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.

Friday, October 7, 2016

TELL ME THREE THINGS


Review of TELL ME THREE THINGS by JULIE BUXBAUM
(review based on an advance reading copy)

As if Jessie’s life didn't change too much already when her mom died, now her father has abruptly remarried and moved them to a new state to live with the new stepmom and her son. This is also means leaving Jessie’s school and all her friends in Chicago and starting new in Los Angeles, which feels like a completely different world. Lucky for Jessie, a mysterious stranger emails her offering to help her learn all the insider tips for surviving at this snooty school.

Of course, the stranger refuses to reveal his identity, only stating that he wouldn’t be able to make this same connection with her if he introduced himself in person. I loved the cast of this novel, which is packed full of varied and layered characters, many of which seem flatter until Jessie pays closer attention. The premise also provides an entertaining mystery, because Jessie can’t help assessing everyone she meets – or sees from afar – as her potential mystery friend.

The voice really won me over. Jessie feels familiar and unique. Believable and likable. Young but mature. As with a lot of young adult novels, a good chunk of this book is interior monologue as Jessie takes in the world around her, and I loved reading everything through her perspective, especially since she does in fact grow over the course of the story.

My only complaint is that ending felt abrupt and focused entirely on wrapping up the romance plot thread at the expense of all others. Sometimes how a book ends can tell you as much about the story as the rest of this book. I would have pegged the novel more as a story about Jessie learning how to look closer at people. Then the ending suggests it’s really meant foremost as a romance.

Regardless, this one stood out from the plethora of young adult novels out there thanks to a crisp and district voice, lots of faceted characters, and fun mystery begging for a big reveal.