Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe: A Review

Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe by Carole Boston WeatherfordEveryone knows about Marilyn Monroe’s difficult life and tragic end.

Few people know the traumatic start of her life watching her mother struggle with schizophrenia, moving through foster care, and even teen marriage.

While evidence of her transition from brunette pin-up model to blonde bombshell is immediately obvious, the road that got her there has never been explored from her own perspective. Until now in Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe (2020) by Carole Boston Weatherford.

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Weatherford’s latest verse novel explores the turbulent and often sad life of Marilyn Monroe from her start as Norma Jeane Baker to her death at 36 from an overdose. After a prologue the day of her infamous “Happy Birthday” performance for President John F. Kennedy, the poems move roughly chronologically from Monroe’s early years to her death.

Because it is a verse novel and not a true biography, Beauty Mark is frustratingly lacking in concrete facts. Important figures in Monroe’s life like her first acting coach, Natasha Lytess, are often referenced only to be dropped without explaining their role later in Monroe’s life.

Similarly, while touching upon key points in Monroe’s filmography the choices Weatherford makes in what (and whom) to mention feels largely arbitrary. River of No Return is discussed but co-star Robert Mitchum is never mentioned nor is the complex plot which includes an assault attempt–something, presumably, that would have been of note to Monroe given her own history of sexual abuse. (Lytess also created complications on set but her presence is never mentioned.)

Some Like It Hot is discussed at length with a full plot summary and, again, no mention of co-stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Nor is this a choice to center Monroe in her own story as other actors (male and female) are mentioned throughout.

A life, even one as tragically short as Monroe’s, covers a lot of ground. Unfortunately in Beauty Mark the authorial choices for what to cover at length (the nude calendar photo scandal in 1952) and what to gloss over (the reasons behind Monroe’s constant move from one foster home to the next as a child) are never made clear either in the text or in supporting back matter.

Beauty Mark is an interesting if ultimately uneven verse novel that gives Monroe her voice and works to move her from sex object back to genuine and complex person. Recommended as an introduction but not for anyone hoping to find a true biography or in-depth life story.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration.*

Spindle and Dagger: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson CoatsWales, 1109: When Elen’s home was raided by a warband three years ago her younger sister died in the ensuing fires. Her older sister was cut down just short of killing the warband’s leader, Owain ap Cadwgan. Despite the violence and her own sexual assault, Elen survived, healing Owain ap Cadwgan’s wounds and weaving a tale of protection.

She tells all who will listen that Owain ap Cadwgan cannot be killed–not by blade, blow, or poison–so long as Saint Elen protects him, so long as he keeps her namesake by his side.

None of what she tells them is true.

Balanced on a knife’s edge and haunted by echoes of the raid that killed her family, Elen knows one false step, one accident could leave Owain dead and render her own life forfeit.

When Owain abducts Nest, the wife of a Norman lord, and her children, war soon follows. As her lies begin to unravel, Elen dares to imagine a different life but first she will have to determine where her loyalties lie in Spindle and Dagger (2020) by J. Anderson Coats.

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Elen’s first person narration is frank and immediately engrossing, drawing readers into the precarious world she has created for herself. With violence and danger everywhere, Elen is forced to be as calculating and as ruthless as the warband that is both her greatest protection and her greatest danger.

High action and battles contrast sharply with the choices Elen is forced to make to ensure her own survival. Coats’ evocative prose and themes of agency and feminism add nuance and depth to this otherwise fast-paced story.

Spindle and Dagger is brutal, bloody, and carefully researched historical fiction. Recommended for readers looking for fierce heroines and history with all the gory details.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

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

The Price Guide to the Occult: A Review

“Any decent human being, witch or otherwise, has the capacity to do good in this world. It’s merely a case of whether one chooses to do so.”

cover art for The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye WaltonMore than a hundred years ago Rona Blackburn arrived on Anathema Island with little more than her dogs and her magic. She built a home for herself and made a place on the island but even then the original eight settlers viewed Rona with fear and, eventually, with enough hate to try and burn her out of her home.

Rona survived. Determined to see the original eight and their descendants suffer she bound herself and her line to the island. But in casting her curse Rona inextricably tied daughters down the Blackburn line not just to the island but to the original eight families as well.

In the present all Nor wants to do is keep her head down, her unexceptional powers under control, and her love life nonexistent and untethered to any of the original eight families.

But when a strange price guide to the occult appears at her part time job Nor knows that the time for hiding is almost over in The Price Guide to the Occult (2018) by Leslye Walton.

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The Price Guide to the Occult is Walton’s sophomore novel.

Written in close third person this novel, much like its heroine, keeps readers at a remove even as they are drawn deeper into the mysteries and intrigue that surround Anathema Island and its founding families. Each chapter is named for a spell and features an epigraphy from Rona Blackburn’s writings on witchcraft and magic.

Circuitous writing and lush descriptions bring Anathema Island and its magic to life especially as things begin to change when the Price Guide surfaces. Walton deftly builds a world where magic feels both plausible and inevitable with subtle twists on everyday moments that bring Nor’s world startling close to our own.

Nor is a cautious girl, if not by nature then through painfully learned lessons. Self-harm is a thread throughout The Price Guide to the Occult as Nor struggles with knowing that she can’t return to self-harm while wishing for a solution that could seem as simple as cutting herself once did.* She watches with growing horror as her home, the rest of the island, and beyond fall threat to dangerous magic being performed at a great cost.

This story is equal parts sexy and gritty as Nor experiences the elation of young love with an unlikely boy while searching for the source of the Price Guide and its magic that is slowly ruining the island and everything Nor loves. The novel, and the island itself, features a deliberately inclusive cast notably including Nor’s grandmother and her longterm partner Apothia Wu.

The Price Guide to the Occult is an unexpected and fascinating story that only begins to reveal the secrets surrounding Anathema Island and its founding families. Ideal for readers looking for a twisting fantasy whose memory will linger long after the book is closed. Recommended.

*Resources for readers who have struggled with self-harm themselves can be found in a note at the end of the novel.

Possible Pairings: The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Leslye about The Price Guide to the Occult too!

Landscape With Invisible Hand: A Review

“We all have to find some way to live with the world as it is now.”

When the vuvv first landed they told humanity that they could cure all illnesses. No one would have to work anymore. New technology would change lives.

It should have been perfect.

But no one thought about what no one working would mean for the economy. No one considered that all of this wondrous technology would be behind a pay wall. The early adopters–the ones who could buy into vuvv tech and tap into things the vuvv might want to buy–they’re doing fine. The rest of the world, the people like Adam’s family, not so much.

His mother used to be a bank teller but vuvv tech handles that now. His father, a former car salesman, can’t sell cars to people who can barely afford food thanks to rampant inflation. Adam processes everything that’s happening through his art–gritty and meditative landscapes painting the world he sees not the shiny, retro world the vuvv think of when they look at Earth and certainly not the bright, opportunity-filled one inhabited by the rich living in their elevated houses above the planet.

When Adam and Chloe start dating, they think they can capitalize on their love by broadcasting their dates to vuvv subscribers. Their pastiches of 1950s hangouts with slang and affectations to match are just what the vuvv ordered. But it turns out dating someone and loving someone authentically while aliens watch isn’t easy. As Adam’s relationship falls apart he realizes that sometimes the only way to win the game is to stop playing all together in Landscape with Invisible Hand (2017) by M. T. Anderson.

Landscape with Invisible Hand is a strange, caustic, and sparse. Adam’s near-future world changes when aliens arrive but his struggles are depressingly timely as his family is left reeling in the wake of unemployment and skyrocketing costs.

The skies around his suburban home are filled with vuvv tech and floating buildings while malls and stores are abandoned and looted in the changing economy. Thanks to the polluted water supply Adam suffers dangerous complications of Merrick’s Disease while trying to save up for a visit to a vuvv doctor who could treat him almost immediately.

Instead of chapters this short novel (160 pages, hardcover) is framed in vignettes based on the art that Adam is creating–painted landscapes of his dilapidated house, portraits of Chloe when they first meet and fall in lust, drawings of the stuffed animals his younger sister wants to sell and ultimately throws out in her desperation to help and also to grow up. Adam’s first person narration is incisive and introspective. Anderson uses minimal details to vividly descibe the vuvv and Adam’s bleak and absurd world.

Landscape with Invisible Hand is a provocative and engrossing novel. Adam’s journey and his ultimate realization are surprising and completely satisfying. There are no neat answers or tidy resolutions here but that makes the story all the more authentic and shocking. An excellent choice for readers who aren’t sure about sci-fi yet as well as devoted fans of the genre. Read this one with a friend because so you discuss all the plot points and twists. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis, The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World by Amy Reed, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher at BookExpo 2017 for review consideration*

Who Killed Christopher Goodman?: A Review

“The finger that tips the first domino is guilty, not the dominos themselves.”

Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan WolfChristopher Goodman wears ridiculous bell bottoms. He plays trombone in the school band. He introduces himself to every person he meets and shakes their hands. No doubt, Chris is a little eccentric, but he’s a genuinely nice guy. Which is why everyone in Goldsburg, Virginia is shocked when Chris is murdered during 1979’s Deadwood Days, a western street festival that draws tourists to the town every summer.

Classmates Doc Chestnut and Squib Kaplan find Chris’ body during a cross country run. The entire school, the entire community, is stunned by the murder.

Doc and Squib along with Hunger McCoy, Hazel Turner, and Mildred Penny carry the burden of knowing they were together on the night of the murder and may have inadvertently played a part in the tragedy. All five of them are haunted by the events of that night and the ways things could have turned out differently as they try to make sense of their grief and guilt in Who Killed Christopher Goodman? (2017) by Allan Wolf.

This mystery is inspired by an actual murder that occurred when Wolf was a teen himself as explained in an author’s note. Although Wolf was not as connected to that murder as his characters in Who Killed Christopher Goodman? he never forgot about the murder and always wondered about that lost chance at friendship.

Who Killed Christopher Goodman? features six narrators including Chris’ killer. While readers might guess who the killer is early on, Wolf does an excellent job of maintaining just enough tension and suspense over the course of the novel to still keep readers wondering.

Scenes with group dialogue are written in a screenplay style which ties well with the way the cast of voices are listed  in the beginning with quick identifiers: David Oscar “Doc” Chestnut, the Sleepwalker; Leonard Pelf, the Runaway; Scott “Squib” Kaplan, the Genius; Hunger McCoy, the Good Ol’ Boy; Hazel Turner, the Farm Girl; and Mildred Penny, the Stamp Collector. Wolf helps to differentiate between the large cast of narrators with distinct dialects including long-winded sentences for Squib who has Tourette’s and verse passages for Leonard.

Wolf uses this unique format to excellent effect to create a gripping mystery as well as a thoughtful character study where each of the six main characters grapple with their actions on the night of the murder and their blame, if any, in Christopher Goodman’s death. Who Killed Christopher Goodman? is a fast-paced novel that will appeal to reluctant readers as well as fans of mystery and suspense. (In fact, I wouldn’t surprised to see this get an Edgar nomination.)

Possible Pairings: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Game of Love and Death by Martha A. Brockenbrouch, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevemer and Patricia C. Wrede, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the January 2017 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Snow White: A Graphic Novel Review

Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt PhelanYou already know the story of Snow White. You know about her wicked stepmother’s jealousy of Snow White’s beauty and her attempt to order the huntsman to kill her. You know about the seven dwarfs who help Snow White and the poisoned apple that she eventually bites. You know about the stepmother’s downfall and the way the prince comes and saves Snow White.

But you haven’t seen the story retold like this before.

In Snow White: A Graphic Novel (2016), Matt Phelan reinvents this familiar tale. Phelan moves the story into New York City in 1928. The Twenties are roaring, the city is bustling, and for a girl called Snow, it seems like a wonderful time.

All of that changes, of course, as the story goes. On the run in the streets of New York City, Snow is taken in by a group of young street urchins who help hide her. Meanwhile the wicked stepmother’s mirror has been re-imagined as a ticker tape machine and Snow’s charming prince is a no-nonsense police detective.

Phelan uses minimal text and large illustrations to tell this story. With detailed panels focused on the characters, Snow White brings to mind film stills as much as illustrations. Flipping through the pages with large text marking each chapter heading makes this graphic novel feel like a silent film brought onto the page.

Bold drawings and attention to historic detail set this retelling apart and mark it as a real charmer. This story operates well within the historical period and capitalizes on it to create a very unique interpretation of a classic fairy tale.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel is a beautiful book with a story that is cleverly told and illustrated. Not to be missed.

Possible Pairings: Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Kate and the Beanstalk by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Giselle Potter; Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

Return: A Picture Book Review

Return by Aaron BeckerReturn (2016) is the final wordless picture book in Aaron Becker‘s Journey Trilogy which began with Journey and Quest.

Return once again follows the little girl from the first two books as she returns to an amazing world where drawings come to life. This time, though, the little girl’s father (previously too busy to pay her much attention) comes along for the ride. Together father and daughter discover the surprising background of the magical world that she thought she already knew quite well.

Aaron Becker received a Caldecott Honor for his work in Journey, that same masterful artwork is used to full advantage here in this final, lush installment in a fantastic picture book series.

Finely detailed illustrations with vibrant colors draw readers into each new page with artwork that spans from edge to edge. Like many wordless picture books, Return rewards repeated readings with new elements to discover and additional pieces to pore over each time. A must-see for art and book enthusiasts alike. Highly recommended.

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

Quintana of Charyn: A Review

“We could look at the side of wonder.”

Quintana of Charyn by Melina MarcherraFroi was left for dead on the mountaintops of Charyn, taken to his uncle–a gifted physician. He has lost Quintana. He has lost Gargarin and Lirah.

Quintana of Charyn is alone and in hiding. She might be the curse breaker, but first she will have to survive long enough to give birth to the new heir.

In Lumatere, the Charyn threat is growing. Lucian of the Monts is uncertain of how to deal with his unwanted neighbors across the valley. Isaboe wants to erase the royal line responsible for the days of the unspeakable and the murders of her family. Finnikin wants to find Froi before it’s too late. But in their months apart, both young men have changed.

Two countries torn apart by grief and rage will have to find common ground if either of them hopes to heal in Quintana of Charyn (2013) by Melina Marchetta.

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Quintana of Charyn is the final book in Melina Marchetta’s Chronicles of Lumatere which begins with Finninkin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles.

Quintana of Charyn picks up soon after the brutal events of Froi of the Exiles. Everything is still a mess. The characters are all separated. The outlook is bleak.

It’s difficult to talk about too much of the plot but suffice to say that Quintana of Charyn gives these characters the space and the ending that they deserve. Through careful writing and artful plotting, Marchetta subtly shifts her characters and tone. After the harrowing experiences of book two, this conclusion to her epic fantasy trilogy reads like a soothing balm.

It’s a testament to the strength of the writing and the intricacy of this series that absolutely everything comes together here. Marchetta uses the fantasy setting to explore larger issues of forgiveness and love as well as grieving and rebirth in this powerful novel.

Quintana of Charyn is a must read for fans of the first two books in the series. Readers looking for their next sweeping fantasy series should definitely start this series at the beginning. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia A. McKillip, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Froi of the Exiles: A Review

Froi of the Exiles by Melina MarchettaIt has been three years since the curse on Lumatere was lifted. Three years since the Lumaterans trapped inside the kingdom for ten long years and those exiled during the siege reclaimed their land and tried to make it whole. But memories are long and recovery is slow as the country come to terms with what was lost during the time of the unspeakable and what has changed forever.

During his years as an exile, Froi never imagined he would find a home in Lumatere much less a position in the Queen’s Guard. He could not have guessed that he would one day count Queen Isaboe and her consort, Finnikin among his dearest friends. Even with so much changed, Froi is haunted by who he was during the exile. He has sworn a bond to the queen, and to Lumatere, that he might make up for his past and never stray again.

That bond is sorely tested when Froi is sent to a neighboring kingdom on a secret mission. In Charyn’s royal court Froi finds a princess who may speak prophecy or madness and twins who can offer two halves of the story behind Charyn’s own curse–and secrets of Froi’s past–if only they can learn to speak to each other again. In a barren kingdom where brutality has become more valuable than compassion for most, Froi will have to decide if he can stay true to his bond to Lumatere while also doing what is right in Froi of the Exiles (2012) by Melina Marchetta.

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Froi of the Exiles is the second book in Marchetta’s Chronicles of Lumatere which begins with Finnikin of the Rock.

Froi of the Exiles is a sweeping novel that blows the world of the Chronicles of Lumatere open as Froi and readers are introduced to new countries and cultures. This novel brings the strangely barren land of Charyn to life with stark, vivid descriptions. The dangers found in much of Charyn are expertly contrasted with moments of wondrous beauty and tempered by the sharp wit of these characters.

Marchetta offers a thoughtful meditation on forgiveness and recovery in Froi of the Exiles. Every character here has been broken in some way–sometimes by looming curses and other times by the casual cruelty of other people–that damage and those scars are givens. But it never defines them. Each character, but especially Froi, strives throughout the novel to move past that hurt and to take the damaged pieces and make himself into something stronger and better.

Froi of the Exiles is a masterful and well-executed novel where every word matters and the story will completely enthrall readers. Highly recommended. Part of a must-read series for fans of high fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia A. McKillip, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Symphony for the City of the Dead: A Non-Fiction Review

“We can trust no one. In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth.”

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. AndersonIn September 1941, Hitler’s forces moved against the Soviet Union in a bid to take the country’s capital in Moscow and the historic city of Leningrad (now and previously St. Petersburg).

So began one of the longest sieges in Western history. More than a million people died over the course of the years-long siege. Amazingly, despite crippling his own military from the top down and breeding a culture of such fear that officials preferred to make ill-advised decisions rather than risk contradicting him, Stalin and the Soviet citizenry held out. Faced with starvation, blitzkrieg attacks, and the continued severity and dangers of life in Soviet Russia, the residents of Leningrad held on.

In the midst of this bleak landscape, music became an unlikely ray of hope. Varying wildly between a darling of the communist party and one of its biggest perceived heretics, Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer known around the world. With threats everywhere from both the Nazi’s and his own government, Shostakovich would write a symphony to rouse the Soviet public during their time of need.

The symphony would speak when the people feared to, it would mark all that was lost during the Communist Revolution and the Siege of Leningrad. It would give voice to sorrow and loss as well as hope and redemption. Shostakovich’s symphony would offer common ground between the unlikely allies of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. This is the story of that symphony, the country that inspired it, the compose who wrote it, and the war that shaped all of them in Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (2015) by M.T. Anderson.

Anderson offers a thoroughly researched look at a slice of WWII history that might not be familiar to many Americans. Symphony for the City of the Dead begins with the bizarre transport of Shostakovich’s symphony (via microfilm) from the Soviet Union to the United States. After that prologue the book is framed around Shostakovich’s own life from his early childhood to his death. The book touches upon the communist revolution and explores the composer’s complicated relationships with his country and the Communist Party.

Symphony for the City of the Dead includes an extensive bibliography and footnotes in the backmatter detailing Anderson’s sources throughout the novel. Strangely, for such an iconic figure, little is known as fact about Shostakovich’s life. Anderson is careful to couch his own thoughts in research and supporting documentation while also noting when the narrative veers into supposition. The book also offers a thorough and detailed accounts of the movements that led to the Siege of Leningrad ranging from Stalin’s wild incompetence and paranoia to Hitler’s Wermacht strategy.

Because of the content and the level of research involved, Symphony for the City of the Dead is a dense book. The material gains a more narrative quality after the first hundred pages but it takes a while to really dig into the material.

Anderson offers a strange mix of the bloody nightmare that was Communist Russia during the Siege of Leningrad and the optimistic hope of post-war Russia. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a fascinating example of the power of story–especially the power of art and music–as well as thoughtful look at how the truth can be shaped in the telling. A must-read for WWII history buffs and music buffs in particular. Highly recommended.