This post contains major plot spoilers for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

 

Some books are full of memories. For example, I can’t think of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe without remembering the little reading cubbyhole that I made in my mom’s closet, when I was around 8 years old. I vividly recall the day my mom let me stay home from school to read all day. I was curled up with blankets and pillows, my mom’s dresses hanging above me, tickling my forehead, reading the adventures of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, and wondering what Turkish Delight was. I have since learned what Turkish Delight is (it is tragically disgusting, and not at all worth betraying one’s family for), but that memory—that day, that book—still remains magical.

 

Another book that holds memories for me is The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. It was assigned reading for my senior year in high school—for my A.P. American Literature course. It was 1998 or 1999, depending on what semester it was assigned, so I was 16 or 17 years old. So young, so naïve. And did I mention young? The edition I read that year included a lengthy introduction, which I made the mistake of reading first. SPOILER ALERT! (Not that we said “spoiler alert” back then.) The main character killed herself at the end, by drowning?!?! I couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t believe that the stupid introduction would ruin it. Let me tell you, I learned a valuable lesson about saving introductions of novels until the end. But more importantly, I remember how the book made me think. It prompted me to wonder about about things I never had before, to examine the values of the society around me, and to contemplate my own future. Like Edna Pontellier, I had an awakening of sorts. (Sorry to be so super cheesy. I fully anticipate your groans.)

 

The Awakening is not really a book that has answers. I mean, the heroine resorts to suicide in the end, so I’m not trying to say that it provided any moral instruction, or a theoretical framework for how to live my life. Nope. But it provided questions. It described feelings that I could relate to. Honestly, I think it was the first thing I read anything that challenged the idea that marriage and children led to happiness. Not that I was surprised that there was a heroine in an unhappy marriage–that was common enough in books and film–but it was unusual to read about a heroine who was, in fact, unsuited for the entire institution. Edna’s story demonstrated that other people can’t necessarily complete you. It was the first book I ever read that brought up the idea that some women aren’t “mother women,” as Chopin termed it. (I mean, yeah, there was that woman in the news who killed her kids, but I’m referring to women who are not homicidal maniacs.) 

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Read on for some of my thoughts on the Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead, particularly book six, Last Sacrifice.  This post is spoilery, if you haven’t finished the series.


 

I read the first five books of the Vampire Academy series last summer.  Well, I basically inhaled them.  They are quick and easy reads, and each one left me wanting more.  I especially loved the third book, Shadow Kissed, which I think I finished one night at 1:00 a.m., and then immediately bought the fourth book on my Kindle so that I could keep reading.  (Also a bonus of using an e-reader: not having to carry the Vampire Academy book covers around in public.  This series is very much a case where you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.)  So, yeah, this is a really fun and addictive series that I would recommend to people who enjoy YA lit with a supernatural bent.

 

When I first started reading Vampire Academy, I wasn’t sure if I would like it since it is written in the first person.  You really have to like the narrator to enjoy a book written in first person, and this can be even trickier when he or she is a teenager.  I think first-person is the trickiest form of narration to do well, and it limits the observance of detail and our understanding of the characters’ world.  (Yes, I am aware of the irony, as I am currently writing a blog post in the first person.)  My worries turned out to be baseless, however, as Rose Hathaway was so awesome that I loved her voice.  Rose is a strong kick-ass character, but at the same time she is also flawed—she is stubborn, impetuous, sometimes petty and short-sighted, and has a wicked temper.  But these “flaws” just served to add layer and complexity to her character, as she is also incredibly brave and tough, is a loyal friend to Lissa, ultimately has a strong moral core, and spends much of her time saving people.  Basically, she’s a hero.  Plus, she is such snarky fun that it made me forgive her (and the author) for some of the more awkward stylistic elements of the narration.

 

After really enjoying the first three books, I found book four, Blood Promise, to be less enjoyable.  Everything got pretty dark there for a time, and while I usually like dark, reading about Rose locked in a room and becoming Strigoi Dmitri’s personal chew toy was rough.  But our girl bounced back and got her Buffy on, and things picked up again in book five, Spirit Bound.  Of course, at the end of that particular book, there was a major cliffhanger, with Queen Tatiana murdered, and Rose accused of the deed.  Uh oh.  So, I was on pins and needles waiting for Last Sacrifice.  Who actually killed the queen?  Why was Rose framed?  How would her name be cleared?  What was up with Dmitri and his worship of Lissa?  (Blech to that.)  So many questions to be answered.

 

I read Last Sacrifice soon after it was released in December, and once again I sped through it.  I enjoyed it.  Abe was a big highlight.  He is pretty much my new favorite character in the entire series.  However, as the final book in the series from Rose’s point of view, I also found it frustrating.  Where was my dhampir revolution?  From early on, it was pretty clear that in the world of Vampire Academy, the Moroi treated the dhampirs as second-class citizens, born to serve them or be ostracized for choosing not to.  The Moroi rely on blood from humans and/ or dhampirs to survive, and yet they treat the sources of this blood with utter contempt.  Plus, the Moroi are in great danger from the Strigoi, whose whole point of existence is to kill them, and yet they just sit back and throw the dhampirs on the front lines.  Seriously, Moroi?  You suck.

 

And yet, the dhampirs accept this, and loyal service protecting the Moroi is considered an honor.  I mean, I get that it is an ingrained cultural belief system, but after everything that has happened over the series, and the injustices that are perpetrated over and over again, it was so frustrating to see Rose just accepting that this is how things are, forever and ever.  There were some points where it seemed like the universe of the books was on the cusp of change.  For example, there was Tasha and her radical Moroi-fighting agenda, which was pretty cool.  But then she was revealed to be a crazy murderer.  Bummer.  And Christian, who would be the next logical choice to take over where Tasha left off, is now stuck being the paramour to Queen Lissa, who despite opposing the age law, looks to be keeping things pretty status quo.  Same old Moroi court rituals and institutions.  Plus, the book featured “They come first.”  Again.  I’m so sick of that damn dhampir mantra.  Look at your life, Rose.  Look at your choices.

 

The whole monarchy should be abolished.  Alas, with the ending of Last Sacrifice, all our favorite characters will be even more invested in keeping the Moroi monarch safe and in power, because it’s their darling Lissa.  We got soooo close … and yet are still so far away.  Also, we learned in Last Sacrifice how the Moroi choose their leader.  As expected, it is complete and utter nonsense.  An eighteen year old girl proved that she is capable of walking through the woods in the sun AND the rain.  She survived a hike through the woods, people.  With a limited supply of sunscreen!  Plus, she solved a riddle.  THEY SHOULD TOTALLY MAKE HER QUEEN!!!  Seriously, Moroi?  Seriously?  Oh, and there was also a vote by the oldest, snootiest, and smallest council ever.  Le sigh.  These people should not be in charge of themselves.  And they should certainly not be in charge of the dhampirs.  I say that a dhampir revolution is absolutely necessary.

 

I have many other thoughts on Last Sacrifice, and the entire Vampire Academy series, but I’ll save those for another post, at another time.  Thanks to my friends @dieslaughing and @tbrick2 for inspiring this post by our discussions on Twitter.  Not to say that they necessarily endorse the views above, but they have already read a lot of these thoughts from me, in 140 character format.  Your take?  Have at it in the comments.

 

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Photo Credit: St. Martin’s Press.

First, let’s get the nostalgia out of the way …


 

When I learned that Francine Pascal would be writing a follow up book to her Sweet Valley High series, one that would tell the story of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield 10 years later, grown-up and living separate lives, I knew that I needed to read that book.  I would have bought the book on March 29th, the day that it was released, except that by some twist of fate, I ended up winning a free copy.  Hurrah!  Full disclosure: I received a free copy of Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later from St. Martin’s Press, via a Goodreads giveaway.  The news of this upcoming sequel, combined with the news in September of 2009 that Diablo Cody had signed on with Universal to write and produce a big screen adaptation of the books  (she has since stated via Twitter that the script is finished) has filled me with a lot of nostalgia over the past couple years.

 

Buoyed by this nostalgia, when I visited my parents last summer, I went through my old boxes in storage and rescued my old Sweet Valley High books from dusty abandonment.  I had a lot, but I was sad to learn that I hadn’t held onto any of my Sweet Valley Twins books—the series that chronicled Jessica and Elizabeth’s lives during sixth grade.  I must have given them to the local thrift store when I was feeling particularly grown up and above it all—perhaps when I was packing to leave for my freshman year of college.  Stupid 17 year old Lucia!  Also contributing to my recent rash of Sweet Valley related nostalgia are a number of snarky blogs featuring hilarious recaps of the book series.  For anyone who grew up reading the original Sweet Valley High series, you absolutely must check out The Dairi Burger, The Sweet Valley Diaries, and Forever Young Adult.  As soon as I’m done writing this post, I will of course be visiting those sites for their respective takes on the new book.  (Yes, I do have thoughts on the new book, and I promise I will eventually get to those.)

 

Examining the world of Sweet Valley as an adult is very different experience from enjoying that world as a child, tween, or teen.  I am now 29 years old and having browsed through the blogs mentioned above, and having done some nostalgic re-reading of my own, it is clear that the Sweet Valley High books are pretty awful—full of superficial characters and very outdated views on gender, race, and class.  They are very much products of their times and include pretty much every cliché and stereotype about American teenagers that exists.  And yet … and yet, they are also still so much fun.  There is some special brand of craptacular that only accurately describes the Sweet Valley books.  I mean, as a kid I loved these books.  I worshipped them.  I had a bowl up on the mantle at home with the Virgin Mary, a glass of wine, and a dollar bill next to it.  (Okay, fine, that was Lorelai describing her love of pudding.)  I was addicted to them.  Is there such thing as book addiction?  I am pretty sure there is.

 

My poor parents.  Education was of prime importance in my family growing up, as both my parents had been teachers at one point, and both have multiple degrees.  They tolerated my love for Sweet Valley, but luckily they (and my teachers, of course) always encouraged me to read other books too.  During elementary school, I remember my mom consistently assigning me Newberry Award winning books, as I rolled my eyes and told her that I would rather read The Baby-sitters Club or Sweet Valley Twins.  I lost interest The Baby-sitters Club in a few years, but I held onto Sweet Valley for a lot longer.  Looking back, I’m so glad that I listened to mom and read “more serious books” like Number the Stars, and childhood classics like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I ended up cultivating pretty well-rounded tastes as a child, including a variety of genres and reading levels.  However, I’m also really glad that my dad used to visit library book sales every so often, and buy me a bag full of Sweet Valley books.  I look back at those memories so fondly.

 

When I uncovered that box full of Sweet Valley High books last summer, I also discovered my 11 year old diary.  In the summer of 1993, I started keeping a running list of all the books I read.  (Yes, I was that child.) Between June and December, I recorded reading 104 books.  (Yes, this was a numbered and dated list.)  Book Worm, Party of One.  Of course, you should not be too impressed.  62 of those books were Sweet Valley High or Sweet Valley Twins books—each probably took about an hour or so to read.  Additionally, a handful were magazines—Teen, Glamour, and Vogue.  (You guys, I was VERY SERIOUS about my fashion magazines at that age.  I used to check them out from the library, and I felt so grown-up and sophisticated.)  So, according to 11-year-old-me’s historical records, that was just 62 Sweet Valley books in 7 months.  And I probably read these things from about age of 7 to about 15.  Thus, I can’t even calculate how many of these books I must have read in my youth.  I mean, I guess I could just check the number of published Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High books, including all the spin-off series and special editions, and go from there, but let’s just go with A LOT.

 

But enough of this nostalgic babble.  I just wanted to give this review some context.  Now for my thoughts on Sweet Valley Confidential.  I’ll start with some general, non-spoilery thoughts, and then warn you before I get into plot details.

 

The general and non-spoilery version of my review …


The format of the book is one chapter of Elizabeth’s point of view, followed by one chapter of Jessica’s point of view, with occasional snippets from Todd, Bruce, and Steven’s points of view.  Basically, we go back and forth between the twins’ respective perspectives, and within each chapter there is a first-person flashback of sorts, filling in parts of the history of the last ten years (well, really the past 11 years if we’re counting from SVH, or the past 9 years if we’re counting from SVU … but let’s not get into the math).  While Francine Pascal created the Sweet Valley High series, and supposedly came up with most of the stories, Sweet Valley Confidential is the first book that we know was actually written by her.  Pascal’s style is a bit different than that of “Kate William,” the pseudonym for the cadre of authors who penned the SVH novels.  While there are old familiar tropes—the twins are still the prettiest people to ever live, Jessica still borrows Elizabeth’s brand-new clothes—the voices of the characters are different.  Pascal adopts a certain generational “girl-speak,” one that would be familiar to Angela Chase and her contemporaries.  Everything is “like” this, and “so” that, and “totally.”  I must admit that I like so totally talk that way (though I am trying to work on that), but that was never a feature of the Sweet Valley High books.  Reading Sweet Valley Confidential, it felt like Pascal was trying to make these voices authentic to California girls in their twenties, but it just came off as false—especially in Jessica’s case.

 

Additionally, there are pop culture references everywhere, but these references still manage to stick out like sore thumbs.  The old Sweet Valley High series kept things pretty generic, and while I noted earlier that they were “products of their time,” that didn’t really extend to pop culture.  The Wakefield twins stayed 16 years old for 20 years, so their world sort of just existed in a timeless bubble.  But not so with Sweet Valley Confidential.  There are references to Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Google, iPhones, Blackberrys, HBO, etc.  There seems to very much be an attempt to ground the girls in our modern world, in order to add to the relevance and realism.  That didn’t really work for me.  By putting them in “the real world,” it only heightened how badly drawn and stereotypical these characters are.

 

If you were just a moderate fan of the Sweet Valley High series, and are merely mildly curious as to what happened to these characters, you may want to skip the majority of Sweet Valley Confidential and just read the Epilogue.  Yes, there is an Epilogue, entitled “For Sweet Valley Fans of Old.”  This final chapter gives a sort of “Where are they now?” picture.  I thought that was the best part of the book, hands down.  Pascal really seems to adopt a tongue-in-cheek tone there, and I found myself laughing out loud along with her, rather than at her.  The epilogue embraces the wacky history of the books and does a fair job of imagining the futures of these characters.  For die-hard fans like me, who read the books for years and years, and maybe due to your love of the books you even watched that horrible Sweet Valley High television show that aired back in 1994-1997, you need to read this book.  I mean, there are just so many fun little details scattered throughout, and the irony of how Liz and Jess end up will not be lost on you.  And if you used to live and breathe these books, you know what to expect.  This is not War and Peace. (Although, spoiler alert: in the most unrealistic twist in THE ENTIRE SERIES, 27 year old Jessica is reading War and Peace.)  This is Sweet Valley High.  (Minus the high school.)  You know what you’re signing up for in reading Sweet Valley Confidential.  Elizabeth is still insufferable, Jessica is still a budding sociopath, Todd is still the most boring ever, etc.  Personally, I would put Sweet Valley Confidential in the so-bad-it’s-good category, and I must admit that I really enjoyed it.  However, I think a lot of that enjoyment was due to sentimentality.  I wouldn’t buy this book for your teenage niece who’s a Sweet-Valley-virgin.  This is a book for a certain audience and a certain generation, and I don’t think it really stands on its own as an independently enjoyable book.  But for those of you who had shelves full of Sweet Valley High books adorning your preteen walls, this book will be a special treat.  Now onto the spoilery details.  Seriously, stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens.  

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