl power but ultimately imparts the message that everyone is a human being deserving of respect, regardless of gender or anything else. There is absolutely ZERO romance. That’s right… none. I really liked both Sudasa and Kiran. It’s full of very important issues relevant to both India and the rest of the world…

And yet, the world-building is sketchy, the society poorly-conceived and the ending so… meh.

I think, given the importance of the issues lying beneath this fictional story, the lens was too narrow. The entire book spans a few days and barely steps outside the world of the “Tests”. No wonderful glimpses into a culture so rarely seen in YA, no rich world-building. So many missed opportunities.

The plot begins in the year 2054. After gender selection and female infanticide (a very real problem in India) caused a gender imbalance of 5 to 1 and girls became the target of rapists, the women of Koyanagar decided they could build a better society on their own. They erected a wall around their city and established a matriarchal society in which boys must compete in the Tests for a wife. Men are also deemed unfit for law, politics and medicine; they’re only purpose in life is to father daughters.


“Boys are taught only useful things. Things that will help them serve the women in Koyanagar.”

What the author basically does is reverse gender roles and circumstances – something which had the potential to be fascinating and powerful. However, while the drama of the Tests is compelling, a closer look reveals that this book is built on a very loose premise that only manages to hold up the novel because we are shown such a small amount of this world.

For one thing, how were these women simply able to seize a city and name themselves the leaders? That’s like me just deciding one day that I want to build a wall around my home town, declare myself president, and everyone just being all “well, this sucks, but better do as she says”. Sadly, that will never happen. Also, we are told that boys are no longer trusted but never told why. I understand how great an idea it is to reverse the gender roles in India and make girls more desired and the boys disposable, but without the whys and hows, it’s just an interesting concept that never evolves into a believable story.

It seems like I’ve been very negative but I did enjoy this book. It was told from two POVs – Sudasa in free verse and Kiran in prose – and I really liked both characters. They were strong, pleasingly rebellious, and I sympathized with both their situations. Oddly, I actually wouldn’t have minded a romance between the two of them. Bloody typical. But the lack of romance was a pleasant change. I feel like many authors build up the characterization of their male and female MCs through their romance with each other, whereas Sudasa and Kiran were interesting in their own right.

The ending kind of drifts off and I thought it seemed like a bit of a cop-out, but part of me wonders if the author has deliberately left it open for a potential second book. The many problems aside, if that is the case, then I’d like to read it.

Blog Tour: Boring Girls by Sara Taylor

Boring GirlsBoring Girls by Sara Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 teacups


School’s out now. It’s time to go.
Scarlet blood on ivory snow.

When I was about thirteen and in school, this girl said to me in a voice dripping with sarcasm “Nice shoes. Did you get them from Aldi*?” Evidently implying that my shoes were cheap and tacky. Me being the socially clueless specimen I was back then, was totally confused. My shoes weren’t even cheap; they were similar to the kind of shoes every other girl was wearing. I honestly thought this girl was mistaken so I tried to explain “Er, do you mean you think they’re cheap? Um, no, they’re from River Island.” The girl looked at me like she’d just scraped me off her shoe and walked off with her friends, all of them rolling their eyes. They probably muttered something like “weirdo” as they walked away. I forget.

Later I understood my error – this conversation had never been about my shoes, it was a power struggle and I had lost. I felt humiliated that I hadn’t got it. That I hadn’t ignored her, or laughed in her face, or cleverly insulted her back.

This book is about a girl called Rachel who faces the humiliation of losing one power struggle after another. She desperately wants to prove herself but just ends up giving those against her the material they need to look down on her even more. She gradually lets her humiliation and pain turn into hate, rage and eventually revenge.

It’s a deeply unsettling novel because it stems from places and emotions many of us will recognise. It takes those familiar situations that inspired embarrassment, frustration and anger… and it gets darker and darker. Rachel is so many things. I felt sympathy for her, I hated her behaviour, I was disgusted by her, I wanted her to get where she needed to be, I wanted her to fail. Despite the title, the one thing Rachel isn’t is boring.

This book is a unique blend of Metal music, obsessive female friendships and mass murder. It stands on its own as a compelling story but it also fits in with a new breed of novels that do a twisted, sometimes feminist take on conventional thrillers. Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and Black Iris are some more that come to mind, and I find myself liking this little sub-genre very much. These are psychological thrillers that are almost more suited to the Contemporary genre – telling the tale of these women’s lives, thoughts, desires, insecurities and the madness lurking under the surface. Far more unsettling than the traditional thrillers, in my opinion.

From Rachel’s humiliating experience in school, to a guy she liked harshly rejecting her, to the sexist male musicians in the Metal world, we go on this journey with her. She’s twisted as fuck, totally unlikable, and yet… the psychological insight we get evokes sympathy for her. Love her or hate her, she’s a fascinating character. Being inside her mind makes it hard to put this book down.

I hope Ms Taylor writes more nasty goodness soon.


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Read the excerpt below or view as a PDF
   It seems like everyone I talk to wants to know two things. One is whether I’m a serial killer or a mass murderer. The way I understand it, a serial killer kills people over a length of time and doesn’t get caught for a while. A mass murderer does it all in one go and gets caught in the act. I’m going to have to leave it up to them to decide, because Fern and I did both, and I’m really not an expert.
   People like to label things.The news people need to know what to call us in the headlines.They need to figure out which names to list us beside when they’re categorizing killers. I’ve even heard the word “massacre” used to describe everything that happened at the end.We wanted it to be dramatic, but not because we wanted to make a big scene. It had to be dramatic so that no one would figure out what was happening until we were finished with it. We needed to have time. And we had definitely been thinking about it for ages, so I guess you could call it “premeditated.”
   The other thing they want to figure out is why. And I keep telling them and telling them. I’m always telling them the same thing. But they don’t believe me. My answer isn’t good enough. They want more.They want to be able to blame something else, and other people, and have a long, complicated chain of events that add up to who Fern and I ended up being so that they can reassure themselves it can’t happen to just anyone.
   Not just anyone can become a killer.That’s what they want to think. It takes special circumstances.Two young ladies from good homes cannot commit a massacre without something very evil and unusual happening, the fates aligning to produce this sort of thing.
   Well, they’re right, but it has nothing to do with my family. They keep asking me about my parents. Did my father hit me? Did my mother verbally abuse me? Did I have a creepy uncle who touched me? Did my father and mother touch me? No, I tell them. Over and over. And I’ll tell you now: my parents raised me well. I love them very much. And even though they aren’t too interested in talking to me right now, which I understand, I will always love them.They were always good to me and my sister. I had a nice childhood. And from what I know of Fern, she did too. And I keep telling them that, and they act like I didn’t answer the question.They always ask again.
   What about the music I listened to? The music I played? Hasn’t it always been easy to point the finger at that sort of thing? The music, the video games? Setting young people out of their minds onto killing rampages? The parents wringing their hands and blaming the vicious rock stars for warping the innocent? Running through their schools with semi-automatic weapons, gunning down nice people who listened to nice music? If you want to blame the music, it wouldn’t be hard. Fern and I like death metal. Dark, heavy, disgusting death metal. Filled with lyrics that a lot of people don’t like. Most of the people in these bands are guys. Angry-looking guys. And I mean, these bands have names that seem tailor-made to be blamed for a massacre: Deathbloat? Bloodvomit? Torn Bowel? And, of course, Die Every Death. I can’t leave them off the list. Lest we forget.
   So how easy is it to point at me and Fern and then slide that pointing finger to our CD collections? Really easy. I mean, let’s be real.Torn Bowel? I totally get why somebody’s mother wouldn’t like the sound of that. Too bad. They’re some of the nicest guys I know, and I’m sure they’ve been hounded by the press about me and Fern, and I feel bad about it. They didn’t kill anybody. As much as they might have written songs about murder, they never did it. I’m sure they’re facing a lot of questions now, simply because they’re our friends. They’ll have to explain the music to outraged activists and families and journalists and church folks and talk-show hosts.A lot of bands will. Ones we were friends with, ones we weren’t. I’m sad for that. It wasn’t their fault.
   I’m sure there are murderers in the world who listen to nice acoustic folk music or play the harp or something. Killing people isn’t exclusive to those of us who listen to Torn Bowel. People were murderers before there was recorded music. Before radios. Before running water.The whole thing is silly.
   You can’t blame music.You can blame me.
   And you can damn well blame the people who gave me the reason to do it.
   I tell them over and over again why we did it. It’s very simple. Maybe we should have dealt with it differently. Maybe we should have exercised forgiveness. But in my opinion, some things cannot be forgiven. Some people cannot be looked at with compassion. It’s kind of ironic, because the people judging me believe that I should have been compassionate, but they aren’t looking at me with any. Everyone is a hypo- crite. Everyone, deep within themselves, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, knows that there are things that they would not be able to forgive.
   Fern and I could not forgive. And the reason we murdered these people was very simple.
   It was for revenge.
***
ONE
   I have always lived in the same house in Keeleford. My family never moved, I never had to start all over again in a new school. I had that sort of idyllic childhood, growing up on a street with neighbours we knew. A nice community, you know. A normal youth. A good family.
   My parents didn’t have a ton of money. We have a small bungalow, with three bedrooms, on Shade Street. Next door was Mrs. Collins, who lived alone after her husband died. Across the street was an elderly couple. On the corner lived a family with a few kids younger than me and a dog that always chased us along its side of the backyard fence when we’d walk by. When I was five, my sister, Melissa, was born. There was a little store where Dad would take us to buy candies: red jelly feet, cinnamon-flavoured lips, black licorice sticks.There was a park nearby. Our schools were in walking distance.
   My father was a high school teacher, but he worked at a school in a neighbouring town, so luckily Melissa and I would never have to face the social awkwardness of having our dad in our high school.We did, however, have to face the awkwardness of having a father who taught English and always liked to hit us up with word games.
   He would sit at the dining room table, marking his papers, and I believe he liked to compare the intellect of his students with the intellect of his daughters, always raging to Mom about our superiority, of course.
   “Rachel,” he once said to me,“can you think of a word that rhymes with orange?”
   I thought for a minute, because when I was younger, I liked these games. I liked that my dad, a teacher, would come to me for my ideas. I liked thinking that I was smarter than the older kids in his classes. To this particular question, I answered “porridge.”
   “Okay,” Dad said. “Now make a ‘roses are red’ poem with orange and porridge.”
I thought for a few more minutes and then announced,
Roses are red, Violets are orange. Goldilocks ate
The three bears’ porridge.

“I love it!” my father said, beaming at me.“Creative. I’ve got fifteen-year-old kids in this class who couldn’t think of that. Marilyn,” he said to my mother,“your ten-year-old daughter is writing better poetry than my class is.”
Melissa got into it as well:
Roses are red, Violets are orange. When it rained, It was a storm.
   “Brilliant!” My father applauded. I knew that mine was better. Of course, Melissa was only five, I could concede that. But I believed that my father thought me to be a genius, and it inspired me to start writing poems and stories. I kept many journals, which I never showed my parents despite my desire for their praise. I believed my diaries to be full of secrets that were mine alone, regardless of the irrelevance of the events they recorded.
   But I always wrote them with the idea that someone would read them. I remember being in fifth grade and receiving my first diary as a birthday gift. It had a little lock on the outside that you could easily pick. I wanted to make a good impression on my phantom audience. I wanted my future readers to be intrigued by me, to marvel at how exciting a life I was leading, to be impressed by my intellect. If my family ever snooped, I wanted them to be surprised.
   So I started making things up. Spicing up my existence. I would casually mention how a police officer had asked for my help to solve a crime and how he had admired my detective skills. I would write about how I had fought off a kidnapper who was attempting to abduct a little kid and how the kid’s parents offered me a reward that I graciously declined. My diary became filled with so much fantasy, which was more interesting to me than the dull normality I actually existed in. My mother worked as a receptionist in a dental clinic, and she also loved art. When me and Melissa were babies, she created paintings for our rooms: watercolour scenes, flowers, portraits of us. Her stuff was all around the house, really. And her shelves were packed with books on art history. Big heavy books with thick glossy pages filled with paintings. Those books were really something special to me, almost magical.
   I remember looking through the books with her, always focusing on the art with children. She’d talk to me about the paintings and the artists, pointing out the colours they used and why they worked well together, complementary colours — you could make blue look brighter by putting orange next to it, things like that. I didn’t really absorb much colour theory, but it was fun that Mom would do crayon drawings with us and let us use her fancy grown-up paints too. I didn’t know any other kids with moms who would do that.
Some of the pictures in the art books were pretty frightening to me when I was little. She’d skip by sections of the book to avoid them, but I’d see quick flashes: Christ being crucified, his haunted eyes and bloody hands. I didn’t like that.
   One afternoon when I was about twelve, I was looking through one of her books by myself and I flipped to a page and froze.
   The painting was of two women. One wore a blue dress and one wore a red dress. They had pinned a very large man down on a mattress and were obviously struggling with him, and winning. The woman in blue was cutting the man’s neck with a sword, and blood was spilling onto the bed.
   I was transfixed. The women looked so calm, so focused. They were working together on this. The title of the painting was Judith Slaying Holofernes. I called my mother into the room.
   “Mom, what’s this painting about?”
   She looked at it thoughtfully. “I believe Holofernes was a cruel war captain, and Judith is the woman who was sent to kill him to save her village.You know, the artist of this painting is a woman. She’s remembered as sort of a feminist artist who did some very important things for women in her time.”
   “Who’s the other girl?”
   “Judith’s maid, I think.” My mother turned the page, and there was another painting, where Judith and her maid carried a suspiciously shaped bag. “Yes, it says here, Judith and her Maidservant.”
   “They have his head in that bag,” I said.
   “You know, Rachel, I don’t really like these paintings,” my mother said.“Don’t you think that they’re very violent?”
   “But the girls are friends. And they killed him for a good reason.”
   “Yes, they did,” my mother said. “But I think it would be nice for you to look at some other paintings in this book.That picture is very sad, and I think it’s nice to look at good things to make ourselves happier. It’s more inspiring.”
   In bed that night, I kept thinking about Judith and her friend killing the war captain, against all odds. I didn’t see how my mother couldn’t find that inspiring. I wanted a friend like that. I wanted an ally, someone to have a secret with, someone I knew I could rely on, someone I could trust with my very life if I needed to.
So with our father praising our intellect and my mother encouraging creativity, Melissa and I really did grow up happily. I got good marks in school, especially in art and writing classes, and I had a few good friends.
I was not overtly social. I preferred to read or draw or write in my free time, but I went to the birthday parties and was in the school play in some minor role. I enjoyed all those things, but what I really wanted to do was be creative on my own.And my parents always supported that.
   Once I reached high school, like pretty much every human being on the face of the earth, I stopped caring so much about what my family thought of me. My dad’s cute word games became annoying, but Melissa still played with him, so I was luckily exempt. I didn’t care so much for my mother’s paintings, seeing as how I can only get so excited over a watercolour sparrow. And then I discovered metal.

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The complete list of tour stops:
Review and Giveaway, A Dream Within A Dream, http://adreamwithindream.blogspot.ca/, April 1, 2015
Review and Excerpt (Ch. 1), The Book Geek, http://thebookgeek.co.uk/, April 3, 2015
Review, Excerpt (Ch. 2) and Giveaway, Bookish, http://evie-bookish.blogspot.ca/, April 5, 2015
Review, The Book Tales, http://thebooktales.com, April 6, 2015
Review and Excerpt (Ch. 3), Book Bug, https://bookbug2012.wordpress.com/, April 7, 2015
Review, Giveaway, and Metal Playlist for the Book, SteffMetal, http://steffmetal.com, April 8, 2015
Review, What Is Much, http://whatismuch.com/, April 9, 2015
Review and Giveaway, MetalHeadBlog, http://metalheadblog.com, April 10, 2015
Review and Giveaway, Nimrod Street, http://nimrodstreet.com, April 11, 2015
Review, Svetlana’s Reads and Views, http://sveta-randomblog.blogspot.ca/, April 12, 2015
Review, The Book Stylist, https://thebookstylist.wordpress.com, April 13, 2015
Guest Post, Dear Teen Me, http://dearteenme.com, April 14, 2015
For more information about the blog tour, visit: http://ecwpress.com/boringgirls-blogtour