Book Review: You Can’t Win by Jack Black

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars. This is a memoir.)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

The gents at my favorite coffee shop are on a roll with the book recommendations, lately.  You Can’t Win was described to me as “the memoir of a hobo turned safe-cracker turned house burglar turned highwayman turned librarian.”  You can probably imagine that I nearly dropped my maple spice coffee (yum) in eagerness to get my hands on a copy.  I ordered one the moment I got back to work, and have ordered another since to give as a gift.  It was just that good.  I want to call the book “inspiring,” but it’s probably a bad idea to immortalize one’s admiration for such a practiced criminal as Mr. Black on the internet.  So let’s just call it a riveting story, told with level-headed clarity and enough rollicking anecdotes to turn Jack Black’s life into a series of adventures well worth re-telling.

America in the early 20th century was a wild and crazy place. Saloons and opium dens were everywhere, housing wayward women and desperate men; bad men; or pretty much any other crooked variety of fella. Prisons were uniformly horrifying – even more so than they are today – and reforms had only just started. People still carried gold money on horseback. And security measures for houses and trains weren’t quite up to snuff. The West, especially, was paradise for train-hoppers; hobos; “yeggs”; stick-up men; gamblers… any manner of folk who made their living going against the law.

Jack Black (an alias, I believe) didn’t start out as a criminal. His story begins with a quite loving description of childhood years at a Christian school. Right off the bat, he ruminates on the lack of a mother in his life, though his portrayal of the nuns who took care of him shows that there was no lack of decent adult influence in his upbringing.

“It has often been a question with me just how much the best of it a boy has, who has his mother with him until his feet are well planted under him; who has a home and influences until he gathers some kind of a working philosophy that helps him to face the world… Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about but the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgment in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.”

Jack’s father, too, is described with respect and care. In fact, I was touched by how Mr. Black’s protective nature towards his father’s reputation and feelings only grew throughout his life of crime, which is why it’s not hard to sympathize with the distance he keeps between them in later, more adventurous, years. Even as a kid, his knack for business and shrewd observational skills get Jack into troublesome learning experiences.

“The books so fired me with the desire for travel, adventure, romance, that I was miserable most of the time.”

Well, it won’t be long before travel and adventure fill Jack’s days, though misery is always snapping at his heels. (As for romance… you won’t find much of it in You Can’t Win. One of many reasons I loved the book.) His first arrest is a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subsequent incarcerations are the unhappy results of more purposeful ventures. Jack Black writes candidly about his resilience in crime, neither apologizing for his misdeeds nor whining openly about the hard life of a roving thief.

I was wrong. I knew I was wrong, and yet I persisted. If that is possible of any explanation it is this: From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people. I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. I had lived in an atmosphere of larceny, theft, crime. I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarized, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions. That was the atmosphere I breathed. ‘If you live with wolves, you will learn to howl.”

Black’s unabashed memoirs are told in a fairly linear fashion, though every now and then he’ll mention the untimely demise of a fellow “yegg,” or write ominously about a future mistake as yet unknown to his younger self during the exploit of the moment. Most cases of foreshadowing lead to reciprocal and gratifying anecdotes later on in the narrative. Jack Black is a good writer: trust that he will reveal the conclusions of any and all story-lines that conclude neatly enough.

Characters – real people, yes, but certainly their colorful personalities deserve the term – filter in and out of his acquaintance as fate (or the judiciary system) lead their paths together and astray. From the first time he witnesses a fellow train-hopper get squashed by the cargo, through partnerships with the likes of “Smiler;” “Foot-and-a-Half George;” and “The Sanctimonious Kid,” Jack is a diligent observer of the attitudes that best suit a man on the road. Charming criminals, hardened ladies who orchestrate connections in crime, and even leaders of bloody prison break-outs take Jack into their confidence quickly and easily. I think that his quiet, unassuming nature serves him well in the field. Reading his recollections has made me want to write careful descriptions of the people I encounter: their mannerisms, their ways of speech, and even the measure of their moral standing. You never know when they might turn up in your life again, fifteen years later, harboring a grudge or willing to spring you from behind bars. Bums and highwaymen tend to have interesting backgrounds of their own accord, but it takes a memory like Mr. Black’s and a simple-but-crystallized handle of the English language to give such individuals real life on the printed page.

His voice never falters into sentimentality or veers towards the arrogance of a man who has succeeded where others have not. Sometimes he needs help, and he is grateful when he gets it. Sometimes he has the chance to assist a fellow disreputable soul, and he does so without expecting congratulations. There were runs of bad luck which made me cringe at the injustice of it all – a real life of crime has no guarantee of satisfaction at the end of several months’ plotting, despite what novels and films would have us believe. But there are still moments of triumph and even unexpected kindness to keep his mind in the game for so many years.

The era of saloon shoot-outs, railroad heists, and sacks of gold has dwindled into our less-thrilling modern age of electronic money and biometrics. I probably wouldn’t like to go through my days in a hail of bullets and a succession of jail cells, but it was awfully fun to read Jack Black’s account of such a life. His subdued good humor and unusually merciful view of human nature have rubbed off on me a little bit. If more “good” people adopted an attitude like this one “bad” man, I think we would all have a better idea of how luck and life all even out in the end.

“A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Penitentiaries! I see in the background four of them. County jails, workhouses, city prisons, Mounted Police barracks, dungeons, solitary confinement, bread and water, hanging up, brutal floggings, and murderous straitjacket.

“I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.

“Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another…

“In those twenty-five years I took all these things, and I am going to write about them.

“And I am going to write about them as I took them –with a smile.”

(Here’s another good review of the book, which helped inspire me to buy it sight unseen.)

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Book Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (5 stars)

Character Development: ****** (6 stars. Deal with it.)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle will always be the Big Fat Exception to the I-rarely-read-sequels rule.  The third installment of this four book series comes out on October 21, and I urge everyone following the adventures of Blue and her Raven Boys to rush right out and buy it.  Buy it and read it and make bothersome noises at your friends until they read it too. The cover is gorgeous.  The premise continues to be sublime.  And these characters are so addictive I honestly don’t know what I’ll do without without them after the fourth book is over.  (Settle down on a rainy day and re-read the whole series in one go, I expect.)  Same as when I first read The Dream Thieves last year, I’m too excited about Blue Lily, Lily Blue to be eloquent or organized.  (My better Dream Thieves review can be found here.)  This review will be very long, and I’m not at all sorry.  I read an ARC of Blue Lily, Lily Blue last month, but stalled my review to reduce the risk of ruining things for people who still need to catch up with the series.  Be that as it may, there might be a some spoilers for the previous books ahead.  And as I read an ARC, a few details may have changed before publication.

The summer has ended, and Henrietta, Virginia, continues to be a weird; dangerous; wonderful place.  At 300 Fox Way – my favorite House Full Of Psychics in literature (and I’ve read a lot of Alice Hoffman) – Maura has gone missing.  Blue has no idea why or where her mother has gone, only that she’s underground and it has something to do with Blue’s father.  Blue is angry that her mother went off right before she started senior year.  She may be the only non-psychic in the house, but she’s determined to find Maura anyway.  Persephone is helping Adam develop his powers as the eyes and hands of Cabeswater.  It’s not easy for a teenage boy balancing a laborious job, school work, and the demanding expectations of an ancient enchanted forest.  Ronan sullenly adjusts (as best he can) to the realizations about himself and his family which he had to face the previous summer; a summer fraught with dangerous boys and hit men and dreams.  There’s still a lot to learn about Ronan’s powers as the Greywaren, and his own deep connection with whatever gives Cabeswater forest its magic. Noah has been struggling more and more to remain corporeal, despite his friends’ best efforts.  For the most part he’s as odd and lovable as ever, but something must be changing on the ley line, because his spooky moments have turned terrible to witness.  Gansey – Richard Campbell Gansey III – continues to be rich, determined, and (unbeknownst to him) doomed.  His fussy academic friend Malory comes over from England to assist in the friends’ quest for the sleeping Welsh king Glendower, but despite Malory’s often-comical huffing and puffing, the search has grown even more dangerous than before.

What if Gansey gets stung by a wasp?  What if they wake the wrong Sleeper?  Persephone, Maura, and Calla have seen that there are three sleepers: one to wake (presumably Glendower), one to leave very much alone, and one they aren’t quite sure about.  Three guesses which one they wake up.  In between their spelunking adventures, psychic consultations, and mystical research, Blue and the Boys have to worry about regular teenage stuff as well.  Blue wants to have adventures after high school, but money has always been a problem.  Adam’s money woes are even worse.  Ronan’s attraction to one of his friends might get in the way of the group’s dynamic, and Ganesy is preoccupied with keeping that precious balance at all costs – even when his own feelings for Blue must suffer for it.  They’re all worried about Noah.  Even school life at the prestigious Aglionby Academy takes a turn for the ultra-dramatic when the boys meet their new Latin teacher.  Remember how their first Latin teacher tried to kill them?  Well, this one might be even worse, and a whole lot better prepared for the job.  Even with a reformed hit man on their side and magic all around them, Henrietta has become a treacherous place for five young people on a quest.

I’m going to admit right now that Blue Lily, Lily Blue is, in my opinion, the weakest installment of the Raven Cycle so far.  That said, it’s also one of the best YA books I’ve read all year.  The Raven Cycle continues to be my favorite ongoing YA series.  Huh?  Well, the plot felt unnecessarily tangled here and there, while a few new characters struggle to carry the narrative’s building tension. Colin Greenmantle, the Very Bad Man who sent Mr. Gray after the Lynch family in the previous book, is wicked just for the sake of gleeful villany. This makes him and his bloodthirsty girlfriend extremely fun to read about, but their motives are never clear enough to inspire real concern. Where Ronan’s dreaming abilities as the Graywaren were integral to the plot of The Dream Thieves, and central to his character’s place in their banner of knights (for that’s what it seems like they’re becoming), the stakes against him aren’t nearly so compelling with such a shallow antagonist.

Gwenllian – another new character – was similarly frustrating sometimes, though I bet the mystery of her existence will be developed further in the next book. Basically Helena Bonham Carter’s ideal crazy-lady role, she acted as a good reminder that even with all the side-dramas playing out, the quest for Glendower is at the heart of this series. The magic that has taken over their lives is largely of the ancient and Welsh variety. Gwenllian makes it impossible to forget that history is full of scary, dark, heavily symbolic mythology.  Watching Gwenllian try the patience of every single woman at 300 Fox Way was immensely entertaining, too, since you can see how Blue is a product of her house whenever she gets impatient.  I’m interested to see how she changes the nature of their search.

The little weirdnesses are so very easily forgiven, though.  You won’t find a better ensemble-driven fantasy series around.  The setting is unique, and host to wonderful minor characters which could thrive nowhere else but in modern rural America.  Take the mountainous and booming Jesse Dittley, who blames Blue’s small stature on the suggestion that maybe she never ate her greens as a child.  He’s a much needed interjection of good-hearted Virginian warmth into the atmosphere, with his cursed cave and spaghetti-os. It was also terrifically amusing to finally meet the ever-so-British scholar Malory, on his own quest for a decent cup of tea.

The strength of the cast as a whole just keeps getting better and better. Everyone has hidden depths, and even when you know people are doomed, you just want to learn everything about them. Watching Ronan and Adam realize over and over that they’ve only seen the surface of their friends made me proud and sad and fiercely attached to them all at the same time. The passions behind the boys’ and Blue’s decisions are based on the intense bonds of friendship and loyalty. They find one another more interesting than all the big-ancient-magic stuff that goes on around them. Aarrghh I just want these young people to be happy, and I don’t know if they ever will! Maggie Stiefvater may be a fantasy writer, but she takes the follies of free will and the cruelties of fate to their realistic conclusions every damn time. Free will and fate like to behave unkindly to her characters, so reading plays hackey-sack with my heart. A++ character development. Six stars.

Magic functions so inventively in this series, with one foot in old Welsh mythology and one foot in dreams.  Maggie Stiefvater is rather a wizard at handling both styles.  She describes the uncanny creations that are dreamed into life as though she has a window into our own nightmares.  And the mythology… just… damn.  If you don’t want to dash to your library for books full of words spelled like lwwlywllyylwl after you’ve finished, then I don’t know how to get you excited about anything. (Lots of Ls and Ws in the Welsh stories.)  This year I found a review of The Dream Thieves over at Girl In The Pages which celebrated the way that characters never lose the sense of wonderment whenever they encounter magic in the world. So true! This is such an important element to fantasy – especially stories where regular modern life gets suddenly mystical – and I wish that more authors would embrace the eternally surprising nature of new discoveries.

The plot was so complicated, I know I will have to go back and re-read all three books in rapid succession before I can really wrap my head around all the intricate threads that are woven into these characters’ lives. It’s hard to believe that so much can happen in less than a year! It makes sense that each character has one or two plot lines which are most important to them, and since this is an ensemble-driven series that means there will be many different story arcs struggling to some fate at any given time. As a piece of a series, Blue Lily Lily Blue is a magnificent book, but it doesn’t stand so well on its own as the other two did. Suffers from a little too much going on at once, but I think that it will be worth it by the series’ conclusion. (The only real plot that begins and ends in this book was Maura’s disappearance, but even that hinges on unexplained cave phenomena and various prophecies.) For sure it has introduced and built upon some truly gripping, complex layers for the story, and I have faith that Stiefvater will develop all those twists and turns before she tragically finishes the cycle. The cruelties of literature, to keep us from being able to read them all straight through at once! Maybe I should have waited until the whole series was released to save myself the torture… But no, because then I would have never realized that Stiefvater’s newer books are so wonderful.

Holy heck do I need to know how this all comes together in the end. The plot is so twisted and involves so many cool pieces, but honestly it’s the characters who keep dragging me back to Hentrietta, VA. I would to follow these people to their fates even if it messes with all my reading plans. (Honestly, I had planned to read a different novel the day I finally saw this ARC on the shelf. Those other plans disappeared in a puff of ancient tomb-dust.)  I’ll drag this over-long review to a conclusion, now, with a fervent demand that anyone who hasn’t started reading The Raven Cycle picks up The Raven Boys straight away.  With such a lively mix of characters and an exciting plot, it’s highly recommended reading for all genders and all ages from 14 and up. A content advisory would include language and sex and violence. All of which are necessary. All of which are great.  Maggie Stiefvater has become one of my very favorite YA writers, and I stand in constant reverence of the mind that drives her pen.

Book Review – Lockwood & Co #2: The Whispering Skull

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up

It’s rare and exciting that I read more than one book in a series.  Series aren’t often my thing, and even when I do read a first book that sweeps me off my feet, the sequels tend to get lost at the bottom of a daunting pile of New Books I Need To Read.  That avalanche is real, it’s heavy, and it’s never ever ending.  But I was kinda-sorta on a little vacation this weekend (meaning I stayed home and ate cranberries and finally got to read in the daylight) so I said to myself, “Do something crazy an unexpected with your free time!  Break the rules!  Follow your heart to whatever terrifying destination awaits!”  I didn’t move from my reading chair, but I did pick up the second book in a series. 

Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series is ghostly and scary and action-packed.  There’s a terrifying destination for ya’, without having to put on proper pants!  And The Whispering Skull is a sequel, so I can put a check-mark next to “unexpected”, too.

I read it because Halloween’s approaching, and Stroud writes some properly terrifying scares.  Bleeding walls, hungry rats: really not for the faint of heart.

I read it because I really enjoyed The Screaming Staircase last year, and wanted to hang out with Lockwood, Lucy, and George again.  You can read my review here.  The old-fashioned ghost-hunting subject mixed so well with the modern setting and characters in the first installment, while the young team’s mysterious adventure was tightly-plotted and tense.  Plus –huzzah! — the ending left room for development but was not an unbearable cliffhanger that left frayed seams and torn holes in the fabric of the plot.  More of that in kids’ series, please and thank you.

And I read it because the skull on the cover was staring at me from my shelf, whispering: “Read me. You know you want to fall back into a world where specters haunt the streets and psychic children carry swords.  It’s a rainy October afternoon and you’ve got nowhere to be until tomorrow.  Reeeeaad meeee.”  So I gave in and followed the skull’s advice.  Unlike Lucy and her friends, who end up seriously regretting an instance in which they follow the haunted cranium’s suggestions, I had a great time reading the book.  Didn’t even mind the goosebumps too much, though I did turn on lots of lights that evening…

The Whispering Skull introduces a new set of assignments for Lockwood & co, but also carries over some unsolved mysteries from the first book.  Clever readers would have no trouble starting with the second book, as long as they could throw themselves unreservedly into the setting of post-Problem modern London.  (The problem being ghosts, of course, the history of which is developed a little further in this second installment.)

Lucy, George, and the ever-dashing Lockwood made quite a name for their rag-tag agency after their adventure in Combe Carey Hall where, yes, the staircase was rather unhappily vocal.  They’ve been busy with new cases and a few mishaps.  When the bully Quill Kipps and his team of smug, snobby young agents from the well-established Fittes agency challenge Lockwood & co to a ghost-hunting competition, the rivalry between agencies takes on higher stakes than ever before.  Bruised pride and broken faces abound.  The trial: the next time they’re each working to solve the same haunting, whichever team defeats the spirits first and secures the case gets to humiliate the other team in print.

As luck would have it, Lockwood and Kipps find themselves called together quite soon.  An every-night graveyard job went badly awry when a definitely-haunted and probably-cursed mirror is stolen from the scene.  The mirror has an irresistible pull, but anyone who looks into it goes very mad and is quickly dead. The twisted individual who created the mirror centuries before was Dr. Bickerstaff: a man obsessed with finding out what lay beyond mortal perception, who was pleased as plasma to harm other people in his quest to find out.  With the mirror at large in London, the living are at risk.  Scotland Yard insists that Lockwood’s team work together with Kipps’ cronies to secure the mirror and keep Bickerstaff’s ghost from killing anyone else.  Racing against nefarious antique dealers, dangerously obsessed academics, and their horrid rivals, the young psychics will have to draw on all their sword skills and quick wits to find the mirror before calamity finds them.  (Lucy even has to do it in a cocktail dress and high heels!)  And if that weren’t enough to keep them on their toes, the haunted skull that George has been experimenting on since Lucy joined agency has started talking to her.  Only to her.  No one has been able to converse with spirits since the legendary founder of the Fittes agency, so very long ago.  So why is the rude and crafty skull trying to get Lucy’s attention?  Why is it trying to play on their fears and turn the three friends against one another?  And should they trust anything the skull tells them, if it might help solve the case even while it endangers their lives?

The Whispering Skull has all the trappings of a good episodic sequel.  The mystery in this book is new and self-contained, but bigger questions from the first book get embellished.  (I can only hope there will be a third book next year, so that I can continue my wild and crazy rule-breaking trend.)  Some of the things I didn’t like so much about The Screaming Staircase are even remedied in this installment.  For example, I thought that the antagonism between Kipps and Lockwood was too petty when the characters had their little standoff in book one.  The renewed strength and higher stakes of their rivalry made me really cheer for Lucy, George, and Lockwood to solve the case and wipe the smug looks off of their opponents’ pointy faces.  That is, I cheered for them when I wasn’t inwardly screaming, “Agghh just run!  There’s something horrible coming down the hall!”

Stroud’s writing continues to be mature and chilling.  These books are rather long for Middle-Grade adventures, topping out at over 400 pages.  What with the gruesome hauntings and complex plot, I still recommend Lockwood & Co to teenaged readers and even to adults looking for fast-paced supernatural thrills.  There’s no heavy romance in the series, yet – no time for making eyes at one another when you’re busy jabbing wraiths with swords – but the plot, action, and lively banter should stand up to older readers’ expectations very well.  Many middle school readers will surely love the books, as long as they’ve got an appetite for some quality horror but no appetite for their dinner just yet.  (Did I mention the rats?)

I’m getting seriously attached to Lockwood and his not-always-so-merry band of psychic swashbucklers.  All of the major characters had a chance to develop further in The Whispering Skull – even the skull himself.  Maybe it’s thanks to the haunted head’s spiteful meddling that we learn more about Lucy’s gift, about the extent of George’s curiosity, and about Lockwood’s dark secrets.  I wouldn’t thank the skull, myself, because honestly it’s an asshole.  But I’m really liking the chance to get to know these characters better.  This series deserves a whole hoard of eager followers.

Can you guess if I have any regret about reading the second book in a children’s series instead of making a few inches of progress against the Towers To Read?  None at all.  Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull has got me so ready to wander around in the dark on Halloween night.  I would feel a little better if Lockwood himself were around to provide back-up, but maybe I’ll stick some iron in my pockets and lavender in my purse, just to be safe.

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.

Book Review: Deadweather And Sunrise (The Chronicles of Egg #1)

 

Alas and alack! My pile of Pirate Books To Tackle has grown so monstrous that I should have avoided starting a new series on top of everything. Usually I gravitate towards stand-alone books in my reading ventures, because life is too damn short. But several stalwart and fervent young readers of the 9-12 persuasion have recommended Geoff Rodkey’s series to me – especially on Pirate Fridays when I make a point to wear stripes and my little spyglass – so I figured it was high time I set off at full sail into The Chronicles Of Egg. There are three books currently available in the series, but I started at the beginning with Deadweather And Sunrise. Because even though I don’t like to read by no landlubberly rules, it’s sometimes best to start at the beginning. That’s just how stories work.

Here’s what awaited me in the New Lands, where lies the smelly island Deadweather – and other islands with varying stink-levels – sit surrounded by the Blue Sea:

Egbert is the youngest of three siblings, the only children on Deadweather island. His father runs the uglyfruit plantation with a keen eye for business and a thumping for anyone not pulling their weight. Most of the other employees are pirates who have come back from the sea missing large chunks of their anatomy. Egbert’s brother and sister (Adonis and Venus… I do not jest) also enjoy a spot o’ violence now and then. Meaning that they cause their little brother as much pain as possible whenever they get the chance. But, with a newfound enthusiasm for booklearnin’ and a begrudging acceptance of constant bruises, our earnest narrator isn’t ready to confine himself to growing old on Deadweather just yet. The island is a beloved rendez-vous for pirates, ruffians, and criminals who celebrate the unwashed life. It’s dirty and violent and overshadowed by a tall, sooty volcano. When Egbert’s father comes back from the volcano with something secret on his mind, the family hitches a pirate ship to Sunrise Island to have a chat with their lawyer.

The streets of Sunrise Island are clean and shining; the people are clean; and there’s this new thing called “tourism” gaining a lot of popularity. Egbert is shocked when his family is invited to stay with the wealthy Pembroke family at their beautiful estate. Mr. Pembroke is head of the mining business on the island, and we all know that money controls everything, so he’s pretty much The Man. Of course, Egbert quickly falls in love with Mr. Pembroke’s daughter, Millicent, who is spoiled but friendly and beats him soundly at croquet. It’s too bad that some dire aerodynamic circumstances remove Egg’s family from the surface of the map and spoil their fun.

After the Pembrokes’ hospitality runs suspiciously dry, Egg finds himself tossed about on the seas of adventure. Our much put-upon hero rapidly changes from a battered farmer’s son to a stowaway; a pirate captive; a castaway; and a treasure hunter. He has unpleasant encounters with mean little rich kids and dreadful pirates all in the space of one day. However, there are also moments of surprising kindness from other seemingly-scary pirate captains (and even scarier, but prettier, wealthy lasses). Egg makes friends with a kid who first tries to bite him to death, and finds out that he, himself, can be quite courageous when the need arises.

Egg’s pride and survival are at stake, so in this first volume of his adventures he has to roll with whatever punches life can throw at him. There’s treachery all over the place, and beautiful Sunrise might not be so different from the odious Deadweather island after all.

I had a rollicking good time reading Deadweather and Sunrise, mostly because it offered exactly what I expected. I don’t want to suggest that the plot was overly predictable, because it wasn’t. I had no idea what path the story would follow, and would have been surprised by the twists and turns even if I had some preconceived notions. I just mean to say that I wanted to read something funny and swashbuckling, with one adventure after another. I expected pirate jargon and a general dislike of bathtime. Cannon fire. Sand in uncomfortable places. Scurvy knaves robbing the rich and keeping it for themselves, because they’re scurvy knaves, damnit. I was satisfied on all accounts, with several instances of uproarious guffawing thrown in for good measure.

Geoff Rodkey can write an adventure story with a pace so fast you’ll get whiplash, while still laying on the gross-out details and snappy banter. The interactions between characters were lively and Egg’s internal narration was smart and sincere. It’s not a realistic story in the slightest, but that’s just fine. I appreciated the snide little nods to how thoroughly ridiculous industries like tourism and environmental exploitation can be, and I hope that the issue of mistreating indigenous people is developed further in the following volumes. That particular problem came off a little old-fashioned in Deadweather and Sunrise, but I have high hopes for the two other books which I haven’t yet had a chance to read. In this volume, the filthy rich and the grubby poor can be equally villainous and heroic, so that’s one edifying literary spyglass into the world’s weirdness, at least. That, and don’t believe everything a grown up tells you. Trust neither pirates nor parents.

With the imaginary setting and the jumble of 18th and 19th century details, the piles of misfortune which heaped themselves upon our fearless young fella took some Snicket-esque turns for the melodramatic now and then. Mix the Baudelaire siblings’ magnetism for misfortune with Jim Hawkins’ seafaring misadventures, and you’ve got The Chronicles Of Egg. You know what? I say huzzah to that! Sometimes you just want to get lost in the tumultuous seas of perilous adventures.

Deadweather and Sunrise was a thrilling, cutthroat adventure with enough sword-crossing to keep me itching for a fight. It was easy to root for Egg and his friends, so I’m pleased to know that the rest of the series was well underway before I started reading. The eleven year old lassie who first recommended The Chronicles of Egg to me was right to say that I would like it even though there were some gross bits, because the salty; smoky; sooty; smelly atmosphere was just the right setting for my favorite kind of pirate action. Humor of the light-hearted and gallows varieties combined for an entertaining yarn which would be perfect summer vacation reading material. Now go storm the shores of your local bookshop and set sail!

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

Book Review of File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8+

Some of you may not know this, but underneath all the fairytale infatuations and my ambitions of piracy, I’m a Voracious, Fervently Devoted admirer of Mr. Lemony Snicket’s life and work. (Actually, you all probably worked that one out for yourselves. I’ve been quite vocal about my enthusiasm for The Basic Eight and Why We Broke Up, penned by his “representative” Daniel Handler.) When I was slogging through the dreary days of middle-school, A Series Of Unfortunate Events instilled within me an appreciation for all sorts of gothic literature and a keen eye for mysterious circumstances. Those books were also largely responsible for my inherent distrust of adults. It’s the sort of series you can re-read time and time again; and I find that every time I return to it I recognize some wonderfully distressing references to literature and life which had flown right over my young head, despite the fact that I was tall and gangly for my age.

Nowadays I get to be that cryptic adult in the bookshop who recommends mysterious literary material to intrepid young browsers. How convenient for my secret plans that Lemony Snicket did not stop writing after his first series brought so many readers to the brink of despair. Who Could That Be At This Hour? and When Did You See Her Last? are high on my list of recommended reading. With those books on the shelf, I’m rarely at a loss for something thrilling and hilarious to sneak into the hands of a diminutive detective-to-be.

Snicket’s newer series, All The Wrong Questions, chronicles the earlier life of young Lemony: his baffling past as a volunteer in that secret society which loomed in the periphery of the Baudelaires’ lives. The books are written in a style inspired by noir detective fiction. Think hard-boiled private eyes on their own in a hostile world; enigmatic women and shady men in hats all triple-crossing our embittered hero as well as each other. There are cunning nods to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett scattered everywhere, alongside a myriad of references to classic fiction and highly recommended kids’ books.

The series traces a big, complex mystery through a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea, where commerce is rapidly dying and something nefarious lurks just out of sight by every corner, bakery, and rocking chair shop. Lemony Snicket and his chaperone – an amusingly inept adult member of the secret society – are meant to solve a mystery involving a stolen statue, a desperate young woman, an aging actress, and a coffee shop containing a player-piano rather than baristas. It’s hard to find answers, though, when everyone insists upon asking all the wrong questions. In the end, the children have to figure things out on their own while most adults waste time and, as usual, completely ignore common sense.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is sort of a supplemental volume in the series. It takes place in Stain’d-By-The-Sea sometime during the course of Snicket’s investigations, but does not necessarily need to be read at one particular point in the series’ chronology. Rather than adding to the larger mystery, these thirteen suspicious incidents appear in a collection of reported cases and separate conclusions. Each short chapter stands on its own. Sub File One contains the thirteen mysteries themselves, relayed to us in Snicket’s distinctive voice. For those of us who loved the deadpan and ironic – though somewhat formulaic – humor in A Series Of Unfortunate Events, these new books are not a disappointment. (Aside from the obvious disappointments, like how justice and root beer floats aren’t served nearly as often as they should be.) Sub File B contains the conclusions. When you’re done reading the book, count the conclusions. There are more than thirteen. Suspicious indeed! Each self-contained whodunits is somewhere between five and twenty pages long; perfect for puzzling over a story or six before bed, or while waiting for one’s parent to finish swearing at the hardware store cashier.

Characters from All The Wrong Questions filter in and out of the short cases, because in a good noir piece the locals and strangers are just as responsible for a mysterious atmosphere as the shadowy setting itself. The frustrating Mitchum family fails to prevent crimes all over the place. Moxie puts her reporting skills to use and helps Snicket now and then. Dashiel Qwerty, the punk-rock librarian, seems to know just the right book for any occasion. Jake, at the diner, serves banana waffles right when they’re needed most. Even though Snicket’s character is just a kid when he narrates the book, his descriptions of people are as cynical and case-hardened as any full grown P.I. in a black and white feature.

“Think of something noble and true, like a librarian or a a good crisp apple or a sweater that doesn’t itch, and then think of the opposite, and that’s Stew Mitchum. He was a rat and a nuisance and many other troublesome words I knew, the sort of person who might dump a whole shaker on your head if you asked him to pass the salt.”

We also encounter a long list of new characters, as most mysteries require culprits; and victims; and red herrings; and wrong turns. I particularly liked Jackie, the young mechanic who is never referred to by a gendered pronoun (and – huzzah – this is not at all self-congratulatory), and two friends named Kevin and Florence who share pirate books and also possibly secrets. Some mysterious strangers remain mysterious. Some seemingly-benign individuals turn out to be quite sinister, and some suspicious figures are actually just trying to get on with their regular routine. I think Dashiel Qwerty articulates the general theme of the collection quite well in the very last mystery, entitled “Figure In Fog.”

” ‘Look at it this way, Snicket,’ Qwerty said as the fog kept rolling across the grass. ‘To a stranger in town, such as yourself, Stain’d-by-the-Sea is full of suspicious incidents. But to the people of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, you’re a suspicious incident yourself. You arrived out of the blue and live in a hotel suite with an adult who seems to be neither your parent nor your guardian. You ask a lot of questions about anything and everything, and anyone and everyone has questions about you. There are rumors you’re part of a secret organization. There are rumors you are in charge of an important investigation. But nobody really seems to have the foggiest notion what you’re up to.’ “

I think this is an interesting observation to apply to any mystery story, hard-boiled or otherwise. As usual, Lemony Snicket makes more astute observations while writing serialized children’s fiction than many writers for grown-ups do in their whole oeuvre. These solve-it-yourself stories are great fun and very accessible to young readers, of course. They remind me of the Meg Mackintosh mysteries I loved as a child, in which I would always try to figure out the solution before the big reveal. But though I’m no longer quite youthful enough to start an apprenticeship like Snicket’s, my age never once prevented me from appreciating every one of the Suspicious Incidents. The mysteries themselves might be fairly simplistic, but the sharp, dry humor in nearly each description and every line of dialogue has no age limit in its appeal.

I hope that Snicket’s fans of fewer years might follow this series by hunting down some noir detective fiction for themselves, with the assistance of their devoted local booksellers and vigilant librarians. As for myself, and any other nearly-adult readers returning to Mr. Snicket’s world with an air of nostalgia, there are plenty of subtle riddles and literary clues to mull over all morning as one’s oatmeal congeals and the newspaper goes unread. (Another reason to wish we were eating breakfast at Jake’s diner.)

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is a highly entertaining casebook, but it’s also a clever and worthwhile addition to the chronicles of Stain’d-by-the-Sea and the intricate world Lemony Snicket shares with us all. The plot might not be so detailed, and the ironic twists and turns might get repetitive after some time, but the formula works and the book concludes before it descends into a tiresome exercise. In a town where everyone has a trick up their sinister sleeves – where even sled races and pet lizards aren’t as wholesome as they might seem – we can trust young Lemony Snicket to doggedly pursue answers to whatever suspicious incidents waltz his way, even if those answers just unearth more questions and an awful lot of dry seaweed.

Book Review: The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Dear readers, it’s a really big deal that I’ll admit to enjoying this book. I don’t usually like nonfiction. I find biographies awkward and survival stories a bit of a drag. Until a few days ago, I was quite adamant that I disliked Elizabeth Gilbert, because I think that Eat, Pray, Love is one of the most overrated books to ever grace the bestseller list. I gave up on that memoir and deemed it self-indulgent waffling. So it took a lot of persuasion, a free book, and a snowy day to convince me to sit down with The Last American Man.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Holy crapoli was I surprised. This is not the vague life story of a guy who tries to be extra-manly in everything he does. This isn’t a collection of ramblings about freedom and liberty, or bald eagles, or a gun-nut holed up in a shack somewhere (though there are plenty of guns in Eustace Conway’s life, a powerful sense of freedom, and a few eagles, too). The Last American Man is the biography of a man who, at seventeen years old, set off with little more than a teepee and a knife to escape from materialist society and a tense home life where his dad expected impossible perfection. He hiked the Appalachian trail, became almost entirely self-sufficient, lived with the wilderness, and decided that it was his calling to share this way of life with other people. Eustace Conway considers himself a “Man of Destiny,” and Elizabeth Gilbert sets about chronicling his pursuit of that destiny. He started out giving talks about nature at schools, inspiring young people to consider their role as part of the earth. After countless adventures; some tragedies; and several meals consisting of porcupine, he has nearly become the sort of legendary figure Transcendentalists and gentleman explorers wanted to be, but didn’t know how.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s biography of Eustace Conway is very personal, examining one man’s ideal of giving up on modern comforts to live in the wilderness, but also surprising. Halfway through the book, after I became nearly convinced that this guy had all the answers idea about mankind and nature (and the future, and life…) the narrative changed just subtly enough to show the other sides to Eustace’s story. The girlfriends who saw him as some fantasized ideal were, in turn, berated and discouraged for failing to meet his impossible standards. Beautiful scenes of Eustace teaching kids at his camp to imagine themselves as the forest floor were juxtaposed with the demoralizing fact that not everyone can truly learn to live at one with nature, contrary to what he believed at the beginning of his journey. Chapters of freedom during a record-breaking horseback adventure across the country, an adventure which might impress Cormac McCarthy, were exhilarating.  But soon enough Gilbert reminds us that the modern world is no longer so amenable to earnest, determined, natural souls.

I loved reading about how Turtle Island, the nature preserve and farm Eustace Conway worked so hard to protect, was supposed to endure as a peaceful haven against industrial greed. And then, when legal fine-print and human reality began to tear down that dream several chapters later, I shared in a tiny piece of that heartbreak. While there’s no real plot to comment upon, this being a true story – and an unfinished one, at that – the book’s pacing was carefully constructed. She builds up a reader’s investment in parts of the narrative, and in the real subjects (who are so extraordinary they may as well be called “characters,”) so that the victories and challenges Eustace faces in his pursuit of destiny might affect us keenly.

The author has interviewed so many people in connection with her subject, and has spent a great deal of time with Eustace: sawing wood at his camp, talking in the woods, getting drunk, arguing. There are whole passages included from his extremely personal diaries, and while I felt that this intimacy seemed almost invasive, we get as well-rounded a portrait of the man and his beliefs as we could hope for. Gilbert has interviewed countless family members, acquaintances, enemies, and admirers of Eustace’s. It’s a level of personal investigation I can’t help but admire, especially because all that socialization with such strong personalities would have really stressed me out. (Clearly I should not become a biographer.) She also must have spent considerable time learning about frontiersmen from America’s colonization onward, because there are plenty of anecdotes showing how Eustace Conway is carrying on a tradition. That tradition is both one of returning to mankind’s roots and of pushing forward to some natural, pure horizon, and we’re left to decide for ourselves if Eustace will make it. Can we look past the fact that our hero has pushed so far away from the pressures of his childhood, only to be compared to his overbearing father once again? Is it enough that he has tried to live as a symbol of natural respect and self sufficiency, or do we need him to have ultimately succeeded in becoming a “Man of Destiny”? Does Eustace Conway owe us anything at all – owe us his belief that we can live as he does – the way he once claimed? Is he really the last American man?

This is an optimistic story, if not always an uplifting one. Despite the peaks and valleys and broken horse legs, I closed the book feeling a little comforted in the knowledge that this man – with his possibly-crazy vision for the world – has saved a few lives and opened countless eyes to the importance of loving the Earth instead of just living off it. I’m glad I read The Last American Man, and I’m willing to admit that it was foolish to judge Elizabeth Gilbert on only one book. This biography was riveting, touching, and yes, inspiring.

Book Review: Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase is supposedly for middle grade readers and young adults, and I know my most morbid friends and I would have absolutely adored it at that age, when we spent our afternoons trying to get possessed by spirits in the church basement during Girl Scout meetings. However, it’s such a sophisticated and downright scary book that I think older teenagers and even adults who read it would not feel like they were reading a children’s book below their league. (I am, of course, a hundred percent in favor of older people reading all manner of kid’s books without a hint of shame.)   The Screaming Staircase is a supernatural thriller which is scary, funny, and intriguing to the very last page.

Jonathan Stroud introduces us to a modern London full of ghosts. In fact, the whole world is experiencing “the problem” of a dramatic rise in hauntings, for reasons yet undisclosed – and into that London he’s introduced our young teenaged narrator, Lucy, and the the indomitable Lockwood & Co. Part of “the problem” seems to be that adults are not sufficiently attuned to ghostly disturbances and therefore aren’t too effectual in ghost hunting. But kids are more susceptible to paranormal behaviors. Just like with suspected hauntings in the real world, there might be some presence in a haunted house but only someone with psychic sensitivity can make any sense of it. In The Screaming Staircase, sensitive kids are apprenticed to ghost hunters as the eyes and ears of operations or they work as night guards in important parts of the city after curfew has been put in place after sunset. Lucy starts out as one such apprentice, but quickly learns that adults are cowards and often unprepared, even when they’re supposed to be in charge. Reeling from a ghost-busting gone horribly wrong, she joins up with Anthony Lockwood’s agency, where the entire operation is run by young teenagers out of a London townhouse full of weird artifacts, sword play in the basement, and a mess of tea and biscuits.

Lockwood himself is dashing, clever, and positively brimming with enthusiasm to get rid of ghostly “Visitors” and make a name for his unorthodox little company. George, his chubby and sarcastic young coworker who researches things from a safe distance, cooks and conducts experiments on a haunted skull even when he’s taking a bath. George doesn’t inspire Lucy’s confidence quite so much at first, but Lockwood & Co give her a home and a way to channel her ability to hear Visitors into a sense of purpose. Together, the three of them take on a haunted house case which should just be a routine exorcism. Things go awry, as they so often do. They are unprepared, they find a mysterious dead socialite by accident, and they end up burning their client’s home to the ground. And that’s when The Screaming Staircase really gets going. Lockwood must agree to investigate the incredibly haunted estate of one of the richest men in the country – a fellow in the iron business does a good bit of business when supernatural disturbances become part of the daily forecast – and the three young ghost hunters get in way over their heads at Combe Carey Hall once they start digging deeper into the mysteries of its past. Blood pours down from the ceiling. Children from other agencies have disappeared mysteriously or been found dead the next morning. And yes, there is a staircase which wails and screams with violent medieval memories. Lucy, George, and Lockwood will have to rely on little more than their wits, their rapiers, and each other when they come face to face with the afterlife and realize that things are quite confusing enough on this side of the mortal veil.

When I say that I would have loved this book as a young teen, I want to make it clear that I was a creepy, weird little lass. The Screaming Staircase is scary. Ghosts in Stroud’s world range from spooky phantoms seen near gallows-trees to full-fledged nightmares attacking kids in their bedrooms. There’s horror in this adventure, but what a fun adventure it is! Ghost stories for children sometimes run the risk of being too old-fashioned (like Constable & Toop, which I enjoyed but which might not grab the attention of Middle Grade readers accustomed to high stakes and snappy dialogue) or too high-tech and superficial. Lockwood & Co seems to be a series which will fall comfortably in the middle of these two generalizations to give us riveting action and relatable characters while still retaining some of that old-time-y ghost story atmosphere. I love the fact that agents use rapiers to parry with spirits and the inclusion of folkloric beliefs like the protective qualities of iron and various spiritual artifacts. The hauntings themselves are appropriately motivated by untimely deaths and unfinished business, so fans of ghost stories for both kids and adults will recognize some of the patterns which move the novel’s plot along. I like traditional ghost origins, though, and was perfectly content to wonder vaguely at “the Problem” without wishing it had been entirely spelled out for me. Maybe in future books Stroud will give us the logistics of his haunted setting, but the story doesn’t suffer for his skirting the issue.

While the ghosts and haunted houses might seem straight out of a Gothic novel, the characters are decidedly modern. I challenge any reader to put this book down not wanting to hang out with Lockwood. He’s just so cool. George, too, is so much fun to read about. Lucy immediately dislikes his mocking manners, but I usually find that the sarcastic side-kick turns out to be my favorite character in any book. He acts as a great voice of unfortunate reason, but also turns out to be brave and loyal. Huzzah for a sidekick with depth! Lucy is surly, but eager to do a good job, and I found that I could easily relate to her character. There’s plenty of background to her past as a strongly attuned psychic, and despite life’s hardships she just wants to put her talents to good use. Of course, this being a children’s book, there’s a hint that there might be something more to Lucy’s powers. That’s not my favorite literary tradition of all time; kids do not always need to find out they’re destined by to save the world, sometimes they should be just a normal sword-fighting psychic trying to save London from supernatural foes… But, once again, the threat of “specialness” didn’t ruin the book for me.

A few points did make me raise an eyebrow and wonder about certain choices. The Americanization of Stroud’s British terminology was inevitable, I suppose, but for a book which talks about changes in temperature all the bloody time it was distracting to stop and wonder why these kids were speaking in degrees Fahrenheit during otherwise bone-chilling scenes. The major villain of the story isn’t revealed as a scoundrel until late in the book, so some other unpleasant characters are sprinkled throughout to act as antagonists to our intrepid heroes. Unfortunately, the rivalry between Lockwood & Co and another group of agents seemed shallow and petty to me. It’s always great fun to watch an arrogant twit make an idiot of himself so that protagonists can have revenge upon him later, but the bully and his cohorts were too one-dimensional to add much to the story besides a glance at why big agencies with adult supervision aren’t nearly as awesome. There’s also the gore-factor. I love scary stuff, but visceral grossness really bothered me as a youngster (and it still does). There are a few little descriptions here – not lengthy ones, but vivid – which would have certainly fueled some scream-worthy nightmares a decade ago. I hope that anyone who picks up The Screaming Staircase reads the cover blurb and flips through it before dedicating a night to getting lost in the story. It’s such an engrossing read you won’t want to quit halfway through, even though you might regret it later when you start hearing a steady drip-drip-drip in your dreams.

I heartily recommend Lockwood & Co to anyone who liked the charismatic characters in Artemis Fowl, as well as the mix of modern and old fashioned adventure. Spooky kids who liked The Graveyard Book but want a little more action will love it, as will anyone who wished that superstitions and sword fights were still part of every day life. Any grown-up anglophiles who want a straightforward ghostly adventure will also enjoy The Screaming Staircase. I hope Stroud will continue to write about the exploits of Lockwood & Co, even though this book ended very nicely without too many loose ends. There’s a lot to explore in his version of London, and I want to explore it with Lucy and her friends.

My review of the second book in the series – Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull can be read here.

Book Review: The Mark Of The Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson (Coming out in March, 2014)

I don't like to bend spines but I love the front and back covers of this book!

I don’t like to bend spines but I love the front and back covers of this book!

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****(4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: *** **(5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of The Mark of The Dragonfly and a few details might change before publication.)

How pleased am I to be giving this book five stars? So very, very pleased. It’s been a rough month and The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a wonderful distraction, a breath of fresh air, and a damned fine adventure to boot. It’s a new Middle Grade fantasy/adventure novel which will be hitting bookshelves this March, and I seriously recommend it.

We meet Piper in Scrap Town Number Sixteen – part of the Merrow Kingdom – on a night when meteors from another world are showering down. (As it happens, the artifacts which crash through the sky in a haze of poisonous dust come from our world; things like music boxes and copies of The Wizard of Oz. I thought that was pretty cool.) Piper is a scrapper, which means that she and the other poor folk in her struggling town go out to the fields after a storm to collect the strange objects and sell them to rich people from more prosperous industrial towns. After her father died in a factory working iron for a King who is obsessed with innovation and expansion, Piper has been living on her own in a somewhat hostile world. She has an unusual gift with machines and works as a mechanic to stay alive. Aside from her friend Micah, a little boy who wants to find something marvelous in the fields one day, she has few people she can trust and no one to take care of her.

All this changes when she finds a gravely injured girl in the wreckage of a caravan after a big meteor storm. The girl, Anna, has lost many of her memories and is being pursued by a mysterious and forceful man she only remembers as “the wolf.” Piper rescues Anna and is shocked to discover that the young girl has a tattoo of a dragonfly on her arm. The mark of the dragonfly implies that a person is terribly important to King Aron, and our resourceful young heroine decides to escort the frightened girl to the capitol city where she might reunite her with a grieving family and, she hopes, collect a reward for herself. I liked that Piper’s motivations weren’t entirely golden hearted. She has sympathy for Anna and feels obliged to protect her, but knows that her world is harsh and wants to build a better life for herself in the capitol. Piper and Anna board a train as they escape from “the wolf,” and find themselves treated with respect thanks to Anna’s tattoo and Piper’s ability to lie her way out of awkward situations. They meet a mysterious boy with a big – winged – secret and some rough-and-tumble train technicians with very kind hearts under all that soot.

A great majority of the book takes place on the train, but it isn’t all talking about engines and watching the scenery go by. Chases, attempted robberies, social climbing, library re-arranging, and all sorts of mischief takes places on the sturdy but old-fashioned 401. It’s a mildly steampunk setting, but Jaleigh Johnson never goes overboard with the technical descriptions. This isn’t one of those otherworldly books in which everything has a few gears slapped on it in order to render it appealing. When there are mechanical interludes, they exist for a reason. And, as this is a story aimed at readers 10 and up, I was perfectly content to have the scientific and political aspects of the Merrow Kingdom described only on a need-to-know basis. This is an adventure focused on the characters and a train with the politics and geography as mere backdrop, so the weird discrepancies were easily forgiven. (An example of this would be the weird blend of our world and the fantasy one: orange trees and “pika” trees exist in harmony, and there’s a statue of an elephant fighting a dravisht raptor, whatever that may be.) The Mark Of The Dragonfly is not a short book, though, and too much world-building would have been rather detrimental to the pace, so I suggest that readers just get cozy with the strange setting – one which is connected to ours through some space in the sky – and enjoy reading about Piper and Anna as they navigate the fraught world. They get to fly in the clutches of magical beasties, experience an awkward psychic encounter with a subterranean fantasy race, and fix gears and pipes which do way more than transport passengers. I was reminded of the TV show Firefly from so many years ago, both by the nature of the adventure and the vintage-sci-fi setting. Not to mention, the likable cast of characters to whom you can’t help but get attached. A whole range of emotions plays out within the four hundred pages: from joy to despair, and back through witty banter and friendly rivalries all the way to surprise and – dare I admit it? – warm fuzzy feelings.

There were a few pieces of The Mark Of The Dragonfly which left me wanting a bit more detail. How, exactly, were odds and ends from Earth crashing through the sky in the Scrap Towns? The idea is fascinating and the descriptions of that bizarre meteorological phenomenon were really cool, but after the first few chapters the idea is abandoned all together and never properly revisited during the course of Piper’s adventures. What were the villain’s real motives, besides greed and expansionism? When he got a chance to explain his actions, they almost seemed like noble delusions. And on that note, we never really learn why he’s called “the wolf.” I did work out the big plot twist long before it was officially revealed, but it was still done well with enough clues to convince me without making it too obvious. Bear in mind that I’ve also read loads more of the genre than the intended audience. (A note on the genre: The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a little like a less-complicated Mortal Engines, and I think that anyone who enjoys this book should consider testing the waters of more detailed steampunk-y children’s adventures. There’s quite a lot to choose from, at the moment. But Philip Reeve is definitely a favorite. Older readers might also enjoy Amy Leigh Strickland’s Rescue! Or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal.) These little distractions weren’t nearly annoying enough to make me dislike any moment I spent reading The Mark Of The Dragonfly, though, and I particularly think that young readers will be happy to immerse themselves in Johnson’s world without getting bent out of shape over a few technical difficulties.

The writing was straightforward and fun, the characters were delightful but realistic with faults and mistakes aplenty, and I was anxious to learn what would happen. When I finally did reach the end, I nearly did a heel-click from glee upon learning that there was no dreadful cliffhanger conclusion waiting to spoil my afternoon! I am so tired of Middle Grade series which rely on inconclusive endings to build suspense. (This is especially hard when you’re a bookseller and want to recommend an author, but the first of a series is sold out at your shop.) If Jaleigh Johnson decides to write another volume set in the Merrow Kingdom I will be thrilled to read it, but The Mark Of The Dragonfly can easily stand alone as a favorite book on the young readers shelf. I can’t wait to recommend it to kids who loved Inkheart and adults who want something new for the inventive and strong-willed young scrappers in their lives.

Book Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-13

We have a stack of Rooftoppers on display at my bookshop right now, and I will admit that I was enamored with this new-to-America children’s book even before I read it.  The cover is beautiful and subdued; an old fashioned design which won’t look out of place tucked alongside classics like The Golden Compass and The Graveyard BookRooftoppers has a charming narrative voice which calls to mind some of my favorite children’s books like Inkheart and Peter Pan, alongside a timeless setting for secretive adventures similar to The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

While it shares some excellent qualities with each of these books, though, Rundell’s writing has a unique style all her own.  She chooses her words carefully but includes enough warmth and wit in all of her dialogue and descriptions to keep us smiling at her dreamy view of the world.  I say “dreamy” there simply because I’m not poetic enough this morning to capture the right words to describe the mood of Rooftoppers. It is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted to read sitting in the cold moonlight after everyone had gone to bed when I was nine or ten years old.  There’s beautiful imagery, international travel, clever conversations, and intrepid children having adventures in a word all their own.

The story starts with a baby getting rescued from the a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case by an awkward but kindhearted scholar.  From the second page, we get a reassuring peek into the nature of the relationship between rescuer and cello-baby: “It is a scholar’s job to notice things.  He noticed that it was a girl, with hair the color of lightning, and the smile of a shy person.”  Charles raises Sophie on his own, and she grows up happily in his curious house eating cake off books (she has a tendency to break plates), reading Shakespeare, and ignoring the tangles in her hair.  Sophie refuses to give up hope that her mother still lives, and a phrase which she and Charles share with each other on numerous seemingly-hopeless occasions is “never ignore a possible.”  The family they make is happy but unconventional and so, as it often happens in books about blissfully un-brushed and precocious children, the dubiously omniscient “state” decides to meddle.  The unfeeling Ms. Eliot, a rigid woman from the National Childcare Agency who is described as often speaking in italics, decides that Charles is unfit to raise Sophie.  It seems he knows so little about bringing up girls he has scandalously allowed her to wear a shirt which buttons on the right like a man’s, as well as a slew of other frustratingly closed-minded grievances.

In defiance of their orders to be separated from one another, Charles and Sophie risk everything to escape England with high spirits in the face of adventure.  They follow a clue found in Sophie’s old floating cello case to a music shop in Paris, and decide to try and find her mother while they wait to be left in peace.  One thread of the plot which puzzled me a little was the selflessness of Charles as he helps the child he raised go searching for a mother she had never met, but between his devotion to her happiness and the unlikely odds that the woman is even alive, I could easily shelve my cynical expectations.  In Paris, Charles and Sophie have to match wits with shifty police officers and obnoxious legal waffling.  Sick of hiding in her hotel room all day, Sophie climbs up to the roof, only to discover that the rooftops of Paris are home to groups of children living free from the rules of the streets below.  She strikes up a friendship with Matteo, an orphan who vows never to go down into the streets again, and some of his friends and learns that thrill and freedom of a life above city could provide her not only with a measure of safety from the authorities but also, if she’s very lucky; very careful; and very brave; a path to her long lost mother.

I know that the books to which I compared Rooftoppers were mostly stories with some fantasy elements, but this novel is actually not a fantasy at all.  I hesitate to call it “realism,” since the historical setting is rather vague to allow for the traditional elements of a Nineteenth Century children’s adventure, but there’s no magic other than luck, hope, and powerful music.  Many of the characters also bear descriptions which imbue them with almost fairy-tale qualities: for example, Charles “had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.”  Because the characters tend to see each other as wondrous beings, there’s no real need for dragons or spells.

It was an absolute pleasure to read about Sophie and Charles as they looked out for one another, and I was easily convinced by Matteo and his hardscrabble friends that the unconstrained world above ground is the best sort of freedom a child could imagine.  The characters in Rooftoppers were determined, resourceful, and hopeful even in the face of devastating disappointment.  If Rundell had been less skilled in her creation of a storybook atmosphere, I think I might have found some of the characters and events a little too good to be true.  Luckily, she writes so beautifully that even where the plot failed to surprise me it still managed to be delightful.

The tension in Rooftoppers sems mostly from the risk of characters losing one another, which is sweet and meaningful but means that readers who are easily frightened won’t find themselves haunted by the terrifying situations which are so plentiful in other Middle Grade novels.  (I loved me some terror when I was of that age, but I understand that some parents would rather not be woken to the sound of screams after their kid stays up too late reading.)  There’s a little bit of violence, but it’s more reminiscent of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan than any true evil.  The end was bittersweet and a little abrupt, but I was extremely relieved to see that there was no cliffhanger paving the way for a sequel.  Rooftoppers can stand alone as a charming book to read on a dark night, particularly if the power’s out and you’ve got a warm fire, and you’ll be thinking about Sophie, Charles, and the shadowy children against the sky long after their adventures are through.

I haven’t been so entranced by the rooftops of Paris since I went through a phase in  Elementary School in which I watched The Hunchback Of Notre Dame every afternoon.   I imagine that sensitive children with mysterious spirits, and grown-ups who miss the atmospheric stories which stuck with them throughout the years, will enjoy Rooftoppers.  It leaves you with your head in the clouds and your heart in your throat.