September 27, 2013

Review: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Published: 2013, Riverhead Books
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 357 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
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We are the daughters of sewing maids and fruit peddlers, charwomen and laundresses, dressed up and painted to look like something we are not. All the years of practicing, the sweat and toil, the muscles aching at the end of the day, it comes down to learning trickery—to leap with the lightness that lets the theatergoers think of us as queens of the Opéra stage instead of scamps with cracking knees and heaving ribs and ever-bleeding toes. Sometimes I wonder, though, if for the very best ballet girls, the trickery is not a little bit real, if a girl born into squalor cannot find true grace in the ballet.

The van Goethem family undergoes a dramatic upheaval when the father of the household dies after many months of illness. With their mother making scanty wages as a laundress, a majority of which are spent then on Absinthe, sisters Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte seek ways to sustain their family. Charlotte has a natural talent for ballet, and so she applies for work and training at the Paris Opéra. At fourteen, Marie is technically too old to start work as a ballerina-in-training, but a stroke of luck and unexpected talent lands her a position there as well. The Opéra is not a possibility for Antoinette, who failed her examination to progress to the next level years ago. Eventually she is able to find work acting in a stage production of Émile Zola's latest work.

The semblance of stability that the sisters form through their jobs is just that, however; a semblance. Antoinette knows that her position with the play is temporary, and that soon she'll be out of a job. Marie, who for years has been told that a more scholarly life is expected of her, finds that she quite enjoys ballet, but her examinations are approaching—the very same ones that Antoinette failed, and she's already at a distinct disadvantage having started training so late. 

The Painted Girls presents a portrait of Antoinette and Marie's lives over the course of three years as they struggle with finances, relationships, and what to do with their lives. It skillfully combines the few known historical facts about the van Goethem sisters, immortalized most famously through Edgar Degas' sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, with the infamous murder trial of Émile Abadie and Pierre Gille.

This is not a happy book. I just wanted to make this clear upfront. The lives that Antoinette and Marie lead are not pleasant ones, nor should readers expect to find any sort of idealized Paris within these pages. Even with bits of humor and hope scattered throughout, the most pervasive feeling is one of despair. Marie, at least, has some concrete goals that she hopes to reach as a dancer for the Opéra, but Antoinette really has nothing. Just a lifetime of hard labor in the hopes of making ends meet. So deeply entrenched is the van Goethem family in the lower-class dregs of society, that it appears that the Opéra is really the only feasible way for the girls to do something more with their lives. It is depressing to read about such circumstances, which only become bleaker as the novel progresses.

The story's narrative shifts between Antoinette and Marie, and for once I found that I didn't mind. Both characters offered distinct, important aspects to the story as a whole. Marie was much more relatable to me personally, well-spoken and observant with a drive to succeed. Antoinette's sections were more difficult, as her situations were frequently unhappy and unfair. Through Antoinette, however, I felt as though I had a more dynamic portrait of the era, while the majority of Marie's narration involves training for the ballet or modeling for extra fees. Another aspect that enabled the dual narration to work so well was that I never had any trouble distinguishing each girl's narration. I frequently find that in stories with more than one narrator, either the narrators end up sounding too similar, or else I just lack the ability to identify the differences between them. Marie and Antoinette's voices just sounded very different, however, and I genuinely looked forward to each part.

Interestingly, the complete and utter lack of hope for the betterment of their lives was not the most frustrating part for me. The often-strained relationship between Antoinette and Marie takes that honor, if you can call it that. While the misunderstandings that develop between them are more indicative of their lives as a whole rather than controllable individual actions, it was still quite difficult to see them allow their relationship to be torn apart. At one point Marie admits to Antoinette that she's the reason the family has been able to survive, and that she's her best friend. The ending (which, with its time lapse, functions almost like an epilogue) actually does provide some resolution on that end, fortunately.

One thing that The Painted Girls has done is to reinvigorate my love of historical fiction. After fantasy, historical fiction is probably my favorite genre. It's so fascinating to learn about what people used to do and how they lived. Even though Antoinette and Marie's lives are hardly enviable, I appreciated forming an understanding of how pivotal being accepted to the Opéra was for young impoverished girls. Through the trial of Antoinette's lover Émile Abadie, Buchanan also explores late nineteenth-century ideas of physiognomy and its links to criminality. And, of course, reading so much about Degas' art ensured that I'd spend quite a bit of time looking it up.

I quite enjoyed reading The Painted Girls. It's not a book I'd recommend to everyone, given its bleak subject matter and mature themes, but I would not hesitate to encourage lovers of historical fiction, historical Paris, realistic sister relationships, and strong writing to give it a try. It is a well-researched work of historical fiction.

Rating: 4.5 stars
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September 25, 2013

Review: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
Series: The Grisha, #2
Published: 2013, Henry Holt and Company
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Source: Personal collection
Contains spoilers for Shadow and Bone (my review)
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"I don't care if you think I'm a Saint or a fool or the Darkling's whore. If you want to remain at the Little Palace, you will follow me. And if you don't like it, you will be gone by tonight, or I will have you in chains. I am a solider. I am the Sun Summoner. And I'm the only chance you have."

With the constant self-inflicted pressure to read more and more these days, it seems I'd forgotten the power that settling into a familiar and beloved story can possess. I tend to read series back-to-back when possible, and, while I love re-reading, I haven't re-read anything for a while now. In opening the pages of my copy of Siege and Storm, viewing the expanded map of Ravka and its surrounding lands, once again reading the description of Grisha orders, I felt a palpable sense of relief. I knew these characters, this story, and was more than ready to see what would happen to them next.

Alina and Mal have successfully dashed the Darkling's plans to expand the Shadow Fold. Leaving him and his crew to the monstrous volcra, Alina and Mal have attempted to start over in Novyi Zem, far across the True Sea from Ravka. Although they both left everything behind for each other, Alina has a much more difficult time accepting their new lives and the limitations that come with them; primarily, her guilt in not acting upon the good she could do for her people as the Sun Summoner. She's willing to try, though, for the sake of Mal.

Before the two of them can decide where to go and what to do next, however, the Darkling has caught up to them once more. He has new and frightening powers, but still craves the amplified power that Alina possesses while wearing Morozova's collar. And better yet, he's discovered a the fabled ice dragon of the northern seas holds the key to yet another amplifier. The Darkling hasn't given up hope of harnessing Alina's power, and he's not the only one.

Where Leigh Bardugo really excels as an author is in her attention to detail. Shadow and Bone introduced readers to a whole new fantasy world, replete with Russian influences, an order of element-wielding sorcerers, political intrigue, destiny, and a young orphan girl caught in the middle of it all. Does this series bear similarities to many other published fantasy series? Certainly. But Bardugo skillfully writes a story that is worth reading, both in comparison to other fantasy novels and as a unique work of fantasy fiction in its own right.

Like any good sequel should, Siege and Storm reintroduces readers to the world of the first book and then expands it tremendously. While Shadow and Bone took place solely in the country Ravka, this newest installment offers a much wider scope of the world. Even though the characters do not explore all the various lands themselves, through the introduction of new characters and political intrigue, Bardugo convincingly fleshes out the world. Alina finds herself back in Ravka at a certain point in the novel, but it's more than simply the Ravka introduced through her childhood at Keramzin, her time spent in the First Army, or through her Grisha training at the Little Palace. Bardugo treats her worldbuilding much like a character, slowly revealing bits of new information. Readers become acquainted with the upper workings of the Grisha order, the royal family, tense political alliances with outside countries, and even with a fanatical new religious movement. 

Solid characterization is another strong point of Bardugo's, and in Siege and Storm there are three secondary characters worth mentioning: Mal, the Darkling, and Strumhond (although there are many other great ones as well). Not all three function as love interests necessarily, but all do offer something different and relevant to Alina. Mal is Alina's best friend and has recently become more than simply the subject of her unrequited love. He has given up everything in his life for her, but their relationship is not all bliss. Sure, he's a bit edgy and becomes increasingly discontent with many of Alina's decisions over the course of the novel, but he also is the only person who looks at Alina and sees Alina, not the benefits her power has. The Darkling remains the most enigmatic character in this installment, in part due to his lack of presence. He is only physically present for a small percentage of the novel, although his influence extends far beyond his page count. His desire to possess Alina's powers may border on obsessive, but so, too, does Alina's constant preoccupation with his presence indicate that she's just as drawn to all he can offer her. Strumhond, the privateer that the Darkling hires to transport them all to the northern seas, is new to this book but has already become a major player in the story. The twists and turns associated with his character are among some of the best. Although the best secondary characters are all male, there's no true love triangle (or quadrangle) that develops. All three are incredibly well depicted, and all three have distinct relationships with Alina herself.

Against three such male characters, it would have been easy for Alina to fade into the background. She still retains a tendency to think of herself as unremarkable, as unimportant. Certainly not as the all-powerful Sun Summoner, the girl sought after by some of the most powerful men in the world, or even as Sankta Alina. And yet, that's the type of person she's become to the rest of the world. Through much of the book, Alina still struggles to reconcile the difference between the image that she has of herself and what she's truly capable of. As the Sun Summoner in possession of an amplifier (with the possibility of acquiring another), Alina also struggles to balance the dynamic between what her powers could and should allow her to do. It's a very slippery slope that Alina balances above, and she does rely on the suggestions of others. But this is ultimately Alina's story, and it is she who gradually comes to learn just what she hopes to accomplish both with her powers and by herself.

Siege and Storm is an even stronger work than Shadow and Bone. As Bardugo herself has grown as a writer, so, too, have the story and characters matured. Bardugo has left many typical fantasy tropes behind in this latest installment, and the ending will be sure to leave her fans eagerly awaiting the release of the finale. Strong writing, strong characterizations, strong world-building, and a ton of originality make Siege and Storm well worth a read. Without a doubt, Leigh Bardugo has become one of my new favorite fantasy authors.

Rating: 5 stars
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September 24, 2013

Top Ten Best Sequels Ever

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by the bloggers of The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're listing some of the books we consider to be among the best sequels. I can't say these are the best ever, but they're pretty darn good in my opinion.

Siege and Storm (Shadow and Bone, #2) by Leigh Bardugo It is perhaps a little premature to refer to this as one of my favorite sequels ever, but it's well on its way to becoming one. Just every decision that Bardugo made here, from incorporating new characters, new missions, new complications...just everything was very well done and I look forward to this story's conclusion.  
Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3) by Suzanne Collins You know what? I liked how this series ended. Collins avoided cliches throughout her entire series (although I'll admit I found the second book a little derivative - but that was the point). And the third? No mercy is spared. Katniss and the characters we come to love don't quite achieve their happily-ever-afters, but after all the terrible things they've endured, should we really have hoped for that? It's bittersweet and perfect.
Eona (Eon, #2) by Alison GoodmanI loved both Eon and Eona, although I thought Eona was a tiny bit stronger. Here Goodman didn't need to focus on worldbuilding, instead focusing on the relationships that define Eona and the trials she must undergo in how to create peace between the dragons, Dragoneyes, and humans in the Empire of the Celestial Dragons. It's a very internally-driven book, which of course I loved.
Emperor Mage (Wild Magic, #3) by Tamora Pierce Not the traditional choice for a Tamora Pierce book, I know. I read her Wild Magic series first, and besides my strong identification with (and wishful thinking that I could become) Daine, I also enjoyed how the third book in this quartet really focuses on political intrigue. This may very well be where I first fell in love with political intrigue in my fantasies.
Lady Knight (Protector of the Small, #4) by Tamora PierceI loved seeing Kel come into her own here. It took me a while to really warm up to the Kel books, but they're such a necessary addition to Pierce's Tortall books, since Kel is the first non-magical heroine. No annoying magical sidekick, no more training, and a chance for Kel to achieve her destiny? Yup, loved it.
The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3) by Philip Pullman Someday someone is going to realize the potential of this series and create a fantastic film trilogy based on it. I mean, Pullman literally rewrote the temptation and the Fall in his mulch-universe fantasy world. And he did it in a believable and intelligent way.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7) by J.K. Rowling
The Harry Potter series is the series closest to my heart for a variety of reasons. Always and forever. The epic conclusion to this series is just so perfect. I honestly couldn't imagine it ending any other way, and it deserves to be immortalized as a classic of the early twenty-first century.
Court Duel (Crown & Court, #2) by Sherwood SmithThis is kind of sort of cheating, since I generally consider Crown Duel/Court Duel to be one book, and I own them packaged as an omnibus edition. But I love these two stories so much. When I first read the books, I preferred the action of the former, but now I've come to appreciate the subtlety and political intrigue of the latter.
The Ersatz Elevator (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #6) by Lemony Snicket I was never a huge fangirl of this series, although I ate up each new book as it was released. I think the sixth book represents Snicket at his best, for his wittiness, creative storyline, and just solid plotting in general. Plus it's about an empty elevator shaft in a ritzy hotel. Who wouldn't be interested in where that leads to?
The Queen of Attolia (The Queen's Thief, #2) by Megan Whalen Turner Honestly, I could have just as easily picked The King of Attolia, but I like the fact that this book stays with Gen's perspective for the most part. The Thief is utterly amazing, although the sheer scope of just how amazingly conceived it is doesn't become apparent until the very end. So I basically read its sequel in a continual state of awe.

Please let me know if you agree with any of my choices, or of other books you consider to be among the best sequels.
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September 19, 2013

Review: The DUFF by Kody Keplinger

The DUFF by Kody Keplinger
Published: 2010, Poppy
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: ebook
Source: Personal collection
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I was the Duff. And that was a good thing. Because anyone who didn't feel like the Duff must not have friends. Every girl feels unattractive sometimes. Why had it taken me so long to figure that out? Why had I been stressing over that dumb word for so long when it was so simple? I should be proud to be the Duff. Proud to have great friends who, in their minds, were my Duffs. 

Cynical Bianca Piper is more than ready to graduate from high school and leave her small hometown far behind. Besides her two best friends, Bianca doesn't have much she'd miss. Certainly not the freshman year pseudo-relationship that broke her heart and hardened her against any future romance. Nor the household that has increasingly become inhabited only by her father and herself, as her mother continues to book motivational speech tours across the country.

And to top it all off, one evening at the local teen nightclub, Bianca runs into Wesley Rush, the most sought-after womanizer at her high school. Although she wants nothing to do with him, Wesley asks if she can at least pretend to speak to him, because it's well-proven that guys who interact with the Duffs in any group have a better chance of hooking up with her friends. Duff stands for "designated ugly fat friend," according to Wesley, and Bianca fills that position in her group of friends. Bianca adamantly refuses to be privy to his scheme and even throws a glass of Cherry Coke in his face upon learning of his nickname for her. 

But life in the final semester of her senior year has gotten more complicated than she can handle, and Bianca seeks some way to escape from the challenges she faces in every direction.

Within this slim book, Kody Keplinger tackles many issues relevant to teens today: teen sex, pregnancy scares, alcohol abuse, friendships on rocky straits, love vs. like vs. lust, family problems, and, most importantly, self-confidence. The issues could have easily overwhelmed the novel, turning it into more of a guide on what (not) to do, but fortunately that wasn't the case. Keplinger adroitly handles the topics mentioned and more, melding them together into a story that is ultimately about the role that self-confidence can play in the lives of teens. Bianca certainly isn't representative of all teens, but through her struggles and those of her friends, I'm sure that many readers can find someone relatable. 

Bianca makes a lot of stupid decisions, especially in light of the fact that she's a star student. When life becomes too hard for her to handle, she enters into a questionable sexual relationship with Wesley. She starts to ignore her friends and their offers of help. She pretends that everything is fine between her parents, even as the evidence to the contrary continues to pile up. Avoidance is her go-to solution; except, of course, when it comes to Wesley. Normally the combination of these behaviors would bother me, yet I found Bianca's character to be written in such a way that I could not help but emphasize with her situation.

The main reason that I never became fully frustrated with Bianca's decision-making had to do with how her relationship with Wesley is portrayed. Wesley is little more than an escape from Bianca's normal life. When they start hooking up, she acts as spiteful and disgusted towards him as usual. While relationships between people who "hate" each other is not an unusual trope, Keplinger employs it in a fresh new way. Bianca really doesn't have any good reasons to actually like Wesley, and she doesn't. He's still the same cocky, rude womanizer as before. He refers to her as "Duffy." And Bianca cannot cease wondering whether she really deserves to be seen as a Duff. Their relationship is not romanticized in the slightest, and the novel makes it pretty clear that a relationship cannot happen until Wesley begins to grow up, and until Bianca starts facing her issues.

Before reading this book, the concept of a Duff was completely unfamiliar to me. As it is unfamiliar to Bianca until Wesley tells her that she is, in fact, one. With this horribly derogative term forming the basis of her novel, Keplinger examines just how people conceptualize their self-worth. Each person has quality that makes him or her feel inferior. Whether it's physical appearance, mental acuity, background, interests, there's always something that makes us feel as though we cannot measure up to others. It's just part of life. Where The DUFF could have turned dark and forbidding, however, Keplinger opted instead to focus on hope. Just as we all have our insecurities, so, too, do we all have our strengths. It may take Bianca a long time to come to that conclusion, but she does eventually and her new found confidence is a pleasure to behold.

Kody Keplinger, I salute you. Not only have you written about subject matters I wasn't sure would have any appeal to me, but you wrote about them engagingly and realistically. Bianca is an unconventional heroine, and her story itself is far from conventional, but there is a lot within its pages for readers to relate to. This fresh young adult contemporary has left me clamoring for me from this author.

Rating: 4 stars
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September 17, 2013

Top Ten Books At The Top Of My Fall 2013 TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by the bloggers of  The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're listing the books that have made it to the top of our Fall 2013 TBR piles.

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill — I won an ARC from a contest hosted by Literary Rambles, so, really, I have no excuse not to find time to read this one. Time travel is a tricky subject, but I've heard wonderful things about this debut and am looking forward to reading it!
Allegiant by Veronica Roth  Because of course I need to see how this series ends! Divergent and Insurgent were fun, action-packed reads and although the revelation made at the end of Insurgent isn't exactly surprising, I still am curious to see where Roth goes with it.
Antigoddess by Kendare Blake — Greek mythology brought to life in modern times? Count me in! Cassandra is also one of my favorite characters in all of Greek mythology, so I'm interested to see Blake's interpretation of her as an everyday teen.
Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross  I just got this one out of the library the other day. For some reason it hasn't seemed to receive much hype (at least, not as far as I've noticed). But it's historical fiction about lower-class women who were forced to act as foils to make upper-class women seem prettier. I'm always up for a discussion on beauty.
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon — Even skeptical as I am about the J.K. Rowling comparisons that have been made, I'm not one to sit back and not support a fantasy genre book that's actually entered the mainstream book scene. And this sounds very, very interesting.
Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst — This book sounds a little creepier than what I usually tend to read. But this is Sarah Beth Durst here, so I'm willing to try out her latest book. Creepy carnival, serial killer, and amnesiac narrator, here I come!
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell  Confession: I still haven't read any Rowell. Crazy, I know. But even since I saw the synopsis of this book, I knew that I couldn't start my relationship with her writing at any other point. It sounds like so much fun and so relatable.
orn by Brandon Sanderson  I'm planning to see Brandon Sanderson in early October, so of course I actually do need to read something of his before doing so. I've heard fantastic things about the beginning of his epic fantasy trilogy, so it's high time that I actually pick it up.
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein  Unlike many reviewers, I don't really feel intimidated by this book. I trust Elizabeth Wein and am ready to have my emotions toyed with again. Also, I think it's awesome that this book focuses on an American pilot. 
Shadows by Robin McKinley — I love the Robin McKinley books that I've read, but I'm pretty sure I've only read a small fraction of all her published works. Shadows sounds a bit like her Sunshine, which I enjoyed, so I'm looking forward to reading her fall release (and hopefully a few of her other books relatively soon as well).

Please be sure to let me know what books you plan on reading this fall!
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September 16, 2013

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published: 2012, HarperCollins (Originally 2011)
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Format: ebook
Source: Personal collection
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He had been trained, a little, by his father. The rest was—what? Divine? This was more of the gods than I had ever seen in my life. He made it look beautiful, this sweating, hacking art of ours. I understood why his father did not let him fight in front of others. How could any ordinary man take pride in his own skill when there was this in the world? 

I'll admit that I'm a bit disappointed. It's been a while since I've read some Greek mythology or any retellings, but my knowledge and fascination in this subject area was quick to return upon starting The Song of Achilles. The Song of Achilles retells the events leading up to the Trojan War and the war itself from the perspective of Patroclus, the closest friend and ally of Achilles. It was this knowledge that initially drew me to the story. I've read many books based on the history and mythology of Ancient Greece over the years, and, since I'm generally familiar with the events of the stories themselves, I always appreciate it when authors can take a creative approach. 

Patroclus has spent the first decade of his life unloved, told that he's the unworthy heir of King Menoetius. After causing a tragic accident, Patroclus is banished from his kingdom and sent to be raised by King Peleus of Phthia. It is there that Patroclus meets the boy destined to become one of the most important Greeks ever known: Achilles. Together Patroclus and Achilles form a friendship and eventual relationship that helps determine the fate of the Trojan War.

I really did appreciate the fact that Miller chose a different route to retell the story of Achilles' life and the Trojan War. Too many of these retellings focus on the battle itself, on romance and glory and destiny and death. Those elements are still part of The Song of Achilles, but side elements to the relationship that blossoms between Patroclus and Achilles. They are a most unlikely pairing: Patroclus, an exiled former prince who has spent his entire childhood thinking that he's worthless and stupid, and Achilles, the golden prince chosen by the gods for greatness, who nonetheless struggles with the knowledge of his destiny. Because the novel spans from their pre-teen years until their late twenties, Miller is able to carefully craft a nuanced, realistic relationship between the two. The gradual pacing in how Patroclus and Achilles go from wary strangers to companions to good friends to lovers is incredibly well done. It's also worth pointing out that many, many retellings of the Trojan War era choose to leave their relationship ambiguous or interpret it solely as a friendship, so Miller should be lauded for her temerity in acknowledging the fact that their relationship may have been romantic.

Although Patroclus and Achilles are the most important and most well-developed characters, The Song of Achilles has no lack of strong secondary character characterizations, mortal and immortal alike. Achilles' mother, the sea nymph Thetis, has a fairly significant role in this novel, both as Achilles' greatest supporter and as Patroclus' most dangerous enemy. Odysseus is as wily as ever, but he also has a more vulnerable side here. Briseis, far from being the woman who could break Achilles and Patroclus apart, becomes Patroclus' closest confidante. Miller's story touches up many of major players, taking them off the pedestals of time and turning them human. 

The prose in The Song of Achilles is lovely, but I found that it ultimately became a double-edged sword. For the sake of lovely writing, the ten-year-old Patroclus narrating the story from his first-person perspective does not end up sounding like a boy. Reading Patroclus' descriptions of his feelings, surroundings, and of others (especially Achilles) caused me to pause more than once. I tried to be generous and reason that perhaps this is an older Patroclus reflecting back on his youthful experiences. In a way, perhaps that is what Miller intended. But Patroclus' inner descriptions never quite meshed with the spoken dialogue of the characters, especially in the interactions between Patroclus and Achilles. Consequently, I felt a sense of disconnect between Patroclus as our narrator and Patroclus as the boy who grows into a man in Ancient Greece.

After concluding the book, I think I've come to understand just why few authors have chosen Patroclus as their protagonist. For the sake of those few readers who are unfamiliar with how the Trojan War unfolds, I'll avoid giving any specific spoilers. Suffice it to say that by the end of the novel, Patroclus proved to be a poor choice as narrator, forcing Miller to write the final chapters in a stilted and awkward fashion. I appreciate that Miller brought life into an underrepresented yet integral character from the Trojan War, but I do not think that making Patroclus the protagonist was the correct move considering the scope of the story that Miller wanted to tell.

While this book did not work for me quite as well as I had expected it would, a quick glance at Goodreads or Amazon shows that my opinion is not a common one. The Song of Achilles is a well-researched and impressive story, but many of Miller's narrative techniques were not ones that I could personally enjoy. I think this might work best with those who aren't as familiar with the Trojan War as I, or those who aren't as nitpicky about the issues that I mentioned.

Rating: 2.5 stars
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September 13, 2013

Review: Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller
Published: September 24, 2013, Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: ebook
Source: eARC from publisher via Netgalley
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I want traditions. Eggnog. Peace on earth, goodwill toward man. I want to kiss Alex Kosta under the mistletoe. I want memories untarnished by ugliness. I want all of that without feeling guilty about wanting it. And I want my mom to get help—although peace on earth is probably a more realistic goal. 

Callie has spent her life on the run with her mother. After her parents divorced when she was five, Callie's mother kidnapped her, and, over ten years later, Callie has grown used to a life on the road. With each stop comes a new identity for them, perhaps a new man for her mother. But no friends, no education, no consistency. 

And then her mother gets arrested one night and Callie finds herself being flown across the country to live with her father and his family in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Callie learns that her name is actually Callista, that she's part of a large and loving Greek family, and that her father has never stopped searching for his missing little girl. Callie's new life may seem idyllic, but the transition is anything but easy as she comes to terms with what she wants, what she deserves, and what is best for her.

It's a commonly accepted idea that people are defined by their relationships. Who we choose to spend time with, tell our secrets to, and love, reveals much about who we are. Trish Doller seems to adhere to this belief, as I found Where the Stars Still Shine to be a character study of Callie driven primarily by the relationships she forges. At the beginning of the novel, it was Callie and her mother against the world. As Callie comes to realize that the truth is much more complicated than that, so, too, do her feelings for her mother become more complicated. Is her mother loving-but-concerned or vindictive-and-crazy? And is there even a middle ground between those two possibilities? Callie struggles convincingly with those questions and how they affect her past and future.

Her mother may form the only significant relationship of Callie's past, but there to compete for a place in her present are her father, his new family, her cousin Kat, and attractive sponge diver Alex Kosta. I think the scenes between Callie are her father are some of the most powerful, as they both come to realize that the reality of their relationship is different than they expected and will require more than a little work to make right. By the book's conclusion, I still felt as though any resolution between the two of them remained elusive, at best. Is that realistic? Of course. But that doesn't mean that I wished for a little something more during the course of the novel.

I also enjoyed the gradual, hesitant friendship that Callie forms with her second-cousin Kat, as well as all the glimpses that the reader (and Callie) get of what life is like for those who belong to a large, supportive Greek family. Without a drop of Greek blood in my veins myself, I found Doller's portrayal of Greek culture and family to be very interesting. I cannot speak to the authenticity of it all, however.

Romance has a pretty significant role in this book, but for the most part I didn't mind it. Callie and Alex's relationship is not the quintessential teen epic love saga, nor can it quite be described as a summer fling. Both characters have their fair share of flaws and difficulties, and they don't always bring out the best in each other. But what they do bring out in each other is another step towards healing and self-acceptance on both sides. And with that said, I appreciated how and when Doller chose to end the novel. Not everything is tidily resolved, but neither should it be. Callie's going to carry emotional scars for the rest of her life, but at least readers can rest assured that she's strong enough to get better.

My main complaint is in the book's lack of treatment for emotional and mental trauma. Callie has some issues adjusting to her new life, and her family has some issues adjusting to her presence. I understand that her dad wanted to do whatever possible to ease her transition into her new life, but I do not understand why there were no mentions of therapy or just anything that would help her adjust to her life. I mean, none of the characters in Tarpon Springs has any idea of what Callie has endured. I get waiting for her to come to them and explain, I do. But, I just feel like in this sort of instance, there should have been some sort of specialist involved. And another slight issue I had related to the fact that Callie hasn't been to school in years, and yet she's incredibly well-read. Sure, people can teach themselves to read to some degree, but the degree to which she taught herself rang a bit false in my mind.

Really, though, the positive aspects of this book far outweigh the issues I had with it. Where the Stars Still Shine portrays the very beginning of a teen girl's journey toward normalcy, which I appreciated very much. Doller convincingly explores what happens to people when it seems as though their problems are solved. Callie has left her abusive (emotionally, at least) and unreliable mother for a stable life with a loving family. But that doesn't mean that everything is now easy for her, nor should it. Strong, believable characterizations are particularly where this novel shines. If her future novels are anything like this one, I definitely see myself reading more of Doller's work.

Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimers: I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the finished copy. 
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