Canadian, Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Middle Grade, Romance, Young Adult

10 Years of Required Reading

When I launched this blog in the fall of 2012, shortly after my husband and I moved to the Seattle area for his job, I had no idea I would still be maintaining it a decade later! At the time, I was at loose ends waiting for a work visa, and looking for something to fill the time. Since then, I’ve returned to library work, starting in public libraries and then making an unexpected jump into the world of corporate librarianship. We’ve adopted two cats, bought a condo, and settled in to stay. These days I don’t have quite as much spare time to read or review, but I still love having a place to collect my thoughts and reading history, especially when someone asks me for a reading recommendation!

In honour of the tenth anniversary of Required Reading, I thought it might be fun to dig into the stats and find my most popular posts. Since October 2012, I’ve published 722 posts (this makes 723!) for a total of more than half a million words, which have been read by people from literally all over the world:

Heat map of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country.
Heatmap of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country

Over the course of the coming week, I’m planning to share some of my favourite reads from the the past ten years, but to kick things off, here are the top five most popular posts on the site:

The Rose and the Dagger

by Renée Ahdieh

ISBN 9780399171628

Cover image for The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

I’m not sure why this 2016 review of the YA fantasy sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn is so popular, but year after year this review continues to receive hits. It’s one of the few spoiler reviews on my site, because I couldn’t find a way to write about it without discussing the ending. It makes me think that, despite the taboo, people actually do like spoilers! Inspired by the 1001 Nights, the sequel focuses on Khalid and Shahrzad trying to break the curse that turned him into the murderous caliph who executed all of his previous brides, including Shahrzad’s best friend. She must find a way to regain the trust of her allies, and free the kingdom from this curse so that no more girls have to be sacrificed. 

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Always and Forever, Lara Jean and P.S. I Still Love You

by Jenny Han

ISBNs 9781481430487 and 9781442426733

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My 2015 and 2017 reviews of two of the books in Han’s popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series continue to see high traffic, with a bump driven by the recent Netflix adaptation. However, the much of the traffic here comes from some popular text graphics I shared on Pinterest, that continue to do the rounds. P.S. I Still Love You follows Lara Jean and Peter trying to figure out how to date for real after the fake dating plot of the first book, when another boy from her past shows up with a letter in hand. Then, Always and Forever, Lara Jean focuses Lara Jean’s senior year of high school and her decision about whether or not to follow her boyfriend to college. You can start the series here with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance

The Outside Circle

by Patti LaBoucane-Benson

ISBN 9781770899377

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

This 2016 review of a Canadian graphic novel continues to see a high hit count, and the search terms lead me to guess that maybe it is being taught in some Canadian classrooms. The Outside Circle follows Pete, a young aboriginal man who goes to jail after a fight with his mother’s boyfriend. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. The standout here is the striking art by Kelly Mellings which brings Pete’s story to life using a minimalist colour palette.

Categories: Canadian, Graphic Novel

El Deafo

by Cece Bell

ISBN 9781419710209

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bell

This 2015 post is a review of Bell’s graphic memoir, based on her own experiences as a deaf child in school, although the characters are drawn as cute rabbits. When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. When first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power. Rather, El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her.

Categories: Middle Grade, Graphic Novel

Thanks to all my readers, whether you’ve been here from the beginning or are just tuning in now! Check back throughout the week as I highlight some of my favourite reads since the inception of this blog.

Fantasy, Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

The Rose and the Dagger (The Wrath and the Dawn #2)

Cover image for The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdiehby Renée Ahdieh

ISBN 978-0-399-17162-8

Fair Warning: Spoilers ahead for this series!

“But which of these two kings was the true villain of this story? For a story was only as good as its villain.”

Having fled the besieged capital of Khorasan, Shahrzad finds herself encamped on the edges of the kingdom, in the territory of a nomadic desert sheikh, along with Tariq’s army. Here she is reunited with her father and sister, and must face the toll the book of spells took on her father’s body and mind as the price for extracting her from the palace. Her allies now regard her with suspicion, but she cannot reveal the curse that has been guiding Khalid’s hand for so long. Instead, she must find a way to regain their trust even as she searches for a way to break the spell, and free the kingdom so that no more girls have to die. But the King of Parthia is about to join the conflict, taking advantage of Khorasan’s time of weakness, and Khalid’s nefarious uncle will not be satisfied with anything less than total victory.

In this second installment of The Wrath and the Dawn, separated from Khalid, Shahrzad tries to win back some measure of the trust of her former allies, buying time for them to break the curse. This is a difficult proposition given that the protagonists are in different locations, and the pacing of the plot suffers a bit for it. Shazi focuses on learning to control the magical talents she inherited from her father, but never had a chance to master. Though she seems reluctant to take her sister into her confidence on the matter of the curse, she does share her worries about the damage using the book of spells has done to their father, Jahandar. Shazi and Irsa are rebuilding the bond from their childhood, but under circumstances that reinforce the fact that they are no longer children, and their relationship will have to adjust accordingly. Watching them figure this out is one of the highlights of the novel.

While Shahrzad tries to harness her newfound power, Khalid is in Rey dealing with the fall out of the raid and the ramifications of not heeding the demands of the curse. Ahdieh goes to great lengths trying to show that Khalid has been redeemed now that he has decided to try to break the curse rather than obey it. In the aftermath of the attack on Khorasan, he goes out into the streets to help the common people pick up the pieces and rebuild their homes. But he does this even knowing that he needs to be preparing his kingdom for another attack, this time from Parthia. Later in the book, when Khalid is laying siege to an enemy holding, Ahdieh carefully points out how his strategy involves firing the granaries and intimidating the army, rather than a more haphazard attack that might harm civilians. But of course, those civilians are simply going to starve to death later. Khalid could have been sufficiently redeemed for the purposes of the story by acknowledging his past wrongs, and dedicating himself to breaking the curse; the rest is overkill that makes him look irrational.

The Rose and the Dagger brings the duology to an ending that is both happy and unsatisfying. At least happily ever after is vague enough to allow you to imagine whatever future you feel best suits the characters. The Rose and the Dagger is yet another novel with a soppy epilogue that can’t seem to imagine a happily ever after that consists of anything other than marriage and babies. After all the emphasis on well-developed female characters, the strong relationships between the various women, and Ahdieh’s focus on how Khalid comes to respect Shahrzad’s agency, the epilogue was sadly lacking in imagination about what Shazi’s future was likely to hold. Even during the warm family scene, she could be attending affairs of state, but instead she and Khalid discuss getting her sister married. It is an overly neat and thoroughly disappointing ending to a somewhat lacklustre second installment.


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Fantasy, Fiction, Mythology, Young Adult

The Wrath and the Dawn

Cover image for The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdiehby Renée Ahdieh

ISBN 978039917161

“I will live to see tomorrow’s sunset. Make no mistake. I swear I will live to see as many sunsets as it takes. And I will kill you. With my own hands.”

Shiva was just one of many young girls who wed the Caliph of Khorasan, only to be executed at dawn the following morning, without explanation or apology. But her best friend, Shahrzad is determined that she will be the last. So Shahrzad volunteers to be the Caliph’s next bride, vowing to stay alive for as many nights as it takes to figure out how to kill him and liberate Khorasan. Using her skills as a cunning storyteller, Shahrzad baits Khalid’s curiousity to buy herself time as she struggles to unlock the inner workings of the palace. Expecting a fearsome monster capable of murdering her best friend, Shahrzad is unsettled when instead she encounters a tormented young man who pays too much heed to his uncle and advisor, the Shahrban. Khalid does not seem to want to execute her, and yet also seems to believe that he must, for reasons he steadfastly refuses to disclose. Meanwhile, unaware of what is transpiring inside the palace walls, Shahrzad’s father, Jahandar, and her childhood sweetheart, Tariq, attempt to rally a force to overthrow the Caliph before he inevitably has Shahrzad executed.

Shahrzad goes to the palace determined to put an end to the Caliph’s reign of terror. Desperate to survive the first night, she strikes on the idea of storytelling, unaware that she has hit a particular nerve by doing so. But once she succeeds in avoiding execution, at least temporarily, she finds herself caught in her own trap; if she is constantly buying herself time by teasing Khalid’s curiousity, she also finds herself being drawn into the mystery of what made him the way he is. And what logical reason could there possibly be for the murders? She is able to wring some little information out of Despina, her handmaiden, and Jalal, Khalid’s cousin and captain of the guard. But Khalid himself is closed to her, and any effort to get him to reveal himself only seems to drive him away, putting her plans at risk. Alone in the palace, unable to truly trust anyone, she begins to wonder if she might be able to save this strangely appealing boy-king, instead of killing him.

This unusual romantic turn is made possible in large part by the fact that Shahrzad’s best friend Shiva is not a character we meet or are made to care about; she is only a memory. This distance is necessary in order to accept Khalid as a viable love interest, but still rather troubling, to Shahrzad as well as the reader. The result is an intriguing if somewhat disturbing romantic dynamic. Then again, all the men who love Shahrzad are a little disturbing in their own ways. Jahandar seems willing to throw caution and morality to the wind to save his daughter, while Tariq overrides her wishes and second guesses her judgement at every turn. Khalid then becomes appealing by virtue of his willingness to let Shahrzad stand her own ground, though her situation obviously puts her under some implicit duress. Then again, how do you control the behaviour of someone whose life is already forfeit?

In addition to requiring a delicate hand to strike the romantic balance in The Wrath and the Dawn, it also needs an excellent writer to retell the tale of a master storyteller. For the most part, Renée Ahdieh is up to the challenge, though her prose can be a little purple. She lavishes a lot of attention on beautiful clothes, sumptuous furnishings, and decadent meals. But in between, she draws you in with Shahrzad’s retellings of the 1001 Nights myths, and intriguing tidbits about Khalid, Despina, Jalal, and the silent and mysterious Rajput, who is assigned to guard Shahrzad so that she will die at no one’s order but Khalid’s. But the real magic is in how elements of the 1001 Nights tales seep out of Shahrzad’s retellings, and into her own life. Soon enough, the pretext falls away, and Shahrzad is not narrating for her life; she is living the stories. This makes for a fresh take on a classic while also fitting squarely into the contemporary young adult genre.

Ultimately, The Wrath and the Dawn is not a stand-alone, so questions about how well this all comes together remain. A sudden twist in the final pages sets Sharzhad up to confront whether what she has learned inside the palace walls will remain true on the outside. Can a romance forged in such peculiar and insulated circumstances survive in this world that is on the edge of war? The Rose and the Dagger, due out on May 3, 2016, will have to reconcile these elements.


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