Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

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How does everything Helen Oyeyemi touches turn to gold? Her writing follows some fairy tale logic that meanders off the road, yet never leads you astray. I was smitten with Boy, Snow, Bird and White Is For Witching. I was beyond enchanted by the stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. And I keep coming back for more, an addict, forever surprised by a writer who refuses to get comfortable in any of the nice neat categories that I create in my head.

Here’s the thing about Gingerbread: you’ve got to read it for style, for character, for the shining observations that dazzle throughout. Don’t go in looking for the sort of plot that makes you think “oh, of course!” as you contentedly turn the last page. Suspend your disbelief. In fact, just toss your disbelief into the air, let it hover, and forget about it entirely.

Oyeyemi’s worlds are very like our own, rife with everyday things like London, PTA meetings, and drunk voicemails. But there’s also the hard-to-pin-down (but very real) country of Druhástrana, changeling children hanging out in wells, and houses built by industrious fireflies. Don’t ask me how a book can so charmingly accommodate descriptions of child labor exploitation all the while a sweetly sinister friendship unfolds. In Helen Oyeyemi’s capable hands, you can go from a simmering rage about injustice to delight at a turn of phrase within a sentence or two. I think she may be a wizard of some kind, a warmer Herr Drosselmeyer who has perfect control over the whole stage even when the set feels larger (or smaller) than life.

I realize I’ve not given a proper description of what Gingerbread is actually about, and to be frank I don’t think I’m up for the task. It’s about mothers and daughters and granddaughters, about farms and cities, about extended families doing good deeds for bad reasons. It starts in England, where Harriet’s daughter Perdita has eaten an unusual batch of gingerbread and goes into a coma, supposedly trying to find the country where her mother and grandmother grew up. We then get to witness a friendship form between two young Druhástranian girls, one of whom’s mother happens to own the gingerbread factory where the other toils away.  And then there’s the Kerchevals back in England again, the extremely rich family of dubious origins who take in Harriet and her mother with far-reaching consequences. Margot and Harriet and Perdita are subjected to bullying, heartbreak, betrayals, and poverty. They revel in beautiful spaces and form unbreakable bonds. And all the while there’s gingerbread, gingerbread, gingerbread: in tins in London, in the Kercheval’s kitchen at three am, in Druhá city boutiques and way back in Margot’s old farmhouse.

A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge.

This is not a revenge story, but neither is it a love story, or the sort of allegory aimed to smash you over the head. It’s a fairy tale and a contemporary novel and something so much more delicious than either. I don’t know, they should invent a new genre for whatever Helen Oyeyemi does. She does it very well indeed.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

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Currently Reading: Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers

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Remember how much I liked Grave Mercy? It was years ago, and I never wrote reviews for the other two books in Robin LaFever’s excellent His Fair Assassin trilogy, but the stories of Ismae, Sybella, and Annith have stuck with me for ages and have, quite honestly, made other historical fantasies pale in comparison. So imagine my joy when I saw, newly arrived on our YA shelves, Courting Darkness!

I’d been in a book slump ever since finishing Normal People. I needed something gripping, intricate, and not so close to home.  Enter my old assasin-nun friends, the girls I’d grown to love over three books and miss terribly in their absence. Even better, we get to meet new characters with connections to Saint Mortain in Courting Darkness.  I’m already so invested in the betrayals and connections at court, and can’t wait to read more tonight.

It did take me a few minutes to re-adjust myself in the world of 15th century France and Brittany.  Luckily for those of us who don’t have such canny memories, Robin LaFevers’ website has quite a lot of helpful information. A quick break to absorb it all and I was right back in the action (and the romance, and the drama… all that good stuff.)

I’ll try to post an actual review when I’ve finished the book. I imagine it will be soon. It’s been so long since I dove headfirst into a time-period and setting so rich as this, and I’m so happy to be back.

Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney’s novels have away of finding me right when I need them most, and they always hurt my feelings.  There’s not much I can say about Normal People that other reviewers haven’t already said, so I’ll be brief.

I liked Conversations With Friends quite a lot when I read it this time last year, though again I took it right to heart and needed a moment to recover after. On the surface, Normal People is very – almost overly – similar, in style and structure especially.  Normal People also focuses on the internal workings of some complicated and intense relationships. The settings are even similar: Trinity College, a summer house abroad…  But Rooney’s already good writing has improved tenfold in this second offering. Her characters feel so real I miss them. And the joys and anguish they suffer through, though dramatic, are flawless mirrors held up to the experiences of so many individuals learning to be adults and trying to be people.

The plot, quickly, is as follows: Connell and Marianne are schoolmates in county Sligo. He’s quiet but popular, concerned about how others perceive him, secretly intellectual.  She’s friendless and refuses to alter her abrasive personality to remedy this. Normally the two of them would never come into contact, but Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house for a living and in this pocket of the world the two become something like friends, something like lovers.  The narrative skips ahead days, weeks, months every chapter to show us the progressions and regressions of their entanglement. Eventually, both characters are students at Trinity, where Marianne has found herself among like-minded people and Connell feels isolated. Though their circumstances have changed, their fraught reliance on one another has not.

We follow Marianne through abuse, genius, friendships, and attempted self-destruction. We watch Connell struggle with class, creativity, love, and depression. All the while, I was desperately hoping they’d be there for each other. And sometimes they are.

Even though the characters in Normal People are teenagers, it’s definitely a book for adults. I would have enjoyed it as a young person, but part of the magic here is that they were slightly younger than me, and I felt oddly protective of their feelings even while they were destroying mine.  (There’s also quite a lot of sex and misery, so, like, not a book for people under 13.)

It will take me a few weeks to get my heart back on straight(ish) after reading this.  Normal People comes out in the states this April. Buy it – locally! independently! – and fall right in.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

“Tell Alice to stay the hell away from the Hazel Wood.”  That’s Ella Proserpine’s message to her daughter while she’s being kidnapped by nasty characters from a fairy tale.  Naturally, Alice heads straight for the Hazel Wood to find her mom. It’s way weirder there than even I expected.

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Characters: 5 stars

Plot: 4 stars

Writing: 4 stars

Overall: 4 1/2 stars

The Hazel Wood is Melisa Albert’s first novel, and I’m extremely signed up to read whatever she puts out in the future.  Think a grown-up Inkheart (my fav) but with Holly Black’s gritty teenage heroines and only the most brutal fairy tales from Andersen and Grimm.  If your response that that particular literary cocktail is hell yes, you’ll love The Hazel Wood.  If, instead, it’s that sounds like a bit much and also I’m not too great at suspending my disbelief for hundreds of pages, then I advise you to look elsewhere, because this book is indeed A Bit Much.

(Quick side note: I fell hard for the cover and the title alone. W.B. Yeats quotes are the key to my affections.)

The story starts with Alice Proserpine and her mom tentatively setting into a life in Manhattan after a lifetime of being on the run. Bad luck follows them wherever they go, ever since Alice can remember. The dark cloud that seeks them out seems to be connected with Ella’s mother, Althea Proserpine, the famously reclusive author whose book of stories Tales From The Hinterland has gained a cult following despite the near impossibility of tracking down a copy.  The red-haired man who briefly kidnapped Alice when she was a little girl was one such devotee.  Ellery Finch, the adorable and intense boy from school who wants to be part of Alice’s story, is another. Ellery craves the dark inevitability of Althea’s fairy tales, the magic that defies common sense but still follows rules of its own.

I adored the young lad, even though I knew from the beginning that his enthusiasm would lead him astray.  Alice starts out less convinced. But when Ella disappears she needs his help to track down a copy of the book and find The Hazel Wood, the un-mappable estate where Althea Proserpine hid away from the world to write and smoke and be mysteriously glamorous.

Ellery Finch and Alice Proserpine throw their lots in together, for better or horrifyingly worse, and find their way to a fairy tale forest.  The Hazel Wood and the Hinterland beyond are built entirely on story, with the tales from Althea’s book holding the world together, playing out for eternity while “refugees,” or other people who found their way in, make lives for themselves in the space that’s left over.

I can’t share too many of my feelings about this book without spoiling the many twists, but in short, here’s why I liked it: Complex mother-daughter relationships! Magnetic and selfish lady-authors who will do anything for a story! Super angry teenage girls who are trying to control their rage! A reference to Boy Snow Bird! Love stories that don’t work out at all! Road trips! Original fairy tales that feel like classics!

I think that’s what I liked the most about The Hazel Wood: Melissa Albert clearly loves fairy tales, particularly the creepy ones, and she damn well knows how to write one.  I want to read Tales From The Hinterland now, even if it means I might become dangerously obsessed.

Wildfire At Midnight by Mary Stewart

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Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Writing:***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Oh, hello, it’s been nearly a year since I re-visited this dusty old page. I’ve moved house and made some Frighteningly Big Life Decisions in the meantime, so please forgive the lapse.

Big changes in life bring with them an urgent need for escapist literature and comfort reading, and I’ve started 2018 with a large dose of each. Just this evening I finished reading Mary Stewart’s Wildfire At Midnight. Mary Stewart wrote The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, etc: Arthurian fantasies my dad gave me to read as a pre-teen. I ate those up, so I can’t believe this book had escaped my notice until I found it just this week, in a four-volume hardcover from the library, patiently awaiting my attention with all it’s descriptions of Skye landscapes and Scottish hotels and ritual murder. (These are a few of my favorite things…)

Gianetta Brooke, our heroine, is a young dress-model, divorced from a proud writer-type and looking for a rest from the bustle of 1950s London. Her mother suggests a trip to a nice hotel in Camas Fhionnaridh – or Camasunary – on Skye. “…it’s at the back of beyond, so you go there, darling, and have a lovely time with the birds and the – the water, or whatever you said you wanted.” Reached by boat, beautiful, mountainous, and remote, Camasunary is exactly the majestic, timeless setting you would want for a trip to untamed Scotland.  Also a great location for a series of COMPLETELY BONKERS MURDERS.

When Gianetta arrives at the hotel, she is dismayed to learn that a local teenager was murdered in a style that can only be described as “sacrificial,” her body laid out on a bonfire on the inhospitable face of the Blaven mountain. Possibly even more upsetting, Gianetta’s ex-husband Nicholas is a guest at the hotel, acting smug and flirting with a famous guest. In fact, all of the hotel guests are fascinating and unexpected people: an accomplished mountaineer, two women excited to “conquer” the peaks, a couple whose marriage is on the rocks, a travel writer with a pseudonym, a handsome country man, an admiral with a staunch moral code… If you’re thinking this is a great, albeit slightly predictable, set-up for a closed-room detective story, you’re entirely correct.

What Wildfire At Midnight lacks in originality of plot it makes up for in sumptuous descriptions of mountains lakes, bogs, the sky, and the birds that fly in it. Even while Gianetta discovers body after body, the scenery demands attention. Rightly so, too, because in the end, those peaks and lochs directly inform the method and meaning behind the murders. The traditional twists of “oh I know it’s that guy who did it,” and, inevitably, “wait, no, I was wrong?” made me way more jumpy when a choking mist has blinded our narrator from the murderer in pursuit. And I say this as someone who has spent not a little time in big, old, mostly empty Scottish hotels: A+ atmosphere on the interiors as well.

Gianetta isn’t as strong a main character as some of Mary Stewart’s other women, true, but I admired her determination to know the truth. Even when the police arrive at the scene, Gianetta is determined to keep searching, keep helping, keep smoking like a chimney. Her naturally generous disposition balances out other characters’ animosity towards one another (though who can blame them, since someone in the hotel is a crazed murderer). Even so, when push comes to treacherous shove, she’s a resourceful girl, heroic to the end of this city-girl-in-heathen-wilderness mystery novel story that kept me riveted and rather nervous until the last page.

Not quite so comforting as I’d intended, perhaps, but definitely an escape from my surroundings.

Now I’ve got to seriously commit myself to posting at least two reviews a year, which will be an improvement on my past streak. Apologies, appreciation, and adieu.

Book Review: Words In Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(Be it known that I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book and some things may change before publication.)

I liked this book.  It’s realistic, somewhat romantic, somewhat nerdy YA.  It’s Australian, so the seasons were confusing. It’s about the ocean.

Words In Deep Blue was nice and distracting after I devoured Jessica Mitford’s (also delightful) Hons and Rebels, which got me a little worked up about politics and history repeating itself, etc.  Cath Crowley’s book was entirely amusing and touching without weighing too heavily on my mind.

Rachel’s brother drowned.  That’s the beginning.  Her brother Cal drowned and now she can’t go near the ocean, even though the ocean had always been her favorite place, the thing she loved most.  This book has a lot of love in it.  Siblings who want each other to be happy.  Parents who don’t know how to help, but will do whatever they can, even when their own lives are in shambles.  Parents who kind of drop the ball but there’s love there, too.  Love for literature, for Dickens, for Borges, for classics mixed with Zombies, for books about fish.  Nearly half the story takes place in a second hand bookshop, where customers leave letters between their favorite pages.

If that’s not romantic enough for you,there’s a love story between young people, too.  Several pairs of love stories, really.  Rachel and Henry, who used to be best friends, who stopped speaking after a miscommunication that wasn’t quite so tragic as Tess Durbyfield’s letter-under-the-door incident, but isn’t too far away from it, either.  The two of them were very perfect for each other, but he was in love with Amy, beautiful and inconsistent. Henry never replied to Rachel’s love letter when she and Cal moved to the shore, so she decided they weren’t meant to be together, not even as friends.

So now that Rachel has returned to town, and is even working at Howling books, owned by Henry’s family, things are…tense between them.  She’s hostile and rude.  He’s clueless.  She hasn’t told any of her old friends that Cal died, but it’s keeping her from finding joy in anything.  Poor Henry is just confused because Amy dumped him and his heart’s broken and his separated parents might sell the bookshop and his best friend came back after over a year but she’s practically a different person. “Poor Henry,” I thought to myself every twenty pages or so, reading Words In Deep Blue in the Dublin Airport.  Poor young man who loves T.S. Eliot and loves his family and isn’t very good at dealing with girls.  But man, poor Rachel, who doesn’t even believe in ghosts but dreams of her brother and finds his handwriting in the letter library at Howling Books.  That girl has had it rough.

Then there are the fun entanglements, the courtship between endearing Martin and Henry’s gothy sister George, thrown together at the bookshop, butting heads.  Amy and her dickhead new boyfriend, who truly deserve each other, even while Henry thinks he would do anything to get her back.  Rachel and Henry’s friend Lola, whose band mate might be moving on without her, is a supporting character straight out of all the best romantic comedies – she has the answers to everyone’s mistakes except for her own.

The book is funny and sweet even while it’s full of grief.  The “deep blue” of the title strikes me as a reference to the darker parts of the ocean, the unknown parts of the earth that so fascinated Cal.  Rachel and Cal loved learning about the ocean.  Before she failed out of year 12, she earned excellent grades and wanted to study marine biology.  But her passion and drive abandoned her when Cal died, and the loss of those loves along with the obvious love of a little brother makes her grief so pointed and sympathetic.

We are the books we read and the things we love.  Cal is the ocean and the letters he left.  Our ghosts hide in the things we leave behind.” (p. 258 of galley.)

I’m sure there are several Big Ideas you could take away from Words In Deep Blue.  Support your goddamn local independent bookshop, for one!  Tell people how you feel about them because no one can wait forever to find out.  But the barb that has stuck most solidly into my heart is this: you can re-join the living without forgetting who you lost.

Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *

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

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

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

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

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

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

YA Books To Buy For Your Graduation Gifts

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

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

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

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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

2. Rebel Of The Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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

3. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

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

 

Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris part II: Unbecoming

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

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Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In The Café Of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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