Book Review: Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

The Barovier family furnace / has molded glass on Murano
for nearly two hundred years, since 1291 / when the Venetian government
required that all furnaces move / to my island home.

Sisters of Glass

Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When Maria was just an infant, her father declared that she would one day marry a nobleman, even though such a fate should rightfully belong to her elegant older sister, Giovanna. Maria would much rather learn to blow glass in the family fornicas, but that work is for men only, even after her father’s death and the onset of financial trouble for the family. Trapped by tradition at 15, can Maria simply ignore her feelings forever, especially the feelings she has for the orphaned young glassblower who has joined the family business?

Fifteenth-century Murano provides the historical backdrop for this story of two sisters caught between what they wish they could do and what they feel they must do. Hemphill’s prose poems are full of fine details, but they never capture the intensity of emotion Maria ought to feel. Rather than bringing the reader closer to Maria – as in Caroline Starr Rose’s May B. – the terse narrative leaves the reader distant from the action. The form works in May B. precisely because May is alone for most of the novel; the poems read as her thoughts rather than as formal writing, particularly because the reader knows May isn’t actually writing anything down. Maria, on the other hand, is surrounded by people, and her interactions with them lose immediacy as conversations are rendered
in short bursts
rather than as
meaningful discussion.

Despite this weakness, the unusual setting, the timeless themes of sibling rivalry and familial duty, and the star-crossed romance (with its slightly-too-convenient conclusion) are sure to appeal to more than a few tweens and teens looking for something light and lovely.

On shelves March 27, 2012.

Final Word:
A light and lovely novel-in-verse for t(w)een fans of historical romance.

E-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

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Book Review: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

I watch a bird balance
on a blade of grass
bent low toward earth
to find a meal.
All creatures must work for their keep.

May B.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life on the Kansas prairie frontier is tough, and 12-year-old Mavis Betterly – May B. – knows it. A learning disability makes school especially challenging, but she is determined to do well, hoping to become a teacher herself one day. Instead of going to school this winter, though, May is headed to a stranger’s homestead 15 miles away. She will help his wife, newly arrived from the East, with the chores, earning a little money to help her own parents as well. “Just until Christmas,” they tell her. Just as May begins to settle in at the Oblingers’ sod house, both adults head into town, and they don’t come back. Trapped by a blizzard, May faces the brutal winter outside while confronting her own haunting memories inside. It will take all her toughness to make it home again


Novels in verse are a tricky thing. As a reader, I always ask what the verse form adds to the story that the author couldn’t have accomplished with prose. In May B., the short, spare poems work. They let the reader straight into May’s thoughts, creating vivid images of life on the frontier. May is a frontier girl, plain-spoken and hard-working, but she is also just twelve years old. One of my favorite passages captures her petulant voice as the gravity of her situation becomes apparent:

I am going to stay here,
wrapped in these quilts,
let the fire die,
and freeze to death
or maybe starve,
whichever comes first.
Then Pa will be sorry
for sending me here.
Was it worth
those few dollars
to find
you daughter dead?

She knows she has to get down to the business of saving herself, but what adolescent (or grown-up, for that matter) could resist having a good wallow in self-pity first?

May is a sharp observer, and the details she notices about the other characters bring them to life while keeping the focus squarely on her. Rose evokes May’s physical and emotional struggles with simple language and poetic rhythm that keep the reader in her world until the very end. A striking debut.

On shelves January 10, 2012.


Final Word
Sharp writing, engaging characters, and a thrilling survival story – what’s not to love?

e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

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