Book Review: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

Star Ratings:

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

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

Age Range recommendation: 16+ (horror, sexual violence, math.)

The Supernatural Enhancements is a cryptograph mystery, a haunted house horror story, and a Southern Gothic as seen by Europeans. It’s made up of diary entries, transcribed conversations, letters, and more. If you like found footage stories and things that go bump batshit crazy in the night, check it out.

A. and Niamh come to Point Bless, Virginia not knowing what to expect at Axton House. A., our otherwise nameless protagonist from an unspecified European country, inherited the enormous, secluded mansion from a recently deceased distant cousin. Ambrose Wells and A. never met, but Wells died the same way his father did: plunging to his death out the window at the age of fifty in highly suspicious circumstances. Compared to other, older rumors about Axton House, a few odd window-tragedies are comfortably dull. The family that gave the estate its name, before Wells’ line bought it up much later, was known for inhumane cruelty, especially to the slaves who once lived on the plantation. Everyone in town knows the place is haunted. A. is a skeptic who “wants to believe” (he watches a lot of X-Files) and Niamh is mute but not without opinions, but the two of them will have to re-think their relationship with reality as they delve into the secrets hidden behind every door of Axton house, and every twist of the maze around it.

The ghost stuff is cool, of course, because I love ghost stories. Creaky floorboards, electrical disturbances, human shadows standing behind the shower curtain… what fun! Even more interesting, though, were the secret codes and hidden messages A. and Niamh find all over the place. Ambrose Wells belonged to some super-secret society of Rich Old-Fashioned Dudes Having Thrilling Global Adventures. Every year, on the Winter Solstice, they would meet at Axton House for some annual, esoteric observance. Since Niamh and A. don’t know what the meeting entails, they need to put the pieces of Ambrose Well’s haunted life together before the Solstice to find out if these are just old guys playing with a “bourgeois passtime” or desperate men on a dangerous mission.

There are codes and maps and cyphers and grids so complex they require mathematics. There’s a sinister maze in the backyard. There’s an enormously tall German butler with many secrets behind his respectable facade – I kid you not! Too many threads from different mysterious genres tied together in one tangle? Maybe. But I liked A. and Niamh enough to follow them, to be confused and frustrated with them, then rejoice whenever they figured something out. Of all the characters, these two major ones were probably the only fully fleshed-out persons to be found. But it didn’t really matter that various lawyers, businessmen, neighbors, and Oddly Wise Far Away Aunts Of Dubious Relation seemed built to further the story, sometimes. This is not a realistic tale by any means, so a Southern Gothic stereotype or an overly expositional old man (pipe included!) here and there seemed to fit right in.

I’d also like to mention that The Supernatural Enhancements is Edgar Cantero’s first book written originally in English. The dialogue and descriptions occasionally veered from cliché to slightly pretentious, but at no point did I have to think “well, I guess this is good enough for someone who doesn’t usually write in English.” It was just good enough, period. So well done there, Mr. Cantero. Especially given the pieced-together method of presentation, with all sorts of scholarly articles and even security footage transcriptions thrown in, he had to change voices an awful lot – frequently American ones in a region known for its eccentricities. Most of them were pretty well done.

My favorite voices, without a doubt, were our main characters’, though. A. and Niamh had an interesting relationship: he a twenty-something scholar with the sudden need to never work again, she a seventeen year old punk kid from Ireland with some roughness in her past and no voice to speak of it. Their conversations – her scribbling, him speaking – and even the looks they gave one another amongst all the weirdness were endearing. So who cares that I still don’t get how Aunt Liza fits into this picture? Or that the book’s denouement, while suitably horrifying, seemed to come out of nowhere and almost devalued some of the mystery that had been building up? I liked these kids and I liked solving the frightening mysteries of Axton House by their sides.

If I had to describe the style of Cantero’s book to someone, I guess I would call it a (slightly) less gimmicky House Of Leaves meets movies like The Skeleton Key and Paranormal Activity, if characters who wish they were in a Donna Tartt book visited Virginia. And yes, there were some Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons elements too, with all the arcane spirituality and complex codes. I’m not sure if The Supernatural Enhancements was quite as good as House of Leaves, and it definitely can’t come close to Tartt’s genius, but it a disturbingly fun mix all the same, and terribly absorbing.

I compare the book to other stories only to try and place its style; there were original elements here that impressed me even despite the far fetched and sometimes gruesome details. Suspend your disbelief for an evening, turn on all the lights, and get lost in Axton House for a while.

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Book Review: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.  (Swearing, violence, mild sexuality.)

Be it known that I read an advanced copy of this book and some details may change before publication in late September.

(Sorry for the overly long review, folks, but this book took up a LOT of real estate in my brain this weekend.)

Wow. This book came out of nowhere to knock me down. Captive children under oppressive rule, world-dominating Artificial Intelligence, and post-ecological meltdown politics usually tire me out but… damn. The Scorpion Rules gives me hope that sharp tongued AI and barely-sustainable futures can feel new. And heartfelt. And bloody devastating.

Four hundred years after the ice caps melted and the fresh water became scarce, the newly shaped countries have pretty much stopped fighting. There was lots of war in the beginning: fighting for space and fighting for fertile ground. But then the UN turned control over to an Artificial Intelligence known as Talis. Talis stopped the War Storms. Talis keeps relative peace across the globe. He started by blowing up cities every time a country declared war. Want to start a war or accept a declaration, even in defense of your own border? There goes Fresno. (“Because no one’s gonna miss that” – did I mention that Talis was a snide S.O.B.?)

But blowing up cities wasn’t a good long-term solution. So, as it says in the Holy Utterances of Talis, Book One, Chapter One: being a meditation on the creation of the Preceptures and the mandate of the Children of Peace :

“Make it personal.”

Greta is a Child of Peace. She is also the Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. She lives at a Precepture somewhere in what was once Canada. At the Precepture, hostage children live almost monkish lives, farming and receiving a rigorous education. They learn about the ancient Stoics and sustainable development. They learn not to repeat the mistakes of history. It’s one of many similar Preceptures scattered around the ravaged globe, where a child of each and every global leader lives as a hostage. This is how Talis made war personal: anyone who wants to rule must have children, so that in case of war, that child’s life will be forfeit. But if they live to be eighteen, they become rulers and must soon send their own children to be held as insurance.

The Scorpion Rules begins with one of Talis’s messengers – a Swan Rider – coming to execute a Child of Peace: a friend of Greta’s. It’s an emotionally jarring way to dip one’s toes into a story, and sparked a slow burn of conflicted horror in me as I read on. Greta and her friends know why they’re hostages, and they know that this system is the only successful way to keep violence minimum out in the struggling world. The Abbot who teaches them – another AI – is at the same time kindly and pitiless. This is the trouble with artificial intelligence, trying to save the human race through logic: logic understands fear and love (that’s how the whole hostage thing works) but it doesn’t show any mercy.

The war that kills Greta’s friend sees the creation of a new state called the Cumberland Alliance, so the ruthless Cumberland general’s grandson joins them as a hostage. Elián was not brought up to be a royal captive and he doesn’t believe in facing one’s fate with dignity and grace. He struggles against Talis’s system, the Abbot’s authority, and the beliefs which Children of Peace take so seriously to heart. He jokes that he’s Spartacus and refuses to give up or stop smiling, even when robotic proctors electrocute him so badly he falls to the ground.

It was easy to think, I, too, would be brave and defiant like Elián in this situation. But would I really? One of the best things about The Scorpion Rules is the powerful moral ambivalence. When Elián acts out, they all get punished. But his stubbornness opens Greta’s eyes to the hideousness of their situation, and once she starts to see how wrong things are, she can’t return to being the stoic princess, prepared and willing to die with dignity whenever a Swan Rider comes calling her name.

Too bad Elián’s grandmother is likely to declare war on the Pan Polar alliance at any time, desperate for the water to be found in the Great Lakes. Knowing that they’re likely to be executed together, there’s shouldn’t be much stopping Greta and Elián from taking a stand against their captivity. But there’s no escape from all these moral quandaries: without the hostages, can there be peace? Will these children’s families really sacrifice them in order to fight? How can the Abbot be their torturer and their nurturer at the same time? Are they willing to endanger their friends for a chance of freedom?

It’s the sort of plot that tears you into pieces, because there are no right answers. Erin Bow writes about a future that could stem from our very messy present, and she doesn’t see an easy way out. The seven teenagers who make up Greta’s cohort come from all over the world, and have varying opinions about their captivity. Thandi is harsh with her friends sometimes, though Greta eventually learns what happened to make her so guarded. Gregor is easily frightened, nerdy, and deadpan in his sense of humor. Da-Xia, Greta’s room-mate and best friend, is small and beautiful but carries the powerful bearing of the goddess-queen she will someday become. Greta was always so composed and smart, until Elián’s words got under her skin. I grew intensely attached to each of these kids as they argued, and worked together, and comforted one another, always watched by the panopticon, always steeling themselves for tragedy.

So when violence comes right to the Precepture’s doors, I was all sorts of nervous about how things might turn out. Halfway through The Scorpion Rules, the psychological turbulence and sci-fi philosophy became suddenly action-packed. I’ve already summarized too much, so I’ll just say: the no-real-good-guys trend continues like woah.

There’s torture. There’s disguise. There’s a funny scene with goat pheromones. There’s a more nuanced romance than I originally expected. There’s an awful lot of blood. Talis himself gets a speaking role that’s a little more intimate than The Utterances, and even though he’s definitely a Heartless Robot Dictator I must admit that he became one of my favorite characters. Don’t get too attached to anyone in this book, though, because no one is safe. I was too wrapped up in furiously turning the pages to wipe away my tears, but my face was definitely damp at one point.

Maybe The Scorpion Rules could have been a little shorter, as it is a long book despite the short span of time in which the action happens. I enjoyed the pastoral gardening scenes and the goat cheese making because these details helped to conjure the monkish serenity of their prison, but I would have been just as happy without them. Aside from a few dips in the pacing, Erin Bow really delivered with this book. Complex characters, a many-layered plot, and philosophy that makes your heart hurt all come together to tell a story that leaves you reeling.

I’m not sure if there’s a sequel expected for The Scorpion Rules. I would definitely read more on the subject – even if just to read more of Talis’s deliciously flippant Holy Utterances – but the ending was also oddly satisfying. Not satisfying like everything’s going to be fine. Because there’s no easy way out of the dire circumstances human kind has to face, here. But satisfying as in everyone has to do what they think is best, and god do I hope they’ve made the right decisions.

And I hope, too, that our future never quite comes to this.

Book Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

I read Treasure Island!!! on Mount Desert Island.  Good stuff.

I read Treasure Island!!! on Mount Desert Island. Good stuff.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up. (Book is aimed at grown-ups, with lots of swearing and some sex.)

There’s a reason for the three exclamation points, and the reason is this: TREASURE ISLAND!!! Isn’t Robert Lewis Stevenson’s magnificent nautical jaunt simply the best story of adventure, the best test of character, ever told? You bet your scurvy soul it is. The heroine narrator of Sara Levine’s absurdly funny, wonderfully glib novel agrees. When she reads Treasure Island, she realizes that her 25 years of unfulfilling jobs and subdued interactions have been a waste of her potential. She should be more like Jim Hawkins, swept out amongst rogues into a world of adventure! She should face all the little problems in her uncomfortably comfortable middle-class existence with seafaring spirit! She should read Treasure Island over and over, making notes on index cards, and refusing to speak about anything else! She should acquire a parrot!

Obviously, I’ve had similar experiences with pirate books. I, too, wish that more altercations were solved with a cutlass and a challenge and no care for consequences. But where I find Long John Silver to be the most compelling character in the old classic, (as do most other readers, the “spiritual healer” points out in Levine’s novel), our fearless [???] narrator cares about no one but Jim Hawkins. She decides to try and live her life based around the lad’s best qualities, which supposedly make up the Core Values of Treasure Island:

BOLDNESS

RESOLUTION

INDEPENDENCE

HORN-BLOWING

Alas, in the real world there aren’t ample opportunities for 19th century style horn-blowing. Boldness often comes across as a blatant disregard for good manners. And it’s hard to be independent when you’ve gracelessly quit your job at the Pet Library, after abandoning your post and stealing your boss’s money to buy a parrot, and must move back home with your well-meaning parents. The narrator’s new found zeal for Stevenson’s adventure story borders on religious fervor. Even while it destroys her relationship with a good-natured young man, threatens her friendships, and sets the course for a full scale mental breakdown, she cannot give up her obsession with living a boy-hero’s life; a life undaunted by any obstacle between herself and complete freedom.

So the narrator starts out seeming a little cracked and gets more gleefully unlikable by the page. At first you shake your head at her in fond bewilderment: “Oh, that volatile, self-centered lass and her funny obsession,” you think to yourself. A few chapters in: “Oh, wow, she’s really going to buy that parrot? I don’t know if that’s wise…”

And then, soon enough, “WHAT is she doing with that macaroni and cheese!??”

“WHY is she hiding in the back of her sister’s car?!!”

“HOW does she plan to get herself out of THIS mess???”

“WHERE is she going with that pie knife?!!!”

There’s a twisted good time to be found in Oh No She Didn’t type stories. And in Treasure Island!!!, the answer is always OH YES SHE DID! Every action, from a conversation at the breakfast table to an awkward moment at the local sandwich shop, seems to ring with the exclamation marks that feature in the novel’s title. !!! Because how could anything not be an adventure once you’re seeing life through a veil of gunpowder, hearing dialogue from inside an apple barrel, and treating your childhood home like the decks of the Hispaniola?

I worry about how much I related to the increasingly disturbed main character in Sara Levine’s farcical novel. I know she’s a complete wreck; out of touch with reality, a terrible friend, a total drag on her family. The Core Values don’t get her very far. In fact, her attempts at fearlessness render her incapable of even scraping by on her own. But the way her hapless story is told, with a narrative that is peppered with misused nautical terminology and no self-awareness whatsoever, absolutely cracked me up. It’s the sort of tale that encourages you to laugh at the main character rather than with her. And, yes, it’s very much the sort of novel I want to write, right up there with Daniel Handler’s We Are Pirates.

It’s damned hard to be a buccaneer in this day and age. I just hope I never end up at an intervention with the wrong kind of pie, faced by concerned loved ones who think I’ve grown addicted to a library book.

Book Review: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle

(img source: goodreads)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up. (Dark but not scary, though there’s some troubling emotional and domestic abuse.)

Be it known that I read an ARC of this book, so some details may change before publication.

Wow, guys, sorry for the reviewing slump lately. I’ve been bogged down in the mire of real life, and swimming through a swamp of Things Which Must Be Done. All marsh-y metaphors aside, I’ve been traveling, busy, and just generally uninspired. But The Accident Season was the sort of YA book that could tempt me out of such a slump. It’s a stand-alone contemporary with a bit of fantasy, easy to read and spooky, with good characters and an Irish setting. Honestly, how could I resist blabbing about such a story? The Accident Season is Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s debut novel, and it will be on bookshop shelves in August.

We’re dropped into events with a rhyme and a ritual. Costumed teenagers stomping their feet and chanting inside an abandoned house, being overtaken by some energy they share. It’s October 31st, and they’ve had a bizarre month. The prologue gives us a glimpse of where every strange injury and mysterious encounter will lead: to a party, and a fire, and some alarming revelations. Then the book really begins, and Cara tells us what brought them all to that moment.

The end of October is many things: Halloween, the night of an epic party, and the conclusion of “the accident season” which plagues Cara’s family. Every year, her mother pads all the corners in their house, unplugs the appliances, and makes everyone wear extra layers for the month’s duration. Bad things just happen from beginning to end: scraped knees, car accidents, dead uncles. While Cara and her ex-step brother Sam have just accepted this odd interlude in their otherwise normal high-school lives, Alice is quietly fierce about her skepticism. Even when the accident season batters Alice worse than the rest of her family, which Cara finds strange. There might be something hidden in their childhood memories that explains cool, polished, popular Alice’s propensity for injury, but no one’s thought to dig up those experiences to find out, not when it might be the Season’s fault.

Cara, Sam, Alice, and Bea – Cara’s tarot-reading and brazen best friend – throw their Halloween party in a beautiful abandoned house, and the night is set up to be magical. They’re dressed as these changeling-children Cara saw in what may have been a vision. Even the “haunted” house seems to want their company. The thing is, they found the house while searching for their classmate Elsie, a nervous girl who somehow appears in every single one of Cara’s photos, but hasn’t appeared at school all month. When bad luck from the Accident Season, the abandoned house’s history, and various romantic tensions between the group of friends clash at the end of the month, this might be an even worse accident season than the one that killed Cara’s uncle. Unless Alice is right, and bad luck hits them for more mundane – and therefore more distressing – reasons.

I like contemporary fantasy best when it is strong in one of two ways (or both!). Stories with strange magic and haunting settings like Fiendish drag me to an uncanny corner of our world, where the bent rules of reality are specific to some well-drawn location. Series like The Raven Cycle enchant me with characters who are so real, so intense, as they discover whatever wonderful and frightening things exist around them, it almost doesn’t matter what the plot may be; I would follow them anywhere. The Accident Season sort of falls into a happy medium between my two favorite styles, never quite excelling in either but still shining in multiple places.

I enjoyed reading a YA novel set in Ireland without too big a deal being made of the setting – it felt a little foreign to me, yet totally familiar at the same time. This is a story about people and what haunts them; it could take place almost anywhere, but Fowley-Doyle chose a great place for her characters. The river that seems to call to Cara, behind the school where they all smoke, even the streets of Cork (where they find a mysterious costume shop that I now wish existed) seemed real and effortless.

But the setting and even the supernatural side to the plot weren’t what drew me into the story so thoroughly. The characters and their secrets had me hooked from early on. Cara, Alice, and their mother are three very different women, but each of them has a hint of tragedy they’re trying to cover up, and it’s easy to empathize with their irrational fears or occasional coldness. Since the narrative is from Cara’s point of view, her family can sometimes seem frustratingly closed-off or unreasonable, but she never once loses her grip on the enormous amount of love that holds them all together. Sam isn’t technically her brother, but they grew up together and you can instantly tell how heavily they lean on each other for comfort and support. I loved their constant banter of “I’m not your sister.” “If you say so, petite soeur.” It came as no surprise to me that eventually Cara started to realize why she kept reminding them that they aren’t actually siblings. I usually get put off by romance, and this one could come off as really wrong, but her feelings in this case followed such a logical path and were explained with such heart, I couldn’t help but hope for her happiness. Bea, Cara’s best friend, is a hot shit. She looks to the tarot cards for answers but also refuses to lose her head when things get magical and freaky. When some of Alices’ relationships get dangerously fraught, Bea is there to help mend things with her blend of humor and sympathy.

There’s a sense of humor trickling throughout the whole novel – a witty back and forth that fits well with the Irish high school setting – but it’s not all fun and ghosts. Searching for Elsie opens the door to new sadness. Alice’s strange coldness stems from some nasty relationship problems that made my blood boil. And the history of Sam’s father and Cara’s dead uncle is truly wretched. But strong friendships and one stunningly crazy Halloween party keep things spinning back to life whenever sorrow threatens to take over.

So much of the tension in The Accident Season comes from misunderstandings and painful secrets within this group of friends, and while sometimes I was just begging Cara to wise up about the people around her, there were other developments that surprised and impressed me. Elsie’s appearances, the metaphorical fairy people Cara thinks she sees, and even the reasons behind all those accidents are interesting enough, but if I read this book again – and I think I might – it will be to walk along the river and explore the haunted house with Cara, Sam, Alice, and Bea again.

Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up.  (Definitely not for anyone who isn’t in high school yet, as there’s sex and other grossness.  I would actually recommend this to a lot of twenty-somethings I know, as the characters are older and the writing fits in to the fast and easy grown-up fantasy genre.)

Does everyone remember how I feel about sharp and twisty fairy stories?  Before reading this review, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with my love for such triumphs of fairy world weirdness as The Darkest Part Of The Forest by Holly Black, Chime by Franny Billingsley, and especially any re-tellings of my all-time favorite ballad Tam Lin.  Be they magical worlds which entwine with ours or completely new fantasy realms, I get unreasonably excited whenever a story of fairy courts and immortal strife bleeps on my fae-dar.

And, yes, the main dude’s name is Tamlin in this book, but despite a few nods to that legend, it’s best to banish all expectations from that reference right out of your head before reading.  I’m learning that lesson again and again.  Sarah J. Maas has combined the structure of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale with the style of magic and characters most often found in Celtic faery legends like Tam Lin.  I actually found the Beauty and the Beast parallels to be more obvious, excluding the faery court drama and occasional references to Tamlin’s “heart of stone.”

A Court Of Thorns And Roses is set in a fairly typical fantasy world, with peasants and wolves and frightening borders. The village where we begin is small and winter-bound; while we don’t get much in the way of world-development for this first setting, the isolated townsfolk live in a way we can recognize from other such stories.  They’re on the border of Prythian, the faerie realm.  Feyre, our heroine, hunts for food in the dangerous woods to support her father and two sisters.  Aside the occasional tryst with a local boy, Feyre’s life is defined by cold, hunger, and frustration.  If it weren’t for a promise she made to her dying mother as a child, she would be completely justified in abandoning her lazy, demanding family and taking care of herself first.

This is the sort of story where promises are important, unbreakable rules in both moral and supernatural matters. When Feyre kills an unusual wolf with an ash arrow, she brings the wrath of a monstrous High Fae upon herself and her family.  To fulfill the Treaty between human kind and the faeries, Feyre must live out the rest of her days in Prythian, at the Spring Court with Tamlin.  It turns out that Tamlin does not always take the form of a beastly claws-and-teeth-creature.  He’s actually a decent fellow, though his manners as host aren’t very polite and he prefers to keep Feyre uninformed about so much of her new home. She also has no idea what his face looks like, since he and all other members of the court had masks cursed onto them permanently.  (Bummer.  But, rest assured, this is the sort of YA novel –alas – that makes it clear how the rest of him is very handsome and his face certainly will be, too.) The Spring Court isn’t a prison, though Feyre can never leave.  Some blight is draining faeries and High Fae alike of their powers, so she spends her time more as a neglected house guest, trying to piece together her host’s history and the state of Prythian on her own.

Exploring in the forest with Lucien, Tamlin’s haughty and flippant emissary, Feyre discovers just how sinister the faerie world can be.  What few details she can learn about the blight are disturbing enough, but the fear that some of these malevolent beings might cross the border into her village, bringing back the reign of cruel servitude once imposed by the ancient High Fae, is too dreadful to consider.  Her father and sisters may have been awful while she lived with them, but she will protect them at all costs.  So despite the comforts afforded by Tamlin’s estate and the marvels all around her, Feyre plans her escape, tries to take courage, and keeps her hunters instincts trained on everything – seen and unseen – around her.

As she finds out more about Tamlin’s home and the other courts, Feyre finds herself drawn into a dangerous and twisted game of personal politics. There are other High Fae who can be so gleefully evil, they make the violent specters in the woods look positively humane.  And her time with Tamlin has turned apprehension into rather devoted affection, so every hard choice threatens to break either her mind or her heart or both.

Whew, ok.  That’s a lot of plot-splaination, and I’ve barely even covered the basics.  A Court of Thorns and Roses has sort of a three-part story:

1) Feyre’s life with her family and her internment in Prythian.  Tamlin is awkward and Lucien is a bastard.

2) Adventures of the magical and frightening variety in The Spring Court.  Tamlin is romantic and Lucien is a #1 sarcastic bro.  All this love and togetherness is broken apart when Tamlin forces Feyre to flee to safety once faerie politics start getting seriously out of hand.

3) Meanie-pants Fae Queen tortures everyone for the laughs.  (Yeah, I didn’t even get to mention her in my long-as-hell summary up there.  But this is a faerie courts story, so naturally there needs to be a cruel and beautiful queen!  And wow is she a jerk.)  Feyre undergoes a series of miserable and hopeless tests for the evil court’s amusement, expecting to die, all in a desperate bid to save her true love.

I liked the first 1/3 of this novel a lot, enjoyed the middle bit with some reservations, and found nose wrinkling in disappointment a few times in the home stretch.   Feyre’s miserable life sets a great precedent for the marvels she will witness in Prythian.  Impoverished and under-appreciated, she might seem like a typical passive heroine, but her hunting skills and occasional ruthlessness gave me hope that she could be an active participant in whatever adventures awaited.  For the most part, Feyre is a realistic protagonist who makes solid decisions of both the brave and catastrophic variety.  One great little touch was her illiteracy: growing up poor and focused on getting enough food for the winter, she never learned how to read, and there are some scenes of embarrassed struggle in the library which proved her to be resourceful yet realistic.  I also liked how Feyre’s habit of painting tinged her view of all the new beauty around her, and how even in the most horrifying situations a “useless” part of her terrified brain would notice pretty details through the terror.  I was with Feyre for the ride until her love and devotion and general swoon-y attitude towards Tamlin made veer her towards hysteria and despair.  In fairness, the last part of the book contains a level of cruelty that would otherwise be unknown to our heroine, so I can understand why she clings to her love as one emotion she can trust.  I liked her fine in the beginning of the book, but despite acts of reckless bravery I found her change of personality rather jarring by the end.

Tam Lin himself didn’t do much for me.  (Too bad because Tam Lin from songs of yore is my faaave.)  He was a little too overtly Aloof And Terribly Sexy Despite The Matters Weighing Heavy On His Lordly Brow for my tastes, and I knew quite quickly that there would be some yearning and dark hallways and unlocked bedroom doors in his future with Feyre.   Since unlocked bedroom doors are extremely NOT my cup of tea, I kind of skimmed over most of those scenes, so you’ll have to ask someone else if they’re any good.  However, I did appreciate how his character was often preoccupied with the Very Faery Problems of broken promises and eternal grudges, and how desperately he wanted to preserve the lives of those faeries who existed with him in the Spring Court, despite the encroaching evil.  There are a few instances in which his sense of humor or fun attitude shine through from before Prythian started going to shit, and that’s when I understood Feyre’s devotion.  If only he weren’t so predictably smoldering.  If only we weren’t reminded too often that he can also transform into a beast and therefore has rather ferocious tendencies towards romance.  Just not my cup of tea.

And, though it pains me to admit this, the evil Fae Queen Amarantha was not that impressive.  Yes, she’s cold and beautiful and can hold a MEAN grudge, but she just felt like a bit of a stand in.  Her cruelty was appalling but lacked emotion.  Her challenges did fit in with the old tradition of riddles and mazes, but the glint of gleeful malice in her eyes were more told than shown, and more shown than felt.

The minor characters and settings were pretty great, actually.  Particularly Lucien and the few lesser faeries we meet at the Spring Court.  The foxy emissary (I mean it literally) is an expat from the Autumn court who throws Tam Lin’s nobility into needed relief by first being distrustful of Feyre’s presence, then by impelling her to develop a sense of humor and helping her sneak around behind Tamlin’s back sometimes.  Lucien can be impulsive and dangerous, but he’s exactly the sort of fellow you might expect to come from a land where the hum of Autumn energy is always in the air.  And, as I learned with a few tears threatening, his life before joining Tamlin was grim as heck.  His friendship with Feyre, as well as her interactions with the faery servants, were mostly rewarding.  If we ignore one handsome-but-evil High Fae who appears as a villain – a personality which I found to be entirely gratuitous and unnecessary, though he may redeem himself in future novels – the supporting characters were good additions to the lovely and menacing world Maas has created.

There’s a whole maze of unresolved issues and unexplained plot points by the end of this book, but I can see how any sequels will build off the most pressing of questions.  The wider world will probably make more sense as Feyre gets to understand it better.  I’m not a huge fan of series, usually, but will probably pick up the next one someday, because I liked the story enough to stay curious.

In the end, there was a lot to enjoy about Sarah J. Maas’s foray into faery stories.  Trading one life for another, ancient treaties and forgotten wars, a world divided by seasons and times: all good things.  Looking at A Court Of Thorns And Roses as a slight retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I would call it mostly successful.  And it’s even a decent, though not awe-inspiring, opening to an original fantasy series.  My own qualms about all those sexy-times and incongruous characterizations may just be the picky bitching of a prude who has read too many faery legends.  Give the book a try if you like dangerous romance in cool fantasy worlds, tricky faery mischief that plays with mortal lives like they’re nothing but ants, and young people being put through a series of impossible tests by vindictive higher powers.

Book Review: The Story of Owen, Dragonslayer of Trondheim

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars_

Overall: *** (3/5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up.

I read The Story of Owen in the more restful hours of my recent trip to New York City, and while I had a fun time joining Owen and Siobhan on their dragon slaying adventures, much of the plot has since escaped from my memory. (It’s possible that too many oysters distracted me.) So this will be just a few notes on what I liked about The Story of Owen, what I didn’t love, and why I’ve recommended it to some young people I know even though they don’t all love dragons. (A disclaimer: I went through a big ol’ fiery dragon phase in my middle school years. So huzzah!)

This is not a book I came across during some aimless shelf browsing. I read The Book Smugglers’ review a while ago and ordered it immediately. (Local bookstores will order Canadian YA-Ballads about modern mythical creatures if you ask them nicely.) I have a lot of faith in those ladies’ reviews; even if I don’t form the same opinions in my own reading, they highlight some real treasures I might otherwise neglect. The hardcover languished in a pile at my childhood home for months, though, until it finally struck me as the perfect epic-but-fun pastime for the train ride to the city. Ana’s review goes into better depth than this in analyzing the story and characters, so do give it a read. While I’m not equally as enamored with the book, I did find it to be refreshingly unique, so thanks to them for bringing E.K. Johnston’s work to my attention.

In brief, the story is told by Siobhan, a fairly-average high school student living in a small, rural Canadian town. Her town didn’t have a dragon slayer – they tend to hang around the big cities where there are more carbon emissions, and therefore more dragons, so the pay and publicity are better. When Lottie Thorskard and her family move to town, people can’t stop talking about the famous retired dragon slayer and her legacy. It’s a family business, so while her brother Aodhan defends farms and small businesses from fiery doom, Lottie trains her nephew Owen to take up the sword of duty. Siobhan trains Owen in Algebra, which is less epic but also necessary, and he’s way worse at math than he is at stabbing a dragon in exactly the right place to avoid toxic death-spillage. When the Thorskgards learn that Siobhan is a talented musician, they decide to bring back the old Bard traditions from the olden days of dragon slaying, when a tale well-told and just the right song could turn a slayer’s deeds from action into legend. So begins a friendship and partnership between Owen and Siobhan that will give them strength to face the whirlwind of high school and, hopefully, the dangers of ravenous monsters. They need to get heroic fast, too, because the dragons are getting bolder, and one Thorskard isn’t going to be enough to defend the people of Trondheim. A noble tradition of millenia is getting shaken up with the modern times, and Siobhan might have to do more than write songs about it.

Things I liked:

– The narrative style is framed in the ballad format that Siobhan is learning as she stumbles through the motions of becoming Owen’s bard. I love the old sagas and oral histories, though they can get dry and plodding sometimes, so even the use of “Listen!” to begin a tale gave me a nerdy thrill. (For curious nerds: an article on how we may have misinterpreted the “hwæt!” as “listen!” in Beowulf.) Siobhan’s talent is music composition, not storytelling, so her conversational prose interspersed with dramatic retellings was appropriately awkward until she improved with practice. The use of music to convey a mood was a cool touch, too, though I’m not so good at imagining tunes and therefore felt a stronger connection to the old fashioned use of words. Listen!, indeed.

– The characters. All of them. And their interactions with each other. Siobhan and Owen, thrown together in the high school hallway, forge such a real friendship through tutoring sessions, near-death experiences, and indeed pizza cooked in a blacksmith’s forge. Lottie Thorskgard basically raises her nephew while training him to be a great dragon slayer like she was before her accident. It’s an unusual family, one I totally want to be a part of: Owen, Lottie, her wife Hannah, Aodhan, and Siobhan watching them all from the kitchen table. (There’s a really sweet scene about how happy Lottie and Hannah get whenever he refers to them as his parents.) Another example of good characterization: the teens’ classmates have hidden depths and defy the stereotypical roles they seem to fill at first. One girl decides to take Siobhan under her wing and teach her how to be socially popular, but her motives are much more interesting than one might expect. Then there’s a fun conspiracy nut and his daughter, who don’t give a crap about anyones’ opinions. These all felt like people I could easily meet in real life, if it weren’t for the fact that they kept talking about dragons.

– This isn’t necessarily a comedy, but there was lots of humor in the dialogue and Siobhan’s narration. That’s how I like my epic tales: full of sarcasm and stupid misunderstandings. Nothing lightens the tension of facing off against a creature that wants to eat your car like a well timed joke in a shaking voice.

Things I didn’t like so much:

– The bigger plot, the one about politics and geography and the history of dragons in our world, never really captured my full interest. In school and regular conversation, people learn about Oil Watch, and how industrialization has made the dragon problem even worse, but even though the stakes were high (whole cities get abandoned, and the outcomes of wars have hinged on dragon territories) the tension wasn’t nearly so compelling as the smaller personal story taking place amongst the residents of Trondheim. The characters and conversation were easily enough to keep me entertained while I read, but I didn’t get overly concerned about what might happen next, so this wasn’t one of those books that kept me in its thrall whenever I put it down.

– The dragons themselves weren’t as cool as they could have been. We get to learn about the different types and what makes them fearsome, but they just seemed like a general plague of beasts for the most part. This didn’t detract from the story at all, I just really like my dragons and would have happily witnessed some more prolonged interactions with them.

-There were these historical interludes in which famous badasses from history were entwined with Johnston’s new dragon mythology.  Despite the creativity, these incidents seemed a little gratuitous to me. I see how they could serve to guide the legendary style of Siobhan’s ballad-telling, but I was jarred out of the story whenever I had to stop and puzzle out how figures such as Dracula and Abelard might get re-written as dragon slayers.

Why I’m recommending The Story Of Owen:

– A kind of nerdy main character who is unapologetic about her talents, unsure what she wants from her future, fond of her family, and honest with her friends. Siobhan is a wonderfully real narrator, one who I think lots of teenage readers could like and admire. The other characters are also flawed and good-hearted; you love them even when you want to give them a shake. It would be so excellent if we could all emulate this, if we could remember to embrace our insecurities and admit that we’re still learning.

– Music geekery for all those band nerds who want better imaginary soundtracks to their every day (and epic) battles.

– A friendship between genders that isn’t romantic! (I may get spoiler-y here if you’re the sort of reader who cares deeply about a will-they-won’t-they plotline. But that’s so not the point of this book) Owen and Siobhan are able to look frankly at their relationship, wonder if any feelings are getting in the way, recognize that no there isn’t any sexual turmoil and move on to killing scaly beasts! Will they get together in the future? Who knows or cares! Owen might date one of the many girls who like their men like they like their coffee: wielding a broadsword. (Or am I the only one with that morning routine?) Siobhan might date, or she might be asexual, or she might get burned to a crisp. Whatever. I’m just happy that the lack of teen romantic drama in this book never once took away from the emotional resonance of the characters’ relationships. Friendship, family, and long-standing love can be just as motivating, and it’s about time we saw more of those loves take center stage. When a younger teen expressed trepidation about trying out some older YA because of all the gross romantic subjects, I was very happy to suggest The Story Of Owen.

Even though the plot and draconian action failed to hold me riveted, I liked taking a peep into a dragon-infested world for a while. Siobhan, Owen, Lottie, and all the good people of Trondheim made up such a welcoming community, I could easily understand the Thorskard’s desire to protect them. Centuries and an ocean away from ye olde peasants and great wyrms of yore, the bravery and sacrifice of dragon slayers still remains the stuff of stories. Now they just have to do history homework on the side.

Book Review: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 out of 5 stars)

I recommend The Game of Love and Death for readers age 14 and up, though there’s nothing particularly terrifying or overtly sexual, so strong younger readers could give it at try, as should grown-ups who enjoyed YA novels like The Book Thief and Code Name Verity.

The Game that Death and Love play against one another is bigger and older than humans can really understand. It’s manipulative, tragic, and cruel. The players they choose – more like pawns – may change with the decades, but Love and Death stay determined to prove how wrong the other one is. If two players choose each other in the end, they live, and Love gets to flaunt the results of his machinations. If they do not, if fate or mishap or the knowledge that someday even their love will die prevents the choice, Death can claim her player. Yes, the Game is slightly stacked in Death’s favor, because she’ll get everyone in the end.

Between Henry and Flora, though, it seems like Love might have a shot at victory. The two young people come from very different backgrounds in late 1930s Seattle. Henry is Love’s player. He grows up with his best friend Ethan Thorne’s wealthy family, playing baseball at school; working hard for a scholarship; and playing the stand-up base in any free moment. Henry helps Ethan (who is probably dyslexic) with writing and reading, especially when they’re out on assignment for Mr. Thorne’s big newspaper.

It’s on such an assignment that Henry meets Flora, the girl chosen by Death. Flora is a pilot who works at the airfield and is determined to win a big aviation race someday. To support herself in the meantime, she sings at the jazz nightclub owned by her uncle and herself. Like Henry, she’s an orphan with more than her fair share of bad luck. Unlike Henry, she’s Black. Flora has known that someday everything she’s worked for, everyone she loves, will crumble and die. She’s known this ever since Death whispered it into her ear while she slept as a baby.

Love and Death can take on alluring guises to interfere in the lives of their players. Love tries to clear their path to each other from any obstacles. Death makes herself a glamorous distraction that’s hard to ignore. The two entities – are they gods? forces of nature? meddlesome angels? – can sew seeds of trust and doubt in humans’ minds. They can turn accidents to their advantages and twist other peoples’ natures to affect Henry and Flora’s lives. But in the end, the two young heroes have to make the choice themselves: when their dreams and futures hang in the balance, will they choose the risk of each other over the security of staying apart?

Much of this book was completely spot on; I read most of it in a solid afternoon and worried about Henry and Flora while I cooked dinner, so I can assuredly declare it an enthralling novel. The time period and setting were enough to get me hooked. The 1930s contain the best of modern and old fashioned adventures: fast cars and Hoovervilles. Prep school woes and the “golden age of aviation.” Ethan Thorne’s father, in particular, expends a lot of concern over all the splashy publicity the Eastern states are getting with their high-speed charge into exciting times, and indeed that’s where most stories I know take place. Reading about the North West’s atmosphere at the time was a fun change.

Of course, certain social issues are magnified by the time period as well. Racism, homophobia, and poverty play a big role in Henry and Flora’s experiences. While Henry’s instant attraction to Flora brings about sneers and remonstrations, Flora’s involvement with a white boy puts her at a greater risk. Violence against Black citizens, vandalism against businesses like her club The Domino, and enforced segregation are everyday problems for Flora. When Henry says, “I’ll go anywhere with you,” she points out that he can go anywhere, while she’s constrained by the prejudices of society and barred from so many situations that he takes for granted.

“Exactly… That’s part of the problem.  You’ll go anywhere.  The world is yours.” (p 236)

Love and Death are equally amoral opposing forces.  Death’s methods may come off as distinctly crueler, but that’s just because she’s had ages to perfect the art of taking lives.  Love’s manipulations can be just as devastating, though his talents lie more in seduction than extermination.  The two entities really do become characters throughout the course of The Game, rather than mere physical embodiments of what we already imagine. Death behaves abominably when she disguises herself as a member of the Thorne household, but we catch glimpses of her gentle loneliness when she collects souls with a touch of sympathy instead of her usual hunger. Love uses his powers to deceive people, but he also truly tries to nurture honesty and self-acceptance in someone who needs understanding.  They keep each other relevant – the need each other to retain their individual meaning – so the interactions between them, though occasionally heavy-handed, illustrate how Love and Death can be inevitable, immortal, and yet keenly personal all the while.  The Game they play only sounds heartless when seen through a mortal lens. Alas that their two chosen mortals are so endearing!  I could have watched the competition like a cool spectator if the players hadn’t stolen my heart.

And it’s the mortal details which make the book so fun to read, even amongst big and little tragedies.  Drives in the darkness, rain on a baseball field, the hidden stitches in a grandmother’s quilt: Martha Brockenbrough writes as though she has personally walked alongside her characters and seen every nook and cranny of their lives.  The way Flora loves her jazz club comes through in a description of how it seems full of people at night, compared to the peeling paint and theatrical facades that are exposed in the light of day.  I could feel Henry’s misery at the newspaper’s print room, Ethan’s nerves and excitement when visiting the ramshackle shanty town in secret, even the rain in the air when Flora and Henry had to huddle together under one umbrella.  As much as Love and Death try to direct the characters’ lives, the setting and time period give them an ideal stage.  The writing style here isn’t ornate or even particularly beautiful, but it captures the scenes exactly and lets each human character come to life.

My one gripe is that the climax and resolution of The Game veer away from these wonderful concrete details and soar off too high without ballast.  For the majority of the story, Love and Death are able to enact the metaphysical aspects of their competition within realistic limitations.  Flora and Henry aren’t told that they’re pawns, just as so many other lovers over the centuries thought they were acting of their own accord.  When, in the book’s final quarter, the parameters of the Game start to blur for each player, I felt myself slipping away from total immersion and pausing to think critically about a sudden onslaught of emotionally charged reactions.  What had been, to me, an excellent historical YA novel with some elements of fantasy and romance, took a steep turn when the magical interference appeared more obviously from behind the scenes.  It’s certainly compelling to watch feelings of love and the fear of death clash, but I wish that the eventual showdown could have been described in such visionary precision as the first 3/4 of the novel.

That one dip in the story’s trajectory aside, I really liked The Game of Love and Death.  The playing of The Game itself isn’t nearly so important as the honest and complicated tangles in Flora’s and Henry’s lives, and the strength they each show in trying to help each other through every calamity.  There are times when I couldn’t blame one or the other for thinking that they might be best apart, but that didn’t stop me from insisting (quite vocally) that they try to struggle on side-by-side despite the odds.  This was not one of those love stories in which one person completes the other: they are very much secure in their own identities, thank goodness.  Instead, it’s a bittersweet illustration of how death, and love, and fate, and chance are a part of everyone’s lives. No matter what steps we may take to try and out-run them, it might not hurt to let someone stick with you along the way.

Book Review: The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up (murder and strife but not much gore or sex.)

The Alcott home is weathering some rough times. There’s not enough money to support a family of four girls, so their “Marmee” must go away to work while her husband fiddles with his philosophical writing. Teenaged Louisa has to take charge of things in her mother’s absence, but she would rather be running full-pelt amongst the trees in Concord, talking with Henry David Thoreau, or writing her own stories. A fugitive slave arrives at the house of the passionate abolitionist family, so suddenly Louisa has another mouth to feed and too many secrets to keep. Secrets get mighty dangerous when a ruthless slave-catcher comes to town, looking to make life difficult for those involved in the underground railroad. Keeping her household together while protecting their hidden friend is difficult enough, so how can Louisa spare the energy to wrestle with her feelings for a visiting young man who has changed a lot since his absence? And how on earth will she have time to solve a murder in the midst of so many exhausting demands?

The Revelation of Louisa May is a “novel of intrigue and romance” starring Louisa May Alcott. Good old Louisa May, who wrote Little Women, lived in the town where I sell books, and put so many of my own feelings and failings into words.

“A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.” (from Little Women. I feel ya’, Jo March, like so many angry girls who write.)

But I also adore Louisa’s status as Kick-Ass Single Lady.

“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

Not only did Louisa never marry –though Jo eventually does in Good Wives she wrote encouraging other women to find contentment in single life. So I was puzzled to see the word “romance” on the cover of a book starring Louisa May Alcott. That word, I thought, would better apply to one of the “blood and thunder” stories she used to publish herself.

Fear not! Though there is a charming (and surprising) romantic entanglement in The Revelation Of Louisa May, nothing enormous happens that would change Ms. Alcott’s future as a self-supporting and entirely majestic lady of her own free will. So just put those worries straight out of your mind, ye acolytes of Alcott. Blood, thunder, and emotional moonlit chats make this story entertaining, but MacColl is enough of a historian to keep all the important details in line with what life was really like for the literary folks of Concord in the 1840s. Just with a little more murder, and some writerly speculation, thrown in.

In fact, the elements of intrigue and romance in this book felt more like sidelines to the rich portrayal of Concord Massachusetts in the age of the Transcendentalist philosophers. The plot sticks to the theme of MacColl’s previous novels about young women writers of the past, one about Emily Dickinson and one about the Bronte sisters, which places the literary heroines amidst SHOCKING MURDER and POSSIBLE HEARTBREAK and NECESSARY EAVESDROPPING. What fun! But historical fiction is tricky; an author needs to fit a solid fictional plot into the timeline of real peoples’ lives. When a novel is so focused on a single biographical subject, as this one is, things get even harder.

By making all the events surrounding this fictional mystery set up and resolve themselves in a fairly short period of time, Michaela MacColl is able to fit so many excellent details about her characters’ lives into the framework of an old fashioned who-the-actual-hell-has-done-it mystery. It’s not every story that has Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife as suspects, though. The careful interweaving of rumors and facts about these people into the story made me feel like I had fallen right into the past to see and hear them with my own eyes. (It may have helped that I was sitting on a bench on Walden Street as I read, but the descriptions and dialogue were vivid enough that I think they’d bring those famous fellows to life even if you’re not surrounded by their likenesses at all times.)

I wondered: how will Michaela MacColl give Louisa a mystery to solve and a romance to navigate when we already know so much about the Alcotts’ daily lives? (I know we might be a little overly obsessed with their every word and friendship in Concord, but lots of readers elsewhere admire the author just as much as her work.) Happily, there was a one document summer in which Marmee had to go away to work in New Hampshire, leaving teenaged Louisa to run the household basically on her own. I got to hear MacColl read from and talk about the book over this weekend, and she aptly pointed out that the first thing to do in a mystery for young readers is to “get rid of the parents,” so that unsupervised adventures might be possible. Abba (“Marmee”) would have been all too aware of any snooping and dashing about on her daughter’s part, but in her absence Louisa’s character is free to discover dead bodies and break into hotel rooms.

“What about Bronson Alcott??” I hear you philosophers cry. Well, he wasn’t exactly the most aware of parents. In fact, he was a pretty dreadful husband and father all around. Hugely influential in educational reforms, no doubt, and reportedly captivating when speaking to a room, but not a top notch dad. I think that Michaela MacColl did a respectable job of balancing Louisa’s admiration of her father’s ideals against her frustration at his inability to put the family’s security at a higher priority than his impractical notions. We can see that he’s not a lazy man; he chops wood and repairs their home and gardens for their vegetarian food. He just refuses to work for money, which might sound high-minded and impressive but actually made the Alcotts’ lives awfully difficult.

Much of the story’s tension actually builds around Louisa and Marmee’s anxiety about how to keep the family afloat. Most of Louisa May Alcott’s writing, including Little Women, was written with the rather mercenary goal to get paid ASAP. And I salute her for it, because she was so generous with her funds and made sure her family never suffered once she could afford to take care of them all. The moral bent of Little Women is absent in The Revelation of Louisa May, and we get to hang out with a heroine who knows what must be done and spends a good amount of introspective thought on the difference between ideals and necessity. I love Jo March intensely, but it’s nice to see Louisa as her own person sometimes, too.

Though there’s death and deception in this mystery story, it’s not wildly frightening or inappropriate. Even the romantic stuff is unusually clean for YA literature. I’d recommend The Revelation of Louisa May to readers 11 and up. If you’ve read and enjoyed Little Women, and understand about the underground railroad, there’s nothing here you can’t handle. Some background knowledge on what Emerson and Thoreau were thinking about will make their characters all the more interesting, but it’s not entirely necessary. The author’s note at the back of the book is incredibly helpful, and really rather fascinating. It was nice to see how an author of historical fiction chooses what to keep, what to change, and where truth is truly more compelling than fiction.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from Little Women that will have some connection to the events that follow. I liked this addition, and shall close my review with one of my favorites. I think it sums up the attitude of the book quite nicely:

” ‘I don’t think secrets agree with me, I feel rumpled up in my mind since you told me that,’ sad Jo rather ungratefully.”

Go pick up The Revelation of Louisa May if you’re into the Alcotts, like historical mysteries that aren’t too gory, or if you’ve ever wondered what those wacky Transcendentalists were like when they weren’t expounding on the glories of the woods. I liked this book and will probably read more of MacColl’s work, especially since she keeps choosing such complex and admirable young writers to feature as characters.

Book Review: Fiendish by Brenna Yovanoff

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

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

Age recommendation: 13 and up (scary stuff, some language)

The South has swamps; and mosquitoes; and yards full of decaying cars, rotting pieces of other houses. The South has church groups and superstitions and streets that are no place for respectable people. There is a unique fear that Southern parents instill in their children. At least, these are some things I’ve inferred from the gothic, dramatic, claustrophobic YA novels set down yonder. Dark stories about teenagers fighting against violent inner turmoil and sweltering old-time-y moralities of small-town pride. I tend to like the creepy atmospheres and am intrigued by the cultural idiosyncrasies that I don’t understand.

Much in the way that Natalie C Parker’s debut, Beware The Wild, evoked the tense relationship between close-knit communities and encroaching, untamable swampland, Fiendish pits townsfolk against natural forces too big and vicious to comprehend. In Yovanoff’s typical style – which I think of as Shirley Jackson drunk on teenaged angst – her main characters have to grapple with more than mere monsters rising from riverbeds or specters walking in tangled shadows. Brenna Yovanoff concentrates on the dangerous natures within her teen characters as carefully as she imagines disturbing corners of our own world for them to inhabit.

Recall, if you will the emotionally derelict town (almost monochromatic to my memory) in which her twisted changeling story, The Replacement, was set. There’s the surface level of small town politics, of trying to hold it all together in front of an unsympathetic crowd. But then there’s this underground world of darkness and horror that seeps up into her plots like an acrid, poisonous, echanting mist. In The Replacement, this place of horror was literally hiding just below Mackie’s town, full of cruel faery-things who looked like children and demanded the impossible.

Fiendish has its fair share of subterranean nightmare places. Clementine was locked in a cellar closet when she was just a little girl, and has nearly become part of the house’s decaying foundation after all her years there, drifting in some half-dreaming stasis. Reading about the roots and creatures that grew around her, the dust that collected on her forgotten form, made me want to leap and jump; shake my limbs out; maybe even do the hokey-pokey to get rid of the creeping feeling that shuddered through my nerves in sympathy. Clementine’s life changes when she comes back above ground again, now as a teenaged girl whose memories don’t go past early childhood. Thrust back into the blinding sunlight amongst a town full of people who can’t remember who she is, our sweet and determined protagonist has only her cousin and a few old friends to support her.

Clementine, Shiny, and Rae are all part of a local subset: folks who have “craft” – strange old magic – running through their veins. It’s not a glamorous sort of power, and their talents don’t necessarily make life any easier. Shiny’s flare for manipulating fire only gets her into worse scrapes when the local boys act like creeps. Rae’s affinity for associative charms and abstract magic only lets her skate by as an accepted member of society so long as she continues to hide her more elemental nature. Obviously, Clementine shouldn’t run around announcing that someone dug her out of the ground below her ruined house; the good old boys of New South Bend burned the homes on Weeping Road for a reason. They call it “the reckoning,” and all Clementine knows is that something horrible happened right before she was put in the ground. The families that live down there, with their generations of weird lore, are thought to be descendents from fiends. Fiends that haunt the nearby hollow, a sinister patch of wilderness where even the cockiest boys don’t venture.

There might be a measure of evil in what kept Clementine alive for all those years, so it should come as no surprise when Fisher, the boy who found and rescued her, isn’t wild about being seen in public with the strange girl who lives with a fiendish family and has missed out on so much of life. Clementine is innocent but she’s not helpless, and her attempts to catch up with her peers make the strange biases of “normal” people stand out all the more cruelly. Fisher was kind and brave when he dug her out of the cellar, not freaking out like his friends at the trickbag hung around her neck. He’s level-headed and caring, at least when he’s with Clementine. Check out this rather chilling moment, which nonetheless illustrates Fisher’s unflappably steady nature:

“‘Why don’t they like me?’ I whispered, getting my arms up, feeling around for his shoulder. ‘What’s wrong with me? I never did anything to anyone.’

Fisher was quiet for a second and when he answered, he sounded strange.

‘It’s not your fault,’ he said. ‘They’re just nervous about how your eyes are sewed shut.'” (p.15 in the hardcover)

But one of the major themes in Fiendish is the difficulty of being loyal and fair when the pressures of a judgmental society are closing in. Fisher and Clementine don’t exactly band together, two teens in love against the world. His friends are jerks in trucks – the sons of those men who burned down Clementine’s house in the first place – and his grandmother is, quite frankly, terrifying. Though Clementine feels attached to him because he saved her, their occasional sweet moments alone are scattered between harsh encounters in town where he behaves like a very different, much more normal, sneering guy with old family in New South Bend. The romance in Fiendish is more a slow discovery of secret depths and histories, while a shared compassion keeps Fisher and Clementine determined to do what’s right in the end.

What’s right is never obvious in Yovanoff’s writing, though, and in this case it might not even be possible. The big magical showdown – towards which the frightening natural oddities and mounting social tensions build – gets a little out of hand by the end of the novel, but it sure is scary and weird. The monsters and spirits that haunt Wixby Hollow are even worse than the rumors that circulate town (heck, do I love it when Southern superstitions turn out to be right) and something’s been stirring them up to a restless nightmare. Superstitions abound in Hoax County, sometimes right under the smiling and ever-so-normal veneer of clean cut town traditions. Take the symbolic paintings of crazy fiends that go up with all the other patriotic decorations at the annual town fair, or even Fisher’s grandmother, who is meant to be the most uptight and upright citizen around. The little old lady knows more than most, and I loved reading about the insufferably awkward dinners shared by Clementine, Fisher, and this sharp matriarch. She might be mean and snappy (and a damn good cook), but Clementine needs to know what’s behind the dangerous events they’ve witnessed.

“Just that there’s five of you creatures up there in town now. Knocking around with craft in your blood and your bones. Five kinds of wrong, and that’s one wrong thing for every point on the reckoning star.” (p 151 in the hardcover.)

Local legends combine with universal concepts of five magical elements to set the stage for a dramatic clash of monstrous nature gone crazy versus normal people hopped up on fear. With Clementine, Fisher, Shiny, and Rae caught in the middle of two blindly ruinous forces, there’s no easy way to force this growing power back where it belongs. Personally, I preferred the first three quarters of Fiendish; following Clementine as she seeks the motives behind her awful imprisonment and sussing out the unnatural powers that thrive in the periphery of New South Bend. The prophecies and stand-offs were impressive and fraught, but not quite so evocative as an odd word heard on a street corner, or an eerie silence in the Hollow.

My own fondness for subtle Southern Gothic touches aside, Fiendish was an exciting novel that felt like a breath of summer while I read it in the freezing early spring. Not a pleasant, balmy summer, though. I felt the sticky, buzzing, fear-tinged air of frayed nerves and suspicious neighbors. Fiendish has a satisfying enough ending (yay standalone YA novels!) and is good fun for teen readers who like their towns creepy and their characters disturbed.

Brilliant settings, rather upsetting: Welcome To Braggsville and The Gamal

March is funny (and not only because it bloody snowed this week, upon the first day of spring, hardy har har what a laugh.)  I spent the entire first week of the month getting through a single book, Welcome To Braggsville, which I liked immensely but couldn’t rush.  Then I devoured five books in the following two weeks, reviewing exactly none of them. After reading The Gamal on St Patrick’s Day, I noticed a trend: both Braggsville and The Gamal were absorbing, transporting, and upsetting as hell.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Why am I gravitating towards stories that make me nervous and miserable for the major characters?  Why all these books in which life and justice behave unfairly towards our modern heroes?  Truly, there was very little heroism to be found in either book; just people doing what they think is best, only to find out that it’s not enough.

The appeal lies in these novels’ settings – how vividly both T. Geronimo Johnson and Ciarán Collins evoked environments they knew, made fictional settings real for those of us who have never seen the likes.

I could feel the nerves and excitement D’aron experienced when first moving to UCal Berkeley after growing up in a small-orbit Southern town, even though I’ve never been to San Francisco or Georgia.  Each time I picked up Welcome To Braggsville, it would take all of four seconds for me to feel the warm California sun or sticky Southern heat again.  I now have such a clear picture of “Bezerkeley’s” wacky ambiance; it’s dorm rooms; the oddities of campus life, it’s like I was in D’Aron’s freshman classes.  And I know I wouldn’t do well in those classes at all. Braggsville – D’Aron’s hometown – also felt realer than real.  Despite Johnson’s gift for exaggeration, the made-up place lived and breathed and shot and swore.  I don’t understand the South, though I’ve read literature that loves it; mocks it; romanticizes it; despises it.  I do understand a community’s weird love for re-enactments – being from Old North Bridge Land – but like D’Aron’s classmates I’m a little scandalized by the notion of an entire town re-creating Civil War times as good old days.

The town and the folk that Johnson conjures half-feel like something down the rabbit hole, half like my own tiny hometown. (Maybe anyone’s home if there’s not enough privacy and a little too much pride.) Identifying with various characters’ perspectives of the place was easy. While most of the messed-up proceedings are told from D’Arons point of view – exposing his frayed nerves as he stumbles while juggling loyalty and righteous indignation – his three friends’ perspective of Braggsville are more akin to what I would surely experience.  Through Louis’s eyes I saw how funny the place could be; through Candice’s, how inhumanely human; and, perhaps most importantly, through Charlie’s eyes I caught a glimpse of how difficult it must be to navigate an environment that sometimes glorifies a heritage of hatred. People expected Charlie to be patient and good-natured about the conspicuous racism inherent in the white parts of Braggsville, and his perspective on the place was often the most telling, though he was more economical with words than his friends.  Four ways of seeing D’Aron’s part of the South, all contributing to the picture of it in my head.

When I finished Welcome To Braggsville – and it took a while because reading it stressed me out – I almost wanted to go back there and fix things for the characters myself. Lou Davis’s Cash-n-Carry Bait Shop and Copy Center, the Gully, the coroner’s office all felt like places that would go on existing after the book was closed. I wish and doubt that things around Braggsville would change a little after D’Aron and his remaining friends left.

And don’t even get me started on the town of Ballyronan in The Gamal. I spent all of Thursday and Friday feeling as though I had just stepped off the plane from Ireland. It wasn’t necessarily a fun mental trip, though there’s a bit of laughter sprinkled throughout Charlie’s tale. Most of the mirth is of the laughing-at variety, rather than laughing-with. Trying to emerge from The Gamal was a challenge, and I still feel rain-soaked, with Charlie’s cut-to-the-bone manner of speech rambling through my head at odd times.

Where the narrative voices in Welcome To Braggsville shift from time to time, The Gamal is told entirely in the first person. Even the court transcripts are peppered throughout with opinions and corrections from our narrator’s uncanny memory. Charlie is begrudgingly writing a book at the bequest of his psychologist, who thinks it will help the young man to come to terms with some upsetting events in his past. On the very first page, he writes: “Don’t be expecting any big flowery longwinded poetic picturesque horseshit passages in this book explaining the look of something…. This is for people like myself who hate reading.” That being said, the town quickly grows into something so real I could probably map it.

“The Gamal” is sort of the village fool, the weirdo kid, though in reality Charlie’s more perspective than the people around him suspect. When James and Siobhan – also outsiders in their own ways – make friends with Charlie in school, their passions for music and dreamy approach to life transform his surroundings into a place where love and hope can flourish. As the two of them fall in love with each other, Charlie sort of falls in love with the bond between them all (and with Siobhan a little, too, because everyone falls in love with her. I’m in love, and you will be too when you read the book). When they cut through the woods or walk down the street; when they write songs in James’s library; when they hang around the football pitch and ignore shouts of abuse, I walked with them. I watched James trounce the other boys, and winced at his father’s unbridled joy, because in Ballyronan you don’t celebrate your son amongst the other fathers. When they stay long after the pub closed, playing the old piano until they fall asleep, my heart hurt because I knew how these perfect scenes would eventually be ruined by jealousy.

The people of Ballyronan aren’t so bad, most of them, but (as I’d already been reminded by the folks of Braggsville) a sleepy town gets comfortable with the way things have always been. Tradition; boundaries; the same faces telling the same jokes at the pub every night, that’s how some people know they’re at home. So a whole community can turn against the sorts of young people who might want to wake the surroundings a bit, through art or protest, which are basically the same thing. The strange and shining light cast by James and Siobhan illuminates every description, turning grey drizzle and bleak schoolyards into scenes that deserve “poetic picturesque horseshit passages” explaining how they look. Charlie can see this, when he’s not “acting the Gamal.” I loved seeing that corner of County Cork through Charlie’s memories, which just made it harder to read about the aftermath of two tragedies that change everything.

Just as I fell automatically into the jumbled patter of Charlie’s voice, the gravity in Ballyronan seemed stronger than that which glued me to my cafe chair. The sprinklings of Irish language and easy attention to dialect made the American accents around me disorienting while I read – it took a whole day to get my bearings in this part of the world again. That’s what I mean by transporting.

But don’t forget: upsetting as hell. The relative youth of these characters – D’Aron, Louis, Candice, Charlie, [Irish] Charlie, Siobhan, James – didn’t protect them from the horrors of unfairness. Their shining ideas, clever hypotheticals, and best efforts weren’t enough to make their dreams come true. I think I got so upset, so wrapped up and nervous, for these characters because I am one of them. I’m a confused twenty-something who would right wrongs or write songs or try to change things if I knew how, but like them all, I’m stumbling half-blindly through the big world. I’ve yet to learn the extent to which people will cling to tradition over sympathy or reason, or how easily betrayals can form in a friend’s mind. It hurt to see misfortune inflicted upon characters I would befriend in another life, and the utter lack of justice those characters faced didn’t exactly inspire faith in how things are run in the world. But these books do inspire sympathy, and small hope, and the unhappy questions that need to be asked.

In Braggsvile and Ballyronan, things fictionally continue much as they always have. The news crews get bored soon enough across from D’Aron’s house and around the pub where Siobhan worked. The big tragedies which shake the narrators to their cores might stir up some dust in daily life for as long as news and novelty last, but the landscape remains unruffled.   The people who grew up and took root in those towns cling to the biases that make them feel like part of the safe crowd, the exclusions that won’t let anyone change what has worked for so long. T. Geronimo Johnson and Ciarán Collins write about places built upon foundations of love and distrust; real-feeling stages for events I wish weren’t so believable. I was transported thoroughly while reading Welcome To Braggsville and The Gamal this month, but I couldn’t live in those books forever. My heart would give out from either the stress or the despair.