NOLA Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

 


It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer.

She devises a plan to get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

Holy hell was this book a roller coaster of action and heartbreak.

Now, I mostly decided to feature books set in or about New Orleans for this week because I will be visiting for the first time in a week. I’m quickly realizing that I’m in for some moving work.

Out of the Easy provides such a portrait of New Orleans in the 1950s that I feel like I could have been walking alongside Josie and taking a ride with Cokie through every page.  Sepetys is such a historical fiction genius.  She weaves the story of this incredibly intelligent teenage girl with a penchant for books and a heart of gold alongside a rough and tumble life of prostitutes and mob violence. Honestly, there were so many vibrant characters that jumped off the page.  From Charlie to his son, Patrick, to Charlotte (who only physically appears twice), to the brooding Jesse, to the fierce and unapologetic Willie…New Orleans is my favorite character in this book.

The version of New Orleans that Sepetys has created shows the darkness and the light sides of the city in such a subtle way.  She doesn’t hammer us over the head with the details or even using too much of the southern dialect or Creole vocabulary.  I don’t really know how to explain it, but it made me fall in love with the dichotomy that is this historic city.  I also appreciate that while the novel mentions Mardi Gras, it doesn’t focus on it or spend a whole lot of the narrative on it.  I think I’ve just come to expect that with anyone who mentions NOLA, so I was super happy that the narrative was much more character focused.

Side note: Sepetys actually mentions a good number of places in New Orleans that are still famous today and places that myself and my best friend have actually discussed visiting next week.

Commander’s Palace (which has .25 cent martinis at lunch!), Antoine’s (with famous Baked Alaska), and Galatoire’s (NYT Top 10 Best Restaurants)

This book stole my heart.

5 Bards!

Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

There are a lot of things that we study in US and World History about World War II, but the plight of German, Prussian, Polish, and Lithuanian refugees is not something that is touched on much, and the Wilhelm Gustloff even less so. In fact, I’m sad to say that prior to the publication of Sepetys’ novel I hadn’t even heard about the Gustloff or the nine thousand people that lost their lives in the icy sea that night in 1945.

Sepetys’ story actually doesn’t focus as much on the Wilhelm Gustloff’s sinking so much as it does the journey of each of these teenagers as their stories begin to intertwine and finally converge on the ill fated last trip of the Gustloff.

This being my first Ruta Sepetys novel, despite owning both of her other novels (I know, I really need to get on top of this and read the others!), I was impressed by the utter beauty of her character development.  For the most part, these characters are orphans of war, either not knowing where their parents are, their parents have passed, or they were cast out or forced to join the war efforts.  Sepetys does an amazing job of revealing these small truths about these characters over the course of the narrative, and despite my skepticism about multiple narrators (especially when such short chapters are involved), I found the voices to be distinct enough that it added to the story.

One character is a medically trained nurse, one a mysterious boy with a secret, one an overzealous Nazi, and one a Polish girl with no one.

By all means, this is an absolutely brutal story.

Readers will encounter stories of pillage and rape, war fatalities, hypothermia, frostbite, and a lot of death.  It is a story not for the faint of heart.

Half the narrators do not survive.

In a lot of ways this novel reminds me of Margaret Haddix’s Uprising, as the story builds around very different characters caught up in each other’s fates, and it plays so well while telling the story of those forgotten by history.

For those forgotten by time, the disaster has been given more attention following the publication of Salt to the Sea, but unfortunately the majority of these poor souls’ stories will never be told.  So we have to remember them and the disaster.

The refugee tale is not one that is unimportant by any means in today’s political climate, and it is vital to remember that their plights are not just a tale out of time.

5 Bards for this heartbreaking story that still manages to provide hope

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Book Review: The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.

1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.

The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.

I absolutely adore William Shakespeare and I am a sucker for Historical Fiction, so an adaptation of Hamlet set during Prohibition era America?  Sign me up.

Winters has created a great story using the bare bones of the Hamlet story.  It definitely veers off of the main stereotypical Hamlet character arc, as there isn’t a straight comparison between the characters and their counterparts in The Steep and Thorny Way.  Obviously Hanalee is Hamlet, her father’s ghost comes around and haunts her town in order to help find out more about his mysterious death, her stepfather (who was close enough friends with her parents to be considered her “uncle,” I see what you did there, Cat.), and a merry band of friends/teens that serve as Rosencrantz and Gildensterns.

Placing this during Prohibition era Oregon was a stroke of genius because it gave motivation for the characters to showcase their two sides.  For instance, the brothers who appear to be straight laced and good Christian boys who actually stash porn and moonshine in secret.  But another accomplishment for Winters was to use the terrible racial climate in the United States during the early twentieth century due to the continued activity of the Ku Klux Klan, and by making the main character half-black in this time added a second depth to the story.

The writing isn’t necessarily eloquent, but Winters does an excellent job of using dialect and colloquiallisms to properly set the time and place for the novel.  But, it must be recognized that Shakespeare also used primarily conversational English in his plays in order for the common play go-er to understand and follow what was happening.

Overall this novel was an easy read, entertaining, and very historically accurate.

BONUS: the novel has historical facts and comments at the end to help showcase more about the KKK and bootlegging business in Oregon during this time.

4 Bards

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Book Review: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Tomorrow, March 25, 2016, marks the 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Disaster.  

This fire killed 145 workers, most of them immigrant women who worked around 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for only $15.00. 

When the women protested these working conditions, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory hired police to imprison those who were striking.

The doors were locked to the stairwells, only one elevator was working, and there were no safety precautions taken (i.e. the installation of sprinkler systems, etc). 

It is important to remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Disaster as it caused the reform of worker’s rights and was directly connected to the Women’s Suffrage movement in New York.

The fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the disaster, which brought attention to the labor movement in America, is part of the curriculum in classrooms throughout the country.

Told from alternating points of view, this historical novel draws upon the experiences of three very different young women: Bella, who has just emigrated from Italy and doesn’t speak a word of English; Yetta, a Russian immigrant and crusader for labor rights; and Jane, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Bella and Yetta work together at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory under terrible conditions–their pay is docked for even the slightest mistake, the bosses turn the clocks back so closing time is delayed, and they are locked into the factory all day, only to be frisked before they leave at night to make sure they haven’t stolen any shirtwaists. When the situation worsens, Yetta leads the factory’s effort to strike, and she meets Jane on the picket line. Jane, who feels trapped by the limits of her own sheltered existence, joins a group of high-society women who have taken an interest in the strike as a way of supporting women’s suffrage. Through a series of twists and turns, the three girls become fast friends–and all of them are in the Triangle Shirtwast Factory on March 25, 1911, the day of the fateful fire.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put a finger on why the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire has stuck with me ever since I learned about it back in high school history.  I’ve always had a big fear of fire, which could be part of it, but I’d like to say it’s because the lives lost there changed so many things in history.  But maybe it was because I could identify with the historical accounts of the lives lost; teenage women, the age I was when I first learned about the disaster, who had to work ruthless hours for little pay in a booming industrial age of America, women who were locked in a building to prevent any unapproved breaks and stealing.  While we learned about the Shirtwaist Strike as well, it was this disaster that really gave the strike arguments more power and recognition.  Some of those battles we still fight today (i.e. Gender and Race wage gaps).  Either way, suffice it to say that the Triangle fire is important.

Triangle-FireWhen I first learned there was a novelization of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, I was a bit skeptical.  How long could you conceivably make a novel that features a fire that burns so hot and quickly that it killed so many people in a short amount of time?  The fact that I have a big phobia of fire didn’t help my skepticism, because I was a little fearful of it causing some terrifying dreams.  I could not be more happy about reading this novel.

Haddix does a brilliant job at focusing on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory from the beginning of Uprising, as she focuses on the close working conditions, and within a few pages of the first narrator, Bella, recounting her first day at the Triangle factory, there is a number of workers that walk out exclaiming, “Strike!”  The narrative then goes into explicit detail of how these workers are exploited by being overworked, underpaid, and treated like third or fourth class citizens and how these women stood together and formed a large Garment workers Strike.

The two immigrant narrators, Yetta and Bella, are so well done as individual characters.  Bella’s voice is a bit weak and timid at the beginning, definitely befitting her character, but then grows continuously throughout the story into a character that is shown to really embrace her new life in America, no matter the hardships she has to endure.  Yetta is fierce, independent, and extremely stubborn.  Her narrative voice is so strong that it almost overshadows the other two characters for the majority of the novel, but I think that this was intentional and demonstrative on how fervent these women worked to establish a union and acceptable working conditions.  Both Bella and Yetta worked so hard for so little just so they could support themselves and their families, and it is inspiring to read about their determination.  The third narrator, Jane, I wasn’t expecting to like, because let’s face it, she seemed like a rich girl just looking to circumvent her father and get a little bit of attention, but she became much, much more than that.  Haddix does such an eloquent job at making these characters so realistic that I felt like I lost three friends when the story ended.

A large majority of the narrative focuses on the strike, implications of the strike, how strikes are formed, who funds the trianglefiredamagestrikes, the mistreatment of those on strike, and how a union can be formed.  That sounds utterly boring, right?  Wrong.  These parts of the story are so interwoven into the personal parts of the narrative that you don’t even realize that you are learning.  You learn that the socialist movement really helped a gain a lot of support for this strike, you see the positive and negative aspects of immigrants coming to America at the turn of the century, you find that there were those who survived New York winters without shoes, much less jackets.  You are put in the middle of the fire.

The story does build to its inevitable end, the fire on March 25, 1911.  I think that Haddix’s writing in the fire scenes is particularly eloquent for scenes where there is so much at stake.  I cried my eyes out.

5 Bards for Bella and Yetta and Jane and all those who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

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For more information about the strike, fire, resulting trial, victims, etc please visit this link.

Release Day Review: The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller

Staid, responsible Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of ten sisters living in a small English market town in 1861. The girls’ father is a plant hunter, usually off adventuring through the jungles of China.

Then disaster strikes: Mr. Buchanan fails to collect an extremely rare and valuable orchid, meaning that he will be thrown into debtors’ prison and the girls will be sent to the orphanage or the poorhouse. Elodie’s father has one last chance to return to China, find the orchid, and save the family—and this time, thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate, Elodie is going with him. Elodie has never before left her village, but what starts as fear turns to wonder as she adapts to seafaring life aboard the tea clipper The Osprey, and later to the new sights, dangers, and romance of China.

But even if she can find the orchid, how can she find herself now that staid, responsible Elodie has seen how much the world has to offer?

Release Date: March 8, 2016 (TODAY!!!)

I was a huge fan of Waller’s first young adult novel, A Mad, Wicked Folly, so when Penguin sent me an advanced copy of The Forbidden Orchid, I was pretty excited.

To be honest with you, I wasn’t familiar at all with the concept of plant hunters during the Victorian Era, and here in America we learn very little about the Opium Wars.  In world history we just touch on them, and I’m pretty sure my teacher just said, “Then there was the Opium Wars. Moving on…”  I really appreciate this about Waller, because I made the same comment about A Mad, Wicked Folly.  She is really touching on subjects that American readers will benefit from learning through her historical fiction.

Some of the same themes run throughout The Forbidden Orchid as in A Mad, Wicked Folly, and there is a very similar formula.  Formula: Privileged upper middle class British teen girl + patriarchal society of England (interesting considering there was a powerful Queen on the throne during BOTH novels) + familial duties + said character’s sense of adventure/individuality + character wanting more than the privileged life she already has.  I’m totally okay with this formula in Waller’s novels, because it works.  The characters are so wonderfully developed with the flaws of those who come from privilege, and they are frequently made to check that privilege when dealing with other characters.

Similar themes that show up in both: Romance (obviously as it is a Young Adult novel), Political Climate, and Women’s Rights.  However, much like in A Mad, Wicked Folly, the romance really takes a back seat to the primary focus of the novel.  Waller is excellent at constructing a meaningful romantic relationship without having the primary plot take a hit in favor of making a character swoon constantly in narration.

Elodie really evokes some Ingrid Michaelson songs to me, as I think Michaelson has an exotic voice/sound that would really appeal to this character.  So for me, I’m going to characterize Elodie with one song:  Are We There Yet. “They say that home is where the heart is/I guess I haven’t found my home/And we keep driving round in circles/Afraid to call this place our own”  Even though Elodie has a home and lives comfortably with her family there is just something missing.  So Michaelson’s pleading voice repeating Home, Home, Home just really feels like it could be Elodie questioning her purpose in life.

Splitting the novel into parts was a great way to avoid boring narrative where the time jumps were due to the long nature of travel from England to China.  I really only found the book lagging toward the beginning, but I think it suits the dull nature of Elodie’s existence in Kent versus the quicker paced last half of the novel, as she is finally experiencing travel and plant hunting.

Overall I really enjoyed this novel and read most of it in one sitting.

4.5 Bards

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Get your copy of The Forbidden Orchid today!

 

Book Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

a-great-and-terrible-beautyIt’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?

I love Libba Bray. She’s one of my favorite YA authors. I read the Gemma Doyle trilogy years ago, and while I remembered the premise, I didn’t really remember everything about it so I was really glad to be able to read it again and write a review this time!

What I love about Gemma is that we can see her internal struggle with wanting to fit in but also trying to still be herself. Especially, with her newfound, and as yet mysterious, power, all she wants is to be normal. But many times wanting to be normal doesn’t stop her from wanting to be different from the other girls at Spence Academy.

I think Bray does a great job of creating these very similar but also very different female characters, and making their friendship the focus of everything. With all that Gemma goes through, in only the first book, she learns more and more to rely on her friends, and for me that’s one of the most important things to read about in literature, especially literature aimed and young girls.

My favorite part of the story is the magic part. I’ve always been a sucker for magic and mystery and this definitely has both. The magic is unique to this story, and I’d never read any type of interpretation like this until this story, which makes Bray’s world-building that much more amazing.It definitely has enough mystery to keep you interested but not too much to leave wondering. I’d give the first in the trilogy 4.5 bards.

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Waiting on Wednesday

waiting on wednesday

Every week Breaking the Spine hosts the bookish meme for book bloggers to share what books they are waiting on to be released!  This week I’m waiting on:

Release Date: January 5, 2016

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. The Brontë siblings have always been inseparable. After all, nothing can bond four siblings quite like life in an isolated parsonage out on the moors. Their vivid imaginations lend them escape from their strict upbringing, actually transporting them into their created worlds: the glittering Verdopolis and the romantic and melancholy Gondal. But at what price? As Branwell begins to slip into madness and the sisters feel their real lives slipping away, they must weigh the cost of their powerful imaginations, even as their characters—the brooding Rogue and dashing Duke of Zamorna—refuse to let them go.

Book Review: A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis

madnesssodiscreetGrace Mae knows madness.

She keeps it locked away, along with her voice, trapped deep inside a brilliant mind that cannot forget horrific family secrets. Those secrets, along with the bulge in her belly, land her in a Boston insane asylum.

When her voice returns in a burst of violence, Grace is banished to the dark cellars, where her mind is discovered by a visiting doctor who dabbles in the new study of criminal psychology. With her keen eyes and sharp memory, Grace will make the perfect assistant at crime scenes. Escaping from Boston to the safety of an ethical Ohio asylum, Grace finds friendship and hope, hints of a life she should have had. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who stalks young women. Grace, continuing to operate under the cloak of madness, must hunt a murderer while she confronts the demons in her own past.

First and foremost, thank you so much to Harper Collins and Mindy McGinnis for providing me an advanced copy of this book to read and review! Secondly, look at that amazing book cover that was designed by Brooke Shaden!  She is one of my absolute favorite photographers and this cover just scrapes the surface of her brilliance. (Seriously, check her out.)

I will definitely admit that this book isn’t exactly what I wanted it to be.  I really wanted it to be a story that delved further into the depths of the terrors in the American Asylum System in the 1800s and Early 1900s.  What I got, on the other hand, was a story that kind of scratched the surface of it, but then went off on a tangent that really became about exploring the beginnings of criminal psychology and what would eventually become the subject of Criminal Minds.

I really thought that McGinnis did a great job of characterizing Grace and by hinting at the true nature of her pregnancy.  McGinnis took Grace and built her family out of her as a character, and practically everyone but her sister is positively deplorable.

I really do wish that we had spent more time with the patients in the asylum in Boston, because I really think there is a wealth of information and possible storylines there.  I enjoyed that McGinnis didn’t straight up name the full frontal labotomy that was taking place in the basement of the asylum, but managed to provide gritty details of the process instead.  It was a great way to keep it mysterious and to show how primitive the process was without tainting the description with the loaded title of labotomy.

I couldn’t quite decide if I liked the character of the doctor, but I absolutely adored both of Grace’s friends in the asylum in Ohio.  I loved that McGinnis chose to show syphilitic insanity and make it so wonderfully relatable in a world where this isn’t common anymore.  This is a part of the book that also covers the topic of suicide, and I think she did it as best as she could and made the healing process for her characters so raw and emotional.

Also, the ending…JUST DESSERTS. Love it.  Read the book and you’ll know what I mean.

Overall, I’m giving this book a solid 4 Bard rating!

fourbards

Waiting on Wednesday

waiting on wednesday

 

Every week Breaking the Spine hosts the bookish meme for book bloggers to share what books they are waiting on to be released!  This week I’m waiting on:

Release Date: October 6, 2015

Grace Mae knows madness.

She keeps it locked away, along with her voice, trapped deep inside a brilliant mind that cannot forget horrific family secrets. Those secrets, along with the bulge in her belly, land her in a Boston insane asylum.

When her voice returns in a burst of violence, Grace is banished to the dark cellars, where her mind is discovered by a visiting doctor who dabbles in the new study of criminal psychology. With her keen eyes and sharp memory, Grace will make the perfect assistant at crime scenes. Escaping from Boston to the safety of an ethical Ohio asylum, Grace finds friendship and hope, hints of a life she should have had. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who stalks young women. Grace, continuing to operate under the cloak of madness, must hunt a murderer while she confronts the demons in her own past.

Book Review: Dead to Me by Mary McCoy

“Don’t believe anything they say.”

Those were the last words that Annie spoke to Alice before turning her back on their family and vanishing without a trace. Alice spent four years waiting and wondering when the impossibly glamorous sister she idolized would return to her–and what their Hollywood-insider parents had done to drive her away.

When Annie does turn up, the blond, broken stranger lying in a coma has no answers for her. But Alice isn’t a kid anymore, and this time she won’t let anything stand between her and the truth, no matter how ugly. The search for those who beat Annie and left her for dead leads Alice into a treacherous world of tough-talking private eyes, psychopathic movie stars, and troubled starlets–and onto the trail of a young runaway who is the sole witness to an unspeakable crime. What this girl knows could shut down a criminal syndicate and put Annie’s attacker behind bars–if Alice can find her first. And she isn’t the only one looking.

Release Date: March 3, 2015

The most I really know about post World War II hollywood can really be summed up in a few movie titles and one famous murder, The Black Dahlia. McCoy was definitely influenced by the Noir era heavily, and this novel has almost every aspect of a film noir.  McCoy’s novel actually mentions the Black Dahlia murder and references it as “a few years go,” which means that Dead to Me should be set somewhere in 1949 – 1950.

The man character, Alice, is the quintessential younger sister character that idolizes her talented, beautiful, and intelligent older sister for all that she does and everything that Alice believes she is capable of.  Much like Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, Annie has a bit of a wild streak and would be caught drinking and sneaking out during her teen year flashbacks in the narrative.  I really enjoyed that the novel was interspersed with flashbacks to Annie and Alice’s childhood and their friendship in their younger years, because it really juxtaposed how violently their later years are and the circumstances that bring them back together.

There is something to be said about the end of the 40s and the early 50s, and how glamorous it all seems from our point of view now.  The fashion was somewhat seductive but still conservative, the women coy, gentle, but sassy, and the men were supposed to be dashing, passionate, and respectful.  Dead to Me kind of breaks down a lot of those ideals.  All but one of the men are pretty nefarious characters that are self serving, womanizing, and untrustworthy.  I can argue that the one character that I exempted from that description is still somewhat dubious and the main character waffles a bit on weather or not to trust him.  Hollywood itself is described as a pretty trashy town during that time, and the description of the derelict Hollywoodland sign that McCoy gives really sets the tone.

grace kellyEven the women go against type in this book, with most of them still being sassy, but gentle is not a word that describes most of them.  I would argue that Alice is about the gentlest female in the novel, and the rest are pretty wrapped up in some dangerous activities.  I really enjoyed McCoy breaking down these ideals, because it just made the book more fun and believeable for me.  The fashion still sounded pretty fabulous, but it was just details given in passing, nothing too extravagant.

But, just for kicks, here’s a gorgeous picture of Grace Kelly.

There are some pretty overt references to rape in this novel, and I think that the secrecy surrounding the topic really mirror how some survivors feel when they try to tell the truth in today’s society as well.

 

I really enjoyed this, and I think you should pick up a copy!

4 Bards

fourbards

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