Books: Slayer

34723130Slayer by Kiersten White
Published January 8, 2019
star-2-half
I belong to a small subset of older millennials who grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy was the first non-animated show that I asked my parents if I could watch, the first fandom for which I read fanfiction, and the first show that had me scrolling through reaction message boards and peeking at spoilers. I was twelve when I started watching Buffy, beginning with season three and backtracking over the summer to catch up on what I’d missed, so this show, more than any other, has had a profound influence on me. I say this so you can understand the depth of my feelings for the Buffyverse. As both a Buffy fanatic and someone who adored Kiersten White’s Conquerors’ Saga, Slayer should have been Christmas and my birthday and an all-inclusive vacation all rolled up into one shiny book-shaped package. Instead it was an underwhelming and, quite frankly, unnecessary read.

As far as I’m concerned, the most important part of any property set in the Buffyverse should be the characters. The realistic pop-culture filled dialogue, the paralleling of teenage problems that feel like the end of the world when you’re living them to dealing with the actual end of the world, and the depth of the relationships (be they parental, sibling, platonic, or romantic) have always been at the heart of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the multi-faceted, flawed, but trying their best characters who ground a show about high-school/college students fighting evil. I had high hopes that White’s take would give us a slayer for a new generation. Perhaps she would disrupt the problematic white feminism of the original show by giving us a Black slayer dealing with race relations in America, an undocumented or refugee slayer making the world safer even as it underestimates her. How about a Gen Z slayer frustrated with the world she’s been left and dealing with the consequences of instability and working multiple jobs while slaying and being called lazy by boomers? Instead we get Nina, a timid redheaded twin with abandonment issues.

I wanted to warm to Nina, but she’s such an internal, self-doubting character that I had trouble connecting with her. The supporting characters felt similarly under-developed, including the obligatory YA love interest, Nina’s protective, stronger, better faster twin sister Artemis, and never going to win parent-of-the-year mother, Helen. I liked what little we got of Rhys, but Nina spends so much of her time keeping secrets from those she loves that we never get to see her bond with her friends and I had trouble differentiating between the supporting characters. I felt so strongly about all of White’s characters in the Conquerors’ Saga that I expected more from the author when it came to crafting a new chapter in buffyverse mythology.

Although initially jarring, I did like Slayer presents the Watchers’ side of the story. While the show, and spin-off comics, have generally followed Buffy Summers herself, Slayer takes us inside what’s left of the Watchers’ Council (after their headquarters exploded in season seven of the show). There’s a lot of Buffy bashing, and while it’s interesting at first to hear from such a different point-of-view, it quickly grows tiresome, coming across a lot like the season seven scene where Buffy is driven out of her own house by her ungrateful friends. There are plenty of Easter eggs here for fans of the show though, with surnames like Zabuto, Wyndam-Pryce, Weatherby, Post, and Jamison-Smythe popping up early in the book.

I also had trouble figuring out the timeline at first since I could never get into the (technically canonical) season eight and onwards Buffy comics and haven’t been following their events. Basically what you need to know is that Buffy destroyed something called the Seed of Wonder which turned off all magic, ended the slayer line, and made her a pariah among former witches and slayers alike.

There were things I liked. The shared slayer dreamspace is a pretty fascinating idea and I loved the encounters that Nina had with Faith and, most of all, with Buffy herself. I also loved the message this book sends about free will and choice even when you’re born into something or tradition places a set of expectations on you. I found Nina’s character development far too slow for me to fall in love with her, yet I did ultimately root for her and her friends. There’s the potential (yep – I went there) for White to make something interesting out of this planned series, and I love Buffy enough that I’ll probably read the next entry in this series at some point in time, but it’s not something I’ll be running to the bookstore for – and that’s bitterly disappointing.

Books: The Marrow Thieves

34649348The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Published September 1, 2017
star-4
The market is saturated with dystopian YA novels these days and, like many readers, I’m a little fatigued by the genre, yet Cherie Dimaline’s award-winning The Marrow Thieves is an important and engaging addition to the canon. A rare example of an #ownvoices indigenous author writing speculative fiction, The Marrow Thieves details the hardships faced by characters as they are hunted further and further north with limited resources and fewer people they can trust. This poignant exploration of the struggle to retain culture, oral storytelling tradition, and language against all odds should be read and studied by all young Canadians

Sadly the premise behind this dystopia is not so out there considering Canada’s treatment of indigenous people over the years. In the wake of a world decimated by global warming, where the surviving people have lost the ability to dream, the government turns to its shameful past and revives the residential school system that stripped First Nations members of their language, culture, and families. In a darker twist, white people known as Recruiters capture Indigenous peoples, transport them to these schools, and then harvest their bone marrow, which is used as a remedy for dreams. First Nations members are literally and horrifically reduced to a commodity.

‘Story’, a nightly oral storytelling ritual in which older kids and adults in Frenchie’s found family band gather to hear and remember aspects of their culture and history, fleshes out how the world came to be this way. It’s an ingenious way for Dimaline to both preserve preserve indigenous culture in-story and to deliver exposition in a way that feels organic.

Dimaline’s writing style is lyrical at times, befitting oral storytelling tradition, but also realistic about the way the novel’s largely teenage cast interact with one another. Stray words of The Language (indigenous languages that the younger generation don’t speak) dropped in-text are hoarded and repeated by Frenchie, who views them with an awed regard.

Unlike many YA dystopias, this is a character-driven book where the emphasis is on found family and survival rather than trying to change the world. I loved that the oldest and youngest characters, who could be viewed as a burden on the band’s survival, are actually the beating heart of French’s group. I was invested in the characters, interested in their backstories, and I loved most of the relationships, familial, platonic, and romantic.

Protagonist French (given name Francis), a 16-year-old Métis boy, is believably teenage. Even when there are bigger things at stake he experiences petty jealousy, comparing himself physically to other First Nations characters who he thinks may have caught the eye of Rose, the girl he’s falling in love with. Big-hearted and concerned with the survival of everyone in his band, from the youngest Ri to not-all-there Elder Minerva, he holds a certain survivor’s guilt about being the only member of his immediate family to not be taken by the Recruiters.

Because this is YA, there’s a love interest. Rose does at least get some depth; she’s a dissenting voice who questions the band’s path and wants to take immediate action, but mostly we see her through French’s eyes. A lot is made of her physical beauty, her curls, and round cheeks, and dark skin, and I wound up wishing she’d been fleshed out more.

My favourite character though, was Miigwans. Middle-aged and the leader of the band, he grieves the traumatic loss of his husband, Isaac, to the schools. I love that The Marrow Thieves is not only diverse in terms of representing different First Nations cultures, but that it also features a gay character!

The Marrow Thieves definitely works on a symbolic level rather than a literal one. Dimaline handwaves explanations for things in a way that feels more appropriate for a work of magic realism, but nothing in the book lends itself to that genre. It’s a little disconcerting in a book that is otherwise to grounded. The author also has a bad habit of overusing end of chapter foreshadowing in a clunky, unsubtle way that I found irritating:

“neither of us could imagine that everything would change in just a few hours”
“I had no way of knowing that things would shift again”
“we didn’t know that he was an animal we had yet to imagine could exist”

You’ve hooked us, just tell the story!

Besides these minor complaints though, I found The Marrow Thieves to be a thought-provoking book about storytelling, language, and how the loss of it removes us from our roots, and love of all kinds. It also has one of the better endings out there. Beautifully rendered through thoughtful, lyrical prose, The Marrow Thieves ends on a hopeful note that lets us know that all is not lost.

 

 

Books: Bright We Burn

22817368Bright We Burn by Kiersten White
Published July 10, 2018
star-4-half
Continuing the saga of siblings Lada and Radu Dracul, the final volume in Kiersten White’s Conquerors trilogy brings their stories to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Lada has won her rightful throne and serves as Prince of Wallachia, but although her reign has created a country free of crime, she won’t rest until Wallachia’s borders are safe and her country free. Her acts of aggression leave Radu and Mehmed with little choice but to go to war against the girl they both love.

Although Bright We Burn didn’t hit me quite as hard, or leave as lasting an impact on me, as the previous book in the series, Now I Rise, it has the arguably more difficult task of intersecting and closing out these parallel stories in a believable and satisfying way. There’s always some trepidation involved in reading the last book of a beloved trilogy or series, but Bright We Burn delivered everything I hoped it would. Without getting into specifics or spoilers, I found the book thrilling, moving, and ultimately a realistic portrayal of two headstrong, similar personalities intent on power, tempered by a third who seeks something entirely different out of life.

A minor complaint I had about the other sweeping historically-based saga I read recently, R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, was that while I loved the protagonist and some of the minor characters, I felt that some of the minor characters were underdeveloped and I failed to connect with them in any meaningful way. I can honestly say that I’ve never had that problem with White’s Conquerors saga. Every character is just SO WELL DEVELOPED! Not just Radu and Lada, who continue to be complicated, flawed protagonists, who sometimes do awful things for a cause they believe in, but also the minor characters.

Radu’s wife Nazira remains a ray of sunshine in sometimes bleak times and a voice of reason for her family, and her relationship with Radu and the rest of what becomes a family unit made me so damn happy! The faithfulness of characters like Fatima and Bogdan is set in opposition to the shifting alliances and betrayals that characterize the rest of the series, and Mehmed’s struggle between his public persona as the sultan and his private isolation is sympathetic. Characters in this series are not always likable, but they’re always compelling.

Of course my heart remains with Lada and Radu. Radu doesn’t see quite as much action in this volume, but this gives him a chance to try to reconcile his actions in Constantinople and to move past the guilt he continues to feel. I loved his inner struggle to obtain, at long last, a balance between the devotion he has to Mehmed as Sultan of an empire he believes in, and his desire for romantic love. It is such a joy to see Radu finally make peace with himself! Lada, on the other hand, is more brutal in his book, crossing beyond anti-heroine territory to arguably become a villainess at times. Yet I always understood the motivations behind each of her choices and she has touching moments of vulnerability. As someone who loves morally ambiguous characters, history, ruthless heroines, and politicking, this series hits all of my buttons!

Although saying goodbye to Lada and Radu and all of the assorted other characters who meant so much to me over the course of the series, was bittersweet, I am so glad that the series ended the way it did! The ending felt earned and appropriate for each character involved, but most importantly, Bright We Burn brings us back to the relationship between Lada and Radu that is at the center of the series. The scenes between the siblings were so charged that I wouldn’t have put the book down even if you paid me! This is a very solid end to a series that I know I’ll be re-reading in years to come.

 

 

Books: Let’s Talk About Love

31625039Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann
Published January 23, 2018
star-3-half
Protagonist Alice is a black, teenage, biromantic asexual student who’s still trying to figure herself out. Her parents are pushing her towards a career she isn’t interested in, and Alice’s two best friends are heading towards marriage, making her feel like a third wheel. Then there’s the icing on the cake; her last girlfriend believed that Alice’s lack of desire for sex translated into a lack of love and broke up with her. She’s understandably reluctant about pursuing romantic relationships, but when Alice’s new coworker at the library exceeds her colour-coded scale of attractiveness (her Cutie Code™ ) she begins to question everything.

YA contemporary really isn’t my genre. When Alice introduced her Cutie Code™ in the first few chapters, my first thought was, ‘oh here we go’, and I steeled myself for a sickeningly fluffy romance. While Let’s Talk About Love‘s vibe is definitely a little cutesy for my personal tastes, it’s an enjoyable, realistic, and refreshing addition to the still disappointingly slim selection of books where asexuality is represented.

The plot is admittedly thin. Let’s Talk About Love focuses more on Alice’s character development and her interpersonal problems, than it does a broader storyline, but putting aside Alice’s sexuality for a moment, the subplots of well-intentioned but overbearing parents pushing their child into a career she doesn’t want, and of increasingly feeling like the third wheel in a friendship are incredibly relatable and will appeal to readers. The novel also directly (sometimes a little too directly in a way that feels more like a PSA than an organic conversation) tackles some of the misconceptions that asexuals face and challenges the idea that sex is required in order to have a romantic, loving relationship.

This quote alone, said by a therapist to Alice, is worth half a star!

“My advice to you is to be prepared to educate. It may feel unfair that the onus of that responsibility will fall on you, but when most people think the A stands for Ally, you will have to speak louder, with bravery and dignity, to be heard. You will have to be willing to inform and to educate. And you will have to know when it is time to remove yourself from situations and disconnect from those who either do not understand or are unwilling to.”

Alice herself is a delight. She’s not without flaws – her relationship with her two closest friends is codependent to say the least and she has a tendency to ignore her problems rather than confronting them – but she’s also bubbly, thoughtful, and compassionate. I rooted for her throughout, and I loved that she’s not just an asexual woman, but a black, biromantic asexual woman. I also really enjoyed her love interest Takumi, a kindergarten teacher who is patient and loves to cook.

Although I wasn’t overwhelmed by the book, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that it exists! There are so few depictions of asexuality in fiction and in the media that every time I see a book or television show with an ace character it feels like a triumph for a community whose biggest issue is erasure.

Books: Leah on the Offbeat

31180248Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
Published April 24, 2018
star-4
In Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli not only gave us an incredibly sweet gay romance, she also created a close-knit group of friends who are diverse, emotional, dramatic, and, most importantly, believably teenage. Arguably the hardest to understand was complicated, prickly Leah Burke. Leah on the Offbeat puts the burgeoning drummer front and center in this sweet, but angsty, story of self-discovery set against the emotional backdrop that is senior year.

As in the previous Creekwood/Simonverse books, Albertalli captures the teenage experience so well. I’m definitely not a teenager anymore, but the pop-culture filled dialogue, emphasis on social media, and the messy emotional space of trying to decide if you have a crush on someone or are just flattered to be liked, rang true for me. I also couldn’t help smiling at the DRAMA of it all! I’m sure all of us remember stressing about problems or situations that felt all-important at the time, but in retrospect really weren’t all that big of a deal.

Like Albertalli’s other books, Leah on the Offbeat can be broadly classed as YA drama with a fluffy ending. Leah herself may be a more cynical (although no less oblivious) narrator than Simon Spier, and she’s less inclined to wear her heart on her sleeve, but the various tangled plot threads all wrap up neatly into an ending that will no doubt satisfy fans of the characters.

Often the most intriguing fictional characters are those that really don’t have it all together yet, and that definitely describes Leah Burke. Her narrative voice is sarcastic, stubborn, and completely unapologetic, but underneath her take-no-shit exterior, she’s kind of a confused mess – particularly when it comes to her feelings. What’s so interesting about Leah on the Offbeat is how Albertalli manages to craft a story in which the reader often knows more about the first-person narrator’s emotional state than the protagonist does! Yes, it takes awhile for Creekwood High’s “resident fat Slytherin Rory Gilmore” to realize that she has a crush on someone who is definitely-totally-probably-maybe not? off limits.

Although romance is once again a major part of the plot, and I’m thrilled to see young bisexual women gaining some much needed representation, to be honest I was more invested in Leah Burke’s personal journey. If something isn’t perfect then Leah withdraws completely, likely in an attempt to fend off rejection. It’s incredibly relatable. How many times have I rewritten reviews striving to find the perfect word until it’s published so far after the fact that it’s no longer relevant? Watching Leah accept that things don’t have to be perfect, that things can have imperfections but still hold value, was really special.

I’m not normally a seasonal reader, but Leah on the Offbeat strikes me as the perfect Spring/Summer book. From the colourful cover to the bittersweet goodbyes of senior year within, this is a book that’s meant to be read outside. It may not have grabbed me in quite the same way as the first book in the series, but if you’re invested in the lives of Simon, Leah, Blue, Abby, and everyone at Creekwood High, like I am, it’s definitely worth reading.

Books: The Eagle of the Ninth

751744The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
March 9, 2000
star-3-half
I picked up Rosemary Sutcliff’s acclaimed children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth with some apprehension, but a healthy dose of curiosity. A long-time fixture on my TBR, I spotted it in a gift shop while visiting a roman fort in England and it seemed like fate. What better place to get swept away by a story of Roman Britain than along the remains of Hadrian’s Wall? Roman Britain is a favourite historical era of mine, but I worried that the story, generally shelved as middle grade, would be too juvenile for me to appreciate. Fortunately this is children’s lit with broad appeal. Published in the 1950s, its sophisticated prose and historical detail make Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth an enduring classic.

I confess to enjoying the 2011 Hollywood adaptation of the novel, mostly because it employs a lot of the tropes I enjoy. There’s ‘enemies to grudging respect to love’ (whether you interpret it as platonic, brotherly, or romantic), ‘opposites attract’, and ‘shifting power dynamics’ all rolled up in a Roman Britain-set quest. However The Eagle is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good movie. For one thing it stars Channing Tatum. For another, all of the Romans speak with American accents. The novel on which the movie is based is not just enjoyable though, it’s genuinely well-written historical fiction.

The Eagle of the Ninth draws inspiration from two historical mysteries – the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, which marched from York into Northern Britain and was never heard from again, and the discovery of a wingless Roman Eagle during excavations at Silchester eighteen hundred years later. When Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila receives a career-ending wound in the line of duty, he embarks on a personal quest to find out what happened to his father, who led the Ninth Legion, and to recover the Eagle from the Northern Tribes.

In Marcus, Sutcliff has created a genuinely likable protagonist, who I was sorry to leave behind when the book ended. Intelligent, brave, and moral, he shows a genuine respect for, and desire to understand, his fellow human beings and different ways of life. I also loved that although Marcus is a (former) soldier, there’s no toxic masculinity here. Marcus feels feel and pain, relies on others, and treats everyone he meets with kindness. The secondary characters are also engaging, particularly Cottia, a stubborn teenage firebrand who speaks her mind and reminds me of another favourite character from childhood, Princess Eilonwy from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. I enjoyed Esca and his unwavering loyalty to Marcus, but wished we received more insight into his character and mind over the course of the book.

Unlike the movie, The Eagle of the Ninth moves at a measured pace. Although it feels more realistic and historically accurate, tension isn’t always maintained and I wasn’t fully engaged from start to finish. The prose is solid and descriptive, providing a window into life in Roman Britain and among the Tribes north of the wall, although Sutcliff doesn’t always provide translations or definitions for Roman terms or place names, which can make it difficult to follow.

There are also a few problematic™ elements here, with Sutcliff writing at one point that slavery sat easy on the old house slaves because they had a good master. Cue me cringing, but besides that the book has aged well and is still an engaging read today.

Most of all though, I appreciated The Eagle of the Ninth‘s central message, about the importance of friendship, loyalty, and home. Although it’s important that Marcus embark on this quest to learn what happened to his father, what matters most are the lessons he learns along the way about where his heart truly lies.

Books: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone

30339479You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Published January 2, 2018
star-3-half
I was wrong about You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone. Somewhat. I tried to keep an open mind, but the first fifty pages were distinctly underwhelming. Dual first person POV? Check. Male romantic interests revealed in the first few pages? Check. Tell, don’t show info-dump approach to the characters? Check. I expected to write this off as just another young side of YA, romance-centric novel. Instead I found a darker and more adult story, populated with flawed, realistically teenage characters.

The plot revolves around twins Adina and Tovah Siegel, who have grown apart over the years and have little in common. Viola prodigy Adina longs to pursue music professionally, while studious Tovah is awaiting her acceptance to Johns Hopkins to pursue a career in medicine. One thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, the disease that is slowly destroying their mother. When the test results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s, but the other tests positive.

I didn’t always like the twin narrators, but I did find them consistently interesting. It was easier for me, a shy, bookish person, to relate to academically-inclined Tovah, but as someone who majored in the humanities during my undergrad, I found Adina’s jealousy and bitterness over society and family valuing her sister’s STEM aspirations over her gift for music very relatable as well. Both sisters are well-developed characters. Adina is confident in her sexuality, but her whole-hearted devotion to music has left her with few friendships. I found her prickly, and often infuriating, yet I continued to root for her. Tovah’s innocence when it comes to boys is endearing, but she’s insecure, jealous, and throws tantrums when life deviates from her carefully thought out plans.

The focus here is on Huntington’s, an incurable genetic disease that slowly kills the brain’s neurons. You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone deals with the disease on two fronts. Ima, Adina and Tovah’s mother, was diagnosed four years earlier and exhibits symptoms including clumsiness, forgetting conversations, and jerky uncontrollable movements. Both teens are still coming to terms with the fact that Huntington’s is fatal and will slowly rob them of the mother they know. For one of the sisters, there is the additional weight of knowing that she will succumb to the same fate one day. The honest and raw exploration of guilt, responsibility, and confronting your own mortality is what makes You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone worth reading.

I also loved the way that the book incorporates religion. The Siegel family at the heart of the book includes practicing Jewish characters, who keep kosher and observe Shabbat. I haven’t read a lot of contemporary novels with practicing Jewish characters, and this representation is important.

The prose isn’t really anything special; It’s clipped, with characters commonly speaking in short, clear sentences. You get the impression that it would be really easy to skim. While I would have preferred a more lyrical approach, Solomon’s writing style is generally fine, if unremarkable. There are some occasional cringe worthy turns of phrase though. Exhibit A:

“I force a smile, turning my lips into a sideways bass clef.” (pg. 106)

I found it difficult to believe that even someone whose whole life is music would think like this. A sideways bass clef, really?!

Additionally, be warned that although the novel is not erotica, it is more graphically sexual than I expected from a YA book, and the novel involves instances of cutting and suicidal thoughts.

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone is an honest and, at times, dark account of genetic illness and how it shapes a family. It’s not perfect; The prose is clipped and occasionally tries too hard. However, the way the characters wrestle with relationships (platonic, familial, and romantic) is engaging, and the novel is ultimately a bittersweet, yet hopeful story about flawed, interesting characters.

Books: Things A Bright Girl Can Do

33876596Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
Published September 7, 2017
star-4
Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a charming and heartfelt novel about the suffragette movement in England during WW1. Spanning the years from 1914 through 1918, the novel is written from the perspectives of three young women from different backgrounds. Well-off, sheltered Evelyn joins the Suffragettes as much to annoy her parents as out of any great devotion to the cause; May, a Quaker and pacifist like her mother, is committed to the suffragists but refuses to use violence to further their cause, while Nell, whose family is just scrapping by, seeks an equal wage for equal work. The fight for equality challenges all three women, and as war looms they must ask themselves how much they’re willing to sacrifice.

What a breath of fresh air this book is. I picked it up because it vaguely looked interesting and wound up hooked! All three of the teenage protagonists are engaging and grow over the course of the novel. It’s likely partly the 1914 setting, but Evelyn and May at times reminded me of Sybil Crawley or Rose MacClare, sheltered, but well-intentioned and passionate young women.

Evelyn comes from a privileged background, with a fiancé and a good education, but she loves to learn and wants to broaden her mind at Oxford. As this is not socially acceptable, her parents forbid it, and she falls into the suffragette movement out of frustration and a desire for equality. It’s empowering to follow her journey, as she joins the suffragette movement out of a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the lack of options available to her as a woman and becomes a committed part of the efforts, even enduring a brutal hunger strike when she is arrested.

May is, in some ways, the most worldly of the three, with a mother who is open-minded, even when it comes to May’s romantic inclination towards other women. May’s aware of and accepting of her identity as a gay woman, and has an infectious optimism towards life. But while her stubborn commitment to her principles is an admirable quality, it also makes it difficult for her to view things from another’s point-of-view. It’s only later, with the wisdom of experience, that she discovers things aren’t so black and white as she had always believed.

For Nell, who dresses in boys clothes and has always felt like an outsider, a chance meeting with May opens a door. Nell is a working-class factory girl, one of six children living with their parents in a two-room flat. The suffragist movement was a practical application. She’s paid half as much as male workers and wants to earn an equal wage to support her family. Life is hard, but as Nell discovers her Sapphic inclinations for the first time, she finds some refuge in May.

I felt attached to all three characters and, importantly, to both of the central relationships that develop. Evelyn and Teddy are friends from childhood who have always presumed that they will marry, but as first Evelyn’s growing interest in the Suffragette cause and then WWI threaten their wellbeing, Evelyn and Teddy discover just how deep their feelings for one another run. Nell and May come from different upbringings and hold different values, but their shared identity as lesbians grows into a sweet story of first love. Although I rooted for both couples, I also appreciated the fact that romantic love is not the sole focus of the novel.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is obviously well-researched and sheds a light on different spheres of the suffragette movement, including the pacifist Quakers in the form of May and her principled mother, who refuses to pay taxes until women are represented in parliament, and suffers the consequences. There is a subtly rendered lesson in here about walking a mile in another person’s shoes.

Author Sally Nicholls doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of the suffragette movement, or from detailing the hunger strikes that imprisoned women undertook in an effort to be treated as political prisoners. She is also unflinching in her depiction of the impact of WWI on both soldiers and their families and loved ones , portraying the social consequences and the physical and psychological effects of the war.

Although at times it goes to dark places, the novel is ultimately uplifting. I really enjoyed Things a Bright Girl Can Do and highly recommend it as just the kind of feminist book that can pull you out of a reading slump.