Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Heather's Book Review: Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl

There’s something magical about startlingly-colored, shiny covers. They can transform indifference toward a story into an enthusiastic hunger to read whatever is found between their pages. Such was my case with Michaela MacColl’s Prisoners in the Palace: A Novel of Intrigue and Romance.

The novel’s subtitle, “A Novel of Intrigue and Romance,” is what initially turned me off from the story. It suggested that the book was going to be full of sensational love and scandal, like a bad romance, a genre that I can’t stand. Luckily its eye-catching cover came along, and I was pleased to find that it was anything but what I expected. Though love and scandal do appear, Prisoners in the Palace is more a story of class struggle, political manipulation, and, unexpectedly, sneaky pre-Victorian espionage. 
Prisoners in the Palace tells the story of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria before she became Queen, when she was a petulant teenage princess trapped in Kensington Palace with nearly every person around her scheming to use her future crown to their advantage. The main character in the story, though, is Victoria’s personal maid, Miss Liza Hastings. Once the daughter of a well-to-do merchant, Liza is ripped from her privileged rank when her parents die in a sudden carriage accident. She is left with almost nothing to live on. Desperation leads her to apply for the recently-vacated position as the princess’ maid, and her acquiring the position, though a major victory in itself, is only the beginning of further troubles for her.
Liza learns quickly that she’s been hired not only as a maid, but a spy for one of the house ladies. By some clever tricks of her own, she soon finds herself spying rather successfully for multiple people in and out of the Palace, Princess Victoria included. All the suspense in the story isn’t limited to Liza’s spy adventures, though. Liza herself experiences some rather powerful stresses that tug at readers’ sympathies. Her brutal transition from privileged young woman to domestic servant comes with sharp personal pains, inflicted mostly by her society’s strong respect for rank. Because of this social rigidity, she can’t speak out when a high-ranking man of the Palace makes uncomfortable advances at her, advances that caused the last maid in her position to be ousted—pregnant—without a letter of recommendation. She can hardly speak out about anything important without her job being threatened. She even has to keep simple talents of hers secret to avoid blowing her cover and losing her job. Her position is one where even the slightest misstep could mean destitution on the unforgiving streets of London—and readers see as much of the city’s poor as they do its glamorous. It’s nothing that we want Liza to be condemned to.
That’s one of the elements that make this book such a great read. The author doesn’t show just one face of pre-Victorian England. She shows it all in quick, meaningful clarity, and she does it without writing a textbook-in-novel-form. All of her facts are well-placed and well-spaced, so that the reader is never overwhelmed with historical background. It’s all placed exactly where it needs to be, and because of this the story’s momentum never slows down. 
Because of this, I read over half of this book in a single sitting. The last few chapters, however, I put off for as long as possible. I was slow to read these, not because they were boring, but because finishing them would mean that I’d be leaving behind one of the most entertaining books that I’ve read this year. There are few other books worthy of such praise.
Readers who like Prisoners in the Palace might also like the Montmorency series by Eleanor Updale.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

2011 Printz Awards & Lisa's Book Review

The Printz awards were announced last week. The Michael L. Printz Award is given to a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature. Each year, there is one winner and up to four honor books. This year’s winner is:


Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
In a drowned futuristic world, Nailer scavenges copper wiring from grounded oil tankers for a living, but when he finds a beached clipper ship with a girl in the wreckage, he has to decide if he should strip the ship for its wealth or rescue the girl. Think you might enjoy this book? Check out Lisa’s review below!

The four Printz honor books this year are:

Stolen by Lucy Christopher

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

by Marcus Sedgwick

Nothing by Janne Teller

Lisa’s Book Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
     Imagine you live in a world one hundred years in the future. All of the dire predictions about global warming have come true, the poles have melted and the world’s great coastal cities are now ghost towns sunk into the sea by killer storms. Oil and other natural resources are scarce or totally depleted, and society is plagued by poverty, violent crime and piracy. With brute force, a few powerful corporations control an economy that revolves around massive salvage efforts fueled by child labor, the genetic engineering of animal-human hybrids, and the harvesting of human organs. 
     Against this bleak backdrop, teenaged Nailer and his friends fight for survival. Nailer works as a “ship breaker” with a salvage crew recovering oil and metal from the rusted skeletons of tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. After a massive hurricane, Nailer discovers the wreck of a luxurious clipper ship and must decide whether to plunder the wealth he finds aboard or to help the nearly-drowned girl who is trapped and dying in the wreckage. Action and adventure ensue, as Nailer sets out on a dangerous path with the hope of gaining a chance for a better future.
     At its core, this story is about family, friendship and loyalty. Though the setting is dire, Nailer is an extremely bright, hopeful and lovable character. The fast-paced plot and dangerous circumstances make this book a real page-turner. I can almost guarantee that there will be a sequel to Ship Breaker, and probably a movie, too. Read it, and then tell me who you think should play Nailer in the film!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Susan's Book Review: Other Words for Love by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal


It’s the summer before junior year and Ariadne Mitchell is living in her best friend’s shadow. Summer is pretty, confident, always has a boyfriend and attends a fancy prep school. Then Ari’s family comes into some money and is able to send her to the same school. Instead of hanging out with Summer like she planned, Ari meets Leigh, a rich outcast of sorts, and they become friends. Leigh has two cute cousins that Ari thinks are out of her reach, until one surprises her and asks her out. Soon Ari is spending all of her time with him and ignoring everything else in her life. She was a good student, daughter, sister, and friend and hoped to get into Parsons School for Design. Except to get into Parsons she’ll need a great SAT score, and guess who isn’t too keen on studying now that she has someone to make out with? Ari is an easy character to like and root for. I’ve been insecure, jealous of a best friend and considered what it would be like to not be the “good girl.” Other Words for Love is beautifully written and I wish I’d marked all of the passages that caught my attention throughout. I picked up this book because I liked the title and the cover, but I finished it because I loved the characters and the story.