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review 2019-12-14 17:25
Snow In Summer by Jane Yolen
Snow in Summer - Jane Yolen


With her black hair, red lips, and lily-white skin, Summer is as beautiful as her father's garden. And her life in the mountains of West Virginia seems like a fairy tale; her parents sing and dance with her, Cousin Nancy dotes on her, and she is about to get a new baby brother. But when the baby dies soon after he's born, taking Summer's mama with him, Summer's fairy-tale life turns grim. Things get even worse when her father marries a woman who brings poisons and magical mirrors into Summer's world. Stepmama puts up a pretty face, but Summer suspects she's up to no good - and is afraid she's powerless to stop her.
This Snow White tale filled with magic and intrigue during the early twentieth century in Appalachia will be hard to forget.




In this Appalachian re-imagining of the classic tale of Snow White, Jane Yolen introduces us to young West Virginia native Snow-in-Summer, named for the flowers that grow in front of her house. The story opens with Summer sharing the memory of attending her mother's funeral. Summer's biological mother, Ada-Mae died in childbirth, along with Summer's baby brother.


I'd been born on July 1, 1937, ten pounds of squalling baby, with a full head of black hair. It was a hard birth that nearly killed Mama. Though the next baby, being even bigger, actually did.


Cousin Nancy, who'd been there to help with my birthing, told me all about it later, after Mama died. "White caul, black hair, and all that blood," she said. I shuddered at the blood part, but Cousin Nancy explained it was good blood, not bad. "Not like later," I said, meaning when Mama died, and Cousin Nancy just nodded because nothing more needed to be added.


She put her arm around me, adding, "Poor man was so scared he might lose her. And when he came back inside, called by the midwife, he was so relieved that Mama hadn't died, he let her name you."


"Snow in Summer," I said.


Then she gave me a hug. "Your daddy laughed and said 'We gonna call her all that?' 'We gonna call her Summer,' your mama said. 'It's warm and pretty, just as warm and pretty as she is."


"I am," I said. "Warm."


"And pretty," Cousin Nancy said, drawing me closer. "Just like your mama." That made me smile, of course. Everyone needs someone to tell them they look pretty. Especially at nine.



Summer's father, Lemuel Morton, falls into a deep depression following the death of his wife and son. After four years, he just seems to snap out of it, virtually overnight. Shortly after, he remarries a pretty and mysterious woman no one in town has ever met before, only seeing that Lemuel appears obsessively enamored with her. Sure, people have questions, but at the end of the day most are just glad to see Lemuel's spark back again.


Summer does her best to be a good stepdaughter --- even when this new wife insists on calling her Snow rather than Summer, and her father never bothers to correct or object --- but inwardly she begins to have suspicions that there is a great deal of darkness within this woman. She knows a secret about this enchantress who has captured her father's heart, but decides to keep the truth to herself for at least a little while, while she sees what else she can learn. The more time she spends around her new stepmother, the more Summer begins to feel herself becoming enchanted, though initially she confuses it for true happiness.


But then there's the shift. Suddenly Summer is only allowed limited visitation with her cousin Nancy -- who also suspects there's something shady about Lemuel's new wife --- until Summer's stepmother forbids them from communicating altogether. Nancy is the widow of Lemuel's favorite cousin, Jack, and has served as a sort of surrogate mother to Summer all these years. She's also secretly been in love with Lemuel this whole time.

(I loved the character of Nancy, btw.)


Note: The majority of this novel is told from Summer's perspective, but occasionally there are chapters switched to Nancy's view of events. From time to time, the stepmother is also given a brief platform, trying to sell the "I'm not evil, not wicked" line, but knowing the origin story as we do, readers know to be on their guard with her.


Lemuel's own behavior begins to turn odd: he grows his beard out all long and grizzly, stops virtually all forms of personal hygiene (he begins to emit a persistent odor of urine), and more and more frequently goes into nonsensical rambling. Shortly after Summer's 12th birthday, her stepmother's abuse begins to turn physical, breaking the child's spirit to the point of convincing Summer she deserves this treatment. Cousin Nancy teaches Summer some white magic to try to combat the stepmother's dark variety. For added protection, Nancy also gives Summer a small bag containing the preserved caul Summer was born with (there's an Appalachian belief that those born with a caul over the head, or "of the veil", will hold the ability to talk with the dead). While the suggestions help, the white magic still proves too weak to overturn the enchantment consuming Lemuel's soul. Summer's salvation --- and that of her family --- will come with Summer learning to have faith in her own strength and abilities, turning this story into the classic theme of a kind, strong heart prevailing over evil.


So how does this retelling stack up to its source material? The likenesses are there, but this is definitely a unique story in its own right. But where are the recognizable markers, you wonder?


* Summer is a lover of fairytales and is familiar with the story of Snow White, but doesn't make strong connections between that tale and her life, at least not until she stumbles upon the magic mirror.

* The magic mirror does make a few appearances, though not really one of the key powerful elements of the story.

* The "hunter" character here is actually a country boy who has intentions of committing statutory rape (and maybe also murder) under the guise of "courting" Summer... as a favor to the stepmother.

* Yolen also brings back the 7 Dwarves, sort of --- Summer, while trying to flee "the hunter" guy, meets 6 brothers with dwarfism, German immigrant gem miners, with 1 brother away at college.

* Bonus note: Summer's fictional town of Addison is actually inspired by Webster Springs, WV, the real-life hometown of Yolen's late husband.

Snow in Summer is an extended version of a short story (under the same name) Yolen originally had published in the anthology Black Hearts, Ivory Bones. Much like the original fairytale, this novel starts with establishing what a joyous home life Summer and her parents shared prior to her mother's death. With the appearance of the stepmother, Summer's story illustrates the "necessary evil" of evil itself. Sometimes the presence of evil --- or at least hardship --- is just the thing we need to push us out of a stagnant, complacent state, driving us to rise up to our best selves.


Though this novel is published through Penguin's Young Readers Group division, parents may want to do a discretionary read prior to handing off to your children, depending on where your personal family guidelines are set. This retelling hits upon some darker themes: illegal moonshining; serpent-handling forms of religion / speaking in tongues; sexual assault / attempted rape, (at least touches upon or alludes to the subject); water sources laced with strychnine. Yolen works in some ecological discussions as well, in the topics of clear-cutting forests and the practice of strip-mining.


There are also spoilers for the novel Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.


If you get your hands on a hardcover copy, take a minute to take in the cover art --- there's a lot of cool somewhat hidden details throughout the whole piece!

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review 2019-11-12 03:34
The Greatest Lover in All England by Christina Dodd
The Greatest Lover in All England - Christina Dodd



Since childhood, Rosie's life has been the stage—passing herself off as a boy playing women's roles in the somewhat disreputable theatrical troupe of actor Danny Plympton, Rosie's adoptive father. But when unanticipated danger confronts them, they must flee London, taking refuge at the estate of Sir Anthony Rycliffe. A handsome, devil-may-care rakehell, Tony quickly sees through Rosie's disguise. But a lush, womanly form and eminently kissable lips are not the ravishing young beauty's only secrets—and the burning attraction Tony feels for her does not lessen the peril she has brought to his doorstep. The dashing rogue is determined to strip the irresistible lady of her mysteries—and her masculine garb—using all of his fabled seductive powers. After all, Tony has a reputation to uphold, as . . .The Greatest Lover in All England




Rosie (aka Rosencrantz) is no stranger to life on the streets of 17th century London. She travels around with a group of performers, led by her adoptive father, Sir Danny Plympton (he "knighted" himself), singing for food or dollars. Though illiterate, Rosie has one illustrious benefactor in her life, the one and only "Uncle Will" --- William Shakespeare.


*BTW --- each chapter in this book opens with a quote from one of Shakespeare's plays.


Our girl is rocking one secret on the cusp of having an unplanned reveal: only those closest to her know she is female, everyone else has always accepted Rosie's masculine presentation as the truth. Sir Danny took Rosie in as a little girl and made the choice to raise & present her as a boy for her own safety. Only now, with Rosie's introduction to Sir Anthony Rycliffe (legitimately knighted), is that coming into question.

When it's suggested that Rosie may possibly be the true, lost heir of the estate Sir Anthony calls home, Anthony proposes they settle the dispute by marrying and combining their lands and wealth. The long-term benefits of the arrangement take some convincing for Rosie, but eventually she agrees to Anthony's idea. Naturally, because this is a romance novel, what starts as a seemingly straightforward business arrangement shortly turns into something much more feelings-infused.


But if you think that's all there could be to this story, oh no no. Dodd throws some fun intrigue her readers' way! We got the Earl of Southampton, a patron of Shakespeare's theater, asking him to put on a production of Richard III (the Earls of Southampton and Essex harbor secret hopes that it will incite rioting against Queen Elizabeth I); Is Sir Danny looking at a chance at love?; Then there seems to be a secret assassin targeting either Anthony or Rosie... or both... but who wants them dead so badly? And then we have a friend of Rosie's sent to Newgate Prison and Anthony does his best to charm the proverbial pants off the queen to get the friend released. But oooh, the scene where Anthony takes things too far and his flirtatious words happen to contain a verbal knock on Earl of Essex, one of the queen's current favorites... so Anthony ends up getting his ears boxed, repeatedly! There's no shortage of entertainment in these pages!


For a romance novel, this ended up feeling quite literary. The writing is wonderfully clever, with all sorts of bookish references woven in. The dialogue is light and cheeky, such as the line, "... the cat who got the canary...I can almost see feathers protruding from your lips, what do you have planned?" Anthony and Rosie have an adorable, realistic "I'm calling you on your BS" banter between them that kept me laughing and nodding. Those who have been in long-term relationships will appreciate the style of playfulness these two have. You can just imagine the twinkle lights going off in the eyes of these characters --- Great fun!

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review 2019-08-21 07:59
The Warrior Maiden (Hagenheim #9) by Melanie Dickerson
The Warrior Maiden - Melanie Dickerson

When Mulan takes her father’s place in battle against the besieging Teutonic Knights, she realizes she has been preparing for this journey her whole life—and that her life, and her mother’s, depends on her success. As the adopted daughter of poor parents, Mulan has little power in the world. If she can’t prove herself on the battlefield, she could face death—or, perhaps worse, marriage to the village butcher.Disguised as a young man, Mulan meets the German duke’s son, Wolfgang, who is determined to save his people even if it means fighting against his own brother. Wolfgang is exasperated by the new soldier who seems to be one step away from disaster at all times—or showing him up in embarrassing ways.

From rivals to reluctant friends, Mulan and Wolfgang begin to share secrets. But war is an uncertain time and dreams can die as quickly as they are born. When Mulan receives word of danger back home, she must make the ultimate choice. Can she be the son her bitter father never had? Or will she become the strong young woman she was created to be?





In Dickerson's take on the Chinese legend, Mulan has been adopted into a European family in 15th century Lithuania. When war comes to the area, teenage Mulan decides to disguise herself as a man to take the place of her father, who had passed away. Mulan has numerous reasons for taking on this dangerous mission of sorts --- not only does she herself crave the chance to find adventure and a sense of purpose, but she also doesn't want to see her mother have to face possible homelessness!


Her family's well-being now reliant on her success as a soldier, Mulan goes into battle against the Teutonic Knights. Should she fail to bring honor and victory to her family and community, the alternatives could be either death or being married off to the local butcher, Algirdas, a union likely to lead to a lifetime of soul-crushing hard labor for Mulan. Also along for the journey is Mulan's childhood friend, Andrei, who poses as her body servant. He's in on her secret, naturally, but does his part to keep the truth under wraps... in more ways than one.


Disguised as a man, going by her father's name, Mikolai, Mulan meets Wolfgang, the son of the duke of the German town of Hagenheim. Wolfgang was pushed to join the army after his brother, Steffan, went against their father's wishes and chose to join ranks with the enemy, the ruthless Teutonic Knights. Now odds are good that the two will have to face each other on the battlefield. (Note: If you read the earlier Aladdin installment in this series ---- The Orphan's Wish ---- Wolfgang and Steffan are the brothers of Kirstyn, the love interest of Aladdin from that book. Another of Wolfgang's sisters are also featured in Hagenheim #6: The Golden Braid, the Rapunzel retelling).


Wolfgang initially sees Mulan as just a fumbling embarrassment of a soldier, but over time a slow friendship develops. He also notices that while Mulan's sword skills could use some work, she's actually an impressive archer and solid equestrian. 


I've seen quite a few high reviews of this book from reviewers who admit they know nothing of the origins of the story of Mulan, either through the Disney version or the original story the movie is based on. Being pretty familiar with both myself, I felt like Dickerson's Mulan was only a tepid nod to the fierceness and bravery of the original figure. It only lightly touches on the elements of honor and strength within the original Mulan's character that made her such a force to be reckoned with in the stories.



I also struggled with a number of things within the plot itself:


* While the friendship between Mulan and Wolfgang is sweet and builds naturally, the romance is largely one dimensional. Not to mention how her decision to call him "Wolfie" brought out serious cringe in me. 


* The pace of the story ran pretty slow for what you might expect in this kind of story, but I give extra points for the bit of excitement brought in near the end when it's decided that the fate of Mulan's mother will hinge on the outcome of a jousting tournament.


* This series in general... though I've only read from #6 on and am working on backtracking to the earlier ones .... but man, in these latest installments, there is so much white savior complex written into these retellings, it kinda ruins the spirit of the original legends for me. 


* The Warrior Maiden, with the Christian undertones that are worked into the entire series, came out much more preachy than previous books. For me, it didn't flow all that naturally in this environment, but more awkward... the way it was pushed into the dialogue at times read clunky to me.


I'm curious to backtrack into the earlier installments of this series and see how some of these characters had originally started out and where they go from here; to date, my favorite has been The Silent Songbird, the Little Mermaid re-imagining, 


FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2019-06-01 13:46
Carol for Another Christmas by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Carol for Another Christmas - Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

The spirit of Ebeneezer Scrooge returns to the 20th century to teach a lonely woman the meaning of Christmas in this delightful holiday fable from Nebula Award-winning author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough.  A workaholic with no room in her life for home, family, or love, Monica Banks finds her life dramatically transformed by the arrival of a special spirit from Christmas past, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who takes her on a journey that teaches her about the joy of Christmas.





In this more modern (published in 1996), gender-swapped conceptualization of the Charles Dickens classic, our Scrooge this time 'round is Monica Banks, a former tax auditor, now CEO of Databanks, a Seattle-based software company that develops Siri-like technology. Secretly addressed as "Dragonlady" by her employees, Monica's staff sometimes joke that she must have had a past life as a member of the Third Reich. Yeah, THAT bad.


As the holidays approach, Monica gets a visit from the OG Ebenezer one night to give her the heads up on the visitations coming her way. Obviously the skeptic in her disregards the message. But sure enough, the visitors come bearing reminders of painful memories and an even more unpleasant future, should Monica not turn her behavior around. Through these scenes, just as in the original story, we learn what has happened over the course of her life to have turned her into the witchy woman people now see her as. A few of the main deviations from Dickens' original:


1) Monica inheriting Databanks from brother Doug after his untimely death. Doug ran the company much like Google headquarters -- colorful art in offices, fun environments with toys, inflatable furniture, aquariums.... Once Monica takes over, she does away with all that, starting her on the path of becoming the battle-ax boss.



"You wouldn't know it was the same place," Sheryl said with a woeful shake of her head," Would you, Harald?" she asked another fellow, this one thin, dark, and bespectacled and perhaps a bit older than the others.


He shook his head sadly and held up a slice of pie with what appeared to be cheese melted on it. "Nope. Look at this. Cold pizza. On Christmas Eve, no less. Dragonlady closed all the cafeterias after 5 P.M. and charges more than a five-star restaurant to eat there, plus we only get half an hour."


Phillip chimed in, "When Doug was alive, they were always open and FREE, so if you were working on a problem at 2 A.M., you could still get a noshie."


"She brought in time clocks," Melody said with a delicate shudder.


"Sold the art collection too," Sheryl added forlornly. "I could tell which building I was in by that art collection. Now all the interiors look the same. I was lost for three days once trying to get back from the restroom."


"Pay toilets," a red-haired woman interjected.


"I used to be able to tell where I was from Matt-in-development's inflatable shark hanging from his ceiling, Karen-the-coder's aquarium, tester Bob's stuffed gorilla, and the different Doonesbury, Far Side and Peanuts cartoons on people's windows, but they're all gone now, " Curtis said, shaking his head, grieving for what had gone before. "All gone."


2) Dickens' original "Tiny Tim" character is represented here by eight year old redheaded Tina Timmons, who loves reading and making origami animals. But instead of Tim's faulty legs, Tina's health issue is a problematic heart. Tina's grandfather is the janitor at Databanks. Tina's grandmother and father are both deceased. Tina lives with her grandfather, mother and her teenage aunt and uncle in a slum apartment building where they joke, "cats and dogs not allowed, only rats, mice and cockroaches."


3) The spirit of OG Scrooge also seems to be able to interact with Monica's employees, even though they explain away his presence as some freak computer glitch (this is after he first makes his presence known by speaking through a computer and they can't figure out how to make him stop). Eventually they just accept him as some sort of avatar full of wisdom and mysterious powers of prophecy. It was a little confusing to work out at times but it also seems the employees are sometimes able to witness Monica's visitations as a distanced, detached (not in the room with her, I mean) audience?


Scrooge is able to travel through computer games, virtual reality programs, emails, etc to gather information and communicate with others. This process, the way it's laid out in the book, is sometimes a little difficult to visualize, but the concept is fun and later proves a nice vehicle for Scrooge seeing this modern world and being shocked by the rampant materialism of the day. As he puts it when Monica's employees show him a mall for the first time, "A small pile of these gifts could fund the Cratchetts for several years!".


The prologue to this book almost serves as an epilogue to Dickens' original work, Scrooge giving readers a rundown of what happened after the final scene of that classic story, up to the last five years of Scrooge's life. While the sci-fi / fantasy element introduced into Dickens' original concept makes for good reading fun (especially when reading it now and seeing how dated the 90s ideas already seem), there's also some heavier topics addressed here. Along with talks on unhealthy levels of consumerism, author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough also addresses the important discussion of mental health dips during the holidays. Holiday depression, work fatigue, it all gets hashed out between characters. Even a talk on slave labor comes up. I don't know about Scrooge's comment on overworked employees though, "Surely a Christmas so hard won must be all the sweeter..." LOL 


Certainly a unique twist on a holiday favorite! 

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review 2019-04-29 12:00
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson

Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie's house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief. Bridge to Terabithia was also named an ALA Notable Children’s Book and has become a touchstone of children’s literature, as have many of Katherine Paterson’s other novels, including The Great Gilly Hopkins and Jacob Have I Loved.





Jess Aarons is starting his 5th grade year training to become the fastest runner in his school. Running and sketching are Jess's outlets in a life where his parents seem hyper critical of his every move. Jess's parents come off as pretty moody for much of the novel, but it could be argued that a lot of that could stem from them struggling to make ends meet on the family farm. Whatever the reason, it makes for a consistently uncomfortable home life.


Leslie Burke's family moves into the farmhouse next to the Aaron's farm but the two don't really get to know each other until the day Jess agrees to race Leslie in a timed track event. Jess can't deny that he's impressed with Leslie's skills, and from that day on a close bond steadily develops between them. Leslie's parents are successful writers -- her mother a novelist, her father a political writer. But Leslie explains that the choice to move the farmhouse was the result of them "reassessing their value structure." The Burkes were stepping away from their privileged lifestyle to try their hand at homesteading. One wouldn't think it would necessarily be a bad thing... a family learning to live more in alignment with the natural world... until the day Leslie has to admit in front of the class that her home does not have a tv, so she wouldn't be able to watch a program for a homework assignment as the teacher had requested of everyone. From then on, Leslie is on the radar of bully Janice and Jess feels compelled to step up and guard his new friend the best he can, introverted though he may be.


Leslie is a tomboy with a passion for books, a love of reading that soon begins to rub off on Jess. During one of their excursions to the nearby woods, Leslie shares her wish for a land they could escape to when they wanted to get away from life's cruel moments. The kids come across a spot near a creek that Leslie decides to name Terabithia. To the outside observer, it might look like just a crudely constructed child's fort next to a creek out in the woods, but for them it was that metaphorical life preserver.







It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength. 


Leslie immediately has Jess read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series so they can get an idea of how to structure their own kingdom. She is the one who crafts all the legends and ceremonies of Terabithia, and Jess is in awe of her limitless imagination.





With certain scenes, Bridge to Terabithia painfully illustrates how cruel school years can sometimes be, not only for those bullied but also within the secret lives of the bullies themselves. Case in point: Leslie finds bully Janice crying in the bathroom one day. Once Leslie gets her calm enough to start talking, Janice explains that she confided in two close friends, revealing that her father frequently and severely beat her. Instead of comforting or otherwise helping her, the "friends" decided to spread gossip around the school, sharing Janice's secret with anyone who cared to hear. Even teachers began to look at Janice differently.



That was the rule that you never mixed up troubles at home with life at school. When parents were poor or ignorant or mean, or even just didn't believe in having a TV set, it was up to their kids to protect them. By tomorrow every kid and teacher at Lark Creek Elementary would be talking in half snickers about Janice Avery's daddy.  It didn't matter if their own fathers were in the state hospital or the federal prison, they hadn't betrayed theirs, and Janice had.  


I watched the movie adaptation of this several years ago. I don't remember a ton about it now but recalled enough to keep me interested in trying the book one day. So here we are, and while there's certainly a good story here, I'm in the camp of "why is this hyped up so much?" I mean, it even won a Newbery Medal. I was thinking it had a slow start, but the book as a whole is not terribly long.... I found I was nearly done and still having that sensation of "it's good but I'm just a tad bored, if I'm being honest". The big tragedy this story is known for actually doesn't start to unfold until the last few chapters of the book. I was also expecting more rich detail with the conceptualization of Terabithia. For some reason I had always had the impression this book had a much stronger sci-fi / fantasy vibe than what I actually found here. For the most part it's pretty much just kids crafting make believe stories out in the woods like so many of us did growing up. I would've love a little more magical realism woven in. In this case, I think the movie did it better.


In her author afterword, Paterson reveals that this novel was inspired by her son, whose childhood best friend was struck and killed by lightning; also, the character of Janice was inspired by Paterson's own 7th grade experiences with a female bully. She also notes that some literary inspiration came from The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.




*Illustrations by Donna Diamond

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