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Book Review: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Series, #3) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

A girl in old-fashioned clothes looks at hersself in a mirror.Summary:
When Charlotte goes away to boarding school for the first time, she’s very excited to get the bed with the particularly pretty wheels right next to the window.  When she wakes up, though, the view from the window looks different, and people are calling her Clare!  She discovers she’s traveled back in time to the same bed in the same boarding school, but during World War I.  The next morning, though, she wakes up in the present again as Charlotte.  This pattern continues, meaning both she and Clare are Charlotte….sometimes.

Review:
I picked this book up because I have an affinity for both boarding school books and time-travel books.  This looked like the best of both worlds to me.  A fun middle grade book that introduces to the reader to two different past time periods–the 1970s of Charlotte’s present and the nineteen-teens of Clare’s present.

This book is the third in a series, but it is completely possible to read it as a standalone.  No mention is made of the events in the first book, and the second book is actually about what Charlotte’s little sister does while she’s away at boarding school.

The concept is intriguing, because instead of time-travel happening once and landing the person stuck in the past (or future), Charlotte keeps switching, spending every other day in the 70s and every other day in the teens.  In addition to the usual issues time-travel books bring up, such as what stays the same and what is actually different throughout time, it also brings up the key question of identity.  What makes Charlotte Charlotte?  Is she still Charlotte when she’s being called Clare?  Why does hardly anyone notice that Clare has changed? Or Charlotte for that matter?  The book thus addresses identity issues that middle grade readers might be going through, but in a subtle way through the time-travel trope.

Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that? (page 66)

The time-travel itself is left as a fantastical mystery, rather than being given a scientific explanation.  There’s something magical about the bed that only makes Charlotte and Clare switch places, but no one else.  This works without an explanation because the young girls being subjected to the time-travel just accept it without explanation.  This is their reality, and it doesn’t matter why it’s happening, they just have to deal with it.  Some readers, though, might struggle with the fact that the time-travel itself is never explained.

The one thing that disappointed me about the book, and that I think would have made it a classic and a five star read, is that the book only explores what happens to Charlotte when the girls switch places.  Clare, her experiences, and her perspective are only heard about through third parties.  The book, while in third person, is entirely Charlotte’s perspective.  Clare, a reserved, proper girl from the nineteen-teens must have been shocked by both the technology and the mores of the 1970s she suddenly found herself in.  So much more could have been explored by telling both Charlotte’s and Clare’s story.  The book misses an opportunity by only focusing on the modern day girl going back in time.  The girl being thrust into the future, a future where she finds out Britain wins the war, and there is suddenly no food rationing or flu epidemic, that is such a cool story in and of itself, and Farmer just never ventures out to tell it.

Overall, this is a book that sets up a fantastical world of time-travel within a boarding school.  It utilizes the switching of two girls with each other in time to explore questions of identity in a way that surely will appeal to many middle grade readers.  The book does not fully explore the story the way it possibly should have, but the young reader will probably enjoy filling in those gaps themselves.  Recommended to all fans of boarding school, time-travel, or historic fiction set during World War I’s homefront.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Previous Books In Series:
The Summer Birds
Emma in Winter

Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

December 15, 2010 3 comments

Boy and girl sitting in front of the Eiffel tower.Summary:
Anna Oliphant’s dad totally sold out and started writing crappy books that for some reason became incredibly popular.  Now he’s insisting that she spend her senior year at a boarding school–School of America in Paris.  Anna knows she should be enjoying her year abroad, after all, it is Paris!  But she can’t help but miss her friends and family at home.  She slowly starts to find her own new circle of friends and discover the wonderful things in Paris…..and to realize that she may be falling for one of her friends.  A boy who is decidedly off-limits for multiple reasons.

Review:
Perkins takes a typical YA storyline–teenage girl sent away to boarding school, complete with teen angst–and puts just the right amount of her own twists and flavors in it to make for a delightful, unique read.  I enjoyed this as an adult, but I’m sure 15 year old me would have been in love with it, re-reading it, and sighing over the main interest St. Clair.

The setting of Paris is delightful.  Perkins captures the binary of excitement and trepidation at being in another country for the first time enough so that Anna is realistic but not annoying.  Similarly, all of the characters act like actual human beings.  They are neither perfect nor evil.  They are simply doing their best to figure out how to function in the world.  I appreciated this, and I’d imagine teen readers would too.  Similarly, Perkins describes Paris in such a way that I wanted to move there instantaneously myself if for no other reason than the descriptions of the bread and eating meals in cemeteries.  This is what it should be to be young.  Angst combined with first-time glorious experiences.

Perkins manages to be both subtly funny:

“Huh?” I have such a way with words.  I should write epic poetry or jingles for cat food commercials. (Location 1054-1058)

And perfectly capture what it is to be an adolescent female:

It makes me dizzy. It smells like freshly scrubbed boy.  It smells like him.  (Location 3100-3104

This is what an ideal YA book should be.  Realistic about what young people face, but also about who young people are.  Holding out hope that they can become good people, and they can learn and grow and overcome their mistakes.  I highly recommend it to teen girls, as well as to adult women who still enjoy YA.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

July 13, 2010 4 comments

Woman smelling a flower.Summary:
Ellen’s staunchly feminist, progressive family found themselves flabbergasted by their daughter’s preference for honing her homemaking skills.  However, with time they came around, and they are pleased to see her leave for a house matron position at a boarding school in Austria.  Her childhood has prepared her for dealing with the eclectic, progressive teachers, but the little school has more problems to face than unusual teaching styles and the lonesomeness of the children of wealthy world travelers.  Trouble is brewing in Europe in the shape of the Nazi movement in Germany.  Of course, Ellen may have found an ally in the form of Marek, the school’s groundskeeper.

Review:
I have been fascinated with WWII ever since I was a very little girl.  Also, I have no issue with feminists cooking meals for people or keeping house.  Feminism is about men and women being able to do what makes them happy, not just what they’re “supposed” to do.  I therefore expected these two elements to come together to make for an intriguing read.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The main problem is Ellen.  I simply don’t like her.  I can’t root for her.  I can’t enjoy any scene she’s in.  In fact, I wanted multiple times to shove her into the lake the school is on.  Now, I don’t have to like a main character to enjoy a book, but I do need at least one other character in the book to dislike her, so I’m not going around thinking something is wrong with me.  However, everyone in the entire book simply loves Ellen.  They frequently call her “angelic,” and everyone essentially worships the ground she walks on.  Every man of anywhere near a suitable age for her falls madly in love with her.  I can give that a pass in paranormal romance, as there’s a lot of supernatural stuff going on, but this is supposed to be  a normal girl.  Not every man is going to fall in love with her.  It’s just preposterous!  That doesn’t happen!  Ellen is, simply put, a dull, boring woman with no true backbone.  If this was a Victorian novel, she’d be fainting every few pages.

Then there’s Marek, her love interest, who I also completely loathed.  Everything he does, even if it’s helping others, is for purely selfish reasons.  He also has a wicked temper and frequently dangles people out of windows.  Why Ellen becomes so obsessed with him is beyond me.

Ibbotson also obviously scorns many ideals that I myself hold dear.  Any character who is a vegetarian or against capitalism or in favor of nudity is displayed as silly, childish, or selfish.  There is a section in which the children are being taught by a vegetarian director and some of them switch to being vegetarian as well, and of course Ellen finds this simply atrocious and worries about the children.  Naturally, the director is later villainized.  Clearly anyone who eats “nut cutlets” for dinner simply cannot be normal.  I expect an author’s ideals to show up in a book, but the book’s blurb certainly gave no indication that a book taking place largely at a progressive boarding school would spend a large amount of its time mocking those same values.

In spite of all that I can’t say that this is a badly written book.  Ibbotson is capable of writing well, I just don’t enjoy her content at all.  After finishing it, I realized it reminded me of something.  It reads like a Jane Austen novel, and I absolutely loathe those.  So, if you enjoy Jane Austen and WWII era Europe settings, you’ll enjoy this book.  Everyone else should steer clear.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Viola in Reel Life by Adriana Trigiani

January 29, 2010 2 comments

Summary:
Viola loves her life in Brooklyn with her quirky filmmaker parents.  Unfortunately, they need to go to Afghanistan to make a documentary and have dumped her in an Indiana boarding school for a year.  Can Viola see past her homesickness and embrace what Prefect Academy has to offer or will she be Queen Snark for a year?

Review:
I came at this book simultaneously expecting to like it and not like it.  I expected to like it, because when I was in the YA age group, I loved boarding school books, and I’ve read Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap trilogy and really liked her writing.  On the other hand, reviews online stated they disliked it due to a negative portrayal of Indiana and what they felt was a lack of understanding of teenagers.  Well, I liked Viola in Reel Life, and I would like to offer up rebuttals to both opinions.

First, the book is written from Viola’s perspective.  She’s a fourteen year old who has spent her entire life in Brooklyn, and she didn’t want to go to boarding school.  Her negative comments about Indiana are to be expected in this case.  She’s a New Yorker in the country for the first time.  Of course she’s going to think the fashion stinks.  Of course she’s going to miss the noise of the city.  Personally, I found Indiana and the folks in it to be portrayed in a positive light, because despite her anger and snark, they persist at comforting her homesickness and winning her over.  She comes to like aspects of Indiana just as much as she likes aspects of Brooklyn.  That is a key part of her growing up that is the main storyline.  She has to learn to make home wherever she is and be independent.  That point would not have come across strongly if she loved everything about Indiana from the moment she arrived.

Now to those who felt it was too young for teenagers, I think you’re starting to fall for the media’s portrayal of all teens as growing up very fast.  They’re not all having sex, doing drugs, and drinking.  I wasn’t that type of teen, and even teens who are can appreciate that not everyone is living a Gossip Girl life.  It is a clean book, and I liked that because it left room for me to focus on Viola growing as a person.  The kids are kind of innocent, and Viola acknowledges that she’s led a protected life so far.  On the other hand, Viola and her friends have to deal with step-parents, new siblings, serious family illness, money problems, and more.  Their problems are middle class type problems, but what’s wrong with that?  Not everyone grows up abused or poor or filthy rich or debaucherous.  The overall messages are excellent ones for teen girls to hear–be loyal to your friends, grow up and help your parents, don’t choose a boy over yourself, do your best and be gracious.  Plus the storyline supporting these messages is fun and interesting to read.

My only complaint with the book is the minor sub-plot of a ghost.  I don’t think it really fit in very well with the overall world and feel of the book.  I would have much preferred that Viola find an old diary or something that made her come to understand Prefect Academy better.  However, it wasn’t in the book enough to make me dislike the story.

Overall, it’s a fun read, and I recommend it if you enjoy YA lit or stories set in boarding schools.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Won on Reading Sarah’s blog. Thanks!

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