Category Archives: Young Adult

Recent Reads: Books that I loved

I am now on maternity leave, finally. I would have expected my reading time to expand, but that has been strangely disappointing. At the same time that I went on leave, major pregnancy insomnia hit. Meaning, I sleep about 2-3 hours on average each night, however tired I am. Usually, when I cannot sleep, I pick up my ereader to help distract me. However, that hardly seems to work as I am actually too tired to focus on a screen without my glasses on – and so I just lie awake and stare in whatever direction.

I did manage to read some books lately, though. And fortunately for me, apart from a large amount of books I started and set aside again (who knows, maybe I’ll actually write about them?), there were quite a few wonderful books among them as well. Here are three books I read recently which I loved.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell // Orion, 2013

Everyone raved about this book last year, didn’t they? And here I am, adding my name to the list.

What can I say? Eleanor and Park is just plain lovely. It was the perfect read for me right now, combining comfort with a critical eye. It tells of the developing love story between the two protagonists, Eleanor ( a girl from a troubled family with little to no socio-economical capital) and Park (a boy from mixed Korean-American descent, brought up in a happy family, but facing assumptions about his masculinity). Rowell manages to evoke that feeling of a developing love, where every first touch is incredibly vivid, and every moment shared is a treasure – and she does so in a manner that is very touching and real, something which is so often difficult or problematic to evoke. At the same time, Rowell does not romanticise. She acknowledges the complicated social rules of high school, the insecurities that everyone faces, the difficult boundaries negotiated through race, gender, and class. And by acknowledging that both protagonists love each other, but have to negotiate these precarious rules and their social consequences as well, Rowell achieves a balance between incredible love story and intelligent social commentary that is rare and unbelievably well done.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson // Persephone Books, 2008 (first published 1934)

Another book that has been a bloggers favourite: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. And again, I could not help but agree with those who have read this before me. I was not part-way in before I decided that I definitely need to order the other two books about Miss Buncle asap (which I have procrastinated on by telling myself that I could also read the other Persephones on my shelves first, before buying new ones).

It is difficult to explain what makes Miss Buncle’s Book work so well. A tale about an aging single woman who lives in a small town where nothing really happens, it explores the social interactions of Miss Buncle and her neighbours when their universe is disturbed by a book about their very town. Miss Buncle – unbeknownst to her neighbours – has authored this book by carefully observing their everyday life, and throwing it for a loop by making up alternative endings of her own. When the town finds out that these pseudonym characters are actually them, they all respond differently, but they almost invariably seek to find the person who has scrutinised their lives so carefully that the smallest secrets are now public. With gentle humour, perfect characterisation, and an overall feeling of loveliness, this book about a book within a book quickly managed to enchant me. I simply did not want it to end.

Miss Buncle’s Book is the perfect comfort read. Just writing about it makes me reconsider that idea of reading the other Persephones on my shelves first.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton // Corsair, 2013

Last but not least, I read Tooth and Claw. Are you tired of my gushing about perfect books yet? If so, I am sorry, but there’s one more to go.

Tooth and Claw takes the social rules of nineteenth-century society and explores women’s place within that society by imagining it as one consisting of dragons. Social status is defined by wealth and body size, and the latter can be achieved by eating other dragons which is condoned within a set of political and religious rules. Women are, as one might imagine, at the short end of this exchange. They have to be protected by a male (either family or husband). In marriage, they are expected to bear several clutches of dragonets, at the risk of their own life and those of the weaker children. Intermixed with these gendered expectations are ones about class, with servant dragons having their wings bound, and an exploration of the role of religion as both a force of repression and liberation.

Revolving around one family, the members of which we meet first at the gathering after their father’s death, when it is costumary to eat the deceased’s body, we follow the lives of three sisters and two brothers as they navigate the different pathways and social interactions that their careers, families, and positions have in store for them. The youngest three siblings receive particular attention, and it was for them that I felt most. But really, it is the whole set of characters, interactions, and the careful navigation and sometimes subordination of social rules that made this such an interesting read. 

On Goodreads some readers commented that they had to suspend disbelief for parts of the story (dragons travelling in carriages for example), but I couldn’t bother to be skeptical about these things. Tooth and Claw is so carefully drawn and narrated, making me care for the characters and their lot but also feeling intrigued by this social commentary and the way consequences of inequality were drawn out, that I cannot help but conclude once again that this was a book I loved, combining so many of the things I love and care for in fiction of whatever kind. There’s the added bonus of a somewhat happy ending — perhaps too happy to be entirely believable? — but definitely satisfying.

Highly, highly recommended. Is there anything comparable that I should read? Because I’d definitely love your suggestions!

 

Catching Up #1: Brief Thoughts on Some YA Books

Since we definitely found out that we are moving, and given the fact that my concentration span is not always as good lately, I decided to take a somewhat different approach to reading from my shelves. Instead of picking up books that I had wanted to read for forever, I tried to read the books that I knew I wanted to read someday, but was not entirely sure I would enjoy anymore. The manner of justifying this was that having read them, I might more easily decide whether to keep them or get rid of them before the move.

I am not saying that this is entirely fair to all of the books I read lately. Nor have all of my choices been based on this premise, since I have also picked up quite a few that were very high on my “I want to read and love it” list lately. However, I think this was the idea with which I picked up the books I shall briefly give you my thoughts on below.

If these mini-reviews seem super short, it is because I am trying to get back into the flow of blogging. Of course, I am already worried that I am selling any books short by giving them this introduction, and not paying full attention to them, but.. I think I should stop worrying and allow myself to post something already.

Before I Fall - Lauren OliverBefore I Fall – Lauren Oliver
Hodder and Stoughton, 2010

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

I can hear you thinking “but every one loved this, how come she wasn’t all that keen to pick this up from her shelves?”. The fact is, after reading Oliver’s Delirium, and then becoming more acquainted with the dystopian genre, I was quite disappointed in the book and I wasn’t sure whether the same disappointment wouldn’t go for Before I Fall. 

 In Before I Fall, Samantha Kingston relives the last day of her life over and over again. And by doing so, she comes to reconsider the way in which she lived, the manner in which she treated family and friends, and finally figures out how to do what is best for those she loves and for herself.

I admit, I was skeptical about this book during the first half. Samantha Kingston simply seemed the kind of person I couldn’t hope to connect with and I was terribly annoyed at reading some of her considerations and self-indulgences. I only stuck with the book because I felt that these annoyances might serve an actual purpose. And they did.. In the end, the book swayed me. I liked how it approached topics like popularity and bullying and facing the consequences of your actions without losing your sense of self.  Before I Fall is a very powerful book that I think will speak to teenagers across the board. I, of course, cried all over the last few chapters.

Having said so, I admit that in the end, every time I think of this book, I cannot help but be reminded of the doubts I had while reading the first half of the book, next to the emotions and power of the second half. So yes, I am still a little bit tentative about what I actually think about this one. It might merit a reread someday to see how I actually feel about it.

Reunited - Hilary Weisman GrahamReunited – Hilary Weisman Graham
Simon and Schuster, 2012

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Reunited is about three former best friends who grew up together as fans of the band Level3. Having separated with a fight years ago, they reunite as they undertake a road trip to see Level3 at their reunion show.

I wish I could say I liked this book better. Road trip stories can be so much fun. Instead, a lot of what happened here seemed a little too farfetched. And the three girls all seemed a bit too much like caricatures of the kind of high school girl they were meant to represent to make them work as characters you could care for. Moreover, the song lyrics seemed a little too prominent in a book when they, in my opinion, were not all that good or meaningful. Entertaining, and a fast read, but the book dragged a little too much for me to really enjoy it.

The Alchemy of ForeverThe Alchemy of Forever – Avery Williams
Simon and Schuster, 2012

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

I picked up The Alchemy of Forever when I visited the Boekenfestijn together with some other Dutch book bloggers last year. We all bought a copy of the book, as we intended to make it a first joint read. However, following that day, most of us quickly lost interest in it. William’s paranormal YA has lingered on my shelves since, and I decided to finally pick it up this weekend.

In The Alchemy of Forever, we follow Seraphina who has been alive since the Middle Ages when her boyfriend Cyrus found an alchemic way to separate soul from body, enabling Seraphina to switch bodies at will. However, centuries later, Seraphina has become uncomfortable with Cyrus’ demanding ways and her need to kill the souls of innocent people in order to take over their bodies and stay alive. Deciding to flout Cyrus’ authority, Seraphina does not take over the body Cyrus has selected for her and instead intends to die. However, she ends up in the body of teenager Kailey by accident, and for the first time in centuries, starts to care deeply about the possibilities that life brings, and the family and friends of Kailey.

In the end, this book wasn’t at all as bad as I had expected it to be. I blame my reluctance to pick it up on the large amount of paranormal YA that we have seen in the past few years. Admittedly, The Alchemy of Forever does not bring that much that is new (although it does consider the immortal vs guilt trope from a somewhat different angle), but it is well-written and the romance is not as prominent, or at least not as overwhelming, as to become the whole point of the book.

I finished this in a few hours (something that hadn’t happened for months!) – which I think is what made me appreciate this book. A definite downside to the book is that what makes the idea of incarnates (of which Seraphina is one) and Cyrus so scary, could have received a little more attention. And, of course, it appears to be part of a series – of which I am not sure I could be bothered to pick up the second book. I might just decide that what was meant as a “cliffhanger”, could function as an ending – albeit ambiguously – to the story as well.

- – – – -

Expect quite a few of these posts in the upcoming weeks (if I actually write them as I intend to do), since I have read quite a few books on which I’d like to share my brief thoughts.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth WeinRose Under Fire – Elizabeth Wein
Disney Hyperion, September 2013

ARC from Netgalley
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

When I first heard that Elizabeth Wein would publish a companion novel to Code Name Verity, I admit I was hesitant. Quite simply, it made me nervous because I wasn’t sure if it would not be doomed to fail in comparison. Admittedly, I was not quite as an emotional wreck after Code Name Verity as many, but the story still had a major impact and I definitely loved it and its accomplishments.  So, quite contrary to what you might expect given how much I enjoyed Wein’s first WWI novel, I had low expectations going in to Rose Under Fire.

Rose Under Fire is about an American pilot who is based on the same airbase as Maddie. When she flies a plane to France she is captured by the Nazi’s and interned in Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. There, Rose falls in with a group of fellow prisoners called “the Rabbits”, named for the medical experiments performed on them. It is their friendship and loyalty that gives Rose a shot at surviving.

Now, as much as I am theoretically aware of the importance of retelling the story of World War II, I admit that I often suffer from WWII fatigue when I contemplate reading  another book on the subject. It is unfeeling of me, and I am ashamed of experiencing those feelings. Nevertheless, they are often there at the back of my mind. It definitely played a role in my hesitance to pick up Rose Under Fire. It is completely ridiculous to even ponder if “we need another story about a concentration camp”, but yes, for a moment, that is exactly what I thought.

Now, I am going to come back to that fatigue later, but first let me be quick to assure you that I was mistaken. On so many counts. Yes, there are parallels to Code Name Verity, as there are characters that appear in both novels (one of which I hadn’t realised I had met before until after finishing), and in some ways, both books explore female friendships in strained and difficult circumstances. But the story itself could not be more different. The excitement of Code Name Verity is not copied here, as there are no surprise twists and turns (although definitely the appearance of the character-I-missed-at-first was a surprise in its own right and very interesting). It is, I felt, much more a novel that tells about the disillusionment, fear, and suffering that comes with war, whereas Code Name Verity, without disguising the horrors of war, had a more heroic slant, perhaps? And exactly because this is such a different story, I was able to let go of my hesitance if this would be as good. Instead, I was only a few pages in when I forgot about that worry completely and the story began speaking for itself.

All of this talk about the difference between the excitement of the spy and mystery element in Code Name Verity and this book is not to say that Rose Under Fire is not a compelling read. Honestly? I think it might be more so, at least it had better pace and immediacy at the outset, which I felt was perhaps a little slow in Code Name Verity (though still, also, enjoyable and wonderful). Basically, once I started reading, I did not put it down. Which, in my case, meant that I stayed up the whole night reading it. I was still reading by 6 am. I dozed for 2 hours, before I read it until the very end. Rose’s story is such an emotional journey, on so many levels, that it will not let you go until after you have finished it. And even then, it will probably stay with you for a while.

Rose is a wonderful character. I think writing characters to fall in love with as a reader, be it central or more marginal ones, is definitely one of Wein’s strengths. At the same time, I cannot help but agree with Booksmuggler Ana here that the story is not necessarily that of Rose. It is a story of a collective but many-sided experience made personal through a number of people that is then narrated by Rose. Sometimes more as witness, since she is not in the camp as long as the people she befriends, but Rose’s own experiences also serve as a gradual build-up towards the major things that happen in camp and Rose’s own suffering is never forgotten.

Rose Under Fire consists of different parts that trace Rose’s experience at the airbase before she leaves to France, and then resumes after the war, in the form of memories of what happened. Through these different parts of the novel, we see Rose mature, as people so often have to mature in circumstances of war, while simultaneously contrasting hope with disillusionment. It is really interestingly done, and builds gradually throughout the novel, while at the same time, other ideas of hope and heroism arise in the character’s struggles. No longer just Rose’s, because Rose is now always a part of a larger group, a group that employs different mechanisms to get through the war, while having their eye on a collective idea of hope or survival by getting the truth out to the world.

If that seems vague it is because I am unable to capture the sophistication of what Wein does here. She manages to portray the many sides of war, the collective suffering in the concentration camps, but also the personal side of making sense of what happens, the strategies of survival involved, the diverse emotional responses, and the different ways in which each person “deals” (that seems too soft a word to use, doesn’t it?) with what occurs. Wein never judges, never makes one the better choice, but instead simply manages to evoke the complexity of humanity and war. And while a novel set in a concentration camp necessarily involves the collective suffering involved, it renders these experiences extremely personal and individual.

Rose Under Fire then manages to transport that complexity to the last part of the novel, which I feel I have to talk about, but that some might consider to hold spoilers.

[POSSIBLE SPOILERS WARNING]

Rose Under Fire is a survivors narrative. And this is, I felt, where the novel truly rises above and beyond much of what it had already accomplished. Because, on top of capturing the complexities of war, it also asks the questions that we know many survivors have asked themselves, that is, the guilt in surviving, the “why me and why not..?”, the difficulties of finding a place for your experiences after the war and the different and highly personal approaches to that, in which Wein, again, manages not to label anyone, but instead imparts several perspectives that are different, but not better or worse. In this case, it means that the promise the girls we get to know make to each other, the idea of truth as hope, is dealt with differently than many of them expected when they were in the camp. I would not say that they do not hold on to that thought, although the outside world definitely seems to sanction only one form of witness and this is not the format everyone chooses. But, through these ideas of hope, truth, and survival, Wein shows the different ways in which survivors make sense of a situation that completely alters their life and worldview. (Ana does a much better job than I did at explaining this).

[END OF SPOILERS]

In the end, let me return to this notion of WWII fatigue. What I think Wein managed to accomplish is that she shows how every personal experience deserves to be heard without enforcing the need to tell. It is easy to lose track of the individual in the millions who lost their lives. And that somehow, makes it easier to turn away from a subject because you feel you already know it in its abstract form. But by acknowledging the personal and individual, and how everyone shapes their lives in different, although they might be familiar, ways, abstract stories can be rendered urgent again. It also brings to the fore once more, something which I have discussed many times as a history student: how fictionalised history can  at times bring history to life in ways that are difficult to accomplish if you have to stick to the academic format. It does not make these stories better, or more deserving to be heard. But it can make them more immediate. And in my case, it made me shake of my prejudices and become interested in the Second World War again.

Oh right, one more thing before I forget: Remember how I was not as much of an emotional wreck as everyone else was after reading Code Name Verity? Well, let’s just say that I cannot voice that complaint about Rose Under Fire. If you are going to read this book (and I think you should), be sure to have tissues at hand. I don’t remember exactly where it is in the book page-wise, but somewhere just past the middle? From there on out, I cried and cried and cried. The book is devastating, but as I hope I have shown (strange to say given the subject matter): in a good way.

Other Opinions: The Book Smugglers, Things Mean a Lot, Capricious Reader, Steph Su Reads, Bookworm1858, Chachic’s Book Nook, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks - E LockhartThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks – E. Lockhart
Disney Hyperion, 2008

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

What can you say about a book that is universally beloved by bloggers and that has, I am sure, been discussed in-depth by many of them? (This seems to be my perpetual difficulty when it comes to blogging lately).

Well.. I could add that I loved it too? Loved it! See, it even deserves to be called loved in italics, that’s how much I enjoyed it.

Frankie Landau-Banks is a fifteen-year-old sophomore at Alabaster, a preparatory boarding school that is mostly attended by children from privileged families. Frankie returns to school after a year of being practically invisible and a painful breakup with her boyfriend after he cheated on her. But this year quickly proves to be different: Frankie’s body has rapidly changed and her new looks mean that suddenly boys start to notice her. Matthew, a senior boy every girl including Frankie has a crush on, singles her out at the beginning of the year and they start dating. This means she becomes acquainted with the group of friends around Matthew: all senior, mostly boys from privileged families, who, as Frankie notes, have enough money and security to not have to care about much and are thus free to enjoy themselves in whatever way.

Frankie is enjoying herself, she enjoys spending time with her new friends and they make dating Matthew even more fun. However, she also notices the exclusionary tendencies of the group Matthew is a part of, and she quickly starts to be annoyed by them. It seems that, as a girl, Frankie is expected to be beautiful, adorable, and not too “think-y”. There are topics the guys can debate, but once Frankie starts to give her opinions there is an awkward silence. Then, when she finds out Matthew has been keeping a secret from her, she decides to take matters into her own hands: showing Matthew and the whole school what a girl, or any person really, is capable of, without them realising it at first.

It is quite impossible to do the layers of this book’s plot justice. I wanted to spoil everything just to make sure you understood that this book cannot be dismissed as whatever label you want to use to dismiss it. It is a great story, with great critiques, with the incorporation of grand ideas like Foucault’s commentary on the Panopticon, with a commentary on gender and class that could easily provide a wonderful introduction for any teenager, or adult for that matter..

Frankie is a wonderful heroine. She’s spunky and smart and lovely and she has all the agency in the world without being unrealistic because she also shows us her insecurities. I am nothing like Frankie in that I know I would never have dared do what she did, but that does not matter as she is so admirable and warm that it is quite difficult not to take her into your heart. Honestly, I wanted to stay with Frankie for days after finishing the book, hoping to be able to return to her world in one way or other.

Of course, Frankie is not perfect. She is learning, a work in progress, like everyone else. She judges people in certain ways that are not always great. She dismisses the advise about gender and power from friends and family at certain points in the narrative, though we have to consider that she’s not necessarily wrong in doing so (Ana has written wonderfully about this in her post). But she’s also portrayed as learning from her own experiences. What made me like her was that, even though I wanted to shake her a little with her blind admiration for Matthew at first (okay, not exactly blind, she’s never unobservant really, just not fully seeing beyond her own crush at times), she grows and learns and continues to be her own person in most situations. She remains who she is: a girl who liked to have fun, but who is also willing to work hard for classes that capture her interest, who is proudly part of the Geek Conglomerate, and who loves to read. She is so much her own person. Did I mention I really like her?

Ana recommended this book to me after we extendedly discussed academia and privilege during my visit. Whatever direction the discussion took, it always came down to Ana saying that I really should read The Disreputable History.. And she was right. A lot of the broader discussions surrounding gender, power, and privilege that you will encounter in many places in life, not necessarily only on a posh boarding school, were instantly recognisable. Added to that is the feel-good vibe of Frankie showing it all up. I think this will be a book I return to in the future, whenever I need a pick-me-up that will make me feel justified in my feminism and happy and smiling at the same time.

Other Opinions: As I said, everyone has written about this book.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden

Thursday's Children - Rumer GoddenThursday’s Children – Rumer Godden
Virago Modern Classics, April 2013 (
First published 1984)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Thursday’s Children is about the Penny family. Mother concentrates all her hopes on Crystal, the fifth child and longer-for girl after four boys. Crystal is to be a ballet dancer, groomed by her mother who was once a chorus girl and longs to see her former dreams realised through her only daughter. Doone, sixth child and clearly an “accident”, has to accompany his sister to ballet class when there is no one to watch over him at home. There, he secretly becomes fascinated by dancing, and he starts practising in the hallway so that no one will see him. Doone has his reasons to keep his dancing a secret. His mother would not understand, focused as her attention is on Crystal, who is her one and all. His father thinks dancing is not suitable for boys. And his brothers never really seem to bother much about him. Nevertheless, Doone is willing to do everything he can to become a ballet dancer.

As many of you predicted in the comments of my library loot post, I really really enjoyed Thursday’s Children. What’s not to love? There’s ballet! And a child overcoming obstacles! There’s heartfelt writing! And social commentary! Basically, I wanted to travel back in time while reading this, and push the book into the hands of my childhood self. The hours I spent dreaming of being a professional dancer back then! The hours I spent dancing in the living room, the bedroom, on the street while walking somewhere, even on my bike.. Godden does a really good job at capturing the fascination for music and movements, the emotions it can evoke, and all the romantic feelings associated with dance. But she also highlights the difficult aspects of pursuing a career in dance: the rivalry and ugliness between children and parents that are all part of this world as well.

However, if you do not care much for ballet yourself, I think this book might still be of interest. The thing is, it really is about pursuing the things you love, the sacrifices you have to make in the process, but also the importance of love and family relations.

I was reminded of Eva Ibbotson when I read Thursday’s Children, although perhaps they are not that much alike. Like Ibbotson, Godden highlights the ugliness of classicism through the interactions of, particularly mother and Crystal with other girls in class.  Perhaps more than Ibbotson, Godden portrays extremes of hurt and ugliness, particularly towards the end of Crystal’s storyline. And in Doone’s portrayal, the sympathy evoked for him, and the overall sympathetic outlook on the world, she occasionally seems to share Ibbotson’s rose-coloured glasses. I somehow feel I am being unfair to both authors by comparing their work, because I think the strength of their writing is that it is so recognisable and individual. I guess what I meant to say is that I felt the same warmth and feeling radiate from Thursday’s Children as I do in Ibbotson’s novels.

Most of all, I think Godden shines in portraying the family interactions between the Pennys. It is hurtful and difficult to read about the treatment of Doone sometimes. Godden walks a fine line between invoking stereotypes of parents pursuing their own hopes and dreams through their children and forgetting about the other children in the family. However, she manages to remain realistic, I think, and handles these storylines really well. Even more so because, especially towards the end, she manages to complicate them: she shows both the hurt and the love that is part of so many families, she shows how every family member might stand up for other things, fight for some while forgetting about others, and how in their effort to do right all of them make mistakes.

Colour me impressed. And a little regretful that I did not discover Rumer Godden earlier. So.. which book should I read next?

Other Opinions: Jenny’s Books, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.