Vassa in the Night

28220892First Lines: When Night looked down, it saw its own eyes staring back at it.  Two big black eyes, both full of stars.  At first Night ignored them.

I got this book a few months back from Uppercase, but I kind of let it sit on my shelf forever because I just wasn’t sure what to make of it.  I hadn’t really heard of it at all before it arrived in the mail and it seemed like the type of book I had to be in just the right mood to read.

In the  enchanted city of Brooklyn, there are two types of people: the people who can party without worrying about anything and the people stuck in the working class district where the chance of death is much, much higher.  This is Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and two stepsisters.  Nearby is a convenience store owned by Babs Yagga, a women whose policy is to behead anyone caught shoplifting in her store–and sometimes innocent people when the mood strikes.  When Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs, Vassa knows this could easily be a suicide mission.  But with a little big of luck and a magical wooden doll from her mother named Erg, Vassa might just break the curse and free her neighboorhood.  But when Bab’s doesn’t play fair, what will Vassa do?

This book was weird.  Like A.G. Howard’s Splintered series weird.  The kind of weird where you have to read sections two or three times and you still don’t actually understand what’s happening.

Vassa is a teenage girl in Brooklyn who doesn’t really fit in. Her stepsisters don’t understand her and her only real friend is a talking doll named Erg. As a trick (sort of a game of chicken, really), Vassa’s sister insists that Vassa go to the nearby BY’s store, where most people who go in after dark never make it out alive.  I thought Vassa was incredibly dumb for even taking her stepsister’s dare, and my opinion of her didn’t improve much throughout the story.

The story is just so bizarre that it’s very hard to follow and I found myself getting bored of it because it was so hard to follow. I kept giving up. I’d read a chapter or two and put it down to do something more interesting.  That’s never a good sign.

There was very little about the first half of this story that I liked. I never had a single character that I clicked with who kept me reading. I never had a moment where I was excited about what I was reading. Even the climax wasn’t terribly exciting for me besides the fact that I was almost done with the book.

The story only really started to improve when it was in its last twenty pages or so. Once the loose ends started getting wrapped up, I finally started feeling like the story was falling into place. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly encouraging. I had to put up with 270 pages before that.

(Some of you are probably wondering why I even bothered finishing this. I own it, bought through Uppercase. I felt obligated to read it all the way to the end.)

It was just too much.  It tries to play into many fairy tale tropes while simultaneously turning them on their head.  But it felt like it was trying to do this with every trope instead of just focusing on a couple.  It’s overwhelming.  Not one I’ll be reading again.

American Street

30256109First Lines: If only I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone.  On one side of the glass doors are the long lines of people with their photos and papers that prove that they belong here in America, that are allowed to taste a bit of this free air.

I receive this as an ARC from Edelweiss (I’m cutting it close; it comes out February 14, 2017.)  Before I saw it on Edelweiss, I’d never heard of this book.  But the description sounded awesome and I wanted to give it a shot.

This was supposed to be Fabiola Toussaint’s chance to live the perfect American life.  With her mother, she was going to move into the little house on the corner of American and Joy Streets with her cousins and aunt.  But after they leave Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by US immigration, leaving Fabiola on her own as she tries to navigate the complex world of Detroit’s west side with her cousins Chantal, Princess, and Donna.  Just as Fabiola begins to figure out this strange new place, a dangerous offer presents itself to her and Fabiola must decide how much she’s willing to pay to live the American dream.

Can I just start by saying how timely this novel is?  The fact that it’s being released only weeks after a massive American travel ban that is separating families the same way Fabiola is separated from her mother?  I know these book releases are planned far in advance, but the timing is astounding.

Ok, here’s what I liked: I liked the infusion of Haitian culture and American culture. I liked seeing Fabiola try to understand American culture while her cousins, most of whom never saw Haiti, struggle to understand her culture and beliefs.  It’s a real culture shock for both sides.  (Especially when you see what happens on Thanksgiving!)

I thought Fabiola was a dynamic character. She begins scared and completely out of her element, especially as her mother remains detained in New Jersey. She’s on her own, with family she doesn’t remember. Then, as the story progresses, she grows into a stronger, braver girl who is beginning to find her place in this new city and new family. I liked seeing that confidence build.

I also liked how none of the characters were black-and-white heroes or villains. The characters you believe are good make mistakes–monstrous ones. The characters you hate have redeeming moments that make you think there’s still a chance for them to mend their ways. You can’t call any of them good or bad because everyone is both. Just like in life.

I also felt this was a stark and jarring view of life for many African-Americans and teenagers. I will be the first to admit that I have absolutely no idea of what the hardships are that people face in places like Detroit, that seem to be written off by everyone else as a dying city (which it’s not). But this book was shocking and, at times, uncomfortable. My world is nothing like that. And I had no idea that this was what it took to survive in these places.

Here’s what I didn’t like so much: the portrayal of Fab’s cousins and aunt. While I understand why they are so complicated, they also managed to seem flat. There was almost too much going on in their lives and by the time I got adjusted to what I’d just read, we were throwing more on top of it. For such main characters, they underwent virtually no change at all. And Matant Jo was barely in the story at all.

The story also seemed a bit unfocused. While we’re waiting to see what happens to Fab’s mother, we’re also watching her Haitian culture mix with American culture, Donna’s story, Pri’s story, Chantal’s story, how brutal American schools are, Dray’s story, Kasim’s story, and this backstory about a white girl who died taking bad drugs. There is literally so much going on that I could type out three full pages on the plot alone. Half of the time, I forgot about Fab’s mother.

This is neither negative nor positive, but I would like to just throw it out there that this is an incredibly dark book.  There is a massive amount of profanity, drug references, and violence in this story. It’s on virtually every page, which helps drill home what teenagers in Fab’s situation deal with on a daily basis. But it’s also a lot and sometimes it’s exhausting because it’s so common.

Overall, I thought this was a daring book that shows the struggle of teenagers we don’t normally get to read about.

GUESS WHAT?! GUESS WHAT?!

My blog has been going strong for…wait for it…

6 YEARS!

stephen-colbert-celebration-gif

Never ever did I imagine that I would be doing this for this long, and I just have to thank you guys for being loyal readers for so long.  Actually, I think I have to thank you for caring what I had to say about all these books and movies over the years.  Y’all are the best readers anyone could ask for and I’m delighted to say that these six years have been amazingly fun.  I couldn’t do it without you guys!

…Well, I could, but then I suppose this would be more like a diary than a blog…since I’d just be writing for myself…

Anyway, contrary to my posting habits thus far this year, Belle of the Library is still going to be going strong.  Here’s to another year!

happy-will-ferrell-gif

tumblr_static_reading

Hidden Figures

mv5bmjqxotkxoduyn15bml5banbnxkftztgwntu3ntm3ote-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Meet the women you don’t know, behind the mission you do.

Hey guys!  So I saw this movie last night and I really wanted to let you guys know what I thought about it, since I haven’t been posting any book reviews lately.  (I’ve been reading a massive biography on Washington and while it’s excellent, it’s taking forever.)  So in case you were curious, let’s talk about Hidden Figures.

The year is 1961 and the United States has been beaten in the Space Race.  Sputnik has gone into orbit while America can’t even get a rocket off the ground without it burning up.  What NASA needs most comes in the form of three African American female geniuses.  These women are “human computers” who have to calculate the trajectory of flight patterns to ensure that the lives of the first astronauts are safe.  (Looking at you, John Glenn.)  Together, these three will change the nation, one step at a time.

A little background on the women: we mostly follow Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a super computer of the highest caliber.  Her friend Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) acts something like a supervisor to the women of the West Computing Group (which is where these women worked, separated from the rest of NASA).  Finally, we have Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who was determined to be an engineer, despite all of the legal hoops she had to jump through.  We good?  Because now I’m going to start breaking down their performances.

Henson, I thought, did a fabulous job as Katherine.  Katherine has this dichotomy of wanting to rise through the ranks at NASA because she enjoys her work and it’s worthwhile, but she’s also terrified that one wrong step is going to cost her her job.  I mean, they basically tell her right before she starts that her new boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) has a high turnover rate with “computers”.  Also, this is 1961 and the height of segregation and discrimination.  Which also plays a large role in this movie.  But Henson does a nice job of playing Katherine as an intelligent, hardworking single mom.

Spencer’s acting was, as always, fantastic as Dorothy Vaughan.  Vaughan has a bit of desperation to her character at the beginning, since she is more or less in charge of a group of 30 women who could be fired at any moment for no reason.  But she turns that desperation into determination and tenacity, which was fantastically done with Spencer’s trademark realism and tongue-in-cheek comeuppance for those who stand against her.  Trust me, you did not want to get on Dorothy’s bad side.  It was a delight to watch.

Perhaps the most interesting character, though, was Janelle Monae’s Mary.  Whereas Katherine and Dorothy were more reserved and more cautious when dealing with bosses and segregation, Mary was like a bull charging through the gate.  She was gutsy and funny, saying what was on her mind when the others wouldn’t.  I really like that character trait, and Monae’s performance was just so endearing.

The supporting cast also had a lot of offer.  I thought Costner’s performance was great as a demanding, exacting boss who didn’t care who did the work so long as it got done quickly and correctly.  He had little patience for segregation if it meant slowing down the numbers he needed to ensure that men stayed alive in space.  There were also minor roles by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, but I thought those felt a little flat.  I was hoping for more out of Parsons especially, but he’s basically been typecast because of his role as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.  He’s basically Sheldon but with no character growth.

I really enjoyed the plot as well.  It managed to weave together so many elements in a way that felt natural and interesting.  Not only were we looking at NASA and the Space Race to get men like John Glenn and Alan Shepard into space safely, but we follow elements of the Civil Rights movement, Katherine’s private life with her three daughters, Dorothy’s workplace ambition to make herself and her girls relevant, and Mary’s dream to become an engineer.  I mean, this is a lot to follow in a 2 hour movie, but the movie did a nice job with it.  Obviously, the NASA part is the crux of it all, but it was really nice to see the other elements as well.

This is basically a feel-good movie.  Obviously, though, not everything is happy and light, though.  There were moments in the theater where I was tense or sitting on the edge of my seat.  (There were even times when the audience did a collective “ooohhh”.)  But there are laugh-out-loud funny parts and parts that deserve a chuckle or a smirk.  It’s got drama with a bit of comedy, but it’s mostly uplifting.  And, being a PG rated movie, it’s great for all age levels.  (They only curse twice in the whole movie.)

I really enjoyed this.  This is definitely worth seeing if you get the chance.

Life in Fast-Forward: An Introvert’s Struggle

Hey guys!  It’s been a while since I’ve posted something a little more personal and I so feel like I need to share my introvert struggles.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as a kid, being an introvert in a world that praises extroverts set me up for a whole lot of mental stress.  No one understood me and my need to get away from crowds and high stimulation (parties, busy malls, etc.).  But for those of you who feel the same, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  I have been where you are, trying to pretend that I’m extroverted while dying a little inside every time it doesn’t quite work.  (My inner teacher/Care Bear is coming out.)  I’m an INFJ, which basically means I’m introverted, caring, and super sensitive.

And yes, I realize I’m a walking contradiction.  I’m an introvert who decided to become a teacher.  I spend day in and day out surrounded my kids constantly demanding my attention and focus.  I take home assignments all the time that give me little time to settle into my routines and read or watch a movie.  And for the last two years, I’ve made it work.

This year, I decided to tackle something more.  I’m an assistant for my school’s show choir.  I’m in charge of the crew, which means I have about a dozen girls who set up backdrops, assist in costume changes, and generally just make sure that all of the visual effects work so the singers don’t have to stress.  I grew up in show choir and I loved it.  (Again, walking contradiction.)  I wanted to give back to these kids and get to know them a little better than I do in the classroom.

And generally, I love it.  I’ve only been active these past few weeks, since that’s really only when my crew has been there.  But it is slowly starting to chip away at my introverted hermit shell, and the season hasn’t even started.  (It goes solidly from late January to mid-March.  Every. Weekend.)

I love when I can just be a quiet observer at practices.  Our director is an extrovert with a capital E.  He is loud, charismatic, and fun.  So when he takes charge of the group, I have no problem handing control over to him.  (It is his group, after all.)  But I also really love watching the group and offering critiques on what I observe.  (I don’t call anyone out, though, because that could possibly hurt someone’s feelings and that does not jive well with my personality.)

But when I have to pick up and be in charge?  Oh boy.  By the time I get home after those practices, I feel it.  I’m drained, emotional, and tired.  On the days where I’m more of an observer, I almost feel energized.

Another of my quirks is that I love my routines, and these practices are throwing me off big time.  By the time I get home, I’m hungry, tired, my routine is completely ruined for the night, and I just want the maximum amount of alone time I can possible get away from anyone with a set of vocal cords.

I’ve currently been separated from people for an hour and it’s still not enough to unwind me.  This is the problem with being an introvert: for every hour I spend with people, I need another hour alone just to feel like myself again.  It’s usually impossible to get all that time back, and many people (mostly extroverts but sometimes introverts as well) just do not understand that level of aloneness I crave.

It’s interesting to note as well that the other assistant in my show choir is an extrovert as well–and nearly the complete opposite of me in personality.  (This was our lunch conversation, of all things.)  Whereas when I critique, I’m careful not to name anyone specific, she will stop the song and confront the person face to face in a verbal smack down that would haunt me for days if I were on the receiving end.  I explained to her how that was not even an option for me because of how I couldn’t do that to hurt someone else’s feelings, she admitted that had never even occurred to her that it could hurt their feelings.  From her perspective, if she was doing something wrong, she’d want to know about it immediately.  And I get that…to a point.  I’m a worrier and a bleeding heart, so I can’t stand even the idea that I’ve upset someone else.  I have to make it better.

But through all of this, I’m still glad I stepped up and told the director that I would do it.  Even though it’s not easy for me emotionally, it’s getting me outside of my comfort zone.  I spent a lot of time in my hermit shell, reading books and pretending I live in another world.  While there is nothing wrong with this, there were moments when I craved a little more.  I missed the show choir world.  I missed the competitions and the shows and the sparkles and dresses.  It was something I’d been wanting to get involved in for a while and this year presented the perfect opportunity.  Besides, the season is 3 months of the year.  I can put up with 3 months when I get the other 9 months to crawl back into my shell.

Already, this is giving me new experiences and memories that I’m starting to treasure.  I’m happy to be doing this.  I just wish it was a little easier to balance this with my introversion.

Long May She Reign

30320053First Lines: A hundred doves burst out of the pie.  I don’t know why I was surprised.  Of course there were a few hundred doves in the pie.  It had been the size of a table, and the king wouldn’t open his birthday celebration by actually feeding his guests.  Not when he could amaze us all with his extravagance instead.

ARC attack!  (I got tired of saying “ARC alert” and this sounded so much more fun.)  So I received a copy of this from Edelweiss in return for a review, but this had been on my to-read list for a while before I got it.  You’ll see why in just a minute.  But anyway, this book comes out on February 21, 2017, if you were curious.

Freya should never have been queen.  As the 23rd person in line to inherit the throne, the odds were astronomically stacked against this budding scientist ever wearing the crown.  But that was all before an extravagant banquet becomes a deadly affair and Freya is one of the few left standing.  While she may have escaped death, she’s not safe.  Her councilors don’t respect her, the nobles ignore her, and the lingering mystery of who actually killed the king could bring her reign to a quick end.  Freya may never have wanted to be queen, but she’s going to be the best queen she can be, and that means finding the murderer before they try to kill her.  The only problem is that she can’t trust anyone.  Not her advisers, not the king’s illegitimate son, not even her own father.  Can she find the murderer before she loses her crown?

I want to start by pointing out that this is a YA standalone fantasy novel.  I think that means I’ve officially found a unicorn, since the rarity is basically the same.  Seriously, how many of those exist?  Not very many, I’ve found.

I really did like Freya. This scientific, shy girl wanted nothing more than to escape court and basically live in her laboratory conducting experiments. But when she does get thrust into the spotlight, she learns from her mistakes. She sees what isn’t working, even if (or especially if) it was originally based on advice from others, and makes adjustments. Even though she didn’t want it, she wants to be the best queen she can be. And that attitude was fascinating.

The minor characters were compelling as well. Everyone from the king’s illegitimate son William Fitzroy to Freya’s best friend Naomi to the advisers. No one was perfect. Everyone had a quirk or two, and you truly didn’t know who was being quirky and who was being suspicious. I really liked that it was so difficult to really know what they were actually thinking/doing.

The mystery was pretty good as well. There are definitely clues along the way that give it away if you pay enough attention, but it was also really nice to get lost in the suspicions because, frankly, no one is not suspicious. Everyone has their own agenda and weeding through those takes time. So that was fun.

I will say that the ending was a little lackluster after everything else that had been going on in the story. It didn’t feel as tense as I was hoping it would be, given the situation it was. It was still a good ending, but I wanted a little more from it than I got.

But overall, I thought this was a really fun and entertaining book.

Victoria

51e3y0cfeylFirst Lines: A shaft of dawn light fell on the crack in the corner of the ceiling.  Yesterday it had looked like a pair of spectacles, but overnight a spider had embroidered the fissure, filling in the gaps, so that now it looked, she thought, like a crown.

Ok, so I’ll be the first to tell you that this isn’t technically a YA book.  But we are dealing with a barely-eighteen-year-old girl who finds herself to be the Queen of England.  So…that counts, right?  I’m a big follower of Queen Victoria’s early years (I mean really, how difficult would that job have been?  I do not envy her.), so when I saw this at the library, I had to grab it.

In 1837, Alexandrina Victoria became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.  Many had no faith in her.  After growing up completely sheltered by her mother and her comptroller, Sir John Conroy, Victoria knew little about the way the world truly worked.  But from the very beginning, she was determined to show everyone (especially her ministers) that she was her own woman–and she started by dropping her Alexandrina name.  Quickly, she wins over Lord Melbourne, who becomes her private secretary.  Perhaps he could have been more if Victoria wasn’t destined to marry Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha.  Having met him as a child, Victoria was less than enamored with Albert.  There’s no way she could want someone like him as a husband…

I want to start by saying that I already knew a lot about Victoria’s youth thanks to the fabulous movie The Young Victoria.  Sure, it takes a few liberties with her story, but it’s incredibly entertaining.

Unfortunately, this book didn’t work as well for me as I hoped it would. I thought the beginning was slow. Why? Because it was (perhaps obviously so) nearly identical to The Young Victoria. Granted, they are based on the same sources (Victoria was a methodica diarist), but I always assumed the movie took more liberties, you know? Turns out it’s quite factual, which is great, but it meant that nothing new was being added as I read this book. Hence, I found it slow. And this is predominately the reason why I gave it a lower rating. It took a really long time to feel invested in this.

I needed something to spice it up, and I found it in the oddest place. See, I thought it was going to be the scenes of Victoria and Albert (who, let’s face it, make an adorable couple on and off screen), but it was really the scenes with Victoria and Lord Melbourne. Odd, right? But it’s a complicated relationship these two have, and this book really shows the nuances there. That was kind of fascinating, especially since the story shows both how Victoria views their relationship and how Melbourne does. Now how much of that is factual, I don’t know. But it was interesting.

I think this book does do a nice job showing Victoria’s personality: strong, stubborn (sometimes to a fault), a bit vengeful and vindictive, witty, humorous, and sometimes short-sighted. It didn’t shy away from her worse traits, nor did it try to paint her with the blackest brush. It just made her look like the teenage girl she was, the one who was clearly unprepared for the role she had to fill but tried to make the best of it. She learned quickly, especially once she started trusting the right people.

Also, this book doesn’t shy away from the volatile relationship between Victoria and Albert. For as good as they were together, they had some wicked fights. But they seemed to even each other out at the same time that they presented a challenge, so I think that’s adorable.

So yeah. Overall, I found it to be informative and showing a wide array of emotions not only from our heroine but also from other major and minor characters. It was just really slow to get going.

Oh, and if you’re interested in this but don’t have time to read the book right now, Daisy Goodwin wrote this book at the same time she wrote the screenplay for a new PBS series, Victoria, which premieres Sunday, January 15.  I am so there.