Thoughts on AART and Heist Society

I just realized that both of the books I talk about in this post have to do with the value of art. I probably didn’t make the connection before, because it was quite coincidental that they have been my most recent reads. But I did want to dedicate a post to these books that I would be able to look back on if need be. The result today is spoiler-free, so if you have no yet read them, you can safely read ahead.

As you might’ve been able to guess, I’m writing this introduction after having already written my thoughts. So I can tell you how hard it was to limit my discussion to just the first major points that came to mind. I feel like I could rant for thousands of words sometimes on the books I read, but that would just be too much.

• ⟡ • An Absolutely Remarkable Thing • ⟡ •

I read An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green primarily in October. It was a book I had highly anticipated as a casual viewer of the vlogbrothers YouTube channel Hank shares with his brother John. I’m not the biggest fan of John Green’s books, having only been able to finish The Fault in Our Stars, which I actually did like. But Hank’s book appealed to me purely based on the synopsis, so I was happy to be able to support his debut novel.

I set AART down extremely satisfied with the book. It stayed in my mind for a few weeks after. It has one of the best finales and denouements I’ve ever read. After meandering on the smaller details for most of the book, it becomes extremely action-packed and…emotionally impactful. There’s a moment towards the end that had me shed a tear. It was unexpected! It’s hard to talk much more about the final scenes without spoiling the book, so I won’t go any further!

Early on in the book, you realize that AART is being narrated by the protagonist after all the events of the book have gone down. It led to some satisfying foreshadowing, but I also found it annoying at times. April May makes a lot of mistakes in the book, some of which I didn’t particularly find myself sympathetic to, even after the fact. I dislike how she frames them, like, she knows she was wrong and thinks that her awareness of the fact makes it less bad. In my opinion, it’s akin to the author trying too hard to make readers feel or think a certain way.

Also her logic, or line of thinking, is at times hard to follow. I think that the biggest problem actually was just that Green assumes that everyone is going to have the same socio-political stances as he does. I do, but I’m not as far left as he, or April May more accurately, seems to be.

Other than that, I really loved this book. I think it’s so timely and relevant with how social media can give people so much power and how important it is to wield it responsibly. I also think it’s important in exploring how humanity can work together towards and common goal. It’s very reminiscent of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which I saw Hank say was intentional, but different in its selection of villain.

So many staples of science fiction, that I’m aware of, paint massive corporations as the bad guy. In AART, the villains are people who fall prey to the fear and anger exacerbated by fear-mongering conservative pundits.

I feel like this book is so a product of our current political climate in the U.S. It’s uplifting and terrifying at the same time.

• ⟡ • Heist Society • ⟡ •

I took a bit of break from reading after AART as I worked on my novel leading up to November. I was also busy with other projects and life this fall. My next read, had it been immediately gripping, would have actually been Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas, the finale to the epic Throne of Glass series. But I was not able to become invested quickly enough in that 900-plus-page tome, so one day mid-November I decided to pick up something that would be a considerably easier read.

I read Heist Society by Ally Carter mostly over Thanksgiving Break. It wasn’t a high priority read, so I took my time with it. In fact, I picked it up because I realized I was in a bit of reading slump and I find YA contemporaries perfect for reviving interest in reading, because they are 1) generally easy to read and 2) seem to be written with the aim of being captivating.

I also almost picked up White Cat by Holly Black but I read it last year (around this time!) and couldn’t find it (which reminds me I need to look for it).

I was not as impressed by Heist Society as I was hoping to be. It’s not the book or author’s fault (it was published in 2010), but at this point I’m a bit exasperated by books where teens are these unbelievable super geniuses who are more qualified and capable than adults with experience to save the day. I don’t mind their age specifically, but when books seem so intent on emphasizing the mental prowess of teens in contrast with bumbling adults, it is just so overdone at this point. And unrealistic.

I don’t think that teens can’t or shouldn’t be able to accomplish amazing things. But I don’t need them all to be highly enlightened or brilliant minds. It’s not even that it’s just realistic but more importantly it’s not all that relatable.

Other than that major critique, which may or may not have been better explored elsewhere, I found the plot a little predictable at some point. Also, the heist was pretty clever, but since there’s no proof of how brilliant these cast of characters are beforehand (beyond them all being super confident and constantly alluding to past jobs) it didn’t feel too authentic. But I liked the characters and their interactions with one another. I also appreciated the fast pace of the story, which was filled with appropriately high stakes.

 ☙ ❧ End Note ❧ ☙

If you were interested in these books, I hope I was able to give you a good idea of what you might be able to expect along with my personal thoughts on them. In the future I may go into spoiler territory, but I think that will mostly be whenever I feel very strongly about what happened and need to vent (à la Tower of Dawn). Maybe my book talk on Kingdom of Ash will be such a post, whenever I get back to it!

I must say, however, that I prefer writing spoiler-free reviews. Particularly if I know I would like to read the book again. It’s nice to let yourself forget some of the details of a book you love so you can still enjoy it the next time as if it’s the first time.

Right now I leaning towards starting Heist Society‘s immediate sequel Uncommon Criminals. But I can’t say for certain, as I’ve not actually started it yet. Maybe I’ll jump back into another book I’ve wanted to read all autumn. Who’s to say at this moment?!

Thank you for reading!
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How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation | Anthology Review

A few years ago, one of the first major YouTube scandals occurred that affected me as a regular watcher of YouTubers from many different circles. A precursor to the #MeToo movement, several young fans came forward online with their stories of abuse and manipulation at the hands of many OG YouTube creators of 2014.

It turns out that many of these big name YouTubers, including one of my favorites at the time Alex Day, were exposed for using their power as influencers and fame to manipulate and coerce their young fans and female friends into things they were uncomfortable doing. Around this time, I remembered coming across this beautiful Tumblr post written by Maureen Johnson reflecting “ABOUT THE RECENT EVENTS CONCERNING YOUTUBE.”

While I had been casually aware of her from her appearances in vlogbrothers videos and even remembered her name from years ago when I read 13 Little Blue Envelopes, this post gave me an entirely new impression of and respect for this author. She completely opened by eyes to the broader issue of harassment women have been forced to tolerate for simply going out and trying to live their lives.

This past all came back to my mind when I discovered this book and saw Johnson’s name attached to this anthology. It is the reason I decided to purchase this book even though I recognized so few of the contributors. I figured it would be a valuable, eye-opening read. And that it was.

I definitely feel like it provides a great array of views and perspectives on a variety of issues that are related to resistance. The very word resistance is redefined throughout the book as we learn about how such a diverse collection of people individually view their work, art, and mere lives as acts of resistance.

• • • How I Resist • • •

Released: March 1, 2018
Pages: 224 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Activism, forms of resistance, fighting oppression, raising awareness, making art
Genre(s): Young Adult / Activist Essays
Age Group: 10+

★★★★½

An all-star collection of essays about activism and hope, edited by bestselling YA author Maureen Johnson.

Now, more than ever, young people are motivated to make a difference in a world they’re bound to inherit. They’re ready to stand up and be heard – but with much to shout about, where they do they begin? What can I do? How can I help?

How I Resist is the response and a way to start the conversation. To show readers that they are not helpless, and that anyone can be the change they wish to see in the world, in their news, and for their future.

*  ⁎   My Thoughts   ⁎ * 

This anthology includes 29 pieces written by a range of people from celebrities to authors to people lauded for their activism. I was originally trying to review each piece, but I quickly realized how long this review would turn and I didn’t think anyone would actually go through my thoughts on each piece.

I also found it was hard to objectively review each piece. I found some pieces really aggravating and narrow-minded in their quest to awaken new activists. I found some pieces really brilliant in exemplifying how diverse this country really is, illustrating the struggles of people who don’t fit traditional gender roles and the variety of ways in which people can be oppressed.

I found this anthology truly fascinating given its target audience of young adults and how odd it was that it had taken this long to write a book that I assumed would speak so well to today’s youth of passion and activism. When I was in high school, Tumblr was still relatively a new thing. It’s a platform I’ve long credited with my generation’s interest in social justice.

I’ve been surprised over the years to see slacktivism turn into true activism, especially after Stoneman Douglas High School shooting earlier this year. It’s been truly inspiring to see how many of the victims have decided to prioritize their activism just as they are entering adulthood.

I would say this book is a great entry-level text into activism for young people today. There are some pieces I hated and think unfair, but I think that their presence in the book is justified if only for inspiring healthy debate. However, Johnson doesn’t provide any commentary of her own on individual pieces. So I think if this book was to be taught in school, the teacher would need do their own homework and provide context that will help frame how the students read each piece.

 ❧ ☙ END NOTE ☙ ❧

I’m sorry this review has taken me over a month to share! It was hard figuring out exactly how I wanted to format this review and what I felt I most wanted to say. This is a really important book, and I just wanted to do it justice. I haven’t seen it talked about by any of the people I follow on BookTube or in the book blogging community. So if I was going to be the first to introduce this book to people, I wanted to get it right. Basically, I psyched myself out!

Have you read How I Resist? If so, what’d you think?!

Do you consider yourself an activist?

Thank you for reading!
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Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene | ★★★½

I picked up a copy of Summer of My German Soldier earlier this year, after browsing my local 2nd and Charles store for books I might get in exchange for the store credit I accrued by un-hauling a number of old books I saw no purpose in keeping. They had a bunch of nice copies of this book; I assume because it’s been an elementary or middle school class reading. Since I’ve been on a bit of a German kick all year, I decided to purchase one.

I do not recall ever reading this book when I was young, but I figured it’d be a nice, light read that fits well with the other stuff I’ve been reading this year. And after reading Ceremony (which I reviewed last week), I knew I wanted to read something light.

Today review is pretty short. I didn’t see fit to include a Craft section, because there wasn’t much I found note-worthy about prose. Most of the time, I felt like the book omitted or lacked in details I would’ve found helpful to the book’s flow. I enjoyed this book, though, and I’m glad I read it so soon after buying it! Usually, I keep new purchases on the shelves far longer than I originally intend to when I buy them (*cough cough* Obsidio).

• • • Summer of My German Soldier • • •

Released: 1973
Pages: 230 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Love, domestic abuse, validation, inner strength, choosing your family, race, pride, war, loyalty
Genre(s): Young Adult / Historical / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★½

It was a summer of love. A summer of hate. A summer that would last a lifetime.

The summer that Patty Bergen turns twelve is a summer that will haunt her forever. When her small hometown in Arkansas becomes the site of a camp housing German prisoners during World War II, Patty learns what it means to open her heart. Even though she’s Jewish, she begins to see a prison escapee, Anton, not as a Nazi — but as a lonely, frightened young man with feelings not unlike her own, who understands and appreciates her in a way her parents never will. And Patty is willing to risk losing family, friends — even her freedom — for what has quickly become the most important part of her life.

*  ⁎   My Thoughts   ⁎ * 

While it did not blow me away, I found Summer of My German Soldier a quick and satisfying read. I was expecting this book to be a somewhat light, pleasant romance between people from two completely different worlds. Instead, I found the book much less about the actual relationship Patty develops with the soldier and more about how he came into her life at time that she really needs it. It’s actually kind of dark.

It would be overly reductive to criticize this book by today’s standards for its large age gap between the girl (a child of 12) and the soldier (a 22-year-old man) or for a message that may seem to imply at surface level that a girl needs a boy to come into her life and save her. I will admit, I found these things irksome while I read it last week, I’m certain that my 12-year-old self would probably have found this book super thrilling for those exact reasons.

What surprised me most about this book is the horrible home life that could be interpreted as to partially to blame for Patty’s treason in the book. It’s really heart-breaking. Her parents are not just neglectful but openly cruel to this poor little girl who keeps trying to win their love and admiration. Her father doesn’t even try to hide that he beats her, later in the book we discover town’s sheriff knows, and it’s a sad reminder of a time in history when the law did not interfere to protect children from abusive households.

Despite her horrible parents, Patty is a bright girl with a open heart. She’s not hardened to the world or people in general, despite the cruelty she has endured, which makes her all the more sympathetic. While I found it hard to connect with Patty on a super personal-level (she has a tendency to lie in order to get attention), I found a lot to admire in the girl and inspiration in her strength of patience and optimism.

I haven’t read much YA where the protagonists are the victims of parental abuse, and I end this review wondering how many girls throughout the decades have found hope or strength in Patty’s story in a time when it seemed like there was no one they could turn to for help. While I don’t think this book is especially insightful about WWII or American Jews (honestly it’s horrible in that regard), I can see it being of some value to young readers who feel under-appreciated by their family.

CompleMentary Books 

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood To Kill a Mockingbird The Book Thief
Also features young southern girls with dysfunctional families in the early 20th century. Also features a girl in the American south learning about social prejudice. Also features a young girl who hides a person her country considers “the enemy.”

 ❧ ☙ END NOTE ☙ ❧

I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who has read Summer of My German Soldier, especially if it was in school, and what your biggest takeaways from the book were. I don’t know if I think it would still be a good book to teach nowadays. I also wonder about real-life German POWs who were sent to the U.S. during the war and how they were treated / how they found life in the states.

With this book, I completed my Goodreads Reading Challenge of 30 books! I set only 30 at the beginning of the year as my goal, because I wasn’t sure how this year would shape up.

I won’t set a new goal, but I imagine that my reading will continue at a pace of at least one book per week. I still would like to read some more of the books I’ve had on my TBR for a long-time and re-read some more of my favorites that I’ve not yet reviewed on this blog.

Have you read Summer of My German Soldier? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko | ★★★★

In Spring 2014, I took English 346: American Indian Literature at Iowa State University to satisfy my English B.A. degree’s U.S. Diversity requirement. My other options were women’s literature, U.S. Latino/a literature, African American literature, and more broad survey of ALLLLL the multicultural literature. I chose American Indian literature because I wanted to take something in which I had the least background knowledge.

Unfortunately for me now (but fortunately for me then), the class was almost entirely a lecture-class with a super chill professor who did not care if we had our computers out. So I was almost always working on homework for other classes. He didn’t even test us to make sure we were reading. All we had to do was show up. He was completely comfortable talking the whole time. I feel like the professor laid out the class’s major themes in the first week of class and there wasn’t much I actually missed, beyond the class discussion on the books . . .

Anyway, I always told myself I would read these books one day. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth dedicating a lot of time to writing this review, especially considering how unpopular book reviews are anyway. But I loved reading and thinking about this book and my good pal Ely said she wanted to see a full-length review, so even if she’s the only person who reads this, it’ll be worth it. I’m sure I’ll enjoy looking back on it too.

• • • Ceremony • • •

Screen Shot 2018-07-02 at 9.43.30 AMReleased: 1977
Pages: 262 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Alienation, colonialism, healing power of stories, guilt, witchcraft, post-WWII trauma, alcoholism, dealing with grief
Genre(s): New Adult / Native American / Literary Fiction
Age Group: 16+

★★★★

Tayo, a young Native American, has been a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, and the horrors of captivity have almost eroded his will to survive. His return to the Laguna Pueblo reservation only increases his feeling of estrangement and alienation. While other returning soldiers find easy refuge in alcohol and senseless violence, Tayo searches for another kind of comfort and resolution. Tayo’s quest leads him back to the Indian past and its traditions, to beliefs about witchcraft and evil, and to the ancient stories of his people. The search itself becomes a ritual, a curative ceremony that defeats the most virulent of afflictions—despair.

*  ⁎   My Thoughts   ⁎ * 

I really liked this book and how beautifully it fits within the western literature and U.S. history with which I’m already familiar while also providing a view into the Native American experience of life post-WWII in the 1950s. Tayo is a super empathetic young protagonist who returns from Japan after WWII traumatized by having lost his two most beloved people in his life, his cousin Rocky and uncle Josiah.

Tayo is facing alienation and dealing with a grief that no one seems capable of understanding or soothing. Part of the reason he is so helpless is that he was an outsider in his community even before the war. Tayo’s mere existence as a “half-breed” has been a stain on his family name since he was a child, something his aunt never let him forget. Being an outsider, he felt a unique grief not just of being other but from also seeming to be the only person see how deeply his people are hurting.

This book effectively captures the complexity and nuance of Native American guilt, shame, and misplaced blame for their misfortune. Their shame in having not been strong or smart enough their keep land, having the spoils of their land continually flaunted in front of them, and from wanting and being denied friendship with white people. (Honestly, it’s heart-breaking.)

Ultimately Tayo finds someone who understands his pain and is able to situate his struggle amongst a larger story in which Tayo is a crucial part. Betonie, a medicine man also of mixed heritage, has a more forgiving perspective of white people and sees beyond to common source behind the larger societal problems of both white and Indian people.

He tells Tayo how he can make things right by recovering his uncle’s missing stolen cattle. But his bigger mission is to complete the story (the ceremony) to combat the witchery Betonie claims is responsible for both his people’s plight and white people who have the power to destroy the world.

At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong . . . things which don’t shift and grow are dead things.❞

Ceremony is an ode to the power of storytelling and the need to adapt. Regardless of your culture, I think most people (especially us book bloggers) can appreciate the power of stories, how they seem to hold a certain kind of magic. Storytelling brings characters and worlds to life. It can keep people alive, as Tayo learns, even in memory. There are important lessons in this book from which I think anyone, regardless of culture or heritage, could benefit.

This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and the people were strong, and the fifth world endured, and nothing was ever lost as long as the love remained.❞ (220)

 —✃ Craft  ✃—

Prose • The book is written in the third-person past-tense and primarily follows Tayo, but jumps in time through narration and dialogue. In addition to the main story of Tayo readjusting to his life back home amongst the Laguna Pueblo Indians after fighting in Japan in WWII, the novel’s story is enhanced by poems that relate old stories that explain Tayo’s world-view how to interpret his current struggles.

Not much attention is spared for clarity in terms of time or who is referenced with pronouns like he/she. The ambiguity helps keep the story dream-like, but also generalizable to others who may find themselves forced to follow in Tayo’s footsteps to heal.

It seems like I already heard these stories before . . . only thing is, the names sound different.❞

Digression: My professor used the terms “circular and accretive” to describe the way much Native American literature is written, which is derived from the oral tradition in which there is a lot of repetition in the spiraling narrative. Each time the narrative loops around, more meaning is built upon the story in the mind of the listener/reader. He talked about how this mimics how children can learn, by listening to stories over and over and one day the story may click in a certain way at the right time.

Structure • Chapters are not numbered but somewhat distinguished from mid-chapter breaks by extreme indentation. Throughout the book we also get short stories formed like poems interspersed with the main prose that represent ceremonial stories presumedly passed down to explain problems like drought and colonization.

Some of these poems are complete in themselves, like the explanation for how white people were created by witchery to destroy the world. (Honestly, the story behind the existence of white people is one of the main reasons worth reading this book. It’s obviously just a myth, but there’s something underlying the quirky horror story, yes, that’s worth considering there.)

CompleMentary Books 

The Things They Carried The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Slaughterhouse-Five
If you want to read about the American soldier’s experience in a rainy jungle climate (Vietnam) and post-war readjustment. If you want to learn more about Native Americans in a contemporary YA novel featuring a young boy torn between two worlds.  If you want to read a classic work of fiction that depicts the surreal effects of WWII on an individual’s psyche.

Amongst the books I recommend above, I’d also like to make note of the others I was asked to buy for my Native American literature survey (which I haven’t yet read but plan to do so in the near future):

 ❧ ☙ END NOTE ☙ ❧

Funny side note for anyone who actually reads my blog post end notes, I remembered that I had to do a presentation on one of the books I was supposed to have read for this American Indian literature class. I vaguely remembered making a Prezi for it and was able to access my old account there associated with my school email. And guess what! I did what was probably about a five-minute presentation on Ceremony (without having read it)!

I was cringing so hard as I looked through it! But somehow I was not off at all. It’s probably because the professor LITERALLY told us everything he wanted us to know from the book and I took notes in preparation for that presentation! Anyway, here’s a link to the Prezi. It’s nothing extraordinary and obviously doesn’t include my any of my discussion or transitions between ideas so it may not mean anything to you.

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

Thank you for reading!
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Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter | ★★★★½

I first read Vassa in the Night in August of 2017. It was recommended by Leigh Bardugo, one of my favorite authors, in library interview I watched on YouTube. I find it really fascinating to see what works inspire my favorite authors. It causes me to look into books that I otherwise might never give a chance. In investigating Bardugo’s recommendations, I was enchanted by the summary for Vassa in the Night.

I already knew I loved fairytale retellings set in the modern world. I was unfamiliar with Vasilisa the Beautiful, but eager to check out this book that sounded so different from anything I’ve read. From skimming the top reviews on Goodreads, I can tell this book is a little polarizing. After having read it a second time, I’ve compiled a list of notes you might like to know ahead of time if you want to enjoy it.

  1. You need to suspend your disbelief and not expect there to be explanations behind the magical stuff that happens. Rules and reasons for ambiguity will emerge gradually and you just have to take them as they are, as Vassa is forced to.
  2. Two, you need to know this book is really weird. So fantastically weird. I saw one review that compared it negatively to Alice in Wonderland, however, I do not agree that it matches that level of inexplicable absurdity. The absurdities in this book have interpretable meaning.
  3. Oh! and three, this book is not for the faint of heart. It’s downright terrifying at times. Sometimes I could visualize what I was reading as if I was actually watching a horror movie. Other parts were funny in that dead-pan kind of way. It’s a bit odd, which I think makes it more scary at times.

• • • Vassa in the Night • • •

Screen Shot 2018-07-02 at 9.42.27 AMReleased: September 20, 2016
Pages: 296 pages (hardcover)
Theme(s): Self-discovery, honoring obligations, the strength of kindness, what makes someone somebody, compartmentalizing, dealing with grief
Genre(s): Young Adult / Urban Folklore / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★★½

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now—but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling away again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair…

*  ⁎   My Thoughts   ⁎ * 

I really love this book. It’s a lot of fun, very inventive in its world and plot, and provides a surprising lot to think about. Vassa in the Night is a journey of self-discovery masked as a survival story. I really like stories where characters learn more about themselves and where the magic fits neatly into the modern world.

While Vassa’s story seems to be incited by a random series of events that leads to her decision to go buy lightbulbs in the infamously dangerous convenience store, she (and readers tagging along for the ride) discover that her encounter with Babs was set in motion long before she ever needed lightbulbs. We all learn that about the people and actions that molded Vassa into the the person that she is and that she also needed help long before her life was in jeopardy.

At the beginning of the book, Babs tells Vassa that she owes her a debt that is “more than [she] owe[s] [her]self” (54). It comes off oddly at this point in the book, for it is a hint that Babs has some inexplicable knowledge about Vassa, despite that night being their first meeting. It also sticks out because it perplexes Vassa.

What did I borrow from myself and how on earth will I ever give it back?

At first, I thought that this moment was a hint at some larger universal lesson that may speak to readers. I was surprised to find it actually spoke more directly to an issue that Vassa has been avoiding and, in effect, has hides from us until the end of the novel. While Babs is the villain of this novel, but she’s also just a catalyst for a journey of self-discovery that Vassa doesn’t know she needs until she’s forced to face it.

There’s so much more I’d love to talk about in greater depth, but I don’t want to write a full-blown dissertation on this book! I will just say that there are so many more layers to this book that speak to what substance makes someone somebody, how satisfying dreams can be compared to reality, and the long-lasting effects of grief. And it’s beautifully written without trying too hard, ya know what I mean?

If this is really my last night and my last moments are jangling like coins in my pocket, then I might as well spend them on wishes.

 —✃ Craft  ✃—

Point of View • Vassa is the first-person narrator of the book, written primarily in present-tense. There are also short chapters interspersed throughout the book for the reader’s sake called interludes. They give some background information that Vassa wouldn’t have access to.

Setting The book almost entirely takes place in the dancing BY’s convenience store of Brooklyn in New York run by the witch Babs Yagg. While Vassa is trapped on the premises, she is able to escape only in her sleep on occasion shared with the motorcyclist who is also trapped and stuck circling the store perimeter during the long city nights. The store is held together with magic that makes it rotate in the sky and have a seemingly endless amount of space inside Bab’s private office, as Vassa discovers on a day-time quest to rescue her the motorcyclist and the two lawyers she sends in to surprise Babs.

Plot   After Vassa agrees to pay her “debt” to Babs with three nights of work in the store and demonstrate her character, she is given trials and tasks meant to spell her doom but which through seemingly complete chance end in her favor. But during these nights, she is also learning about the others who are drawn into BY’s orbit, including the henchmen, the unwilling “night guard”, and the bold, trouble-making teenagers.

Characterization  All the characters are written with clear and distinct voices that make them seem so real. Vassa who narrates the book has an easy-going sense of humor but also a detachment that makes her an interesting protagonist to follow. Erg, her doll, is wicked fun and very dramatic. In my head she had Kimmy Schmidt’s highly excited puppet voice. The lawyers (“attorneys at large”) were absurd and hilarious with their overly formal, professional speak.

Problems  Usually I find short chapters help to keep me turning the pages as I read, but for some reason after each one I felt like I should put the book down. That’s why it took me a little longer to finish this book than I thought I would. I also feel like the book suffers from not introducing Vassa’s mother issues earlier on. I think Vassa’s character development could have been more clearly delineated, but it got buried with the focus on the plights of other characters.

Similar Books 

Mr. Fox Shadow and Bone The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
If you like beautiful, perplexing adult fiction tinged with horror and diversity… If you want to start a YA fantasy series inspired by Russian folklore… If you want to read a beautiful YA novel that follows a matriarchal family history…

 ❧ ☙ END NOTE ☙ ❧

I’m sorry this review is coming late this week, but I hope it was worth it. I also hope you liked the changes to the format. I think it’s more fun, useful, and readable. One of the problems that I always grapple with is writing too much, which I knooowwww is for my own benefit more than others’. I think I was able I capture most of what I wanted to say about Vassa in the Night.

Tomorrow I am aiming to release two blog posts (one in the a.m. and the other in the p.m.) following up on my blog hopping journey last month! The first will likely be some lessons I hope to remember and the second my long-awaited list of favorite blogs I discovered.

Have you read Vassa in the Night? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
Follow my blog via Bloglovin’. Also find me on GoodreadsTwitter, and Instagram.

City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

Released: October 2002 (originally in Spanish)
Pages: 408 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Culture clash, colonization, treatment of natives, cultural values, differing perspectives, environmental protection, spiritual awareness
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 10+

★★★★

Fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold is about to join his fearless grandmother on the trip of a lifetime. An International Geographic expedition is headed to the dangerous, remote wilds of South America, on a mission to document the legendary Yeti of the Amazon known as the Beast.

But there are many secrets hidden in the unexplored wilderness, as Alex and his new friend Nadia soon discover. Drawing on the strength of their spirit guides, both young people are led on a thrilling and unforgettable journey to the ultimate discovery. . .

Forward

I wanted to read City of the Beasts after Dragons in the Waters for a few reasons. For one, I’d wanted to spend this month reviewing some middle grade fiction reads that I loved as a kid because I’ve been feeling nostalgic and also a little worried about the state of middle grade fiction these days. I’ll admit, I’m not very familiar with what kids are reading these days as I’m more familiar with popular YA. I think that’s why I’m worried, by the logic of if I’m not aware of any great middle grade books right now then maybe there’s not a lot out there.

I feel like a lot of the books I read in middle school affected who I was in high school and what I hoped to do with my life at the time. I feel like kids could benefit from literature that was produced before social media was a big deal or cyberbullying was the worse thing one could imagine happening to them. Books where kids are more aware of the world outside their hometown experiences.

City of the Beasts (CotB) nicely compliments Dragons in the Waters as it features a young male protagonist (American) who visits South America and accidentally gets exposed to international crime. But CotB features much stronger pacing, world-building, and adventure that has the protagonist really learning about a culture, land, and customs so different from his own. Although, I found the book dragged on a little at parts, I rated the book 4 stars.

My Thoughts

The book opens with Alexander Cold at home. His mother has cancer and his home life has not been ideal. When his parents come to the conclusion it is time for them to take his mother out-of-state for better treatment, Alex is sent to his grandmother who lives in New York City and is about to embark on an Amazonian adventure for International Geographic, a magazine I envision is similar to National Geographic.

While traveling along the Amazon river to find this infamous Beast that has been mysterious killing people viciously, Alex and his grandmother’s expedition find themselves feeling like they are being watched and followed. Soldiers start to disappear before being found dead. And it is only once Alex and his new friend Nadia make contact with the People of the Mist that the adventure truly begins as they learn was is at stake in further conquest of the land.

This book is really a fantastic example of how a person can be transformed by immersion in another culture. Alex undergoes tremendous character development in this story as he goes from a typical, sheltered American youth to a boy who learns how to survive in wilderness and understands social customs. I love how “magic” is interpreted in this story, especially to the natives who do not understand the foreigners’ value or their concepts such as land ownership.

This book also does a great job showing the significance of the press to protect the world’s most vulnerable. We find that there was a reason Kate and International Geographic was invited to do an exposé on the Amazon, but also that their coverage can serve to protect the People of the Mist and their Eye of the World. In that way, press works a “magic” that brings about positive change.

The main thing that surprised me in reading this book as an adult is I found the long descriptive parts meant to draw readers into the world extremely dull to read. I wasn’t here for immersive reading. I wanted to know what the heck was happening! So, obviously, that was my own hang up with the book. I don’t think it bothered me much when I was younger, although I might’ve struggle then too. I can’t remember.

I think this is an important book that kids today should read because I think even if you are not a directly descendant of Native Americans, I think that all of humanity is related in the grand scheme of life on earth and we should feel protect the innocent people who are still more primitively off the land and doing no harm to the planet. I think this book is also significant in that it could appeal to boys as much as girls.

I remember learning in my Teaching YA Literature class at ISU that boys are a demographic these days, at least in the U.S., that struggle to become passionate readers. I think this is a major problem because I strongly believe reading makes people more empathetic, compassionate, and kind, qualities we need in people for the social battles that lay ahead.

Craft

I found myself paying a lot of attention to how this book was written as I was constantly questioning why I didn’t feel as entranced by this book as I did when I was younger. In today’s review, here’s what I thought was done well and bad in City of the Beasts in list format.

The Good

  • Alex/Jaguar’s character development. I think this story was so effective because as Alex was drawn deeper into the uncharted lands of the Amazon, his perspective of the People of the Mist and their ways was increasingly accepting, even while remaining aware the exact logistics behind what the native considered divine intervention. He didn’t challenge their ways, he integrated their customs into his life with measured reason.
  • Painting People of the Mist so vividly and with dignity. When Allende was describing the Eye of the World, there were a lot of details I found really shocking to my western sensibilities (e.g. naked people, breast feeding animals). She was very plain and clear in her descriptions without making any value comparisons, which helped me as a reader become better comfortable with it in my own time.
  • Disrupting language barrier with telling through narration instead of dialogue. Over the book Alex learns that he has come to understand the language. But without needing to make up a native language or continually address the language barriers in the book between natives and the rest of the expedition, Allende reveals what is spoken not through dialogue but through narration. It becomes a fluid and and natural.
  • Humor! There’s a lot of funny scenes in this book. There’s situational humor in the anthropologist Professor Leblanc who is so ignorant and limited in survival skills despite his world-wide fame for study of different cultures. I also found Kate and Alex’s relationship hysterical because of how Kate has difficulty showing her soft and caring side to her grandson who she wants to be strong and self-sufficient. There’s also some scenes that seem like something out of Gulliver’s Travels after the People of the Mist lose their leader and are trying to figure out who will be their next one.

The Bad

  • Overly descriptive in details of environment. I generally have learned as a reader, and writer, that too much description doesn’t always have the effect of helping readers envision the world. At a certain point, the writer needs to allow the readers to fill in some of the blanks for themselves. But this is an incredibly subjective an opinion, as I realize some people might really need/appreciate more explicit detail to become emerged in a story.
  • Occasional repetition of past from others’ perspectives jarring. There were a few instances in this book where events were repeated in summary form from another group’s perspective for dramatic effect. Again, this is subjective, but I’d rather have had this redone without the repetition that removed me from the current events and action of the story, because it did happen at times that left the current timeline at a cliff-hanger!

Outgoing Message

I hoped you enjoyed this review, regardless of whether you plan to read the book or not. If I’ve helped one person become aware, or remember this book from their own childhood, I’ll be happy. I think it’d be a great gift for both young boys and girls who might be struggling readers. While I often struggle with adventure-based books, I know these kinds of books are what can bring stories and worlds alive in less avid readers.

Have you read City of the Beasts? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
Follow my blog via Bloglovin’. Also find me on GoodreadsTwitter, and Instagram.

Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

dragonsReleased: April 1, 1976
Pages: 326 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Fate and destiny, family history, shared human consciousness, value of ancestors, overcoming one’s past, finding one’s place
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★1/2

A stolen heirloom painting…a shipboard murder…Can Simon and the O’Keefe clan unravel the mystery?

Thirteen-year-old Simon Renier has no idea when he boards the M.S. Orion with his cousin Forsyth Phair that the journey will take him not only to Venezuela, but into his past as well. His original plan to return a family heirloom, portrait of Simon Bolivar, to its rightful place is sidetracked when cousin Forsyth is found murdered. Then, when the portrait is stolen, all passengers and crew become suspect.

Simon’s newfound friends, Poly and Charles O’Keefe, and their scientist father help Simon to confront the danger that threaten him. But Simon alone must face up to his fears. What has happened to the treasured portrait? And who among them is responsible for the theft and the murder?

Forward

I decided to read Dragons in the Waters after Troubling a Star this month 1) because I had already owned it, 2) because it was another novel set at sea, and 3) I wondered if I’d get The Arm of the Starfish vibes, considering it’s another book that features another male protagonist who comes into contact with the young and precocious Poly O’Keefe (Meg Murray’s daughter).

I feel I remember starting this book, but I don’t remember if I ever finished it. I own it in a fairly nice condition in an older cover print. I just don’t remember when I bought it. There are a few other Madeleine L’Engle books I own but haven’t read and have since decided to keep despite the fact I’d never read them. These include the books from the Time Quartet, Many Waters and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I’ve given them both a shot in the past, but they’re much heavier science fiction and trippy in a way I don’t like.

Not knowing why I had yet to read (or didn’t remember) Dragons in the Waters, I hoped it would nicely compliment the other L’Engle works I knew I wanted to read and showcase this month on Betwined Reads. Unfortunately, I did not really enjoy this book and actually thought about not reviewing it. But I didn’t my time spent trudging through the book to go to waste, and turned my experience into a teachable by attempting to explain what went wrong for me. So here is the review for the book I rated 2.5 stars.

My Thoughts

That’s right; this is Madeleine L’Engle novel that I did not really like or enjoy very much. I found the plot overcomplicated and the novel cluttered with useless characters that seemed were only present to serve as red herrings to the murder mystery. It’s also a novel that I don’t think would really appeal to children, despite the young characters in the novel. They’re all so unusually bright, intuitive, and precocious.

The novel opens with 13-year-old Simon Renier who is boarding a ship for a trip to Venezuela accompanied by a long-lost relative who just bought a family heirloom from his legal guardian and great aunt Leonis. He has been raised by this elderly but wise woman since he lost his parents. Poly and Charles O’Keefe comment that Simon seems like he’s from another era because of his isolation from other children. He’s a kind, intelligent, and polite boy that was raised in near poverty but with a woman who is a relic of Southern aristocracy.

…Neither Mr. Theo nor Aunt Leonis would want him to moan and groan, and he didn’t intend to. But when a memory flickered at the corners of his mind he had learned that it was best to bring it out into the open; and rather than making him sorry for himself, it helped him get rid of self-pity…

This book explores many different character points-of-view, not just staying over Simon’s shoulder. We see what his Aunt Leonis gets up to while he’s away and also get to know the intimate side of other characters on the ships that their fellow passengers don’t get to see. At first, I thought all these older side characters were just there as red herrings, but upon further reflection I realize that each of them come to terms with something in their past that was haunting them while aboard the ship.

Many of the scenes with characters I was excited to see show up in this novel felt more like they were mere cameos. I loved Mr. Theo in The Young Unicorns (a review for which is now coming later this year!) and I love “Uncle Father”, a.k.a. Canon Tallis, but their parts were so minuscule in this book. Canon Tallis in particular swooped in like Hercule Poirot, seemingly just to tell everyone what he has deduced based on his interviews with a few central characters.

This book, like Troubling a Star, has some political, social, and environmental commentary, which I have since learned is typical of a L’Engle novel, but it’s done a lot better in other of her works. If I had to decide on what is the big take away from this novel, I couldn’t tell you. That’s just how jumbled everything was in my opinion. I just found this book over-long and lacking in a unified message. There’s still a lot of heart in this book, though, and if you have patience you might be able to see this one through.

Craft

I do not know anything about Madeleine L’Engle’s writing life or insight on the work that goes into creating her books, so much of what I will say here (about Dragons in the Waters specifically, not her others works) is speculation. Something about this book feels like it was a written with less regard for plot and more reliance upon formula of elements that make a murder mystery.

If I had more time or the inclination, I think it would be a fun experiment to try and rewrite this novel with a stronger plot outline. The heart of the story is about Simon discovering who his ancestor was and how past injustices have drawn Simon to Venezuela. I think that’s a strong hook for an intriguing story. I’m all for stories where ancestors’s past actions influence the destinies of current day characters (see L’Engle do it better in Troubling a Star!)

Unfortunately L’Engle complicates this story by having a lot of side characters with unique histories that help advance Simon’s destiny and provide red herrings to the murder mystery. These side characters take up a lot of page time, without interesting me much in the slightest.

One thing I really didn’t like is how L’Engle called hispanic people Latins. I’ve never heard that before, but it read to me similarly to the way it sounds when old white people call black people negroes. I don’t at all think it was intentional racism, and I’m aware that it was a different time, but this word gnawed at me in a peculiar way. Grouping people colloquially by a name that specifies race or color so explicitly is not really something we do anymore.

Also, there were subtle implications that race was related to temperament. Many of the characters in this book were of mixed heritage, but there were specific aspects of their character/personality that L’Engle explicitly links to their hispanic roots. None of these instances were derogatory in any way, but I don’t think anyone would appreciate someone placing so much emphasis on a racial or ethnic background to explain who a person is or how they act. Even if it’s meant as a compliment.

I appreciate that L’Engle loved writing novels were American came into contact with other parts of the world and people of different nationalities. Her books always praise people based on their goodness and not their education, race, or economics. Nevertheless, this book serves as a reminder that even the most well-meaning of writers need to be careful in writing people who are of different identities.

Outgoing Message

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little series if you’ve been keeping up with each review thus far. This marks the final review I’ll be doing of Madeleine L’Engle’s works until later this year when I get to The Young Unicorns (a cosy autumnal read).

I didn’t imagine that these posts would bring in much traffic, as Madeleine L’Engle’s been gone for a while now and YA has changed so much. I used to idealize YA written in the past. I loved reading how teenagers lived before the technology and social media that emerging when I was still in middle school. I’ve realized I’m searching for something whenever I reach for a L’Engle book, although don’t ask me what that is. I’m still trying to figure that out.

Next up is my review of The City of Beasts by Isabel Allende, a fantastic hispanic author! If you want to catch up on the reviews that came before this one, here they are linked below:

A Ring of Endless Light

The Arm of the Starfish

Troubling a Star

Have you read Dragons in the Waters? 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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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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