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You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson — book review

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“Maybe things don’t need to be exactly as I’ve imagined them. Like maybe in this universe I’ve suddenly found myself in, things could be different. I could be different.”

You Should See Me in a Crown is an incredibly thoughtful and wholesome YA book. Liz’s first person narration won my heart within the very first pages. Leah Johnson’s simple yet engaging prose perfectly conveyed Liz’s perspective. Liz is in many respects a regular ‘awkward’ teen who is a dedicate student and friend, a good older sister and a responsible niece. But Liz has to contend with a lot more challenges, from her mother’s death to her family’s financial troubles. She’s also black, queer, and has anxiety, and is often made to feel like an outlier at her high school (which is mostly attended by rich white kids). Understandably, she’s eager to leave her small-town to attend the exclusive Pennington College School of Music.

“Music is something I understand—the notes are a thing that I can always bend to my will.”

Readers quickly get how and why music is everything for Liz. To attend Pennington she has to win their music scholarship…but she doesn’t. Not wanting her grandparents to sell their house, Liz’s brother convinces her to compete for the title of prom queen as their high school endows the king&queen with large checks. Although there is nothing Liz hates more than being in the spotlight, she finds herself campaigning for prom queen.

“This whole race is set up to mimic some twisted fairy tale. The queen is supposed to be the best among us: the smartest, the most beautiful, the worthiest. But the people who win are rarely the people who deserve it. Like with any monarchy, they’re just the closest to the top. You don’t earn queen; you inherit it.”

Winning other students’ votes isn’t easy, especially when she’s competing with the most popular girls in her school. In the stressful weeks to follow Liz reconnects with an old friend (some great male/female solidarity here) while her relationship to her controlling best friend becomes frayed. Also, she falls for the cute new girl in her school, Mack.

“I don’t believe in fairy tales and love at first sight and all that, but for just a second, I think this girl and those eyes and the way her freckles dot the entire expanse of her face are cute enough to make a believer out of me.”

While on paper the story might not scream originality, Johnson’s novel is far from predictable or superficial. Girls that may initially strike us as little more than the queen bee’s cronies, straight out of Mean Girls, may not be as passive or stupid as they might first appear. Liz herself finds herself gaining self-assurance.
As much as I liked following Liz’s campaign and witnessing her character growth, the thing I most loved about this book was its romance. Although the relationship between Liz and Mack doesn’t take the centerstage, it does underline much of the narrative. Their cute and tentative flirting had me grinning like an idiot. Their romance was equal parts sweet and heart-melting.
As a non-American I was horribly fascinated by Liz’s school’s ‘prom-culture’. It seems so bizarre to me…but thanks to Liz’s narrative I could see why prom is regarded by many as ‘the event’ of their school years. The dialogues are heavy on cultural references, some of them niche, some of them downright funny, all spot-on.
The only thing I could have done without is the ‘food-fight’. I really don’t get the ‘appeal’ of these scenes…(such a huge waste of food!).
If you like YA fiction that combine romance with coming of age (set against a background of music a la Night Music), touch on contemporary social issues, and present a more realistic view of high school, you should definitely check this one out (not going to lie, Liz&Mach’s scenes alone are worth the read).

“People like us. And that feels sort of good in a way that surprises me. She’s right. High school is complicated, and the lines of demarcation that The Breakfast Club said divided us aren’t quite so clean-cut. The athletes are also the smart kids; the theater kids are also the presidents of the student council. But there’s still those outliers. The people who are everywhere but fit nowhere. People who are involved but not envied—present but imperfect—so the scrutiny pushes them out of the race.”

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

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Olivia by Dorothy Strachey — book review

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“And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded. ”

Set in a French finishing school Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia tells the story of a schoolgirl’s infatuation with her headmistress. Narrated by its titular character, Olivia perfectly evokes adolescent love. Olivia becomes enamoured with Mlle. Julie, and experiences an awakening of sorts.

“Pretty girls I had seen, lovely girls, no doubt, but I had never paid much conscious attention to their looks, never been particularly interested in them. But this was something different. No, it was not different. It was merely being awakened to something for the first time—physical beauty. I was never blind to it again.”

Not only do her feelings towards Mlle. Julie alter her sense of self but they also seem to heighten her senses. Her narration is full of ecstatic exclamations and passionate declarations. She often looses herself is sensuous raptures in which she elevates Mlle. Julie to a godly status. Olivia however is not the only to pine after her, and Mlle. Julie herself seems to be involved with the other headmistress, Mlle. Cara. Strachey’s perfectly captures the anguish of unreciprocated love. Mlle. Julie is Olivia’s objet petit a, in other words her unattainable object of desire. Although Olivia longs for Mlle. Julie, it seemed to me that the impossibility of this love magnified the intensity of her feelings. She seems almost satisfied by her own yearning and angst. Strachey vividly renders Olivia’s finishing school, from the petty jealousies between pupils to the rivalry between Frau Riesener and Signorina. I particularly liked reading about the school’s two factions: the ‘Julie-ites’ (who studied Italian with Signorina) and the ‘Cara-ites’ (who studied German with Frau Riesener).

The novel doesn’t have a plot as such. The narrative seems intent on using a certain type of language in order to translate to the page Olivia’s feelings towards Mlle. Julie. Through her grandiose prose Strachey articulates the highs and lows of Olivia’s infatuation. Her writing has a flamboyantly poetic quality, one that complements Olivia’s emotions—from her desire to her misery—and her reverence towards Mlle. Julie.
Being an individual who is not only prone to crushes, but one that tends to romanticise said crushes, well, I rather identified with Olivia. It’s a pity that Olivia is Strachey’s only novel.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? For every feeling, every vicissitude of my passion, there would spring into my mind a quotation from the poets.”

“These people seemed to be beset on every side by “temptations”; they lived in continual terror of falling into “sin”. Sin? What was sin? Evidently there loomed in the dark background a mysterious horror from which pure-minded girls must turn away their thoughts, but there were dangers enough near at hand which made it necessary to walk with extreme wariness—pitfalls, which one could hardly avoid without the help of God.”

“Did I understand the play at that first reading? Oh, certainly not. Haven’t I put the gathered experience of years into my recollection of it? No doubt. What is certain is that it gave me my first conception of tragedy, of the terror and complication and pity of human lives. Strange that for an English child that revelation should have come through Racine instead of through Shakespeare. But it did.”

“I went to bed that night in a kind of daze, slept as if I had been drugged and in the morning awoke to a new world—a world of excitement—a world in which everything was fierce and piercing, everything charged with strange emotions, clothed with extraordinary mysteries, and in which I myself seemed to exist only as an inner core of palpitating fire.”

“But there was no need of wine to intoxicate me. Everything in her proximity was intoxicating.”

“The dullest of her girls was stirred into some sort of life in her presence; to the intelligent, she communicated a Promethean fire which warmed and coloured their whole lives. To sit at table at her right hand was an education in itself.”

“No, I have never seen anyone freer from every sort of selfishness, never seen anyone devote herself to others with such manifest gladness. And yet, with all her altruism, one could never think of her as self-sacrificing. She never did sacrifice herself. She had no self to sacrifice. When she gave her time, her thoughts, her energies to bringing up her stepbrothers and stepsisters, it was really a joy to her.”

“I think there was nothing else she wanted. If I too would have liked to serve, I was continually conscious that I was incapable and unworthy, continually devoured by vain humilities. And then there was also in me a curious repugnance, a terror of getting too near.”

“Let me think of those words later, I said to myself, there’s too much in them—too much joy and terror. I must brush them aside for the moment. I must keep them, bury them, like a dog his bone, till I can return to them alone.”

“It was at this time that a change came over me. That delicious sensation of gladness, of lightness, of springing vitality, that consciousness of youth and strength and ardour, that feeling that some divine power had suddenly granted me an undreamt-of felicity and made me free of boundless kingdoms and untold wealth, faded as mysteriously as it had come and was succeeded by a very different state. Now I was all moroseness and gloom—heavy-hearted, leaden-footed.”

“But I wasn’t thinking. I was sometimes dreaming—the foolish dreams of adolescence: of how I should save her life at the cost of my own by some heroic deed, of how she would kiss me on my death-bed, of how I should kneel at hers and what her dying word would be, of how I should become famous by writing poems which no one would know were inspired by her, of how one day she would guess it, and so on and so on.”

“On the very first morning of what was to be my new life, how could I expect to banish entirely those haunting visions—of a shoulder—of a profile?”

“I had been so utterly absorbed by the newness and violence of all my emotions, that it had never occurred to me the present could be anything but eternal.”

“I must feed on beauty and rapture in order to grow strong.”

“I pondered the episodes I have just related. I lived them over again, sometimes with ecstasy, sometimes with anguish.”

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Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran — book review

42442934._SY475_.jpgQueen of Coin and Whispers is a very generic YA fantasy novel. While it is not necessarily badly written, its story, setting, and characters are both forgettable and lacklustre.

What initially drew me to Queen of Coin and Whispers was its F/F romance. Once I began reading this book I quickly realised that the queer romance was the only thing that makes this story somewhat more interesting than your usual YA fantasy. The world-building is poorly rendered, the plot, as such, consisted in a succession of cliché after cliché, and most disappointing of all is the romance, which severely lacked chemistry.

The World-building/Setting
The setting is a generic fantasy one. There is an attempt to make this world different by dividing social classes into steps (barons are third steps, while lord and ladies are sixth and seventh steps). This whole step system was wholly unnecessary as the characters already have titles, and readers could therefore workout who sits where on the social hierarchy. The rest (clothes, customs, architecture, the kingdom’s history) is barely hinted at. The country’s attitude towards same-sex relationships is briefly hinted at towards the beginning, and later on we discover that same-sex marriages are legal, but we don’t really know more details than that (when this happened, whether homophobia still occurs, etc). We are told that Edar, the country Lia rules, is no longer religious, but we don’t get much more information beyond that. What sort of religion? What about Edar’s myths and or lore?
Most of the story takes place in inside Edar’s royal palace, and you would think that we would get an extensive history of it (when it was constructed, its dimension/style) but we don’t. We know that nobles live in apartments inside the palace, but we don’t really know how they are set out (on more than one floor?).

The Story
Like many YA books out there this book stars a newly crowned queen who has to assert her power. She decides to make Xania into her spymaster. There is gossip, some drama between different factions, an assassination attempt or two, and some foreign princes. As the queen Lia has to marry in order to have an heir. Lia and Xania fall in love. That’s sort of it.

The Characters
Lia: most characters describe her as an idealist…so I guess we could say she is that. Other than that nothing about her stood out.
Xania: much is made about her…she is Lia’s Whispers, aka her spy, and should therefore be feared by the court…to me however she was way way way too green to be a convincing spymaster. She is seventeen, she must have only recently started working at the palace’s treasury, and that would hardly make her well-versed into the art of spying. When she describes those instances in which she extrapolates informations from others she is so self-dramatising. She goes on about how dangerous she is…and for some reason she has learnt self-defence even if she was raised at the palace…I just wasn’t convinced by her character.
Other characters: they are either good or bad, but most of all they are forgettable.

The Writing
Lia and Xania have first person narrations…and they sound exactly the same. There were a lot of unnecessary attempts at making them sound edgy (so we have many metaphors involving thorns and blades). Other than that the writing was all-right, nothing too elaborate.

Final Verdict
I just didn’t feel the chemistry between the two main characters. The story was predictable, the setting was barely rendered, and the writing was unremarkable. All in all, I would not recommend this. If you are looking for a satisfying F/F YA fantasy novel I would suggest Marie Rutkoski’s The Midnight Lie.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski — book review

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“It was hard for me to tell what was real. Lies made it worse. It is a midnight lie, she said. A kind of lie told for someone else’s sake, a lie that sits between goodness and wrong, just as midnight is the moment between night and morning. ”

Having loved and agonised over Marie Rutkoski’s ‘The Winner’s Trilogy’, I had quite high hopes for The Midnight Lie. Set in the same universe as her previous trilogy, this book is narrated by Nirrim who lives on an island divided by strict social classes (High Kith, Middling, Half Kith, and Un-kith). As a Half Kith Nirrim is forced to live in the Ward, forbidden to wear certain colours or materials and foods. No one seems to question why there is such a social divide, nor do they question their city’s history, and rather than wondering why they live in such an unjust system they say to themselves and others: ‘It is as it is’.

“We had been taught not to want more than we had.”

Nirrim, an orphan, has been subjugated and oppressed her whole life. An encounter with a mysterious a traveller called Sid dramatically alters the course of Nirrim’s life. Sid, who is unapologetically unabashed and outspoken, is unlike any person Nirrim has met. To the disapproval of Raven, the woman who raised her and her employer, Nirrim finds herself tagging along Sid’s quest for magic.

“It can be hard to imagine things beyond your reach. It feels like you will be punished just for wanting what you’ll never have.”

While the premise is not very innovative, the romance in this book is simply off-the-charts. Usually, I find romance in YA fiction to be…dull. From their very fist meeting the chemistry between Nirrim and Sid is simply…sizzling (these lines: “Nirrim, I can’t be good to you.”, “Then be bad.”) . Given that they have been raised in completely different circumstances it takes them some time to understand each other. Readers quickly realise that Nirrim is in more than one toxic relationship and that she does not deserve happiness or freedom. Sid however challenges Nirrim’s worldview and encourages her character growth.

“There is no possible way to understand fairness and guilt when your world has already determined a set of rules that doesn’t make sense.”

The scope of the story is definitely far more narrow than the one in the ‘The Winner’s Trilogy’. Given that the characters themselves do not know why their city is the way it is, the world-building remains vague. The novel depicts the way in which those in Nirrim’s position can be indoctrinated and abused. The narrative also does not shy away from revealing just how horrifying systematic oppression is.
As Nirrim begins to question the system, she comes more into her own and her relationship with Sid develops in a beautiful way.
The plot as such is a rather slow burner yet the dramatic finale will undoubtedly leave readers desperate to read the next instalment. The story is very much about Nirrim: coming to grips with the nature of those around her, realising her self-worth, and her search for answers.

“I had never felt or seen anything so beautiful, and it was only then that I realised how starved I had been for beauty.”

Marie Rutkoski writing is as beautiful as ever. From her metaphors to her insightful observations. Her prose perfectly reflects Nirrim’s worldview.
I also appreciated the Ancient Greece inspired setting and the allusions to Sappho.

While part of me wished for the ending to have provided us with some more answers, I still thoroughly enjoyed this novel. In spite of the swoon-worthy romance the story deals with many serious issues. It was also interesting seeing the way in which the world-building slowly unfolded.
Heart-rendering and engaging, The Midnight Lie is a must-read for fans of ‘The Winner’s Trilogy’.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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