Friday, July 24, 2015

Review: Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Title: Devoted 
Author: Jennifer Mathieu
Published: 2015, Roaring Brook Press
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Young Adult
Source: Library
Find It: Goodreads

I have this one life that’s mine, stretching out before me like the smooth, dark water of the sea, and God is inviting me to hold my breath and slide through the waves, my arms outstretched, my feet kicking, my soul headed for points unknown.
Rachel, he tells me, dive in.

Rachel Walker’s life has always been one of certainties. As a female of the Calvary Christian church community, she is the responsibility of her father until she comes of age. She is expected to help her mother take care of her many siblings in preparation for the day when she will marry, where she will then become the responsibility of her new husband and have the task of having her own children.

Rachel is seventeen -- a mere year away from marriageable age -- and the more she helps her own overstressed mother, the more she observes her older sister Faith’s life -- the less certain she is of the life she’s expected to live. When local pariah Lauren, who left Calvary Christian (and her family) a number of years ago after refusing to submit to its demands, returns to the area, Rachel’s curiosity is piqued. What really caused Lauren to leave, and why did she decide to come back to the area? Through illicit email contact, Rachel forms a tentative friendship with Lauren and comes to realize there’s so much more to life, if she’s willing to forsake what her family and church have planned for her.

It would not be incorrect to assume that Devoted is a novel that explores the place of religion in a teen’s life. It would not be an entirely accurate assessment, however, either; Devoted is about so much more than religion, and Mathieu’s sophomore novel sensitively and respectfully discusses the challenges associated with the clash of personal desires with the responsibilities imposed upon a person by others. Rachel’s struggles with her faith and her journey towards discovering what she wants in life is one that teens struggling with any previously-established life certainties will be able to relate to.

The struggles that Rachel undergoes with regard to her faith feel very real and very relatable. There’s no sudden epiphany that her family and her church community are wrong, but neither is Rachel willing to continue to accept all they tell her to do. Rather, Mathieu gives Rachel a series of small steps towards establishing a new set of convictions. During Rachel’s gradual transformation, she’s plagued by many doubts, and everything is far from resolved at the end. Like Rachel, however, readers can take comfort in the fact that by the end she’s in a much better place than she was initially.

Nowhere are Rachel’s struggles more apparent than through her relationships with others. She feels sympathy for her mother and older sister Faith, who have willingly chosen to remain in their oppressive lifestyles, but it is her relationships with her younger sister Ruth and friend Lauren that best illustrate Rachel’s doubts. Ruth is still very much a believer in all Cavalry Christian and their family expects from young women, while Lauren is very much the opposite. They stand at opposites sides of who Rachel once was, and who she can be, but neither is presented as superior, and Rachel cares for both of them equally.

Perhaps the best aspect of Devoted is that Mathieu does not demonize any particular character for his or her beliefs. Rachel’s family and her church community may be misguided in how they attempt to control the lives of their youth, but that doesn’t make them bad people; they’re simply following what they believe to be true. The same can be said for Lauren and her utter abhorrence of everything religious-based, and the Treatses and their more quiet acceptance of religion.  

Mathieu’s novel presents a respectful look at extreme religious groups, demonstrating how gray areas can be found on all sides. Rachel’s struggles are poignant and relatable. The only issues I found within this novel is its length (it appears that Mathieu enjoys writing shorter, succinct novels) and Rachel’s tentative relationship with local high school boy Mark Treats, which is beautifully tentative but also feels a bit too perfect. Those minor complaints aside, Devoted is a quietly powerful book and highly recommended.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Title: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
Author: Julie Berry
Published: 2014, Roaring Brook Press
Genre: Historical Fiction, Comedy
Audience: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Find it: Goodreads


The seven students of St. Etheldreda’s School for Young Ladies thought that their Sunday dinner was like any other. They expected to eat their poor meal of buttered bread and hot beans while their headmistress and her brother ate veal. But this Sunday does not turn out as expected, as, upon eating the veal, both Mrs. Plackett and Mr. Godding fall to the ground, dead.

The unexpected turn of events has left the girls in an anxious state. Rather than being concerned about the fate of their headmistress and her brother, or even about who would have poisoned them and why, the girls instead worry about their own situations. Once the village of Ely and their parents find out about Mrs. Plackett’s demise, they’re sure to be sent away to their homes or other boarding schools, never to see each other again. So the girls make a pact: they’ll bury Mrs. Plackett and Mr. Godding and find a way to keep the school going with no one the wiser.

To put it simply, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a farce. This is a story of exaggerations and is frequently tongue-in-cheek. The story takes place in Ely, England in 1900 and focuses on the absurdity and hilarity that ensues as seven friends try to cover up their headmistress’ murder. The seven leading ladies of this tale are: Dear Roberta, who is both sweet and genuinely good, Disgraceful Mary Jane, who enjoys the power of seduction, Dour Elinor, who fascinated with all aspects of mortality, Dull Martha, who is a bit slow on the uptake, Pocked Louise, who harbors a love of science, Smooth Kitty, who is the leader of their little band, and Stout Alice, whose heart belongs to the stage.

Underlying improbable situations, however, are some worthwhile messages, including that of sisterhood. As one of the girls points out, none of them have any sisters. The friendships they’ve formed with each other are therefore that much more powerful, that much more important to them. Theirs is a sisterhood formed not simply by blood, but by choice, and it’s one they’re willing to do just about anything to keep intact.

Woven within the farcical elements is a more typical murder mystery story. Who killed Mrs. Plackett? Why? Are the girls themselves in danger? Despite the small town atmosphere that Ely has, Berry has created a story full of red herrings, where nothing is cut and dry, and where each person remains a suspect until the big reveal. The mystery aspect is very well done, and combined with the humor it makes for a very readable, entertaining book.

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a delight to read in novel form, but it is something I could see becoming even stronger if told on the stage. The characters could become more distinct, the humor more pronounced, the wit that much more apparent if made into a play.

As a book, though, it still provides an absolutely memorable reading experience. Berry has created a story that believably pulls together elements of historical fiction, farce, murder mystery, and sisterhood. It’s absolutely worth reading.

Rating:
4.5 stars

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ready to Become a Fan of... Jo Walton


Ready to Become a Fan of... focuses on those authors new and old whose works I have every intention of eventually reading, but haven't been able to devote the time to just yet. By discussing authors and their works that I'm sure I'll love, given the chance, hopefully I can be more easily compelled to take the next step in not simply acquiring one of their books, but actually take the time to read it.
 

This month I'm putting on record that I am ready to become a fan of Jo Walton.
 

About the author:
Jo Walton has published twelve novels, three poetry collections and an essay collection. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, the World Fantasy Award in 2004 for Tooth and Claw, and the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2012 for Among Others. (Source)

Work I'm most looking forward to reading:

Among Others

Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled--and her twin sister dead. (WorldCat)





Why This Author & This Work:
The short answer to this question is that I've heard good things about Walton, I own a Kindle edition of this book, and I want to make an effort to start reading more books on my Kindle. I recently decided to publicly shame myself into e-reading more by making a Goodreads list of all my purchased but unread ebooks, which helped me remember I had purchased Among Others.


The longer answer has to do with the fact that recently I've been craving more literary adult novels. I'm not quite at the point of YA or children's lit burnout (hopefully that never happens!), but I have been gravitating towards sophisticated books written for an older, more mature audience. I've decided that, as much as possible, I should embrace my cravings for specific types of stories. After all, I want view reading as both a hobby and a passion, but never as an obligation (with the exception of school and work books, of course).

I believe that Among Others is Walton's most well-known book, and certainly her most critically acclaimed, having won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. And with the recent publication of The Just City, I figured it was time to finally familiarize myself with Walton's stories.

For those of you who've already read some of Jo Walton's works, I'd appreciate hearing what you think about them. For those who also haven't read her works yet, let me know what's been holding you back!

Ready to Become a Fan of... is an original feature of Late Nights with Good Books.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Title: Nimona
Author: Noelle Stevenson
Published: 2015, HarperTeen
Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Young Adult
Source: Library
Find it: Goodreads


Lord Ballister Blackheart didn’t ask to become the villain of the kingdom, but he’s since accepted -- and even come to embrace -- his role. Neither did he ask for a sidekick -- and certainly not a sidekick quite like Nimona. When Nimona reveals her shape-shifting abilities, however, Blackheart realizes she may indeed become a valuable asset in his vendetta to prove that the ruling Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics -- and its star hero, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin -- isn’t quite as heroic as it claims to be.

On the surface, Nimona appears to be more or less your typical good vs. evil story, albeit one that is told through the perspective of the villains. It isn’t long, however, before all conceptions of good and evil are turned on their head, transformed, and erased; Blackheart and Nimona perform undeniably evil acts, but so do Goldenloin and the agents of the Institution. The people of their quasi-medieval world suffer for the sake of keeping face, personal gain, and self-righteousness. Through the actions and beliefs of the “heroes” and “villains,” Stevenson spins a tale that intelligently examines the morality, responsibility, and culpability of all sides in this conflict.

In the midst of all the moral ambiguity stands Nimona herself, perhaps the greatest enigma of them all. She’s a shapeshifter and a bit too eager in her pronouncements for the destruction of everything. But who, exactly, is Nimona? And what benefit does she gain through an alliance with Blackheart? These questions are as central to the story as Blackheart and Goldenloin’s conflict (and their implied relationship).

From Nimona’s punk-inspired main form (which is wonderfully curvy), to the Inquisitor’s long, serpentine frame, Stevenson’s cartoonish, goofy illustrations generally work well with the text. At times the illustrations feel a bit too cartoony, however, and on occasion detract from the story’s intelligent, thoughtful examination of morality.

The format, illustrations, and emphasis on a heroes vs. villains conflict give Nimona an unsurprisingly comic-like feel, which may dissuade certain readers from this story. Those willing to look past the format, however, are in for a treat. Nimona is a story for those who like their morals gray, their rivalries bitter, and their resolutions open-ended.

Rating:
4 stars

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Last Ten Books That Have Come Into My Possession

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

This week I'm taking a look at the last ten books that have recently come into my possession and noting where they came from and why.


Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu
Acquired from: Library

Foiled by Jane Yolen & Mike Cavallaro
Acquired from: Library
Reason: Pure curiosity! I fenced competitively in high school, but as far as high school sports go, fencing is definitely one of the least represented. So it was pretty cool to find this graphic novel. (If you know of other books that feature fencing, let me know!)

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Acquired from: Library
Reason: This is one of my summer TBR picks.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
Acquired from: Library
Reason: This is one of my summer TBR picks. (Unfortunately, I already returned this one, so it's not pictured.)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Acquired from: Library
Reason: This is one of my summer TBR picks.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Acquired from: Barnes & Noble
Reason: I had a 15% off coupon and hadn't purchased anything from my local B&N in a while, so I felt like supporting it. Plus, I had read and loved this book years ago and had been looking for a copy to call my own. This edition is gorgeous.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Acquired from: My younger sister
Reason: I recently decided to start building some classics collections, and I love how affordable and adorable these Puffin Classics editions of children's literature are. My sister just had this book sitting around in her bedroom and so kindly allowed me to take it.
Acquired from: Library
Reason: I've recently become a big fan of Emily's blog, Cupcakes and Cashmere. She discusses everything from fashion, beauty, home decor, and more, and I've been gravitating towards those sorts of blogs in the past few months. Needless to say, I was very eager to get my hands on a copy of her new book.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Acquired from: Library
Reason: Every since I gave my dad a copy of this a few years ago (which he loved, and subsequently pushed on others), I've had to listen to so many family members and friends rave about it. The audiobook was currently in at my library, so I decided to give it a try. (Not pictured because it's in my car.)

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman (trans. by Henning Koch)
Acquired from: Library
Reason: This is one of my summer TBR picks.

What books have you recently acquired?

Friday, July 10, 2015

What I Learned from Taking a YA Literature Class


It was only a year and a half ago that I eagerly asked a friend for all the details of her YA lit class, down to the syllabus requirements and required reading. I was jealous that as an aspiring youth services librarian she got to take a class entirely devoted to YA literature. At the time, I was convinced that I would be working with adults -- or at least that my primary responsibilities wouldn’t include working with children, despite loving all forms of children’s literature.

Hindsight, as they say, is indeed 20/20. This past fall I realized that I did want to work with children, and this past spring saw me taking the same class I had been so envious of my friend for taking the year before.

Upon starting the class, I found myself in a rather unique position. Because I’d actively been part of the book blogosphere for the past few years and read almost exclusively YA literature, I think it’s fair to say that I was familiar with a lot of the current trends and more popular books being written for teens. Anything that I had learned about YA literature had essentially been self-taught, however, through observation and research and reading. I was curious to see what the class could teach me -- and I’ll admit that I enjoy learning and was looking forward to gaining some academic knowledge on this topic.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this class was how it contextualized YA literature both in terms of the general history and trends in literature, and also within the history of literature for children. For my undergraduate degrees in English and Spanish, I had mostly studied the classics and the history of literature in America and Britain, as well as a bit about Spain and Central/South America, and for my thesis I delved into the history of children’s literature; prior to this class, however, I had never looked into the specifics of literature for teens.

  
My class also discussed book reviews, and how to write the most valuable, professional reviews possible. We read from Kathleen Horning’s From Cover to Cover, which I highly recommend. Horning is the current director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), which is kind of a big deal in the field of children’s lit. Her book is broken down into chapters on how to interact with different types of books for different age levels, as well as suggestions on the review-writing process and is definitely something I plan on referring back to for both blogging and professional development.

Each week of the class was broken up into a genre or theme, which was helpful for someone like me who has a few preferred genres. Because the book selections did skew a bit on the older side (in terms of publication date), I had the opportunity to read classics such as Judy Blume’s Forever… and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Weekly themes ranged from hi-lo lit (which I hadn’t known much about prior to this class), to nonfiction, to illustrated books (which are different from graphic novels), and more. Over the course of the class we also read a bit about adolescent development.

Of course, what I really enjoyed was the opportunity to become familiar with new authors and stories. Some of my favorites included M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Kingdom: The Pox Party, Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger, Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints duology, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, and Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost.

I definitely enjoyed having the opportunity to take this class, and to be able to take a more academic approach to a subject I already love so much. Many of the novels we read will stay with me, as will Horning’s book. Despite all that, there is something to be said about experiential learning and first-hand knowledge, and I have to say that I’ve probably learned just as much from reading and blogging about YA literature. It was nice to put everything into a bit more context, though, and I’m looking forward to taking a children’s literature class this fall.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Top Ten Books on my Summer 2015 TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

A couple of weeks ago the topic was books that are on our Summer 2015 TBR (to be read) lists. Due to my blogging hiatus, I wasn't able to participate on the date this topic was originally scheduled, but I still wanted to have the opportunity to share my picks, so here's a rather belated list (which I may have already started, as summer itself started over 2 weeks ago now).


Adult Picks
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison I bought this shortly after its publication, having read one rave review after another, and it's currently on the 2015 Hugo Awards shortlist for best novel. Plus, Sarah Monette (Addison's a pseudonym) actually works at the library I'm interning for this summer.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman — I first learned about this book in an issue of BookList and promptly searched for more reviews and checked whether my library had a copy. (It does.) This magical realism tale sounds so charming and unique.
The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan This fluffy romance is supposedly based on/inspired by Prince William and Kate Middleton's real-life romance. I want to enjoy at least a little fluff this summer, and it can help me get in the wedding planning mood.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu As with The Goblin Emperor, this is another fantasy I've heard nothing but praise for. I have a soft spot for sweeping, epic fantasy series, and this sounds like a promising start to a new one.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin Because Modern Mrs. Darcy told me to read this. It's her recommendation for those who identify as ISTJ according to the Myers-Briggs personality test. Color me intrigued!


Young Adult Picks
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh I love a solid fairy-tale/fable retelling almost as much as I love stories that focus on female agency. Ahdieh's debut sounds like it should have both in spades.
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen I didn't love Just Listen, but I do adore Dessen on Twitter and hope this one works out better for me. Plus, I've heard this is generally considered to be one of her best works.
These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly I love historical fiction and really don't see/read enough of it for YA audiences. And this ARC is on loan from my internship library, so it needs to be read soon.
Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu — I enjoyed Mathieu's debut but didn't love it necessarily. At first I was planning on passing this one by, but the combination of such a timely topic and strong praise have made me curious.
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby — I was so excited to receive a review copy at ALA Midwinter, certain that I'd love this. For some reason or another, however, reading this just hasn't happened yet, but it will soon!

What books do you hope to read this summer?