May 24, 2016

Surveying Stories: The risks of rage in Robin Stevens' Wells & Wong mysteries

Literature trends toward patterns or themes which repeat -- sometimes because that's just what happens to hit the market at a given time, and other times it's the current zeitgeist and an active interest which people are seeking to promote. Occasionally, I observe these themes or topics in a certain author's work, and try to work through the ideas of what I find intriguing. This is an occasional series which proposes to study these elements in children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!


        'Hallo, foreign girl,' said Daisy - for, of course, that golden-haired girl was Daisy.

        'Hallo,' I said shyly.

        ...'Foreign girl,' said Daisy, 'we're going to play a game. We've decided to let you join in - and that's unusual for us.' My heart jumped. 'It's a test, really we want to see who can stick it out longest in that trunk. Kitty thinks no one could do it for more than ten minutes, but I think it'd be easy. And we want you to go first. It is your trunk, after all. What do you say?'

        Today, I can't think how I could ever have fallen for it. But at the time I was simply excited to think that I might be making friends already - and that someone so beautiful should want me to be friends with her. So I nodded.

        ... It took Matron three hours to find me, and when she did, she was almost frying with rage. She asked me who had been responsible - but, of course, I knew I could not tell her without being a rat. For a week I had to spend my lunch breaks sitting beside her and sewing up holes in socks - but it was worth it when Daisy clapped me on the back and said, with admiration in her voice, 'Not bad, foreign girl.'

        I suppose, in a way, I have been getting into trunks for Daisy ever since, without stopping to ask why. This is the first time I have wondered if it is really all worth it.' (Murder Most Unladylike, p. 147-9)


When in Murder Most Unladylike we first encounter the narrative voice of Wong Fun Ying - known to her British classmates only as Hazel Wong - she is in her second year at Deepdean School for Girls, having made a place for herself trailing the famous Daisy Wells, another third former who is universally known to be "a good sport," which means a lot to British girls in the 1930's. Hazel, however, is not a good sport. She's lumpy and spotty, unenthused and uncoordinated at games and has stubbornly straight, dark hair, in contrast to Daisy's well known sports prowess and golden-blonde curls. Despite having come from China and being considered both exotic and outré by the other girls, Hazel mostly feels that she is a boring disappointment, and certainly not up to the glorious Daisy's standards. One of the small joys of reading Stevens' first book and its sequel, Arsenic for Tea is standing outside the character of Hazel to observe Daisy -- and as a reader, seeing Hazel see her allegedly "best" friend underestimate her, snub her, and treat her as if she were a lesser being... and to observe Hazel grow increasingly angry, and acknowledge that feeling.

There is so much tension in this narrative as well - because Hazel is dealing with racism of the daily sort - microaggressions that chafe like fiberglass cuts against her bewildered heart. She doesn't know how to deal with the girls who insist that her father is an opium smuggler (he's a banker), who call her "foreign girl" and play mean pranks (one of the staff speaks loudly and slowly to her, as if she is hard of hearing), who make snide remarks and then excuse themselves with a perfunctory "Sorry."

Racial tensions. Microaggressions. Murder. Just your everyday middle grade fare. From the very first book, there has seemed to me that there is an exceptional amount of anger in these stories, and additionally, an exceptional amount of risk in Hazel's anger. Getting angry, or being angry with a queen bee in anyone's school is nothing new in middle grade lit of course, but in Hazel's case it is risky because of the high social standing of her very English friend. Hazel's questionable social standing as an Asian girl who is decidedly nonwhite yet not nonwhite enough puts her on very shaky ground. Anger, she knows, could end with her being entirely isolated and rejected by her very small set of friends, and ignored by all of the girls in her year, as well as the shrimp, which are the much younger girls (the older girls consider her year beneath contempt already). Yet, Hazel can't help it. What she generally excuses as "just being Daisy becomes increasingly infuriating. Daisy believes herself to be, after all, always right. Even if she has to pretzel the truth to believe in it.

In Arsenic for Tea (or Poison Is Not Polite in the States), Hazel is invited to Daisy's for the school holiday, later joined by Kitty and Beanie, two other of their classmates, to celebrate Daisy's fourteenth birthday. It is immediately and terribly apparent that All Is Not Well with Daisy's parents, and by the time the party commences they are spiteful and cold to each other, in front of everyone. Daisy's response is to grow more falsely bright and brittle, denying the humiliation and shame of it all. When it's clear there's a mystery afoot, her insistence on isolating Hazel from the other girls, insisting, "Detective Society only!" brought back a scene from the first books, where Lavinia, another of their dorm mates, tells Hazel that Daisy only likes her because,

         'You're practically her slave.'

        'I am not!' I said furiously. 'Daisy's my best friend!'

        'Huh,' said Lavinia. 'Some friend. She uses you - haven't you noticed? And she only took an interest in you because you're an Oriental. Herr uncle is a spy - that's why foreigners interest her.' (Murder Most Unladylike, p. 107)

While in the moment, Hazel of course doesn't respond well to this, but she's not stupid. Though she may not like something that is said or done to her, she inspects it and turns it over in her mind, which is what really makes her a first-class junior detective. In Murder First Class (which is a lovely full-on tribute to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express), Hazel merely stuffs down her frustration when she and Daisy disagree on how to deal with a boy their age, a boy whom Daisy by turns tries to charm and to discourage, unable to figure him out. To Daisy, he must be Dealt With and categorized in some fashion. However, in Jolly Foul Play (no American printings for either book yet) Hazel and Daisy's friendship breaks entirely -- because Hazel dares to be friends with someone Daisy doesn't like, and to continue her correspondence over Daisy's disapproval, and finally outright shaming. When she cannot entirely own Hazel's affections, Daisy becomes hostile - and communication breaks down. And all of frustrated rage Hazel feels simply explode into surprising action.

Hazel finally venting her rage was at first a little disappointing to me, a little nonspecific. Their blow-up is tied to a single incident and doesn't account for all of the little troubling thing that have cropped up in their four-year-friendship. However, realistically, digging up the past is not the action of a person trying to keep a friendship, and figure out how to maintain it though it's problematic.

Though taking the risk of expressing herself was necessary, resolution is very much an immediate desire of at least Hazel, though Daisy always takes much longer to feel her own need of friendship. And, Hazel very much needs her friendship with Daisy - both to tie her successfully to her other dorm mates and chums who rely on Daisy's goodwill, but also Hazel very much relies on the feeling of competence and warmth she receives from Daisy, which she does not receive from matron or the other teachers or much of British society as a whole. In turn, Daisy needs the loving, admiring gaze of Hazel, the one person who can disagree with her, and who questions her, not in an aggressive way, to topple her from her position and popularity, but to keep her honest and to give her a bit of perspective. Hazel is a good friend who also seems to understand that Daisy is almost... impaired. Because of her privilege, it's nearly impossible for her to see things Hazel's way, to put herself in Hazel's shoes. She lacks the maturity and the painful life experiences Hazel has had. But, in her limited way, she does try. And this Hazel deems sufficient.

I honestly don't know where else I've run across another friendship like this. Somehow, the author balances things so that Hazel doesn't seem impossibly forgiving, but because we "hear" her grumpy, griping inner mind, she somehow comes across in her dealings with Daisy as simply... realistic.

This series is ongoing, and I look forward to seeing how Robin Stevens grows this tricky relationship between two maturing girls, one of whom believes herself to be the social better of the other, though in reality Hazel's family is much wealthier than Daisy's, and they have far more servants. I'm still very much intrigued by the tightly-written mysteries, but even moreso by the evolution of Daisy's emotional maturity. Will she ever see Hazel as her equal? How will things change if Hazel grows out of her lumpiness and sees herself as attractive - and not a subordinate to the Western ideal of golden blondeness? Though as of yet, the American stereotype of the brilliant Asian student isn't in place in 1935 England, what if Hazel excels beyond Daisy in school - at a sport, academically, or somehow socially? What if she solves a mystery without her? Despite their tenuous acceptance of the other, these types of changes might still trouble their friendship, so I look forward to seeing what else will come.


I purchased my copies of all the books discussed. You can find FIRST CLASS MURDER and JOLLY FOUL PLAY by Robin Stevens through the online e-tailer The Book Depositry, or another UK retailer.

May 23, 2016

The Comfort of Rereading

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl: I must have read and reread it at least half a dozen times growing up. Maybe, dare I say, a dozen. Roald Dahl's books were perennial favorites for me, but especially this one and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They meant so much to me, in fact, that I still haven't seen the most recent movies of either one because I don't want the books to be ruined. (The Gene Wilder movie, though: amazing.)

When I got a bit older—as a tween and teen—I found myself rereading a lot of my favorite Madeleine L'Engle books, in particular A Ring of Endless Light and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. And, though I cringe a little to admit it, I also reread several favorite Sweet Valley High books. (Rereading Sweet Valley High was not only a guilty pleasure but also provided the slight satisfying twinge of schadenfreude resulting from watching them do crazy things I'd never do and suffering the consequences.)

I was actually kind of a reading and rereading machine as a youth. And in retrospect, not only did I reread books simply because I loved them, I also turned to familiar reads when I needed comfort. My parents were divorced, and I regularly spent fairly long stretches of time at my dad's house over the summer and on weekends. If I was upset or missed my mom or was just plain bored, I would draw or read, and often I'd pick up something I'd read before, picturing myself as James finding the giant peach that allowed him to escape the nasty Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker and traverse the world with his new insectile friends who appreciated him for who he was.

As an adult, it's harder to find time or justification to reread books. As a writer, being widely read is encouraged, and between reading broadly and reading deeply within one's own genre, that doesn't leave a lot of room for old favorites. Despite that, I've managed a few rereads in recent years. I "needed" to reread The Winner's Curse and The Winner's Crime to properly appreciate Book 3, for instance. But this past week I found myself rereading purely for comfort for the first time in a long time. Under a lot of stress, and feeling rather unenthusiastic about reading anything that might even remotely remind me of the writing I'm currently failing to do, I flipped through my Kindle books and landed on a newer classic: the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce. Determined, spunky girl with sword works hard, then harder; Alanna is truly special, one of a kind, not like the others around her but nevertheless loved and respected for her abilities, her loyalty, and her diligence.

If you know me, you'll know I have trouble resisting the urge to be an armchair psychologist. (A BA in Psychology only earns you an armchair; you need a Ph.D. to get that fancy chaise longue.) But anyway, I can't help reading something into my choices of books that I returned to over and over. In childhood, it's easy to see simple escapism in my selections. Later, I liked reading about characters who were underappreciated and yet special, learning over time to master their skills and prevail. That hasn't changed, clearly—and it probably says something about me and how I see myself. It probably says a lot about how I wish I could be, just as rereading James and the Giant Peach was a reflection of a wish: a wish for escape, for empowerment, for rescue from a situation in which I felt helpless. Maybe now, rereading the books about the kingdom of Tortall, I'm feeling a similar desire to escape from what feels like a lot of externally imposed obligations, just as Alanna was escaping from her predetermined life in the convent by disguising herself as a boy and training to be a knight.

Or maybe I just wish I could hit things with a sword…

What are your favorite rereads? What books could you read over and over and never get sick of? I want to know!

May 20, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: GENA/FINN by HANNAH MOSKOWITZ & KAT HELGESON

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Once, long ago, I used to watch Daria and then get RIGHT online to talk about it. Though I didn't write stories or draw pictures about it, I had favorite characters and discussions with people all across the country - and the world - about that show. Reading this novel made me smile - and cringe - because it was very, very real in terms of the "feels" behind the forums. And yes, I just outed myself by mentioning Daria, and did I already mention that was long, LONG ago?? Okay then.

Synopsis: Up Below is a police show starring two hunky guys which everyone loves - especially Gena and Finn. They light up their fandoms weekly, talking to internet friends about their favorite characters, analyzing the script and each interaction. Finn draws fanart, while Gena does in-depth "fixes," rewriting disappointing episodes or bridge mini-episodes to make things make more sense. It's more than a way to pass the time; it's a huge part of Gena and Finn's social lives. Real life is sometimes more boring. Gena is a recent high school graduate, leaving a posh boarding school for a Seven Sisters college, while Finn has been out of college - she went to a state school - for awhile, and while job hunting learns just how useful her humanities degree really isn't. Finn feels like she's too dependent on her boyfriend, Charlie, who's paying way more of the rent and necessities than she is. Her parents keep wondering when she'll come home - or get married - but she's only twenty-two, right? It's too soon for all of that. Maybe Charlie doesn't even really know her - I mean, he doesn't even know about her fandom artwork, or her online friends. And his World of Warcraft buddies are just not the same. Not at all.

Meanwhile, Gena is dying to get away from high school, but college turns out to be... horribly "yay, let's all learn together" perky, when real life is anything but. Gena's parents, globe-trotting and always unresponsive, are even worse than usual, when she needs them more than she can articulate. Only Finn is there for her - and soon, she's leaning far harder than is healthy.

From meeting in real life at a Con to emailing, texting, and writing back and forth, the girls' friendship deepens rapidly. And then it hits a gray area. Charlie's not sure he has a girlfriend anymore - and Finn's not sure exactly how she feels about Gena. Gena is needy, young, and scared. Finn and the show is all she has -- and she's always in fear of Finn. How far does one go for friendship? How much is too much, for someone whose TV interest you share? Is that enough to love someone? To make them family?

A novel full of the messy and confusing things which can mean love - or security - or keeping faith with friendship, and the risk and rewards of dragging a friendship out of a digital screen and into real life.

Observations: In part, I related a lot to Finn in this novel. I was older than a lot of the other fans on the Daria boards, and found it weird to be a post-college student talking about things that really mattered to me to... high school students. Not that there's anything wrong with high school students, but it felt ...odd, the power dynamics mismatched, and -- just weird. Potentially exploitative. Every conversation was potentially filled with minefields of misunderstandings, and it was surprising - and distressing - to see how much the snide comment or hurtful opinion of some stranger on the forum could sting. Talking intently and critically about what we love in our art can be a big part of our lives - but as Finn learns, it's only one part, and sometimes that part is unsupportable in conjunction with Real Life. In the case of this novel, Real Life quickly becomes huge and unwieldy.

I was not sure how to feel about the emotional gray area the girls moved into so quickly. Not that their emotional dependence on each other was a gray area - there was fairly clear codependency, which was scary - but the gray area of them being unable to define their relationship -- and refusing to do so. They both seemed to forget that how we regard each other is a choice... but it was clear that with the scalding emotional temperature of the constantly-in-touch-no-distance digital relationship that they both lost boundaries.

As for Finn's boyfriend, I think Charlie was written as super-human in this novel, ever giving, ever forgiving, ever loving - and completely, crazily unrealistic for a young man whose life gets upended by this fandom friendship. This, in part, is why thoough the two parts of the novel are each written really well, the novel feels bisected, for me, like two pieces that don't quite have a bridge.

The novel ends not unhappily, but enigmatically, with the conflict and the vast highs and lows abruptly leveling out. I wasn't sure how to feel about that, either, but it could definitely be described as realistic. This novel accurately reflects the experiences of being part of a fan forum, the definite highs and lows, and how we weave the pieces of our lives online so tightly with the lives of others.

Conclusion: Messy, complex -- yet real. Internet Fandoms and IRL friendships sometimes have undefined parts, and are a never-to-be forgotten part of growing up for a lot of young adults. While I can't say I loved this novel, it perfectly depicts the life in this confusing and by turns straightforward novel about the real staying power of love, however it's defined.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Chronicle Books. You can find gena/finn by Hannah Moskowitz & Kat Helgeson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 19, 2016

Throwback Toon Thursday: Psychobabble from Four Years Ago

I'm trying to come up with a new installment of Psychobabble for Writers, but I've been too busy to get inspired (or, for that matter, to even think about a new and original post of any kind...). Therefore, here is a Toon Thursday from the past for your enjoyment and delectation.

May 17, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: 100 DAYS OF CAKE by SHARI GOLDHAGEN

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It's National Mental Health month, and I've been looking for books which fit the theme. While this book has a great many negatives for me, not the least because there is an unethical relationship with an adult that has a serious power differential involved, I found this book particularly interesting for its accurate depiction of depression. Reading this book was in some ways like watching a really slow car crash - all parties knowing it was a crash, too, but no one ever applying the brakes. That's what depression's like sometimes; it lies to you and says, "Why bother? There's no point." That's where the story begins.

Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Molly Byrne is dragging through life. Ever since she ran away from a big swim meet - and thereby disqualified her whole team - she's been feeling like THAT little freakout is tattooed across her forehead in blazing red letters. LOSER! Despite the best intentions of her new medication, she can hardly look at herself in the mirror... but her natural-fiber wearing, stereotypical hippie-vegan bestie, Elle, has stuck with her regardless. Elle, whose rabid insistence on confronting strangers about their recycling habits sometimes makes Molly cringe. Elle, whose chipper insistence that Molly's job at FishTopia is oppressing fish, and she can't visit her there...still, no matter how loopy, good friends are hard to find. Just look at The Golden Girls, Molly's favorite TV show. Those four ladies never stay mad, and as old as they are, they'll be friends 'til the end... Unlike Molly's little sister Veronica. V. used to be one of Molly's biggest fans, but since she started working at the swanky jewelry store she does, they hardly ever speak. And Molly's mother treats her like she's spun glass, and a raised voice might make her break. Her 100 days of baking cakes as a weird family "bonding" thing is driving Molly crazy. It's a good thing she still has her shrink, Dr. B -- even if she's not exactly telling him everything about her life.

What really stresses Molly is that her Senior year is zooming toward her at an alarming pace - and it represents The End of All Things. Everyone is talking, talking, talking about GPA's and safety schools and she just wishes everyone could just -- STOP. Molly feels like she's caught in an avalanche of change, and she can't find a thing to hold on to. If only the world didn't have to change: not her job at FishTopia, not her easy friendship with her workmate, Alex, not her weekly visits with Dr. B, where she sits and gazes at his heroic jaw... nothing. She could watch Golden Girls reruns all afternoon, and Molly would even put up with Mom and her cakes if it meant that everything could stay the same, Molly could at least catch her breath. But, if you're not growing, you're dying - and even cakes have to come out of the nice warm oven sometime. Molly's tumble into reality - learning that FishTopia is being turned into a diner - is tough, but it's at least giving her ONE thing worth fighting for... if she could only figure out if there's anything else, everything would be perfect.

Observations: Many readers will find this a fun, contemporary romance of a girl who had a bad school year and a weird summer, pulling it together before the next school year. It will read, to many people, like a novel about a little bump in a girl's life, with a largely white cast of "normal" teens who shop at Hot Topics and make up much of the landscape of a lot of contemporary YA - which it exactly what this novel is. As Kirkus comments, for a book about depression, it's surprisingly happy-go-lucky. I'm going to look at this book, however, through the critical lens of mental health, which gives me slightly different viewpoints, and causes me to draw slightly different conclusions than many readers will. That being said, this is a book which is funny and fun in a lot of ways, and I can see some teens enjoying it greatly.


Readers familiar with the vicissitudes of depression with readily identify with Molly's long days of sleeping, her inability to even cross the room to turn off her alarm, her lack of hygiene and her sudden enthusiasms for inane little things, like her hermit crab, which only last until something isn't perfect about it. Her best friend and her sister loathe each other, and Molly can barely perk up an interest to wonder why. Her mother is frantically baking, and Molly doesn't have the heart for cake - especially her mother's badly baked ones. She seems to have a classically panicked reaction to failure at the swim meet just as everyone in her life is priming for Ultimate Graduate Success, and it's understandable. However insurmountable Molly's issues seem from the perspective of a reader, though, I found myself frustrated that a lot of things could have been solved by characters who could use their words, and communicate.

A longstanding lie which shapes Molly's life is revealed. When she discovers that what she believes isn't true from her younger sister, she is devastated and shocked. Both the lie and the fact that her sister was burdened with the knowledge while it was kept from her just shot my brows skyward. The mother in the novel really failed both girls in some colossal ways that could have been very dangerous.

Throughout the novel Molly's workmate, Alex, asks her out. Repeatedly. She feels stressed by this to the point of panic attacks. While his friendship is something Molly really values, the idea of being In A Relationship causes stress - and that should have been okay. It was handled badly between the two of them, feelings were hurt, etc. Instead of using their words and working through that, in the conclusion of the novel, Molly battles her "fears" and asks him to dinner. I found myself wishing that could have gone any number of other ways which allowed her to be fearful of a capital 'r' Relationship but cherish a friendship. I was disappointed that just because he liked her, and she was undecided, she seemed to feel that she had to do the dating ritual with him in order to keep his presence in her life.

While the 100 Days of Cake was an interesting gimmick, I was surprised that there was NO discussion of sugar's impact on a person's mood. The novel had the stereotypical hippie-vegan built in, and she was already being pitched into a lot of stereotype about people who don't eat dairy, yet she said nothing. Any discussion about sugar being an accelerator to a bad mood, about dopamine production and crashes, about eating disorders being something that sometimes happens with depression - none of these ever happened. Molly's therapist KNEW her mother was making all of these cakes, and yet...? I found it really surprising that no one confronted the cliché that sugar makes everything better.

No spoilers, but... Two things REALLY bothered me in this novel. There is the aforementioned inappropriate relationship, then there's an assault which is left unreported. Regardless of whose fault it was, or who went where and "started it," etc. etc., it's left unreported, and the victim takes the responsibility onto herself. We know this happens statistically 80% of the time, that women and girls in the real world don't report, but I found it really troubled me, as the not-reporting seemed less about passivity or fear and more about "well, it wasn't his fault." While Molly is seeing a therapist for one issue in her life, it's a shame that the other is left unspoken.

Second, and no less importantly, I was deeply disappointed by the slut-shaming in the novel. Perky, bubbly, cheerleader Elle constantly degrades Molly's young sister, Veronica, because she wears stacked heels, clothes which reveal her arms or sides, and short dresses. The word "slut" is used more than once. These repeated incidents of hostility and nastiness made me want to scream. No one spoke TO Veronica to ask her why she was dressing that way, and Molly repeatedly admitted that she thought that her sister looked amazing - but she neither told her, nor did she correct her friend. That sort of thing is good for NO ONE'S mental health, and the whole idea of Elle's solidarity and sisterhood with the earth was ironic, when she couldn't even begin to see the damage she might be doing to a fellow human with her garbage. You're fine to wear what you want, but you're everything that's wrong with America. I couldn't understand where that came from, but found it remarkable that all of that cleared up when Elle got a boyfriend of her own. As far as the reader is concerned, Elle never apologizes to Molly's little sister, but apropos of nothing, Veronica mentions that she's a virgin -- which apparently makes it all okay, and apparently the abuse all rolls off of this fifteen-year-old girl's back. To which I said, "What?" Unacceptable.

Conclusion: A depressive teen addicted to a syndicated sitcom about witty old people who fix their problems in thirty minutes is a perfect metaphor for someone who hopes her depression can be cured in time for Senior portraits and a great future. It's not going to happen, of course; but in the meantime, this is a quirky, lighthearted novel of a family who did their best - even if it wasn't the right thing - and who weathered a rocky patch with lots and lots of cake.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After May 17th, you can find 100 DAYS OF CAKE by Shari Goldhagen at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 13, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: DEW ANGELS by MELANIE SCHWAPP

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Nola Chambers is a reminder that her family wasn't always the golden-skinned, fair-haired folk who can stand proud and nearly-white in their village of Redding. Nola reminds her father that the woman he married had very dark antecedents. It's not a reminder he appreciates, it's a reminder that causes snickers and whispers in the town, and his anger over the incident of Nola's birth marks her for life -- literally. By the time Nola is in middle school, her body bears scars from her father's disgust. Her mother - silent and wan - simply works, avoiding the chronic angers of her home, making a home for her husband wherein his restless furies can sometimes be silenced. Nola is still young enough to be bewildered. Why, she wonders, does her father hate her? Why is her luck so bad? How can her mother not protect her?

At school, her isolation leaves her nothing to do but work hard. Her grades are high. Her loneliness - unbroken except for Dahlia, the ugly, silly daughter of a suspected whore, an affront to the pious village. Nola wishes Dahlia would go away - but since she's the only one who tolerates her, it seems unkind to chase her away. Nola's brokenness doesn't escape the eyes of her teacher. The ponderously shaped woman pairs Dahlia and Nola for homework for the rest of term. Delroy, another classmate collared for fighting with Dahlia, is tossed into the unlikely mix as well. A bundle of three sticks, after all, can't easily be broken. "Never break" becomes Nola's private mantra. But it's not a belief she can sustain. When disaster ultimately takes everything from her - even her precarious place in her home - Nola and her teacher start over again in Kingston, with her teacher's niece, Petra, her baby, and her teacher's "bundle of sticks" which make up her chosen family. But, a city isn't a fresh start for a country girl. Beguiled by drugs and believing the world owes her, Nola bites the hand that brought her help and enters into another grueling cycle of helplessness and defeat -- until she meets someone who needs more help than she ever did. Pushed to rise to raise another, Nola finally finds her feet - finds her heart - and finds herself healed.

Observations: First self-published in the Caribbean in 2011, this novel was picked up by a British publisher two years later. Like other novels depicting life in Jamaica, this novel includes the cadence of language and the patois of the region, but readers will find a glossary unnecessary, as context clues are easily drawn from the scenes.

Though not as concisely written, this novel stands well alongside novels like PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, with its densely written, literary style - and also its violence by a parent and the compare-and-contrast world of "this is how I live/this is how they live" the narrator goes through. Nola's story arc carries her from grade school to finally becoming a successful high school graduate at nineteen - and takes her full circle back to her family home. It is not a story which brings up feelings of softness and fullness at its conclusion, but of a flint-edged satisfaction that the reader has waded through the story to discover the main character has survived.

Colorism isn't something many Americans understand thoroughly, as the bizarre legal structures historically erected against people of color in America has been based only marginally on skin tone in contemporary times, but in other countries, it's much more prevalent. Seeing a "preference" become a disgust to this extent may be shocking to some readers, but for others, this will be a book to nod over and think, "Yeah, I've seen stuff like this." I can imagine it sparking many conversations.

Conclusion: Many young adults enjoy "disaster fiction;" books about The Worst happening, and apply their imaginations to how they would survive. Novels about abuse and suffering also fall into this subgenre; while many adults don't understand the appeal, it's important for some readers to find books which let them answer for themselves, "What would I do?"

Overall, this book is about survival - and it's at times a tough read. But knowing that people can not only survive, but thrive in spite of adversities is one of the gifts of realistic fiction targeted toward young adult readers.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After May 26, you can find DEW ANGELS by Melanie Schwapp at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent UK bookstore near you!

May 12, 2016

Thursday Review: THE WINNER'S KISS by Marie Rutkoski

Synopsis: Much as the cover of this one might suggest a romance novel or something particularly girly, don't be fooled. The Winner's Kiss is the conclusion to the trilogy that started with The Winner's Curse and The Winner's Crime, both of which I enjoyed immensely and both of which contain not only romance (though there's certainly some in there) but a healthy helping of action and political intrigue. If you haven't read the first two books yet, I'd say STOP READING THIS NOW AND GO READ THEM! If you're all caught up, though (I went back and re-read, and didn't regret it a bit), then you can safely read on without fear of any spoilers except the teensiest.

At the end of Book 2, Kestrel had just been betrayed by her father to the emperor, and sentenced to life in a work camp up in the frozen tundra. Book 3 opens with Arin not knowing any of this, instead returning to Herran with his new allies from the Eastern empire, the Dacrans, fearing what he might find out about Kestrel's betrayal. However, as he's soon to find out, she is imprisoned in a mining camp, digging for the raw materials for the explosive black powder the Valorians need to wage war on their enemies. She's never betrayed him at all, and this wrenching discovery ultimately brings Arin and Kestrel back together, this time as allies against everything she once held dear.

Observations: I like stories in which the characters succeed against difficult odds, get slammed down again and again only to ultimately rise in triumph. At the same time, it bothers me when a character is all ABOUT suffering and defeat, with no room left over for even the smallest of victories; I find it suffocating and disheartening. This trilogy, and the concluding book in particular, strike the right balance for me in general, even if I did want to give Arin a little smack upside the head now and then for being so willing to assume Kestrel would betray him.

Besides being a novel about love and betrayal, this is also a book about war (in many ways I'd call it a War Novel, actually), and it doesn't pull any punches about the terrible cost in terms of loss of life, people turning against one another, and the ravaging of the land itself. I credit the author's excellent research into the great and terrible wars of history, as well as the details of life during the Classical period and other past eras. Borrowing real-life details gives the story a richness and believability that is almost tangible, and as a writer working on some world building right now, I am in awe.

Conclusion: This is a very well written and deeply plotted trilogy that's in a genre I'd call "fantasy without magic"—an imaginary setting, but a world in which the rules (and the inhabitants) are very much like our own. As with all great fantasy, magic or not, it makes the reader think about this world a little differently.


I received my copy of this book as a birthday present. You can find THE WINNER'S KISS by Marie Rutkoski at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!