Book Review & Author Interview: Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Small

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Would you die for the Prize?

Release Date: May 21, 2019

Pre-Order on Amazon

Price: $12.29 (hardcover)

Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Plot Summary:

Best friends Marine Duval and Kate Sanders have trained since childhood at the Paris Opera Ballet School, where they’ve forged an inseparable bond through shared stories of family tragedies and a powerful love for dance. When the body of a student is found in the dorms just before the start of their final year, Marine and Kate begin to ask themselves how far they would go for the ultimate prize: to be named the one girl who will join the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet. Would they cheat? Seduce the most talented boy in the school, dubbed the Demigod, hoping his magic will make them shine, too? Would they risk death for it? Neither girl is sure.

But then Kate gets closer to the Demigod, even as Marine has begun to capture his heart. And as selection day draws near, the competition—for the Prize, for the Demigod—becomes fiercer, and Marine and Kate realize they have everything to lose, including each other.

Bright Burning Stars is a stunning, propulsive story about girls at their physical and emotional extremes, the gutting power of first love, and what it means to fight for your dreams.

Grade: A

Review:

For some reason I find books or films about ballet to be utterly fascinating and alluring. Maybe because I took ballet classes for a year as a kid (before realizing that I should give up cause there was no way I’d ever be a ballerina with my lack of grace). I’m so obsessed with ballet that I even made my protagonist in CUT HERE, Lena one. This is to confirm that I was absolutely excited when I was finally given the ARC for Bright Burning Stars (I had requested it months ago and had only been given it a few weeks prior to publication date).

Things I loved about this novel:

Friendships: The two protagonists, Marine and Kate have a very strong friendship. It actually is the core of the novel and despite the fact that they’re both aiming for “The Prize” aka becoming the exclusive etoile at the Opera National de Paris. “Rats” as the studying ballerinas are referred to in the novel, are so focused on the prize that they’d do anything to obtain it, and Kate is even willing to die for it. Slowly, bestfriends Marine and Kate begin to grow apart as things get more competitive and each wanting to snag the prize title for their own.

Relationships: I love how the author explores various types of relationships, such as showing one romantic relationship as gradually growing into something much more passionate than it initially was, and another romantic relationship that becomes tragically toxic fast.

Setting: Ever since I was little (maybe because I was obsessed with Marie Antoinette & Versailles) I’ve been in love with Paris. So, I’ll automatically favor any novel that takes place in the City of Lights. I was just a bit sad that we, the readers never get a chance to experience the city because we’re always stuck in the dance studios with the two protagonists.

Minor gripe: I wasn’t a fan of how abortion was handled in this book. Not because one of the protagonists decides to go over and beyond to terminate an unexpected pregnancy, but because of how simplistic it was written out to be. Sure, maybe drinking odd toxic herbal teas *can* induce an abortion, but I don’t like how easy it all was for the character. Since this is a YA and intended for teens, I don’t want teens thinking that if you’re pregnant that you can just forego a normal abortion AT A CLINIC and just drink herbal tea and wish everything will get taken care of, because in most cases that won’t work. Just putting that out there for the kids.

The Ending: There were only two ways the book could’ve ended and I assumed both possible endings. Ultimately, the author aimed for the safest one. Which is not to say that is was bad, but probably tragic loving me would’ve opted for the other much more unsettling ending. But seeing that it’s YA I can see why the novel would end on a much more hopeful note than not.

Overall, the novel had very lush and alluring elements to it and I was completely consumed by the story. If you love Paris, ballet, and strong friendships, then this book is for you.

*Thank you so much to NetGalley and Algonquin Young Readers for the digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Short Q & A With The Author:

I read that you were a ballet dancer. Did you study ballet in Paris, as the characters in Bright Burning Stars did or did you study it elsewhere?

When I was five-years-old, I began dancing in Paris with a famous teacher named Max Bozzoni who taught and danced at the Paris Opera. Then I danced with L’Académie Chaptal where the teachers also danced and taught at the Paris Opera. And in my teens, I danced with the Richmond Ballet Student Company and did a summer at Pacific Northwest Ballet on full scholarship.

Why did you decide to set the story in Paris? Is it because it’s where ballet first began or because Paris is the perfect setting for a book about passion (both for ballet and love)?

I chose Paris because I began my dance adventure there and because I grew up obsessed and in love with the Parisian rats who became principal dancers. I knew I wanted to render homage to them specifically.

Do you think that female friendships are very important to girls in their teenage years and that’s why it’s particularly devastating when they end?

I think female friendships are always important, but when you are a teen you experience love with a particular type of intensity. I feel like those friendships are almost always tattooed in your heart somehow, which do make them hard to reckon with when they unravel.

The ballet world can be very cutthroat and dealing with physical pain is an every day occurrence for a ballerina. Do you think that’s why it’s hard for dancers to relate to others who don’t dance or don’t have a similar passion as their own?

To me, the dance world is like a monastery. You give yourself over to that vocation physically and mentally. Dancers are artists, but also athletes. Imagine a painter who wrestles, or a cellist who plays basketball, or a sculptor who sprints. The complexity of fusing art and sport. Very few people, I believe, know the rigor of ballet and, yes, that keeps the dancers separate from others for sure.

What actresses can you see in the role of Kate & Marine if anyone ever decides to bring Bright Burning Stars on the big or TV screen?

If I had it my way I’d want to see real dancers portray my girls, like Ava Arbuckle and Audrey Freeman whom I follow on IG!

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13 Things I’d Like to Tell My 13-Years-Old Self

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  1. Stop worrying about the size of your breasts. It really doesn’t matter, and besides, everyone is going to be too busy checking out your ass to notice the size of your boobs.
  2. Your hair won’t always be frizzy, in fact, serums and straightening irons will give you the most amazing hair, so don’t fret.
  3. That gross skin condition on your hands? It’ll go away by the time you’re 14. Don’t question the how or why that it occurred, it just did, and now you can enjoy having soft, non-peeling hands.
  4. Your quirky sense of style? Guess what? It’s going to be one of the things people will love about you later on in life, cause you defy trends and time.
  5. You know how you hate olives? Sometime around your twenties, you’re going to start loving them. This will be a lesson in giving things a second chance.
  6. Remember how obsessed you are with the movie Lost Boys since the age of 8? You’re going to become friends with one of the actors later on in life and it’ll be so surreal.
  7. You always hated Sundays, cause they’re boring. Newsflash, Sundays will never get better for you, so just kill the boredom with a movie or writing.
  8. Cherish the time you have with your cousin Melody, she won’t live past 34, and this will break your heart.
  9. Your idyllic life will shatter in so many ways that you never would’ve imagined possible. Somehow, you are strong and prevail.
  10. Stop wasting your time obsessing over that boy. He isn’t special. Really, he isn’t.
  11. Keep reading, writing, and studying. You will value your intelligence more than your books, so focus on being the smart girl, not the pretty one. Pretty girls will grow old. Smart girls are forever.
  12. You’re your own worst critic, so give yourself a break, you’re doing all right.
  13. Enjoy all those music videos on MTV while you can, someday there will be none for you to enjoy.White and Pink Strikeout Cosmetics Beauty Logo

Book Review: This Darkness Mine – Mindy McGinnis

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Mindy McGinnis has been delivering badass (sometimes unlikeable) but definitely strong female protagonists since her early works. This Darkness Mine is no different from her previous novels in that regard. Sasha Stone is the epitome of perfection: first chair clarinet player, straight-A student, and also comes equipped with a “perfect” boyfriend who’s handsome, well-dressed, and doesn’t pressure her into sex. All of this slowly begins to erode once bad-boy Isaac Harver enters the scene. Soon, she begins to feel feelings towards him that she never did and recalling events she’s never taken part of. Or has she?

Some light begins to shed when we find out that Sasha had a twin that she ultimately ended up absorbing whilst in the womb (known as Shanna). Unlike Sasha, this twin despises control and perfection and begins to wreck havoc into her life once she starts to take over Sasha’s psyche. But is Shanna real or merely a figment of Sasha’s imagination?

The book flirts with the notion of unreliable narrator, much like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan did with Natalie Portman’s character. Is what is happening real or is it all just a sign of Sasha’s ultimate madness?

McGinnis breathes life into the “dead twin” Shanna, allowing her to be the personification of Freud’s ID (meaning being a person who only lives for their own passions and don’t allow their brain to control their emotions). Sasha on the other hand is Freud’s EGO end of this yin-yang duo, the brain and captain of the ship. But what happens when the emotion-driven Shanna takes reins of the situation and how will that effect Sasha’s “perfect” world?

This book isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s dark. It’s gritty. It’s gory. (Yes, I L-O-V-E-D it!). And just when you think you know where it’s leading you, you’re completely blindsided by yet again another improvised detour that will leave you questioning your own sanity and judgment. McGinnis delivers a punch to the gut with her sharp writing and often ruthless character interactions.

So take the plunge, cause it’s one hell of a crazy ride.

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Short Q & A With the Author:

When I started reading This Darkness Mine I realized that the book was based off of the short story that appeared in Among The Shadows, entitled Phantom Heart. When did you decide to further explore Sasha’s world and what was it about this character that compelled you to do that?

Great question, thanks for noticing! Yes, DARKNESS is based on my short, “Phantom Heart.” Originally, I had no intention of taking this any further. Then my fellow editors for Among The Shadows – Demitria Lunetta and Kate Karyus Quinn – insisted that there was a whole novel there. I wasn’t sure, but I pitched the idea to my editor at Harper Collins, who was like – Yes! Write it!

Sasha Stone is the typical overachiever. Do you think that her mental illness derives from expecting perfection out of herself and the pressures that come along with that, or does she suffer from multiple personality disorder?

I worked in a public school for 15 years, and I always thought it was interesting how black and white rules and programs were. Drugs are bad. Sex is bad. Smoking is bad. Period. In some ways, we’re telling the kids that even curiosity about our “darker” inclinations are plain wrong, and need to be smothered, not investigated. Perfection is impossible, yet many strive for it. I wondered what would happen if you took an already strained teen, trying to be the “good” kid, and had her repulsed even by any interest in doing “bad” things. Would she be able to accept that such urges can be normal? Or is that so far outside of what we’ve taught her is “good” that she has to come up with an alternative explanation?

For many years I’ve been very fascinated with the creepy phenomenon of Fetus in Fetu, where a twin ends up absorbing the other twin in the womb, and in some cases doctors have later found the missing twin inside of the living twin, usually mistaken for a tumor later on in life. When did you become interested in this strange phenomenon?

It’s actually not a rare event, it’s something that usually goes completely unnoticed. I can’t remember the first time I ever heard of it, because it is pretty pervasive in pop culture, but I did have a student years and years ago who had absorbed his twin. It’s something I collected in my lint trap of a brain, and it became paired in my mind with the mirror therapy that they use for phantom limb syndrome, which is how “Phantom Heart” came about.

In the novel, Sasha is a clarinet player. Were you ever in band in high school and how did that help with writing the novel from a musician’s point of view?

You bet!!! Trombone since 4th grade!!! I tell everyone this is my band geek book. I also took piano lessons throughout most of my childhood, so music has always been a part of my life as both a consumer and a producer. This was a chance to work that into a book.

This novel was exceptionally dark. It explored the trials of mental illness as well as what it means to be a successful girl. Which actress could you see in the role of Sasha if this were to be made into a movie?

Oh, I have no idea. I don’t ever do any fan casting.

(Editor note: I asked that question because I could totally see Emma Roberts portraying stone-cold crazy bitch Sasha to perfection.)

I often use music to get into a certain mood depending what scenes I’m writing. Since your novel was about a girl who was obsessed with music, did you use music as a way to aid you in the writing of this book? And which music/artist/or song did you listen to when immersing yourself into Sasha’s world?

I actually don’t listen to music when I’m writing because while it can be helpful to get you into one mood, it can also end up controlling you mood so that when you need to flip to something else when you change scenes it can be hard. Instead I have a white noise app that I keep on while I’m writing. It’s a back ground noise that lets my creativity be in control, not someone else’s.

Get your copy of This Darkness Mine here today!

Visit the author’s site http://mindymcginnis.com

By: Azzurra Nox

My Bad Romance: The Pianist

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Maybe if I had met him when I was older, I would’ve known that he was a beautiful disaster and that our so-called love was merely a one-sided obsession. But when you’re thirteen and you meet an older boy (he was seventeen at the time) with long, black hair who plays Beethoven in a way that makes your heart fall apart, well….you can’t help but feel like he’s the one.

I was a fellow pianist, such as him (although not quite as talented) and so that already made me feel as though we had something in common. So it was natural for me to suggest that he’d give me some tutoring lessons (which he had accepted to). My thirteen-years-old heart beat so fast you’d think I was close to a coronary. I was gonna be the first teenager to die of a burst-from-happiness heart.

Sadly, that happiness was very short lived.

Fast forward to when I’m seventeen. The Pianist and I are now not only friends, but I’ve managed to become a staple in his household. We’ve done Easter plays together, our families have spent holidays together, and we even planted a cactus together, my heart expanding every year when it’d bloom flowers, as though it were some proof of our unwavering love. But I was growing increasingly frustrated with my limited friend label. I wanted more. I wanted a mad love, stolen kisses, and passionate summer nights. I wanted ice cream dates, movie dates, and gazing at the stars.

Then his twenty-first birthday came around and for the first time that I had ever known him he was having a party.

“I hope you can make it tonight,” he told me, his dark eyes shining with a secret. “I’ve got something I want to tell you.”

My brain went through all the various scenarios of what he could possibly be wanting to tell me. Of course, the curse of being in love is that you’re always hopeful, and so I spent the day listening to a shitty love song (“Kiss Me”) on repeat while applying makeup and slipping into the very best little black dress I owned. I was determined to look memorable.

Fast forward to a few hours later when The Pianist is pulling me away from the crowd of friends saying that we need to go outside. I follow wordlessly. But nothing would’ve ever prepared me for what truly happened.

His girlfriend arrived and he wanted me to be one of the first people to meet her. I was too in shock to properly react. I numbly went through the motions of civil interaction as my heart cracked in two.

I then managed to escape the party. I didn’t have a car at the time and I didn’t want to tell my parents that I was abandoning the party, so I walked all the way home. And I couldn’t even cry as living in a small town everyone knows everyone and me walking down the streets in tears would’ve been all over town by morning.

At home the waterfall of tears fell in painful torrents. I pulled down all the photos we had together from my wall. And then I saw it.

The cactus.

In a fit of rage I hurled it against the wall.

If you were willing to kill my love, I was willing to destroy any evidence of it.

Years later, still in love, I found myself writing a lengthy email to the Pianist. I wanted to explain my love, how I never stopped believing cause I wanted to be that radical that Ola Salo sang about so much.

You want to know what he said to my emotional vomit?

GOODLUCK.

But I guess luck has never been on my side.

If I were lucky, I never would’ve met you.

By: Azzurra Nox