Review: Standing Tall by C. Vivian Stringer with Laura Tucker

It’s October 31st, and in my family, that means more than just Halloween. It’s my mom’s birthday. So while I’ve spent most of October celebrating the spookiest month of the year, today I’m reserving space for something more important.

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That’s how I ended up reading Standing Tall, a choice I never would have picked for myself, simply because I’m not usually interested in sports. My mom, however, has always loved them, and she has oodles of school spirit for her alma mater, Rutgers University. Therefore, she decided to challenge me with a book close to her heart: the autobiography of C. Vivian Stringer, the head coach of Rutgers women’s basketball. As of the publication of this post, she is only three victories away from coaching her thousandth win. (“Make sure to mention that,” said Mom.)

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After reading this book, I understand more why my mom is so passionate about Rutgers basketball, and I especially see why she admires Coach Stringer so much. Coach Stringer rose from poverty, became the first in her family to graduate from college, and became one of the most respected coaches in the country, even as she has dealt with a devastating string of personal losses and difficulties. She has also been an advocate for women, and especially black women, in the athletic world.

While I self-identify as “not athletic,” I actually was co-captain of my high school fencing team, and there was a time I dedicated two hours a day, six days a week to that sport. With that in mind, I have a lot of respect for my former coach, Coach Amy Lawless, who I thought of a lot while reading this book. They’re both unmistakably coach-y. Coach Stringer tells the story of her life, but throughout the narrative, she expounds on individual anecdotes to teach lessons useful both on and off the basketball court. She describes moments where she had to be tough on her teams, but also shows herself to have a deep well of love in her heart for her players.

Having played on a team myself and done a certain amount of coaching as a captain, I can empathize with a lot of the struggles she has had that are related to her work. As she relates pushing her good players to do better, being exasperated with players who refused to put in the work, and dealing with obnoxious parents, I find that much of it consists of things I’ve heard, said, or done before. When I think of all the times my teammates tried to weasel their way out of harder drills or longer practices… oof, I’m with you, Coach Stringer, Coach Lawless, and all the coaches in the world. Building others up to work hard and do better for themselves is itself hard work!

There is also a lot in this book, though, that I cannot personally relate to and indeed can barely imagine. Coach Stringer has been dealt difficult cards in her personal life: the disability and early death of her father, the disability of her daughter, the early death of her husband, frightening near misses with both of her sons, and her own fight with breast cancer. Through all of these struggles, Coach Stringer makes no secret of the suffering she endured and how hard it was for her to handle everything. Thanks to the support of the people around her, though, she has been able to pull through, and she believes that she has endured so much so that she can be a better comfort to others.

I found this book to be genuinely inspiring. This is not a glossy, self-promoting autobiography, but rather a meaty and personal memoir that shares in order to teach. If you’re looking for a new hero, especially one who is a successful black woman, I recommend checking out Standing Tall.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

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Review: The Little Queen by Meia Geddes

At the Boston Book Festival, I couldn’t not bring home a new book! While exploring the booths, I came across a collective of self-published, independent authors. One of those authors was Meia Geddes, who struck me as kind and soft-spoken as she explained to me what the booth was about. I took a look at the books she had out, and I instantly fell in love with this book cover:

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I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it was just gorgeous and completely my aesthetic. That shade of lavender is almost exactly the same as the paint on my bedroom walls.

The Little Queen is a charming fairy tale that, as you might guess, somewhat recalls The Little Prince. It’s no copy, though–Geddes infuses the novella with its own distinct atmosphere. The little queen, who is nameless, ageless, and faceless, struggles with the idea of being a little queen and strikes out on an adventure, hoping to find someone to take her place. What she discovers is not a replacement, but rather a journey to self-actualization.

Her journeys through her kingdom lead her to meet a variety of unusual people–some of the first citizens she meets are called the book sniffer and the wall sawyer. While their occupations are specific to the point of uselessness, every person the little queen meets has a deep underlying motivation for her chosen path in life. The outwardly whimsical, but truly meaningful natures of the people of this world are reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth or The Neverending Story.

The little queen discovers herself, but another underlying theme is love. Every time she meets interesting people, they pair off and go away to live their lives together. She is never resentful or jealous of her newfound friends, but after the deaths of her parents, she is clearly lonely. This isn’t an angsty book by any means, though. After wandering for a long time, the little queen eventually finds a love of her own.

Within the pages are hidden many pearls of wisdom about dreams, writing, and living life to the fullest, told through metaphors that often have straightforward meanings, but are nonetheless quirky and offbeat in presentation.

Aside from the cover art, the same illustrator contributes similarly lovely artwork throughout the book, the design complementing the writing without getting in the way of the reader’s imagination.

My one complaint is that the ending, in which all the characters design houses together, comes across as a bit protracted (a serious flaw for a book of one hundred pages!) and purple in prose. Still, because it’s a concise novella otherwise, anyone who picks up the book will easily finish it without being disturbed by a few bloated paragraphs.

If you’re looking for a quick, pleasant read or a children’s book with timeless appeal, The Little Queen is for you.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Harriet and David are a happy couple who want lots of children, and so they have them. The first four are perfectly ordinary. The fifth child is something else. It’s a simple premise for a horror novel–almost an obvious one–and accordingly, it needs less than 150 pages for the idea to express itself fully.

This is not a gory, blood-pumping horror novel; it’s a tale of suspense. We spend nearly the entire book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Time and time again, the fifth child, Ben, does something that sets off alarm bells in the brain, and so we wait for him to snap. And wait. And wait.

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Doris Lessing takes the story from merely psychological to philosophical, taking a figurative page from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Ben cannot help being what he is, and he does make efforts to be human in some sense. He is doomed to be misunderstood. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, though, it’s not that people refuse to understand him. Harriet does her absolute darnedest to love Ben like she does her other children. Chillingly, he is completely incapable of being understood.

I find The Fifth Child to be an excellent example of horror from a feminine perspective in that it comments so incisively on motherhood. What Harriet faces is an extreme version of what many mothers face. Can I love all my children the same? Is it normal to resent my child? If my child turns out “wrong,” is it my fault? Am I doing motherhood wrong? Is it bad not to breastfeed, is it uncaring not to follow all the little bits of health advice that we mothers pass around among us? So many of Harriet’s problems are just one step beyond what an ordinary mother experiences.

The thing is, her experiences are not the experiences of an ordinary mother, and whenever she tries to point this out, others gaslight her. They pretend that Ben is just remarkably strong for his age, or a bit slow, or a bit “different.” On the flip side, they treat Harriet as though this difference is her fault. It all comes to a head in her conversation with a doctor toward the end of the book:

I don’t blame myself, though I don’t expect you to believe it. But it’s a bad joke. I feel like I’ve been blamed for Ben ever since he was born. I feel like a criminal. I’ve always been made to feel like a criminal.

I think that Harriet’s predicament is relatable not only for mothers, but for any woman who’s been treated as “hysterical” or “crazy” over legitimate grievances. That realism is what gives the novel its edge.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that we never do really solve the mystery of Ben. However, how Ben came to be what he is, is not the point. The point is the effect he has on his family and the people around him.

I recommend this to anyone looking for an unsettling read that isn’t too outright scary, especially if you appreciate a tint of feminist insight.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

This review is based on an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

I love Ella Enchanted. I love Gail Carson Levine’s entire bibliography. If you haven’t seen it, I’ve written an essay on the impact Ella Enchanted has made on my life. So when I got the chance to read Ogre Enchanted before it officially comes out, I was psyched. This book can stand alone, but it’s also a prequel featuring characters from the generation before Ella.

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There’s a suggestion of a Beauty and the Beast narrative, but Ogre Enchanted is content to leave it as a vague inspiration rather than the basis of the tale. In fact, the Beauty and the Beast story canonically exists as a fairy tale in this universe. This stands in contrast to Ella Enchanted and Fairest, which are retellings, albeit ones that take great liberties with the source material.

Our protagonist, Evie, turns down a marriage proposal from her friend Wormy in the presence of the familiar fairy Lucinda, who turns her into an ogre in retaliation. If Evie can’t secure and accept another proposal within the time limit, she’ll remain one forever.

The main appeal for me as a fan of Levine is the expanded world-building. This story sheds light on the workings of ogre culture and magic, gives important background information on the history of Kyrria, and explains how Ella’s parents got together. The main plot-line is solid enough, but it seems a bit formulaic, and I would have preferred a different ending.

Spoilers under the cut.

Continue reading “Review: Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine”

Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy

In the wake of the French Revolution, one man stands against the Terror and the bloodthirsty guillotine. He is known as… the Scarlet Pimpernel!! In this pulpy adventure-romance, Emma Orczy originates the trope of a hero with a secret identity.

The main character is not the Scarlet Pimpernel, but rather Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a clever Frenchwoman married to a handsome, wealthy, and stupid Englishman. When an old acquaintance blackmails her into joining his efforts against the Scarlet Pimpernel, she struggles between her personal good and the greater good.

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This book reads the way you might expect from the description. It’s chock full of action and adventure, the Scarlet Pimpernel maneuvering himself out of high-stakes situations at the last moment. Or, rather, he very often prepares his escape before he’s even trapped. Like in Sherlock Holmes, there are builds to elaborate reveals.

Unlike in Sherlock Holmes, though, these reveals can be fairly predictable. I was taken in by one or two of the Pimpernel’s tricks, but I was able to foresee the better part of the last third of the book. I enjoy figuring out a twist here and there, but in this case, some of the puzzles are just too easy.

Also, as you might expect from a novel with anti-Revolution tendencies, there is a hefty dose of classism with sides of sexism and racism. It’s such a light and frolicsome read that I couldn’t take the author’s biases too seriously, but if these things are likely to ruin your reading experience, steer clear.

Nonetheless, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun and swashbuckling sort of read. Like a modern-day action film, it’s meant more for a thrilling ride than anything else. I recommend it to anyone looking for a short book that goes down easy, especially if you’re trying to get into classics, but are intimidated by more complex works.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

She was struck by the selfish thought that this was not fair to her. That she’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. …Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built.

In the 1980s, Yale Tishman is weighed down by a tricky art acquisition for work, relationship problems, and the AIDS crisis striking down his community. In 2015, Fiona chases a shadow of a hope to Paris, where she searches for her estranged daughter. The connection between the two? Fiona’s brother, Nico, was a pillar of Chicago’s gay community and a good friend of Yale’s before dying of AIDS.

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The Great Believers is a twisty book. While its narrative is firmly entrenched within the perspectives of its two main characters, its cast is a large ensemble, sweeping across decades and tied together by all kinds of messy, strained, and complicated relationships.

And frankly, as I got further and further into the book, I got the distinct impression that it’s something someone my mom’s age would read for their book club. There’s the nostalgia for the youthful eighties in one thread, a relatable middle-aged woman of the present day in the other, and they’re tied together by the regrets and hardships in between. It’s a book that I, as a young person, struggled to read in the same way I struggled to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (although that book is hard to read for multiple reasons).

The intricacy of the characters’ relationships combines with the reader’s initial unfamiliarity with said characters in such a way that the book ends up with a slow start. At the beginning, I had trouble mustering the curiosity to follow all of the petty intrigues that were happening. Fiona’s thread suffers from this more than Yale’s. However, as new facets of the characters reveal themselves, and as connections arise between past and present, the plot gradually becomes more engrossing.

By the end of the book, every new detail makes the tale more heart-wrenching. It makes me realize that it’s easy to forgive a slow start in a book if the ending is good. The ending here is an agonizing denouement, scratch upon scratch and bruise upon bruise. A blurb on the back of the book calls it “a healer and a heartbreaker,” but the healing is in catharsis and survival, the healing of a scar rather than a cure.

This book is meaty, emotional, and an excellent tribute to the gay community of 1980s Chicago. It’s also not really my type of book, although I did enjoy it overall. If you are looking for a book club book, though, The Great Believers is a solid fresh pick and a tearjerker without being wholly depressing.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

A female astronaut heads into outer space on the first moon mission. That’s it; that’s the premise. But what does it take to get her there? The Calculating Stars is an alternate history that explores how women might have made it as early astronauts if circumstances were different. While the upcoming sequel promises to tell of their adventures in space, this first book is focused on the who, what, where, when, and why.

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It’s a disastrous meteorite collision with Earth that sets into motion an accelerated space race, but it’s the ambition of Dr. Elma York that enters women into the program. Far from being a flight of fancy, the story takes more from nonfiction books like Hidden Figures and Code Girls than from other science fiction. York is a former WASP and a computer, an expert in the fields that make spaceflight possible.

The story takes on not only sexism, but also racism, religious discrimination, and mental health stigma. Our protagonist, a Jewish woman who struggles with anxiety, works hand in hand with men and women of different ethnicities to achieve her goal. It’s a refreshing reminder that all sorts of people have existed in the USA throughout its history, and that despite barriers, many marginalized people have accomplished great things, even when they weren’t recognized for it.

And while I love that, it’s also attached to my biggest quibble with the book: the lens through which we see the story is too modern. The dialogues and attitudes of the more progressive characters align with extremely current perspectives and analyses of race, gender, and religion. I’m not saying that there weren’t forward-thinking people in the 1950s. There absolutely were. I’m saying that the specifics of their forward-thinking thoughts seem streamlined and overly consistent with the politics of 2018. While this makes it a digestible read in the moment, I doubt that this aspect will hold up well over time.

My other quibble is relatively minor, but it has to be said. Elma and her husband engage in lots of science-related flirting and innuendo. It’s unnecessary, and to me, kind of cringey. Yes, it’s great that Nathaniel is a loving and supportive husband… but do we really need those kinds of details?! I don’t think we do.

That being said, Elma is a sympathetic protagonist, and her nemesis is equally as hate-able, being the embodiment of petty sexism. The pacing is dynamic and full of action. Overall, it’s a well-written book that does what it came here to do: no frills, just an exciting, empowering read.

I recommend The Calculating Stars to fans of Hidden Figures, or to anyone who wants to see a more diverse range of faces in science fiction.

Rating: 4/5 (calculating) stars.

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