Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels by Valerie Weaver-Zercher

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Information

Goodreads: Thrill of the Chaste
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Summary

Valerie Weaver-Zercher examines the appeal of Amish romance novels. Who writes them? Who read them? And why are they suddenly so popular?

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Review

Let me begin by admitting that I have never read an Amish romance fiction. Nor have I read much Christian fiction, aside from the 1967 Christy by Catherine Marshall. Still, I recognize that the Amish have an imaginative hold over many in the U.S. and, when I learned about Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s book exploring the appeal of Amish romance fiction, I knew I wanted to read it. What is it, after all, that has lead so many evangelical Christian writers and readers to immerse themselves in the lives of the Amish? And how accurate are these books, anyway? And what do the Amish themselves think of this proliferation of Amish literature? Weaver-Zercher sets out to answer these questions with a down-to-earth writing style that will draw in even readers who do not normally indulge in literary criticism.

There is a lot to unpack in the history of the Amish romance novel, but Weaver-Zercher makes a heroic effort to trace the rise of the form from its roots to the present day, explaining the ways in which these novels have represented the Amish and perhaps why. Interestingly, while some early novels depicted the Amish as the ignorant, subjugated Other, a series of people to be condemned and avoided, modern-day novels do not always depict the Amish as glowingly or respectfully as one might think.

In fact, since most Amish romance novels are written by evangelical Christian white women for evangelical Christian white women, some of these books suggest that the Amish are oppressed by their rules and tradition, are not saved, and are in need of an evangelical “born again” moment. Weaver-Zercher even quotes a popular author of Amish romance who stated that the Amish “are not Christians.” Weaver-Zercher’s assessment is that these books allow evangelical authors to reject their fundamentalist roots (represented usually by the “oppressive” Ordnung and a mean bishop) and celebrate a more individualistic experience and understanding of Christianity.

In addition to trying to create sympathetic heroines by making them more evangelical them Amish, many authors also try to navigate a desire for the simple life (represented by farm land and buggies) with their desire for modernity by depicting their heroines as leaving their communities for more progressive Amish communities or for the Mennonites. These types of narratives indicate how authors and readers are drawn to an idea of Amish-ness that seems idyllic, slower-paced, free from the trouble of modern life. At the same time, however, they may see the Amish as too strict and unrealistic, in need of bending the rules a little to be truly admirable or relatable.

After tracing the history of the Amish romance and its current manifestations, Weaver-Zercher explores reader response to the books. Her findings are perhaps not surprising. A large number of readers enjoy the books because they are “clean,” they reinforce and reaffirm their religious values in a hostile world, and they allow readers to create relationships with each other as they discuss the personal and religious journeys of the heroines. The response here is very interesting to me, as the women Weaver-Zercher interviews clearly enjoy Amish romance and find it valuable, even though many people might dismiss the romance novel as poorly-written, trite, and frivolous. The women, however, feel affirmed in seeing their own experiences (troubled marriages, miscarriages, etc.) reflected back to them. These books, then, often seem to deal with “women’s issues” that more respected books, authors, and genres may overlook.

But what do the Amish think of these books? is the question Weaver-Zercher said she got the most while doing her research. It is admittedly a question I always wanted to know the answer to. Weaver-Zercher’s interviews suggest that the Amish have varying opinions, just like everyone else. Some love reading them. Some like seeing characters “like them” (even though Weaver-Zercher notes only one Amish author writing Amish fiction). Some think the books are trash. And some worry that their community will be destroyed by books that depict their rules and religion as overbearing and oppressive. The books celebrate a personal conversion experience that the Amish, as a more community-oriented religion, would probably reject as too individualistic and emotional. At least one bishop Weaver-Zercher spoke to noted that he fear the books would cause Amish readers to drift away from what makes them Amish.

With all this covered, that leaves the questions of how accurately Amish romance novels depict the Amish, and whether non-Amish should get to write them, and profit off the Amish. Weaver-Zercher is pretty generous here. She notes some major areas writers get wrong, like suggesting the bishop is in charge of everyone and tells them what to do (the Ordnung is more community-based) or writing that the Amish trade young men around communities to keep the gene pool diverse (they don’t). Otherwise, however, she seems to accept that writers of Amish fiction mean well, even when they get things wrong. And she wonders if fiction writers really need to be 100% accurate. Do readers care if they sprinkle fake Pennsylvania Dutch words in among the dialogue? Or are readers looking for something besides cultural accuracy?

Weaver-Zercher also leaves it kind of open-ended as to whether non-Amish should get to write Amish fiction. Most writers try to get some “credibility” by claiming everything from having Amish or Mennonite relatives to living in Lancaster county, but the end result is that they probably cannot fully depict what it means to be Amish having never experienced it. Weaver-Zercher, however, does not judge the writers or the readers too harshly, instead focusing on what Amish fiction means to them.

Thrill of the Chaste is a well-researched book, delving into the historical, cultural, and religious roots of the Amish romance novel to try to discover the reason for its extraordinary popularity. The book is written with a light touch, and many personal stories from Weaver-Zercher, making it accessible, even to those may normally shy away from non-fiction as being too difficult or dry.

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4 stars

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The Best Sherlock Holmes Mystery for Beginners (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Which Sherlock Holmes work should someone start with if they have never read a Holmes mystery before?

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What Sherlock Holmes Story Should Beginners Start With?

Because Sherlock Holmes stories do not need to be read in order (Watson, as narrator, might vaguely mention some previous case having occurred, but the reader needs no knowledge of it), I believe the best place for a reader new to Holmes mysteries is a story that will capture their attention and make them eager to read more. For this, I propose The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has the benefit of being a full-length novel, rather than a short story. Personally, I tend to find longer mysteries more engaging and more suspenseful than short stories, as the length gives the author time to really develop a complex narrative, introduce multiple suspects with multiple motives, etc. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did write some excellent short stories featuring Holmes, of course, but a reader can happily delve into them after becoming familiar with Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. I believe Hound is also generally one of the most beloved and recommended Holmes stories, so popular opinion also recommends it as a good place to start.

And not all Holmes stories are created equal. In 2020, I read The Sign of the Four, the second of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, and I found it 1) disappointing and 2) racist. Doyle is a product of his time, of course, but I think this as an introduction to Holmes would be extremely off-putting to many readers. If one were to read the Holmes stories in order, one might start off with A Study in Scarlet, think it fine, and then be quite surprised (negatively surprised) by The Sign of the Four. So while I am generally an advocate of reading books in order, I think it unnecessary and possibly a bad idea in the case of Holmes.

What are some of your favorite Holmes stories?

Briana

Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

Wicked Saints

Information

Goodreads: Wicked Saints
Series: Wicked Saints #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2019

Official Summary

A girl who can speak to gods must save her people without destroying herself.

A prince in danger must decide who to trust.

A boy with a monstrous secret waits in the wings.

Together, they must assassinate the king and stop the war.

In a centuries-long war where beauty and brutality meet, their three paths entwine in a shadowy world of spilled blood and mysterious saints, where a forbidden romance threatens to tip the scales between dark and light. Wicked Saints is the thrilling start to Emily A. Duncan’s devastatingly Gothic Something Dark and Holy trilogy.

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Review

Wicked Saints is undeniably an attempt to replicate the success of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, with its Russian-inspired setting, its endless war, its romance with a monster, and its musings on the true nature of religion and sainthood. Unfortunately, however, the book never reaches the same level of writing or introspection of Bardugo’s work, instead relying on cheap thrills and plot twists to keep readings hooked. After too many attempts to shock me, however, the book started to get more laughable than dramatic. Wicked Saints is one of those books that made me deeply grateful the experience of reading it was finally over.

The premise of Wicked Saints is intriguing. It focuses on Nadya, a girl raised in a monastery to be the ultimate weapon to end her country’s war with a neighboring nation, as well as on the prince of that enemy country, and a boy whose power is monstrous yet compelling. These three should spark the interest of readers with their unique perspectives on life and religion, especially when their lives collide. However, the characterization is regrettably weak. Nadya’s main feature is her hatred of the enemy country mainly because they are the enemy, as well as “heretics.” The prince, Serefin, is more compelling, but readers don’t get much from him except that he likes to get drunk and isn’t as terrible as his tyrant father. The boy/monster remains an enigma and his main reason for existing seems to be so Nadya can fall in love with him, while flip flopping on the question of whether she can trust him.

The romance here is seemingly a replication of the Alina/Darkling romance from Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy. Unlike that one, however, this one is hard to be invested in. Nadya has no real reason to start falling for a boy who practices blood magic she finds abhorrent, and whom she is not even sure she can trust. He gives her no backstory, no reason for her to see the boy behind the monster. They barely even spend any time together. Instead, the author just tells readers that Nadya is physically attracted to him, and that is apparently supposed to be enough. But the great romances of literature always have a lead-up, always have a reason for readers to want to see a couple together. Here, the only reason is that YA loves the enemies-to-lovers trope, and Duncan wants to set up readers for a series of “Can we trust him? Yes! No! Yes! No!” scenes that start to become ridiculous the more prolific they become.

The book really starts to fall apart around the midway point when Duncan starts to attempt to play up the mystery and the drama. Part of this happens with the aforementioned series of scenes, where Nadya keeps trusting, then not trusting, her love interest as a bunch of of plot twists come out of nowhere, not because they make sense in the plot, but because drama is everything. But part of the strategy to create dramatic tension is apparently to simply not explain anything. In my opinion, this is shoddy writing. Writers should not have to rely on confusing their readers into thinking something exciting is happening. The plot should make sense and readers should be able to follow it. They should be worried because they have an inkling of what is about to happen, not because they lost the plot thread 100 pages ago and are now just along for the ride.

Wicked Saints will possibly appeal to readers who want more of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. However, the danger in trying to copy another book’s success is that any failure to reach the bar set by the first book becomes more pronounced. Wicked Saints is no substitute for the Grisha trilogy, and it is disappointing to open up a book with a promising summary only to find weak characterization, a bland romance, and a nonsensical plot. I won’t be picking up the sequel.

2 star review

How to Approach Reading a Classic

How to Read the Classics

Interested in reading more classics but a little intimidated? Here a few strategies you can try to make reading classics easier!

Read the Introduction

Skipping all the “boring” forewords and introductions might seem like the best way to jump into a book without getting bogged down by too much information that you are not even sure you care about. The introductory material usually, however, provides valuable knowledge that will help you understand what you are about to read. It should provide information about the author and their cultural and historical context, as well as information about how the book has been received and interpreted, and notes about significant passages, themes, and questions for you to be looking for. Doing this extra work at the start will make reading the actual book easier later on.

Do Some Research

If your edition does not have a good introduction, feel free to do some quick research online! All you really need is a short overview to get you situated. Do not worry about scholarly journals or anything like that. An encyclopedic entry noting the time period, significant influences on the work, and notable themes is a good start. If you later find yourself intrigued, feel free to keep on researching!

Check Out the Table of Contents

Looking at the Table of Contents will give you a visual guide to the journey you are about to embark on. It will allow you to mentally prepare yourself for what is ahead and even to organize how you want to proceed. For instance, you might decide to read a chapter a day. Or to finish Part I by a certain date. Even if you just decide to read what you are able, without setting goals, looking at the Table of Contents gives you more context about the book in general, which will help you feel more comfortable once you dive in.

Pay Attention to Footnotes and Endnotes

Ignoring footnotes and endnotes can be tempting, but they are there to help you! Some, of course, might not be of as much interest to you, if they are referring to a source or providing information for further research. Some, however, will explain obscure or arcane words, or provide cultural and historical context, so you will suddenly understand how arriving in a certain carriage indicates social class, or sending an invitation in a certain way could actually be construed as an insult. Without these notes, the story may be harder to understand. So doing apparently more work (reading extra) will actually make reading easier in the end.

Mark It Up!

If you own the book, don’t be afraid to annotate! If you look up a word in the dictionary, write the definition on the page. If you notice an allusion or learn something about the cultural context, jot that down, too. Writing the information down will help you remember it, and it will also make your reread a little easier!

Don’t Stress

If you do not understand everything at once, don’t worry about it! Even the best of readers do not understand everything the first time around (or many times around!). You might find you have to reread a passage several times. Or you have to look up what it means. Or maybe you just want to move on, go with the flow, and hope things become clearer to you as you progress. Whatever you decide is okay, if it works for you! In the end, just being able to complete the book will give you a sense of accomplishment. And the next time you read it, it will seem even easier.

Don’t Think You Have to Like or Even Appreciate the Book

So you finished the book! Congratulations! But you hated it. Not to worry. Knowing a book is a “classic” can make readers feel obligated to like it or find something good about it, lest they be accused of being uncultured. The fact is, however, that classic books are just books–that were published in the past. Most people do not like every book written today, so there is no reason to suppose most people would like every book written in the past. Classics come in all genres, age ranges, writing styles, time periods, and more. So if you didn’t like the classic you just read, there may still be another one out there for you to love.

Conclusion

Sometimes reading a classic book can seem like a lot of work. All the introductions and forewords and prefaces and endnotes and footnotes can seem overwhelming. However, most of this information is provided to help orient readers in a time, place, and even language that may not be familiar to them. Approach the work slowly and take what helpful bits you can from the editorial material. Doing this extra reading will pay off in the end. And if you still don’t understand it? That’s okay! Even the best of readers do not understand everything. Keep on trying and your skills will improve!

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10 Interesting Posts You May Have Missed in February 2021

Post Round-Up

Around the Blogosphere

  1. Xandra explains why she cut her Goodreads challenge in half.
  2. Sammie shares humorous books to brighten your week.
  3. Aria discusses how blogging has affected her reading.
  4. Michael shares what he learned watching 26 episodes of Harley Quinn in 8 days.
  5. Luke recommends the best (and worst) Tolkien reference books for Tolkien.
  6. Alison recommends YA standalones.
  7. Eustacia reviews The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats.
  8. Sofii discusses motivation as a reader and book blogger.
  9. Interesting Literature shares 10 of the Best Poems about Classical Myth.
  10. Sophie explains How to Write a Zero Draft & My Experience.
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Highlights at Pages Unbound

Participate in our Tolkien Survey!

Answer random questions about Tolkien, and we will post the results during our annual Tolkien Reading Event at the end of this month!

Discussion Posts

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Information

Goodreads: A Darker Shade of Magic
Series: Shades of Magic #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2015

Official Summary

Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.

Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.

Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

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Review

A Darker Shade of Magic, really the whole Shades of Magic trilogy, is beloved by readers; nearly anyone you mention the books to in the book community seem to have read them, and if they’ve read them, they love them. Personally, I was not going to read the series, based purely on the fact I read Schwab’s middle grade book City of Ghosts and found it perfectly solid but unremarkable. However, a friend gave me A Darker Shade of Magic for Christmas, so I gave it a try anyway…and found it just the same. It’s competent. I can hardly say there’s anything wrong with it. But nothing about it stands out.

Schwab, I think, has the craft of writing down. When I think about the two books by her I’ve read, they seem fine. The pacing is good. The characters are rounded and develop a bit over the course of the stories. The plots are fairly interesting. She knows how to write a book and put it together. And yet when I think about her books, they fall utterly flat for me. I’m not immersed in the worlds, I don’t really care about the characters, and I’m, frankly, baffled why so many readers think she’s the breakout fantasy writer of our times. She’s fine, but I can’t say her work is more than that.

Explaining why a book is just fine and not actively bad has always been a struggle for me; these are the hardest reviews to write. However, I’ve really sat down and thought about this for A Darker Shade of Magic, and my problem with the book is that it doesn’t seem to be about anything. There’s a plot, of course, and magic and thieving and battling and all sorts of things that ought to make a story exciting, but I don’t really know what the themes of the book are–or they’re not themes that stood out and spoke to me. There wasn’t a moment in this book that made me stop and think; nothing made me go, Huh, that’s interesting or Wow, I’ve never thought about that before.

I can’t even say the book is particularly invested in anything like the proper use of magic/power, or what it means to be privileged, or what it means to have a family, which are all things it seems to vaguely wave its hands at but not actually do much with. The focus seems to be on the concept (multiple Londons in different universes with different types of magic!) and the plot (bad magic is attacking!), and it just isn’t enough for me.

Even the characters are just kind of competently drawn, in my opinion. I see Kell is both powerful yet inexperienced, that he has a family but doesn’t feel he belongs, that he feels responsible for his brother. Yet the writing and the framing of the book don’t make me invested in this. It’s as if Schwab is telling me all these things about the character, but she isn’t making me feel.

So, the book is fine. That’s the main word I can come up with to describe it. I was mildly bored while reading and glad the book isn’t all that long. I have no plans to read the sequel or anything else by Schwab. I can sort of see why other people like her writing, but it isn’t for me at all.

Briana
3 Stars

Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have by Tatiana Schlossberg

Inconspicuous Consumption

Information

Goodreads: Inconspicuous Consumption
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

How much energy is used by an internet search? Does cotton really have a lower environmental impact than synthetic materials? Have ride shares lowered or raised our collective carbon footprint? Tatiana Schlossberg delves into the environmental impact we have every day, whether we realize it or not.

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Review

Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg attempts to draw attention to the everyday areas in which we consume goods, use energy, and impact the environment. Though some readers may already be aware of many of the issues raised–microplastics in the ocean from our synthetic fabrics, the carbon footprint of eating meat and dairy, the destruction of global forests to fuel our lifestyles–Schlossberg provides value by digging a little deeper into issues that may have puzzled readers.

For instance, is it less impactful to stream a movie or to buy the physical DVD? Have ride shares actually decreased traffic and pollution as promised, or have they raised both? Is buying cotton clothing actually a more environmentally-friendly choice than buying synthetic materials? Schlossberg explains how all of our choices have an impact on the earth, often making it difficult for consumers to figure out what they should do.

Schlossberg’s book is refreshing in that it admits that consumers alone will never be able to save the planet. The reality is that big corporations have been doing the most polluting, often disproportionately affecting communities of color and people who have the least political protection. So far, most governments have allowed these companies to do as they please, meaning they can make large revenues while passing on the environmental costs (polluted groundwater, increased illnesses and birth defects, etc.) onto their workers and the people who live next to their factories. Companies then claim that they have no responsibility for their actions, that consumers must put pressure on them to do better–even though most companies will never make it easy for consumers to figure out what their environmental policies actually are. It’s depressing to hear, but also a relief that someone is finally acknowledging that we cannot fight our way out of climate change just by turning off our lights and doing less laundry.

Schlossberg admits that the facts of the matter can make the situation seem bleak, but the book’s ultimate argument is that informed consumers can do more to put pressure onto their political representatives and the companies they are currently protecting. Informed consumers will be able to tell when they are being deceived, or being fed “solutions” that are just greenwashing. For real change, we need collective action. Books like Schossberg’s help draw attention to the problem, and hopefully are the start to a real solution.

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Fascinating Facts

  • Nearly half of purchases that are returned to the store actually end up in a landfill.
  • It’s believed about 31% of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, though some believe the percentage is higher.
  • Much of the food that goes unharvested is because Americans are unwilling to eat produce that looks “weird,” even if nothing is wrong with it.
  • In Europe, burning wood counts as “carbon neutral,” even though it isn’t. Schlossberg says the U.S. will soon decide the same.
  • About 70% of the world’s e-waste (used or old electronics) is assumed to have been thrown away, as it remains unaccounted for.
  • The Super Bowl causes a disproportionate amount of e-waste from Americans buying upgraded TVs (that they don’t really need) in order to watch the big game.

In the Hall with the Knife: Clue Mystery #1 by Diana Peterfreund

In the Hall with the Knife instagram photo

Information

Goodreads: In the Hall with the Knife
Series: Clue Mystery #1
Source: Publisher Giveaway
Published: October 8, 2019

Official Summary

A murderer could be around every corner in this thrilling YA trilogy based on the board game CLUE!
 
When a storm strikes at Blackbrook Academy, an elite prep school nestled in the woods of Maine, a motley crew of students—including Beth “Peacock” Picach, Orchid McKee, Vaughn Green, Sam “Mustard” Maestor, Finn Plum, and Scarlet Mistry—are left stranded on campus with their headmaster. Hours later, his body is found in the conservatory and it’s very clear his death was no accident. With this group of students who are all hiding something, nothing is as it seems, and everyone has a motive for murder. Fans of the CLUE board game and cult classic film will delight in Diana Peterfreund’s modern reimagining of the brand, its characters, and the dark, magnificent old mansion with secrets hidden within its walls.

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Review

A YA mystery inspired by the CLUE board game sounds like fun, but ultimately In the Hall with the Knife was bland and predictable, and I will not be continuing with the series.

The CLUE connection is itself tenuous, and it feels as if Peterfreund is trying to force allusions rather than having them naturally occur in the book. First, many of the character names are a stretch. Some are actually the character’s names while others are nicknames, but even the characters themselves think it’s a bit ridiculous. Peacock and Mustard, in particularly, get ribbed on for having absurd names. Peterfreund then tries to give her characters some of the personality traits of the original board game characters, but it all comes across as a faint flavoring rather than a convincing adaptation. “Plum,” for instance, is one of the top students at the school, and Mustard just transferred from a military school. Overall, however, I think Peterfreund could have just told this story without making it a “CLUE story,” so it didn’t really work for me as something inspired by the board game.

The characterizations are also incredibly flat. That’s not entirely unusual for a mystery, where often the plot is more the point than any sort of in-depth character study or development. However, Peacock is so flat that she comes across as some sort of tennis machine who thinks only about tennis, her diet, and her exercise schedule. Even when someone dies and she becomes one of the suspects, her thoughts are on tennis and training for tennis. Peterfreund tries to give her slightly more dimension by the end of the story, but by then it’s too late.

The other characters are only marginally better– and unfortunately it’s actually a flaw that so many of them have chapters from their own POV. I get that the author is probably trying to mirror the board game, where it’s all the players trying to find the culprit, so she didn’t want to have a single narrator or master detective, but it kills some of the suspense when there are so many characters writing from their own POV to the effect of, “OMG, I am so scared there is a murderer here! Who is it?? What should I do???” It makes the reader feel as if, well, those characters certainly are NOT the murderer! Even worse is that most don’t really have great “plausible motivations.” Am I really supposed to believe someone killed the headmaster over something like not getting an A on a test? Actually killed him? I think not.

In the end, the mystery was easy for me to solve, and I was bored most of the book. I wouldn’t recommend it, and I will be on the lookout for better YA mysteries to read.

Briana
2 star review

Should High School Readers be Assigned Classics Originally Written for Adults?

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Should high school readers be assigned classic books that were originally written for an adult audience?

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Should High School Readers Be Assigned Classics Originally Written for Adults

Classics in the classroom are controversial for a variety of reasons, not least because of the belief some readers hold that classics are just too inherently difficult for anyone to want to read, let alone students. The complexity of the texts and the unfamiliarity of the language is good reason, many argue, for teachers to stop assigning classics altogether. Often unacknowledged in the conversations around reading material, however, is the fact that a large number of students have not acquired the reading skills deemed necessary for their grade level. This means that it is not simply classics that might be too difficult for students to read, but a large number of more recent titles, as well. If teachers were to assign modern adult books to students, many would likely still struggle for the same reasons they struggle to read classics.

Every four years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests U. S. students in grade 12 to see where their reading levels are at. Students may score in four ranges: Below NAEP Basic, NAEP Basic, NAEP Proficient, and NAEP Advanced. A Basic score indicates that students have partial mastery of the material, Proficient means they have a solid mastery, and Advanced means they have exceptional mastery. One would hope, then, that most students would at least score on the Proficient level. The 2019 results, however, (the most recent available) show that 30% of 12th graders scored Below Basic, 33% scored at the Basic Level, 31% tested as Proficient, and 6% tested as Advanced. In other words, 63% of 12 graders, about two-thirds, have not mastered all the literary skills they ought.

Students may, at a Basic level, be able to “identify elements of meaning and form,” “make inferences, develop interpretations, make connections between texts, and draw conclusions, and “provide some support for analysis.” But they have not yet mastered “locating and integrating information using sophisticated analyses of the meaning and form of the text” or “providing specific text support for inferences, interpretative statements, and comparisons within and across texts.” 30% of 12th graders have not mastered even the Basic skills. Is it any wonder, then, that they find reading a classic book difficult? They might find reading and interpreting any book difficult.

Some have suggested that teachers replace classics with YA books. The argument made is usually that this will be more “relevant” and “relatable” to students. However, one might also consider that YA books are usually written more simply than adult books, making them easier for struggling readers to access and interpret. Yes, of course, YA books often deal with difficult content–anything from teenage pregnancy to death to the nature of humanity. However, the way YA books are written is actually usually more simplistic than adult books. Typically, sentences are easier to understand and any “message” or “theme” is spelled out for the reader. In fact, spelling out the message is so common in YA, that readers now get upset if an author does not do this, and instead expects readers to interpret something like, “This character said something sexist so he is the villain” rather than explicitly writing, “Bob is a sexist jerk who is imposing the patriarchy upon us by suggesting that we adhere to ideal body image standards, and we intend to stop him because he is wrong.” Because YA books now typically spell out any thematic messages, they actually may require less interpretive work from the reader, making it easier for struggling students to understand the main point of the story and write a paper about it.

This is not to say, of course, that students should not be expected to improve or that we should ultimately lower standards and never expect readers to be able to do the bulk of interpretive work on their own. However, there is a fine line between challenging students and making something so difficult that they simply give up. Every teacher will have to determine where their students are at academically, and what books it makes sense to connect them with. Some classics might actually work well for students who have difficulty interpreting texts and making connections because they do provide clear-cut examples of techniquess like symbolism (think The Great Gatsby) or have the characters reflect out loud on important themes. In other cases, however, YA books might be a more reasonable school assignment.

So should we keep assigning books written for adults to teens? Maybe. Many teen boys actually already read adult books because YA is primarily written by women about girls, and these books do not resonate with them as much. So teens are capable of reading these more difficult texts. On the other hand, we have the statistics showing that many teens are struggling academically. Every school, every class, and every student is going to be different. Some may find that classic books are challenging, but manageable. Others may find that different texts are more appropriate for their needs.

Ravage the Dark by Tara Sim (ARC Review)

Ravage the Dark

Information

Goodreads: Ravage the Dark
Series: Scavenge the Stars #2
Source: ARC from publisher
Published: March 2021

Official Summary

Step into an opulent world filled with risk, romance, and revenge and find out whether two unlikely heroes can save the world and stop corruption.

For seven long years, while she was imprisoned on a debtor’s ship, Amaya Chandra had one plan: to survive. But now, survival is not enough. She has people counting on her; counting on her for protection, for leadership, for vengeance. And after escaping Moray by the skin of her teeth, she’s determined to track down the man who betrayed her and her friends.

Cayo Mercado has lost everything: his money, his father, his reputation. Everything except his beloved sister. But he’s well on his way to losing her, too, with no way to afford the treatment for her deadly illness. In a foreign empire also being consumed by ash fever, Cayo has no choice but to join Amaya in uncovering the mystery of the counterfeit currency, the fever, and how his father was involved in their creation. But Cayo still hasn’t forgiven Amaya for her earlier deception, and their complicated feelings for each other are getting harder and harder to ignore.

Through glittering galas, dazzling trickery, and thrilling heists, Cayo and Amaya will learn that the corruption in Moray goes far deeper than they know, and in the end the only people they can trust are each other.

Star Divider

Review

Ravage the Dark picks up where the first book left off, with Amaya and her allies headed to a new country in an attempt to uncover the truth behind a deadly conspiracy. Readers need not be overly familiar with the events of the former book, as its events are not particularly relevant to this story. Once the author sets the scene and reminds readers of everyone’s relationship status, that proves enough for readers to get the gist of the plot. As with the former book, worldbuilding details are scarce, with different nations, cultures, and politics being hastily sketched just enough to make it seem like the characters are not walking through an empty earth. The plot and its drama are the main focus of the book, and readers are really just along for the ride, whether it makes sense or not.

Initially, I worried that I would not be able to understand this book, since it has been so long since I read Scavenge the Stars. Incredibly, however, the main fallout from the first book seems mainly to be that the love interests Amaya and Cayo are not ostensibly mad at each other. As is typical in many a YA, they spend the book alternately flirting and then yelling at one another, repeatedly crying that they no longer have any trust, but not doing a whole lot to rebuild it, either. Ultimately, the hormones seem to win out and that is supposed to be enough for readers to feel invested in the love story, even though it has to be admitted that Amaya and Cayo do not seem particularly compatible, in the end.

There is also a whole lot of drama, plot-wise, to keep readers engaged. There’s a deadly plague ravaging the nations, a shady counterfeiting scheme, some international politics that don’t make much sense, and a new sub-plot about a side character’s past, her journey to find her sister, and her desire to wreak revenge on the man who helped subjugate her country. Frankly, it’s all a little too much for one book to address adequately, and a bunch of the loose threads end up being resolved “off stage” in the end, with characters simply reporting that they have discovered the solution to all their problems and enacted it. After reading two books about these problems, readers might very well feel cheated that they do not get to see the resolutions actually happen.

Ravage the Dark entertained me immensely while I was reading it, and I think it is a stronger book than Scavenge the Stars. Objectively speaking, however, I have to admit that the worldbuilding is close to nonexistent and that the plot structure is a little too unwieldy. I think fans of YA fantasy will enjoy this one, but it may not be the type of book one wants to return to again and again.

Readalikes

3 Stars