A New Treasure, A Teen Read, and An Old Favorite

A New Treasure, A Teen Read, and An Old Favorite

I am still playing catch-up with my book reviews, so today’s post will include three short blurbs about books that I read last year. I’m into November books now, so I’m happily moving along quickly!

A New Treasure:

The Red Garden
The Red Garden

The Red Garden introduces us to the luminous and haunting world of Blackwell, Massachusetts, capturing the unexpected turns in its history and in our own lives. In exquisite prose, Hoffman offers a transforming glimpse of small-town America, presenting us with some three hundred years of passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions. From the town’s founder, a brave young woman from England who has no fear of blizzards or bears, to the young man who runs away to New York City with only his dog for company, the characters in The Red Garden are extraordinary and vivid: a young wounded Civil War soldier who is saved by a passionate neighbor, a woman who meets a fiercely human historical character, a poet who falls in love with a blind man, a mysterious traveler who comes to town in the year when summer never arrives. At the center of everyone’s life is a mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look. Beautifully crafted, shimmering with magic, The Red Garden is as unforgettable as it is moving.” –Indiebound

I was so impressed with this little volume that I read it in about 24 hours. I’m having trouble deciding if I enjoyed this book more than Hoffman’s book for children, Nightbird. These stories tell tales about different people living in the same town for hundreds of years, from its founding in the days of settlers and explorers all the way up to near-modern times. Though some people seem frustrated by the open-ended nature of the stories and the way Hoffman never goes back to wrap up the story of any one character, I found myself greatly pleased by this. It encourages reader participation. For those readers who are astute, she provides hints in later stories about the fates of characters in earlier stories, and it is an interesting reading experience to see characters about which one just read become historical fixtures in a later story.

Hoffman’s language and story-telling ability drew me in and made me want to live in this tiny town so rich in history and magic. The red garden itself is mysterious and intriguing though the size of its part in each story varies wildly. The red garden mostly embodies the curious undercurrent of magic and mysticism that bubbles just below the surface of every story. I truly loved this book and highly recommend it.

A Teen Read:

Side Effects May Vary
Side Effects May Vary

“For fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell comes this powerful novel about a girl with cancer who creates a take-no-prisoners bucket list that sets off a war at school only to discover she’s gone into remission. When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs. So she convinces her best friend, Harvey, to help her with a crazy bucket list that’s as much about revenge as it is about hope. But just when Alice’s scores are settled, she goes into remission, and now she must face the consequences of all she’s said and done. Contemporary realistic-fiction readers who love romantic stories featuring strong heroines will find much to savor in this standout debut.”Indiebound

I know a lot of people who liked this book, so I’m going to express an unpopular opinion here: I hated it. I could not stand Alice at all. I can’t possibly understand how difficult it is to have cancer, especially at a time when all of your hormones are exploding and you’re already a raging monster trying to figure out how to make it in the world. But this girl took it way too far and was one of the most disagreeable, unlikable characters I’ve ever read. “Fans of John Green” my butt. Hazel Grace was awesome. She was smart, witty, kind, and I wanted to be her friend. Alice is an unpleasant bitch (understatement) who starts and perpetuates completely unnecessary drama and makes the lives of those who love her a living hell. People are trying to cope with the fact that she’s dying, and she unequivocally makes it a bazillion times worse. Ugh. Hated this book. Pass on it; trust me.

An Old Favorite:

Spindle's End
Spindle’s End

“The evil fairy Pernicia has set a curse on Princess Briar-Rose: she is fated to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into an endless, poisoned sleep. Katriona, a young fairy, kidnaps the princess in order to save her; she and her aunt raise the child in their small village, where no one knows her true identity. But Pernicia is looking for her, intent on revenge for a defeat four hundred years old. Robin McKinley’s masterful version of Sleeping Beauty is, like all of her work, a remarkable literary feat.” Indiebound

I read this book in high school (I discovered just how long ago I read it when I found a love note from a high school ex in the back of the book), and absolutely loved it the first time. I’ve wanted to re-read it for years, so I brought it with me to Peru to read. The only books I brought with me (I couldn’t afford the space or the weight for many) were favorites of mine that I wanted to re-read, and this was one of them. It stood the test of time, believe me. I still love it!

Obviously, this is a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty, which is not one of my favorite fairy tales. After all, it’s the one (at least the Disney version we’re all familiar with) in which the fairy tale “heroine,” or perhaps “maiden” is better, does absolutely nothing. There is barely any story to this story. McKinley takes a baseball bat to that notion. She storied the hell out of this story.

First, Briar-Rose, or Rosie as her friends know her, is not your typical princess. Raised as a country girl, she’s sweet and loves her foster family, but she would rather work than braid hair and sew (or whatever princesses do). Her best friend is a blacksmith. At a very young age, she decides she can’t put up with all that long, flowing, golden hair bullshit, and cuts it all off. Perhaps her most “princess-y” trait is that she can communicate with animals. I love Rosie for her spunk and her tomboyishness, and for everything she does that flies in the face of what princesses are “supposed” to do. Of course, she doesn’t know she’s a princess.

McKinley hasn’t written anything decent in the past few years, which breaks my heart because I truly love her older work. She masterfully weaves together magic and history and creates a world that is dreamlike and charming, even when it gets tough on its characters. In my mind when I read this book, there is a golden aura surrounding every mental image, and it’s a place where I very much wish to visit. I highly recommend this beautiful retelling of Sleeping Beauty because it is at least 100x better than any other version I’ve read.

12.23–Entwined

12.23–Entwined

Entwined by Heather Dixon is an absolutely beautiful rendition of The Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale.  I was skeptical at first, mostly because I’m skeptical of a lot of YA these days.  There is a huge amount of it being released, and not a lot of it is well-written.  Heather Dixon, however, is an author that promises and then delivers. I cannot wait for more of her work!

I was surprised by how many people I’ve talked to that don’t know the story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. The basic plot of the original fairy tale is: there are twelve princesses who sneak out of their room every night into a magical fairy land and dance until dawn.  The King is very perplexed by the mystery of their worn-out dancing slippers, which were new the morning before, and decrees that the man who can find out where they go every night may have the hand of the eldest princess.  The premise behind this novel is very similar to this, though it has been fleshed out to create a full-blooded story.  For instance, Dixon answers the question of why the princesses have to sneak out and dance, rather than simply dancing in their palace.  She’s also created a lot of history and backstory for her fictitious kingdom, and her characters sparkle (Figuratively. Used to be we could say that and everyone would know they didn’t literally sparkle, but thanks to Stephanie Meyer…).  And to add an element of darkness, there is an evil enchanter lurking in the fairy pavilion where they go to dance.  His name is Mr. Keeper, and he likes to keep things.

In this story, we get to know each princess, though the heroine is the eldest, Azalea.  Each sister has a unique personality: Azalea is maternal and feels responsible for her younger siblings. Bramble is fiery, temperamental, and wild. Clover is beautiful, sweet, and shy. You get the idea. But I like that Dixon made an attempt to make each of these twelve girls unique. Twelve is a lot of personalities to invent! Especially when you take into account that they are not the only characters in the novel.

Mr. Keeper is delightfully evil.  In the beginning he is dashing and charming, with a slightly sexy, dangerous air.  As the novel progresses, he reveals his true colors, and his true identity–neither of which, I’ll confess, I predicted.  I mean, I knew he was the bad guy, but I didn’t know he was that bad.

And then, of course, there are the relationships between the characters.  This is something that is always really important to me. The relationship between Azalea and her sisters is fiercely loyal and yet sweet.  The relationship between the girls and their father is strained and heartbreaking, though eventually his attitude toward them begins to thaw.  And the romance! It’s all so sweet! And innocent. I just love an innocent, slow-blooming romance in which both parties don’t even realize that they’ve fallen in love until some great event leads them to realize they cannot live without each other.

There were inconsistencies in Dixon’s writing. For instance, about three-quarters of the way through the book, she started italicizing words for emphasis a lot more than she did in the previous quarters.  It was bizarre and a little off-putting.  Still, the plot was fantastic, especially toward the end, so it didn’t really take away from the overall story much.  I think Dixon has a really stellar novel here, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking of reading it. Like Peri, for instance :) Enjoy!