Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Stepsister

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly (2019)

I heard of this book quite recently, just before publication, and immediately requested it through my library system. I don't read many fairy tale retellings but I'm very intrigued by them and Jennifer Donnelly is a fantastic author. She wrote The Tea RoseThe Winter Rose, and The Wild Rose, and the teen novel A Northern Light, which I loved before I had this blog or Goodreads. So when I heard she was releasing a book about one of Cinderella's ugly stepsisters, WELL.

So, Isabelle cut off her toes so her foot would fit in the glass slipper, and she almost got away with it. But it's just as well that she didn't because she's not interested in the prince. She's interested in things like sword-fighting and a boy named Felix who she lost long ago. She has disappointed her mother because she's not pretty enough or feminine enough or demure enough. Now her stepsister Ella has left to marry the prince, and Isabelle and her sister Octavia are left at home with their mother.

The whole town has turned against them now that they know how the family treated Ella. Both stepsisters and their mother are harassed and ostracized, and ultimately they lose their house and must depend on a stranger who is pressured into taking them in. The conditions are inhumane, but the girls do their best to take care of themselves and their mother, whose health is failing. This all could have made them more bitter, but they recognize that they brought a lot of this on themselves with their unfair treatment of Ella.

Isabelle feels like things would go much better for her if she were pretty. Pretty girls are always given the benefit of the doubt, seen as having more value than girls who aren't pretty, and liked by everyone. One day Isabelle encounters a fairy queen who promises to grant her wish to be pretty, but Isabelle has to first find the missing pieces of her heart. Meanwhile, there are others who are trying to control her path. Fate has drawn a map of her life, which will soon end in bloodshed. Chance has stolen the map and is trying to alter the path. Both Fate and Chance have now come to the village of St. Michel to try and alter her life, but perhaps Isabelle will wrest control and determine her own destiny.

I loved this take on what happened after the events of Cinderella, and the new dimensions of Ella's stepsisters. There was adventure, magic, and love. Isabella and Octavia dealt with their former mistreatment of Ella and I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the three girls came together for a reckoning. Isabelle grew so much as a human being during the course of this story, which was incredibly empowering. I loved her trajectory! Even Octavia, who wasn't the focus of the story, came through as a real person here, one who is completely uninterested in romance (with the prince or anyone else) but is devoted to math and science. Neither of these girls fit in with what was expected of young ladies, nor were they taken seriously by anyone around them, but ultimately they grew into confident young women, sure of themselves and demanding to be respected. It was incredibly satisfying!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Veronica Mars #1) by Rob Thomas (2014), narrated by Kristen Bell

Bear with me while I prepare for the return of this excellent show in July. I've rewatched all the original episodes, watched the movie, and now just need to listen to both of the books. One down, one to go!

It's spring break in Neptune, and the partiers have descended. But when a young woman disappears, it's bad PR for the town and Veronica is hired by the Chamber of Commerce to help find her. It's only complicated more when a second girl disappears. Veronica's investigation takes her to a mansion belonging to two very dangerous men, and also involves someone from her past.

This felt very much like watching an episode of the show, which makes sense since the same person writes it. It was so much fun to revisit Neptune and its inhabitants. Logan is away during this book and although he and Veronica Skype, their relationship isn't really in the foreground. What is, is her family because one of the missing girls is related to a family member she hasn't been in touch with and this brings up a lot of interesting developments.

I've got a couple of really minor criticisms. One is that I thought Veronica figured out way too many things near the end that didn't really have clues. She's smart - I get it - and often puts things together that I don't see, but it just seemed to happen far too much here, and with things that didn't always have real clues. The other tiny issue I had is that the title of the book is kind of a red herring and I don't know why it was chosen. But neither of these things really diminished my enjoyment of the story. I didn't have a ton of expectations, to be honest, because even though I know that Rob Thomas is a real writer who has written at least one book before, this is a book based on a TV show and somehow I just don't expect a lot from that kind of thing. (His young adult novel, Rats Saw God, was very good, by the way.)

Of course Kristen Bell is the perfect person to narrate since she's the voice of Veronica Mars herself. Since the book is written in third person it sounds like Veronica is talking about herself in third person, but that was only weird for a short time and I got over it. Hearing her voice added to the feeling I already had that I was immersed in another episode of the show. Because it's already a show I pictured everyone the way they appeared on screen and it just made it feel all the more real.

I've heard from a friend that the second book is better so I'm really looking forward to it. It's narrated by my favorite audiobook reader, Rebecca Lowman. The reviews on Audible aren't great, I think because her voice is so different from that of Kristen Bell. Hopefully that won't impact my experience.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood (2016)

This rather divisive book is about an unusual and troubled young girl named Wavy, whose parents don't really look after her. A family friend, Kellen, who works for her dad starts to help her out, driving her to school and whatnot. She becomes pretty attached to him and by the time she's 13 they're pretty much having a romance. It never really says how old he is, but presumably he's in his early or mid-twenties.

Wavy's father is a meth dealer who is technically still married to her mother, but lives down the hill with some other women. He's pretty horrible. Her mother is just a mess, drunk and passed out all the time. Wavy and her little brother are pretty much left to fend for themselves. Also, her mother drilled some things into her head early, the result of which are that Wavy refuses to eat in front of anyone and hates to be touched. Kellen is really the first person who ever really took care of her, and I can see why they developed an affection for each other so early. At any rate, a lot of things happen that I won't mention but things come to a head and there's a reckoning, and that's still only halfway or so through the book. So it's not just about their relationship, but lots of other family stuff that's wrapped up with jealousy and violence.

The story is told through many different perspectives and, surprisingly, the many points of view worked here. We got Wavy's perspective a bunch, and Kellen's, and Wavy's cousin Amy's, but also people like cops and court reporters who only appeared once. Generally I find that confusing because it's too many characters to learn, but Greenwood did this in a brilliant way because you don't have to get to know all those minor characters or keep them straight. Their perspectives are just there to give you another part of Wavy and Kellen's story from an outsider's viewpoint.

So yes, it's about a relationship between an adult and a 13-year-old so I guess it's not for everyone. Judging from the Goodreads reviews there are people who find the very idea so horrific that it doesn't matter how well the story is told, how nuanced the characters, or how fictional. Interestingly, the author also had a relationship with an adult when she was that young, one that she describes as loving and consensual, an experience that informed the relationship between Wavy and Kellen. Although some would insist that any relationship between people of these ages are wrong no matter what, I think there are all kinds of people and all kinds of relationships. Human experience is diverse and full of possibility. Greenwood expertly captured one of those possibilities in this story, and I won't forget it for a long time.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Borrower

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (2011)

Lucy Hull is a children's librarian who has befriended a 10-year-old boy named Ian. His parents are religious and start being very strict about what he can and cannot read. Fearing that he may be gay they start sending him to some group run by Pastor Bob, a guy known for being anti-gay and trying to convert people to be straight. Ian becomes increasingly unhappy and manages to stay overnight in the library one night. When Lucy finds him in the morning and tries to take him home, they instead end up driving across the country together.

So yes, she absconds with a kid, which is a terrible idea. She knows it will be considered kidnapping and tries very hard not to leave any tracks. He sort of manipulated her into it, but she didn't really try to resist. The whole thing was questionable and while bad ideas often turn into great stories, that wasn't my experience in this case.

It's not that it wasn't amusing or entertaining. It was! Ian was a clever and quirky kid and I can totally see why Lucy wanted to protect him. Their from Missouri continued to Lucy's parents' house in Chicago, and her father is Russian with crazy stories and ties to some pretty sketchy people. He tells her that since she's driving east she should deliver a box from him to his Russian friends in Pittsburgh, and that's another entertaining visit. All the while, she sticks to her story about Ian's mother being in the hospital and entrusting Lucy with her care. Back home, her coworkers are starting to suspect she might have something to do with the boy's disappearance but she staves off their questions as much as possible. It's all written in a fairly humorous lighthearted way.

But in addition to the dubious premise, it never really went anywhere. I mean, road trips are always fun and they definitely had some adventures, but in the end it was all rather a letdown. I don't know that anyone learned much or grew from the experience - it was just kind of over.

I really should like this book more than I did. I feel like it's similar in many ways to a number of books that I really do like - book lovers are always great to read about, and I love quirky characters and road trips and humor. But somehow it just didn't do it for me. I feel bad giving it only two stars on Goodreads because it's not a bad story and the writing is totally fine. But what I keep thinking is "it was ok" which is literally the definition of two stars on Goodreads. So two stars it is.

Stupidly, what made me pick up this book is all the attention that her newest book The Great Believers has been getting. Rather than just reading that one (which I still may) I thought that if that one was good, then surely I'd love the one that has something to do with book lovers, right?

I think I've been in something of a reading rut, because I wasn't excited about this book when I started but there wasn't nothing else in my tall pile of books that was looking more compelling to me. And that tall pile is still here and I don't know what I'm going to read next. So book, maybe it's not you, maybe it's me. Lots of people really like The Borrower so this is one perhaps you all shouldn't take my word for.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Garden Spells

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen (2007)

The Waverley family is known for the magical properties of the plants they grow, especially the closely-guarded apple tree. The property is now occupied only by Claire Waverly, a young woman who runs a catering business and has no interest in relationships. When her sister Sydney arrives after being gone for ten years, young daughter Bay in tow, Claire knows her life is about to change. But she also fears that her sister will inevitably leave again. Meanwhile, her new neighbor is obviously interested in her and although she keeps trying to avoid him, Sydney only makes things worse by befriending him and encouraging him in Claire's direction.

Sydney won't tell Claire much about where she's been since she last left their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina. The truth is that she moved around a lot, but for the past several years was in an abusive relationship and had to plan extremely carefully to get away. It was seriously terrifying to read about. Luckily she had been living under a different name and was able to adopt her true identity again when she came back home, but she knows Bay's father will do everything he can to hunt her down. She had always wanted to get away from Bascom, but now she knows it's where she really belongs. And so does Bay - like the other Waverley women, Bay has a sort of special power. Hers is that she knows where things, and people, belong.

Claire feels abandoned, tied to her home while everyone else leaves. Her mother, her sister, probably her neighbor Tyler Hughes, which is why she doesn't want to get involved with him. Her focus has always been on her business, which is where she uses her special power. She gardens, and then uses the plants in her cooking, tailoring the recipes to what people need based on the magical properties associated with different ingredients. The center of the garden is the old apple tree, which is the reason there's a tall fence around the property - kids are always trying to sneak in for one of the apples because they've heard they are magical. They are, but Claire wants to protect people from the magic. If someone eats one of the apples, they have a vision about the biggest event of their life, which can really screw up the rest of it, depending on what they see. The tree sometimes throws apples to the ground deliberately, wanting people to eat them. Claire gathers them all up and buries them.

I've seen this book around for years and I've always really liked the cover, but didn't think it was my kind of book. Recently a book blogger I follow read it and loved it so I thought I may as well try it. In a way I think I was right and it's not exactly my kind of book, but I did enjoy reading it for the most part. Magical realism is hit-or-miss with me, but here those parts worked well. The folkloric aspect of magical plants is appealing, and I liked the story of the sisters, one sowing her wild oats around the country while the other stayed at home quietly tending her garden and keeping to herself. Certain aspects felt dated to me, but I can't put my finger on them - something about the way the romantic relationships worked. It only bothered me because I couldn't quite identify what felt so old-school about them.

For some reason I feel like I would have loved this book had I read it as a teenager or in my twenties, but of course it hadn't been published then. Maybe it just reminds me of other books I read at that time. But I did like it. Once I started, I got pretty invested in the characters and their relationships, including the one between Claire and Sydney. They had never been close and I just wanted them to finally be good sisters to each other. I also really liked their elderly distant cousin, Evanelle, whose power was to give things to people just before they would need them. She didn't know why she kept collecting things or why she had to give a particular object to someone at a particular time, but it always turned out to be something they needed. The ending was a bit abrupt for me, a scary thing happening that (intentionally, temporarily) wrecked the safe, magical atmosphere of the whole story, but it was something I had more or less expected. All in all I'm glad I finally read it and I do still love the cover. I also love the cover of Allen's book First Frost, which turns out to be a sequel to this one. Maybe I'll read that too.