Book Review: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

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Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age recommendation: 10+

In all his years as an apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy has never doubted the moral supremacy of Municipal Darwinism; that is, mobilized cities and towns hunting each other down and consuming weaker suburbs for resources all over the ravaged carcass of Earth. London, his beloved city, is on the move and he’s sure it’s the best city-on-wheels in the whole world. After all, his hero Thaddeus Valentine – the dashing airship explorer and collector of Old-Tech like mysterious compact discs and other artifacts from before the Sixty Minute war – is a Londoner, and Tom wants to be just like Valentine someday, despite his own lowly status as an orphan apprentice at the museum. When he rescues his hero from a revenge-bent young assassin girl, though, Tom finds himself stranded on solid ground while London thunders on in search of better hunting grounds, and he must come to terms with the numerous secrets which suggest that London is not as ideal as its townsfolk (and passengers) assume. The adventures which await our young hero star a cast of unforgettable characters including a deformed girl with a painful past, some museum curators with more gumption than meets the eye, a charming but mysterious rebel pilot, treacherous villains with impeccable manners, and a roving town operated by greedy pirates. The more Tom learns about the world London travels over, the more he begins to realize that someone needs to take action before history repeats itself. And, as Valentine’s daughter Katherine is simultaneously realizing from aboard London – where some seriously scientific tension has been building – the world might need to be saved sooner rather than later.

It took a little while for me to decide that I loved Mortal Engines. It started out as a decently interesting Young Adult adventure, with good elements of futuristic world-building as well as steampunk-ish atmosphere and an interesting premise, but the cool idea of cities eating each other wasn’t enough to draw me in. Luckily for me, a friend had mentioned that the story picked up after the first few chapters, and I’m incredibly glad that I kept reading. Once Reeve introduces some devastating betrayal to the plot, and Tom Natsworthy gets a chance to prove himself as a morally complex character, the intrigue of Mortal Engines picks up steam and demands your attention until the very end. The last hundred pages or so were so exciting, so unexpected, and so well written that I stopped trying to savor the book and just read as furiously as possible. The ending especially…well, let me just say that Mr. Reeve breaks the conventions of children’s fiction with great skill. I know that there are books which follow Mortal Engines, but even on its own it was an unexpected and inventive book; one which I have already recommended to several young readers on the hunt for some thrilling adventures.

The characters Tom meets on his adventures were truly unique, and while I might be slightly biased since so many of them are pirate-types, I can promise that they are written very well even beneath their swashbuckling surfaces. Philip Reeve does an excellent job of showing how difficult it can be to reconcile one’s actions with what one believes is right. The book’s young heroes must sometimes let other people get hurt in order to preserve themselves and their missions. The villains aren’t necessarily soulless monsters (although those exist in the story, too). Bad guys love their families, good guys can be selfish, and most of the people living in this messed-up world just want to get through their lives without having to experience their town getting eaten by a bigger one. I tend to prefer YA adventure and speculative fiction to have more young characters than adult protagonists, but in Mortal Engines the grown-ups and children alike are vividly drawn and memorable. With extremely high stakes driving the action, it was nice to read a book in which individuals were defined by their skills, courage, and choices rather than their ages or, indeed, their races and political beliefs. Heavy ideas like the politics of imperialism and scientific exploitation contribute to the story’s drama, but the mix of historical atmosphere and inventive future setting of Mortal Engines remains a consistently well-balanced stage for Tom’s story.

I would recommend Mortal Engines to young readers who want more adventure than romance in their books, and who don’t expect everything to turn out just fine as they read about harrowing journeys. The book is appropriate for anyone aged eleven up, and would appeal to fans of steampunk; pirate stories; and both historical and science fiction. Think the age group at which series like Artemis Fowl and The Chronicles of Chrestomanci are aimed. The writing style is traditional and old fashioned without being annoyingly so, and there is a fairly equal balance of genders and races to keep more than just pretty-but-awkward teenage white girls feeling represented. Even adults should read this book, especially anyone who has enjoyed Stephen Hunt’s The Court Of The Air or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. It’s a great story, one which has been captivating readers for over a decade, and I hope people will be talking about it for many years to come.

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High School Books Part III: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

I loved this book so much I took selfies with it.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 16+

The Basic Eight was definitely my favorite of the three high school books I read last week.  In fact, I think it might be my favorite novel set in a high school of all time.  And I really like books about young people behaving badly, so that’s saying quite a lot.  I know that July’s not over yet, but I’d venture to say that this was the top book of my month.

The premise of The Basic Eight was exactly the sort of thing I love: a bitterly funny tale about the delusions of youth and shocking acts of violence, told with some really excellent narrative sarcasm.  Flannery Culp is part of a rather self-obsessed group of pretentious and creative friends – eight of them in total – who think that their dinner parties are the social events of a lifetime and who have a “Grand Opera Breakfast Club” which meets in the French classroom.  Their lifestyle, which starts out as merely decadent, soon spirals out of control when feelings of romantic betrayal seize control of our young narrator and she turns into a “murderess.”  The story is told through Flannery’s edited diary entries, which she prefaces and annotates from jail, in order to produce her own version of events as she tries to win the public’s sympathy; dispel rumors of satanic influence; and paint herself as the literary heroine of her own perceived drama.  Right from the novel’s beginning, we know that Flannery is in jail for killing a classmate, so the tension is carried by a truly magnificent cast of characters and a twisting plot.  What begins as a sharp satire of coming-of-age stories soon builds into a nightmarish storm of violence, wealth, and absurdity.  The fact that the novel’s major event is revealed straight away does not ruin the book’s momentum, either.  On the contrary, I found that the format lulled me into a false sense of security, and near the end of the book I actually slammed the book on the table and shouted, “WHAT?!?”.  The plot isn’t necessarily realistic, and the characters are  larger than life, but I was completely hooked by The Basic Eight a few pages in and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Some readers will recognize Handler’s sarcastic style reminiscent of his pseudonym Lemony Snicket from the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think that  The Basic Eight, as his first novel, was where he tested out some of his stylistic techniques.  A study guide follows some sections of Flannery’s diary, with a list of vocabulary words and questions like: “Is it rude to bring an uninvited guest to a diner party? Should you be excused if it’s your boyfriend? What if he’s dumb?”.  This trick in one of the more obvious instances in which Handler points out the ridiculous trends in high school, and books about high school, and the way the world treats high schoolers in general.  When the characters are involved in the play Othello, too, Flannery immediately points out the parallels between the play and the events in her own life in her commentary.  So many YA books hide literary allusions and parallels to whatever the characters have to study in their English class in the course of the narrative, and I love how Daniel Handler laughs at that trend by making it absurdly obvious.  The book is pretty scornful of how adults handle teenage troubles, and includes some absolutely laughable adults who try to analyze the group’s actions after the crime in an obvious parody of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and best-selling child psychologists.  I love it when books show how out of touch figures of authority can be with young people, and even though these characters are unrealistically inept the real-life associations are pretty on point.  The Basic Eight might be about a group of larger-than-life figures in an extreme situation, but it also deals with some very real problems that teenagers face in high school: feeling threatened by teachers, not knowing whom to trust, trying to keep up appearances when your whole world is falling apart.  Handler faces these issues with an arsenal of wit and cynicism, and I wish I had read this book when I was in high school myself.

I will only fail at explaining how funny this book was despite the grim subject, because I’m not a funny enough person to do the humor any justice at all.  Let me just say that I could not stop laughing.  I laughed when Flan and Natasha couldn’t find tomato juice so they made Bloody Marys with marinara sauce to cure their hangovers.  I laughed when the entire school had to fill out an anonymous survey about their relationship with Satan.  You will laugh at the egotistical group of friends but you’ll also laugh with them and around them and near them.  The San Francisco Chronicle compared the book to an inside joke, and even though I always felt one step behind the antics of the Basic Eight, I loved trying to catch up with the group of friends who I now feel like I know personally.  You will laugh even when blood is flying and kids are getting sick on way too much absinthe.  Handler’s sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I can’t get enough of his sardonic wit and clever style.

I would recommend The Basic Eight to so many people.  In fact, I’ve already shouted at three of my friends to go and buy it immediately.  I picked it up because in an interview Handler said that invented the name Lemony Snicket while he was researching the extreme conservative organizations who liked to get involved in “satanic panic.”  I’ve been a fan of his children’s books and his infectiously funny style of writing for over a decade, so I figured it was time to dive into the source. (I also recommend Adverbs, which is the only other of Handler’s adult novels which I’ve read.)  If you liked the self-aware and hilarious style of A Series Of Unfortunate Events but want a more grown-up story, buy this book.  I would also recommend The Basic Eight to high school teachers all over the country, because it actually serves as a good example of all sorts of literary themes and techniques. Flannery is the quintessential unreliable narrater: she’s completely untrustworthy but she also doesn’t trust her readers.  There are allusions to Shakespeare, opera, poetry, and classic literature all over the text.  The narrative structure in the novel is creative and intricate; Flannery’s editorial touches to her diary entries fade in and out depending on what she’s revealing, and there are moments when its difficult to separate her wiser (but incarcerated) later self from the earnest voice with which she writes as the events unfold. The structure keeps you on your toes and merits serious consideration, and I bet I’ll catch onto things I missed entirely when I read the book again.

If high school teachers were to assign The Basic Eight as summer reading, I think that it would have a generally positive reception from the students, and the fact that their parents might take offense at the subject matter just makes Handler’s observations all the more suitable.  At times the book was witty and charming, I could compare it to John Green’s Paper Towns, but then there are other sections which contain all the confused boredom and rage of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.  I heartily recommend it to fans of both genres.  I would recommend it to anyone who thought they were the only classy and intelligent person in their own school, because reading it gave me a chance to laugh at what a self-involved moron I had been in high school.  Really, if you want to read about high school this summer, just read this book.  I can’t wait to read it again.

High School Books Part II: After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age recommendation: 14+

The next library book in my high school novel stack was the first YA book by Joyce Carol Oates I had ever read.  I’ve heard good things about Big Mouth, Ugly Girl, but I ended up choosing After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away because I liked the cover and the long title was irresistibly intriguing.  This was a much darker story than The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and while I tend to prefer funny young adult books over tragic ones I will say that Oates made a lasting impression on me with this novel.  The writing was poetic and the narrative was fluid: I found myself so deep inside Jenna’s tumultuous mind that it got hard to extract my own thoughts and impressions from her stream-of-consciousness style and memorable voice.  

The un-glamourous school setting in After The Wreck was vivid, chaotic, and realistic.  It reminded me of the middle school I had attended, though the characters were older and, therefore, the stakes were higher.  We read about Jenna’s high school experiences after she recovers from a terrible car wreck – one which kills her mother and changes her forever – and moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new life.  After The Wreck is one part tragedy, one part angsty teen nightmare about addiction, one part coming of age story, and one part meditation on grief and forgiveness.  Because the narrator is going through her own personal development as well as the unimaginable suffering of blaming herself for a parent’s death, the difficulties she faces are more dire than any which I experienced as a teenager, but the difficulties she experiences at school are universal and unavoidable.  Untrustworthy and manipulative friends, unrequited love, substance abuse, frustratingly bad communication between adults and teenagers: these conflicts rear their ugly heads in most teenagers’ lives despite their varying backgrounds or past experiences.

Oates writes about the distinction between Jenna’s life “before the wreck” and “after the wreck” to keep the plot visible and clear, but the story really focuses on facing internal fears and external pressures.  In her new town, Jenna meets a mysteriously aloof boy called Crow who inspires her to confront her memories and overwhelming sense of guilt, but he, like the other supporting characters in After The Wreck, seemed a little two-dimensional compared to Oates’s complex protagonist.  I sometimes wished that we could get a more detailed look at such compelling figures as Crow and the volatile teenagers who adopt Jenna into their social circle, but I do think that the decision to keep the entire story from her limited point of view was important to maintain the story’s style and tone.

I would recommend After The Wreck to older teenaged readers who have a good chunk of time to devote to reading a harrowing (but ultimately hopeful) book.  Joyce Carol Oates’s writing style is so absorbing and compelling that it’s best to finish this book in one day, or one might risk going about their real life as though they were still in Jenna’s fragile consciousness.  Oates portrays the ferocity with which young people must face the worst parts of growing up in sympathetic detail.  I may not have laughed much while reading After The Wreck, but each page brought a flood of memories from my own angst-ridden teenage years to mind, and I vote that’s one sign of a well-done high school book.

High School Books Part I: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

I started my new job on Tuesday, at one of my favorite bookstores in the state, so Monday marked the end of my last ever summer vacation.  I’m feeling a little nostalgic for the comfort of knowing that every September school would start again and the real world would disappear for a while, and maybe this nostalgia is what inspired me to read three books in a row which were set in high schools.   I find that I enjoy realistic (or semi-realistic) YA fiction about high school and college much more now that I’m officially done with my formal education. The miseries associated with institutionalized learning have had a chance to fade, leaving me with rather fictionalized memories of my adventures and friends.

The three books which I read in rapid succession last week were The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart; After the Wreck, I picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away by Joyce Carol Oates; and The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler.  I’ll post my thoughts on each book over the next three days, saving my favorite for last, and I hope you lovely readers will leave comments with your own favorite books set in high schools.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 +

A friend of mine recommended The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks to me because she knew I had gone to a prep school in Massachusetts very much like the fictional “Alabaster Preparatory Academy” in the novel.  I think that Alabaster is actually based on the other slightly-snobby-prep-school in that particular town, but I must say that the similarities in the characters, setting, and inner workings of the Academy certainly brought me back to my teenage years of napping in the arts wing and complaining about the administration.  The storyline is fairly simple: in her sophomore year at Alabaster, ambitious Frankie Landau-Banks acts out against people’s expectations and the school’s outdated, exclusionary legacy by secretly taking control of The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.  The Basset Hounds have been an all-male circle dedicated to drunken parties and elaborate pranks since 1951, and when Frankie starts dating one of the head members she decides to shake things up and prove that a girl who was once nicknamed “Bunny Rabbit” can mastermind plots and keep her identity a secret better than a bunch of self-indulgent boys.

The plot is interesting enough, but it’s the characters who really carry The Disreputable History.  While they’re all undoubtably in the privileged yuppie category – with a few exceptions – they’re well written and extremely funny, and none of them are purely good people.  I appreciate the way that E. Lockhart (aka Emily Jenkins) was able to write likable characters with winning personality traits while still acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that no one is the best version of themselves in high school.  Like real teenagers who are trying to carve a place for themselves in the world, the fictional students of Alabaster have to change, grow, and sometimes recognize that they aren’t turning into the sort of person they’d like to be.

The relationships and friendships in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks are pretty similar to what I remember from my prep school days, and while the themes of loyalty and obligation are blown a little out of proportion, thanks to the secret society plot line, the big concerns of the novel were realistic and would be relatable for most teenaged readers.  I don’t usually look for stories focusing on high school social circles, but in the midst of so many books about lovestruck teenagers facing supernatural destiny in oppressive futures I actually enjoyed the down to earth themes in The Disreputable History.  I also really enjoyed the way that Lockhart dealt with the inevitable romantic tension which built in young Frankie’s life: for those of you who are tired of young people defying all odds to be together, read through to the end of this particular book for teenagers.  Even though its set in a co-ed boarding school and dating plays a huge role in the plot, our heroine Frankie comes to some rather enlightened conclusions about how romance fits – or sometimes fails to fit – into a time of turbulent self-discovery.

I’d recommend The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks to fans of boarding school stories like Looking For Alaska, to readers who wish that YA heroines could carry their own story without any help from true love, and to anyone who can recognize the ridiculousness of some prep school traditions.  I enjoyed laughing at the parallels to my own school, but also enjoyed the novel for its own merits.  Since it’s a fast read and not a challenging story, it would be a good book to take on a road trip this summer, or to read when September rolls around if you’re lucky enough to be heading back to school yourself.

Also, there are grammar jokes.  And who doesn’t love a good grammar joke now and then?