Wednesday, June 24, 2015

THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL by Soman Chainani


The School for Good and Evil
by Soman Chainani
(Book 1)

Retellings of classic fairy tales have a history as long as gossip itself, and continue to be popular in pop culture. Among retellings is Soman Chainani's debut novel, The School for Good and Evil, which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. In this hilarious novel, Chainani takes the generic, quasi-medieval setting of fairy tales and reinvents it to subvert countless fairy tale tropes while telling a story about friendship between two girls. 

Sophie and Agatha live in the village of Gavaldon, a generic fairy tale-esque village in the middle of some woods. Every year, on the eleventh night of the eleventh month, two children disappear. The legends say that a School Master kidnaps the children and takes them into a school where one of them learns Good and the other learns Evil. The children would eventually graduate into fairy tales as a hero and a villain. 

Sophie, the most beautiful girl in the village, has spent most of her life doing "good" deeds and primping herself to prepare to be kidnapped into the School for Good. Agatha, on the other hand, lives by a graveyard, wears black frocks, has a pet cat - looks as if she's perfect for the School for Evil.

However, when the kidnapping happens, the girls find that their purported paths have been switched - Agatha is a student of the School for Good while Sophie is thrown into the School for Evil. 

The School for Good and Evil challenges a lot of tropes introduced by fairy tales that a lot of us grow up accepting, such as that attributes such as ugliness, the color black, and dirtiness = evil, while attractiveness, the color white (and other pastels), and purity (pristine surroundings, pure intentions) = good

Chainani also questions the ideology of "goodness" and also our subjective connotations of what it means to "hurt" or "help" someone, and whether it's really so good to "give" something. The five rules that separate Good from Evil are:
  1. The Evil attack. The Good defend. 
  2. The Evil punish. The Good forgive. 
  3. The Evil hurt. The Good help. 
  4. The Evil take. The Good give. 
  5. The Evil hate. The Good love. (page 157)
Take Rule 4 and apply it to the fate of Good animals who "help" Princesses:
"Animals love to help princesses for so many reasons!" said Princess Uma, stopping at the water's edge. "Because we sing pretty songs, because we give them shelter in the scary Woods, because they only wish they could be as beautiful and beloved as--"

"Wait."

Uma and the girls turned. Agatha held up the storybook's last page--a painting of the stag ripped to pieces by monsters as the princess escaped.

"How is that a happy ending?"

"If you aren't good enough to be a princess, then you're honored to die for one, of course," Uma smiled, as if she would learn this lesson soon enough. (page 130)

A lot of distinguishing between good and evil starts with the appearance, but the book also addresses deception (when a Good or Evil person is disguised as the other). Agatha struggles between the School's institutionally-enforced dichotomy between Good and Evil because she was placed in the School of Good, but her appearance and reclusive outward demeanor makes her appear as if she belongs with the School of Evil: 
"What if my face is Evil?"

Her teacher flinched at her tone.

"I'm far from home, I I've lost my only friend, everyone here hates me, and all I want is a way to find some kind of happy ending," Agatha said, red-hot. "But you can't even tell me the truth. My ending is not about what Good I do or what's inside me. It's about how I look." Spit flew out of her mouth.

"I never even had a chance." (page 372)
Despite this book being full of hilarious moments (mostly in which Sophie attempts to do Good deeds at school), it also contains some sincere moments of growth for Agatha's character, in which she emerges from beneath Sophie's flamboyant shadow and paves her own destiny. As her confidence increases, Agatha transforms from the reluctant sidekick to her own heroine, and also realizes that there are things in-between Good and Evil (page 423). 

Overall, this book helped me develop an appreciation for fairy tale villains for their flair and passion. With their contrasting personalities, Sophie and Agatha complement each other well as friends (and maybe frenemies). I absolutely loved the clever reinvention and subversion of fairy tale tropes in The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. 

I look forward to reading the second book, A World Without Princes, which actually came out this April. The third book, The Last Ever After, will be released on July 21, 2015. 

Find out more about The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

NORA AND KETTLE by Lauren Nicolle Taylor


Nora and Kettle
by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
Expected Publication: February 29, 2016

If you haven’t read anything by Lauren Nicolle Taylor, you’re in for a real treat: Nora and Kettle is an upcoming novel by Lauren Nicolle Taylor, international bestselling author of The Woodlands. Set in the years after World War II, Nora and Kettle features a story about friendship and love between the daughter of a civil rights lawyer and a mixed-race Japanese-American orphan. 

The first few pages of Nora and Kettle whisked me away into the sheltered but troubled life of Nora, daughter of a prestigious civil rights attorney. Living in a large home with her affluent family, Nora has learned to hide her bruises and stay quiet, mostly for the sake of keeping her little sister safe from their violent father. 

The story soon shifts to the perspective of Kettle, a young man who goes out of his way to make life livable for his family, a group of Nisei orphans (“Lost Children”) who were taken from orphanages and placed into internment camps. 

What do Nora and Kettle have in common? They are protective of those they love, and would sacrifice much to make sure that their loved ones are safe. Nora bravely endures her father’s beatings to make sure her sister is safe, while Kettle fights to work risky jobs in the mines in order to feed his family of fellow homeless children. On the surface, they live very different lives, but they also have a lot in common. 

The story flows seamlessly between the perspectives of Nora and Kettle. I found myself attempting to piece together different facts and details to get a hold of the big picture or the “real deal” of a character.The revelations are satisfying and add layers of complexity to characters and their motivations. Hints introduced throughout the book come together to reveal important discoveries later on in the story--wish I could say but it’d be too spoilery. Take my word on this!
A sketch of Nora and Kettle, by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
Nora and Kettle left me reeling with emotions--happy ones, angry ones, and also sad ones. I dreamed along with Nora, simmered with anger at her father’s violence and hypocrisy, and cheered for both Nora and Kettle. I found myself identifying with both characters’ struggles, dreams, and fears. 

The emotional impact of this novel also stems from Lauren Nicolle Taylor’s signature style of poetic prose. Her vivid writing sweeps me away into the secret realms of her characters’ minds and hearts, where they are free to express how they truly feel. This is especially true for Nora, whose innerworld is dreamy and mobile compared to her oppressive situation at home, where she has to hide her true thoughts from her overbearing father. 
"A Frankie and Kettle Moment" by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
Overall, this is a poetically written novel about two strong-willed characters who will do whatever they can to ensure the safety of the people they love. The post-World War II setting and Kettle’s background illuminates a segment of history that is often overlooked: the removal of children from orphanages and their subsequent placement into internment camps for having any sort of Japanese ancestry. Nora and Kettle are likable characters who drive the plot forward and I find myself investing deeply in their struggles. Nora and Kettle is an exhilarating read and I highly recommend it.

Expected Publication Date for Nora and Kettle: February 26, 2016

Find out more about Nora and Kettle by Lauren Nicolle Taylor: