Book Review – Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

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Title: Of Fire and Stars
Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: YA Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance

I have been procrastinating on writing this review, because I do not enjoy writing negative reviews. Sadly, I was not a fan of this book. I desperately wanted to be, but it all felt like a bucket of lost potential.

In Of Fire and Stars,  Princess Denna of Havemont has been betrothed to marry the Prince of Mynaria, Thandi, since she was a young child. Her marriage will seal an alliance between the two kingdoms, but she is harboring a secret – she possesses a Fire Affinity – a dangerous gift in the land of Mynaria, where magic is forbidden. Along the way, she meet’s the Prince’s sister, Mare, and they decide to join forces to search for the culprit of a mysterious assassination.

I was incredibly excited when the LGBTQIA+ novel, Of Fire and Stars, showed up in my OwlCrate box in December. There are so few f/f fantasy novels out there, and this one definitely has an interesting premise. An arranged marriage, with Denna falling for her betrothed sister instead? My curiosity was piqued.

And then, everything fell flat. And by flat, I mean FLAT. The world-building, the character development, even the dialogue, was all….meh. There was also way too much dialogue and pages dedicated to horses…and I love horses! By the end of the book, I was groaning and skimming every time another section came up focused on horses.

Where, oh where, art thou character development?

All of the main characters were incredibly one-dimensional. Mare, Prince Thandi’s sister, (yes, the character who has loved horses her whole life is seriously nicknamed Mare) is the token “bad girl”, complete with temper tantrums and extreme sulking. Denna, newly arrived in the land, is the “good one”, apparently full of sugar and spice and everything nice. Mare is rebellious and Denna is good. Denna breaks her mold towards the end, but even there it just fell flat. Don’t get me started on her magic and the stars falling scene – one of the most awkward things I have ever read. It made no sense the way it was written.

As for the rest of the cast, wow, I know nothing. Seriously, nothing. Poor Prince Thandi, with no personality, felt like a shell. The Directorate – the people who make the policy decisions in Mynaria – are clueless and incompetent. I mean, truly and incredibly dense.

Can someone explain the Northern Kingdoms?

Despite finishing the novel, I still don’t understand what this world is about. Why did Mynaria hate magic so much? A legitimate reason was never given for this intense hatred of magic users. Nor was there much of an explanation for the sudden existence of the Recusants vs the fundamentalists. Who were the fundamentalists, even? This lack of depth was incredibly frustrating for me. We’re plunged into a world with four kingdoms that together seem to make up the “Northern Kingdoms”, but we find out nothing about the history or political situations underlying these lands. Such as, why has Prince Thandi never left the castle’s home in Lyrra? Why can’t he explore his own lands?

The idea of having an Affinity (Magic) connected to one of the six gods was intriguing and new, if it would have been further developed. Yet once again, the reader is left with no real understanding of the magic and religion of these lands.

Refreshingly, heterosexuality is not assumed as the default sexual orientation – but then why on earth was there so much sexism in the novel? From the time Denna arrived in Mynaria, she is held back by what appears to be strict gender roles; as future queen, she is expected to be the castle’s numero uno party planner and tour guide. One of the only conversations that Denna has with the king is this:

“No need to be too formal among family,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll be relying on you to keep this son of mine in line. It has been too long since we’ve had a woman’s touch about the place.”

I can list at least ten ways in which this exchange makes absolutely no sense. But you get the idea. A few of the people on the Directorate are women, but they barely have a voice. That may be due more to poor character development, but it is still frustratingly annoying.

I was really excited about reading this novel, but ultimately, it was a tremendous let down.

This now makes two books in a row that I have rated two stars, something that does not happen very often. Thankfully, I’m now reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which is FANTASTIC. So, hopefully, this 2-star streak ends here.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

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Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J.D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

Hillbilly Elegy has certainly been making the rounds lately, with J.D. Vance appearing on numerous talk shows. His book has been marketed out the wazoo as something all liberal-minded individuals should read to provide insight into the mysterious “Trump voter”. This memoir has been talked up as one of the most informative books published in 2016 on the plight of working-class whites.

In reality, Hillbilly Elegy is just a memoir, and to be honest, not an incredibly remarkable one at that. And, in my case, one of those instances where a book definitely did not live up to the hype.

I will fully admit, about 1/3 of the way into the book, I started to realize I had completely misplaced expectations as to what I was reading. I was expecting something that was half memoir, and half social commentary and analysis. Hillbilly Elegy is not that. What it is, in my opinion, is 90% memoir, and 10% minor social commentary, that sometimes contradicts itself.

This book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

J.D. Vance was raised by an abusive, drug-addicted mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town not too far removed from the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. Vance’s family spent summers visiting the rural Appalachian community in Kentucky where his grandparents were born and raised.

The subtitle claims that this is an elegy, and a memoir, for the Appalachian culture of his grandparents. Writing a family memoir is one thing, writing the “memoir” for an entire culture, based purely on your own experiences, I find highly presumptuous. J.D. Vance is doing a great disservice to the very people he is trying to help. His story is one of upward mobility, and to that end, it is a very enlightening read. But it is not an adequate “memoir” of an entire culture.

J.D. Vance escaped the life he was raised in, despite his addicted mother, a revolving door of fathers, and a community that was struggling with many of the same problems. It should therefore come as no surprise that there is a strong sense of ‘bootstrappery’ about his beliefs – pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps. That it is up to yourself, not the government, to make your life better.

While J.D. Vance may be making some mass generalizations (that seem to play to both the liberal and conservatives stereotypes of Appalachia), there is no denying that there is some truth to what he says. He brings up some interesting points, but I find that he is too quick to blame the poor for their own misfortunes.

Take this excerpt:

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.

In the next paragraph he does mention one barrier to full-time employment: the fact that in many areas, the only jobs available are part-time. But then he leaves that idea in the dust, and doesn’t come back to it again. He spends very little time on the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, and what it truly means to be isolated from the educated, American “mainstream”.

If Hillbilly Elegy was solely a story about upward mobility, a conversation about what it is like to be stuck in a community that can not seem to keep up with the present, this would have been a good book. When he starts to ruminate about poverty in all of Appalachia, and simplify it to a message that is predominantly – “do better, work harder” he lost me as a fan. He is definitely not mean-spirited, possibly more of the “tough love” approach (which may explain Amy Chua’s endorsement on the back of the cover, author of  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother!). Ultimately, I felt that he was pigeon-holing an entire community into categories of dysfunction and laziness. Something that should sound awfully familiar to African-Americans, who have been subjected to many of the same stereotypes.

Which brings me to one final point about something missing from this book. Vance seems to be writing for Appalachia as a whole, but at no time does he ever bring up the issue of race. Appalachia is often painted as poor, rural, and white. Once again, the Appalachian’s who are PoC are erased from existence. The fact is, Appalachia does not have one story, one voice, and it does a disservice to the region every time that it is painted in such a way.

While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I added White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg to my TBR list. I hope it will provide more of the in-depth analysis that I am looking for right now.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars.

Book Review – George by Alex Gino

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Title: George
Author: Alex Gino
Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Own Voices, LGBTQIA+

Whew. Everything seems to be a tear-jerker to me right now. President Obama’s farewell address. Joe Biden being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. Lin Manuel-Miranda and Christopher Jackson performing “One Last Time” from Hamilton, at the White House.

This is Us. To be honest, every episode of This is Us makes me sweat water out of my eyes.

And George.

This sweet, beautiful, heartwarming story about a transgender girl’s struggle to come out to her family and friends. It strikes the perfect tone for a middle-grade story tackling a serious subject. Many transgender kids know who they are years in advance of puberty and adolescence, which is one of the many reasons why this is so important to have as a middle-grade book.

George is a delightful character, who exudes a quiet strength. From the start of the story, we see George thinking of herself through the use of feminine pronouns, which frankly, if it wasn’t done that way, would have been disappointing. She has always been sure of her identity, but lacked the self-confidence to be her true self in front of others.

Yes, this is a middle-grade novel, but I definitely think it has appeal to everyone, no matter your age. And the first time that we see George genuinely smile – unforced – it is a beautiful thing. I found Kelly to also be a delightful character. A true friend, who supports and accepts George as she is…the two have a very sweet friendship that shines throughout the story.

My daughter is currently a 3rd grader, and it was very interesting to compare how many things were gendered in George’s school compared to my daughter’s school. There are no restrictions at M’s school when kids try out for parts in a play or musical, unlike George’s experience with Charlotte’s Web. Last summer, our large school district passed a policy that will go a long way towards phasing out gender-based activities that “have no educational purpose”, such as having a girls’ and boys’ line to go to recess, a situation that George was confronted with every day. While M’s school does not use gender-based lining up, other schools in the district still did. Our school board has also asked teachers to stop using gender pronouns, to replace “boys” and “girls” with “scholars” or “students”. This last action was HUGE, and sadly, provoked a huge outcry from the religious right in our community. I am grateful that we live in a school district that is taking progressive steps towards supporting transgender students, and making the school environment a safe space for everyone.

However, there is still progress to be made at M’s school. For example, in her PE class yesterday, the class was divided by gender to play a game. George really helped M and I start to think about all of the situations in which gender distinctions arise, and how the majority of them can very easily be done in a gender-neutral way.

Living in North Carolina, our state has gotten its fair share of negative attention, deservedly, over the past year for the state legislature’s horrendous actions with passing HB2 (coined by the media as “the bathroom bill”), a topic I won’t go into too much detail here, but was a direct attack against the LGBT community, and most especially transgender individuals. When that legislation was first passed, I sent each of my legislature’s that voted for HB2 (and in one case, co-sponsored it), a copy of George.

I hope they read it.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book Review – El Deafo by Cece Bell

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Title: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Illustrator: Cece Bell
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Genre: Graphic Novels, Memoir, Middle grade, Own Voices

There are a lot of absolutely wonderful middle-grade graphic novels out there, and El Deafo is no exception. This one is stellar.

First, let me be completely honest. I never read comic books or graphic novels as a kid. Up until a few years ago, I had never even picked one up.

However, I married a guy who loves graphic novels. Slowly, but surely, because I will read almost anything if it sits in front of me long enough, I gave them a try, starting with V is for Vendetta. And then the Sandman series.

So, when my daughter first started expressing an interest in graphic novels a year or so ago, I began to pick up the middle-grade ones. And that is how I came to read El Deafo, after seeing it on a library reading list. I studied Sign Language during undergrad, and visited Gallaudet University, one of the only university’s in the world designed to be barrier-free for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. One thing that I learned is that there are lots of different ways to be deaf. In the author’s note at the end of El Deafo, Cece writes about the differences in deafness, and about Deaf Culture, where sign language is the main way to communicate and deafness is seen as something that shouldn’t be attempted to be “fixed” with cochlear implants and other devices.

Cece Bell makes it quite clear in her Author’s Note that her experience as portrayed in her book is her experience alone, and shouldn’t be viewed as “right or wrong” from anyone else’s experience or perspective. I actually loved her Author’s Note almost as much as the whole story, and it is definitely not something you should skip over at the end when reading El Deafo.

In this semi-autobiographical graphic novel, we are introduced to the story of a young rabbit named Cece who  loses her hearing after a serious illness at a young age. It is the story of a girl – rabbit – growing up with a serious hearing impairment: how she felt, and how she handled the insecurities she felt when people treated her differently.

I loved how so much of the story is a humourous take on her personal journey through early childhood – particularly the elementary school years. First, she attends a school for deaf children, which is where she learns to lipread. However, her family soon moves to a new town and she has to leave the school that she loves. At her new school, Cece uses what is called a Phonic Ear, a bulky device that helps her hear the teacher. Cece creates a superhero alter-ego, El Deafo, to help cope with the trials that come along with adjusting to a new school and trying to make new friends while also getting used to the Phonic Ear. We get to see Cece’s innermost thoughts and daydreams as she interacts with her family, friends, and teachers. The illustrations are thoroughly appealing and incredibly cute, I really love that Cece choose rabbits instead of people for this book.

In El Deafo, we get to spend six years with Cece Bell. I wish it was more! Cece the rabbit is resilient, heart-warming, and incredibly funny. El Deafo, which is both written and illustrated by Cece Bell, is a beautiful gift for children and adults alike.

To wrap up, here’s a short review from my 9-year old M, and her thoughts on El Deafo:

I really liked the book because I like to read about people who are different from me. It helps me understand more about how others view the world. And I loved the drawings! Cece Bell is a really good illustrator. I give it 5/5 stars.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book Review – The Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

This will be a relatively short review, because I am not having the greatest week. My endometriosis is flaring up a bit, and on Wednesday I had an adverse reaction to my monthly allergy shots. Which had me in bed (and almost in the hospital) for 24 hours. I was up and about yesterday, but my body still felt worn out and was recovering from the onslaught of allergies and asthma. Today is much better.

Fun times for the first day of my daughter’s winter break. The last day of 2016 can not come soon enough!! It has been one thing after another this year, for me and the world.

On to the book review!

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Book: Mockingbird
Author: Kathryn Erskine
Publisher: Philomel Books
Genre: Middle Grade, Neurodiversity

Book Blurb: 

In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon’s dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white—the world is full of colors—messy and beautiful.Kathryn Erskine has written a must-read gem, one of the most moving novels of the year.

There aren’t too many books out there about girls with Asperger’s. Much of mainstream society’s understanding of Asperger’s (when they are even aware of what it is), is based on the profile of boy’s and men who are Aspies. In my life, I do know a few people with Asperger’s, all who identify as male. Is Asperger’s truly more prevalent amongst the male population, or is it woefully under-identified in the female populace? I would hazard a guess that it is a bit of both. Current research is beginning to show that the current diagnostic methods used for the autism spectrum overlook how it can manifest differently in girls.

On that note, enter Caitlin. An 11-year-old girl going through a very rough time in her life. She recently lost her brother in a school shooting, her mom died of cancer a few years previously, and her dad is struggling to come to terms with grief himself. Caitlin is struggling with her own grief and emotions, as well as fitting in at school and working on making new friends.

Looking at reviews written by people with Asperger’s, Kathryn Erskine has done a commendable job portraying what it is like for a young girl with Asperger’s. She tackles a difficult subject: how people deal with the loss of a loved one differently, and how our lives would be different – and better – if we work harder at understanding each other.

I loved the first person narration, seeing the world through Caitlin’s eyes. To experience how a typical school day feels for her .

“I hate recess even though Devon says it’s supposed to be my favorite subject and there is no recess once you get to middle school so enjoy it now. But I can’t enjoy it because I’m surrounded by sharp screaming and it’s too bright adn people’s elbows are all pointy and dangerous and it’s hard to breathe and my stomach always feels really really sick.”

There are quite a few times in the story where the other kids are really anger-inducing. As an adult looking in on the story, I wanted to scream out to the teachers, “Your school really needs some grade-wide lessons on anti-bullying, tolerance, and diversity!!!” The way that some of the other girls mocked Caitlin was frustrating, and I was happy to see this semi-addressed later on in the story.

I loved the tie-in with To Kill A Mockingbird. I won’t go into detail, but it really highlighted the sweet relationship between Caitlin and her brother. It was also completely cry-inducing. There were so many parts of this book that pulled on my heartstrings!

“When Dad drives me home from school I look at the sign in front of the church we used to go to. It says, OUR HEARTS are still with the families of Julianne, Devon and Roberta. Except OUR HEARTS couldn’t do anything to save Devon’s Heart. Maybe that’s why Dad drives past.”

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book Review – LaRose by Louise Erdrich

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Book: LaRose
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Literary Fiction, Ojibwe, Contemporary, Own Voices

LaRose easily jumps to the top of the list of my favorite books of 2016. It is a beautiful novel of love and atonement. The story takes place in the same geographic region as Plague of Doves and Round House: the small, fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota, and the Ojibwe reservation next to it.

LaRose begins with heartbreak. While hunting a deer that Landreaux Iron has been tracking all season, he accidentally shoots his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich. This is not a spoiler, it happens on page two. To make amends, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline follow a tradition of their ancestors, and give their own young son LaRose to the Ravich family in atonement, as an “old form of justice”. Young LaRose steps up to the role, helping to heal the hearts of both families.

The roots of the story go back to the Ojibwe culture that Erdrich herself hails from, and is the story of families and tragedies that span generations.

“Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence. All Indians know that. To stop it quickly takes great effort, which is why LaRose was sent.”

As we come to find out, the accidental shooting was not the first tragedy, and LaRose is descended from a long line of healers, back to the original LaRose. Tragedies follow the LaRose lineage, from the selling of the first LaRose in the 1800s to a trader, through boarding schools, sexual abuse, tuberculosis, and the desecration of remains. LaRose is a name that has been passed through five generations, and in each generation, the name is given to one who has a connection to the spirit world.

But this is not a story about grief and tragedy. It is a story of love and redemption, about the way people live,  and how they rebuild their lives back together. Louise Erdrich’s story acknowledges that, to many American Indians, the pain and pleasures of the past are not forgotten, but become the foundation on which the present is built. In the novel, this is portrayed through the very home of the Iron family.

“Landreaux and Emmaline’s house contained the original cabin from 1846, built in desperation as snow fell on their ancestors. It satisfied them both to know that if the layers of drywall and plaster were torn away from the walls, they would find the interior pole and mud walls. The entire first family-babies, mothers, uncles, children, aunts, grandparents-had passed around tuberculosis, diptheria, sorrow, endless tea, hilarious and sacred, dirty, magical stories. They had lived and died in what was now the living room, and there had always been a LaRose.”

Erdrich provides a rich backstory spanning generations, in which the reader gets a better idea of how the parallel stories form and influence the present.

One theme present in the story of the earlier generations of LaRose, is the difference between the Ojibwe values and the American culture under which the Ojibwe had to live. This is specifically highlighted in the boarding school experiences. One of the boarding schools mentioned in the novel, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, existed only a few miles away from where I grew up. As an adult, I was shocked to first become aware of its existence when visiting the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. At the time, I was astonished that the Carlisle School never made an appearance in the history books of my high school. A slightly older, wiser me now knows better. I now actively work to bring the stories and histories that are often unheard by white Americans to the forefront, at least with my own daughter.

“At the school, everything was taken from her. Losing her mother’s drum was like losing Mink all over again. At night, she asked the drum to fly back to her. But it never did. She soon learned how to fall asleep. Or let the part of myself they call hateful fall asleep, she thought. But it never did. Her whole being was Anishinaabe. She was Illusion. She was Mirage. Ombanitemagad. Or what they call her now – Indian. As in, Do not speak Indian, when she had been speaking her own language.”

LaRose is a powerful exploration of justice and reparation. A novel incredibly difficult to review but easy to love. I highly, highly recommend it, especially if you are a fan of Erdrich’s earlier work.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review – Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Title: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Genre: Poetry, memoir, middle-grade, nonfiction, #ownvoices

I very rarely read books written in verse, but when I do, I am usually pleasantly surprised. Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir written in verse form. The whole middle-grade book is written in simple, free verse poems.

Simple, but astoundingly beautiful. Succinct is probably a more apt description than simple. At times, heartbreaking. And absolutely and without a doubt, there is more there than meets the eye.

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In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award in 2014 for Brown Girl Dreaming. Her book was also a Newbery Honor Book, and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award. She deserves all of the accolades, and more.

Brown Girl Dreaming is largely about Jacqueline’s childhood, from her early childhood years in the 1960s in Greenville, South Carolina through her family’s move to NYC and her elementary school years, when she first discovered her interest in writing. I loved hearing her stories from Greenville, when she lived with her mom, siblings, and grandparents. Her grandfather became a father-figure to her, and her love for her grandparents and their importance in her life is a big part of her story.

Don’t be fooled that this is just a memoir. Woodson delves into everything from the Civil Rights movement, to moving from Ohio, to the Jim Crow American South, to New York. From race to religion, she does not sugarcoat what it is like to grow up black in the 1960s and 70s, both in the South and the North.

This is a book for everyone. But most especially, Brown Girl Dreaming is a book for elementary and middle-school aged girls. Girls who may not have an easy time at home. Girls who are PoC. Girls who may not fit the typical academic mold. Girls who don’t think of themselves as great because they don’t fit the typical academic mold. For any and all of the above type of girls, this is a must-read.

Yes, you can speed through this book in one sitting, as fast as my husband’s family consumes our Thanksgiving dinner. But, the book is much better suited to the Slow Food movement: pace yourself, slowly and thoughtfully, as you read and digest her words.

Deep winter and the night air is cold. So still,

it feels like the world goes on forever in the darkness

until you look up and the earth stops

in a ceiling of stars. My head against

my grandfather’s arm,

a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing.

Its whine like a song.

You don’t need words

on a night like this. Just the warmth

of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise

that the world as we know it

will always be here.

 Rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review: Heartless by Marissa Meyer

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Title: Heartless
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Genre: YA Fantasy, Retellings, Romance

There seem to be some misconceptions floating around Goodreads, and other places, about Heartless. It is not written in the same style as The Lunar Chronicles. It is not a spin-off or side story of that world. It is set in the Victorian past, Lewis Carroll’s era, not the future. It is fantastic.

What Heartless is: a wonderful prequel story about the Queen of Hearts. Marissa Meyer does an amazing job recreating Wonderland; I felt that I was right back in Lewis Carroll’s zany, twisty-turny crazy world. I highly recommend that any reader of Heartless start out by first reading both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, if you haven’t done so already. And then revel in the creative, true to the original, back stories that Marissa Meyer created for so many beloved Wonderland characters: the Mad Hatter, the household of the Duke and Duchess, the Red and White Queen of Chess. The Mock Turtle, the silly King of Hearts, the Knave, Mr. Caterpillar…Cheshire. Cheshire! And of course…the future Queen of Hearts.

I like retellings of fairy tales and classic stories, but I am very, very picky when modern-day authors take a classic story and add on a prequel or sequel. I have barely tolerated almost every single Pride & Prejudice sequel ever written (I’m looking at you, Death Comes to Pemberley). So I went into Heartless quite cautiously.

Marissa Meyer did not disappoint.

“But hoping,” he said, “is how the impossible can be possible after all.”

Catherine, daughter of a Marquis and Marchioness, is a young woman whose only desire is to open a bakery with her close friend, house maid Mary Ann. Her parents have other plans, as she also happens to be a favorite of the King, who attempts to propose to her at the beginning of the novel. At the same Royal Ball where she runs from a possible proposal, Catherine meets Jest, the mysterious and new court Joker. Cath is determined to make her own pathway through life, with the person she chooses to love, in a world that has other plans for her.

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Of course, I had to have my own tea party while immersed in the world of Wonderland and Hatta’s Tea Party (before he goes mad)! I visited Dobra Tea Shop in Asheville on Tuesday and had a lovely green tea with a ginger and sesame cake. The only thing missing was a lemon tart or macaroon! A reader must definitely be well-stocked in delicious pastries before sitting down to read this one!

“Mind my words, Cheshire, I will have you banished from this kingdom if you tempt me.”

“An empty threat from an empty girl.”

She rounded on him, teeth flashing. “I am not empty. I am full to the brim with murder and revenge. I am overflowing and I do not think you wish for me to overflow on to you.”

“There was a time” – Cheshire yawned – “when you overflowed with whimsy and icing sugar. I liked that Catherine better.”

Heartless is heart-breaking. You know where it is going, it’s like a train wreck that you can’t derail. No matter how many times you scream NO!! DON’T DO THAT!!, there is nothing that you can do to stop Catherine from becoming the Queen of Hearts we all know and love to hate.

The journey is definitely worthy of a Lewis Carroll character.

Not only is Heartless a fantastic stand-alone novel, I also seem to notice a progression in the writing. I have read and enjoyed all of the Lunar Chronicles books, and this one seems a step above. Bravo, Marissa Meyer! She strikes just the right balance without becoming too nonsensical. I hope she continues to write more stand-alone novels!

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

Book Review – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

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Title: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: YA Contemporary

Rainbow Rowell seems to be one of those YA authors that “everyone should read”. So, I figured it was about time I picked up one of her books and read it!

I picked up Eleanor & Park on a whim this month, as it was not in my planned November reading list, but I am so thankful I did. It was just what I needed right now. The characters are offbeat misfits; the story is both heartwarming and heart-achingly tender.

Eleanor and Park. Eleanor, Eleanor…I loved her, flaws and all, although the majority of her flaws were due to her horrendous family members, not her. I have seen Eleanor’s behavior before, in a friend or two, and Rainbow Rowell really nailed what it can be like living in an abusive home. My heart bled for her and her siblings so many times. It was devastating to read about her lack of basic necessities – like food and clothing – and the creative ways she learned to compensate. Particularly her self-created fashion style, born out of necessity, totally owning it. Eleanor was a teen in pure survival mode, building a wall of protection around herself and not letting anyone in through the gate…until Park comes along.

Park. PARK. I wish I had a Park back when I was in high school. What a sweet guy. He’s kind and sweet and just awesome. His family was wonderful, too.

The two of them together were so adorable. And I love how they slowly , awkwardly connected, over comic books! I think I do a happy dance every time characters bond over books.

Shakespeare. Rainbow Rowell incorporated Shakespeare into the story, and it really, truly worked! I love when Shakespeare references work. Rowell uses Romeo & Juliet to help frame the storyline – you find out in the very beginning that the story doesn’t necessarily have a “happily ever after” ending for the two young-and-in-love teens, and it is further amplified by the Shakespeare references early on.

The Ending. I won’t say what happened, but feel free to discuss in the comments, which I am making a SPOILER zone! Did you like the ending? I definitely liked the way it ended. For the most part.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Book Review – Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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Title: Furthermore
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Genre: Middle-grade

Book Blurb:

There are only three things that matter to twelve-year-old Alice Alexis Queensmeadow: Mother, who wouldn’t miss her; magic and color, which seem to elude her; and Father, who always loved her. The day Father disappears from Ferenwood he takes nothing but a ruler with him. But it’s been almost three years since then, and Alice is determined to find him. She loves her father even more than she loves adventure, and she’s about to embark on one to find the other.

But bringing Father home is no small matter. In order to find him she’ll have to travel through the mythical, dangerous land of Furthermore, where down can be up, paper is alive, and left can be both right and very, very wrong. It will take all of Alice’s wits (and every limb she’s got) to find Father and return home to Ferenwood in one piece. On her quest to find Father, Alice must first find herself—and hold fast to the magic of love in the face of loss.

Whimsical. Almost every review I have read about Furthermore, describes this middle-grade novel as whimsical.

As it turns out, whimsical is an apt description.

First off, the cover art. Isn’t it gorgeous? I freely and humbly admit that picking up this book was purely a case of judging a book by its cover! It’s very fitting…Alice Alexis Queensmeadow stands out in her home land for being devoid of color in a world obsessed by it. And she stands out on the book cover as well, for much the same reasons. I read a library copy, and I usually keep library books in our lovely little library basket when not actively reading a book. With Furthermore, I kept displaying it at various spots around the house. It is just that much fun and so mood uplifting to see! All the images started to come together and make sense as I continued my journey through the book, and it was fun to use the cover art almost like a reference map as I was reading.

In Ferenwood, magic is a part of every day life, and all Ferenwood citizens possess a type of magical ability. It is a town where magic is grown and harvested – I do wish this aspect had been explained in a bit more detail – and a place where all 12 year olds have to participate in the Surrender.

I was briefly worried, but no, the Surrender does not go in the direction of The Hunger Games. Whew! In the Surrender, children must demonstrate – surrender – their greatest power. They are then given a task to complete, something that will help better the town of Ferenwood. A magical community service project, one could say.

Sounds simple, but in a land that is like a topsy-turvy Wonderland with a dash of Harry Potter and a pinch of Unfortunate Events, nothing is simple and straightforward.

Because, dear reader, we have Alice. A  blank canvas in a world of vivid color. Alice’s father went missing three years ago, and her mother seems to take out her sadness on Alice more than anyone else. As I don’t want to go into too many details as to how Alice’s journey to find Father begins, I will just change topics too…

“Some evenings all the unspoken hurts piled high on their plates and they ate sorrow with their syrup.”

The writing! This book was SO much fun to read. Sometimes, whimsical, metaphor-laden writing becomes a chore. That was definitely not the case for Furthermore! Taherah Mafi is an amazingly talented writer, and Furthermore is a pure joy to read. It’s the kind of novel, like Alice in Wonderland, that you need to just accept the oddity and absurdity, and go with the flow.

Another thing I really loved, especially considering it is a middle-grade book, is the character growth of Alice and Oliver. Alice has some important lessons to learn (so does Oliver!), the biggest of which is learning to love herself just the way she is, no matter what other people think. Studies have shown that a girl’s self-esteem and positive body image peaks at 9 years old, and body shaming by peers  – and sadly, sometimes family members – definitely starts to build in the later elementary years. Furthermore sends a positive message to this age demographic to embrace and love themselves as they are.

The only complaint I would have about Furthermore is the abruptness of the ending. The story is building and building, and suddenly you are over the hurdle and at the end of the book. It just happened too quickly.

“The morning arrived the way Alice imagined a whisper would: in tendrils of gray and threads of gold, quietly, quietly. The sky was illuminated with great care and deliberation, and she leaned back to watch it bloom.”

Overall, I really enjoyed this middle-grade novel, which appeals to kids and adults alike!

Rating: 4/5 stars

Have you read Furthermore? What did you think of the ending?