Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter | ★★★★½

I first read Vassa in the Night in August of 2017. It was recommended by Leigh Bardugo, one of my favorite authors, in library interview I watched on YouTube. I find it really fascinating to see what works inspire my favorite authors. It causes me to look into books that I otherwise might never give a chance. In investigating Bardugo’s recommendations, I was enchanted by the summary for Vassa in the Night.

I already knew I loved fairytale retellings set in the modern world. I was unfamiliar with Vasilisa the Beautiful, but eager to check out this book that sounded so different from anything I’ve read. From skimming the top reviews on Goodreads, I can tell this book is a little polarizing. After having read it a second time, I’ve compiled a list of notes you might like to know ahead of time if you want to enjoy it.

  1. You need to suspend your disbelief and not expect there to be explanations behind the magical stuff that happens. Rules and reasons for ambiguity will emerge gradually and you just have to take them as they are, as Vassa is forced to.
  2. Two, you need to know this book is really weird. So fantastically weird. I saw one review that compared it negatively to Alice in Wonderland, however, I do not agree that it matches that level of inexplicable absurdity. The absurdities in this book have interpretable meaning.
  3. Oh! and three, this book is not for the faint of heart. It’s downright terrifying at times. Sometimes I could visualize what I was reading as if I was actually watching a horror movie. Other parts were funny in that dead-pan kind of way. It’s a bit odd, which I think makes it more scary at times.

• • • Vassa in the Night • • •

Screen Shot 2018-07-02 at 9.42.27 AMReleased: September 20, 2016
Pages: 296 pages (hardcover)
Theme(s): Self-discovery, honoring obligations, the strength of kindness, what makes someone somebody, compartmentalizing, dealing with grief
Genre(s): Young Adult / Urban Folklore / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★★½

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now—but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling away again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair…

*  ⁎   My Thoughts   ⁎ * 

I really love this book. It’s a lot of fun, very inventive in its world and plot, and provides a surprising lot to think about. Vassa in the Night is a journey of self-discovery masked as a survival story. I really like stories where characters learn more about themselves and where the magic fits neatly into the modern world.

While Vassa’s story seems to be incited by a random series of events that leads to her decision to go buy lightbulbs in the infamously dangerous convenience store, she (and readers tagging along for the ride) discover that her encounter with Babs was set in motion long before she ever needed lightbulbs. We all learn that about the people and actions that molded Vassa into the the person that she is and that she also needed help long before her life was in jeopardy.

At the beginning of the book, Babs tells Vassa that she owes her a debt that is “more than [she] owe[s] [her]self” (54). It comes off oddly at this point in the book, for it is a hint that Babs has some inexplicable knowledge about Vassa, despite that night being their first meeting. It also sticks out because it perplexes Vassa.

What did I borrow from myself and how on earth will I ever give it back?

At first, I thought that this moment was a hint at some larger universal lesson that may speak to readers. I was surprised to find it actually spoke more directly to an issue that Vassa has been avoiding and, in effect, has hides from us until the end of the novel. While Babs is the villain of this novel, but she’s also just a catalyst for a journey of self-discovery that Vassa doesn’t know she needs until she’s forced to face it.

There’s so much more I’d love to talk about in greater depth, but I don’t want to write a full-blown dissertation on this book! I will just say that there are so many more layers to this book that speak to what substance makes someone somebody, how satisfying dreams can be compared to reality, and the long-lasting effects of grief. And it’s beautifully written without trying too hard, ya know what I mean?

If this is really my last night and my last moments are jangling like coins in my pocket, then I might as well spend them on wishes.

 —✃ Craft  ✃—

Point of View • Vassa is the first-person narrator of the book, written primarily in present-tense. There are also short chapters interspersed throughout the book for the reader’s sake called interludes. They give some background information that Vassa wouldn’t have access to.

Setting The book almost entirely takes place in the dancing BY’s convenience store of Brooklyn in New York run by the witch Babs Yagg. While Vassa is trapped on the premises, she is able to escape only in her sleep on occasion shared with the motorcyclist who is also trapped and stuck circling the store perimeter during the long city nights. The store is held together with magic that makes it rotate in the sky and have a seemingly endless amount of space inside Bab’s private office, as Vassa discovers on a day-time quest to rescue her the motorcyclist and the two lawyers she sends in to surprise Babs.

Plot   After Vassa agrees to pay her “debt” to Babs with three nights of work in the store and demonstrate her character, she is given trials and tasks meant to spell her doom but which through seemingly complete chance end in her favor. But during these nights, she is also learning about the others who are drawn into BY’s orbit, including the henchmen, the unwilling “night guard”, and the bold, trouble-making teenagers.

Characterization  All the characters are written with clear and distinct voices that make them seem so real. Vassa who narrates the book has an easy-going sense of humor but also a detachment that makes her an interesting protagonist to follow. Erg, her doll, is wicked fun and very dramatic. In my head she had Kimmy Schmidt’s highly excited puppet voice. The lawyers (“attorneys at large”) were absurd and hilarious with their overly formal, professional speak.

Problems  Usually I find short chapters help to keep me turning the pages as I read, but for some reason after each one I felt like I should put the book down. That’s why it took me a little longer to finish this book than I thought I would. I also feel like the book suffers from not introducing Vassa’s mother issues earlier on. I think Vassa’s character development could have been more clearly delineated, but it got buried with the focus on the plights of other characters.

Similar Books 

Mr. Fox Shadow and Bone The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
If you like beautiful, perplexing adult fiction tinged with horror and diversity… If you want to start a YA fantasy series inspired by Russian folklore… If you want to read a beautiful YA novel that follows a matriarchal family history…

 ❧ ☙ END NOTE ☙ ❧

I’m sorry this review is coming late this week, but I hope it was worth it. I also hope you liked the changes to the format. I think it’s more fun, useful, and readable. One of the problems that I always grapple with is writing too much, which I knooowwww is for my own benefit more than others’. I think I was able I capture most of what I wanted to say about Vassa in the Night.

Tomorrow I am aiming to release two blog posts (one in the a.m. and the other in the p.m.) following up on my blog hopping journey last month! The first will likely be some lessons I hope to remember and the second my long-awaited list of favorite blogs I discovered.

Have you read Vassa in the Night? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
Follow my blog via Bloglovin’. Also find me on GoodreadsTwitter, and Instagram.

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City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

Released: October 2002 (originally in Spanish)
Pages: 408 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Culture clash, colonization, treatment of natives, cultural values, differing perspectives, environmental protection, spiritual awareness
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 10+

★★★★

Fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold is about to join his fearless grandmother on the trip of a lifetime. An International Geographic expedition is headed to the dangerous, remote wilds of South America, on a mission to document the legendary Yeti of the Amazon known as the Beast.

But there are many secrets hidden in the unexplored wilderness, as Alex and his new friend Nadia soon discover. Drawing on the strength of their spirit guides, both young people are led on a thrilling and unforgettable journey to the ultimate discovery. . .

Forward

I wanted to read City of the Beasts after Dragons in the Waters for a few reasons. For one, I’d wanted to spend this month reviewing some middle grade fiction reads that I loved as a kid because I’ve been feeling nostalgic and also a little worried about the state of middle grade fiction these days. I’ll admit, I’m not very familiar with what kids are reading these days as I’m more familiar with popular YA. I think that’s why I’m worried, by the logic of if I’m not aware of any great middle grade books right now then maybe there’s not a lot out there.

I feel like a lot of the books I read in middle school affected who I was in high school and what I hoped to do with my life at the time. I feel like kids could benefit from literature that was produced before social media was a big deal or cyberbullying was the worse thing one could imagine happening to them. Books where kids are more aware of the world outside their hometown experiences.

City of the Beasts (CotB) nicely compliments Dragons in the Waters as it features a young male protagonist (American) who visits South America and accidentally gets exposed to international crime. But CotB features much stronger pacing, world-building, and adventure that has the protagonist really learning about a culture, land, and customs so different from his own. Although, I found the book dragged on a little at parts, I rated the book 4 stars.

My Thoughts

The book opens with Alexander Cold at home. His mother has cancer and his home life has not been ideal. When his parents come to the conclusion it is time for them to take his mother out-of-state for better treatment, Alex is sent to his grandmother who lives in New York City and is about to embark on an Amazonian adventure for International Geographic, a magazine I envision is similar to National Geographic.

While traveling along the Amazon river to find this infamous Beast that has been mysterious killing people viciously, Alex and his grandmother’s expedition find themselves feeling like they are being watched and followed. Soldiers start to disappear before being found dead. And it is only once Alex and his new friend Nadia make contact with the People of the Mist that the adventure truly begins as they learn was is at stake in further conquest of the land.

This book is really a fantastic example of how a person can be transformed by immersion in another culture. Alex undergoes tremendous character development in this story as he goes from a typical, sheltered American youth to a boy who learns how to survive in wilderness and understands social customs. I love how “magic” is interpreted in this story, especially to the natives who do not understand the foreigners’ value or their concepts such as land ownership.

This book also does a great job showing the significance of the press to protect the world’s most vulnerable. We find that there was a reason Kate and International Geographic was invited to do an exposé on the Amazon, but also that their coverage can serve to protect the People of the Mist and their Eye of the World. In that way, press works a “magic” that brings about positive change.

The main thing that surprised me in reading this book as an adult is I found the long descriptive parts meant to draw readers into the world extremely dull to read. I wasn’t here for immersive reading. I wanted to know what the heck was happening! So, obviously, that was my own hang up with the book. I don’t think it bothered me much when I was younger, although I might’ve struggle then too. I can’t remember.

I think this is an important book that kids today should read because I think even if you are not a directly descendant of Native Americans, I think that all of humanity is related in the grand scheme of life on earth and we should feel protect the innocent people who are still more primitively off the land and doing no harm to the planet. I think this book is also significant in that it could appeal to boys as much as girls.

I remember learning in my Teaching YA Literature class at ISU that boys are a demographic these days, at least in the U.S., that struggle to become passionate readers. I think this is a major problem because I strongly believe reading makes people more empathetic, compassionate, and kind, qualities we need in people for the social battles that lay ahead.

Craft

I found myself paying a lot of attention to how this book was written as I was constantly questioning why I didn’t feel as entranced by this book as I did when I was younger. In today’s review, here’s what I thought was done well and bad in City of the Beasts in list format.

The Good

  • Alex/Jaguar’s character development. I think this story was so effective because as Alex was drawn deeper into the uncharted lands of the Amazon, his perspective of the People of the Mist and their ways was increasingly accepting, even while remaining aware the exact logistics behind what the native considered divine intervention. He didn’t challenge their ways, he integrated their customs into his life with measured reason.
  • Painting People of the Mist so vividly and with dignity. When Allende was describing the Eye of the World, there were a lot of details I found really shocking to my western sensibilities (e.g. naked people, breast feeding animals). She was very plain and clear in her descriptions without making any value comparisons, which helped me as a reader become better comfortable with it in my own time.
  • Disrupting language barrier with telling through narration instead of dialogue. Over the book Alex learns that he has come to understand the language. But without needing to make up a native language or continually address the language barriers in the book between natives and the rest of the expedition, Allende reveals what is spoken not through dialogue but through narration. It becomes a fluid and and natural.
  • Humor! There’s a lot of funny scenes in this book. There’s situational humor in the anthropologist Professor Leblanc who is so ignorant and limited in survival skills despite his world-wide fame for study of different cultures. I also found Kate and Alex’s relationship hysterical because of how Kate has difficulty showing her soft and caring side to her grandson who she wants to be strong and self-sufficient. There’s also some scenes that seem like something out of Gulliver’s Travels after the People of the Mist lose their leader and are trying to figure out who will be their next one.

The Bad

  • Overly descriptive in details of environment. I generally have learned as a reader, and writer, that too much description doesn’t always have the effect of helping readers envision the world. At a certain point, the writer needs to allow the readers to fill in some of the blanks for themselves. But this is an incredibly subjective an opinion, as I realize some people might really need/appreciate more explicit detail to become emerged in a story.
  • Occasional repetition of past from others’ perspectives jarring. There were a few instances in this book where events were repeated in summary form from another group’s perspective for dramatic effect. Again, this is subjective, but I’d rather have had this redone without the repetition that removed me from the current events and action of the story, because it did happen at times that left the current timeline at a cliff-hanger!

Outgoing Message

I hoped you enjoyed this review, regardless of whether you plan to read the book or not. If I’ve helped one person become aware, or remember this book from their own childhood, I’ll be happy. I think it’d be a great gift for both young boys and girls who might be struggling readers. While I often struggle with adventure-based books, I know these kinds of books are what can bring stories and worlds alive in less avid readers.

Have you read City of the Beasts? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
Follow my blog via Bloglovin’. Also find me on GoodreadsTwitter, and Instagram.

Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

dragonsReleased: April 1, 1976
Pages: 326 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Fate and destiny, family history, shared human consciousness, value of ancestors, overcoming one’s past, finding one’s place
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★1/2

A stolen heirloom painting…a shipboard murder…Can Simon and the O’Keefe clan unravel the mystery?

Thirteen-year-old Simon Renier has no idea when he boards the M.S. Orion with his cousin Forsyth Phair that the journey will take him not only to Venezuela, but into his past as well. His original plan to return a family heirloom, portrait of Simon Bolivar, to its rightful place is sidetracked when cousin Forsyth is found murdered. Then, when the portrait is stolen, all passengers and crew become suspect.

Simon’s newfound friends, Poly and Charles O’Keefe, and their scientist father help Simon to confront the danger that threaten him. But Simon alone must face up to his fears. What has happened to the treasured portrait? And who among them is responsible for the theft and the murder?

Forward

I decided to read Dragons in the Waters after Troubling a Star this month 1) because I had already owned it, 2) because it was another novel set at sea, and 3) I wondered if I’d get The Arm of the Starfish vibes, considering it’s another book that features another male protagonist who comes into contact with the young and precocious Poly O’Keefe (Meg Murray’s daughter).

I feel I remember starting this book, but I don’t remember if I ever finished it. I own it in a fairly nice condition in an older cover print. I just don’t remember when I bought it. There are a few other Madeleine L’Engle books I own but haven’t read and have since decided to keep despite the fact I’d never read them. These include the books from the Time Quartet, Many Waters and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I’ve given them both a shot in the past, but they’re much heavier science fiction and trippy in a way I don’t like.

Not knowing why I had yet to read (or didn’t remember) Dragons in the Waters, I hoped it would nicely compliment the other L’Engle works I knew I wanted to read and showcase this month on Betwined Reads. Unfortunately, I did not really enjoy this book and actually thought about not reviewing it. But I didn’t my time spent trudging through the book to go to waste, and turned my experience into a teachable by attempting to explain what went wrong for me. So here is the review for the book I rated 2.5 stars.

My Thoughts

That’s right; this is Madeleine L’Engle novel that I did not really like or enjoy very much. I found the plot overcomplicated and the novel cluttered with useless characters that seemed were only present to serve as red herrings to the murder mystery. It’s also a novel that I don’t think would really appeal to children, despite the young characters in the novel. They’re all so unusually bright, intuitive, and precocious.

The novel opens with 13-year-old Simon Renier who is boarding a ship for a trip to Venezuela accompanied by a long-lost relative who just bought a family heirloom from his legal guardian and great aunt Leonis. He has been raised by this elderly but wise woman since he lost his parents. Poly and Charles O’Keefe comment that Simon seems like he’s from another era because of his isolation from other children. He’s a kind, intelligent, and polite boy that was raised in near poverty but with a woman who is a relic of Southern aristocracy.

…Neither Mr. Theo nor Aunt Leonis would want him to moan and groan, and he didn’t intend to. But when a memory flickered at the corners of his mind he had learned that it was best to bring it out into the open; and rather than making him sorry for himself, it helped him get rid of self-pity…

This book explores many different character points-of-view, not just staying over Simon’s shoulder. We see what his Aunt Leonis gets up to while he’s away and also get to know the intimate side of other characters on the ships that their fellow passengers don’t get to see. At first, I thought all these older side characters were just there as red herrings, but upon further reflection I realize that each of them come to terms with something in their past that was haunting them while aboard the ship.

Many of the scenes with characters I was excited to see show up in this novel felt more like they were mere cameos. I loved Mr. Theo in The Young Unicorns (a review for which is now coming later this year!) and I love “Uncle Father”, a.k.a. Canon Tallis, but their parts were so minuscule in this book. Canon Tallis in particular swooped in like Hercule Poirot, seemingly just to tell everyone what he has deduced based on his interviews with a few central characters.

This book, like Troubling a Star, has some political, social, and environmental commentary, which I have since learned is typical of a L’Engle novel, but it’s done a lot better in other of her works. If I had to decide on what is the big take away from this novel, I couldn’t tell you. That’s just how jumbled everything was in my opinion. I just found this book over-long and lacking in a unified message. There’s still a lot of heart in this book, though, and if you have patience you might be able to see this one through.

Craft

I do not know anything about Madeleine L’Engle’s writing life or insight on the work that goes into creating her books, so much of what I will say here (about Dragons in the Waters specifically, not her others works) is speculation. Something about this book feels like it was a written with less regard for plot and more reliance upon formula of elements that make a murder mystery.

If I had more time or the inclination, I think it would be a fun experiment to try and rewrite this novel with a stronger plot outline. The heart of the story is about Simon discovering who his ancestor was and how past injustices have drawn Simon to Venezuela. I think that’s a strong hook for an intriguing story. I’m all for stories where ancestors’s past actions influence the destinies of current day characters (see L’Engle do it better in Troubling a Star!)

Unfortunately L’Engle complicates this story by having a lot of side characters with unique histories that help advance Simon’s destiny and provide red herrings to the murder mystery. These side characters take up a lot of page time, without interesting me much in the slightest.

One thing I really didn’t like is how L’Engle called hispanic people Latins. I’ve never heard that before, but it read to me similarly to the way it sounds when old white people call black people negroes. I don’t at all think it was intentional racism, and I’m aware that it was a different time, but this word gnawed at me in a peculiar way. Grouping people colloquially by a name that specifies race or color so explicitly is not really something we do anymore.

Also, there were subtle implications that race was related to temperament. Many of the characters in this book were of mixed heritage, but there were specific aspects of their character/personality that L’Engle explicitly links to their hispanic roots. None of these instances were derogatory in any way, but I don’t think anyone would appreciate someone placing so much emphasis on a racial or ethnic background to explain who a person is or how they act. Even if it’s meant as a compliment.

I appreciate that L’Engle loved writing novels were American came into contact with other parts of the world and people of different nationalities. Her books always praise people based on their goodness and not their education, race, or economics. Nevertheless, this book serves as a reminder that even the most well-meaning of writers need to be careful in writing people who are of different identities.

Outgoing Message

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little series if you’ve been keeping up with each review thus far. This marks the final review I’ll be doing of Madeleine L’Engle’s works until later this year when I get to The Young Unicorns (a cosy autumnal read).

I didn’t imagine that these posts would bring in much traffic, as Madeleine L’Engle’s been gone for a while now and YA has changed so much. I used to idealize YA written in the past. I loved reading how teenagers lived before the technology and social media that emerging when I was still in middle school. I’ve realized I’m searching for something whenever I reach for a L’Engle book, although don’t ask me what that is. I’m still trying to figure that out.

Next up is my review of The City of Beasts by Isabel Allende, a fantastic hispanic author! If you want to catch up on the reviews that came before this one, here they are linked below:

A Ring of Endless Light

The Arm of the Starfish

Troubling a Star

Have you read Dragons in the Waters? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
Follow my blog via Bloglovin’. Also find me on GoodreadsTwitter, and Instagram.

Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle

troublingasReleased: September 30, 1994
Pages: 336 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Conservation, environmental protection, patriotism, authoritarian governments vs. democracy, post-Cold War, world conflict
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★1/2

The Austins have settled back into their beloved home in the country after more than a year away. Though they had all missed the predictability and security of life in Thornhill, Vicky Austin is discovering that slipping back into her old life isn’t easy. She’s been changed by life in New York City and her travels around the country while her old friends seem to have stayed the same. So Vicky finds herself spending time with a new friend, Serena Eddington—the great-aunt of a boy Vicky met over the summer.

Aunt Serena gives Vicky an incredible birthday gift—a month-long trip to Antarctica. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But Vicky is nervous. She’s never been away from her family before. Once she sets off though, she finds that’s the least of her worries. She receives threatening letters. She’s surrounded by suspicious characters. Vicky no longer knows who to trust. And she may not make it home alive.

Forward

Unlike with The Arm of the Starfish, I could remember the first time I read Troubling a Star. I don’t know why, but I just remember I read in in a big hardcover format. Maybe because this book was published in the 1990s, the library still had a first-edition hardcover copy with the dust jacket. I’m pretty sure I read this one around 8th grade and still remember some of the stuff that really resonated with me.

Specifically, I remember really relating to Vicky about being ignorant of what was going on in the world internationally. Since about 6th grade, standardized reading assessments had always recommended I read more non-fiction, newspapers, etc. I had been really adverse to that kind of thing when I was younger. I was happy to keep my head in the clouds, much like Vicky! I never saw it as a bad thing, maybe because of these books (and similar ones)!

Anyway, this book is very different from many of L’Engle’s other works stylistically and tonally. I think it was because so much time had passed since she’d written about Vicky Austin. I feel like she may have known this was the last time she’d write about Vicky considering how this book finds the girl in such tremendous danger that is heightened by the naivety for which she is cherished in earlier books.

I rated this book 3.5 stars, primarily because I found the novel dragged for me at certain parts. I’ll be honest, the major appeal of rereading this book was to continue reading about Adam, but he is barely present in this book. Regardless, I think this novel has some important lessons and a message I find really important. (And after having read Dragons in the Waters, I look upon this book with more appreciation.)

My Thoughts

This book is set a little over a year after A Ring of Endless Light (reviewed last week) but was published about 14 years after. You might wonder why I make a note of the years between the books, and it is because I find it helpful when I’m considering character consistency in the books. For this book, I think it is integral because it’s the final that features the beloved Vicky Austin.

We get to see the Austin family settle back into their home in Thornhill after a year away in New York (see The Young Unicorns) and their final summer with their beloved grandfather (see A Ring of Endless Light). Vicky has found it hard to fit back into her school where the kids seem less cultured and less eager to branch outside of their hometown.

Luckily, Adam Eddington connects her with his (great) Aunt Serena. She fills a void left by the loss of her grandfather and helps keep Vicky connected with Adam who attends college in California. Vicky learns that her Adam is the third in his family, a proud line of men who worked in science. His immediate predecessor, Aunt Serena’s son, vanished in Antarctica after performing crucial work on the continent.

After receiving the generous gift of passage to Antarctica to visit Adam Eddington where he has an internship, Vicky finds herself naturally drawn into the mystery of what happened to Adam II and unwittingly into the politics behind his work on the continent. Before she leaves for Antarctica, she begins receiving mysterious messages in her locker at school. The threatening notes only increase the closer she gets to Antarctica, coming alongside Adam’s increasing cryptic letters that seem to signal his lack of interest in her.

Much of Troubling a Star is set in the Vespugia (a fictional South American country run by a power-hungry dictator) and aboard the Argosy, a scientific crew ship that hosts an eclectic bunch of people interested in Antarctica for variety of personal reasons. Vicky finds herself unexpectedly thrown into danger where people mistake her naivety as a disguise of something that threatens their plans to exploit the continent for their country’s own gain.

…The planet has been sending us multiple messages, and the powers that be have ignored them. So it’s up to us, and my guess is that when you’ve finished this trip you’ll feel as protective of this amazing land as I do…

I loved the insight into the politics surrounding this continent in the 20th century. It’s not something I knew much about and I’m interested in learning more. I don’t know when exactly the book is set, but I can only imagine the environment is even more threatened now, which is especially sad considering much of this book is concerned with educating readers, through the characters, about how important it is they take what they learn aboard the Argosy home to protect this land from the devastation that in 2018 seems inevitable given the current U.S. political climate.

Craft

Before I get started, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t admit I thought this book was rather clumsy on first impression. It’s very different from L’Engle’s other works, for the two reasons I’ll elaborate on below. First, she experimented in this book with a new style of storytelling that I found somewhat effective in keeping my interest piqued at the start of each chapter.

This is the first book of L’Engle’s that I’ve read that jumps back and forth between a current danger and the events leading up to that present day drama. Most of the story is told in flashbacks. From the beginning we see Vicky has been stranded on a glacier and is waiting for someone to realize she is missing and return for her before it’s too late. She doesn’t reveal what exactly led to her being stranded on the glacier, so we can only guess until the end of the book where her flashbacks catch up to the moment she is saved.

The second reason this book felt very different from her others is that I picked up on a sense of urgency to speak about environmental protection. This is not the first of L’Engle’s books to get political. I think she does it very cleverly by creating fictional countries that stand in for the ones she was truly critical of at the time, Vespugia representing unstable South American countries with dictators and Zlatovica representing the unfortunate countries Russia hid under its Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

This book is very critical, and rightly so, of people who act blindly for the advancement of their own country at the expense of the rest of the world. It’s clear that L’Engle was trying to teach readers of this book about Antarctica, to foster the same kind of love I can only imagine she felt for this formidable land and its creatures. I applaud the effort, but as someone who first and foremost looks at the story at the heart of a novel, I found the environmental message which took away from the story I would’ve loved more from.

My biggest takeaway from this book, from the writing perspective, is that I found myself thinking about how I’d go about writing YA contemporaries like L’Engle in 2018. The world is still a dangerous place, Antarctica is far worse off than it was in the 90s, there are even more problems facing young people today. I feel like L’Engle’s books are not just stories you’re meant to gobble but time capsules with insight into the period in which they were written that we can read not just for enjoyment but with a critical eye…

Outgoing Message

I hope you’re enjoying these reviews if you’ve been keeping up with them. In case you weren’t aware, I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite books by Madeleine L’Engle this month (see my reviews of A Ring of Endless Light and The Arm of the Starfish).

Next week I’ll be sharing one more Madeleine L’Engle book review for Dragons in the Waters. To be honest, I didn’t really like it and didn’t really want to promote it on my blog. So it’ll be a different kind of review for me. To foil that book, I slightly adjusted course this month to fit in The City of Beasts by Isabel Allende, the book review of which I will share next week as well!

Have you read Troubling a Star? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle

thearmReleased: January 1, 1965
Pages: 243 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Trust, faith, picking sides, standing for something, friendship, dealing with grief
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★★

When Adam Eddington, a gifted marine biology student, makes the acquaintance of blond and beautiful Kali Cutter at Kennedy International Airport on his way to Portugal to spend the summer working for the renowned scientist Dr. O’Keefe, he has no idea that this seemingly chance meeting will set into motion a chain of events he will be unable to stop.

Caught between Kali’s seductive wiles and the trusting adoration of Dr. O’Keefe’s daughter, Polly, Adam finds himself enmeshed in a deadly power struggle between two groups of people, only one of which can have right on its side. As the danger escalates, Adam must make a decision that could affect the entire world–which side is he on?

Forward

I don’t remember exactly the last time I read The Arm of the Starfish. If I had to guess, I’d probably say 2012 or 2013. I feel like I might have read it before then, but I’m not sure. I know both (or just the one) time(s) I had borrowed it from the library (as a lesser known L’Engle work it is hard to find physically in stores). It’s not that it’s an unmemorable book, but it’s not one that I’ve ever had much cause to think about beyond a week or so of reading it.

There are more than a handful of books I love but don’t attempt to remember in depth so that each future time I read them it’s somewhat like the first time. This is one of them.

If you haven’t read either A Ring of Endless Light or The Arm of the Starfish, I recommend reading the former first, even though it came out after. These books are very different from one another, but I think it’s nicer to read The Arm of the Starfish with an idea of who the protagonist will become. I loved this book. I love the character of Adam and I like the journey his character takes to become the person he is in A Ring of Endless Light. I have rated this book 4 stars, primarily because I have taken my love for her other books into account.

My Thoughts

This book precedes A Ring of Endless Light (which I reviewed last week) by about 15 years in terms of publication, but takes place only a summer before the better known, more accoladed work. It features Adam Eddington as the protagonist of this summer-time escapade. It’s set in Europe, Portugal/Spain more specifically, and involves international intrigue and a top-secret scientific study. So it’s very different from the novel centered around Vicky Austin!

We get to see an Adam Eddington who is a year younger than he is A Ring of Endless Light, who is a lot less confident and sure of the world. Although he has lived a colorful life in 1960s (presumably) New York, he’s not yet been forced to make tough, life-altering decisions. In The Arm of the Starfish, he learns that scientists cannot be neutral when their work has economic and moral implications. He also learns how important is it to know who is worth trusting.

From the first chapter while Adam is innocently waiting for his plane to Europe to board, he is drawn into a dangerous plot that forces him to constantly question which people truly are on the right side of things. While he is struggling he meets the wonderful O’Keefes (a grown up Calvin and Meg from A Wrinkle in Time plus their children) and is given the space to come to his own conclusion, at which point he learns that he must play a role to keep his allegiance and a major scientific discovery a secret.

This book is short, fast-paced, and could be finished in one sitting if the reader is truly immersed in the story. If you enjoyed and were moved by A Ring of Endless Light, I think you will also be moved by this book. There’s a lot of moments of good humor and joy, but there are also some devastating ones that can have you sobbing your heart out and railing against injustice.

Craft

Since I just read La Belle Sauvage, I feel like I’m well and fully on an international-spy-thriller genre kick right now! I don’t know if I’m just easy to please or unexperienced in the genre, I feel like this book is also a good one to consult if you’re writing a book where there’s people who want to stop or exploit a new discovery and people who want to protect it.

This book gave me a major 1960s Audrey Heburn movie vibe, like Charade (1963) or How to Steal a Million (1966). I think it was the European setting, the rich and glamorous love interest, the shifty characters, and the suspense-filled plot.

Despite all the excitement, this book has the characteristic L’Engle heart to the story. There are several beautiful scenes of intense fraternal love and, on the opposite side of the scale, devastating anger. One scene that I feel has been etched into me is a scene where Adam is being taken to Gaea by Joshua, and they encounter turbulence. I’ve flown through turbulence before, and found it horrendous, so to read about them on this rickety plane and see Joshua embracing it while bellowing out classical music was elating and beautiful scene that shows the kind of person Joshua is.

Outgoing Message

Last week at the end of my review of A Ring of Endless Light, I forecasted how the next few reviews would go. I have a few updates: 1) They will not be dual reviews, because I’ve found I have so much to say, and 2) I will not longer be reading and reviewing The Young Unicorns. I’ve read this book before, so I definitely know I want to review it on this blog in the future, but from the first page I just knew that this wasn’t the best time for it. It’s a cosy autumnal read, so I’ll get to it later this year!

Instead, I’ve decided to add The City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende to the line-up this month. It one I read as a child and remember very it very fondly. I think it will nicely compliment Dragons in the Waters for a few reasons I’ll explain next week.

Have you read The Arm of the Starfish? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle

ringReleased: May 1, 1980
Pages: 332 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Coming-of-age, dealing with grief, searching for meaning, friendship, family
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★★

After a tumultuous year in New York City, the Austins are spending the summer on the small island where their grandfather lives. He’s very sick, and watching his condition deteriorate as the summer passes is almost more than Vicky can bear. To complicate matters, she finds herself as the center of attention for three very different boys.

Zachary Grey, the troubled and reckless boy Vicky met last summer, wants her all to himself as he grieves the loss of his mother. Leo Rodney has been just a friend for years, but the tragic loss of his father causes him to turn to Vicky for comfort—and romance. And then there’s Adam Eddington. Adam is only asking Vicky to help with his research on dolphins. But Adam—and the dolphins—may just be what Vicky needs to get through this heartbreaking summer.

Forward

A Ring of Endless Light continues to be one of my all-time favorite books. I probably first read it around the age of 12. I’m pretty sure I read A Wrinkle in Time first, a required in-class reading in 5th grade Language Arts class, but I was aware of A Ring of Endless Light before Wrinkle because I had seen the 2002 Disney Channel Original Movie book-to-movie adaption. While I loved it then, I’m not really sure it holds up in my eyes. The movie was very different from the book and not really in a way that I can defend.

With summer approaching, I wanted to give this book a reread and shine a spot-light on this YA classic in the hope that it would find new readers. I don’t feel like there’s anything quite like it being published these days and feel like it still has a lot to offer new generations of young adults.

I feel like people may be more familiar with A Wrinkle in Time, the science fiction adventure. A Ring of Endless Light has some speculative science but all together is grounded in the real world with real-life challenges that people have to face, like losing loved ones and choosing how to live one’s life. Like Meg, Vicky is at an age where she questions everything that is happening around her and finds herself thrust into situations she isn’t fully ready for.

My Thoughts

“It’s hard to let go anything we love. We live in a world which teaches us to clutch. But when we clutch we’re left with a fistful of ashes.”

Taking place over the course of a summer, this novel is about Vicky Austin and her family trying to enjoy their remaining time with her grandfather who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Vicky is asked to be available at home to support her mother during the difficult time, but her father still fully supports each of his children taking on a summer project of some sort.

Vicky’s summer project becomes helping Adam Eddington, a summer intern at the local marine biology center, with his top-secret research involving dolphin communication. While he has the mind of a scientist, he recognizes the benefit of a poet’s perspective. They are both surprised to find just how well his dolphins take to her and how integral she becomes to his research.

While she grows closer to Adam, the boy who understands her but begins to keep her at an arm’s distance, she is also grappling with her evolving relationships to two others she’s known for longer. She finds herself no longer so revolted by Leo, the son of a recently deceased family friend, while at the same time having to navigate his clumsy romantic advances. She’s also juggling the rich, troubled Zachary Grey, who keeps showing up out of nowhere with a desire to disrupt her peaceful existence.

It might sound like a soap opera, but I promise it’s not!

Throughout the book, Vicky is learning how to be a good friend and a shoulder to learn on while dealing with grief herself. In this novel she is not just supporting Leo and Zachary, but also watching grandfather deteriorate and be there for her mother. At this crucial time, she’s also renegotiating her relationships to all her siblings: the brother who is beginning to see her as a equal, the brother who is not a baby anymore, and the sister who needs more help than she lets on.

I love this book so much, it’s one that I almost wish I could hide away from the rest of the world and never share, for fear that outsiders could change the way I see this book. I know that there are people out there who might accuse this book of being sentimental (I think it toes the line perfectly) or religious (I think it supports faith but also a critical and open mind).

Craft

I’ve long admired L’Engle’s work not just for her storytelling ability or the lovable characters she writes but also for the way that all her books are interconnected. In A Ring of Endless Light, you can get a sense that it is L’Engle speaking through her characters when Vicky says, “Grandfather says there is no such thing as coincidence” and he elaborates, “The pattern is closely woven.”

For someone very familiar with her work, it seems to be a nod at her tendency to keep her novels set into the families she has created, namely the Murray-O’Keefes and the Austins. Because of the drastically different adventures these two families face, one could naturally expect them to live in alternative universes. What was so remarkable to me as a child was seeing that so many characters from her novels bounce from book to book, bridging these different worlds.

I feel like L’Engle did what Marvel Studios have sought to do since the first Iron Man (2008) movie, create stories that can stand alone but which have characters flit between each one uniting into something magnificent. L’Engle never had an Avengers-like culminating piece, but I still love looking at the family tree above and marveling (pun intended) at the world she created in her body of work, particularly as her novels were contemporary YA.

Yes, there was often a smidgen of science fiction/the supernatural embedded into her stories, but for me her novels stand out as a celebration of a close-knit nurturing family in a crazy, sometimes mean world. I feel like it might have been radical when these books were first coming out, given Zachary Gray’s morbid fascination with these families. I think they are more radical now in a time where our ideas of what makes a happy family have expanded.

Something else I always admired of L’Engles’ work is her integration of words of wisdom from famous literary, scientific, and spiritual figures. Her books have always seemed like a synthesis of many different ideas and academic field, which I love. I can’t really think of any YA authors who do this kind of thing right now. (That being said, feel free to share any authors think are integrating ideas from different disciplines down below!)

Outgoing Message

When I read this book, over a month ago now, I decided I wanted to revisit more of my favorite Madeleine L’Engle works that involve mysteries, science, and conspiracies. For that reason, I held back from publishing this review right away, so I could introduce my intentions for the next few book reviews that you will see on this blog this month.

Next week on Betwined Reads I will have my book reviews for The Arm of the Starfish and Troubling a Star, the two other L’Engle works that feature the marine biology-themed adventures of Adam Eddington. And the following week I will publish my reviews of the two more middle grade novels about kids uncovering international conspiracies in Dragons in the Waters and  The Young Unicorns.

Have you read A Ring of Endless Light? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 11.45.08 PMReleased: October 19, 2017
Pages: 464 pages (hardcover)
Theme(s): Bravery, loyalty, destiny, survival, the danger of theocratic rule, toxic Christianity, prejudice
Genre(s): Young Adult / Fantasy / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★★★

Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy…

Malcolm’s father runs an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.

He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust–and the spy it was intended for finds him.

When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, Malcolm sees suspicious characters everywhere; Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; an Egyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a dæmon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl–just a baby–named Lyra.

Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

Preface

I first read The Golden Compass, the American title for the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, when I was in either 5th or 6th grade (2004/5ish). I’d loved it at the time, loving the fierce heroine presented in Lyra. I think she was one of the first strong female characters I’d ever read who was confident, brave, and not a bookworm or goodie-two-shoes (ahem *Hermione*).

I’m not sure if I ever finished the trilogy when I was a kid, but I recently gave the books a read in 2014 around the time I first got serious about writing. My earliest novel attempts were heavily influenced by these books with their complex themes and characters. I loved how these books that were marketed for young adults could also enthrall and resonate with meaning for adults. These are the kinds of books I hope to write.

Discovering La Belle Sauvage debuted last year was a happy coincidence. Of course, when I ordered it I was in the midst of a reading slump (a dangerous time to shop for books, I might add). So it’s taken me until now to finally give this book a go, hoping it’d motivate and inspire me as I wrote my first serious novel (serious as in not pantsing it during NaNoWriMo).

I had a great time reading La Belle Sauvage. I was extremely fast paced and held my attention and interest until about the 350-page mark. I’ll get into my 4-star rating down below!

My Thoughts

La Belle Sauvage, set about 10 years before the events of The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, follows the 11-year-old good-natured potboy Malcolm as he gets wrapped up in a secret conspiracy to protect a baby from forces that seem to want to do her harm after she is discovered to be the subject of a witch’s prophecy.

One critique I had of this book, although I don’t know how it could’ve been fixed, is that no one has the full-picture of what’s at stake in this novel. At lot is left up to chance, but from the original trilogy set in this world, we know that destiny has a guiding hand in the form of Dust.

Malcolm ends up becoming Lyra’s guardian once the flood hits and the nuns fail to listen to the gyptian warning about the weather. But he doesn’t know why she’s important at all, other than the man who’s after her, claiming to be her father, is super evil. So he’s driven by compassion and loyalty to return her to her true father when he can’t find her safe sanctuary anywhere else.

…This is a deep and uncomfortable paradox, which will not have escaped you; we can only defend democracy by being undemocratic. Every secret service knows this paradox…

Oakley Street is a secret organization that opposes the current conservative leadership in the government and actively works to undermine it. By chance, the leader of this organization was entrusted with the task of finding Lyra a suitable home when her mother wants nothing to do with her and her father is legally unable to step in. Once they find out the conservative baddies are trying to get custody of Lyra they become more interested in why she’s important and want to keep her out of their hands.

Malcolm becomes involved in Oakley Street once he accidentally intercepts a message from a soon-after deceased messenger. He’s tracked down by the woman who the message was meant for with the help of the alethiometer (the mysterious and rare symbolic truth-telling machine). Her role in the organization was to find answers to questions regarding Dust, which is in theory a terrible threat to Christian doctrine. She enlists Malcolm’s help as someone who can offer vital intel about the baby and anything else odd going on. (It’s actually kind of weird because we find she doesn’t even know exactly who she’s working for and her only job is consult the alethiometer with top-secret questions.)

This book would likely have been rated five stars up until the last 100 pages or so. It had all the makings of a favorite book of mine: interesting characters, political intrigue, and a mystery-driven plot. About midway through the novel there’s a history-making flood and then the book turns into an exciting action thriller with one of the scariest villains I’ve ever read.

The only problem is when the flood adventure begins to pay homage to the epic poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer. It’s trippy, at times disturbing, and fantastically boring, especially considering how it distracted from the story set up in the first 200 or so pages. I wanted to know more about Dr. Relf, who shared much page-time with Malcolm in the first half of the book. I also wanted to know what happened when Malcolm got home!

Craft

The book is written in the third-person perspective of an omniscient narrator who can see inside of Malcolm and Dr. Hannah Relf’s heads, also a couple of other Oakley Street operatives up to their own stuff. This point-of-view is really useful for mysteries, especially when no one character can know everything that is going on. It allows the reader to have a greater view of the story at hand.

However, at times, it could be difficult as a reader to remember when the character whom you are following reacts appropriately to story developments if you consider whether they knew a certain bit of information yet or not. For instance, Malcolm stumbles upon documents that discuss the Ruskov field and Dust and attempts to distract the villain by asking him about it, but this only seems significant after the chapter where the Oakley Street people have revealed the villain was a scientist who specialized in the Ruskov field.

This book provides a lot of great examples of how to write a spy thriller. There are secret messages, spies, espionage, also fun thrilling bits when characters are being watched or followed. I also liked seeing how people were inducted into the secret organization. Everyone who’s involved has a special skill set that makes them valuable.

If you’ve read the His Dark Materials trilogy, you’ll know already what a fantastic world-builder Philip Pullman is. His concept of dæmons is not explored in this book the way it is in his earlier works, but it’s still easy to see how integral they are to the characters in this world. Pullman’s style is to gradually reveal more and more details as they naturally arise in the course of the story that helps you understand how things work. I admire his sparing use of foreshadowing and slow build-ups to eventual plot points.

He also pulled off an extremely satisfying feat of character development the side character of Alice. I did not think she would end up being so important in the story at all, if anything I thought she might accidentally get Lyra killed. But she is the strong female character that this book needed to foil and support Malcolm on his quest. Absolutely love her and how Pullman brings her and Malcolm closer together.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed this book, and I’m glad to have finally gotten to it. I would 100% still recommend it to people, although probably not young children (rape and sexual themes frequent throughout the book, although, portrayed at times through the young protagonist’s perspective).

I don’t think fans of the His Dark Materials trilogy would necessarily like this book, as it doesn’t really change much about how you frame the drama of the trilogy. BUT I think it has a lot of value to offer as its own story.

I’m personally a little peeved that the next book in this The Book of Dust “series” will not follow Malcolm and Alice, who I adored in this book. However, I am excited, to know that it will follow a young adult Lyra!!! I just hope we find out what happened to these two kids who saved her life when she was too young to remember.

Have you read La Belle Sauvage? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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