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Review: Brickbats And Tutus

Brickbats and Tutus

by John Plimmer

” To be born to dance is true. It’s a condition. It’s in the cells; the tissues and in the essence of who you are.

Selfishness then becomes selflessness. “

There are very few people who are born with the type of natural musicality and rhythm that ballet requires. Those that are born with the talent often cannot endure the rigorous rehearsal schedules, the unmitigated discipline, nor the forever battered and bloody feet that are all part of ballet’s territory. There are even fewer who are willing to sacrifice relationships, having children, and sometimes even their own health to devote themselves to this special craft of dance that only a select few can survive and thrive in.

For Julie Felix, she had the talent — and an abundance of it. She had the fervent want and intense desire. She had the heart and she could withstand the pain with nothing more than a quiet wince. Julie was quite all right not having romantic entanglements because, if she was being honest, no love of a man could compete with the love she had for the ballet. She had every characteristic required of a prima ballerina.

But while Julie possessed everything critical to the making of a principal dancer, she had one thing working against her that she had absolutely no control over — the color of her skin. Born to a black father and a white mother, Julie was of mixed race and a rarity in the world of classical ballet during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Schools shut their doors in her faces, companies refused to give her work, and teachers turned their backs on her. Unfairly and unjustly, it did not matter her talents or accolades within the small dancing world; all that mattered was that she could not be a black swan in a sea of white ones.

” Julie didn’t have to wait long after returning the necessary documents and an invitation for an audition quickly landed on the floor of her parents’ hallway. Of course she was pleased with the result of her plan thus far, but some of those earlier doubts were still there, hiding the black faceless carrion crows in the depths of her mind, armed with only bad news. She became convinced the photographs of the ballet poses she had sent to Rambert with her application form, had been responsible for getting her the audition, which they had. But Julie believed the reason they had made their mark was only because, in the colorless snaps, she had resembled a white girl. “

In 2015, the beautifully graceful and incredibly elegant and staggeringly beautiful Misty Copeland made headlines across the nation when she was named as American Ballet Theatre’s first African American principal dancer in their 75 year history. Since her promotion to the most coveted spot held in any reputable dance company, Copeland has gone to be named a “most influential person” by Time Magazine, has written two successful books of her own, and has been a part of a documentary entitled “A Ballerina’s Tale”, which chronicles the working lives of several prominent black ballet dancers. One of the dancers featured in the documentary, Arthur Mitchell, was not only the first African American ballet dancer in a major ballet company, he was also the first principal dancer of color (in 1956, via the New York City Ballet). Mitchell eventually opened his own company, the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem, where Julie Felix would eventually find her dancing home.

But before she danced to an audience of people like King of Pop Michael Jackson, 80’s icon Prince, or the President of the United States and his First Lady, Julie was a young girl living in meager means in Ealing, West London, in England. At the tender age of 7, Julie was introduced to dance and was told she possessed a rare talent; the kind words laced with promises of how far she could go on her pointed toes. But as Julie was turned down by dance schools and eventually having to turn down a few in turn due to the lack of funds her family had, she became discouraged. Fortunately for her, her skill on the dance floor paired with tenacity and a scholarship landed her a place in the Rambert Ballet School, where she would spend several years carefully honing her craft on tiptoe.

” ‘What do you think you’re doing, English girl, your legs are too low, not turning out enough,’ and so on. 

The criticisms never seemed to stop throughout her dance executions, but this was the new sustained Julie and she knew he was testing her, expecting her to evaporate beneath his throw away insults. Each time he spoke in the negative, Julie gave some more, she won every battle by showing Arthur Mitchell she did have what it takes and some more. This was a donkey ride at a seaside compared with what she’d been through. If only her father had been there to witness first-hand the level of resolve his youngest daughter possessed. The fire in those black eyes, thanks to Dame Beryl Gray, hadn’t left her, adding pulsating drama to the dancer’s story, leaving the other members of the company watching, flabbergasted and teased into the desire to see more.

The class finally came to an end and applause filled the studio, Julie never heard anything except her own frantic breathing, having given her all to that one performance, that one class. ” 

Her biggest and brightest dream was to dance onstage as part of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, where the masters of her chosen passion awed their audience and took their bows to sold-out seats. But for Julie, she wasn’t sure this would ever become a reality, as there had never before been a black dancer for the most revered company in England. After trying to apply for several jobs in her home country, Julie took a chance and a job with the famed Arthur Mitchell and his dance troupe, all the way across The Pond in the heart of Harlem, New York. She left behind her mother and father, a sister and a casual boyfriend, packing her life into a suitcase and struggling to make her way around a city larger than life. Julie saw things she never thought she’d ever witness — a man gunned down in the streets before her, a stranger holding on for dear life to a window ledge as their apartment was engulfed in flames before them, a blizzard that shut down a city, and a city-wide blackout that resulted in riots and theft.

But at Dance Theatre of Harlem, Julie “The English Girl” was taken under Arthur Mitchell’s cantankerous wing and pressed to push harder and work longer. He rewarded her passionate and tireless perseverance by allowing her to naturally progress within the company, and she did her best to never let him down. As a member of his team, Julie traveled the world and saw war zones in Israel with her own eyes, felt earthquakes in California with her own two feet, and felt the stab of a production being shut down by rallying KKK members with every facet of her heart. For Julie, DTH gave her a home away from home and allowed her to grow as a dancer, but her heart always remained in England. Luckily for Julie, she eventually had a chance to go back home and grace the very stage that captured her spirit as a young girl.

” She stood alone on one of the biggest stages in the world, her back as straight as a rod with her head held high, in a phoenix like posture Her shiny shoulder length black hair reflected the subdued light sprinkling down from the overheads, resembling moonlight serenading the black Caspian Sea. The house lights in the auditorium were up, but the silence strangely portrayed a void which can only be experienced in an empty theatre. At that moment, her only companions were those of tingling nerve ends, apprehension, hopes and dreams, most of which had followed her throughout her young career. The young lady’s large glistening black eyes feasted on the fascinating grandeur of the huge theatre’s layers of balconies, stretching from ceiling to floor, supporting red and gold trimmed cushioned seats. The whole scene reminded her of a large multi-tiered birthday cake and she wondered whether all of its four thousand seats would be filled for that night’s Gala Performance. “

Brickbats and Tutus is a very easy and engaging novel by British author, John Plimmer. A departure from his previous career in police investigations and security consultations, the multi-faceted writer captured a glimpse into what it was like for a young black dancer struggling to find her place among the white swans in an era that was racially unjust and complicated. Readers ages 13 and up will enjoy gliding and leaping through the years with Julie Felix as she makes a journey led by her heart and spirit.

I give the novel 4.5 out of 5 stars and encourage readers of all backgrounds to check this book out. I was fascinated by everything Julie saw and went through as she met goal after goal. She lived her professional life as a dancer in a time where things were certainly not easy, but there was always a shimmer of magic on the outskirts of things. Her persistence and determination is awe-inspiring and admirable, and my only regret about this novel is that it ended without telling us what became of Julie in her years after her dancing career ended. I would have loved to have learned more about the years after dance, with her husband Joe, and if she ever got that family of her own that she wanted.

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Review: Scoundrel In Disguise

Scoundrel In Disguise

by Shaela Kay

Sarah waved her hand impatiently in the air. ‘There is no such thing. None of the men I have discouraged are truly in love with me, and I am not in love with any of them.’

Amused, Rex sat back in his chair, contemplating her. ‘They have all been going about it wrong, have they?’

‘Going about what wrong?’

‘Making you fall in love with them.’ “

There are few things that I love more in a good book than a bad boy, especially when he is hiding a heart of gold.

Scoundrel in Disguise certainly lives up to its name, providing a charmingly witty rogue to fall in love with.

The young and bright Miss. Sarah Mendenhall is anxiously awaiting her first social season in London. The prospect of spending her afternoons strolling through the busy city admiring ribbons and hats through spotlessly clean shop windows  and spending her evenings being twirled around a dance floor and admired by a room full of handsome beaux has Sarah positively giddy. She’s dreamed of this since she was a child, growing up along the banks of India, the smell of sweet jasmine a hazy companion to her sharply detailed reveries. And so finally, with the time finally here, she becomes wrapped up in all that society has to offer. But she has made a solitary solemn vow not only to her companion and keeper, Lady Rockwell,  but most importantly to herself – she will not marry any time soon. She will instead focus on enjoyment and pleasure, soaking up everything London has to offer — no matter what man catches her eye.

Sarah throws herself onto the scene like an excitable puppy, barely able to contain her excitement even under the strict eye of her caretaker. Her endless amounts of energy and her broad smiles instantly capture the heart of London society — from the male persuasion, anyway. The females are of course wary, sensing sizable competition in the cheerful brunette, but Sarah is lucky to make the acquaintance of a shy and kind young lady, Rosemary Reed.  The two quickly become friends and confidantes, and even Rosemary is left in awe of Sarah’s ingenuity and outgoing nature. Of course there are a few rotten apples in every bunch, and Sarah has the poor luck of also becoming familiar with Peter Mills, a spoiled and snobbish young man full of derisive conversation and idle gossip. Peter taints Sarah’s splash into society only a tad, because as is befitting her bubbly and flighty personality, Sarah moves on to the next man on her dance card — doing her best to leave the negativity behind her.

” Across the room, Peter Mills leaned casually against the wall and watched the scene before him with amusement. Another young gentleman came and stood beside him, following his gaze. Turning to Peter, the gentleman smiled.

‘Is not Miss. Mendenhall the most enchanting creature you ever beheld?’ His voice betrayed his admiration, and Peter turned his lazy eyes upon him. 

‘She is certainly causing quite a stir in society,’ he agreed. He looked back towards Sarah, whose musical laughter could be heard across the large room. Her cobalt eyes were bright with excitement; she obviously enjoyed the attentions of her many admirers, despite her flippant regard for any of them. She turned her head and caught Peter’s eye just then, and he winked at her. 

Sarah deliberately turned her head. “

But the impression Sarah has made on Peter is one that will follow her throughout the season, unbeknownst to her. For Peter, the activities of the season are nothing but boring traditions and tedious encounters with the same uninspiring women. Sarah has left him intrigued but not so much in the romantic sense, and when he finds out a secret that his old friend Jameson Rex has been fruitlessly attempting to hide, Peter sees an opportunity to exploit the young woman and provide himself with a bit of cruel entertainment. He seizes the moment and latches onto his Rex’s vulnerability, anxious to exploit and tarnish Sarah’s reputation.

Jameson Rex is a gentleman fallen from grace, and almost completely of his own doing. The whispers behind gloved hands and the assumptions made in mixed company have left him a man marked for exclusion. But if being included and free from scandal meant having had made a different choice, Rex would take the ostracism a hundred times over. High society has never meant anything more to him than shallow relationships and stiflingly polite airs. But with the threat of financial ruin on the horizon, and a household to provide for, Rex finds himself in a most inconvenient and wearisome position. He needs a wife. And a rich one at that. Leaving behind the only thing he loves, Rex has made his way into the city and used the last bit of money he has to procure a respectable place to live, where he prepares to engage himself with every eligible lady in town.

Rex is irritated and dismayed to find that his secret has already made its way into London and is circulating like wildfire. Yes, it’s true that he is the caretaker of a child.  Yes it is true that the child was born out of wedlock. A beautiful child. A perfectly sweet little girl named Caroline, who is the very epitome of everything good and pure that her mother possessed.  And while it was unfortunate for him that his uncle (the holder and distributer of the bulk of Rex’s financial means) found out about the child and cut him off monetarily, Rex has a plan. Find a suitable and financially flush wife. End of story.

” But Rex also knew that Peter Mills had connections that might help him. Among Peter’s varied acquaintance were many wealthy women friends — with as little desire to marry as he himself possessed. Women whose wealth and status in society meant that most people turned a blind eye to their actions. 

The thought that had formed in Rex’s mind as he first observed Peter Mills had filled him with abhorrence, but he knew that Peter could help him in ways that others could not. His stomach turned as he considered what he was about to undertake. Desperate times, he rationalized again. 

All this had passed in a moment, and Peter was still leaning forward, waiting for Rex’s reply. 

‘I plan to marry an heiress, of course,’ Rex said with forced calm. “

Regrettably for Rex, this is proving to be a problem. The women of London want hardly anything to do with him, given the scandal swirling around him like the coming breeze. Mothers are clutching their daughters close as if he is no better than a thief, no better than a. . . scoundrel. Following through with his plan is proving to be a difficult task, so when the rich Peter Mills comes to him with a proposition, Rex has no choice but to listen and accept.

The bet is simple : Rex must make Sarah fall in love with him.

The reward: five thousand pounds; a veritable fortune.

While Rex does find the bet to be rather uncouth and certainly not befitting of a gentleman, he is desperate. His little girl is counting on him and he cannot fail her. And so while he begins to woo the spritely and beautiful Miss. Mendenhall, he is working another plan behind the curtain. An old acquaintance is newly in town and she brings new prospects. But while Isabella is attached to an attractive fortune, she is also attached to spite, revenge, and jealousy — and Rex may have bitten off more than he can chew, especially as he is now balancing the two ladies.

Sarah finds Rex to be a perfectly reasonable friend and good man, regardless of what society is whispering about him. She’s heard the rumors and the insults masked behind good manners. Lucky for Rex, Sarah is a simple girl who always looks and tends to believe the good in people, even if it is to her detriment. She has no idea that there is an uncivilized undertone running through the veins of their budding friendship, especially since she enjoys her time with Rex so much. She finds herself looking forward to their driving lessons and her eyes search for his figure every time she enters a ballroom. But if she had fallen in love, wouldn’t she know it?

” ‘You do not believe I am dangerous?’

‘Not in the sense you mean.’

In two steps he was at her side, wrapping his arm around her waist and crushing her to his chest. She gasped, and he reached his other hand up, twisting his fingers into her hair. tipping her head back, he looked into her eyes. A wicked smile slid across his face, and he bent his head down. She turned her face away. 

‘Do you still think that now?’ he murmured, his breath tickling her ear. She trembled, but did not push him away. 

‘Mr. Rex, please — you are a gentleman!’

Rex laughed humorlessly. ‘That is not what I hear.’ “

When Peter Mills decides to up the ante on the bet and forces Rex into an even less desirable position than than the one he’s already in, Rex finds himself hesitating — the money is seeming less important when it comes up against Sarah’s feelings and reputation. Or rather, Rex is beginning to realize that his own feelings are leading him down a path that he did not intend, as he has regrettably found himself caught up in the spell that is Sarah Mendenhall.

But how could he ever expect her to love a scoundrel?

Scoundrel In Disguise is a proper historical romance written by author Shaela Kay. It comes after her first book, A Heart Made of Indigo, which follows the story and romance of Sarah’s brother and is set in India. While young Sarah is a supporting character in A Heart Made of Indigo, Scoundrel In Disguise is a standalone book, and I liked it better. I recommend reading the other if you enjoy the author’s style and are interested in learning more about Sarah.

 The historical references are well-researched and the romance is light and refreshingly full of morality, while the humor is witty and the characters are richly drawn. I really enjoyed this book and feel quite comfortable comparing it to the likes of Jane Austen; the time period is much the same and the romance is very similar. The story flowed brilliantly with almost no lull, and the character development was strong — especially for Sarah — who transformed from a silly and childish girl into an understanding and mature woman. Rex was dashing and full of wit, but I loved seeing his softer side. I am anxiously awaiting the story of Lady Rockwell; the author has teased a telling of the matriarch’s tale and I believe it would be a fine accompaniment to the world Kay has dreamed up.

I give Scoundrel In Disguise 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it for anyone who loves a sweet romance with a twist of scandal.

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Review: The Cellar

The Cellar

by Natasha Preston

“ Four vases sat proudly on the side table behind the dining table and chairs; one held roses, one violets, one poppies.

The fourth was empty. “

Natasha Preston began her writing career on an online platform called Wattpad – and I hate to say it, but it shows.

I try not to judge books by their cover and in keeping with the trend, I try not to judge authors by their bios. But when Preston boasts ” I stumbled into writing completely by accident. I was searching the ‘app store’ and came across Wattpad – an amateur writing site,” the writer in me cannot help but be offended. She stumbled upon a site, threw some stuff against the wall, and as luck would have it – for her – some stuck.

One of the books that stuck relatively well was The Cellar.

The title gives you a great understanding as to what the book is about. While the storyline was not original, I was willing to give it a shot. A $2 book found in clearance by a NY Times bestselling author can’t be that bad, right?

A mentally deranged psychopath kidnaps women and keeps them trapped down in his cellar. He visits a few times a day to spend time with his hostages, and every once in a while, brings another woman down with him – to kill.  I feel like I’ve heard all this before. . . oh, wait –

Not too long ago, my daughter and I saw the movie Split, starring the enormously talented James McAvoy. The storyline is extremely similar, and so I think my expectations for this book were a little high, as the film was highly entertaining. I also figured if a story is so good that it is been plucked off of a highly-rated website and subsequently mass produced as a published work, then I figured it must be worth reading, right?

Um. Well.

I rarely consider leaving a book unfinished. I have this thing within me that forces me to finish all things that I begin. Call it a compulsion, call it a control issue (as I have many), but I have to end something before I can begin something else. And this book almost made me quit in the middle, which is something I’m not sure I can forgive it for. I really disliked this book. And I think I disliked it so much because I felt like it bamboozled me. The first 30 pages or so were not the best quality of words, but there was definitely an element of “becoming hooked.”  I’ve learned that expecting stellar writing styles from YA authors is a little unfair, and in my opinion, the same can be said of thriller writers. Thriller writers are there to get you into and through the story/mystery in a fast-paced manner because typically, there is just a lot going on while the person or persons tries to solve the crime or is involved in the crime. There isn’t a whole lot of fluff, especially if the book is not a part of a series. But one thing that YA authors consistently do well is character development, and that is something that I really love. I am a fan of detail and elaborations, and YA authors love to give it to their readers. A lot of focus is given on characters so that the focus of the young reader tends to stick; young readers are more visual retainers, and as such, they need detail. The storylines are typically not deep – although there are exceptions – but I can look beyond that and appreciate a good YA novel for what it is.

Not so much with this book, on either front. As I said earlier, I felt as if I’d read and seen this plot many times before. It wasn’t original in the least. Again, I could look past that if the author gave me something. . . and the character development? Forget it. I couldn’t tell you what anyone in the entire story looks like, what their hopes and dreams were, or even their last name. I was annoyed that the book hooked me  quickly with the action of the main character being kidnapped, her boyfriend on the hunt to find her, and her realization that she was now stuck in a basement with three other mysterious women. But as the pages were turned, chapter after chapter, the book became a monotonous monologue of “Oh my God, like, I hate it down here so much” and I wanted to throw this book out of the window.

Teenagers are not stupid, and a)writing them like they are and b)assuming that they are, as a reader, really pisses me off.

Colin grew up the son of a single mother, his father having been banished from his only son’s life when he was caught in bed with another woman. As a product of a broken home via adultery, Colin has come to hate women and crave family, even more now that his mother has passed away. His twisted solution to this is to create his own family by kidnapping women and holding them hostage in his fortified basement, where they will serve him meals, entertain him with Movie Nights, and generally listen to his day to day grievances. Occasionally he uses these women for sexual gratification, but only after he’s fallen in love with them and only on a very strict schedule (cue rolling of the eyes).

He also combats his childhood issues by murdering women that he feels are of a certain persuasion. There seems to be literally no shortage of prostitutes in his neighborhood and he goes out several times a week, picks one up, brings her home, and then murders her with a pen-knife in the basement in front of his “family.” Yes, you read that right – a pen-knife. That is his only weapon of choice (seriously, no other weapons whatsoever in this novel) and one that he uses to murder women with one stab. Yes, just the one. I have no idea what type of neighborhood Colin lives in that he is surrounded by prostitutes, but. . . there you have it. He must also be one lucky stabber, because it only takes one jab in the gut to kill the women he brings down to the cellar.

“Loneliness was like a terminal disease. With every passing day you faded just that little bit more. I had felt as if I were dying for the past four years and I’d had enough. Combing my hair one last time, I slid my wallet in my black pocket and picked up my keys. The girls’ room was finished and had been for three days now. There was just one thing missing before I would be ready for them — their clothes. 

On the way to the department store, I stopped off at my local florist to buy a bunch of yellow tulips for my mother. They were her favorite. I never liked them, but I appreciated their natural beauty and purity. “

Sometimes the women in his “family” act up or smart off, and when this happens, they get smacked around or pricked with the dreaded pen-knife. On occasion, he accidentally kills one of his family members and then has to replace her. He has this weird thing about needing four women in the basement at any given time – a Lily, Rose, Violet, and a Poppy. He keeps flowers representing each woman in a plastic vase on the table, and when one of these flowers dies, the woman counterpart gets a beating. As you can imagine, this happens quite a bit, as the flowers are cut and deprived of all sunlight. I’m sure there is some deeper meaning here, but it’s beyond me.

After he kills a “Lily,” he begins the hunt for a new one. He finds 16-year old Summer in a park on her way to a party. Why she is wandering around out at night alone, I have zero clue, but I do know that she can’t believe her boyfriend let her leave the house unattended. The reason I know this is because the author reminds the reader of this fact no less than 10 times, via Summer and her boyfriend’s point of view. Colin kidnaps Summer and throws her down in the cellar, where she spends the first few days cowering in fear and wishing she could see her boyfriend again. Not her mother, her father,  or her brother. . . just her boyfriend.

She took a few steps toward me, still holding out her hand as if she honestly expected me to take it. ‘Come on, Lily, it’s okay.’ I didn’t move. I couldn’t. She took another step. My heart raced in panic, and I pressed my back farther into the wall, trying to get away from her. What did they want from me?

‘I — I’m not Lily. Please tell him, please? I’m not Lily. I need to get out. Please help me,’ I begged., backing up the rest of the stairs until I came to the door. Turning, I slammed my fists against the metal, ignoring the pain that shot through my wrists. “

Several flashbacks of Summer and her boyfriend Lewis are actually quite sweet. He is her brother Henry’s best friend, and as such, he’s been involved in her life for a few years. The only engaging parts of this novel involved Lewis, and I enjoyed reading about their innocent progression from being friends to falling in love;  with the exception of one (very, very mild) sex scene, it’s all very above board. There is only one other sex scene, and it is between Summer and her captor, but again it is very mild (basically showing a scene before the incident, and a scene after. No in-between).

Summer spends the entirety of her captivity trying to escape, obviously. Why she and the other three women don’t band together and beat the you-know-what out of Colin is glossed over a bit and explained rather poorly. In fact, there are so many literary discrepancies in this book, it made my head hurt. The plot holes and writing style in this book were at times so difficult to bear, I had to force myself to plow through this book so I would be sure to actually finish it. I truly believe I’ve read better developed and written stories by 12-year olds.

The point of view begins to change about halfway through the book, becoming a combination of Summer-Lewis-Colin. I found Lewis to be the most interesting character in this entire book, and his quest to hunt Summer down is admirable and heroic, and something teenage girls will be sure to swoon over. He never gives up (and he’ll tell you about 500 times so you don’t forget – he is not giving up!) and of course, there is a very happy ending. Summer is thrilled to be reunited with not her mother, her father, or her brother – but her boyfriend!

I give The Cellar 2 out of 5 stars, and I am being generous. I only give The Cellar those two stars because of Lewis. Seriously. I am appalled by the 4 out of 5 star rating on Goodreads, and I have no idea what book they were reading because it obviously wasn’t this one. As a fan of the YA genre, I’ve read a lot of it, and I don’t appreciate authors who dumb things down for that audience. But I’m guessing that Preston didn’t dumb anything down on purpose; the bio she wrote about herself leaves a lot to be desired and her follow up to The Cellar has so many typos that it’s embarrassing. I suspect her style is just sloppy, uninformed, and shallow. If your child has read any of Natasha Preston’s work, has actually enjoyed it and wants to read more, I would recommend this book for any reader ages 13 and up (unless they are mature). The kidnapping is a bit scary, as is the murdering, and of course there are the two suggestive sex scenes.

And if you just have to have more – there is a sequel on Wattpad entitled You’ll Always Be Mine. I won’t be reading it.

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Review: Heartless


by Marissa Meyer

“Cath shivered and had the strangest urge to give him a nervous wave. An acknowledgment that yes, she was aware that her dress was unduly red. But by the time her hand had lifted, the Joker’s attention had skipped on. She dropped her hand and exhaled. Once the hoop had made a full circle, a ghost smile lifted the corners of the stranger’s lips. He titled his head. The bells jingled. There was an intake of breath from the watchful crowd. “Ladies. Gentleman.” He spoke with precision. “Your Most Illustrious Majesty.” The King bounced on his toes like a child waiting for the Christmas feast. The Joker swung himself up in one fluid motion so he was standing inside the hoop. It spun another lazy half turn. They all listened, mesmerized by the hesitant creak of the rope that attached it to the chandelier.

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?””

Have you ever wondered how the Queen of Hearts of Wonderland came to be so…heartless?

Have you ever asked yourself why the White Rabbit depends so much on a mystery woman named Mary Ann?

And how did the Mad Hatter get so mad?

Marissa Meyer, author of other such twisted tales as Fairest, Cinder, and Scarlett has tackled the Kingdom of Hearts in her new novel, Heartless. The story chronicles the life of one Catherine Pinkerton: the heiress to Rock Turtle Cove, a teenager who dreams of being a world class baker, a whimsical thinker, a devoted friend, and a vivaciously happy soul who lives under the thumb of two determined parents.

The story begins as Catherine and her handmaiden, Mary Anne, prepare for a party given by the King of Hearts, a tiny and silly little man who loves sweets – especially if said sweets come from a certain dark haired girl from Rock Turtle Cove. Catherine finds the attention of the King to be a bother, but she must do her duty by her parents and attend the soiree in style. In preparation for the gathering, she is busily at work in the kitchen, much to her mother’s constant digress, creating pastries with all the flair and pizzaz of a most dedicated confectioner. The famed Cheshire Cat is in attendance (both with and without his portly body) as she gets herself elbow deep in flour and sugar, and the reader soon realizes that the fanciful feline is somewhat of a constant companion for the young lady.

While in attendance at the party, Cath is swept into a magical and ridiculous situation with the new resident Joker, an attractive and mysterious rouge named Jest. She finds herself enraptured by his riddles and games, and also finds him a much preferred companion to that of the attentive and annoying King of Hearts.

“So long as we’re sharing secrets,” she said, “may I ask how you did it? The trick with Mr. Rabbit?”

“What trick?”

“You know. When you pulled him out of Jack’s hat.”

Jest frowned, his expression mildly concerned. “Sweetest Lady Pinkerton, I fear you’ve gone mad in this short time we’ve known each other.”

She peered up at him. “Have I?”

“To imagine that I pulled a rabbit out of a hat?” He stooped closer, his forehead conspiratorially close to hers, and whispered, “That would be impossible.”

She smothered a grin, trying to morph her expression into something equally devious. “As it so happens, Mr. Jest, I’ve sometimes come to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” 

While Catherine tries her very best not to get caught up in the enigmatic and alluring ways of Jest, she finds it difficult to contain her focus. Mary Ann, her close friend and business partner, tries fervently to keep her on track. The girls are trying to find a way to open up a bakery of their own but the task is proving to be difficult one. Cath’s parents are determined to capitalize on the affections the King has for their daughter, and will not entertain her dreams of being a business owner. The girls struggle to find investors and are feeling frantic, as the storefront of their dreams is about to become available. The current curious tenant is soon to be vacating the premises, taking his shop full of shoes elsewhere. Readers will enjoy the appearances of familiar characters, such as Mr. Caterpillar.

“He was staring at her and Mary Ann. He had not touched the boots on the counter, though coming closer she could see that he was wearing an assortment of shoes himself – all different styles of boots and slippers taking up his many small feet. “Who,” he said lazily, “are you?”

Despite Mary Ann’s and Cath’s greatest efforts, they cannot seem to gain any ground with their bakery. The biggest problem is coming from the castle – a determined and smitten little King who will do anything to attract the attentions of his most prized subject. Cath does her best to thwart his advances, but she is at a disadvantage due to her position as only daughter of her ambitious parents. Catherine also finds herself caught up in the romance that the forbidden relationship with the Joker brings; her eyes constantly searching him out while in the presence of the King, and she soon finds that Jest’s heart is going in the same direction as hers. However, they have no idea how to remove the well-meaning but obnoxious obstacle that is in front of them.

“The King was still clapping enthusiastically. “That was wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! Lady Pinkerton, wasn’t that wonderful?”

She cleared her throat and conceded. “It was indeed. What is the song? This was the first I’ve heard it.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, my lady,” said Jest. “It came to me just now.” Her eyes widened. Impossible. “Perhaps you are my muse,” he added, and the joking tone had returned. “I shall dedicate it to you, Lady Catherine Pinkerton, if it pleases.”

The King squealed. “Oh yes, that’s perfect! I shall have you play it again at our -” He cut off sharply. Cath stiffened, clenching the handkerchief in one fist. Jest’s suspicious look returned. The King fidgeted with the clasp of his velvet-lined cape. and his excitement was replaced with mumbled bashfulness. “At, er…the royal wedding.”

Cath wished she could disappear down a rabbit hole. 

Along the way of the King’s courtship, he watches in quiet dismay as his kingdom is taken prisoner by the fear of a creature lurking in the woods, coming out to devour innocents at inopportune times. The Jabberwock is a gruesome beast terrorizing the citizens of Hearts, and the King has no idea how to stop it – other than distracting his subjects with party after party. Catherine is caught up in the midst of a Jabberwock attack more than once – the first time happening at an amusing and informative tea party given by the area’s newest milliner – Hatta. Jest romantically whisks Catherine away from her home in the middle of the night to entertain her at the tea party, but the evening is cut short with a violent encounter by the beast.

After a second fight with the Jabberwock leaves Cath incapacitated, Jest carries her off to another land to have her healed, much to the digress and horror of her parents – and the King. It is viewed as a treasonous act, and Jest is now considered a criminal of the highest depravity to everyone but Lady Catherine Pinkerton, who has fallen completely head over heels in love. After the admittance of her feelings,  Jest finds himself bound to do some exposing of his own and as such, shares the real reason why he is in Hearts – to steal hers. . .her heart that is – and take it back to his native land of Chess, a kingdom only to be found by crossing through The Looking Glass.

“Her chest suddenly squeezed, forcing the air from her lungs. “You’ve been trying to steal my heart.” A muscle twitched in his jaw and he looked away. Mouth suddenly dry, Cath placed a hand to her collarbone, feeling the steady thumping beneath her skin. “Is that…has it all been for that? The tea party, the letters, what you said at the festival…all of it, no more than an attempt to steal my heart so you could take it back to your queen?” 

“The easiest way to steal something,” Jest murmured, “is for it to be given willingly.” 

Despite his nefarious initial intentions, Jest has fallen as deeply in love with Catherine as she has for him. But in doing so, Catherine is now in yet another impossible position. There is no way she is going to be allowed to be with Jest freely, and so she she must devise a plan that will give her freedom. What happens next is certainly something that no one could have foreseen or helped, and Catherine watches her life spin on a wheel that is completely out of her control.

We all know that there is indeed a Queen of Hearts. We all know how desperately controlling and how unwaveringly cruel she can be. Heartless is the path by which this queen is born, a creation of her environment and the lack of concern by which the people in her life treat her. The Queen came by her dreadful attitude and short-sided views honestly, and in the end one cannot truly blame her for her lack of empathy for the young girl who eventually comes wandering on in to Wonderland.

“But why? Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Her hand fell on the doorknob. “It’s not,” she spat, ripping open the door. “It’s just a stupid riddle. It is nothing but stuff and nonsense!”

Suddenly, inexplicably, the pocket watch fell silent. Hatta’s face slackened. his brow beaded with sweat. “Stuff and nonsense,” he whispered, the words cracking. “Nonsense and stuff and much of muchness and nonsense all over again. We are all mad here, don’t you know? And it runs in my family, it’s a part of my blood and he’s here, Time has finally found me and I –” His voice shredded. His eyes burned. “I haven’t the slightest idea, Your Queenness. I find that I simply cannot recall why a raven is like a writing desk.” 

I read Marissa Meyer’s debut series, The Lunar Chronicles, earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed her unique and Star Wars-esque take on classic fairy tales. The set of 6 books spins an interesting tale centered around a cyborg named Cinder, who comes to the revelation that she is actually long lost princess who is duty bound  to overthrow an evil queen. The books were so much fun and I found so many characters in them that I really came to enjoy, namely Cress (a take on Rapunzel; she is a squeak of a girl kept prisoner on a spaceship where she is forced to use her computer skills to be a spy) and Thorne, the roguish rake who saves her in his own roundabout and hilarious way. The novels weave themselves in and out of several strong characters and their own stories, bringing them all together in a clever manner.

I found Heartless to be entertaining, but not as cleverly written as The Lunar Chronicles. The author would take us down a path that could lead to someplace that was curiously delightful, but then she would instead bring us back around somewhere else  that was a bit dull and overwritten. I was used to so many very strong female characters in her previous work, that I didn’t quite like how Catherine willingly let her life’s dreams slip away once she found love with Jest. She gave up her identity and never truly stood up for herself. Perhaps this is how it had to be written, to get the characters where they were in the end. I don’t know. I just know I would have appreciated seeing a bit more fire from Catherine in the middle of her story, considering how determined she was in the beginning. There were a few steps off the path that I did not understand and found to be a waste of time; this book could have benefited from a bit more editing, in my opinion (not to mention the numerous grammatical and spelling errors I found that drove me nuts).

I give Heartless 3 out of 5 stars, and I can say with wholeheartedness that any young person who has ever found themselves spellbound by the magic that is Wonderland will enjoy this novel – however, older minds may find themselves a bit bored.  It’s written in a true Young Adult sense of the genre, and I recommend it for any person over the age of 13, due to some infrequent but nonetheless evident allusion to carnal desires.