Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Radical Element by Jessica Spotswood Review

Title: The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls
Editor: Jessica Spotswood
Age Group: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction/Anthology
Series: A Tyranny of Petticoats, book two
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

I borrowed this book from my local library and reviewed it.

I loved the anthology A Tyranny of Petticoats, so when I found out that it was getting a sequel, I was so excited. I reserved it at my local library, and as soon as I was able, I pushed it to the top of the stack, eager to drive in after The Neverending Story. I really loved Tyranny, but I honestly think that The Radical Element was the stronger of the two. Since this is an anthology, I’ll do this review a little differently than normal; I’ll give the whole book an overall rating, and since there are twelve stories, I’ll be reviewing the stories that were highlights for me, for the sake of clarity and time. I will say this, though, before I get started: all of these stories were well-researched and strong, featuring women who refused to let the social mores of their time hold them back from what they truly wanted. Okay, so without further ado, here we go:

The Magician by Erin Bowman: 5 out of 5 Stars. Set in 1858, on the Colorado River, in the New Mexican Territory, this story tells of a girl disguised as a scrawny boy, desperate to make a living and leave the tiny riverside town she lives in, only to end up with her secret in deep jeopardy. But she fights back with everything she has and gets away with more than she could’ve ever imagined. Gritty, poignant, and spare, I loved this story!

Lady Firebrand by Megan Shepherd: 5 out of 5 Stars. This story takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, with the Civil War in full swing. Honestly, this was one of my favorites, partially because the main character was disabled, confined to a wheelchair due to a tragic accident. But that doesn’t stop her from doing her part to turn the bloody tides of the war, disguised as the dashing figure of Lord Firebrand. Accompanied by her best friend, Pauline, a freed slave, she is presented with an opportunity that she simply can’t refuse. Gorgeous, witty, and surprising!

Step Right Up by Jessica Spotswood: 4 out of 5 Stars. 1905, Tulsa, Indian Territory. Honestly, I think that this story is my favorite piece of work in Spotwood’s arsenal. This story tells of the brave, vivacious and defiant Ruby, who has the restless heart that led her father to run away with the circus when she and her sister, Pearl, were young. She longs to be a star, to be more than the girl who’s beaten by her Uncle Jack and all but ignored by her mother. Refusing to be confined to the life of a loveless marriage and having children, she runs away in pursuit of her dreams, even when her family turns against her. I loved it a lot, but I honestly hated her family, aside from Pearl. I loved Ruby and her bright, unstoppable voice. Wonderful!

Better for All the World by Marieke Nijkamp: 5 out of 5 Stars. 1927, Washington D.C. A story of law, the eugenics movement, and being unapologetically yourself, Carrie longs to be a lawyer and be able to stand up for those who can’t do so for themselves. She is spurred on by this and a secret that only her closest family members know. When she makes an unexpected friend outside of the courthouse while waiting on a verdict on a case that is close to her heart, she thinks that she may have finally found a kindred spirit, until they begin to debate and she realizes that he fully supports the eugenics movement, a movement that is about optimal genetics and eliminating the threats to society, for example, the disabled, the old, the infirm. Deciding that she cannot be friends with someone who would have her sterilized or even killed because of her differences, she lets go of her fear and goes on to live the way she wants. This story really hit home, and I will never forget it. Thoughtful, brutal, and enlightening, I loved it.

When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough by Dhionelle Clayton: 5 out of 5 Stars. 1943, Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. This story is a contender for my favorite of the entire collection. Emma and her family have lived for hundreds of years, collecting moonlight to prevent natural aging. But now that the War is on, Emma is no longer content to hide in plain sight and move on once people get suspicious. She longs to do something meaningful, to enlist as the boys in her town have been doing. But her parents are desperate to keep her out of the conflict, and so the story ends with her posing as a nurse, determined to make a difference even if it means defying her loved ones. I loved Emma’s voice, the prose lovely and beautiful and sparse; easily one of the best of the whole collection; I wish this story was a whole book! Clayton is one of my favorite authors, as I loved this story and her sophomore novel, The Belles. Fantastic!

Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave by Stacey Lee: 5 out of 5 Stars. 1955, Oakland, California. I loved Stacey Lee’s last book, Outrun the Moon, so I was really looking forward to this one, and I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed at all. Lana Lau is a Hawaiian native, come to California with her parents, her mother a worker in a sugar refinery, her father a cobbler. Desperate to help her parents and to make something out of herself, she decides to try out for the part of Sugar Girl, the girl who will be on all the bags of sugar for the company that her mother works for. When things go deeply wrong in her audition, she is forced to rely on another, unexpected talent: her jokes. I really, really enjoyed this one! Another frontrunner for my favorite story of the whole book. Full of spirit, resilience, and humor, I loved Lana and her vibrant, hilarious voice, and the way she used her connection to her Hawaiian culture to come out on top! Amazing!


This book is one of my favorites of the year, full of spunky, spirited stories that inspired me, made me laugh, cry, and cheer! I can only hope that there’s another anthology in the works now, because if I wasn’t hooked before, I definitely am now! Full of tales from some of my favorite authors and ones that I’ve just discovered, I loved The Radical Element! Absolutely stunning! The bottom line: Filled with stories that are as diverse as they are inspiring and funny, I loved The Radical Element—one of my favorite anthologies of 2018! Next on deck: Reign the Earth by A.C. Gaughen!

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