Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

I had a lull of good books last week and told myself to just look around my house and pick up something. Right there on a ledge was Princess Academy. I’d bought a nice paperback copy for a quarter hoping Tabby would read it and wanting to reread it myself. I read this when I was a new book but it’s been so long I forgot what it was all about and have been having a hard time recommending it at school. So I picked it up and oh it was a delight all over again. Shannon Hale is such a good writer. And now I remember the story! Miri lives in a small village on a mountain, an outlying territory in the kingdom. They are isolated, but happy, digging linder out of the mountain-a beautiful rock that only comes from there. One day a king’s messenger arrives and announces that priests have divined that the prince’s bride will come from that village and all the eligible girls must leave the village to attend a “princess academy.” A mean teacher will whip them all into princess shape. So basically it’s boarding school! With a horrible cruel mistress, girls bickering, and much coming of age and self-discovery.  I loved the mild elements of fantasy (the linder stone is a sort of conductor for “quarry speak” between the villagers), the transformation of the girls as they are educated (no one knew how to read), and Miri’s growth. Very enjoyable and I can now happily recommend this to all!

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Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

I loved this until I got to the last page. WTF, Maureen Johnson? Why is this “to be continued”?  This was a super exciting classic mystery with nods to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, with flashbacks to a crime in the 1930s meshed with a present day situation in the same location, which happens to be an eccentric and elite boarding school for brilliant teens. I mean, it’s great right? Not unlike Johnson’s Jack the Ripper boarding school awesome story. But things were rolling right along with a good level of excitement and tension, everything about to be solved when… the end. Seriously, this book could have just used 20 more pages to finish everything up and I would have given it 5 stars. Instead it’s being strung out into a trilogy, which is ridiculous. As you can tell I became quite enraged at the end.

Luvvy and the Girls by Natalie Savage Carlson

Yesterday afternoon I had a friend over and we were looking at some of my old cherished children’s books. I told her all about this one, as it was one of the first boarding school books I read and I loved it very much. After she went home I picked it up and ended up just quickly reading the whole thing. Guess what? Just as good as I remembered. And I’m going to say, although I often laugh at the old fashioned books, I can see from my adult point of view that it was a really good book. Although it’s set in 1915 it was written in 1971.
The things I so vividly remembered about the book were all there–fascinating cloistered nuns, strict rules, a poor homely orphan, and a goody goody.  Objectively speaking, it’s a good story about a girl going away to school, being homesick, figuring out who her friends are.
One thing I think I had not noticed until yesterday is that the girls in the story have the last name Savage and the dedication is to the Pupils of the Frederick Academy of Visitation, which is the convent school in the story and Savage is the author’s middle name. So now I’m convinced that her family really did go to this school and it’s not entirely fictitious but based on family stories and actual events. Perhaps the girls really did march by two on a long trek to a cemetery to gather violets. Perhaps they were allowed to spend a nickel each Saturday on ice cream cones and pickles (Pickles really seem to have been a popular snack in the olden days. At least according to this and All of a Kind Family.)

Pleased to say this held up and was just as enjoyable.

UPDATE! As I wrote this and then logged it on to Goodreads my mind has been blown. Because of the way Goodreads identifies things as part of a series they are calling this The Half Sisters #2.  That means there were MORE BOOKS ABOUT LUVVY (and her half sisters.)  What a shame I never knew this as a child (and how would I? the books weren’t labeled on the cover as part of a series and if it wasn’t on the shelf at my library I didn’t know about it. No following of authors on social media. Forthcoming new titles were not promoted. If it wasn’t at our library, I didn’t know about it.) Obviously I will be looking for the other titles now.

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard

stayThis was a  beautiful story, nicely told between standard writing and then the inclusion of the main character’s original poetry.  Emily (no actual relation to Emily Dickinson) is off at boarding school (in Emily Dickinson’s hometown) for a fresh start away from the terrible memories, looks, and stories after her boyfriend killed himself in the school library in front of her.  A fresh start is difficult and Emily is deeply scarred by the tragedy and coming to terms with it.  However, a powerful need to write poetry, along with a growing friendship with her roommate, K.T., help her through it.  I appreciated that though this was a bit sad, it was not an overwhelmingly sad or depressing book.   And how could I not love a boarding school story which includes a brief shout-out to the The Secret Language-the very first boarding school book I read and loved? The bits about Emily Dickinson, along with Emily’s original poetry, are beautifully incorporated. This was a lovely story.

Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger

I’ve had such a slow start to the year, in part because it’s taken me forever to read this despite being super excited to get it. It’s #3 in the Finishing School series.  Somehow I found it a bit slow? Less compelling? Sometimes it’s hard to get invested in a story where so much is made up and strange. Specifically, the aetherosphere that the Picklemen and vampires seem to fighting and plotting over. I can’t get that caught up in it because it’s all strange and makes no sense. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed all the details of things like Sophronia’s skill with the bladed fan and how all the Intelligencer girls act.  This one barely took place at all up in the air, as most of the story was land bound. Also, specifically, moving train bound! Everyone loves a story on a moving train.  The romantic triangle between Felix, Soap, and Sophronia continues (I’m rooting for Soap.) And there’s also a fair amount of backstory on werewolves which sort of went over my head.

However, I did enjoy this latest installment and hugely admire Sophronia for all her skills.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

hp4Gah! It’s been so long since I’ve finished a book. The problem lies in choosing to read a book I was super excited about, having it be the only book I brought on vacation, not being really into it. When we got back from vacation I picked up HP because the time was right having just spent two days at Universal Studios immersed in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. My slow book didn’t stand a chance against HP. So, I know I keep saying this as I am rereading this series, but I’m really really enjoying this. Possibly more than the first time? I love reading the books so much more closely together than as published because this time I’m really appreciating the story arc, the momentum, the turn towards the dark, and I’m feeling very caught up in it without having forgotten any prior details. It’s also fun to read them after we see the movies because the movie leaves out so much of the book that it’s like the movie is an exciting teaser for the full story. [I’ll probably switch to just reading the books now because I don’t think our kids are up for watching #5 yet, but I don’t want to wait to read it.]

As a reminder, this one is the one with Cedric Diggory, the tri-wizard tournament, and the ultimate return of Voldemort, leaving the ending one filled with the threat of impending danger, battle, and sides being drawn. The Malfoys are proven to be aligned with the Dark Lord, Snape continues to confound, and the Weasleys are becoming more prominent characters. Also, Ron, Hermione, and Harry are aware of boys and girls now and thus the beginnings of romantic and confusing feelings.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

belzharI could not WAIT to read this book. All I needed to read of the description was “boarding school for highly intelligent emotionally fragile teens” and I immediately placed myself #1 on the hold list. In fact, I didn’t even read more of the description than that so I could enjoy just letting the story unfold and surprise me. (if you like that experience you can take my word that it’s great and stop reading this review now, otherwise read on and I will give away a few details.) Let me say that I loved The Interestings, but have not been very interested (sometimes actively disinterested) in Meg Wolitzer’s other novels. But really, she is a terrific writer.

Jam (short for Jamaica) is very sad and unable to interact well with the world ever since her boyfriend died. Finally her parents send her to this boarding school, The Wooden Barn, in Vermont that specializes in teens who have had troubles.  When she arrives she finds out that she has been assigned to the mysterious “Special Topics in English” class. Her roommate tells her no one ever gets into it who applies, they only study one author, and all the students claim it changes their lives buy won’t say why. It turns out that Jam is in the class with 4 other kids and they can’t figure out what they have in common. Their teacher tells them are going to study Sylvia Plath (and only Plath) for the entire semester. In addition to other work they receive leather journals that the are required to write in. The teacher tells them she won’t read the journals, but will collect them at the end of the semester and never return them.  She also asks that the students care for and look out for one another.  It’s hard for Jam to see that happening because she’s so wrapped up in her grief and doesn’t want to make friends. But then they all write in their journals and something happens that does bind them all together.

I loved the supernatural/mysterious element of this book. I loved the surprises, the emotions, the construction of it. It was all around terrific. And I’ll be honest-I also appreciated that it wasn’t 500 pages and was a fairly quick read, very engrossing, but not dragged out.
I want to call out one bit of the book that I loved and am sure is Meg Wolitzer’s own voice coming through and to it I say, “right on sister! I totally agree and love it that you call this out so specifically.” Near the end, when Jam has had her life changing semester, she says:

“People are always saying these things about how there’s no need to read literature anymore–that it won’t help the world. Everyone should apparently learn to speak Mandarin, and learn how to write code for computers.  More young people should go into STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.  And that all sounds true and reasonable. But you can’t say that what you learn in English class doesn’t matter. That great writing doesn’t make a difference….Words matter.  This is what Mrs. Q has basically been saying from the start. Words matter.  All semester, we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were all looking for our voice.”

Words and stories do matter. They are worth studying, enjoying, interpreting, internalizing, and more.