Friday, December 2, 2016

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE


Review of HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by JENNIFER NIVEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I’m a sucker for a strong, smart female protagonist, but when everyone’s trying to write an original character sometimes unique becomes a little less original. My point is that, pleased as I am that there are so many worthy heroines in contemporary literature, some of the less layered ones start to blend. Not Libby. Her incredible strength, spirit, and humor feel completely fresh and specific to her experiences.

After Libby’s mom’s death several years ago, she started eating her feelings. Not a little, but a lot. Until she becomes morbidly obese and confined to her bed. Then she made headlines when a crane had to remove the side of her house and lift her out of her room so she could be taken to a hospital. Fast forward to today and Libby’s lost a lot of weight (though she’s still big enough to attract stares and whispering) and she’s venturing out of home school and into a public high school.

In contrast, we also follow Jack, one of the most popular guys at school and a typical jerk. Except the atypical secret that no one knows is that Jack has face blindness. Terrified of becoming a target rather than a weapon, Jack hides his inability to distinguish faces with an egocentric attitude. When you’re popular, people aren’t as surprised when your gaze slides over their face without any recognition, even when you ignore someone supposedly a friend.

Somehow Jack finds himself drawn to Libby. Well, their initial introduction isn’t a pleasant one. Jack isn’t proud of his jerk friends or his jerk self, but deep down inside he likes the idea of being a better person. So when his friends come up with a cruel game for harassing overweight girls at school, Jack comes up with a plan. It’s mean and makes him the bad guy, but it will end his friends’ game once and for all.

I completely understand why Jack admires Libby. It’s frustrating when you read a book where characters respect/love/hate someone and you just can’t see what they see. Well, Libby does stand out and I’m not talking about her size. She’s comfortable with who she is as a person and has learned to accept and cope with the fact that others will mostly focus on the external. She’s outspoken and intelligent and brave and basically all the virtues Jack wishes he had the guts to embody. Oh, and in a weird way her size is an asset for Jack. Libby may be one of the few people he can pick from a crowd. Even if he can’t recognize her face, he can recognize her size.

This novel is also funny, a rare and precious asset in a good book as I can tell you from both my experience as a writer and an avid reader that drama is so much easier to write than humor. As only one example from this book, I cracked up out loud at a line when Jack’s talking to his girlfriend. Internally, he always reminds himself that his on and off again, popular, and equally jerk girlfriend used to be sweet. And she still has nice moments. So when they’re talking on the phone one night and she’s being, well, not so sweet, Jack thinks to himself that he wishes he could just ask her, “Can you put nice Caroline on the phone now?”

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE is an empowering story about inner strength and inner beauty. I doubt I’ll forget Libby or humbling resilience anytime soon.

Friday, November 18, 2016

POISON STUDY


Review of POISON STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(first in the STUDY trilogy)

Yelena murdered her benefactor in self-defense (not that anyone saw it that way or would believe her) and now faces execution. Then spymaster Valek offers her a second chance: become the Commander’s food taster. Though she risks ingesting poison with every meal, Yelena recognizes the difference between certain vs. possible death and, of course, accepts Valek’s offer.

Valek slips Yelena a poison called Butterfly’s Dust on her first day. If she reports to him each morning, he’ll give her a daily antidote to stave off a slow and painful death. If she runs away, she’ll die within the day. Now Yelena juggles learning about a wide array of poisons, figuring out who she can trust and how to ally herself, and, perhaps most problematic, hiding her possible magical abilities in a land where such talents equal a death sentence.

Above all, this is a story of survival. Yelena doesn’t have an immediate goal at the start of the book beyond living. A goal that proves especially difficult in her circumstances, but remains her primary drive from beginning to end. At the start surviving means paying close attention to Valek’s poison training in the hopes of detecting something without ingesting enough that it will kill her. Then she encounters enemies who want revenge for the man she killed and she must learn some beyond basic self-defense. As if that weren’t enough, a magician approaches her and reveals that Yelena has “untamed” magic. Magicians are forbidden in Yelena’s land and if she’s discovered her death will be ordered...again. However, if she doesn’t master her magic, the magician warns they will have no choice but to kill her before her magic gets too out of her control. So Yelena faces attacks on her simple survival goal from all sides. This also makes it extra interesting to read on in the series and see what Yelena will start wanting for herself once survival becomes less of a challenge.

This book was a re-read for me and I found myself surprised on the second reading by the strength of the feminist subtext. I primarily recalled this trilogy as a compelling, fun read with a lot of flaws. However, on the second read I barely noticed said flaws and found myself instead impressed by strengths I think I underestimated on the first read. Aside from an admirable heroine and other progressive characters and messages, these strengths also included the big cast of characters, a common theme among my favorite books. I especially like that Yelena evolves from a lone wolf character in a place of desperation at the start of the novel to someone surrounded by people who support her and lent extra power by forming strong bonds with the right people. 

My one consistent complaint with Snyder’s work is that the writing isn’t nearly as strong as the plot. And I believe it’s this weakness in very basic points of the writing that lead me to undervalue the book as a whole. Snyder often connects two distinctly separate sentences with only a comma where there should be a period or at least semi-colon. I also always find multiple dangling participles in her work as well as clauses that don’t apply to their intended subject. It occasionally makes the story a little harder to follow when I’m distracted by basic grammar mistakes or even find myself re-reading sentences to ensure I understood the intended meaning. 

I look forward to re-reading the other two books in this trilogy and was also reminded that Snyder has new work out I have yet to read. Snyder’s another writer who can be a little formulaic, but I like her formula so I’m not complaining.

Friday, November 11, 2016

THE MORNING GIFT


Review of THE MORNING GIFT by EVA IBBOTSON

Ruth had plans to flee with her Jewish family from Vienna before the Nazis reached the city. Her family made it out in time, but not Ruth. Her father’s young colleague Quinn finds her and resolves to help. After exploring their limited options, they agree to marry so she can leave with him as his wife. The plan is to annul the marriage once she’s safe, but they quickly learn such a fast annulment will call the validity of the marriage into question and may send Ruth straight back to Austria. So instead they intend to carry on with their separate lives until such time that a divorce makes sense, except Ruth enrolls in university and finds herself taking Quinn’s classes, which makes not seeing him significantly harder.

I found this Ibbotson novel especially humorous. Ruth and Quinn both go to extremes trying to avoid each other. Meanwhile, as a young prestigious professor, Quinn is considered quite the catch and other young women are doing their very best to get and hold attention. Oh, and did I mention Ruth already has a fiancé? She and Quinn both agree to keep silent on exactly how he smuggled her out of Austria, so Ruth’s family and fiancé have no idea she’s technically a married woman now.

I enjoyed the chemistry between Ruth and Quinn. Ibbotson has a knack for writing romances where characters are drawn to each other not because they have exactly the same views but because they’re intrigued by each other’s different views. Quinn and Ruth argue over near about everything, but then each is left musing over the other’s points.

As with Ibbotson’s other young adult historical romances, the heroine is a classic Mary Sue trope. Everyone either adores or detests Ruth and if they detest her that’s a sure measure they’re a bad character. She’s sweet to the point of naivety and always aims for perfection of character.

With THE MORNING GIFT, Ibbotson crafts another sweet and funny romance against the backdrop of real historical issues. Sadly, I’ve reached the end of reviewing all of her young adult novels, but I still look forward to reading her middle grade work.

Friday, November 4, 2016

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR



Review of THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR by NICOLA YOON
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I fell in love with this author’s remarkable debut novel EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING about a teenage girl who can never leave her house due to a rare autoimmune disease. Often when a reader adores an author’s first book (or even merely the first one you happened to read), it makes it that much harder for the next to live up to your already high expectations. I definitely didn’t make it easy for this novel to win me over. Despite repeatedly instructing myself otherwise, I kept measuring this one against the first book. For the first quarter or so, I worried that, while good, this wasn’t quite as good, but as I kept reading, and especially once I finished, I concluded that THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR held up to my very high hopes for it.

This entire book takes place over one day. And, in one day, teenagers Daniel and Natasha fall in love. Let me start off by praising the author for challenging herself, because she faced two very difficult tasks: setting an entire book over a single day and having two characters believably fall in love so quickly. And Yoon pulls off both feats, by the way.

Natasha is a scientific skeptic and I doubt I could have invested in such a fast romance without one of her kind. Simply because she’s not the type of person who does this. She tries so hard not to do this, to fight her impulses, to logic her way out of emotions.

Let me back up a little, though, and tell you something else about Natasha. She is an illegal immigrant and her family is being deported tomorrow. She’s out on her own today seeking a lawyer in a last desperate attempt to stop the inevitable when she meets Daniel. He, on the other hand, is a poet and a hopeless romantic, but unfortunately he’s on his way to a Yale interview so he can begin the life of a doctor his parents have planned out for him.

Perhaps to make everything seem longer or to highlight each and every small, special moment, the book features extremely small chapters. The longest are 3-4 pages while numerous are less a full page. As another interesting twist in style, the author sprinkles Natasha and Daniel’s story with the perspectives of peripheral characters. Along the way the main love story will be ever so briefly interrupted for a chapter about Natasha’s dad, the aforementioned lawyer, even a security guard Natasha interacts with briefly. And this isn’t some weird attempt at being original that falls flat. No, this ties in perfectly with the novel’s theme. Because Daniel and Natasha hardly know each other and yet they change each other’s life cataclysmically in one day. And while we barely know some of these minor characters, we see how strongly some small events affect them.

While I will confess that I still like EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING the best of these two books, I think I nevertheless admire Yoon more for this one. THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR cannot have been easy to write, and yet she makes it feel like it couldn’t possibly have been written any other way.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A SONG FOR SUMMER


Review of A SONG FOR SUMMER by EVA IBBOTSON

As is often the case, Ellen didn’t turn out the way her family expected, or wanted. Her suffragette mother and aunts feel dismayed that Ellen embraces all the feminine ideals they reject: cooking, cleaning, cultivating calm in a chaotic home. She brings these missions with her when she starts working at an Austrian school for the arts. She tames the wild children and brings order where previously there was none, all while falling for the mysterious part-time help Marek, who is already plenty occupied shuttling people out of Nazi occupied territory.

A SONG FOR SUMMER starts a good conversation about feminism and what it means to be a strong woman. I’ve always believed that it’s about choosing your own path and resisting outside attempts to steer you in other directions, whether it be by those telling you be more traditional or those telling you to be less so. It’s all the same really: people telling you the right way to live your life. Only you can decide what’s right for you.

Ellen’s interest in the domestic isn’t described as a simple draw towards the familiar route, either. She has a mentor she admires, a woman who takes care of her uncle. For Ellen, it’s about being a good person, (Yes, that familiar ideal from Ibbotson’s works.) about providing for others for the greater good without expecting or requiring fanfare for all the effort.

This book probably has the least happily ever after of all Ibbotson’s young adult historical romances. As a warning, the rest of this paragraph contains very minor spoilers. As with the other novels, the romantic tension eventually bursts into a passionate display that then settles into true love and riding off into the sunset. Except in this one, there’s a Part Two to the book. As Ellen and Marek are readying themselves for their idyllic future together, the Nazis burn down Marek’s family home and idolized sanctuary, killing those inside. Marek becomes consumed with hate and revenge and turns into someone Ellen can’t be around. So Ellen marries someone else, someone she doesn’t love, but who provides her with the financial means to help others fleeing Hitler’s Reich. Marek and Ellen do eventually find each other again, but it’s years down the line after plenty of heartache and sacrifice. Ibbotson fled from the Nazis herself long before she started writing these books, so I interpret the fact that this novel is slightly darker than her others as indicative of the period about which she’s writing. I suspect for someone having lived through Hitler’s Reich, it’s difficult to portray a simple happily ever after around that time without giving more weight to the horror of the era.

As with all Ibboton’s works, I adore the large cast of varied characters. My favorites in this one undoubtedly include two children, the soft spoken Sophie who is growing into her own bravery and the cynical Leon, who is far less cynical when he’s around Sophie.

Though a bit more psychologically complex due to the war in the background, this novel is yet another sweet, funny romance that will warm your heart.

Friday, October 21, 2016

NOBODY'S PRINCESS


Review of NOBODY’S PRINCESS by ESTHER FRIESNER

The story of Helen of Troy is certainly appetizing bait for a writer. However, Helen rarely appears in retellings as anything more than a passive - if beautiful - catalyst. Friesner sets herself the challenge of portraying Helen not as the typical damsel in distress but a capable, remarkable young woman overwhelmed by impossible circumstances.

People comment on Helen’s appearance from a young age. She enjoys the attention, until her sister’s jealous remarks made Helen think harder about what it means to be beautiful. As her sister Clytemnestra laments, Helen often doesn’t earn this special treatment. Helen also starts to realize that this “gift” of beauty will likely infringe on her precious freedom more and more the older she becomes. People will expect her to behave a certain way and to fulfill feminine ideals. Perhaps it’s because she’s young and perhaps not, but Helen yearns for adventures besides marriage and children.

She starts training in secret with her brothers and goes on to learn whatever she can about weaponry and fighting arts by spying, disguising herself, and seeking out willing mentors.

For me, the greatest strength of this novel is undoubtedly the characters and relationships. Clytemnestra may not be the nicest to Helen, but she probably molds Helen for the better by making her consider why everyone treats her differently. Helen also has a sweet if complicated relationship with her brothers. They’re torn between respecting her capabilities and a sense of duty to steer her back towards traditional feminine roles. Whenever she announces what she wants to do, they’re usually doubtful and mocking, but they do get credit for admitting when they underestimated her. The best part is that all these personalities are so subtly delivered; I never felt the author hitting a point too hard.

I normally don’t pick out specific quotes from books. I may notice the quality of the writing overall, but it’s rare for me to find individual lines that I feel the urge to mention. With NOBODY’S PRINCESS, though, I kept finding quotes that fit that wonderful combination of funny and wise, such as “The gods protect me from men who mean well!” I also liked “it wouldn’t be the first time a man found courage he never knew he had until he met the right woman.” I think “man” and “woman” in that phrase can be changed out for “person,” but I’m a big believer in the catalyst relationship where meeting someone new ends up changing your whole outlook. Last I’ll mention “A rock at the bottom of a well is safe from worries too,” a reminder that sometimes we compromise comfort for a little adventure.

But there’s no compromising with NOBODY’S PRINCESS! This is a fun, fast read with understated depth and warmth.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A COMPANY OF SWANS


Review of A COMPANY OF SWANS by EVA IBBOTSON

Harriet has lived a dreary, dull life penned up with her conservative father and aunt in 1912 Cambridge. They permit her one indulgence, ballet, but certainly neither approves of the art. Then someone offers Harriet a place in his ballet company set off for a South American tour. It seems the adventure she’s dreamed of all her life, except her father would never allow it. Given a choice between submit and rebel, Harriet goes against her good girl instincts and chooses rebel. She sneaks off to join the company against her father’s wishes and finds a happiness exceeding her wildest dreams. Of course, her father and the man he hoped Harriet would marry are determined to bring her home, ideally ashamed and contrite.

With this premise, Ibbotson delivers another complex and engaging young adult historical romance. Ibbotson’s books are very similar and many of my comments remain the same despite the specific novel. That all said, if the books are formulaic it’s a successful formula and I would happily read as many as she could write.

Each book features a wide and diverse cast and, though having a big cast may be a commonality, Ibbotson makes each character unique and plenty surprisingly layered. In A COMPANY OF SWANS, I particularly like Marie-Claude, a gorgeous dancer who many, men especially, wish to peg as a loose and simple harlot for her enviable curves and mermaid-like, long, blonde hair. Except Marie-Claude already has a fiancé to whom she’s devotedly committed and, thankfully, her intelligence isn’t inversely proportional to her looks either. Part of why I like this character so much is because authors often fall into a trap of making their heroine the most, or worst – only, likable female in the book. It shouldn’t detract from one woman’s strengths to acknowledge other strong women.

Another trend throughout these novels is that the heroines are rather interchangeable. Though they have different hobbies, their general outlook and personality are the same. Harriet is young and naïve, but also smart, considerate, passionate, and not someone to underestimate merely because she’s growing into herself. All the books feature a much older romantic interest who’s drawn to the heroine for her refreshing innocence and purity. That may be the only thing that irks me a little in these books: the importance placed on “purity.” In defense of the novels, the author seems to mean more of a purity of spirit: being a good person. That said, sometimes the heroines are such good people that they seem annoyingly Mary Sue. I like the parts when one of them has to battle a negative emotion like resentment or jealousy more than when the character seems too wholesome to feel such petty emotions.

I intensely admire how Ibbotson describes characters’ appearances. She has so many distinct ways of crafting an image in the reader’s mind, and she uses vivid, unusual words for writing about features rather than simplistic descriptions like “big nose” or “brown eyes.” In general, Ibbotson claims an utterly unique writing style. Some works are more about plot than writing, but I believe I could pick out Ibbotson’s writing from many random samples. Her writing can be wordy and indulgent, but always endearingly passionate and heartfelt.

Sadly, Ibbotson only wrote five of these delightful young adult historical romances. Additional reviews to come, though other than plot descriptions you will find much of my commentary on these books the same for all.