13 Favorite Books For 2013

…And then it was the last day of 2013, which was a surprise for everyone involved in the passage of time, and they stared at their calenders and the sky in horrified incomprehension.  Last time I checked, I was lying outside reading W.B. Yeats to some barn cats who didn’t seem to like poetry very much.  Now the year’s over and I’m confused.  But, I suppose that’s what happens when you live on a bit of rock hurtling around a star at a rate which can be measured in four seasons carved into twelve months.   To bid 2013 adieu, and to remind myself what the heck I read this year, I’ve listed my three favorite novels from the age-ranges I read most, and then the three books I’m most determined to read as 2014 begins.  Plus one, because I’m the captain of this here literary vessel and I like to play favorites.  These books weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just happened to read them this year.  Some of them are old, and I can’t understand how it took me so long to read them.  Others haven’t been officially released yet, but made their way onto my list after the ARC shelf fell victim to one of my many plundering rampages.  I read an awful lot of books this year, but these thirteen deserve extra love for being the most exciting; charming; scary; funny; moving; or memorable stories to cross my path.

Favorite Children’s Books

photo(1)

I only just finished reading The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson, and it doesn’t come out until next Spring, but I seriously loved it.  Great for fans of middle grade adventure, The Mark of the Dragonfly has a little steam-punk which doesn’t get all wound up in the inner working of the fiction’s own mechanisms, but also some great storytelling and a really cool train.  You can read my review here, and make sure to read the book in March.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell was probably my most recommended children’s book at the shop this summer; we still have to get a new shipment in every few weeks because I can’t stop forcing it into the hands of every parent who doesn’t know what to get their voracious-but-sensitive readers and every kid who doesn’t know what to read next but is getting bored of the same old routine.   It’s a beautiful, quiet, and mischievous book with a subtle sense of humor and gorgeous scenery.  I love a bittersweet story now and then, and when that takes place on the Rooftops of Paris I can’t help being swept away.  It should come as no surprise that nearly everyone who had my recommendation inflicted upon them ended up falling in love with Rundell’s nostalgic tone and captivating characters.  You can read my review of Rooftoppers here.

Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk was a ridiculous, fun, and very very British adventure for younger readers and/or their parents.  It’s exactly the sort of thing I would have loved to have read aloud to me when I was a wee terror, and the illustrations are glorious.  I guess Gaiman got tired of stories in which the parents are always absent or dead or useless, so he wrote this jolly jaunt in which a dad has many a harrowing experience in an attempt to get some milk for his kids.  Dinosaurs, pirates, volcanoes, temporal portals through space… it’s a story full of things kids like.  And, it being Neil Gaiman and his writing wizardry, many of the parents to whom I’ve recommended Fortunately, The Milk have been so very glad that they won’t be bored nigh unto tears during that night’s bedtime reading.  Think Douglas Adams meets Eddie Izzard meets Coraline.  I never reviewed Fortunately, The Milk after it came out this summer, but it’s a great new children’s book and you should have bought it for Christmas/Hanukkah/assorted Yuletide gift-givings.  Shame on you if you didn’t.

Favorite Young Adult Books

One of the first books I read in 2013 was Long Lankin by Lindsay Barraclough.  Nothing like getting the socks scared off you to start a year off right.  I can now safely say that it’s the best horror story I read all year.  The main characters may be only children, but the atmosphere is so dark and the monster is so chilling that it’s definitely for teenaged readers.  I loved that it was based on a great old-timey English ballad full of grisly murder and wickedness.  Here’s my review, from the beginning of the year.

I liked The Raven Boys when I read it back in 2012, but the sequel blew me away.  That so rarely happens, but somehow Maggie Stiefvater has managed to defy my expectations over and over again.  I should just give up having expectations all together.  The Dream Thieves brought the return of Blue and the Raven Boys — one of the best character ensembles in YA fiction today, if you ask me — and threw them together with a heavy dollop of tarot references, dream-drug addictions, mysterious hit men, and the ever-present witty banter which made me love the first book so much. The night I spent reading the sequel to The Raven Boys was one of the more entertaining nights of my year.  You can read my review of The Dream Thieves here.

I think that The Diviners is an appropriate addition to this list, not only because it rocked my freakin’ world but because it deals with New Years celebrations, swinging 1920s parties, and all sorts of revelry even while a terrifying evil is awakening under New York City.  I don’t have a review of The Diviners, because I read it right before I went on holiday, but I absolutely tore through Libba Bray’s hefty book to find out what was going to happen.  Her characters are even better than the plot; and that’s saying something, because an occult-horror-mystery set in flapper Manhattan is exactly my cup of tea (or gin).  The main character was feisty, but the supporting cast really gave an excellent taste of how the time period was for party people new to the city, for young artistic souls stuck in Harlem, and for everyone trying to carve a space out for themselves in such a volatile era.  I’m annoyed that the book ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, but I got so engrossed in the writing and the story that I can’t wait for a sequel.  The Diviners was maybe the most fun book I read all year, even though it’s made me officially terrified of ouija boards and empty houses.

Favorite Adult Books

I had grabbed The Round House from the library because I had a sunny weekend off and had heard great things about Louise Erdrich’s writing.  What I had intended to be a relaxed few days reading turned into a very intense day of reading this book and doing nothing else.  It was way more gripping than I’d expected and the story got into my bones and wouldn’t leave.  I loved the narrative voice of a young teenaged boy on the Obijwe reservation, and his family was so interesting and real, but the story itself just ate away at my heart.  It could have been written as a straight mystery – young boy needs to find out who attacked his mother – but it’s what the characters choose to do with that knowledge as they approach it which really makes this book stand out in my mind.  I recommend it as often as possible at my bookshop, now, and am so glad I read it this year.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was another book which I didn’t expect to be infect by so quickly.  I tried to read it a few years ago while I was still in University, but all that academia was a little too close to home.  This year, though, I got so sucked into the book that I had to write a whole post about literary hangovers just to get my mindset out of the pages.  I know that The Secret History isn’t even from this decade, let alone 2013, but I’m shocked that it took me so long to read it and definitely consider the two days I spent snapping at anyone who tried to interrupt my reading days well spent.

If it’s a bad thing that I didn’t read The Secret History in its proper decade, then oops indeed because A High Wind In Jamaica was written in 1929.  I started listening to the audiobook of this should-be-classic last fall, but only finally sat down and read the whole thing this year, so that totally counts.  It should be obvious why Righard Hughes’ seafaring adventure is on my top list for the year; it’s about children behaving violently in the company of laughable pirates.  It’s hard to describe this book, because it encompasses two very keen interest of mine: namely, pirates and youngsters with questionable morals.  Hughes does a bloody fantastic job of examining the weird little worlds which live inside the brains of children, and their accidental callousness is softened by the scope of their imagination and his ability to invoke the concerns which only troubled us when we were single digits of age.  The pirates themselves are comical but deeper characters than they might seem at first, and the travel/adventure parts of the book are pretty thrilling.  All around, I loved this book, and intend to read it annually from now on.

My Absolute Most Favoritest Book Read In 2013

How did I love this book? I would try to poetically count the ways, but I’m bad at math and don’t much care to learn about infinite numbers just to express how imperative it is that you BUY THE BASIC EIGHT RIGHT THIS VERY MOMENT AND READ IT! Here’s my review.  This was — hands down (and croquet mallets on the bloody grass) — the most marvelous reading experience I’ve had all year.  I laughed nonstop at Daniel Handler’s wry and blistering writing style.  I banged my fists on the breakfast table in triumph, and hid behind my hair in disgust, and nearly threw the book across the room a few times.  Like a funnier The Secret History with less-realistic characters but a more colorful view of life, The Basic Eight is what we should all have been reading as older teenagers.  Of the three High School books which I read during my week of nostalgia in the summer, this book easily came out on top.  But now, on the last night of the year, I can declare it the victor victorious!  Daniel Handler, please never stop being you.  Or at least delay the inevitable stop as long as you have words to write.  In between the Lemony Snicket books which defined my youth and the hilarious weirdness he talks about to grown-ups, I find life a little easier to bear when reading his books.

Three Books To Read ASAP in 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, because I have heard nothing but glowing reviews of it, nearly incomprehensible with excitement.  Some booknerd friends I trust say that it’s even better than The Secret History, and I love the sound of the plot.  I don’t know much about art, but I didn’t know much about Greek either, and maybe I’ll learn something.  Now that I’ll have a few days off in a row now and then – fare the well, holiday shopping season! – I’ll have to devote a weekend to this tome as soon as I can lay my hands on a copy.  The problem with recommending a book over and over is that soon enough it flies right off the shelf entirely.

I bought Boston Jacky while I was in Bar Harbor over the summer, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Despite the fact that I’ve missed several books in the middle of L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series, I think I’ll read this new installment as soon as possible.  It’s been far too long since I hung out with the lively and loveable Jacky Faber, and since this one takes place so near my current location it would be a shame to wait until to summer to read it, no matter my traditions of reading pirate books in the summer and other books in the winter.  I’m a pirate captain meself, and I can break tradition if I damn well please.

And, finally, I’ve had The Master And Margarita on my bookshelf since high school and I’ve yet to read the bloody thing!  I don’t know much about it, but I know it has occult weirdness, a talking cat, and diabolical themes in a Russian setting.  It’s about damn time I tackled this book.  And, now that I don’t have essays to write or medieval Scottish verse to translate, I’ve really got no excuse to let another year go by without finally understanding why I bought the book in the first place.

It seems I ended this on a series of New Years resolutions, which works for me, I guess.  It’s been quite a year, tossed around on an endless sea of book choices and not enough time to read everything.  But I’m glad with what I chose to attack, and these are some excellent favorites to stand beside with fierce loyalty and many huzzahs.  Happy reading in 2014, me hearties.  Onward into the fog ahead!

Advertisements

Book Review: The Mark Of The Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson (Coming out in March, 2014)

I don't like to bend spines but I love the front and back covers of this book!

I don’t like to bend spines but I love the front and back covers of this book!

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****(4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: *** **(5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of The Mark of The Dragonfly and a few details might change before publication.)

How pleased am I to be giving this book five stars? So very, very pleased. It’s been a rough month and The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a wonderful distraction, a breath of fresh air, and a damned fine adventure to boot. It’s a new Middle Grade fantasy/adventure novel which will be hitting bookshelves this March, and I seriously recommend it.

We meet Piper in Scrap Town Number Sixteen – part of the Merrow Kingdom – on a night when meteors from another world are showering down. (As it happens, the artifacts which crash through the sky in a haze of poisonous dust come from our world; things like music boxes and copies of The Wizard of Oz. I thought that was pretty cool.) Piper is a scrapper, which means that she and the other poor folk in her struggling town go out to the fields after a storm to collect the strange objects and sell them to rich people from more prosperous industrial towns. After her father died in a factory working iron for a King who is obsessed with innovation and expansion, Piper has been living on her own in a somewhat hostile world. She has an unusual gift with machines and works as a mechanic to stay alive. Aside from her friend Micah, a little boy who wants to find something marvelous in the fields one day, she has few people she can trust and no one to take care of her.

All this changes when she finds a gravely injured girl in the wreckage of a caravan after a big meteor storm. The girl, Anna, has lost many of her memories and is being pursued by a mysterious and forceful man she only remembers as “the wolf.” Piper rescues Anna and is shocked to discover that the young girl has a tattoo of a dragonfly on her arm. The mark of the dragonfly implies that a person is terribly important to King Aron, and our resourceful young heroine decides to escort the frightened girl to the capitol city where she might reunite her with a grieving family and, she hopes, collect a reward for herself. I liked that Piper’s motivations weren’t entirely golden hearted. She has sympathy for Anna and feels obliged to protect her, but knows that her world is harsh and wants to build a better life for herself in the capitol. Piper and Anna board a train as they escape from “the wolf,” and find themselves treated with respect thanks to Anna’s tattoo and Piper’s ability to lie her way out of awkward situations. They meet a mysterious boy with a big – winged – secret and some rough-and-tumble train technicians with very kind hearts under all that soot.

A great majority of the book takes place on the train, but it isn’t all talking about engines and watching the scenery go by. Chases, attempted robberies, social climbing, library re-arranging, and all sorts of mischief takes places on the sturdy but old-fashioned 401. It’s a mildly steampunk setting, but Jaleigh Johnson never goes overboard with the technical descriptions. This isn’t one of those otherworldly books in which everything has a few gears slapped on it in order to render it appealing. When there are mechanical interludes, they exist for a reason. And, as this is a story aimed at readers 10 and up, I was perfectly content to have the scientific and political aspects of the Merrow Kingdom described only on a need-to-know basis. This is an adventure focused on the characters and a train with the politics and geography as mere backdrop, so the weird discrepancies were easily forgiven. (An example of this would be the weird blend of our world and the fantasy one: orange trees and “pika” trees exist in harmony, and there’s a statue of an elephant fighting a dravisht raptor, whatever that may be.) The Mark Of The Dragonfly is not a short book, though, and too much world-building would have been rather detrimental to the pace, so I suggest that readers just get cozy with the strange setting – one which is connected to ours through some space in the sky – and enjoy reading about Piper and Anna as they navigate the fraught world. They get to fly in the clutches of magical beasties, experience an awkward psychic encounter with a subterranean fantasy race, and fix gears and pipes which do way more than transport passengers. I was reminded of the TV show Firefly from so many years ago, both by the nature of the adventure and the vintage-sci-fi setting. Not to mention, the likable cast of characters to whom you can’t help but get attached. A whole range of emotions plays out within the four hundred pages: from joy to despair, and back through witty banter and friendly rivalries all the way to surprise and – dare I admit it? – warm fuzzy feelings.

There were a few pieces of The Mark Of The Dragonfly which left me wanting a bit more detail. How, exactly, were odds and ends from Earth crashing through the sky in the Scrap Towns? The idea is fascinating and the descriptions of that bizarre meteorological phenomenon were really cool, but after the first few chapters the idea is abandoned all together and never properly revisited during the course of Piper’s adventures. What were the villain’s real motives, besides greed and expansionism? When he got a chance to explain his actions, they almost seemed like noble delusions. And on that note, we never really learn why he’s called “the wolf.” I did work out the big plot twist long before it was officially revealed, but it was still done well with enough clues to convince me without making it too obvious. Bear in mind that I’ve also read loads more of the genre than the intended audience. (A note on the genre: The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a little like a less-complicated Mortal Engines, and I think that anyone who enjoys this book should consider testing the waters of more detailed steampunk-y children’s adventures. There’s quite a lot to choose from, at the moment. But Philip Reeve is definitely a favorite. Older readers might also enjoy Amy Leigh Strickland’s Rescue! Or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal.) These little distractions weren’t nearly annoying enough to make me dislike any moment I spent reading The Mark Of The Dragonfly, though, and I particularly think that young readers will be happy to immerse themselves in Johnson’s world without getting bent out of shape over a few technical difficulties.

The writing was straightforward and fun, the characters were delightful but realistic with faults and mistakes aplenty, and I was anxious to learn what would happen. When I finally did reach the end, I nearly did a heel-click from glee upon learning that there was no dreadful cliffhanger conclusion waiting to spoil my afternoon! I am so tired of Middle Grade series which rely on inconclusive endings to build suspense. (This is especially hard when you’re a bookseller and want to recommend an author, but the first of a series is sold out at your shop.) If Jaleigh Johnson decides to write another volume set in the Merrow Kingdom I will be thrilled to read it, but The Mark Of The Dragonfly can easily stand alone as a favorite book on the young readers shelf. I can’t wait to recommend it to kids who loved Inkheart and adults who want something new for the inventive and strong-willed young scrappers in their lives.

Safety Tips For Last-Minute Holiday Shoppers: Independent Bookshops

Have you left your gift-getting merriment until the last days before Christmas? Has your usually ungenerous spirit been inspired by songs of holiday cheer and familial pressure to scramble around looking for the perfect gift? Have you decided that everyone’s getting books this year because, screw it, they can just go read quietly for an hour or two and maybe leave you in peace? First of all, thanks for coming to your locally-owned independent bookshop! We love you for thinking of us, because if you want to live in or visit the sort of town that has a bookshop, you need to buy your books there. Otherwise, it will go away.

Most days of the year, we book-selling elves want nothing more than to guide you to the perfect book which will delight the recipient or provide you with hours of blessed relief from reality. Come browse in October, and you’ll get plenty of advice about which spooky books to get the beloved children in your life, and which terrifying books to give to those kids who have always kind of pissed you off. Come in Spring and we’ll be happy to hunt down the most obscure book about gnomes for you, even if your only specifications are, “It was about gnomes and I saw it here four years ago.” We will gladly accept that challenge in March or April. We like to recommend books, we like to sell books, we especially like to hear how much you love bookshops. But see that calender? No, not the one in our sadly depleted calender section, which is in such a state of disarray after so many picky dog-lovers have pawed through it looking for that one special golden retriever monstrosity. The one on the wall. It’s the double digits of December. There’s an endless sea of customers crushing into our shop at all times. Everyone wants books and everyone wants attention and we poor book-selling elves have only so many books and so much attention to give. This is my official storm warning for bookshops everywhere until January. But, with some helpful safety tips, we might all make it through this season alive and without too many paper cuts.

1. If you expect any book-selling elf to have read every book in the shop then you’d best stay home, for you won’t get out of that store intact. Have you tried every single variety of baking soda in your supermarket? Have you personally eaten off every plate in the department store where you work? Shelf-elves are too busy fending off rabid customers with thesauruses to even read the books that have been on their lists for years. They probably don’t have an opinion on which guide to fixing your racing bike is the most riveting read. But they will happily spin you a big old lie which directs you towards the most expensive option. Save yourself some unwarranted frustration and only ask for opinions if you’re ok with hearing, “I have no idea. But I hear The Goldfinch is bloody fantastic.”

2. Decide which books you want to purchase before you get to the till. Have those books in your hands. Don’t run to the opposite end of the shop “just for a second” once your chosen books have been entered into the all knowing and unforgiving register system. Yes, that photo book of soggy canaries was just too adorable for words. Yes, your daughter-in-law’s cousin’s boyfriend would probably love it. No, there is no time for you to go deliberate over adding it to your pile. Once your money is in the hands of the cashier, you’re done shopping. Once those books are in a bag, they’re yours. It’s just as binding as making a deal with the devil, but book-selling elves have absolutely no interest in your soul, and our forced smiles aren’t quite as convincing.

3. It’s also vitally important that you have money to pay for your books. Pieces of highly-valued paper or imaginary numbers on a plastic square are equally acceptable, but do have them on your person. Being unprepared puts other shoppers at risk of waiting a whole minute more for their turn, and that can get violent very quickly. And a violence spreads quickly amongst the shelves. Don’t be the cause of a bloodbath in the poetry section just because – silly you! – all your money is in Cincinnati.

4. Know at least one thing about the person for whom you are buying a book. If you only know their age and gender, you’re in very real danger of giving a terrible Christmas gift. Each customer is allotted roughly two minutes of shelf-elf attention at Christmastime. Use your two minutes wisely. Rationing might be the only way to save your family. Those who survive this season tend to know some very important specifications when asking for a recommendation: age, general interests, a book they have recently enjoyed, particular dislikes, and reading abilities. A note for doting grandparents: your special little snowflake might not be as smart as you think they are. Roald Dahl was correct in Matilda; the children in your lives might be vapid idiots, you just can’t see it. Give an example of what they’re reading and you won’t insult them by giving something too difficult or too babyish.

5. If your nine year old is easily terrified and still has to sleep in your bedroom after reading something scary, do mention that before someone sells you The Graveyard Book or Outside Over There. Even if a book has won awards and is considered a classic, it might still scare the stockings off your cowardly offspring. Don’t blame authors, librarians, or booksellers if you’re kept all night. Read a few pages of the damn book before buying it. Know your child.

6. I’m just going to say it again: KNOW YOUR CHILD! I have never met your child. I can’t promise they will like a book! I can tell you what I would have liked if I shared your child’s reading preferences. I can say what other children have enjoyed. If you don’t know what your kid wants to read, how can you expect other people to do any better? We’re not psychics, we’re just well-read and practiced liars.

7. It’s a suicide mission to telephone a bookshop on December 21st and try to sell your credit card software/ office supplies/ self-published collection of poetry to the frazzled and helpless soul on the end of the line. Not only will you certainly crash and burn, but you might find yourself caught in the cross-fire and riddled with angry words which said phone-answerer isn’t allowed to direct towards the paying customers. On that note, if you think that Black Friday is a good time to do cold calls in a busy shopping town to try and sell your paper products, you are not cut out for the job and should quit before you’re crucified. All salesmen shall be executed on sight.

8. If you don’t have an advent calender by the second week of December then there’s no real point in looking for one. Give up. Get comfortable in your advent-calender-less den of loneliness. That’s no one’s problem but yours.

9. Bring a whistle and a light if you intend to wander into the depths of the bargain book corner all alone. Avalanches from the travel section may spill over and smother you, or enormous coffee table books – heavy with photos of artistic gardens and/or unhappy musicians – might crush your toes and leave you stranded, starving, with only books about weaving (discounted up to 75%) to keep you company in your last hours. It’s futile to ask any booksellers who might be dashing by on an urgent errand for help navigating the dark labyrinth of bargain books. They aren’t in our computer system, they don’t appear on any maps, and you might come across some nameless long-forgotten monster under the table. Blow the whistle if you need to be extracted.

10. Don’t tell the exhausted bookseller behind the desk that they should really get outside / read this book / enjoy the sunlight. They probably haven’t been outside in daylight since November. This particular book elf wakes up before sunrise and gets home long after dark, and she spends her daytime hours trying hard not to bite off the heads of people who are lucky enough to have time to shop and read and breathe fresh air. Meaning well gets you nowhere in December Book Land. Recommending anything religious or trying to start a political discussion will spell your certain doom, too, so perhaps it’s best to just keep one’s opinions to one’s self until you’re safely outside in the reportedly-cheerful winter air again.

11. If you think you’re disappointed that the UPS and FedEx shipments haven’t arrived with your book, imagine how much the bookshop is suffering. Do not poke the angry dragon with your tiny but aggravating sword.

12. There are magic words which can be employed to get cheerful service, and none of those words are “You need to gift wrap this.” Try, “please,” or, “if it’s not too much trouble,” or, “when you get the chance.” Polite customers get nicely wrapped books. Insufferable hoverers who expect instant Martha Stewart get shapeless lumps of paper and curses.

13. Books are not for skating. If a child steps on a book, you can kiss that cute little baby foot goodbye.

BONUS TIP: If you buy hundreds of dollars worth of Middle Grade and Young Adult books for the older kids who often get ignored by Toys For Tots and other such organizations, the blessings of book-selling elves will fall down upon you like loving paper snowflakes. If you let a particular elf who loves those books pick out her favorites, and if you listen enthusiastically to recommendations, your health will be toasted so very warmly at closing time, after most other shoppers have been either forgotten or blighted. You are what Christmas is all about.

Buy books for kids in need. Be patient with the exhausted people helping you. Don’t be picky, rude, or entitled. That’s the only way to get out alive.

Short Review: The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg

This is just a tiny review excerpted from my blog post Birthday, Books, Bedtime over at The Bookshelf Pirate.  I read The Isle of Youth because it got some good press and I like having new short stories to recommend at the bookshop.  Now that it’s the holiday shopping frenzy, I find that collections and anthologies are getting popular as gifts.  Short story collections are often a little hit-or-miss for me, but I was intrigued by this unassuming little volume and bought it on a whim. The Isle of Youth is a collection of several short stories by Laura Van Den Berg, all of which tend to focus on displaced women struggling to understand how they relate to their surroundings and to the people in their lives.

Source.

Characters: *** 3/5 stars

Writing: *** 3/5 stars

Plots: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars out of 5, because some were great but others bored me.)

About half of the stories really interested me, while others slipped from my memory almost immediately.  The title story came at the very end of the collection and it was one of my favorites, probably because it was about a woman’s relationship with her volatile sister and I thought that the characters were entertaining and complex.  I find the dynamics between siblings and friends so much more interesting than romantic situations (or, in the case of The Isle of Youth, quiet romantic implosions and disasters).  The story “Lessons”, about a band of young bank robbers, was another favorite. In my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough stories about teenaged cousins and siblings on crime sprees!  That was another one which gave wacky backgrounds and intense motivations to a cast of characters, despite the short time we get to spend with them. I could have read a whole novel about that family.  I also enjoyed the dreary, beer-stained story about a girl who works unhappily with her mother in a cheap magic show.

Though some Van Den Berg’s pieces bled together into an indistinguishable examination of relationships and unspecified discontentment, certain details were vivid and fresh.  For example – and this was of particular interest to me though the story itself wasn’t one of my favorites – there was one which mostly took place in Antarctica, but one character had been kidnapped and held hostage in the very towns where I work/have worked.  It’s really unnerving to read a fictional account of a girl your age being snatched at knife point mere meters away from where you’re taking your lunch break.  So that was cool.  One story, which took place in Paris, started out slow but quickly grabbed my interest when acrobats and masquerades came into play.  Unfortunately, that particular story suffered from a rushed and inconclusive ending which snatched the magical feeling away in a puff of smoke.   There was a lot about marriage, siblings, memory, and ambiguous desires in The Isle Of Youth.  Very few of the endings gave us any solid resolutions, but that’s ok because the style was mostly realistic and real life rarely follows any sort of literary structure.  Occasionally, characters became too paralyzed by introspection to keep me interested – Van Den Berg’s ladies do like to wallow in their own thoughts – but that might be more a problem of personal preference.

I’d probably give The Isle of Youth 3/5 stars because the individual stories might do better in anthologies than in a collection all by the same author.  I got a little tired of their theme after a while and felt a little deflated while I was reading.  There’s no denying that Laura Van Den Berg is talented, though, and she clearly put a lot of thought into her characters and their situations.  Her writing digs into some deceptively simple parts of life to show how being an adult is confusing for everyone.  Reading these stories made me want to try being a little more understanding of the people I encounter every day.  The collection is not too long and the stories tend to be of easily digestible lengths.  It would be a good gift for someone who doesn’t have too much time to read but who likes to have meaningful conversations at parties, or with themselves.

Book Review : The Quick by Lauren Owen (coming out June, 2014)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

(Let it be hereby stated that I read an advanced reader’s edition of The Quick, which may still be waiting on final edits.)

When a friend and colleague of mine at the bookshop insisted that I read The Quick the moment she finished it, I knew right away that I would have lots to say about this debut novel. It’s one of my favorite kinds of story, in one of my favorite settings, but there are a few twists which caught us both off guard.  The Quick is a complex novel with a Victorian setting, a Gothic atmosphere, and a sweeping narrative. It’s also a monster story of sorts. I would have been utterly puzzled to realize – a hundred pages in – that there was some serious slaying to come, had my friend not mentioned her similar surprise. Neither the title nor the package revealed much about this book’s nature from the start. Since I have the galley and not the finished product of the book, I can’t help but wonder how heavily Random House intends to advertise the supernatural bent. On the back of my copy, it only says: “An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London”. Well, there’s menace aplenty and a grim sort of magic alongside what I can only call the “creature aspect” (to avoid spoiling too much). I was held in suspense once I finally got engrossed in the story, but it took me much longer than usual to immerse myself in Owen’s writing. As for the “epic scope,” I suppose that the many intertwining narratives and the multiple main characters prove that statement to be true.

The Quick starts out in Aiskew Hall, one of those large and drafty mansions in the English countryside which set the scene for so many sprawling novels. James and Charlotte are very young children when we first meet them, orphaned after their father’s death, and subject to uncertain futures. The scenes about the children’s games and fears were picturesque and I was charmed by their environment. I guess Lauren Owen grew up in an old Yorkshire boarding school, and her descriptions are excellent. From the secret passages indoors to the gardens outside, Aiskew Hall is a wonderful location. It’s too bad we don’t get to read more about it, as soon enough the setting switches to London.

Oh, Victorian London. So many distinctive tales have tramped up and down your streets – Dickens spin-offs have strolled alongside grisly horror stories. Sassy steampunk heroines now follow the same footsteps as eccentric detectives. There’s no real shortage of Gothic mysteries or supernatural horror crammed into that city’s ever-expanding boundaries of fiction, and I’m not sure if The Quick added anything too terribly new to the landscape. But there’s such an extensive literary heritage to late 19th century London that I do understand the appeal in borrowing the city’s peculiar brand of storytelling magic. While she doesn’t really break any new ground by setting her debut novel around a mysterious gentleman’s club in the darker parts of London, Owen does have a talent for creating atmosphere. I read the book over a couple of dreary late-November evenings and I was surprised every time I stepped outside to see neither hansom cabs nor top hats. I’m still keeping an eye out for ragamuffin pickpocket children (often my favorite characters in these sorts of books). When James and Charlotte experience the bustling hubbub of city life for the first time, their confusion and awe made the disorienting metropolis seem immediate and real.

After graduation, James moves to London and gets rooms with an eccentric friend-of-a-friend. He tries his hand at writing poetry, then moves on to plays after they see a production by some bloke named Wilde. Christopher Paige is lively and dashing while James is more of a reserved, respectful sort of fellow. Their personalities clash nicely and as their friendship deepens we get an entertaining glance at life in London for gentlemen with money enough to make society’s expectations the most pressing of their problems. It took a while, but eventually I found myself absorbed into the details of domestic issues and witty banter.

Right as their story started to get really interesting, though, Part II of The Quick introduces an entirely new point of view and style. I felt marooned and disoriented to be suddenly presented with The Notebooks of Augustus Mould in Chapter Six, and not only because the heading reminded me a little of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (a very different sort of book indeed, though equally British). At this point, Owen started to take a Dracula-esque approach to her narrative. By treating the excerpts from Mould’s notebooks as an active component of the story, and by using shifts in perspective to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the novel introduces four or five new plot lines and main characters.

A threatening presence causes gossip in London, haughty idealists take charge of a secret society, a little girl learns why some streets are off-limits, and a shared tragedy brings two unlikely friends together to face an evil which is damned difficult to kill. As the story progresses we do come to understand how everyone will eventually interact to create a high-stakes confrontation, but I spent half the book trying to find connections rather than giving my full attention to the plot. Much in Stoker’s style, Owen uses her structure to show how menace can unite people and affect a great many lives. I do wish she had brought the different groups of characters together earlier on, though, especially since the men and women themselves were distinctive and their interactions were downright fun to witness. The pacing was stilted at times, which detracted from the strong descriptions and appealing aesthetic. In the second half of the book, I found some redemption when the many different threads eventually did come together to propel us towards an exciting conclusion. The focus was just a little off – too many influences from the genre’s long history were vying for attention – and I felt that the novel couldn’t quite contain its own scope.

The author has borrowed an awful lot from her literary predecessors: The Quick contains distinctive elements of Dickens, Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Anne Rice, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The editor’s note which came with the galley mentioned that Lauren Owen started out writing fan fiction of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. Push through the slow start and clunky narrative shifts to where the action begins, and you’ll see how Joss Whedon has made his mark. Even though I had a hard time getting comfortable with the balance between the book’s Victorian style and its eventual supernatural standoffs, I had a great time with each of those aspects in their own way. Some characters seemed straight out of Great Expectations, what with their moral qualms and social hardships. Others were gunslingin’ badasses with tragic pasts. I was happy to read about violent little kids and a mysterious occult library, though there were times when I wondered if I should be reading two different books instead of this one.

Now that I’ve finished reading The Quick, I’m intrigued to see what sort of reaction it will get once it’s released into the wild. I think there’s some strong writing and great characters, and while the premise isn’t particularly original it was interesting and fun. The target demographic of readers is difficult to define, though. You’ll need to have an appreciation for Victorian sensibilities in order to get through the first half of the book, but you can’t be too picky about style or easily annoyed by clunky narrative structures. On the other hand, it might appeal to readers of dark and violent Gothic adventures like The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – tense stories which don’t rely too heavily on historical realism – but the language might make the pace drag on for fans of that genre. I happen to be right in the middle of that spectrum and did enjoy The Quick. Anyone picking up the book will find it necessary to suspend their judgement and expectations along with their disbelief. If you can do that, then the interesting descriptions; absorbing atmosphere; and memorable characters will keep you reading right through to the book’s mysterious ending.

If you liked that show “Ripper Street,” I think you’ll feel right at home in The Quick. If you were enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus (Rosie and I reviewed it here) you will probably enjoy it, too. The Quick is less stunningly magical than The Night Circus was, but I think the characters were more believable and the personal relationships were handled better. I read books for the atmosphere more than anything else, and I’m happy I stuck with The Quick. You can definitely tell that it’s a first novel, and I hope that Lauren Owen will develop a style which is more distinctly her own as her writing progresses. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for any of her future work, and I hope she continues to write darkly aesthetic stories which transport us to a more mysterious time and place.