A Madness So Discreet

A Madness So Discreet

Cover image for A Madness So Discreet
Cover image for A Madness So Discreet

Where has this book been?! The title seems familiar to me, but I cannot remember if it received any hype, or if I just remember seeing it hit the shelves and fizzle. It deserves more hype than it got, in my opinion, but these days it seems only paranormal romance and fantasy books get any hype at all. In any case, I tore through this one–couldn’t put it down.

“Grace Mae is already familiar with madness when family secrets and the bulge in her belly send her to an insane asylum, but it is in the darkness that she finds a new lease on life. When a visiting doctor interested in criminal psychology recognizes Grace’s brilliant mind beneath her rage, he recruits her as his assistant. Continuing to operate under the cloak of madness at crime scenes allows her to gather clues from bystanders who believe her less than human. Now comfortable in an ethical asylum, Grace finds friends and hope. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who will bring her shaky sanity and the demons in her past dangerously close to the surface.” —Indiebound.org

First, this novel is dark. Really dark. Especially in the beginning. We all know that insane asylums in the 1800s were not happy places to be, and that inconvenient people, especially women, could be remanded to their custody for anything from a fainting spell to infidelity. I assume that this author, having done her research well, did not invent any of the “treatments” inflicted upon our protagonist, Grace. To read the beginning of this novel felt a bit like rubbernecking–you know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t look away.

Grace struggles with the abuse she suffered, first at the hands of her family, and then at the hands of the people who are supposed to rehabilitate her (for an illness she doesn’t have). She is a powerful character with a hold on her emotions that borders on too strong. When she is removed from the clutches of the asylum, the reader hopes that perhaps her life will become a little lighter and brighter. In a way this is true, but in others, those rosy dreams can never be. Her life has already contained too much trauma to leave her completely happy. However, in her new life, she at least has purpose and friends, and the reader can’t help but enjoy her turn in fortune.

For cast of characters, this novel wins a lot of points. From the quirky voice who accompanies her in the dark at the asylum, to the doctor who rescues her, to her irrepressible half-mad friends, to the looming, terrible presence of this novel’s villains, each character is well-formed and wholly believable.

I also really enjoyed this novel for the sheer pleasure of reading about a subject I’d never encountered before. Asylums of this period hold a lot of interest simply for the bizarre way people approached psychology at this point–all the weird pseudoscience swirling around. It’s doubly interesting because it also explores the new fields of criminal psychology and, to a certain degree, forensics. I’ve only read one book about the actual history of early murder (especially serial murder) investigations, and the bumbling about of early investigators and stumped police would be amusing if it weren’t life or death for the people involved.

To wrap this up, this is a great novel. I’d recommend it to any fans of historical fiction, great female characters, and dark, twisted stories in which you’re not sure what’s right and wrong. It’s been out for a few years, and it definitely deserves more attention than it got.

The Nightingale (And Why It Matters)

The Nightingale (And Why It Matters)

The Nightingale
The Nightingale

I have never been a tremendous fan of Kristin Hannah. Before this, I never felt that her novels had much substance. They are frilly chick-lit with very little real value. The Nightingale, however, took my breath away. It is an incredible novel with a lot to say, and it highlights several parts of history that I feel deserve more attention than they have received in the past.

“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.

FRANCE, 1939

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.” –Indiebound

On the surface, this is just a historical fiction novel about two sisters.  It’s not really even about the two sisters together or their relationship. Much of the novel follows both of them separately, except in the few places where their paths overlap. Set in France, it has a natural appeal for me because France is one of my favorite places in the world. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels that way. There are so many depths and layers to the story once you delve deeper into the book. I am really pleased with Hannah for making this novel more than just another empty piece of chick-lit.

Several things set this novel apart for me. The first is that the goal of the novel is a lofty and noble one. Both of the women in the novel recognize the horror of what is happening around them. Rather than choosing the safer path of compliance, as many women understandably chose when their men were gone and their homes were invaded, both of these women live dangerous double lives in order to defend their homeland. They rely on their wits and act in the face of overwhelming danger. They stare their fear in the face and they continue onward in spite of it. Their level of courage is hard to match and it made for a really great story.

What I think is most important and enjoyable about this novel, though, is that this story is not entirely fiction. I do not know if Hannah based her story on any one person in history, but I do know that there were people in France doing exactly what these sisters were doing. One historical figure I read about reminded me so much of Vianne that I thought surely Hannah was inspired by the real woman’s story. The uncommon courage that people found within themselves during this very difficult time is inspiring.

What’s more, it changed my perception of the area and its people during the war. Growing up in the United States, we are taught, in both school and at home, that the United States were the big heroes and we saved Europe from Hitler. That might be one way of looking at it, but reading this kind of novel is important because it makes one realize just how difficult it was for the people under Hitler’s thumb to survive, let alone resist. Though my worldview has expanded drastically since I was a child in history class, I still sometimes sense those lingering prejudices and biases. Reading this novel and others (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is another that will alter your perceptions of people in Nazi-occupied Europe) helps to combat some of that conditioning.

Here are a few things that I already suspected, but which this novel really helped to drive home for me:

-The people of France, or anywhere else in the Axis-occupied territories, were not cowards, and they didn’t just sit around waiting to be rescued. Hitler was not recognized for the threat that he was until it was too late, and he seized his power by degrees. In hindsight, it is easy to recognize his evil, but no one truly knew or believed how bad it would eventually get. And still, people were resisting his influence from the beginning of his power.

-Not all Nazis were evil. Just because they wore the armband and followed orders doesn’t mean all of them truly subscribed to the message. Many of them resisted in any way they could while still doing the minimum necessary to protect themselves and their families.

-Women played a vital role in the war. Many didn’t wear uniforms; they didn’t fire guns; they didn’t die in trenches. But they did more than “keep the home fires burning.” They protected children. They hid those people wanted by the Nazis. They smuggled fallen pilots out of Nazi territory and kept them from being murdered or made prisoners. They risked their lives to subvert the Nazis in countless ways, and it is a relief to see some of those stories being told at last.

This is a powerful, emotional novel that packs a lot of message in just a few hundred pages. It is beautiful, it is deep, and I believe it is an important work of historical fiction–one of those that reminds us that there are many tales to be told, even when we think we’ve heard them all.

Clan of the Cave Bear; Pigs In Heaven; Pax

Clan of the Cave Bear; Pigs In Heaven; Pax

There really isn’t a time when I’m not playing catch-up on this blog because I spend a lot more time reading than I do writing about the books I read, but I really am trying to get up-to-date on the books I’m reading. I hope someone is still reading this and finding useful suggestions for all of their reading needs.

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The Clan of the Cave Bear

The first book I’m reviewing today is Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear. I tried to read this book when I was in middle school but it was just too much for me to get through at that age. This second attempt at reading it was successful, but it really took forever for me to get through.

“This novel of awesome beauty and power is a moving saga about people, relationships, and the boundaries of love. Through Jean M. Auel’s magnificent storytelling we are taken back to the dawn of modern humans, and with a girl named Ayla we are swept up in the harsh and beautiful Ice Age world they shared with the ones who called themselves The Clan of the Cave Bear.
A natural disaster leaves the young girl wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan, people very different from her own kind. To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly–she is one of the Others, those who have moved into their ancient homeland; but Iza cannot leave the girl to die and takes her with them. Iza and Creb, the old Mog-ur, grow to love her, and as Ayla learns the ways of the Clan and Iza’s way of healing, most come to accept her. But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat to his authority. He develops a deep and abiding hatred for the strange girl of the Others who lives in their midst, and is determined to get his revenge.”–Indiebound

I really wanted to like this novel more than I did. I would not say it is a novel of “awesome beauty and power.” It is much less interesting than all that. I admire Auel for her ability to work with a period in history about which little is known. It is an imaginative book, to say the least. But there was very little that stirred my emotion. Though she tried to make me care about the characters, I really did not. I think that perhaps this is a flaw of the time period in which she was writing. The style was so antiquated and old that I really did not connect much with the story or the characters. The character I felt the most emotion for was actually the villain. He was easy to hate, but no one else was really easy to love.

When the plot moved, my interest spiked, but it felt stagnant most of the way through. It could have been much more engaging. Less description, more story. And the violence against women, regardless of whether or not that’s the way cavemen lived, was really off-putting. That also took away from the story for me. I definitely won’t read the rest of the series, but I’m glad I finally alleviated my curiosity and finished the book.

Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in Heaven

The next book, Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven, I managed to enjoy despite realizing most of the way through that it was actually a sequel to a book I haven’t read yet. It is the story of Taylor and her adopted Cherokee daughter Turtle. When Turtle witnesses something no one else sees and ends up on TV after saving a man’s life, the Cherokee nation comes after the mother and daughter, claiming the adoption isn’t valid.

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Kingsolver that I don’t like. She establishes excellent rapport between characters, even if they’re supposed to dislike each other. She makes me laugh constantly, even when the situation calls for gravity. I did not feel like I was missing any part of this story despite it being a sequel.  The story stood very sturdily on its own two feet.  I really enjoyed every element of this novel, and I look forward to reading the first one, even if I did read them in the wrong order.

Pax
Pax

I was immediately drawn to this last novel because it is just so cute. And beautiful. The bookseller at Blue Willow Bookshop told me I would really love it, but sadly I was not completely taken with it. Perhaps, without her rave review, I would have loved it more. But it was very highly hyped to me and my own reading of it didn’t live up to her enthusiasm.

“Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day, the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild.

At his grandfather’s house, three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox.

Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own. . . .”Indiebound

I did really enjoy this book. I thought the relationship and the bond between Pax and Peter was really sweet and quite moving. But there was something off-putting about the vague setting and time period, and I did not connect with the human characters much. The only character for whom I felt any warmth was Pax. He’s such a sweet fox and I was really attached to him. I also was somewhat disappointed in the Jon Klassen illustrations. For such a talented illustrator, I felt the chosen scenes did not contain enough color or creativity. They were bland illustrations that didn’t really add to the value of the book at all.

I wish there had been more to this story, but for me it wasn’t the grand, beautiful children’s book that I was led to believe. Yes, it was a sweet story and a good book for children to read, but it wasn’t one of those that swept me off my feet as an adult.

Three Anticipated Reads

Three Anticipated Reads

The Young Elites
The Young Elites

The first of my three highly anticipated reads is The Young Elites by Marie Lu. Unlike many of you (probably), this was my first of her novels. I haven’t read Legend or any of that series. I was really excited to read this one, though, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was good YA.

“Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a ‘malfetto,’ an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars–they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.
Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.
‘It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.'”

This is a good work of young adult fiction. It had great characters. Some were a little formulaic, but I enjoyed others immensely. Also, I feel like maybe Marie Lu has read the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. Sometimes it felt like she took some details straight from there. It’s a great adventure and pretty dramatic, with some really unforeseen twists and surprises. I’d give it a 4 out of 5 stars because it’s close to perfect, but not quite.

Slade House
Slade House

Slade House by David Mitchell was the perfect mix of suspenseful, creepy, and beautiful. I truly am amazed by his writing and I highly recommend his work to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I have several more of his older titles still to read and I’m glad I still have some of his stories left to read. I digress.

“‘Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door.’ 

Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents–an odd brother and sister–extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late. . . .

Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story as only David Mitchell could imagine it.”Indiebound

This novel was shorter and smaller than I expected, a very light hardcover easily held with one hand. I devoured this book in a day. I could barely put it down. I read it while I cooked, I read it while I ate, I read it outside with my coffee, I read it in the bathtub, and I ignored my family to read it. David Mitchell once again has created a story that completely absorbs its reader and leaves them scrambling for more. Beautiful prose, engaging story: 5/5 stars for darling Mr. Mitchell’s latest.

Bats of the Republic
Bats of the Republic

Bats of the Republic is an illuminated novel of adventure, featuring hand-drawn maps and natural history illustrations, subversive pamphlets and science-fictional diagrams, and even a nineteenth-century novel-within-a-novel an intrigue wrapped in innovative design.

In 1843, fragile naturalist Zadock Thomas must leave his beloved in Chicago to deliver a secret letter to an infamous general on the front lines of the war over Texas. The fate of the volatile republic, along with Zadock’s future, depends on his mission.When a cloud of bats leads him off the trail, he happens upon something impossible…

Three hundred years later, the world has collapsed and the remnants of humanity cling to a strange society of paranoia. Zeke Thomas has inherited a sealed envelope from his grandfather, an esteemed senator.When that letter goes missing, Zeke engages a fomenting rebellion that could free him if it doesn’t destroy his relationship, his family legacy, and the entire republic first.

As their stories overlap and history itself begins to unravel, a war in time erupts between a lost civilization, a forgotten future, and the chaos of the wild. Bats of the Republic is a masterful novel of adventure and science fiction, of elliptical history and dystopian struggle, and, at its riveting core, of love.”

I was very excited to read Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson, but I think perhaps it was written for people much smarter and more artistic than I am. Visually the novel is very beautiful and stimulating, with sketches, handwritten letters, maps, diagrams, and other media besides written words that really brought the story to life. I really liked to concept of this novel. However, something about it felt disjointed to me, and the reading was not as enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be. It built and built to what promised to be a brilliant ending, but to me the ending felt gimmicky and not as big as it was made out to be. I know plenty of people who loved this book, but sadly it was a somewhat disappointing read for me.

 

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist
The Miniaturist

I spent a few weeks in YA-land in November, so I read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton to escape from that trap. Sometimes it is hard to leave YA-land.

“On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her splendid new home is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant and leaves Nella alone with his sister, the fearsome Marin.

Nella’s life unexpectedly changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish it, she engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie ways.

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand and fear the escalating dangers around them. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation…or the architect of their destruction?” Indiebound

Overall impression: I really liked this book. It was skillfully written, with beautiful scene-setting and elegant character-building. Nella is a complicated protagonist, and one cannot help but sympathize with her as she tells her story. She is a girl for whom options are incredibly limited, so she does what people expect her to do and marries a man of means. This action comes with a certain set of expectations for her, but she soon realizes that nothing in the Brandt house is as it seems, and nothing goes as expected. Though things are difficult for her at first, she finds a way to cope, thrive, and love her new home. The reader cannot help but admire her for her wherewithal and yet pity her for her limited circumstances.

17th Century Amsterdam is a fascinating and someone dangerous place. I read a lot of historical fiction set in Britain, so it was nice to get away from that and read something historical from the point of view of a different culture. Nella finds life in the city of canals very different from the country town in which she grew up, and as she explores its culture, streets, and customs, so do the readers.

The most intriguing element of Amsterdam in this story, however, is one mysterious house where no one ever answers the door to Nella’s knock, marked by a strange symbol. Sometimes curtains move in an upstairs window. Somehow, despite this, the miniature figurines she desires are delivered to her regardless of her putting in her order or not. The reader and Nella both wonder and eventually obsesses about the Miniaturist. Who is it? Does he have special powers? Can he see the future, or does he imbue his figurines with the ability to change as Nella’s story changes? Nella must face and seek to answer these questions at the same time that she must adjust to the very normal changes faced by women without many choices and the very real dangers faced by a prominent household in times of turmoil dominated by faith.

This is a book that is slightly under-hyped in my opinion and could get lost in the shuffle of all the over-hyped books being released every Tuesday. I highly recommend this unique and interesting novel for fans of historical fiction and magical realism.

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.