Sunday, November 27, 2016

Stray by Elissa Sussman

I admit that I first picked up Stray by Elissa Sussman based on the cover art alone. The illustration on the front is beautiful and haunting, and the small decorative touches throughout the text are tasteful and elegant. The design choices appealed to me so strongly that I purchased the book without considering any online reviews and without taking into account that its genre of young adult fantasy isn't one that appeals to me much these days. It was a foolhardy decision, to be sure, but in this case, it all worked out for the best. Stray is as compelling on the inside as it is on the outside.

The story is set in the realm of the Four Kingdoms, which are helpfully divided up into Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western segments. In this land, women are born with the ability to use magic and men are not. Instead of magic being an accepted part of everyday life, women are strictly managed and told to suppress their powers. All the lore of the Four Kingdoms focuses on the dangers of magic, and how it is an expression of the wickedness inside a woman's heart. Women of noble status within the kingdoms are sent away to boarding schools upon their first "occurrence" (an accidental release of magic usually happening in their early teenage years) and taught to stick rigidly to a path of obedience and self-denial. They must play the part of the delicate maiden to perfection, never, under any circumstances allow any of their magic to slip out, and follow the orders of their male advisor, who controls everything from their appearance and clothing to their choices for a future spouse. It is this universe, with its restrictive rules and rigid gender roles, that is undoubtedly the high point of the novel.

The protagonist of the story is a young princess named Aislynn, who loses her royal status at the beginning of the novel when her magical powers accidentally slip out in a moment of extreme emotional distress. Her punishment is to be "redirected," a process which involved stripping her of her title as princess and sending her far away to a different school to serve as a fairy godmother (i.e. servant) to another princess. Aislynn's failure to stay on her path of unwavering obedience to societal rules means that she now must serve as a cautionary example to another young royal. Fairy godmothers in this universe help princesses, as you'd expect, but they also serve to warn their charges of what will happen to them if they stray from what is expected.

Aislynn is assigned to Princess Linnea, a young girl with close familial ties to a wicked queen that most of the Four Kingdoms is afraid of. Linnea's relation to Queen Josetta makes her an outcast among the rest of the princesses at her school, so she develops a close relationship with Aislynn, who comes to care for her more and more each day despite the pain she feels for her own situation.

As time moves forward, Aislynn begins to learn more about with the Four Kingdoms are really like. Without the shield of royal status to protect her, she begins to notice things. Mysterious disappearances and questionable occurrences tempt her to stray from her new fairy godmother path, and when a real danger reveals itself one night, she is set upon a new course that will change her life forever. 

I was not expecting an exploration of gender roles and sexism when I began reading this novel, and I was blown away when I realized that was what I was experiencing. The male characters in this universe have constructed a narrative that paints females as evil and dangerous, and this story is accepted without question by almost everyone. Women are forced to conceal a power that is literally straining to burst out of them in order to be considered as marriageable. They have to learn to be quiet, to deny themselves, and to follow orders to succeed. The levels of symbolism are astounding. I was reminded strongly of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and that's something that I did not expect to say about a princess novel. I loved the questions that this raised while I was reading, and I loved that it was so applicable to the issues young girls still face today in our society.

Unfortunately, Stray falls down a bit in other areas. These interesting questions about gender and sexism are underdeveloped, and Aislynn is only just beginning to grapple with them by the end of the novel. The story is left unfinished, to leave room for sequels I assume, so Aislynn's growth arc is woefully incomplete by the novel's final pages. There's also a cute, but tiresome, romance thrown in the mix because this is a young adult fantasy novel starring a princess. I wish that Sussman had hit the societal inequality harder.

However, despite its shortcomings, I give Stray credit for what it is hinting towards. This is a different sort of young adult fantasy, and I sincerely hope that future novels in the series delve deeper into the gender issues presented here. Right now there is a companion novel out, Burn, but it follows a different character and could be read standalone, from what I understand. I would actually be interested in reading a direct sequel, so I hope that one shows up eventually. Young readers need more books like this - that allow them to question the narratives and roles set out for us. Both girls and boys would benefit from dismantling gender expectations that make no sense and make so many people unhappy and afraid to be themselves. Stray is a step in the right direction, and an example of how literature has the power to help us examine our world through the guise of a fictional one.

Friday, November 25, 2016

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

After Alice by Gregory Maguire is a new spin on Lewis Carroll's classic Alice in Wonderland novels. Following in the footsteps of his Wicked novels, this story provides an alternate view of a classic tale. The plot centers around a young girl, named Ada, who mistakenly tumbles down the infamous rabbit hole while searching for Alice and ends up in Wonderland. The novel follows her adventure through the surreal and nonsensical world while she looks for Alice and for a way out.

Ada is a very different child from Alice. She has suffered from a crooked spine since birth, and must wear a painful metal brace to try and correct her posture. She's also described as lacking in physical beauty and social graces. These misfortunes mean that her prospects for future happiness are quite dim, since her appearance and manners make her unsuitable for marriage in Victorian England. She is different from Alice intellectually as well- she is a very rational and logical child. Where Alice is delicate, ethereal and imaginative, Ada is solid, clumsy and realistic. Alice seems to be a child with no worries beyond what games to play next. Ada is a child weighed down with problems and a deep sense of sadness. Indeed, Alice is described as being Ada's only friend, since her fantasy-prone mind allows her to overlook Ada's (and everyone else's) deficiencies.

As such, Ada feels honor-bound to try and rescue her only playmate. She reasons that Alice could easily get lost in all the fantasy of Wonderland and be unable to find her way back. With this (probably correct) thought in her mind, she sets off on a quest to reconnect with her and bring her back to England. However, the rules of Wonderland are flexible at best, and despite falling down the rabbit hole just moments after Alice, she always seems to be one step behind her. Along the way, she meets up with several familiar characters from the original novels, including the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Queen of Hearts.

Interspersed with chapters about Ada's adventure are chapters narrating what's happening back in the real world with Lydia, Alice's older sister. Lydia, who was meant to be keeping an eye on her sister, fell asleep on the riverbank where Alice was playing before finding the rabbit hole, and thus feels mildly responsible for her sudden disappearance. However, she's not overly worried in the beginning, because Alice is described as disappearing all the time. As the days moves forward however, and the length of Alice's absence grows longer and longer, she becomes more and more concerned.

By using this strategy of splitting the chapters between the real world and Wonderland, Maguire achieves the effect of making the reader question how much of Wonderland is real. While reading the Lydia chapters, I was always slightly worried that she would stumble upon Alice and Ada's bodies somewhere, revealing that Wonderland was all some type of hallucination or view of the afterlife. Reminding the readers of the real world and the people left behind in it puts a bit of a dark edge on the story, and gives it a level of complexity that the original novels by Carroll didn't dabble in. While I love the original Alice novels for their wonder and simplicity, I enjoyed looking at the story from a different, darker angle too.

One aspect of After Alice that I wasn't a big fan of initially was the language. Maguire's vocabulary choices throughout the novel feel needlessly difficult. There were several words I didn't know the meaning of (and that's really saying something for me), and I had to struggle with using context clues until I got used to the writing style. Coming off of reading the original Alice novels first, so as to better catch Maguire's references, the difference was extremely jarring. This book is set in the same universe as Carroll's works, but it most assuredly does not speak in the same language. It almost felt a bit arrogant, like Maguire was trying to include every obscure word he knew on purpose to look impressive. Looking at some online reviews of the novel, I can see that the language turned off many, many readers and caused them to give up on the book almost immediately.

Indeed, the barrier to entry into the novel is high, but a reader who is able to muddle through the language until they become used to it will be rewarded. The references to the original novels are clever, Ada's growth arc is inspiring and rewarding, and the ending leaves some interesting questions to turn over in your mind. Maguire's spin on Wonderland feels right, even if the vocabulary doesn't match, and his storytelling provides a new way to look at an old story. I ended up really enjoying this one by the end, but readers should know that they have to wade through some difficult text before getting drawn in.  It was worth it, for me.      

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

After reading Alice in Wonderland, I decided to finish up the adventure by reading the sequel to the novel, Through the Looking Glass. In this installment, Alice once again experiences a vivid and unusual dream, but instead of tumbling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, she travels to the world that lies through the looking glass. The Looking Glass World is just as confusing and nonsensical as Wonderland, but with the added quirk of everything working backwards (it IS a mirror-world, after all). Chess also plays a big role in this novel, as the setting resembles a chessboard and Alice interacts with many of the pieces throughout the story.

There is a bit more of a plot in Through the Looking Glass than there was in its predecessor. Alice winds up on a quest to become a queen (of the chessboard). She is given a list of specific movements she has to make to reach her goal, and the bulk of the story involves her getting into curious adventures along her journey. I'd imagine that a lot of very clever chess references are buried in the story, but as I'm not a chess player, I wasn't able to catch them.

This novel introduces us to more classic characters, most notably, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, who are just as ornery and silly as the Disney adaptation portrayed. There is also a lot of poetry woven throughout the story that has become famous in its own right, like "Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter."  Humpty Dumpty even makes a guest appearance. It's a fun little read, and is a worthy sequel to the original novel.

Through the Looking Glass is a fun continuation of the silliness of Alice in Wonderland. While the first book in the series is probably my favorite, this one is definitely worth your time. There's something very special about the way Lewis Carrol is able to create fantasy, and the classic illustrations by John Tenniel are the perfect accompaniment to the storytelling. While simple stories, these are fantasy at its finest, and any fan of this genre should have the Alice's adventures in their personal library.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."

"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

For my next foray into the fantasy genre, I decided to add in a classic. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a novel that has had a tremendous impact on our culture. This book, and it's companion, Through the Looking Glass, are still referenced constantly in movies, books, and television shows (the most recent that I came across being HBO's new show, Westworld). With Gregory Maguire's After Alice coming up next on my reading list, I decided to pick up the original first, so that I could better catch the references in Maguire's re-imagining later.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland follows the titular Alice as she tumbles down a rabbit hole into a curious world of fantasy. Nothing makes sense in Wonderland - the absurd becomes the standard as Alice wanders from one place to another, changing sizes, attending a mad tea party, talking to a disappearing cat and playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts. There isn't really a plot to speak of throughout the text, rather, this is an observation of a crazy adventure that all turns out to be a very elaborate dream in the end.

On the surface, a novel without a plot where nothing makes sense sounds like it would be a disaster. On the contrary, however, Alice is a masterpiece. The humor and imagination are outstanding, and the illustrations accompanying the text are delightful. You honestly feel like you are somewhere else when you are reading about Wonderland. I found myself laughing out loud in several sections, which isn't something I normally do while reading.

The amount of characters that have stuck around in our culture from this novel is nuts. Alice, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts were all created here. Just saying these names conjures up images and personalities in everyone's minds, whether they have actually read the novel or not. That's quite an impressive feat for a children's book written in 1866.

This is a short little novel, and it can be read straight through in about an hour and a half. The language is simple and sweet. Children today could read this one with no problem, which is not something I can say of all young adult classics. Adults will find subtle humor throughout that younger readers won't catch. There's really something for everyone here. If you've never gone down the rabbit hole yourself, I highly recommend the trip.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

The Mark of the Dragonfly is a middle grades fantasy novel that tells the story of a young, orphaned girl named Piper. Piper lives in what is known as a "scrap town" in the land of Solace. She ekes out a living scavenging in the meteor fields - an area that is regularly pummeled by meteors containing old, broken objects from other worlds. She has a talent for fixing mechanical pieces, so she is able to provide for herself by finding broken items, fixing them up, and selling them at her market.

After a particularly bad meteor storm, Piper witnesses a caravan being destroyed by falling debris. In the wreckage, she makes an unusual discovery - an unconscious girl with a curious symbol tattooed on her arm. Piper recognizes the mark right away as the mark of the dragonfly. It means that this mysterious girl is under the protection of a neighboring king. If Piper can return the girl to her kingdom, she might earn a hefty reward and save herself from a life of poverty.

The unconscious girl quickly revives and identifies herself as Anna. She has lost most of her memory and has no idea where she comes from, but it is immediately apparent that she is someone important when a few hours after her rescue, a wealthy-looking man attacks Piper and tries to carry Anna off. Suddenly on the run, Piper and Anna hop on board a supply train headed towards the Dragonfly Territories to try and escape the strange man and get Anna back to where she belongs. A fantasy adventure ensues as Piper and Anna face grave danger, make new friends, and discover some very important things about themselves.

This was a cute novel, and one that I think younger readers will enjoy. For me, it lacked crossover appeal for adult readers. It was a bit too young, and the inevitable romance that comes into play in the last section of the novel between Piper and another character, Gee, was underdeveloped and overly sentimental. For the genre it belongs to, however, this was an entertaining read, and I will certainly recommend it to some of my fantasy-loving kiddos.

Unfortunately for my reading experience, I was able to guess the big twist at the ending about 70 pages into the book. I don't think that an average, young reader would figure it out, but a grownup reader can see it coming a mile away. This made reading the rest of the novel a slog. In a sea of middle grades fantasy, this was was sweet, but it doesn't stand out, and as a result, I don't have a whole lot to say about it.

In the established tradition of fantasy novels, The Mark of the Dragonfly is the start of a series. The second book, The Secrets of Solace is already out, but I wasn't impressed enough with Dragonfly to continue on with it. This was a fun read, but that's about all.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

November Reading List: Fantasy

In the month of November, I'm going to read a genre of books that I used to love when I was younger, but haven't read much of lately: fantasy novels!

As a kid, princesses, magic, and fairy tales were most definitely my jam. I loved nothing more than to get lost in an impossible world. However, as I got older, my interests drifted more into realistic fiction. Aside from the Harry Potter books and Game of Thrones, I haven't read much fantasy as an adult. So, I decided to return to my former favorite in the month of November and rediscover what I used to love about the genre.

Here's the reading list for the month:

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson - I don't know much about this book. I picked it up at our school book fair after I saw our media specialist carrying it around. That's usually a decent indication that a book is worth checking out. The back of the book says that this is about a girl who must go on a dangerous and slightly magical journey to return a mysterious girl to the king's protection. Sounds pretty much standard for a young adult fantasy.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas - This novel is really popular on the young adult book blogs. It's way past time that I read it for myself. This one is about an assassin trying to win her freedom from prison, along with the title of King's Champion.

After Alice by Gregory Maguire - I've read most of Maguire's other works (my favorite being Wicked), so I want to read his dark take on Alice in Wonderland too.

Stray by Elissa Sussman - I admit that I picked this book up off the shelf at Barnes and Noble based on the beautiful cover design alone. It's about a princess trying to follow a traditional path through life, but struggling to control her magic.

I'm definitely interested to see if I still enjoy fantasy as much as a did as a teenager. I worry about struggling to find a true emotional connection to these works, as I find that many fantasy novels are plot-driven rather than character-driven. I'm definitely a fan of character-driven works at this point in my life, but I'm going to give this month a fair shot. It's time to make some magic!

Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland

Every Falling Star falls into an in-between place in my reading theme months. I read this during the very end of October through the very beginning of November, and it doesn't quite go into either category for those months. I bought this memoir of a boy's escape from North Korea for my classroom, and wanted to read it right away in order to make recommendations for my students. I don't read a whole lot of young adult non-fiction, so this was a nice change of genre for me.

The novel tells the true story of Sungju Lee, a young North Korean boy trying to grow up under his country's strict regime. When his father is exiled from the military to a poor rural town, Sungju goes from having a relatively comfortable existence in Pyongyang to living in abject poverty. All of a sudden, instead of watching television and attending Taekwondo classes, he is struggling to get enough to eat and watching his parents sink further and further into depression.

Eventually, Sunju's parents disappear. First his father, and later, his mother, leave their home in search of food and never come back. Now completely alone, Sungju starts a street gang and begins stealing and fighting to survive. He travels with his new "brothers" around the country, always searching for a better market to steal from or a new territory to rule. Along the way, he forms a very strong bond with the other kids in his gang, and they craft a set of rules promising to stick together and look out for one another. They becomes a very close knit family.

Sungju's story has a happy ending. After several years go by, he is able to reconnect with some relatives and escape to South Korea. He goes on to attend college and dedicates his life to helping other North Koreans escape. In fleeing his homeland, he is forced to leave his brothers behind, a sacrifice that troubles him to this day. In the front pages of the novel, he explains that he uses their real names throughout Every Falling Star in the hopes that one of them will read it one day and get it touch with him. The book is dedicated to them. 

This book gives young readers an interesting look at what really goes on in North Korea, a country legendary for its bizarre and abusive leadership. However, it isn't as intriguing or emotional as you'd expect. I found the novel to be slow-moving and frequently boring. I feel terrible for thinking that, because this is a memoir of a person who has suffered deeply and overcome a lot in his life, but that was truly how I felt while reading. I think that a lot of darker details had to have been left out of the story in an effort to make this "appropriate" for a younger audience. The novel is undoubtedly weaker for it, because it lacks an emotional punch to pull in its readers. In reviewing my experience with this book, I'm finding that I just don't have a lot to say about it.

Every Falling Star was okay in the end. I enjoyed learning more about North Korea and I'm glad that Sungju Lee was able to get out and share his story with the world. He is a very brave and hardworking person, and these qualities have allowed him to break free from the circumstances he was born into and become a success. However, the overall pace of his memoir was slow and it lacked emotional depth at times. This will appeal to sensitive and mature young adult readers with an interest in history, but I definitely would not recommend this to a reluctant or struggling reader because of the pacing issues.