Red Hood

Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold

First Lines: Once upon a time, just hours ago, the doorbell rang. You were ready–lipstick on, hairpins in. His dear face smiled as you opened the door for him, his bright dark eyes, his wide sweet mouth, and small diamonds twinkling from both pierced ears.

I saw this book at the library and knew it had been on my to-read shelf. Even though I didn’t really remember at the time what the book was about, I knew I wanted to read it. I actually grabbed it really fast because I was so excited to be reading “new” books.

With this one, since it’s short, I’m going to copy the official book jacket: Since her grandmother became her caretaker when she was four years old, Bisou Martel has lived a quiet life in a little house in Seattle. She’s kept mostly to herself. She’s been good. But then comes the night of homecoming, when she finds herself running for her life over roots and between trees, a fury of claws and teeth behind her. A wolf attacks. Bisou fights back. A new moon rises. And with it, questions. About the blood in Bisou’s past and on her hands as she stumbles home. About broken boys and vicious wolves. About girls lost in the woods—frightened, but not alone.

Strap in, folks, because we’re about to go for a ride here.

First of all, I want to just make it abundantly clear that I read the whole book, cover to cover. Thought about quitting by the time I got to the end of chapter 3, but I kept going. It’s like when you see a wreck and you can’t quite look away. It was actually so bad it was funny.

Ok, so the review. The writing for this is terrible. It’s clunky and unnatural and a struggle to read it out loud without feeling like an idiot. (I read snippets of this out loud to my boyfriend because I was just so incredulous. He laughed the whole time.) If you doubt me, go take a look at those first lines again. There’s just something off about the writing. It’s also written in second person (i.e. “You pick up the jacket.”), which is really odd. I’ve read short stories written in 2nd, but never whole novels–and I majored in English in school. This is incredibly rare–and for good reason. There was a huge learning curve to get into the story because obviously I am not Bisou no matter how much you say “you.” I did get to a point–finally–where I could mostly ignore it and it didn’t interfere with the story, but that was a long time coming.

This is, single-handedly, the most explicit YA novel I’ve ever read. For real, I’ve read many romances novels less explicit than this. Bisou is 16 and honestly, I definitely would not have been prepared to read this book at that age. The book has incredibly explicit sex scenes for YA, and it also has a huge focus on menstruation. Waaaaay too many details involved in that for my tastes. (Some people are applauding this book for not ignoring the fact that girls do, in fact, have periods as part of normal life and I get that, but the details…they were very descriptive about inserting tampons and other things. I just…did not need that to be the focus of the book.)

The whole angle of the story seems, to me, to be that nearly every man you run into is a predator. That was the theme I walked away with. And like, sure, I’ve been listening to a lot of true crime podcasts lately and I have walked through campus with my keys in my hands and all that, but I feel like this story took it to an extreme. Especially because the answer to “what do we do with these predators?” is “kill them.” And that doesn’t seem right either. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I am not exaggerating about that being the theme. That is quite literally what they do with every man who becomes a predator: they kill him.

This book tries so hard to be this like, feminist manifesto. It basically tried to check all the boxes, even though it often didn’t help the story in any way. We have: 1) talk of periods, 2) empowering consensual sex, 3) multiple girls harassed by boys who don’t understand “no”, 4) girls who fight back, 5) girls overcoming predators, 6) police who don’t listen to girls, 7) toxic masculinity, and 8) incels. Yes, incels. That was not something I thought I’d be talking about in this, but here we are.

Look, I understand a lot of this is part of the female experience. Been there, done that. (I’ve been listening to too much true crime lately and am now convinced I will be kidnapped every time I leave the house, but that’s another story.) But again, not all of it really helped the plot in any way. The whole incel thing made me laugh because it was so random. The words “toxic masculinity” are thrown in there like once just to say them, I think? The plot never really went anywhere with either of those two points. And again, I think it tried too hard and went too far. I don’t think the right response to harassment is to upgrade it to murder.

This was just such a weird book. I basically kept reading it because at a certain point, it became incredibly amusing to see what happened next. It is certainly not a book I will be recommending to my students.

Bellamy and the Brute (Bellamy and the Brute, #1)

Amazon.com: Bellamy and the Brute (9781634222310): Alicia Michaels ...First Lines: “Who can tell me which event in United States history was referred to by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as ‘a date that will live in infamy’?”  You could have heard a pin drop.  Apparently, no one in my history class knew the answer to Ms. Neal’s question.

Alright, y’all know me.  If something even hints at Beauty and the Beast, I’m all over it.  I got this on my Kindle a long time ago, probably for free or at least super cheap.  Anyway, when I was between books, this started to look reeeeaaaallly appealing.

Bellamy McGuire desperately needs a summer job…but babysitting for the wealthy Baldwin family may not be the best choice.  Everyone in town knows about the sudden disappearance of Tate Baldwin, the family’s oldest son.  He was a football star and the town’s golden boy before he became a hermit at sixteen.  No one’s heard from him in two years and no one knows why he suddenly retreated.  Rumors say he contracted a disease that disfigured him and turned him into a real-life monster.  Reluctantly, Bellamy accepts the job out of need, and she promises she will never ever go up to the third floor of the mansion.  But soon, Bellamy begins to realize Tate’s disappearance isn’t the only mystery at the Baldwin mansion.  Cold drafts, electricity that cuts out suddenly, and rose petals on the stairs that only she can see…she begins to wonder what’s going on.  And if she’s in way over her head.

Honestly, I don’t really know what I think of it.

Let me start with what I liked. First of all, the similarities between the original fairy tale and this are definitely there, but this is still its own story. Obviously, Bellamy is Belle and Tate is the Brute/Beast. There’s a Gaston character and a lot of the plot at least occasionally links up with the Disney original if not the original-original story. I also liked how inclusive this story was. There are characters of color and characters with disabilities. I really liked that, actually. I liked that Bellamy, our lead, was one of those characters of color.  You very rarely ever see a Belle character who isn’t white.

What I struggled with a little is that the story is kind of all over the place. It’s a fairy tale retelling, but it’s also this paranormal-mystery-thriller-romance. Like, it was everything and I felt like sometimes some of it started falling through the cracks. Yeah, eventually it came together, but along the way I was like, “Where did this go?”  Basically speaking, it has a major tone problem.  Is it a teen romance?  Is it a mystery?  Is it a thriller?  Being all of these things turned it into the monster it accused Tate of being.

Also, there were some little details that kept changing that drove me crazy. Like one time the characters were like, “Oh, that town’s close!” and then you find out it’s 5 hours away?? Look, I’m from the Midwest where we drive everywhere and a 5 hour drive can literally take me 2 states away. That’s not “close”. I think it was more of an editing mistake than anything because later they said this town was 6 hours away and then it was back to 5. It was weird. But it bugged me.  And there were other little moments like this that just didn’t make sense either.

I think what also sort of bugged me was the fact that the story wasn’t terribly realistic. And I don’t mean the paranormal or even the retelling part. I’ll buy into that. It was the mystery/thriller stuff that didn’t work for me sometimes. Like they’re trying to solve a mystery and they’re getting all this information that they should not be able to get and it’s no big deal…it seemed weird.

Can I say that I didn’t enjoy it? No. I really did like the characters, everyone from our leads to Bellamy’s dad and the kids and Ezra. The characters, in many ways, drove the story for me. And the beginning maybe 25% of the story, what was arguably the most like the fairy tale, was awesome. I loved seeing everything unfold. It was just the stuff from then on that started losing me a little.

It was an interesting read to say the least and I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t one of my favorites.

The Evil Queen (The Forest of Good and Evil, #1)

Amazon.com: The Evil Queen (The Forest of Good and Evil Book 1 ...First Lines: Why do we love fairy tales?  Oh, let me count the reasons.  Magic. Inspiration. Adventure. True love.  But there are reasons to hate these stories, as well.  Murder. Betrayal. Heartbreak.  Some characters live, some die, but all suffer in one way or another.

This was one of the books I managed to check out from the library like a month before the doors closed for the pandemic.  And I was actually trying to decide if I even wanted to read it.  Showalter can right an amazing story (Alice in Zombieland, anyone?), but with so much bad in the world right now, did I really want to read about an anti-hero, an evil queen?  Somewhat reluctantly, I dug into this.

In the realm of Enchantia, mythical creatures and magic run rampant.  And those fairy tales you know?  Those aren’t just stories here–they’re prophecies of the future.  Everly Morrow is only just learning all of this.  Raised in the mortal world, Everly thought she was normal…until she developed the ability to commune with mirrors.  Turns out she’s a real-life princess of Enchantia.  The bad news?  She’s fated to the Snow White’s nemesis, the Evil Queen.  With amazing abilities, Everly returns to the land of her birth and meets Roth Charmaine, who is clearly Prince Charming.  Even as sparks fly between them, their relationship is doomed.  And as the betrayals mount, it gets harder for Everly to turn away from the dark magic she knows she can harness.  Can she resist or will she become the villain everyone expects her to be?

I’d be lying if I said I was immediately sucked in. I wasn’t. It took days for me to feel like I wanted to keep reading. Everly is immediately reviled by everyone who meets her for no real reason. No matter how good she tries to be, everyone hates her. It was hard to want to keep reading when there were a lot of negative emotions like that so fast. But I kept at it, hoping it would get somewhere.

And then it did. I can’t say when exactly I started falling into the story, but there was definitely a point where I wanted to start reading about what happened next.

The characters weren’t always as deep as I wanted them to be. Like, outside of maybe 3-4 characters (and even that might be a bit optimistic), we didn’t really get to know any of the characters behind the basics. This story is ambitious. There’s a lot happening in the plot. Ergo, there was little time to really delve into character development. Plot twists and betrayals? Sure. But actually feeling a connection to multiple characters? Didn’t happen.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the characters we did get to know. Everly is an awesome character who fights that tension between good and evil the whole story. What makes someone good? What makes them evil? The fact that she asked this question the whole time added another level to the story. I liked that it played with that question so much because it really is about perspective–how do you justify what you’ve done when it means hurting someone else?

The connection to Snow White, while absolutely prevalent, isn’t quite what you think it’s going to be.  (Which was good.  Snow White is not my favorite fairy tale.)  It’s not clear who is who and that’s intentional. I kind of liked that, the puzzle of trying to put all that together while reading.

I really enjoyed the fantasy elements and the morality of the story. I’m eager to see what the next book brings.

Stepsister

Image result for stepsister jennifer donnellyFirst Lines: Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight.  The first was a maiden.  Her hair, long and loose, was the color of the morning sun.

I’m a fan of Donnelly’s historical fictions, like These Shallow Graves in particular.  And I’m always down for a fairy tale retelling, especially since I tried writing this particular story in college.  (I’ve always been slightly fascinated with what must have happened to Cinderella’s family after she left.)  So I thought this book might scratch that itch.

Isabelle should be happy–after all, a prince is waiting to escort her to his carriage.  Only Isabelle isn’t actually the girl the prince is after.  And that glass slipper on her foot?  It’s rapidly filling with blood now that she’s cut off her toes to fit into it.  When the prince discovers her family’s deceptions, they are shamed far and wide.  Isabelle is not particularly surprised–she’s the ugly stepsister after all, a girl who is fierce and fiery, but certainly not pretty or polite or kind.  Isabelle has tried to fit in, to be that perfect model of feminine beauty and follow her mother’s instructions, but all that’s done is leave her mean, hollow, and ugly.  But when Isabelle gets the chance to change her destiny, will she be strong enough to take it?

I’d heard a lot of things about this book before I started, to the point where I eventually got the impression this was supposed to be one of the best books of the year.

I’m not seeing that.

I love a good fairy tale retelling, but I will fully admit that Cinderella is far (and I mean really far) down my list of favorite fairy tales. As in I kind of hate it. But at the same time, I’ve always mulled over the question of what happened to the stepsisters after she left, as I mentioned earlier. (Funny enough, it started off very similarly to this book.)

I’ll start by saying that I liked Isabelle and Tavi. Their lives are slowly destroyed by others who want them to fit a specific mold–their mother pits them against the prettier Ella, the villagers call them ugly for their treatment of the now Queen, and neither of them is allowed to live the life they want. These are “atypical” girls who want to be warriors and mathematicians, not dainty girls who are only interested in marriage and starting families.

I liked how various elements of the story were all woven together from beginning to end. Things you’d almost forgot about showed up again later to great satisfaction. That was fun to read.

But I found the book to be too heavy-handed with its philosophy. The feminism in this was about as subtle as a donkey-kick to the gut. I’m all about empowering women and remembering strong women in history, but I was almost rolling my eyes throughout this for how in your face this was. There’s even a whole bit in this about rewriting history as “herstory”. And while I completely get the point, I felt by the end that this book was preaching at me. I don’t respond well to forceful preaching.

I was also struggling with the Fate vs. Chance thing. There’s magic in this book, but it’s mostly this fight between the actual Fates and a character named Chance. Chance is trying to mess with destiny by mostly allowing random things to happen while the Fates are very organized yet pessimistic about humans. I felt it was kind of an odd thing to add to the story and detracted from the retelling. I actually wanted more about the girls, not this odd subplot.

This was not what I thought it would be. I thought it would be more fairy tale than it ended up being. This was not the book for me.

The Healer’s Apprentice (Hagenheim, #1)

Image result for the healer's apprenticeFirst Lines: The townspeople of Hagenheim craned their necks as they peered down the cobblestone street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Duke of Hagenheim’s two handsome sons.  The topheavy, half-timbered houses hovered above the crowd as if they too were eager to get a peek at Lord Hamlin and Lord Rupert.

For over nine years, this has been on my to-read list.  Since then, more than one person has told me how much they loved this book.  But…I was hesitant once I found out it was labeled as Christian lit.  That is not a genre I tend to like, so even though this looked really good, I was reticent.

Rose has been chosen to be the apprentice to the healer of Hagenheim castle, a huge opportunity for the girl who is the daughter of a woodcutter.  And yes, Rose is ill at the sight of blood, but she’s determined to overcome it.  If she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to marry some bloated, old man and the thought of that alone turns Rose’s stomach.  When Lord Hamlin, the future duke, is injured, Rose is the only one who can help him.  And as they get to know each other, Rose discovers feelings she’s not supposed to have and wonders if Lord Hamlin feels them too.  But what they feel is forbidden, not only because of the difference in their stations but because Lord Hamlin is already engaged to a mysterious girl who has gone into hiding to avoid the wrath of an angry sorcerer.  As Rose’s life begins to spin out of control, she’ll need to take the first steps to find her new destiny.

I was initially a bit nervous about this, since I knew it was Christian lit. However, since the story is set in the 1300s in Germany, the focus on religion felt historically accurate more than anything else. In fact, I would have been surprised if religion didn’t play at least some role in a story set in that time.

The story itself was more than a little predictable, but it was a fun read. Rose is a healer’s apprentice, but she doesn’t have the stomach for it.  But she’s determined to do the job well, especially since it means she doesn’t have to marry. I liked her strength and her convictions. It would have been so easy for her to abandon her beliefs in the face of some of her struggles, but she stood her ground, even when that meant making her life harder.

Right, the plot. I saw the big twist coming waaaaay before it happened. That made some of what followed boring, as I was already three steps ahead of the characters. However, there’s enough going on in the story that there was usually still something else happening to draw me in.

I thought this was going to be more of a fairy tale (I’m told it’s supposed to be a version of Sleeping Beauty), but I definitely didn’t see it.  However, it does have some of those fairy tale tropes to it, which I liked. It feels like an original story, but it also feels comfortable and easy to sink into, like a well-known story.

This was good. I plan on looking at some of her other books now.

East

Image result for east edith pattouFirst Lines: I found the box in the attic of an old farmhouse in Norway.  It was large, the size of a footlocker, and there were markings on it; runes, I learned later.

I believe I was a sophomore in college when one of my good friends recommended this book to me after we’d spent some time wandering the library together.  I respected her recommendation enough to put it on my to-read list…but that cover.  That didn’t look like something I wanted to read.

Rose has always been different from her family.  They want her to be meek and settled, but Rose is anything but.  She longs for adventure.  So when an enormous white bear shows up at her door asking for Rose to come away with him in exchange for helping her family prosper, she agrees.  Rose travels a long way from home on the back of the bear and soon starts to get adjusted to her new home in a castle in the cliffs.  But things are not what they seem and as Rose’s curiosity gets the best of her, bad things begin to happen.

I did rather enjoy this. I heard it had kind of a Beauty and the Beast feel to it, which it does in the first half (though I would argue it’s almost identical to the myth of Cupid and Psyche), even though it’s based on a Norwegian story. I did think the whole trolls angle was pretty weird, but it kinda worked for the story.

I liked Rose’s adventurous spirit. She never let anything scare her away from what she wanted and that was admirable. She was strong, clever, and interesting. And white bear was interesting as well, though I felt like we never really got to know him or really much about his circumstances.

I don’t normally say this, but I actually liked that the story was told from so many different perspectives. Rose, her brother Neddy, Father, White Bear, Troll Queen. All of them added a little something to the story. I felt like it gave the story depth to know what was going on in different places than just wherever Rose was.

It was cute. It’s not necessarily something I would have picked up without a recommendation from someone who really knew my reading tastes, but I enjoyed it.