I'm giving this 4 stars because it's so rare to find new YA historical fiction that doesn't add in fantasy or steampunk or alternate history. However,I'm giving this 4 stars because it's so rare to find new YA historical fiction that doesn't add in fantasy or steampunk or alternate history. However, the story here is really just three stars. Sepetys puts the whole story in 4 PsOV, which cannot help but remind the reader of Michael Grant's Front Lines (a much better story, but it's alternate history WWII). However, one of the protagonists is clearly mentally unstable, as in, he's modeled after a modern mass shooter. Thus, the reader ends up hoping for his demise. This is weird. Also, the plot is incredibly predictable. It's like the author had a check list of things to add in to a war story: blood and gore? Check. Gang rape? Check. Families torn apart? Check. Old people and children as victims? Check. The reader knows the boat is going to sink, so the story should have her/him wanting to find out who lives and who dies. But it's obvious from a few chapters in. Sepetys might as well have put certain characters in red shirts, as the reader knows that certain deaths will make the story more tragic but still leave the least troubled, "purist" characters surviving to build a new life. Thus, I would recommend this to those who like historical fiction or WWII in general, not so much to those who want a "cracking good tale."...more
I really liked Cat Winters' The Cure For Dreaming, so when I saw that The Steep and Thorny Way was a re-telling of Hamlet, done by an author I liked,I really liked Cat Winters' The Cure For Dreaming, so when I saw that The Steep and Thorny Way was a re-telling of Hamlet, done by an author I liked, well, I just HAD to read it.
My thoughts: meh.
It's very, very loosely tied to Hamlet. Very loosely. Like, we get the dead father's ghost coming back and a few characters who have resemblances to Shakespeare's characters only in the most lax sense. (Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern -- aka Robbie and Gil-- are treacherous, Laertes -- Laurie -- is hot-tempered, Ophelia -- Fleur -- grows flowers to remind us of the insanity scene and gets picked on by her brother. But Greta -- Gertrude -- and Clyde -- Claudius -- don't follow the original much except that they marry, and the Horatio character -- Joe -- is so far removed from Shakespeare that his only resemblance to Horatio is that he is a confidant for Hannalee, who is Hamlet, of course.) And no one dies except Hannalee's dad Hank.
The story itself works except that Winters made it so didactic that its MESSAGE is shoved right into the reader's face over and over and over.
Look, I agree that racism and homophobia are bad things, but this story reads like a white woman's penance for her racist ancestors. There is no subtlety about the MESSAGE, no chance for the reader to discover lessons from history, no enlightenment.
The MESSAGE is good, but the book is so very much MESSAGE that it ceases to be a story. Perhaps if the story had had some subplots so that there was more to the book than just the MESSAGE, I would have liked it better.
Update 4/23/16 In response to a negative comment on this review on Amazon, I posted the following:
Yes, I prefer good writing as a method for making one's point. May I suggest to you works that allow the reader to discover the point instead of preaching it to them in an off-putting way? For works that show in a masterful way the ugliness of racism, try Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Scott's Ivanhoe, and Shakespeare's Othello and The Merchant of Venice. Oh, and if you want YA that shows ugly, hateful racism and its consequences, try the Harry Potter series. Other works which allow the reader to discover very powerful messages include Poe's "Ligea," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (showing that psychotic murderers aren't always obvious to other people), Hawthorne's "The Birth Mark" (showing that domestic abuse is horrifying and deadly) and "Young Goodman Brown" (showing how life-ruining hypocritical religiosity can be), and O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation" (showing that sometimes rules need to be bent a little). Winters did much better at subtlety in The Cure For Dreaming. I expected the same of her in this book, but I was disappointed. Had she taken the time to write Thorny more skillfully, it might have been a powerfully moving book for teen readers. As it is, it's preachy. Teens are turned off when someone preaches to them....more
This book is a true alternate history book: no magic, no paranormal, just what would be historical fiction except that a huge change has been made. InThis book is a true alternate history book: no magic, no paranormal, just what would be historical fiction except that a huge change has been made. In this case, the huge change to history is that the Supreme Court has allowed women to be enlist/ be drafted into WWII.
I found this change to be a very timely thing, as the actual possibility of women's registering for the draft sometime in the near future has recently been suggested (and thrown conservative news comments sections into a tizzy). I really liked how Grant presented the obvious but often overlooked fact that many girls/women simply wouldn't have the physical strength necessary to make it into combat anyway. In Front Lines, this is made very clear.
The book has three main protagonists whose stories weave together. Each girl is very well drawn out as a character, as are the personalities of the supporting characters. I felt this was a real strong point in the book.
I also loved how the main military conflicts followed were all set in Tunisia. It's easy to find historical fiction set in Europe during the War, not so much so with the Pacific Theatre, but Africa? I'd never heard of a book's covering that part of the War before.
Grant seems to have done quite a bit of research. True, I'm no expert, but I was delighted to read a supporting character's description of the Pacific war hero, General Douglas MacArthur. On page 231, Grant has a character say, "The general... well, I shouldn't say it, but he's a pompous ass and a showboat...." I've never read such a thing in print --ever! But my father, who fought with the unit temporarily assigned to protect MacArthur, has spent 70 years making fun of the general for staging photo shoots in perfectly pressed trousers weeks after the battles were over. (In those days, there was no instant sharing of pics, so the public was more easily fooled.)
I really liked this book, and I would have given it five stars, but the end is ... lame.
Grant gets us through the battle, lets us know who made it out alive, and then he just stops. Not even one of the numerous subplots is resolved. The narrator never identifies herself (or possibly himself), which is even more aggravating that the protagonists with no names in The Invisible Man and Rebecca. I'm guessing this is a set up for a sequel, but since the book begins and ends with teasers at the end of the war, it all just feels wrong. And cheap. It's as if Grant thought, "Oh, the book's getting too long; I'll just stop here." Boo! Hiss!
Other irritating things include: 1) the book is written in present tense, which is SO ANNOYING, 2) Grant uses "fug" for the F-word throughout the book and "Nigra" for the N-word -- which makes his tone condescending (there are other ways to let readers know what's been said without actually printing the words, if he's concerned about losing his YA readers or making their mommies mad), and 3) in spite of Grant's attempt to be all trendy and cool by writing female protagonists, it's clear he's Mr. Macho Male and too squeamish to deal with the major problem a girl in fighting situations would have: menstruation. (Kotex and Tampax would have been wondrous and new to country girls entering the army, but pads were held in place with garter-like belts. Girls would worry about rashes, smells, disposal, leaks, cramps, etc. This would have been huge! Grant's characters appear not to menstruate so that he doesn't have to mention "icky" things in a book which includes headless corpses and intestines spilling out. *rolls eyes*)
On the whole, however, this is a very good read, and I enjoyed it....more
The plot was quite clever. The dialogue was stilted and there was way too much emphasis on what James was wearing and eating all the time. However, ovThe plot was quite clever. The dialogue was stilted and there was way too much emphasis on what James was wearing and eating all the time. However, overall, I liked the book and will probably read the next in the series. One thing I did not understand, however, was why this was called a "Winter" mystery. It takes place between the last week of October and the second week of November; that's not winter, not even close....more
This book was the second in a series, but, although I hadn't read the first book, I had no trouble catching onto the characters and set up. This is alThis book was the second in a series, but, although I hadn't read the first book, I had no trouble catching onto the characters and set up. This is always a plus in a mystery series. Hunt has set this series in Salt Lake City in the 1930s, specifically for this book in the summer of 1934, and he clearly revels in his historical research. He describes streets and buildings I know or have heard about (Sweet's Candy Company, anyone?) and appears to pay meticulous attention to details -- except when he doesn't. In this particular story, Hunt uses the murder of Rulon Allred by a polygamist rival as an inspiration for his fictional crime set decades earlier. He changes the real polygamist towns of Hilldale and Colorado City (collectively known as Short Creek) to Dixie City, but that's OK; it's fiction after all. However, he's got the polygamists wearing pioneer clothes decades too early; a brief glance at the round-up photos even from the 1950s show that they didn't start their back-to-Brigham look until later. Also, Hunt has a few other anachronisms which seem to arise from using only books for research and not talking to real people: 1) Family Home Evening. Uh, that was a David O. MacKay Mormon thing which took hold in the late 1960s and early 70s. Hunt's a good 30 years too early. 2) His cop protagonist keeps noting how the nearby wildfires have polluted the air in the Salt Lake Valley. However, what Hunt doesn't seem to be aware of is that this would have made the summer skies look like the winter skies. In the 1930s, Salt Lake residents used mostly coal in their furnaces, and the result was winter air thick enough to slice -- air that made our current temperature inversions look sparkling clean in comparison. Hunt's protagonist would surely have thought of this, but Hunt doesn't seem to know about it. 3) The protagonist's wife teaches school at East High. She's married, has two kids at home, and is pregnant, and she's teaching school in 1934. Probably not. Obviously, Hunt wants to make his cop protagonist into a man with modern appeal, a man who thinks of his wife as a partner instead of as a lesser human whose job it was to keep him happy. While I admire this sentiment, I believe Hunt has pushed it too far past believability. He seems to have forgotten that 1934 was during the Depression. I knew a woman (now deceased) who taught school in the Salt Lake Valley in 1934; she had to hide her marriage and lie to her employer in order to keep her job, as it was district policy to fire married women so a man could have the job. (It was assumed that a married woman would be taken care of by her husband.) When this woman got pregnant, she had to quit because she could no longer hide her lie. Thus, I have a hard time believing that this pregnant school teacher whose husband has a good job would be allowed to continue her profession in 1934. Then there's the problem of travel. The protagonist and his buddy zip out past Utah Lake to an abandoned army fort without one thought of where they would buy gas. They also travel south to the fictional Dixie City -- which is somewhere past St. George, Utah -- without a single tire blow-out and without even worrying about the car's overheating in scorching weather. This is ridiculous. People who lived in southern Utah at the time used to tie wet burlap to the grills of their cars to help keep the engines and radiators cool. Heck, I used to drive a 1966 VW Beetle, and it would just shut down in weather over 100 degrees. Yet Hunt's characters have no car problems at all. They don't even worry about paying for gas in the height of the Depression. This bothered me. Other than that, the book is pretty good. The protagonist is a bit of a Mary Sue, but the criminal underworld of the polygamist clans was great. I'd definitely recommend this book to mystery lovers and those who enjoy historical fiction....more
A Madness So Discreet is a YA historical thriller dealing with a victim of rape/incest who has been confined to a mental asylum by her wealthy fatherA Madness So Discreet is a YA historical thriller dealing with a victim of rape/incest who has been confined to a mental asylum by her wealthy father in order to hide the evidence of his abuse. Later, she is rescued by a handsome young doctor who wishes to use her somewhat photographic memory to help him as he researches crime scenes in Holmes-like early detective work.
Here's the short review: Setting: Fantastic! McGinnis has claimed she was inspired by visiting a former lunatic asylum in Ohio. She sets the book first in an asylum in Boston and then in the one in Ohio to contrast the two. The problem here is that the setting takes over the book and contributes to the problems she has with the plot. Characterization: Both good and bad. Grace (the protagonist) and most of her supporting cast are really well done and multi-layered. McGinnis clearly had a good interest in research mental patients and nurses. The problem is the villains. They are spoken of, analyzed at a distance, dissected mentally and emotionally. But McGinnis never lets them speak much. She TELLS us they're villains, but she really doesn't show them in action. She seems not to have any idea how to work with them, so she hides them and covers up most of their action scenes. Pacing: Very good. The book moves right along. Plot: The first 3/4 of the plot works very well, but the last 1/4 is grating and contrived. McGinnis clearly wants a circular plot, to put the main villain into the position where the protagonist began, but getting there is awful and cumbersome. I will go into detail below. Messages: Whether they are intentional or not, every author gives messages with a book. McGinnis' are problematic and sometimes conflicting. She appears to take a feminist approach, showing how men could have women thrown into asylums for practically no reason and having a strong supporting character be a women's rights activist and having Dr. Thornhollow appreciate Grace's intelligence, but then McGinnis shows her anti-abortion stance by telling the readers that even a D&C to remove a dead fetus endangering the mother's health is wrong, and she clearly puts the blame for one rapist's behavior on the fact that the man has a strong-minded mother, indicating he is acting out his rage on other women because one woman makes him feel emasculated. Furthermore, McGinnis' anti-abortion stance is very odd when it is contrasted with her pro-vigilante justice one. In the book, it is wrong to scrape out an already-dead fetus, but it's just fine to murder a man in cold blood because characters don't want to deal with the slow pace of the court system It's also apparently just fine to have another man tried and convicted for the crimes of the first, assuming the punishment for the dead man's crimes will suffice as the punishment for his own. I found these very conflicting. Literary Allusions: Misleading. The title, A Madness So Discreet, is immediately familiar to readers as a corruption of Shakespeare's line in Romeo and Juliet, "a madness most discreet." The problem is that Romeo is ranting about his unrequited love for Rosaline, and he is identifying and describing love here. This allusion leads the reader to believe the book has a romantic subplot. It doesn't. Thus, the title is a very odd choice. Age Group Suitability: This book deals with rape, impotence, incest, and sex. I wouldn't risk putting it in my classroom lest some parent freak out over it. I suggest that it's more appropriate for about age 15 and older, depending on the teen, of course.
These are the reasons why I cannot give the book five stars.
More in-depth review of the plot problems: HUGE FREAKIN' SPOILER WARNING. I WILL SPOIL THE PLOT FOR YOU, SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
McGinnis' plot problems come from the fact that she was trying too hard to contrast the two asylums and have a circular plot. Here's a synopsis the plot: Grace has spent several years dealing with her father's sexual abuse of her, hoping to keep her pre-pubescent sister Alice safe from him. Her mother, knowing the man is raping other women, is insanely jealous and won't help her daughter. Grace ends up pregnant and her father puts her in a Boston asylum where she is subject to cruel treatment. He plans to take her back home once she gives birth, and she knows he will go right back to his abuse. Thus, when Dr. Thornhollow does frontal lobotomies on several violent patients, she begs for one so that her father will not take her back. Instead, Thornhollow only gives her superficial scars. She pretends to be a lobotomy patient, and the doctor convinces the official to pretend she's dead and give her father ashes while he (Thornhollow) takes her with him. Once they are in the much nicer asylum in Ohio, Grace makes friends with a couple of patients, one of whom is called Lizzie. Thornhollow has Grace help him solve a few murders. Then a pattern of rape and murder victims arise, and she and Thornhollow are stumped. In the meantime, Grace has been writing letters (under an alias) to her younger sister, and she is growing extremely worried that her father will soon start abusing her. Thus far, the plot works, but then things get really weird. Grace discovers the local rapist and murderer is the town pharmacist. Thornhollow claims they don't have enough evidence to convince the police of his guilt yet, so while he's out of town, Grace lures the rapist into the woods and slits his throat in cold blood. She is not sorry over it at all, and Thornhollow is only mildly bothered by this. He appears not to consider her dangerous. He tells her she's not insane. (This might have been believable if he had a sexual interest in Grace, but he appears not to, and it's implied he's satisfying himself with various servants and such.) If that's not strange enough, Grace then convinces him that they need to frame her father for the rapes and murders committed by the pharmacist because they cannot bring him to trial for the rapes he has actually committed. Thornhollow is not bothered by bringing a man to trial for rapes and murders when the man is guilty of rapes and incest, but he is worried about his career. They convince Lizzie to pretend to be a rape victim, and she suddenly becomes a marvelous actress, convincing everyone in the courtroom that Grace's father raped her and threatened to kill her like the other girls (killed by the pharmacist, but no one else knows that). Thornhollow quails at the last minute and convinces the jury the man is criminally insane (Yes, and so's his freakin' daughter, but this never comes up.), so instead of hanging, he will be confined to the same Boston asylum where Grace began the book. And little Alice goes to live with her aunt while the evil mother lives in shame and disgrace. (pun!) The ending is clumsy, contrived, and awful. The reader has learned to empathize with a protagonist who is suffering PTSD wants to see her heal. Instead, she slits a man's throat and goes on her merry way as if nothing had happened. The author condones this behavior in her. Then the whole trial is TOLD rather than shown, and it's completely unbelievable. Thornhollow has no real motivation to do what he does. Lizzie could not possibly act so convincingly. No one would fall for this. It's so clunky and such a bad way to get poetic justice. Since the reader needs to have Alice saved and the villains punished but should really see Grace stay on the path to healing and not go off to be worse than her own father, I propose an alternate ending. Here's what SHOULD have happened: Grace discovers the pharmacist is the rapist/murderer. While she and Thornhollow are working to get the police to solve the crime, he attacks Grace, and she kills him in self-defence. Meanwhile, Grace's mother, realizing her husband is going to start abusing Alice, kills him in a jealous rage. She is declared insane and sent to suffer in the asylum, and Alice goes to live with Aunt Beth. Grace continues to heal and work with Thornhollow, getting a job, as she is too scarred to deal with the ideas of marriage and sex. My alternate ending brings about poetic justice but leaves out the clunkiness of the real ending. Plus, Grace would not become a murderer.
Overall, the book is pretty good, but the end is a HUGE mess. Just be aware of this if you read it....more
As far as characterization and historical research go, this book was five-star. For readers who want something beyond Anne Frank and less depressing tAs far as characterization and historical research go, this book was five-star. For readers who want something beyond Anne Frank and less depressing than Night, this well-done historical fiction is a fabulous way to learn about WWII. My problem with the book is that it masquerades as YA, but it has no kid appeal. It's a long book, for starters, and it covers too long a time period for the average young reader (not for the adult reader of YA, for whom it is fine). Also, the narrator uses the voice of an older person remembering, which is fabulous for adults, but which has no immediacy or realism for readers under about 16 (unless they are quite mature). As an adult reader of YA fiction and as a teacher, I found this great reading. But I know it will languish and grow dusty in our school library, as kids will not check it out....more
The idea was great, but the plot was really, really predictable (I guessed what would happen in every single instance), and the author left so much ofThe idea was great, but the plot was really, really predictable (I guessed what would happen in every single instance), and the author left so much of the magic world-building out. Basically, instead of deus ex machina, we got fairies ex machina or some-spell-never-mentioned-before ex machina. This was annoying, not mysterious. It was like trying to play a game with a six-year-old who keeps changing the rules. That being said, I DID finish the book. I really liked the historical flashbacks; they felt well-researched. The descriptions were also very good....more
This was awesome! I was so glad to find a non-wimpy girl in the lead in a book that is written for both boys and girls. The last few months have not gThis was awesome! I was so glad to find a non-wimpy girl in the lead in a book that is written for both boys and girls. The last few months have not given us many YA books which appeal to boys but have girls as main characters; this one works well....more