Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French


Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

YA Books To Buy For Your Graduation Gifts

I’m away from the Somewhat United States at the moment, ceilidh dancing in Edinburgh and haunting my old haunts in St Andrews, but high school students all over America are getting ready to graduate within the next few weeks.  Congratulations to you all, especially to the young adults who are regulars at my bookshop.  I’m terribly proud.

It will come as no surprise that I recommend books for everyone’s graduation gift-giving needs.  Buy them from your local independent bookshop!  Fun, fast, creative YA novels are especially good for the end of the school year.  Seize the five seconds of not being a student anymore, before whatever further studies await, to treat your brain to something purely enjoyable.

Here are a few YA books that would make nice presents.  They’re clever, they’re intriguing, and they have wonderful characters.  Buy all three and your local bookseller might even gift wrap them for you.

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness


Not only has Patrick Ness created a group of friends who deserve six seasons of their own television show, he’s put them into a brilliant spoof of popular YA fiction trends.   Mikey and his friends just want to graduate high school and get on with their lives, but the “indie kids” in their school keep having to save the world from vampires or zombies or whatever eerie blue lights keep showing up in the darkness.  Patrick Ness’s subversion of the “chosen one” trend is witty and charming but also tremendously moving. Mikey, Mel, Henna, and Jared all have to fight their own battles in terms of mental health and identity, while the fantastical events around theme act as mere backdrop. I loved the notion of focusing on kids who aren’t the “chosen ones,” but just have to live there, doing their best to fall in love and find their place while the world keeps falling apart around them.  Give this book to someone who has already read a ton of YA – fantasy or realistic or both – and wants something totally unique for the summer.

2. Rebel Of The Sands by Alwyn Hamilton


For someone who has already read all the fantasy books you can think of, or someone who is tired of Euro-centric settings for their magical worlds, try this new gun-slinging adventure inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights.  It’s the best of American Westerns (sharp shooters, fights on speeding trains) mixed with Middle Eastern mythology.  Amani needs to get out of her dead-end town, Dustwalk, where her dead mother’s family hates her and the best she can hope for us an unhappy marriage.  In secret, Amani is one of the best shots around, when she’s disguised, sneaking around at night, “not up to no good,” but not “exactly up to no bad, neither.” Her chance to escape comes raging into town in the form of Jin, a fugitive and a foreigner.  Amani sees Jin as a way out.  He looks at her strange eyes and her unusual talents and sees powerful origins that might not yet be known to herself.  Rebel Of The Sands picks up speed and keeps racing across the desert to a rebel camp, creatures from stories, and a clashing of forces that will broaden Amani’s world farther than she used to ever imagine.  I was happily swept away into Alwyn Hamilton’s exciting new fantasy realm.  Amani is a heroine to cheer for, and I think determined graduates who want to get away and see wonders will love her story.  Mythology nerds and action lovers will dig this one.

3. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater


The Raven Cycle is seriously the best YA series I’ve read in over a decade.  The final installment just came out, so buy it for the graduates you know who have followed Blue and her Raven Boys to the ends of the earth and beyond.  If they haven’t started the series yet, do them a favor and buy them all four.  The character development, the intense magic, the sharp dialogue, and the creative use of Welsh mythology are absolutely out of this world.  In this final installment in the quartet, all the mystifying, intricate threads from the previous books come together to weave a web that’s beautiful and heart-breaking.  Maggie Stiefvater is a master writer.  Give her books to the literature devotees in your life, or the kids who made intense groups of friends and can’t imagine a life without them.


Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris part II: Unbecoming

Earlier this month I noticed that my reading habits had taken on a brief trend: books about secretive young woman hiding from their problems in Paris.  Patrick Modiano’s In The Café Of Lost Youth introduced me to the inscrutable, magnetic, restless Louki.  The book’s three other narrators found themselves consumed with interest in Louki’s past, her motivations, and her preference for the “neutral zones” in Paris, where everything seems either suspended or in transit.  The next book I picked up to read was Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm.  It so transpired that Unbecoming also features a secretive, no-entirely-heroic female protagonist who tries to hide by melting into the Paris scenery.


Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

“The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name.” That’s the first line in Unbecoming.  Grace was the beautiful, accommodating, clever girl from Garland, Tennessee.  In Paris, she introduces herself as Julie “because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue.”   Already, we’re focused on a woman lying about her name in Paris.  Excellent.

The tense descriptions of Grace’s furtive life in Paris immediately made me curious about what had happened in Tennessee to make her so determinedly ignore-able. In a small antique refurbishment workshop, with only her co-worker as anything like a friend, Grace repairs gold plating, oils hinges, and worries constantly that the boys she knew in Garland will find her.  In between scenes at Parisian flea markets and intriguing peeps into the goings-on at Zanuso et Filles (where not all the antiques are necessarily being repaired), hints at Grace’s reasons for leaving America transform into the real story.

The real story is that Grace wanted to be part of Riley Graham’s perfect, loving family ever since she was a child.  The real story is that she learned how to be a good girlfriend, a good daughter-in-law, a good member of the group, and perfected it to an art form.  Grace’s motivations for this assimilation into a life of Southern charm were largely innocent – the scenes in which she adores Mrs. Graham’s lifestyle and looks after Riley’s feelings show how sweet she can be – but in her practice at becoming what other people want her to be, she honed how to use her skills of manipulation more seriously.

Falling in love with Riley’s best friend definitely wasn’t part of the plan, but it shakes Grace up so much that her relationship struggles lead to a bigger, badder, better plan: robbing the historic Wynn house for it’s overlooked valuables.  With her knowledge from a stint with antiques at college in NYC, Riley’s unimaginative but impressive painting techniques, and two slightly unhinged cohorts (one of them Alls, the aforementioned best friend) the nervy crew of teenagers sets about to pull a heist that goes from a funny hypothetical to potential disaster real fast.  Not everyone can hold up under the pressure.  When the boys get caught, Grace hopes that she’ll be able to disappear from the town’s memory in Europe, but the two men get let out on parole right where the first chapter of Unbecoming begins.  We don’t know who Grace is afraid of, but she’s sure one of them will try to find her, and she desperately does not want to be found.

Grace’s morally ambiguous, totally conniving mind kept me racing to catch up with her every step of the way in this gripping but occasionally over-dramatic debut novel.  I don’t know if I liked Grace by the end of the book, but I was always interested to see what steps she would take to ensure her own security.  The best moments, in my opinion, were the ones in which the (anti?)heroine recognizes what sort of person would succeed in a situation, then takes careful internal steps to become that person.  The idyllic Graham house could have seemed too cloying had not their comfortable family scenes been shown through the lens of Grace’s intense desire to play a role in their daily life.  Grace’s introduction to the outlandish world of New York art students almost had me convinced that she was really an innocent country girl at heart, had she not then betrayed the only truly innocent country heart in the whole novel soon after.  Even in Paris, where I thought she was trying to become a better person, Grace – or Julie – has a really big trick up her sleeve.

The plot twists weren’t nearly so clever as those in The Goldfinch, which stopped my heart, but Unbecoming does have a plot that might appeal to fans of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winner.  This is a much lighter book, without the deft touches of characterization, but there’s old stuff and plotting and best friends who make enemies superfluous. Plus, women being mysterious in Paris!  The differences between Garland – where everyone knew everyone, where Riley painted pictures of beloved buildings that the whole town called “art”, where Grace thought she would be a good wife in her favorite family – and Paris were jarring and nicely done.  I closed the book feeling a little annoyed at the note on which it ended, which was satisfying if not terribly thoughtful, but I also wished, at the end, that Grace had been able to experience Paris the way she dreamed she would: with her husband, loving the scenery, absorbing the art.

That’s not how unhappy women being mysterious in Paris end up, though.  Grace gets what she deserves, and I’ll admit that the person she becomes at the end of Unbecoming is much more her style – more glamorous, happily manipulative, and even more mysterious than before.

Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris Part I : In The Café Of Lost Youth


In The Café Of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

When one of my favorite regulars at the Bookshop recently asked me what I’d been reading, the only thing I could think to say was, “Mostly novels about unhappy women being mysterious in Paris.” What a genre! It turns out that there are all sorts of enjoyable books on the subject, and for a week I was stuck on them. Something about the notion of disappearing into a city full of history and art, seedy cafes and “neutral zones,” clearly appeals to morose young women struck by wanderlust. Louki and Grace (from Unbecoming, the next book I will review) feel it as they try to camouflage themselves within the scenery in their novels. And I felt it too, reading from my unseasonably damp corner of New England.

In The Café Of Lost Youth is the first Modiano novel I’ve read, though he blipped onto my radar with his Nobel Prize win in 2014. It’s a short little book, just over a hundred pages, but reading it made me feel like I’ve lived in Paris for years. The novel is broken into four sections, each narrated by a different character, but it all revolves around Louki, “the waiflike figure” who draws their interest like planets circling a sun. Even the section narrated by Louki makes her only more attractively unfathomable. Aside from Louki, In The Café Of Lost Youth also considers the places where the atmosphere broadcasts exactly what part of Paris you are in versus the places where time has no dominion.

“There was a series of transitional zones in Paris, no man’s lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefitted from a certain kind of immunity. I might have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more precise.” (p 83)

These neutral zones could exist anywhere, and it’s easy to see their appeal to people looking to hide out from their pasts. Louki, who makes a habit of disappearing from whatever family life begins to form around her, sort of becomes the patron saint of these places. Roland, who struggles to put his thoughts about these spaces into words, is powerfully moved by their potential, struck by their propensity for the “eternal return”. On the other hand, certain scenes near the Moulin Rouge; on certain hilly streets; or in the cafe where we meet our characters for the first time, are so vivid they could never be neutral for a moment.

I particularly like the first narrator’s description of the Conde; he a shy student entranced by the regulars:

“Along with Le Bouquet and La Pergola, it was one of the cafes in the neighborhood that closed the latest, and the one with the strangest clientele. I often ask myself now that time has passed, if it wasn’t her presence alone that gave this place and these people their strangeness, as if she had impregnated them all with her scent.” (p 7)

I’ve no clue if the characters make the settings in this book, or if the settings amplify the characters, but the sense of place is a fine reflection of both. While the writing occasionally becomes sorrowful, hung up on the unattainable past, Modiano finds the perfect location for every scene and redeems the tone with astonishing details.

After reading, I learned that some of the characters were real people among the political and bohemian set in 1950s Paris. Ed van der Elsken’s photos are a great illustration of the novel’s atmosphere and characters. Not knowing the first thing about the theoretical groups of this time period didn’t stop me from enjoying the abstract conversations and tangled gossip at Condé. Being a chronic cafe-dweller myself, I relished every scene that took place at regulars’ tables or in garish late night public spaces. The novel, especially the first narrator’s chapter, is immensely satisfying for the eavesdropper in all of us.

My one major gripe with In The Café Of Lost Youth has to do with its conclusion. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that there are a few events which seem to befall beguiling, unpredictable young women in novels written by men. It’s gotten to the point that every time a character such as Louki – ethereal, charming, secretive – gets introduced into a male narrator’s story, I hold my breath and hope she won’t be just another chick who does something drastic, teaching dudes that they can never really know a person. Modiano is a tremendous writer and handled Louki’s character very well, I thought, but he does give her one of the plot twists I was dreading just at the end of the story. Does this make since given her character? Sure. But I still think that enigmatic women deserve a few more options at the end of their stories.

In perusing his Wikipedia page, I’ve learned that the majority of Modiano’s novels deal with the reigning themes I detected in The Cafe. Questioning identity, the puzzling permanence of time, the unknowable nature of people, all in a French accent. (A note: Modiano’s Wikipedia page is actually quite interesting to read.) If all of his books send me into a similar stupor of introspective moodiness, I might wait a while before picking up another one. But I felt right at home among the cafe tables and the midnight streets, so the next time I want a mental trip to vintage Paris, I know where to look.



Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth: a review and some realizations


Here’s the thing about Animals, which I liked far more than you might assume and exactly as much as I expected: it showed me what my life might be like right now, if I’d made different (worse?) decisions just out of University. Had I not moved back to America and started a job I enjoyed in a bookstore I love, would I have ended up in a cramped, chaotic apartment in Manchester? Would I be crawling from my best friend’s more comfortable bed, wracked with hangover, reaching for a bottle of wine while she — glamorous creature — lounged in the back garden with sunglasses and poetry? Would we rail against our impending 30s, our upcoming nuptials, our successful siblings by partying like we did when we were 21? Steal drugs not out of addiction, but just because the scary dealer-lady accidentally left one of us alone in the room? Struggle between dizzying, joyful, reckless friendship and jealousy that aches like bruises do: painful but sometimes out-of-mind?

Probably not in Manchester, probably not the drugs, and definitely none of the questionable sexual decisions. But I can see an alternative reality in which I live with my room-mate and best friend from my Uni years well through our late 20s. (In Animals, Laura and Tyler actually meet after University; Tyler quotes Chaucer in a cafe and Laura likes her immediately. Who wouldn’t? But the intensity of their friendship is very much like ours.) I can see myself, like Laura, getting too tipsy at a daytime literary presentation in a library. I can picture it because it’s happened. I can imagine a group of us getting in over our heads at an underground Spanish bar, accidentally making enemies, knowing we need to get out, not knowing how. I remember what it’s like to spend the week’s last remaining 20 pounds in the pub just for somewhere comfortable and lively to while away the hours. The only reason we never disobeyed the rules and broke into events at the Edinburgh Fringe was that we never attended. We would most certainly behave badly at a family-friendly christening, but make friends with the vicar while we’re at it. No question.

Laura and Tyler’s specific antics don’t necessarily feature in this prediction of what might have been. Nor do the more serious problems they must face: Laura’s fraying relationship with her sweet fiancee who can only handle so much immaturity, Tyler’s bruises and black eyes when her wit and charm can’t get her through a fraught situation. The plot of Animals could only happen to Laura and Tyler themselves, who are as messy and real and memorable as any friends I’ve had. Emma Jane Unsworth has created something entirely believable in her novel, just with snappier dialogue and better timing than my life or (probably) yours. The situations, the characters themselves, are entirely hers.

I saw flashes and reflections of myself and my closest college friend in the emotional terms of their relationship, and honestly these moments were what kept me hooked (even when my Victorian eyes had to be averted from time to time). Their happy moments shine with the same hysterical glow as our happiest moments.

“I’d arrived at the pub to find Tyler resplendent on a picnic bench with a bottle of wine in an ice bucket on the table in front of her.
‘GREETINGS’ she shouted across the beer garden.
Oh god, I thought, she’s doing Christian Slater in Heathers. We’re already there, are we?” (p 42)

This was us. This is still us. This is how we used to be, when we were together, every day.

But then there are moments in Animals that reminded me how friendships this close – in proximity as well as devotion – can get shaken by growing up. Real life insists upon intruding and asking, “Do you really want to stay like this for the rest of your adult existence?” I wonder what have happened to us if we’d shrugged and grinned and answered yes. Would it be similar? Would the desires for safety and romance and stability pull one of us ever so slightly away from the other? Would I end up, like Laura, feeling adrift and alone, testing out too late how to be by myself, my own person, by the end of our story? (Would our story be published in an attractive package by Europa?) Would feelings get hurt?

Laura explains her reasons for wanting to get married:

” ‘So I want to be part of a new team against the world.’ I quailed at my own schmaltziness but I knew it was true – the idea, at any rate.
‘Teams are awful. Families are awful. People are awful. Why perpetuate the awfulness?’
‘So why don’t you live alone? Why have me around?’
Neither of us said it because it was there, unspoken. It flashed through her eyes at the same time it went through my head but I was afraid of saying it and I knew she was too. We used to be a team.” (p 93)

Lucky for me – and happy am I – this isn’t going to be a problem for us. We didn’t stick around with jobs we hated in a crumbling flat, spicing up the day with bottles and chemicals, trying to remember what we loved about our lives. We had fun as young people, together, and now we have slightly less fun as slightly less young people, apart. But whenever she and I find ourselves in the same room, it’s as though we’re back in our old flat in Scotland, above the grocery store on Market Street. Back in the cold living room where all the furniture was so short, you had to sit on the floor to eat from the table. The door handles were down by our knees. Now we drink cocktails flavored with herbs and laugh and tell secrets that maybe we once knew but have sense forgotten. We get into trouble sometimes, still. We can live without each other, even though we’d rather not. We are best friends without ever having to prove it. I hope that Laura and Tyler, if they were real, would have developed this sort of bond after Animals ended.

It was wonderful, almost addictive, to read about their misadventures as they backpedaled from adulthood at all costs, but I’m relieved to have taken a slightly different path after all. I gave Animals to my friend when she came to visit this past weekend — easily the greatest two days of 2016 so far. Maybe now we’ll both know what we’re missing by pretending to be grown-ups, and maybe just reading about it will be enough.

I find myself enjoying Undermajordomo Minor quite a lot


(Quotefrom page 176 of the hardcover)

Patrick DeWitt is certainly a strange one, and it took me a few tries to get into his style, but now I’m hooked. Daniel Handler’s review in the New York Times was encouraging, and I largely agree with his assessment so far.

The bleak setting and futile tone sometimes remind me of Stefan Zweig, if he were to try his hand at an adventure story in a made-up land. But the sense of humor is wry and fresh and there have been several little turns of phrase that made me laugh into my latte.

We shall see if my admiration continues. I just felt like sharing that snippet, as it brought a smile to my allergy-puffed face. Buy the book from an indie bookshop and give it a try.

Book Review: The Sleeper And The Spindle

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Illustration: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 10 and up (So long as readers are familiar with the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales and know that things can get ugly.  Previous knowledge of the original Sleeping Beauty/Snow White stories will help.)

The Sleeper and The Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a stunning new fairy-tale picture book for Young Adults.  Or, rather than a picture book, perhaps I’ll call it an illuminated story.  The tale is dark and the pictures more so.  I was thoroughly entranced for the twenty minutes it took me to read Gaiman’s words and examine all the neat little details in Chris Riddell’s pen drawings.  Though the story is simply told, much like Gaiman’s earlier fairy-tale novel Stardust, the traditional style highlights the plot’s unique surprises and occasional shining side-remarks.

The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty.  Names are in sort supply in this telling.

Two kingdoms lie on either sides of an impassable mountain.  They share a border but nobody can get across to visit.  Three dwarfs burrow underneath, though, in order to get their Queen the finest silks in Dorimar.  The Queen is going to be married soon.

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final.  She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman.  It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices.

But the dwarfs don’t come back to Kanselaire with gifts of silk.  They come back with terrifying news: a sleeping sickness is taking over the land and is moving ever-closer to their own realm!  The Queen (who once slept a year under these particular dwarfs’ care and came out of it just fine) postpones her wedding, dons a mail shirt, grabs her sword, and leads the dwarfs on a quest to wake the sleeping princess, up in her tower guarded by thorns.

The way is sometimes dark: they travel underground.  It is sometimes frightening: cobwebby sleepwalkers move through a town like zombies.  And their quest is not quite what it seems.  The Queen kisses the Princess to wake her up, and that’s nothing compared to the real twist that follows.  Neil Gaiman’s description of evil stepmothers and youth-hungry enchantresses is spot on when the Queen confronts that evil fairy (or was she a witch or an enchantress? The folks at the inn can’t quite agree) who used the prick of a spindle to put the whole kingdom to sleep.  The Queen is young and she is brave, but her own past experiences with such cruel sorts makes her adventure in the tower more powerful than a mere rescue attempt.  The Sleeper And The Spindle isn’t a love story. Though it is short the tale followed a path just between familiar archetypes and new visions to feel full and satisfying.

Chris Riddell’s drawings are equal measures disturbing and beautiful.  They’re certainly phenomenal, and must have taken a great deal of work.  Mostly black and white with little highlights of gold, they contain skulls and thorns a’plenty, but also faces that seem delightfully alive even when the figure is fast asleep.  The Queen is lovely with her raven-black hair, and I adored the dwarfs’ innovative hats. If this is the sort of world in which fairy-tales happen, then I can easily understand why beauty, darkness, and grotesque wickedness are so important.  I can’t imagine the story being read without the illustrations, or the pictures without their accompanying tale.  They just fit together so nicely into the sort of book you want to own for centuries.

(Teenagers who enjoy The Sleeper And The Spindle might also like Donna Jo Napoli’s new YA novel Dark Shimmer, which has elements of Snow White and takes place in medieval Italy.  Fearless younger readers should also check out Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.)

Book Review: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

Star Ratings:

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range recommendation: 16+ (horror, sexual violence, math.)

The Supernatural Enhancements is a cryptograph mystery, a haunted house horror story, and a Southern Gothic as seen by Europeans. It’s made up of diary entries, transcribed conversations, letters, and more. If you like found footage stories and things that go bump batshit crazy in the night, check it out.

A. and Niamh come to Point Bless, Virginia not knowing what to expect at Axton House. A., our otherwise nameless protagonist from an unspecified European country, inherited the enormous, secluded mansion from a recently deceased distant cousin. Ambrose Wells and A. never met, but Wells died the same way his father did: plunging to his death out the window at the age of fifty in highly suspicious circumstances. Compared to other, older rumors about Axton House, a few odd window-tragedies are comfortably dull. The family that gave the estate its name, before Wells’ line bought it up much later, was known for inhumane cruelty, especially to the slaves who once lived on the plantation. Everyone in town knows the place is haunted. A. is a skeptic who “wants to believe” (he watches a lot of X-Files) and Niamh is mute but not without opinions, but the two of them will have to re-think their relationship with reality as they delve into the secrets hidden behind every door of Axton house, and every twist of the maze around it.

The ghost stuff is cool, of course, because I love ghost stories. Creaky floorboards, electrical disturbances, human shadows standing behind the shower curtain… what fun! Even more interesting, though, were the secret codes and hidden messages A. and Niamh find all over the place. Ambrose Wells belonged to some super-secret society of Rich Old-Fashioned Dudes Having Thrilling Global Adventures. Every year, on the Winter Solstice, they would meet at Axton House for some annual, esoteric observance. Since Niamh and A. don’t know what the meeting entails, they need to put the pieces of Ambrose Well’s haunted life together before the Solstice to find out if these are just old guys playing with a “bourgeois passtime” or desperate men on a dangerous mission.

There are codes and maps and cyphers and grids so complex they require mathematics. There’s a sinister maze in the backyard. There’s an enormously tall German butler with many secrets behind his respectable facade – I kid you not! Too many threads from different mysterious genres tied together in one tangle? Maybe. But I liked A. and Niamh enough to follow them, to be confused and frustrated with them, then rejoice whenever they figured something out. Of all the characters, these two major ones were probably the only fully fleshed-out persons to be found. But it didn’t really matter that various lawyers, businessmen, neighbors, and Oddly Wise Far Away Aunts Of Dubious Relation seemed built to further the story, sometimes. This is not a realistic tale by any means, so a Southern Gothic stereotype or an overly expositional old man (pipe included!) here and there seemed to fit right in.

I’d also like to mention that The Supernatural Enhancements is Edgar Cantero’s first book written originally in English. The dialogue and descriptions occasionally veered from cliché to slightly pretentious, but at no point did I have to think “well, I guess this is good enough for someone who doesn’t usually write in English.” It was just good enough, period. So well done there, Mr. Cantero. Especially given the pieced-together method of presentation, with all sorts of scholarly articles and even security footage transcriptions thrown in, he had to change voices an awful lot – frequently American ones in a region known for its eccentricities. Most of them were pretty well done.

My favorite voices, without a doubt, were our main characters’, though. A. and Niamh had an interesting relationship: he a twenty-something scholar with the sudden need to never work again, she a seventeen year old punk kid from Ireland with some roughness in her past and no voice to speak of it. Their conversations – her scribbling, him speaking – and even the looks they gave one another amongst all the weirdness were endearing. So who cares that I still don’t get how Aunt Liza fits into this picture? Or that the book’s denouement, while suitably horrifying, seemed to come out of nowhere and almost devalued some of the mystery that had been building up? I liked these kids and I liked solving the frightening mysteries of Axton House by their sides.

If I had to describe the style of Cantero’s book to someone, I guess I would call it a (slightly) less gimmicky House Of Leaves meets movies like The Skeleton Key and Paranormal Activity, if characters who wish they were in a Donna Tartt book visited Virginia. And yes, there were some Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons elements too, with all the arcane spirituality and complex codes. I’m not sure if The Supernatural Enhancements was quite as good as House of Leaves, and it definitely can’t come close to Tartt’s genius, but it a disturbingly fun mix all the same, and terribly absorbing.

I compare the book to other stories only to try and place its style; there were original elements here that impressed me even despite the far fetched and sometimes gruesome details. Suspend your disbelief for an evening, turn on all the lights, and get lost in Axton House for a while.

Book Review: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.  (Swearing, violence, mild sexuality.)

Be it known that I read an advanced copy of this book and some details may change before publication in late September.

(Sorry for the overly long review, folks, but this book took up a LOT of real estate in my brain this weekend.)

Wow. This book came out of nowhere to knock me down. Captive children under oppressive rule, world-dominating Artificial Intelligence, and post-ecological meltdown politics usually tire me out but… damn. The Scorpion Rules gives me hope that sharp tongued AI and barely-sustainable futures can feel new. And heartfelt. And bloody devastating.

Four hundred years after the ice caps melted and the fresh water became scarce, the newly shaped countries have pretty much stopped fighting. There was lots of war in the beginning: fighting for space and fighting for fertile ground. But then the UN turned control over to an Artificial Intelligence known as Talis. Talis stopped the War Storms. Talis keeps relative peace across the globe. He started by blowing up cities every time a country declared war. Want to start a war or accept a declaration, even in defense of your own border? There goes Fresno. (“Because no one’s gonna miss that” – did I mention that Talis was a snide S.O.B.?)

But blowing up cities wasn’t a good long-term solution. So, as it says in the Holy Utterances of Talis, Book One, Chapter One: being a meditation on the creation of the Preceptures and the mandate of the Children of Peace :

“Make it personal.”

Greta is a Child of Peace. She is also the Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. She lives at a Precepture somewhere in what was once Canada. At the Precepture, hostage children live almost monkish lives, farming and receiving a rigorous education. They learn about the ancient Stoics and sustainable development. They learn not to repeat the mistakes of history. It’s one of many similar Preceptures scattered around the ravaged globe, where a child of each and every global leader lives as a hostage. This is how Talis made war personal: anyone who wants to rule must have children, so that in case of war, that child’s life will be forfeit. But if they live to be eighteen, they become rulers and must soon send their own children to be held as insurance.

The Scorpion Rules begins with one of Talis’s messengers – a Swan Rider – coming to execute a Child of Peace: a friend of Greta’s. It’s an emotionally jarring way to dip one’s toes into a story, and sparked a slow burn of conflicted horror in me as I read on. Greta and her friends know why they’re hostages, and they know that this system is the only successful way to keep violence minimum out in the struggling world. The Abbot who teaches them – another AI – is at the same time kindly and pitiless. This is the trouble with artificial intelligence, trying to save the human race through logic: logic understands fear and love (that’s how the whole hostage thing works) but it doesn’t show any mercy.

The war that kills Greta’s friend sees the creation of a new state called the Cumberland Alliance, so the ruthless Cumberland general’s grandson joins them as a hostage. Elián was not brought up to be a royal captive and he doesn’t believe in facing one’s fate with dignity and grace. He struggles against Talis’s system, the Abbot’s authority, and the beliefs which Children of Peace take so seriously to heart. He jokes that he’s Spartacus and refuses to give up or stop smiling, even when robotic proctors electrocute him so badly he falls to the ground.

It was easy to think, I, too, would be brave and defiant like Elián in this situation. But would I really? One of the best things about The Scorpion Rules is the powerful moral ambivalence. When Elián acts out, they all get punished. But his stubbornness opens Greta’s eyes to the hideousness of their situation, and once she starts to see how wrong things are, she can’t return to being the stoic princess, prepared and willing to die with dignity whenever a Swan Rider comes calling her name.

Too bad Elián’s grandmother is likely to declare war on the Pan Polar alliance at any time, desperate for the water to be found in the Great Lakes. Knowing that they’re likely to be executed together, there’s shouldn’t be much stopping Greta and Elián from taking a stand against their captivity. But there’s no escape from all these moral quandaries: without the hostages, can there be peace? Will these children’s families really sacrifice them in order to fight? How can the Abbot be their torturer and their nurturer at the same time? Are they willing to endanger their friends for a chance of freedom?

It’s the sort of plot that tears you into pieces, because there are no right answers. Erin Bow writes about a future that could stem from our very messy present, and she doesn’t see an easy way out. The seven teenagers who make up Greta’s cohort come from all over the world, and have varying opinions about their captivity. Thandi is harsh with her friends sometimes, though Greta eventually learns what happened to make her so guarded. Gregor is easily frightened, nerdy, and deadpan in his sense of humor. Da-Xia, Greta’s room-mate and best friend, is small and beautiful but carries the powerful bearing of the goddess-queen she will someday become. Greta was always so composed and smart, until Elián’s words got under her skin. I grew intensely attached to each of these kids as they argued, and worked together, and comforted one another, always watched by the panopticon, always steeling themselves for tragedy.

So when violence comes right to the Precepture’s doors, I was all sorts of nervous about how things might turn out. Halfway through The Scorpion Rules, the psychological turbulence and sci-fi philosophy became suddenly action-packed. I’ve already summarized too much, so I’ll just say: the no-real-good-guys trend continues like woah.

There’s torture. There’s disguise. There’s a funny scene with goat pheromones. There’s a more nuanced romance than I originally expected. There’s an awful lot of blood. Talis himself gets a speaking role that’s a little more intimate than The Utterances, and even though he’s definitely a Heartless Robot Dictator I must admit that he became one of my favorite characters. Don’t get too attached to anyone in this book, though, because no one is safe. I was too wrapped up in furiously turning the pages to wipe away my tears, but my face was definitely damp at one point.

Maybe The Scorpion Rules could have been a little shorter, as it is a long book despite the short span of time in which the action happens. I enjoyed the pastoral gardening scenes and the goat cheese making because these details helped to conjure the monkish serenity of their prison, but I would have been just as happy without them. Aside from a few dips in the pacing, Erin Bow really delivered with this book. Complex characters, a many-layered plot, and philosophy that makes your heart hurt all come together to tell a story that leaves you reeling.

I’m not sure if there’s a sequel expected for The Scorpion Rules. I would definitely read more on the subject – even if just to read more of Talis’s deliciously flippant Holy Utterances – but the ending was also oddly satisfying. Not satisfying like everything’s going to be fine. Because there’s no easy way out of the dire circumstances human kind has to face, here. But satisfying as in everyone has to do what they think is best, and god do I hope they’ve made the right decisions.

And I hope, too, that our future never quite comes to this.

Book Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

I read Treasure Island!!! on Mount Desert Island.  Good stuff.

I read Treasure Island!!! on Mount Desert Island. Good stuff.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up. (Book is aimed at grown-ups, with lots of swearing and some sex.)

There’s a reason for the three exclamation points, and the reason is this: TREASURE ISLAND!!! Isn’t Robert Lewis Stevenson’s magnificent nautical jaunt simply the best story of adventure, the best test of character, ever told? You bet your scurvy soul it is. The heroine narrator of Sara Levine’s absurdly funny, wonderfully glib novel agrees. When she reads Treasure Island, she realizes that her 25 years of unfulfilling jobs and subdued interactions have been a waste of her potential. She should be more like Jim Hawkins, swept out amongst rogues into a world of adventure! She should face all the little problems in her uncomfortably comfortable middle-class existence with seafaring spirit! She should read Treasure Island over and over, making notes on index cards, and refusing to speak about anything else! She should acquire a parrot!

Obviously, I’ve had similar experiences with pirate books. I, too, wish that more altercations were solved with a cutlass and a challenge and no care for consequences. But where I find Long John Silver to be the most compelling character in the old classic, (as do most other readers, the “spiritual healer” points out in Levine’s novel), our fearless [???] narrator cares about no one but Jim Hawkins. She decides to try and live her life based around the lad’s best qualities, which supposedly make up the Core Values of Treasure Island:





Alas, in the real world there aren’t ample opportunities for 19th century style horn-blowing. Boldness often comes across as a blatant disregard for good manners. And it’s hard to be independent when you’ve gracelessly quit your job at the Pet Library, after abandoning your post and stealing your boss’s money to buy a parrot, and must move back home with your well-meaning parents. The narrator’s new found zeal for Stevenson’s adventure story borders on religious fervor. Even while it destroys her relationship with a good-natured young man, threatens her friendships, and sets the course for a full scale mental breakdown, she cannot give up her obsession with living a boy-hero’s life; a life undaunted by any obstacle between herself and complete freedom.

So the narrator starts out seeming a little cracked and gets more gleefully unlikable by the page. At first you shake your head at her in fond bewilderment: “Oh, that volatile, self-centered lass and her funny obsession,” you think to yourself. A few chapters in: “Oh, wow, she’s really going to buy that parrot? I don’t know if that’s wise…”

And then, soon enough, “WHAT is she doing with that macaroni and cheese!??”

“WHY is she hiding in the back of her sister’s car?!!”

“HOW does she plan to get herself out of THIS mess???”

“WHERE is she going with that pie knife?!!!”

There’s a twisted good time to be found in Oh No She Didn’t type stories. And in Treasure Island!!!, the answer is always OH YES SHE DID! Every action, from a conversation at the breakfast table to an awkward moment at the local sandwich shop, seems to ring with the exclamation marks that feature in the novel’s title. !!! Because how could anything not be an adventure once you’re seeing life through a veil of gunpowder, hearing dialogue from inside an apple barrel, and treating your childhood home like the decks of the Hispaniola?

I worry about how much I related to the increasingly disturbed main character in Sara Levine’s farcical novel. I know she’s a complete wreck; out of touch with reality, a terrible friend, a total drag on her family. The Core Values don’t get her very far. In fact, her attempts at fearlessness render her incapable of even scraping by on her own. But the way her hapless story is told, with a narrative that is peppered with misused nautical terminology and no self-awareness whatsoever, absolutely cracked me up. It’s the sort of tale that encourages you to laugh at the main character rather than with her. And, yes, it’s very much the sort of novel I want to write, right up there with Daniel Handler’s We Are Pirates.

It’s damned hard to be a buccaneer in this day and age. I just hope I never end up at an intervention with the wrong kind of pie, faced by concerned loved ones who think I’ve grown addicted to a library book.