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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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

snicker of magic collage

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

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

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

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

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

“Orangie’s Caramel Apple Pie,”

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

“Andy’s Snickerdoodle Sucker Punch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2014-07-06 21.36.52

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

Book Review: Queen Of The Tearling by Erika Johansen

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

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

Plot: *** (3 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini Review: At The Point Of A Cutlass by Gregory N. Flemming

A nonfiction book review?  Rather uncharted waters we’re in, eh?  Well, not entirely, but it’s true that I rarely read a nonfiction book cover-to-cover.  But when this one arrived at my bookshop, my fearless manager/Captain said that he’d ordered them with me in mind.  Of course I had to see what manner of swashbuckling was contained therein.  Here are a few of my thoughts on Gregory N. Flemming’s lovingly-researched pirate narrative.

At The Point Of A Cutlass follows the thrilling adventures of Philip Ashton, an unlucky fella who was kidnapped from his fishing vessel by pirates, forced to serve on their ships of lost souls, and eventually marooned on a Caribbean island.

Even though I almost always prefer fiction over fact, At The Point Of A Cutlass had enough anecdotal detail to keep me interested.   Facts and figures and numbers get all jumbled up in my brain, but good characters make a story come to life.  And shiver my timers, were there some unbelievable individuals in this here yarn!   The wicked captain Edward Low was one such menacing figure – behaving so badly as to chop off and roast pieces of his captives’ faces!  Pirates always needed able-bodied men to replenish their crews, so talented sailors were just as valuable as gunpowder and fresh water when they looted a vessel.   Given Low’s vicious reputation, it’s understandable why Phillip Ashton didn’t manage to take the noble way out of his predicament upon being captured and forced into the lawless life.

I feel like maybe there wasn’t quite enough information about “the pirate capture, bold escape, and lonely exile of Philip Ashton” to fill an entire book. As a result Greg Flemming filled out the pages with various anecdotal details about key players in the nautical history of the same place and period.  I’m really not complaining, because too many pirate stories will never be a problem in my reading adventures. I actually found the chapters detailing Ashton’s personal journey less interesting than the information about the various pirate crews who terrified the American East Coast during the Golden Age of Piracy.

(I was also reminded, while reading, that Cotton Mather was a complete asshole and one of my least favorite figures in New England’s history.  Medical proficiency aside, that guy needed to stop.)

Flemming introduces his readers to ambitious captains; desperate escapees; adventurous priests; and some hapless pawns in the early 18th century’s war on piracy.  We revisit the gallows multiple times in the course of the book, and now I’ve added Nixes Mate Island – a gibbeting site right near my own Boston harbor – and Rhode Island’s “Gravelly Point” to my list of morbid places to visit.

Pirate Captain Edward Low. source

Reading about ruthless pirates marauding my own neck of the woods as they sailed between Newfoundland and the Caribbean Islands was very encouraging to my own ambitions.  I’m actually quite surprised that the pirates Low, Lowther, and Spriggs aren’t more notorious nowadays.  Their methods of “coercion” puts modern-day frat boys to shame: captives had to eat plats of wax candles and run the gauntlet until they agreed to sign the ships’ articles, and that’s only one of the least-disfiguring punishments they practiced.  Not necessarily my style, but pretty exciting stuff. My attention waxed and waned a little as the book’s style switched capriciously between character-driven adventure stories and different subjects.  Nonetheless, At The Point Of A Cutlass was a pretty fast read which I’d recommend to anyone who likes swashbuckling history and adventure stories.

Star Ratings:

Subject: **** (4 stars)

Pacing: *** (3 stars)

Key Figures: ***** (5 stars)

Wiring: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(My thoughts on the book were originally posted on my blog.)

Book Review: The Islands of Chaldea by Dianna Wynne Jones

Star Ratings (out of 5 stars):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8 and up

Just to say: I read an advanced readers’ copy of this book, so some details may have changed by publication.

The Islands of Chaldea is a middle grade fantasy adventure which was nearly completed by Dianna Wynne Jones before her death.  (I’m still not over that tragedy.  Waaahh.)  Her sister, Ursula Jones, put the finishing touches on the book. That being said, the story-telling and sense of magic absolutely feel like something out of a Dianna Wynne Jones book, full stop.  This is a stand-alone novel, so anyone can start reading it without having prior knowledge of Jones’s impressive bibliography, and there’s no unresolved ending to trample our souls.  The plot and world-building in The Islands of Chaldea aren’t quite as impressive as in some of my favorite D.W.J. books, but it was an enjoyable read and brought me back to happy days reading this sort of book in the library when I was a 5th grader.  Any book which would have made 5th grade Sarah happy makes 23 year old Sarah happy, too.

It’s a fairly traditional story, described with Dianna Wynne Jones’s beautiful language. Aileen’s aunt Beck is a wise-woman of Skarr, and young Aileen will be one too.  That is, she’s supposed to become a wise-woman someday. When she doesn’t witness any magical visions at her initiation it looks like she might not have any special powers after all.  There’s not much time to worry about that, though, because Aunt Beck and Aileen are soon sent on a quest by the high king: a voyage across the great magical barrier to the island of Logra, where the prince has been held captive.  In order to get across the barrier, which has separated Logra from the other islands for political reasons largely unknown, Beck and Aileen will have to bring one individual from each island with them on their quest.  Joined by Aileen’s favorite whiny prince; a castle servant who got left on the wrong side of the barrier; an invisible cat; a sprightly man with an omniscient bird; and some artistic distant cousins, Aileen and Aunt Beck will do their best to find the prince and finish their mission.  Along the way they meet mythical figures reminiscent to the Tuatha De Danann; suspicious sailors; and magical monks, all the while weird weather and strange luck greets them at every turn.  Too bad there are people who don’t want them to succeed at all.  People like evil enchanters and a queen who likes turning people into donkeys, but also someone from Skarr who may be hoping they don’t ever make it safely home.

The not-so-merry band of heroes cover an awful lot of ground on their quest, so it’s no surprise that the world-building in The Islands of Chaldea was a bit rushed.  However, the setting here is quite similar to what we encounter in so many fantasy stories – a magical land heavily influenced by European geography and mythology – so the brief encounters with faraway lands aren’t necessarily hard to imagine.  I like how Jones pushed the similarity between typical old-timey fantasy worlds and our own world to the point of obvious parallels; with Skarr being so very much like Scotland (plaids and all), Bernica’s green hills and Leprechauns as Ireland, and the other British Isles represented as well.  Each island has an animal spirit associated with it, and those guardians had wonderful personalities of their own.  Even though Aileen and her companions don’t get a chance to thoroughly explore each island on their way to Logra, their quick but memorable encounters do make a strong impression.  It could be the authors’ ability to boil down the essence of a place into a few anecdotes which keep the pace moving so swiftly, or it could just be the sense of familiarity which would strike any reader of similar fantastical children’s books.  The former option seems quite likely, though, especially given Jones’s legacy of creating wonderful fantasy worlds which always have a twist or two to keep them unique.  (The Dark Lord of Derkholm, for example, bends the magical land with traditional fantasy creatures rules so very amusingly with its Earthly tourists.)  Chaldea isn’t nearly so inventive as some of her other settings, but the story staged on these islands is a traditional, comfortable tale.  The recognizable landscapes, one after another, still seem magical because of the adventures they host and the wonderful characters who dwell there.

The plot was pretty detailed but not so complex as other DWJ books.  I think that The Islands of Chaldea is aimed at a slightly younger crowd than my favorites of hers.  Books like Fire and Hemlock are packed full of legendary references and fairy-tale traditions, but featuring twisty plots which are staggeringly unique.  Her earlier works are so rich in detail, they invite multiple re-readings and have almost always surprised me with something new even years later.  This book is more up front, and the twists are more predictable. Compared to the Chrestomanci books, which are good for a similar age range of readers, the plot of the first 300 pages in The Islands of Chaldea is a little tame. The last few chapters of the book threw a whole bunch of action and twists into relatively few pages.  Things get nicely resolved – perhaps they even fall into place a little too nicely – but I felt that the conclusion was rushed, with so much complexity appearing all of a sudden. It’s the writing and the characters which make it such a likeable fantasy book, then.  Because it really is likable.  The descriptions are lovely, feeding our imaginations with the sights, sounds, scents, and atmosphere of Aileen’s surroundings without straying from the young narrator’s believable point of view.

The characters are just so much fun.  I want to be Aunt Beck when I grow up.  She’s snappy and impressive and looks really great in plaid.  Her relationship with Aileen is brusque but caring, and when their authoritative roles get reversed due to a curse gone wrong halfway through the adventure I found the ensuing character development to be quite satisfying.  Prince Ivar and his teenaged servant Ogo are banterous and amusing; they act as nice foils to the girls’ attempts to keep things in relative order.  The animals have wonderful personalities, too, and the various travelers who join up on the quest ensure that things stay interesting along the way.  Alas, the villains were a little underdeveloped, mostly appearing in the already-rushed end of the novel.  But Aileen’s personal journey as she tunes in to her own powers and the magic of her lands is the real pulse of The Islands Of Chaldea, and not so much the results of the quest itself, and she becomes a very interesting young lady by the story’s end.

I would say that it was an enjoyable escape into a good old-fashioned fantasy world, and will appeal to fans of Dianna Wynne Jones who still aren’t ready to say goodbye.  New readers will probably like The Islands of Chaldea as well, especially anyone who likes wise women who don’t stand for any nonsense (fans of Morwen in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, for example), or likes the traveling bits of high fantasy more than the political entanglements.  For older readers who want something a little more challenging and inventive, I would recommend Fire and HemlockHowl’s Moving Castle, or The Dark Lord of Derkholm. Really, pick up anything by the late and very great Dianna Wynne Jones, and you’ll have a magical experience ahead of you.  She was one of the best.

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

source: goodreads

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.

Pointe is Brandy Colbert’s debut novel: a realistic YA story focusing on a kidnapping. And ballet. And eating disorders. And high school. It’s about Theo, who had to face the challenges of the dance world and recovery without her best friend, ever since Donovan disappeared when they were thirteen. At first she thought Donovan might have just run away, only a few days after her boyfriend left without saying goodbye, which was confusing enough on its own. But years went by and when he didn’t return, Theo had to agree with everyone else that he must have been kidnapped.

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But all of a sudden, in her junior year, Donovan returns to the neighborhood. Between the media frenzy and the rush of memories about their mysterious last conversation so many years ago, Theo’s nerves are understandably frayed. Donovan won’t speak – about his kidnapping or anything else – and he won’t even see her. Theo’s life gets very hectic very quickly. At school, all her friends have opinions about the Donovan case, and old memories won’t stay buried. At ballet, the new pianist (who happens to be her friends’ dealer and a casual acquaintance from school) has broken the wall between Theo’s two separate worlds of dance and everything else. And when a new development in the identity of Donovan’s kidnapper comes to light, Theo has no choice but to question everything that happened between them when she was thirteen. Time is running out to separate memories from self-delusions, because the trial’s coming up and her testimony could change everything. With her own future in ballet to consider and uncertainty about Donovan’s experience weighing heavy on her mind, pressure from every aspect of Theo’s life threatens to take a toll on her physical health as well as her grasp on what has made her who she is.

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So, Pointe had a lot going on in it. There were so many subjects Colbert chose to deal with, I was worried that certain threads of the plot would have to be abandoned for the conclusion to work. And it’s true that the focus did jump around a little to much in the first few chapters of the novel. We read about Theo’s love fer dance, her recent experience at a recovery center for her anorexia, they dynamics of her friend group, and some intriguing hints about her previous relationships with Donovan and her ex.

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I was especially worried that the eating disorder would drop out of the picture without being thoroughly discussed, if not resolved. Too many YA books describe a character as anorexic as an easy fix; just to supply a set of pre-formed judgements to otherwise under-developed character traits. Other books glamorize the notion of starving one’s self past the point of fragility. As someone who has experienced firsthand how un-glamorous and challenging anorexia really is, I was relieved to see that the triggers and emotional responses were considered throughout all the external drama. Theo’s thoughts about food were certainly skewed, but since the majority of Pointe is told in the present tense of a first person point of view, her own rationalizations and justifications go hand-in-hand with all the unpleasant symptoms. Because the disordered thought patterns are so accurately portrayed – Theo works hard to hide her relapse and ignores the danger she’s in – I would caution anyone struggling with their own recovery against reading Pointe until such thoughts get a good bit of objective distance. Otherwise the whole eating issue was treated fairly well, though I do think that there could have been a few more details about the nasty physical repercussions of Theo’s self-enforced restrictions, just to remind readers now and then that it’s really awful to have your body eat itself out of desperation. Maybe that would have been veering near the edge of preaching, though, and Pointe strives (pretty successfully) to stay away from any obvious moral lessons in favor of a real, honest attitude towards the multitude of dilemmas.

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What about the other dilemmas, then? The most gripping layer of Pointe’s premise was always going to be the kidnapping, though the angle might be different than some readers expect. The victim himself doesn’t feature as an active character even when he returns. He appears in Theo’s memories and thoughts way more often than he does in the flesh, so we get a unique spin on the abduction narrative. I really liked how Theo couldn’t be sure whether Donovan meant to disappear or not, and refused to make a judgement for years until she could get a clearer picture of his intentions. Her reaction to learning that the suspect is someone she knows is actually the pivotal revelation in that storyline, not Donovan’s return. This twist ensures that Pointe continues to be a book about Theo more than anyone else: her own tangled past, her own conflicting fears, and her own big decisions. Big questions about consent and maturity get pulled into the limelight, but since most of the discussions about these topics come from teenaged characters talking naturally amongst themselves, Colbert has resisted the trap of letting Pointe turn into one of those books where problems are either fixed or trivialized with too much external intervention.

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The characters in general are pretty excellent, and nicely varied. One or two individuals were too over-the-top for my tastes: too slimy with money or unbearably vapid, but these weak links were mostly just the minor characters who filtered in and out of Theo’s school surroundings. Her closest friends were very likable, with witticisms a’plenty but also showing true friendly concern even when she doesn’t think she needs their help. I liked the portrayal of Theo’s family: her parents are mostly supportive and she clearly doesn’t want to hurt them with her own struggles. There can still be conflict and secrets without every adult functioning as the enemy, and Colbert showed that nicely. I also admired the fact that Theo and her parents are one of the only black families in their neighborhood, and while this obviously impacts her life, race never becomes her sole defining feature. She’s a ballerina who happens to be black, just like she’s a young girl who happens to struggle with a disorder, and a teenager who happens to have a secret. Three damn cheers for dancers of color taking center stage – and for popular YA novels with main characters of color, in general. I hope Pointe gets a whole lot of readers (and subsequently, publishers, etc) realizing that it’s easy to relate to any character who is written skillfully and who can illicit our sympathy. On that note, too, the ballet scenes are interesting without descending into insider-jokes and the like. I haven’t had one ballet-themed thought since I was about eleven, but rather than going on technical tangents the sport is just described as Theo’s artistic passion, and passion is – I hope – fairly universal.

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The pages of Pointe are absolutely stuffed with drama and angst, but the main character’s earnest struggles are what make it so readable. You could honestly take away the sometimes-melodramatic romantic entanglement, which didn’t add much to the story. I would have liked to read a little more about Donovan’s family and a little less about high-school assholes. But all in all I got thoroughly wrapped up in Colbert’s story, and read the book in pretty much one go. Read Pointe if you like realistic YA with true-to-life main characters. Theo doesn’t run around speaking in poetical jargon, and there are no tragic one-liners here. It’s a good book for anyone who likes the drama of mysteries but without the sleuthing, too.

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I would suggest that anyone under the age of 13 think carefully before reading this one, because the topics of anorexia, sexual assault, and drug dealing are portrayed quite frankly and without any tiptoe-ing around the harsh facts. Any ballerinas read Pointe? Please tell me what you thought of it, since I’m not familiar with that world. In the end, this was a really exciting debut novel and I love how Brandy Colbert pushed her material into new and different directions. You can bet I’ll be reading anything she might write in the future.

Book Review: Talker 25 by Joshua McCune

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

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

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

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

In the not-too-distant future, America has a dragon problem.  No one knows how or why they arrived, but the enormous creatures destroy towns and eat humans.  The medieval fears weren’t myths after all, but instead of knights in metal armor, mankind now faces the threat with special military divisions and dragon-slaying reality TV.

Sporty, sullen Melissa Callahan has always hated the dragons; they killed her mother and present a constant threat to her military town.  When some friends convince her to join them on a prank – breaking into the “rez” and taking photos with the big blue dragon there – she unwittingly sets off a chain of events which will jeopardize her family’s lives and shatter her illusions about the war between man and monster.  Melissa can hear the dragons talking, and it’s hard to see a creature as nothing but scales and teeth when it knows your name and wants to chat.  Soon enough, she finds herself set up, trapped, and caught in a battle between a group of renegade pro-dragon insurgents and the military “D-men.”  Both sides want to exploit her talents as a “talker,” and every choice seems to drag Melissa deeper into moral quandary of deceit, double-dealing, and political turmoil.

This debut YA novel caught my attention for several reasons.  Most importantly, it’s been too long since I read a great new dragon book for teenagers.  I’ve got old favorites from elementary and middle school, and there are obviously some exciting adult fantasy books with plenty of dragon action. But what with the futuristic bent of Young Adult literature these days, my scaly friends have been unjustly ignored.  So when an action-packed, modern dragon story came into my sights, you can bet I sank my claws right into it.

I was also intrigued by the concept of dragons in America, set on a “reservation”, inaccurately thinking that this would be a story which featured Native American protagonists as well as dragons.  It’s old news that fiction for children and teens still needs way more diversity amongst characters and authors. A mythology largely inspired by European folklore transported to a modern American reservation could have been a really excellent blending of worlds, if written well.  Alas, though certain characters could conceivably have Native American heritage, the “reservations” had nothing to do with tribal lands.  The military-suburban town where Melissa lives and attends school is fairly commonplace for white suburbia, except for the fact that everything is painted black (since dragons have trouble seeing that color when looking from the sky for prey) and everyone’s parents are professionally invested in some sort of national security. The later settings of the novel — which include rugged secret hideaways, unreal reality TV sets, and terrifyingly remote military camps — are much more exciting than Melissa’s hometown but strangely less vivid.  McCune’s descriptive style definitely lost steam as Talker 25 progressed, though the plot was charged enough to keep me interested in how things would turn out.

My favorite part of Talker 25 was unquestionably the dragons themselves.  All the flying around and inter-species alliances were interesting enough, like a more inventive Eragon (with much better writing).  But it was the different voices for each draconian character, and the various personalities Melissa encountered as she navigated the frightening world as a “talker”, which really made a good impression.  Conversations between Melissa and the of-course-he’s-handsome rebel lad who befriends her sounded very canned  now and then.  Even amongst military personnel and the rock-stars of the dragon slaying media, dialogue felt stunted at times.  Luckily, this is not the case with the dragons.  Some really are bloodthirsty nightmares full of spiteful fire.  Some are old and tired, just wanting to be left in peace on their comfortable mountain tops.  Fans of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles will be pleased to meet more than a few devastatingly sarcastic creatures.  A few young dragons can only communicate through feelings and physical expression, and one baby in particular will probably win the hearts of even the most skeptical readers.  Human characters’ bonds with various dragon are significantly more emotional than their bonds with each other, in this book.  Maybe in the coming sequels I will care more about Melissa’s discoveries about her family, and perhaps in further books the fraught romantic elements might make a little more sense.  But based on McCune’s debut, I hope that he plays to his strength in future writing and gives us a lot more dragon dialogue and fewer formulaic human characters.

People will definitely be touting Talker 25 as “The Hunger Games with dragons,” and it’s not an entirely inaccurate label. This book checks off several themes which are getting pretty repetitive in popular, futuristic YA fiction. The violence against conscripted young people; the omnipresent government spooks; the teenagers working under captivity; the gore and mental trauma; even the shock-factor reality TV angle are all present here.  I found several of these elements to be rather unnecessary, though they did make way for some big plot points in the second half of the book, when style and pacing started to lag and something had to keep the story going.

Even though Talker 25 has trouble containing McCune’s energetic ideas, and despite some flaws with style and pacing, I had lots of fun reading this new futuristic YA adventure story.  It was gritty and stressful, and I’m intrigued enough to think that I’ll try to read the inevitable sequel.  My advice to would-be readers is this: try to see this debut novel as a modern fantasy story instead of just another grim teenage thriller with the odd magical creature thrown in.  If you focus on the dragons and the fresh take on knights training  for battle, then the gratuitous make-over scenes and underdeveloped government goons might just fade into background noise.  Because the dragons are great and the concept is fun. If you’re after an exciting series with a few unexpected twists then give McCune a try.  Ever since finishing the book I’ve been gravitating towards my collection of great dragon books from a decade ago, and if this starts a new scaly trend in YA fiction I’ll be happier than a hungry wyvern in a field full of slow-moving cattle.