Book Review: Hunted (March Uppercase Box)

hunted clover

Spooner, Meagan. Hunted. New York, NY: Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017. Print.

Like most of America, I saw Beauty and the Beast last weekend.

And, unsurprisingly, I loved it. I gushed over Emma Watson’s performance and hummed “Be Our Guest” for days. That’s why I was particularly delighted to receive a signed copy of Hunted—a Beauty and the Beast retelling—in this month’s Uppercase Box.

Side note—if you love books, surprises, and receiving mail, I urge you to learn more about Uppercase. It’s a young adult book-of-the-month subscription service, and each box arrives with a signed novel and plenty of bookish extras. I’ve received stickers and posters that I’ve displayed in my classroom, along with jewelry, socks, magnets, bookmarks, etc. I like it so much, in fact, that when my gift subscription ended last month, I promptly renewed it.

While the timing was certainly perfect, Meagan Spooner’s Hunted is a far cry from any Disney movie.  The novel’s protagonist, Yeva, is a Katniss Everdeen-esque huntress who prefers the serenity of the woods and the thrill of the hunt to the snobbery of high society. She lives in relative comfort with her hunter-turned-merchant father, two older sisters, faithful hunting dogs, and an assortment of servants. Unfortunately, a failed business venture forces the family to sell their belongings and move to an isolated hunting cabin. There, the sisters live in squalor, and Yeva’s father retreats to the woods, determined to kill a predator big enough to pay their debts and restore their wealth.

With her father gone for extended periods of time, Yeva begins venturing out to hunt small game, becoming the family’s sole provider. When her father returns home seemingly crazed before disappearing once again, Yeva decides to go after him, much to the horror of her sisters and Solmir, a young man who seeks her hand in marriage. Yeva eventually finds her father’s body, but has little time to process the scene before she is incapacitated by a large, ferocious beast.

When she finally comes to, Yeva is shackled in a cold dungeon. Initially kept in darkness or blindfolded, Yeva believes she is being befriended by a fellow captive. When she learns that she has been communicating with the human-like Beast—a creature that she assumes to be her father’s murderer—she becomes enraged and begins to formulate a way to kill him and have her revenge. But Beast has plans for Yeva as well, revealing that he needs a skilled hunter and refusing to tell her anything further. While Beast trains Yeva in archery and tracking, Yeva dreams of catching him unawares and ending his life. But, as time passes, questions begin to emerge: Why does a creature as formidable as Beast need Yeva’s assistance? Is Beast more human or animal? Is he actually responsible for the death of Yeva’s father? Why does Yeva feel such a pull toward Beast despite her imprisonment and longing to return to her family?

Although I love Belle (a book lover after my own heart), Spooner’s Yeva is less victim and more warrior. Her thirst for adventure coupled with her resistance to bend to society’s conventions makes her an intriguing protagonist and unique character. Beast, too, is described in a way that presents his dual nature. Flicks of his tail or the movements of his ears showcase his animal emotions; the inflection of his voice and the tenderness of his actions reveals his humanity. Spooner is also adept at describing Yeva’s world. Snowy forest floors, dilapidated castles, and fantastic creatures all come to life in her capable hands.

In a novel as sprawling as Hunted, it is perhaps expected that some characters will fall to the wayside or come across flat. Yeva’s sisters are one-dimensional, and it sometimes feels as though they are present only to serve as a tame foil to their daring youngest sister. Other characters played such an insignificant role that I wondered why they were included in the book at all: Yeva’s rarely mentioned hunting dog Pelei, for example, or Borovoi, a shape-shifting fox that Yeva encounters on her quest to help Beast, or Albe, a sheepish servant that Yeva claims to love like a brother.

Having recently finished a unit on different literary genres, I feel Hunted would be a welcome addition to my classroom library. Yeva mentions several fairy tale characteristics—for example, she references the “rule of three”, reminding herself that she will likely face three trials or communicate with three creatures before her task is finished. Hunted, like any good fairy tale, also leaves its reader with a moral or life lesson: Can desire be dangerous? Does our need to acquire more lead to our downfall? This book is a great way to discuss what makes us human and how we can extend a little humanity to others.

 

Book Review: Dorothy Must Die

dorothy must die

Paige, Danielle. Dorothy Must Die. New York, United States: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2014. Print.

I should preface this post by admitting that I have always been a little freaked out by The Wizard of Oz.

Maybe it’s Judy Garland’s syrupy sweet portrayal of Dorothy Gale, or maybe it’s the movie’s transition from black and white to neon technicolor—either way, the movie has never endeared itself to me as it has many others who have declared it a cinematic masterpiece. Perhaps that’s what drew me to Dorothy Must Die: the idea of Oz as a sinister, corrupt wonderland didn’t feel like that much of a stretch. Plus, the book has always been in my peripheral vision, a frequent recommendation by Amazon and Goodreads alike. With the recent release of the final book in the series, The End of Oz, I decided now was as good a time as any to jump into the first installment.

Amy Gumm is a tough, no-nonsense high school student from Kansas. She’s friendless (some of her cruel classmates christen her “Salvation Amy”), and struggles to care for her drug addicted and emotionally absent mother following her father’s abandonment. After a particularly dreadful day at school, Amy is alone in her trailer with only her mother’s pet rat for company. A tornado scoops up the trailer and deposits it in—where else?—Oz.

This Oz, however, is not the one that Amy is familiar with. Here, Dorothy is a tyrannical despot. The Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Woodman are not lovable companions but murderous henchmen. The landscape of Oz is drained of color as Dorothy leeches magic from the ground. Amy soon learns that “good” and “wicked” are relative terms when she is bound to a group of wicked witches who are determined to kill Dorothy and restore Oz to its former splendor. Because Amy—like Dorothy—is an outsider, the witches believe that she can assassinate their gingham-checked ruler.

Disguised as a maid, Amy infiltrates Dorothy’s home: The Emerald Palace. There, she witnesses Dorothy’s cruelty and barbarism firsthand. Her objective is clear—she must kill Dorothy. But Dorothy is protected by both her loyal servants and an abundance of magic. How, then, will Amy carry out her mission? Will she know when the time is right? Who can she trust?

This is a dark novel, and Paige’s expectation-shattering descriptions were the highlights of my read. Dorothy is not the demure heroine we’re familiar with but a cleavage-baring lush. The Scarecrow is neither bumbling nor lovable and is instead a mad scientist with a fondness for instruments of torture. The novel is chalked full of these types of twisted surprises, plus crisp, detailed imagery. The fantastical world of Oz and the decadence of Dorothy’s Emerald Palace were painted clearly for the reader.

It’s funny, then, that the parts of the novel I found most unbelievable occurred before Amy even landed in Oz. Madison Pendleton, a pregnant teen who mercilessly bullies Amy, felt so false and over-the-top that I almost stopped reading after her first few lines of dialogue. And, while drug addiction is a sad reality, Amy’s mother sometimes seems unnecessarily negligent. As the storm rages and the tornado approaches, for example, Amy’s mother is more worried about meeting a friend at a bar than her own safety and that of her daughter.

Even so, I would recommend this book to my students. It’s a great example of a twisted fairy tale, and it presents some interesting questions about stereotypes and archetypes: is it possible for a character to be wholly good or evil? Can power corrupt even the best of us? What things are worth doing even at the threat of death or bodily harm? I’m definitely anxious to read more of this series—it certainly seems to be worthy of its popularity and critical acclaim.

 

 

Book Review: Immaculate

immaculate

Detweiler, Katelyn. Immaculate. New York: Viking for Young Readers, 2015. Print.

I love a good allusion. Just ask my students.

Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to read Immaculate. I first saw the book’s cover on the Penguin Teen Facebook Page—an artistic photograph of a young girl lying down, her arms wrapped around her midsection. The description mentioned a seventeen-year-old pregnant virgin protagonist, an allusion to the Virgin Mary. It was obvious click bait, but it worked on me. Within minutes, I downloaded the book to my Kindle app.

Seventeen-year-old Mina (aka Menius) is an academic, ambitious, and relatively innocent high school student. The course of her life is altered during a late night waitressing shift at the local pizzeria. A mysterious elderly customer tells Mina:

“It’s time. We’ve decided that you’re ready, that everyone’s ready. The longer we      wait, the more trouble we’ll see, and I think that the world has seen enough trouble, don’t you?”

Understandably freaked out, Mina makes a quick exit. Months later, she begins to feel ill: extreme fatigue, nausea, and aches and pains. The positive pregnancy test comes as a surprise since Mina has never had sex. After a doctor confirms the diagnosis, she must tell her parents, friends, and boyfriend and deal with their varying levels of disbelief and anger.

Mina’s pregnancy and claims of virginity make her the target of mean-spirited jokes at school. The creation of a gossipy website chronicling her ordeal—appropriately named The Virgin Mina—allows news of the alleged miracle to trickle throughout the country and world, resulting in Mina receiving mail from as far away as Indonesia. As Mina’s story continues to spread, two specific camps begin to emerge. One group vehemently believes that Mina’s claims are blasphemous; another sees her as a saintly figure who can cure diseases with her touch and personal belongings. Both groups cause Mina to fear for her safety and that of her unborn child. As her due date looms closer, Mina realizes she must make some tough decisions.

Perhaps it is the English teacher in me, but the parts of the novel I found especially poignant occurred when Mina was alluding to the most famous pregnant virgin. Some examples: the pizzeria where Mina works is decorated in statues of the Virgin Mary. Teasing classmates sing “We Three Kings” to Mina in the cafeteria. And, in a particularly moving scene, Mina breaks down while viewing a life size, handmade nativity in a Sunday school class. The connection is pretty blatant, but not enough to make the reader roll their eyes.

I did feel as though the narration was bogged down with unnecessary details. I lost track of the number of times Mina mentioned her blue eyes or that her father and sister had blue eyes, too. The nickname “Meen”, which appears several times in dialogue, always made me wince. And many supporting characters felt flat to me: Mina’s best friends Izzy and Hannah; Arielle, the creator of The Virgin Mina website; even Mina’s eventual love interest, Jesse. Spacey and sometimes humorously naive, a bit of Jesse’s back story would have really strengthened the book.

That being said, would I recommend Immaculate to my students? Yes, with some reservations. It’s a bit far-fetched but still makes some interesting commentary on societal cynicism. The book raises questions worth debating: When did we stop believing in miracles? Why do we demand proof before we’ll believe anything that goes against our knowledge of science and reason? Overall, I felt Immaculate had an intriguing premise, and the thematic ideas of ostracism and bullying are relatable to teens and adults alike.

What is this thing, anyway?

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”—Shirley Jackson

I’ve never been a fan of reality.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always sought an escape from day-to-day drudgeries, whether it be through movies, television shows, or—most notably—through books. Reading has been a huge component of my life, buoying me through good times and bad.

In college, I went through a brief period of what I like to call “book snobbery.” If it wasn’t a classical, acclaimed book, I didn’t want to read it.

I know, I know. Looking back, I want to punch myself in the face.

Then, I landed a job as an English teacher at a large high school, and I realized that to cultivate a love of reading in my students, I had to read what they read.

I realized something else, too: I actually liked it. I liked it a lot.

Through this blog, I hope to share my reviews of the young adult fiction I read, whether it is a popular title, a student recommendation, or just a selection with an interesting cover. I am aiming to provide extra insight as both an adult reader and a teacher, and I’d like to explore ways that young adult books can be used in the classroom.

And, in case you’re curious, here are my top five favorite YA reads (as of today!):

  1. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  2. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  4. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
  5. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell