Review: Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

17412780Hardcover, 288 pages
Published November 19th 2013 by Quirk Books
Source: Publisher

Synopsis:
You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But the lives of real princesses couldn’t be more different. Sure, many were graceful and benevolent leaders—but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power, and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets. Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev murdered thousands of men, and Princess Rani Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back. Princesses Behaving Badly offers minibiographies of all these princesses and dozens more. It’s a fascinating read for history buffs, feminists, and anyone seeking a different kind of bedtime story.

Review:

Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is a much more expansive look at princesses than the ones afforded by Disney. Written as a response to the very same Disney princesses who have created a princess culture characterized by consumption, the volume looks at the real princesses who have dotted human history with their exploits of both the scandalous and courage variety.

I agree with McRobbie that Disney’s princess culture is problematic and that parents need to be aware of all the things that these princesses stand for and signify. Princesses Behaving Badly is a brilliant answer to these rather uniform fictional constructs and goes a long way to remind people that real life is just as rich and fascinating, real people are just as complex and crazy as their fictional counterparts.

The book is split into sections and McRobbie organizes the princesses by their defining characteristic. There are warrior princesses, manipulative princesses, crazy princesses and party princesses. She does not attempt to box them into these singular traits though, this is just to create a semblance of order to the princesses.

And these princesses are so varied: the Chinese princesses who controls an army of 70 000 soldiers, the Indian princess who was killed for her efforts during the second world war, the not-crazy princess who was locked into her room and was refused when she asked to see her children. There is one thing that becomes clear when reading about these women who dot the landscape of human history: all of their lives were moulded by the men who tried to control them and when they couldn’t control them, they killed them. Between the lives lived and the deaths faced by these women are the whispers of the men who profited off them. It is a chilling realization that the history of women, who we were, is so reliant upon the scribblings of men.

Anyway, this book is brilliant and it should be used as reference material for authors looking to bring princesses to life. There are many women here who could inspire heroines who are not afraid to take their life in their own hands, damn the consequences. I think each one of you should read this book and even if it just at a glimpse, get to know these real life princesses who are diverse, brilliant, flawed, evil, good.

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares

18242896Hardcover, 288 pages
Published April 8th 2014 by Delacorte Press
Source: Publisher

The Here and Now comes with a fantastic premise and from an author with a solid reputation for storytelling. I expected to like it a lot. I expected to tear into it and not let go until I was done reading the last page at least five times. I loved the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Brashares won me over with her characters and her word weaving and I wanted a repeat of the magic. Granted her starcrossed lovers book didn’t do anything for me especially considering the presence of another book with very similar characters and premise released at the same time but we’re talking about The Here and Now now.

So the book starts off on a bad note, for me. The prologue has the love interest seeing the protagonist, Prenna, appearing, naked, out of nowhere, in the middle of a stream. He falls immediately in love and it is established that she is SUPERAWESOMELY AWESOME beautiful. Then he, being the chivalrous dude he is, gives her his jacket to cover her nakedness, and she accepts it and stumbles away from him without saying anything more but definitely taking his heart with her. And that’s that or so we think but unfortunately, she appears in his classroom two years (or so?) later and then the show starts.

So Prenna is a time traveler, no, she’s a fugitive of time. Along with her really useless mother and other horribly useless adults and a missing father she has traveled back in time to, ostensibly, change things so the future doesn’t end up barren and plagued. Only, the time traveling adults do not seem to want to change anything. They have a strict set of rules, actually, they have a little dystopia going on with counsellors and other evil adults making all these rules and not just controlling their movements but putting all time travelers under constant surveillance. Yeah so Prenna doesn’t like any of that since she’s a special snowflake.

She questions even though she’s not supposed to and she is in love with Ethan, the dude who saw her naked arrival into the 21st century. Of course she doesn’t remember him because hey, drama, and to spice up the love stew, there’s the rule that sexytimes are not allowed between time fugitives and time natives. So pent up lust and frustration and whatnot. Then Prenna is told by a random hobo that he might need her help to prevent a murder because apparently that is the pivot point – that is what changes the future.

Then comes action with Prenna kicking ass, behaving stupidly, stealing kisses, guns, maybe some junk food, more kisses, fighting, jails, some introspection and a lot of angst.

The trouble I had with The Here and Now is that it was underwhelming. There is nothing fresh or new about the story line. Everything has been said, done ad infinitum. Prenna as a character brings nothing new to the genre; there are no quirks to her that set her apart in her cohort, she’s not funny, or interesting. Ethan, too, does very little for me as a character though I admit I like him better than Prenna. The parents in this novel are ridiculous. The plot has holes in it – if they succeeded in changing the future, Prenna would disappear as there will be no need for her to travel back in time to do what they did. Right?

I had a lot of expectations for this book – if it was not going to present anything new, I expected it to at least entertain me with the same old story and it failed to do even that. So I’m afraid I cannot recommend this to you. Check this out of the library or read a sample before you buy this.

The ACB with Honora Lee by Kate De Goldi

16126609Hardcover, 120 pages
Published October 2012 by Longacre Press
Source: Publisher

Dear Readers, meet my favourite book of 2014 so far. This non-assuming book that gives no indication that it contains such a magnificent story took me completely by surprise. In a good way. I expected something good, something funny and witty, something that would make me happy but nothing that would linger with me, nothing that would make me crow with delight and announce to all and sundry that this is what good books are about. This little novel transcends its genre limitations and, in my opinion, carves itself a place as a well-loved, long-loved story.

And the way it does this is deceptively simple.

Over at The Book Wars, we’ve been discussing picturebooks in earnest, particularly, the duality it offers to readers. By duality, I mean, it speaks to both adult reader and the child reader. The ACB of Honora Lee accomplishes this feat quite easily.

As an adult reading children’s literature, there are times when I read something in a book that the younger reader probably will not catch or understand. In Honora Lee, I believe that the main character is autistic though this is never said explicitly. There are little mannerisms, little hints of it in Perry’s interaction with the world and some things that Perry’s parents say that give it away. Speaking of Petty’s parents, they are typical overworked parents who have very little time for the daughter they love.

The titular Honora Lee is Perry’s grandmother who, to the bafflement of Perry’s parents, holds great appeal to the nine year old. Perry is determined to spend more than the allocated time with her grandmother and this chance comes along when Perry’s Thursday extracurricular program falls through. Honora Lee is quite old and possibly suffering from Alzheimers, I think, which has her forgetting Perry daily. She lives in a nursing home and that is where Perry finds herself on Thursday afternoons.

The patients in the nursing home, the caretakers of the patients, nurses etc., Perry’s grandmother and Perry herself are such amazing characters. Honora Lee is unlike any grandmother I have met in a fictional setting. I find it so admirable that Goldi is able to express the complexity of Honora’s character using just the interactions between Perry and Honora, and Honora and the other inmates of the nursing home.

The novel, though slight, deals with some really heavy stuff, death being one of them. There is also a really beautiful moment when Perry observes without any intent how her father and his mother, Honora, have a similar mannerism. This stops Perry’s father short and though the child reader probably will not read too much into that, I thought it was a poignant way to show him finding a part of his mother in himself. He doesn’t really understand Honora’s peculiarities and she doesn’t seem to pay him any mind.

Perry’s mission to create an alphabet or rather create a book of the ABC with the letters of people or things she knows, for example, H is for Honora. The whole project is beautifully executed and I only wish it was included with the book so we could see the finished copy of it.

The book itself is really beautifully made, the pages are quality and the illustrations pleasing. I recommend this novel heartily – whether for yourself or for the child in your life. Get it, read it and let it make you happy.

Going Over by Beth Kephart

17352909Hardcover, 264 pages
Published April 1st 2014 by Chronicle Books
Source: Publisher


Synopsis:

In the early 1980s Ada and Stefan are young, would-be lovers living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall–Ada lives with her mother and grandmother and paints graffiti on the Wall, and Stefan lives with his grandmother in the East and dreams of escaping to the West.

Review:

What do I say about this book?

I loved Kephart’s Small Damages because of its writing, the story it told and the way it explored the place it was set in and to an extent, Going Over retains that magic. There is the whiff of a brilliant new setting, one that isn’t North America, the wonderful writing that made me read and reread one sentence multiple times. The characters that are so different and do not exhibit that same “the world is mine” mentality so prevalent in fictional teenagers who are based in North America. When your world is full of empty spaces, you re-learn the meaning of ownership.

I don’t know much about the Berlin wall and the history of it so I appreciated the sensitivity Kephart displayed in the author’s note and I also applaud her including a bibliography in case someone wanted to read more about the Berlin Wall.

That said, I find myself rather perplexed by Going Over. There are some brilliant parts to the novel. Everything we see from Ada in her portions of the story feels vibrant, feels as though it is happening in neon colours, bright, vivid and right in front of you. Stefan’s portions, on the other hand, though lyrical and just as beautiful prose-wise, did not grasp me with the same immediacy because of the second person p.o.v. it’s told in. The pov kept me at a distance especially because I am not Stefan and I was not able to empathize with him and looking through his eyes made Ada seriously annoying and nagging. All she does is tell him to jump the wall, seemingly, without pausing to consider the consequences of a failed jump. All she says and does is jump. Just one incredible nag. Ugh. There’s a whole lot of pretty talk about love and yet, that’s all it is. We do not get to see them interact. We are told it’s love, we don’t get to see it ourselves and this is so different from her last novel where love isn’t even used but it is felt with such intensity that explicitly saying it becomes useless.

I also have trouble with the reason Ada wants Stefan to jump: to protect her. My friend Megan recently talked to me about rescue narratives, the damsel in distress trope, and how she’d save herself if needed and I wanted to see the same kind of actualization occurring there with Ada. I wanted her to grow strong enough to be alone. It is not fair of her to nag Stefan into making that kind of jump because of something she needs. She should want him to cross because she wants a better life for him and not because she wants what he can provide for her. Also, the plotline with Savas is certainly intriguing but for me, it lacked the emotional impact it ought to have had simply because I didn’t see what that plotline had to do with the entire story.

Still, I’m ultimately glad I read this book. It taught me something new and piqued my interest in learning about the Berlin Wall. And also, the writing. It’s superlative.

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

18140047Hardcover, 323 pages
Published April 1st 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Source: Publisher

Synopsis:
It begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more; though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was; lovely and amazing and deeply flawed; can she begin to discover her own path.

Review:

I heard about this novel at the Raincoast Fall/Winter event and my interest was immediately captured, not because it was blurbed by Stephen Chbosky but because there’s a certain whimsicality to the premise. The main character, Laurel, writes letters to dead celebrities. That alone engaged my interest. I didn’t even read the synopsis for the book and had I done so I would have realized that it suffers from The Dead Sister Syndrome and probably felt more hesitant about reading it. So I’m sort of glad I just went with my gut feeling.

I will say that the writing is beautiful and get that out of the way. I’d give examples but I have an ARC copy and we’re generally not encouraged to quote from that so just take my word for it. Dellaira’s word-weaving is magic and I enjoyed reading some sentences out loud because they made such nice sounds and said so many things every so beautifully.

What I liked most about this book is the honesty in Laurel’s feelings. Her vulnerabilities, her spiralling mental health and her inability to navigate a world in which she’s suddenly thrust in, a world in which her sister no longer exists and her mother has abandoned her read authentically without being melodramatic. I liked the attention paid to the father’s loneliness and his feelings just as I liked how the aunt is not just portrayed as a bible thumper but as a genuine person who is more than one thing. These little details went a long way to cementing my appreciation of the novel. Another wonderful thing Dellaira does is the way she uses the personages, the dead celebrities, Laurel writes the letters to. They’re not just names on the paper but their lives and their deaths are used in a cleverer than I had anticipated and I liked that. I won’t say anything more because I don’t want to give it away but five thumbs up for that.

Another amazing thing Dellaira does is she takes the trope of the gay best friends and elaborates on it. She gives us fascinating side characters who have their own relationships, conflicts and resolutions. If I were to get poetic, I’d say gave us a sky and dotted with brightly shining stars that formed a constellation. I’m sorry, that’s cheesy but honestly, the LGBQT relationship portrayed in this novel is commendable.

Now, though I liked the novel, it had a lot of faults. The love interest is not my favourite. I understand his logic and I understand his actions as self-preserving but how he acts after they break up is problematic for me. Also I don’t understand the lack of anger the parents have at the end towards a certain adult. I wanted some justice but then again, I’m bloodthirsty like that.

Honestly, I really liked this novel. It isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but the good parts are really good, so good in fact that I’m willing to overlook the not so good parts. Definitely recommended.