A School for Unusual Girls

by Kathleen Baldwin

3/5 stars

Georgiana burns down her father’s stable, and is promptly sent away to Miss Stranje ‘s school to be turned into a proper young lady. While Georgiana’s greeted with what appears to be torture, prompting an escape attempt, she soon learns the school is a front for much more. All of the girl’s in Miss Stranje’s house are exceptional. Soon Georgiana is being pulled in over her head with attractive lords and Napoleonic plots. A School for Unusual Girls starts off a little Northanger Abbey, and ends like a YA version of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series.

While we got a good glimpse at the girls in this novel, I want to get to know them more. I admit when I originally read the summary of the book I was expecting female friendships a la A Great and Terrible Beauty or even the His Fair Assassins trilogy. That’s not where this is yet, but it has the potential to get there. I needed more time to establish myself into Miss Stranje’s school, and the girls in it. We got no sense of what normal. Additionally, while there a hints to some of the girl’s talents, I don’t feel like I know them. Tess does a good job of standing out, but some of the other girl’s need an opportunity to shine as well. Give me more of them. Additionally, I’m not convinced I understand the rules of the world. Georgiana is rooted in science, but others seem to have sorts of premonition.

One thing that did really bother me in the novel was the pretense of Madame Cho. She struck me as a somewhat offensive Asian stereotype in her lack of development. I thought for sure she would interact with the girls more and I would be put to ease, but she just sat in the corner acting as chaperone.

I do love Napoleonic spy novels, so this was good fun, even if the antagonist did not feel very developed. The stakes of the second half of the novel seem rooted in how to mess up Georgiana’s relationship more than international affairs. I would like to see all of this developed more. But I did enjoy Georgiana and Sebastian’s relationship. While it drifted a bit toward melodrama at the end, I have hopes that action in further installments will help curtail this. And in terms of relationships, I’d really like to see more of Tess and Lord Ravencross.

For the first novel in a series A School for Unusual Girls does a good job at compelling me, but I’m going to need more from the next installment to keep engaged with Georgiana and crew.

Thank you to net galley and Macmillan-Tor for an advanced reading copy of this novel, which comes out May 19th, in exchange for an honest review.

When Reason Breaks

by Cindy L. Rodriguez

3/5 stars

Compared to others, her life and her problems were pretty ordinary. So why did it all feel like she was in an epic battle?

Elizabeth’s father left with another woman, and she feels lost. Even more, she doesn’t know what to do with all the anger his absence left behind. Emily feels herself drifting slightly from her two best friends. And she is overwhelmed by the pressures to be perfect thanks to her father’s life in the public eye. Elizabeth and Emily have friends in common, but skirt around being friends themselves. Still, they are united by their English class in which they are studying Emily Dickinson, and the poet speaks to both girls.

In many ways this novel was what I wanted last years Belzhar to be. Dickinson had a role to play in these girls lives. The teacher was actively involved. Each chapter was named after a line of Dickinson’s poetry. And Rodriguez’s author’s note reveals even more inspiration if you want to dig even deeper with the Dickinson parallels. Yet the narrative never felt overwhelmed by the famous poet. These girl’s lives were first and foremost.

There were times, especially in the middle, where I thought the novel dragged. But, Rodriguez was always honest in her portrayals and was not going to rush something just to make things feel more dramatic. At times, I feel like I’ve been here before in terms of the thematic elements. I’m not sure how this novel really approaches any of the issues in a new way. But, I keep reading genre fiction with the same basic parts and often don’t question it. So why should I do that with a title that obviously puts mental health at such a premium. And allows these girls to exist as full human beings. While there is a bit of romance in the novel, this book is not a vehicle for romance. Rather, we are allowed to see the complete pictures of these young women’s relationships. Although, at times I wish Rodriguez would dig deeper. There was more emotional truth underneath the surface that was shied away from in some instances. Still, the end result is solid.

Fans of contemporary young adult should definitely read this book. And I think it’s definitely worth a look for everyone. If I was purchasing for a large audience of teens, be it as a librarian or an English classroom, I would not hesitate to include this title.

Flashback Friday: A Great and Terrible Beauty

by Libba Bray

The Premise via the Goodreads blurb (which is notably different than the original first edition jacket copy):

A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy–jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order. A Great and Terrible Beauty is an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy.

This book though. Where to begin?

Okay, the cover. I remember picking it up in Barnes and Noble. It was crazy eye-catching. At the time, not every YA novel had a girl in such a pose on the cover. And to be honest, I still find the cover striking, maybe because I’m so emotionally attached to it now. I think I picked this up in the same trip I got Dracula and Twilight. This was the first book I picked up.

This is a book that celebrated and understood young women. Within the pages of the Gemma Doyle trilogy girls were complex, and ever growing and changing. We were allowed to grapple with big ideas, and big adventures. Things that were fantastical, but so real at the same time. The atmosphere was great, feeling dangerous in both the paranormal and the relationships. The setting was distant but still felt so pertinent. And there was one hell of a liminal space.

I would definitely clump it in with the YA I read as a teen that really defined me. And, full truth, I loved that there was a lively, lovely redheaded protagonist. At the time this seemed novel to me.  I think A Great and Terrible Beauty is thought of fondly by a lot of bloggers that encountered it in their teens. This gives me hope because I definitely think the next generation of young women should be allowed to go on this journey. Not because I see a lack right now, but because it’s so good. And surely you can’t have too much? Granted, my own thoughts are influenced by my love of the series as a teen. How would I respond to it today as a first time reader? I’m not sure. But I’m glad I got to experience it at a time in my life when it was so easy to love a thing completely, to fall under its spell and inhabit the world.

Also, I still have stanzas of “The Lady of Shalott” memorized because of this book.

Who else has fond memories of A Great and Terrible Beauty? Or anyone just digged in recently?

An Uncertain Choice

by Jody Hedlund

1/5 stars

Thank you to net galley and Zonderkidz-Books for providing a digital ARC of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.

Everything in this novel is very blunt and surface level. There is no opportunity for discovery, because characters reveal exactly what is on their mind, their motivations, ect.

This is not a world that feels thought out to me, or particularly real. I’m fine with it being not necessarily historically accurate. But I don’t really get a sense of the larger world in this. Even when talking about the people who the book claims Rosemarie loves so much. What is life like here? What does it look like? Feel like? The poor villagers function more as bad props, and a way to make Rosemarie look better. Which is kind of insulting.

Additionally, the world just doesn’t seem believable, by any rules established or created. This girl has been living basically on her own since her parents died? And she was given any even pretend semblance of power? In the middle ages? She hasn’t been fully taken into the convent she was meant to join? Or shipped off to other family? There was absolutely no explanation about any of this given. Rosemarie mentioned her parents were dead, and we were expected to move on from there. I don’t buy it. I wanted to read this novel because of the historical setting, and it’s just not what I was hoping.

These are not necessarily three dimensional characters. I get no sense of emotional investment from them.

Because I felt no connection to the characters, the romance was lackluster. And the competition aspect of it always felt like a thrown reality show. At times I felt like I was reading about the medieval Bachelorette. Watch as contestant number 1 plans an elaborate dinner and a show. The romance has the potential to be a good, subtle slow burn. But again, everything always feels surface level. The stakes are laid out, but I’m not sure why I should care for them. They often don’t feel deeply invested in their own journey.

A lot of my personal objections to the novel come down to stylistically it wasn’t engaging for me. The blunt prose didn’t work. The shift between POV seems unnecessary. This, of course, like almost everything, is a matter of taste.


All the Rage

by Courtney Summers

5/5 stars

Sometimes, I feel like we all have so many lifetimes to go.

Romy comes from the the rougher side of the tracks. That means when it comes down to her word against the sheriff’s son, she doesn’t stand much of a chance. So no one believes her when she says she was raped. And in the process she loses her friends and faces harassment at school. Regardless, she powers through. She finds the things that help whether it be a job a town over, her meticulous nail polish and lipstick routine, or running. But then things spin further out of control, and all of the carefully built walls Romy has built to guard herself, and deal with her circumstances, come crumbling down.

All the Rage is an apt title for this novel, as it is the primary emotion I felt throughout while reading. I couldn’t read in just one sitting, and felt low level anxiety throughout. With this, it should be noted I have never experienced a sexual assault or trauma. For those that have these feelings may be even more intense. I’ve heard this novel equated with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (published in 1999), and to be honest, it makes me angry that the same themes and ideas explored in both novels remain so apt. That so many of our young women are bullied and shamed, often by adults, when attempting to report rape.

The voice in this novel was spot-on, developing these hard emotions in a build. The tension was there from page one, but Summers knew when to ebb and flow it to avoid being completely overwhelmed. The novel was often blunt in its voice, and kept the narrative moving forward, but remained emotionally raw, even as Romy repressed almost any emotion.

I come from a small town, so the setting also hit particularly hard. How small town politics can negate a girl’s, or anyone from the “wrong side’s”, voice. How the golden boy can get away with almost anything. How the mob can turn. It was the perfect setting for this novel in terms of logistics, but also in terms of atmosphere. The whole novel felt claustrophobic. I understood Romy’s need to escape to a town or two over to work in order to get away from it all. I definitely understand the nosy neighbor that stops you in the gas station for a roundabout small talk conversation in which they get all the new gossip, and judge your life choices.

Every once in a while I read a YA book that reminds me that I’m now an “adult.” This is a novel that helps me remember how to be a good ally to teens. To not take anything for granted. To not judge a student by their circumstances. To try and dig a little deeper, but not push past someone’s limits.

All the Rage was at times a hard book to read, but it was a necessary one.

Other quotes:

  • I glance at her and she looks soft, but a lot of people in this town are a soft kind of vicious.
  • I want to burn a moment of helplessness into him so he can know a fraction of what I felt, what I feel, what’s followed me every moment since…

Thank you to net galley and St. Martin’s Press for a digital ARC of All the Rage in exchange for an honest review. Secure your copy by it’s publication date of April 14th.

A Darker Shade of Magic

by V.E. (Victoria) Schwab

5/5 stars

I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.

I’ve been trying to get my hands on a copy of A Darker Shade of Magic for a while. When I was in Chicago the first week of March I tried to pick it up at the downtown Barnes and Noble.

Me: I’m looking for the new V.E. Schwa, A Darker Shade of Magic. I don’t see it in fantasy or fiction, but I wanted to double-check.
Bookseller: No, it’s not showing up as in stock. Why don’t we have this book?
Me: Well, the author did tweet that it went into a second printing on pub day so maybe it’s out of stock?
Bookseller: It’s not even showing up as in stock at the warehouse. Why don’t we have this book?

So, after I sent the bookseller into a small crises, I left. I even looked it up on the B&N website myself because I’m a member and it was showing up as a couple week estimate for the ship time. I waited another week, saw that it was back in stock, and ordered that puppy.

It was worth it. I was fairly confident in my purchase as I’d read the net galley preview and loved every minute. It would have to deviate pretty hard in the last 3/4ths of the book to switch that. It didn’t.

I’m a sucker for things like time travel or cross dimensional (when done right. It is here) travel. I have seen this book improperly categorized as time travel in some places. It is not time travel. Rather, Schwab introduces us to 4 parallel Londons: Black, White, Red, and Grey. They all have varying degrees of magic, and even knowledge of magic’s existence. Grey London is our world, or as close as it gets.

The worlds are established largely as we follow Kell, an ambassador for the court of Red London, and one of only two people who can travel between the worlds. And Schwab keeps the action coming. This novel is fast-paced and heavy on adventure and fun.

Characters Kell, Lila, and Rhy are lovely. Well is the orphan with magic powers, taken in by the crown. Rhy is the charming prince (who Schwab likens to having a little Jack Harkness swagger). Lila is the pickpocket who yearns to have a ship of her own on which to sail away to adventures on her own terms. Even the secondary characters seemed fleshed out and dynamic with very little page space devoted to them. They have distinct personalities, wit, and sharp tongues. And, we get to know them through their action! I wanted more time with all of them, which is a good sign. And luckily the fact that this is the first of a series will help make that desire a reality.

This book is just so much fun from first to last. Schwab really knows how to create, whether it be a character or a world. It establishes a world I enjoy spending time in, and characters I love spending time with. I got it in the mail yesterday, and promptly devoured it.

Re Jane

by Patricia Park

4/5 stars

Thanks to Goodreads First Reads giveaway and Pamela Dorman Books for an ARC of this novel.

This update of Jane Eyre is set in the early 2000s, but resonated with my experience as a twenty-something today. While it is an update of Jane Eyre, Park throws in plenty of her own twists and turns. And her Jane is just as present and interesting as Bronte’s. I also particularly enjoyed Park’s update of Adele, a Chinese girl, Devon, who has been adopted into a white family. The relationship between Jane and Devon was probably my favorite to follow throughout the novel.

As a writer Park covered a lot of territory within 30o-something pages, and the narrative never felt choppy or rushed. She has a talent for cutting right to the heart of the matter, and painting pictures and revealing character in a short amount of time. This is a new voice I am very interested in following throughout her career.

At it’s heart this is a coming-of-age novel. A novel about a woman finding herself, and being happy with exactly who she is. And that is something I can get behind.

Re Jane doesn’t hit the shelves until May 5th, but I wanted to make sure you had it on your radar. I obviously couldn’t hold off on the ARC that just stared at me from my TBR. And I have an impressive TBR. I had options. This was one I wanted to read right away.