24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

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Abby Reads: Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman

Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman
Dutton, 2013, 352 pages
Essays

Famed for his work on Parks and Recreation, Nick Offerman pulls together his top life advice for readers in his series of essays, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. With advice that runs from the religious, to the handiwork, to the legal, Offerman’s writing often veers into Ron 17674991Swanson (his character on Parks and Recreation) territory. If you’re wondering what you’re getting into here, Offerman’s book can be boiled down to a few (mildly profane) words: don’t be an ass.

Pushing against this philosophy, however, is the book itself. Often, despite his protests to the contrary, Offerman comes off as pretentious and holier-than-thou, particularly as he discusses religion. He borders on the idea that those who appreciate religion are inherently stupid. Though he argues against this concept and states he can feel the opposite, given those of faith are not pushing their faith on others, many moments had me rolling my eyes at the hypocrisy. If you’re not a fan of folks like Richard Dawkins, who is known for his vitriol against religion, tread carefully.

Offerman’s attitude doesn’t stop at religion, of course. At times, his essays are nothing more than obnoxious manifesto, as if the book’s entire purpose was to give Offerman a space to let off steam. This might work well for readers who already wholeheartedly agree with Offerman on anything and everything, but Offerman isn’t doing much to persuade anyone here. Unfortunately, the topics Offerman touches on are repetitive. Again and again, it’s anti-religion (in some form) and pro-recreational drug use. While I have no concerns about visiting these topics at all, the constant revisiting made Offerman’s book somewhat hollow and bland.

Because Offerman mixes personal stories with opinion essays, he has a tough job of balancing the two in a way that reads naturally and makes sense. Unfortunately, this throws off the pacing of the book as a whole, making it feel entirely longer and slower than is necessary. Still, despite the title of the book, it ends up being more of a memoir than tips and advice on “delicious living.” And still, still, the instruction that does appear is starkly in the vein of Ron Swanson in many ways. This is further highlighted by a prose style that eerily matches Swanson’s speaking patterns, suggesting Offerman either does a significant amount of improv in his acting work or that he’s otherwise influenced by his most famous work in this book. The prose style, then, is okay — but not great.

Paddle Your Own Canoe was marketed for fans of Ron Swanson — the cover alone makes that abundantly clear; yet Offerman fights against the connection throughout his work while pulling together his thoughts on things in a way that isn’t terribly cohesive and is ultimately tiresome. A few moments of humor pop up and Offerman certainly can go on about this and that, but at the end of it, I felt let down.

❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes by Louis Sachar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, 233 pages
Juvenile Fiction

After he is wrongly convicted of shoe theft in Louis Sachar’s Holes, Stanley  Yelnats is sent to a correctional facility known as Camp Green Lake. At the institution, he, along with dozens of other boys his age, are forced to dig precise holes throughout the barren desert. Meanwhile, Image result for holes louis sacharsomething from Camp Green Lake’s past is tickling the current inhabitants and influencing their lives in ways they could never begin to believe. As Stanely builds relationships with the other boys in the camp and begins to learn about the kinds of cruelty adults can bestow, a clever and quiet plot unfolds in fabulous reveals from chapter to chapter.

Despite being a fairly simple novel in many ways, Holes is quietly powerful with not only an incredibly-planned plot, but also with an unusual level of social commentary woven in through example rather than heavy-handedness. One of the most striking examples of this social commentary is Stanley’s conviction. Sachar makes it clear that had Stanley’s family had more money and more able to afford a competent legal team to represent him, he would not have been unjustifiably sent to Camp Green Lake. Stanley learns even more about social justice issues as he enters the camp, where he interacts with boys of color and begins to understand some of the implications of their lives. One awkward step away from this pattern is a description from the narrator, in which boys who are digging holes are described as being racially ambiguous due to the dirt on their faces.

With two plot lines running alongside each other, separate in history but together in consequence, Sachar handles most of the overlapping well. Though this concept could easily be difficult for younger readers to follow, Sachar’s attention to detail, refusal to overwhelm, and commitment to clear connections makes the structure completely accessible for its target audience. A few places marked as chapter breaks can feel jarring, but the overall effect is worth it and it is this feature that makes Holes so unforgettable.

Of course, how the two primary plots came together did not seem quite so impressive for me this time. I’ve both read the book and seen the film Holes. I recall my first reading being entrancing, so I have hope that my original experience holds up today. But knowing exactly how Stanely’s situation would be impacted by Kissin’ Kate Barlow did take some of the magic away from the book.

Sachar’s narrator speaks in a familiar and conversational style that feels entirely natural and fun. Holes has just about everything you could want in terms of literary value. It’s well-planned, engaging, imaginative, unique, and quite a ride. If you haven’t gotten to Holes yet, take a weekend ad get to it — you’ll thank yourself.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017, 528 pages
Young Adult Historical Fantasy

Sent off on a journey across Europe, young bachelor Monty with his friend Percy and sister Felicity (along with an escort for the three) begin an adventure they could never begin to guess in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. Hailed as groundbreaking for its inclusion of a 29283884bisexual male main character and a love interest of color (and a character with a disability), this epic young adult novel touches on many of the successful genres from over the past several years, tied together in a period piece that evokes images of lace and fine brandy.

As an often-lighthearted epic of sorts, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is often fun and rompy. Monty and his companions encounter all sorts of characters as they make their way across Europe and conjure up their own trouble through theft and daring escapes. But each adventure leads to another, leaving the novel feeling a bit long, ultimately, especially as Lee dives into more serious topics such as slavery and homophobia. While both these (and many other challenging topics that are present) are fine and worthy things for literature, their combination with the otherwise explorative and dashing excitement never seems to fit quite right. Instead, these social justice issues come off as heavy-handed and included for the sake of being inclusive. Though certainly intersectionality is important, the handling of it here often makes the plot drag and doesn’t serve the novel well.

Though both Monty and Percy receive a fair bit of development (as do other more secondary and tertiary characters), Monty’s sister Felicity frequently feels like a sort of trope. I’ve since heard that a sequel will follow and develop Felicity further, so I still have hope there, but I was overall disappointed given the attention to other issues in the novel. Felicity’s simplistic stereotype, while perhaps useful for plot purposes, did nothing to improve the cast of characters. Meanwhile, Monty is decidedly unlikable, which was an interesting strategy for this particular novel. Though his selfishness and other undesirable traits are likely rooted in the poor treatment his father passes off to him via  homophobic reasoning, his unlikability and its roots do not make him terribly interesting. Unlikable is always fine for a character if he or she can be made interesting and worth following. The only way to find any sympathy for Monty, aside from how his father treats him, is through Monty’s feelings for Percy. As neither of these things are aspects of his personality and life that he has much control over, it’s difficult to find an entry point to truly cheer for Monty and his success.

Lee has done an incredible amount of research for the finer details in the novel, including various physical artifacts and vocabulary. It is this work that makes the book interesting and, perhaps, worth the time if you’re up for such a tome. With an apparent background in history, Lee makes an impressive amount of work seem easy and seamless.

While The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is, at times, fun and engaging, it was overall too long for my tastes and not up to the hype. Though diversity and inclusion are crucial to modern literature, it was ultimately overbearing here, feeling more like a contest to fit in as much diversity as possible without conscious thought to it. If you enjoy period pieces and don’t mind a bit of slogging through it, you might enjoy The Gentleman’s Guide, but don’t be afraid to put it down if it doesn’t strike you — you won’t miss anything more.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Viking Press, 1962, 214 pages
Fiction

Living with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in a large house in New England as outcasts, Mary Katherine (Merricat) of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is comfortable in her life despite the death of nearly her entire family some six years prior to the events of the novel. When 89724cousin Charles shows up and relentlessly inquires about and comments on the sisters’ financial state, Merricat is reluctant to trust him while Constance is charmed by Charles’s romantic advances. In a story that feels half wrought with horror and half with the stuff of fairy tales, Jackson reveals the creeping underside of the Blackwood family while underscoring the poison that is ostracism.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an enduring work of slow and dripping dread that dawns on the reader as Jackson peels away the layers of the Blackwood family and Merricat as a character. Despite the brevity of the text, the novel provides plenty to dissect. The most interesting of these aspects, I think, is the subtle and fascinating psychological study Jackson does of her characters, which, with the eighteen-year-old as the narrator, focuses on Merricat. Although the novel was published in 1962, Jackson makes incredibly astute observations about mental illnesses we might recognize as something like sociopathy today. Though psychological science had come quite a ways from Freud by this time, Jackson’s sophisticated and subtle depiction of the psyche of the Blackwoods feels years ahead of its time.

Beyond the individual, Jackson also examines society and the psychology of guilt. It’s difficult to discuss this point without giving too much away, but the theme of food returns in a fascinating way again and again throughout the novel, including in instances as a show of repentance. Jackson considers the reason behind the show of guilt and how people feel compelled to seek forgiveness, often, it seems, more for their own sakes and peace of mind rather than for those they’ve done wrong.

All of these philosophies (and certainly there’s far more to digest than what is merely mentioned above) are delivered through Merricat, whose voice is a swift and strong kick in the teeth from the get-go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle’s iconic opening paragraph is a delicious taste of the originality in the articulation to come and its a pleasure to read and reread Merricat’s thoughts in her distinct style.

And what’s more, is Jackson-as-writer manages layers that Merricat-as-narrator likely does not intend. This allows for a slow, sort of subtle story that heightens the spooky mood and ambiguous supernatural elements. To Merricat, this is just her life, but the very exact way in which Jackson tells the story makes the novel a piece of literature with more than enough to ponder upon for days after the reader finishes the novel.

In fact, a couple of weeks after finishing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’m still thinking about it. It’s not a book I feel I understand completely — and even if I read it several more times, I don’t think I could understand it completely: that’s part of what makes it so wonderful. It is a show of mastering storytelling elements that few can even articulate, let alone implement. We Have Always Lived in the Castle left me hungry for more of Merricat and her family, of the world they lived in, and of gothic horror as a whole. While Jackson only gives us a few short pages to inhabit, the story lives well beyond those pages and opens up a reality for readers who wish to be creepily brushed with horror in the most unsettling and realistic way.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: When I’m Old and Other Stories by Gabrielle Bell

When I’m Old and Other Stories by Gabrielle Bell
Alternative Comics, 2003, 128 pages
Graphic Collection

In a collection of short graphic stories called When I’m Old and Other Stories, Gabrielle Bell describes her life and the lives of others with a grungy art style paired with some pretty bizarre text and narratives. Bell explores the idea of imagining herself, as the title suggests, when she is old, as well as a relationship with a grandparent, the effects of alcohol, and more.111263

Throughout When I’m Old and Other Stories, you’ll likely be reminded of a feel of the ‘90’s, though the collection was published in 2003. It features a grungy, sort-of grotesque atmosphere and style that I have always ascribed to what it was like to be a teenager and young adult in the ‘90s (though I only ever got as old as nine in that decade). Though I haven’t seen Daria, I was reminded of the show, albeit in a darker way than I understand Daria to be from what little exposure I’ve had, with each turn of the page. There’s something delightfully disgusting about When I’m Old and Other Stories, and it is perhaps Bell’s absolute rejection of traditional femininity in the work that makes it so.

But this rejection of femininity often felt like a sort of internalized misogyny. The macho sort of attitude her characters carry, particularly combined with these elements of the obscene, the grotesque, the disgusting, makes When I’m Old and Other Stories feel like an outright accusation against feminine women, though there really is no outright statement I saw that actually gets at that point. This, again combined with a vague feeling that Bell is trying to prove herself or make some sort of point — again, something I couldn’t point out specifically in the work, just a general feeling — made the collection a challenge for me.

There is, perhaps, a deeper meaning here that I’m not getting. There may be layers that better define a point that I simply wasn’t willing to work for. But when Bell’s art style is so unremarkable and the text chaotic and, frankly, often seemingly drug-influenced, I didn’t find that I particularly cared. If Bell was not going to put forth an amount of effort I felt appropriate, I was not going to make up the difference. Of course, When I’m Old and Other Stories was published by a micropress — and one named Alternative Comics. It has a zine feel to it, and I suspect that’s by design in some sense. So, perhaps it’s still my failing that I expected more.

One final struggle I encountered: it was never entirely clear to me what in When I’m Old is autobiographical, what is fiction, what is a mix of the two, and so on. The title would suggest all autobiography, but some elements were too fantastical to be real and some stories conflicted in one way or another. Though Bell’s glimpse into the future in “When I’m Old” is likely some sort of autobiography (an interesting question — can we write autobiographies of our futures?), other stories are far less clear, like “Amy Was a Babysitter.” (The Amazon description seems to clear up this confusion, but the autobiographical influence and degree to which it’s present is still unclear.)

The book is a quick read if you, like I, don’t care to dive too much into it and assume Bell is speaking only on the surface here. It somehow feels significant, but it’s not especially entertaining — rather, it’s depressing in places, which is fine but not for me. I’ll reference more work I haven’t personally engaged with but felt tickling the back of my brain as I read this: Broad City and Girls and, perhaps even Portlandia (which I have seen a bit of). I wondered if When I’m Old and Other Stories represented a sort of prototype for these shows, which I imagine to be depictions of women as human. The difference is When I’m Old is far less commercialized, and perhaps, then, more true to its content.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #21, “Read a book published by a micropress,” and I leave it behind with two hearts.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Random House, 1970, 192 pages
Juvenile Fiction

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume encounters Margaret, a young girl who has moved with her parents from New York City to the suburbs and is beginning to question what it is to be religious and what it is to be a woman. With crossover between her personal religious life and her new social circle, Margaret finds tension in her parents’ relationships with their own parents as well as neighborhood friends and 37732their older brothers. Blume asks important questions about what religion means to the unindoctrinated religious explorers and what it means to be a young girl growing up in America.

Prior to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I had never picked up a Judy Blume novel. Where I admittedly expected some level of innocence and naivete (this was published in 1970! Certainly those were simpler times. No? Well, another discussion for another day), I found a great deal of honesty and challenging topics wrapped up in a beautifully simple narrative and prose. Without a complicated plot, Margaret is left to ponder the wonders of the world and the universe, leaving plenty of questions unanswered for young readers to think on themselves. Despite the natural complexity of religion and puberty (and what a combination!), Blume makes both simple and accessible for her young target audience.

What was especially impressive was Blume’s dedication to making the depiction of Margaret and her friends one of the truest I’ve seen of young girls’ friendships. A particular scene in which Margaret’s group of friends determine rules for their friend group stuck out as especially familiar to me, despite the absurdity of it. I, too, could recall sitting down with friends, notebooks in hand, to place arbitrary rules on our group about boys, communication, and other relevant aspects of our lives. (As an aside, from a professional perspective, I can now tell you that this type of play is in preparation for adulthood, which is pretty neat and makes Blume’s work here even more impressive. As Margaret and her friends are on the verge of experiencing puberty, they are also mentally practicing their adult lives through these exercises. Interesting!)

Similarly realistic, if perhaps slightly underdeveloped, is Margaret’s secret crush. These new feelings that develop within her are scary in some ways, so they’re largely ignored until they can’t be. Even when the crush cannot be ignored, Margaret tiptoes around it, creating a delicious sort of tension that will entice readers to read on.

Meanwhile, though the book is written for older children and younger teens, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret can easily be enjoyed by adults. Plenty of the subtleties of Margaret’s life (to which she does not catch on) are fascinating to watch play out in various ways. Where adults will be savvy about the implications and consequences of various events, Margaret is often oblivious beyond some surface information. This is not Margaret being stupid, either, but it highlights a compelling piece of childhood that we often forget. That said, there were moments and a general feeling of lack of development — while the book remains completely accessible, its deeper symbolism and meaning are really not so deep at all, which might leave something to be desired for readers who prefer to do a little more thoughtful work.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret only takes a couple of hours to read and is a fun experience. Glittering scenes with her grandmother make for a unique piece to an already-important story. Whether you’re religious or not, this novel provides a nice look at what it can mean for some and where sometimes, meaning falls short.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Abrams ComicArts, 2012, 240 pages
Graphic Memoir

If you have any interest in true crime — and even if you don’t — you’ve heard of the infamous cannibalistic serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Though Dahmer was quite young when he was killed in prison (thirty-four years old), his murder spree mostly occurred in the later years in his life. This leaves the mystery 12959045of what Dahmer was like prior to giving into his fatal temptations. Who was child Dahmer? Who was high school student Dahmer? Former classmate John Backderf, writing under the name Derf Backderf, reveals what he witnessed in Dahmer prior to the serial killer’s crimes. With a gloomy graphic format, in My Friend Dahmer Backderf provides an interesting look into the history and mind of Dahmer with painstaking research and deep dedication.

Backderf supplies both the text and art for this graphic memoir that borders on a graphic biography of sorts. Although Dahmer, even in his teen years, was mostly closed off from his peers (largely, it would seem, as a self-imposed mechanism), Backderf and a small group of others got to know Dahmer casually as a sort of class clown with a drinking problem and an unsatisfactory home life in midwest America. The dinginess of the 1970s reflected in his artwork, Backderf works with a muddy palette that serves to heighten the sense of suffocation Dahmer was apparently feeling in his teen years. While the color scheme works well to influence the mood of the story, the drawing style often felt bulky and somehow unserious, which was much less fitting to the narrative.

Still, Backderf writes with a voice that is a bit melancholy and thoughtful. Both the language and sentence structure contributes to a sense of impending doom. He frequently asks himself the what-ifs while acknowledging that despite any events in high school, the grim future had Dahmer stuck on a path to destruction. Even as readers know how Dahmer will turn out, they reach for his salvation, prior to his first murder. Backderf is careful to differentiate Dahmer pre-murder and post-murder, noting that while pre-murder Dahmer deserves sympathy for his wretched home and school life (and general mental health), post-murder Dahmer has made a conscious choice and can no longer receive sympathy.

Because of the distance between Dahmer and his small group of “friends,” Backderf must rely on loads of research to get the story as accurate as possible. This means plenty of gaps, too, but with a detailed explanation of his methods following the narrative, Backderf is surprising with the amount of care he put into depicting Dahmer’s earlier life. Using newspaper articles, books, court documents, yearbooks, and memories from other acquaintances (which he nearly always insisted there must be two of each event to qualify for inclusion), the amount of work Backderf sunk into this project is admirable. It pays off with an intimate look at teenage Dahmer unavailable elsewhere and totally unique. However, the missing details only Dahmer can share, particularly about specific mental states and the why of it all does make for a work that feels incomplete. In fact, Backderf leaves nearly everything following Dahmer’s first murder off of the narrative. While he briefly discusses reactions to Dahmer’s arrest and certainly references the murders to come, these events are never truly explored. If you’re looking for something that is truly true crime, My Friend Dahmer is not the book to go with.

My Friend Dahmer is an interesting, if sometimes frustrating for the necessary separation between narrator and subject, work that is unlike any other. Backderf is incredibly thoughtful, both on his own feelings and Dahmer’s life. Introspective and marveling, the story reaches into many places many of us want to visit but are often unable to access. Though some of those places remain inaccessible in this graphic memoir, My Friend Dahmer is a worthwhile read for anyone into all things murder and psychology.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, 2016, 368 pages
Realistic Fiction

Beginning at the end of Charles Wang’s beauty industry fortune, The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang follows four-fifths of the remaining Wang family on a road trip across the country to older sister Saina in New York. When Charles Wang loses his money thanks to a nation-wide The Wangs vs the World by Jade Changfinancial collapse, he gathers his wife Barbra, his younger daughter Grace, and his son Andrew before embarking on a trip which will reveal the priorities and desires of each character. A backdrop of a crushed American Dream sets the stage for this Chinese-American family while characters continue to grapple with the death of Charles’s first wife, now dead for many years.

It’s no surprise The Wangs vs. the World got as much praise as it did when it came out. Though Chang is an already-established journalist, this debut novel gets at the heart of first-generation life and the pressures the idea of America held against the country’s inhabitants — particularly immigrants. While I am not Asian myself, I recognized a lot of Chang’s stories from family stories my Chinese-American partner has shared with me. This prompted a lot of interesting introspection on my part, and opened a world that was somewhat new to me.

Chang’s characters are highly individualized, each dealing with their family’s downfall differently, or not at all. This high level of development is necessary to propel the prose forward as the novel is primarily literary fiction, and one that focuses on how an event impacts a group of people rather than how a group of people enact a plot. Like lots of literary fiction, The Wangs vs. the World does feel slow at times. With chapters alternating perspectives, still in the third-person, the novel sometimes struggles to keep an even rhythm with interruptions to reconnect with characters that have been ignored in favor of others and some characters carrying more weight than others. Chang, however, has something for everyone; one character might be supplementary for one person, but totally central to another. For example, Chang’s depiction of Charles’s second wife, Barbra, often felt secondary to me as we are such opposite people in every way imaginable. However, Barbra could easily find identification in the many women like her who read the book. Meanwhile, I found more connection with the three children of the story (Saina, Andrew, and Grace — all at different stages in their emerging adult lives), whose lives are more similar to my own.

While each character has a struggle that is specific to them outside of their shared collapse, Saina’s is perhaps the most disappointing. Though her career as an artist also seems to be in trouble, it is her challenges with men in her life that take the spotlight. Despite her otherwise successful adult life, Saina cannot get around the difficulties these men present her, seemingly feeling incomplete without them. Barbra, however, is just the opposite. Although readers might expect a particular mode of operation from the children’s stepmother, they may well be surprised by Barbra’s personality when it is revealed in full. Her complexity is easily one of the most interesting pieces of The Wangs vs. the World.

On top of examining individuals, Chang uses The Wangs vs. the World to inspect family relationships, particularly in the specific Chinese-American cultural context which offers pressures that are different from other cultures.

Ultimately, The Wangs vs. the World is a fascinating study of a myriad of things, juggled wonderfully by Jade Chang. Despite some moments of jerky pacing, the overall novel is definitely worth the read, even for those who typically stay away from literary and character-driven fiction.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #24, “Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color,” and I leave it behind with three hearts.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood
Sourcebooks Fire, 2016, 304 pages
YA Fiction

 

Full disclosure: I work with Jessica Spotswood. I wasn’t coerced into reading her work; it was something that would have interested me anyway. My thoughts here are my own and have no bearing on Jessica as a person, who is lovely. Onward!

After seventeen years without her mother, Ivy is beginning really to feel the pressure of her foremothers’ legacies. For generations, the Milbourn women have left behind amazing works of art in one form or another only to die young in Jessica Spotswood’s Wild Swans. On the coast of Virginia, Ivy struggles Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswoodwith her grandfather’s encouragement to build her writing portfolio while finding new companionship in his favorite student (Connor) and fighting against the assumed romantic entitlement of the boy with whom she grew up (Alex). Meanwhile, her mother returns with her two half-sisters, only her sisters don’t know exactly who she is.

Wild Swans is quietly and realistically feminist, with plenty to consider in terms of fate, self-determination, and taking charge. Though Ivy is not a strictly active character, her power appears in other ways and her thoughtfulness adds to her as a person and to her narrative. Much of Ivy’s development comes through her introspection. She’s incredibly mature and self-aware, which leads directly from her upbringing and grandfather’s role in her life. Spotswood’s characterization of each person is touched with a heavy dose of realism: many characters are paradoxical in their actions and speech, all characters are nuanced, and their interactions with and influences on each other clearly have an impact as relationships do in real life.

Connor is, in some ways, slightly cliched. He occasionally falls into the poet-boy trope, with tattoos and a coolness that many of the other characters find slightly off-putting. But in many other ways, he’s refreshing and real: Spotswood carefully handles Connor as a complete foil to Alex, which helps to reinforce the feminist message of not oweing a sexual or romantic relationship to anyone, regardless of how long a couple of people have been friends.

Spotswood’s story is wrapped up in excellent prose, too. Despite having a rather quiet plot, the book moves quickly with language that isn’t overly long but still exact. Ivy, as a narrator, is able to communicate quite a bit of context without going overboard. She’s concise and uses fairly simple language, but the quality and clarity of the plot, setting, situation, and beyond are not sacrificed for it. The quiet plot, however, also ends quietly. By the end of Ivy’s story, little seems to have truly changed. A few more beats might have tied things up in a more satisfying way, but this might have cost the novel its deep sense of realism, which in some ways feels more valuable.

If you’re looking for something that’s steady and fleshy but not overwhelmingly heavy or dark (though there’s darkness in Wild Swans, to be sure), Wild Swans could be a great next pick for you. It’s a quick read that delivers on balanced emotion and subtlety, well worth the couple of days you’ll spend with it. Whether you’re in on a rainy evening or enjoying the sun’s rays on the beach, give Wild Swans a shot — you just might find something in yourself that will surprise you.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Witch Child by Celia Rees

Witch Child by Celia Rees
Candlewick, 2000, 288 pages
YA Historical Fiction

After her grandmother is accused of and executed for witchcraft, young Mary is left to fend for herself in Celia Rees’s Witch Child. A mysterious woman collects Mary following her grandmother’s execution advises Mary to make a journey to the New World and start a new life there. With the means to do 803120so and nothing left for her in England, Mary strikes out across the sea. But the suspicions which plagued her grandmother follow her and the relationships she fosters across the community aren’t helping to assuage any fears in her town.

Told in a sort of diary format, Witch Child details its narrator’s life with quite a bit of detail, often straying to the mundane aspects of the characters’ lives even as they make a perilous and fraught journey across the sea and develop a new community from scratch. With Mary being a rather passive character who says little but observes frequently, her narrative is somewhat uneventful. While the potential for much is there — and certainly, action happens in subtle ways — little actually seems to happen on the page that is capable of holding the reader’s attention. The prose is fairly aimless, as real diaries often are, and makes for slow and sometimes frustrating progress.

The conflict around Mary and her relationship with her mother is compelling. Much of it is an enigma, and perhaps it is the lack of information Mary gives about the backstory and what else she learns along the way that makes it especially intriguing, but in a book that is otherwise fairly devoid of riveting narrative, this plot point feels like a missed opportunity. Beyond the first quarter or so of the novel, Mary barely considers her mother or the lack of her mother’s presence, even as she is surrounded by women giving birth, it seems, and families. While another woman steps in to play the role of mother in Mary’s life, this relationship never quite passes as the same thing and, in fact, the woman in this role seems to fade in and out of the narrative. This, I think, is again typical and realistic for the diary format in which the novel is written, but it means potentially interesting thematic elements are, at best, weak.

In another show of dedication to realism, Mary meets many, many people on her journey. As several of them are beholden to Puritanical ideals and their primarily personality traits are condemning those who are different from them, telling each apart can be a challenge. This is especially difficult when the pace of the story moves slowly and the narrative offers few moments of conflict or action to hook the reader’s attention and give them a reason to keep track of so many names.

While I expected something atmospheric and witchy (that cover!), or something similar to Ann Rinaldi’s A Break with Charity, what I got was something rather disappointing. Bland with probably an abundance of subtlety I was too lazy to pick up on, Witch Child was not the late-October kind of read I was looking for when I slogged through it. Mary’s lack of personality and adherence to quiet inaction makes the novel a tough one to be excited about while the strict realism reinforces monotony (real life is boring: that’s why I read). Witch Child is probably one you can skip, but it might be worth the money just for that stunning cover.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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