Belgravia

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Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: I’ve been reading and watching all the Julian Fellowes works I can get my hands on since I finished watching Downton Abbey. When I heard he was writing a new book, I hurriedly placed a hold on the pre-ordered copy from the library. And I must say I’m a little disappointed; it’s not quite the brilliance of Downton Abbey. Still, it makes for a nice, light summer read. I read Belgravia while on a houseboat for a family reunion and I leave for England in a couple days, so it was the prime time for  it to be read, I think.

It’s difficult to summarize this book without spoiling anything, since the first few chapters are sprinkled with enjoyable plot twists. Essentially, the story follows a forbidden love between a young adult of modest upbringing and a young adult of the titled upper class in the mid-1800s. It is more than that, though; it’s also a story of scandal and family. It links two families of very different backgrounds together in a Romeo-and-Juliet sort of style, but their disagreements are more complex than the Montagues and Capulets. Historical accuracy is perhaps the strongest trait of the novel.

The book relies heavily on dramatic irony to build suspense, as Fellowes reveals nearly all to his readers as one of the characters makes a discovery of some kind or another. That said, the pacing is precise and fairly enjoyable. Unfortunately, some of the moments we’ve been waiting for throughout the book–the reveals of long-kept secrets–are lacking in the end because the narrator remains distanced from all the characters. Moreover, some of the characters are flat in that they’re seemingly without faults. This may be an effort to be consistent with Victorian archetypes of characters like the Angelic Woman, but such archetypes were even found tedious in that period and ought to be made more dynamic to allow readers to better relate.

Still more regrettably, the plot is predictable through the end. I have a pretty keen sense for what’s going to happen next (as a writer and avid reader), so perhaps newer readers might be more surprised, but Fellowes wasn’t hiding his tricks very well in my opinion. This made the characters even more difficult to relate to, as the readers could guess what was going on in their lives much quicker than they could, even when they were in possession of all the facts.

But, again, Fellowes’ world-building is a redeeming quality, as he revives the culture of the mid-1800s in 400 pages. The perspective of each family member is also interesting and adds different, more complicated perspectives to the mix.

Recommendation: Fans of Fellowes will probably continue to appreciate his voice and world-building in this novel, though they may be disappointed that it doesn’t live up to the standards set in Downton Abbey. Those interested in learning more about the 1840s will likely also enjoy the plot. And, as I said before, it makes for a good, light summer read. If you’re looking for something to bring with you to the beach or the boat, check Belgravia out. Best yet, you don’t have to worry about reading it in public because there’s not much that will induce tears, though some bits may induce sympathy.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Rating: 4/5

Review: This was the optimal time for me to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (which is an awesome name). Not only is it Friday the 13th (a notably creepy day for a notably creepy book), but I’m in the midst of researching freak shows for my thesis project (which I’m sure you’ll hear more about on Goodreads). I’ve seen a great deal of odd, even haunting black and white photographs of late, and Miss Peregrine’s seemed like something straight out of my research.

I heard about this book mostly because the movie is coming out in September. It looks like it’s taken quite a few liberties from the book, but Asa Butterfield is starring in it, and I can’t miss that. Naturally, I had to read the book first.

 

I was a little nervous about it because I read other reviews that claimed the book had little plot and was slow in the middle. I did not find this to be true. It was perhaps slow in the middle, but I didn’t see this as a negative note; I mean, what book isn’t slow in the middle? You might say the same thing about Pride and Prejudice or The Count of Monte Cristo or any other of my favorite classics. I think the book needed to be slow in the middle to give the reader a chance to take in the world Riggs built and breathe before the fast-paced ending sucked them back in.

I also believe Riggs builds a unique world. I have read other allegations that his world is too similar to that of the x-men, though you could also say the same of the Percy Jackson series or Avatar: The Last Airbender or even Harry Potter. The people-with-special-abilities-who-attend-training-school/group is a common fictional trope. It’s a popular one, too, because it’s a fantasy people want to buy into. Everyone secretly (0r not-so-secretly) wishes they had some sort of superpower and could go to a school to learn under Dumbledore or Prof. X or just make friends who could teach you. Heck, when I’m sick part of me hopes it’s something the doctors can’t identify and suddenly I’ll be able to do things I couldn’t before. But it’s always just allergies or something normal like that.

Point is, we can’t blame this book for following a fairly successful plot type. Riggs works hard to make his book unique from similar stories, ensuring that the word “peculiar” fits the sort of powers given to the children of the tale. Moreover, he builds a whole world around them, with terrifying beasts and all. Unlike the similar titles I named, Miss Peregrine’s has an unsettling tone. There are happy moments, sure, but even those are darkened with the peculiarity of the children’s powers and somber language and accompanying black-and-white images. This is not a horror tale or a thriller, per se, but it’s a story meant to bother you a while after reading it.

Several reviews have claimed the photos in the book fail to fully fit in the story. While I see where those views are coming from–some of the images of supposedly the same people, for example, seem quite different from one another–I don’t mind it. The pictures set the tone for the novel and differentiate it further from tales of similar worlds by offering a sort of proof in old photographs. It reminds me a little of magical realism, where if you don’t buy into the world of the book, you’re not going to have a good relationship with it.

Though I disagree with many of the negative remarks concerning this book, I find I cannot rate it five stars. I enjoyed the plot, the setting, the language, and the photographs, but I was disappointed in the characterization. I did not feel sympathetic towards Jacob or Emma, and I (ironically) found them to be unbelievable at times. I appreciated some of the side characters, but I wished Jacob and Emma were a little more complex, relatable, and distinctive. Perhaps I will witness their growth through the next books in the series.

Recommendation: This book had some rough language, a bit of violence, and morbid commentary (thinking of you, Enoch). It should be fine for high school students and up, but those sensitive to language and dark scenes might want to hold off a bit. It reminds me a little of the Middle School book Serafina and the Black Cloak, but for a more teenaged audience. If you enjoy reading about freak shows and oddities, you will likely enjoy this read. Fans of Bone Gap interested in a darker novel should check it out, as well. It’s pretty quick to get through, and would make a satisfyingly creepy (yet nightmare-less) Halloween read.

These Shallow Graves

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Rating: 5/5 stars

Review: I’ve loved Jennifer Donnelly ever since I read Revolution, a book about the French Revolution which has impacted me much more than I expected. When I saw the cover for These Shallow Graves, I admit I felt a little disappointed. It’s a beautiful cover, but I pegged it as less artistic and deep than the covers of her previous novels. To me, the cover makes the book out to be another paranormal thriller type of story, likely featuring vampires. But that’s not Jennifer Donnelly. And that’s not what this book is like.

Set in the 1890s, These Shallow Graves follows Jo Montfort, a young lady who dreams about escaping her duties as an upper-class woman and becoming a reporter like her hero Nellie Bly. When her father dies under mysterious circumstances, she winds up working with Eddie Gallagher, an ambitious young reporter, to try to uncover the truth.

At first, I didn’t buy it. The plot felt predictable and Jo Montfort felt like a familiar character–the typical headstrong young woman stuck in the cage of the upper class.

But then Donnelly threw Eddie Gallagher in the picture, and with him came a slew of unusual characters that brought out a different side of Jo. While I knew the main plot twist from nearly the start of the book, a number of other twists managed to surprise me. Donnelly also managed to capture late nineteenth-century New York in all its depth without overloading me with information. I was a little nervous when I reached the final chapters, as I did not know how the book would end, but that just proves the novel kept me on my toes.

As always, Donnelly understands just how to end things. She doesn’t indulge her readers, but she provides enough information to drive home the meaning of the text and lets the readers guess what happens next.

Recommendation: This novel hits all the right notes. Fans of Donnelly’s previous work should definitely read this one. Anyone interested in catching a glimpse of America in the late 1800s will not be disappointed, either. I think Donnelly is the perfect solution for YA readers who want more than love triangles and shallow messages. I promise this book will both keep such readers enraptured while taking them below surface-level fiction.

All the Light We Cannot See

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Rating: 5/5 stars

Review: There’s not much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and masterful in its language, imagery, and format. It deserves all the awards it has won.

First I have to applaud Doerr for the amount of research he did to craft this novel. There were some sentences where I had to stop and wonder at the research he must have conducted to make that single sentence, and I know there were other pieces of research so subtly threaded into the text that I didn’t even notice.

Also, this is one of the first books I’ve read where the author successfully jumps between characters, times, and even letters and chapters. It’s organized in two different time frames throughout most of the book and mainly follows Marie-Laure, a blind girl living in Paris with her father who works at the Museum of Natural History as a locksmith, and Werner, a young German orphan with snowy blonde hair and an affinity for electronics and mathematics that leads the Nazis to notice him. Another character, von Rumpel, is an old sergeant major for the Nazis whose job requires him to evaluate and locate treasures for the Third Reich. His search for the Sea of Flames, a gem said to have magical powers to prevent death, leads him to the French town of Saint-Malo, where Werner and Marie-Laure also end up. The way paths cross in this novel–the overlapping of radios, gems, light, darkness, birds, etc.–is gorgeous. I’m still trying to untangle the complicated webs of plot and character that appear here, and I think I will always be trying to untangle them. This is a book that is impressed on my memory.

Consider, for example, this description of characters who never directly come into play:

“[Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel] has a wife who suffers his absences without complaint, and who arranges porcelain kittens by color, lightest to darkest, on two different shelves in their drawing room in Stuttgart. He also has two daughters whom he has not seen in nine months. The eldest, Veronika, is deeply earnest. Her letters to him include phrases like sacred resolve, proud accomplishments, and unparalleled in history.” (141)

A later chapter titled “The Simultaneity of Instants” is perhaps the most brilliant chapter of the novel. It jumps from character to character but within the same “instant.” The single paragraph, stream-of-consciousness format of this instant is also brilliant in building suspense.

Letters between Werner and his sister, Jutta, are scattered throughout the book as well. The letters are not important in and of themselves, but the heavy censorship of the letters are interesting and heartbreaking to see.

The jumping between time frames is complicated in that it does reveal certain truths to the audience that the characters themselves are unaware of. We know much early than Marie-Laure, for example, what her father means when he instructs her to look in the house, and I can see how other readers might be bored with this then. Yet the whole truth is never revealed to us. We don’t know what will happen to any of the characters we have come to love until the end of the novel. This is what drove me to continue reading.

Moreover, I think it’s important for this novel to have a non-chronological format. Not only does it build suspense far better than a chronological format and make the novel more unique, but, as historical fiction, it presents a non-linear view of history, which is important. Not everything should be read as a cause-and-effect event. By jumbling the timeline of his plot, Doerr makes history less linear and more circular–or perhaps the more correct term would be “squiggly.” Yes, Doerr’s book is squiggly.

It’s also tragic. Consider this a formal heads up to have tissues ready (if the WWII setting wasn’t enough of an indication). In spite of the tragedy, it ends well–Doerr spends just the right amount of time tying up loose ends.

Recommendation: This strikes me as something fans of The Book Thief would love. I think it’s a good read for anyone with the patience and appreciation for Doerr’s level of detail and an interest in WWII. There is a scene later in the book that may trigger some who have been abused, though Doerr handles the content well.

Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois

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Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Review: Sophie Perinot has clearly dedicated much of her time to research for the historical fiction novel Médicis Daughter. Still, I was disappointed.

Not because she failed to represent history correctly; this is a problem faced by everyone who takes creative license with history, no matter how much or little research has been done, and I think Perinot tried to remain true to what she sees as a possibility for history.

No, I’m disappointed simply because Margot’s character was painful in some respects and the book was too slow in parts.

I’m sure it must have been hard to be a daughter to Catherine de Médicis, and Margot is shaped into a strong woman by the end of the novel who I can’t help but admire (the character growth is well-formulated). Through most of the novel, though, I found her to be not only in pain, but painful. Her strained relationship with her brother Henri, for example, felt forced in parts. I think such a relationship is hard to pull off effectively, but it didn’t help that Margot blamed herself after the problem escalated. Throughout much of the book, she blames herself for the actions of others. This is dangerous for a novel, especially as she blames herself even when others threaten to take advantage of her. This is an idea that should be refuted by the end of the novel, but it is not.

The book also lags in the middle, as historical fiction novels so often do. Rather than build suspense, I found Margot’s relationship with a certain gentleman tedious. The character change of that gentleman is not as well-formulated as the change of Margot herself. Moreover, his change felt contrived for the convenience of plot. In this same section of the novel, I found it difficult to follow where in France Margot was.

In spite of its flaws, this book taught me a lot about Margot de Valois and her family as well as the War of Religion and St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and, for historical fiction, having learned something is perhaps the most important quality.

Recommendation: Fans of the TV show Reign or the film The Duchess and similar stories will likely enjoy this book.

Thank you NetGalley for allowing me to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #1)

First off, sorry I’ve been gone so long. This is exam/project/essay season. I really do care about this blog still, but school comes first. As does the newest season of Doctor Who–but that’s over now, too.

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Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: Maybe I’m being a little harsh but, while this book is certainly a fantastic start to what looks to be a promising series, it’s not as good as The Lightening Thief. Still, Riordan makes improvements in some areas.

Take the character list. We have a blonde teen as the protagonist Magnus Chase. Then we have his friends: Hearth, who’s deaf, and Blitz, who’s–well, he doesn’t easily fit a mold. Riordan makes an effort for diversity, too, by including Samirah Al Abbas, a Muslim Valkyrie. Annabeth pops up again, too.

Some of the side characters are different from Riordan’s previous work, but Magnus has the same voice and personality as Percy Jackson and Jason Grace. Magnus says all the right things. Even though he gets himself into trouble, he manages to find a way out. He’s snarky and cheesy and loves adventure. He’s the typical hero; I’ve read a number of books in his voice before and, frankly, I’m bored with him. I think Riordan’s philosophy on this is “it’s worked well before,” but this book sounds too similar to the Percy Jackson series for my liking.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book, nor does it follow the exact same path as the previous mythical adaptations. What I think I like most about this book is the lack of romance for the main character. The fact that this is a bestselling YA page-turner without any romance is refreshing.

It’s also different because it lacks the formal “camp” setting that runs through the Percy Jackson and subsequent Heroes of Olympus series. There’s a sort of gathering place for the Norse demigods in the afterlife, but most of the book takes place on a quest. In that way, it’s a little more like the Kane Chronicles.

The book fails to live up to my usual standards for Riordan, though. The climax falls short of the suspense I want it to have. Really, the whole plot lacks tension. I wanted to see the progression of characters. The plot didn’t startle me at all–in fact, it was fairly predictable. I never bought into the whole “end of the world” scenario because I know Riordan’s not going to do that to me. I’m disappointed he didn’t take more risks with this book by putting characters at risk.

Riordan does well shaping the characters of Samirah and Heath, though. Whatever else may be afflicting this book, at least those two are solid characters, unique to the series. And even though the novel runs in the same vein as the other books in this mythical universe, the mythical universe itself is original, and it seems Riordan still has more to explore.

Recommendation: Honestly I feel too old to be reading this series still, but I appreciate the nostalgia of going back to a world I remember losing myself in throughout middle school and high school. It’s not obscene and the violence is mild. While I believe the book is best suited for middle school or upper elementary school students, those who have been exploring this world with Riordan for a while will likely still find pleasure in this novel.

#FlashbackFriday: The Library Window

Rating: 5/5 stars

Review: This Friday I’m flashing back to 1896.

I normally don’t review books I read for my literature courses because they’ve already been widely reviewed. Why do you need me to tell you to read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night? You’re probably going to read it at some point anyway. (If you haven’t yet, you really should; it’s a good one.)

The difference with The Library Window is that it’s not well known. Though she was a favorite of Queen Victoria and wrote over 120 books, she’s not studied much today. This post is my PSA that Oliphant is an author worth studying. She certainly deserves more than nine reviews on Goodreads.

The Library Window is a Gothic novella (or, if you want to be cute, “novelette”) around 50 pages long. It tells the story of a young, unnamed narrator who begins to notice a peculiar library window across from her aunt’s home. While her aunt’s friends speculate that the window is a fake, the narrator grows more certain that it is, in fact, real. Over time, she begins to see the room behind the window and, eventually, a man living in it. She discounts the older ladies’ claims as a result of their poor eyesight, but the window and the man beyond it still seem not quite right. The narrator becomes obsessed with the man, perhaps to the point of madness.

This was Oliphant’s last book; she died a year later, having outlived her husband, brothers, and all her children. This fact makes the novella even more haunting.

It’s the sort of haunting I can tolerate though. As someone who’s successfully avoided horror movies, I’m not one to read scary books, and I don’t think this books is scary. It’s suspenseful and it sticks with you, but it’s not scary.

It’s hard to talk about this book the way I normally would. There’s no epic romance, but the relationship between the narrator and the man in the window she only sees from across the street is an interesting one. The cast is almost entirely female, but the main character is a girl who enjoys reading and daydreaming; she is a relatable character at first and a strange character later.

The plot is not remarkable in any way, nor is it unremarkable. It is what you’d expect from gothic literature, but that doesn’t detract from my experience of the book. It’s a page-turner because Oliphant writes it in an interesting way. She leads the reader to ask plenty of questions and never answers one without bringing up another. That said, she never answers all the questions, surrendering her story to the reader’s interpretation.

That’s what I love most about this story: its openness to interpretation. The meaning behind the elusive library window, the narrator’s growing interest in it, and her strange relationship with her aunt and her aunt’s friends opens the novel to multiple readings. Even more interestingly, since the book is not widely reviewed, I don’t think anyone has yet found a perfect answer to the meaning of the novella–and perhaps they never will. The questions that remain after the books’ conclusion add to the sense of mystery.

The Library Window is a brilliantly written novella that doesn’t have the readership it deserves.

Recommendation: Literature majors, especially those who appreciate Victorian and Gothic literature, will appreciate this book.

Since it’s such a quick read, I’d say those who enjoy suspense stories and don’t mind them being historical would also appreciate this novella. If you like Poe, this is perfect for you. It’s the sort of book that should be read around Halloween, anyhow. And it’s appropriate for the kiddos. It teaches them to stay away from strange men in the window and diamond rings. I might be stretching it a little, but you get the gist.

If you’re at all interested, please please please read this book.

The Courtesan: Biographical historical fiction in the voice of a tragic fairy tale

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Though its voice is reminiscent of a tragic fairy tale, Alexandra Curry’s debut novel The Courtesan is actually a work of biographical historical fiction.

The story begins in 1881 with the execution of young Sai Jinhua’s father and her subsequent sale to a brothel. Under the cruel eye of Lao Mama, Jinhua endures footbinding and “bed business” with the support of her maid Suyin. The two girls become like sisters to one another until the haunted Sub-chancellor Hong makes Jinhua his concubine, taking her away from Suyin and brothel life.

When her new husband is asked to serve the Chinese empire as an ambassador to Vienna, Jinhua accompanies him on the journey, where she is drawn to European culture in a way he does not understand. Defying her husband’s wishes, she obsesses over learning German and even begins to fall for a Prussian count.

In keeping with the tragic fairy tale style, Jinhua does not have the blessing of a happily ever after.

She returns to a changed China as a changed woman, and her new-found Western sympathies threaten herself and those dear to her under the rise of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists.

From the beginning, it is clear that Curry conducted a lot of research for the novel. She pulls idioms from the German as well as the Chinese language. She threads other historical figures through Jinhua’s story and holds to her understanding of those figures. Her depiction of Chinese and Viennese culture of the late 1800s is rich enough that I can imagine it without much difficulty.

Still, The Courtesan is not Sai Jinhua’s story—it is what Sai Jinhua’s story might have been. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Curry filled in the holes and questions of Jinhua’s story with her own imagination and interpretation. This did not deter my enjoyment of the story, but those who prefer historical fact over historical fiction might not find the book so pleasurable as a result.

One of my favorite traits of the book—second only to Curry’s fairy tale voice—is her constant movement between characters’ perspectives. While most of the book is told in third person limited from Jinhua’s angle, other chapters explore the minds of side characters like Suyin and Jinhua’s Viennese maid.

My favorite chapters, though, are the ones that tapped into the viewpoint of characters who stand in the way of Jinhua’s desires. The first chapter, for example, details the death of Jinhua’s father from the executioner’s eyes. Other chapters look through the lenses of Jinhua’s father’s First Wife, the go-between who brought Jinhua to the brothel, Lao Mama, and Sub-chancellor Hong’s First Wife.

The constant movement between characters humanizes those who don’t deserve to be humanized and adds gravity to the novel.

That is not to say the book lacks gravity without these chapters; on the contrary, it takes every grim turn a story can take.

The scenes of footbinding and “bed business” are graphic and characters—particularly those from the brothel—swear intensely. These details made the book difficult to read, but I believe they’re necessary for the portrayal of Jinhua’s environment in this novel.

The most important judge of any historical fiction piece, in my opinion, is that the reader wants to learn more about the figures and events covered in the piece by the end than they did when they began.

For this reason especially, I belief The Courtesan is a success. I’m now far more interested in Sai Jinhua the events leading up to the Boxer Rebellion than I was before reading the novel. I’ve already begun poking around to see what others believe to be the true story of Jinhua and to learn more about the Boxer Rebellion.

Though I love the novel’s style and believe it to be a successful work of historical fiction, the novel fell short in the realism of its main character. Jinhua herself is ever-changing—a trait Curry likely instilled to emphasize her “many lives.” It may be less poetic, but I believe the depiction of Jinhua as having one life with many phases would have saved her character from frequent contortion.

Aside from this fault in Jinhua’s character, The Courtesan is a masterfully written novel with a great love for tragedy.

Recommendation: Fans of Amy Tan, Chinese fairy tales, and the historical context of this novel will likely enjoy it.

I would not recommend this book to victims of abuse or those sensitive to a gritty narrative.

The Courtesan will be available for purchase September 8th.

A Place We Knew Well: A book I liked not so well

This eBook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Review: Susan McCarthy’s A Place We Knew Well had intriguing characters and twists but a disappointingly slow beginning and flat ending.

The novel looks at the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of a family living in suburban Florida. It examines the contrast between the cookie-cutter family values of the 60s and the mounting stresses of a potential World War III.

The characters of A Place We Knew Well are complex and add more depth to the plot.

Wes Avery, whom the novel seems to focus on most, is a World War II veteran who fears the worst may come of the Cuban Missile Crisis but continues to behave as though all is well for the sake of his family.

Sarah Avery is a housewife who numbs her worries with pills. Her prejudices and nervous breakdowns make her the most interesting character of the novel.

Charlotte Avery, their only child, struggles to prepare for homecoming in the midst of the Crisis.

The novel opens with the Charlotte of modern day rummaging through her father’s garage, where she finds several odd items that all relate to their family’s struggles during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wanting to know the relationship between the objects and Charlotte’s distaste for that time of her life, I turned the page.

The slow pace and the focus on Wes quickly bored me. I wanted to know more about Sarah and Charlotte. While the beginning of the story offers a good snapshot of the times–particularly with the added perspective of the Cuban boy Wes hires at the garage–I wanted more action. Perhaps because I know from history that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, I felt little of the suspense the Crisis presses on the Avery family.

McCarthy redeemed herself, though, and renewed my interest with a plot twist that caught me off guard and the introduction of a character very unlike the others.

Though the missiles never explode, the family does.

The loss of two stars on my rating is attributed in part to the initially slow pace and the focus on Wes, who bored me. Mostly, though, the book disappointed me in its final chapter, which was structured as a character’s email to the author.

I’ve read too many stories that end or begin their novels in this manner, and I think it’s not only cliche, but also a bit cheesy. Granted, some of these novels have been a success–such as Rick Riordon’s Kane Chronicles–but A Place We Knew Well would have been better suited to end differently.

I agree that the author should end in modern day, but why not continue in narrative form and finish the scene of Charlotte at her father’s garage? Without a full-circle ending, the introduction feels incomplete. More than that, it feels unnecessary. What is the importance of naming Charlotte’s father’s attorney if he only came up a couple times, and only in the introduction? Will Charlotte ever learn the relation between the items she discovered in her father’s safe? What happened to the character introduced halfway through the story?

The ending McCarthy chose also allows for little emotional weight. I’ve spent over 250 pages with these characters but all I know of their futures is told in a formal, detached letter to a stranger. The long-term effects of the Cold War on the characters is revealed through numbers and politics when it should be revealed through emotional narrative; numbers and politics belong in the Author’s Note.

The novel would have been much stronger if McCarthy had ended it in a place I knew not so well.

Recommendation: Those interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis and/or life in the 1960s might enjoy this novel.

Walk on Earth a Stranger: Stranger in a Good Way

My library offers a summer reading program, with different incentives for each age group. This was my brother’s first year in the teen group, where, after reading four books, he could select one book from the library’s prize stash to keep. And this year (now that I’m finally in the adult group and can no longer pick a book) they had ARCs on the shelves. And one of the ARCs was Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, one of my favorite authors. I begged my brother to pick that book for me. Like a loving little sibling, he did.

And like a true little brother, he wouldn’t let me touch it, holding it just out of reach at all times.

He finally gave it to me last Sunday for my birthday, and, naturally, I read it soon after.

That was probably the longest backstory for a book review, but it had to be told. In any case, here are my thoughts on the YA novel.


Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: This book is very different from Carson’s Fire and Thorns series. That’s not a bad thing; it just took me a few chapters to adjust to Carson using words like “blast” and “witchy.” The novel takes place during the California Gold Rush. The protagonist, 15-year-old Leah Westfall, calls herself “witchy” because she can sense gold around her. In the time of the California Gold Rush, this is an incredibly useful talent. It should be no surprise, then, that anyone who finds out about her powers would want to use them for their own gain. So when someone takes everything away from her and attempts to control her, Leah dresses like a man and runs off to California on her own. As anyone who’s played Oregon Trail knows, Leah encounters quite a few setbacks on her journey.

One of the things I loved about the Fire and Thorns series was the unusual protagonist. While Leah Westfall is by no means usual for her time (what kind of girl can hunt and muck the stables in 1849?), she is a familiar character. The situation and fantastical elements Carson surrounds Leah in, though, are new and intriguing. No book about Western America in the 1800s has interested me as much as this one. In fact, I can’t say I’ve heard of many books at all on the subject, and certainly not any YA novels. Walk on Earth a Stranger is one of a kind in its setting and audience.

Leah may be a familiar character, but the rest of the cast are not. Jefferson, Leah’s friend from home who sets off for California shortly before her, is unpopular at school because his mother is Native American. His father is an abusive alcoholic. The Joyner family, whom Leah works for on much of the journey, is the mid-1800s version of a “white picket fence” family, but each member of the family (except Olive, who remains out of the spotlight) becomes increasingly complex as the book progresses. Reverend Lowrey is an obnoxiously religious Presbyterian pastor. The Illinois College Men are “confirmed bachelors.” The Hoffmans are German immigrants. James Boisclair is a wealthy, free African American.

The plot is a little slow, but I imagine that fits the time well. The trip to California was not a fast one. Still, the novel is indisputably faster than another book about Southerners moving to California in hope of finding wealth. Regardless of the pacing, I consider this book a page-turner.

The fantastical element of the story–Leah’s “gold-witching”–is not as central to the story as I expected. It set the plot in motion, but it doesn’t play as large a role as Elisa’s magic in Girl of Fire and Thorns. Leah’s talent does help her find others several times in the story, but I think there could be a bigger buildup of tension to her secret being revealed. My favorite kind of plot is one in which the main character keeps a secret from everyone else for so long, the reader might melt if they don’t reveal the secret soon. That might be an exaggeration, but I didn’t feel anything close to melting when Leah reveals her secret to one of the main characters. I’m glad the focus remains on history rather than fantasy, though, as I was able to learn much about the time and setting through this novel.

Recommendation: I can’t think of a way to recommend this book other than to say who might not enjoy it.

I don’t think everyone who loved Girl of Fire and Thorns will love this book. It’s for a different audience, certainly.

I also don’t believe super conservative families will enjoy the book’s take on religion. Though, truthfully, I’m from a more conservative background and I find the novel honest in this aspect. In a time where much of the church encouraged slavery and white male supremacy, I find Leah’s attitude toward Christianity completely understandable.

I also wouldn’t say this book is just for people who love the old west; Carson does well explaining the setting in an interesting way, so people unfamiliar with the historical context might enjoy it, too.