Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle

troublingasReleased: September 30, 1994
Pages: 336 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Conservation, environmental protection, patriotism, authoritarian governments vs. democracy, post-Cold War, world conflict
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★1/2

The Austins have settled back into their beloved home in the country after more than a year away. Though they had all missed the predictability and security of life in Thornhill, Vicky Austin is discovering that slipping back into her old life isn’t easy. She’s been changed by life in New York City and her travels around the country while her old friends seem to have stayed the same. So Vicky finds herself spending time with a new friend, Serena Eddington—the great-aunt of a boy Vicky met over the summer.

Aunt Serena gives Vicky an incredible birthday gift—a month-long trip to Antarctica. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But Vicky is nervous. She’s never been away from her family before. Once she sets off though, she finds that’s the least of her worries. She receives threatening letters. She’s surrounded by suspicious characters. Vicky no longer knows who to trust. And she may not make it home alive.

Forward

Unlike with The Arm of the Starfish, I could remember the first time I read Troubling a Star. I don’t know why, but I just remember I read in in a big hardcover format. Maybe because this book was published in the 1990s, the library still had a first-edition hardcover copy with the dust jacket. I’m pretty sure I read this one around 8th grade and still remember some of the stuff that really resonated with me.

Specifically, I remember really relating to Vicky about being ignorant of what was going on in the world internationally. Since about 6th grade, standardized reading assessments had always recommended I read more non-fiction, newspapers, etc. I had been really adverse to that kind of thing when I was younger. I was happy to keep my head in the clouds, much like Vicky! I never saw it as a bad thing, maybe because of these books (and similar ones)!

Anyway, this book is very different from many of L’Engle’s other works stylistically and tonally. I think it was because so much time had passed since she’d written about Vicky Austin. I feel like she may have known this was the last time she’d write about Vicky considering how this book finds the girl in such tremendous danger that is heightened by the naivety for which she is cherished in earlier books.

I rated this book 3.5 stars, primarily because I found the novel dragged for me at certain parts. I’ll be honest, the major appeal of rereading this book was to continue reading about Adam, but he is barely present in this book. Regardless, I think this novel has some important lessons and a message I find really important. (And after having read Dragons in the Waters, I look upon this book with more appreciation.)

My Thoughts

This book is set a little over a year after A Ring of Endless Light (reviewed last week) but was published about 14 years after. You might wonder why I make a note of the years between the books, and it is because I find it helpful when I’m considering character consistency in the books. For this book, I think it is integral because it’s the final that features the beloved Vicky Austin.

We get to see the Austin family settle back into their home in Thornhill after a year away in New York (see The Young Unicorns) and their final summer with their beloved grandfather (see A Ring of Endless Light). Vicky has found it hard to fit back into her school where the kids seem less cultured and less eager to branch outside of their hometown.

Luckily, Adam Eddington connects her with his (great) Aunt Serena. She fills a void left by the loss of her grandfather and helps keep Vicky connected with Adam who attends college in California. Vicky learns that her Adam is the third in his family, a proud line of men who worked in science. His immediate predecessor, Aunt Serena’s son, vanished in Antarctica after performing crucial work on the continent.

After receiving the generous gift of passage to Antarctica to visit Adam Eddington where he has an internship, Vicky finds herself naturally drawn into the mystery of what happened to Adam II and unwittingly into the politics behind his work on the continent. Before she leaves for Antarctica, she begins receiving mysterious messages in her locker at school. The threatening notes only increase the closer she gets to Antarctica, coming alongside Adam’s increasing cryptic letters that seem to signal his lack of interest in her.

Much of Troubling a Star is set in the Vespugia (a fictional South American country run by a power-hungry dictator) and aboard the Argosy, a scientific crew ship that hosts an eclectic bunch of people interested in Antarctica for variety of personal reasons. Vicky finds herself unexpectedly thrown into danger where people mistake her naivety as a disguise of something that threatens their plans to exploit the continent for their country’s own gain.

…The planet has been sending us multiple messages, and the powers that be have ignored them. So it’s up to us, and my guess is that when you’ve finished this trip you’ll feel as protective of this amazing land as I do…

I loved the insight into the politics surrounding this continent in the 20th century. It’s not something I knew much about and I’m interested in learning more. I don’t know when exactly the book is set, but I can only imagine the environment is even more threatened now, which is especially sad considering much of this book is concerned with educating readers, through the characters, about how important it is they take what they learn aboard the Argosy home to protect this land from the devastation that in 2018 seems inevitable given the current U.S. political climate.

Craft

Before I get started, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t admit I thought this book was rather clumsy on first impression. It’s very different from L’Engle’s other works, for the two reasons I’ll elaborate on below. First, she experimented in this book with a new style of storytelling that I found somewhat effective in keeping my interest piqued at the start of each chapter.

This is the first book of L’Engle’s that I’ve read that jumps back and forth between a current danger and the events leading up to that present day drama. Most of the story is told in flashbacks. From the beginning we see Vicky has been stranded on a glacier and is waiting for someone to realize she is missing and return for her before it’s too late. She doesn’t reveal what exactly led to her being stranded on the glacier, so we can only guess until the end of the book where her flashbacks catch up to the moment she is saved.

The second reason this book felt very different from her others is that I picked up on a sense of urgency to speak about environmental protection. This is not the first of L’Engle’s books to get political. I think she does it very cleverly by creating fictional countries that stand in for the ones she was truly critical of at the time, Vespugia representing unstable South American countries with dictators and Zlatovica representing the unfortunate countries Russia hid under its Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

This book is very critical, and rightly so, of people who act blindly for the advancement of their own country at the expense of the rest of the world. It’s clear that L’Engle was trying to teach readers of this book about Antarctica, to foster the same kind of love I can only imagine she felt for this formidable land and its creatures. I applaud the effort, but as someone who first and foremost looks at the story at the heart of a novel, I found the environmental message which took away from the story I would’ve loved more from.

My biggest takeaway from this book, from the writing perspective, is that I found myself thinking about how I’d go about writing YA contemporaries like L’Engle in 2018. The world is still a dangerous place, Antarctica is far worse off than it was in the 90s, there are even more problems facing young people today. I feel like L’Engle’s books are not just stories you’re meant to gobble but time capsules with insight into the period in which they were written that we can read not just for enjoyment but with a critical eye…

Outgoing Message

I hope you’re enjoying these reviews if you’ve been keeping up with them. In case you weren’t aware, I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite books by Madeleine L’Engle this month (see my reviews of A Ring of Endless Light and The Arm of the Starfish).

Next week I’ll be sharing one more Madeleine L’Engle book review for Dragons in the Waters. To be honest, I didn’t really like it and didn’t really want to promote it on my blog. So it’ll be a different kind of review for me. To foil that book, I slightly adjusted course this month to fit in The City of Beasts by Isabel Allende, the book review of which I will share next week as well!

Have you read Troubling a Star? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle

thearmReleased: January 1, 1965
Pages: 243 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Trust, faith, picking sides, standing for something, friendship, dealing with grief
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★★

When Adam Eddington, a gifted marine biology student, makes the acquaintance of blond and beautiful Kali Cutter at Kennedy International Airport on his way to Portugal to spend the summer working for the renowned scientist Dr. O’Keefe, he has no idea that this seemingly chance meeting will set into motion a chain of events he will be unable to stop.

Caught between Kali’s seductive wiles and the trusting adoration of Dr. O’Keefe’s daughter, Polly, Adam finds himself enmeshed in a deadly power struggle between two groups of people, only one of which can have right on its side. As the danger escalates, Adam must make a decision that could affect the entire world–which side is he on?

Forward

I don’t remember exactly the last time I read The Arm of the Starfish. If I had to guess, I’d probably say 2012 or 2013. I feel like I might have read it before then, but I’m not sure. I know both (or just the one) time(s) I had borrowed it from the library (as a lesser known L’Engle work it is hard to find physically in stores). It’s not that it’s an unmemorable book, but it’s not one that I’ve ever had much cause to think about beyond a week or so of reading it.

There are more than a handful of books I love but don’t attempt to remember in depth so that each future time I read them it’s somewhat like the first time. This is one of them.

If you haven’t read either A Ring of Endless Light or The Arm of the Starfish, I recommend reading the former first, even though it came out after. These books are very different from one another, but I think it’s nicer to read The Arm of the Starfish with an idea of who the protagonist will become. I loved this book. I love the character of Adam and I like the journey his character takes to become the person he is in A Ring of Endless Light. I have rated this book 4 stars, primarily because I have taken my love for her other books into account.

My Thoughts

This book precedes A Ring of Endless Light (which I reviewed last week) by about 15 years in terms of publication, but takes place only a summer before the better known, more accoladed work. It features Adam Eddington as the protagonist of this summer-time escapade. It’s set in Europe, Portugal/Spain more specifically, and involves international intrigue and a top-secret scientific study. So it’s very different from the novel centered around Vicky Austin!

We get to see an Adam Eddington who is a year younger than he is A Ring of Endless Light, who is a lot less confident and sure of the world. Although he has lived a colorful life in 1960s (presumably) New York, he’s not yet been forced to make tough, life-altering decisions. In The Arm of the Starfish, he learns that scientists cannot be neutral when their work has economic and moral implications. He also learns how important is it to know who is worth trusting.

From the first chapter while Adam is innocently waiting for his plane to Europe to board, he is drawn into a dangerous plot that forces him to constantly question which people truly are on the right side of things. While he is struggling he meets the wonderful O’Keefes (a grown up Calvin and Meg from A Wrinkle in Time plus their children) and is given the space to come to his own conclusion, at which point he learns that he must play a role to keep his allegiance and a major scientific discovery a secret.

This book is short, fast-paced, and could be finished in one sitting if the reader is truly immersed in the story. If you enjoyed and were moved by A Ring of Endless Light, I think you will also be moved by this book. There’s a lot of moments of good humor and joy, but there are also some devastating ones that can have you sobbing your heart out and railing against injustice.

Craft

Since I just read La Belle Sauvage, I feel like I’m well and fully on an international-spy-thriller genre kick right now! I don’t know if I’m just easy to please or unexperienced in the genre, I feel like this book is also a good one to consult if you’re writing a book where there’s people who want to stop or exploit a new discovery and people who want to protect it.

This book gave me a major 1960s Audrey Heburn movie vibe, like Charade (1963) or How to Steal a Million (1966). I think it was the European setting, the rich and glamorous love interest, the shifty characters, and the suspense-filled plot.

Despite all the excitement, this book has the characteristic L’Engle heart to the story. There are several beautiful scenes of intense fraternal love and, on the opposite side of the scale, devastating anger. One scene that I feel has been etched into me is a scene where Adam is being taken to Gaea by Joshua, and they encounter turbulence. I’ve flown through turbulence before, and found it horrendous, so to read about them on this rickety plane and see Joshua embracing it while bellowing out classical music was elating and beautiful scene that shows the kind of person Joshua is.

Outgoing Message

Last week at the end of my review of A Ring of Endless Light, I forecasted how the next few reviews would go. I have a few updates: 1) They will not be dual reviews, because I’ve found I have so much to say, and 2) I will not longer be reading and reviewing The Young Unicorns. I’ve read this book before, so I definitely know I want to review it on this blog in the future, but from the first page I just knew that this wasn’t the best time for it. It’s a cosy autumnal read, so I’ll get to it later this year!

Instead, I’ve decided to add The City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende to the line-up this month. It one I read as a child and remember very it very fondly. I think it will nicely compliment Dragons in the Waters for a few reasons I’ll explain next week.

Have you read The Arm of the Starfish? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle

ringReleased: May 1, 1980
Pages: 332 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Coming-of-age, dealing with grief, searching for meaning, friendship, family
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★★

After a tumultuous year in New York City, the Austins are spending the summer on the small island where their grandfather lives. He’s very sick, and watching his condition deteriorate as the summer passes is almost more than Vicky can bear. To complicate matters, she finds herself as the center of attention for three very different boys.

Zachary Grey, the troubled and reckless boy Vicky met last summer, wants her all to himself as he grieves the loss of his mother. Leo Rodney has been just a friend for years, but the tragic loss of his father causes him to turn to Vicky for comfort—and romance. And then there’s Adam Eddington. Adam is only asking Vicky to help with his research on dolphins. But Adam—and the dolphins—may just be what Vicky needs to get through this heartbreaking summer.

Forward

A Ring of Endless Light continues to be one of my all-time favorite books. I probably first read it around the age of 12. I’m pretty sure I read A Wrinkle in Time first, a required in-class reading in 5th grade Language Arts class, but I was aware of A Ring of Endless Light before Wrinkle because I had seen the 2002 Disney Channel Original Movie book-to-movie adaption. While I loved it then, I’m not really sure it holds up in my eyes. The movie was very different from the book and not really in a way that I can defend.

With summer approaching, I wanted to give this book a reread and shine a spot-light on this YA classic in the hope that it would find new readers. I don’t feel like there’s anything quite like it being published these days and feel like it still has a lot to offer new generations of young adults.

I feel like people may be more familiar with A Wrinkle in Time, the science fiction adventure. A Ring of Endless Light has some speculative science but all together is grounded in the real world with real-life challenges that people have to face, like losing loved ones and choosing how to live one’s life. Like Meg, Vicky is at an age where she questions everything that is happening around her and finds herself thrust into situations she isn’t fully ready for.

My Thoughts

“It’s hard to let go anything we love. We live in a world which teaches us to clutch. But when we clutch we’re left with a fistful of ashes.”

Taking place over the course of a summer, this novel is about Vicky Austin and her family trying to enjoy their remaining time with her grandfather who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Vicky is asked to be available at home to support her mother during the difficult time, but her father still fully supports each of his children taking on a summer project of some sort.

Vicky’s summer project becomes helping Adam Eddington, a summer intern at the local marine biology center, with his top-secret research involving dolphin communication. While he has the mind of a scientist, he recognizes the benefit of a poet’s perspective. They are both surprised to find just how well his dolphins take to her and how integral she becomes to his research.

While she grows closer to Adam, the boy who understands her but begins to keep her at an arm’s distance, she is also grappling with her evolving relationships to two others she’s known for longer. She finds herself no longer so revolted by Leo, the son of a recently deceased family friend, while at the same time having to navigate his clumsy romantic advances. She’s also juggling the rich, troubled Zachary Grey, who keeps showing up out of nowhere with a desire to disrupt her peaceful existence.

It might sound like a soap opera, but I promise it’s not!

Throughout the book, Vicky is learning how to be a good friend and a shoulder to learn on while dealing with grief herself. In this novel she is not just supporting Leo and Zachary, but also watching grandfather deteriorate and be there for her mother. At this crucial time, she’s also renegotiating her relationships to all her siblings: the brother who is beginning to see her as a equal, the brother who is not a baby anymore, and the sister who needs more help than she lets on.

I love this book so much, it’s one that I almost wish I could hide away from the rest of the world and never share, for fear that outsiders could change the way I see this book. I know that there are people out there who might accuse this book of being sentimental (I think it toes the line perfectly) or religious (I think it supports faith but also a critical and open mind).

Craft

I’ve long admired L’Engle’s work not just for her storytelling ability or the lovable characters she writes but also for the way that all her books are interconnected. In A Ring of Endless Light, you can get a sense that it is L’Engle speaking through her characters when Vicky says, “Grandfather says there is no such thing as coincidence” and he elaborates, “The pattern is closely woven.”

For someone very familiar with her work, it seems to be a nod at her tendency to keep her novels set into the families she has created, namely the Murray-O’Keefes and the Austins. Because of the drastically different adventures these two families face, one could naturally expect them to live in alternative universes. What was so remarkable to me as a child was seeing that so many characters from her novels bounce from book to book, bridging these different worlds.

I feel like L’Engle did what Marvel Studios have sought to do since the first Iron Man (2008) movie, create stories that can stand alone but which have characters flit between each one uniting into something magnificent. L’Engle never had an Avengers-like culminating piece, but I still love looking at the family tree above and marveling (pun intended) at the world she created in her body of work, particularly as her novels were contemporary YA.

Yes, there was often a smidgen of science fiction/the supernatural embedded into her stories, but for me her novels stand out as a celebration of a close-knit nurturing family in a crazy, sometimes mean world. I feel like it might have been radical when these books were first coming out, given Zachary Gray’s morbid fascination with these families. I think they are more radical now in a time where our ideas of what makes a happy family have expanded.

Something else I always admired of L’Engles’ work is her integration of words of wisdom from famous literary, scientific, and spiritual figures. Her books have always seemed like a synthesis of many different ideas and academic field, which I love. I can’t really think of any YA authors who do this kind of thing right now. (That being said, feel free to share any authors think are integrating ideas from different disciplines down below!)

Outgoing Message

When I read this book, over a month ago now, I decided I wanted to revisit more of my favorite Madeleine L’Engle works that involve mysteries, science, and conspiracies. For that reason, I held back from publishing this review right away, so I could introduce my intentions for the next few book reviews that you will see on this blog this month.

Next week on Betwined Reads I will have my book reviews for The Arm of the Starfish and Troubling a Star, the two other L’Engle works that feature the marine biology-themed adventures of Adam Eddington. And the following week I will publish my reviews of the two more middle grade novels about kids uncovering international conspiracies in Dragons in the Waters and  The Young Unicorns.

Have you read A Ring of Endless Light? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 11.45.08 PMReleased: October 19, 2017
Pages: 464 pages (hardcover)
Theme(s): Bravery, loyalty, destiny, survival, the danger of theocratic rule, toxic Christianity, prejudice
Genre(s): Young Adult / Fantasy / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★★

Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy…

Malcolm’s father runs an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.

He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust–and the spy it was intended for finds him.

When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, Malcolm sees suspicious characters everywhere; Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; an Egyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a dæmon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl–just a baby–named Lyra.

Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

Preface

I first read The Golden Compass, the American title for the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, when I was in either 5th or 6th grade (2004/5ish). I’d loved it at the time, loving the fierce heroine presented in Lyra. I think she was one of the first strong female characters I’d ever read who was confident, brave, and not a bookworm or goodie-two-shoes (ahem *Hermione*).

I’m not sure if I ever finished the trilogy when I was a kid, but I recently gave the books a read in 2014 around the time I first got serious about writing. My earliest novel attempts were heavily influenced by these books with their complex themes and characters. I loved how these books that were marketed for young adults could also enthrall and resonate with meaning for adults. These are the kinds of books I hope to write.

Discovering La Belle Sauvage debuted last year was a happy coincidence. Of course, when I ordered it I was in the midst of a reading slump (a dangerous time to shop for books, I might add). So it’s taken me until now to finally give this book a go, hoping it’d motivate and inspire me as I wrote my first serious novel (serious as in not pantsing it during NaNoWriMo).

I had a great time reading La Belle Sauvage. I was extremely fast paced and held my attention and interest until about the 350-page mark. I’ll get into my 4-star rating down below!

My Thoughts

La Belle Sauvage, set about 10 years before the events of The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, follows the 11-year-old good-natured potboy Malcolm as he gets wrapped up in a secret conspiracy to protect a baby from forces that seem to want to do her harm after she is discovered to be the subject of a witch’s prophecy.

One critique I had of this book, although I don’t know how it could’ve been fixed, is that no one has the full-picture of what’s at stake in this novel. At lot is left up to chance, but from the original trilogy set in this world, we know that destiny has a guiding hand in the form of Dust.

Malcolm ends up becoming Lyra’s guardian once the flood hits and the nuns fail to listen to the gyptian warning about the weather. But he doesn’t know why she’s important at all, other than the man who’s after her, claiming to be her father, is super evil. So he’s driven by compassion and loyalty to return her to her true father when he can’t find her safe sanctuary anywhere else.

…This is a deep and uncomfortable paradox, which will not have escaped you; we can only defend democracy by being undemocratic. Every secret service knows this paradox…

Oakley Street is a secret organization that opposes the current conservative leadership in the government and actively works to undermine it. By chance, the leader of this organization was entrusted with the task of finding Lyra a suitable home when her mother wants nothing to do with her and her father is legally unable to step in. Once they find out the conservative baddies are trying to get custody of Lyra they become more interested in why she’s important and want to keep her out of their hands.

Malcolm becomes involved in Oakley Street once he accidentally intercepts a message from a soon-after deceased messenger. He’s tracked down by the woman who the message was meant for with the help of the alethiometer (the mysterious and rare symbolic truth-telling machine). Her role in the organization was to find answers to questions regarding Dust, which is in theory a terrible threat to Christian doctrine. She enlists Malcolm’s help as someone who can offer vital intel about the baby and anything else odd going on. (It’s actually kind of weird because we find she doesn’t even know exactly who she’s working for and her only job is consult the alethiometer with top-secret questions.)

This book would likely have been rated five stars up until the last 100 pages or so. It had all the makings of a favorite book of mine: interesting characters, political intrigue, and a mystery-driven plot. About midway through the novel there’s a history-making flood and then the book turns into an exciting action thriller with one of the scariest villains I’ve ever read.

The only problem is when the flood adventure begins to pay homage to the epic poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer. It’s trippy, at times disturbing, and fantastically boring, especially considering how it distracted from the story set up in the first 200 or so pages. I wanted to know more about Dr. Relf, who shared much page-time with Malcolm in the first half of the book. I also wanted to know what happened when Malcolm got home!

Craft

The book is written in the third-person perspective of an omniscient narrator who can see inside of Malcolm and Dr. Hannah Relf’s heads, also a couple of other Oakley Street operatives up to their own stuff. This point-of-view is really useful for mysteries, especially when no one character can know everything that is going on. It allows the reader to have a greater view of the story at hand.

However, at times, it could be difficult as a reader to remember when the character whom you are following reacts appropriately to story developments if you consider whether they knew a certain bit of information yet or not. For instance, Malcolm stumbles upon documents that discuss the Ruskov field and Dust and attempts to distract the villain by asking him about it, but this only seems significant after the chapter where the Oakley Street people have revealed the villain was a scientist who specialized in the Ruskov field.

This book provides a lot of great examples of how to write a spy thriller. There are secret messages, spies, espionage, also fun thrilling bits when characters are being watched or followed. I also liked seeing how people were inducted into the secret organization. Everyone who’s involved has a special skill set that makes them valuable.

If you’ve read the His Dark Materials trilogy, you’ll know already what a fantastic world-builder Philip Pullman is. His concept of dæmons is not explored in this book the way it is in his earlier works, but it’s still easy to see how integral they are to the characters in this world. Pullman’s style is to gradually reveal more and more details as they naturally arise in the course of the story that helps you understand how things work. I admire his sparing use of foreshadowing and slow build-ups to eventual plot points.

He also pulled off an extremely satisfying feat of character development the side character of Alice. I did not think she would end up being so important in the story at all, if anything I thought she might accidentally get Lyra killed. But she is the strong female character that this book needed to foil and support Malcolm on his quest. Absolutely love her and how Pullman brings her and Malcolm closer together.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed this book, and I’m glad to have finally gotten to it. I would 100% still recommend it to people, although probably not young children (rape and sexual themes frequent throughout the book, although, portrayed at times through the young protagonist’s perspective).

I don’t think fans of the His Dark Materials trilogy would necessarily like this book, as it doesn’t really change much about how you frame the drama of the trilogy. BUT I think it has a lot of value to offer as its own story.

I’m personally a little peeved that the next book in this The Book of Dust “series” will not follow Malcolm and Alice, who I adored in this book. However, I am excited, to know that it will follow a young adult Lyra!!! I just hope we find out what happened to these two kids who saved her life when she was too young to remember.

Have you read La Belle Sauvage? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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June Goals + TBR

June will be a very different month for me, because I’ll have a lot of time on my own to work on my personal projects. I’ll have a lot more personal freedom about what I do and when. I don’t know about you, but when I have a lot of extra free time on my hands I have a tendency to get less done than I do when my life has more of a structure (school, work, etc.). For that reason, this month’s goals and TBR are more important than previous months!

Not only do I want to get my novel done I want to continue the work I’ve started on Betwined Reads. Below are my goals and the list of books I intend to read in the month of June. I have no doubt I will reference this post at several points throughout the month.

^_^

Goals

1. Read more blogs!

I don’t know about others, but I feel sometimes like a lot of us are shouting into the void when it comes to our blog posts and bookish social media. I think the problem is we think so much about what we want to say and how we want to say that we forget that there are others we can learn from and find enjoyment in hearing from. So I want to start making it a daily habit to read and comment on blogs. In case you missed it, I did a specific post about my plans for Blog Hopping in June.

2. Write for at least 30 minutes everyday

I’m in the thick of writing my novel now and I really want to commit to working on it each day this month while my mind is still deep in my story. It hurts my progress to take a few days off of working on it so I know that if I commit to working on it everyday without fail great things will result.

3. Get organized

It’s been a year since I completed grad school and I’ve still yet to go through all my binders with readings or even fully organize my desktop and all my folders. I feel like I need to declutter and that will help me refocus my life in a way. I’d like to commit to at least one blog post this month on my progress. I think it will be a fun creative challenge to look forward to so that I don’t get burnt out on all the reading, writing, and blog hopping I’ll be doing this month. Wanna join me in getting organized this month?!

TBR

I feel like I made a mistake last month choosing books that would call for a lot of my time when I was still in the thick of a big reading project (what I will now refer to as the great Harry Potter rereading project of 2018). I also seemed to forget what I already know about myself, which is I don’t like getting stuck with a TBR of books that I have no immediate reason for/interest in reading.

So this month I thought realistically about the books that I want to read 1) in order to review, and 2) because I think they will inform my writing this month. As it turns out, the start of a new month (and the approach of summer) reminded me that I wanted to review all the great summer reads that are the Madeleine L’Engle books I acquired last month.

End Note

After a week of preparing posts the night before they were scheduled to upload, I’m ready for a little break to focus solely on writing! You’ll hear from me again next on Sunday with a new feature linked to my Blog Hopping in June plans. In the comments below, let me know what you plan to do in June!

In case you missed them, here’s a list of this week’s posts:

Blog Hopping in June

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Making a List of Possibilities | Writing Wednesdays

May Notes

Thank you for reading!
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The-Ocean-at-the-End-of-the-Lane-660x990Released: June 18, 2013
Pages: 195 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Memory, friendship, trust, childhood trauma, nightmares, multiplicity of worlds
Genre(s):  Adult / Fantasy / Fiction
Age Group: 14+

★★★★½

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touch-paper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

Introduction

I’m not someone who grew up with Neil Gaiman. I was only first exposed to, and really made aware of him, by my creative writing club filled with a bunch of pop-culture, story-loving nerds (who I adored dearly). Looking back, however, I realize I had seen Stardust (2007) and Coraline (2009) in high school and loved them, not knowing they were stories derived books from the same author.

Of Gaiman’s books, I had only read his adult fantasy novel Stardust, which I borrowed from my college finally read in 2014 (I reviewed it on Goodreads!) More recently, I had read his middle grade novel The Graveyard Book (which I talked about last year in my Summer Biannual Biblioton Wrap Up).

With my limited experience of the true scope of Gaiman’s works, I entered The Ocean at the End of the Lane assuming that the book would be dark and beautifully written, but (like the previous works I had read) I didn’t expect it to become a favorite or one even one that I found myself thinking about long after reading it. I’m not too sure where I rank this book in relation to the others, but I rated it 4.5 stars.

My Thoughts

…Different people remember things differently, and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not….

This book is not a new favorite. Nor is it one I could myself reaching for again for the sake of enjoyment. Nevertheless, I had to rate it highly because this book made me feel all kinds of emotions while reading it. Also it kept me wondering, long after I finished it, about the characters how the universe worked.

The experience of reading this book reminded me a lot of the movie Annihilation (2018), which I saw for my birthday this year. It was very beautifully crafted and was a gripping story, but I had no idea what really to think of it at the end. Both that movie and this book left me with a lot of questions, and I feel like the creators of each would argue that that is point.

The problem is I like answers!

I can only describe this book as a beautiful nightmare. When the book opens, there is a middle-aged man who after attending a funeral finds himself drawn back to his childhood home, which no longer exists. As he follows his intuition, he finds himself at the end of the lane from which the book’s title is derived. Little by little, he is remembering tidbits recalled as he arrives at Hempstock Farm.

It’s once he finds himself at the pond, which his childhood friend called an ocean, that he remembers the childhood events that were buried away deep inside.

This novella covers what happens to the 7-year-old narrator after an opal miner who was renting a room in his house is discovered dead in his father’s car. This opal miner has lost the money of his friend and in his guilt apparently killed himself, but not before accidentally summoning some type of evil spirit that decided that it would give people money, but in the strangest and cruelest ways.

I don’t know how much more I should say about this book for fear of spoiling it for any who have no read it. It’s really spooky. There’s some vividly gory imagery that may stay with you longer than you wish (that worm…ick). At times it is painfully sad and, at others, a melancholic dream. The Hempstock Farm is a place I think everyone would like to one day visit.

The Hempstocks, themselves, are what made this book so much more fascinating to me. I don’t remember if they consider themselves witches but they do magic that seems to fit snuggly within recognizable science, come from “the old country” (wherever that is), they are older than they look, and have a very nuanced view of monsters, literal and figurative. They take the narrator under their wing when he needs them most, comforting him and reviving him.

Even though the protagonist is a child, this book is better left for adults. The story will be more meaningful for adults who have more experience with guilt and the unfairness of life. So much of this book is commentary on memory as well, which adults also have far more of. Everyone has memories they wish they could forget, memories that they think might make their lives a little easier if they could just let them go.

There’s no denying memories can be painful, but this book, for me, posed the question of whether or not there are certain memories that person is better left without. Memories not of great mental or physical trauma, but memories that could fundamentally change the way you live your life. Memories that house secrets to the universe….

I’ll leave my review with that question to pique your interest in checking this book out!

Craft

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, you get the sense that Gaiman is trying to convey a story without much fuss about the actual prose. The pacing keeps you marching steadily along, reading very colloquially. You feel like you’re inside the head of the narrator, who doesn’t seem to have planned out this story at all but is telling it simultaneously as he recalls it, providing bits of commentary along the way.

I loved how at the beginning of the book we see the narrator subconsciously drawn the the duck pond Lettie Hempstock called an ocean. As he sees things along his path, bits of his lost memories unravel. At the end of the book, we learn that something was drawing him back to the Hempstock Farm, but even if there hadn’t been it felt natural. I don’t think there’s a person who, if they really thought about it, has not moved through life seemingly as if on autopilot without a conscious plan and ended up somewhere interesting.

One thing that particularly stuck out to me in this novel was how it caused me to feel so much emotion (sadness, anger, fear, etc.) even the though the prose was often so subdued and the language used so simple. The first moment that made me cry reading this book happened very early in the story and so unexpectedly.

We learn the boy had a cat given to him on his birthday after no one showed up to his party, and it becomes his best friend. Not a half the page down from where the cat is introduced and we see what a great bond the boy has with it, we learn the kitten was run over by a taxi after just a month. It was a punch I just was not expecting, especially because the book was already off to such a dreary start! I should have known this was the kind of story where things only get worse.

Final Thoughts

This book reminded me of a few others, including The Graveyard Book, the middle grade book Gaiman wrote that also features a child protagonist, an older girl character, and journeys to netherworlds with orange skies. It also reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, where Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which who are in this book inhabiting the Hempstocks.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an extremely quick read, so I do recommend it if you haven’t read it already. Just be warned it might be a bit heavy at parts.

Have you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas

ACOFAS-us.jpgReleased: May 1, 2018
Pages: 272 pages (hardcover)
Theme(s): Holiday bonding, family togetherness, peace after war, dealing with grief
Genre(s): New Adult / Fantasy / Fiction
Age Group: 14+

★★½

Narrated by Feyre and Rhysand, this story bridges the events in A Court of Wings and Ruin and the upcoming novels in the series.

Feyre, Rhys and their companions are still busy rebuilding the Night Court and the vastly changed world beyond. But Winter Solstice is finally near, and with it a hard-earned reprieve. Yet even the festive atmosphere can’t keep the shadows of the past from looming. As Feyre navigates her first Winter Solstice as High Lady, she finds that those dearest to her have more wounds than she anticipated – scars that will have a far-reaching impact on the future of their court.

Preface

It feels like a bit of an understatement to say I have a complicated relationship with Sarah J. Maas’s work. I first read Throne of Glass in the summer of 2015, and after laughing my way  through the book at how bad and derivative it was, I found myself really gobsmacked by the ending. I think the sequel was on sale, so I decided to keep going. It became a pattern that I struggled through mediocre first halves of the book to find myself in awe at the terrific endings.

Reading Heir of Fire and A Court of Thorns and Roses one after another really marked a turning point for me in that I was on-board for anything SJM had to offer. Since then, my experience has been that her books are occasionally remarkable and more often guilty pleasures. I was seriously disappointed by Tower of Dawn last year and had higher expectations of ACOFAS, since this series has been superior to the Throne of Glass series from the outset.

Before you go any further, you might want to know I rated this book 2.5 stars. It seemed to harsh to give it just 2 stars, even though I thought it was just ok. I thought this would be a page-turner I could read in just one sitting, but I found it hard to keep my focus on the story with all the changing perspectives and skimming past the smut (which is hard to read when you’re not in the mood for it).

My Thoughts

…I have to create, or it was all for nothing. I have to create, or I will crumple up with despair and never leave my bed. I have to create because I have no other way of voicing this…

My rating is low for a few reasons that I will address before anything else. I was disappointed there was no real story uniting this novella. Looking back at the summary, I suppose there is nothing misleading about it. It is truly just about Feyre & Co. navigating the Winter Solstice holiday together and finding where they all are physically and psychologically after the final battle in ACOWAR.

If there’s a narrative thread to be found, I suppose it can be in either the “mystery” surrounding why Nesta is distancing herself from the family or in Feyre coming to terms with buying an art studio from a Rainbow victim of the Hybern attacks. I would have been interested in better development of the former thread, as the second fell flat for me.

The only quote I could think to pull from the novel was spoken by an Rainbow artist who was widowed by the war. As I was reading, I knew I was supposed to feel more moved by her story, but in reality I was a little exasperated. I feel like the Feyre-struggling-to-justify-art-after-trauma subplot was already done in ACOMAF when she found healing after Tamlin’s abuse in her art. The addition in this novella was severely lacking for me.

It was pure joy to see the family all thrown together and having fun. The “fanfiction”-like scenes of the story are actually what made this novella at all worth it for me. I actually thought it would be a lot more fluff rather than the angst (feeling like it was for angst’s sake). I think something I’d really like to see Maas improve on is better, more authentically characterizing grief in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s thrown in so we can respect the characters.

Craft

It was hard to think of what I should say about this novel with regards to craft, as I don’t think many of Maas’ works are terribly good, yet alone good enough to sift for craft tips. But there is something there that makes her writing so addictive and a guilty to pleasure to read, so I will attempt to explain what works and doesn’t work for me, in this novel specifically.

ACOFAS coasts on the good relationships established between the characters in the earlier books. The quirks are played up to high degree in this book as we see what each character gets and gives as solstice gifts to one another. It’s fun to see them shop and spend time together, teasing and whatnot. Is it worth writing an entire book of this kind of fluff? Maybe not, but it does keep readers wanting more in between big gaps in the proper series novels.

One thing Maas has always been bad at is showing moments of down-time when characters are all alone. Seeing the magnificent beast of a character Amren doing JIGSAW PUZZLES when the world is not in mortal danger. I suppose it’s supposed to be cute, but I find it troubling and emblematic of the problem with a lot of Sarah J. Maas’ writing: she loves imagining her characters are these extraordinary people but she has no idea how extraordinary people truly think or spend their down-time.

They don’t enrich themselves or have unique or interesting hobbies that bring their life meaning outside of being chess pieces in the world of Sarah J. Maas. They are LAZY. They love to read or love to play the piano or love to paint or love to ride horses. They are privileged upper class snobs living in a faerieland (literally) while lesser people do the hard work that makes the world go round.

Or they spend allllll their time trying to show how charitable they are by helping rebuild what they’ve inadvertently helped destroy in the process of saving the world. Feyre is always willing to put aside her own health and happiness to help others, which sounds like it should be an admirable character trait. But in writing it makes her a Mary Sue.

In A Ring of Endless Light, which I read and reviewed recently on Betwined Reads, there’s a part that speaks to my problem with Maas’ excessively charitable characters. The grandfather says, “There is a kind of vanity in thinking you can nurse the world. There’s a kind of vanity in goodness.” Almost every scene of kindness in Maas’ books from a person in a high position of power to another, often down on their luck, poor, and or struggling, reads like vanity.

If you’re someone who wants to be a writer, don’t accidentally make your goodie goodie characters come off so vain. That could be done by having the characters address it by acknowledging their guilt (if they have it) or maybe even their vanity (if that’s what is specifically motivating them). If they’re literally doing good for the sake of good, I don’t think they would comment on it, not to length Feyre does in ACOFAS, anyway…

Final Thoughts

Sorry if this review is a bummer or puts you off wanting to read it. If you are not a very critical reader, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it just fine. I find myself looking back at the review that convinced me to buy it and can tell that I’m just a lot more difficult to please. I’m always expecting more from this author. I feel like at this point I have finally learned I need to just accept SJM for what she more consistently offers.

In case you have already read this novella and disagree with me on any of the points I make, feel free to start a dialogue below. Also, if you haven’t already, do read the Acknowledgments at the back of the book because I do wonder how much SJM’s writing might have been negatively affected by her father’s sudden heart attack. (I would sooo read an autobiography from this author, she is a fascinating person and I’d love to know more about her writer’s life behind-the-scenes.)

Have you read ACOFAS? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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May Goals + TBR

Like last month, I felt motivated to set myself some personal goals for Betwined Reads and think ahead about what I might like to prioritize reading this month. For a summary of my progress last month, see my April Notes, which went up yesterday!

I expect May will be a lot like April for me. My biggest priorities right now are still reading, writing reviews, and finishing up my first draft of my current W.I.P. Nevertheless, I’m still hoping to share a lot more this month in terms of different kinds of blogs posts.

Goals

1. Build a backlog of book reviews

I’m comfortable saying I’ve fallen in love with creating book reviews again. They are still evolving with each one I write, but I think I’m getting closer and closer to the magic formula that works for me. However, not every book I read is one I can (or am willing to) review, so I have found myself wanting to start building a backlog of reviews that I can publish weeks I don’t have a new one to share. Last year I read a handful of great books on which I’d like to shine a spot-light, so I have an idea of which ones I may revisit soon for this endeavor.

2. Finish my first draft of my W.I.P.

As I mentioned in last month’s writing update, in March I decided to complete the first draft of my current W.I.P. by the end of May, so it’s really time for me to hustle! I’m not shooting for a specific word goal, as I’m writing with care but I imagine I will need to write around 20k words. I’m just shooting for major scenes at the beginning, middle, and end. I’m trying this new drafting technique of starting small with the first draft so that in future drafts I’m adding value rather than subtracting fluff.

3. Post three times a week

Last month I failed majorly at starting up my new features (tech reviews and weekly wrap ups), so these are the kinds of posts I’d like to focus on this month as I’d really like to post more than just book reviews. However, I don’t want to commit to anything specific on a weekly basis. I want to be able to experiment each week and see what else I enjoy posting and what my readers respond to. (With that in mind, if you have requests or suggestions, feel free to share them below!)

TBR

Like last month, I’m playing it safe by only selecting three books that I will try to read this month. I expect I’ll read more outside of the books on this list (e.g. HP books 5–7), which is why you may want to follow/friend me on Goodreads to stay up-to-date with my reading!

 

Obsidio by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

It completely slipped my mind that the final installment of the Illuminae Files trilogy was coming out last month, and I’ve been eager to catch up! First I’d like to try to reread ILLUMINAE and GEMINA, but I make no promises to you or myself. As much as I’d really like to reread the previous books, I know I should be reading books that more directly relate to my life and my work. (To me, this series is blockbuster fare, plain and simple.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

In order to continue making progress on reading books that have long been on my TBR, I’m resolved to read this book this month. It sounds like it will be dark but beautiful. It’s also short, which hopefully means I can read and review it quickly! I’m entering it with absolutely no expectations.

The Democratic Surround by Fred Turner

Like last month, I want to encourage myself to read another academic book. In one of my final grad classes last spring, we were assigned to read the introduction and, I think, one chapter from this book. They were among some of the most fascinating reads of the semester (of which there were several). This one was about how the arts in the U.S. were state-funded to combat communism and, amongst other things, treat servicemen who had come back from the war. I’m really looking forward to reading the entire book and finding a way to share some of the things I learn in some way on this blog!

End Note

Next up on Betwined Reads will be my review of the children’s classic A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT by Madeleine L’Engle. Then I hope to come out with something else this weekend, although just what I do not yet know. If you have an suggestions or requests for anything you want to see, please don’t be shy!

In case you missed them, this week I’ve also posted “Here We Go Again | #AmWriting” and “April Notes.”

What are your blog goals this month?

Have you read any of the books on my TBR?

Thank you for reading!
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Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

sopReleased: December 5, 1991
Pages: 507 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Coming of age, questioning, consciousness, historical development, philosophy vs. religion, global unity
Genre(s): YA / Philosophy / History / Norwegian Fiction
Age Group: 16+

★★★★

One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home from school to find in her mailbox two notes, with one question on each: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” From that irresistible beginning, Sophie becomes obsessed with questions that take her far beyond what she knows of her Norwegian village. Through those letters, she enrolls in a kind of correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre, with a mysterious philosopher, while receiving letters addressed to another girl. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up? To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning–but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined

Preface

I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book, other than the summary made it sound like a fun mystery combined with a young girl’s review of western philosophy. I had been very interested in philosophy in high school, though, thinking it might be something that I pursued in college.

I’ve tried to read this book before a couple of times, only getting as far as the Greek philosophers, whom I’d probably say I previously knew the most about of all the philosophers discussed in this book. I think I found it slow or boring, but I always felt like I would one day finish it. Now felt like a great time so I wanted push through and read the whole thing so I could un-haul it if I wished.

I’m so happy I gave this book another chance! The beginning is hard to get through (if you struggle with open-slate protagonists), but once Sophie starts meeting her philosophy teacher in person and the mystery deepens, it’s a much more gripping read. I feel like it should be required reading for every human.

My Thoughts

…I will do what I can to acquaint you with your historical roots. It is the only way to become a human being. It is the only way to become more than a naked ape…

I had to rate this book 5 stars, but this rating is not based on my enjoyment of the story, the inventiveness of the plot, or the authenticity of the characters. I rate Sophie’s World 5 stars because of how well the author details and synthesizes the development of western philosophical thought from its Greek origins to its Christian influences all the way up to the big 20th century thinkers.

I do not want to spoil this book, but I feel that many people might start this book and give up before it gets good if they don’t know what to expect. The greatest value of this book comes from how it makes philosophy accessible to young people and highlights why it matters. The mystery and Sophie’s regular life is less captivating until a third of the way through the book.

There’s a major twist that occurs that I actually found to be really unexpectedly terrifying. It’s like a nightmare scenario it never occurred to me that I might have. For the skeptical, it may seem a bit absurd. I found it absurd, but I also saw how it relates to the philosophic ideas that were being discussed at that time and might be hard to fully understand without this twist that shakes up Sophie’s world forever.

Undeniable and unsurprisingly, there are not many famous female philosophers. This book does not skirt around that fact. In fact, I think it does a great service to readers by addressing this unfortunate fact and by both shouting out the great men who saw females as equals and calling out those who saw them as inferior. It doesn’t demonize these men, but it reminds us that great men are not always perfect and we can appreciate what they contributed without putting them on a pedestal.

One final thing I’ll say is this book is not a quick or easy read. To better digest the information, I found myself having to read it in chunks. The good thing is the story almost seems organized to allow for these breaks between material. I consider myself a pretty fast reader, but this book took me about a week to finish.

Craft

I don’t have much to say with regards to craft in this novel. I didn’t think the characters were too authentic, but I hesitate to criticize much with regards to actual writing voice or style because I feel like this book had to have been translated from Norwegian. Also, I recognize the story wasn’t really meant to be character-driven. So I’ll primarily talk about the novel’s structure.

I can see how some might call it a textbook for the breadth of history and knowledge it covers in chronological order. Most of the chapters are titled for the philosopher or period of time that is the subject of Sophie’s lessons. I think this is really useful because I won’t ever have to reread this book in full again. I can just revisit the specific chapters on the figures who interested me the most.

There’s a major plot twist that occurs about one third of the way through the novel that I hesitate to spoil for the sake of anyone who picks up the book for the mystery aspect. I also worry that many people would give up on the book before they get to the twist, which is, in my opinion, a reason to spoil. I’ll leave it at that, though!

It does raise an important question of whether a great twist can justify putting a reader through a slow beginning. I personally would say no most of the time, especially if it can be avoided. I’m not sure it could’ve been avoided in Sophie’s World, however. It works really well with the philosophical content.

Final Thoughts

After finishing Sophie’s World, I found myself with a greater respect for theologists as philosophers. I also had to reassess my own capacity for belief. I do not think this book justifies religion, but it shows how people can find spaces to fit faith that does not necessarily contradict human knowledge by reason or experience.

I find myself wanting to revisit some of the books I read earlier this year that dealt in some way with spirituality (specifically The Chosen and Franny and Zooey). I’ve considered myself an atheist for a few years now (and am currently reconsidering whether I’m more agnostic), but I’ve always been drawn to stories about brilliant people who grappled with their belief in a personal and meaningful way. I can’t put into words exactly what I mean, but I feel like Sophie’s World could be key to discovering why.

This book’s a keeper!

Have you read Sophie’s World? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Released: July 11, 2017
Pages: 349 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Identity, friendship, balance, power of knowledge, values
Genre(s): YA / Fantasy / African-American Fiction
Age Group: 10+

★★

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

Preface

I first discovered Akata Witch because of Leigh Bardugo. As one typically does with their favorite authors, I look for books that have been recommended by authors whose writing I admire. Fortunately, I stumbled upon this article by Cosmopolitan last year “Leigh Bardugo Recommends 5 Fantasy and Sci-Fi Books Every Woman Should Read.”

Bardugo describes Akata Witch as “a really delightful heir to Harry Potter. It’s a really perfect read for younger readers who might be looking to get into fantasy.” As someone who grew up loving Harry Potter, I recognized this tremendous compliment and decided to look into the book. As I am a writer of YA fantasy, I felt Akata Witch would be an fun book to dissect for how another author world builds.

I had read The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare and not been impressed by the overwhelming similarities to Harry Potter, so I kept my expectations for Harry Potter-level excellence low. But from the summary, I was getting Wonder Woman: Warbringer vibes, which was written by Leigh Bardugo, so I couldn’t help but be excited.

Before I go any further, let me just say that Akata Witch is an outstanding entry into YA fantasy that I think everyone should read.

My Thoughts

I loved this book and am so excited for young readers who will be able to access this book while they are still children. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that much of fantasy that young adults will consume from an early age is set in the Western world and with primarily white characters.

As a young adult, it never bothered me (a hispanic, cis-gendered, straight female) and I don’t think it bothers too many because the power of books is allow readers to step into the shoes of other people, even those who seem so different from ourselves. It’s only as we grow older that we wonder how much more confident or proud we would have felt of our own heritage and the culture of our ancestors if we had seen it in the books that we cherished.

That’s why I’m so excited about this book. It is not just a book that represents progress; it is so much fun that it should appeal to anyone!

The magic world (which I describe in greater detail in the next section) is a fantastic adventure to explore and there are so many great characters that show a range of leopard lifestyles that I think make the magic feel accessible to people from all walks of life, which makes it feel more real and appealing. There’s also great moments of situational humor that I enjoy more than anything else.

Atmospherically, the book feels like it could become a Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli film in the style of Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro.

Craft

The magic system of Akata Witch is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I can understand the Harry Potter (and even Percy Jackson) comparisons, but it does not really come off that Okorafor used the former books as a check-list. Everything in Akata Witch‘s world and magic system is so specific and feels authentic to the country and its environment.

I could actually see how this book leaves it open so that the magical world of Nigeria could fit into that of the HP universe. Instead of wands, the magic people have juju knives. Instead of the witch/wizard vs. muggle dichotomy, Akata Witch has leopard (magic) people and lambs (non-magic).

As witches and wizards in the HP universe can be muggle-born, similarly leopards can be born of lambs. I don’t remember Rowling going into where magic comes from in the HP universe, but in Akata Witch Okorafor explains how magic (or juju as it’s called in her books) is the source of a spiritual awareness or connection.

The protagonist, Sunny, is actually what is called a free agent, which means neither of her parents are leopards. Rather than a magic school à la Hogwarts, young leopards maintain a double-life, going to regular (Lamb) school and independently studying juju with an advisor and, if they’re lucky, a mentor who can better guide them according to their strengths.

Leopards pride themselves on valuing knowledge above all else. Indeed, the economics are divinely (read: mysteriously) arranged so that leopards earn chittim (curved metal rods that act as leopard currency) by learning new things and developing wisdom. It just falls out of the sky no matter where the leopard is at the time–––an aspect of the world that felt more video game-inspired than anything else!

One thing I did not like about this story from a writing perspective is how convenient the major conflict of the story unfolds and resolves. In the back of our heads as we read this story is the child serial killer called the Black Hat. Halfway through the book, Sunny learns she is a leopard and her oha coven (Sunny’s quartet of friends who balance each other in ability and personality) have been brought together to defend the world against the rise of an evil entity.

I also didn’t like how often Sunny would be asking her friends and their teachers/mentors questions and they would tell her to wait and gratification was delayed. It was done too much! It reminds me of my earliest writing adventures when I’d not have the answers as the writer so I’d put it off writing those explanatory scenes by having my characters wait.

Final Thoughts

Young adults and adults alike can enjoy this book. Admittedly, there are some dark depictions of the harm that befell the child victims of the novel’s villain that may unsettle much younger readers, but these moments are few and far between.

I look forward to getting my hands on the next book Akata Warrior as soon as possible! I’m just annoyed that I got the paperback of the first book because I’m one of those annoying people who likes their books to match on their shelves, so I must suffer waiting for the release of book two’s paperback edition. Rats!

If you’d like to read more YA fantasy that celebrates diversity, I also recommend City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. (Because of my research as I wrote this review, I also believe the Percy Jackson books may nicely compliment Akata Witch. As I’ve never read them, I don’t feel comfortable recommending them.)

Have you read Akata Witch? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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