Book Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden (2019)

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Review 2.11

 

Note: I highly recommend reading The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower before reading this review.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen. [Source]

The Winter of the Witch has all of the ingredients necessarily for a dark, mature fairy tale. There is a twisted villain, a mysterious king, an enchanted forest. There are swordfights, helpful sprites, and magic horses. Front and center of it all is the courageous heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna. Vasya is a marvel, at once vulnerable and indomitable. Her journey from a scared girl in the snow to a crusading warrior-witch has made the Winternight trilogy one of my favorite finds in recent years.

Of course, all these elements would amount to nothing without the beautiful and poetic writing of Katherine Arden. She has constructed a world that feels simultaneously ancient and immediate. The best fairy tales exist in a world of misty morals, and The Winter of the Witch is no exception. No one, no matter how seemingly good or evil, is ever quite what they seem. This comes as a natural development rather than a sudden cheat, and I never felt as though Arden had sacrificed her characters for the sake of a easy ending.

After the climatic events of The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has just risked everything to save Moscow from the flames. Her secrets are now exposed, and the obsessed priest Konstantin has her cornered. After suffering a devastating loss, she flees into the realm of Midnight, a land of eternal darkness. Weakened and grieving, Vasya must search the midnight lands for Morozko, the king of winter.

I won’t say anything more, for fear of spoiling the surprise. I am definitely looking forward to buying the entire Winternight trilogy on hardcover once it’s released. These books swept me away.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Winter of the Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Emily Carroll

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Review 2.8

“Speak up for yourself-we want to know what you have to say.” 

From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless–an outcast–because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. Through her work on an art project, she is finally able to face what really happened that night: She was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. [Source]

Apparently I live under a rock, because I had never heard of Laurie Halse Anderon’s award winning 1999 novel, Speak. It only came to my attention when I learned that Emily Carroll had done the illustrations for the graphic novel edition of the book, which was released last year. Carroll wrote and illustrated the fantastically creepy Into the Woods, which was among the favorite books that I read last year. I immediately ordered a copy from my library and brought it home.

It sat on my desk for six weeks.

I could never bring myself to actually begin reading Speak. I knew it was going to be one of those books that left me feeling wrung out and exhausted, and I just couldn’t commit myself. A few days before the book had to be returned to the library, I finally decided to make myself a giant cup of hot chocolate, top it off with a dash of brandy, and curl up on my couch to finish the book.

I’m so glad I did.

I haven’t read the original source material, but Anderson’s writing style adapts itself perfectly to the graphic novel format. Her narrative has a lyrical, almost poetic quality; it bounces from subject to subject in a continual train of thought that carries us into Melinda’s mind. The mind of the average high school girl is a swirling maze of pressure and anxiety: pressure to fit in, to get good grades, to be popular to have boys like you, pressure from parents, from peers, from boys. Melinda, who is dealing with more anxiety and pressure than any ninth grader should ever have to experience, is teetering on the knife’s edge between crippling depression and debilitating stress. Her experiences are as tragic as they are tragically ordinary, and Melinda’s journey to find her voice is a powerful one.

Emily Carroll is a tremendously talented artist, and her illustrations heighten and define Melinda’s experiences in so many ways. Notice the way Melinda is nearly always depicted with her hair covering part of her face as she seeks to hide from staring eyes. Or how certain characters are drawn with horribly exaggerated features. Carroll has a tendency towards the macabre that I love, and it suits the dark material presented in Speak.

Speak

I put off reading this book because I thought it was going to leave me feeling bitter and upset. Instead, I found Speak to be empowering. As Melinda journeys out of the darkness and finds her voice, there were a series of small victories. A new friend. A helping hand. A sympathetic teacher. Small reminders that a person is never really alone. I’ll take this as a reminder that the most difficult stories to read are often the most important to tell.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Speak: The Graphic Novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman (2017)

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Review 2.5

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys. [Source]

Only someone who has played as part of a sports team can describe the seemingly psychic connection that exists between well-trained players working towards a common goal. A good coach can pull astounding results out of a talented player, but not without pain and sacrifice both mental and physical. Complete and total devotion is required if the unit as a whole is to succeed. The character traits born by playing sports: loyalty, determination, selflessness, and stamina can serve children well into adulthood. But there is a darker side to those sterling qualities: arrogance, recklessness, and a disregard for authority also breed when star players are told from a very early age that they are perfect and invincible. Beartown tells the story of one youth ice hockey team as they prepare for the semi-final championship and bear the entire weight of a community on their shoulders.

Beartown is a novel about the power of competitive sports to bring people together and to tear people apart. The introspective, omniscient language used by Fredrik Backman (translated here from Swedish by Neil Smith) is simultaneously haunting and joyful. We delight in the vitality and joy that the boys of the Beartown junior league find out on the ice, while never forgetting that those shining moments are few and fleeting. Backman manages to capture the almost addictive hold that these sports have, both on the players and the people in the community who place all their hopes on the slim shoulders of seventeen-year old boys. The pressure that these students are under would buckle the knees of most adult men, and game-day nears, the cracks begin to show.

Halfway into Beartown came an event that I definitely did not expect, but in retrospect I should have seen it coming a mile away. Another side effect of sports culture is the attitude instilled in the members of a winning team that they are entitled to whatever rewards they desire and that “winning” is something that must be obtained at all costs. This event sets off a series of repercussions that wind through the remaining half of the novel until building into a tight, page-turning conclusion that had me glued to the screen of my Kobo.

I loved that this was a novel about sports culture that didn’t require me to know or care anything about ice hockey going in. It’s a novel about sports that will appeal to people who don’t like sports very much. And people who love the game. Probably because Beartown isn’t about ice hockey. It’s about teamwork. Friendship. Sacrifice. Loyalty. Honesty. Bravery. And a little bit ice hockey.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Beartown here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

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Review 2.4

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, a party of moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild. [Source]

 “I now walk into the wild.” – Christopher McCandless

The story of Christopher McCandless has become something of an urban legend crossed with a cautionary tale. I’m sure parents have warned their children that if they aren’t careful they’ll end up “dying in a bus somewhere in Alaska”. When I mentioned to my husband that I was reading this book, he scoffed and muttered something about idiot kids and white privilege. For some, McCandless is a cultural admonition about the foolishness of youth. For others, he is a symbol of wanderlust, that powerful urge to explore the wild places of the world and reconnect with nature that exists somewhere within all men.

It’s easy to write McCandless off as just a spoiled boy from an affluent background who got what he deserved when he walked into the Alaskan wilderness with no supplies. It’s easy to say that he was mentally ill, or suicidal, or just plain crazy. What Krakauer has done with Into the Wild is to tell the harder story, one of a charismatic and talented young man whose obsessive desire to connect with nature ended up costing his life.

“At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.”

Last year I read Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which chronicles the violent history of the Mormon faith and how it led to the death of an innocent woman and child. Krakauer has the remarkable ability to write nonfiction as if it were fiction. He weaves his plot and characters together with meticulous attention to detail and exhaustive research. Reading Into the Wild, it is obvious that Krakauer was profoundly moved by the death of McCandless. The book represents an homage of sorts, a chance to tell Christopher’s story in a way that makes him look brave but naive instead of just incredibly stupid. Krakauer brings a sense of tragic nobility to Christopher’s life and death while trying to explain what drove him to venture alone into the wilderness. He looks at journals, interviews friends and family members, and ultimately journeys to the hollowed out bus where McCandless’ body was found.

I am writing this review more than five days after finishing it, and I can’t get Christopher McCandless out of my head. At random times of the day, when I’m washing dishes or marking homework, the image of a lonely boy dying in a lonely bus in a cold, lonely forest comes into my mind. I had before heard the story of the idiot kid who died in the wilds of Alaska. Now I feel like I actually know the story of McCandless’ life. This book was amazing.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Into the Wild here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2007 it was adapted into a film starring Emile Hirsch and directed by Sean Penn.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan (2018)

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Review 2.2

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love. [Source]

Depression is such a tricky subject to write about. It’s so mercurial in nature, so difficult to define and diagnose and treat. The Astonishing Color of After triumphs as a portrayal of depression from all perspectives. The repercussions of Leigh’s mother’s suicide reverberate down the plotline when Leigh becomes convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird. Fearing for her mental state, Leigh’s father sends her to Taiwan to visit her grandparents for the first time. Once there, Leigh begins the long, slow process of healing.

The Astonishing Color of After blew me away with its depiction of depression and the effect it can have on a family. Instead of focusing on Leigh’s mother as she battles her inner demons, the perspective is Leigh’s, which helps to convey the constant stress and strain that mental illness places on family members. Humans can adapt to almost anything, and it’s sad that the warning symptoms of suicide can be overlooked because we see a person as always being “up and down” or just “having a rough patch”. For Leigh, her mother’s depression was just another part of life until it wasn’t.

Leigh’s adventures in China add a welcome lighter tone to the story. All the descriptions of the Mandarin language and culture and food made me miss my days spent living there. One scene set in an outdoor night market was particularly vivid, I could almost taste the stuffed bao buns and room temperature beer. For Leigh, the trip to Taiwan offers a chance to grieve her mother while learning more about her childhood and the circumstances that drove her to cut off all contact with her family.

The Astonishing Color of After evoked a stronger emotional reaction than I had anticipated. The combination of magic realism with the themes of loss and grief was a heady mix, and I found myself ugly crying towards the end. But it was a cathartic, healing kind of cry. The kind you didn’t know you needed until it’s over.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Astonishing Color of After here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)

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Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

This novel by debut author Angie Thomas packs an emotional punch. The American epidemic of unarmed black men being shot by law enforcement is an incredible divisive issue, and Thomas embraces the many factions and facets of the situation. She asks her readers to privately consult their own inner bias and determine for themselves the best possible outcome when there is little chance for a happy ending.

Starr Carter is not your average girl from the “ghetto”. The first thing that sets her apart is her strong family bonds. Starr is lucky enough to have a male role model in her life; her father is a proud black man who firmly believes that the only way to save his community from gangs and drugs is if people stick around and work together. Thomas does not play down the fact that Starr lives in a dangerous neighborhood; she lost her best friend in a drive-by shooting at age nine. Now sixteen, she is tired of hearing gun shots every night. But there is also a life and a spirit to Starr’s community, people help one another and give what they can to those who are less fortunate. This isn’t some Mad Max style wasteland ruled by constant warfare. The people of Garden Heights have known a lot of hard times, but they stick together and try to make the best with what they have. Too often the ghetto is depicted as a gray and crumbling area where everyone has ties to criminal activity. Thomas instead shows a more human side to the wrong side of the tracks.

“I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve Tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.”

Another thing that makes Starr unique among her peers is that her parents send her to an expensive private school where she is one of the only students of color. Some of the most interesting aspects of The Hate U Give is when Starr describes her own split personalities. There is “Ghetto Starr” who uses slang and knows how to survive on the tough streets of Garden Heights. Then there is “Williamson Starr”, a girl who makes sure never to use slang, has a white boyfriend and all white friends, and listens to Taylor Swift. Starr is walking a constant tight-rope trying to be black enough for her black friends but not too black for her white friends.

The Hate U Give takes a lot of the important points of the police brutality issue and runs at them headlong. This novel has the potential to make a lot of people uncomfortable, but it is the kind of discomfort that leads to personal growth. And while it did get a little overtly preachy towards the end, I would definitely recommend this book. Perhaps it would help in opening up a dialogue between the opposing forces on this tragic issue.

My rating; 4.5/5

You can find The Hate U Give here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (2018)

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Review #100

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Kate Morton has been on my shortlist of favorite authors since I first discovered The Forgotten Garden way back in 2011. All of her novels merge historical fiction with mystery, often spanning decades and generations. Morton stays true to form with her latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, and manages to throw in a few surprises along the way.

Morton loves writing about crumbling English manor homes and her settings often serve as characters unto themselves. The majority of The Clockmaker’s Daughter takes place in isolated and empty Birchwood Manor, but far from the gloomy, neglected halls that characterized Morton’s The Distant Hours, Birchwood is haunted by a ghost of a different sort. The presence which roams the halls of Birchwood Manor is filled with curiosity and kindness for the occasional visitors that come to her home, which has been turned into a museum and historical site. When a new visitor by the name of Elodie Winslow turns up looking for answers that lead back to a long ago summer when a group of artists descended upon the manor, the spirit of Birchwood Manor realizes that secrets are about to be uncovered that have been buried for centuries.

The wonderful thing about Kate Morton’s writing is that it flows so smoothly from time period to time period. The bulk of the narrative follows a group of young artists who venture into the country for a summer of nature and inspiration. The technological and social changes that embody Victorian England are present here; it was interesting to read about the introduction of photography, which would bring about major changes to the art world as the popularity of portraiture faded.

The rest of the novel is set in the present day. It is partly narrated by Elodie, a young archivist who stumbles upon a sketchbook that has been hidden away for decades. The spirit of Birchwood Manor has its own voice as well, detailing the events that have occurred in the house in the long years since its arrival. This is the first novel by Morton to contain a solid supernatural element. There were whispers of fairies and magic in some of her previous works, but the ghost in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a defined presence with real wishes and desires.

If I had a critique of this novel, it would be the title. While one of the main characters is the daughter of a clockmaker, that fact has no real bearing on the overall storyline. Too many novels are “The _____’s Daughter” or “The _____’s Wife”. It is often is used in fiction to give a different perspective on historical events; however, it is unnecessary in this case. Instead it serves to undermine a strong female character by forcing her to be named only under the title of a male who is not even terribly relevant to the plot. It just felt lazy.

Overall, this was another highly enjoyable novel by a woman who remains at the top of my list for favorite authors. My only disappointment is that I have to settle in for a long wait until her next novel.

My Rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Clockmaker’s Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

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Review #93

When a beautiful young aspiring writer enters his bookshop, Joe Goldberg is immediately enthralled. He realizes they are destined to be together so he does what seems natural to him, he invades her life. By finding out where she lives, entering her apartment uninvited, and stealing her phone, Joe manages to insert himself in her life almost seamlessly. His obsession grows as the young woman begins to trust and even love him. Increasingly possessive, Joe becomes determined to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness, even if means killing people to do so.

First things first, this book was amazing. It is one of those novels that pulls you in from the very first page and then you can’t function normally in the real world until you finish it. It’s one of those novels where you sacrifice sleeping at night so you can read a few more chapters. If I were a smoker, this would be the kind of book that would have me chain-smoking out of pure nervous energy as I flipped the pages as quickly as possible.

You is non-stop tension from beginning to end. The narrator is a psychopath with delusions of grandeur. Joe truly believes that entering a strange woman’s apartment and masturbating on her bed is a perfectly natural way of expressing his adoration for her. Anything that he sees as a hindrance to their “love” is a threat that must be removed without hesitation or remorse. He is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Author Caroline Kepnes makes the bold choice to write her novel using the second-hand voice. I typically find this style of narration to be tedious and annoying, but here it gives us a look into Joe’s mind in a way that first or third hand perspective would not have done. It is a chilling, cold, reptilian brain that is all the more nerve-wracking because on the outside Joe would seem like a perfectly normal guy who works in a bookshop. But under the surface he is calculating and manipulative. Since we only see the female character through Joe’s eyes, she is basically a hyper-sexualized depiction of feminine perfection.

It’s almost sick how compelling Joe’s character is. I felt a little demented myself after spending so much time in his head. And even though you can probably guess the ending from the first chapter of the book, it got there in an entirely different way than I had originally anticipated.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is twisted and dark and brutal. It may be triggering for survivors of rape or sexual assault. It will definitely make you think twice before striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find the sequel.

My rating: 5/5

You can find You here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (2015)

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Review #88

Caden Bosch is on a ship headed towards the Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth located in the Marinas Trench. Sometimes. Other times he is a fifteen-year old high school kid who is beginning to have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not. Caden Bosch is elected the ship’s artist, whose job it is to document the ship’s crew with pictures. Sometimes. Other times he is a boy who cannot stop moving, who quits the track team and instead wanders for miles around his neighborhood. Caden Bosch is beginning to contemplate mutiny against the ship’s captain but is still holding on to his allegiance. Sometimes.

Neal Shusterman dives deep into the heart of mental illness with Challenger Deep, and explores how a person’s mind can begin to betray them. Caden Bosch is never diagnosed with anything specific, but his symptoms exhibit signs of schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. He begins to feel constant paranoia and anxiety, and his social functions plummet as he loses the ability to hold a sustained conversation. Shusterman, who uses many personal details from the life of his own son, portrays Caden as someone who has great inner strength but finds that all the perseverance in the world cannot always combat the continuous onslaught of mental illness.

Shusterman depicts the confusion that Caden feels by ensuring that his readers have some difficulty discerning exactly what is going on at any given time. His chapters are short, only three or four pages long, and vary from Caden on board a sailing ship in the middle of the Pacific to Caden trying to hold on to the pieces of his life while his illness threatens to consume him. The first fifty or so pages of Challenger Deep twist into a big jumble before settling into a more straightforward narrative. In this way Shusterman helps us to empathize with his protagonist.

Challenger Deep represents a brutally honest, yet ultimately sensitive portrayal of mental illness. Caden’s struggles are never glamorized or dramatized for effect. We identify with his struggles and rejoice with his rare glimmers of hope. He understands that he will never be “cured” and instead has to come to terms with the fact that his mental illness with be with him for the rest of his life. Instead of this being a sour note, Caden is able to meet it with resignation.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Challenger Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2004)

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Review #77

This graphic novel tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the tumultuous years that include the fall of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. Marjane, raised by well-educated intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, finds herself struggling to understand the difference between the freedom of her home life and the sudden restrictions of public life.

Surprise graphic novels are the best kind of graphic novels! I was unaware when I requested this book from my local library that the story was going to be told using simple yet powerful black-and-white illustrations. I was expecting a painful story of a girl whose freedom was stripped away by a regime change. Instead, Persepolis is something far more unique. It is equally parts funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant.

The best part of Persepolis is its heroine. Marjane (Marji) is outspoken, honest, and at times contradictory. Spanning her life between ages ten and fourteen, Persepolis focuses on her changing attitudes towards religion, family, politics, and Iran itself. She begins the novel with a strong belief in God, and tells her parents that when she grows up she wants to be a prophet. Marji’s faith is shaken as the people she loves are exposed to persecution and violence. For a twelve year old girl to turn her back on religion is a devastating life choice, and we share Marji’s sadness and anger as she realizes that faith can be used as a tool for suppression.

This is a smaller, more personal viewpoint of a historically volatile time period. Marji has very little knowledge of exactly why these things are happening, and couldn’t get less about the larger international implications. Instead she just knows that one day she has to wear a veil to school when last year she didn’t, and she finds it uncomfortable and restrictive. She leaves her house one day in “modern” clothes and is accosted by a woman who shouts that she is a whore. Things go from bad to worse when her family experiences the loss of a beloved family member.

I loved this novel because even though the graphic panels are in a stark black and white, the plot itself exists in shades of gray. Marjane Shatrapi illustrates the horrors that were perpetuated during the Islamic Revolution, but also makes room for lightness and laughter. She presents the Iranian people as having a “philosophy of resignation”. When the Ayatollah rose to power, the vast majority of people went about their lives and loved their families and found small victories in listening to modern music and drinking contraband alcohol. The love between Marji and her family shines through every page of Persepolis. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Going in, I realized that I did not have enough information about Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. I did a little bit of research so that I could truly understand what was happening in this novel. I found this video to be particularly helpful if you are also interested in learning a little bit more about this time in history.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Persepolis here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!