Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Speak Easy, Speak Love

I LOVE Much Ado About Nothing. LOVE. LOVE. LOVE. That is 100% due to Beatrice and Benedick being one of my all time OTPs. (I've written about them before here and here.) There are parts of the story I would, of course, like to change for a more modern sensibility (such as everything with Hero and Claudio). I am therefore completely and irrevocably in love with McKelle George's clever retelling Speak Easy, Speak Love. She fixed everything I wanted fixed, and gave me things I never dreamed I wanted from the story but now can't live without.

Benedick Scott is finished. He is saying good-bye to his old, privileged life and taking off to live the remainder of his days at the "boarding house" Hey Nonny Nonny! While making his escape to meet his friend Prince, a schoolmate named Claude  catches Ben leaving and tags along only to find himself completely captivated by Hey Nonny Nonny's young mistress Hero Stahr. Ben is unsurprised as he seems to be the only male he knows immune to Hero's charms. But Ben has another surprise waiting for him in Hey Nonny Nonny's newest full-time resident. Hero's cousin Beatrice has come to live with them. She is a freight train and a tornado wrapped up in human girl form, and she knocks Benedick completely off his feet.

Beatrice Clark has dreams and ambitions that do not involve rich boys slumming it on their whimsy. She is going to be a doctor. Just as soon as she straightens out her financial and educational standings. Helping out at her family's "boarding house" that fronts as one of Long Island's most famous speak easies in the meantime just seems logical. They need help, and as capable as she is practical, she can provide help in abundance. Too bad most of her help puts her in the company of the one person in the household she would most like to avoid...

George's versions of Beatrice and Benedick are just top notch. It never would have occurred to me to take Benedick and turn him into a wannabe novelist who has a love affair with his (named-feminine, of course) typewriter, but it is just so perfect in every way. It takes all of his philosophical insecure ramblings and gives them a purpose and a psychology that absolutely fits the original intent of the character and the 1920s setting of this iteration perfectly. Beatrice is as ever highly capable and painfully honest. She is a practical girl who yearns to go to medical school and be a doctor. Following  her ambitions has lead her to learn a great deal on her own already. She lugs around a trunk full of medical study materials and diagnoses everyone she comes in contact with who seems remotely suffering from an unknown ailment. When he meets her, Ben is feeling rather purposeless even though he's trying to invest his life with meaning by running away from his rich father to be a writer.  For her part, Beatrice is trying to find her place in a world that doesn't seem to want her and is simply grateful to her uncle for taking her in. Sparks fly between the two immediately and the banter is wonderful and clever and amusing in every way the banter between these two is supposed to be. Though a few choice lines from the source material are used, George adds her own spin to their dynamic and makes their banter relevant to the setting. I would have kept turning pages just to keep reading their back and forth.

The supporting characters that round out the cast are also well done, and it is here that George changed things up a bit. John is not the unscrupulous villain of the source material, and the fraught relationship between him and Pedro (Prince) is explored in more depth. Maggie (Margaret) has a far more prominent role and is not the hapless dupe she was in the original. The sub-plot of her relationship with John is my second favorite part of this novel. I would love to read another book just about them. Claude isn't much changed from Claudio except he is very much put in his proper place by the end. Hero is far more rounded a character. George spends a considerable amount of time focusing on how the absence of Hero's recently deceased mother has affected everyone. Anna is almost as much a character as all the living characters of the story. There is much acknowledgment that things with Hero would go much differently if her mother were still alive. Prince is the secondary character I feel the least amount of connection to, but I was very content with the way his story concluded in this version. I thoroughly loved what George did with the magistrate characters. The addition of Ben's father as a character is a stroke of genius. (Also I loved him. I could read more of him too please.)

The 1920s setting is inspired. Bringing all of these characters together for the purpose of running a speak easy is a brilliant twist. Prince is the one who does the majority of the smuggling as Leo grieves the death of his wife. Hero is determined to keep it all going and runs the place. Maggie is the singer. Ben just tries to help without getting in the way. John is an Italian mobster trying to protect his little brother from getting in too deep in a world that could kill him. Beatrice ends up there because she's related, but she fits in right away and begins helping without batting an eye.

I can't in anyway pretend objectivity with this. It is exactly so much a me book that I was bound to love it no matter what. The banter lives up to its predecessor, the dynamic between Beatrice and Ben is perfect in every way, the setting pleased me, and I loved every single character.

My only regret is that I waited this long to read it.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Shorter Musings: The Lighthouse Between the Worlds, Snow & Rose, Straw Into Gold, Watch Hollow

Here are some shorter musings on recently read MG fantasy novels.

The Lighthouse Between the Worlds by Melanie Crowder
Melanie Crowder is one of the most underrated MG/YA authors. She continuously writes excellent books, and she has such a range. This is an excellent example of what she is capable of. This book takes place in a multi-verse where the portal between the worlds is a lighthouse on the pacific coast. It is about imperialism, slavery, totalitarianism, and political rebellion. Those are important topics to tackle in a rather short MG novel, but Crowder handles it with finesse. The characters are well drawn and the action is exciting from start to finish.

Snow & Rose by Emily Winfield Martin
This is a beautiful retelling of a tale many children are not familiar with because Disney hasn't touched it yet. It is perfect for fairy tale lovers who are new to reading novels. The chapters are short. The illustrations are gorgeous. Both Snow and Rose are layered characters and very different. The world is steeped in the original tale while also having its own sense of place. It isn't very often that you find a book that feels so other worldly written for the younger age of the MG spectrum that does it all so well. Martin managed to pull all of that off.

Straw into Gold: Fairy Tales Respun by Hilary McKay
This is a collection of fairy tales, each with a twist of some sort. The twist range from the point of view of the storyteller, the point in time from which the story is told, and the circumstances surrounding the story. It's a decent collection, but mostly I was just bored. The stories were not engaging enough to keep my interest when or twisty enough to offer anything new. There were a couple of shining, profound moments, but those were too few and far between to count against how I had to force myself to pick up the book when it was time to read. Typically I'm able to say even if a MG book doesn't work for me how it might work for the intended audience. For once, I can't do that. I have no idea. I know many of the 5th-7th graders I work with are completely unfamiliar with the original version of fairy tales, so I don't know what they would get from this.

Watch Hollow by Gregory Funaro 
This is a fantastical mystery involving a spooky house, a magical clock, and inanimate animals that come to life. It is an entertaining read, but for me it didn't really stand out from the pack as far as MG fantasy goes. There is a dead mother and a confused, distant father. Nothing really makes it particularly memorable, but it is a good thing to give new novel readers who have yet to read much fantasy. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Future Favorites Friday August 19

I take the 2nd Friday of every month to highlight some upcoming releases I am looking forward to that I hope are Future Favorites. Feel free to do your own post, just please link back to my blog and tell me about your post in the comments.

One look at this cover is really all I needed. But I read the synopsis anyway and that only made my desire for this book grow.

Headstrong Anya is the daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When her family's livelihood is threatened by a bigoted magistrate, Anya is lured in by a friendly family of Fools, who promise her money in exchange for helping them capture the last dragon in Kievan Rus. This seems easy enough—until she finds out that the scary old dragon isn't as old—or as scary—as everyone thought. Now Anya is faced with a choice: save the dragon, or save her family.

Release Date: September 24, 2019 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Guys, this one is a YA retelling of Mansfield Park, which is not my favorite Austen. This means there's a better chance I'll love it. (Especially considering the creepy cousin element will be gone.)

Mansfield, Massachusetts is the last place seventeen-year-old Edie Price wants to spend her final summer before college. It’s the home of wealthy suburbanites and prima donnas like Edie’s cousins, who are determined to distract her from her mother’s death with cute boys and Cinderella-style makeovers. Edie has her own plans, and they don’t include a prince charming.

But as Edie dives into schoolwork and applying for college scholarships, she finds herself drawn to two Mansfield boys who start vying for her attention. First there's Sebastian, Edie’s childhood friend and first love. He’s sweet and smart and . . . already has a girlfriend. Then there's Henry, the local bad boy and all-around player. He’s totally off limits, even if his kisses are chemically addictive.

Both boys are trouble. Edie can’t help but get caught between them. Someone's heart is going to break. Now she just has to make sure it isn't hers.

Release Date: December 17, 2019 by HMH Books for Young Readers

What upcoming releases are you looking forward to? 

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Field Guide to the North American Teeanager

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe is a book I picked up on a whim at the bookstore when it first came out. I liked the cover. I thought it had an engaging premise. I went into it with a healthy does of trepidation because the execution could have gone so terribly wrong. Fortunately, Philippe is an excellent character writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent reading about Norris's adventures in Texas and high school.

High school junior Norris Kaplan's life is ruined by his mother when she takes a job that requires them to leave the only home he has ever known in Montreal, Quebec. Moving is always hard, but Norris knows for him it will be harder than it's ever been for anyone else. Norris is moving to Texas. He will be a Canadian living in Texas. Not just a Canadian. A French Canadian who speaks fluent French. And not just your average run-of-the-mill French Canadian. A black son of Haitian immigrant parents French Canadian. If Norris has learned one thing from movies, it's that Texas is gong to hate his black French speaking hockey-is-better-than-footbal immigrant self. His plan is to fly under the radar while counting down the days until he can fly north again. But flying under the radar isn't so easy. First Norris needs a job for airfare to go to Whistler for Spring Break. Then he has to make a pact with a cheerleader for assistance in getting the girl he wants to date. Then he ends up in a strange interaction that has him teaching someone to ice skate. That snowballs into captaining a hockey team. Before he knows it, Norris is living a full life in Austin, Texas. However, when a series of bad choices puts at risk everything Norris has built in his new home, he has to choose whether to run back to what is familiar or stick it out.

Norris is pretty obnoxious. He is a likable obnoxious though. Philippe manage to walk the fine line of making him empathetic while also highlighting his selfishness and stubbornness. I have particular empathy as I moved from New York to North Carolina as a junior in high school and was equally unhappy about it and met every new thing with scathing quips about its inferiority. So I get Norris, but I also recognize exactly how stubbornly selfish he's being. It's a sort of self-sabotage that comes with immaturity and lack of wisdom. Fortunately Norris gains both as the book moves forward. Helping him in his journey are some truly excellent people. Norris's mom is amazing. It's always great when parents are present and doing their best in a YA novel. Liam is a quiet, strangely focused boy at Norris's school who wants to learn how to play hockey. Norris obliges. The friendship that grows between the two of them is wonderful. It's so different than his relationship with his best friend in Canada that Norris takes almost too long to recognize it for what it is. This connection helps him see the world in new ways and brings him into contact with more of the boys he goes to school with. Norris's relationship with his coworker and high school cheerleader Maddie is not so straightforward. But Maddie is great. She is an organizer, a great listener, and smart. She gives Norris advice and helps him understand the new culture he is in. She also has zero qualms about calling him out on his crap. As their relationship progresses, there is a sense it is heading for disaster simply because Norris is being a stubborn idiot and refuses to see the light. This is the reason for most of the conflict in the last part of the book. It is fairly predictable but is handled well and realistically.

The title of the book refers to a notebook given Norris by his new school guidance counselor. In it he writes his observations as he meets new people. His anger and his sarcasm all come out as he describes his first impressions of the individuals who now people his world. You can probably guess where that goes. Except Norris brings every bit of the trouble that falls on his head on himself. Because he doesn't see himself or those around him clearly at all. That is so typically human, and it was handled really well. The fallout and resolution might bother some in its realism, but I really liked where Norris ended up in the end. This is a time when I ended a book thinking the character's growth was going to stick. I really appreciated how each person is show as an individual an none of them are left as the two-dimensional caricatures Norris made them in his field guide.

One quibble I had with the book were the inconsistencies in describing some of Maddie's family members. I'm not sure who in the chain from first draft to published book should have caught them, but they fell down on their job.

I recommend that people who enjoy good character arcs and realistic high school stories read this one. I will certainly be looking forward to any of Ben Philippe's future books.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

July 2019 Stats

July is always a mad rush for as I'm beginning/preparing for another school year. But I did manage to get some good reading in, and one of those books is one of my favorites of the year so far. I read two non-fiction books this month and both of them are on the favorites board. Maybe I should read more non-fiction?

Favorites of July:

July in Numbers:
New Reads: 7
Rereads: 2

MG: 2
YA: 3
Adult: 4

Fiction: 7
Non-Fiction: 2
Realistic Fiction: 6
Fantasy/Sci-Fi: 1

Here is the current TBR shelf:

For those of you following each new exciting installment of "Brandy Reads Her Own Books", you will notice that....I bought more. Gasp. Shock. Awe.

I miss the library though, so I'm going back this month.

What new reads did you love in July?