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.

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin
The Blind Assassin

I remember promising myself that after reading The Historian, The Accursed, and The Once and Future King (all very long, dense books), I would give myself a break and read something easier on the brain and emotions. Instead, I decided to read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This book is decidedly not easy on the brain or emotions. It isn’t a tremendously long book, but it is the sort of book that you do not want to skim and, therefore, cannot read very quickly.

“The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.” Indiebound

The book is always shifting between newspaper articles, Laura’s book, and Iris’s narration of the events of her youth. What emerges, as the story of Laura and Iris progresses through Iris’s memories, is a picture of young women struggling to find their own way in a world dominated and controlled by men. As daughters of a man with a fortune, their course is essentially plotted before they are even born. It is clear from Iris’s tone and Laura’s behavior exactly what they think of this, but each woman deals with the expectations in ways that are as unique as the girls themselves are.

Several things about this book made me really enjoy it. Atwood’s style of prose is, as usual, masterful. Her language is quite unlike any other author’s, and I never regret spending time reading whatever story she creates for her readers. Iris, in the parts where she narrates, speaks from a place of great age and experience. She has lived her whole life and is nearing the end of it. Her voice is at once defiant and pleading, reminding young readers that the elderly are still living human beings with needs and feelings. She is a reminder to not write off those who have aged to the point of creaking senility–they still have stories to tell, wisdom to impart, and great value to add to the experience of someone with years left to live.

Perhaps the most interesting element of The Blind Assassin was the sprinkling of dystopian chapters of the novel that Laura wrote shortly before she died. It was published posthumously and Iris spent the remaining years of her life dealing with the reactions of both fans and foes of the work. The work itself is almost a laundry list of all the things a young woman of that time was never supposed to know about or enjoy, which was why it made such an impact. More than that, it was a poignant jab at both the world that Laura and Iris were prisoners of and, in a way, the world that we inhabit today. Both a work of subtle science-fiction and a social commentary, it said more about society than Laura ever could have said directly.

I highly recommend The Blind Assassin. Atwood always has something to say, and she always does so by telling a brilliant, engrossing story. This novel is no exception.

A Circus-Themed Post

A Circus-Themed Post

I’ve recently read two novels with circus themes that I think lovers of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would enjoy.

Gracekeepers

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan was our book club selection this month, and it was incredibly polarizing. On one side, you have those like me, who absolutely loved it, and you have those who really didn’t think much of it at all. I thought it was an incredibly lovely book. The language was lush and poetic, the setting well-structured and highly visible in the reader’s mind’s eye. It is the story of two women in a drowned, post-apocalyptic landscape. One girl travels with a floating circus, her act involving a trained, dancing bear who is also her dearest friend. The other conducts funeral rites on her lonely island wreathed in mist and surrounded by floating bird cages.

There are many story-lines happening in this novel. Perhaps the author was a little over-ambitious in such a short novel, for there are questions that were not answered to their fullest and loose ends that could have used tighter tying. Despite its minor failings, I thought the novel was so enjoyable that I couldn’t put it down. I loved North, the bear girl, especially. She is courageous and strong. Her circus, the ship Excalibur and its flotilla of coracles, sounds like a rough but adventurous life. I found myself drawn to this watery world, where trees are so rare it’s a crime (or even blasphemous) to harm them in any way. It is only vaguely fantastic, so it will appeal to readers who ordinarily stay away from fantasy stories.

BookSpeculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler was another incredible circus book (how I ended up reading two almost in a row, I don’t know). In this novel, narrator Simon Watson is a librarian who lives by himself in his ancestral home on the harsh coast of the Northeastern United States. The house, due to erosion, is so near the cliff’s edge that it threatens daily to go over, but that is the least of his problems. His parents are dead, and his sister is the fortune-teller in a traveling circus. Simon one day receives a book in the mail from someone he has never met–a book that shows a frightening trend in his family’s women’s tendency to drown on a particular day of the year. The women in his family are side-show “mermaids” who can hold their breath for impossibly long periods of time; Simon and his sister both possess this ability as well. The drownings lead Simon to believe that perhaps there is a curse on his family, and his sister seems to have arrived at home just in time for her own drowning, unless Simon can do something about it.

I apologize if I made this sound like a thriller. It is thrilling, but it is so much more than that. It is, in part, a beautiful homage to the written word. Simon and several other characters adore rare and antiquarian books, and it is a feeling with which many of the novel’s readers will feel kinship. It is also, in part, historical fiction, as the narration flips back and forth between first-person in the present day with Simon, and third-person following a mute circus “Wild Boy”-turned-seer in the late 18th Century. Swyler’s prose is eloquent, and her plot is so exciting that I didn’t want to put this book down. One thing I enjoyed in particular was being witness to the origin story of several of the antique relics that Simon comes across in his search for truth–an old theatrical curtain, mysterious portraits of unknown persons, and a crumbling deck of tarot cards that his sister obsesses over.

Though the supernatural is only hinted at and never quite makes a verifiable appearance, it adds enough of an air of mystery and intrigue to hook its readers. Are Simon and his family descended from an Eastern-European water spirit? Is there truly a curse, or are the family merely victims of truly bad luck? Is it wishful thinking, or does Simon truly hear his mother’s ghost in the water? What’s up with the horseshoe crabs?

These books are must-reads for lovers of somber, beautiful prose; sorrowful, nostalgic stories; ethereal setting; and the draw of a carnival atmosphere providing a light in the darkness.

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

I’ve been on a middle-grade chapter book kick, and I’ve really struck gold with the three that I’ve read so far. It’s a fantastic time to be a kid, or a lover of children’s literature. There are so many good books coming out every day, it’s almost impossible to keep up. I was fortunate enough to read three absolutely wonderful books in a row.

#1: Monstrous by MaryKate Connolly

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This is a novel about Kymera, a little monster girl created in a lab for a very special purpose. She has a stinging tale, patchwork skin, and eyes that can switch back and forth between human and cat (for seeing in the dark). She lives with her father deep in the forests outside of the town of Bryre, and only enters the city at night after everyone is asleep. Though she is not allowed to have any friends, she meets a boy named Ren and is unable to resist his companionship. But both Ren and Kymera have deep secrets, and it tests their friendship and their trust for one another. When the town of Bryre faces danger, it’s up to them to reconcile their mistrust and work together to save their home.

This is an absolutely darling story. It’s fairly dark because it combines taboo science with wicked magic, but ultimately it tells a story about love, acceptance, family, and heroism in unexpected places. I recommend this book highly, as I think it’s a fairly unique story that combines the misunderstood monster of Frankenstein with the magical elements of beloved fairy tales. It’s a page-turner, sure to keep readers young and old engaged.

#2: Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M. M. Blume

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Julia barely remembers her mother, who disappeared when Julia was seven years old. Now twelve, she faces a rapidly shifting world, as her grandmother, who is also her guardian, passes away, and her family’s debts are called in. Her aunt sells their ancestral home and most of their possessions, and Julia and her Aunt Constance set off on a road trip across the United States, following the rumors of Julia’s mother. With all of their remaining worldly possessions packed into their car (silver candlesticks, Oriental carpets, and some steamer trunks, to name a few practical travel essentials), they visit Greenwich Village in New York City, consult a voodoo priestess in New Orleans, go hunting in the dusty Texas desert, and continue all the way to California. Julia documents some of her adventures with her Brownie camera, which she carries everywhere.

I can’t stress enough how adorable this story is. Julia faces her changing circumstances with a positive attitude and a sense of adventure that one can’t help but love her for. She drags her camera everywhere and takes pictures of everything she sees (some of which are on display in the chapters of the book!). Most importantly, she learns lessons about finding family wherever she can, and about accepting herself and her slightly quirky personality. This is a truly lovely book that reminds me a bit of Matilda, but with its own sassy personality. Plus it encourages kids to travel, and that is incredibly important.

#3: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

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I picked up this book on a whim and I am so happy I did. That is sometimes the best way to find a book. As a bookseller, a lot of books get buzz, and I just don’t have time to read all of them. Nightbird is a book that deserves the time. I read it in a matter of hours because I couldn’t put it down.

Twig lives in Sidwell, Massachusetts, which is a town with many secrets. Her mother doesn’t socialize, and though she is the most beautiful woman in town, she is also the saddest. Her mother bakes pies, which draw tourists from miles around, and Twig and her mother live in the orchard from which they harvest the fruit for the pies. Rumors and local legends say that a monster inhabits Sidwell, and Twig knows more about that than she lets on to outsiders. Like Kymera in Monstrous, Twig is not allowed to have friends. Her mother worries that their family secrets will emerge if she does. But when two girls close to her age move into the cottage beside their orchard (a cottage rumored to have once belonged to a witch), Twig is unable to refrain from becoming best friends with the younger sister.

Anything I try to say about this book will likely sound hyperbolic. I really thought that it was delightfully beautiful. It is rich with the joys and the headaches that local traditions and folklore can bring to a small town, and there are elements of hidden magic existing beside the everyday things people see with their eyes. The secrets that come out eventually have the potential to be disastrous, but Twig learns that people can be surprisingly generous, accepting, and loving.

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I highly recommend all three of these beautiful novels. These characters are strong and wonderfully themselves, and they make fantastic protagonists and role models for young girls (or boys!). Read these to your children, buy them for your classroom, or read them for yourselves!

Flowers in the Attic

Flowers in the Attic

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While I’d stop short of saying I loved this book, I will say that it did keep me in thrall. I was skeptical about how any author could make the goings-on of one room interesting for 400+ pages, but Andrews accomplished this feat.

In case you’re late to the party, this novel recounts the story of four beautiful children, nicknamed “Dresden dolls” by their neighbors for their porcelain skin and fair features. Theirs is a charmed childhood, and until the events of the novel unfold, the worst thing narrator Cathy can imagine is that her new twin siblings will usurp her place in her parents’ affections. Early in the novel there are allusions to incest, like when one of the suspicious neighbors remarks that the parents look more like brother and sister than husband and wife. After an accident rips away one member of their perfect family, the mother moves her children to her family’s estate in rural Virginia in the middle of the night. There, the children are kept in an upstairs room, where they must stay quiet, tidy, and wary of “impure” thoughts.

The children stay in the attic for years. Years. While their mother cavorts about with her money and her new clothes and her jewels and her suitors, her children moulder in the attic, awaiting the day when dear trusted Momma wins her sick father’s affections, gets written back into his will, and they can live like kings with his money. Little by little, the reader comes to realize, as do the children, that something is rotten in the state of Virginia, and Momma hasn’t been quite honest with them.

Yes, this book has incest in it. Oh dear, just get your freak-out over now. While I’m by no means “into” that sort of thing (yeah, it’s pretty gross), there are worse things in this novel about which you should express your disgust, like religious fanaticism, physical and emotional abuse, and attempted murder.

The writing gets off to a rocky start. The sentences are simple and somewhat dated. Cathy makes exclamations of variations of “great golly lolly!” throughout the book and that gets annoying, but I think the point is to drive home how very naïve and innocent these children are. Their (frankly, psychopathic) grandparents consider them the spawn of the devil and expect them manifest evil from the start, but it’s fairly obvious that the evils that eventually happen do so because they’ve been locked in an attic and told they’re evil. As the novel continues however, and Cathy grows up with her siblings, the writing becomes more introspective and mature, and I think we as readers witness author’s maturation, as well as the characters.

This book is fascinating in the same way train wrecks and car pile-ups are. In true Gothic fashion it is melodramatic and horrifying in an immensely pleasurable way. The wicked kind of pleasure that kids get from pulling the tails of cats and adults get from look at someone’s life and saying, “Thank goodness that’s not me.” I felt guilty for even wanting to read this, but actually I think it’s an important milestone in the YA canon, and so deserves to be read by people who care about literature.

Out of the Easy

Out of the Easy

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I’m struggling with this book, but not for the reasons you might think. I struggle with it because it’s just SO GOOD, and, as a bookseller, I want to recommend the books that are JUST SO GOOD to all the teens that come in and ask me what to read. But this is how I picture this scenario going down:

Overprotective mom/aunt/grandparent: “I’m looking for something for my daughter to read on her vacation this summer. She likes historical books. Can you recommend something for her?”

Me: “SURE! This is a fantastic historical YA novel set in 1950’s New Orleans! I loved it!”

OPM/A/G: “What’s it about?”

Me: “A girl whose mom is a prostitute, whose guardian is a brothel madame, who gets caught up in a bit of trouble when there’s a murder, and oops, then the mob comes after her.”

OPM/A/G: *glares, shoves the books in my direction, and storms off, never to return*

Okay, so maybe that isn’t everyone I meet, but it seems like a lot of the time I’m recommending books to parents instead of kids, and it’s a rare occasion when one says to me, “I don’t care if there’s cursing and sex in it.”

There isn’t cursing and sex in this one. Let me just put that out there. For a novel about hookers and gangsters in one of the most notorious cities in the US, it’s surprisingly clean. This novel has a lot of beautiful things to offer: it portrays deep, abiding friendships; it’s headed by a heroine who wants to better herself for her own sake, and who doesn’t compromise her desires for the sake of romance; it stresses the importance of a college education; and it shows that lies just breed more lies, and if you want to maintain good relationships (not to mention safety and sanity), you should probably tell the truth.

Josie is a girl who basically raised herself. Her mother is a beautiful but vain “woman of the night,” who is in love with exactly the wrong sort of man, and whose dreams are to achieve Hollywood wealth and fame, stay young and beautiful forever, and have every luxury imaginable close at hand. Good role model, right? Josie somehow manages to grow into her exact opposite: she hates attention, she never buys new things, and she dreams of going to college and escaping New Orleans. New Year’s Eve and early 1950 is a turning point for Josie, when she meets two people who become the hinges on which her story swings.

Ruta Sepetys is one of the most underrated authors I’ve ever had the privilege to read. Both of her novels occur in periods and places of history that people often overlook because of other simultaneous events (in Between Shades of Grey, she tells the story of a Lithuanian family displaced from their homes during Stalin’s cruel regime; most people focus on the atrocities of the Nazis during the same period). And her novels are beautifully written, deeply emotional, and very well-peopled. Her characters are easy to get along with. I found myself wishing Josie were a real person, whom I could visit in her bookshop and have tea with around the corner in the French Quarter.

If you like good characters, read this novel. If you like a suspenseful plot, read this novel. If you like stories that make you cry, and then laugh, and then laugh while crying, read this novel. I cannot recommend Ruta Sepetys highly enough. Please do yourself a favor and put this author on your list.

13.32–Her

13.32–Her

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I love memoirs.  They read like fiction but they’re true stories.  Something about their being true makes the story incredibly engaging.  It’s almost enough to pull me away from fiction.

Until I read flops like this one and get discouraged from that.  Though it had so much potential (despite the tragedy of it, the author’s life has given her great writing material) this was a terrible memoir for two main reasons:

A: It’s choppy.

There’s no coherence to it.  It’s almost impossible to know in what order the events she’s describing happened. Her story sounds like a drunk person who tries to tell a joke but ruins the punchline because she says it first.  Reading it was not in any way enjoyable.  Perhaps it’s morbid to expect to be entertained by a tragic memoir. Don’t judge me. You all stare at car wrecks, too.

B: It feels fake.

This is supposedly a story about grief.  Christa’s twin, Cara, goes on a downward spiral of drug addiction and self-hatred, and eventually dies of an overdose.  Christa is a mess.  But when she writes about Cara when she’s alive, it’s almost like she can’t stand her. She never has anything flattering to say.  There is very little appearance that they love each other, frankly.  They’re portrayed as close, but it always seems like it’s almost reluctantly–at times, cruel or vindictive. It makes her grief seem embellished and fake.

I was so incredibly frustrated by this book.  Perhaps I’m insensitive. It is, after all, the author’s way of dealing with her grief.  But for a memoir, it lacked the genuineness one would like to expect from a true story.  There are probably hundreds better memoirs you can find.  Pass on this one.