#CBR8 Review #111

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Is there such a thing as Brian Selznick addiction? Because OMG I totally have it. I devoured his two previous books in a mere afternoon apiece as they each came out. I’m just sad I forgot to put a hold on this when it was first released. I appreciate the way he merges simple charcoal-like sketches with a complex and layered story that helps us merge art and text. The Marvels is more of the same that I’ve come to expect. I can’t decide if I like it better than the other two previous novels, but I can tell you that it made me cry in a way the other two books had not. Unfortunately, I think talking about it is going to be too spoilery.

The Marvels begins on a ship. Billy Marvel is the sole survivor of a shipwreck with his dog. They find themselves in London at a theater, where they begin work. Then, a baby is left on the doorstep, and suddenly, Billy has a family. The story continues to the legacy of the Marvels, up to five generations, and then it abruptly shifts from image to text with the story of Joseph in 1990. Having run away from his boarding school, Joseph finds his uncle and steps back in time to a world and story he never knew existed.

What I like most about Selznick is that he is subtle. The most rewarding emotional payoffs occur slowly and then all at once. The ending made me cry, but it was a good cry. There are several pieces that are set into place, but until you see them all, together, you don’t understand the significance of them at once. This is, to me, one of Selznick’s best stories, because it examines the power of story itself and shows us where stories come from, both in our lives and our imaginations. A must-read.

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#CBR8 Review #110

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

My Book Club has decided to merge August and September’s books together, which is a good thing overall, since August was *crazy* for us all. Plus, B and D, the members who had the respective picks, decided to go with similarly themed books. B chose Coates’s Between the World and Me (which I read last year and found really profound and insightful), and D chose Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I had a strong reaction to it, which he was not expecting. The Chancellor’s review is going to be more favorable than mine, so I’ll let you decide where your opinion lies.

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he went down to Alabama to help a prisoner on death row appeal his execution. Stevenson discovered an incredible miscarriage of justice that routinely occurs on death row, and so he helped found the Equal Justice Initiative, a program that helps women, children, the poor, and those individuals desperately in need of fair and honest representation. This book is really three books merged into one:

*a memoir of Stevenson’s experiences as a lawyer working a lot of death-row cases

*the true-crime story of Walter McMillin, a man falsely accused of murdering a white woman and appealing his death sentence

*a sociological treatise on death row, mass incarceration, and wrongful imprisonment of people of color

Content-wise, this book is heartbreaking and necessary, but my issues lay with writing and organization. For me, the McMillin case works the best in the book. I feel like Stevenson repeats himself at times and juxtaposes a few too many stories and cases into what is billed as a memoir. There’s a huge shift in topics and sometimes, I feel like Stevenson tries to say too much in not enough space. Finally, having read The New Jim Crow first, I felt like Stevenson repeats a lot of information that doesn’t feel necessary for this genre of text. Further, he weakens his own book by including a lot of important information you can already get from other academic texts and not letting his strongest writing (the chapter “Broken” is especially powerful) shine. This was a 3.5 star book for me personally. But again, I like good writing if the subject area is already somewhat familiar to me. And this just didn’t quite do it for me the way I was promised it would.

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#CBR8 Review #109

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

In the last year or so, I became hooked on Megan Abbott’s novels. The Fever is my favorite, though Dare Me was also excellent. Abbott examines the dark underbelly of female adolescence in a way that is both complex and sympathetic. She looks at individuals versus the collective and questions the way we create homosocial female societies. I had high expectations for You Will Know Me, and she did not disappoint.

I was born in the 1980s and grew up in the 1990s, when the golden era of Women’s Gymnastics in the United States began. The Mag Seven winning team gold at the 1996 Olympics was a defining moment for me. And since then, I have more or less followed women’s gymnastics. And that is the subject of our book. Katie and Eric Knox enrolled their daughter Devon in gymnastics when she was a toddler, after a freak accident left her missing a few middle toes. Devon proved to be ridiculously talented, and then it turned into a dream. The Olympic gymnastics dream is one compounded by hours at a special gym, several mortgages on the house, parents shifting jobs, and a single focus: getting Devon to Senior Level so she can compete for a chance at Olympic eligibility. But a death of a member of the community sends the entire gymnastics family reeling. Suddenly, the future is murky, and secrets abound, secrets that most families would wish could remain concealed.

The timing of this reading was ironic, because I read it during the Olympics. I never thought too seriously how much money and sacrifice goes into an Olympic dream, but Abbott wastes no time getting to the gritty details. It certainly is sobering to think that behind a Simone Biles is a family that either can or needs to afford the hours each day that must go into her skills and talents. Plus, no one can weave a spell and create a deep set of female-centered suspense like Abbott. You also feel sorry for the girls and the parents, though you also cringe at their choices. It’s an interesting, complex read.

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#CBR8 Review #108

The Moon by Night by Madeleine L’Engle

Because I was an overzealous borrower at the library, this will be my last Austin book for a while, since I own the rest of the series. And library deadlines are looming, and I’ve already renewed a few holds. First world problems at their finest. So, without further ado, let’s talk about some more Madeleine L’Engle, and my LEAST FAVORITE CHARACTER.

In The Moon by Night, we find out that Vicky is 14. WITH A VENGEANCE. The family is calling it her “difficult year,” even though it’s mostly just the usual teenage angst and having a hard time coping with major family changes: John is going off to college, and Maggie is getting adopted (but there are mild spoilers attached to the circumstances, so I won’t go there). PLUS, the family is moving to New York City and leaving Mr. Rochester and Colette with their renters at the farmhouse (seriously, THE NERVE. I would not leave my animals behind). To ease the pain, the Austins decide to take a cross-country camping trip out to California and back. That’s where Vicky meets my LEAST FAVORITE PERSON, Zachary, plus another young man who is inexplicably attracted to her. And then she has to learn about where her own faith stands.

I have so much vitriol to expend on Zachary. He’s selfish and creepy, and a stalker. Reading about him is painful, because he is seriously a bad stereotype of a rich bad boy. Like, he’s just not even that GOOD at it. Ugh. I know he turns up in A Ring of Endless Light. I can deal with that, though, since we also get a wiser and soberer Adam Eddington. Onward!

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#CBR8 Review #107

Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle

This is the other major series that Madeleine L’Engle wrote. I’ve read Meet the Austins and A Ring of Endless Light before, so I’m excited to see how the rest of the series develops. I do think this book skews slightly younger and ages up as it progresses, so I’ll be interested to see how the rest of the series holds up.

Meet the Austins is, quite literally, an introduction to the Austin family. Wally Austin is a doctor, his wife Victoria takes care of the family, plays music, and in general keeps the family together. Their children are John, Vicky, Suzy, and Rob. They have a Great Dane named Mr. Rochester and a poodle named Colette. At the beginning of the novel, their family friend dies, and his co-pilot also dies, leaving behind a little girl. The Austins agree to take in Maggie, but it’s a series of struggles and reconciliations that help them grow as a family. While the entire family is featured, it’s really Vicky’s story and Vicky’s perspective that we get introduced to and follow throughout the story (and a good deal of the series, if I’m not mistaken).

This book reads something like the first half of Little Women, although it’s a bit less didactic. L’Engle’s faith and family values emerge strongly here, but it’s not in-your-face or overtly preachy. You don’t have to be a person of faith to enjoy this book, but it certainly emphasizes family over fantasy, so don’t be expecting it to be similar to the Time books.

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#CBR8 Review #106

An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle

You know how I said we weren’t done with Zachary Grey? Yeah, we’re not done with Zachary Grey. WHY DOES MADELEINE L’ENGLE RETURN TO HIM? Was her readership in desperate need of a “bad boy” to swoon over and so she kept him in her books? Did she genuinely love him and keep him in her books? Why is he here? Constantly? Alas, these are the questions that will continue to plague me after I’ve finished reading.

An Acceptable Time is placed in the Time books, at least the set that I own, but that’s not really accurate. It’s really more fitting in the O’Keefe family books, since Polly is the protagonist and the novel is set in her adolescent timeline. After the Max-Renny-Zachary drama in A House Like a Lotus, the O’Keefes (who know only about the Max portion, and MORE’S THE PITY, because Renny’s ass deserves to be beaten for what he did) send her to the Drs. Murry for a season of R&R. Let’s just say that Dr. Mrs. Murry is still as much of a badass as when we first saw her. One crisp afternoon, Polly sees a young woman who is dressed very differently, and then she sees a young man and a dog walking through the field. This leads to the discovery of an open time portal, which is situated right by the Murrys’ pool. Polly, and of course young Zachary, get sucked into this portal, and they find themselves caught up in a battle between two neighboring nations, one of which believes in human sacrifice. Polly must rely on friendship and love to get herself back home.

I just don’t get why Zachary gets a free pass EVERY TIME. Seriously, he’s a selfish asshole who thinks of no one but himself. I realize that L’Engle, in this book at least, is making the point that Jesus sacrificed himself for everyone, and that includes the Zacharys of the world, but it doesn’t make the aggravation any less real. But I think that’s kind of the point. It’s easy and fun to be a Christian when other people are just.like.you, but when they’re terrible and selfish and horrible? UGH. That’s when you have to put that real, godly love to the test. [And if Zachary wasn’t such a useless douchecanoe in the other books without any such purpose as expressed here, maybe that’s why he functions in this book? But again, the other books do not have this clear indication, so I don’t know]

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#CBR8 Review #105

A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle

This might be Madeleine L’Engle’s most controversial book. It was published in 1984, a time when books for children and young adults didn’t always deal super frankly with issues of sexuality, coming-of-age, and sex. While Judy Blume’s Forever had been published, it was the exception, not the norm. And L’Engle’s frank focus on female sexuality is startling in its clarity and honesty.

Polly O’Keefe is now 16 years old, and she has been taken in as a mentee to wealthy artist Maximiliana Horne. Under Max’s tutelage, Polly learns about life, art, literature, and a variety of other things. Max arranges a trip to Greece, where Polly can serve as a diplomatic assistant at a convention. But before the trip, Polly learns a startling truth about Max and embarks on a foolhardy romantic quest. And then in Greece, she meets the charismatic and dangerous Zachary Grey. Blech. The less we say of him, the better.

I appreciate L’Engle’s frank discussion about sex and the emotional consequences of having sex before you’re ready or even properly informed, as well as the change from child to adult and your evolving relationship with your family when you become an adult. But at times, I experienced a bit of whiplash, because Polly is both an old soul in matters of intellect and deeply naïve about sex and sexuality. On that note, we have to talk about the sexual encounter that occurs in the book and the “crisis” that Polly experiences, because they both bugged me. SPOILERS, obviously.





Okay, if you’re still here, it’s your own fault. First things first: big old secret:

*Eventually, Polly puts two and two together and discovers that Max is a lesbian living with her partner. Gurl, I figured that out pretty quickly. Also, Max is dying of a mysterious incurable illness. One night Max gets a little too drunk and approaches Polly asking why she doesn’t trust her, or something along those lines. This is supposed to be read as a come-on, but I just didn’t buy it. Max is dying, she’s had an abusive past, and she’s drunk a little too much. She’s not trying to seduce Polly. At least, I didn’t read it that way. Polly’s running away just reads as emotionally immature, particularly because her parents knew about Max’s sexuality and health struggles. They would have been able to help her.

On to the next thing:

*Polly’s relationship with Queron Renier, aka Renny. It’s really just gross and uncomfortable, you guys. Polly is 16 and while she’s unbelievably smart, she’s still very childish about things like sex. Renny, however, is a hospital intern. Which means he’s past medical school or at least in the last stages of medical school. This puts him in his mid-twenties at youngest and possibly even late twenties. She contacts him when she runs away from Max and tells him not to tell her parents, so he takes care of her at his house AND THEN SEDUCES HER. And THEN, if that wasn’t bad enough, he scolds her and tells her that it must never happen again, despite the fact that HE SEDUCES HER AND INITIATES THE SEX.


Gross, Renny. You are the WORST. It is both bad judgment and poor taste on his part to seduce a 16-year-old girl who is not on birth control (he asks her about her cycle after, and I was like, DUDE TOO LATE, YOU PUT YOUR PENIS IN THERE.) and, most importantly, who is UNDERAGE. Polly is 16 and too naïve to know better. Renny is a 20-something man who does. UGH.

*Finally, let’s talk Zachary, but very briefly. I have lots more vitriol to unload in the next few books. He reappears in L’Engle’s books, and it’s painful. I’m not into bad boys, and Zachary is a whiny, self-indulgent, manipulative young man. Blech. His own stupid daredevil ways get him and Polly into trouble, and no one is bold enough to call him out on his crap. I have no sympathy for him.


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