Book Reviews Books

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy beautifully portrays the struggles of growing up in a world of misogyny

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is a fantasy YA novel written by Anne Ursu (author of The Real Boy and The Lost Girl). This is a story about a young girl who is just starting to realize that the misogynistic world around her has told her fundamental lies about women, and that she is more than what the world has labeled her to be. This is the first book of the author’s that I have read and it definitely won’t be the last! I was touched by the charm, heart, and intelligence of this book. 

The story is set in the fictional land of Illyria. At the beginning of the book, we meet our main character Marya and her family. The characters and family dynamics are instantly established here – something I always like in a book. Marya is funny and witty, but all in her own head – because in this world, girls are meant to be seen, not heard. I was hooked from the very first scene when Marya is feeding the old family goat and cleaning the chicken coop. It is clear from her responsibilities that girls have almost no value in the eyes of society and that she’s not formally educated, unlike her brother who has all the privilege of education and literacy.

There comes a scene fairly early in the book where Marya asserts herself and speaks her mind, something that she does not do ordinarily. Obviously I was rooting for her the whole time, but I was scared for her as well. After all, I understood deep in my bones the courage it takes to speak your mind in a world that does not want you to. Her courage leads to her being sent to a school for ‘troubled girls’.  The story follows Marya as she navigates these unfamiliar waters and wonders why she and her classmates are labeled ‘troubled’ when they don’t feel like they are.

Author Anne Ursu does a fantastic job of building this world. Without explaining too much about social hierarchies she still makes it clear to the reader that this is a highly misogynistic world. She also balances the dark world with comedic thoughts brought to us by the main character, who keeps her sense of humor in spite of what surrounds her.

Marya is only 12 and does not yet know to question the things she has grown up with, but is sharp enough to realize that something is seriously wrong with the way she is treated. The conflict in her between what she has been raised to believe and what she reasons with her own mind is beautifully portrayed throughout the story. As a female reader it was all horribly familiar. I feel like we all go through that phase where we suddenly realize that a practice or belief we took for normal was in fact rooted in misogyny. That phase is always fraught with internal conflict as we are forced to unlearn and learn anew. 

One part of the book that stuck with me long after I was done was something one of the characters tells Marya. Madame Bandu, one of the women in the village where Marya grew up, is Marya’s only true friend growing up. Before Marya is sent away, Madame Bandu tells her that when she hears a story that powerful people tell about themselves and she is unsure whether it is true, she must ask herself whom the story serves. Does the story serve the people who told the story and keep them in power? Then it is probably not true.

When I read that I had to physically put the book down and marvel at that line. In hindsight, and for us as adults, it seems like such a simple and obvious thought. Of course, in reality it is not at all so. How many of us are taught to look at a story and wonder whom it benefits? Whom does this story keep in power? Why are we being made to listen to it again and again? It is such an important question to ask. As every reader knows, stories have immense power – something Marya is told but only later fully understands. As the story progresses, her naturally inquisitive nature leads her to some dark stories – ones that were hidden from her by those in power.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone I know. This book has many elements that will make it worth your while, even if you aren’t a fan of the fantasy genre. The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy has a thread of sorrow and darkness running through it but never crosses the line into being a completely sad book. Anne Ursu achieves a pleasant balance of the darker subject matter with doses of heart and humor, and I look forward to reading more from her.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy comes out on October 12. Support local bookstores and get the book here.

Book Reviews Books

“Any Place But Here” is the calmest YA novel I have read in a while

“I arrived in northern Virginia on January 1, the metaphor of the fresh start laid out in front of me as bright and wide as the river itself.”

This is the first line of Any Place But Here, by Sarah Van Name. What did that sentence make you feel? If you are anything like me, you may have felt that this YA book is unlike any other you have read. You may have also felt a sense of peace. Any Place But Here is a beautiful reflection of a teenage mind. I would liken my experience reading this book to sitting on the beach, close to the water. The waves crash at your feet, strong and decisive in their movement, but leave you feeling peaceful.

Any Place But Here is about June, a teenage girl who has been “asked to leave” her old school after she was caught drinking with her best friend Jess at a school dance. Jess is a force of nature. She is passionate and rebellious, always signing herself and June up for an adventure. June is completely swept up in Jess’s personality and in her own attraction towards her best friend. She is devastated when her parents send her to live with her grandmother and attend a new school in Virginia.

June’s grandmother lives in a quieter place where June can reflect on the nature of her feelings towards Jess. The book follows June’s journey as she adapts to a new place and finds out some truths about herself. She needs to be able to figure out who she is and what she wants from life, all without her best friend at her side.

I’ve read many books where the reader is privy to the protagonist’s inner thoughts. Very few managed to make me relate to them as much as this one did. What made it so impactful is that June’s circumstances and personality aren’t very similar to mine, but her story was still so relatable. As a young adult, your world starts expanding both outwardly and inwardly. You become aware of the world, but also of yourself. Your thoughts get jumbled. What makes June relatable is that her thoughts were laid out exactly as they were, clear in their complexity. In fact, all the characters are clear in that way.

We have all known people like Jess, June, and her other friends. The characters are well fleshed out and nuanced, with legitimate concerns that 16-year-olds have. One of the problems I have had with some YA books in the past is that teenagers are often portrayed as one-dimensional characters. To be honest, I thought that might be the case here too before I started reading the book. However, it is quickly clear that June has many sides to her personality – things that she learns about herself at the same time as the reader.

A lot of this book happens, as you may have surmised, in June’s mind. The important incidents in the book are seldom events but thoughts and realizations brought about by events. June meets her two new friends, Kitty and Claire when they are grouped together for a science project. As a reader, I barely remembered that the science project even happened. What stayed in my head was June’s consequent inner thoughts that cemented their friendship in her mind.

She also meets Sam, her photography classmate, and Claire’s cousin. The spark June feels with Sam is very cute and, like most other things in her new life, gentle. Sam, Kitty, and Claire are gentle in a way that Jess and her friends are not. The contrast between these two groups leads to June’s inner turmoil about what kind of person she really is.

A major theme throughout the novel is June’s questioning of her own sexuality, brought about by her realization of her feelings for Jess. June goes back-and-forth in her thinking many times and second-guesses herself frequently. All of this is faithfully portrayed in the book. Her journey through inner conflict to self-acceptance is the thread that ties the book together, along with the underlying sense of hope. The latter is helped by the beautiful imagery, firmly established in the first line of the book and returned to throughout the story.

Any Place But Here was right up my alley in every way. A quiet and peaceful book, but constantly engaging and deep. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to lose themselves in a book and come up feeling refreshed with a smile on their face.

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Book Reviews Books

I had a love-hate relationship with “The Summer of Broken Rules” by K.L. Walther

The Summer of Broken Rules is a unique story about grief, love, games, and finding yourself. Set in Martha’s Vineyard in the USA, the book explores how a family comes together through shared experiences and through games, to be a great support system during times of loss. I was hooked right from the premise of some fun action and suspense within the genre of realistic YA fiction.

The book follows Meredith, an 18-year-old girl who has just lost her sister in a freak accident. She and her family are going to Martha’s Vineyard (an island off the coast of Massachusetts, USA) for a week for Meredith’s cousin Sarah’s wedding. Meredith’s grandparents live there and the whole extended family visits every summer. At the wedding, Sarah and her fiancé announce that the family will be playing a game of Assassin to honor Meredith’s late sister, Claire, who was the undisputed queen of the game. The gameplay goes like this: every player has a target – someone they have to “kill” (i.e. shoot with a water-gun). If a player is eliminated, their target becomes their killer’s next target. The winner of the game is the last player standing.

The beginning of the book is strong. The characters are introduced well and clearly defined. Meredith’s extended family and Sarah’s fiancé’s family, plus their friends and wedding guests, make up a truly huge cast of characters. Everyone’s personalities and roles were clearly defined from the start so it does not get confusing. The setting is described beautifully as well. You can almost feel the spray from the sea and the summer goodness of the island on which the wedding is happening.

But despite this, I felt that the book slowly lost momentum as the chapters went by. The suspense I expected was present in the beginning, but as the book went on I started wondering why the game was so important at all. The book explains that Meredith is invested in the game because she wants to win it for her sister, which I understood in the first few chapters. Yet I felt that this explanation did not hold up towards the end, as Meredith made new relationships with other characters. The importance of the game kept varying.

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Sometimes the “kills” were described comically, with over-dramatic betrayals and action movie-like moves, which I really liked. However, at other times Meredith seems genuinely scared and distressed by the game, leading me to wonder whether she actually found it fun or not.

I felt like the romance was a bit forced. Meredith meets someone from the groom’s party, Wit, at the wedding, and she almost immediately falls in love with him. This in itself would have been okay – I don’t mind a good “love at first sight” story. But I was disappointed that Meredith gave so much importance to what Wit thought of her. It seemed as though Wit kept telling Meredith what she was thinking and who she was as a person.

Don’t get me wrong, their love story is pretty cute, but I would have liked it better if Meredith had more autonomy over her perception of herself. A redeeming factor here is that Meredith eventually does make her own decisions and does not let her life revolve around what Wit or her family say. But I still felt like the love story was given undue importance. I was not convinced that the strength of their relationship was enough to make it so significant in Meredith’s life.

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I found myself almost rushing through the final chapters, not because I was impatient to find out who won the game (honestly, I lost interest halfway through), but because I just wanted the book to end. The epilogue seemed unnecessary too. The only purpose it served was to reiterate what was already established in the previous chapters, and the new information could have been added seamlessly in the last chapter.

Would I read this book again? Probably not. But would I recommend it to people? Maybe. It was not terrible, certainly not the worst YA book I’ve ever read. Despite everything, I would give it a solid 3 out of 5, the good points being for the setting, the first few chapters, and the amazing descriptions of the food they eat. (Donuts and pies, anyone?)

Overall, personally, I felt that the book was a bit of a disappointment, but not to the extent that I regret reading it.

Get The Summer of Broken Rules on the Bookshop and support local bookstores.