Damsel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“For so it had been throughout his people’s memory, that a dragon and a damsel made a king.”

cover art for Damsel by Elana K. ArnoldWhen Ama awakens she has no clothes, no memories. She is wrapped in a blanket, being carried by a man she doesn’t recognize. Even her name will come later—a gift from the man who saved her.

Emory is quick to tell Ama about his bravery and cunning when he conquered the dragon. He is eager to describe her beauty and the way their destinies are now tied together. He cannot, or will not, help Ama understand her life before the dragon and her rescue.

Coming to the kingdom of Harding is supposed to be the end of the story. But as Ama begins to explore this new kingdom and poke at the old legends of the damsels and the dragons, she begins to realize that her rescue is only the beginning of this tale in Damsel (2018) by Elana K. Arnold.

Arnold’s latest standalone novel is part fantasy and part feminist manifesto. Most of the story plays out in the kingdom of Harding–a grim little world filled with casual violence and brutality including graphic hunting scenes as well as a rape scene that leaves nothing to the imagination. The sense of danger is only further amplified by Arnold’s carefully restrained prose.

Damsel‘s plot is not always subtle as Ama tries to understand her past as well as her future. Her agency is systematically stripped away throughout the novel until it feels to readers, and to Ama herself, as if there is nothing left to lose.

Ama’s limited point of view and flat world building reminiscent of a fairy tale create a stark backdrop for this exploration of female agency and toxic masculinity. Damsel is a sparse, character-driven story with a very firm focus on its heroine. Arnold’s prose is deliberate as the novel works toward a logical if abrupt conclusion.

Damsel is not for the faint of heart. Recommended for readers who sympathize more with the dragon than the knight.

Possible Pairings: The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson

A Room Away From the Wolves: A (WIRoB) Review

cover art for A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren SumaHere’s a teaser from the start of my review of A Room Away From the Wolves (2018) by Nova Ren Suma (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

Sabina “Bina” Tremper is used to being known as a liar and a thief. The real surprise comes when Bina’s mother, Dawn, sides with Bina’s stepsisters and refuses to even consider that. this time, Bina might be telling the truth.

Hoping to defuse the situation, Dawn plans for Bina to temporarily move out. She hopes if Bina stays with her stepfather’s church friends, the girls will have time to reconcile.

But Bina has other plans. She instead decides to go to New York City in this exploration of unfulfilled potential, female friendship, and second chances . . .

You can read my full review of A Room Away From the Wolves (2018) by Nova Ren Suma here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/a-room-away-from-the-wolves

Possible Pairings: The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot: A Non-Fiction Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot by Winifred Conkling Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot (2018) by Winifred Conkling is engaging narrative non-fiction at its best.

This book offers a nuanced history of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States from the Seneca Falls convention through to the momentous vote that ratified the nineteenth amendment with the moments leading up to the vote and its aftermath framing the book as prologue and epilogue.

Most of the book is follows Elizabeth Cady Stanton from her birth through to the moment that she realized women having the right to vote was key to equal rights and her subsequent dedication to the suffrage movement. Letters and ephemera highlight Stanton’s abiding friendship with Susan B. Anthony and other women within the suffrage and prohibition movements–two groups that often overlapped. They also underscore some of the inner conflicts that are not often covered in broad strokes about this moment in history.

The last few chapters of the book shift the focus to Alice Paul and Lucy Burns with their more militant approach to the fight for women’s suffrage including their numerous arrests, hunger strikes, forced feedings, and nonviolent protest.

Votes for Women! is frank in a way that many history books are not. Conkling covers some of the uglier moments of the suffrage movement thoughtfully, including the ways in which the suffrage movement divided when faced with choosing between votes for women or votes for African American men. No one within the movement was perfect and the fight for suffrage as a whole often disregarded women of color as well as the poor and working class–something that Conkling writes about thoughtfully and without apology.

The end of the book includes extensive end notes, timelines, resources, and more.

Votes for Women! is a thorough and comprehensive history with short chapters, engaging narrative and even suspense after all these years. Timely and empowering, Votes for Women! is a vital read in this current political climate. Highly recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Winifred about Votes for Women starting tomorrow!

Unclaimed Baggage: A (Blog Tour) Review

“Sometimes you had to give something up to get what you really wanted in the first place.”

cover art for Unclaimed Baggage by Jen DollNell, Grant, and Doris have nothing in common.

Nell is a Chicago transplant unsure what to do with herself in small town Alabama–especially when her amazing boyfriend is still back home.

Grant used to be the the star quarterback. His family and coach are keen to help him keep that persona by covering up his recent DUI. But he’s starting to think he might just be a has been.

Then there’s Doris. She knows she’s an outsider. How can she be anything else as an outspoken liberal feminist in her conservative small town? She doesn’t mind because at least she has free reign of Unclaimed Baggage where she works sorting through and selling lost luggage.

As the three become reluctant coworkers for the summer Nell, Grant, and Doris will have to work together if they want to manage all of their own excess baggage in Unclaimed Baggage (2018) by Jen Doll.

Unclaimed Baggage is Doll’s debut novel. The story alternates between Nell, Grant, and Doris’ first person narrations with smaller vignettes throughout detailing the many journeys that brought key pieces of lost luggage to the store.

Over the course of one summer these three unlikely characters become friends as their lives entwine in unlikely ways. Doris is still grieving her aunt’s sudden death last year, Nell is shaken up by the culture shock of her move, and Grant is trying (and often failing) to come to terms with his drinking problem.

Each character has a distinct narrative voice while the surprisingly compelling luggage vignettes have a more omniscient tone. Doll brings small town Alabama to life with its charms (notably seen at a balloon festival) and its small-mindedness as Doris struggles with the stigma she hasn’t been able to shake since a boy in her church group groped her and she refused to stay quiet (or return to church) and, later in the novel, another character is targeted in a racially motivated attack.

Unlikely friends, hints of romance, and a mystery surrounding an empty suitcase flesh out this character driven plot. Unclaimed Baggage is a charming slice-of-life novel about one formative summer and the small moments that can lead to big changes. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Jen about Unclaimed Baggage too!

Possible Pairings: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen, The Art of Losing by Lizzy Mason, Moxie by Jen Mathieu, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Blood Water Paint: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I paint the blood.”

cover art for Blood Water Paint by Joy McCulloughRome, 1610: Artemisia Gentileschi had limited options when her mother died at twelve. She could join a convent or she could work in her father’s studio grinding paint, preparing canvases, and modeling as needed.

She chose art.

Now, at seventeen, Artemisia is a key factor to the success of her father’s studio–not that anyone knows it since she can’t sign her name to her art. Instead Artemisia works in secret while her father takes the credit.

Artemisia dreams of improving her craft, stepping out of her father’s shadow, and painting heroic figures like Susanna and Judith the way they were meant to be seen–not as titillating figures colored by the male gaze.

When she is raped by a fellow artist who she thought she could trust and respect, Artemesia dares to tell the truth–and to demand justice–in spite of the horrendous cost in Blood Water Paint (2018) by Joy McCullough.

Blood Water Paint is McCullough’s debut novel. Artemisia narrates the story in sparse verse. Interspersed between these stories are prose sections in which Artemisia remembers the stories of Susanna and Judith as her mother told them to her as a child.

McCullough beautiful details Artemisia’s passion and commitment to her art. The begins in Artemesia’s teen years and continues through her rape by Agostino Tassi and the subsequent trial. Her rage and frustration against the artistic establishment and her limited options as a woman in Rome are palpable throughout the story–especially during the trial when she is subjected first to a gynecological exam and later torture with thumbscrews to “prove” the truth of her testimony. The novel ends as Artemisia begins again returning to her painting in the wake of the trial and its outcome.

McCullough makes excellent use of free verse to highlight Artemisia’s talents and internalize her anger and fear after the rape. This format also allows the novel to provide a thorough telling while sticking to the broad strokes of Artemesia’s triumphs rather than focusing in on her suffering.

Blood Water Paint is an excellent verse novel and carefully researched historical fiction. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Joy about Blood Water Paint too!

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Da Vinci’s Tiger by L. M. Elliott, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

 

Royals: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Royals by Rachel HawkinsDaisy doesn’t want to be a princess, or even in the limelight really, but it turns out that’s hard when her older sister is practically engaged to the Crown Prince of Scotland.

After one too many near-misses with the paparazzi Daisy is whisked off to Scotland with her sister to lay low. It’s not at all how Daisy wants to spend her summer but she doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Especially when Ellie announces her engagement.

In Scotland Daisy is supposed learn how to be regal while keeping a low profile. She even has help from the royal fixer and Miles, a close friend of the royal family. But it turns out keeping a low profile is hard when the prince’s younger brother, Sebastian, is an actual human dumpster fire–he and his friends (including Miles) are literally called the Royal Wreckers–and seems hellbent on dragging Daisy into as much trouble as he possibly can.

Daisy knows she doesn’t quite fit the royal rule book with her mermaid red hair, geeky interests, and no nonsense attitude. But no one ever said she couldn’t rewrite the rules herself in Royals (2018) by Rachel Hawkins.

Royals can be read as a standalone contemporary but it is also the start of a series–each following a different heroine.

Daisy is a delightful narrator. She is smart, witty, and she calls things as she sees them in this fast-paced story. Daisy struggles to mold herself in the image of her poised and elegant sister who seems to have been born to be a princess with hilarious results. But even royals have obligations and Daisy soon realizes that she isn’t the only one feeling pressure after her sister and the prince announce their engagement.

Daisy’s story is pure, escapist fun complete with an unexpected love interest, friend shenanigans, and many zany mishaps as Daisy learns the hard way that expectations can be misleading–especially when it comes to love.

Royals is an effervescent and cheery contemporary. I cannot wait to see what happens in book two.

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Beneath the Sugar Sky: A Review

“Elsewhere was a legend and a lie, until I came looking for you.”

cover art for Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireSumi died years before she could return home to her beloved Candy Corn farmer and start a family. Long before her prophesied daughter Rini would have been born.

But Confection is a nonsense world so Rini is born anyway. The only problem is that with Sumi’s premature death the world of Confection was never saved, the Queen of Candy never beaten.

Now the world itself is fighting to erase Rini and the Queen has returned. With time running out Rini hopes that her mother’s friends can help bring Sumi home in Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018) by Seanan McGuire.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a direct sequel to the first.

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns to Eleanor West’s familiar home for wayward children who can no longer find their way back to the other worlds that claimed them. This installment returns to familiar characters including Nancy, Kade, and Christopher.

The bulk of the story is in the close third person perspective of Cora, the newest student at the school. Cora arrived after the events of Every Heart a Doorway and spends a lot of this story trying to reconcile her new circumstances with the story she is clearly joining mid-way and, more confusing for her, the fact that she seems welcome to find her own place in it.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is a thoughtful fantasy and a quest story. This novella is once again imbued with feminist themes. Through Cora, who is overweight but stronger than most people giver her credit for thanks to years of swimming (both in our world and elsewhere), this novella also confronts the damaging stereotypes surrounding body image and beauty.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is an empowering and original story about choosing your own path as Cora and her friends help Rini literally remake the world to save Sumi and herself.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley