Thursday, November 26, 2015

"A World Without Princes" by Soman Chainani

The second installment in The School for Good and Evil series opens on Sophie and Agatha home at their village. I did two rewinds on this, since the last book ended [highlight for spoilers, or skip to the next paragraph if you haven't read the first book, "The School for Good and Evil"with them being mysteriously spirited away from school to who knows where. They only went home? Ok fine].

But never fear, because Sophie and Agatha are figuring out that deviating from the typical happily ever after is having major repercussions on the school they left behind. In just a few chapters, they're back at school. But now, the school is split on gender lines - one for girls, and one for boys, thanks to fallout from Agatha's decision at the end of the first book.

This installment does a better, clearer job of questioning gender norms and stereotypical fairy tale roles than the first. (Gender-swapping gnomes are an excellent touch!) The book still has a couple moments that struck me funny - a comment toward the end that felt a bit homophobic, and a pairing at the ending that has a very troubling age disparity, unless I missed something. Despite these off moments, the book as a whole challenges gender roles and emphasizes that importance of friendship. It works to find a balance between romantic and platonic relationships, acknowledging that each has an important role in one's life.

We also get a bit more back story on each of the main characters that contributes to our understanding of them. Sophie especially comes into her own in this book, as we see her discomfort at her father's new relationship and more of her internal struggle to stay good. I'm downloading the final installment in this trilogy as I type, and can't wait to see where these girls go next.

Verdict: Affirmed. Even with the occasional comment that seems to run counter to the overarching themes, the second installment delivers on its promise of exploring a strong female friendship in a fantasy world.

"A World Without Princes" by Soman Chainani, published April 15, 2014 by Harper Collins. Audio narration by Polly Lee, published April 15, 2014 by Harper Audio.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch" by Sally Bedell Smith

For someone who is a big fan of the 2006 film "The Queen," and generally impressed with Queen Elizabeth II, I knew very little about the monarch herself. This audiobook popped up as recommended to me in Overdrive, so I decided to fill the big gap in my knowledge base.

Bedell Smith covers the Queen's life from childhood through just about the present, with a concluding chapter that discusses the potential future of the British monarchy. Her life alone is fascinating, and Bedell Smith seems to have had great access to close friends of the Queen, all of whom spoke fondly and respectfully of the Queen's many strengths and occasional quirks. The book also discusses those surrounding the Queen in great detail - Prince Philip, her children, her mother, Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson, and Kate Middleton. This detail is all super helpful for someone with very little background on the modern monarchy.

I left this book with a much stronger sense of why Queen Elizabeth II is such an incredible woman. She's reigned longer than anyone in British history, seen the Commonwealth through decades of tumultuous change, and managed to do so with very little controversy or scandal. Even Bedell Smith's insight into how the Queen views her role - as above politics and a steward of the Commonwealth - hints at a woman stronger than most, who can put aside her personal views for the good of her nation, and rule as Queen while supporting a democratic system of government. The personal anecdotes flesh out the steadfast public persona, and, though this could be owed in part to my gaps in knowledge going in, I left with a far deeper understanding of the Queen than I could have hoped from a single book.

Verdict: Affirmed. Though I unfortunately can't compare this to any other works on the Queen, I learned enough that I don't feel the need to hunt down another.

"Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch" by Sally Bedell Smith, published January 10, 2012 by Random House. Audio narration by Rosalyn Landor, published Janury 10, 2012 by Random House Audio.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"The School for Good and Evil" by Soman Chainani

"The School for Good and Evil" has been getting a ton of buzz since it came out in 2013. I was excited to finally find the audiobook available on my library's Overdrive page.

Every year two children are kidnapped from the village. The children left behind suspect they go to a mysterious school for good and evil, with one child going to each school. Beautiful Sophie and outcast Agatha are this year's chosen. In case you didn't figure it out from the title, the school is real. Yet despite her preparation and planning, Sophie is sent to the school for evil, and Agatha to the school for good. Sophie is certain there must be a mix-up, while Agatha just wants to go home. As the two girls spend time at the school, begin to uncover the truth about why children are chosen from their village and question whether the system is really working.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. But I have to say, after reading others' reviews, I was expecting more upfront female strength and less stereotyping. There's a lot of discussion of the importance of finding one's prince and looking to the boys to save the princess-hopefuls. The ultimate ending does seem to turn this on its head, but not before a chunk of princely heroics that made me question whether I was mis-remembering reviews. I was such a fan of the two main characters subverting female stereotypes, it was disappointing when they were reinforced later. When the story ended, I was left with more confusion than a clear sense of what the message was.

Verdict: Jury's out - I enjoyed this enough that I'll read the other two books. Hopefully they'll  some prove this series is really committed to portraying strong female friendships beyond a stark good/evil dichotomy.

"The School for Good and Evil" by Soman Chainani, published May 14, 2013 by HarperCollins. Audio narration by Polly Lee, published May 14, 2013 by Harper Audio.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fall Reviews at the Morningside Muckraker

New reviews are up in my Booked column in the Morningside Muckraker's Fall issue. I reviewed some of the big-name titles that came out recently:
  • "Modern Romance" by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
  • "The Luckiest Girl Alive" by Jessica Knoll
  • "In the Unlikely Event" by Judy Blume
  • "Gold Fame Citrus" by Claire Vaye Watkins
Check them out here.  While you're there, be sure to read the other contributors' fantastic work as well.