So when I came across Aleeza Rauf's blog, I was floored. First, I wanted to immediately run out and buy the book she was reviewing positively. I mean, talk about an enthusiastic review. Totally charming. But also thorough and remarkably thoughtful, pointing to all the things you love in a book that you aren't quite able to express you love. Funny and clever, too. Just brilliant.
And then I discovered she was only seventeen.
Meet Aleeza, in her own words:
I’m a 17-year-old Pakistani-American YA writer & avid reader/reviewer. I love books & libraries, cricket, long drives, NEW ZEALAND!, among lots of other stuff. I'm also a reluctant accounting student and lover of all things random.
A while ago, Aleeza reviewed A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, and I practically fell in love with the book without having even read it yet. I left a comment on her review, and then I mentioned that I'd love for her to do a guest post someday for me. She later responded by asking if I would post her review of A Northern Light on my blog.
Some background from Aleeza on A Northern Light: Before I begin this review, I’d like to sort of share my history with this book. If you’d like, you could skip to the review part, but I don’t think I can share my feelings about this book—which are pretty strong—without a bit of backstory first.
Last year, I used to go every day to my dad’s bank’s library—I'm homeschooled, and it was the perfect place to study for upcomin’ exams. There I stumbled upon a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version book, which basically features 3 to 4 abridged books in one volume, and one of the novels it featured was A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly (which I later found out was called A Northern Light in the states). Since I am the queen of procrastination, I began reading it in between studying and soon was so swept away by the beautiful story I couldn’t stop until I was finished. And when I did reach the ending, I loved it so much I did my best not to cheer aloud in amazement of the author’s effort since I was in, you know, a library.
That was a year ago. Some time back, when I got the chance to order some books from Amazon, I had only a quota of four books* and I selected this one first-up. My sister was confused, since she couldn’t understand why I was ordering a novel I’d already read when I could order a new very-highly-anticipated one. That’s because I love this novel so much it was never even a question I’d get a copy for myself. And soon after it arrived, I began reading it, tossing away the resolution to not do so before exams (yeah, exams never seem to end in my life). It was just too tempting! And the book…WOW. The condensed version did NOT do it justice. Because I savored every single word of it and only fell even more in love with it, so much that it’s officially my No. 1 favorite book EVER, Hands. Down. And if you know me, you’ll know it’s not very easy to get that title.
But, that’s just my history with the book. And now I’ll review it, and hopefully I’ll do it justice so that you’ll go read and fall in love with it too. I mean, it DID win the Carnegie Medal, was a Michael L. Printz Honor book, and fetched numerous blurbs as well as starred reviews, which in itself makes it a must-read book.
NEW YORK, 1906: Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has huge dreams—she wants to attend college to pursue her love of literature, but with a mother that recently passed away and left her to look after her four younger sisters and manage their farm, she has little hopes of her dreams ever seeing the light of the day. Come summer, she’s working at the Glenmore Hotel to draw in some cash to use for their farm, and there she’s given a bunch of letters by a woman who asks her to burn them. Which she would’ve done, except that woman ends up dead the day after, with her escort nowhere to be found. After many events where Mattie unsuccessfully tries to get rid of the letters, she eventually gives in and reads them, and what she learns not only changes the fate of the deceased woman, but her own life as well.
The first time I read this novel I was a bit puzzled by the simplicity of the prose. At that time, I believed you needed to use Big Words often to be a good writer (thank you, Steph Meyer!), and this novel barely employed any. And I was struck by how, despite this, the novel read so beautifully. Mattie is a lover of all things literature, and you wouldn’t believe how well the author has incorporated this fact into the story. This book pretty much nails the rule of ‘show, not tell’. Every day Mattie learns a new word, its origins and all, and does her best to use it in that day. And a fellow word-lover myself (actually, I can safely bet that whoever’s reading this review is also fond of words, right?), I loooved this aspect.
And you can see how much she loves words through the following passages:
"I had looked around. I’d seen all the things she’d spoken of and more besides. I’d seen a bear cub lift its face to the drenching spring rains. And the silver moon of winter, so high and blinding. I’d seen the crimson glory of a stand of sugar maple in autumn and the unspeakable stillness of a mountain lake at dawn. I’d seen them and loved them. But I’d also seen the dark of things. The starved carcasses of winter deer. The driving fury of a blizzard wind. And the gloom that broods under the pines always. Even on the brightest of days."
"What I saw next stopped me dead in my tracks. Books. Not just one or two dozen, but hundreds of them. In crates. In piles on the floor. In bookcases that stretched from floor to ceiling and lined the entire room. I turned around and around in a slow circle, feeling as if I'd just stumbled into Ali Baba's cave. I was breathless, close to tears, and positively dizzy with greed."
The setting is so, so vivid, I felt as if I were really transported back to the early 1900s. In the same way, I felt like I personally knew every character and felt their connections to each other. Especially how Mattie feels about Royal, her spankin’ good-looking neighbor who she’s attracted to, even if she maybe shouldn’t be. I distinctly remember the first time round I read this book, how my heart both soared with hers and then came crashing down when things got rough. I actually began crying and very badly wanted to punch Royal’s face and moan with the unfairness of it all. Yep, my connection with this book runs VERY deep.
And it’s not just this: Mattie yearning to be both an educated woman and eventually an author, as well as have a family and a loving husband…it was so very relatable. Especially since I often go through the same dilemma, even in this day and age, thanks to the backward society I’m from. I remember this quote really affected me:
"And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn't have written even one poem if she'd had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another one into her, a house to run, a garden to tend, three cows to milk, twenty chickens to feed, and four hired hands to cook for. I knew then why they didn't marry. Emily and Jane and Louisa. I knew and it scared me. I also knew what being lonely was and I didn't want to be lonely my whole life. I didn't want to give up on my words. I didn't want to choose one over the other. Mark Twain didn't have to. Charles Dickens didn't."
So, yeah, that’s my review. Jennifer Donnelly is now one of my all-time fave authors, and her novel Revolution also definitely deserves to be read. In fact, if you read both and compare them, you’ll be seriously shocked the same author penned both books. I mean, yes, they’re both at least partially historical, but that’s kind of as far as the similarities go.
Bottom line: Mattie may have lived more than a century ago, but she is just as real as me and oh-so-similar. Even 5/5 stars wouldn’t do the book justice. Read it and I hope you’ll agree. :)
*You have to understand that I live in Pakistan. Books aren’t easily available here, and Amazon has crazy-high shipping rates for down here, hence the tight quotas my das sets me.
Please do check out Aleeza as a writer, reader and reviewer. She's something pretty special.
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