Review of Girls Made of Snow and Glass

This book was highly anticipated by yours truly. I saw it on Bookstagram (that is Instagram for bookish types), and I could not wait to get my hands on it. In fact, I pre-ordered it, so it showed up on my doorstep the day it was released. I also set up a buddy read with one of my Bookstagram pals.(She is one of the two Priscilla’s at the @2.ps.in.a.bookstagram handle on Instagram.) If you haven’t done a buddy read, I highly recommend it. So much fun!

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. It is touted as a feminist retelling, but I am confused on that point. (More on that later.)

The story is centered around Lynet, the Snow White character, and Mina, the stepmother. The chapters in the book alternate between Lynet and Mina’s perspectives and also alternate between present and past. Lynet and her family hail from the North, a land covered in ice and snow. Whereas, Mina is from the South, a place known for its mild weather and warmth.

Lynet is a precocious, but sheltered youngster, whose father, King Nicholas, will do anything to keep out of harm’s way. Lynet rebels against these constraints, as evidenced in the first few scenes of the book when she is scaling a castle wall to spy on a newcomer to the castle, Nadia, the royal surgeon.  Mina is a southerner, who is hungry for power, and eager to break ties with her cruel magician father.

As the story progresses, both of these women fight to become what they think they ought to be, to find their true selves and finally, to define what their relationship means. The story follows Lynet as she discovers life outside the castle walls and searches for answers about her beginnings. On the other hand, Mina fights to win the love of an unreachable man and maintain control of a kingdom that is not hers.

I have so many thoughts about this book. Some of the bloggers that I respect most have loved this book. And, while I didn’t hate it, I also didn’t love it. Here’s why. First, the characters felt one dimensional. I didn’t feel moved by Mina and Lynet’s relationship for most of the book. At times, I would even describe myself as bored. Second, there is a “relationship” between Lynet and Nadia which seems forced and also one dimensional. The relationship is not developed over the course of the novel, and by the end, it seems odd as to how close the two have become.

The biggest issue for me in this book, is the depth of characters. Even though this is a retelling of a fairy tale, I was hoping for more depth in the characters and the story. There is so much untapped potential in both the characters and the story that it left me feeling unfulfilled as a reader.

That being said, I did not hate this book, and I was invested in the story, and curious to see how it played out. I don’t feel like it was particularly “feminist.” Nor do I think just because there is mention of a relationship between Lynet and Nadia that it is particularly progressive. A lot of the story revolves around the relationships of Lynet and Mina with the men in their lives (King Nicholas and Felix). The story didn’t feel as new and as feminist as I wanted it to, if that makes sense. The last one-fourth of the story was my favorite part, and the section where I felt most invested in the characters and the outcome of the story.

Bottom Line: For me, this was an average book with above average potential. I think fans of this genre will eat it up, and for the young adult audience it is intended for, it will be well received. This is another book that even though I would rate it as average, I would not hesitate to put in my classroom library. My rating is 3/5.

 

Review of The Underground Railroad

I just finished Coleson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Before I give my review, I would like to take a moment to speak to the fact that this book won The National Book Award. That is no small feat. Coleson Whitehead is a gifted writer and he crafts what he says deliberately and does not waste words. And, while his writing, for lack of a better term, is beautiful it is not excessive and self-indulgent.

So…a brief synopsis…

Cora, a slave on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, is a head-strong and capable young woman who endures countless atrocities at the hands of her owner and her fellow slaves. Cora and her quest to be free is the focal point of the novel. When Cora meets Caesar a new arrival to the Randall plantation, and he asks her to join him on an escape attempt, she agrees. The rest of the narrative follows her state by state quest for freedom.  In order to move from state to state, Cora utilizes the Underground Railroad which Whitehead reimagines as an actual system of conductors, railcars and stops that transports slaves from one destination to another. Along the way she encounters and is both helped, hindered, and abused by different characters. Whitehead is thorough in fleshing out the backstories of many of these characters. One such character is Ridgeway, a notorious slave catcher who prides himself on hunting down runaways and returning them to their owners. He is in pursuit of Cora for a majority of the novel.

I found this novel heartbreaking at points, and Whitehead’s descriptions of slave life and the treatment of the black population are harrowing and inexcusable. However, throughout the novel there are perspective shifts and time jumps that made it hard for me to stay invested in the heart of the story. The component of magical realism (the underground railroad being an actual train with no history or background to explain it) present in the novel will appeal to the taste of some readers, but it did not to mine. For me, I wish the focus would have remained on Cora and her journey. While reading, I was incredibly impacted by individual scenes, but not the over-arching story, which can be attributed (for me) to the time/perspective shifts throughout the narrative. I would never discourage a reader from this ambitious novel, because it is eye-opening and unique. However, there were a few narrative choices that I could just not get past which tarnished my reading experience.

That being said, I did love Cora and all she represented, and I rooted for her throughout the duration of the novel.

Bottom Line: This novel is an important look at slave life and is worth the investment in time it takes to read it, if only for Whitehead’s spectacular command of the written word. For me, there were issues in several of the narrative choices which affected my overall enjoyment and rating of the novel. My rating is a 3.5/5.

Review of Caraval

Okay, time for some honest talk. I have been reading some heavier books lately, and I just needed a YA fantasy book to cleanse my palate and gear me up for more heavy reading I have coming up in the near future. YA fantasy books are my absolute favorite for a good reading “palate cleanse.”

Caraval by Stephanie Garber did not disappoint. It was exactly the read I was looking for to whisk me a away to somewhere fantastical, whimsical, and intriguing. It hit all the right notes for me.

The story is centered around two sisters, Scarlett and Donatella (Tella) who live with their controlling, horrible, abusive father, the governor of the fictional, Conquered Isle of Trisda. Caraval is five night magical, mysterious, and adventurous game hosted by the elusive Legend.  Scarlett writes to Legend for many years asking for tickets for herself and Tella in hopes of attending and participating in this mysterious game. Days before Scarlett is scheduled to be married to a man her father has promised her to, she receives a letter from Legend granting her request with three tickets for entry into Caraval, one for her sister, one for her, and one for her fiance, who she has never met and whose name she does not know.

Scarlett is the main protagonist throughout the course of the novel, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. It becomes clear that Caraval is a place where reality blends with magic, and it is difficult to determine what is real and what is part of the game.

There is love (what is a YA fantasy without some angst and love?), there is suspense, there is a magical darkness that felt unique to me compared with other fantasy I have read. I hesitate to say more about this book, because spoilers would be the worst for this story, and it is difficult to say more without spoilers.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone. But if you enjoy YA fantasy, it is an interesting story with a dark element that I didn’t anticipate, but enjoyed. The writing is solid, and at times, the descriptions of the world of Caraval are stellar. I like the way the author plays with the time period in this book. Since time is described in ways such as “Year 55, Elantine Dynasty,” the time period is unknown. It feels like the past to me, because of the way the clothing is described and Scarlett’s mannerisms. But that is the beauty of fantasy–time period does not have to be defined. I also really love the way the love between the two sisters is established and developed within the story.

If I could change one thing about the book it is that the characters felt flat and it would have been nice to know a little bit more about some of the major characters to better understand their motivations (again, I don’t want to name character names because EEK! spoilers), but overall Caraval is an engaging read that I would recommend to other fantasy enthusiasts. It is propelled more by its intriguing plot than by its characters, but that is okay with me for this type of story. If I still had my own classroom, I would snap this up in a second, because this is a book that teenage fantasy fans will love (think fans of The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, Sarah J. Maas’s series). And there are characters that teens will love and root for.

Bottom Line: I give it a solid 4/5 (mostly for the unique (to me) storyline). For middle grades, be aware that while there is no cursing and no sexually explicit scenes, there are a few scenes with sexual overtones, but nothing too racy. There are also a couple of scenes that contain violence which may be disturbing for younger readers.

 

Review of The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give is a timely and necessary debut novel by Angie Thomas. Starr, the 16 year old protagonist, is with her friend Khalil when he is pulled over and killed by a police officer. The narrative follows Starr as she deals with the tragedy of losing her friend, the injustice of the shooting, and her journey into activism and finding her voice.

Starr and her family live in Garden Heights where her father runs a neighborhood store and her mother is a nurse who works in the community’s clinic. Her older brother, Seven, and her younger brother Sekani round out the family. Starr and her brothers attend a largely white private school, away from their neighborhood, where both Starr and Seven excel. At the beginning of the book, Starr keeps her Garden Heights life completely separate from her life at school and has a version of herself for each of these lives. As the story progresses, Starr has difficulty continuing to keep her two lives separate, as the truth about Khalil’s death becomes national news and the ramifications for his death are played out in her neighborhood.

Thomas’s book hooked me from the beginning and never let me go. This story is so important at any time, but especially in 2017, as we continually hear stories similar to Khalil’s in the news. The Hate U Give sheds light on issues that need to talked about. Most importantly, this book provides an opportunity to start a difficult conversation, to practice empathy for each other, and for us to examine our reactions to stories we hear in the media.

I have to say, for me personally, this book was an eye-opener. It allowed me to take a step back and examine my own reactions to news stories and to the media’s portrayal of events. In addition, the book provided insights into activism, speaking up, and choosing the more difficult path because it’s right. I could not love this book more.

What I loved about Starr is that even though the outcomes to the conflicts in the story are not what she wants, there is still a thread of hope throughout the novel. I know that no matter what, Starr will not give up on fighting, trying to make a difference, and ensuring that her voice is heard. And she will not give up on the hope that things will change. I love her for that.

Bottom Line: I would recommend this book to high school students and adults alike. (There is some language, domestic violence, and sexual references in the book. All of this is authentic to the story and not gratuitous; however, for middle school readers, just be aware.) Even if YA is not usually your thing, give this book a try. I think everyone has something to gain from reading it. My rating is a no-brainer–5/5.

A Review of Hilde Cracks the Case: Hero Dog!

Thanks to the Kid Lit Exchange network for this review copy of Hilde Cracks the Case: Hero Dog! All opinions are my own.

Hilde is a precocious young journalist investigating a theft on her street, Orange Street. The story follows her investigation as she questions neighbors to find out who is responsible for a break-in in her neighborhood. Her big sister and partner, Izzy, is along for the ride, snapping pictures of potential clues. Who has committed the crime, and will Hilde get her story in time for her 6:30 deadline? All will be answered by the conclusion of the story.

What a delightful book for young readers, and a great foray into the mystery genre for readers who haven’t been exposed to mysteries. This book is well done and smart. I enjoyed it. As a gauge, I had my nine-year-old son read it, and he really enjoyed it. Even though he usually prefers books whose protagonists are male, he liked the mystery and the fact that Hilde is an investigative journalist (he didn’t use the words–“investigative journalist”–he IS a fourth grader, after all!) His direct quote on the book is, “I liked the mystery. When I read it I though every new character was the thief. I thought it was cool that Hilde and her sister worked together. My favorite character was Zeus, because he barked like Zeus’s thunder.” (Side note: My son is really into Percy Jackson, so the name of the dog could have (did) affect his choice of favorite character.)

I love that the book is based on a real-life girl who actually publishes her own newspaper called the Orange Street News. (Click the link to see her site.) Not only is the story great, but Hilde provides a great example for youngsters of loving something, in this case, journalism, and going for it.

Bottom line: Love the book, and love that it is based on a real-life girl. If you have young readers (ages 5-9), they should definitely read it. My rating is 5/5.