ARC REVIEW: The Dollmaker Of Krakow – by R.M. Romero

Title: The Dollmaker Of Krakow
Author: R.M. Romero

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
First published: September 12th 2017
Publisher: Delacorte Books For Young Readers
Finished reading: September 13th 2017
Pages: 336

“You can destroy a person, Karolina, but destroying their story is far more difficult. No one is ever really lost as long as their story still exists.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and Delacorte Books For Young Readers in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I was drawn to this book as soon as I saw the stunning cover, and when I found out it was a story set during WWII I was sold. I know I don’t read a lot of middle grade novels, but I do like to mix things up a bit every once in a while and this sounded like the perfect book to do so. The Dollmaker Of Krakow has been compared to The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (one of my all time favorites) and not only has a stunning cover, but also a wonderful story. This middle grade story is not just another historical fiction read with a WWII setting. With The Dollmaker Of Krakow, R.M. Romero has created a truly unique story that is a perfectly balanced mix of historical facts and fantasy with a touch of magical realism and a fairytale-like feel. There is magic, there are talking dolls brought to life, but there is also the brutal reality of the war and what the Germans were doing to the Jews during that period. Innocence is mixed with a somber reality in a way that is truly moving and very beautifully crafted. It’s hard to properly label this story, but there is no doubt about the originality and uniqueness of The Dollmaker Of Krakow. I would recommend this story for the ages of ten and up due to the sensitive historical elements (holocaust references) included, but I am positive they will be completely charmed by this fairytale-like mix of fantasy and reality. The writing style reads like a dream and I really liked the contrast between Karolina’s world and the real one. The characters are also well developed and used perfectly to demostrate the situation of both Jews and the people close to them during the war. It will definitely help make the younger readers reflect in an innocent way and leave breadcrumbs of information that will stay with them without the story feeling like a history lesson. All in all definitely recommended!

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Karolina used to live in the Land of the Dolls as a seamstress, happy to work for her king and queen, but one day they are overthrown by Rats and the dolls are no longer safe. A strange wind spirits her away from her home and suddenly she finds herself in Krakow… Right in the middle of the shop of the Dollmaker, a man with an unusual power he didn’t know he had. They will soon find out they benefit mutually from their company, and they  even make new friends with a violin-playing father and his daughter. But the Nazi soldiers come to Krakow and Karolina and the Dollmaker soon realize their new Jewish friends are in danger…

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I was sold as soon as I saw the cover and blurb, and there is no doubt that the writing is just as beautiful as the stunning cover. The Dollmaker Of Krakow is a truly unique story that mixes historical events with a fairytale-like fantasy world and sometimes feels a lot like magical realism. This innocent way of approaching the holocaust is a truly fascinating angle and very well executed; the fantasy elements only add to the overal originality of the story.


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BOOK REVIEW: Anna And The Swallow Man – by Gavriel Savit

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Title: Anna And The Swallow Man
Author: Gavriel Savit
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction
First published: January 26th 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Finished reading: August 25th 2016
Pages: 240
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“Because,” said the swallow man. “A friend is not someone to whom you give the things you need when the world is at war. A friend is someone to whom you give the things that you need when the world is at peace.”

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Ok, here’s the thing: I normally love historical fiction and I have a special interest in WWII stories. As soon as I heard about this novel by Gavriel Savit, I just knew I had to add it to my wishlist. Unfortunately Anna And The Swallow Man didn’t seem to convince me and I honestly struggled to finish it. The idea behind this story is interesting and I liked both the linguistic references and how languages were described; they really woke the inner philologist nerd in me. That said, I found that the tone was all off and I didn’t like the prose itself. It just didn’t seem to fit the middle grade target at all… I also wasn’t convinced by the magical realism elements in Anna And The Swallow Man. I guess this ones just one of those cases were magical realism just didn’t do it for me and I don’t think the target group would be able to fully understand its meaning either. In short, while the linguistic and historical references were interesting enough, the prose and surreal elements made me enjoy this story a lot less.

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Anna Lania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father in 1939 during the purge of intellectuals in Poland. Her father is a linguistics professor and has a gift for languages: he can speak many languages fluently and Anna has been a willing student. Now he is taken away, Anna is left alone. She then meets the Swallow Man. He is a complete mystery… A strange and tall man, a skilled deceiver and a language expert not unlike her father. Anna knows he is in danger of being taken as well, but the Swallow Man seems to have some tricks up his sleeve. Because when German soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see. Anna is entranced, and decides to follow the him into the wilderness.  And they encounter all kind of dangers during their travels together…

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I was really looking forward to this read, but unfortunately it mostly turned out to be a disappointment. I guess that one of the dangers of reading a story with magical realism elements is that it can go both ways, and in the case of Anna And The Swallow Man it just didn’t work for me. And while I liked some of the other elements, I’m not sure if I can actually recommend this book…

BOOK REVIEW: The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows Of Ava Lavender – by Leslye Walton

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Title: The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows Of Ava Lavender
Author: Leslye Walton
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
First published: March 27th 2014
Finished reading: May 5th 2016
Pages: 301
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“And that might just be the root of the problem: we’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings.”

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To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of this book. I have been wanting to read The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows Of Ava Lavender ever since I first saw the gorgeous cover, but I didn’t end up enjoying it as much as I thought I would. While this story is without strange, peculiar, original and full of magical realism, I actually had a lot of mixed feelings about this book. It is without doubt a well written story and some of Leslye Walton‘s prose is simply exceptional, but I feel like the story seems to be lacking a proper plot. The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows Of Ava Lavender sometimes felt more like a bunch of short stories about Ava Lavender’s strange family rather than a story about the main character herself; Ava didn’t make an actual appearance until almost halfway into the story. And while her family has without doubt an interesting history, jumping from one family member to the other didn’t help creating a bond with the characters and made it seem like the story lacked cohesion. I kind of wish this book would have been more about Ava… Because this winged girl is without doubt one of the most intriguing characters I’ve seen around lately. Would I recommend it? Only to those who enjoy magical realism and don’t mind a weakish plot.

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The Roux family all seem to be born with hearts that a tragically human and foolish love seems to be part of their personal history. In order to understand the main character Ava Lavender, we take a look into the family’s history and try to find out how it came that Ava ended up being born with the wings of a bird. Love has driven the family to do foolish things for a long time, and sixteen-year old Ava isn’t an exception. She is still a normal girl after all if you forget about the wings… Her mother wants to shield her from the world, but Ava no longer wants to hide. Together with her best friend she decides to try her luck in the wider world, but it seems like the people are not prepared for her; it’s hard for them to accept her wings as something ‘normal’. Others take it even further, like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows who mistakes Ava for an angel. Surely nothing good can come of that…

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I don’t think I’m the only one who decided to add The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows Of Ava Lavender to their wishlist mostly based on the gorgeous cover. And while I think the cover is perfect for the story, I’m not sure I actually liked it as much as I thought I would. Ava Lavender is without doubt an intriguing character, but I wish she would have played a bigger role in the actual story. Also, I wasn’t completely convinced by the plot. That doesn’t take away that the book is without doubt well written and I liked the magical realism elements even though the story did read slow at points. In short, I had mixed feelings about this book, but that doesn’t mean I thought it was bad either.

BOOK REVIEW: Bestiario – by Julio Cortázar

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Title: Bestiario
Author: Julio Cortázar
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism, Short Stories
First published: 1951
Finished reading: February 29th 2016
Pages: 144
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“Las costumbres, Andrée, son formas concretas del ritmo, son la cuota del ritmo que nos ayuda a vivir. No era tan terrible vomitar conejitos una vez que se había entrado en el ciclo invariable, en el método.”

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I have been wanting to start reading in Spanish again for ages and it seemed more than fitting to pick an author who comes from the same country I now call my home: Argentina. I have read short stories by Julio Cortázar in the past, especially during my years at the University, but I can’t remember having read the full Bestiario bundle. Like in the other stories I know, Julio Cortázar was without doubt an expert in the use of magical realism. The way he was able to combine ordinary things and situations with magical realism elements is what makes his stories so special and I really enjoyed reading them. I do have to say that some stories were better than others; especially Lejana didn’t really manage to convince me. Still, this is without doubt a very interesting read and it felt good to read in Spanish again.

I’m doing this review slightly different since there are eight different short stories included in this bundle. Below a short description and my thoughts on each of them.

Casa Tomada

In this story a brother and a sister are living in a big and old house in Buenos Aires. It starts as a description of their everyday life; then slowly that same house is being taken over by a ‘stranger’. You never get to find out who it was or why they don’t try to fight it, and that is part of the charm of this short story.

Carta A Una Señorita En Paris

This story is the perfect example of Julio Cortázar’s excellent writing skills where he mixed magical realism with interesting descriptions. The main character writes a letter to the owner of the house he has been asked to take care of with a confession: somehow he regularly ‘vomits’ little rabbits and then has to hide them… It sounds absurd but it is actually a quite funny story.

Lejana

This one is without doubt my least favorite story. I normally like magical realism, but this story was too confusing to be enjoyable. It seems to be a story of a woman who writes about some kind of visions, but to be honest I’m still not completely sure what was really going on.

Ómnibus

One of my favorites of this bundle. What I love is that Julio Cortázar used ordinary things like a bus ride and changes it into a surreal story. Having lived in BA and taken the same 168 bus many times only improves the reading experience…

Cefalea

This story is a bit more fantastical than others and is actually quite interesting. The characters have to take care of fictional animals (mancuspias) but are struggling because they are suffering from really bad headaches. Slowly things are starting to go wrong and they don’t know how to fix it…

Cirse

This story made me crave chocolate! Delia makes chocolates and saw her two previous boyfriends die under suspicious circumstances. Mario prefers to ignore the odds and is determined to be her third and only living boyfriend… An interesting enough story for sure.

Las Puertas Del Cielo

This story hasn’t as many magical realism elements but is without doubt very interesting as well. One of the main characters is a husband who is struggling to coope with the death of his wife, and his friend is trying to help him. One night when they go to a milonga he thinks he sees his dead wife again… Las Puertas Del Cielo turned out to be intriguing and also has a nice reference to the whole milonga culture.

Bestiario

The last story is probably the most famous one and is also the story the bundle has been named after. I remember having to read this particular short story back in Uni and I really enjoyed reading it second time around. Magical realism at its best! The characters live in a big house and there also happens to be a tiger walking around. The movements of the characters are limited by the tiger, but they seem to be used to it… Until someone makes a mistake.

BOOK REVIEW: Every Day – by David Levithan

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Title: Every Day
(Every Day #1)
Author: David Levithan
Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance
First published: August 28th 2012
Finished reading: February 18th 2016
Pages: 322
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“There will always be more questions. Every answer leads to more questions. The only way to survive is to let some of them go.”

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To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first picked up Every Day. It’s the first time I read a novel that has been written solely by David Levithan even though I’ve read some of his work in the past. To be honest I wasn’t fully convinced by either his short story in My True Love Gave To Me or his Dash chapters in Dash & Lily’s Book Of Dares he wrote together with Rachel Cohn, but luckily enough I was able to enjoy this novel a lot better. Every Day is an intriguing story told from the point of view of A, who wakes up in a different body everyday and doesn’t have a fixed gender. The how and why is never explained and brings a little magical realism into this contemporary romance story. Because if you leave out the body-switching and paranormal element, this is basically a simple love story where A asks the Rhiannon to see past the everchanging physical appearance and love A for who ‘he’ is essentially. I wasn’t really a fan of Rhiannon’s character, but I really liked the fact that David Levithan incorporated a lot of glbt-friendly characters in the different bodies A changed into. And this multidimentional character basically is what makes this book so special and combined with a fast pace and easy-to-read prose I would definitely recommend Every Day.

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A has been waking up into a different body every day since ‘he’ can remember. Every day means a different life and it is never the same body twice… Years of practice has shown A it is best to not get involved with the individual lives of the bodies ‘he’ wakes up in. Any mistake A makes can change the life of that particular person in a bad way, and A never wants to get too attached for that to happen again. A knows not to interfere, but that becomes impossible the day ‘he’ wakes up in the body of Justin and meets Justin’s girlfriend. Rhiannon manages to dazzle A and ‘he’ doesn’t want to live by ‘his’ own rules… A no longer wants to make peace with the fact that ‘he’ wakes up in a new body every day, because I finally found someone ‘he’ wants to be with forever. Will A find a way to make this happen? And what does Rhiannon think of A’s situation in the first place?

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I was expecting a sappy romance story and part of it maybe is, but Every Day is so much more. The multidimentional character A is what makes this read into something truly special and I really liked the ‘hidden’ messages in David Levithan‘s prose (about for example equality). It’s a very intriguing read with just the right dose of mystery and romance that I would definitely recommend to those who enjoy the genre.

BOOK REVIEW: Neverwhere – by Neil Gaiman

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Title: Neverwhere
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Horror
First published: September 16th 1996
Finished reading: January 4th 2016
Pages: 336
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“I mean, maybe I am crazy. I mean, maybe. But if this is all there is, then I don’t want to be sane.”

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I finished this read over a week ago, and I’m still trying to get my thoughts together. What I do know is that while I’ve read and enjoyed other Neil Gaiman novels in the past, Neverwhere is without doubt my new favorite by this author. This novel starts out as a fiction story with a dash of magical realism, but soon turns into a dazzling urban fantasy story where surreal descriptions are combined with both scary and funny moments. I simply loved the prose and its underlying messages… The characters really started to grow on me as well; especially the Marquis, Richard and Door. Neverwhere is Neil Gaiman‘s first novel, and for me it’s without doubt the best I’ve read so far. What’s it about? This quote says it all:

“Dear Diary, he began. On Friday I had a job, a fiancée, a home, and a life that made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense). Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement, and I tried to be a Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiancée, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruitfly.”

The part in London Above maybe isn’t that interesting, but I LOVED the descriptions and plot set in London Below. Definitely recommended if you like a good (urban) fantasy story with a healthy dose of horror and humor!

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Richard Mayhew is a young London businessman who seems to have a perfectly ordinary life with a good job, a home and a beautiful fiancée. But everything changes as he sees an injured girl bleeding on the street and decides to help her. His demanding fiancée dumps him for not making it to an important dinner, but Richard wants to help the girl anyway. At home he realizes the girl isn’t just any ordinary girl, and soon his life changes forever… The next day he seems invisible and it’s almost as if he had plunged through the cracks of reality into a world of shadows and darkness in London Below. Against all odds he is able to survive his first moments there, and soon realizes he will have to find and help the girl if he ever wants to return to London Above.

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Neil Gaiman never fails to surprise you with his books; each book has a completely original feel. What I think made Neverwhere into my new favorite Gaiman is the unique mix of realistic fiction, magical realism, urban fantasy and horror. I really liked both the main characters and the prose, and once Richard started having his adventures in London Below it was really hard to stop reading. As you might have guessed from the rating, I absolutely loved this read and I would recommend Neverwhere with my eyes closed to anyone who enjoys the genre.

BOOK REVIEW: The Night Circus – by Erin Morgenstern

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Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance
First published: September 13th 2011
Finished reading: October 11th 2015
Pages: 387
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“Secrets have power. And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them.”

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The Night Circus has been on my TBR for a long time. Somehow I have managed to avoid this read even though I was really looking forward to it… I think mostly because I have seen a lot of mixed reviews over the past year or so. I finally started reading this novel by Erin Morgenstern knowing it had a strange pace so I made sure to keep my expectations low… I guess that is probably why I ended up really enjoying this read. Sure, The Night Circus is not for everyone and it is quite a slow read, but the descriptions are more than beautiful and make me wish I could visit the strange black and white circus myself. This story is more magical realism than fantasy and I really enjoyed the historical setting. I’m not completely sure I actually liked every character, but somehow that didn’t bother me that much and the prose more than made up for it. I can agree with those that say that The Night Circus is not an easy read and it is best to only read it when you have sufficient spare time, enjoy lengthy descriptions and don’t mind a slow pace. If you do, you will most likely enjoy this read as much as I did.

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The ‘Le Cirque des Reves’ arrives without warning and is full of mysteries. Inside the black-and-white striped canvas tents the visitors can find one breathtaking and unique act after the other and truly have their minds blown away during their stay. Nobody knows when and where the circus will be next, but two things are for sure: it only opens at night and strange things are happening behind the scenes that are beyond their imagination. A competition is currently being held between the two young magicians Celia and Marco, although they are not fully aware of all the rules. They have been trained ever since they were little, but what they don’t know is that only one can survive the contest… And the fate  of the circus is on the line as well. Will they be able to continue the game after they find out what are the consequences of winning or losing?

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I was warned by various readers to be prepared for a slow read and lengthy descriptions, and that probably helped me enjoy The Night Circus even better. The prose and historical setting made this read into something special, and I loved the magical realism elements in the story. Especially the descriptions of the circus are exceptionally well done and reading them almost made me feel like I was visiting it myself. If you like the genre and don’t mind a slow read, I would definitely recommend this novel!