Book Review: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 16+ (language, violence including sexual violence)

I’m mostly on vacation right now, but I couldn’t wait to review this book. (I say “mostly” because I drove back from Acadia National Park to work at the bookshop for two days, but I’m headed right back to the crashing waves and pine forests tonight.)  I actually bought The Lobster Kings at Sherman’ bookshop, intending to read it on some windswept rock.  That would have been terribly atmospheric and very fitting to the novel’s remote island setting.  But Zentner’s writing was just too good, and the setting was too wonderful, so I failed to put the book on hold when I came home.  I read The Lobster Kings in two days, mentally transported to Loosewood Island the entire time.  Even if I’d been reading on a crowded subway car, I would have felt the salt spray and heard thunderstorms somewhere in the distance.

The Lobster Kings is set somewhere between Maine and Nova Scotia, on an island which falls through the cracks of jurisdiction and remains very much its own world.  Cordelia Kings is a lobster boat captain, like her daddy, and all the Kings back to Brumfitt Kings.  Brumfitt was a painter who turned the island into a home way back in the 18th century, and the inspiration behind his mythical works can be seen near every nook and cranny of Loosewood Island.  His stories and images haunt Cordelia’s family, too.  The Kings’ pasts and futures seem bound up in the legends he created: they are blessed with the sea’s bounty, but that blessing comes with a curse as well.  Or so Cordelia’s Daddy says.  Given her family’s history on the island — their immense successes and devastating tragedies — it’s not hard to see why she might believe the stories herself, sometimes.

You might be able to tell from the narrator’s first name that The Lobster Kings is inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. (Sort of in a similar way to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but I liked The Lobster Kings a whole lot more.)  It’s not a complete re-telling of the play, but the parallels are obvious, giving the story some sense of inevitability and poetic justice; even irony when some twists take an unexpected course.  At one point Cordelia does read the play in high school, and she realizes that her namesake doesn’t have a very happy ending.  Aside from the big themes: three very different sisters; the powerful father; the contested borders; and the howling storms, little allusions to the play create a nice treasure-hunt for Shakespeare fans.  (The meth-dealing jerk Eddie Gloucester, for example, isn’t nearly so eloquent as his wicked Elizabethan counterpart.  There’s also a line about eyes and jelly which winked at the reader…no ocular pun intended.)  

It’s not necessary to have read or seen King Lear, though, and when a parallel is extremely important the characters are good enough to discuss it plainly.  The tragedy and exhilaration in this book springs from more personal wells than royal legacy and misspent loyalty, though both of those subjects come up again and again.  This book focuses on family pride, on one woman’s intense desire to prove herself worthy of a name that has kept a whole community thriving for centuries.  Cordelia is an excellent lobsterman and a strong main character.  She loves her father and her sisters, and wants to do right by them as the eldest Kings child.  If that means pushing herself on dangerous waters, or stating the hard truths no one else wants to acknowledge, then she’s prepared to do the work. 

I liked reading the story from Cordelia’s point of view, and thought that Alexi Zentner did a marvelous job of getting into a 30-something woman’s head and heart. She’s got a forceful will, but isn’t nearly so hardened a captain as she’d like Loosewood’s tight-knit community to believe.  Between persistent romantic feelings for her married sternman Kenny, a strained sense of competition with her sisters, and the added tensions when hostile boats start encroaching on their territory from James Harbor on the mainland, Cordelia’s having trouble weathering all the storms inside of her.  She’s an unapologetic narrator but has moments of uncertainty, especially when it comes to her father.  He’s a loving parent and an inspiring figure on the island, but won’t back down or shed his pride, even against his daughters’ caution.  He’s a Kings. He’s the father of Kings, and even the darkly ominous fates Brumfitt painted — fates which can seem like a warning to later generations — won’t keep him from giving every ounce of energy to Loosewood Island and and to his family.  The family tension and the dramas within Loosewood’s community all affect Cordelia and keep her mind churning, until her own struggles start to resemble the tumultuous sea where she feels so at home.

While I don’t know too much about the lobstering life, Zentner’s descriptions of it were so detailed, and functioned so effortlessly, that I’m sure he captured the essence of that livelihood pretty well.  Each boat and crew had such a distinct personality that I felt as though I’d been hanging around those docks my whole life.  The anger whenever men from James Harbor would cut a Loosewood Island buoy became my anger.  The warm camaraderie between Cordelia’s fisherman friends made me see how such a hard life could be full of rewards.  And then the bouts of misery on board — the freezing mornings, fatal accidents, and grisly injuries — reminded me that I’m not nearly brave or devoted enough for such a line of work, no matter how much I like salt air on my face and the sight of weather on the horizon.  I would have been one of the tourists who come to Loosewood Island every year to see the scenes that Brumfitt painted, but I would want to be made of sterner stuff like Cordelia and her friends. (Oh drat. Sterner stuff. Forgive the unintentional fisherman puns.)

The Lobster Kings is a unique new novel with a wonderful descriptive voice.  The Kings family, at the heart of the tale, seems truly real despite the Shakespearean bent to their lives and relationships.  Loosewood Island could be a character in its own right, especially when we see it through the artistic viewpoint of Brumfitt Kings’ fictional legacy.  I don’t know much about art or fishing, but Zentner writes with such vivid detail that I fell completely in love with each subject by the end. 

The mythical properties of the unforgiving sea, which makes up a huge part of the Kings family history, was mesmerizing to me.  It may, however, get old too soon for readers who aren’t so keen on selkie stories and elemental curses.  I don’t think those moments of unearthly imagery ever overshadowed the very human pulse which kept this story alive, though. The sense of place never faltered, shining through the atmosphere and characters of The Lobster Kings on every page. 

Read it if you’re ever homesick for the sea, if you like stories about art and hard work, or if you love novels about close towns and complicated families.  Don’t wait until it comes out in paperback, either. (And please buy from an independent store if you can!!)  This book is too good to miss, and it’s hard to leave Loosewood Island once the story ends.

Advertisements

Mini Review: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  5 stars

Character Development: **** 4 stars

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4/12 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 +

Let me just say that after several months without reading any “grown up” Fantasy, this book reminded me how awesome it could be!  I was incredibly impressed with the story and the world, even though it took me much longer than expected to finish reading.  My slow pace was through no fault of Mr. Gladstone, who wrote well and kept the story moving along.  I just don’t have a head for legal business, politics, or religion.  And this book is about the legal proceedings surrounding the sudden death of a city’s god.  Intimidating subject matter aside, I happily soldiered on through the book and enjoyed every page; every chase on the rooftops; and every terrifying glimpse of raw magic.

I first learned of Three Parts Dead and the subsequent books from on of my favorite book-bloggers: Tammy at Books, Bones & Buffy.  Her praise for Gladstone’s series, and her more recent guest post with him here, convinced me to order the first book (from an indie bookshop!!!!) a while ago. This week, finally, I was in the right mood to tackle it.

I was very excited when it arrived for me!

A quick summary, which barely scratches the story’s surface: The beloved god Kos has kept Alt Coulumb warm and functioning for so long with his love, that when he dies unexpectedly the city’s citizens teeter on the brink of dangerous civil unrest.  Tara Abernathy, who we first meet immediately following her expulsion from a floating school of “Craft,” has joined up with a formidable Craftswoman to represent Kos’s church against his creditors: other nations who would have a claim on his power, which gods use as diplomatic currency in Gladstone’s world.  Teamed up with a devoted, chain-smoking cleric and an officer of Justice suffering from a…unique…addiction, Tara has to grapple with mythical beings, old enemies, and legal jargon on her quest for the truth: can you murder a god?  And what does that mean for the people who believe in them?

Three Parts Dead made me think hard about complicated stuff.  It shoved me into a world not totally different from our own (lawyers still wear pinstriped suits) but built on a solid foundation of fantasy logic and magical properties (those lawyers argue their truths in violent magical combat on astral planes).  The politics and religion were way more interesting than our own here on Earth, but the drama around them shed a unique light on how we, ourselves, use our faith in Greater Powers and the government.  I am giving my brain a little break for the rest of this month, but am fully intending to read Gladstone’s next book whenever the craving for smart and complicated — but super fun — fantasy hits.

Oh, and there’s a pirate in the book.  He, like all the other characters, was fantastic.  Not everyone’s nice, not everyone’s sympathetic, but no one is boring and that’s what matters most.

I recommend Three Parts Dead to fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, to readers of legal thrillers who want to start a really cool fantasy series, and to fantasy enthusiasts who are looking for a diverse cast of characters in uniquely modern situations.

Thoughts on Some Stories in Rogues (ed. George R. R. Martin)

Earlier this week, I was hit with a fantasy craving.

I needed to read something completely engrossing, something with really cool magic and characters full of surprises.  But I didn’t know exactly where to start.  Should I try an author I’d never read before?  Should I return to an old favorite?  Did I want to read fantasy set in our world or another one entirely?

Luckily, there’s a solution to those questions.  An anthology!  And how convenient for me that an anthology has recently come out containing a huge selection of engrossing, magical, surprising stories.  Surely one or two of them would do the trick.

I got Rogues out of the library that very night.  I really like the concept of new stories about each author’s rogue-ish and mischievous characters.  They’re usually my favorites in Fantasy series, anyways.  I only read about five or six of the stories, and started a few others without continuing on, but there were a few I really enjoyed.

Obviously Neil Gaiman’s story, “How The Marquis Got His Coat Back”, was fun.  The Marquis de Carabas was easily my favorite character in Neverwhere, and his adventure was funny and twisty. It took us back to the underground and slightly sideways world from the novel, and even introduced us to the Marquis’ brother!  The story wasn’t a long one, but it was good to re-visit a character who I sort of consider an old friend. (**** 4 stars)

Michael Swanwick’s “Tawny Petticoats” had a sort of alternate wild-west feel to it. The setting was a futuristic New Orleans, with throwback fashions and some not-quite-human characters.  I’ve never read any of Swanwick’s fiction before, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying his story of con men and tricky ladies.  There was an interesting take on zombi-fication, which was a little freaky, and the villains weren’t very nice.  In fact, even the hustler protagonists weren’t exemplary citizens, but it was fun to root for them and see what would happen. (**** 4 stars)

“Now Showing”, by Connie Willis, was really incredibly strange. It was about college students in such a near future I felt it could be a peek into life ten years from now.  There wasn’t much magic to speak of in her story, aside from the enchantment caused by mysterious boys who make you want to listen to them even when they’re being cryptic assholes.  In the end I did like the story, even though I was making a really puzzled facial expression the whole time I read it.  I then recommended that one of my film-geek friends read it, because I knew she would like the cinematic theme and all the hidden movie references. (*** 3 stars)

As for “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane”,  it was my favorite story (of those I read) and another one by an author I’d never tried before.  How, exactly, have I made it through 23 and a half years without reading Scott Lynch?!?  This situation needs to be rectified ASAP, because I LOVED “A Year And A Day In Old Theradane.”  It was EXACTLY the sort of story I wanted to read, and nearly cured my fantasy craving all on its own.  The cast of characters was largely female – this deserves an extra huzzah in “high fantasy” literature, where that’s not always the case – and they were all so bloody cool!  

This was another heist story of sorts, with lots of entertaining plans and slapstick failures while the fatal clock runs down.  The main character and her old crew have sworn off crime after being granted clemency, but they’re getting restless in their retirement.  When a wizard battle shatters the serenity of Therandane by causing huge creatures to fall from the sky and into their favorite bar, Amarelle goes and gets herself in trouble.  She and her friends have a year and a day to steal an entire street, or an extravagant and powerful woman will ruin them completely.  The magic in this story was unique (enchanted mixed drinks, anyone?), the setting was vivid, and I felt like I’d known these characters for years.  Next time I want to read some good old fashioned grown-up Fantasy — with creates characters so lively they might walk off the page, and a touch of humor to even the most dire circumstances –I’m absolutely going to try Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. (***** 5 stars)

I didn’t get a chance to read about half the stories, but there are a few which caught my eye that I’ll surely try to read during my next visit to the library.  Some others failed to capture my attention, but the beauty of an anthology is that you can just move one and find something more appealing.  I’m not sure that every author gave the roguery prerequisite an equal amount of consideration, but whatever.  The stories I read were pretty good, I now have some new authors to read who might soon become favorites, and the fantasy craving was assuaged.  So Rogues is worth checking out, for fantasy fans, whether you’re familiar with these authors or not.

(These thoughts were originally posted within a longer fantasy rant at my blog.)

Book Review: The Young World by Chris Weitz

I intended to review The Young World a month ago, but it seems to have slipped my mind.  Oops!  Then, last night I went to see The Purge 2: Anarchy. I must say that it was a surprisingly enjoyable film.  Lots of violence and a scary concept, but there wasn’t too much gore and it inspired some lively conversation when my friend and I left the cinema.  The lawless city streets, the roving bands of violent figures, and the fearful distrust of other people all reminded me of The Young World.  It got me thinking about the book again.  There was even a group of teenagers in scary masks, terrorizing people who would have been right at home in Chris Weitz’s book.  Now that my memory’s been jogged, here’s what I thought of The Young World, which will hit shelves at the end of this month.

click for img source

Star Ratings for The Young World:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

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

Age range recommendation: 14 and up (violence, sex, language)

Be it known: I read an advanced reading copy of The Young World, and some details may have changed by the time of publication.

All the adults are dead.  The Sickness killed off everyone over 18, and all the little kids, leaving only teenagers alive to pick up the pieces.  It didn’t take long for New York City to lose all semblance of order, as survivors form tribes and gangs based on where they once lived with their families.  Without adults to keep the cogs and wheels of the world turning, money means nothing and food is getting scarce.  There is no law on the street, and very little reason to maintain a safe or healthy lifestyle.  Because the sickness isn’t done with them, and around someone’s 18th birthday their body starts to grow up.  Their hormones think they’re becoming an adult, and they die.

With a life expectancy of no more than six years remaining for all the survivors, it’s no wonder kids turn to violence and despair.  Clan warfare turns the city into a battleground, even though most kids just want to protect themselves and their friends for a few more years of canned food and remembered music.  The teenagers living in Washington Square Park try to keep things pretty peaceful, even though gangs like the once-spoiled, once-rich kids from Central Park like to come around and exchange bullets now and then.  But living to see another day doesn’t mean much when you’ve got so few days remaining.  Someone needs to find a solution, a way to bring back the possibility of a future.  A small group of friends follows an improbable hypothesis on a quest through New York City, hoping to discover a cure and find a reason to re-build society.

Right off the bat, I’m going to admit that I’m predisposed in favor of this book. I love stories about young people facing peril without any adults around.  I wrote my dissertation on how the violence in books like Peter Pan and Lord Of The Flies springs from the sudden freedom from grown-up intervention. I’m a huge nerd about this sort of thing. So even when The Young World fell into tired cliches or leaned too heavily on cinematic action sequences, I had a good time reading it.  This is the sort of story that launches itself at its readers, more than anything.  You’ve got to just watch the action unfold without trying to read too deeply into every character and event. 

Christopher Weitz directed several big-screen adaptions of popular books.  His writing shows that he’s very comfortable with the genre, and the story holds together through the whole book.  But it’s the action scenes and snappy dialogue which really keep the pages turning.  Yeah, there are moments which will be predictable to anyone who has been to the cinema in the past twenty years.  A character seems to die and comes back to kick some ass and rescue our heroes later.  There’s a lot of stumbling around in the dark.  Huge and scary wild animals – escaped from the zoo, don’t ya know  – appear with teeth a’ gnashin’ in unexpected places. This is a YA post-catastrophe thriller, packed with action scenes described in such a way that the inevitable film practically writes itself.  While some readers might find the relentless hostilities and constant one-liners wearisome after a while, there’s just enough character development to keep the story grounded even as it makes full speed ahead.

The Young World is narrated in alternating chapters, both told in the first person.  Jeff (Jefferson) finds himself in a stressful leadership position after his older brother Wash (short for Washington, poor fellas) turns eighteen and quickly succumbs to the sickness.  Jefferson wants to bring order and hope back to the clan of teens who live in Washington Square.  Someone needs to protect them from the vicious Uptowners, but he isn’t nearly so cut out for the job as his charismatic brother was.  Donna was friends with the brothers, possibly a little in love with Wash, so his death hits her hard.  She’s got a bit of medical expertise – invaluable knowledge in this life without trained professionals – and tries not to let herself get shaken by any of the horror they have to face.  But times are weird, and Donna’s the first one to admit that.  While Jeff’s chapters show his attempts to remain measured and calm, she is very real; conversational and up-front about her own needs and fears and doubts.  I felt like I could really get inside both Jeff and Donna’s heads during their chapters.  Having two unique perspectives on the hard decisions ahead of them created a good sense of balance and tension.  They can admit their own inherent prejudices and self-centered concerns to the reader in ways they don’t dare say out loud.  I also liked the way that both our narrators (but especially Donna) would point out the obvious connections between the sort of apocalypses we fantasize about nowadays – in our shows and books and video games – and their reality after The Sickness.  She knows they’re living through a cheesy trilogy and can almost laugh at the irony in their desperation.  But not too loudly, ’cause laughter might draw enemy fire.

Some supporting characters were a little one dimensional, mostly because our band of protagonists encounter so many groups of kids on their journey.  Of-bloody-course the tiny Asian girl is a martial arts whiz.  The younger kids who live underground are bedecked in Hot Topic and cling to pop culture.  The rich offspring of Manhattan’s wealthy elite behave like entitled assholes even while they try to establish some sick form of order, but the only given reason for their douchebaggery is the fact that they used to be rich.  But maybe that’s how it would really be?  Maybe the fear of losing privilege, in a world where money suddenly means nothing and resentments abound, could turn teenaged jackasses into violent pimps and racist tyrants.  I guess that isn’t so far-fetched after all.  

Then there were a few nifty twists on the usual stereotypes in this sort of story.  The NYPL should be a safe haven for those characters who believe in the powers of knowledge and reason, but something’s horribly wrong – really downright spooky – within those hallowed shelves.  The kids in Harlem have re-purposed police cars to suit their own needs, now that the grown men who liked to bully them for years have finally died off. I was super excited when a boating excursion made up part of their adventure, and thought the Captain was super cool. (He is delightfully uninhibited in pointing out that sheltered kids like Jeff and Donna are wrong to assume that black kids from harsher neighborhoods wouldn’t know how to sail.)  Add some hyped-up pre-teens, armed to the teeth and bent on commandeering the boat, and I’m entirely on board.  (Ugh, pirate puns.  I’m not actually sorry.)

I don’t usually go for the apocalyptic, dystopian, catastrophe, bio-terrorism stuff.  It doesn’t really interest me, and sicknesses are gross.  But the premise of The Young World – bands of teenagers facing off against each other and their own quickened mortality – was unique enough to keep me engaged.  It’s interesting to wonder how quickly we would slide into chaos if the millions of adults who move gasoline through pipes, electricity through wires, and seeds through the soil – all those other imperatives for everyday life – suddenly disappeared.   It’s interesting to witness what the violence might look like, when growing up is a literal death sentence and the future of humanity looks to have around six years left.  Interesting, and exciting, but not necessarily pleasant.  The book sets up for an obvious sequel after a (too) big twist at the adventure’s climax.  Nonetheless, I had fun reading The Young World.  I got drawn into the action and really wanted our heroes to succeed on their far-fetched quest for a reason to keep hoping. 

I recommend The Young World to anyone who likes their scary visions of the future to be action-packed rather than political.  People who liked the Purge movies might like it, as the aesthetics are quite similar.  (I still can’t get that bone-chilling masked kid with the machete out of my mind.  He would have fit into this book world very well.)  So would anyone who likes to read post-catastrophe novels to see how different authors envision the end of society.  The teen characters have authentic voices, and characters come from all walks of life.  The gore and language and depravity don’t stop the book from making some interesting points about what we take for granted, so while it’s not for squeamish readers I wouldn’t call this a gratuitously horrific book, either.

All the references to movies and iphones and fashion trends will surely sound old-fashioned in even a year or two.  But the notion of kids facing their own natures – chaotic, despairing, or hopeful natures – when there’s no adults to regulate them has inspired writers for over a century.  I hope it continues to be a subject people write about, whether it includes kids flying around fighting pirates in their pajamas, or teenagers shooting their way through hostile city streets.  And also fighting pirates.

Book Review: Conversion by Katherine Howe

Star Ratings for Conversion:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

This YA novel by Catherine Howe (author of The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane) is about quite a few subjects I like. Catholic school! Teenage hysteria! Mysteries! Witchcraft! Friendship! Katherine Howe took some fairly common subjects in YA and made them original through some plausible plot twists and good historical detail.

The story in Conversion unfolds in two different timelines. Most prominently, in modern times, are the events surrounding St. Joan’s Academy, where teenage girls are falling ill with no rhyme or reason. It starts out in Colleen’s homeroom, where the popular and (usually) utterly poised Clara suddenly dissolves into violent twitches and tics. Soon enough, Clara’s friends and then dozens of other girls fall victim to the strange disease which seems to defy all classification and remedy. A media storm and internal drama won’t let Colleen’s already stressful last year of high school continue on as usual, but she’s a focused and driven main character who tries not to buy into the sensationalism all around her. Until one of her own best friends gets sick. While the drama unfolds around her, Colleen is reading The Crucible for extra credit, assigned to her by the mysterious substitute teacher. She starts to see parallels between historical Salem and the events unfolding on the same land right now. Could the afflicted girls be faking it, or truly suffering from something outside their control?

source: youtube

Then there are “interlude” chapters throughout Colleen’s narrative, which take us back to 17th century Salem Village. Same place, different time, and an utterly dreadful chapter in American history. The interludes are told from Anne Putnam’s point of view: one of the girls who was instrumental in accusing the condemned women and men. In the aftermath of the infamous trials, after she’s had years to reflect on her actions, Anne Putnam wants to confess that their accusations were false. (This really happened, by the way.) She describes the events leading up to the girls’ testimonies: their lives at home, how the younger girls first came to act possessed, and the encouragements heaped upon them by devout authority figures. Anne wants to be understood, and maybe along the way she can come to understand what inspired her friends and herself to ruin so many lives. In the past and in the present, nobody has clear motives, and even the best intentions can lead to serious harm.

Being from Massachusetts myself, I already knew quite a lot about the witchcraft hysteria. But Howe describes it vividly – without unnecessary embellishment – so that even readers who are less familiar with the subject will become immersed in the action quickly. Katherine Howe is a lecturer in American Studies at Cornell, so I trusted that her portrayal of events would be laced with careful research, even if creative liberties changed the plot a bit. She actually drew inspiration from the mystery sickness in Le Roy, NY (2012), deciding to set it near Salem to show similarities to historical events. This was a neat touch, but the book is easily enjoyed even without that bonus fact. The Salem history is much more important. I really liked how Colleen’s teacher encouraged her to look at a character who was written out of Arthur Miller’s play, in order to get a clearer picture of the social and historical context of very real events. Enigmatic teachers are always a good addition to YA set in schools, and Ms. Slater is no exception.

It takes some creepy anonymous text messages and one nosy little brother to get Colleen really immersed in the similarities between her classmates’ behaviors and the famous trials, but soon enough she’s drawing conclusions that range from almost too easy (they must be faking) to utterly far-fetched (is one girl causing these afflictions with her mind?). Different theories seem likely as the disorder weaves its way through the girls at school, and I was never quite sure if the story would follow through with the occultish vibes which start to build. The uncertainty was a good thing, though. No one knows what’s going on; not the teachers, not the girls, not their parents, not the media. And it’s in the ways that people deal with potential disaster that we see how easily fear can take hold of an entire community.

The plot of Conversion was interesting, and the mystery took a suitably windy course to the (slightly anti-climactic) conclusion, but my favorite aspect of the book was definitely the main characters. Colleen and her friends aren’t saints or detectives, they just want to get through their last year of high school and find some certainty in their futures. Colleen is agonizing about college next year. Anjali’s intense relationships with both her boyfriend and her close friends are shaken when she gets sick. Deena is a beacon of sanity in tough times, but she has her own future to think about while everyone else loses touch with what matters. And Emma, Colleen’s oldest friend, is bothered by something secret and painful that Colleen can’t quite figure out. The other girls at school aren’t developed nearly as well as these four. I do wish Clara’s popularity had been explained a little better, and that punk-y “The Other Jennifer” had become a major character rather than just hovering in the periphery. There’s a bit of romance (surprisingly likeable romance!!), and some people aren’t nearly what they seem, but all these extra attachments are secondary to Colleen, Anjali, Deena, and Emma. Their worlds revolve around each other. Or so Colleen would like to think.

In books about school scandals, it’s easy to see how adults could be simple stereotypes filling in required roles. Some of the adults are rather shallow, but the teachers especially are sympathetic portrayals of people struggling to make the right decision when they’re in way over their heads. I love it when children’s and YA books make it clear that grown-ups are just as confused as kids are, only they’re often responsible for so much more than just themselves. The calamity at St. Joan’s brings out noble qualities in some characters, selfish ones in others, and the stakes just keep getting higher. Kind of like what happened in Salem, eh? I started reading Conversion because the plot caught my attention, but it was the characters who kept me reading.

I recommend Conversion to both teenaged and adult readers, especially those who like private school stories and small town drama. I really liked the historical interludes, but the modern story is compelling enough on its own that you don’t need a previous interest in the witch trials to read the book. Conversion takes a tense and sympathetic look at stressed-out teenagers in a weird situation without ever turning into an out-of-control melodrama. No matter if they’re lairs, cursed, or sick: you’ll want to stick with these girls ’til the end to figure out what’s going on.

Some books to read if you liked Conversion:

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

The Fever by Megan Abbott

A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi

The Witch Of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Book Review: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

Star Ratings for Thorn Jack

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Thorn Jack first caught my eye because I liked the title and the skull on the front. But, lest I be accused of judging a book by its cover, I got excited about it for better reasons soon enough. Thorn Jack is supposedly a “modern retelling of the ancient Scottish ballad of Tam Lin,” and I may have mentioned that “Tam Lin” is my absolute most favorite traditional ballad.

Have I mentioned this before? Oh, right; I have trouble shutting up about that magnificent fairy story. In the Spring, I went on a rather obnoxious rant about it, and I’m forever keen to read new interpretations.  (“Thoughts About Ballads: Tam Lin” can be read here.) That’s why this review is so damn long, and I apologize in advance. Thorn Jack looked to be a throwback to my goth-y days of yesteryears, back when I wanted to be a wicked, winged thing and sometimes dressed the part. So if this Katherine Harbour lady felt like throwing in references to fairy legends all over the place, that would be just fine with me.

Before I started reading, though, I gave myself a stern talking-to. It went something like this:

  • Me:”Self, lower those wacky expectations of yours! Remember how unreasonably picky you were about Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin?”
  • Myself: “I remember. Why did she bother to call it Tam Lin when it was mostly Shakespeare homework with bad seventies haircuts and –”
  • Me: “Enough of your complaints, self! You may not have liked Dean’s re-telling, but that’s because you wanted it to be something it was not. All that whining you did about the class schedules and the smugness and the terrible pacing. I mean, yeah, the pacing was quite dreadful. But your silly indignation, when the story didn’t follow the exact pattern you wanted to read, just got out of control. Maybe it wasn’t the re-telling you expected, but you need to dive into books with an open mind, or risk being even smugger than that particular Janet.”
  • Myself: “Fine, fine. Fair enough: I shan’t make that mistake again. Authors can borrow as much or as little as they like from folklore, without needing to justify their choices to little old me. Happy?”
  • Me: “Never. But you may now proceed to give Thorn Jack the old college try.” (Like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Thorn Jack is set in and around a secluded college campus.)

 

The story:

Finn and her father have moved from California to Fair Hollow, New York, after her older sister’s suicide. Before she died, Lily Rose was preoccupied with thoughts about fairies and monsters. She collected their stories in her journal, and a little passage from that journal opens up each chapter in Thorn Jack. Lily Rose’s writing helps Finn realize, rather belatedly, that the oddities of her new town might be due to something weirder than just kooky wealthy residents.

Fair Hollow is really rather odd. Shrines of sinister toys and abandoned cakes decorate ruined chapels in the woods. The little girl who reads Tarot cards at Hecate’s Attic (I want to visit that shop, please!) knows way more than she should. Mansions which had once belonged to the rich and famous now lie abandoned and overgrown all over town. Finn’s college campus, HallowHeart, is decorated with elfin carvings and nods to ancient superstitions. When Finn attends a wild outdoor party with her new friends, Christie and Sylvie, she’s surprised to see that a great many people her age dress and speak and act bizarrely. Under the influence of blackberry wine, she follows a dark young man into the woods and thus encounters Jack and Reiko Fata for the first time.

The Fatas pass off as an extended family of wealthy eccentrics, but something about them is just unnerving. Reiko Fata doesn’t just look like royalty – stunning and cold – she acts the part of an imperious Queen all the time. Jack might be handsome and a little scary, but he’s a slave to Reiko’s beck and call. Then there are all the various cousins, the chauffeurs, the adopted siblings, the visiting friends; everyone is beautiful, and no one should be trusted. Finn and Jack start “hanging out” – if that’s what you could call bizarre midnight chats and old films in abandoned cinemas – and draw the attention of Reiko and her cronies. The more time Finn spends with Jack Fata, the curiouser she becomes about the Fatas and their inexplicable lives. With the help of Christie and Sylive, she wants to uncover the truth behind their facade. What’s keeping Jack so beholden to Reiko? Why does her classmate Nathan, adopted into the family, seem so uncomfortable all the time? And who are all these sinister people suddenly popping in and out of town for extravagant parties, threatening Finn and her friends whenever they make a new discovery?

Finn used to disbelieve the myths and legends her father taught. When she first meets Christie, she tells him, “Superstitions are useless and fairy tales are lies.” But three months in Fair Hollow will change her mind, because in this weird town superstitions could the the only thing to save her from a deadly fairy tale ending.

My thoughts:

It helps that this book isn’t specifically called Tam Lin, so readers won’t be so hung up on spotting direct parallels to the ballad right from the beginning. And it definitely is more inspired by the old Scottish story than it is a re-telling.

The Fatas – Thorn Jack’s approximation of the Fairy Court – behaved much in the way the court does in “Tam Lin”, with the pageantry, the mockery, and the sacrifice of a tithe. And some other pieces of the novel stuck to the ballad’s form, too. Finn lives at home with her father; she keeps going to forbidden old estates; and only mortal love can save whomever’s been doomed to act as the tithe. But otherwise the story meanders in other directions. Since I managed to check my expectations at the door, I was able to enjoy most of the book for what it was. It’s a cluttered and crazy salute to centuries of fairy-lore, with immature writing at times, but I had a great time reading it despite the several flaws. Thorn Jack reminded me of my early teenage years, even though all the major (human) characters are college students. I got totally sucked into the preternatural melodrama and I liked playing “spot the fairy” at every party scene.

There are plenty of fantasy stories for both teenagers and adults which show fairies as timeless creatures playing at, or bastardizing, human culture for a bit of fun. Alluring, wicked things straight from hearthside stories pass in and out: a dreamlike parade of old spirits disguised as eccentric young people. So many writers have brought figures out of the mythological imagination and into our modern lives.* Add Katherine Harbour to that list, because Thorn Jack was crowded with phookas, sluaghs, ghosts, tree spirits, etc. The book is almost certainly over-crowded with these characters dropping in and out, but even though the plot suffered for it I was highly entertained by the ever-shifting crowd. They were appropriately terrifying and mesmerizing at the same time, following their own selfish reasoning with no regard for mortals. I thought Harbour did a marvelous job of showing how small human lives were in the eyes of fair-folk; they really mean it when they call Finn and her friends “mayflies.” The Fatas were pretty, they were scary, and they were not of this world. I loved them.

My biggest complaint about Thorn Jack would undoubtably be about the romance between Jack and Finn. It did remain a few steps ahead of the sullen girl falls for dark boy because he’s aloof and hangs out by her window at night disaster-zone, because Jack is meant to be keeping an eye on Finn for more sinister reasons than his own heart. In fact, the concept that mortal love makes fairies grow hearts and bleed was kind of cool, and led to some examples of poetic cruelty between the Fatas themselves. With a knife, Reiko can take “heartless” to a whole new level – a reference to one of my favorite lines of the ballad. But Finn’s attachment to him happened too quickly and it seriously detracted from her own character. And oh, boy, did I get tired of hearing her describe his hands. I know there was enchantment at play, but the path from fascination to love wasn’t followed with enough conviction to justify the clinginess which followed. (Though there’s a moment when clinginess comes in handy at the end of the original “Tam Lin”. Ha ha ha.)

The friendships between other characters felt more believable, even though they also bonded almost instantly out of vague curiosity. Finn meets Christie within the hour of first moving to Fair Hollow, I think, but his rakish ways and grim logic in the face of horrors endeared him to me very quickly. Sylvie, the other member of their trio, is lovably goth, brave, and imaginative. Poor Nathan, all tangled up with the Fatas, is a sympathetic character and it’s easy to understand why Finn wants to help him. And the villains? They were scary as hell.

The majority of the action takes place off of HallowHeart’s campus, but the teachers there were mysterious enough that I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. And, as per the ballad, Finn’s dad was kind and smart but none too observant: the perfect sort of parent character for a story about young people struggling to keep a magical world separate from “real life”. I remember that fierce terror of having grown-ups catch wind of my supernatural concerns when I was a young teenager, and Harbour has managed to capture it very well.

“Ordinary Life had been infected by an otherworldly menace.” (p 245)

Her protagonists are older than I imagine them, but the threat of worlds colliding is very present and very right. Because even when the invisible world is crashing to pieces, you still never wanted to put your parents in danger or let on to your teachers that something was wrong. In this way, the emotional resonance never lagged in Thorn Jack even when the plot got tangled or the romantic tension felt off.

After the exhaustive academia of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, I’m quite content to get a mere taste of college life in this novel. The real action takes place in atmospheric ruins, in the woods, and at dizzy parties I want to attend. Harbour’s descriptions could be annoyingly repetitive – yes I get that the staircase was “art nouveau” without it being reiterated at every step – but the atmosphere was spooky and a good stage for such dark drama. Some moments were maybe too similar to Pamela Dean’s version: the students behaving weirdly must be theatre majors, the old photos of Jack look-alikes from the past must have some logical explanation, the constant quoting of poetry. At least Sylvie had the decency to call out Christie’s weirdness whenever he busted out a line from Yeats in regular conversation. But I’m being too picky again. While Tam Lin is technically a much smarter novel, with more subtlety and cunning allusions, Thorn Jack was just a more enjoyable read for me. I liked the twist with the sacrifice and was happy to have a bit of magic on nearly every page.

In the way that Fire & Hemlock and Tam Lin pulled bits and pieces from various ballads into one complex homage, though not nearly so craftily as Dianna Wynne Jones, Thorn Jack has some obvious parallels and some smaller little references. Comparisons to Holly Black’s Tithe might be more accurate.  Harbour incorporates various fairy characters and traditions into her plot, using a huge cast of minor characters to create an unearthly atmosphere in our own realm. Read the book to appreciate all the moments which dip into legend, but let yourself embrace the diversion into a more modern story along the way.

So, was Thorn Jack a good book? I think so… The cast of characters was sometimes hard to follow, the writing had clunky passages, and the romance was a bit of a mess. The ending, too, was confusing enough that I had to go through it again before closing the book. The book suffers from too much trying to happen in not enough space. But the entire time I was reading it, I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. I had to know what would happen to the characters, and I wanted to stay in Fair Hollow for a long time. My delight in reading Thorn Jack is similar to my fondness for Anne Rice’s vampire books: there are so many weird characters I’d like to meet in the invisible world within our own. These books aren’t trying to be academic literature, they’re just fun. Thorn Jack is entertaining, dark, and an interesting debut. I will definitely be reading the next book in Katherine Harbour’s Night and Nothing series, whenever it comes out.

*An incomplete list would include Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Julie Kagawa, Brenna Yovanoff, Terri Windling, and many many others.

Summer Camp Rec: A Snicker Of Magic (if you liked Rooftoppers)

I may be cheating a little with this recommendation, because I don’t know if Rooftoppers is such a smash hit at other bookshops. I’ve been recommending it non-stop ever since we got it last year. It was one of my favorite gift ideas for the holidays, what with the read-aloud appeal and enchanting atmosphere. Now, a lot of the parents who enjoyed reading Rooftoppers with their kids are looking for something for summer travels. Another book that’s not too scary, with totally unique characters and language that just transports you. And, for younger kids who are just starting to spend time on their own this summer – (I think it’s around age nine that sleep-away camp starts to get serious?) – something captivating enough to distract from possible homesickness. A Snicker Of Magic is a sweet book about making the best of things and feeling at home in the world. It has a colorful setting, a delicious cast of characters, and some of the tastiest language I’ve had the pleasure to read all year.

snicker of magic collage

These two middle grade novels are very different reading experiences, but they have some great qualities in common. They’re both fairly safe bets as far as content goes: no many-teethed monsters or twisted villains to keep kids awake with noises from the woods all night. They have bittersweetly hopeful endings. Sophie, the heroine in Rooftoppers is a scrappy bookworm on a quest to find her mother. Felicity Pickle is a budding poet – a collector of words – with dreadful stage fright, trying to help her mother settle down someplace that makes their family happy.

But while Rooftoppers is told in the third person, keeping with the timeless style of narration, we read A Snicker Of Magic in Felicity’s utternly charming voice. This is a southern story, as home-grown and twangy-sweet as Rooftoppers was classicly British. Natalie Lloyd obviously loves writing; she relishes words and writes beautifully about how everything we say has meaning. Her characters speak in unexpected ways, turning phrases and coining terms to express whatever feelings bubble up behind their tongues.

 “Sometimes I see words hovering around people… The more interesting the person, the more fantastic the words. Words come in all sorts of shapes: stars, spaceships, pretzel words. Some words glow, and some words dance. Sometimes I think I see words people are thinking about, or the words they want. the words that circle around my aunt Cleo’s head are usually words I’m not allowed to say.”

But some people can’t express themselves, and they leave things unsaid. Some people carry around heavy burdens in their duffel bags. Some people eat magical blackberry ice cream to remember happier times, and some people avoid that ice cream because they wish to forget. And some people, like Felicity’s Mama, can’t bear to stay in one place too long, though they can’t find the words to explain why. She left Midnight Gulch when she was young, and has brought her two young daughters back to stay with their no-nonsense, sassy aunt for awhile. But while everyone else in the family can see that Midnight Gulch is a special place, Holly Pickle can’t bear to stick around and put down roots. It’s really too bad, because Felicity feels an instant connection with the vibrant town. Readers will sympathise: it’s a pretty spindiddly place to read about.

Hang on, did I said magical ice cream up there? Yes sir. With flavors like

“Orangie’s Caramel Apple Pie,”

“Virgil’s Get-Outta-My-Face Fudge Ripple,” and

“Andy’s Snickerdoodle Sucker Punch.”

A Snicker Of Magic is full of whimsical little notions like that. The town of Midnight Gulch used to be full of magic: one woman could call up storms. The Ponders could bake bravery into pies. And the legendary Brothers Threadbare could once play music so good that everyone in town would get up to dance even if the musicians were far away. But ever since the Brothers Threadbare parted ways after a disasterous musical duel, Midnight Gulch has lost its magic. As Felicity’s new friend Jonah explains, all that’s left is a “snicker” of magic here and there: little bits of wonder left over. But Felicity’s teacher has decided to stage a “duel” of her own. This time, it will be like a talent show, showcasing the spectacular talents of Midnight Gulch. Jonah thinks that maybe if Felicity performs some of her poetry, her Mama will see that Midnight Gulch is a town worth staying in. But in order to perform, she’ll need some help to get over the fear of sharing the words she collects as they soar around her.

(img source)

I can’t decide if I liked the setting or the characters better in A Snicker Of Magic. Natalie Lloyd is from Tennessee, and her depiction of a quirky Southern town charmed me in spite of my Very Northerner Attitude. But all my local coldness, my foggy unfriendliness, was sent away in a magical gust of wind when I first heard Natalie reading aloud from her book. Midnight Gulch is like a really happy daydream, whereas Rooftoppers was like a starlight night. It’s sweet but not sugar coated, which is why I’m not more critical of the book’s cute-ness. People still struggle in Midnight Gulch. There are failures to deal with and judgements to overcome. In the absence of magic, some of the harsher realities of life have snuck in. But it’s a reslient place, predisposed to beauty, and I love how Felicty takes joy in everything around her.

And the characters. Oh, the characters. First of all, a challenge for anyone who reads A Snicker Of Magic while at summer camp: become The Beedle! Do secret nice things for people, not for credit, just because it’s fun. My favorite story Natalie Lloyd told us earlier this summer was about a class that had read her book aloud, only to have one student take the role of The Beedle upon herself. No one knew who it was, but she whispered it to the author in secret. Consider me impressed. And, as a pirate, I don’t usually like do-goodery! Felicity’s friendship with Jonah is so genuine, because even when they don’t agree they’re able to appreicate how nice it is to have someone who likes you and wants to understand you better. The family tensions between Holly Pickle and her siblings will be recognizable to anyone who has opinionated family members, but no matter how they argue there’s real love holding everyone together. And the minor characters are so much fun. Some of them are silly, some of them are mysterious, and some of them have a bit of tragedy about them. They all make Midnight Gulch what it is, though, and I love that Felicty takes time to get to know so many people. By the end of the book, I would have happily moved to town, myself.

So maybe it’s the setting that makes the characters, and the characters that make the setting. Combined, they make for one uplifting, vibrant, satisfying story. And it’s not the beginning to a series! Glory be! ‘Cause what could be more frustrating than to finish a book at camp, only to find the ending unresolved without access to a library? I’m alarmed just imagining the situation.

For strong readers as young as seven, or for anyone who liked Rooftoppers and wants something good-hearted and smart to cool down with this summer, A Snicker Of Magic is my best suggestion. And for parents who send their kids off with this as a good luck charm, be sure to borrow it when they return. It’s perfect to read aloud, and I can garuntee that this is one book you’ll want to savor more than once. If you read it again, you can you can marvel at how well Natalie Lloyd brings together the pieces of her story. The first time around, drink up the words themselves like melted ice cream.

Summer Camp Rec: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (moving up from Diary of a Wimpy Kid)

Last post, I recommended Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern to anyone who loved The Fault In Our Stars and wanted a similar book to read this summer. But how about something for younger readers who are into faster, sillier books? There’s frequently a disconnect between the kids themselves and the Parents On A Deadline (gotta get books in the bags and the bags on the kids and get the kids in the car and the car to camp). That futile volley of

“Read something new.”
“But I like these books!”
“They won’t last you a day, pick something with more words,”

is a back-and-forth dispute which I can basically follow like a script by now. And the summer’s not even half over! One tenacious fellow finally asked me, “D’you have anything like Diary of a Wimpy Kid but harder?”.

I understand how Jeff Kinney’s series is fun reading. It’s not hard to relate to a humorously downtrodden narrator stumbling through the weirdness of social life. Haplessness loves fictional company. Plus, the illustrations break things up nicely for more reluctant readers who might get daunted by so many pages of just words. Yeah, it’s good to challenge your kid with books, but you want them to actually read the damn thing, too. Especially at camp, where everyone’s exhausting themselves with projects and socializing all day. Pick a book to get excited about when settling down for an hour.

So what could I give to kids who want funny narrators, self-deprecating humor, and illustrations in their books? Something for kids who have outgrown Wimpy Kid, but still told in the conversational manner Kinney does so well?

We have a winner: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

book cover

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian tells the story of Arnold’s first year at high school, and the misadventures therein. Here’s what’s up with Arnold Spirit Jr. (a.k.a. “Junior”): He wants to be a cartoonist. He’s small for his age, with a few birth defects which make him an easy target for bullies. After a disastrous first few weeks at the Spokane reservation high school, he leaves to go to the big all-white school twenty-two miles away. Arnold is a resourceful and determined young lad, and when he sets his mind to leaving he’s not going to let any guilt-tripping or bullying stand in his way. He’s also sarcastic and unapologetically astute with his opinions about himself and the people he knows, at least in his private diary. But at the high school, he’s pretty much the only Indian kid around, and kind of awkward to boot. Not everyone’s interested in making new friends. Most everyone there has more money than his family. Some people back home think that Junior is turning his back on his people by leaving the reservation for school, while the differences between his upbringing and his classmates’ marks him as an outsider in his new surroundings, too. Thus, “A Part-Time Indian”. Even some impressive basketball skills might not be enough to get him accepted, but he’s determined to find a place to belong against all the odds.

Since The Absolutley True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is about a high-school student, the subject matter in Alexie’s book is obviously a little more mature than those illustrated confessionals set in middle-schools. The book has actually been challenged and banned in a number of schools around the country for its portrayal of racism, alcoholism, sexual content, and offensive language.

[Sarcasm warning!] ‘Cause we can’t acknowledge that teenagers being wrung through a cycle of hormonal upheaval would ever swear or think dirty thoughts. Heavens forbid. And let’s do our best to ignore how tons of American conventions and icons make use of offensive Indian stereotypes. Junior dryly calls the white community out on common, ignorant displays of utter disregard for diverse cultural awareness. What?!? A kid mentioning the micro-aggressions he encounters every single day in his journal? How unexpected! And Junior’s life on the reservation is bleak? Oh dear! It’s almost as though the country has marginalized entire groups of people and then turned a blind eye to the ensuing difficulties. Can’t have that in our kids’ books, can we?!? [End sarcasm.] I’ll stop whining about ignorance and censorship now, before I get into full book-dragon mode. Suffice to say: Junior faces real issues in the book, and readers get exposed to important cultural perspectives on American attitudes which we should have re-evaluated centuries ago.

And did I mention that the book is funny? Because it might sound all biting and serious right now, but Junior is one hilarious narrator. He can laugh at himself and look back on mistakes as stories. Maybe that’s the part of him that wants to write cartoons. And he’s a thoughtful, sincere kid, too. People can be real jerks, purposefully or not, but he’s willing to see things from the other side and will admit when he’s been wrong to judge somebody. The diary-style format is great for these moments, because we get to watch his personality grow in real time.

Sherman Alexie is a fantastic writer and he’s not going to go all moralizing. No hitting kids over the head with tragic facts. Instead, he gives us a really likable hero on the sort of personal journey so many readers have had to face themselves. Things go wrong in Junior’s life, but he faces everything with strength and wit and good perspective. And when things do go right for him, its hard not to throw a victorious air-punch and shout “woo!” wherever you’re reading.

I think that The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian would be a good choice for kids who are going start high-school soon. Part of the appeal in reading these journal-style books is the camaraderie you feel with the main character. Moving to a more grown-up school can be really daunting, but with a friend like Junior paving the way they’ll know how to face any situation with a sense of humor and an eye to how every mishap can inspire a great story. This will probably be one of those books that gets passed from friend to friend at summer camp, until everyone feels like they’ve shared in Junior’s year of ups and downs. Between the easy language and the unflinching point of view, Sherman Alexie doesn’t talk down to kids or hide anything from them. He’s right at the perfect level, writing with warm respect and all the sharply poetic irony which shines in his writing for adults. (If you haven’t read any of his short stories yet, you’re missing out. Go read them now!)

So when somebody doesn’t want to branch out from the style of the Wimpy Kid diaries, but has outgrown that particular series, give Arnold Spirit Jr. a try. It could be like cramming a friend into a backpack and hearing his crazy life story whenever things get dull. That’s a weird image, but I think you get the point.

Screenshot 2014-07-06 21.36.52

Proof that Sherman Alexie is funny and kind of perfect. Look at the homepage of his website! (I might have a little brain-crush on the man. He loves local bookshops after all.)

Summer Camp Rec: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (if you liked The Fault In Our Stars)

Oh, right, summer camp is a thing… And the season is upon us! All of a sudden, school is out and young people are being shipped off to learn how to despise teamwork, or shoot arrows at hay bales, or bathe in bugspray to no avail. At least, that’s what I remember about my own experiences at Girl Scout camp so very long ago. I also remember the one hour of “me time” each afternoon, when we would hide in our mosquito netting and write letters to other friends at other camps, read, or nap. I always ran out of books halfway through the week and had to write my own stories for the remaining muggy, buggy days. There’s a strange joy in hiding in one’s sleeping bag – nearly suffocating – to read with a penlight after everyone’s supposed to be asleep.

These past few weeks I’ve had a parade of kids, teens, and parents coming to the bookshop to stock up for a week or month of summer adventures away from home. I guess quiet breaks are still part of daily life, and electronics aren’t encouraged at a lot of camps, so entertaining books are in high demand! Huzzah! Occasionally, I get asked for recommendations, either by kids who just don’t know what to read next or by parents who aren’t sure what would fit comfortably with their child’s interests. This is pretty much my favorite kind of question to get at work.

So, if you’re not sure what to pack for a few weeks away from home, I’ve got some suggestions. I always ask, “What’s the last book you/your kid really liked?” before I recommend something.  (Tip to parents: talk to your damn kids!  Find out what they’ve actually enjoyed reading!  You might find that they’re not such mysterious creatures after all.) Over the next few days, I’m going to post some of my favorite books to add to kids’ overstuffed backpacks, based on the most popular requests.

 

***********
If you liked… The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene

tfios

Ok, so this book is absurdly popular right now.  I liked it very much when I read it a couple of years ago (though I like Green’s An Abundance of Katherines better, because it’s so freakin’ funny).  But it’s a little weird that everyone is either heading straight for this book or looking for something just like it.  I guess this means the movie was good?  (I haven’t seen it yet but I should.)  Or a lot of customers have heard all about it and just have to know what made their friends talk so passionately about fictional teenagers.  When I’m asked for a book similar to The Fault In Our Stars I try not to limit my suggestion to only more John Green books.  People can work that out on their own.  My current favorite book of a similar theme and genre is Cammie McGovern’s book Say What You Will.

a.k.a. Amy & Matthew for all you British readers

a.k.a. Amy & Matthew for all you British readers

It’s another realistic YA novel with an actual believable romance between characters dealing with real-life stuff beyond the average high school drama.   In his senior year, Matthew gets a job helping out a girl in his grade with cerebral palsy.  It’s a big deal for him to do something like that, since his unrecognized OCD symptoms make certain parts of daily life really difficult.  But Amy liked the fact that he wasn’t so falsely up-beat around her as most everyone else, and asked him to give it a try.

As for Amy, she wants to have a year of school without an adult aide following her around everywhere. Matthew was right: it keeps her from making real friends.  Amy needs help with her mobility and uses a computer to communicate, but she’s smart and funny and tired of being “an inspiration” to people who don’t really know her.  With Matthew and her other new helpers, Amy hopes to make actual friends who could get to know the real her. High school social life isn’t so straightforward as Amy imagined, though, and the characters she meets through Matthew and the others are all going through their own difficulties, some more nicely than others.  Amy’s knack for understanding other people makes her want to help Matthew work through his mental illness and confront the parts of himself he tries to silence.  As they reveal more of their true selves to one another, Amy and Matthew run the risk of falling too hard and shattering the most important friendship in their lives.

I like Say What You Will for several reasons.  First of all, disabled characters as actual characters!  And not only does Amy have a vivid personality, she expressly reacts against peoples’ pity and falseness around her when they don’t know how to behave through their discomfort.  Reading her thoughts makes it clear that patience and effort are the most important thing when trying to relate to people – not false cheeriness.  The interactions between Amy (whose disability is immediately apparent), and Matthew (who tries to hide his inner turmoil) are honest; with all the hidden angst and sharp humor you would expect between two smart teenagers.

In fact, pretty much everyone seems real and human.  There are no real villains in this book, just people who make the wrong choices, or (even worse) people who are doing things for all the wrong reasons.  Teenage characters totally steal the show, like they do in John Green’s books, but the grown-ups have their own moments and mistakes here, too.  It’s a great illustration of how everyone’s just trying to get by the best they can, and how important it is to tell people that they’re important to you.

But it’s not just an introspective character study: there’s drama and miscommunication, prom disasters, smuggled booze, cinema hide-outs, and embarrassing technological malfunctions.  A great deal of Amy and Matthew’s communication exists through e-mail and text, since they’re often separated and talking doesn’t always come easy to the couple.  Near the end of the book, one crisis after another makes it seem like everything might fall apart.  But, unlike in everyone’s favorite Tragedy Of The Summer up there (even though The Fault In Our Stars actually came out in 2012), the stars are a little kinder to our sweet couple in Cammie McGovern’s book.

Teens who liked the complex teenagers making their own damn [hard] decisions in TFIOS will probably appreciate the imperfect but thoughtful characters in Say What You Will.  Those of you who want to read more about young people struggling through difficult experiences – doing so without the author throwing them a pity-party – will find a careful and heartfelt depiction of what it’s like to live with extra obstacles in every single day.  Say What You Will takes place over a year and then some, so it’s not technically a summer book.  But it would make a great camp read because the characters are addicting – readers will want to hang out with them some more and find out what they do next – but the story is realistic and touching and fun.

No unexpected horrors lie within these pages, so you won’t be hearing scary noises outside your cabin at night unless there really is something out there.  (Sorry, campers. Noises are part of the fun, but your books don’t have to make it worse.)  And the summer scenes are pretty wonderful: lots of sneaking around behind  meddlesome parents’ backs.  So, you know, real stuff.  Just written into a touching, funny, strong story.  Pack a second book if you’re heading away for a week or more, though, because Say What You Will is a fast read which will be over too soon once you become a part of Amy and Matthew’s friendship.

Book Review: Queen Of The Tearling by Erika Johansen

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 1/2  stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

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

Age range recommendation: 14 and up (Medieval violence including sexual violence.)

Let it thus be known: I read an advanced copy of this book, and some details may have changed before the official release on July 8, 2014.

It’s been an weirdly long time since I read a novel set in your typical fantasy world, with queens; outlaws; and miserable serfs. I can’t remember the last time I sat in the Fantasy section at the library with a heavy paperback – cheesy illustrated cover and all –open on my lap. While The Queen Of The Tearling brought me right back to the familiar world of contested borders and names I can’t pronounce, I’m struggling to find a category for it in my head. The world and logic weren’t described clearly enough for me to associate it with those extensive, detailed series. And while the writing; characters; and plot were more right for the YA market, certain “mature” details would prevent me from recommending it to anyone under 14. (I don’t always like the term “mature” when it comes to saying that there’s NSFW content, because I know plenty of younger readers who have better critical reading skills than most adults. The point here is: there’s a bit of grossness that’s definitely not for children.) Basically, The Queen Of The Tearling was a fairly quick read with a decent plot, but it doesn’t promise anything new or exciting for habitual browsers of the fantasy shelves.

We first meet Kelsea near woodland cottage where she was raised in hiding by adoptive parents. The Queens Guard, a troop of her mother’s dedicated knights, have come to bring her back to the castle. Kelsea just turned nineteen, and so it’s time for her to become queen. Even though Barty and Carlin taught Kelsea as much as they could about nature, humanity, and The Tearling, she still feels completely unprepared to fill her mother’s powerful shoes. Actually, they were probably just fancy shoes; Kelesa’s started to notice that her mother wasn’t a very good queen at all, and has resolved not to be so vain and out of touch with her own people.

Their journey to the keep is a long one, endangered by her guards’ certainty that the current regent – Kelsea’s uncle – will try to kill her en route rather than give up his power. Throw in some dashing outlaws; scary assassins; and bloodthirsty hawks, and it’s a miracle she makes it to the throne at all. Growing up isolated from the kingdom, Kelsea had no idea how badly the general population was doing. Her subjects are treated as bargaining chips by the corrupt court in an attempt to keep the the domineering neighbor kingdom’s evil “Red Queen” at bay. The Tearling needs a True Queen and it needs one fast. But in order to help her people, Kelsea will have to remain true to herself while everyone nearby tries to sway her to suit their own needs.

I assume that The Queen Of The Tearling is the beginning of a series – or maybe a trilogy – because the history and nature of Erika Johansen’s world only came through in partial references throughout this first installment. From what I gathered, The Queen Of The Tearling takes place in the future, with mankind there being descended from people who left our known Earth in “The Crossing.” When was the crossing, exactly? What did William Tear and the other emigrants even cross? An ocean? A magical portal? Space? I’m still not quite sure. What I do understand is that William Tear brought along some utopian Americans and British, and attempted to establish a new colony where things would be simpler. Based on the presence of other races and countries in the new world – Mortmesne seems to have a lot of French influence I think – there must have been some other groups who made the journey for various reasons.

By the time Kelsea comes into power, the high ideals brought over by settlers have regressed into a medieval type of society. Few people can read, all the medical science went down in one sinking ship, and the Red Queen of Mortmesne has spent over a century terrorizing neighboring countries into submission. How has she lived for so long? The answer to that is just as mysterious as the reasons for her cruelty. Despite the several chapters illustrating just how wicked the Red Queen is, there’s no point in this book which clarified her motives.

And then there’s the question of these magical jewels Kelsea inherits, which have unexpected control over some situations. Kelsea is only just discovering their uses as she learns to be queen – figuring out everything as she goes along – but by the end of the book I was less curious about their magical properties and more frustrated with them. Fantasy worlds should still have rules, but it seems we’ll have to wait for another book to learn how they work. Twinned relics containing some sort of destiny aren’t too surprising in fantasy literature. It will be hard to justify their use without some really unique twist about their powers in some future installment.

The writing was just so-so: it could get dully obvious at times, but wasn’t noticeably bad. The characters, on the other hand, were sympathetic in some cases and completely flat in others. Kelsea’s struggle to make the right decisions and her attempts to inspire loyalty without fear were certainly noble, though her disdain for vanity almost came off as snobbish at times. I did like her enthusiasm for literacy, and the fact that she didn’t get entangled into any sordid romance during the book. Nearly everyone at court was so shallow they barely stuck in my mind, though Kelsea’s lady-in-waiting might show some secret bad-ass-ery later on. “The Fetch”, our dashing outlaw, is a similar case: he has the potential to become a really fun folk-hero or a force to be reckoned with, but in this book he just appeared and disappeared without much rhyme or reason. Most minor characters either faded into part of the scenery or stood out as a stereotype. A few exceptions would include the priest who is supposed to spy on Kelsea (his love for learning made his moral dilemma easier to forgive), the gate guard who damns himself by assisting a traitor (he wants to do the right thing but is desperate to save his wife), and the Mace – Kelsea’s main guard.

The Mace was easily my favorite character. Even though he keeps much of his past a big secret I thought he had more depth than anyone else. The Queen’s Guard definitely gets the most page-time besides Kelsea herself. In fact, I might have preferred to read a book all about their own part in the growing political unrest. Not all of the guard members were fully developed characters, but their actions were genuine and I actually cared about what might happen to them. The only time I felt truly distraught at any character’s misfortune was in relation to the Queen’s Guard. They were also the most grown-up element of the book.

The Queen Of The Tearling was an entertaining diversion into familiar fantasy grounds. I liked some of the characters and appreciated the lack of any one-true-love nonsense. Erika Johansen’s ideas about how society will fall back into past patterns when starting anew made a good basis for a fantasy setting, and I wish that she had developed the background of that world better before finishing her debut. While I won’t be recommending this book to readers looking for something similar to those heavy series out there right now, I can see it acting as a gateway to more intricate fantasy novels for slightly tentative fans.

Will I be racing to read the sequel when it comes out? Probably not. Next time I want to read about courtly intrigue, I’ll finally get to reading Dark Triumph, the sequel to Robin LaFever’s Grave Mercy. That series about assassin nuns in medieval Brittany has excellent writing and a really smart grasp of history. That being said, The Queen Of The Tearling is a fast read with the potential to grow into a darkly enjoyable series.