24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: 3.5 hearts (page 1 of 2)

Abby Reads: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
HarperTeen, 2015, 272 pages
Fantasy Graphic Novel

With the ability to shapeshift and a great admiration for Lord Ballister Blackheart, Nimona has decided it’s time to be a sidekick. Though her origins are hazy, Nimona will not be denied by Blackheart and she eventually wears him down by taking what she wants and showing up to work against the Institute of Law Enforcement alongside Blackheart. With each battle, Nimona wreaks havoc on Blackheart’s plans but there’s something in Nimona that tugs at Blackheart and perhaps something nefarious going on at the Institute of Law Enforcement. With a mash-up of medieval times and science fiction, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson is a highly original adventure that is far more than it first appears to be.

One of the impressive things about Nimona is that the story is far more complex than I can get into in a review. There are backstories, lies, hidden identities, layers of loyalty, and all sorts of plot subtleties that round out the story as a whole and complete narrative. With an ending that isn’t entirely conclusive, Stevenson leaves readers with the ability to insert their own ending, but not at the cost of the readers feeling lost or unfulfilled.

Another of Nimona’s strengths is its dedication to humor. The stark visual contrast between Nimona, who is short, pudgy, and pink-haired, to the tall, thin, dark-haired Blackheart is enough to make readers giggle to start, but the real gems come in the form of dialog. Nimona, a chronic over-reactor, regularly spurts lines of hilarity that are not, from her perspective, intended to be funny, but are amusing nonetheless. Stevenson’s skill in employing humor in a story that is so complex might remind some readers of Vonnegut, despite the radically different format. Readers won’t just smile from humor, however; Nimona is ultimately a story of heart and courage. The brand of courage in the graphic novel is more of a surety of oneself rather than, say, Men in Black courage of defeating aliens (although, if you liked Men in Black, you will also very much enjoy Nimona, I think). The book is immensely heartwarming at every turn, though particularly in scenes that feature Nimona and Blackheart alone.

Each character is carefully crafted with their own motivations, desires, backstories, and visual design that both serve to mirror and contradict their personalities. Stevenson succeeds a great deal in playing characters off one another, creating a sense of chemistry that is hard to find in other narratives. With the depth of each character, no relationship can afford to be truly superficial, even in instances of acquaintances.

Nimona is highly relevant for today — the attempt at diversity (which seems to be an excellent and still-emerging theme in media more and more) is evident (the story features a female lead who is decidedly not traditionally feminine outside of her pink hair, a woman in the ultimate seat of power, gay secondary characters, and a secondary character with a prosthetic limb — and not only this, but the primary relationship featured in the story is not of the romantic, or even friend (arguably), variety). Characters of color are few and far between and socioeconomic status appears to be a non-issue in many ways, so there are gaps, but Nimona remains one of the most overtly diverse pieces of fiction I’ve encountered in a while.

The relevance does not end at diversity, however. The politics of Nimona’s world are strikingly similar to what we see in many modern governments — a lack of trust between the government (or, more specifically, the Institute of Law Enforcement — the acronym of which you might notice could be anagrammed to the word “lie” — yeah, maybe I’m pushing it here, but still) and the people of its domain features heavily, though ultimately, the government is not acting on the best interests of the people.

Great for teens and adults alike, Nimona is a fresh take on old tropes that is both fun and thought-provoking (and hilarious). Stevenson’s work on the project was clearly done with loads of love and planning, and, from someone, you’ll remember, who isn’t huge on graphic novels, it comes recommended with four hearts.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
McClelland & Stewart, 1985, 311 pages
Dystopian Fiction

As a handmaid, Offred’s life is monotonous. She spends most of her days in the home of those who own her or around town with Ofglen, shopping for the needs of her household. With flashbacks to how the oppressive world of Gilead (modern-day Maine-area) came to be, Offred is only safe in her imagination until she begins to put small amounts of trust in those around her, including the Commander; his wife, Serena Joy; Nick; and Ofglen. Perhaps even those upholding the military dictatorship under which the characters live want something more. But Offred The Handmaid's Tale by [Atwood, Margaret]must first decide if she’s willing to find out at the cost of her life.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic, and there’s no denying that. As it happens, the book is resurging as an important piece of literature as many readers see similarities between the book and our current and future state as a country and as a government. Literature is powerful.

It’s fortunate, as it turns out, that so many are reading it at once. There are plenty of discussions going on about the book and, while I haven’t yet sought any out myself, it’s to the book’s benefit. I was certain as I read the novel that I would have gotten a much better sense of a variety of angles Atwood approaches had I had the opportunity to discuss the book in a classroom or even book club setting. Atwood is no stranger to literary allusions, and I know I missed more than a few in this novel. While many biblical nods are easy to pull out, Atwood no doubt includes many others to works with which I both am and am not familiar. This is not, of course, a shortcoming of the book — in fact, I admire books which handle allusions with skill and subtlety. Instead, it’s a shortcoming of myself and my reading environment.

Atwood writes the book with a first person narrator in the present tense, which requires the reader to continue guessing Offred’s (the narrator) end. With so many authors choosing first-person narration to aid in the surprise of the death of a character, readers might wonder if Offred is approaching her earthly end. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t yet read the book, but this first-person present narration is an interesting choice beyond just the fate of the narrator due to a final chapter in the novel.

Juggling a military dictatorship, a past, a present, and the philosophical feminist ideology throughout the text, Atwood does run into an issue of ambition — maybe. Offred’s descriptions of characters and their personalities beyond the Commander and the caricature of Serena Joy are limited. I never fully felt I got a grasp on any of the characters’ true personalities. I’m caught, however, between believing this was a point for improvement in the novel or if it was deliberate, showing how not only Offred attempts to protect identities from her apparent disobedience at recording her story at all, but also how the regime has forced people into limited displays of their true selves. This isn’t to say that each character is entirely flat — for the most part, they differ from each other and are individuals, just not to the extent I would expect given the skill in craft in other areas.

The same issue occurs with the worldbuilding. While readers do not get a full tour of Gilead and the world beyond Offred’s immediate space in any sense, perhaps this was deliberate. Offred, in her reality, may believe anyone accessing the material she creates is already familiar with Gilead, and so there is no motivation to describe the nuances of the world and make it real (I think of Harry Potter, of course, and the relatively inconsequential Diagon Alley, of which I know far more than even I know about the whole of Gilead). So, unintentional, or deliberate? I can’t say.

Atwood does accomplish a great deal with tension. With strength in syntax and, yes, withholding information, the prose creates an atmosphere that urges the reader onward with a great deal of discomfort, not unlike a great horror movie. Although few moments in the book are truly exciting, the almost-there is what does it for most scenes, the what-ifs and if-only Offred did this or that and oh, she is so close to doing it. The psychology within the novel is projected into the reader’s mind and veins, amping up with every page and bringing it to a crescendo toward the end.

And by the end, we are left with only ourselves to look at.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #16, “Read a book that banned or frequently challenged in your country,” and I leave it behind with three-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2016, 640 pages
YA Fantasy

Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Mist and Fury follows up on A Court of Thorns and Roses (SPOILERS ahead for A Court of Thorns and Roses). For those who read the first in the series, you might feel like the book concluded the narrative enough to not warrant a sequel — the great thing about the sequel, however, is that it turns everything of Thorns and Roses on its head. I’ve struggled with Maas’s work. I wasn’t a big fan of Throne of Glass and gave up sixty pages into the sequel the first time. But reading Thorns and Roses and its sequel convinced me to revisit the Throne of Glass series (and so far, I’m pretty glad for it, even if I still don’t love it). Mist and Fury picks up as Tamlin goes about protecting his lands from various evil forces. With Feyre still living in his castle, Tamlin determines to keep Feyre inside at all times, for the sake of her safety — this, despite Feyre being an accomplished and capable hunter, proven on multiple occasions. Honoring the deal he made with her in Thorns and Roses, Rhys shows up as Feyre makes her way down the aisle at her and Tamlin’s wedding to pluck her from Tamlin’s court and bring her to his for the week. As Feyre is passed between the two courts, Rhys notices the wear Feyre begins to show as a result of Tamlin’s control.

One of the biggest achievements of Mist and Fury is, from my perspective, its complexity. While I generally don’t love overly-political high fantasy, I think Maas strikes a pretty good balance with this series, including enough politics to make the plot plausible but not so much so as to drown the readers in policy, diplomacy, and other red tape. It is complex enough that I can’t easily add it in the summary above, but suffice to say, new players and old players come into antagonistic roles that could destroy more than just Feyre’s life. And it makes for a fascinating read.

Like most books with plenty of politics, however, there’s a whole lot of build-up involved with subtle plot turns which later become more significant with context. Except for a few exciting moments (Rhys’s appearance at the wedding being one — really, any scene with Rhys made for good entertainment; Feyre so seldom interacts with anyone due to her practical imprisonment, that really any appearance by anyone made things more interesting), the first three-hundred pages are slow. But by the end of the book, I was fangirling harder than I have in years. We’re talking approaching-Harry-Potter levels of fangirling. It was great.

Back to Rhys. Maas is an author who you can see takes criticism seriously and works to rectify it in her future writing. Characters in Mist and Fury, but especially Rhys, are developed with not just layers, but layers that make sense and tie into each character’s history and their relationships with each other. Fine subtleties in character are sprinkled throughout the book and each choice, from the way a character holds their fork to the way a character chooses to scream or not to scream in anguish in battle, is fantastically deliberate. It’s evident that Maas plans very carefully, and follows characters’ development not just in the immediate moment, but in their past and future.

I do think the exception here is Feyre. Feyre still winds up being somewhat bland and trite as far as (fantasy) female first-person narrators/main characters go. Feyre’s painting hobby comes back into play, slightly (though still not enough to warrant such a cliché, in my opinion). Even her hobby aside, Feyre does not have an extraordinary amount of personality. While her sisters, who appear in only a few scenes, feel far more real, readers can’t get a full look at Feyre beyond maybe-tough-girl who hunts and paints and is stubborn. But these traits are portrayed with superficial passages most readers will find familiar to many other similarly designed characters in other novels. Maybe this is a trait in and of itself: Feyre cannot accurately portray her own personality through her first-person narration. The series conclusion, which will be out in May, I suspect will give readers more insight on this issue.

Whatever Feyre’s deal, I’m eager for the final book, A Court of Wings and Ruin. Not only does the ominous title make me reach for the May release date, but with the amount of fangirling that went on in the final moments of Mist and Fury (really, Feyre doesn’t have more character than she does in those final moments — wow), I can only imagine what the grand finale will feel like.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Maud by Melanie Fishbane

Maud by Melanie Fishbane
Penguin Teen, 2017, 400 pages
YA Biographical Fiction

I received this eBook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Maud will be available for purchase April 25, 2017 (today!).

Before L. M. Montgomery was the best-selling author of Anne of Green Gables and other works, she was a young woman living on Prince Edward Island. Drawing from Montgomery’s journals, letters, and other artifacts, Melanie Fishbane brings Montgomery to life in her biographically-inspired work of fiction, Maud. Beginning in her early teen years on Prince Edward Island, Maud takes its title character on a journey to the west and on a journey to adulthood. As she encounters family relations, friendships, and romantic entanglements, Maud learns about herself and what it will take to become who she wishes to be.

Although the story is in the third person, Fishbane employs a prose style similar to what was common in Montgomery’s time. The language is simple and carries an innocent air along with it, helping to build the slow, small-town scene which Maud inhabits. This sometimes causes the plot to crawl at a pace that seems slower than necessary, which is only emphasized by a plot structure that heavily relies on thickly-characterized individuals. Fishbane’s attention to the detail of each character makes each evolution fascinating to watch. Maud’s relationship with Will, her second love interest, is particularly fascinating as Will’s demeanor is more mature than most other teenage characters in the story and, while Maud regularly compares him to her first love, the circumstances of the relationship among other things makes whatever love triangle that might exist seem fresh and new.

Aside from the usual relationship woes many teenagers face, Maud is also in conflict with her future and those around her who wish to stifle any chance she has at the future she wants. Though Fishbane’s approach to this central conflict makes it seem more true to life, it’s not clear until the very end whether Maud’s desire to write or to teach is the true conflict. While she wants both and anyone at all familiar with Montgomery knows how her writing desires turn out, which is the primary want is ambiguous until the conflict is solved.

Another conflict, this one relational, is Maud’s experience with her step-mother. As if out of a fairy tale, Maud finds her step-mother to be over-demanding, cruel, and selfish. There are moments of light and kindness in the new Mrs. Montgomery’s personality, but this is one conflict that is never resolved and Fisbane refrains from speculating on the why, for the most part. Is Mrs. Montgomery jealous of the attention her husband affords his daughter? Is she simply prickly from pregnancy hormones? Is there some other issue stemming from the nearness in the two women’s ages that is causing a problem? The root of Mrs. Montgomery’s attitude toward Maud is never truly explained and, while certainly in reality Maud may never have discovered the reason, a fictional narrative of her life is the perfect place to at least make some leading guesses.

Maud is, overall, charming. Though the writing style is perhaps more appropriate for a younger audience than the audience who would find interest in the novel’s content, it’s a wonderful way to incorporate Maud’s personality and to articulate the lifestyle Maud and her contemporaries experienced. Fishbane’s research is evident throughout the book, creating a mostly-satisfying
presentation of Montgomery’s life and leaving readers with a hunger for more, whether of Maud herself or the results of her work.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah Maas
Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2015, 448 pages
YA Fantasy

Feyre, a human in a world that is not our own, hates faeries. When she happens across one in wolf-form in the woods while hunting for her family, she kills it. Before long, a faerie comes to collect her as she’s violated the treaty with her murder. Her captor, Tamlin, is High Lord of the Spring Court and will keep her for an undetermined time. While Feyre learns about the way of the faeries just over the border, she also learns they are perhaps not so evil as she has been led to believe. Although she still must fulfill the treaty’s consequences, Feyre finds Tamlin to be forgiving as he restores her family’s wealth and protects her from the antagonistic forces of Amarantha and her consort, Rhys, who has taken an interest in Feyre himself.

I shouldn’t be writing this review. I know too much!

Without spoiling too much, I’ll say the following: the sequel to this novel, A Court of Mist and Fury, will completely change how you interpret A Court of Thorns and Roses. You may pick up inklings of how a certain character really isn’t as moral as they ought to be, but you won’t realize the extent of it until A Court of Mist and Fury. I had a lot of complaints about Maas’s Throne of Glass series, which didn’t feel well set-up (or, if it is, the payoff is too slow and not worth the work to get there), but this series blows that away easily.

The fun thing about Thorns and Roses is that it’s in many ways a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” And it’s especially fun because Tamlin and Feyre take turns in each role. Fan theories have suggested that Feyre’s lack of love for other beings (read: faeries) makes her beastly and her journey from beast to beauty is illustrated through her journey from illiterate to literate. It’s interesting stuff and, whether or not Maas intended it, creates a layer of literary-fiction-level-writing (at least for a young adult fantasy) that isn’t present in Throne of Glass.

This type of writing is highlighted by the many, many problematic characters. No one character in this series is perfect (and the ones that supposedly are, are actually flawed because of their perfection). It makes character development absolutely fascinating, even when the plot gets a little flimsy or over-burdened with politics and details from time to time. The characters are not just interesting on their own, however, but each relationship (be it romantic, friendship, or foes), has an exciting element of chemistry I haven’t seen in a fantasy or any novel in a while. It’s electric and really sets apart this novel from others. Perhaps one of the most interesting relationships is that of the Archeron sisters. Feyre, along with Nesta and Elain, create a trio that are strongly different and with dissonant motivations and emotions which heightens the way Feyre interacts with others.

But, okay, the novel wasn’t perfect. Amarantha’s name grated on me. The prose and plot were slow in points, bogged down with irrelevant information that hardly served as a red herring. Feyre’s thing is painting which is just so trite (and, I’ll admit, it does have a sort-of purpose in A Court of Mist and Fury but I’m still not thrilled about it).

It’s nice to get drawn into a heavy fantasy novel once in a while, and this one did the trick. I’m genuinely looking forward to the third book due out in May to discover Feyre’s fate and the rest of the — well, no spoilers here.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: All the Rage by Courtney Summers

All the Rage by Courtney Summers
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016, 336 pages
Young Adult Fiction

With many, many brave young women coming forward to share their stories of sexual assault, Courtney Summers’ All the Rage certainly finds extreme relevance in the lives of young adult readers. Romy, living in a small town where the wealthy get away with what they will and she struggles to get by after her trauma, is one such girl. But after bringing her story to people in authority, the town turns on her. Left with remnants of relationships and the gentle heart of a boy at work, Romy is shocked when an old friend goes missing. Already condemned for coming forward, Romy prepares to once again confront the actions of her assaulter with the hope of preventing more sexual violence.

Summers craftily moves Romy about in a timeline, back and forth with sleight of prose to place the reader in a confused and unsteady mindset. With flashbacks that may or may not be flashbacks and history repeating itself, the story does not always move in a linear fashion, but rather
keeps the reader grasping for one anchor or another to determine the order of events. As frustrating as this is — especially if you’re reading this over a long period of time or reading other books concurrently — it has a significant hand in setting the tone and mood for the book, which might
not otherwise pack quite the punch that it does. Readers are with Romy, not just in her story, but in her emotional journey from chaotic trauma to control.

While the book does have a little bit of a thriller angle to it, the treatment of sexual assault is overall sensitive, if gritty. Fairly graphic depictions may deter some readers, but the novel remains an important work for those of us wondering what we can do to better support survivors of sexual assault. Summers creates a rich and realistic world as she handles layers of intersection in the lives of Romy and those who know her. Poverty is clearly an issue in her hometown, as is racism, which we see with Romy’s black sort-of-boyfriend (and his awesome dentist sister, who is miles away from any stereotypes I could think of — yay!). The book deals with privilege from so many different angles, but it never feels bogged down with it. This can be a great opportunity to start conversations for readers who might not know where to start on such topics.

Characters are breathed into fully with symbolic quirks that pull them from the page and onto the couch next to you. Romy’s continuing theme of nail polish as a sort of armor helps outline her character in a way that, while perhaps a bit overdone, is absolutely clear. The same is true for her mother’s boyfriend and all other characters throughout the novel.

All the Rage isn’t perfect. Its excessively unclear at times and can be a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism, but as a piece on a topic that is difficult to discuss and even more difficult to experience, Summers’ novel doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of humans. Summers successfully makes the topic real for those who haven’t experienced it and spurs them to action while providing a tale of strength in the face of vulnerability and pain for those who have.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012, 320 pages
Juvenile Fiction

I want to start this review by noting that Wonder by R. J. Palacio is problematic. I acknowledge that and I’ll get into it, but before I do, you need some context. Wonder begins with Auggie, a ten-year-old born with a severe facial deformity. When he agrees to attend school with the encouragement of his family (who had, up until this point, home-schooled him), Auggie encounters the cruelties of the world in the form of bullying (harassment, really) and misunderstanding. The book turns its point of view over to various people in Auggie’s life, giving them each the opportunity not only to talk about themselves but also their relationship to Auggie and the effect Auggie and his deformity have on their lives.

I think, already, you can see some of the issues with this book. Palacio admits in supplemental material in the edition I read that she does not have a facial deformity. In fact, the inspiration for Wonder came from her own humiliation at seeing a child in a park with a deformity and how she responded. You can read about that on her website. The moral of Wonder is kindness. And, obvious spoiler: Auggie overcomes his bullies

through kindness and the like and is essentially given an award for being a decent human being while others were not so decent to him (massive understatement). In many ways, Wonder is inspiration porn (learn more about that here). Like many of the other problematic material I’ve discussed on this blog, I’m not in a position to comment a whole lot here as I am able-bodied. (Additionally, if you are a member of this community and I’ve used outdated or offensive terms or have otherwise not spoken well here, please do let me know so I can fix it!)

What I can comment on is the book as a book and its merits and shortcomings as a piece of literature. So let’s move to that with the previous paragraph in mind (and work toward better representation in all art forms — one more aside, this kind of art is out there. It’s largely a matter of publication companies being willing or unwilling to, y’know, publish it. The way to show them we want this material is to buy it. So do that. Or check it out from your library. That’s important, too.)

Although I’d heard the hype about Wonder prior to reading it, I was not aware that it was told from multiple points of view. In fact, I didn’t know until I turned to the last page of Auggie’s first section in the book to find a new narrator. I admire Palacio’s commitment to creating distinct voices for each of the narrators in the book, but ultimately found there were too many narrators and certainly not enough narrators with sufficient consequence to warrant their appearance as a narrator. Palacio’s use of different narrators does provide a unique and, at some points, powerful move toward demonstrating empathy, but this achievement is overshadowed by the simple overwhelm of points of view.

The multiple-narrator strategy is only one thing that makes this book challenging. Though marketed toward older children (Amazon recommends ages 8 through 12), the book avoids overly simplistic vocabulary and sentence structure. This is where, I think, the book gets a lot of its appeal for adults. Palacio never talks down to her readers, but instead uses dialogue and monologue in such a way that is realistic, which helps to heighten the real-life importance of the overall message of kindness. This realism has the drawback of slowing the book down. Readers must be invested in the characters (perhaps, in part, hence the many narrators) if they want to be at all invested in the book. Indeed, Wonder is much more literary fiction for children than it is your average plot-driven work due to the focus on its characters and their development.

The movie for Wonder is scheduled to come out in 2017. I have my reservations due to what I’ve discussed above (in addition to casting an actor without a facial deformity as Auggie and certainly, I’m sure, other things as we get closer to the release will reveal), but with Daveed Diggs playing English teacher Mr. Browne, I might have to give it a try when it appears on Netflix.

 

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins
Broadway Books, 2014, 304 pages
Non-Fiction (History)

Like plenty of other red-blooded Americans, I fell into the hole that is Hamilton: An American Musical in the early months of summer 2016. Also like plenty of the aforementioned Americans, I wanted to get my hands on Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton – you know, the biography that inspired the musical. I have a lot of library cards. I put a hold on every single eBook version that I could find in those library systems and bided my time. But it wasn’t enough, so I went in search of more Hamilton lore and came upon Paul Collins’ Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery.

Let me start with that title. If I didn’t know any better, I might guess it was the name of a Fall Out Boy song. And not only this, but it’s also incredibly misleading. While Collins does discuss Hamilton and Burr and their strategy for tackling the trial of Levi Weeks, this is but a small fraction of the contents of the book. The sensationalism here got a little out of hand and ends up leading the reader to a book that is not as advertised. Given that anyone who picks up this book is likely to be at least aware of Hamilton and Burr’s tumultuous relationship, Collins spends shockingly little word capital on their relationship outside of this trial, which would have not only been relevant, but useful in understanding the specifics of their interaction during this period.

Collins sets the stage for these events beautifully with specifics that can make the reader feel like they’re reading a novel. He certainly did his research, digging into the diaries of small players in the story or even just of local citizens who had no connection to the trial. But the legal approach and technique of Hamilton and Burr is glossed over, leaving a narrative that is deeply interesting for people looking for a vivid depiction of post-Revolutionary era New York but less so for those seeking only what the face value of the title describes.

The problem with reading nonfiction on an eReader is, you don’t necessarily know what percentage of the book is notes, so you don’t know if the end of the book will actually come at 78% or 94% — and that makes a big difference. The conclusion of the trial occurs about halfway through the book (and really doesn’t begin until at least a quarter or third into it – everything else prior sets the stage with the yellow fever, Burr’s well and his therefore potentially unethical and impartial connections to the defendant, and so on) and each of the following chapters is written like some grand conclusion. So it was with the rest of the book, I read it as if waiting for the other shoe to drop which was pretty dreadful. The content in those sections was certainly interesting and well-written otherwise, but as I kept anticipating a true end to the book, each time I came to the end of a chapter and began my happy sigh of having completed another book, I was robbed when, to be sure that the notes began on the following page, found the beginning of yet another chapter. I imagine this isn’t as much of a problem with the print book, though I maintain that the style of writing lends itself to conclusion for each of the chapters following the end of the trial.

Collins’ work could have been more focused here and certainly advertised in a more accurate fashion. But the tidbits and details throughout the book make it such an interesting read that it moves quickly and paints, at least for me, a new light onto post-Revolutionary America. While I was left wanting for something truer to what the title promised, I was ultimately happy with what I got when I separated the work from its title. Whether you’re a Hamilhead, you’re interested in history, or you’re just looking to step outside the usual novel for something compelling but different, Duel with the Devil will satisfy you.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, 336 pages
YA Fiction

Banned Books Week is coming up, September 25 – October 1. In past years, I’ve found a banned or challenged book that I hadn’t yet read and read it that week. This year, I’ve already got a few books going (here’s looking at you, Alexander Hamilton — I’ll finish you one day!) and have too much going on to start something new. So, I asked myself, what other ways can I celebrate? Looking at my log of book-reviews-to-post, I remembered Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park had, at the very least, been challenged.  While I admit I find bits of the novel problematic myself (though the bits I find problematic are not the bits the parents found problematic), I proudly uphold the ethics of my profession and engage with the material, anyway, careful to read and think about it critically as we should with any material, not just those around which controversy swirls. This isn’t to say you can’t read a book for fun — certainly, you can, just as you can enjoy Miley Cyrus’s latest song while criticizing her for cultural appropriation. But regardless of the intent you hold when reading, remember to read responsibly, my friends. Without further ado, I therefore offer my review of a problematic fave, Eleanor and Park. (Okay, a bit of ado — read banned books! Happy Banned Books Week!)

If you know anything about young adult fiction, you’ve probably at least heard of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. I finally got around to this one several months ago and, like Fangirl, Eleanor and Park is hyper-realistic and features a rich teen romance between its two title characters. It’s unlike many of the more superficial teen romances I’ve read and that much, I enjoyed.

I’ll be up front, though, and tell you there’s a fair bit of racism in the book, something on which I’ll leave to those in the Asian community to discuss. I’ll only say the fetishization of Park as an (half-)Asian came up again and again, among other issues of the stereotyping and internalized racism variety. I get the sense that this racism came out of a place of ignorance rather than malicious intent, but it’s still an aspect of the novel that must be considered by its readers and discussed in a broader context. That’s all I have to say about that and I highly encourage you to seek out comments from individuals affected by this racism rather than relying on my very brief and inherently ignorant and white-influenced thoughts on the matter, whether you read the book or not.

Onward to things I do have some authority on. To take a step back, Eleanor and Park is about two high school students in Nebraska. When Eleanor returns to her home after some time away, she also returns to school and is quickly singled out as someone to be avoided. However, seats on the school bus are limited and Eleanor ends up sitting with Park, who loves comic books. As Eleanor and Park slowly share their love of music and comic books in 1980s Omaha, they discover their feelings for each other. But Eleanor’s home life proves to be a huge stumbling block that neither are quite ready to take on.

Rowell takes a good, hard look at difficult home situations involving abuse and poverty. As a result of taking these issues seriously and recognizing there are real teens with these real experiences, Rowell avoids “writing down” to her audience. It is this, in part, that makes Eleanor and Park an excellent read for not only teens, but adults, too, who may not expect to enjoy young adult fiction (but are missing out!). Additionally interesting, Eleanor is very clearly affected by her environment. Eleanor is not a good or nice person most of the time. She makes bad decisions and is often unlikable, but the reader is reminded that Eleanor is doing what she must to survive emotionally and mentally. This added layer of realism is striking and not one I see done well in most young adult fiction.

Another thing done well that is usually a disaster was the switch in point of view. I have this written in my notes as an aspect to discuss, but frankly, it was done so well that I had forgotten that it was even a thing. Switching points of view, even when the entire book is in third person, is one of my book pet peeves. Given that it didn’t bother me in Eleanor and Park, I’m inclined to take that as a hint that it was done well.

One other small thing – the book begins with a sort of whispy prologue in the form of an epilogue that I felt wasn’t truly necessary. While it offered a good deal of foreshadowing and set readers up to prepare themselves for a potentially sad ending, I don’t feel that it really added anything to the book or the experience of it. I see it as a way for Rowell to get two shots at the ending – while the official ending is beautiful, it does leave a little something to be desired, which ends up being found in the prologue. Had the prologue been somehow referred to in a grander way in the official end, pulling the book to a full circle, I might have appreciated it more. As it is, I could have done without it.

If you’re prepared to critically consider the racism in Eleanor and Park, the remaining elements of the novel are really pretty good. I did dock my rating below because of that racism, but I also don’t think it’s fair to discount the quality of prose and other elements because of what appears to be genuine ignorance and a lack of research and consultation. With the many criticisms out there on Eleanor and Park, I hope Rowell will take that feedback to make future work better while maintaining her otherwise well-done material.

 

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer

Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer
AW Teen, 2015, 288 pages
YA Fiction

I have this recurring interest in cults. (Same thing with serial killers, but this book wasn’t about serial killers.) Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer is about fourteen-year-old Eva who, after nine years of living in the community known as the Righteous Path, is beginning to realize that perhaps her leader, Ezekiel, has it wrong. Confused about whether she wants to be one of Ezekiel’s wives as she’s been raised to be or if she wants to escape the community and the man she sees abuse her mother and friends, Eva meets Trevor on a rare trip down from the mountain who shows her Downthat outsiders aren’t as bad as Ezekiel makes them out to be.

Down from the Mountain is pretty formulaic as far as cult novels go. It’s very similar, in many ways, to Gated. One crucial and fascinating difference with this novel, however, is that Trevor is not Eva’s love interest. There’s an argument to be made that he becomes the love interest of another important character, but even then, it’s not definite and it’s not a focus. I found this hugely refreshing and, when Eva, fourteen, was introduced to Trevor, a college student, I was concerned it would go down that path. Fortunately, it didn’t. I wish Trevor had something more — there was something terribly interesting about him that I felt Fixmer never got around to sharing. His intentions become a bit shady for a while, but it’s easy to overlook them once he shows his willingness to truly help Eva — and I think it’s the actual motivation for helping Eva that makes this feel incomplete. Though it’s perfectly reasonable to expect people to be good to each other for no reason, Trevor risks an awful lot for a random fourteen-year-old girl, especially given that he’s just a boy in college. For those of you who don’t know, I went to a women’s college and didn’t spend any time around college-aged boys (and haven’t, really, to this day), but I had a hard time believing any college age boy would go to the lengths Trevor did for Eva.

In part, I worried it might go that way because Eva acts older than her age. This might be a symptom of having been practically raised in a cult and in difficult and unusual circumstances (there are few men; any husbands that were to the women who remain left when Ezekiel declared he was to “marry” the women who were of age). Eva doesn’t act significantly older than fourteen (almost fifteen), but I kept reading her as at least sixteen. The reminder of her age is especially important as she encounters issues like interacting with the outside world independently, driving, and spending time at the library.

Another thing immensely interesting about Down from the Mountain is that it is written by a woman who worked as a psychologist, sometimes for people who had left cult communities. This gave the author a different perspective to her novel than many other authors of novels about cults can offer. Despite this, I found the characterization of Ezekiel, while creepy, not as disturbing as that of Pioneer in Gated. When similarities between the two novels kept coming up, I couldn’t help but compare them in other ways. Where Gated had a fairly large community for the cult, Down from the Mountain‘s was smaller. Unfortunately, I felt this took away a lot of the urgency of the conflict. A larger community would have increased the sense of conflict.

As another central character, Rachel was in many ways more interesting than Eva. Older, and having decided to join the cult for herself rather than being brought into it by a parent, Rachel’s arc is infinitely more interesting to me. She, like Eva, often seemed older than her eighteen years, and took on the role of an older sister to Eva.

For my few complaints about the novel, Fixmer put together an interesting, if formulaic, narrative. The ending will, in part, surprise you — at least a little. I really appreciated Fixmer’s unwillingness to turn away from adult themes, both clinical and otherwise in nature, despite the young age of her character and, presumably, the bulk of her audience. With different cultural expectations within the cult, the issue of menstruation becomes enormously fascinating and one that is revisited throughout the novel, as is the topics of pregnancy and birth.

If you’re looking for a standalone read on cults, this isn’t a bad one. While Gated on its own was good, you might feel compelled to pick up Gated‘s sequel, Astray, which didn’t stand up to the quality of its predecessor. Though a bit back-and-forth with the character development, Eva eventually reaches a clear arc of growth. The novel lends plenty for discussion and would even make an excellent choice for a book club.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

 

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