Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc by David Elliott (ARC Review)

Voices the final hours of Joan of Arc

Information

Goodreads: Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: March 26, 2019

Official Summary

Author David Elliott explores how Joan of Arc changed the course of history and remains a figure of fascination centuries after her extraordinary life and death.

Told through medieval poetic forms and in the voices of the people and objects in Joan of Arc’s life, (including her family and even the trees, clothes, cows, and candles of her childhood). Along the way it explores issues such as gender, misogyny, and the peril of speaking truth to power. Before Joan of Arc became a saint, she was a girl inspired. It is that girl we come to know in Voices.

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Review

This is a creative book, a story told in different types of verse by Joan herself and by different people and objects that were present during her life and near her death (the flames at her pyre, St. Michael the Archangel, her banner, her sword, etc.). Its unique form and its attempt to deal with subject matter like medieval gender roles will likely make it popular with educators, librarians, and award committees.  Other Goodreads reviews also suggest that readers unfamiliar with Joan of Arc liked the book as a general introduction to her life.  However, as someone familiar with Joan and who studied medieval literature in graduate school, I was largely unimpressed.  The book attempts to grapple with important questions of power, gender, and religion but ultimately misses any nuance and, frankly, seems completely unaware of what actual medievalists have to say about the subject.

First, I think the book doesn’t take Joan’s religion seriously, which is a problem I have in general when authors tackle religious figures and try to write them for a popular, secular audience. (For instance, see my review of Hild.) Elliott doesn’t seem comfortable suggesting that Hild believes her own visions or that anyone else believes her.  He has a whole poem from St. Michael’s point of view that suggests he may or may not be real and ponders whether, if he is real, he can really be counted as a saint. (Which seems to overlook the Catholic definition that a saint is anyone in heaven so, yes, if Michael the Archangel is real he is 100% a saint; this has nothing to do with whether he feels his personality or actions deserve the title.)  Another poem from St. Margaret reflects that “saints are just human” and she can’t really do anything to help Joan, which also seems counter to actual Catholic teaching.  The book obviously doesn’t need to support Catholicism, but I do think a book that is about a Catholic saint and seems to be trying to celebrate that person should, in fact, take their religion and religious beliefs seriously instead of trying to minimize them.

I also have concerns about the discussion of gender. Elliott’s portrayal of Joan is one (a stereotypical YA one?) of a young girl who never liked doing girly things like sewing, who hated wearing dresses, who always dreamed of going to war, and who says she is more comfortable in the military than anywhere else.  There is no historical evidence to support this.  Of course Joan and her supporters would have reason to lie and make her seem content with “women’s work,” but all the evidence we have suggests that Joan was a “good girl,” a quiet religious girl who was good at sewing and such and never gave anyone the impression she was itching to throw away her mending, rip off her dress, and go to war.

Elliott further suggests that Joan was uncomfortable wearing women’s clothes and feeling men’s clothes felt “right” to her.  Perhaps, but this is speculation on Elliott’s part, a suggestion that perhaps she really did feel like or yearn to be a man.  Historical evidence, on the other hand, suggests that she dressed as a man primarily to avoid being raped.  She didn’t want to obviously look like a woman when surrounded by men.  Furthermore, historical evidence shows she had a number of fastenings and ties added to her clothing that would have been unusual on the average menswear–presumably to make it harder for someone to forcibly take it off her.  The records are also clear that she regularly slept fully clothed AND fully armed; again, presumably for her personal safety. Elliott glosses over all of this.

Finally, the book suggests that Joan was primarily killed for acting/dressing like a man.  Certainly this was a sticking point in her trial, part of the evidence that she was unnatural, possibly a witch. However, it’s clear that she was killed by the English because, well, she was French and winning battles for the French.  Again, Elliott completely overlooks an important medieval discussion: the fine line between being a saint and a witch for women in the Middle Ages.  Joans actions were praised by the French and condemned by the English; the French thought she was from God, and the English thought she was the devil.   This was obviously for political reasons, and she was not killed for acting like a man.  I think if Elliott had even really dipped his toes into medieval scholarship or discussions surrounding Joan, the witch/saint dichotomy would have been evident to him, and it should have played a larger role in this book.

It’s clear from reading other Goodreads reviews that I am currently the only one taking these types of issues with the book.  If you just want an overview of Joan’s life and to get a general sense of what she did and how others responded, this certainly will work as an introduction.  I think anyone who has a particular interest in Joan and has read a lot about her will be disappointed by how speculative this is and how it seems grounded more in the author’s opinions and interpretations than solid research.

3 Stars Briana

Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave by Alice Gregory

Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep

Information

Goodreads: Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave
Series: None
Source: Library
Published:  August 14, 2018

Official Summary

Sleep is vital to the way we learn, remember and forget, to how we feel about family and partners, our wellbeing, and our mental and physical health. It is essential for life itself. In Nodding Off, renowned sleep researcher Alice Gregory explores every aspect of sleep, from the different stages of sleep and how our sleeping patterns change throughout our lives, to what happens when things go wrong and getting some shut-eye becomes more of a trial than a pleasure.

Using cutting-edge findings in the field, Gregory tackles the big questions, such as:

– How do things that happen before we are even born affect our sleep?
– What sleep problems should raise a red flag in children?
– How do genes influence the way we sleep?
– What are the consequences of sleep problems in the elderly?
– Why are scientists turning to sleep disorders such as sleep paralysis to try to understand paranormal experiences?

Most of us spend a large portion of our lives asleep without ever thinking about why we do this. Nodding Off lifts the lid on this mysterious and universal past time. It examines all of the biggest sleep secrets, and Professor Gregory provides solutions to some of the common sleep problems that people suffer throughout their lives.

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Review

When I picked up Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave, I think I was under the impression it was going to be fun.  First, I love sleeping (who doesn’t?).  Second, it has such a fun, whimsical cover.  However, the book ended up being mildly terrifying.  It turns out that a lot of the “science of sleep” is focused on what happens when things go wrong, when people can’t sleep or can’t stay asleep or have sleep paralysis or wet the bed in their sleep, etc.  I never felt as self-conscious and paranoid about  my sleep as I did while reading this book.  That is not to say it wasn’t informative, however.

In fact, there is information that’s not just about “sleep gone wrong.”  The book is organized into chapters on different ages, which makes it tempting to read just the chapters that pertain to you or your kids or your aging parent you’re caring for or whatever, but I read through the whole thing.  I learned about sleep training infants (no one really knows what they’re doing, as far as I can tell), and I learned about how people have different internal clocks.  I’ve been reading for years that teens, for instance, are biologically programmed to go to bed later and wake up later, and this book really delves into that.  It cites one school district that actually changed the high school start time to be later.  Kids were happier, healthier, and doing better in school.  There were even fewer teen car accidents.  This is science having real results in the world–that a lot more school districts should follow, if they’d stop being so concerned about saving money on buses. (The general argument is that elementary school students and high school students should start at different times, with high school kids earlier, so the school district can have fewer buses than if both schools started later.)  I also just want to show this information to all the obnoxious people who hassle teens for “sleeping in,” as if they think teens go to bed at 9 pm and get up at noon, instead of going to be at 2 am and getting up at noon (which they are biologically programmed to do).

However, ultimately the thing that made the biggest impression on me from this book was the sense of how little we actually know about sleep.  When you don’t study a particular subject yourself, you often thing the “major questions” or “obvious questions” have been covered, but often there are actually incredibly surprising gaps in our knowledge, and this book highlights that.  For instance, there apparently has been very little work done on sleep paralysis.  No one knows why it occurs or how to stop it.  Apparently some doctors aren’t even aware of it.  We also don’t 100% know why we dream.

Nodding Off is a good introduction to sleep.  It was not necessarily the most engaging nonfiction book I’ve read, and I did think there was a lot of emphasis on sleep problems that somewhat depressed me.  However, it’s a good place to start if you want to know about sleep, and you really can read just the chapters that are most relevant to you.

4 stars Briana

 

 

The Letter to the King by Tonke Dragt

Information

Goodreads: The Letter to the King
Series: The Letter to the Kind #1
Source: Library
Published: 1962
Translator: Laura Watkinson

Summary

Sixteen-year-old Tiuri is keeping vigil before he is knighted.  He cannot speak to anyone all night, nor can he open the chapel door. But when he hears a voice outside asking for help, Tiuri opens the door and soon finds himself on the run, a letter for a neighboring king hidden in his shirt.  Tiuri hopes that he can deliver the secret message in time.  But he also hopes he has  not destroyed his chances of ever becoming a knight.

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Review

The Letter to the King is a refreshing breeze in YA literature.  Originally published in the Netherlands in 1962, it lacks all the tropes and over-the-top drama readers may associate with YA fantasy currently being written in the U.S.  The plot is simple, with the action naturally ebbing and flowing around the protagonist Tiuri as he attempt to deliver a letter to a neighboring king, without being stopped by various enemies.  It is reminiscent of older tales, such as King Arthur, and will likely appeal to readers who enjoy classic tales of heroism.  In short, this book is a first-rate read.

The plot begins with sixteen-year-old Tiuri breaking  his vigil to deliver an important message to the king to the west.  Readers will likely sympathize with him from the start for, even though Tiuri has broken the rules, it is clear that he has done so because he is a true knight, and can never turn away from those in need.  This naturally makes Tiuri both an interesting protagonist and one whom readers can unreservedly cheer for.  His personality profile may never be fully sketched out, but it does not need to be.  Readers know Tiuri is a hero and that is that.

This beautiful simplicity continues throughout the book, which is pretty much a classic quest with Tiuri eluding pursuit, meeting strangers on the road, and stopping overnight at various manors and castles.  Readers accustomed to the fast pace and constant drama of contemporary U.S. YA may find this pacing slow.  They may miss the steamy romance and the cutting betrayals.  But The Letter to the King demonstrates that all these bells and whistles are not needed for a good story, a story that has a heart in its faithful protagonist.  Invest in the mission and you are invested in the story.

The Letter to the King is a reminder of how original–and thus exciting–YA can be.  It is also a beautiful example of a YA book written for younger, rather than older, teens.  I was thrilled to find this gem and it has interested me in finding more international YA authors, and maybe some older titles, just to mix up the same old, same old feeling that I tend to get from the U.S. market.  A worthy read for fans of heroic quests and tales of chivalry.

4 stars

 

If You Like Six of Crows, Then Read…

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

gilded wolves

It’s 1889 in Paris and hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie has been offered the opportunity of a lifetime: in exchange for helping the Order of Babel, he will receive his true inheritance.  To find the treasure the order seeks, Séverin assembles an extraordinary team.  But what they find could change history.  Read Briana’s review.

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The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

The Poison Throne

Fifteen-year-old Wynter Moorehawke has returned to the palace where she grew up like a sister to the two princes, the bastard son Razi and his younger brother, the heir Alberon. But things have changed. The cats no longer talk, the ghosts are not friends, Alberon is missing, and the king is torturing subjects. The king desires Razi to take the throne, but Razi knows his brother must be the one to rule. Now Wynter must choose: her king or the true heir.  A compelling adult fantasy whose morally-dubious characters somehow manage to still be sympathetic. Read Krysta’s review.

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The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

Shai is a Forger–one of the best. But the arbiters who rule the empire believer her art is nothing more than a trick, or, at the worst, a heresy. But now, as the result of an assassination attempt, the emperor sleeps in a coma and when he wakes, an enemy faction will no doubt declare him unfit to rule. So the arbiters need Shai. They need her to do the impossible. They need her to refashion a soul for the emperor.  A fantasy novella that features a complex protagonist and a carefully detailed world.  Read Briana’s review.

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Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

As the youngest daughter, Siri has always been considered unimportant. But then her father sends her to marry the dreaded king of Hallandren in her sister Vivenna’s place. With a neglected education, Siri has no clue how to act in her new role as the wife of a god-king who could kill her at any moment. Feeling useless herself, Vivenna sets out to rescue Siri. But both princesses are about to find themselves embroiled in political conspiracies that may prove to be too much for them to handle.  A rich fantasy featuring court intrigue, a simmering rebellion, and morally complex characters.  Read Krysta’s review.

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Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Ship of Smoke and Steel Review

When the emperor discovers that eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka can access the Well of Combat, he gives her an impossible mission: steal the ghost ship Solitan.  Isoka’s sister’s life is forfeit if she fails.  But she beings to realize that Solitan may be harboring secrets.  Read Briana’s review.

The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

Information

Goodreads: The Witch Boy
Series: The Witch Boy #1
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

In Aster’s family, girls grow up to be witches and boys grow up to be shapeshifters.  But Aster wants to be a witch, too, even if  he has to keep spying on the girls’ lessons.  Then the boys starts disappearing.  Can Aster help find them with his witch powers?

Review

The Witch Boy grabs readers from the start with a sympathetic portrayal of a boy who longs be a witch, but is denied lessons by his family.  In thirteen-year-old Aster’s world, girls are witches and boys are shapeshifters.  Those who long to do things differently are shunned, maybe even cast out.  But Aster is as determined as he is kind, and readers will find themselves cheering him on from the start.

The plot of The Witch Boy is not particularly original, and most readers will likely be able to predict the ending from the start.  The story, however, does not need to rely on the element of surprise to be engaging.  Rather, it relies on its characters, especially Aster and his new friend Charlie, a girl who believes her school should allow her to play all the sports the boys get to play.   Their frustrations will resonate with readers, who will share Aster’s pain, admire Charlie’s optimism and openness, and, above all, hope the two will find acceptance and friendship.

Much critical attention has focused on the theme of gender acceptance in this story.  And this, of course, is a crucial element, one to be celebrated not only by librarians and teachers, but also by anyone longing to find a book where the characters are shown to be perfect just the way they are, even if they are different.  The narrative deals with this theme realistically and sensitively.  Aster’s family are shown to be loving, but not everyone is sympathetic to his dreams and even the ones who mean well often try to guide Aster into more traditional channels, believing they are acting for his own good.  Their path to understanding is a key part of their story as they are not bad people, but simply people learning to readjust their thinking and learning to listen.  Crucially, the story holds out hope that such change is possible.

The Witch Boy is a fast-paced graphic novel with a sympathetic protagonist and a topical message.  Readers who enjoy books on witches or books about finding one’s place in one’s family will enjoy this story.

4 stars

In Defense of Flawed Characters

Flawed characters get their fair share of criticism.  Sometimes, readers seem to expect or hope that characters will perfectly model their own values.  That they will be kind, caring, intelligent, and aware in precisely the same way the reader themselves would like to be.  When characters fail to meet these expectations, disappointment and anger can ensue.  But people in real life are varied and it makes sense that characters will be varied, too.  It makes sense that sometimes they will make poor decisions, that sometimes they will act or speak out of fear, selfishness, or ignorance.  And that, as a result, yes, we readers will sometimes disapprove of what they have done.  Even so, flawed characters are valuable–and not only because they can add drama or excitement to a story.  Flawed characters are valuable because they can give us hope that we can change.

When I speak of a “flawed” character, I do not mean the villain of the story.  Voldermort is undeniably flawed, as are Sauron and the White Witch or any number of the criminals superheroes routinely fight.  These types of characters are typically meant to be understood as evil or at least as representing a type of evil that must be overcome.  Sometimes they are made more complex and may experience character arcs that result in repentance or redemption.  But readers generally know that these characters are meant to be villains and they do not typically relate to them or expect more from their behavior.

In contrast, a “flawed” character is usually a character readers do not immediately perceive as evil and whom they may perceive as relatable.  They are “normal” people who typically mean well (or at least do not mean to cause active harm), but who make decisions that readers may perceive as wrong.  They may say something insensitive, hurt a friend, lie to someone, or believe things readers think are harmful or immoral.  For example, flawed characters might include Boromir from The Lord of the Rings, Gene from A Separate Peace, or any number of superheroes who lie to their friends and families.  They seem like kind of average people, maybe even like really good people–but they are not perfect.

Because these types of characters are not framed as the villain, readers tend to expect moral behavior from them.  This is especially true of protagonists, who are often framed as characters readers are supposed to sympathize with.  Due to this sympathy, readers may perceive the protagonists as potential role models, characters whose beliefs and actions could be emulated in the real world.  As a result, they worry when characters fail to have codes of behavior that align with their own values.  They worry that less informed readers will think lying or stealing or saying insensitive things is acceptable.  They worry that readers will see something problematic and believe it is okay.

Most readers, of course, are a little savvier than that and can distinguish fiction from reality. And they are not necessarily compelled to say or do something simply because someone else said or did it.  I do not believe we need to write fiction where people only do and say socially acceptable things, as a way to inculcate correct values in readers.  However, more than that, I believe we need flawed characters because they remind us of our own humanity.  No one is perfect.  At one time or another, we have all failed to live up to our own values, perhaps out of fear or selfishness or ignorance.  And, in those moments, we probably all hoped that we would be granted forgiveness and a second chance.  We wanted to believe we could do better, if someone would help us try.

Upstanding characters who do no wrong can be very attractive and even inspiring.  But flawed characters are perhaps a more accurate representation of what most of us are from day to day.  We are people who mean well (or at least who mean no active harm) who sometimes end up doing or saying things we regret.  Seeing that in literature reminds us we are not alone.  We are all struggling to be better, together.  And there is hope.  Forgiveness is possible.  Change is possible.  We won’t always be the person who made that mistake.  We won’t always be ostracized as the person who made a mistake.

Sometimes the world can seem very dark. Sometimes it can seem like we’re fighting a losing battle. But flawed characters remind us that people aren’t black-and-white.  And no one’s destiny is set in stone.  We can be better.  I choose to believe we will be better.

Cold Day in the Sun by Sara Biren (ARC Review)

Cold Day in the Sun

Information

Goodreads: Cold Day in the Sun
Series: None
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Official Summary

Holland Delviss wants to be known for her talent as a hockey player, not a hockey player who happens to be a girl. But when her school team is selected to be featured and televised as part of HockeyFest, her status as the only girl on the boys’ team makes her the lead story. Not everyone is thrilled with Holland’s new fame, but there’s one person who fiercely supports her, and it’s the last person she expects (and definitely the last person she should be falling for): her bossy team captain, Wes.

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Review

Cold Day in the Sun is a quick, cute contemporary romance that’s all about the hockey: both the protagonist and the love interest play, and the story is set in a hockey-breathing Minnesotan town.  While the book doesn’t have quite the same character depth or complex family interactions as books by writers like Huntley Fitzpatrick, it does have a steamy (but totally PG-13) romance, as well as a lot to say about the way female athletes are treated when they play on a boys’ team.

The focus, then, is interestingly split between two somewhat disparate things: the fun and adorable romance and the very serious topic of the misogyny and verbal abuse that Holland faces for daring to play hockey with the boys.  I suppose one could argue that that is exactly how the protagonist’s life is split–she has beautiful and fun moments, but the sexism and people gossiping and hurling abuse are always in the background.  Yet readers generally expect books to be a bit more “pat” and cohesive than real life, and I think the sense that this book is being pulled in two different directions is a bit hard to grapple with.

I also think the hockey atmosphere is something that readers may be divided on.  The book truly is a celebration of all things hockey–Holland’s choice to  play for a boys’ team, her romance with her team captain, the big HockeyFest coming up that her team will play in, the school newspaper article she’s writing about HockeyFest, the local foods that are named after hockey players, etc.  If you like hockey (or even if you are/were an athlete familiar with how being dedicated to a sport colors your life–your schedule, your diet, your partying habits, etc.), this book will speak to you.

However, I think there’s an interesting “dark” side of this that is never addressed, is not a theme of the book at all: people who live in this down who do not like hockey or play hockey are probably complete outsiders.  As an example, only hockey players can be elected to the Snow Ball court (similar to a homecoming court).  The town literally thinks they will be cursed if they nominate non-hockey players.  Talk about special privileges.  The book presents this as if it’s a fun quirk of the town, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the students who at the high school who were probably bitter about this and the rest of the glorification the hockey team gets.  I think even a snide comment from a side character would have felt realistic, but I also think that the book isn’t interested in this type of realism.  It tackles the the tough real-world stuff of sexism, and it wants to just leave hockey as a fun thing to celebrate that everyone can love.

But onto the romance: it’s definitely cute. I think the pacing in the beginning is a bit rushed, and there’s some very predictable drama because that, apparently, is what YA romances do, but overall I enjoyed it.  Holland and Wes are great together, and they have real chemistry in their relationship.  The book puts them in some interesting situations involving snow days and such so they can (well, so they can make out), so it is a bit on the steamy side.  I think of it kind of as “hockey romance book lite appropriate for teens.”  (If you need more specifics on the content so you can guide other readers or yourself, there is no sex, but the characters do get to second base, and Holland is *accused* of some vulgar things because people think that’s how she was accepted to the boys’ hockey team.)

Overall, this is a fun read.  I think it’s a great winter romance that isn’t Christmas or holiday-themed.  It’s isn’t 100% light because of the prejudice Holland faces, but it is a cozy and entertaining read.

3 Stars Briana