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.

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Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Be it known that I read an advanced galley of The Buried Giant and some details may change before publication.  The book will come out on March 3, 2015, from Alfred A Knopf.

Ishiguro is full of surprises.  His novels have become modern classics, inspiring movies and winning awards all over the place.   (How did he write so well from a young girl’s point of view in Never Let Me Go, capturing the competitive nature over favorite teachers and imaginary horses?  Kathy was given a voice I can still hear in my head whenever I remember that death exists, and somehow she is a comfort.  That book just wrecked me, it was so beautiful and the characters felt so real.  Similarly, Ishiguro is responsible for The Remains of the Day, which he apparently wrote in just four weeks.  That book has grown to be synonymous with the risky country-house discretion and Very English Butlers.)

So much of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work embodies some defining trait of British-ness.  The struggle with mortality, personal vs. political sacrifice, the faults of memory, loyalty to a culture that is not so loyal to you… I could go on.  Even his books that aren’t set in the UK seem to focus on concerns of the changing past and the burden of forgetting failures; themes that I always associate with classic English novels.  His subjects and styles change time and time again, and you never know what sort of story you’ll be getting into when you pick up one of his books.  But you can always be sure that wresting your brain out of the book’s captivating language and ambling pace will take a while once you’ve fallen under its spell.

Such is the case with The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s newest book. The Buried Giant will come out in March and I won’t stop talking about it for some time.  It’s set in Britain during the Dark Ages, when Britons and Saxons lived in small communities scattered across the island, and a day of traveling could bring untold dangers.  The elements, disease, fearful villagers, and highway bandits were very real threats to anyone out in the open back then.  In The Buried Giant, mythical beasts cause trouble just as naturally.  While creatures from fantasy do feature in the book, the unruffled style in which this tale is told never builds the magic up to be terribly show-stopping – or even unusual – to the characters who witness it.  Just part of the scenery, and no more pressing than a powerful need to eat.  Mostly, this is a story about an old couple who want to journey from their community to see their son.  The Arthurian knights, Saxon warriors, cursed dragons, and mystical islands are merely companions and landmarks on their journey.  But, of course, the journey can not be so simple as we may hope for these kindly Britons.

Axl and Beatrice are leaving their village; a sort of warren housing the community within a hill.  The elderly couple used to be respected by their neighbors, but in recent times they’ve met with coldness and odd manners.  The more Axl thinks about the inexplicable change, the surer he grows that they are all forgetting people and events which had been important to them not too long ago.  A “mist” has fallen on the collective memory of Britons and Saxons alike, so soon after peace was finally struck between their two warring races.  Nobody discusses what they will not remember, and recollections come without warning or invitation to Axl and Beatrice throughout their time together.  It was surreal and unnerving to read as one character re-told a shared memory to another who could only trust to believe that it was true.  Unnerving in such a way that made me worry quietly about the book whenever I wasn’t reading it.  What brought about this clouded barrier to recent history?  Were Axl and Beatrice really remembering things, or just telling stories to comfort each other?  Would their devotion be strong enough to guide them half-blindly through a journey, one that so many external forces would attempt to alter to suit grander – and sometimes dangerous – ends?

I could not get enough of this book’s style or story, though it’s hard to pinpoint what was so mesmerizing to me as I read.  There was clearly something missing in my reading life recently, and The Buried Giant filled that gap.  Was I feeling nostalgic for a charming, wandering epic ever since the Hobbit movies failed to capture Tolkien’s original style?  Possibly.  And Ishiguro delivered, though I’m reluctant to compare The Buried Giant to The Hobbit, despite the dragon and folks riding down a river in things that aren’t boats.  It reminds me more of his side-stories: the tales and legends Tolkien wrote that took place in Middle Earth, but were so obviously inspired by Northern epics and British storytelling traditions.  The conversational tone that guides readers into the green and wind-torn lands is familiar and comforting.  Whomever our narrator may be, he understands that we could get lost on our own in the dark ages.  Now and then, a little interjection reminds us of old Britain’s place in the shape of modern life.

“Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.” (quoted from an advanced galley and subject to change)

It’s moments like that which reminded me of good old J.R.R. Tolkien.  Ishiguro, too, can weave a tale that draws from the storytelling traditions of long ago, but holds out a kindly hand to his readers now and then.  It’s the same mixture of wonder and comfort in inhospitable surroundings that makes even unhappy scenes rather a joy to read.  I couldn’t stop reading Never Let Me Go even when my sweater sleeves were sodden with tears, nor was I about to put down The Buried Giant when confusion and fear for the beloved travelers threatened to get the better of me.

Yes, there are ogres, dragons, and nastier creatures here in small doses.  They are not nearly so terrifying as the prospect that Axel and Beatrice might somehow lose one another.  There’s a Saxon warrior on a mission and even Sir Gawain, old after his adventures with Arthur.  Their bravery in protecting two old Britons and one young Saxon boy is admirably knightly, even when their motivations veer towards selfish pride.  Gawain’s one-sided conversations with his horse make him a comical addition at times, but after a while the effects of so much war become clearer and turn him into a more tragic figure.  Violence and suspicion tore the land apart once, and could do so again at any moment, so of course the book has its bloody moments.  Some are almost dreamlike; one unbelievable moment after another, told with unblinking, measured prose.  Other glimpses of brutality are cushioned with that confident, wise language I mentioned earlier.

“The soldier let out a sound such as a bucket makes when, dropped into a well, it first strikes the water; he then fell forward onto the ground.  Sir Gawain muttered a prayer, and Beatrice asked: ‘Is it done now, Axl?’ ” (quoted from the advanced galley and subject to change)

The language here might seem strangely honest and simple at first, especially if – like me – you’ve been reading lots of fast-paced sarcastic writing lately.  But there is great depth below the surface.  There is a so much hidden underneath the mist that pacifies the people in Ishiguro’s early Britain.  As the real quest in The Sleeping Giant is that for memory and purpose, each character – and surely each reader – questions the benefit of forgetfulness, of forging one’s own memories based on remnants of love or hatred that fuel the current moment.  What would the state of Britain be if nothing could be left, untouched, to history?

But of course, we need to know the story.  So we keep reading as they keep walking.

I’m not exactly sure how to recommend The Buried Giant to friends or customers, but I intend to do so the best I can.  Rather than saying that it’s a good choice for anyone who liked Ishiguro’s earlier work, I’ll try to classify it as a restrained and moving quest story for fans of Romantic (capital R) epics and personal journeys.  I loved it in the same manner that I love reading Tolkien on a quiet day, but others might find the early-Medieval setting more reminiscent of Juliette Marillier’s writing, or various re-tellings of Arthurian legend.  This book is certainly not just for history lovers.  It’s a good choice for anyone who appreciates a simply-told story with unexpected layers of fallible humanity, each step leading to riddles even the best swordsman can’t cut through cleanly.

Book Review: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe they do.

Book Review: 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: 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Toot-tootle-oo! (That’s that medieval trumpet sound of oh-hey-big-news, but you’ll have to imagine it sounding more impressive than the phonetic sounds I just typed out…)  The National Book Award’s long list for Young People’s Literature has been announced!  I’ve read three of the books already: Skink – No SurrenderBrown Girl Dreaming (I reviewed it here), and 100 Sideways Miles.  I really badly want to read The Greenglass House (after reading the Book Smugglers’ praise of it), Revolution, and Port Chicago 50.  In celebration of these books getting recognized – congratulations to one and all, by the way – I think I should write a quick review of 100 Sideways Miles, which I actually read on Thursday, not knowing it would be on the list.  I read an ARC of the book, but you should check out the hardcover if you can because the inside jacket has a cool little picture for curious peekers.

Star Ratings for 100 Sideways Miles

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

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

Age Range Recommendation: 14 + (Lots of language, talk of sex)

Andrew Smith is a weird-ass writer.  He writes weird-ass books, and they’re not for everyone.  Personally, I think they’re pretty funny.  He has a talent for embodying the voice of a certain type of teenage boy, and he continues to do it well.  Those teenage boys are usually in wack-attack-y situations, think Grasshopper apocalypses and rough boarding school experiences, in some of his earlier books.  And the supporting characters tend to be really, erm, memorable.  100 Sideways Miles continues in this fine tradition, and will probably appeal to fans of John Green’s more outlandish novels or the surprisingly relatable books by Meg Rosoff.

I don’t really know how to go about describing the plot of 100 Sideways Miles.  Finn has seizures, sometimes, and he has an always-inappropriate best friend who has everyone in the palm of his hand, and he has a dad who once wrote a SciFi novel with a cult following.  He has a crush on this beautiful new girl at school, a powerful need to beak free from his father’s literary shadow, and a big scar on his back from when a dead horse fell from the sky and crushed him and killed his mother.  Finn measures time in distance, because in the space of one second the Earth hurtles 20 miles through space, so basically every little thing that happens on the surface moves very little in comparison.  Finn and Cade and Julia break into abandoned buildings, camp drunk, and make terrible dirty jokes.  Finn tries to find a way to free himself from his father’s book, because he feels like too much of that weird story about alien visitors coming to Earth and then eating people is based on him.  Or he’s based on it. Or something.

Even though everyone’s always worried about the possibility of Finn “blanking out” and getting hurt, he and Cade plan a trip to go see a college, but the trip doesn’t go as planned.  The become unlikely heroes, sort of, and come to understand life better, maybe.  The plot doesn’t matter so very much; it’s not what kept me reading.  I liked the strength of friendship between these two rather different boys, and the witty banter.  I’ll remember the occasional striking moment when all of Earth seems to slow down for just a second and make a little bit of sense, just because one confused teenage boy looks at how far it’s carrying us in the grander scheme of things.  There’s a lot of swearing, because that’s how high school boys can be honest with each other without sounding like utter tools.  There’s some awkward condom buying and bizarre sexual favors, because, um, hormones exist.  If it weren’t for the strange parallels to Finn’s father’s writing, or the weird turns of events near the end of the story, I would call this a very solid work of realistic teen fiction.  The stuff about “getting out of the book” seemed a little forced to me, and the pacing was slow in the beginning and then rushed at the end.  Still, it’s fun to read about the comical (and sometimes profound) interactions between characters in situations which are almost like the ones regular teenagers have to face all the time, just skewed a little to be surprising and entertaining.

Grownups aren’t entirely absent in 100 Sideways Miles, and some of them are pretty interesting (Cade loves to torture this one history teacher who dressed up like a Nazi to make history “come alive”, and eventually stresses the guy to death), but they’re not important.  Julia is a very realistic girl, not necessarily quirky or “special” or “not like other girls”. She is like other girls, for the most part, but she happens to be the one that Finn falls in love with.  I liked that.  She’s also black, and the two of them talk about that without making it a big issue.  I liked that too.  She has an unhappy event in her past which I thought could have been treated a little more thoughtfully, and their quick feelings for one another grew out of almost nothing, but I appreciated the natural interactions between the two of them.

Anyway, the relationship that matters most is that between Cade and Finn.  Cade is…well… he honestly steals the show a lot of the time.   Which is kind of the point: he makes people laugh and makes things happen and Finn is ok with that.  Aside from the distasteful jokes and his weird obsession with certain body parts, I can see why people like to be around Cade so much.  He keeps things lively.  And the friendship between the two boys is what keeps 100 Sideways Miles lively, too.  They look out for one another.  They humiliate one another, which made me laugh to remember how much of high school I spent cringing in embarrassment around my own friends.  People and conversations are what Andrew Smith is best at. Luckily, I think that there are plenty of teens who like those qualities to shine in the books they choose.  So this will be a book for them; the readers who write down quotes and see their friends as characters.

I’m still rooting for Brown Girl Dreaming to win the National Book Award, but I’m glad to see that Andrew Smith got some recognition for this fresh and entertaining book.  I’ll leave you with a quote I particularly liked, to prove that there are some real winners scattered throughout the text.  (It’s quoted from the ARC and may have changed slightly since publication.)

“Worry and regret are both useless weights that provide no drag.  They never did anything to slow down the planet for one goddamned second.”

And good luck to anyone who closes this book and would rather forget that the planet is careening through space at a sickening speed.  It took me hundreds of miles to even finish two sentences.  I think that however far the Earth takes you while you’re reading this book, it’ll be a trip worth taking.

Book Review of The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White

“Creepy kids’ book delivery!” my co-worker announced when she dropped The Thickety in front of me at the bookshop.  The intricate, foreboding cover of the advanced reader’s copy was enough to move it to the top of my reading list. I seem to have developed a reputation as She Who Reads All The Weird Children’s Books. It’s a fitting title, I suppose, and I do enjoy the perks which go with it.  The Thickety is set to come out in May, 2014.

source: goodreads

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8 and up

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

The Thickety is a Middle Grade novel set on the fictional island of De’Noran, where people are still terrified of magic and follow The Path of Timoth Clen: destroyer of witches. Unfortunately, Kara’s known around the island as “the witch’s daughter.” Her mother was put to death for committing some gruesome murders with magic, and Kara’s family has been largely ostracized by their superstitiously devout community ever since. Kara just wants to be left in peace with her beloved little brother, to bring her father back from the brink of despair, and to get through a day without Grace – the religious leader’s manipulative daughter – making her life unbearable.

This fearful village exists in the shadow of the Thickety, a deep dark forest which is home to the mysterious and ominous Sordyr. There are monsters in the Thickety, and old powers which can not be understood. Kara can sometimes hear the forest demon calling her name, but she knows magic is the cause of all evil in De’Noran and tries her hardest to follow The Path; to “work hard, want nothing, stay vigilant.” No one has ventured into the Thickety and escaped unharmed. But then, one evening, Kara crosses the border and goes into the woods. She finds a magical book – a grimoire – and quickly uses it to learn magic and finally exert some control over her surroundings. That is, unless the seductive promises coming from the grimoire are controlling her, instead…

I really wanted to love The Thickety, as the premise and setting really excited me, but I ended up only liking it. Still, there’s a lot to like. The religious mythology and superstitions which rule De’Noran seem underdeveloped at times, but are creative and appealing nonetheless. If there’s a sequel, I hope that the legends behind Sordyr will be discussed in more detail, because while I love the idea of an evil nature king dwelling in accursed forests, his influence in the story tends to be told rather than shown. The village traditions of reenacting parts of their mythology filled in some of the gaps – almost in morse dancer-style pageantry – but I just felt that such a cool character ended up being wasted. The forest itself also gets less page-time than I would have liked. There are all these great descriptions of really unusual creatures which come from beyond the trees, and the small amount of time Kara does spend within the boundaries is filled with uncanny wonders befitting the likes of Mirkwood Forest. But, disappointingly, the Thickety spends most of the book looming ominously around the town rather than acting as a stage for what could have been some really atmospheric scenes. However, the novel’s subtitle is “The Path Begins,” so I’m hoping that a sequel might take us headfirst into the world of glowing webs, frightening tree-men, and many-mouthed monsters.

I did study European witch trials a bit in University, and spend a great many summer weekends in Salem Massachusetts, so I found J.A. White’s take on the witch-hunt mentality pretty interesting. While reading, I couldn’t help but pity Kara’s closed-minded neighbors, since most of them genuinely do act out of terror rather than malice. Pity and fear are the two forces forever at odds in this novel, creating much more complicated dilemmas than the popular Middle Grade conundrum of good vs. evil.

Kara herself isn’t a perfect heroine, but her motivations are clear and realistic. I always appreciate sibling friendship in children’s fiction, and you can’t help but love Kara’s brother Taff almost as much as she does. Any otherwise selfish decisions she makes are easily forgiven, because everything she does is to protect him. If that’s not enough, her father often needs to be taken care of, too, so Kara has to act like the grown up all the while navigating a very hostile little world. It’s not hard, then, to understand the appeal of dangerous magic. When the grimoire’s pages offer a chance to take back some power, I think anyone reading the book would have trouble refusing the temptation.

While some cowardly characters redeem themselves by setting aside their ingrained cruelty in the face of hardship, the meanest meanie in The Thickety is a perfectly despicable antagonist. She adds a relentless layer of unfairness to the story. Sometimes, I wondered if J.A. White has a personal crusade to remind his young readers that there’s no justice in life. It’s not a hopeful story, that’s for sure. And even when things seem like they might work out for the best, something happens to destroy that dream. I’ve got a rather bleak world-view myself, but I’m not sure this is the sort of message I would have appreciated as a youngster well on her way to becoming eternally disheartened. Yes, magic is complicated and sacrifices are often hard to understand. But with one misfortune after another, without any real breaks for humor, it got difficult to remain optimistic that Kara’s inspiring perseverance would ever pay off.

The Thickety comes out in May, and I look forward to seeing it on our shelves. It won’t be book I recommend to every young reader, because the story is so grim and the story’s conclusion does nothing to alleviate the novel’s generally distressing tone. But there are certain readers who will probably love this book. It reminded me quite a lot of Terry Pratchett’s book Wintersmith, but was lacking the humor and levity which lightened that tale. The weird community vibes brought to mind images from that M. Night Shyamalan film The Villiage. And, of course, there are the obvious parallels to the true witch-hysteria stories from our own world, explored in books and plays like The Daylight Gate and The Crucible. Fans of smart adventures and thought-provoking magic will enjoy The Thickety, as will anyone eight and older who is itching to understand how beliefs can shape the world. This book raises important questions and compelled me to read late into the night, hoping foolishly that things might work out for the best. Even though I turned the last page in fit of despair, I did enjoy reading The Thickety and will be excited to hear what our Middle School readers think of it in the Spring.

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman (coming out May, 2014)

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

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

When I wrote my preview of Bird Box after meeting Josh Malerman at the HarperCollins dinner a couple of weeks ago, I made a series of predictions about what it would be like. Let’s see if I was right, shall we?

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans.

Well, my weekend plans were decidedly not ruined. But boy, oh boy, was my attention ensnared. I started reading Bird Box at the train station before a long ride to NYC, and I can’t remember a single detail of the commute. All I recall is burrowing deeper and deeper into my pirate scarf as my nerves got overwhelmed by the tension in this book. It’s “unputdownable,” that’s for damn sure, and I was almost reluctant to close it – halfway finished in a couple of hours – to have adventures in the big city.

I got so sucked into the story I didn’t even notice my mother taking photos in the station.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers.

Yes, the story does start with Malorie gathering her two children – four year olds who have never laid eyes on the world outside their boarded-up and bloodstained home – and blindly setting out in a rowboat with the hopes of getting the three of them to safety. I got my desperation, I got my boats. But the narrative actually alternates between the immediate events of Malorie’s dangerous journey and flashbacks showing a bit of what happened to turn the world into this nightmare. She starts out living a perfectly normal life, getting accidentally pregnant, arguing with her sister about the strange and scary events which are popping up all over the news. Grisly murders and suicides, seemingly without motive, are becoming an epidemic. When the mysterious deaths start to be reported in the USA, people start to panic. No one knows what makes people snap, what turns ordinary friends and neighbors into frenzied killers. All they know is it’s something they’ve seen. So people stop looking outside. They blindfold themselves, they board up their houses, they eventually stop going outside all together. The whole country – maybe the whole world – becomes like a ghost town. The monsters – and are they monsters? – roaming outside are like infinity, or the end of space: you can’t see it without going mad and self-destructing.

But Malorie is pregnant, so she finds her way to a house with a handful of other people in it; people determined to survive. They have a system of blindly getting water from the well each day. They have a cellar full of canned food. As she falls into a routine with her new friends, and gets closer to her due date, Malorie starts trusting some of her housemates more than others. Tensions run high, as they naturally would during a horrifying scenario like this. (I would like to mention how pleased I am that there isn’t much romantic nonsense to get in the way of all this terror. Huzzah for someone who can create compelling situations without trying to make everything about sex!) Some characters want to venture outside with blindfolds and broomsticks to find food and information, while others think that’s suicidal. And all this time they’re hearing things outside – brushing against things on the way to the well – in little moments which made my blood run cold. When another stranger joins the household, all the pent-up drama has to unfold one way or another.

The story-telling shifts between this frightening backstory and the very sensory experience of Malorie’s journey, paddling a boat with her blindfolded children trained to listen and report every sound that they hear. Because who knows what could be in the woods. Do animals go mad, too, when they see these creatures? And what’s the sound that’s been following them down the river? And this whole time the reader has to wonder what exactly happened in the house, years ago, to leave Malorie alone with the children and the bloody walls? The answers are the stuff of nightmares, but there’s still hope that she might survive to get somewhere safe. The whole story is about safety, really. It made me realize how much I take my own comfort and security for granted.

While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories.

I would actually say that Bird Box was not so post-apocalyptic as I imagined it would be. The world outside is in shambles, sure, and a great many people have died. But it’s not in the too-distant future. There was no huge destructive event and people aren’t roving the waste-land with machetes and rigged-up jeeps. Nor is there any big government conspiracy to wrap our heads around. This is a proper horror story with the creeping, eerie, something-is-terribly-wrong-oh-god-don’t-open-your-eyes sort of danger. I like this book way more than some of the large-scale zombie novels and dystopian futures set in a world of rubble.

We don’t know exactly what’s out there. Josh Malerman has turned withholding information into an art form, yet his descriptions of sounds and feelings alone create more tension than some people would be able to bear. Is that a breeze or a breath on her neck? Is there a creature in the well? Is this bucket slightly heavier than it was a few seconds ago? Does that sound like another boat, to you? Why did the birds stop chirping, in their box out the window which serves as an alarm? Sounds are scary, silence is scary, and sometimes people are scariest of all. The atmosphere of Bird Box was foreboding and relentless. It’s easy to imagine the nightmare Malorie is living, even though we never get to really see it. And, as I’m Atmosphere Girl with a capital “A,” I declare this book well done indeed.

So, did this book keep me awake at night? It honestly didn’t get the chance, because I finished it on the train ride home. But the ideas and shaken nerves I got while reading it stayed with me for days. I had to choose a funny book next to calm me down, because my neighbors’ dogs were barking unusually late at night while I was chopping kindling and I nearly bolted inside with the axe still in my hand. If you’re the twitchy, fearful sort, Bird Box will mess with your head. If you like being relentlessly terrified for several hours, go buy this book when it comes out in the Spring. Bird Box will be a great book for anyone who wants to really think about what it is that’s scaring them, and for people who might be a little tired of the horror genre’s usual conventions. Josh Malerman has written a chilling, unique, and utterly captivating first novel, here, and I’m very glad to have had the chance to read it. I’m not sure the lady next to me on the train enjoyed my company (there was a lot of gasping and nail-biting and scrunching up in my seat), but there was no way I’d be going to bed without knowing what happens to Malorie, her children, and the messed-up world around them.

Four New Books from HarperCollins: The Bookshelf Pirate Has Dinner With Authors

People keep making the mistake of letting me out into public. A pirate on cold medicine in a restaurant full of book people: this situation had the potential to end in broken glass, spoiled endings, and elaborate apologies. But, for reasons which continue to befuddle yet flatter me, my coworkers and other literary grown-ups keep treating me like a real person. I got the wonderful opportunity to have dinner at Erbaluce – in Boston – with some fellow booksellers from the area, the lovely reps from HarperCollins, and four absolutely smashing debut authors. The food was amazing, the books sound fantastic, and as far as I can tell no one was physically injured in the course of the evening! At least, no one was run through with a cutlass or butter knife, and therefore I can call the night a success.

In a strange and delicious combination of musical chairs and literary speed dating, a knife was clanged against a wine glass in between each course to haul the poor authors out of their chairs and to a different end of the big table. This ensured that we got to speak to each of them for a part of the evening, and kept the waiters on their toes. (I should note that the staff at Erbaluce was so patient with us. They’re obviously enthusiastic about the food and the atmosphere where they work, and it was such a pleasant experience.) There was a really interesting mix of people; each of them had such a different writing experience to share and wacky areas of expertise gleaned from research and work and life. The books aren’t necessarily similar to one another in genre or purpose, but all four seem really interesting and I can’t wait to get started on the stack once I finish reading The Accursed.  Here are the books HarperCollins was promoting.

The book which intrigued me most, with its mysterious summary and a sinister atmosphere that practically leaked out of the pages, is called Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I’m certainly going to read this one first. I’m a grim little person and the very little I know about Bird Box makes it sound like just my cup of menacing and brackish tea.

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans. That’s what I hear from everyone who’s read it, anyway… Hugh Howey, author of Wool, says this about Bird Box: “A book that demands to be read in a single sitting, and through the cracks between one’s fingers” One thing I can say for sure is that no one seems to have read only a few chapters of this book. It’s of the dreaded “unputdownable” variety, the sort of tense and mind-blowing read – supposedly – which gets into your brain and shakes you awake at night.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers. While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories. Bird Box brings characters out of a boarded up house into an outdoors so dangerous you can’t look around you without going fatally mad. Damn it, I’m already desperate to find out more, and I haven’t even started the book yet!

An author willing to eat his own book. Photo from Josh’s twitter. (Note the fine photography skills of his portside dining companion.)

Josh Malerman was great fun to sit next to for the first portion of our dinner. He listens to horror movie soundtracks, is part of a band (I really hope we get to hear a sinister soundtrack to go along with Bird Box someday), and knew an awful lot about all things freaky and weird. I’ve got to say that it put me at ease to sit next to someone who would talk about about H. P. Lovecraft at my first-ever professional dinner. (At the last dinner party I attended, my dining companions were confused about my “halloween scarf” and no one had any opinions about haunted houses. This evening was way more fun.) Nice to let the inner demons out in public now and then. Josh and his fiancee were so interesting and full of creative energy; I envy their talent, and wish I could harness some of that artistic vigor. It sounds like the book has already been snatched up by the film world, too, and I’m intrigued to see what they do with a story which relies so much upon what is not seen and what is unknown. I can’t wait to read Bird Box and get stuck in a nightmarish world full of scenes to fuel my own sleep-screaming fests.

Smith Henderson, who used his years as a social worker to inspire Fourth Of July Creek, sat by me next when the wine glass was clanged and the appetizers cleared away. (My starter was a very good fishy broth with chunks of lobster and veggies.) If I recall correctly, it took him something like ten years to write this novel, but I get the feeling it will have been worth all the time and effort. Fourth Of July Creek will probably be the sort of book one person in Concord reads and then starts talking about to all their friends. We do love our stories of isolated weirdos and messed up families. So much fodder for book clubs and heated conversation!

Henderson’s book sounds like it will be a distinctly American and utterly fascinating read. Here’s the summary from HarperCollins:

After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face to face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.

But as Pete’s own family spins out of control, Pearl’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.

You may recall from my University years that I am really interested in wild children living in wacky environments. I spent six months dwelling on (and writing about/weeping over) literature portraying kids in volatile environments where adults are either nonexistent or irresponsible. So the premise of Fourth of July Creek really appeals to me. I’ve also been thinking about the wilderness, survival, and the strange world of inland America a lot lately. I have never been to the Midwest; the bookshelf pirate clings to various coastlines, and Montana seems as alien to me as Antarctica or Saturn. But it’s important that we broaden our horizons, and since there’s a really compelling story to sweep my imagination across the country, I think I’ll really enjoy this novel’s setting.

Smith has lived in conservative Montana but also Portland, I believe, and therefore he has a really good grasp on the area’s unique brand of weirdness both as a first-hand observer and a rational outsider. I trust him to portray the situations in his novel with integrity and vivid detail, because when we spoke I was entertained by the details and stories he shared with us about each of the very different places where he’s lived. He might not be good at guessing peoples’ weird fetishes after a few big glasses of wine, but he has an eye for human nature and a talent for turning little oddities into really amusing anecdotes. (Do I look like the cloven-hoof sort? Now I’m re-thinking the scull scarf decision…) I hope that his experience in social work will ensure that this novel’s characters are believable and complex as well as dramatic. I can see myself recommending Fourth of July Creek to people looking for a riveting airplane read or something diverting to bring on a camping trip. It comes out in June, but I want to read my advanced copy before the summer starts as a reminder that the USA can be a stage for all sorts of big bad drama and strange beliefs.

The Bees, by Laline Paull, might give Bird Box a run for its money as the most unusual premise from the evening. I know that there are tons of books with “bees” and “beekeepers” in the title on bookshop shelves these days. There are mysteries, family drama, and plenty of historical fiction. But The Bees is genuinely about bees, and I think that’s awesome. The story follows Flora 717, one lowly bee who climbs the ranks from sanitation worker, as she challenges the natural order of the rigid hive system. Themes of maternity, loyalty, and natural instinct will come up as Flora 717 uncovers the mysteries behind her hive and brings danger upon herself with each question.

While The Bees is Laline’s first novel, she has written several plays which have been performed in the United Kingdom. One of them, Boat Memory, is about the “native hostages” brought back to England on the Beagle, during a voyage with Charles Darwin. I really want to see this play. The intensity of investigation which has to go into writing about such cool bits of history must be similar to that which goes along with a sudden interest in Entomology. She told me about all the research which went into writing The Bees; how she wasn’t always interested in them but got drawn into the fascinating world after the death of a friend, and realized how much there was to learn about nature and ourselves in the study of these creatures. My family actually keeps bees and makes honey, so I bet I’ll be seeing our own white-boxed hives differently this summer in the aftermath of this novel.

They’re advertising The Bees as a sort of Handmaid’s Tale set in the natural world, but I bet it’ll be more unique than that. Laline Paull has written a book exploring a brutal social order, but to do so without including any major human characters is ambitious. Even in The Handmaid’s Tale, we can imagine ourselves into the situations without too much difficulty. It will take careful writing and very precise descriptions to bring most causal readers into a beehive and keep them invested in the characters, when most of us only think of the honey bees who make our tea so tasty when we’re walking through clover patches in bare feet. George Orwell managed to seize us by the hearts and minds in Animal Farm, but even that had a setting which would be familiar enough to most of us. We can cast ourselves in a horrible future, and we can understand the predicaments faced by unhappy allegorical farm animals. I am so excited to see how Laline Paull will bring us into the complex world of beehives and natural politics – with plenty of creative license, I’m sure – and make us follow the adventures of an insect with emotional investment and suspense.

The final author I spoke to on Thursday evening was David McCullough Jr., the only author at the dinner from around these parts. He had given the graduation speech at Wellesley High School in 2012, and made quite an impression on the graduates, the community, and then the country at large. McCullough is the son of David McCullough the famous historian and author, and he teaches English at Wellesley High School. You can read the transcription of his inspiring and refreshing commencement here.

His irreverent words of wisdom made such an impact that he’s now written a whole book elaborating on the ideas he touched on. You Are Not Special…And Other Encouragements is full of the sort of truth-bombs I wish my fellow graduates and I had been hit with upon leaving our (honestly rather snobby and unrealistic) prep school. He’s a preppy guy but he’s got a realistic view of the world, striking the right balance between recognizing teenagers as individuals and reminding them that so many other people are going through the same stuff and want the same things out of life. I do think that we’d all be a lot less depressed about the post-high school and post-college years if we had stepped out of those hideous graduation gowns knowing that our futures didn’t need to be so competitive and self-centered. I barely remember the graduation speech from my own High School experience; I think it was some laughably unhelpful extended juice-metaphor, since the guy owned some big beverage company or something. But if McCullough’s students keep in mind his suggestion that you don’t need success to validate your own worth, but should work hard and keep learning simply because you love what you’re doing, I think they’ll be more prepared for adulthood than many.

Here’s a quote from the speech itself, and the sort of advice I really hope will be in the book:

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.

Now that there’s going to be a book elaborating on his tough-love (but still loving) rally to intelligence and passion, I predict that a great many classes of 2014 will be getting book-shaped graduation gifts explaining how they aren’t special, with other encouragements. The book comes out in April and I intend to press it upon all those doting grandparents and starry-eyed relatives who believe that their special little someone is destined to step out of that crowded gymnasium and into all sorts of gratifying superstardom. If they read the book before they give it to the hapless new adult, I hope they’ll find some fresh perspective within the pages. The adults in these situations are so often the worst offenders at cultivating a desire for adoring recognition at every step of life, and it seems like David McCullough Jr, who has teenagers himself, has found a way to articulate this in a way which might actually shake things up without tearing things down. It was great to hear him swapping stories about favorite vacation spots with other locals at the table and telling us about his own (rather literary) youthful years. If You’re Not Special… and Other Encouragements is as earnest and clearheaded as he is in conversation, then there might be hope for the future go-getters and must-havers of the world.

I left Erbaluce nearly four hours after dinner began with my stomach full of chocolate hazelnut truffles and my mind swimming with anticipation. I have to know what is lurking just out of sight in Bird Box! I want to find out what the characters in Fourth Of July Creek seem to think the End Times entails, and how a rational hero might possibly deal with all that nonsense. I’ve got to see if The Bees convinces me to rise against social expectations I didn’t even know existed, and if nature turns out to be utterly cruel to poor Flora 717. And I’m curious to see if learning how very un-special I am proves to be encouraging after all, as I suspect it will.

Bird Box might actually bump The Brothers Karamazov off my To Be Read Next pecking order. I’m so impatient to get sucked into a story which twists my dreams and makes me nervous – it’s been far too long since I spent a disturbed evening jumping at noises with a book and my own messed-up subconscious. Far too long.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

I’m very grateful to HarperCollins for treating us to dinner and for introducing us to such creative and hard-working writers. I’ve been inspired to read faster, to get to these books sooner. I’m also feeling the writerly energies building up in myself again after a week of not writing much at all, due to this damned cold, which took all the salt and gunpowder out of my piratical thoughts and replaced them with congestion and a desire for naps. All four of these writers were so encouraging and helpful when I told them that I was currently slogging through a novel myself.

Now that I can picture faces and hear voices behind the names on the spines of these books, I know I’ll be really excited to see the first printing on our shelves in a few months. The bookshelf pirate will be keeping a weather eye out for those readers who need to read them, even if they don’t know it yet, themselves. By then, I hope to have read all four galleys and formed opinions of my own. If we’re lucky, those opinions will be of the “Avast! Read this now!” variety.

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.