Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Review Previously Published, Updated October 16th with Laura’s Review!

Salt to the Sea first came into my hands as an ARC (advanced reader copy) shortly after I was introduced to Ruta Sepetys’ writing when I picked up a copy of Between Shades of Gray at a not-so-little hidden gem of a used book store in center city Philadelphia. When I met Ruta at Winter Institute in 2016, I just knew I would love her books.

Synopsis

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies… and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Review

Laura’s Review

Salt to the Sea quickly became one of my favorite books even as I was in the middle of reading it. I was nervous about reading about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, thinking that the subject matter would be too depressing. Even though I knew Salt to the Sea is a work of fiction, I was also aware that nearly all of the events depicted actually happened.

I do not think I could have read this book if it had not been in the structure that it is. The chapters are all very short and the perspective shifts with each one between four very different teenagers, all of whom end up on board the Wilhelm Gustloff. The reason being that the subject matter is so intense (and since I am particularly prone to nightmares) that if it had not switched perspectives every few pages, I think I would have felt overwhelmed trying to comprehend all of the atrocities that happened to just these four people as World War II was drawing to a close. Despite shifting perspectives so frequently, every character was well-developed and I had strong feelings, both positive and negative, about all of them.

The experiences of these four teenagers was different than any other World War II historical fiction novel that I had read, and yet it was also very similar. Three of the four, Joana, Florian, and Emilia are attempting to escape into Nazi Germany, since for them, Nazi Germany was less dangerous that waiting for the Soviets to overtake their lands and ship them to the Gulag camps. The fourth, Alfred was a Nazi officer who had sociopathic tendencies. Ironically, I felt the most sorry for Alfred. He was barely an adult and yet his mind had been corrupted to believe that anyone who was not an Aryan German was inferior, and that it was his duty to enforce the superiority of the Aryan race. He had become highly dangerous, and yet he was essentially still a child. The sections of the book from his perspective were my least favorite because they caused me to feel a mixture of revulsion and pity at the same time. I was much more invested in the fates of Emilia, Florian, and Joana and was desperately hoping that they would survive the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

While trying to escape into Nazi Germany made the experiences different than other characters in the other World War II historical fiction novels I have read, it was also heartbreakingly similar. All they wanted to do was survive, just as the British, French, Americans, and many others. The difference being that their best chance of survival was in Nazi Germany away from the Soviets, whereas the Allies’ best chance was if Nazi Germany was defeated with the assistance of the Soviet Union. Overall, this is one of the best World War II historical fictions books that I have read and would recommend it to anyone at all interested in the genre.

Sarah’s Review

Salt to the Sea is a beautifully written and moving book, written in four alternating points of view, three of whom are refugees fleeing the Soviet advance across East Prussia who are trying to get into Nazi Germany – a new perspective for young adult World War II fiction. The fourth character to offer his take on the situation facing the Germans in January 1945 is a complete and terrifying sociopath and his actions, relayed in his chapters and the others, creates the most friction and anticipation int eh story for those who already know the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff (go on, I dare you not to Google it if you don’t already know). These alternating points of view are woven together with expert hands and for those who already know and love Ruta’s storytelling, Salt to the Sea does not disappoint.

I flew through Salt to the Sea very quickly and would have read it even quicker if I didn’t have to take breaks to sleep and work (I read straight through meals) and for those two days it was all I could think about. Our three refugees, Emilia, Joana, and Florian, are traveling with a cast of characters including an elderly gentleman affectionately referred to as the Shoe Poet, an endearing little boy who has lost his entire family, a salty older woman who views traveling with the group as nothing more than a necessary step to freedom, and a blind young girl who quickly proves to be the bravest and most intuitive member of the rag tag collective.

Ruta (she told me I could call her that in person!) alternates quickly between her protagonists’ viewpoints which leads to anxious reading, wondering furiously what is going to happen next. And while the final action regarding their escape is known to history, the fate of the individual characters and the challenges they face along the way are unknown and I believe that is the true power of Ruta’s storytelling. One can quickly look up what happens in history, but that event is really just that, an event, but it becomes so much more when conveyed as part of the complex and interesting lives of all of Ruta’s characters.

While for many, this is a five/ten star book, and is, by right, a five/ten star book, I still hold all of WWII fiction up against the harsh judgment of my love for Code Name Verity and The Book Thief and while Salt to the Sea is absolutely wonderful, it still falls just a touch behind my two pillar of great YA WWII fiction.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142423622 • 448 pages • first published in February 2016, this edition published August 2017 by Penguin books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in March 2016

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

Salt to the Sea on Goodreads

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Salt to the Sea

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Falconer by Elizabeth May

The Falconer came into the bookstore one day with a blurb from Sarah J. Maas on the cover and it was a pretty quick decision about whether or not I would be taking it home to read it.

Synopsis

She’s a stunner. Edinburgh, 1844. Eighteen-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron, the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, has everything a girl could dream of: brains, charm, wealth, a title – and drop-dead beauty.

She’s a liar. But Aileana only looks the part of an aristocratic young lady. She’s leading a double life: she has the rare ability to sense the sithichean – the faery race obsessed with slaughtering humans – and, with the aid of a mysterious mentor, has spent the year since her mother died learning how to kill them.

She’s a murderer. Now Aileana is dedicated to slaying the fae before they take innocent lives. With her abilities and her knack for inventing ingenious tools and weapons – from flying machines to detonators to lightning pistols – ruthless Aileana has one goal: destroy the faery who destroyed her mother.

She’s a falconer. The last in a line of female warriors born with a gift for hunting and killing the fae, Aileana is the sole hope of preventing a powerful faery population from massacring all of humanity. Suddenly, her quest is a lot more complicated. She still longs to avenge her mother’s murder – but she’ll have to save the world first.

Review

The Falconer took me over a month to finish. Typically, a young adult fantasy takes me less than a week, if not just two or three days. Why it took me so long, I honestly can’t put my finger on it, other than to say that I didn’t love it as much as I thought and hoped I would. All the pieces were there that usually equate to literary obsession for me: fierce female heroine, faeries, a Scottish setting, steampunk elements, etc, but I just wasn’t hooked.

Protagonist Aileana is likeable enough, though difficult to relate to, and her prowess in fighting killer Scottish faeries of lore is explained reasonably enough. The love story is pretty obvious and predictable and the love triangle contrived and unbelievable. The cliffhanger is terrific, but a little mean, so now I must keep reading a trilogy I might have otherwise abandoned.

But, and it’s a big but, Elizabeth can write, and write very well. Any potential plot and character development shortcomings are more than compensated for with exquisite writing. May’s knowledge of Scottish lore is beyond compare and she weaves such knowledge (and vocabulary) expertly into her fantastical story. Here’s to hoping the second book is just as well written and the character’s more developed.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781452128771 • 392 pages • first published May 2014, this edition published December 2015 by Chronicle Books • average Goodreads rating 3.75 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Elizabeth May’s Website

The Falconer on Goodreads

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Falconer

Fantasy, Fiction

The Fairest of Them All by Carolyn Turgeon

I love fairy tale retellings, they are one of my favorite subgenres of fantasy and like Beauty, and other works by Carolyn Turgeon, the combination of fairytales promised in The Fairest of Them All pulled me in.

Synopsis

In an enchanted forest, the maiden Rapunzel’s beautiful voice captivates a young prince hunting nearby. Overcome, he climbs her long golden hair to her tower and they spend an afternoon of passion together, but by nightfall the prince must return to his kingdom, and his betrothed.

Now king, he weds his intended and the kingdom rejoices when a daughter named Snow White is born. Beyond the castle walls, Rapunzel waits in her crumbling tower, gathering news of her beloved from those who come to her seeking wisdom. She tried to mend her broken heart but her love lingers, pulsing in the magic tendrils of her hair.

The king, too, is haunted by his memories, but after his queen’s mysterious death, he is finally able to follow his heart into the darkness of the forest. But can Rapunzel trade the shadows of the forest for the castle and be the innocent beauty he remembers?

Review

Like Mermaid before it (review to come soon!), I enjoyed the combination and twist of multiple fairy tales wound together, in this case, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, as well as Turgeon’s storytelling. By a twist of fate, and more than a little scheming on Mathena’s (Mother Gothel’s) part, Rapunzel finds herself stepmother to Snow White. However, instead of being the purely  evil queen the character has been portrayed as in previous reimaginings of the classic tale, Rapunzel really wants to have a happy, perfect family with the King, Josef, and Snow White.

Unfortunately, Rapunzel eventually discovers she has been nothing more than a pawn in her mother’s plan for revenge against the monarchy and she falls prey to the jealousy of Snow White stereotypical of the evil stepmother archetype. Thus ensues the expected plan to eradicate the beloved Snow White. Also, like Mermaid, the twist is a dark one and a happy ending is far from guaranteed.

The Fairest of Them All took me over a month to read, a mark that I was struggling a bit to make it through and my only complaint is that far too little actually happens in Turgeon’s retelling for the fact that it spans nearly two decades. While backstory is important, here the same information could have been covered in flashbacks or another more palatable method.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.00 • 9781451683783 • 262 pages • published August 2013 by Touchstone Books • average Goodreads rating 3.8 out of 5 • read March 2016

Carolyn Turgeon’s Website

The Fairest of Them All on Goodreads

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Fairest of Them All

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

Yesterday a book came into the bookstore that I could not believe my coworkers did not show me immediately – a new biography of Prince Harry! I freaked out so much my boss just gave it to me… I should probably tone down my royalist tendencies. But it reminded me of another book that I read a few years ago that I loved that has now made its way around the staff at the bookstore – The Royal We! Laura first sent me a picture of the cover when it was first released expecting me to mock it, and instead I told her I wanted it. It has been a favorite ever since. After Laura read it, we decided it should be a book club pick.

16 - March 2017 - The Royal We

Synopsis

American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it’s Bex who finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain’s future king. And when Bex can’t resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick’s sparkling ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he’s fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she’s sacrificed for love – her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself – will have been for nothing.

Review

I completely adore this book. Even though I am a diehard (American) royalist, I never entertained princess fantasies after the age of 9 (other than hoping I’d run into Prince Harry while on a London vacation when I was 16), but I am a sucker for a well-written and convincing royal love story. Thankfully, The Royal We delivers on both counts. I’ve been burned by terrible royalist fanfiction over the years, drivel full of simpering and annoying characters that made we want to gag (you can be royal and still have a personality you know…) and the last time I read a decent royal princess book was when I read Ella Enchanted and Just Ella back to back and over and over again when I was in the 4th grade. That was 16 years ago and I’d been searching ever since. Finally, my search is over!

Bex is a modern American young woman (props to the authors for writing awesome college characters!) who jumps at the chance to study art at Oxford as an exchange student from Cornell – yep, she’s witty and brilliant too! She thoroughly embodies what I think of when I think of a model New Adult protagonist – like Mary Poppins, she’s practically perfect in every way! And by practically perfect, I mean she’s real, she has flaws, she can be impulsive and indecisive and questioning but also strong and fierce and proud to be herself. Nick is charming, and also particularly perfect in his flaws as well. To the point where I questioned whether or not Heather Cocks and/or Jessica Morgan knew Prince William and if he was anything like Nick in his early twenties.

Beyond the two main characters (as The Royal We is told from Bex’s point of view, clearly it’s mostly about her and Nick and their relationship), the supporting cast are equally intriguing (oftentimes more so than B & N) and never fall flat, unless they’re literally falling flat on their faces, which might happen occasionally… Prince Freddie behaves in what I imagine to be a very Prince Harry like fashion, their father is cold and cruel (which does contrast to the image of slightly goofy Charles) and the addition of a mother character on the royal end is fascinating. Bex’s family is charming and clearly love her unconditionally, but it’s her twin sister that readers see the most of, and, well, Lacey’s not too thrilled to be giving up the spotlight. A good bit of sisterly drama unfolds which, having a sister, I could thoroughly appreciate, and it a strong point of the story to see their relationship change, evolve, and, eventually, deteriorate, though there is hope for future reconciliation!

I could read The Royal We over and over again and probably not get bored, for at least the first three re-reads. Though now, Laura has read it so given that she had at first hoped I’d mock it, we’ll have to see how she weighs in in her review in a few weeks!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781455557110 • 496 pages • first published April 2015, this edition published April 2016 by Grand Central Publishing • average Goodreads rating 3.8 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan’s Website

The Royal We on Goodreads

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Royal We

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Over the past few years I have read my fair share of novels set during World War II including my absolute favorite Montmaray Journals, the splendid Salt to the Sea, and the “pull-on-your-heartstrings” Letters to the Lost. So when Sarah told me that if I read Code Name Verity it would break my heart like no other book I was not going to read it. But I reconsidered, and armed with the knowledge of what would happen to each of the two main characters, I dove into the story and fell in love with all of it.

Synopsis

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Review

Let me just say I’m a little shocked that this book is stocked in the YA section of bookstores. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle reading this when I was in high school. The book is split into two distinct parts – the first is from “Verity’s” perspective, the second, from her best friend Maddie. “Verity” has been captured by the Gestapo after parachuting into Nazi-occupied France and looking the wrong way before crossing the street. She has been given the opportunity to write down her story and extend her life for as long as it takes to satisfy her Nazi jailers with the information she supplies. However, “Verity” chooses to tell them the story of Maddie, her best friend, and the pilot of the plane from which she parachuted.

“Verity” explains how the young women met, trained together, and became best friends. But as she tells that story, she also details the events and torture that transpire while she is held prisoner. It is a powerful tale, and while fictional, is likely to be the truth for somebody. The second part is Maddie’s story and what she has lived through during the time that “Verity” has been held prisoner. After crash-landing her plane, Maddie spends the next few months trying to escape from France and get back to England. However, when she learns of “Verity’s” fate, she decides her foremost goal is to help her friend. Both women face deadly obstacles, and the heart-breaking, nail-biting conclusion will leave you in a puddle of tears.

Code Name Verity is one of the best books I have ever read. I loved the characters and I experienced just about every emotion possible while reading this book. Personally, I preferred “Verity’s” part of the story more than Maddie’s, but it was all worth reading.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423152880 • 368 pages • first published May 2012, this edition published May 2013 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

Code Name Verity on Goodreads

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Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor

When I first saw the cover of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I fell head over heels – love at first sight. Blue hair, dynamic fonts, intriguing synopsis, Prague as a setting, fantasy world. I was just coming off the high of finishing City of Dark Magic and was very excited to find something that might be similarly fantastic. 

Synopsis

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she speaks many languages – not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

Review

I didn’t know much about the Seraphim/Chimaera trope until I finished reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Ben had to correct my pronunciation of “chimaera.” So for the majority of the book, I was greatly intrigued by the seemingly unique fantasy world – it was just new to me. That being said, Karou discovering of her place in that world and stumbling upon the unending conflict was revealed marvelously and magnificently as she rediscovered her past – and her past love, Akiva, a seraphim.

The “modern day” fantasy retelling of Romeo and Juliet and the star-crossed lovers is common in most young adult literature, it can even be viewed as the ultimate love story, the tragic fated love of those who were never supposed to be together in the first place. Karou is brave and resilient, unapologetic for who she is (as soon as she discovers the truth) whereas Akiva is a spineless sniveling coward who just irks me to no end. Yes, he’s gorgeous. No, that’s not what you base an entire relationship on, give young adults a bit more credit. There is nothing other than wanton lust pulling these two towards each other and honestly, I’m tired of reading about hot people falling for other hot people just because they’re über-attractive. Nothing sells their relationship, nothing anchors the fantasy world of the second half of the book in reality and even the most wildly outrageous fantasy still has some sort of foot hold into reality – it’s the only way it can be relatable.

I’m not entirely sure what it was that made me decide to finish this series, given my lack of insta-love for Daughter of Smoke & Bone, but I am certainly glad I did. I enjoyed Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters infinitely more than I enjoyed the first book.

Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters take place immediately after the first book and Dreams of Gods & Monsters is set only over the course of a handful of days. They chronicle the renews war crimes committed by the chimera and the seraphim in the name of Eretz, their homeland, though further backstory reveals that the Seraphim were not always native to Eretz. As Karou takes up Brimstone’s mantle of creating new bodies for the slain chimera souls, Akiva is saving chimera in an effort to ingratiate himself with his blue haired love. The story is a rollicking adventure and the secondary characters, particularly Ziri and Liraz, and Zuzana and Mik, make the story worth reading.

Unfortunately, my lack-luster feelings for Karou and Akiva, our woeful star-crossed lovers, remain. I really struggled to connect with either of them and found their moping and whiny incredibly irritating and I really wanted to rush through their parts. But, with an audiobook, not possible, so thankfully Laini Taylor at least wrote those parts very well, even if the characters didn’t sell it for me. I tried to understand, I tried to appreciate the Romeo and Juliet nature of their relationship, but at that point, I would have realized that life is short (particularly theirs, being that they’re in the middle of  war) and therefore one shouldn’t waste any time going after the things they want and the things that will make them happy.

So overall, can I recommend the trilogy? Sure, why not. But that’s only half-hearted and rides more on the fact that Laini Taylor is a gifted wordsmith than anything else.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition (Daughter of Smoke & Bone): Paperback • $12.99 • 9780316133999 • 418 pages • first published September 2011, this edition published June 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.04 out of 5 • read in May 2013

Laini Taylor’s Website

Daughter of Smoke and Bone on Goodreads

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Daughter of Smoke & Bone (2)

Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Warcross by Marie Lu

Marie Lu is officially now the most reviewed author on this site! This may be due in large part to a very exciting event that took place at the bookstore I work at two weeks ago when I had the great of fortune of moderating a discussion between the lovely Marie Lu and her friend and fellow author, Alex London. 

Marie Lu

It was an absolutely delight to discuss everything from diversity in books to fan art with Marie, and I am happy to report that she is a genuine kind and compassionate human being. And while I wanted to record the interview and post the transcript here, in all my excitement I completely forgot to do so! So please settle for my review of her newest book, Warcross!

Synopsis

The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight success.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire, Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem… and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation will uncover a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Review

This is my favorite of each of Marie Lu’s books and I almost didn’t read it. First, it was pitched to us by the publisher as being a middle grades novel (definitely not the case), and second, as my husband often says, I didn’t have a “real childhood” because I never once played a video game. The gaming aspect didn’t appeal to me. For those who might hesitate to pick this up because you think it’s a gaming novel, let me put your mind at ease. Virtual reality is a closer description of Warcross and it is part of the plot, but most of the book does not take place in the world of Warcross, most of it takes place in the “real world,” in Tokyo.

For the number of books I read each year, I’m always amazed a, that I remember any of them, and b, I can still be wholeheartedly surprised to love a book that I didn’t expect to. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I would certainly like Warcross, but I didn’t expect to love it on a level close to that which I love the works of my favorite author, Sarah J. Maas. Emika is now one of my all-time favorite leading ladies, and she is, like her creator, quite the magnificent lady. She is brave, she is compassionate, she is driven to do what is right. And unfortunately, there are those in the story who would like to take advantage of those qualities. Well, not quite unfortunate because without other character’s motivations, there would be no story!

I don’t want to go into too much detail because I feel like just about anything I might say would lead into spoiler territory, suffice to say that if you have read Legend or The Young Elites, you will recognize Warcross as another book in Marie Lu’s catalog that is witty and enjoyable with just the right mix of adventure and a little romance. But it’s way better than Legend and The Young Elites and I enjoyed both of those very much.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9780399547966 • 368 pages • published September 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Warcross Website

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Warcross

Fantasy, Fiction, Novella

Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

I completely fell for the cover of this book and I’m a sucker for dark fantasy adaptations. This book (and series) fit the bill quite well.

Synopsis

Once upon a time… in a kingdom far, far away, a handsome prince sets out to find a lost castle, only to discover a city slumbering under a terrible curse, and a beautiful princess who can only be woken by true love’s kiss.

Review

Beauty is a reimagining of a couple of different classic tales, notably Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rumpelstiltskin. It reminds me a great deal of the ABC series, Once Upon a Time in the way that it marries many different tales together into one story. Most of the time, I enjoy such a premise, but as Beauty is more of a novella than a full novel, I found myself thinking there were more characters and stories than Sarah Pinborough really had time to effectively explore.

And that is really the crux of why I didn’t love Beauty as much as I really wanted to, and why it took me far longer than I would have liked to read. Like every good fairy tale, a prince is set off on a quest, in this case to investigate a kingdom that appears to have been swallowed up into a forest. A huntsman is enlisted to help him and along the way they meet Petra (Little Red Riding Hood) and she joins them on the adventure as she senses her destiny lies somewhere on the other side of the densely forested wall. The three make their way into the kingdom and awaken Beauty, a la Sleeping Beauty.

And that’s when things turn decidedly more Grimm. This is not Disney. Beauty is written in the same vein as the original dark and terrible German tales by the brothers Grimm. I liked that things were flipped on their head, but it was far too sudden. I wish there had been fewer characters, fewer fairy tales and more about those that really intrigued me, or that the story had been fleshed out into a full novel and not written as a novella. I finished the book wanted so much more out of it.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $14.95 • 9781783291144 • 208 pages • published May 2015 by Titan Books • average Goodreads rating 3.6 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Sarah Pinborough’s Website

Beauty on Goodreads

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Beauty

Fiction, Science Fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I had wanted to read Station Eleven for quite a while, since I first saw it sitting on a table in a bookstore. I picked it up regularly in stores and contemplated purchasing it before finally doing so two years ago. And then it sat in my to-be-read pile for far too long. So when I decided to start my book club, The Modern Readers, I thought it would be the perfect first book! In starting a book club, I hoped that if I picked the books, I would really want to read them and it wouldn’t feel like required reading… but, confession time, alas, it sort of did feel like required reading – I was flying through most of the second half of the book while half-awake early in the morning a few hours before our first meeting.

1 - October 2015 - Station Eleven

Synopsis

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was also the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves the Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as they story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

Review

Station Eleven was a book I desperately wanted to love. As the first pick for the Modern Readers, I was hoping it would just knock my socks off. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find that I was struggling just to finish it, let alone enjoy it.

I don’t know what exactly was so disappointing about Station Eleven, other than to say all of my fellow book club members seemed to feel similarly. Our overall consensus was that the idea was completely intriguing – a disease decimates most of the population and those who survived must figure out how to survive in this new and unfamiliar world. My problem, specifically, was in the characters. They really just existed in the world and their connections and relationships to each other all felt a bit forced and contrived and didn’t really add to the reader’s understanding of the characters.

There was one big exception to this – Clark, the British friend of the man who started everything, Arthur, the great actor. While Clark is absent for the vast majority of the story, when he does come back into play, his presence is not meant to only draw other story lines together, but we really get some insight into who Clark is as a character – the first and only time we really get any character motivation injected into the story.

Other than a perceived lack of character development, we collectively agreed as a book club that we would have loved to see some of the drawings and pieces of the graphic novel mentioned throughout the story that lends the book it’s title, Station Eleven.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780804172448 • 352 pages • first published September 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in November 2015

Emily St. John Mandel’s Website

Station Eleven on Goodreads

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Station Eleven

Non-Fiction, Poetry

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

I received Milk and Honey as a wedding present over a year ago. Last night I decided I might as well pick it up and see what all the fuss is about. 

Synopsis

this is the journey of
surviving through poetry
this is the blood sweat and tears
of twenty-one years
this is my heart
in your hands
this is
the hurting
the loving
the breaking
the healing

Review

So… I still don’t think I fully understand the obsession. This book has spent over a year as a bestseller at the bookstore, first on the New York Times list, then on the Indie list. Milk and Honey was originally self-published and I will readily admit I am skeptical of anyone who is self-published. Milk and Honey was then picked up by a major publisher, Simon & Schuster, who published the edition that is readily available on the shelves of most bookstores. It’s popularity is even to the point that when people come into the store looking for our poetry section, we immediately ask if they actually want the whole section, or if they’re looking for Milk and Honey.

This is not a book about feminism. This is a book about femininity. There is a HUGE difference between these two terms and one that I think is frequently lost when people start describing this book to each other. One of the few reasons I finally decided to read it after looking at it on the shelf for over a year, was that I had been told yesterday that it was a book that celebrated feminism. While recanting her own experiences with hurt (abuse), love, and heartbreak, Kaur encourages women to love themselves. When, in the last chapter, she attempts to turn to feminism, I take great issue with many of the poems in that chapter, one in particular:

our backs
tell stories
no books have
the spine to
carry

women of color

I’ll let that one sink in for a minute. Rupi Kaur spends pages of poems before that encouraging women to support each other. She looks out for her sisters, her fellow women. And then she includes that poem. Until I read the last line, it was my favorite in the entire book – it was the one that I finally felt I could connect with. Throughout Milk and Honey, Kaur uses that last line (beginning with a hyphen) to indicate the audience of a specific poem, or to guide your thinking towards a particular phrase or point in the poem. And I realized, this particular poem was not for me. I felt like I could not claim to identify with it because I’m a white middle class suburban blonde haired blue eyed young woman.

And then I realized, that yes, this poem must be overwhelmingly true for women of color, particularly in the US and Canada – I cannot begin to understand the differences in their experiences of life here and my own. But I think the power of poetry is for all people, all of Kaur’s “sisters” to find themselves in her words and I believe her last line here is exclusionary. These words rang particularly true of my grandmother, an immigrant from Germany post WWII. These words fit so many immigrants, women who identify as part of the LGBTQI community, victims of abuse, the list can go on and on.

But what it boils down to, is that Rupi Kaur’s poetry made me feel something. It may not have been the feelings she intended – I was angry most of the time I was reading – but the point of poetry is to elicit a feeling, so on that part, well done.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781449474256 • 208 pages • published October 2015 by Andrews McMeel Publishing • average Goodreads rating 4.26 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Rupi Kaur’s Website

Milk and Honey on Goodreads

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Milk and Honey