Book Review | Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Title: Spindle’s End
Author: Robin McKinley
Publication date: 2000
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Retelling, YA

When met with stress people react in a variety of ways. Me- I delve into the fantastical.

Sometimes that means horror, sometimes science fiction.

This time it meant a fairy tale. Specifically, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a less-than-princessy princess named Rosie- who’s more at home re-shoeing a horse than doing any number of standard girly activities. Like the Disney version, Rosie is taken in by a fairy (along with the very young fairy’s aunt) who was present at her name-day ceremony, sheltered by the magical atmosphere as, in this world, the royal family is so incredibly mundane. She is, herself, fairly average- aside from the whole speaking with animals thing (a gift from the fairy), as well as her brash nature. She grows up, a little strange but safe, surrounded by her adoptive family; her best friend, Peony; Gorse- the local blacksmith, Rosie’s eventual teacher and companion; and a whole host of animals. All goes well, until her twenty-first birthday (and the curse’s deadline) approaches and the life she’s known begins to crumble around her.

I was so very excited when I saw this on the bookshelves- because Robin McKinley’s Beauty is one of my fave retellings ever.

I seriously need to quite getting over-excited about these things, cause I keep getting let down.

Not that this wasn’t a good book- not what I’m saying at all.

The world that this story inhabits is full of life and depth, governed by its own peculiar set of magic rules and idiosyncrasies. McKinley here takes a standard fairy tale and transforms it, creating a rich, imaginative landscape that lays heavy with magic- where even everyday people deal with accidental ‘baby-magic’ as toddlers due to how thick it is in the air, where care is taken to clean the grim off of day-to-day objects lest they take on magical attributes.

The story starts so strongly due to this, sucking you in as the world and the cast of characters (the mundane royals, the wise royal fairy, and the ever-uncertain but more-capable-than-she-realizes Katriona) are unveiled.

I saw some of the issues fairly early on, however. You see, the story has multiple narrators- this in and of itself isn’t an issue- it could have worked wonderfully. The problem, however, lies in how one narrrator transitions to the other. You see, the story begins when Rosie is just a baby, and in this story our original protagonist, I would argue, isn’t Rosie at all, but Katriona.  One spends the first quarter of the book with her as our main viewpoint into the world. Then things begin to shift, with Rosie getting a few scenes as viewpoint character- followed shortly afterwards (about 150 pages in) by Katriona taking a side-character role- right as Katriona gets married and has children.

There’s something that rankles about that- about the fact that as soon as Katriona becomes a wife and mother that becomes her central role. The young woman wrestling with her own fairy powers- so often uncertain of her own skills and place in the world- is shoved off with a couple of labels, and it leaves a gap, it seems, in the story, because while I love Rosie, she is also very much not in-the-know as far as what’s going on around her.

Additionally, how the story treats friendship is peculiar at times. Throughout most of the narrative I would have counted this as one of the strongest elements- I love reading a story with strong platonic bonds, especially between girls, because so many of the stories I was exposed to as a teenager absolutely lacked that. It’s the reason I avoided YA fiction for years- the treatment of friendships as characters grow and mature, especially when those relationships are deemed as character defining for both parties. I can’t say much, for fear of spoiling things, but ended up feeling let down by this story as well, in that respect.

It was still a wonderful story in so many ways; it just has a lot of issues as well- ones that happen to be some of my pet peeves. If you can look around these specific things, I definitely recommend trying the story out.

Book Review – Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Title: Just Ella
Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix
Publication Date: 2001
Length: 218 pages
Genre: Retelling, Fantasy, YA

I think most everyone has a particular fairy tale they gravitate to- characters that just attach themselves to a part of your heart as a child and refuse to let go. Now, I grew up in the Disney renaissance, watching Ariel and Belle and Jasmine on the big screen, but none of them were my first Disney princess- no, that title belongs to Cinderella, and maybe that’s the reason I have such a soft spot for that story.

Ever After, the version with Drew Barrymore (one of the only movies I could literally watch on repeat), just made me love it all the more. But perhaps there’s something in that movie that’s spoiled me, because reading Just Ella, a retelling of Cinderella, I felt a little… let down.

Maybe that’s just what happens though, when one starts looking beyond the happily ever after- which is exactly what Just Ella does. The story takes place after the ball, after the glass slipper, with Ella (as she’s known here) now taking residence in the castle awaiting her marriage to the prince. All is not well, however, with the soon-to-be princess, as she finds herself in many ways, more trapped by her new surroundings than she was by her stepmother and stepsisters. It isn’t until she tries to do something about the situation, however, that she realizes just how dire things are.

I don’t think that’s the reason though, since ultimately, I love twisted fairy tales. The plot, upon reading the blurb sounded great, and I really was interested in seeing how this take on Cinderella would work out. I happen to have a weakness for Cinderella taking as much agency as she can get. And I can say that the plot remained one that I enjoyed- complete with a small war subplot that, while not so important early on, becomes vital later in the story. Additionally, Ella is indeed a strong character, both in terms of how developed she is, as well as her own willpower, which was fun to see playing out in the situation she finds herself in.

So why did I find myself wishing for more?

The problem lies in the fact that it’s just as trapped by stereotypes and tropes as the original story was. For instance, a main theme of the story is that beauty isn’t everything- that there has to be depth below the surface. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the book constantly undermines that by many of the character descriptions- the shear fact that unpleasant people are so often described in physically unpleasant ways. For instance, a jailer who is morally loathsome and described physically in many of the same ways, or the constant fat-shaming going on with the evil stepsisters (at least this version doesn’t call them ‘ugly’ point-blank). I think the author tried to save herself by making one of Ella’s friends ugly as well, but the attempt falls short.

Additionally, while Ella is interesting- a character that insists on taking charge of her own story- the characters in the castle (save for two) are so two-dimensional. Flatter than the pages they were written on. Was it really not possible to have a story in which Ella is unhappy- and thoroughly trapped wherever she goes- while also surrounded by round characters? Or at least ones with a slight curvature? It was almost as if the author felt that in order for Ella to appear strong enough, she had to be the only character in that place capable of being so.

All in all, I still found the book enjoyable, but it’s definitely not one of my favorite fairytale retellings, and certainly doesn’t rank as high as other versions of Cinderella I’ve seen throughout the years.

Book Review | The Road From Home by David Kherdian

Title: The Road From Home
Author: David Kherdian
Publication Date: 1995 (originally published in 1979)
Length: 242 pages
Genre: Memoir/biography, YA

Perhaps it’s morbid of me, but I’ve always had a fascination with the awful side of human nature- what we do to each other in the name of who-knows-what.

As much as it hurts to delve into it, I can’t help but do so.

Considering the large amount of books on the subject it’s probably not surprising that the awful thing I’ve read about the most is the holocaust.

Of course, this isn’t a journal entry about a holocaust themed book.

The thing is, I’ve always wondered why so many other incidences don’t receive the same treatment as those awful years during the 30s and 40s. Perhaps it’s the scope of what happened in WWII, or the more recent quality of it, but nevertheless it’s still a noticeable difference. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be such a focus of attention or study, but rather the fact that I’ve always wondered… where are the other books.

Thus, when I found this book sitting amongst all the James Patterson paperbacks I had to pick it up.

Long Road from Home is the story of a girl living in Turkey in the 1910s- Veron, the author’s mother and a survivor of the Armenian genocide.

The story spans roughly from 1913 – 1924, from the time that Veron is about six, until she’s a teenager. The world the reader is introduced to is that of a young child’s, with the focus on the close-knit extended family- nights giggling with a cousin while everyone else tried to sleep, complaints about going to the baths and enduring scrub-downs – until that world crumples around her and her family is torn apart when part of them (including Veron) are forced from their homes and onto a grueling and uncertain journey across the country.

Kherdian does a wonderful job at capturing this changing world and making it as familiar to the reader as he can. So many elements of Veron’s culture are integrated throughout the story, pieces of the puzzle that makes up Veron’s life. Additionally, he doesn’t shy away from the hardships that Veron and her family endure, although they are at times obscured by Veron’s age and lack of experience, at least initially. That world, as said previously, is that of a younger child, even as the horrific events begin to unfold. It isn’t until later in the story, and subsequent events, that the reader begins to get a full open-eyed perspective- which matures as Veron does.

At times, however, the story struggles. There is a heavy reliance on telling, rather than showing, and while the events are harrowing, and tragic, there is sometimes an emotional disconnect. I think part of this stems from the author trying to tell so large of a story in so short a period of time. It feels as if certain emotional beats are underdeveloped- some sections not given quite the gravity that they should have, in order for the whole story to be told. This is, perhaps, the problem at times with stories about one’s family, as this story is. One knows the entire story already, all the elements having already taken place, the question then becomes not where the story should go, but where to begin and where to end and which parts to prune off in the middle.  I feel as if this story could have done with a bit more pruning, or perhaps the opposite- some extended details- especially at the end, which seems to drop off rather sharply.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read the book, as I walked away from it having learned about something, but I hate that I struggled to connect with the protagonist. While I’m keeping it for my classroom library, this one’s probably not a reread for me.

Thankful Thursday – Back to the Grind

So, today being the first day back from Christmas vacation I’m not exactly feeling very thankful… what can I say, breaks are never long enough. Be that as it may, it does a brain good to try to focus on the positives sometimes, especially on those days where the negatives seem to abound.

It’s a short week, at least
I may have had to go back after what feels like way to short of a time, but at least I only have to deal with two days before I get a break. I’m through one day already, so the weekend is just within reach.

I haven’t gotten the flu
Considering I dealt with the aftermath of a stomach virus for a good portion of Christmas break, this seems a bit of an odd thing to be thankful for, but I found out today that the current strain of the flu is particularly bad, and considering how my body normally handles anything like that, I think I’ll stick with having had the stomach stuff… crossing fingers.

I haven’t had to cook dinner the past few days
Parents and in-laws wanting to eat out for New Years eve and day, and then hubby bringing home dinner tonight… sounds just fine to me.

Critical Role
On my last day or so of break I starting watching campaign one of the series, and I’m finding it just as entertaining as campaign two- at least now that I’ve skipped into the series a bit instead of starting out right at the beginning and have discovered…

Closed Captioning
My hearing is pretty good, but combine a very slight delay in my own auditory processing speeds with at times less than stellar audio quality and you’ve got a frustrated listener. The captioning is helping out a lot with the earlier episodes.

Resolutions for 2020

So, all in all, this year (specifically this fall) has just proven to me that keeping my life straight feels nigh-on impossible at times. I suck at keeping any sort of balance. So most, if not all, of my goals for this year have to do with getting some sort of control over all the disparate elements.

Be more mindful about my accumulating books
I’m loathe to ever say I have too many books. And, really, I don’t think I do… My bulging bookshelves and the stacks on the floor might say a different thing. I do blame part of the accumulated stacks on trying to pull together a classroom library, still, considering the current size of my tbr, and the fact that most of those books wind up on the living room floor, I could stand to be a little more mindful about what I bring home- at least until I take care of some of my tbr list. Speaking of…

Read More
Yeah, the point of this blog. To encourage myself to actual read for myself instead of delving into yet more work for school. We’ll see how that’s going to go come the beginning of the semester, but here’s to hoping. I even have a TBR jar set up for my bunches of untouched tomes.

Write more
Along the same vein, I aim to get more written this year. It makes me feel so much better when I’m writing, and besides, I have way to many projects in one unfinished stage or another. I am determined to get some of those taken care of throughout this year.

Ease off on the procrastination
No more leaving lesson plans ’til Sunday night, and no more marathon clothes washing sessions- if I can help it. If I can do a little bit every day then hopefully the whole mess won’t snowball and leave me in an avalanche come the weekend.
At the same time…

Know when to stop
There’s always something to do, and never enough time to do it. So my last goal is to keep that in mind and not treat myself like a machine. So far, preparing for the coming semester haven’t done such a good job on this one…