Valentine’s Giveaway!

Valentine’s Day was this past Friday, and in honor of the romantic holiday we have decided to run a giveaway of two romantic novels! Because there’s nothing wrong with celebrating in a belated way, right? Totally!

41150487._sy475_Book: “Red, White, & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, May 2019

Book Description: What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales?

When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius—his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.

Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through? Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.

Giveaway Details: Kate really loved this romantic and light story of the son of the President of the United States falling in love with the grandson of the Queen of England. First Son Alex is ambitious and gregarious, while Prince Henry is more reserved, and their initial rivalry, of course, turns into romance. “Red, White, & Royal Blue” was a runaway hit last year, and was one of the recipients of the 2020 Alex Award. It’s funny, heartfelt, and gives you a glimpse into a happier timeline where a woman is President and the U.S. isn’t in political shambles. Plus, both Alex and Henry are likable and easy to root for.

43192642._sy475_Book: “Realm of Ash” by Tasha Suri

Publishing Info: Orbit, November 2019

Book Description: The Ambhan Empire is crumbling. A terrible war of succession hovers on the horizon. The only hope for peace lies in the mysterious realm of ash, where mortals can find what they seek in the echoes of their ancestors’ dreams. But to walk there requires a steep price.

Arwa is determined to make the journey. Widowed by a brutal massacre, she’s pledged service to the royal family and will see that pledge through to the end. She never expected to be joined by Zahir, the disgraced, illegitimate prince who has turned to forbidden magic in a desperate bid to save those he loves.

Together, they’ll walk the bloody path of their shared past. And it will call into question everything they’ve ever believed…including whether the Empire is worth saving at all.

Giveaway Details: This was a favorite fantasy read for Serena in 2019. It’s technically the second book by this author set in her Middle East-inspired world, but it can easily be read alone. What makes it notable for this themed giveaway is the lovely slow-burn romance that develops throughout the book. In the midst of some incredibly unique fantasy twists and turns, it was lovely to watch the slow friendship and trust form between the young widow, Arwa, and the outcast prince, Zahir. Together, they will strive to save their country and learn what they will sacrifice in the name of love.

This giveaway for both books is open to U.S. Residents only and ends on February 24th at Midnight (EST).

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My Year with Jane Austen: “Sense and Sensibility” [2008]

250px-s26s_dvd_cover_2008Movie: “Sense and Sensibility”

Release Year: 2008

Actors: Elinor Dashwood – Hattie Morahan

Marianne Dashwood – Charity Wakefield

Colonel Brandon – David Morrissey

Edward Ferrars – Dan Stevens

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

The biggest difference between this movie and the 1995 version is the added length. It has at least an hour of extra running time which allows the story to both add in scenes and characters that were cut from the book as well as create some unique scenes that, for the most part, do enhance the story. That said, there were also a few mishaps in these added scenes and in the characterization of Willoughby. But overall, I think it did more right than wrong, in this aspect. Watching the two adaptations back-to-back was an entertaining process. It was clear that as much as this story was attempting to be faithful to the novel and be its own thing, the 1995 version was too beloved to completely ignore. There were several scenes or character beats that were clear mirrors to similar ones in the older movie, like some of the early scenes with Edward, Margaret, and Elinor in the library. It wasn’t a scene in the book, so it was a clear nod to the earlier, beloved movie.

I’ll go into more detail below, but I think I liked both actresses in both movies about equally. But the heroes are more split. I preferred Dan Stevens’ Edward here much more than Hugh Grant’s take on the character. Some of this is due to my own dislike of Hugh Grant, but some of it is also simply due to the choices that were made with the character here. Colonel Brandon is a tougher call. I think Alan Rickman’s is probably better, but the added time, again, does a lot for the character here and David Morrissey is still a good fit.

I really liked the use of the dramatic scenery in this movie. There are several moments when nature itself is used to highlight or mirror the internal emotions of the characters. The waves crashing, the driving rain, even the quiet of a seaside cave. It was all beautiful, and paired with a lovely score, the overall tone of the story felt perfect.

I’ve definitely watched this version more than the 1995 version. As I said in that review, I had almost forgotten how much I liked it and will likely increase my re-watching of it in the future. However, I think this one will likely to continue to beat it out overall, if only because, being longer, there’s just so much more of it to enjoy.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Both actresses are superb in their roles. They also both bring very different vibes to the characters than Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet did to theirs in the 1995 version. Morahan’s Elinor feels a bit more in line with the character, perhaps. Emma Thompson was almost a bit too perfect, making Elinor, a character who already walks the line of being unbelievable in her perfection, stand out even more above those around her. The solemnity of Morahan’s Elinor is combated by her wide-eyed bewilderment and innocence to the failings of many of those surrounding her. Wakefield leaned in strongly to the lively aspect of Marianne’s character. Due to the increased run time, more of the original lines from Marianne that highlight some of her more extreme romanticisms were included which helped flesh out her character here. Winslet’s version was a bit more refined, I think, but both are enjoyable. I’d have a hard time picking favorites between the four versions and can only really say that I enjoyed them all thoroughly in the adaptations they were in.

The longer running time was also nice in that it gave the story more room to focus on the the small moments in the Dashwoods family. We see a lot of added scenes with Elinor and Marianne, Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood, and even Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret. The movie was very successful in making the viewer feel that this was a real family with real relationships between them that were just as important, if not more so, than the romantic ones that are developing before us.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Like the 1995 adaptation, we see the most changes to the original text with how the heroes are depicted. Edward is given many more actual scenes interacting with Elinor in the beginning of the story, and, due to the increased length of this adaptation, we gain back a few scenes with him that were cut in the 1995 version, such as his visit to the Dashwoods about halfway through the story. I particularly liked this inclusion again as it helped keep Edward in the front of the mind (in the 1995 version he kind of fades into the background, making his reappearance towards the end of the movie a bit jarring). It also allowed for an additional small moment where we see him working off his feelings while cutting wood for the Dashwoods. He comments about how little help they have at the cottage and cuts himself off from saying more, though it is clear to the viewer that he is thinking about what he could do for them if he was free to marry as he wishes. I think it works really well as a wholly original added segment, giving viewers a better peak into Edward’s current mindset.

Colonel Brandon, too, benefits from the added time. We see more moments between him and Sir John while they’re hunting, a nice insight into Brandon’s friendship with characters who, on the surface, it would seem are not the type to attract his attention. The movie also adds back in the duel with Willoughby and a few added scenes between these two characters. Unlike the Edward moment, I’m not sure if these added scenes worked as well. I’ll go into more about the Willoughby/Brandon problems below, but even the duel was a bit strange. It seemed out-of-step with the rest of the movie and a Jane Austen story as a whole, feeling too dramatic and too unecessary. Nothing is actually resolved from this duel, it’s never mentioned again, and it doesn’t provide any insights into either character, except, perhaps, lowering Brandon to the level of petty dueling which feels amateurish and boorish and more inline with Willoughby than Brandon overall.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

One of my biggest criticisms of this adaption is the character of Willoughby. There are several things working against it for me, but two really stand-out: the choice of actor and several added scenes to the script. As I have more conflicted feelings about the latter choice, I’ll begin with the first. Dominic Cooper is routinely type cast as villainous characters. He’s not super well-known, of course, but for anyone who is familiar with him, it’s an instant giveaway for Willoughby’s being bad. He’s also type cast this way for obvious reasons, he’s simply excellent at being sleazy! So much so, however, that it’s almost impossible to buy his love for Marianne as being anything other than nefarious. This, in turn, makes her own blindness towards him (as well as her mother’s and Elinor’s as well) harder to understand and sympathize with. In the 1995 version of it, it’s easy to see the appeal of Willoughby, and Winslet’s Marianne is blithely shrouded in easy-to-understand youthful naivety.

What’s more, the script makes no effort to keep Willoughby’s villainy a secret. The movie actually opens with the scene of his seduction of Brandon’s ward and her abandonment. Cooper’s face isn’t shown, but he does speak, so careful listeners are immediately alerted when he later shows up. The creator mentioned that this scene was added because they felt that the seduction of Brandon’s ward, a truly awful act, is often easily skipped over, both by book readers and viewers of the 1995 movie. But, while I do think this concern has merit, particularly where the book is involved, it does hurt the movie as far as Willoughby himself. This problem is only compounded when only shortly after meeting Willoughby, the movie adds a scene between him and Brandon in which Brandon asks what his intentions are. Willoughby is shady, Brandon is honorable, it’s all fairly easy to put together.

This movie does include the scene where Willoughby shows up during Marianne’s illness to explain his side of things. But, by token of highlighting the true villainy of his previous acts, the movie undercuts the sincerity of feelings that Willoughby expresses for Marianne. In the book, it’s easier to discern the grey areas in which Willoughby exists and that his decisions are ones that will truly haunt him with the loss of Marianne. Here, you’re too busy disliking him to care about any true regret he may have.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

Like the 1995 movie, this version also flip flops the order of marriage proposals for Marianne and Elinor. It, too, recognizes the greater investment that the viewer likely has in Elinor’s relationship, thus using her happily ever after as the grand finale of the movie. While we don’t have Emma Thompson’s flamboyant crying, Morahan’s break down and frantic cleaning is perfect for the, up to this point, put together Elinor. I also liked how they showed the different circumstances of Marianne and Elinor once they’re married, with Marianne being romantically swept off her feet into a grand house and Elinor and Edward sharing a small domestic moment, laughing together as he chases chickens around their yard. It’s a nice coda to the different versions of love that they both have always aspired to. I also like how it helps highlight that while Marianne’s first choice wasn’t right and some of her extreme sensibilities were taken too far, she’s not “bad” or “wrong” for wanting the typical, romantic ending with the fancy house and grand husband.

This version also, like that earlier movie, makes more effort to show the growing love of Marianne for Brandon, unlike the book with its quasi “love will come with time but I kind of owe him this” approach. There are only a few short scenes, but they are compelling and classically romantic, highlighting the natural fit of Marianne and Brandon.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Since this version is so much longer, there was a lot of leeway to add back in characters who were missing in the 1995 version. This includes several characters who played pretty much solely for comedic purposes, like Lady Middleton and the elder Miss Steele. Miss Steele, similarly to her character in the book, has a bigger presence than Lady Middleton, who by definition is bland and uninteresting, and I was glad to see the character return. This also returns the story to the original version where she, not Lucy, is the one to reveal Edward and Lucy’s engagement. As vindicating as it was to see Lucy slapped down in the 1995 one, it did stretch the bounds of the imagination to think she’d be so taken in as to reveal a secret that she felt was important enough to have kept for 5 years prior. Her older sister, perfectly primed as a rather thoughtless blabber mouth, always made more sense, and it plays perfectly here.

While perhaps not “comedic,” I also enjoyed the extended scenes we get with their older brother, Mr. Dashwood. Mark Gastiss, who I knew of mostly from his role as Mycroft in “Sherlock,” is excellent in the role. He’s almost pitiable in how completely ruled he is by his wife, with his every small, good intention being quickly squashed by her.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Hattie Morahan and Dan Stevens appear together in “Beauty and the Beast” with him as the handsome prince/Beast (Edward is supposed to be plainish, so we can all agree that the “Beauty and the Beast” casting was better suited to Stevens’s natural good looks than Edward) and she as the Enchantress.

I knew of Dan Stevens first from “Downton Abbey,” so seeing him as a romantic hero was easy enough. David Morrissey, however, was more familiar as the Governor on “The Walking Dead,” so that was a bit of an adjustment. He also reportedly questioned whether another Jane Austen adaptation was necessary, but eventually signed on once he saw how much more action the men were given. Glad he came around, because he does an excellent Brandon here, a tough job after the superb Alan Rickman’s take on the character. But he shall never live down questioning the necessity of another adaptation!

There are a bunch of period costumes that are used repeatedly in Jane Austen adaptions. The actors, of course, are fun to spot popping up in various things, as I mentioned in the 1995 movie review. The re-used houses and locations are the next step of fandom obsession. But costume spotting between adaptations is truly where you know that you’ve arrived at perhaps an unhealthy state of re-watching. There were a bunch in this one, but the dress I did notice was a dotted dress that Marianne wore in this movie that Winslet’s Marianne wore as well in the 1995 movie. Apparently it’s also seen in “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion,” so I’ll look for it there, too, when I get to those.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

The script writer, Andrew Davies, is well-know for his work with many other Austen adaptations. In an interview, he mentioned that he felt pressure to do for “Sense and Sensibility” what he did for the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice,” which is commonly seen as the best adaptation of that work even today, going on 30 years later. To that purpose, he created this scene of Edward chopping wood in the rain in a flimsy white shirt to mirror the iconic scene where Colin Firth parades around in a similarly see-through shirt after jumping in a lake.

In two weeks, we jump into our next novel, the first half of “Pride and Prejudice!”

Kate’s Review: “The Third Rainbow Girl”

37655694Book: “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia” by Emma Copley Eisenberg

Publishing Info: Hachette Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In the afternoon or early evening of June 25, 1980, two young women, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, were killed in an isolated clearing in rural Pocahontas County West Virginia. They were hitchhiking to an outdoor peace festival known as the Rainbow Gathering, but never arrived. Their killings have been called “The Rainbow Murders.”

For thirteen years, no one was prosecuted, though suspicion was cast on a succession of local men. In 1993, the state of West Virginia convicted a local farmer named Jacob Beard and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Later, it emerged that a convicted serial killer and diagnosed schizophrenic named Joseph Paul Franklin had also confessed. With the passage of time, as the truth behind the Rainbow killings seemed to slip away, its toll on this Appalachian community became more concrete—the unsolved murders were a trauma, experienced on a community scale.

Emma Copley Eisenberg spent five years re-investigating these brutal acts, which once captured the national media’s imagination, only to fall into obscurity. A one-time New Yorker who came to live in Pocahontas Country, Eisenberg shows how that crime, a mysterious act of violence against a pair of middle-class outsiders, came to loom over several generations of struggling Appalachians, many of them
laborers who earned a living farming, hauling timber, cutting locust posts, or baling hay—and the investigators and lawyers for whom the case became a white whale.

Part “Serial”-like investigation, part Joan Didion-like meditation, the book follows the threads of this crime through the history of West Virginia, the Back-to-the-Land movement, and the complex reality contemporary Appalachia, forming a searing portrait of America and its divisions of gender and class, and its violence.

Review: I’ve mentioned this in the past about how my mother likes to send me book reviews from the New York Times or the Washington Post or what have you if she thinks that the book will be of interest to me. Such themes have included cults, murder, and a first scene which involved two men hooking up in a Bulgarian public restroom. Suffice to say, I’m always intrigued when a new review shows up in my inbox. So when she sent an article about “The Third Rainbow Girl” by Emma Copley Eisenberg, I knew that it was bound to be a spot on recommendation. And not only was it spot on, it was about a true crime cold case that I had never heard of until that moment! Mom comes through once again with the creepy and salacious reads!

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Who knows what kind of story will arrive in my inbox next? (source)

“The Third Rainbow Girl” is a dual narrative. One is the examination and dissection of a cold case murder from 1980 in which two women were found murdered in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and the woman who was their friend and narrowly missed being murdered herself. The other is a personal memoir by Eisenberg, who spent a few formative years working in Pocahontas county decades after the fact. These two narratives come together to paint a portrait of the community, the culture, and the various hardships and struggles the people have, as well as how the murders and the fallout affected those who live there. But they also tell the story of women trying to find their freedom in different ways, and how misogyny and violence can have a hefty price. The story of Nancy Santomero and Vicki Durian is a familiar one of women who meet a violent end, but the way that Eisenberg slowly peels back the layers of their story is haunting and depressing in how incomplete it feels, even if it’s kind of solved. From thrown out charges to an overturned conviction to the confession from notorious serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin (that ultimately was never pursued as charges because he was already on death row for two other murders), Santomero and Durian’s case has been a mystery, even if the case is technically closed. And the idea of the ‘hillbilly monster’ trope has been one that haunted it from the get go, as everyone in town was sure that it was someone local who was taking aggression out on the ‘hippie’ girls. And yet, if Franklin is to be believed, he was an outsider and certainly not the monster we’ve come to associate with pop culture depictions of Appalaichian predators, though far more dangerous than some “Deliverance” backwoods hick. For whatever reason, be it misogyny, or two victims who didn’t fit the ‘missing pretty white woman’ mold to a t (as while they were both white, neither Santomero nor Durian were seen as ‘pretty’ by media frenzy standards, and as hippie chicks had certain stigmas around them), or a community that had turned on itself, this murder is still incomplete, and still haunts Pocahontas County.

The other narrative, that of Eisenberg’s own experiences in Pocahontas County while working for VISTA, gives a little more context to the culture of the area, though it sometimes treads into ‘this could have been ME!’ territory. The title of the book refers to the Third Rainbow Girl, a woman named Elizabeth Johndrow who had been friends with Durian and Santomero but narrowly missed becoming a victim due to timing and sheer luck. You can see that Eisenberg relates to Johndrow, and on other levels Durian and Santomero, because of the need to explore the world and to find herself when she was young and living in the area, without knowing what would come of that need for adventuring. She experienced first hand the highest highs of living in Pocahontas County, and also saw the way that women are both taught to be tough while being cut down because of circumstance and the misogyny that is rampant in that culture, as it is in other American cultures, though Appalachia gets more scrutiny than some supposedly more progressive parts of the country. I thought that the memoir section of this book, along with the history lessons, definitely made me approach the subject matter with more compassion and a more open mind that I would have had it not been there. But that said, I did find some of the comparisons made between her life and the victims lives, even if not overtly, to feel a little self centered. Because of this, I wasn’t as connected to this part of the story, and wanted to get back to the case at hand as it unfolded and shifted.

Overall, “The Third Rainbow Girl” is a unique take on the true crime genre, and it examined themes that many true crime books don’t. I think that if you are looking for straight true crime it may not be the best fit, but if you want a little reflection and contextualization, you should definitely give it a whirl.

Rating 7: A cohesive and deep dive into a cold case that I was unfamiliar with, and while I liked the background provided to West Virginia, the memoir aspect felt a little shoehorned in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Third Rainbow Girl” is included on the Goodreads list “True Crime by Women and POC”.

Find “The Third Rainbow Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Age of Death”

30613608._sy475_Book: “Age of Death” by Michael J. Sullivan

Publishing Info: Riyria Enterprises LLC, February 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC

Book Description: Winter blankets the land, and more than just hope has died. Prevented from invading the Fhrey homeland by the tower of Avempartha, the western army seeks a way across the Nidwalden River before the fane obtains the secret of dragons. As time runs out for both humanity and the mystic Suri, the only chance for the living rests with the dead. Having made their fateful choice, can a handful of misfits do the impossible, or are they forever lost to an inescapable grave? Do gods truly exist? Is it possible to know the future? And what lies beyond the veil of death? In the tradition of Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, the most epic of tales transcend the world of the living. It’s time to see what lies in Elan’s Age of Death.

Previously Reviewed: “Age of Myth” , “Age of Swords”, “Age of War” and “Age of Legend”

Review: Sullivan is not only an established fantasy author, but I have to think he’s one of the most successful as a self-published author. Not only did he start out his career that way and manage to break into the major league standard publishing circuit, he also has now managed to go back to self-publishing and break all kinds of Kickstarter records for books. It also works well for his fans, as I, like many others, was able to get my hands on an early ebook copy. Kind of important after that cliffhanger in the last one! Alas, a cliffhanger was here too (warning!), but, a Kickstarter campaign starts up again shortly, so my wait time is again cut down. Thank god! All of that is neither here nor there to my overall review of the book, but it’s a kind of neat unique trait of these books that I like to highlight. But, the long and the short of it: per the usual for this series, I had a great time reading this book and am now hanging on hooks waiting for the grand finale!

The last book ended with our grand party sinking to their “death” in a disgusting bog, hoping to journey through the land of the dead to the realm of the Fhrey where their dear friend and most powerful ally, Suri, is being held captive. This book picks up immediately from there as our party begins to make their way through the various lands of the dead, meeting up with old friends and new foes along the way. Suri, on the other hand, is caught up in the political maneuverings of the power that be among the Fhrey people, trying to determine friend from foe while protecting the deadly secret of dragon-making, the only advantage the human army has had on their side during this decade-long war.

As this is the fifth book in the series, the characters are all pretty well-established. Aside from a one or two new character that we meet in the underworld, we spend most of our time with these familiar faces. Of course, the challenges they face in the underworld bring new elements of their characters to light, but for the most part, they are all largely as we have come to expect. Of them all, I seem to be enjoying Moya more and more. In this book we see her face some incredibly hard decisions and losses. But the characters who saw the most growth were the two that have walked the line of villainy to some extent to this point, who both feel that they may deserve to be in some of the deeper levels of this underworld.

As far as the underworld itself went, I enjoyed the version we were given here. There were elements of it that were fairly predictable, the groundwork being laid early in the story and predictably coming to fruition later. However, I didn’t feel that this detracted much from the story. There were a couple of character introduced here that did take me completely by surprise, however, and it was exciting to finally see them on the page given how often they had been referenced in other books.

My biggest struggle with this book, however, was the pacing. All of the books are clearly part of six part, epic series, so none of them can truly be read as standalones. That said, they all felt like they had clear beginnings and endings with at least one character seeming to experience an entire arch through the one book. Even the last with its massive cliffhanger felt fairly complete on its own. Here, however, it’s like we were given the Moria scene from “Lord of the Rings”…and that’s it. Nothing before and nothing after. There’s another cliffhanger, yes, but I went in expecting that. It’s more that the story as a whole didn’t really feel like its own thing in its own right. More than any of the others, this one felt like a chunk that had been removed from a larger book and then made its own book. Like it could have been the “Part II” of a bigger book. Again, this wasn’t a game changer or anything, but it did stick out more in this book than in others.

Per the usual now, I really enjoyed this book. On its own, I probably enjoyed it less than others just because it didn’t really feel like a complete book so much as a long section of the previous book and, likely, the last book combined. I also missed not seeing as much of Persephone. But I’m excited for the direction the story is taking with Suri and the Fhrey and, of course, the cliffhanger leaves a lot of tension built up that can’t be resolved quickly enough. Fans of the series so far will be both satisfied with this one and left in a similar position as before: impatient for the next (and last!) book to come!

Rating 8: Gearing up for the final book, this fun fantasy adventure struggles to hold its own as a complete work, but rocks as the next step in the whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Age of Death” is a newer title so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it is on “Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy Releases of 2020.”

Find “Age of Death” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Cheshire Crossing”

42583942Book: “Cheshire Crossing” by Andy Weir and Sarah Andersen (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Ten Speed Press, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The three meet here, at Cheshire Crossing–a boarding school where girls like them learn how to cope with their supernatural experiences and harness their magical world-crossing powers.

But the trio–now teenagers, who’ve had their fill of meddling authority figures–aren’t content to sit still in a classroom. Soon they’re dashing from one universe to the next, leaving havoc in their wake–and, inadvertently, bringing the Wicked Witch and Hook together in a deadly supervillain love match.

To stop them, the girls will have to draw on all of their powers . . . and marshal a team of unlikely allies from across the magical multiverse.

Review: I recently went back to work after taking my maternity leave, and one of my first tasks was to weed the children’s graphic novel section. I love a good weeding project, and whenever I go through graphics I usually find a few that I want to read, and by checking them out I spare them from being culled from the collection. This was how I stumbled upon “Cheshire Crossing” by Andy “The Martian” Weir. Was I surprised that the guy known for science fiction with hard science themes and snarky humor had written a graphic novel for kids/teens? For sure. But the fact that it starred Wendy Darling, Dorothy Gale, and Alice was incredibly fascinating to me (especially since these three have been brought together in graphic form before in Alan Moore’s, erm, shall we say ‘controversial’ “Lost Girls”.).

“Cheshire Crossing” is a cute and witty mash up of three well loved characters who played rather passive roles in their initial stories. While it’s true that Wendy, Dorothy, and Alice are all important figures within the stories they are from, and have become absolutely and rightfully beloved, they all kind of have things happen to them while the people and worlds around them do the ‘doing’. They wander through Wonderland, Oz, and Neverland acting as surrogates for the reader to explore, which is perfectly understandable. But in “Cheshire Crossing”, Weir gives them a lot to actually do, special powers that they bring to their initial visits, and explores what the consequences would be if three girls came back to their usual lives after going to magical places. It’s not too surprising that they are all seen as ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical’, and have had to spend time in asylums before coming to Cheshire Crossing, which knows that they are portals to other worlds. The idea of hysterical women, especially at the time that these books were originally written, was very common, and I really enjoyed that Weir explored how our world would have no doubt marginalized and taken any kind of agency from these girls (and something I noticed was that there was no mention of Michael or Peter Darling, which makes me think that the two boys haven’t been institutionalized). Alice especially has a lot to contend with, as her time in Wonderland wasn’t exactly ‘pleasant’. She is by far the most traumatized, and dour, of the girls, and the most interesting because of it.

The one criticism I had about this story is that not very much time was spent at Cheshire Academy itself. While I appreciated that Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy very well may be sick and tired of being taken from place and place and poked and prodded, I had hoped that we would be able to see a little bit more of the motivation of Cheshire Crossing, as the idea of a school that is teaching these girls to harness the powers that they have inside of them (as opposed to the powers that have been lent to them at their various magical visits) is really appealing to me. Instead the three girls hop from world to world, getting into more trouble and inadvertently hooking up Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West. Which is, admittedly, kind of the perfect pairing. Their nanny from Cheshire Crossing does follow them and try to keep them out of trouble (and it’s very heavily implied that this woman is Mary Poppins, though she isn’t called that by name), but she was cleaning up their messes as opposed to actively teaching them how to use their powers. Was it fun visiting Oz, Neverland, and Wonderland in this context? Sure! But I also wanted the grounding of the school so that the three girls could harness their powers even more. That said, this ended on something of a cliffhanger, and therefore there may be more stories in the future.

And finally, the illustrations are absolutely charming. They are done by Sarah Andersen of “Sarah’s Scribbles” fame, and the style is dreamy and pleasing to the eye.

cheshirecrossing-1
(source)

“Cheshire Crossing” is a fun exploration of three girls who deserve a little more credit and an expansion of three well loved fantasy stories. People who love Oz, Wonderland, and Neverland will find a lot to like!

Rating 7: A very cute mash up of three beloved children’s lit heroines, “Cheshire Crossing” has some good commentary on female marginalization during the time the original books were written.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cheshire Crossing” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Women Kicking Ass (Graphic Novels/Comics)”, and “Curiouser and Curiouser”.

Find “Cheshire Crossing” at your library using WordCat!

Bookclub Review: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood”

9516We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi

Publishing Info: Pantheon, June 2004

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Samantha Learns a Lesson” by Susan S. Adler

Book Description: Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love. 

Kate’s Thoughts

While it’s true that I read and reviewed “The Complete Persepolis” a couple years back, I really wanted to read it for book club. It was my turn for the American Girl theme, and I knew that I wanted to do “Samantha Learns a Lesson” (as Samantha has always been my favorite American Girl). So I decided that “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” would be the match up, as both are about girls from upper classes who have to learn hard social justice lessons about the lower classes in the society in which they are living.

My opinion of “Persepolis” hasn’t changed since I last addressed it here. It’s still one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, like top ten no question. But with the focus specifically on Satrapi’s childhood for this reading, mixed with the lens I had on social class, AND the current tensions the U.S. is having with Iran, this reading was all the more meaningful for me. Satrapi does a very good job of disseminating how Iran changed so fundamentally as a society in the aftermath of the fall of the Shah, and addresses the complexities of those changes, showing how it isn’t a black and white, right or wrong situation. She also points out her own privileges within Iran during the Cultural Revolution. While she was a girl and her family wasn’t as socially favored as some, they had enough wealth and means that not only could she carefully rebel against societal norms with little repercussions (though some of this was pure luck), she also wasn’t part of the social class that was being used as cannon fodder during the war with Iraq. Along with all that, she also had the means to be sent away for school in Austria when it was becoming clear that being a teenage girl was becoming more and more unsafe.

I’m so pleased that we read “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” for book club! It fostered a lot of good conversation, and I will take any excuse to revisit this stunning memoir.

Serena’s Thoughts

My only previous familiarity with this book was through reading Kate’s glowing review of the complete collection. But with that strong recommendation, I was excited to finally get the excuse (more like the push, but “excuse” sounds better) to finally read it myself. And, put simply, like always, Kate was spot-on in her stamp of approval for this title!

I will admit to having only the barest understanding of the events that happened during Iran’s Cultural Revolution. I knew the end result, of course, but had very little clarity on the progression of events. In that way, this book does a fantastic job at bringing reader’s down to the street level of a topic that is often discussed, at least here in the U.S., at very global levels. Her life also offers an interesting window, coming from an educated and modern family who have many privileges at their finger tips that can help mitigate the experience.But, with those privileges, we also see the increased strain of a change that is felt quite acutely, especially for a young girl growing into her teenage years. We see the burgeoning of the obligations towards social justice weighed against the practicalities of safety and one’s own welfare.

I also loved the illustration style of this book. The choice to use only black and white colors not only parallels the movement of a society towards a more black and white way of thinking about life, but leaves the readers to focus largely on the content before them. It is not “prettied up” in anyway that could distract from the fact that this is based upon a woman’s real life experience. That said, the style of drawing is also very approachable to young readers and nicely balances out the stark color palette.

I really enjoyed this book and am so glad Kate picked it for bookclub. Like the broken record I often am, I’m yet again thankful to be part of a group of readers who expose me to books that I would likely not get around to reading on my own.

Kate’s Rating 10: An all time favorite of mine that I will happily revisit over and over.

Serena’s Rating 10: A must read for fans of graphic novels and those looking for more insights into life growing up in Iran during the Cultural Revolution.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the choice to tell her personal story in graphic form? How do you think it would have been different had it been written in a traditional narrative structure?
  2. “Persepolis: A Story of a Childhoold” is set before, during and after the Cultural Revolution in Iran. How much did you know about this historical period before reading this book?
  3. Like Samantha, Marjane is a child who has to learn some hard truths about the society she’s living in as a child. Are there any obvious differences between how Marjane experienced this period vs other Iranian children from other backgrounds may have?
  4. In an interview Satrapi said that she wanted “Persepolis” to show that Iran wasn’t only the society and culture that is shown through western lenses (that of a fundamentalist culture). Do you think she succeeded? Why or why not?
  5. Captivity and freedom are themes that are prevalent throughout the narrative. What are some of the ways they are presented within the story?
  6. How does a persons personal history interact with the history of a society or a culture they live within? How do you think your own personal history ties with the history of your country?

Reader’s Advisory

“Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” can be found on the Goodreads lists “Best Memoir Graphic Novels”, and “Reading Recommendations for a Young Feminist”.

Find “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Serena’s Review: “Woven in Moonlight”

40877706._sy475_Book: “Woven in Moonlight” by Isabel Ibnez

Publishing Info: Page Street Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.

When Atoc demands the real Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristócrata to their rightful place.

She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princess, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge—and her Condesa.

Review: This book was a no-brainer for me to request. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover? I’m not sure I can remember a book with a cover like that; it immediately stands out and I’m sure the book will benefit from many a spur-of-the-moment pick-up while on the shelves at stores. The book description itself was also incredibly unique-sounding and dealing with a people, place, and culture that I am only passingly familiar. In many ways, the cover and description reminded me greatly of “Gods of Jade and Shadow” which I read last summer and loved. Unfortunately, this comparison didn’t hold true in the actual reading experience…

Ximena has lived most of her life pretending to be someone else, a queen, the Condesa. But mostly a queen under siege: managing dwindling supplies, sending out scouting parties, and dreaming of one day returning her people to their homeland and the city that is now occupied by the cruel king Atoc. Now, with a demanded-marriage between the two leaders of these divided peoples, Ximena has the greatest of all performances before her. She must marry the usurper and serve as an embedded spy, searching for that crack that can benefit her people and her sister-friend, the true Condesa.

Even typing up that description makes me excited about the story this could have been. Yet, alas, could have been, but wasn’t. This is one of those strange books where I question whether I read the same story others read. Currently, it’s rated over 4 on Goodreads, so many people are loving it. Perhaps I can see elements of what all of these other readers are latching on to, but it all seems like too little, too familiar, and too inexplicable to really earn those 4 stars.

The biggest strength this book has going for it is the unique setting, the unique culture (what little we really get of it), and the descriptions of Ximena’s weavings. There are some truly lovely depictions of these detailed creations, and having a mother who is an avid weaver, I could see the magic in her abilities here, even without the actual magic involved. What descriptions we received of the countryside and the city itself were intriguing, but this is also where the bare minimums began to show. I had just enough to form loose images, but I have to admit that many of these were probably drawing from stereotypical images of South American culture (there isn’t even such a thing, hence the extreme stereotype of my mental images that were just drawing from random images from other books and movies set in South American countries). I wish there had been a more detailed look into the daily life of the people, a clearer image drawn of their lives and the world they lived in. Half of the reason I picked up this book was because of the uniqueness to be had here. Finally not another European fantasy novel! But then it felt like the author only went halfway, and I was left wanting.

From the “too little” we move to the “too familiar.” Most of this plot will read as incredibly predictable to anyone who reads a lot of YA fantasy. I could quickly guess who El Lobo was as well as predict several of the other major plot points of the story. Perhaps for readers who aren’t as well versed in current YA fantasy tropes this would read better. Or even age it down to middle grade readers who simply haven’t had the time to build up these stores of memory that make stories like this feel rote and tired. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it; I’ve just read it too many times before. And when the surprise has been taken out of most of the twists, there’s not a lot of drive behind speeding through the rest of the story.

And lastly, the “too inexplicable.” I really struggled with Ximena herself. The love story was, again, predictable. And she kept referring to said characters as “the boy” which I just found cringe-worthy. I get that typing out “young man” seems kind of silly and obviously “guy” is anachronistic and has its own issues. But given the situation we’re meant to be in (she’s there to marry a king), I think we can just stick with “man” and be done with it. Regardless of age, this is an adult situation, and she’s been an adult for many years, making decisions as a ruler and now serving as a spy meant to marry the enemy. Referring to someone as “a boy” can only be a demeaning comment in these circumstances. But she uses it as a bland, seemingly objective description, and it bothered the heck out of me. If he’s “a boy,” he’s a kid and my mind will neatly file him away in the “non-love-interest” section.

Beyond that small nit-pick that I blew out of proportion with my own annoyance, it was hard to understand Ximena. We’re meant to believe that she’s been training, and acting, as the Condesa for almost all of her grown life. Not only would the real Condesa have to be well-versed in self-control, cool thinking, and precise speaking/acting, someone who grew up to serve as a decoy in this role would have to be all of that twice over. But Ximena routinely and regularly loses all self-control. It’s hard to believe that she wasn’t immediately seen through. Or, if not that, it would seem that all respect would be quickly lost for “the Condesa” as a leader since she can’t stop behaving like a rash, easily provoked youth. Ximena spends way too much time caught up in her own personal angst and far too little behaving as a true Condesa would. Sure, she always comments after the fact on how that was really “un-Condesa-like,” but that doesn’t do away with the fact that had she been trained to do this her entire life, there should be nowhere near as many outbursts as there are in the first place.

A book is always going to be a hard sell for me if I can’t connect with the POV character. I found Ximena unbelievable at best and incredibly annoying at worst. From there, the predictable story just lowered it further. I’m really sad that this wasn’t a great read for me. So many people are enjoying it, and I really wish I had read whatever book they’re loving so much. There are many great elements of this story, particularly with the snippets of the world, culture, and history we get. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of any of those things to counteract the weak main character and tired story. But, like I said, lots of people are liking it, so if you’re looking for an ownvoice, Latinx story, it might still be worth a shot.

I didn’t love this one, but a lot of people do. So I’d like to share it with someone who will appreciate it more than I was able. If this sounds like something you would enjoy, make sure to enter the giveaway for a hardback copy!

Rating 6: A really confusing read where I’m not sure what I’m missing that so many other people are loving.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Woven in Moonlight” is on these Goodreads lists: “Latina Leads in YA and Middle Grade Fiction” and “Upcoming 2020 SFF Books with Female Leads or Co-Leads.”

Find“Woven in Moonlight” in your library using WorldCat!