Friday, June 11, 2021

Review - I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend

Original Title: I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend
Series: Jane Austen, #1
Author: Cora Harrison
Published: January 1st, 2010

Publisher: Delacorte Press


*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I’ve had this book in my TBR for a long time, and I finally got to it. And sadly, I have to say, I didn’t like it. It fell too short. And what makes it even worse is that the whole idea sounded so promising! Even after finishing the book and reading the author’s note, I kept thinking it was a great concept, but sadly, ended up very poorly executed.

One of the things that surprised me the most is that this book’s protagonist, Jenny Cooper, is based on a real person. Apparently, there was a Jane Cooper, who was Jane Austen’s cousin in real life, that married a man named Thomas Williams, after only a couple of weeks of knowing each other. In my opinion, Cora Harrison had a golden opportunity with her, considering that she can’t exactly make up Jane Austen’s life, because there are lots of biographies on her, and she’s a well-known figure. Being virtually unknown, this Jane Cooper gave the author an enormous amount of freedom, that rarely appears in biographical fiction works. But I think it was wasted with the diary format, because we only hear Jenny’s voice. I think the story would have worked better as a dual perspective book, because it would have given us the opportunity of not only knowing the action through Jenny’s eyes, but also, through Thomas’.

One of the things I liked about this book was the way Cora Harrison scattered references to Jane Austen’s books here and there, that any fan can spot, mostly through the things and the people Jenny tells us about. For example:

- Jenny’s insufferable sister-in-law, Augusta, calls her husband caro sposo, just like Mrs. Elton in “Emma”, who is also named Augusta.
- Jane wants to marry Tom Chute instead of his older brother William, because he’s sickly and will probably die, like Edmund and Tom Bertram, in “Mansfield Park”.
- The Austen family is preparing a play to perform, also like in “Mansfield Park”.
- There are brief mentions of random people named after Austen characters, like Fanny Dashwood, Lt. Price, Mariah and Julia Bertram, Mary King, etc.
- Brief mention of a girl who “was aged barely sixteen when she ran away with an army captain”, and that when her relatives found her, they “had already been living together as man and wife”, so there was nothing left to do but getting them married. Obviously, this references Lydia and Wickham, from “Pride and Prejudice”.
- Jane tells Jenny that “If a lady doubts whether she should accept a man, then she certainly should not do so”, like Emma tells Harriet, in “Emma”.

And so on.

More than once, as I read, I thought the story seemed to have no point. Jenny kept writing in her journal about daily life scenes, without any real action going on. The most relevant thing that happens is that she meets George, Jane’s mentally disabled brother, that the family gave away because of it. I liked to see that Jane never forgot about him, and even put effort in teaching him words and sounds, in contrast with her own mother, that never even thought about educating him (but I liked that, in the end, she said he was her son, in front of everyone, and saved his life).

As I’ve said before in other reviews, I never buy insta-love, and this book wasn’t the exception. The way Jenny and Thomas meet could have led to something interesting, because they both kept it a secret, for the sake of her reputation. But I just didn’t like it. Jenny manages to sneak out of her school, around 11:30 PM, to get to the post-inn before the mail coach leaves at midnight, and in the process, she meets Thomas. And in that brief moment, between posting the letter and hurrying back before being caught, he escorts her, and basically tells her about his whole life. That he’s an orphan, that he has a sister named Elinor who was unhappy in a boarding school, that he has inherited a property in the Isle of Wight… To a total stranger! A sixteen-year-old girl, alone in the middle of the street, at midnight, wouldn’t be the person I would tell everything about my life after just a few minutes. This just doesn’t work for me.

I get that Jenny is just sixteen, but at one point I found myself begging her to please, make up her mind. After her midnight adventure, Thomas Williams is not seen again, until past half of the book (literally). Until then, and because she had been living with the Austen family, she sort of had a crush on Jane’s brother, Henry, and they flirt a little, here and there. She mentions him all the time. But the moment they attend the ball, and Thomas shows up, it’s like Henry never existed. She suddenly can’t imagine life without Thomas, and honestly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. As a reader, felt I could cut the entire thing out of the book, and the plot wouldn’t have changed at all.

As for the moment in which Jenny’s midnight escapade is revealed, and she thinks Thomas betrayed her, it’s a typical Austen misunderstanding, although without the comedy only she could have brought to the situation. And finally, in the highwaymen scene, it bothered me that Jenny, instead of being the protagonist in the climax of her own story, was just a witness of Thomas’ heroism, getting right on time to save everyone, as the knight in shining armour. As I said before, the author had a golden opportunity with this couple, because, as not much is known about their relationship, she was free to let her imagination fly, and could have told us a richer tale of what, she imagined, was going on between them, making them both deeper, and giving us something that could justify their relationship, after just three weeks. But sadly, she didn’t.

But the one quote that made want to flush the book down the toilet, is this one:

When you told me how you nearly died, it frightened me. I realized then that I could not live without you. I felt that I would never be happy unless you were with me.

Oh, my God *face-palm*

They have only seen each other three or four times, when Thomas says this! Literally. And I can’t. I just can’t. No. This isn’t for me. Not even Jane Austen herself wrote insta-loves like this. However, I’m on the fence about it, because the real Jane Cooper and Thomas Williams actually got engaged three weeks after they met, and married in that very same year. But as I didn’t fully like Jenny, and didn’t know enough about Thomas as to root for them and their love, I guess that, as far as fiction goes, it’s just not the kind of romance I like to read about.

I don’t know if I’ll read more by Cora Harrison. This book was very lacking in most of its aspects, except, perhaps, in the Austen references, here and there. Even though, in general, I liked the concept of exploring the life of a teen Jane Austen, the diary format was neither well executed, nor had likeable characters. It just didn’t do it for me.

Thank you so much for reading!
‘til next one!

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Review - Surprised by Love

Original Title: Surprised by Love
Series: The Heart of San Francisco, #3
Author: Julie Lessman
Published: October 7th, 2014

Publisher: Revell


*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I finally finished this trilogy, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. This book wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either, and at one point I just wanted to be over with it, as I was bored from time to time, and wanted to tell the characters what to do, so the story would move forward.

Even though Megan McClare –the family’s middle sister, and a former ugly duckling turned swan– is supposed to be the protagonist in Surprised by Love, more often than not I thought she was more like a supporting character in her own story, as the plot seemed to revolve more around Cait and Logan’s story than hers. In contrast, theirs drips passion, while Meg and Bram’s felt a little too flat for my taste. At certain point, I found myself wanting to force the characters to make decisions, so the plot would move forward, instead of having to read about them stuck in the middle of the things they wanted, and the things they should want. It was tiresome. I mean, even when both Cait and Meg turned their attention to other men by the middle of the book (Andrew and Devin, respectively), it was obvious they wouldn’t end up with any of them, so I just wanted them to hurry and blow them off, so the story could be wrapped up as it was meant to the whole time. And I think that speaks for itself.

Again, family is the main focus of the book, and I have to say, it’s nice to read about people who are always there for their loved ones, and are willing to go any lengths for their wellbeing. It’s heartwarming, healthy, and wonderful. And, definitely, I liked to see that Alli was still there. Among the female protagonists in the trilogy, she was, hands down, my favourite.

Overall, I liked Megan McClare. Although she’s as brave and determined as Cassie and Allie, in their own books, it’s in a quieter way. I liked she has passions and plans for her life that go not only beyond Bram Hughes, but also beyond the roles assigned for women in the early 20th century. She is generous, and selfless, and is always willing to help those in need, and I loved her for that. When she comes back from Paris having gone through a makeover, and suddenly becoming noticeable, she turns not only Bram’s head –who always saw her as a little sister, but now realizes she’s a fully grown woman–, but also Devin’s, the guy who used to bully and torment her all the time in school, and was basically the reason why her friendship with Bram became so deep. And so, starts some sort of love triangle in which, although both Meg and Bram know they are in love with each other, they separately decide to settle for other people, because Bram warned her from the first moment, that nothing would ever happen between them.

It was good that in this book we got to know Bram through his own eyes. Until this book, he had been just a background character, always at Meg’s side, and helping others to find the right path, through his strong faith. The way he feels torn it’s raw and painful, and it got truly realistic at certain points. You can actually feel how he’s constantly doubting between doing the right thing for his family, or following his heart to the woman he knows, is the love of his life. We all have felt like that in our lives, and we will again, that’s for sure –albeit not around the same things. And through getting to know him, and uncovering his terrible past, with the sister he lost, and the way he almost got his father killed, we can find a side of him that wasn’t there in the previous books. His spiritual struggle is real, and it’s really well written. Even though it was a given that he would choose Meg by the end, one can understand the depth of his inner turmoil.

I guess that what bothered me the most about Meg and Bram’s dilemma, was that they did not fight for their love. Agreed, there were obstacles that kept them apart, but in the end, they got solved by others. Either because of Logan’s investment in Bram’s family business, or Devin’s betrayal, their problems disappeared without Meg and Bram deciding to go against all odds to be together. And that, honestly, is not the kind of love story I like to read about. They claim to love each other, but the only one willing to act on it is Meg, and even so, she hits the wall of Bram’s sense of responsibility and duty towards his father, in order to atone for his past mistakes.

As I said before, I loved Julie Lessman’s writing style. It’s really beautiful, and impactful, and she can actually stir feelings in your heart. With Bram’s story about his past, I was utterly heartbroken, and invested in what he was telling me, and when I found out about Andrew being on the list of clients copied by Ruby Pearl, from the Municipal Crib, I was open-mouthed, shocked, and wanting to slap him with all my might. However, once again, I kept wondering about the choice of words here and there, as sometimes the terms and expressions used by the characters, sounded way too contemporary for the time period.

Logan and Cait’s story is well written, but at the same time, it can be kind of exhausting, as I felt it got unnecessarily convoluted at certain points. It was good that, by the end, Logan understood that no means no, and didn’t force himself on Cait anymore, but that doesn’t take away the fact that I got really tired of their endless comings and goings, even when they both agreed they couldn’t imagine life without each other, and their love had never died. There was a point in which I just wanted to slap her so she would make up her mind, because although she didn’t want to marry him and couldn’t forgive him for not telling her he was Jamie’s biological father, she still kept throwing herself in his arms every time she got upset or emotionally disturbed, so I kept wondering, what does she mean by all these? Does she want him, or not? Damnit, woman, make a decision! However, I will say, it was definitely necessary for their development, that she got engaged to Andrew Turner, because I saw it as the way God had to give clarity to their situation. I mean, sometimes, the answer to your prayers relies on taking the wrong path, to be able to recognize the right one. Cait knew that Logan was the right man for her, through the mistake of accepting Turner without really knowing him, only because he was the sensible choice. And although I was left wanting to read the confrontation between them after she found out about his dealings in the Barbary Coast, it’s fine that it didn’t happen; for the sake of her purpose of cleaning the area, she had to keep that information to herself.

Finally, I’ll say, even though the book isn’t bad, I can’t deny that, at least around the main love story, the book was a little too boring, and it got repetitive at certain points. Overall, I found it to be raw and realistic around how difficult spiritual struggle can be, sending a good message, by saying that leaving everything in God’s hands is always the right choice; even when it can be very difficult to let go and just trust Him, convincing ourselves that He knows better than we ever will, and that He does not make mistakes, in the end, it’s what we need to do.

***
Thank you so much for reading!
‘til next one!


Thursday, January 28, 2021

Review - Dare to Love Again

Original Title: Dare to Love Again
Series: The Heart of San Francisco, #2
Author: Julie Lessman
Published: January 7th, 2014

Publisher: Revell

*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

This is a great book. Honestly, I really liked it. It’s definitely better than the first one in the series, and although it’s not perfect, there were moments in which I found myself giggling, and fangirling, and I think that speaks volumes (especially when I read that the next instalment will be focused on Meg and Bram’s relationship).

I truly grew fond of the characters in this one, as they are alive and feel totally human, with both virtues and flaws, and overall, the complexity of real life, with its comings, goings, ups and downs. This is especially visible with the female characters, as all of them are strong, and not to be messed with, from Caitlyn McClare herself, in her position of power, to the humble Miss Penny, who takes care of the orphans by sheltering and feeding them, as well as with a shotgun in her hands. It’s really well done.

Allison McClare –Cassie’s cousin from the previous book– is the heroine in this one. I loved her, and more than once I felt that I could have been friends with her, to the point in which, by the second half of the book, she gets her heart broken once again and is crying her eyes out, and I just wanted to hug her, and comfort her. The best about her was that I had been promised a spunky, courageous heroine, and that is what I got, unlike in the first book in the series, in which the heroine, apparently, was like that, and I ended up disappointed with her constant weepiness, instead of her doing what she said she would (such as hog-tying Jamie like cattle, for being a jerk). Although it bothers me that Allison managed to fall in love no less than four times, and didn’t seem to have learned anything from past pain, she’s still a great character. I loved her attitude, her courage, and her determination to demand respect from people, and to be independent in order to find her own self in the world (which, back in the early 20th century, was a big deal for any woman). I mean, this girl wants to learn martial arts, for God’s sake! That is too cool. It sets her apart from any other character I’ve read in historical fiction. Bravo, Julie Lessman!

Plus, when she sets her mind to something, nothing can dissuade her. I liked that strong will, and her passion about teaching the girls in the school everything she wishes she had learned as a child. She has this fire inside that makes her an active person, that she translates into every task she takes over, and although she falls in love, Nicholas doesn’t become her whole world, to the point that she forgets about everything else (which is more than I can say from many other characters I’ve read). Although sometimes she can act like a spoiled little brat, and it’s annoying, I think it adds to her character, because we are reading about a woman who was raised in a privileged home (as Nick says, with a silver spoon in her mouth), but through teaching in the city’s red district, she gets to know a different way of life, and different people, who dwell in a world so unlike her own. So, the book is her transition from rich, naïve girl, to strong, independent woman. And it is really well done.

As for Nicholas Barone, the hero, I really liked him. His enemies-to-lovers relationship with Allison was a lot of fun to read, thanks to the name calling, and the stick whacking, that made sparks fly between them. It’s really beautiful how he slowly starts letting go of his bitterness and pain, after having lost everything and everyone he cared about, in a mysterious past that only he knows about. However, although most of the time he’s a big, old grump, with a strong temper, he’s also snuggly as a teddy bear, with a heart of gold that moves him to be the sweetest of men with the girls in Miss Penny’s orphanage. And I liked how the author was able to write both sides to the character in perfect balance, deepening his complexity, because, on the one hand, it’s understandable why he and Alli clash all the time, but at the same time, his moments with Lottie are incredibly heart-warming, and a pleasure to read.

After he was shot by the mobster’s henchmen, I truly felt worried, I just wanted the author to stop talking about Alli and the McClares, and go back to him, to tell me what had happened after everything went black. But when he comes back, the explanations about his true identity felt a little rushed. I mean, after we are left wondering whether he he’s dead or alive, he suddenly returns and spits out everything he didn’t say in a book that is over 400 pages long, in the span of only a few of them. I do understand he’s meant to be this shady person, with a lot of things to hide, but the revelations felt a little too rushed for my taste. It bothered me that he expected Alli to do as if nothing had happened, after breaking her heart and making her suffer for three months, but I liked that her attitude towards him wasn’t like he had never left. She always demands respect, and it wasn’t different with him.

Also, I felt it was very convenient that when he comes back, he has inherited his uncle’s fortune, and he’s no longer a penniless cop from the wrong side of the tracks, but a rich detective that now can marry an equally wealthy lady. It felt a little too miraculous and sudden, after he spent the whole book in poverty. But I can overlook it, because the character development was really well written.

The only thing I wasn’t totally happy about, was the constant reference to Nick’s stomach distress. I get it, the guy has ulcers and acid reflex, and his breath smells like animal crackers. Stop saying it.

Oh, and I absolutely loved the scene in which Alli uses her jiu-jitsu skills, in the dark alleys of the Barbary Coast. It was kind of oddly satisfying to read about her knocking down the thug that was holding her, and escape. You don’t see this too often in a historical fiction book set during the Belle Époque, and involving aristocrat ladies. The only thing I felt was missing, was Alli’s reaction upon finding out that Logan had secretly hired Nick to be her bodyguard, and follow her without her noticing him. She would have hated that; after all, what she sought was self-reliance, and the opportunity to fend for herself.

As for Logan and Cait’s relationship, I liked it, but also found it a little tiring, with so many comings and goings, as for them, one step forward means three steps backwards. Don’t get me wrong, though. Theirs is a realistic portrayal of a deep, complex relationship, built in the background of the book’s main plot, and I really liked how Julie Lessman wrote it, to show us that the characters have many layers and different aspects in their lives that demand their attention. Even though their story drips passion, because they never truly got over each other, in despite of their mistakes and lies, in this one, Logan understood that when Cait says no, it’s no. He now has a deeper respect for her, and lets her have the final word when it comes to their courting, which he should have done in the previous book, back when he forced a kiss on her.

In this trilogy, family is a strong point. However, at certain point I felt there were too many scenes with the family gathered together, playing cards or billiard, and mostly talking about random things that did not help to further the plot. I have nothing against such scenes, they were happy, heart-warming moments that help us see the family going through both good and bad moments, but some things were just too much. Also, the last quarter of the book has so much crying! Everyone is brokenhearted, and tears flow like waterfalls every time Alli or Cait are in a scene. But Julie Lessman managed to make it painful for the reader too, because you are able understand the character’s sorrow as you go on.

Now, about things that I didn’t like, or felt that were too much, I have to mention the scene with Maddie’s sudden disappearance. Even though everyone’s worry is really well done, and you can truly feel their raw despair, I felt that the whole thing could have been cut from the book, and the plot wouldn’t have been disrupted. I know it is meant to bring Logan closer to God, but it didn’t fully convince me, because after he was relieved that she was ok, the book says nothing more about him having a stronger faith, or anything of the sort.

Also, I couldn’t help noticing that Alli’s story was very similar to Cass’, in the previous book. Both start their stories fresh from a heartbreak caused by men, they thought, loved them, when in fact they were just a couple of gold-diggers. Both are focused on moving on, determined not fall in love again, and failing miserably at it. Even though their stories and their love interests are different, I couldn’t help noticing that it is basically the same plot (although better done than in Love at Any Cost, starting with a more interesting heroine).

But all in all, I really liked this book, especially because it gave me the chance to visit old San Francisco, and its different areas, like Nob Hill, Chinatown, the Barbary Coast, the cable cars… It’s just great. Clearly, the author did her research, to get the historical facts and the geography, correctly. And she did an awesome job with it.

***
Thank you so much for stopping by!
See you soon!


Monday, January 18, 2021

Review - Love at Any Cost

Original Title: Love at Any Cost
Series: The Heart of San Francisco, #1
Author: Julie Lessman
Published: April 1st, 2013

Publisher: Revell

*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

This is my very first book by Julie Lessman, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. I have this habit of not putting down books I don’t like as I read, in despite that I wanted to do that with this one every few chapters, so I just had to finish it. But the truth is that I found myself wanting to be over with it, when I hadn’t even reached the middle of it. I was honestly expecting more from a book that had such high ratings, and so many positive reviews.

Overall, I liked Julie Lessman’s writing style. However, the book itself, with that overly complex plot, just didn’t do it for me. Some things just felt out of place, like the language; it’s supposed to be 1902 San Francisco, but the words that were frequently used, sounded too modern for the time period. On the other hand, I got a little tired of Cass’ use of the Texan slang. As I’m not American myself, I can’t tell if that is well done, but yes, it gets a little repetitive (she uses the word “polecat” a lot).

Also, the names the author chose! A little variety wouldn’t hurt. This is highly personal, but honestly, having a main couple whose last names are McClare and Mackenzie, got me tripping over who was in the scene, or being mentioned, most of the time (which also happened with the two main female characters, nicknamed Cass and Cait). Again, this is just me, it may not happen to other readers. But the plot wasn’t very entertaining, so finding myself reading absently-minded most of the time, may have contributed to this.

Let’s talk about the heroine for a minute. The book opens with Cassidy McClare, stepping out from the train in San Francisco, fresh from a broken engagement to a man named Mark, who left her when he found out she didn’t have any money. In the first couple of chapters, this guy gets mentioned over and over again –albeit vaguely, and even though Cass doesn’t want to talk about him–, and at certain point I found myself thinking, either you give me more details, or you stop talking about him! The lack of information and insight in this, oh, so painful breakup, led me not to care about it, even though it is, precisely, the origin of the plot. There wasn’t enough about it as to connect with this woman whose journey I’m bound to follow through the pages. And moreover, she says over and over again that she’s done with pretty boys and their sweetened lies, which, as we find out, doesn’t stop her from falling in love for, literally, the first man she encounters.

I wish I was joking. *face-palm*

On the other hand, Cass is supposed to be this badass Texan cowgirl, who wouldn’t hesitate to hog-tie the first guy who crosses the line with her, but all that attitude was left in words. I wanted to see her doing what it was hinted she was capable of, if pissed. But other than making her good at card games and billiard, it’s like the author forgot to back up her “badassery” with actual actions.

As for the love interest, Jamie Mackenzie, he was a sounding NO for me. It’s ok that he has a temper, doubts about his faith, and at the same time, he’s willing to do anything in his power to help his family. It’s totally human, and relatable. However, I don’t like men who kiss women without their consent, and I’ll never be able to find it romantic. Their first kiss is not sweet at all, because he doesn’t listen when she says no (not once, but many times), and even struggles to get away. He takes it as she’s playing hard to get, and keeps going after her, forcing himself to make her realize that she’s in love with him, too. And this is just wrong, it sends a horrible message. Moreover, at one point, Cass’ cousin brings up the old “he bullies you because he likes you” garbage, and that is, precisely, something that even today is being fought by feminism and equality. The time period is not a justification enough for it. I honestly despise that concept.

I mean, I get that you don’t choose who you fall in love with, but Jamie is a selfish person with a too high opinion of himself, which doesn’t make him swoon-worthy at all. Moreover, he tends to contradict himself, because at certain points, he punches a man who was beating a prostitute friend of his, and later, he asks a dance from this random girl who was crying, after she was rejected, letting on that he doesn’t tolerate bullies. But he’s a bully himself, in the way he treats Cass! And her, I mean… why would you feel attracted to a man who doesn’t respect you, doesn’t listen to you, nor cares about what you care about? It’s nothing short of an unhealthy relationship. I honestly would have preferred if she had ended up with Zane, he definitely was the kind of respectful person she needed.

Plus, we are not too many chapters into the book, that it says:

She was absolutely, unequivocally, everything he’d ever wanted in a woman”.

Really? Already? Don’t you think it is too soon? You don’t even know the woman, who, by the way, said over and over again that she didn’t want to be involved with you! And when she agrees on their courtship, she comes up with some terms he has to respect in order to go further with it, one of them being that he gets closer to God, because she won’t take a husband who doesn’t share her faith. And I think, wonderful. Nothing makes a romance sweeter than a solid, well-thought set of rules.

Great. *sarcastic applause*

Also, that horrible attitude of pressing the woman to convince her that she loves him back, gets repetitive, because it is a part of the other main relationship in the book, Caitlyn and Logan. He is her late husband’s brother, and, just like Jamie, he pushes too hard, forcing himself on the woman he supposedly loves, not respecting her when she, loud and clear, says no. What’s with the author and the lack of consent?

Plus, I thought this book had a little too much lust for a Christian novel, because one thing is admiring a woman’s eyes, and another one, drooling over the shape of her legs, over and over again. I understand that Jamie’s journey is supposed to be a redeeming arc, turning him to God, and letting go of his anger and his womanizing habits, but it didn’t work for me. The conversion scene lacked the most essential element of all, that is Jesus, and His sacrifice in the cross, turning Him into the bridge between humankind and the Lord. And because of that, it is incomplete, and not fully believable.

As for the plot twists, I think most of them were okay, but we could have definitely been saved the whole “we are cousins, but we are not cousins” thing, by the end. It’s too far-fetched, like taking an extra, unnecessary turn when you are almost at your destination, for no valid reason.

Thanks, but no thanks.

On a positive note, I liked that both Cass and Caitlyn have interests that go beyond the men they love. They believe in women, and their potential beyond marriage, both willing to dedicate themselves to teaching, and Caitlyn, doing everything in her power to help women in the Barbary Coast, especially those forced to work on brothels. Some things about both things were left unsaid, but I guess we will know more in the next books in The Heart of San Francisco series, which I’ll continue reading. I just hope they get better than this one.

That’s it for this review! Thank you so much for reading!
See you soon!

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Review - Taking Flight

Original Title: Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina
Series: -
Author: Michaela DePrince, Elaine DePrince
Published: October 14th, 2014

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Damn, what a story.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time, but I kept postponing it because I’m not a huge nonfiction reader. However, every page of this memoir was worth reading.

First of all, it’s necessary to mention that both authors, the ballerina Michaela DePrince and her mother, Elaine DePrince, are not writers per se, but simply two people who felt that sharing their journey was worthy. That is why the writing style feels kind of cozy, making me feel like I’m with both of them sitting in a coffeehouse, while they tell me their story, in a friendly, intimate way.

Even thought Michaela’s story is heartbreaking, it is still inspiring, in so many ways! Without recurring to the huge words and poetic prose of professional writers, she simply tells us her story, and let us know about the truth she lives by. And although it definitely isn’t a fairytale, I can’t help thinking that the episode around the magazine cover seems to have a certain magical realism quality on it, being both incredible, and moving. Practically a miracle, because, what are the odds that a gust of wind, and an old magazine published in 1979, that we will never know how it even got to that far corner of the world, could define a four year-old war orphan’s identity, giving her hope when she had nothing else in the world? Michaela, by then going by Mabinty Bangura, would cling to that picture and the happiness it promised, only to find out, years and years later, that she was the European/American ballerina Magali Messac.

This is the cover of that magazine.


It’s chilling, isn’t it? Even hard to believe, but true, nonetheless. Anything in her life going differently than it did, would have never seen her becoming the person she is today. It’s nothing short of unbelievable.

One of the things that moved me the most about this book, is the amount of love in it, in every possible way. Michaela’s adoptive parents, Charles and Elaine DePrince, are worthy of a standing ovation, because even after going through terrible pain and loss, they did not let that crush them, as the love in their hearts moved them to adopt these neglected little girls from war-torn Sierra Leone, giving them the unique chance to have a family and be happy, rescuing them from a place that would have surely see them dead in the short-term. Their huge hearts and endless compassion, in my opinion, makes them heroes in their own way, deserving the utmost respect. Although it’s sad that the girls say that there’s certain fears that will never leave them, like the sound of loud male voices, that remind them of the rebels that committed those terrible atrocities in front of them, the work done by Charles and Elaine is everything every parent in the world should do, teaching love, and encouraging children to open their wings instead of clipping them. It’s worthy of admiration. That is the kind of love the world should be filled with.

On a re-read, I noticed something that I really want to mention, that I think it's wonderful: the fact that when Michaela talks about her days in the orphanage, and about the aunties giving them food, in the pecking order, she mentions some of the kids by their name, instead of the number they had been so despicably known by. Kadiatu Mansarey, Sento Dumbaya, Mariama Kargbo, and Isatu Bangura (funnily enough, with the same last name Michaela was born with, and later, becoming Mariel DePrince, adopted by the same family). Seems small, but for me, it's incredibly important and meaningful, as it gives worth to those children whose life had been so tragically torn apart before it could even begin.

Another thing this book got me thinking about is how I can’t take my surroundings for granted. Michaela and her sisters witnessed things, while in the orphanage, that no child should, ever, and nowhere. Things many of us can’t even imagine. And although no country is perfect, nor Heaven on Earth, it’s essential that we reconsider how lucky we are living in a free one, where, if you want, you can freely practice your religion, or pursue any art form, without the fear that it will get you killed, or deported. Where education is enough for people to understand that a harmless skin condition –like Michaela’s vitiligo–, or being left-handed –like Michaela’s sister, Mia– are not synonymous with being cursed, and that you should not blame an innocent child for things like the rain not coming that year, or failing crops (sounds medieval, but it happened in the 90s). I honestly felt a renewed appreciation for my own country, and for all those things we take for granted, but are still a huge blessing.

Also, after reading this, it’s understandable how and why countries like the US, the UK, Spain, Australia, France, or even Argentina itself, become beacons of hope for so many immigrants and refugees. I know I’m not the first person wondering this, but, when will the world understand that wars lead nowhere? That they solve nothing? That there are no winners, only survivors, and that kids like Michaela and her sisters are the real victims? Because those who start and lead the wars rarely suffer for it. Those who play no part in them are the ones who end up paying the steepest of prices, being stripped from things they don’t even have yet, like an identity, opportunities, and hope. Plus, the fact that we don’t know what it is to live in a country torn apart by war, treatable diseases, and starvation, with access to clean water with the turn of a tap, is a true blessing we have to be grateful for, every morning we wake up. Because although we consider them basic things, they are still denied to a lot of people around the world, who struggle for them every single day. Michaela’s story is a devastating proof of it, as she tells it with raw honesty, and smashing your heart into a million pieces in the process.

Moving to America with her new parents gave both Michaela and Mia a second chance, and so they could start discovering their artistic sides. Through her story, Michaela tells us how her ballet journey started, and so, we learn that it is way more than just beautiful costumes and pointe shoes. It is years and years of practice, injuries, and sacrifice, being considered the most difficult dance form for a reason. All the beauty that we see on stage, has a price, and Michaela doesn’t hold anything back, telling us about the pros and cons of this magnificent art form, all the while exuding an intense passion for it. You can’t deny she loves every step of it, and that she truly is what she was meant to be, in despite of her difficult life. It’s wonderfully done.

By the way, you can find her videos on YouTube, she’s an amazingly graceful ballerina. I picked this one because she talks about it in her book, it’s a variation of La Esmeralda, when she was only 13 years-old.


Beautiful, isn’t it? Love the costume.

But also, Michaela uses this book to bring awareness around a matter that most of the time gets overlooked, that is the discrimination in the world of ballet. I hadn’t realized, until I knew about her, that ballet has, in fact, a very small number of black dancers, and when you look further into it, you know it wasn’t even meant for them in the first place. Already from something as easily unnoticeable –but huge at the same time– as the colour ballet footwear comes in, traditionally pink or nude (but never brown), the message is very clear. Michaela herself tells us that she heard a teacher saying that they never put a lot of effort on black dancers, because they tended to get fat, so there’s rejection right from the get go. But I’m glad that thanks to people like her, that is changing nowadays, because dancing (and art in general) is for everyone, no matter how you look like. Besides, any person out there who decides to take ballet has my instant respect, because it’s not easy at all.

The only thing I criticize about this book is that, at certain points, when Michaela talks about her different auditions and dance training, she gives entire paragraphs like this:

For example, in Level 1, you might be expected to do a combination of dance steps like: tendu to second, relevé, demi-plié, return to first. But in Level 3X you would be expected to do a combination like: fondu front en relevé, close; fondu back, inside leg en relevé, close; fondu outside leg to second en relevé, then plié with the standing leg while the working leg is at forty-five degrees, then go to passé. Repeat in reverse.

These steps and specific ballet position are okay, they have to be there. And is fine if the reader is a dancer too, but that is not my case, so all those terms do not make any sense to me. However, this is isn’t frequent and doesn’t not affect the purpose of the book at all.

In general, I think that this memoir sends a great message, not only about war and poverty, but also about how your dreams are valid, and how important it is to follow them, no matter what, especially in a world that, right from the get-go, tells you not to, that those are not your spaces, and that you should settle for things that are “more suited” for you because of how you look like. Also, it brings awareness of the importance of representation in the different fields (that being art, science, etc.), of how significant it is to see someone that looks like us in the media, doing all those things we could, or want to do. Not opening these circles with the same amount of effort and support, to every single person who wishes to access them, is contributing to the deepening of problems such as a depression, bullying, and low self-esteem, cutting people short in the process of following their passions and finding their true identities, just because of what is, essentially, a whim, a stupid attitude of pointing fingers and saying “you can, but you can’t”.

I want to punch people who do that. Let’s not contribute to it, please.

So, in short, it’s a great read, and I recommend it to anyone who likes memoirs, because it’s a story worthy of being told. Also, if you want to hear it from Michaela herself, I’ll leave her Ted Talk here.


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Thank you so much for reading!
See you soon!