Happy February! I hope you all have tolerable months, or that at least all your troubles will be confined to the mere 27 days left stretching ahead of us, and thus over soon.
“February is the shortest month of the year, so if you are having a miserable month, try to schedule it for February.” – Lemony Snicket
There are a ton of exciting books on the horizon for this spring, and I can’t wait to see them on the shelves at my bookshop. Prepare yourselves to have hardcovers lobbed at your heads. (Can we really count February as early spring? It’s more the depths of an unfeeling, cheerless winter, just with blessed daylight past four in the afternoon. Whenever the sun can get through the gathering snowclouds…) I get so focused on new and wonderful children’s books every season, sometimes I feel like the books for grown-ups don’t get nearly enough celebration. So here are three non-children’s books that will be released into the world this month, and I’ll be recommending them right and left. Loading them into cannons and aiming at likely readers. I’ll volley them at certain teens, too, because age barriers are for the unimaginative. And anyway, each of these books feature young people in some context or another, struggling against forgetful families; ocean storms; or chess pieces made from butter.
(A note: the copies I read of Of Things Gone Astray and Get In Trouble were advanced reader’s editions, and some details may have changed before publication.)
I read Of Things Gone Astray many months ago – before the Christmas craziness and in a much more peaceful frame of mind – so the magic of it has had some time to settle. Several characters, seemingly with little to no connections to one another, wake up one morning to discover that they’ve lost something important to them. Their sense of direction, or the keys on their piano, or the front of their house, or their connection with their child. I think my little blurb for HarperCollins sums up my thoughts. The book takes place in London, and oh boy do you wish you were in England as you read it. Very charming, very thoughtful, and wonderfully strange; you need many cups of tea and a sunny armchair for this reading experience.
The elements of magical realism in Of Things Gone Astray are enchanting but mostly subdued. It was fun to see how each different character tried to cope with the sudden, inexplicable losses. Some get flustered. Some turn into trees. Some bake cake in case of tea-time visitors. I’ll be recommending this book to people who don’t usually go for a touch of fantasy in their stories, as the all-too-feasible personal dilemmas that drive the intertwined plot appear in every recognizable corner of every day life.
I’ve been a fan of Kelly Link’s writing for a while. Her collection Magic For Beginners delighted me beyond measure from the first story (“The Faery Handbag,” which is actually set in a thrift shop I used to frequent), and her stories for young adults in Pretty Monsters are pretty indeed. And pretty twisted, too. Get In Trouble will come out on February 10th, so get ready for some of the weirdest short stories to ever parade in front of your eyes. And good luck turning your gaze away, because they’re mesmerizing in their oddity.
Short story collections are usually a little hit-or-miss in their quality, so naturally there are a few pieces in Get In Trouble that stand out as the best, and one or two with which I had trouble connecting. A few of my favorites: “The Summer People,” opens the book and appealed instantly to my creepy-faery-story loving self, with its strange house and enticing illusions. “Secret Identity” is a new twist on the Superhero genre, poking fun at themed conventions and involving the aforementioned butter chess set. “Valley Of The Girls” features a cast of spoiled young people hanging out in the lavish pyramids, built early for their eventual afterlives. Take Bret Easton Ellis’s reprehensible characters and stick them in futuristic ancient Egypt (yes I understand the paradox there), and you’ll get a taste of this opulent, satirically awkward, and inventive story. “The New Boyfriend” was about teenaged girls and ghosts and secrets. I would have read a whole novel based on that short story. If Kelly Link and Maggie Stiefvater ever got together to collaborate, I feel like those unnerving events would come true just from sheer force of those ladies’ awesome powers. Finally, “Two Houses” is a layered cross-section of tales, each one so quick to drag you down you forget what brought you to such a scene in the first place. Dreamlike; horrifying; tragic; and set in space, I’ve carried the after-effects of that story with me ever since I finished reading Get In Trouble.
There’s so much here that’s worth re-reading. This collection might be a hard sell to people who don’t find themselves drawn to the wackier side of magical realism (unlike Of Things Gone Astray, which even staunch realists might enjoy), but I’m going to keep recommending it anyway.
And now we’ve come to We Are Pirates. This book has simultaneously ruined my year and entertained me to no end. The premise sunk me into the pits of despair, but the writing perfectly put my own thoughts onto paper in sentences that were a damned joy to read. This book is my sworn enemy, but I wish it had been around when I was a teenager, because it is exactly what I needed back then.
Here’s the dilemma: Daniel Handler has written a modern pirate story almost exactly like the modern pirate story I was writing. The main character is a restless and disenchanted fourteen-year-old girl. Same. The rag-tag crew of scallywags against the world steal a rigged-out ship and fail spectacularly to sail it into the distance. Same. Their chosen victims refuse to prepare to be boarded. Check mark in the ledger for stuff being the same. Even the boots and coat our heroine Gwen sports during her life of small crimes are spot-on. They quote from classic works of pirate fiction all over the place! So many references, even, that I’m sure to have missed some. I know that in the acknowledgements, Mr. Handler mentions Captain Blood and A High Wind In Jamaica specifically. The latter of those is my bloody staff pick at the bookshop, by Jove! My own 3/4 of a drafted novel is full of those very same references, trying to capture the very same sentiment. That sentiment being: Life is a mess and adults have no clue what they’re doing. Piracy might be the only tolerable option.
I suppose there’s a sort of welcome commiseration to be found in the knowledge that one of my favorite authors dwells on the same anachronistic notions of violent, salty glory as me. In a way, he has put teenaged Sarah’s troubles into words. But only, if only, We Are Pirates had been released a decade ago, I might not have labored so hard on my own documentation of that same zeal for the old stories, and the craving for a knife in the hand and the wind at one’s back.
To stop whining on about my own misfortune: We Are Pirates is actually an adult book (mine will someday be for middle-schoolers) and deals with some other more mature themes than ransacking the “high seas” of San Francisco. Half the book focuses on Gwen’s father, Phil Needle, who is having – if possible – an even harder time navigating the fraught waters of radio production, extra-marital affairs, and parenthood. There’s that constant theme of grown-ups refusing to take young people seriously until it might be too late: a.k.a. my favorite subject for all fiction.
I don’t honestly know how many other people will react to We Are Pirates as enthusiastically as I did. I ought to challenge Daniel Handler to a duel for sneaking thoughts out of my head while I was sleeping, but at the same time I was pleased as a pufferfish to read a story I could relate to so strongly. (Gwen’s chapters were far more interesting than Phil’s, to me.) None the less, I feel it my duty as a fellow buccaneer to recommend We Are Pirates to people this February, in the hopes that at least now fewer customers might ask that tiresome question: “Why are you dressed as Charles II?” when I’m wearing my captain-y boots and coat on a Friday. The answer should be obvious.
Finally, A Bonus Book I Haven’t Read Yet:
Neil Gaiman’s new collection of “short fictions and disturbances” is out this month. I haven’t had a chance to look at a copy yet, but rest assured that any and all plans will be cancelled the first day I see it on the shelves. If you have lunch plans with me that afternoon, or expect entertaining conversation in the evening, sorry but I’ll be reading. And I’m not even that sorry, because if you’re friends with me, you’ll probably be reading too.