I received an advance copy of this book for review through Netgalley. Rarely have I ever so deeply regretted requesting a book.
The story itself does hI received an advance copy of this book for review through Netgalley. Rarely have I ever so deeply regretted requesting a book.
The story itself does have some charm. Georgie is a frightfully intelligent (if also clueless) teenager. She gets into scrapes all the time where she tests a theory without properly considering all of the angles (such as when she made her own glider). After having caused a devastating fire with one her experiments, her family drops her off at the Stranje School for Unusual Girls. The scene where her family abandons her there is pure theatre--Georgie's parents are shown medieval torture devices with the implication that these devices are used on the girls to "educate" them. (Of course, that's not true.) Georgie runs off and gets lost in the building--and stumbles on two men discussing the need for invisible ink. By chance, Georgie was working on a formula for invisible ink when she burned the barn down. . .
As quickly becomes clear, the Stranje House is not what it seems, and neither are the girls inside. Each one has some sort of talent--for observation, for bonding with animals--something that makes it difficult for them to fit in with society. Here, they are able to learn the proper modes of behavior while also being useful in the fight against Napoleon. Yep, Napoleon. England's greatest spy resources are a group of underage girls.
I've read far more than my share of novels written during the Regency. I am very familiar with the racism of the time. Thomas De Quincey, in his "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" from 1822, describes a "Malay" that came to visit him as having "sallow and bilious skin," "small fierce restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations." The extreme focus on the man's appearance--as well as the terms De Quincey uses that express both a vague intrigue and disgust--are typical of the racism of the time. When a contemporary writer sets a novel in the past, she has a choice. She can choose to represent the racism of the time somewhat faithfully. Do do so usually triggers disgust in contemporary readers. She can have an "enlightened" character (and therefore one that is most definitely anachronistic) condemn the racism. She can ignore it and pretend that there was no racism.
Baldwin, unfortunately, takes a variation on the first option. The novel is told from Georgie's first person perspective, so her voice is narrating the story to us. Therefore, we're privileged to read her thoughts about one of the instructors at the school, Madame Cho. Unfortunately, Georgie is never called out on her racist thoughts, so they remain in the book, normalized by their very presence. Let me walk you through a few examples.
The first time Georgie meets Madame Cho, the reader is told "A small Oriental woman padded silently out of the shadows and whacked the mummy case [see comment above about torture devices] several times with a bamboo stick, setting off a sickening chime" (300*). First, people are Asian. Rugs and vases--objects, in other words--are Oriental. Second, the stereotype of her walking--how she "padded silently"--is also disturbing. It ties into images of Asian men and women as dangerous and untrustworthy--racist ideas that were present at the time. Later in the same page, we're told that Madame Cho "looked as crafty as a black cat" (305) and that she moved "swift as a thief" (308). Finally, we're told that she has a "lizard's" eyes (309).
Madame Cho is not the only person to be talked about in a racist fashion. One of the other students is an "exotic creature" named Maya Barrinton (581). She's a "half-caste" daughter of an Englishman and an Indian woman (587). Georgie wonders "How had [Maya] blended into the shadows so perfectly and moved with such quiet stealth? A delicate girl, with dark shining eyes, smooth whiskey-colored skin, she was draped in a swath of cinnamon brown fabric trimmed in filigreed saffron" (582). Later, the "musical quality of [Maya's] voice, or her gentle nature" convinces Georgie to follow the other girls in exploring the house (670).
Sadly, the way that Baldwin writes about Maya is actually more disturbing than the somewhat overt racism of her treatment of Madame Cho. The emphasis on Maya's beauty, on how exotic she is in comparison with these English girls, is yet another racist stereotype. Instead of being the sneaky Other, she's the entrancing, enchanting Other.
Both of these introductions occur fairly early in the text, so one might expect that Georgie would learn better throughout the narrative. Even if she's never confronted with her racism, she can learn to see both Maya and Madame Cho as individuals, can she not? Well, the answer to that seems to be "not". Consistently throughout the rest of the book, Madame Cho is referred to as the "old dragon" (619, 627, 1289, and 2730). She is also referred to as "Madame Dragon" (2286) and as a "sneaky fox" (650). Madame Cho "slithered" into rooms and stared at Georgie with "her cold lizard eyes" (1289-90). Maya remains consistently beautiful, exotic, and sweet.
It should be noted that Madame Cho does nothing to deserve to Georgie's spite. She is simply there. All of the quotes, above, are not dialogue. They are Georgie's mental narrative--the exposition of the book--literally, the words the character uses to describe woman to herself and to her readers.
Georgie herself is a deeply unpleasant character. She never listens to anyone around her. They warn her to take care to avoid haste and dangerous actions--and she does whatever she wants anyway. The romantic relationship is ridiculous in the extreme--the sort of insta-love one typically only sees in a paranormal novel, not in an arguably historical fiction.
I am deeply sorry that I requested this book. I read it from beginning to end, in the hopes that it would improve and that I would be able to leave a positive review. But I cannot.
I consider the book to be bad in both writing and characterization. But I consider it to be dangerous when it comes to race and racism. The casual racism of this text--especially since it is never confronted and recognized as such--is insidious and awful. Too many of our young people do not understand racism well enough to recognize it in this context. Instead, they might find it funny, laugh at "Madame Dragon," and not realize the ideas that they're internalizing.
I have never met Kathleen Baldwin. I do not mean to impugn her character in this review. I simply wish she--and her editors--had made better narrative choices. As it stands now, I do think I can recommend this book to anyone.
*All numbers refer to text locations in my Kindle advanced reader's edition. They have not been checked against the final draft, but the sheer number of them indicate that it's unlikely they will have been edited out....more
I received a copy of this book for review from Netgalley.
By this time, I have read several books by Jennifer E. Smith. I've loved all of them to varyiI received a copy of this book for review from Netgalley.
By this time, I have read several books by Jennifer E. Smith. I've loved all of them to varying degrees. This book is probably her most ambitious, and perhaps her best yet.
As the novel opens, Clare and Aidan are meeting in order to spend their last night together before both of them head off to college the following day. They've been dating for two years and are in love with another. However, they also question whether they should remain dating while they head for two very different different schools (Dartmouth for her, UCLA for him). Clare is the one that is forcing them to make this decision--Aidan loves her and is perfectly willing to remain in a relationship. However, Clare is concerned about whether or not their relationship can handle a cross continental distance, whether they should invest their time and hearts in a relationship started while they were so young, and ultimately, whether or not confronting these questions are the easy or "hard" thing to do. Would it be easier to gradually drift apart? What would the jealousy of knowing that they are meeting other people (whether romantically interested in them or not) do to their bond? What does it mean to enter college in a relationship?
While all of this may seem overdramatic, Clare is concerned with very real-world issues. She's forcing them to confront this head-on rather than ignore the issues. While I hate the term "relatable" as a judge of fiction, I think this book may be relatable for most first-year college students. Either they, or someone they know, will have had to make these decisions. I have a hard time seeing them make the same series as Clare, but the situation is likely to be familair.
In terms of Smith's writing, I was a little put off by her use of present tense. I'm not fond of it as a narrative choice, for one thing. For another, it seemed very distracting. However, it also worked to convey the sensation that I, as a reader, was living these moments alongside Clare and Aidan.
What this book does really well is dialogue. All of Smith's books have been dialogue-heavy, but this one is far above the rest. In some ways, it reminded me of a Robert Altman film where everyone talks over each other and no one listens. Here the characters do listen, but what they say is often at cross purposes with what they mean, and they can't stop talking. They are constantly talking, trying to fill the void and make sense of their feelings through words.
Ultimately, I found myself stressed and caring deeply about these two young people as they sought to make thoughtful decisions about their lives and relationships. There are probably better YA novels out there, YA novels that deal with war and death and horror. But we need YA books like this, too, books that both understand and legitimize the pain of becoming an adult....more
How is it that I never heard of this book until I saw it on my library's ebook website?
This was, without a doubt, one of the best young adult gothicsHow is it that I never heard of this book until I saw it on my library's ebook website?
This was, without a doubt, one of the best young adult gothics that I've read. While I was able to predict a few surprises, I did not imagine the final outcome of the novel, and I loved that. I also loved the narrative choices taken by the writer--from the tense to the way the chapter titles were (sometimes) mirrored by the first line of the chapter--it was all perfect. Nova Ren Suma is a major talent....more
While I did enjoy this book, it was not with the same intensity as the prior books.
I had two major problems that kept getting in the way of my enjoymeWhile I did enjoy this book, it was not with the same intensity as the prior books.
I had two major problems that kept getting in the way of my enjoyment. First, this book felt less connected to the historical politics of the setting. For all that these books are historical fantasy, in the afterward, the author makes it clear when she deviated from historical events and why (usually to compress the timeline, sadly). This book didn't have that deep connection to the historical setting. Second, the romance felt like too much of a wish-fulfillment. I won't say that Annith is a Mary-Sue--she's not. (view spoiler)[But the idea of falling in love with a god and having him become human for you? It's been done. See Nick Cage in City of Angels if you don't believe me. Maybe I'd be more impressed with the plot if I hadn't imagined something similar when I was a pre-teen. Since I imagined a plot like this one when I was so young, it inherently feels juvenile to me. (hide spoiler)] Those two reasons--the second of which is spelled out in slightly more detail with spoilers--are my major reasons for not being impressed with this book as the conclusion to the series.["br"]>["br"]>...more
I gave the first book four stars and this one only three. The reason for that is pretty straightforward; the narrative in this one was too jumbled.
LetI gave the first book four stars and this one only three. The reason for that is pretty straightforward; the narrative in this one was too jumbled.
Let me explain.
The novel opens just after the events of the last, and the echoes of events in that last book continue to ring throughout this one. However, once those major events are resolved, the first half of the book seems to lack forward momentum. If you look at this series as the story of a year--it opens with the beginning of one school year and the second book ends near the end of that school year--it works a little better. Life doesn't always have a trajectory other than the rising and setting of the sun. Still, fiction is not life. I felt that, as fiction, the first half of the book should have been tighter and more focused.
Now on to the things I liked.
I really liked that Lara Jean learns to see outside of herself in this book. She is, in many ways, really selfish. She's been focused on her own interior feelings for so long before the first book opens that her selfishness seems to make sense. However, this book forces her to confront the fact that other people have feelings, too, and that she can influence how they feel. She recognizes both the power and the danger of emotions in this book, and I really liked that. Too often, YA books are self-centered, focused on the protagonist's feelings, but in this book, Lara Jean learns to open up. Once that journey starts, the book gets better and better.
So, yes, I liked this book. I wanted more from it, but I also was happy with what I got....more
I have long been hesitant to read this book, in part because I was really not impressed with Sybella in Grave Mercy. When it was on sale a few years aI have long been hesitant to read this book, in part because I was really not impressed with Sybella in Grave Mercy. When it was on sale a few years ago, I picked it up because I knew that I would want to read it, eventually, if only because my friends raved about it.
They were right. I was wrong.
Sybella turned out to be a great heroine, and her journey was worth every moment....more
I've reduced this book by two stars from my previous review.
I have no idea why I "really liked it" when I read it several years ago.
First, the book isI've reduced this book by two stars from my previous review.
I have no idea why I "really liked it" when I read it several years ago.
First, the book is written in present tense, which is one of the most annoying features of modern YA writing that I've ever come across. The only thing worse is second person voice, but that's so tricky that very few people ever attempt it--but writers try for present all the time.
Second, the heroine of this book is a special snowflake. Anything else would be a spoiler, and I hate spoilers.
Third, I think this book might have held up well about three years ago, but since then there have been so many books that do these same things and do them better. It suffers in comparison--badly.
This book was entertaining, and not what I expected at all. I loved Isadora's shakiness, and I loved that her relationship with her parents was centraThis book was entertaining, and not what I expected at all. I loved Isadora's shakiness, and I loved that her relationship with her parents was central to the book. I was frustrated, though, in that so many of the other characters seemed flat and lacked real motivation....more
This is a good ya romance. I don't think that everyone will love it, as the story moves relatively slowly. But Caymen fairly jumped off the page for mThis is a good ya romance. I don't think that everyone will love it, as the story moves relatively slowly. But Caymen fairly jumped off the page for me, and I'm willing to forgive a lot in a book where the protagonist seems so very real....more
I read this book in one sitting, so I can honestly say that I did like it. Unlike Cinder, it has a forward moving plot--the journey to find & saveI read this book in one sitting, so I can honestly say that I did like it. Unlike Cinder, it has a forward moving plot--the journey to find & save Grandma. However, also unlike Cinder, it has a bad case of insta-love. I liked both Scarlet and Wolf, and I'm rooting for them....more