The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes

Book: The Princesses of Iowa
Author: M. Molly Backes
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release date: May 8, 2012
Source: Bought signed copy from author

 

Summary from Goodreads:

What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you? A smart and unflinching look at friendship, the nature of entitlement, and growing up in the heartland.

Paige Sheridan has the perfect life. She’s pretty, rich, and popular, and her spot on the homecoming court is practically guaranteed. But when a night of partying ends in an it-could-have-been-so-much worse crash, everything changes. Her best friends start ignoring her, her boyfriend grows cold and distant, and her once-adoring younger sister now views her with contempt. The only bright spot is her creative writing class, led by a charismatic new teacher who encourages students to be true to themselves. But who is Paige, if not the homecoming princess everyone expects her to be? In this arresting and witty debut, a girl who was once high-school royalty must face a truth that money and status can’t fix, and choose between living the privileged life of a princess, or owning up to her mistakes and giving up everything she once held dear.

My Big Fat Disclaimer 

In the interest of fairness, (and maybe only a teensy bit of pride [but totally the Mama Bear pride and not the gross look-at-me pride]) I should disclose that I know the author, M. Molly Backes. Over the past few years she has been my teacher, critique partner, and friend. While this does not prevent me from stating my honest opinions on the quality of her book, I am probably in a position to like it as a person familiar with her personality and writing style. With that all out in the open, let’s move on.

Shit just got real…

Go back up and read the first bolded line of the summary above. I’ll wait.

Back now? Good. I point it out (for the lazy set: “What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you?”) because I think understanding this theme from the outset greatly impacts your enjoyment of the book. This is not a story about fluffy bunnies and sparkly unicorns and beautiful rainbows (even though, in my mind, that cover is just asking for a rainbow). This is a story about real things that can, and do, happen to teenagers.

The situations in this book punched me in the gut. I dare you to read the prologue and not connect deeply with at least some portion of it. Molly Backes is a master of Getting It. She wrote a character, Paige Sheridan, who is struggling to understand consequences, or the completely unjust and unfair LACK of them, that accompanies the life of a high school student, in a way that was believable and thought-provoking. Backes peeled back the superficial layers and forced Paige, and us as readers, to acknowledge the ugly sides of human behavior and the ease with which cruelty and convenience can influence even the best of intentions.

Life is not fair. Things don’t always end up the way we want them to. And I love that Backes portrayed this so truthfully in her narrative. Not everyone agrees with me.

“Issue” is such a loaded word…

Is this an issue book? It deals with the impact of a drunk driving accident on a group of girls. It illustrates common teen situations of homophobia, bullying, partying, and sex. But I didn’t see it as an issue book. It wasn’t pointing out the perils of drunk driving and why teens should avoid it. Were there severe consequences from the accident? Yes. One girl was seriously injured. But that wasn’t the point of the story. Nor was the point of the story to show us how destructive homophobia can be on a community, or how teen girls should handle their drunk boyfriends trying to rape them. The drinking and the sex and the gay slurs just happened to be a part of Paige’s life, and all of these things impact her growth from a narcissistic princess into a contemplative writer. This is Paige’s story and journey, not an issue book passing judgment on the behavior of its teen characters.

I appreciated that Backes didn’t gloss over any aspect of Paige’s life. She has a manipulative best friend, a weak-willed boyfriend, and a self-absorbed mother. Her friends drink too much, Paige cares too much about what people think, and everyone in this book is capable of bad decisions. The beauty of this book is the subtlety with which each character’s growth is illustrated. There is not one cathartic event that pulls everyone together. Instead, there are a series of events that impact different characters in unique ways, setting all of them on a different trajectory. 

Sisters, man…

One of the best devices I noticed to show a subtle change was the name Paige used for her sister. In the first half of the book, Paige’s younger sister Miranda repeatedly has to remind everyone that she prefers to be called Mirror. As with many flights of fancy with young people, she is ignored. Paige refers to her always as Miranda, since that’s her name, and she thinks calling her Mirror is dumb.

I don’t know when exactly the shift occurred, but toward the end of the book I noticed that Paige was consistently calling her sister Mirror. While finding acceptance of herself, Paige began to understand that something as simple as a name change was also an important way for her sister to find her own identity. Though Paige may not have given herself a unique nickname, I think she subconsciously realized that Mirror did so because she wanted to be taken seriously, much like how Paige now wanted to be viewed as more than just a vapid princess. And she finds common ground, as well as a fresh starting point in their relationship, by using her sister’s preferred name and therefore validating Mirror’s perspective and identity. As someone with a younger sister, I really connected with this concept.

What I’m saying is…

I’m no expert in contemporary YA fiction, but this one spoke to me on so many levels. It’s a book that will make you think, which is always a good thing. It sheds some light on the power of cliques and group thinking that can take over a teen’s life without them even realizing it. Backes finds a way to validate experiences without passing judgment, and without needing to find a lesson in every difficult event that her characters encounter. Life doesn’t always hand us teachable moments, nor do we find answers in the immediate aftermath of major events. It’s how we process our experiences into making the choices that feel right to us that truly matters.

 

 

 

 

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen

Book: Scarlet
Author: A. C. Gaughen
Publisher: Walker Childrens
Release date: February 14, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley

Summary from Goodreads: Many readers know the tale of Robin Hood, but they will be swept away by this new version full of action, secrets, and romance.

Posing as one of Robin Hoodâ??s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in.

Itâ??s only her fierce loyalty to Robinâ??whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle herâ??that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.

First impressions: I have to confess up front that I almost put this book down after the first few pages. I found Scarlet’s speech patterns to be jarringly irritating (she uses “were” instead of “was,” as in “I were truly bothered by the way she kept saying ‘were.'”).

Lasting impressions: Dialect choices aside, this is a thrilling adventure about life in Robin Hood’s gang from the perspective of a girl who can’t see past her own perceived failings to recognize the strength she carries within herself.

Conflicting impressions: See first impressions, above. Eventually I got over it, and I’m so glad I stuck with it, but it’s never a good thing when a character’s voice is initially so off-putting.

Overall impressions: It’s probably not my best idea to write this review immediately after finishing this (amazing, stupendous, terrific) book, because all I want to do is heap (amazing, stupendous, terrific) accolades upon it and call it a night.

Despite all of my grumblings about Scarlet’s dialect, she wormed her way into my heart. While approaching a particularly poignant revelation about three-quarters of the way through the book, I reached my train stop on my way to work and got disturbingly grumpy about having to stop reading for THREE WHOLE HOURS until lunch. Yet when I got home with merely fifteen percent of the book left to read, I savored it because I couldn’t bear for this to be the end of my journey with Scar and Rob.

I’m generally hit-or-miss with retellings, but this one knocked it out of the park. Perhaps my fond memories of Kevin Costner heaving that glorious mullet through a Bryan-Adams-soundtracked Sherwood Forest had something to do with my excitement for a new Robin Hood tale. (Don’t act like you didn’t see – and love – that movie.) Maybe I’m just a sucker for do-gooder redemption stories with tough, knife-wielding heroines. Whatever the case may be, it’s safe to say that this one is going on the Special Shelf.

Scarlet, a girl on the run from a secretive and damaged past, has taken up with Robin Hood and operates among the townfolk as Will Scarlet to keep her identity as a girl under wraps. Robin, John Little, and Much are all aware that she’s a girl, and although this fact keeps her as somewhat of an outsider among their band, Scarlet can hold her own in a fight. She has a hard time fully trusting her brothers for reasons not fully understood until they are painfully and slowly (in a good way) extricated throughout the narrative.

Things start to get overly complicated for Scar when the thief taker Gisbourne shows up in Nottingham. She’s been on the run from him, but won’t tell Robin why. Between the visible fear the usually unflappable Scarlet exhibits around Gisbourne, and the hints of a growing attraction between Scarlet and John, Robin starts to worry that Scarlet is endangering their band. Scarlet is all too aware that things are spiraling out of control, but as the Sheriff ratchets up the violence against innocent townspeople, she can’t help but try to save them to put right what she feels has been a lifetime of wrongs she has committed. Fighting her past as well as her suppressed feelings for Robin, she is losing her grip on her destiny she has tried so hard to control, and it may be too late for her to give everyone their happy ending.

The romance and internal conflicts are expertly handled, and though this is a familiar tale, there are plenty of twists and surprises to keep you guessing. Scarlet is a lovable, heart-breaking girl who absolutely enthralled me, and the men vying for her attention are equally engrossing. You River of Time series Luca fans will swoon over John Little, whose charming personality forgives his skirt-chasing ways. And what can I say about Robin Hood? He’s dashing, brilliant, and has a heart of gold. He wants to take all of the pain in the world upon himself to protect those around him. What’s not to love?

You must read this (amazing, stupendous, terrific) book. Right now. If you read one book this year, let it be this one. And in case I’m not being clear, I’m telling you that this is a really good read. Do you see what happens when I review (amazing, stupendous, terrific) books right after finishing them and just before bed? I’m reduced to spewing gobs of praise in every imaginable form and hoping that some part of it seeps through your eyeballs and into your synapses that then march you into your bookstore to pick up a copy.

If it worked, be sure to let me know.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Book: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher: Doubleday
Release date: September 13, 2011
Source: Borrowed from local library, then bought

Summary: (from Goodreads) The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underwayâ??a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into loveâ??a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.

First impressions: Opening a debut novel in 2nd person narrative is ballsy. But, oh man, did it work in this case. By introducing the reader to the wonder that is this night circus through gorgeous prose and the immediacy of the perspective, we are hooked from the first sentence. The circus arrives without warning.

Lasting impressions: I relished this book in a way that rarely happens for me – slowly. For the week I spent reading it, I rarely thought of anything else, yet I prolonged the reading experience in order to get the most out of it. This is a book that inspires reflection in all of the best ways, and rewards you for taking the time to read every word carefully. The story builds slowly, but purposefully, until the exciting climax threatens to turn the entire world of these characters upside down. It’s a beautiful journey to witness.

Conflicting impressions: I confess that I read all of the negative reviews of this book first. Surely no book could live up to the kind of magical hype this book has had heaped upon it, right? So I read the most blistering, scathing reviews, preparing myself for a slow, boring, overly dense novel with wooden characters and little action. And you know what I got? Subtle characters deftly written by a master puppeteer. Erin Morgenstern fills the pages with lush details, yes, but they all serve to inform us about the characters and the setting. I understood this world so well that I wanted to live in it for as long as possible, which is why I took so damn long to finish it. And why I bought a copy for my shelf the day before I returned my library book. I didn’t want a single day to go by without having this book in my possession.

Overall impressions: This book is magical, but not because it contains magic. This is not Harry Potter. Our young protagonists learn magic through natural ability and frustrating lessons by their parental figures – no straightforward schoolteachers to be found. They learn through trial and error, cruelty, and their own perseverance and curiosity.

Celia and Marco do not spend a lot of time in each other’s company, and as readers we are often much more knowledgeable than our characters. For me, this made the plot that much more enjoyable, as I had an inkling of where the story was going, but no idea how it was going to get there. As the story unfolded, I was more than willing to go along for the ride. This is a novel you either succumb to completely, or resign yourself to frustration. I think by the end of the first few chapters any reader will be able to tell if this is the book for him/her.

The Night Circus has rich period details, lots of colorful characters, and more than a handful of intrigue. This was not only one of my favorite books of the year, but one of my favorite books, period. If you’re looking to be entertained by something truly fresh and surprising, you must get your hands on this one.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Book: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Author: Laini Taylor
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release date: September 27, 2011
Source: ARC received from Around the World Tours
Series: Untitled sequel planned for Fall 2012

Summary: (from Goodreads) Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grow dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languagesâ??not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangersâ??beautiful, haunted Akivaâ??fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

First impressions: There are some books that make their greatness known from the first sentence. This is one of those books.

Lasting impressions: I will never be able to do this book justice through my clumsy attempts at a review. Laini Taylor’s work stands on its own, and this is definitely my favorite book of the year.

Conflicting impressions: Ha! It is absolutely laughable that I could even think of offering up a criticism of this phenomenal book.

Overall impressions: As I said on Twitter last night, JUST GO BUY IT!

There’s really not much more I can say other than that. Go buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Karou does double duty in this one, functioning as both a normal art student in Prague and an errand girl for the mysterious monsters who summon her to fetch teeth. Yes, teeth. This is not your average paranormal.

And that is why I fell in love so hard. This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Is there any greater compliment you can pay a writer than telling them their work is inspiringly unique?

Laini Taylor, I bow down to you.

Karou and the bizarre world she inhabits are intensely captivating. I could barely stand to put this book down. I relished every word, and the suspense of not knowing what would happen at any given moment was exhilarating. Finally, a book that can genuinely surprise me!

Who is Karou? Why did Brimstone raise her? Why does she gather teeth from all over the world for him? Why is Akiva out to destroy her?

The answers to these questions are half the fun of the novel. I was in no hurry to find this information, and waited patiently for our blue-haired heroine to figure it out for herself. In the last third we are treated to a glimpse into lost memories, as Karou starts to put the pieces of her disjointed life together. There is more emotion packed into the final pages of this book than in the last 10 books I read combined.

This book is haunting, magical, strange, glorious, and beautiful.

JUST GO BUY IT.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: Fateful by Claudia Gray

Book: Fateful
Author: Claudia Gray
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: September 13, 2011
Source: ARC received from Around the World Tours

Summary: (from Goodreads) In Fateful, eighteen-year-old maid Tess Davies is determined to escape the wealthy, overbearing family she works for. Once the ship theyâ??re sailing on reaches the United States, sheâ??ll strike out on her own. Then she meets Alec, a handsome first-class passenger who captivates her instantly. But Alec has secrets….

Soon Tess will learn just how dark Alecâ??s past truly is. The danger they face is no ordinary enemy: werewolves are real and theyâ??re stalking himâ??and now Tess, too. Her growing love for Alec will put Tess in mortal peril, and fate will do the same before their journey on the Titanic is over.

Featuring the opulent backdrop of the Titanic, Fatefulâ??s publication is poised to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the shipâ??s doomed maiden voyage. It is sure to be a hit among Titanic buffs and fans of paranormal romance alike.

First impressions: Claudia Gray wastes no time setting the tone here. Tess is off on a last minute task before they sail on the Titanic, and she fumbles around in dark alleyways with trepidation. Fear is definitely a prominent emotion for Tess throughout the novel. An early run-in with a wolf lets us know that this is not going to be a typical Titanic tale. (Alliteration bonus points!)

Lasting impressions: SPECIAL SHELF! One of my favorite reads of the year.

Conflicting impressions: The dialogue felt a little cheesy at times. The interactions between Tess and Alec had the tendency to sound like something you’d hear on a soap opera – very melodramatic.

Overall impressions: If you like the story of the RMS Titanic, and you like young adult paranormals, you will L-O-V-E this book, just as I did. It was a near-perfect mashup of historical events with a werewolf twist.

I know. It sounds ridiculous. I promise you, it’s not.

Tess Davies gives us an honest account of life as a 20th century English maid. Working for the horrid Lady Regina, and her much more pleasant daughter, Irene, life is never easy for Tess. She hopes that when she arrives in New York at the conclusion of this voyage she can slip away from the Lisle family and set out on her own. All she wants is independence and the chance to get out from under the employers who have made her life, and the life of her sister, miserable.

While boarding the Titanic, Tess has the distinct feeling of being watched, and after several run-ins with the ominous Russian Mikhail, she discovers she is in danger. Luckily, a handsome young son of a Chicago steel magnate, Alec, comes to her rescue. He harbors secrets of his own, however, and despite his efforts to keep Tess away from his problems, she winds up sucked right into the middle of them.

The werewolf lore is just sparse enough to serve the story without bogging us down with too many details. We know at least one wolf is on board, wants something from Tess, and will stop at nothing to get it – even if she doesn’t know what it is. As she struggles to avoid trouble with the wolves, she winds up getting into trouble with her employer, the Lisle family. The balance of work duties with real fear of a very supernatural situation is hard on Tess, made even more difficult by the fact that as a servant she has almost no power or trustworthiness in the eyes of the ship’s staff. She is alone, and it is terrifying.

When she does manage to make a tentative friend out of one of her bunkmates, things ease a bit for her. Tess doesn’t really know what it’s like to have a friend, and this experience sets up an important relationship that will impact the rest of her life. Likewise, her blooming romance with Alec also has lasting consequences, and she learns that sometimes you can have joy in your life no matter your station.

My only disappointment with this novel is the fact that the sinking of the Titanic doesn’t occur until the very last pages. I would have liked to see this moved up a bit, since we all know it’s coming, and I kept wanting to get there quicker. The description of the ship going down is as vivid as in the James Cameron film, and just as tragic. Because of the third-class/first-class love story here, as well as the setting, it’s hard to not think of Jack and Rose, which is why I appreciated the werewolf angle. It sets this story apart a bit more, giving it a unique twist and some exciting action to carry the plot forward.

This was an absolute treat to read, and I so very highly recommend it. This is definitely going on my top five books of the year.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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