Note: This review may contain spoiler for The Burning Sky.
WARNING: This book will give you feels and flails. It will make you groan and wail. It will make you mutter things about "that witch, destiny." It may make you punch your coworker in the shoulder. (Sorry, Melissa.)
My attitude has undergone a complete change regarding this series. I don't know if you all remember, but I had a difficult time getting through The Burning Sky. I thought it was too derivative, too cliched, too novice. I almost DNF'd it before the action picked up and the romance started bubbling. When I reread TBS last month, I was more engaged, especially concerning the delicious chemistry between Titus and Iolanthe, but I worried about being tripped up by the sequel. But guys, let me tell you, Ms. Thomas has found her YA groove in this book.
From the very beginning, there's a clear difference in Ms. Thomas's comfort level. Whereas the first book was pretty straightforward, The Perilous Sea experiments with both point of view and chronology. In one narrative, we have Titus and Iolanthe (as Fairfax) returning to Eton after summer break. Titus is struggling under the burden of increased Atlantian scrutiny after the death of the Inquisitor, but he and Iolanthe are still determined to take down the Bane together. In the other narrative, we find Iolanthe and Titus lost in the Sahara Desert five months in the future. Neither can remember how they got there, what happened, or even their own names.
This gambit is a tricky one, but Ms. Thomas pulls it off. We have no idea what happened to our heroes, so the Sahara end of the tale is as new and treacherous for us as it is for them. Also, can you say romantic tension? I know exactly who Titus and Iolanthe are to each other even if they don't, so I spent much of the time yelling "KISS, YOU MORONS!!!" at these two confused kids. Their main concern, on the other hand, is finding answers. Who are they? Where are they? Why are they there? Why is Atlantis chasing them? Why does Atlantis seem to be going after the girl specifically? How did Titus hurt himself? Which just goes to show that they have their priorities in order better than I do. But seriously, I just want them to kiss.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="382"] THIS IS THE APPROPRIATE RESPONSE TO MY YOWLS, CHARACTERS![/caption]
Thankfully, the England end of the story had my back. Pre-amnesia Titus and Iolanthe are adorable together. Lots of kissing. ADORABLE KISSING. Also, lots of plot. As the synopsis states, Titus "makes a shocking discovery," and I just about lost my mind. I can't tell you what happens, of course, but I have may written a long string of "WHYYYYYYYYYY?!?!?!!?" in my notes and then whispered to my coworker that my book was blowing my mind. (This is pre-shoulder punch, so she was still willing to humor me.) Let's just say that England goes from Kissy Town to "Lizzie and Darcy accidentally meeting at Pemberley" levels of awkward and hurt.
Since I can't tell you what exactly blew my mind plot-wise, let me tell you about the other things I loved. First of all, I loved all the fate/destiny philosophizing that goes on. We know that Titus has been planning his future (or lack thereof) around the prophecies his mother wrote down in her diary. Literally everything from his first encounter with Iolanthe to his eventual death at the hand of the Bane has been foretold, and Titus believes that all he must do is live his life in the proper manner for those prophecies to come to pass. Other characters' philosophies fall along the continuum anywhere from using prophecies as a guideline but not a rule to a belligerent "screw prophecies!" While the faith in prophecies was necessary in TBS to move the plot along, I found the questioning in TPS refreshing, as it reminded me a lot of the wrangling in Suzanne Collins' Overlander series.
Another thing that I loved was how complex the characters have become. In TBS, Iolanthe and Titus stole the show, leaving the other characters to support from the shadows. In TPS, the secondary characters really start to come into their own. Kashkari and Wintervale in particular take large leaps forward in becoming integral parts of the plot. Lady Callista, Lady Wintervale, and Mrs. Hancock, three flat and minor baddies from the first book, are suddenly realized as key components with their own histories and motivations. Even Cooper, a character whose existence I barely even remembered, becomes more charming and memorable. And, of course, this wouldn't be a proper sequel without a deeper look into how truly evil and twisted the Bane really is.
The world unfolds as well, like a map that spreads to show you territories previously ignored. For instance, we learn more about different types of spells and magic and warfare—everything from precision memory spells and blood circles to hunting ropes and bewitched spears. We leave Europe and the European-flavored Domain for the first time as Iolanthe and Titus trek through the Sahara and get to meet Exiled rebels. And it isn't just the physical and intellectual world that expands for us, but also the mental world. With talk of destiny and prophecies comes a wibbly-wobbly effect on time, one that's only heightened by the alternating narrative. Iolanthe in particular must wrestle with the idea that there are areas hidden off the figurative map of her memories that she can't access. If the identity of Iolanthe Seabourne is a charade made to protect the greatest elemental age of our time, and if that nameless mage is missing more of her own memory than she can ever imagine, then she is left to wonder, who am I?
Despite all of the heavy topics floating around, the romance truly is excellent. I've never read Ms. Thomas's adult romance titles, but I can understand why she's so popular. Even while Titus and Iolanthe grapple with trouble in both timelines, their chemistry is unmistakable. THEY ARE SO CUTE TOGETHER. I also appreciate that while trials and tribulations rise up to separate them, the plot doesn't fall back on some of the tireder tropes. There is no love triangle. There is no simple misunderstanding blown out of proportion. There is no "pushing you away for your own good." But there is real hurt, real confusion, real doubt.
Best of all, the twists in this book are fantastic. Including Titus's shocking discovery, I blew up my notes with interrobangs four times. FOUR TIMES. IN ONE BOOK! The things we learn! I finally had to lean over to my (at this point, probably annoyed) coworker and hiss, "This book is like a freaking soap opera. I can't." I probably just about killed Gillian with my DMs. (Sorry, Gillian.) And then the end? What happens and the way we're left standing right on the edge of... Well, let's just say that when you read it, you'll understand why I socked my coworker in the shoulder.
So what are you waiting for? Magic, kisses, betrayal, philosophizing, travel, TWISTS, it's all here! Go forth and buy! Just keep the punching to a minimum.
Favorite Non-Spoilery Quote:
"You might be the scariest girl I have ever met."
"Let's not be dramatic. I'm the only girl you can remember ever meeting."
"If there is a scary girl competition, I would put my last coin on you."
Points Added For: Titus and Iolanthe, TWISTS, kissing, avoiding cliches, world-building, magic, that witch destiny, characters with depth.
Points Subtracted For: Still not sure of the Domain/Earth geography. In this book it seems like they're physically connected (Iolanthe sails from one to the other.) There's also a bit of info-dumping
Good For Fans Of: Suzanne Collins' Gregor the Overlander series, romance and kissytimes, clever heroines, noble heroes, wyverns, magic, flying carpets, TWISTS.
Notes For Parents: Some language, making out, a named character dies. :(
Note: I received a review copy from the publisher for review consideration.
I think Ms. McGowan is trying to kill me. As a woman who writes credibly about a crew of spies in the service of the Crown, I'm certain she knows how to dispatch a blogger in many interesting ways, but I doubt any are so delicious effective as these books. I can't breathe when I read these books. PHYSICALLY. CANNOT. BREATHE. They're so good, so fantastically good, and I don't know that my heart can take another one. (It's a risk I'm willing to take, of course.) Well, strap yourselves in, ladies and gents, because I have things to say that will likely be turned into GIFs when words fail me.
My anxiety and expectations were at an all-time high as I sat down to being Maid of Deception. I purposely didn't look at the synopsis before starting, trusting my love of the first book and the strength of Ms. McGowan's writing to carry me through. At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about leaving our previous narrator, Meg, to follow her fellow Maid, Beatrice. On the one hand, I was excited to get into the head of another girl, but on the other, I loved Meg so much! How could I find out what was going on with James, Meg, and Rafe if I was stick with snobby ol' Beatrice? Thankfully, Beatrice stole my heart with an ease that quick-fingered Meg would admire.
Ah, Beatrice. Known previously as the snooty, vain, beautiful Belle of the group, Beatrice... remains the snooty, vain, beautiful Belle of the group. She reminds me of Throne of Glass's Celaena Sardothien—particular about her clothes and appearance, one finger perpetually pressed to the pulse of the court, and more dangerous that anyone can imagine. For all the trouble she causes Meg in the first book, Beatrice is truly fantastic. She captured my sympathy from the beginning as we watch her prepare nervously for her wedding to Lord Cavanaugh, a respectable nobleman who is devoted to Beatrice and who will shelter her from her father's disgraceful philandering and the sharp tongues at court. She's so close... and then Queen Elizabeth bursts in and ruins everything. She wants Beatrice to be her spy among the Scots at court to determine whether they're friend or foe, and a married woman can't flirt like an unmarried woman can, so the wedding is off!
You guys, the tricks this book does with Beatrice's point of view are amazing. We get to see her fellow Maids through her eyes, from sweet and shy Sophia to bookish Anna to deadly Jane to our previous narrator Meg. It was lots of fun seeing Beatrice's take on familiar characters, especially Meg's Spanish beau, Rafe, as Beatrice views them all so differently than Meg does. Though the first book was filtered through Meg's point of view, I assumed that her point of view was the correct point of view. I (lazily) assumed that Meg spoke for the author and that Beatrice would agree pleasantly with perhaps a few minor changes.
When Meg said that Queen Elizabeth I practically walks on water, I accepted it. All hail the Virgin Queen, she of the iron fist and rapier wit! But with Beatrice, we're given a different side of Good Queen Bess. Through Beatrice's eyes, we see Elizabeth's cruel side, her pettiness, her vindictiveness, and her overwhelming vanity. Though she is the Queen of England, she is also the enemy. It's a radical shift for the audience but one that is done with startling realism. Beatrice has known Elizabeth her entire life and therefore would have a different view of her than a thieving street rat fresh at court. As someone skilled in manipulation and power plays, Beatrice is able to see through Elizabeth's affectations to pinpoint her true (less than savory) motives. In Beatrice's mouth, Gloriana devolves from flattering title to vile indictment, and I loved it. Queen Elizabeth and her counterparts remain consistently portrayed, but we get to plumb the depths with Beatrice as wouldn't be possible with Meg.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="245"] Dang you, Ms. McGowan, and your Jedi mind tricks![/caption]
I spent much of the book inwardly walking around with my hands up, muttering, "I can't even." I wanted to shove Walsingham into a pit. I wanted to stab Queen Elizabeth. I wanted to smack Robert Dudley upside the back of the head until his nose bled. And I can't even tell you what I wanted to do with Alasdair MacLeod. The Scottish leader at first comes across as an overbearing boor, too assured of his own charms to back off when told to do so. "Overbearing is not attractive, Alasdair!" I scolded often. But then, magic. The bickering and tension between Alasdair and Beatrice is delicious, and a warm, fuzzy feeling grew in my stomach as they learned to trust each other. (Also, Elizabeth oh-so-helpfully muddies the water several times, so yay extra tension and angst!) Best of all, Alasdair sees Beatrice. The blustering Scotsman proves he is able to see through Beatrice's layers, her lies, and her affectations and grasp who she truly is. It's a trait the Maids of boys seem to have in common and one I hope continues in later books, because it's swoon-worthy to the max.
Also swoon-worthy (at least to me) is the continued expedition into the historical texture of Elizabethan England. John Knox joins the list of "Names That Make Me Squeal 'I Know Him!'" and the door is pushed open wider to include contemporary fixtures such as the local Traveling People and the black-hooded Inquisitors that grew in power under the Protestant queen. More than once, little asides and casually mentioned proper names sent me running to Wikipedia to get the scoop. Let me help you all out—if you haven't looked up "Elizabeth I and Thomas Seymour," DO IT NOW. I gasped out loud and then squirmed uncomfortably.
However, I think best of all for me was the overall plot tension. You like intrigue? THIS BOOK HAS INTRIGUE. You thought Meg's imprisonment was the be-all-to-end-all in suspense and tear-your-heart-out tension? YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHIN' YET, BABY! Gah, my heart. As much as I trusted the course of the story, there was a part where I truly feared that all hope was lost. The roller coaster this book sent me on in the space of a few chapters is indescribable. It went something like this:
A VERY BAD THING happened.
I tried to have hope but there was no way out.
HOLY FREAKING GUACAMOLE NO WAY YOU MEAN [SPOILER] DID [SPOILER] AND ALL ALONG WAS PLANNING TO [SPOILER] AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!!!
But sadly, not all the bad things were prevented.
And my heart broke.
But this is McGowan we're talking about here, and by then end...
So now here I sit, afloat in my own feels and legitimately angry that Ms. McGowan hasn't written any other novels for me to binge before the next book. Look, if you're going to be this good, you need to have 20+ years worth of backlist for eager fans to devour, okay? I just... I have no words. My words are broken, and if I try to use them, I'm going to devolve into another GIF spree, so just READ THE BOOKS, OKAY?!
Favorite Non-Spoilery Quotes:
I stepped into the long aisle and held my head high. It was total perfection, and all according to a plan I'd labored to bring to light for the past ten years. Finally I would be married. Finally I would be respected. Finally I would be...
"It's never an easy thing to be a woman, Beatrice. And a woman in power is more at risk than any other. She invites attention. She is strong when the whole world thinks she should be weak, and there are those who don't like that fact. Remember that."
"There is naught you do that doesn't have two or three reasons, a contingency purpose, and as many side benefits as you can extract."
Points Added For: Beatrice, the new take on the Queen, ALASDAIR, James and Jane (hubba hubba), THE FOUNTAIN SCENE, THE ROOFTOP SCENE, THE FESTIVAL SCENE, getting me interested in history, Lord Knowles.
Points Subtracted For: The side trip into more paranormal elements was worrying (but it was all explained/resolved nicely.)
Good For Fans Of: The His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers, Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel, Celaena Sardothien, crafty heroines, Scots, Elizabethan history, having your heart broken and reformed.
Notes For Parents: Some making out, drunkenness, infidelity.
Note: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher for review consideration.
I don't know if you all remember, but back in another review I talked about how sometimes my emotions are so intense that my brain can do nothing but repeat an appropriate movie line over and over again. I can't control it. Well, it happened again, and it's all Jennifer McGowan's fault. I started and finished Maid of Secrets in the same day, and the entire time, my head was filled with Rapunzel. Because you know why? THIS BOOK IS AMAAAAAZIIIIIIIIIIING!
I'm getting all excited and flustered again trying to write this review! Okay. Okay, I can do this. Let's break it down!
Why I Love Maid of Secrets By Jennifer McGowan
1. An Amazing Protagonist The protagonist has the power to make or break a story, and that's why I put Meg Fellowes first. She really is amazing. Meg is a member of a traveling theater group. Though she's a fantastic mimic and actress, her work is in the crowd. She blends in as a fishwife, an eager young girl, a laundress, or whatever part will get her closest to her marks so she can pick their pockets while they watch the stage. You see, Meg has an aural eidetic memory. She only has to hear something one time and she'll remember it forever, down to the inflection and the individual phonemes. She can perfectly recite anything in any language, regardless of whether she understands what she's saying. It's this ability that gets her forcibly drafted into Queen Elizabeth I's Maids of Honor. Meg (nicknamed The Rat) is charged with protecting the queen by spying on her enemies. Meg and her four fellow maids must integrate seamlessly with the royal court and sniff out any traitors or saboteurs, especially those of the Catholic persuasion.
I loved being in Meg's head. LOVED. She's so cool. I remember thinking during one particularly impressive demonstration of her talents that she would absolutely fascinate Megan Whalen Turner's Eugenides, and from me, there's no higher compliment. She's smart and bullheaded and unwaveringly loyal. I also loved that, though she's insanely clever, she can't read when she first joins the maids, which is appropriate for the time period. Ms. McGowan does a great job of building the layers within Meg's head and making her a realistic character. For instance, Meg has a habit of quoting couplets from her company's plays in her head, a detail I loved because I could relate. I always have movie or song lines floating around in my head, and how much more so must that be the case for Meg, considering her memory abilities. Also, SNARK SNARK SNARK. Gotta love the snark.
2. Fantastic Secondary Characters BUT Meg is not the only awesome character to grace these pages. Meg's four fellow maids are just as incredible. Jane the Blade, Beatrice the Belle, Anna the Scholar, and Sophia the Seer are all such well-rounded characters with amazing talents. They're like Ocean's Eleven, with each bringing a unique strength to make them an unbeatable team. I love these kinds of stories with teams like this one. The girls don't always get along (they're the ones who nicknamed Meg "The Rat," after all), but the way they work together for Queen and Country is so fun to watch. I can already tell this will probably be the shortest point, because I don't want to spoil the ride, but all I can say is GAH! THE GIRLS! SO COOL!
Of course, the girls aren't the only characters in this story, which brings me to...
3. Multiple Ships THE BOYS. Boys boys boys boys boys. First, let's talk about Meg's boys. The primary love interest in this tale is Rafe Medina, Le Conte de Martine, a member of the Spanish ambassador's entourage. Rafe is not exactly a good boy. He's an incorrigible ladies' man, completely hot and aware of the fact that he can make women swoon at his feet with a mere smile. Also, as a Spaniard, he's Catholic and therefore highly suspect as intrigue swirls through the Protestant court of the young English queen. And guess who's assigned the task of getting into his confidence? Yep! Meg! Just make sure you have a fan ready while reading their scenes, because, whoosh, it's gettin' hot up in here!
Meg's other boy is Master James, her old troupe master. James is a nonentity through most of the book with Meg hidden away at court. I actually grew annoyed at all the times Meg thought about him and tried to keep herself from pining for him. (As far as she knows, he has no interest whatsoever, but the same can't be said in reverse.) However, James does eventually get some page time, and the results were most upsetting. Unlike those in other books, this sort-of love triangle has me rooting wholeheartedly for both boys! Do I champion Rafe—he of the tingly kisses, witty retorts, and dubious motives—or do I champion James—the more trustworthy one with a valiant heart and a boatload of secrets? AUGH, THE CHOICES! MY HEART!
But wait, there are MORE BOYS we need to talk about. Never fear, they're not Meg's. The Elizabethean court is awash with romances and trysts. Each of the other maids have their own admirers and suitors, and I found myself straining to pull away from Meg to follow them into their own stories. I can sense all kinds of future swoons waiting for me, and I'm excited! Not that the girls keep all the canoodling to themselves. Queen Elizabeth herself is up to something with a certain historical gent. Canoodles for all!
4. Tudor History Speaking of Queen Elizabeth—wow. What a woman. She's young, beautiful, steely, and wholly in possession of the throne. She reminded me so much of the Queen of Attolia (a character created by Megan Whalen Turner), except she's real. And that's what Ms. McGowan does. She takes real people, real places, real events, and makes them come alive. From the dusty annals of Tudor history, she raises up Queen Elizabeth I, her wily advisors Cecil and Walsingham, her ladies-in-waiting, and the members of the visiting Hispanic court like Count de Feria, Nicolas Ortiz, and the others, turning them into giants that tower over the court and transforming all its players into a life-sized chessboard. It's absolutely fantastic.
I wish I knew far more about that period in history than I do, but even without background knowledge, I found myself growing excited every time a new person was introduced. Some names (like John Dee, Robert Dudley, Count de Feria, etc.) I recognized, while others strode onto the page so fully realized that I knew they had to be people history buffs would squeal over, even if I couldn't. I was so engaged and immersed in Meg's world that I was itching to do research on my own, to discover the nonfiction truths behind this fictional story I so enjoyed. And that's exactly what I hope for in my historical lit.
5. Political Intrigue Of course, another huge part of my urge to research is the political intrigue Meg wades through. Holy guacamole. Can you say intense?? Everyone has an agenda in Queen Elizabeth's court. Everyone wants something—or multiple somethings—and are willing to lie, deceive, manipulate, and even betray to get what they want. Meg has her own objectives which are complicated by conflicting directions from her handler (the creepy Cecil) and the queen herself. It's terrifying, and despite knowing that this is only the first in a series, I was genuinely concerned that Meg wouldn't be able to wiggle her way out of the traps set for her. What a ride, man. What. A. Ride.
Bottom line? READ THIS BOOK. I'm so grateful that I already own a copy, because you better believe that it went straight onto my (very exclusive) Most Precious Favorites shelf, and there it shall stay. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go binge on the sequel.
Favorite Non-Spoilery Quotes:
"Remind me never to trust a Spaniard, will you?"
She squeezed my arm. "You have my word. The moment I sense you going weak in the knees, I'll break his."
"It was my pleasure, Rafe," I said with a gentle incline of my head, using his first name quite deliberately. No "my lord" or simpering curtsy this time! "But I suspect will be far better matched with Beatrice. Her skills at all manner of dance have captured many a gentleman's fancy at court. Her experience is much remarked upon."
Rafe's brows lifted ever so slightly, but Beatrice narrowed her eyes, clearly unsure about whether or not I'd just insulted her. I hadn't really just intimated that she'd bedded half the male population at Windsor Castle, not exactly.
But it was close enough.
If God won't save the Queen... we will.
Points Added For: Meg, the Maids, QEI, the scary intrigue, the HISTORY, snark!, the boys and the romance and the swoons, historical accuracy, completely making me lose track of time and place.
Points Subtracted For: Still not 100% sure why Rafe is immediately so into Meg.
Good For Fans Of: The His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers, Palace of Spies by Sara Zettel, sneakytimes, Ocean's Eleven, historical political intrigue, swoons.
Notes For Parents: Some language, making out, murrrrrderrrrrr.
ORIGINALLY REVIEWS AT WWW.SHAELIT.COM I've been eyeing Ms. Haskell's books for a while now, since most in my circle seem to genuinely enjoy her work. F...moreORIGINALLY REVIEWS AT WWW.SHAELIT.COM I've been eyeing Ms. Haskell's books for a while now, since most in my circle seem to genuinely enjoy her work. For The Castle Behind Thorns, I was expecting a fairytale adventure with some sneakytimes and maybe an itsy bit of romance. I didn't quite get what I was expecting, but neither did this book disappoint.
As the synopsis promises, the book starts when Sand wakes up inside an abandoned castle that is split in half. Literally everything from the cabbage in the kitchen to the stuffed hawk in the hall to the walls of the castle itself have been ripped in two. According to local legend, the castle was ruined in an earthquake a quarter-century before and has remained guarded by vicious thorns and neglected by the townsfolk ever since. But as Sand starts to wander through the empty, echoing halls, he also begins to question the stories he's been told. What earthquake could rend literally everything, including the solid iron anvils in the castle forges? How is it that none of the food has rotted and yet nothing else lives within the walls after twenty-five years of neglect? Who is the dead girl in the castle crypt? And why do the monstrous thorns guarding the gates seem to attack him when he tries to leave?
I'll admit, not a lot happens in the first part of the book. Most of the beginning is Sand puttering around and fixing things. We see him learn how to draw water from the well without a bucket (rope and cloth balls), how to mend various metal things, how to patch up a broken taxidermy falcon, etc. It may not sound terribly interesting (and may not be for some people), but I enjoyed myself. I felt like I was learning useful things, the same way I felt while watching Lynn survive in Not a Drop To Drink.
I was also fascinated to realize that while the events concerning the castle were fantasy, Sand and his adventure was set in a real place and time. Ms. Haskell references real things like crucifixes, saints, Paris, and the legend of Arthur and Merlin. Then later when Sand talks to Perrotte, the dead girl in the crypt who mysteriously comes back to life, they reference real historical figures like Charles the Affable and Anna Vreizh. Based on their talks, The Castle of Thorns starts in 1518, 20 years after the death of Charles the Affable and 26 years after Perrotte's friend and duchess Anna Vreizh became Queen of France. (FYI, Anna Vreizh = Duchess Anne of Grave Mercy fame, which you can bet made me squeal when I put the pieces together.)
On the whole, I found the story interesting. Though technically a middle-grade novel, Ms. Haskell treats her readers like adults. She tosses out asides like Perrotte is "like the rock she's named after" without any hand-holding or further explanation. She expects readers to guess that "perrotte" is a derivation on a type of rock and to do research on their own time if they have any further questions. It reminded me of Seraphina and its love of houppelandes and other undefined objects. Ms. Haskell also does a great job of keeping the story and characters at a very astereotypical half-step off from my expectations. It felt a bit like listening to the National Anthem in minor chords (which you should totally listen to if you haven't already). I could follow along. I felt like I knew what was going to happen next, and for the most part I did except for when the tail end of one scene or another would take a quick twist away from my expectations.
Like I said, I enjoyed my time with Sand and Perrotte. I was content to watch them as they tackled questions about forgiveness, mending, and imagination. I liked learning about the stars and appreciated the balance between the two very different stepmother characters who affect the story. That being said, it's not a story I missed when I was finished, nor do I have any desire to return to the castle. The characters played their part well and I rooted for their success, but I had no real attachment to any of them. The Castle Behind Thorns ended up being a forgettable, middle-of-the-road book for me, but there were enough things I truly enjoyed about Ms. Haskell's writing that make me eager to try her again, so I count this adventure as a moderate success.
Points Added For: Sand not being a fluent reader, Sand preferring manual labor and craftsmanship over schooling, the historical context, Sand's stepmother, the practical mending advice.
Points Subtracted For: Not fully connecting me with the characters, being a little slow, the ending being a little too soft.
Good For Fans Of: Shannon Hale, The Secret Garden, historical fairytales.
Notes For Parents: Murder (not graphic).
Note: I received a digital review copy of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.(less)
Dudes. DUUUUUUDES. Stop what you are doing. Put down what you are reading (except for this review). Put everything on hold and read The Falconer. I don’t care what you’ve heard, and I don’t care what hangups you think you might have. In fact, I think I can answer every concern you might have. Look!
1. Ugh, but it’s steampunk. I don’t like steampunk.
Okay, you’re a crazy person, and crazy isn’t something I can fix. Steampunk is awesome. But I guess you’re allowed your tastes, so whatever. Even still, I think The Falconer‘s version of steampunk is palatable for just about everyone. First of all, it’s a steampunk set in Scotland. SCOTLAND! Not once do we step foot in London or even England proper. They don’t even like the British up there. Even better, the steampunk Elizabeth May employs is so delightfully restrained. To quote my pal Gillian Berry, it’s a “subtle steampunk that just serves to boost the world, not define it.”
Aileana’s world has delightful contraptions like stitcher spiders and ornithopters and flying carriages, all of which set my heart a-fluttering, but Ms. May does a great job of keeping the steampunk elements from overwhelming the story. The inventions are used to bolster the plot and make the world-building shine, but the story would remain both feasible and intelligible without them. The reader gets all of the balls and pretty gowns and social constraints that we’ve come to expect from books of this time period, just with some fantastic mechanical baubles thrown in.
2. There are fairies. I don’t do fairies.
Faeries. They’re faeries, not fairies. My gosh. But you know what? I can’t STAND faeries/fairies/fae/whatever. Every book I’ve ever tried with those odd beasties were complete duds for me. Really, the faeries were my biggest hangup prior to starting The Falconer. But then I read this book, and now I’m a believer. Ms. May manages to squeeze in each type of faerie typically found in YA lit (scary, sexy, funny) and make it work. We get everything from the generally harmless pixies to the seductive and dangerous daoine sith and everything in between—fae that fly, howl, bark, and charm their way through piles of dead Scots.
Interestingly, though each type of faerie also has a nearly incomprehensible Scottish name for itself, I didn’t have trouble keeping the types separated. Each kind was on the page long enough and the titles used consistently enough that I was able to tell a sluag apart from a baobhan sith, for example. Which is great, because then I didn’t miss out on the rest of faerie lore. There’s more to enjoy concerning men with the Sight and women Falconers and bloodlines and herbs and fighting techniques. As with the faerie types, I was able to follow along easily, which I appreciated.
3 . There’s a fighter girl. I’m so over fighter girls.
I get that. Fighter girls can be fun, but there are so many of them that the standard, kick-butt version does less and less for me each time. That being said, Aileana is a variation that I completely enjoyed. First of all, she’s wicked smart. Even before her mother’s death, Aileana was an avid tinkerer. She built her family’s ornithopter and was always inventing some new gadget. After her mother’s death, however, she dismantled all her fobs and fripperies and started converting them into weapons to hunt the faeries.
She’s also remarkably unapologetic about her thirst for vengeance. Since her mother’s death a year prior, this young noblewoman has murdered 158 faeries. She has gone from a wide-eyed, innocent young thing with a head full of love and marriage to a seasoned liar and hunter with a thirst for blood. Indeed, she’s become addicted to the rush of power and untainted joy she gets with each kill. Watching her struggle in an attempt to reconcile the girl that she was with what she has become is both an interesting read and a heartbreaking one. In the end, these two traits—Aileana’s brains and her drive—are what make her strong, not her ability to kill.
4. There’s a love triangle. I HAAAAAATE love triangles.
No! No love triangle! Not really. What Ms. May does here is tricky, because it sort of looks like Aileana is being prepped for a whopper of a love triangle (or even a love trident), but it never comes to pass. There are actually three wonderful boys in The Falconer, and each deserves a mention, because they’re just that wonderful.
First, there’s Derrick. Derrick is a pixie, a tiny Tinker Bell-sized faerie that lives in Aileana’s dressing room and mends her clothes in exchange for honey (too much of which makes him hilariously drunk). Of the three boys, he’s mostly played for comic relief, but he’s also a true and loyal friend to Aileana, which is pretty incredible considering her vow to kill as many faeries as she can find. All of the best quotes come from Derrick, and I would dearly like to have one of my own. (Except for one comment about an old love of his, Derrick fits the standard trope of Loyal Gay Friend pretty well.)
Next, there’s Gavin. Gavin is a human and the elder brother of Aileana’s best friend. He represents Aileana’s past and the hopes and dreams she’s set aside in exchange for revenge. If this were Shadow and Bone, he’d be Mal; if Unhinged, he’d be Jeb. I can’t say too much more about Gavin, but I truly enjoyed him and the role he filled.
Lastly, there’s Kiaran, or as Gillian and I like to call him, “KIAAAAARAAAAAAAAAN.” What a dreamboat. He’s the bad-boy side of this supposed love triangle. If Gavin is Aileana’s pure and innocent past, Kiaran is her dark and dangerous future. Kiaran is one of the most powerful types of faerie, a daoine sith, and hunts down his own kind for reasons of his own. Nowhere is Kiaran framed as the safe choice or even necessarily the best choice. However, he offers what Gavin cannot. He sees Aileana’s rage and thirst for revenge and accepts them in a way that Gavin simply can’t. In this equation, Kiaran is the best parts of the Darkling, Warner, Jack Dandy, and Morpheus, Aileana’s guide as she does what must be done.
Despite how it appears, I must stress again that this book does not contain an actual love triangle. The storyline may trend that way in later books, but it does not do so now. Even if it did, I still think readers will enjoy this book. Each boy plays his part (Loyal Friend, Good Boy, Bad Boy), but each part contains pleasant deviations from the standard form. You might think you know how each boy will react—who will be jealous of whom and how, who will attempt to control Aileana, etc.—but you can’t. Aileana is not the one to change Kiaran’s black heart. Gavin isn’t constantly playing the white knight and saving her from danger. Aileana doesn’t whine, wheedle, or manipulate the boys to do what she wants. It’s wonderful!
5. The ending. I’ve heard other people didn’t like how abrupt it was.
I’ll give you this one. The ending was rather abrupt. I liked it, because it left me with a jolt of character development that I wasn’t expecting, but it definitely killed me in the “Oh my gosh, give me the next book NOW” sort of way. What can ya do?
I strongly encourage you all to read this book. If I may quote my own Goodreads status, this book is like popcorn. Delicious, adrenaline-laced, pixie dust-flavored popcorn. It’s ridiculously addictive in the best way. The moment I have money to spend, it will go toward obtaining this book, and from me, there’s no higher praise.
Favorite Non-Spoilery Quotes:
“You know my mother thinks the waltz is indecent.”
“Your mother would find the sight of a chair leg indecent.”
When Dante described the circles of Hell, he clearly forgot the one where a hungry pixie sits on one’s shoulder for eternity.
“My ears are bleeding. I have a nasty headache. I’m trapped in a room with a murderous faery and I blame you.”
“Perhaps it’s a honey-ache. That’s the result of eating too much of what isn’t yours.”
“But your friend offered it. So she might not have explicitly said, ‘Derrick, please eat all of the honey in my kitchen,’ but it was implied by the mere fact that she has a kitchen.”
“Well, I can safely say that I’ve never experienced a more exciting two days. I suppose I should send a note before seeing you again. ‘Are you in the company of any creature liable to attack me unprovoked? I can visit later.’”
Points Added For: Aileana, Derrick, Kiaran, Gavin; a fresh, less stereotypical twist on character tropes; Aileana’s inventive streak; subtle steampunkery; a great mix of humor, tension, and sexiness.
Points Subtracted For: A really abrupt ending, I guess.
Good For Fans Of: Faeries, bad boys, good boys, funny and supportive boys, girls who kick butt, smart girls, historical Scotland, light steampunk.
Notes For Parents: Language (I think), making out, death.(less)
Prisoner came out many weeks back, and I've purposely held off on writing this review for several reasons. One reason was I just couldn't bring myself to write it. Apathy is a killer. But that ties in to my other reason, which is that of all my many blogger friends, I think I'm the only person who just couldn't get into this book.
Prisoner starts off well enough. Our protagonist, Gretchen, is in a car with her brother Reinhard and some friends when her brother nearly runs down a Jew. It's intense, as both we the readers and Gretchen don't know whether Reinhard will truly murder the man in cold blood. The scene vividly captures the passionate beliefs of the Nazi Party in Germany at the time. Jews, rather than being seen as people, are less than animals and are hunted for sport. Frankly, it's terrifying.
When it comes to concrete historical fact, Ms. Blankman does a good job. Though Gretchen, Reinhard, and Jewish reporter/love interest Daniel Cohen are all fictional, many of their cohorts are not. Adolf Hitler, Adolf's niece Geli, Eva Braun, and other members of the Nazi party in Germany make appearances. It was unnerving to watch them cross paths with Gretchen, to see them as Gretchen saw them—as people, both good and bad, rather than the outright monsters as they are portrayed in other stories. Then again, to Gretchen, they are the people she has grown up with and has been taught to respect. She doesn't know what will come in the encroaching war.
A big problem I had with the book was Gretchen herself. I didn't expect automatic greatness. In no way would it be realistic for Gretchen to become, say, Johanna Mason, snarly and defiant in the face of the evil government. But wow, she's really not the brightest bulb in the box, is she? The journey from blind adoration to dawning revelation to outright horror and defiance is a hard one to portray. It must be depicted realistically, allowing for the extent to which the human mind can rationalize conflicting evidence, but at the same time moving the character along in their growth in a way that doesn't bore or disgust the reader. For me, Gretchen's journey fell short. Gosh, she was a gormless idiot. I pictured her as the movie version of The Book Thief's Liesel, all blonde curls and vacant cow eyes.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="300"] In case you were wondering, I liked every cast choice in the movie EXCEPT Liesel.[/caption]
I understand that I have the advantage of 70+ years of history and hindsight in my corner. To me, Adolf Hitler is evil incarnate, not "Uncle Dolf." The Nazi Party is a squirming morass of eugenics, genocide, racism, and all other kinds of nastiness, not the cause my beloved father gave his life protecting. Reinhard is a horrifying bully (view spoiler)[, not my somewhat scary older brother. Instead of coming across as a smart girl deceived by loyalty, Gretchen is, to quote my own notes, "pathetic, fawning, and stupid." Whether her self-enforced blindness and unwillingness to act was realistic or not isn't the issue, because it was laborious to read. I literally stopped reading for days because I couldn't force myself to return to her story.
The other problem I had—which helps explain why Gretchen was such a chore—is that the writing wasn't up to par for me. There was so much telling. I was told how Gretchen felt and what she thought. I was told about how scary Reinhard was and how courageous Daniel was (and how attractive and handsome and how he made Gretchen's heart do somersaults, etc. etc. etc.) I felt like I was being treated like a child. The author's voice was too prominent, holding my hand and physically guiding me through every plot point rather than letting me run through the maze like a freaking adult. Call them spoon-fed, telegraphed, or whatever other metaphor you want, but I could feel each moment coming from chapters away. I just... I couldn't bring myself to care. I couldn't care about Gretchen the idiot, or her instalovin' partner Daniel, or her cowed mother, or doomed Eva, or anyone else.
Thankfully, the plot (which draaaaaaaaaagged for the majority of the story) picks up near the end. The pacing picks up and hey! Stakes! Hallelujah, praise the Lord, this has finally become a life or death (or worse) matter. Still, as I closed the book, I had to mourn what could have been a wonderful story. The opportunity for complexity in plotting, emotional subtext, and historical verity was there but neglected. It's like the difference between a 50 thread count sheet (usable, but rough) and a 350 thread count sheet (luxurious and long-lasting.) The depth just wasn't there. At every point of the story, be it Gretchen's life in 1930s Germany, Daniel's work with the Jewish resistance, or the history of Soldier!Adolf in WWI, I had to wonder, "What could someone like Elizabeth Wein have done with this same story?" And maybe that's not fair, but that was my experience, so it's permissible.
Points Added For: The beginning, the bits about Soldier!Adolf, the bits about the Communists (oft neglected).
Points Subtracted For: Gretchen, being incorrect about the characteristics of a psychopath (they don't cry, for instance), the lacking prose, the stale pacing.
Good For Fans Of: Pre-WWII Germany, history, Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard (just a feeling, don't even know why.)
Notes For Parents: Abuse, suicide, bad things happening to animals (can't be more specific without spoilers.)
Note: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
As I recently tweeted, I think I’ve reached the point of no return as it pertains to HMH’s historical fiction. If I find...more[Actual rating closer to 3.75]
As I recently tweeted, I think I’ve reached the point of no return as it pertains to HMH’s historical fiction. If I find a book with the HMH brand and it’s set in the past (ANYWHERE in the past), I’m going to pick it up. Not only are the stories themselves usually pretty good, but the writing is always solid, and the historical accuracy and vividness presented is stellar. To my absolute delight, A Death-Struck Year is no exception.
There are times when peeking at other reviews before reading really bites you in the rear. Other times, it helps properly size your expectations and m...moreThere are times when peeking at other reviews before reading really bites you in the rear. Other times, it helps properly size your expectations and make what might have been a bumpy ride enjoyable. Both of these things happened for me with The Scar Boys.
** Due to my vehement opposition to Goodreads review policies, I am no longer posting full reviews on this site. To read my full review, go to: (less)
This is the end, the last of the Flavia de Luce adventures. I’ve adored her since I first picked up the green-jacketed Sweetness on a lark and fell in...moreThis is the end, the last of the Flavia de Luce adventures. I’ve adored her since I first picked up the green-jacketed Sweetness on a lark and fell in love with our irrepressible chemist. This book, to my relief, was classic Flavia, containing all the elements I yearned for save one.
I’m sorry, can I get back to you on this book when I’ve remembered how to breathe? I mean, really, WHAT IS THIS, A.C. Gaughen? I’ll tell you what it i...moreI’m sorry, can I get back to you on this book when I’ve remembered how to breathe? I mean, really, WHAT IS THIS, A.C. Gaughen? I’ll tell you what it is; it’s a heart attack in written form, that’s what it is.
Never has such a good book been so poorly served by its cover. It’s ugly and ridiculous, and I hate it. The reason I start this review with such vitri...moreNever has such a good book been so poorly served by its cover. It’s ugly and ridiculous, and I hate it. The reason I start this review with such vitriol is that everyone I spoke to while reading Palace of Spies mentioned how hesitant the cover made them feel, because, like it or not, we do judge books by their covers. Stupid, exasperating covers often equals stupid, exasperating books. I think it’s important to acknowledge this expectation, because it will NOT hold true for this book. Palace of Spies was an absolute delight!
***Due to my vehement opposition to recent Goodreads policy changes, I will no longer be posting full reviews to this site. TO READ MY FULL REVIEW, GO...more***Due to my vehement opposition to recent Goodreads policy changes, I will no longer be posting full reviews to this site. TO READ MY FULL REVIEW, GO TO: http://www.shaelit.com/2013/10/mini-r...(less)
Where to begin with this one? I will say that I was completely enamored with the premise. An MG with rapier-wielding ghost-hunte...more(More like 2.75 stars)
Where to begin with this one? I will say that I was completely enamored with the premise. An MG with rapier-wielding ghost-hunters is a fantastic hook, especially since the clothing on the cover makes them look all Victorian and proper (despite her hair, which is also awesome). When it was finally time for The Screaming Staircase to reach the top of my reading queue, I settled down in a comfy chair, ready to be whisked away on a topsy-turvy British adventure. Now that I’m looking back, I admit there wasn’t a whole lot of whisking. I think I let myself be whisked as much as I could, but it’s hard to glide along with the story when you’re too busy stumbling over inconsistencies in the world-building.
The parents were what did me in with this book. The parents set the stage for the entire book. Max’s parents are described as dramatic, a given consid...moreThe parents were what did me in with this book. The parents set the stage for the entire book. Max’s parents are described as dramatic, a given considering their actors. However, they’re portrayed as living their entire life as if it were a play, so everything they do comes across as completely disingenuous. Perhaps some will find that clever on the part of the author; I merely found it annoying. To me, the parents read as thoughtless, careless, selfish, and completely fake. Their malaise spread to the other characters in the book. No one felt real. No one displayed motivations that I could identify with.
In the end, book reviews can be very limited forms of expression. We try. Great stars, we try. I've written entire posts about how I write reviews; great reams of internet code have been spilt as we bloggers bemoan how difficult reviews can be, how hard we work to write them. And some bloggers can churn out jaw-droppingly gorgeous reviews, works of art unto themselves. But in the end, reviews can only capture so much.
This is what I think about as I sit here and review my Rose Under Fire notes. I think I wrote more notes on this book than any book I've reviewed before. I ran out of paper. I had to write sideways and in the margins. I have so much to say, but I don't know how to begin. No matter what I say, how much I say or how little, I don't think I have the talent to bottle the essence of this book for you. I don't have the talent. Words fail.
I think my failure is appropriate, because it's one that our heroine, Rose Justice, struggles with as well.
Oh, God, dry words on a page. How can you grow to love a handful of strangers so fiercely just because you have to sleep on the same couple of wooden planks with them, when half the time you were there you wanted to strangle them, and all you ever talked about is death and imaginary strawberries?
I feel embarrassed whining, however. I have to attempt to boil down 346 pages of heartbreak and horror and hope and victory into something informative and easy to read. Rose has the unenviable job of trying to capture what feels like a lifetime in Ravensbruck prison, a German women's concentration camp during the height of WWII. While my task is daunting, I do not feel I can justifiably complain when compared with Rose's task, so I will do what I can.
Like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire starts off deceptively. It begins with a death. Rose Justice is a female Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) pilot, an American aiding the war effort in Britain. One of her fellows crashed her plane, and now Rose must write a report. As I said, it was a deceptive opening, for while we're smacked in the face with death and sorrow from the first page, it's a distant death for us. We don't know this dead girl. Heck, we hardly know Rose at this point. The death is technically a war death, but this isn't the glorious shoot-out of French Resistance fighters or Julia's stand on the bridge. It's just one unknown girl in a transport plane. Despite the death, it's a fairly peaceful first section but such an important foundation for the rest of the novel. Some readers may be tempted to skip ahead to "the good stuff," to the gritty, unflinching reality of Ravensbruck. Don't.
Though familiar faces from Code Name Verity make their appearances, this is Rose's story, and you all will need the beginning to get to know her. Ah, Rose, our battle-hungry pilot, the plucky American girl from Hershey, PA who "looks like Katherine Hepburn, flies like Amelia Eartheart." The girl inspired to enlist by the moving verses of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the girl who creates poetry of her own in the air, in her bunk, on a deserted London street with a bomb in her hands. The girl who foolishly declared - as people in her time often did - that surely German concentration camps couldn't be "that bad," that the Brits were as bad as the Germans with their outlandish propaganda. The girl who wants to be a fighter pilot, to shoot doodlebugs out of the sky and make a difference in the war.
It's Rose's bravery and her recklessness that send her to Ravensbruck. And here again my words fail me, for how can I describe it to you? We think we know, decades separated with the clear-eyed vantage point provided by history, what concentration camps were like. We think we know. Like Rose, we've heard the stories, the horrors. But we suffer from the same misconception that young, naive Rose struggled with. We have no faces, no names. This book gives us the names, the faces, the stories. In 346 pages, we learn of Rose Moyer Justice; of Elodie, the scrappy French fighter with a knack for finding useful things; of Roza, the Polish Rabbit with her ravaged legs and a mouth like a sailor; of Irina, the Russian fighter pilot with her tall, lanky body and fierce ways; of:
This book is so full of people. Not of random, milling people who enter a page and leave it again before the paragraph has come to a close, but of important, breathing, vibrant people whom you love or hate or want to strangle or want to save or all of the above. There is so much depravity and horror in this book, but that same depravity makes the humanity shine so bright, like a candle held up in the dark to be seen for miles around. While reading this book and for days after, I felt like Death from The Book Thief, utterly haunted by humans.
It's the simplest of moments that do it, like when Rose is forced into a group of knitters to create socks for German soldiers. Amid all the death and fear and hopelessness, we're treated to a tiny room of women, knitting and singing and chattering away like sparrows. They joke and laugh, despite being cold and hungry and so very far from home. They quote poetry and talk about Disney movies, and then, in the middle of it all, they uncover their legs so Rose can see the mangled, scarred messes left over from Nazi experimentation.
"I don't limp," [Karolina] said. "One operation only, a bacterial infection, very neat. They didn't peel off the muscle or cut out pieces of my shinbone like they did to Roza--" "You were sick for longer," Roza interrupted. "You couldn't walk for eight months." "But you wouldn't notice now if I wore stockings."
It's the people that make this story bearable and the people that make this story tragic, giving it a force that we too easily lose as we read our cold analyses of times past. We get lost in the magnitude of the horrors, of the scrolling numbers and lists of casualties. Even those in Ravensbruck were scarcely able to grasp what was happening when they heard the numbers from Auschwitz. And if they could not, even with their personalized knowledge, grasp the enormity of the Nazi killing machine, how can we without something to anchor us?
"They were killing tens of - tens of thousands of people there every day this summer," Karolina stuttered. "TENS OF THOUSANDS. Gassing them and burning the bodies, or just - just burying them in piles when the incinerators got behind - if Fischer hadn't infected me with gangrene on purpose for no reason at all, I wouldn't have believed the numbers either. TENS OF THOUSANDS EVERY - EVERY DAY - " What a meaningless number.
Ms. Wein gives us our anchors. She gives us names and faces. Personalities. She gives us details of beatings and sleepless nights, of hunger and fright, of hiding amidst dead bodies, that are so real they cannot be ignored or rationalized. But she also gives us anchors of hope - paper airplanes flying over tall prison walls, chocolate wrappers that smell of home, red toenails named after berries and desserts, and painfully blue skies.
This book taught me more than any class ever could. Every page, every sentence, every word is packed to the seams with information. A good quarter of the notes that I took were solely for my own reference, so that I could look back and research further on my own behalf. I wanted to know about Edna St. Vincent Millay and her stirring poetry. I wanted to dig around and found out if camp mama Lisette was a real person or not. I wanted to learn everything I could about the indomitable Rabbits of Ravensbruck, those fearless women committed to bringing their torturers to justice. Ms. Wein invites you to eat, drink, and breathe the lives of those affected by World War Two. We learn about planes and flight, Russian fighter pilots and the USSR's distrust of survivors, of the enmity between Russians and Poles, of grasping, pitiful schmootziches, and what the front lines look like from the air.
You could see every single place they were bombing - all of Germany on fire, the sky stained red in the distance. And we knew when we came to the Front because we could see it. Fire and racer and searchlights in one long line that just stretched on and on and on like a wall of shifting, glittering light in front of us.
This book will teach you what it means to write a freaking masterpiece. I remember being only a few chapters in and feeling profound gratitude that I had met Ms. Wein in person before reading this book, because I had such an overwhelming sense that had I met her in person then, I wouldn't have been able to string two words together. This woman is an ARTIST. There will be college literature courses, doctorate thesis papers, and books devoted to this woman and her career, I just know it. Her work is exquisite, from her carefully planned sentence structures to the subtly laid themes that criss-cross through both books.
I could say more. I could say SO MUCH MORE about the writing and the themes and the characters and the story and the parts that made me gasp and sigh and cry and laugh. But book reviews are a finite form of expression, and no matter how much I blather on, I will never be able to truly capture the essence of this book. Your only option is to read it for yourself.
Favorite Non-Spoilery Quote (one of many):
She barked an order at the guards. They'd sent extras, expecting a fight. She took hold of a dog's leash and started prowling among the first rows of silent, stubborn language professors and music teachers and widowed mothers and orphaned daughters, and projectionists and spies and bartenders and cleaning ladies and Resistance agents and Red Army soldiers and Girl Scout saboteurs. And taran pilots.
Points Added For: Everything mentioned above and so much more (like an incredibly accurate portrayal of ten-year-old boys that made me laugh/gasp.)
Points Subtracted For: Not a bloody thing.
Good For Fans Of:Code Name Verity, literary fiction, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, WWII fiction, Violins of Autumn by Amy McAuley.
Notes For Parents: Heavy language, violence, death, torture, mention of past rape, all the normal heavy topics you'd expect in a concentration camp book.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
In the spring of 1959, The Diary of Anne Frank has just come to the silver screen to great acclaim, and a young woman named Margie Franklin is working in Philadelphia as a secretary at a Jewish law firm. On the surface she lives a quiet life, but Margie has a secret: a life she once lived, a past and a religion she has denied, and a family and a country she left behind.
Margie Franklin is really Margot Frank, older sister of Anne, who did not die in Bergen-Belsen as reported, but who instead escaped the Nazis for America. But now, as her sister becomes a global icon, Margie’s carefully constructed American life begins to fall apart. A new relationship threatens to overtake the young love that sustained her during the war, and her past and present begin to collide. Margie is forced to come to terms with Margot, with the people she loved, and with a life swept up into the course of history.
It wasn't until after I received my digital copy of Margot from Penguin that I realized it was adult, not YA as Edelweiss had labeled it. Apparently, if you choose the 14-18 age filter, it hones in on the "18" part of "18 and older." I was worried, for while the synopsis sounded interesting, I don't read adult books. My blog focuses on MG and YA books, and with all the books I have waiting to be reviewed, surely I didn't have time to be sidetracked. However, even if by accident, request it I had, so read it I must.
Sometimes, the best things arrive by accident.
As the synopsis says, Margot is the post-war story of Margot Frank, Anne Frank's elder sister, during the height of America's romance with the younger girl's posthumous tale. In real life, Margot Frank died with her sister in Bergen-Belsen, a German concentration camp. In this book, Ms. Cantor gives the story a Anastasia-esque twist. What if Margot had survived? What if she had escaped, hidden until the end of the war, and escaped to America? What if she had chosen an American name, Margie Franklin, and told no one of her past? What if she had hidden the tattoo on her arm and slipped into comfortable, Gentile anonymity as the secretary at a Jewish law firm? And then what if, one quiet spring, her carefully constructed charade began to crumble, as all charades must?
I think I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank in school, but I always avoided sad books as a kid, and nothing to me seemed sadder than the diary of a dead girl my own age. I knew the gist of the story, and that was enough for me. A young Jewish girl and her family hid away in an attic, where the girl would write in her diary about a tree she saw out her window and her hopes for the future. The girl and her family would eventually be found by the Nazis, sent to camps, and die, except for the father who would then find his daughter's diary and publish it. That was all I could remember and all I thought I needed to know until I began Margot. Once I started, it was all I could do not to run to the bookstore and find a copy of The Diary to read from cover to cover as Margot did.
I was surprised by how easily I slipped into Margot's world. The settings - a hot, subdued Philadelphia law office with clacking typewriters, a peaceful public park, a dimly lit movie theater - all seemed very familiar and oddly comfortable. The 1950's were a relatively peaceful time in America's history, a much-needed respite from the two world wars and financial depression of the last three decades and a sort of golden era before the tumult of the approaching 60's and 70's. However, the peace was not shared by all of the nation's citizens. Though the war was long over, emigrants from Europe's war-torn nations still struggled with the emotional and physical scars the Nazis had left. While America sighed over Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, tittered over the antics of Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, and abstractly mourned for the lost love of Anne Frank and Peter van Pels, those like Margot still struggled to cope.
From the beginning, I was comfortable with our heroine. I understood her and sympathized with her. "A paragon of virtue" is what Anne always called her, and a paragon of virtue is what Margot strives to be. She doesn't smoke or drink, she enjoys the companionship of her fellow secretary Shelby, and she admires her boss Joshua from afar.
I also pitied her. Margot is a very lonely woman. The Nazis cut her off from her family, her fear cuts her off from the Jewish community and true intimacy with Gentile friends, and her longing for her friend Peter cuts her off from the opportunity to live in the now. When her sister's diary is published in America, she tells no one of her connections, but instead must live her days with her dead sister's eyes watching her from every bookshop window. Then the book is turned into a movie, and her sister's and Peter's names are on everyone's lips. Ah, the tragic star-crossed lovers, Anne and her tragic and haunting tale. Margo weathers it all, unable to tell anyone that they should be looking for the quiet sister in the corner of the attic, unable even to correct the ungainly American pronunciation of the names of those she loves.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="384"] Still from The Diary of Anne Frank[/caption]
While a powerful portion deals with what Margot has loved and lost, Margot also deals with much broader themes such as religion, what it means to be Jewish, the lingering effects of being a persecuted people, and the pain that comes from running from one's self. Ms. Cantor handles each topic with a delicate touch, certain not to protect Margot from the inevitable consequences of attempting to lie about everything she is but also capable of discussing each theme sensibly and movingly.
As a YA reader, I found the differences between Margot and the standard plot treatment of my normal fare interesting. Several darker elements that certainly would have been capitalized in a YA novel were introduced and then conveniently forgotten by the end, and the overall plot arc was too unevenly lumpy to be a true arc. I wrote in my notes that the story "lacked teeth" in that I never felt like Margot was sufficiently threatened, though that feels like an odd thing to write about a concentration camp survivor.
Margot may not be a dark book, but it is a deep one. Instead of prose splashed with violent colors of red and black, we are instead lured into deep, shadowed shades of bruised purples and cool blues. Margot's struggles were made more intense by their hues of reality. Once upon a time, there really was a family named Frank with two sisters. Both were lost to us, one more than the other thanks to the power of the younger's words. There really was a father who survived while the rest of his family died. And there really was a race crushed by the iron fist of Germany, scattered to the four corners of the map, and forced to fight for their right to work, to be treated justly, to live without fear for decades after the war had ended.
In addition to being beautifully written, Margot weds the power of historical fact with the allure of the "what if?" Through Margot, we are allowed to experience the heartache of lost loved ones, the struggle to remember the bad and the good, and the upbeat optimism of the 1950's in downtown New York paired with the battered hope of survivors looking for justice and a place to belong.
Points Added For: The setting, the prose, Margot herself, the what-if premise, interesting questions regarding religion
Points Subtracted For: A lack of tension
Good For Fans Of:Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (but softer and without the suspense), the 1950's
Notes For Parents: Smoking, memories of war
Note: I received a copy of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Though not an infallible rule, I can often tell if I'll love a book by the time I finish the first page. It's something that goes beyond a snappy first sentence or an interesting hook. I don't know if it's just the quality writing or what, but immersing myself in that first page feels like slipping into a cool pool on a hot summer day. It's effortless.
Belle Epoque gave me that feeling, and it was magical.
This book had so many good things going for it. I loved the concept of repoussoirs and the questions they raise. "Repoussoir" comes from a French verb meaning to repel or repulse. Repoussoirs are literally hired for their "repulsion." Their ugliness makes those around them appear more beautiful than they are. Maude's coworkers use several different metaphors to explain their work, but my favorite is the one about the peaches. When a customer looks at a baskets of fresh peaches, they all appear very much alike. However, take an ordinary, fresh peach, place it next to a shriveled peach, and suddenly the "ordinary" peach becomes the "good" peach. In the same way, an ordinary, beautiful debutante, when placed next to a repoussoir, suddenly becomes the most appealing option.
It's a very logical concept, one that the more unscrupulous social-climbers of Paris exploit to their own advantage. When Maude is first hired by the Countess Dubern as a repoussoir, to be the cheap metal foil to her daughter Isabelle's jewel, Maude is mortified and embarrassed. To acknowledge that you're less than society's image of beauty is one thing; to have your faults bluntly listed by others is another. Watching Maude's self-image vacillate depending on her mood and circumstances throughout the book was immensely fascinating.
I also appreciated that Ms. Ross didn't Cinderellize Maude and her fellow repoussoirs. Maude is frequently described as plain and unremarkable, a shadow to Isabelle's sunbeam. The other girls range from merely unattractive to hideous. At no point in the book do they suddenly transform from ugly ducklings to graceful swans. Even when Maude is swathed in beautiful dresses and draped in jewels, she is merely passable, ultimately forgettable in Isabelle's wake.
I had been thinking in the weeks leading up to reading this book about how refreshing it would be to read about a heroine who wasn't mesmerizingly beautiful. And suddenly, tada! Here's my book! Of course, it's no spoiler to say that in the end Maude does meet someone who thinks her beautiful, but both girl and suitor recognize that beauty truly is in the eye of a beholder, and that just as a sour personality can ugly a beautiful face, a wonderful personality can prettify a homely face.
Speaking of personalities, I thoroughly enjoyed the characters! Maude herself was interesting, and I worried about her as I watched her change under the influence of Paris high society. The other repoussoirs were a lively bunch, and I adored Marie-Josee. In fact, she was probably my second favorite character of the entire story, despite being in her early thirties, an odd age for a YA novel. I will say that the villains of the story, the countess and Durandeau, were rather one-dimensional, but I was happy to overlook them, especially in light of my favorite character of the entire story, Isabelle.
I did not expect to like Isabelle as much as I did. My word! Though originally standoffish and conniving, I soon fell in love with the real Isabelle. While her mother pushes her toward an advantageous marriage, all Isabelle wants is to go to school. She loves to learn and create and experiment. She even has her own secret study in her home, reminding me strongly of an older Flavia de Luce. She's even stubborn and sneaky like Flavia!
The boys in this story were also interesting. Wait, let me back up. The boys themselves were fine. They felt a bit light on the characterization, and I wasn't totally sold on the romance between Maude and one of the boys. However, they were all very handsome, and I had fun trying to guess who would (or would not) end up with whom. Would Isabelle end up with the charming and kind duke? Or perhaps she would meet bohemian artist Paul and fall in love with his mind? Or would Maude steal the show? Perhaps even Laurent would get in on the action! (I never quite trusted Xavier, though, not that I was supposed to.)
I saved the best part for last. The absolute best, no-doubt-about-it part of Belle Epoque is the setting. I'll admit that while I can easily lose myself in a fantasy world, I've never understood how people can read a book set in a real place and feel "there." It just doesn't compute for me. Usually my brain only latches on to new places. Places I've already been tend to fail the authenticity test.
Guys, Belle Epoque is set in Paris, and I felt like I was there. Well and truly, I did. I could feel the cobblestones beneath my feet, taste the baguettes and pan aux chocolat, hear the trilling accents. It was all THERE. I've never read a more French book in all my life. I visited Paris back in 2010 and literally have never missed it as much as when I read this book. The setting completely MADE this book for me.
I can't say this is a perfect book. There are certainly a few wonky spots, a few scenes I would have cut, some characters I would have strengthened, some consequences I would have deepened. However, I was so in love with certain aspects of the book that I was more than willing to put up with the weaker sections. If you find discussions of beauty interesting, READ IT. If you love Paris, French culture, and/or strong settings, READ IT. If you like Flavia de Luce/smart and headstrong characters, READ IT. If you... Forget it. I could go on. I'm surprised I haven't already devolved into a slavering mess. Suffice to say, I will be purchasing this book when it comes out. The end.
Points Added For: PARIS, French culture, the setting oh my gosh, Isabelle, Marie-Josee, the depiction of early photography.
Points Subtracted For: That weird imagined flashback about the birth of the agency, lack of development of some characters, consequences that didn't match the built tension.
Good For Fans Of: PARIS, historical fiction, French culture, the servant girl who dreams of something more.
Notes For Parents: Some light language, a rich man tries to corner a servant girl, some drinking (though not technically underage in that time period).
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
I received a physical ARC from the publisher. It was one I had agreed to take despite it being about a human-animal bond during wartime, which more than likely means said animal will die. I was prepared. I made it about halfway through.
Really, the writing was almost like a fairy tale, very soft and non-threatening yet not dumbed down. I think my younger self would have enjoyed it. I think my older self would have enjoyed it as well, had I been in the right mood and not so irritated by certain misconceptions I had had when I started reading. I require the back copy of a book to match the story waiting for me inside. If the back copy presents a plot that only takes up a tiny piece of the actual plot, I become cranky.
I'll try again later with altered preconceptions and selective amnesia in regards to the back cover.
Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.(less)
Note: I wrote this review almost exactly one year ago and never got around to posting it. Better late...more[Note: Rating would really be closer to a 2.75.]
Note: I wrote this review almost exactly one year ago and never got around to posting it. Better late than never, right?
When I first started Etiquette & Espionage, I expected some quirky steampunk fun with a bit of an edge. I also expected to make myself cranky over how often I misspelled the word “etiquette.” I was half right for half of the time.