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.

 

 

Book Review: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-14

I’m so excited that Alice Hoffman is putting out another novel for young people!  I loved her books when I was a teenager.  She captures moments of “everyday magic” like fireflies in jars, and puts them on bookshelves to shed light on the little magical corners of mundane life.  Cursed girls, powerful sisters, dangerous misconceptions: these are common, timeless themes in Hoffman’s books.  Nightbird is like a little jam jar, stuffed to the brim with twinkling lights, that can be put on the shelf next to her more weighty books or placed on a child’s windowsill to shine alone.  (Forgive the fireflies in jars metaphor.  Night Bird made me miss the summertime.)

Nightbird is a middle grade book, appropriate for ages 8 and up.  It will come out in March, 2015.  I read an ARC of the book, so some details may change before publication.

Twig lives on an apple orchard with her beautiful mother, who bakes pink pies to be sold at the general store and diner in town.  Sidwell is a small Massachusetts town where everyone knows each other and tries to look out for their neighbors.  But Twig’s mother doesn’t want to socialize with the people in town, no matter how friendly they try to be.  Ever since she moved back home from New York City, without Twig’s father, they’ve kept mostly to themselves.  It’s not because the town will judge them for being a single-parent family; this is a supportive and fairly open-minded place.  The problem is that Twig’s family is cursed.  A witch used to live in Mourning Dove Cottage, next door to Twig’s house, and she took magical revenge upon one of their ancestors way back during the Revolutionary War.  They can’t let anybody find out what they’re hiding.  Mourning Dove Cottage has been abandoned for a long time, but now a family of new neighbors has moved in.  Fun neighbors, with a girl Twig’s age.  Despite her mother’s rule not to hang out with Julia Hall and her glamorous older sister Agate, Twig finds herself pulled into a true friendship for the first time in all her years living in Sidwell.

But there might be a reason for all the secrecy. Their town is supposedly home to a monster.  The Sidwell Monster appears on goofy tourist tee shirts and features in local legends, but there’s definitely something truly strange making appearances and stealing from peoples’ yards.  Strange graffiti has been showing up on rocks in the forest.  Twig knows the woods better than anybody, or so she thinks, but change is stirring among the trees as well as within town.  In between her efforts to keep her family’s secret safe and discover who might be creating the mysterious disturbances, Twig and Julia start learning about Agnes Early’s curse, and how it ties their families together.  The girls are helped by a mysteriously knowledgeable librarian, a secretive journalist who’s new to town, a perceptive old man, and someone (or something) else, as they do their best to keep Sidwell from caving in to old fears and new threats.

Loving Hoffman’s typical themes and patterns as I do, I kind of knew what to expect when I read Nightbird. Good characters, small miracles, and complex family relationships.  It’s a quick book, with a story and setting you can fall into as easily as hopping down from your favorite tree branch.  (Thank goodness it wasn’t terribly long, as I had only one night to read it before attending a dinner to celebrate Hoffman’s new work.  Thank goodness, too, that the book was completely worth celebrating.)   Sidwell was brought to life beautifully; both nature and the town hide sorrow and wonder beneath their surfaces. Parts of it reminded me of my home, even though I’m not very near the Berkshires, just by virtue of that small-town love for a place.  Any town with a wise librarian is a town worth reading about, and Miss Larch does not disappoint.

It’s not a perfect place, of course.  Twig’s mother is right to worry that people would not know how to react to the family’s difficult situation.  But people are generally kind – if overly curious – and little glimpses of extra kindness from a waitress at the Starline Diner, or the kind encouragements from strange old Dr. Shelton, made me wish alongside Twig that her mother would let more people into their secluded life.  Unlike some of Hoffman’s books for adults, there’s no overwhelming sense of persecution in Night Bird: more of a nervous tension brought about by bad communication.  It’s a nice way to create friction in a Middle Grade novel, and a lot more emotionally resonant than the slightly cheap evil villain just likes being wicked tradition that perseveres in some series.

Twig is a steadfast young narrator.  She’ll be an instant kindred spirit to any young readers who have worried that they’ve done something to deserve loneliness.  Her family is loving and supportive, but a lack of friends takes its toll on a girl.  Who can blame her for breaking the rules and basking in the warmth of the family next door?  At the same time, how can we be surprised when she tries to push her new friends away once school starts, worrying that they’ll find out she’s boring and dump her before she has the chance.  Luckily, the Halls are good people who can recognize an extraordinary young person when she falls out of a tree.  The connections Twig makes with the people she’s barely known for years, getting involved in the community for the first time, are a gratifying benefit to the reading experience.

Nightbird reminded me an awful lot of The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, a novel for older teenagers by Leslye Walton that came out last spring.  Well, in fairness, Walton’s book had a theme and style that called Alice Hoffman’s early writing to my mind almost instantly.  The similarities are all good though: magical-realist events taking place in towns that seem so real, you’re packing your bags to visit twenty pages in; brave women trying to extract themselves from the weight of their fore-mothers’ pasts; and delectable descriptions of baked goods.  I highly recommend that anyone who enjoyed Ava Lavender pick up Nightbird, if ever you’re in a similar mood on a starlit night with only a few hours to spare.  Teenaged readers who liked Hoffman’s book should check out Walton, too, even though her debut novel has much more adult issues in it.

Kids in late elementary school, and definitely middle school, will find Nightbird to be transporting and enchanting, with just enough mystery and suspense to keep the plot moving.  It’s neither fast paced nor scary, but has lovely emotional depth.  Fans of A Snicker Of Magic and Rooftoppers will have a great time in Twig’s town, and history fans will be delighted with the curse’s origin story.  I, myself, loved the rumors of witchcraft and the children’s inventive attempts to break the curse.  I always like Hoffman’s magic; it flows through the characters and settings so easily, you might get convinced that every town and strange woman has magic at the ready.

And maybe they do.

Book Review: Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott (Scottish Children’s Book Award Shortlist)

I was investigating the Scottish Children’s Book Awards Shortlist recently, because Scotland’s been on the brain and I only know how to deal with big issues through literature.  I read an awful lot of Scottish fiction – for children, teens, and adults – while I was living there, but have felt it rather lacking in my life this past year.  To patch up the hole in my heart where kelpies and mystical grans used to dwell, I decided to buy and read the nominated books which struck my fancy.  (I dunno why so many of the books I used to read read at the public library in St Andrews had grandmothers full of secrets, but it’s a trend I encourage wholeheartedly.)

The first book I read was Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Dark Spell is listed under the Older Readers section, for ages 12-16.  I would definitely say that Dark Spell is for readers on the younger side of that spectrum, maybe ages 10-13.  It’s a little scary, with a malevolent spirit and haunted house, but the story might not be quite complex or dramatic enough to keep the attention of older teens.

Callie is awkward and unpopular at school.  She doesn’t go along with the other students’ pranks.  Whenever she gets upset, a weird prickling surges through her and odd things tend to happen.  After a bully in school goes one step too far and Callie somehow makes her fall from across the room, she can’t ignore what makes her different any longer.  Her grandmother, Rose, explains everything: Callie is a witch, like Rose, and must learn to control her powers.  The summer holidays bring Callie’s best friend, Josh, up to Fife from Edinburgh.  When the two of them go exploring in the medieval tunnels, something horrible and angry from the past latches onto them from the darkness.  They’ve accidentally woken an angry presence that begins to haunt Callie’s home and threatens her loved ones.  With the help of Rose, Josh, and some dear old ladies who are more powerful than they might appear, Callie must come to terms with her heritage and trust the frightening power she commands.

My very favorite thing about Dark Spell was the fact that it takes place in St Andrews and Fife, which is my most beloved place in the whole wide bloody world.  (You can see the silhouette of St Andrews at the top of the cover.  Ain’t it stunning?)  The setting made me homesick and happy, as did the fact that local history was the plot’s driving force.  The tunnels beneath the castle ruins really do exist, and it’s true that the besiegers and besieged dug to meet one another and battled down there.  So the ghostly consequences of such violent times made a lot of sense.  Coastal Fife is simply gorgeous, and while the descriptions aren’t over-wrought I was instantly transported back to the towns and cliffs which would pass by my window on the bus ride to Anstruther or Pittenweem. Setting matters a lot to me, and being able to picture my old beloved town while I read Dark Magic was a nice treat.  There’s plenty of ghostly lore around those parts, what with all the significant historical events that took place around St Andrews over the centuries, and I liked how Gill Arbuthnott required Callie and Josh to pay attention to history in order to get rid of the dangerous magic that plagued them.

Another strong point in this book: Callie’s grandmother, Rose, and Rose’s friend Bessie who were sharp and funny old ladies.  I could hear their voices so clearly whenever they magically contacted one another in the washing up basin or made quick jokes before facing terrible ancient powers together.  There’s a certain kind of East Fife Old Lady who I would see at the baker’s or walking their dogs along the coastal path. Bessie and Rose make me hope that some of the ladies I encountered might be grandmotherly, no-nonsense witches, too.

The haunting that goes on at Callie’s house started out with a classic scare that has yet to get old for me: something dark and nightmarish lurking around her bedroom while she sleeps.  And you know it’s a serious problem when the cat gets scared!  Soon enough, gross water is leaking out of the walls and she’s starting to show physical signs of spectral interference.  There’s nothing too new, there, but the frightening images were pretty good.  I was more impressed with the way that Callie’s parents start acting really unlike themselves the longer they stay in the house, and how this makes Callie worry what they might truly think of her odd abilities.  Until this side-effect of the haunting came into play, I thought that the family’s interactions would be one-dimensional throughout the whole book.  It was fixed a little too easily for my tastes – in fact, the character development in general was rather undershot all around– but that particular negative reaction to bad magic made Callie’s inevitable battle with the darkness more personal.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get entirely drawn into the story of Dark Spell, because the pacing was never quite right. The small-scale magic begins almost right away, but it feels like ages until the more exciting events start up. And watching vaguely “weird” girls magically spill food on shallow bullies feels hollow after decades of similar antics in children’s fiction. While other books about young people learning magic could go on for days about the nature of spells – I would happily read 600 pages about Hogwarts’ curriculum alone, for example – the source of the witches’ power here never extends beyond the surface.  Once Josh and Callie go down into the tunnels the tension builds a little more, but still I never got too worried about the friends’ inevitable success.

It’s not that there wasn’t enough at stake: I like smaller-scale fantasy stories better than the oh-crap-gotta-save-the-world ones, most of the time.  I just think that neither the writing nor the characterization in Dark Spell were quite strong enough to carry a few great ghoulish scenes through an otherwise average story.  (Excepting, of course, the lovely setting which remains so close to my heart.)

We only get the barest glimpse of Callie’s personality before she starts freaking out about her powers, so there’s not much to compare against her new-found identity as a witch.  She and her mother have some unhappy disagreements about Callie’s social life, but I found her mother’s contention over Rose’s influence more convincing.  As a heroine in a fantasy story, Callie is resourceful and she learns to be brave, but a little more development of her pre-magical interests and dreams would have been nice.  I did like the origins of her friendship with Josh: they mostly communicate online and only get to see one another occasionally, so things are awkward at first but soon fall back into companionable comfort.  There’s barely any romance in Dark Spell, which is why I’m recommending it for younger readers rather than teens.  Naturally, I rejoiced over the lack of sexual tension, but even for platonic friends Josh and Callie were a unusually wholesome compared to the teenagers I know.

While the clean language and no drama outside of the fantasy plot might disappoint more seasoned readers, I do think that it makes the book appropriate for anyone over 10 as long as they like scary stories and a little bit of gruesome history.

Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”  That sentence appears twice in Maggie Stiefvater’s breathtaking novel The Scorpion Races.  The moment I read it, the first words in the prologue, I could feel that this was going to be a good story; a dark story; a story that draws on something old and deep and scary.  I knew it was inspired by the capaill uisge myths – vicious, man-eating water horses often called kelpies.  And that all of my friends who had read it before recommended it highly.  What I didn’t know was how beautifully Stiefvater would describe the island of Thisby, somewhere off Ireland, and the people who live there.  I didn’t expect to fall under the water horses’ spell myself.  I’m not really much of a horse whisperer: I think they’re cool and pretty, but sometimes it feels like they’re laughing at me.   (One time a big horse stepped on my foot to hold me in place while he bit my shoulder, and it has inspired some distrust.)  My own reservations were powerless in the hands of Maggie Stiefvater’s writing, though, because after a few chapters of The Scorpio Races I could feel why Puck and Sean devoted their lives to their horse-y companions. 

The Scorpio Races is about this island where, every November, a deadly race is held on dangerous water horses.  People capture the capaill uisge when they come out of the sea, the very act of which is the stuff of eerie seaside nightmares, and then try to train them into something they can ride.  But the sea is always calling the horses, driving them to drown and eat the men who would tame them.  As November approaches, tourists come to Thisby, more terrible creatures rise up from the sea, and the stakes get ever higher.  Two teenagers, living very different lives, have lost parents to the capaill uisge.  Sean’s father was killed in the races, long ago.  Now Sean trains water horses for the richest man on the island, and is famous for his victories in the Scorpio Races.  Puck Connolly is very much a Connolly, even after her parents died in a capaill uisge related boat accident.  She helps keep her family together; the only girl in a trio of siblings which isn’t so close as it once was.  She and her beloved horse, Dove, have to win the Scorpio Races if they’re to keep their home and independence.  The odds aren’t in Puck’s favor.  She’s the first girl to ever compete, and some people don’t think she should mess with tradition.  And even while the odds have been kind to Sean before, animosity from the boss’s son, and some troublesome feelings for Puck, might keep him from winning this year.  And that would mean giving up his dreams to own Corr, the capaill uisge who has become his closest friend.  When Puck and Sean become close their determination will have an even higher cost, because not everyone survives the Scorpio Races, and only one rider can win.

Setting is usually the most important thing when I’m reading.  If I can get drawn into the rhythm of a place and not want to leave, I’ll read the whole book no matter what.  And Thisby drew me right in.  (Not quite so fatally as the way capaill uisge draw humans into the sea and then eat them.  But pretty close.)  I loved Puck’s ramshackle house, where she and her brothers struggle to get by on their own.  I could picture Sean’s regular haunts on the cliffs and at Malvern’s stables.  I was afraid of the beach, but entranced by the shoreline all the same.  I felt safe from the storm in the butcher’s kitchen with his wife, Peg Gratton, dispensing sharp wisdom all over the place.  I’m sad that I’ll never witness the dark magic of Thisby’s Scorpio Festival, even though I’d probably turn senseless from all the colors, foods, people, and drums.  The seasons, rituals, and traditions of the Scorpio Races are an ancient, integral part of what Thisby is.  Puck and Sean even talk about how the island feeds off the blood – or bravery – of its people, and how they are as much a part of the weathered land as it is of them.  It’s been rather autumnal weather where I am this past week, and thank goodness for that, because reading about all the rain and wind made me want to go fetch one of my sweaters from Scotland.  The setting was just that good.

I’m pleased to report that the other aspects of this book were nearly as good as the sense of place.  Puck and Sean were complex narrators with interesting, honest motivations.  The story is told in alternating sections from each of their points of view. They were selfish sometimes and brave sometimes, and never one-dimensional.  My one gripe would be that sometimes it was hard to tell whose narrative had just begun, but that’s partly my fault for forgetting to read the chapter headings as I fervently read.  Their voices were similar, but that’s just because they shared such a fierce love for the island and for their respective steeds (I wouldn’t dare to call Sean’s Corr a horse, just as Puck can’t stand to have Dove called a pony).  They were each proud in their own ways, but learn to take the world in stride a little better by the end of the novel. 

There’s a little bit of romantic tension, but nearly all of the emotion in The Scorpio Races came from loyalty, family, and bravery rather than mercurial teenaged passions.  That’s the sort of story I like to read: one which doesn’t require amorous moping to make characters interested in one another.  So huzzah to that.  Puck’s relationship with her brothers was also done well.  She’s confused about her older brother Gabe’s sudden urgency to leave the island, especially since he’s been their main source of support ever since their parents died at sea.  She also wants to protect her sweet and slightly odd little brother, Finn, who was one of my favorite characters.  The townsfolk were lively and made Thisby seem real.  People on islands, man.  They’re my favorite sort of people.

For me, Maggie Stiefvater’s work can be either a hit or a miss.  I love the Raven Cycle and am beyond excited for the next installment.   On the other hand, I was wildly disappointed by Lament, and couldn’t get into the Shiver series either.  I don’t know why she suddenly started writing books I love around 2011.  It’s a happy mystery, though, and The Scorpio Races has solidified my belief that she’s become one of the best YA writers of modern fantasy writing today.  This is a stand-alone novel with an ending that left me satisfied but wishing I could stay on Thisby longer.   I’m kind of glad it’s not the beginning of a series, because I rarely have the time or presence of mind to follow through with sequels even if I love the first book.  It was just the right length, with an excellent balance of action and character development, and beautiful writing to carry the story through the weeks of October, leading up to the races.

Book Review: What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

Another realistic, grown-up book set on the Atlantic coast? I guess it was that kind of weekWhat Is Left The Daughter is the final book I read while on vacation.  It was a lovely, bittersweet conclusion to several days of reading and writing by the crashing waves.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot **** (4 stars)

Writing **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 +

Both of Wyatt’s parents died on the same day, when he was seventeen years old.  His mother and his father jumped off of separate bridges in Halifax, unbeknownst to one another, because they were each having an affair with the same woman.  How’s that for the beginning of a fellow’s adult life?  Odder, still: Wyatt’s story only gets more tragic and tangled from there. His parents’ demise takes up barely one chapter, setting up for twenty one years of bittersweetness and unexpected calamity. He look back on it all so calmly, though – so open to irony and wry observances – that the book is nicely devoid of too much self-pity.  The writing is candid, not maudlin.  And whenever Wyatt’s remembered experiences reflect too much pent-up tension, a funny conversation or absurd circumstance reminds us not to take things too seriously.  

This novel is framed as a long letter to his daughter, looking back through the decades to when the action began.  After his parents die, Wyatt moves to live with his Aunt and Uncle in a smaller Nova Scotia town called Middle Economy.  With no particular plans for the future, he agrees to become an apprentice to his Uncle Donald’s trade making sleds and toboggans.  Donald and Constance are raising an adopted daughter, Tilda, who quickly captivates Wyatt’s attention with her “ravishing” beauty and lively charms.  Tilda a strange, likable girl: she wants to be a professional mourner and reads all the obituaries, but she’s also fashionable and charming.  In scenes when other characters stumble through awkward social situations, Tilda shines with conscious good humor.  

Life in 1940s Middle Economy has a gentle rhythm into which Wyatt falls easily enough.  He keeps his love for Tilda secret (she sees him as a cousin despite the lack of shared blood).  He tries hard to please his kind aunt and impress his uncle.  But World War II rages on, bringing a reality of violence to Canadian shores in the form of U-boats, deaths overseas, and a constant threat of spies.  Uncle Donald and others start to fixate on the dangers of German weapons sinking their boats and endangering their waters.

So when a German philology student comes to town and gets close with Tilda, the rhythm of Middle Economy is thrown out of balance. Hans Mohring is no Nazi – he and his family moved away when Germany started to spin out of control – but his accent and his attentions rile up some citizens of Middle Economy.  Uncle Donald shatters all his own beloved Beethoven records in a moment of suspicious anger, to make a point. (Music and trust run in the same metaphors throughout What Is Left The Daughter, illuminating certain characters’ deeper conflicts.)  Some army boys rough up the friendly owner of a Halifax music shop because Hans was teaching him a little German language.  Tilda and Hans eventually move above the local bakery – owned by a delightful local lady who takes no nonsense from any townsfolk – and plan a hurried wedding.  Throughout all this, Wyatt hovers somewhere between friendship and an aching jealousy which bursts out at unfortunate moments.  What was once a peaceful seaside town soon fills with pockets of unease.

And then a boat is sunk.  And then a murder.  And then a split-second decision which will change everything for Wyatt, his family, and the town.  There’s an image which I saw so clearly, I felt like I was standing in the house myself: Tilda sitting at the kitchen table while the song playing skips on the gramophone.  The needle keeps jumping over a bullet hole.  The gun in Tilda’s hand, pointed at her head, is at contrast with her measured voice.  It’s a moment of still clarity in the midst of panic.  It’s the calm before a slow storm of tragedy.  

Things can never go back to the way they were, and the next twenty one years bring Wyatt through changes of circumstance which, eventually, guide him back to his childhood home, where he writes to his daughter.  The second half of the book isn’t quite so vivid and moving as the chapters in Middle Economy, but they’re realistic and still an interesting picture of one man’s altered life in such a charged time period.  Characters resign themselves to unhappiness for a while, then have to look for comfort when it gets too hard.  There are so many heavy hearts in this book and they all need someone to bear the weight now and then, even when injured pride and the messy past would recommend solitude instead.  The war ends, time passes, but Wyatt still has to live with the consequences of his actions.  His letter to Marlais reveals the circumstances of her birth and the nature of her parents’ relationship.  It shows that sometimes fairness means someone has to suffer.

I loved the setting of What Is Left The Daughter, because Nova Scotia is one of my favorite places in the world.  (My last reviewed book, Lobster Kings, also takes place near there.)  I have to admit that I’ve never learned or thought much about Canada during World War II, but the setting and time period were easy to picture and a great stage for this character-driven story.  Little details really made daily life in Middle Economy seem real: the bakery’s cranberry scones, or a crow trapped in the library.  Even Wyatt’s job as a gaffer after he leaves town, years later, inspired little anecdotes which made me interested in a job which had never demanded my interest before.  I definitely preferred the first 2/3 of this novel to the final section, because the pacing was a little better and the characters more captivating, but by the end I thought the story felt nicely rounded out.  

I would recommend What Is Left The Daughter to readers of historical fiction who don’t need everything to be a history lesson, people who like Evelyn Waugh’s more serious novels.  Fans of stories about sad families in small towns, seen through a lens of beauty rather than grit – books like The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – will like the writing in this book.  The plot’s wayward journey will eventually fade like a childhood memory, but little moments between the characters, a line here or a false impression there, will make a lasting impression.

 

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.

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.