Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: A Madness So Discreet

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.


The Plot: Long version: Grace Mae is trapped in an insane asylum. As terrible as it is, with the cruel staff, harsh living conditions, and fellow inmates, it is still safer. Safer for her, for the baby that grows insider her, safer for her than....

But those are the thoughts and the words buried deep within her. Thoughts and words kept so tight inside her, that no sound comes from her. Not anymore.

When Grace reacts with violence to the straying hand of a drunk doctor, she finds herself in the damp, dark basement of the asylum. The worst place to be, where the most dangerous are sent.

Yet in the bleakest place she finds kindness. And escape. A purpose. And, possibly, justice.

Short version: Grace Mae is trapped in an insane asylum, because it's the best place for her rich family to hide her and her pregnancy. A brilliant doctor sees her, sees who she is -- not as an inmate, but as someone with a talent of observation that can help him with his own study of criminal minds. Chasing crimes is no easy business, especially when one has their own past


The Good: This is one of those books that is so good, and I so enjoyed the twists and turns of Grace's journey (both physically and emotionally), that I don't want to say anything.

I don't want to say why or how Grace ended up in an asylum.

I don't want to say who befriends Grace, and why.

I don't want to say how Grace manages to escape.

I will say that Grace ends up at another asylum; one so much better than the madhouse she had been before that it's like the difference between heaven and hell. And that difference is mainly in how the staff treats those in their care: with kindness and respect? Or with fear and disgust? With soft beds and decent food, or with rags and stale bread?

The doctor who Grace helps with criminal investigations appears a cold fish at first, one no better than the other staff at her first asylum. But things are never that black and white, and see, I don't want to say how he brings her to that new asylum, but the why is he has realized her matters of observation and memory and deduction can help him in his investigations. Even more so when others look at her and see not just a woman, but someone who is insane so can be dismissed and ignored.

I will say that then there are the crimes that Grace investigates and OK. I have to stop now because oh, wow. What happens. And then what happens next. And then what happens after that. I'm a mystery reader and I didn't see half of it coming.

Some final words: this is an Edgars Award Nominee, and I'm going to the Banquet in April so am reading all the Young Adult Nominees. Hopefully I get all five read before then so can do a post on all of them.

The setting is late nineteenth century America. Do you ever see those lists of reason that people used to be committed -- ranging from alcoholism to reads too many books? It's a bit funny and a bit sad. Reading A Madness So Discreet, it is only sad, whether it's the woman whose husband wanted a new wife; or the young girl infected with the pox; or someone who hears voices. The horrible place in Boston makes it sad; but it's also sad in the better, cleaner, safer, place, because even then, these women are there because there are so few options for them, so little medical knowledge, so few ways for them to control their lives.

And that is, at the end, why I adored A Madness So Discreet: because ultimately, it is about how Grace regains control of her life. How she manages to do it against terrible odds. And while this book stands on it's own, I'm very intrigued by Grace and her journey and hope to read about her again. So yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2016.

 






Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: In Defense of the Princess

In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women by Jerramy Fine. Running Press. 2016. Review copy from publisher.

It's About: Do you worry about a little girl in pink and glitter who wants a tiara? Or do you know someone who worries about that, and you know that the worry itself is the problem but you're not quite sure how to answer the concern?

Jerramy Fine writes about the princess dreams of girl and women of all ages, whether it's playing dress up or knowing the names of current eligible princes. And she does so with respect and humor, digging down to look at the motives of princess-wishing.

The Good: In Defense of The Princess is a fun read, and a quick read, and it packs a lot in less that two hundred and fifty pages. Fine's credentials to write about princesses? Well, I'll point to her memoir, Someday My Prince Will Come: The Adventures of a Wannabe Princess. Which no, I haven't read yet, but right now, I really really want to. Because the parts of the story that Fine tells in In Defense of the Princess made me laugh and smile and I want more of that story. Her writing feels like you're sitting down talking to her, and you just wish there was tea and biscuits and scones to go along with the conversation.

Fine covers a lot -- the chapters range from In Defense of Disney Princesses to In Defense of Beauty to In Defense of Feminine Power (Your Inner Princess). There are quotes from many people, as well as Fine's own analysis and insight. And seriously, I just want to hand this to everyone. Because it's about how wearing pink and dreaming of princes can be powerful, and that there is strength in having dreams. Even if that dream is of castles and princes and fairy tales. And what is that dream, actually? Is a dream of a castle basically a dream of a home that is special and safe, and if that's the dream -- what's so wrong with that? If a dream of a prince is a dream of someone who respects you and loves you and wants the best for you, what's wrong with that? Does either mean that the dreamer cannot be someone with a career? It's not an either/or world or dream

And if it's viewed as either/or, what does it mean to first define those dreams as "girly" and "feminine" and then to say that such dreams are, well, not as good as other dreams. Not as important.

So as you can see, there is a lot here, and I was also reminded very much of conversations about teen literature and what it means to have a "strong female character" and what does "strong" mean when talking about women. Is "strong" only about physical strength? (Kelly Jensen, at Stacked Books and Book Riot, has written about this a lot, and hosted posts about this topic.) While this is a book for adults, there is teen appeal here. Maybe a teen wants to understand why they were obsessed with princesses as a kid; maybe you want them to understand why they are writing letters to Prince Harry and why that is totally OK. Or maybe you want to pair this with any YA book or film that has a princess or a princess-ish cover, to say, hey, glitter and pink and tiaras are cool but let's dig deeper to say why they are cool. (And standard disclaimer: it's also totally cool to not think they are cool.)

Also: I'm quoted! YES. I KNOW. It's from the post I did about two years ago, and still one of the most popular posts on my blog: Princess Shaming.

One last thing: some of the empowerment that Fine talked about reminded me of my vintage photo shoot from last year, at Vavoom in Chicago. Getting the hair, the makeup done -- having the attention and the dress up and the photos. Well, yes. I guess I could say I did feel like a princess. And thanks to people like Jerramy Fine, I understand the positive power in that.





Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: To All the Boys I've Loved Before

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny HanSimon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: When Lara Jean has a boy she wants to get out of her system, she writes a letter to him, honest and raw, addresses it, seals it, and .....

C'mon. Of course she doesn't send it. She puts in away, and with that, puts him behind her.

Until the day someone finds the letters. And mails them.

And what had always been safe and sound is now out in the open. Not just the letters, but all her dreams and thoughts and emotions. Everything that had been in her head is now out there.

The Good:Such a great book!  The mailed letters forces Lara Jean out of her comfort zone and out of herself, and it ends up being good for her.

But to get there -- I had such second hand embarrassment for her. The close my eyes while reading type of embarrassment.

What I liked best is the family dynamic. Lara Jean is the middle of three sisters: the oldest, Margot, is in college; the youngest, Kitty, is nine. Their mother died years before. Margot is going to college, in Scotland. Yeah. So the family, that had to shift after the death of their mother, shifts yet again as Margot leaves.

Margot has a boyfriend, Josh, and yes, Josh is one of the five. In that interesting way that friends and family can be, Lara Jean's friendship with Josh, and her being used to "Margot and Josh" as an entity, means that when Margot and Josh break up, Lara Jean doesn't get it. And isn't understanding. And as frustrating it was to read, and as much as my sympathies were with Margot, it was so real. (And I think there will be teen readers who, based on their own life experiences (or lack of them), will be siding with Lara Jean in this.)

Also: there is anxiety about driving in here. Sometimes it seems all teens in books are either eager to be driving, or are just good and confident drivers, and it's refreshing to have Lara Jean be so nervous and reluctant to drive. Also, she isn't a great driver. (Don't worry! No serious accidents!)

When I heard about the letters, I wondered what they would be like. If Lara Jean working these boys out of her system meant that the letters would be mean or angry. And also wondered if they would be to boys who even knew Lara Jean. And what was interesting was how unique each letter, and each boy, was. And how they each handled receiving that letter. And how sweet and kind many of the letters were.

And yes.... there ends up being a romance. And it did, and didn't, do some of the things I expected which is actually perfect for a romance.

(And yes, I read this a few years back! But I am going through my list of books I read that I enjoyed and that I wanted to share, and so here it is!)











Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Review: Saint Anything

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen. Viking Books for Young Readers. 2015. Library copy and personal copy.

The Plot: Sydney's older brother, Peyton, has just been sent to prison for drunk driving - an accident that left a teenager paralyzed.

This is not a story about Peyton. Sometimes, Sydney's whole life seems to have been about her charismatic older brother. She's been invisible, on the sidelines, as his life and troubles and addictions took center stage.

This is not a story about him.

It is a story about a Sydney, as she discovers who she is, other than "sister of" and "daughter of". As she finds her voice.

The Good: Sarah Dessen is just so good. So, so good. Saint Anything is a look at a family whose eldest son is an addict. As I said, it is not about him or what he does to the family and others. It is not about why he is now in prison.

No: it's about his sister, Sydney, who has lived in his shadow so long. Her family is one that looks good from the outside, looks perfect and privileged from the outside. And, until her brother's problems, it was. Oh, maybe Dad was a little too much about work. And maybe Mom was a helicopter parent, a bit over involved and over organized and over invested. But it was a world of private schools and a summer house, new clothes and new cars.

Sydney is now at the local public school, partly because attorney fees have eaten up her family's money, partly because she wants to hide. Maybe not hide -- but she doesn't want to be at the same school her brother attended, where everyone knows Peyton and knows her as "sister of." When getting a slice of pizza after she school she meets Layla Chatham, sixteen, and makes a friend.

This is the brilliance of Dessen: she recognizes that making friends isn't easy. Sydney at first wonders at it, but allows herself to be open to Layla's friendship and finds herself drawn into Layla's circle of friends. Including Layla's brother, Mac. Sydney finds herself attracted to Mac but Layla is her friend and she doesn't want to jeopardize that friendship.

As Sydney creates a new life for herself, she finds herself trying to balance her new friendships with her old friendships. And she tries to navigate the minefield of home. Where her mother decides that the best thing to do for Peyton is what she's always done: cheer him on, be there for him, support him, intervene when necessary. Wonder why the warden doesn't recover her concerned phone calls. And can't understand why Sydney isn't more supportive. While all Sydney can think is, but what about the real victim, the boy Peyton hit? And why does all this mean that Sydney now has to live with changed curfews, when she has never done anything wrong?

Oh, in reading this I got so deliciously mad at the mother. Much like Sydney herself, I was more accepting of her father's benign neglect, his simply not being there emotionally or physically. As I write this, I castigate myself for allowing that. And like that Dessen left me to find that conclusion. And my being angry at the mother -- it was complicated, but mostly about the mother favoring her son so compulsively while ignoring her daughter in the ways that matter. That I understood the mother, realized where she was coming from, didn't help end that anger. But here's the thing: Saint Anything allowed the mother's story to work itself out, with time. Just as Sydney needs the time to find herself and her friends, her mother needs the time to readjust to the family she has and their needs.

And finally, Ames. Ames is a friend of Peyton's. Like Ames, he's an addict; unlike Ames, he has stayed sober. To Sydney's mother, he is a link to Peyton, a connection to her son, and the hope that Peyton, like Ames, can stay sober and have a life. Ames is always over, a confidant, encouraging, charming.

But not to Sydney: to Sydney, he is creepy. He makes her uncomfortable. He's always -- there. Her friends who meet him see it, also. but her parents do not and cannot understand why she's difficult about him. And this is also something I really like about Dessen's work, how she knows and shows that the lives of teens, while lived in the same spaces and adults, can be different. That they see things differently. In the case of Ames, sometimes more clearly. But -- again in the case of Ames -- that as teens, they cannot always articulate those things to their parents. And when they try, they aren't heard.

There's so much more, of course. There is Mac, the romantic interest. But in a way, the real romantic interest is the Chatham family. Sydney, feeling isolated and alone at home, sees in the close knit and loving Chatham family a warmness and acceptance that she isn't feeling at home. The Chathams aren't perfect, but they give something to Sydney and that includes a way for Sydney to find a way back to her own family, her own parents and brother.

Of course, a Favorite Book Read in 2015.





Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Review: The Winner's Curse

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers. 2014. Library audiobook and publisher review copy. Book 1 of The Winner's Trilogy.

The Plot: Kestrel, the 17 year old daughter of General Trajan, buys a slave on a whim.

Kestrel's father had conquered the Herran peninsula a decade before; it's people where enslaved. Kestrel has grown up in a world of wealth and privilege, because of her father's success.

Still, she feels trapped by Valorian society. Yes, they are the winners, as their repeated conquests and world building proves. But there are strict rules for its citizens, and one is that Kestrel, like other citizens, must give value to the Valorian Empire by either being a soldier or producing future soldiers by marrying. She wants to do neither, but her wants don't matter.

Kestrel loves her father, and he wants her to enter the military. She may not have fighting skills, but she's already a good strategist. He indulges her music, even though everyone knows that music is something to be appreciated -- not made. That is below Valorians.

The slave she buys is named Smith, for the job he has been trained to do. He is a Herrani, about her age. And she wonders about him, about the temper and pride she sees in him, about what he was before his country was defeated.

His name wasn't always Smith. It was Arin. And he wasn't born into service or slavery. But those are his secrets, and he has many. And one of them is that he finds himself falling for, and caring for, the daughter of his enemy.

The Good: Can I do this book justice? I don't know. I'll start with I loved, loved, loved it, and the only reason I'm glad I didn't read it when it first came out two years ago is that now I can rush to read the second book.

I had heard good buzz, yes, but the initial cover, while beautiful, was too "girl in pretty dress." (And I'm still not sure about the current cover.) Plus the "she buys a slave and they fall for each other" didn't appeal to me.

I'm glad that I put both those aside. Because, wow. What a book. And yes Kestrel wears beautiful dresses, as her role in society demands. And yes, she buys a slave. And they fall for each other. But it is so much  more than that; and so much more nuanced than that.

This is the slavery of the conquered; and while I'll avoid spoilers, it's only been about ten years. So memories of the conquest and the brutality are fresh; dreams of independence and autonomy are born not in wishes but in memory.

The Valorian culture struck me as a mix of Roman and Regency (but the Regency may be because I'm in quite a reading binge of Regency Romance). Roman for the military and the conquest; Regency for the dresses and outfits and the way society interacts with each other. The modern twist is that the demand for military service applies to both men and women, and there is a certain level of gender equality.

Much as I liked Kestrel and her friends and even her father, my sympathies were always with Arin and his people. A reader like me will assume or infer rape or sexual assault on those who are conquered, enslaved, and owned, but The Winner's Curse never explicitly addresses this type of violence. Part of me wishes it did; part of me was glad it didn't. Since this is the first in the series, and The Hunger Games didn't explicitly address this type of abuse until the third book, I'm going to wait and see how it plays out and how it is addressed.

My sympathies meant that, much as I liked Kestrel, I kept waiting for Arin and the Herrani to go all Spartacus. I kept wanting that. And how this played out -- was very satisfying, and it kept me to the edge of my seat, and I look forward to how the series addresses the continuing issue of the conquered and the conquering and Empire building. Because that is the Winner's Curse, the curse of being the person who wins the war and takes the territory and the supplies and everything else you want: now you have to manage. To rule. To control. (OK, technically, as explained in the book, it's more an economic theory but this is how I view it, in terms of this book.)

Also, much as I liked Kestrel, at times I wanted more from her than her station could give. I wanted her to realize, truly realize, what it meant for the Valorians to have enslaved the Herrani. I wanted her to realize that her safe at home strategies had flesh and blood consequence. I wanted her to realize that the loss and outrage and anger she felt when her loved ones were in danger, or killed, or hurt, was the same as the Herrani felt a decade before, for the decade since, and in the present. Of course, I had to realize that type of understanding and empathy takes time. And that it becomes a thornier question when atrocities happen on both sides of the war.

The strength of the writing is that despite Kestrel's privilege, despite her family owning others, despite her family being responsible by being the winners -- I liked her. Found her sympathetic. Found her needs, her desires, her dreams, important.

So: bottom line. Loved it. Can't wait to read the next one. So it's a Favorite Book of 2016.








© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Share on Tumblr

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails