Book Review: What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

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

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot **** (4 stars)

Writing **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Book Review: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 16+ (language, violence including sexual violence)

I’m mostly on vacation right now, but I couldn’t wait to review this book. (I say “mostly” because I drove back from Acadia National Park to work at the bookshop for two days, but I’m headed right back to the crashing waves and pine forests tonight.)  I actually bought The Lobster Kings at Sherman’ bookshop, intending to read it on some windswept rock.  That would have been terribly atmospheric and very fitting to the novel’s remote island setting.  But Zentner’s writing was just too good, and the setting was too wonderful, so I failed to put the book on hold when I came home.  I read The Lobster Kings in two days, mentally transported to Loosewood Island the entire time.  Even if I’d been reading on a crowded subway car, I would have felt the salt spray and heard thunderstorms somewhere in the distance.

The Lobster Kings is set somewhere between Maine and Nova Scotia, on an island which falls through the cracks of jurisdiction and remains very much its own world.  Cordelia Kings is a lobster boat captain, like her daddy, and all the Kings back to Brumfitt Kings.  Brumfitt was a painter who turned the island into a home way back in the 18th century, and the inspiration behind his mythical works can be seen near every nook and cranny of Loosewood Island.  His stories and images haunt Cordelia’s family, too.  The Kings’ pasts and futures seem bound up in the legends he created: they are blessed with the sea’s bounty, but that blessing comes with a curse as well.  Or so Cordelia’s Daddy says.  Given her family’s history on the island — their immense successes and devastating tragedies — it’s not hard to see why she might believe the stories herself, sometimes.

You might be able to tell from the narrator’s first name that The Lobster Kings is inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. (Sort of in a similar way to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but I liked The Lobster Kings a whole lot more.)  It’s not a complete re-telling of the play, but the parallels are obvious, giving the story some sense of inevitability and poetic justice; even irony when some twists take an unexpected course.  At one point Cordelia does read the play in high school, and she realizes that her namesake doesn’t have a very happy ending.  Aside from the big themes: three very different sisters; the powerful father; the contested borders; and the howling storms, little allusions to the play create a nice treasure-hunt for Shakespeare fans.  (The meth-dealing jerk Eddie Gloucester, for example, isn’t nearly so eloquent as his wicked Elizabethan counterpart.  There’s also a line about eyes and jelly which winked at the reader…no ocular pun intended.)  

It’s not necessary to have read or seen King Lear, though, and when a parallel is extremely important the characters are good enough to discuss it plainly.  The tragedy and exhilaration in this book springs from more personal wells than royal legacy and misspent loyalty, though both of those subjects come up again and again.  This book focuses on family pride, on one woman’s intense desire to prove herself worthy of a name that has kept a whole community thriving for centuries.  Cordelia is an excellent lobsterman and a strong main character.  She loves her father and her sisters, and wants to do right by them as the eldest Kings child.  If that means pushing herself on dangerous waters, or stating the hard truths no one else wants to acknowledge, then she’s prepared to do the work. 

I liked reading the story from Cordelia’s point of view, and thought that Alexi Zentner did a marvelous job of getting into a 30-something woman’s head and heart. She’s got a forceful will, but isn’t nearly so hardened a captain as she’d like Loosewood’s tight-knit community to believe.  Between persistent romantic feelings for her married sternman Kenny, a strained sense of competition with her sisters, and the added tensions when hostile boats start encroaching on their territory from James Harbor on the mainland, Cordelia’s having trouble weathering all the storms inside of her.  She’s an unapologetic narrator but has moments of uncertainty, especially when it comes to her father.  He’s a loving parent and an inspiring figure on the island, but won’t back down or shed his pride, even against his daughters’ caution.  He’s a Kings. He’s the father of Kings, and even the darkly ominous fates Brumfitt painted — fates which can seem like a warning to later generations — won’t keep him from giving every ounce of energy to Loosewood Island and and to his family.  The family tension and the dramas within Loosewood’s community all affect Cordelia and keep her mind churning, until her own struggles start to resemble the tumultuous sea where she feels so at home.

While I don’t know too much about the lobstering life, Zentner’s descriptions of it were so detailed, and functioned so effortlessly, that I’m sure he captured the essence of that livelihood pretty well.  Each boat and crew had such a distinct personality that I felt as though I’d been hanging around those docks my whole life.  The anger whenever men from James Harbor would cut a Loosewood Island buoy became my anger.  The warm camaraderie between Cordelia’s fisherman friends made me see how such a hard life could be full of rewards.  And then the bouts of misery on board — the freezing mornings, fatal accidents, and grisly injuries — reminded me that I’m not nearly brave or devoted enough for such a line of work, no matter how much I like salt air on my face and the sight of weather on the horizon.  I would have been one of the tourists who come to Loosewood Island every year to see the scenes that Brumfitt painted, but I would want to be made of sterner stuff like Cordelia and her friends. (Oh drat. Sterner stuff. Forgive the unintentional fisherman puns.)

The Lobster Kings is a unique new novel with a wonderful descriptive voice.  The Kings family, at the heart of the tale, seems truly real despite the Shakespearean bent to their lives and relationships.  Loosewood Island could be a character in its own right, especially when we see it through the artistic viewpoint of Brumfitt Kings’ fictional legacy.  I don’t know much about art or fishing, but Zentner writes with such vivid detail that I fell completely in love with each subject by the end. 

The mythical properties of the unforgiving sea, which makes up a huge part of the Kings family history, was mesmerizing to me.  It may, however, get old too soon for readers who aren’t so keen on selkie stories and elemental curses.  I don’t think those moments of unearthly imagery ever overshadowed the very human pulse which kept this story alive, though. The sense of place never faltered, shining through the atmosphere and characters of The Lobster Kings on every page. 

Read it if you’re ever homesick for the sea, if you like stories about art and hard work, or if you love novels about close towns and complicated families.  Don’t wait until it comes out in paperback, either. (And please buy from an independent store if you can!!)  This book is too good to miss, and it’s hard to leave Loosewood Island once the story ends.

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

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

snicker of magic collage

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

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

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

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

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

“Orangie’s Caramel Apple Pie,”

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

“Andy’s Snickerdoodle Sucker Punch.”

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Camp Rec: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (if you liked The Fault In Our Stars)

Oh, right, summer camp is a thing… And the season is upon us! All of a sudden, school is out and young people are being shipped off to learn how to despise teamwork, or shoot arrows at hay bales, or bathe in bugspray to no avail. At least, that’s what I remember about my own experiences at Girl Scout camp so very long ago. I also remember the one hour of “me time” each afternoon, when we would hide in our mosquito netting and write letters to other friends at other camps, read, or nap. I always ran out of books halfway through the week and had to write my own stories for the remaining muggy, buggy days. There’s a strange joy in hiding in one’s sleeping bag – nearly suffocating – to read with a penlight after everyone’s supposed to be asleep.

These past few weeks I’ve had a parade of kids, teens, and parents coming to the bookshop to stock up for a week or month of summer adventures away from home. I guess quiet breaks are still part of daily life, and electronics aren’t encouraged at a lot of camps, so entertaining books are in high demand! Huzzah! Occasionally, I get asked for recommendations, either by kids who just don’t know what to read next or by parents who aren’t sure what would fit comfortably with their child’s interests. This is pretty much my favorite kind of question to get at work.

So, if you’re not sure what to pack for a few weeks away from home, I’ve got some suggestions. I always ask, “What’s the last book you/your kid really liked?” before I recommend something.  (Tip to parents: talk to your damn kids!  Find out what they’ve actually enjoyed reading!  You might find that they’re not such mysterious creatures after all.) Over the next few days, I’m going to post some of my favorite books to add to kids’ overstuffed backpacks, based on the most popular requests.

 

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If you liked… The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene

tfios

Ok, so this book is absurdly popular right now.  I liked it very much when I read it a couple of years ago (though I like Green’s An Abundance of Katherines better, because it’s so freakin’ funny).  But it’s a little weird that everyone is either heading straight for this book or looking for something just like it.  I guess this means the movie was good?  (I haven’t seen it yet but I should.)  Or a lot of customers have heard all about it and just have to know what made their friends talk so passionately about fictional teenagers.  When I’m asked for a book similar to The Fault In Our Stars I try not to limit my suggestion to only more John Green books.  People can work that out on their own.  My current favorite book of a similar theme and genre is Cammie McGovern’s book Say What You Will.

a.k.a. Amy & Matthew for all you British readers

a.k.a. Amy & Matthew for all you British readers

It’s another realistic YA novel with an actual believable romance between characters dealing with real-life stuff beyond the average high school drama.   In his senior year, Matthew gets a job helping out a girl in his grade with cerebral palsy.  It’s a big deal for him to do something like that, since his unrecognized OCD symptoms make certain parts of daily life really difficult.  But Amy liked the fact that he wasn’t so falsely up-beat around her as most everyone else, and asked him to give it a try.

As for Amy, she wants to have a year of school without an adult aide following her around everywhere. Matthew was right: it keeps her from making real friends.  Amy needs help with her mobility and uses a computer to communicate, but she’s smart and funny and tired of being “an inspiration” to people who don’t really know her.  With Matthew and her other new helpers, Amy hopes to make actual friends who could get to know the real her. High school social life isn’t so straightforward as Amy imagined, though, and the characters she meets through Matthew and the others are all going through their own difficulties, some more nicely than others.  Amy’s knack for understanding other people makes her want to help Matthew work through his mental illness and confront the parts of himself he tries to silence.  As they reveal more of their true selves to one another, Amy and Matthew run the risk of falling too hard and shattering the most important friendship in their lives.

I like Say What You Will for several reasons.  First of all, disabled characters as actual characters!  And not only does Amy have a vivid personality, she expressly reacts against peoples’ pity and falseness around her when they don’t know how to behave through their discomfort.  Reading her thoughts makes it clear that patience and effort are the most important thing when trying to relate to people – not false cheeriness.  The interactions between Amy (whose disability is immediately apparent), and Matthew (who tries to hide his inner turmoil) are honest; with all the hidden angst and sharp humor you would expect between two smart teenagers.

In fact, pretty much everyone seems real and human.  There are no real villains in this book, just people who make the wrong choices, or (even worse) people who are doing things for all the wrong reasons.  Teenage characters totally steal the show, like they do in John Green’s books, but the grown-ups have their own moments and mistakes here, too.  It’s a great illustration of how everyone’s just trying to get by the best they can, and how important it is to tell people that they’re important to you.

But it’s not just an introspective character study: there’s drama and miscommunication, prom disasters, smuggled booze, cinema hide-outs, and embarrassing technological malfunctions.  A great deal of Amy and Matthew’s communication exists through e-mail and text, since they’re often separated and talking doesn’t always come easy to the couple.  Near the end of the book, one crisis after another makes it seem like everything might fall apart.  But, unlike in everyone’s favorite Tragedy Of The Summer up there (even though The Fault In Our Stars actually came out in 2012), the stars are a little kinder to our sweet couple in Cammie McGovern’s book.

Teens who liked the complex teenagers making their own damn [hard] decisions in TFIOS will probably appreciate the imperfect but thoughtful characters in Say What You Will.  Those of you who want to read more about young people struggling through difficult experiences – doing so without the author throwing them a pity-party – will find a careful and heartfelt depiction of what it’s like to live with extra obstacles in every single day.  Say What You Will takes place over a year and then some, so it’s not technically a summer book.  But it would make a great camp read because the characters are addicting – readers will want to hang out with them some more and find out what they do next – but the story is realistic and touching and fun.

No unexpected horrors lie within these pages, so you won’t be hearing scary noises outside your cabin at night unless there really is something out there.  (Sorry, campers. Noises are part of the fun, but your books don’t have to make it worse.)  And the summer scenes are pretty wonderful: lots of sneaking around behind  meddlesome parents’ backs.  So, you know, real stuff.  Just written into a touching, funny, strong story.  Pack a second book if you’re heading away for a week or more, though, because Say What You Will is a fast read which will be over too soon once you become a part of Amy and Matthew’s friendship.

Book Review: Queen Of The Tearling by Erika Johansen

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

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

Plot: *** (3 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA Summer Books With Depth: My Life Next Door and We Were Liars

Huntley Fitzpatrick, author of My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, gave a reading and talk at my bookshop last Thursday night.  I had a great time hearing about little real-life details which inspire her, and the writing process in general.  Huntley read aloud from her newest YA book, What I Thought Was True, which is a love story between a girl who works year-round on a New England island and one of those dreaded rich “summer boys.”  I haven’t read What I Thought Was True yet, but the piece she read aloud was funny and unexpected and sweet.

huntleyfitz

But… wait a minute!  I don’t ever read novels with candy colored spines or pretty young people modeling beachwear in the sunset.  If I pick up a beach book, it had better feature a pistol duel between mutineering pirates, or some buried treasure, at least.  So why am I talking about realistic, romantic YA all of a sudden?

I’m thrilled that Ms. Fitzpatrick came to our bookshop because she was funny and interesting and started a great conversation with the audience.  But I’m also glad she came because it gave me a reason to pick up her first book, My Life Next Door, which otherwise I might never have read.  Hah… “might never have”…  I almost certainly would not have cracked the spine without an incentive.  And that would have been a big mistake!  Despite the swoon-y cover, My Life Next Door is actually an engaging story with thoroughly unique characters.  It isn’t one of the assembly-line summer romances which flood the shelves every season.  I couldn’t predict what would happen in each chapter according to some tired out pattern of insta-love, misunderstanding, dramatic rebellion, redemption.  The supporting characters and dramatic tension were a step above what I’d expected to find in a book of this genre, and I take back any judgements I foolishly made upon perusing the cover.  (Reminder to self: authors have no say in their book cover.  I guess international editions are even more surprising for the author, sometimes!)

source

Samantha was brought up to dislike the Jarretts next door.  Her mother is an all-too-tidy conservative senator and demanding single parent.  So Samantha has heard no end of complaints about the Jarretts’ messy yard, their overabundance of children, and the general joyful ruckus going on across the fence.  Though she’s not spiteful by nature, Samantha watches the Jarretts from her balcony every night, where she imagines what it must be like within that lively house with such a close family.  Then, one day, Jase Jarrett climbs up her balcony and asks if she needs rescuing.  Typically, this would be the part of the book when I throw up my hands in dismay and shout “UGH!” to the heavens. But I kept reading because…well…  I liked Samantha.  I wanted to see how she would react. And I liked what she saw of the Jarrett family.  No better fuel for good stories like a big, rambunctious family, eh?

The main characters were likable and not melodramatic about their attraction.  Huzzah!  The “minor” characters got plenty of attention, and had really interesting back-stories and plot-lines of their own.  Double huzzah!  When speaking at the bookshop, Huntley Fitzpatrick  said that she sometimes noticed that Tim – Samantha’s best friend’s deadbeat but complex brother, and my own favorite character – kept running away with the story and threatening to become the hero.  I wouldn’t have been surprised.  She did such a good job of making sure that each and every character had their own developments to undergo in the course of this one summer.  Nan and Tim’s family life, Samantha’s mother’s troubling new campaign manager, and the side-dramas experienced in the Jarrett household were all crucial elements to Sam and Jase’s story.   That’s probably why I liked My Life Next Door so much: it was a book about how different people interact, and two of those people just happened to fall in love.  Take away the romance and the (refreshingly frank/realistic) sexual tension, and the story would still have been utterly readable.  Good job, Huntley Fitzpatrick!  Thanks for writing about teens in a way which neither trivializes them nor tries to make them so-edgy-it’s-just-silly.

While thinking about My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, I also remembered how much I liked E. Lockhart’s new book We Were Liars.  I read that one in the winter, so my thoughts aren’t quite so fresh in my head, but it would be a terrible shame not to recommend it here.

We Were Liars and My Life Next Door were each rather stressful reads in their own way, with moral conundrums all over the place. While Fitzpatrick’s book has social and political tension to keep things exciting, We Were Liars has a dark mystery at it’s heart.  The reasons for Cadence’s damaged memory are as foggy as the details from the summer of her accident.  She’s been kept in the dark about what happened, but upon returning to the family island she starts to notice that things are a little different.  Her mother and aunts aren’t getting along very well.  Her demanding grandfather is being particularly difficult.  And her friendship with her two cousins and Gat Patil – who she’s grown to probably-love after so many summers with “the Liars” – is weirder than usual.

Why don’t the three of them ever go to the new big house for meals or activities?  Why is there a new house in the first place?  In her uncertain absence, everything seems to have been thrown out of balance, and it just might be her fault.  Unfortunately, no one will tell her what happened.  So she’ll have to find out for herself, even if it means destroying the careful peace of the family’s island paradise.

There was quite a bit of buzz circulating book-world about We Were Liars, but I was determined not to have any set expectations when I read it.  But it’s hard not to make early judgements… as I find out again and again.  My first thoughts upon reading the book were along these lines:

“Ugh, rich people on fancy islands are the worst.”

“Has this family ever set foot into the real world?”

“I wish the patriarch wouldn’t be such an asshole about his grandson’s Indian friend.”

But then I realized something: I felt like I was on the island myself.  I felt like a part of Cadence’s weird family.  When she and her cousins explored the ocean or told secrets under the night sky, I wanted to be part of their group.  It got to the point where I felt like I had seen the island before.  I could describe each and every house to you, even now, months after reading. The setting is so typical of these beachy YA summer novels, but Lockhart sets the scene for her events so well that you’ll forget about any other book’s vague sandy paradise descriptions you’ve had to slog through.  We Were Liars is a short, fast book and nothing is ever a slog.

The plot really extends over two summers, while memories from several previous years filter in and out of Cadence’s reminiscence. The first year she met Gat.  Happy younger days. Distinctly less-happy present ones.  A dreamy atmosphere – brought about by the gaps in her memory as well as the idyllic setting – sets the stage for a series of revelations which come so subtly.  The characters sneak into your brain and heart without asking permission first.  We see everything through Cadence’s eyes, her family and their messed-up priorities, so her dawning horror becomes our own.  I didn’t realize how invested I’d let myself become in the story until I closed the book and realized that I was crying buckets in a not-so-adorable way.

All that initial eye-rolling and frustrated exclaiming was actually adept build-up to the heart of the novel, and now I see why Lockhart chose to make it difficult to muster up sympathy for parts of Cadence’s family.  When you do end up feeling for them, you feel a lot. So yes, We Were Liars got to me, and the book-hype was not disproven after all.

(Last summer, in my back-to-school phase, I reviewed Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, which was not as good as We Were Liars but still pretty fun.)

Two YA “beach reads” with unforseen depths below the surface, lying in wait for the venturesome browser: is it a miracle for this modern age?  A stroke of luck?  Did I just happen to pick up the right two sun-dappled covers because of sheer dumb luck?  I will admit that books like these don’t usually commandeer my attention, but even with no mutinous duels and very little swashbuckling they were very much worth the few hours’ perusal.  If anyone has suggestions of other great stories masquerading as trashy beach reads, please direct my attention to them at once!  I’m not necessarily ready to chart a course for a season of summer romance stories just ey, as I don’t like the sun and heartaches make me seasick.  But I’m willing to re-think my position on them, if there are others like My Life Next Door and We Were Liars waiting just over the horizon.  Please leave suggestions.

Be they cannons blazing, or passions; masts shattering, or hearts, I hope you enjoy your summer reading.

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

source: goodreads

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin is part of the “Fairy Tale Series” created by Terri Windling.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 + (Mostly because the academic subject matter might be boring to many younger readers, not due to any particular graphic unpleasantness.)

I was so excited to finally read this book. It’s been on my shelf for so long, but I forced myself to wait until spring to start reading. Tam Lin is my favorite legend of all time (I guess it’s technically a ballad), and the story has inspired a whole bunch of really excellent novels and re-tellings. Was Pamela Dean’s version of the story worth the anticipation? Not entirely.

I know several different versions of the song, but they all follow the same general theme, which I have summarized here, for anyone who doesn’t know it. I discussed the characters and themes of the original ballads in a separate post from this one, because I already had way too much to say about this one book. Read that first if you aren’t familiar with the legend.  (Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings)

"Tam Lin - The Faery Host" by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

“Tam Lin – The Faery Host” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

 

In Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, the ballad’s general theme and storyline has been brought to a college campus in the 1970s. Janet starts her undergraduate studies, and she quickly makes friends with an arcane group of fellow students. The three boys she and her room-mates start to date, and the boys’ acquaintances, behave in a fashion which might be mysteriously esoteric and might just be pretentiously self-impressed. They are college freshmen and theatrical types, after all. In the midst of academic over-ambition; qualms about birth control; and relationship issues, Janet’s started to notice that things aren’t quite normal on campus. The Classics department has a habit of riding horses through the woods every Hallowe’en night to the sound of bagpipes. Nick, Robin, and Thomas are more comfortable arguing over Elizabethan plays than they are going on dates or discussing modern novels. The rumored ghost in Janet’s dorm building has been throwing books out the window, unless it’s someone playing a prank no one can quite understand. The boys are strangely beholden to one Professor Medeous, who is head of Classics – brilliant and manipulative – and a complete mystery. As Janet tries to puzzle over the anomalies on campus, she uncovers clues to a much older and more dangerous cycle of events which seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Her friends’ lives may be in danger, but to help them she’ll need to work out what happened at Blackstock in the previous century. On top of that serious mission, she’s got essays to write and Shakespeare to study!

The book is a long one. It describes Janet’s entire time at Blackstock college; four years of and then she took a class about poetry, and, the five of them sat around discussing Ancient Greek for a solid hour in the dining hall. (These are not direct quotes, because the real descriptions of class schedules and homework assignments sometimes feel like they go on for many pages.) Tam Lin is obviously, and unashamedly, an extensive love-letter to Pamela Dean’s college experience. I didn’t always see the point in the heavy focus on campus life, but I will say that her descriptions did make me feel as though I were right there with Janet in her dorm room, or puzzling over some text in the library, or taking the long way to the bridge to meet some troublesome lad. The thing is, I don’t think the fairy-tale elements of this novel quite justified the hundreds of pages about campus life. It was just too imbalanced for me.

To clarify: Pamela Dean obviously knows her ballads and legends like an absolute wizard. There are several subtle references to medieval British folklore sprinkled throughout the otherwise-mundane chapters of the novel. From the wreaths of symbolic flowers on Janet’s mysterious academic advisor’s door, to the prevalence of green clothing whenever something faintly magical gets suggested, I was always happy to notice a little nod to the old stories which the novel meant to emulate. There are probably a hundred references which I wasn’t sharp enough to catch, too, because in the game of How Many Obscure Literary/Academic/Classical References Can We Hide In One Text?, Tam Lin rivals T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. (Janet even first meets Nick over a shared love of that poem, and that just sets the stage for a bazillion other oh aren’t we a clever crew moments.) But unless you’re easily satisfied with minor hints of fairy activity, these occasional moments of mystical intrigue won’t be enough to keep you entirely engaged. The most otherworldly and exciting scenes took place whenever Janet and her friends went ghost hunting, or exploring at night to chase down the sound of bagpipes and spy on the Hallowe’en hunt. Alas, the unusual events they witness don’t nudge the plot into any truly spooky atmosphere.

It’s not until the book’s final hundred pages that the vague hints and scattered references draw together for a supernatural showdown. By that point, the story’s momentum is too bogged down in tedious information, and the action seemed to come from nowhere. A great many threads and plot lines get pulled into the novel: fairy-tale; ghost story; campus drama; literary tribute; coming-of-age story, but none of these aspects gets developed enough. Instead, we have to slog through too many pages of self-indulgent cleverness to get to the legend at the story’s heart. It’s all well and good for the story to be anchored in a fresh, modern setting – those re-tellings are usually my favorites – but if the readers get bored of homework and gratuitous scholarly musings before they even reach the story’s fantasy elements, they could miss the magical moments all together.

When adapting a folktale or legend, it’s really important that the characters retain the qualities which make them so memorable. In this case, Janet (or whomever her counterpart may be) needs to start out obstinate and entitled, but she should turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by the time she faces the Fairy Queen. Dean’s Janet starts out unbearably smug and never gets much better. She does improve a little, recognizing her faults and follies over the course of four years, but she doesn’t change enough to make us truly root for her. The ballad itself isn’t always terribly long, but in five minutes of singing the character of Janet can undergo a better transformation than she did in all four hundred pages of this novel. Also, for someone who wants to research and understand everything (Janet’s like a Hermione who never stops being a know-it-all), she manages to completely overlook all the signs that Fairyland might be at work in her University. Time traveling crosses her mind, and she’s happily inquisitive about ghosts, so it’s a little hard to believe that she’d never heard Fairport Convention’s version of the song, which had been popular only a few years before the story starts. In fairness to our heroine, Dean does make use of the fairy magic confuses mortals trick, and while this slows the plot to a snail’s pace it does, at least, fit nicely with the genre. Janet’s good qualities – her inquisitive nature, her steadfast determination, and her wits – were completely over-shadowed, for me, by her constant need to be the smartest person in the room and the slight brattishness which never really turns into bravery.

Thomas –the Tam Lin of this version – is actually a fairly good character, both in his own right and in conjunction with the ballad. He doesn’t exactly stand around guarding a forest all day, but the mortal trapped by fairies vibe is right on target once the plot finally gets to work. He can’t seem to graduate, distrusts his friends, and has trouble saying what he means. Dean describes his despair and his enthrallment very well. Thomas’s scenes gave me hope that the parallels between the novel’s namesake and the events unfolding would get clearer. Unfortunately, they did not.

In my opinion, the Fairy Queen should be the coolest character in the story. In the ballads, her scene is my absolute favorite. She can start out as a complete mystery, as the stunning but volatile Classics professor does in the novel, but she absolutely must have a strong personality and embody the traits which are inherent to the legacy of her character. I tend to judge re-tellings by their Fairy Queen, and this one fell disastrously short on that account. We very rarely see the Fairy Queen figure, so her role in the story is largely sustained by other characters’ conversations about her. I know that’s how we learn about her in the ballad, too, but two lines in the song manage to convey an aura of power and dread more distinctly than all the prose-y conversations in this book. Maybe the stakes just weren’t high enough, or the action built up far too quickly out of nothing to create the necessary aura of unearthly menace. Even when delivering my favorite lines, it felt like the character was simply reciting from a hasty script. There is always a scripted nature to any re-telling – a formula the author chooses to follow to a certain degree – but since Pamela Dean ignored most of that formula until the end, when it took over the plot rather too conveniently, I see no reason why the Queen couldn’t have been suitably impressive.

Most minor characters were fairly realistic and reasonably likable, but it just felt like I was eavesdropping on some overzealous undergraduates in a Harvard Square cafe. Janet’s family is delightful – (what a relief, since I really like the kind father part of the ballad) – and her scenes at home do manage to provide her character with some redeeming qualities. The twist at the end makes up for some muddled personalities, keeping in mind that we see everything from Janet’s point-of-view so when she’s confused, we’re confused. The characters who had some connection to the ghost were far more intriguing than those with fey-like qualities, but that’s the opposite of what I’d prefer. Fairyland’s denizens can be inscrutable puzzles and still keep the reader enthralled, but the eldritch members of Blackwood’s faculty and students just seemed wooden and shallow. I didn’t care enough about any of them besides Thomas and, sometimes, his friends.

Maybe my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. I would love to know how the book feels to someone who wasn’t in love with the original ballad before they started reading. As a coming-of-age campus novel and nothing more, Tam Lin would still have issues with pacing and character development. But the descriptions of college life in the 1970s – the issues of sexual awakening, scholarly ambitions, and young people on their own for the first time – could possibly interest some readers enough to justify the imbalance between so many mundane details and the underdeveloped supernatural elements. Terri Windling’s introduction and especially the Author’s Note at the end of the book do provide some explanations about the story’s peculiar direction, and I appreciated Dean’s choices a little more after learning what inspired her. Anyone who tries the novel should make sure to read those, as well. These notes won’t entirely excuse the bad pacing and unlikable characters, but they do provide some context and several interesting observations about the ballad itself.

Tam Lin wasn’t a terrible book, despite all my complaints. I did read all the way to the end, and the subtle mysteries building around Blackstock were interesting enough that I cared to find out what Janet would discover. I liked solving bits of the puzzle before she did – recognizing symbols from the ballad – and I liked the twist at the end. Ultimately, though, I spent most of my time reading the book white-knuckled from frustration rather than suspense. There are better books out there which have covered the two main styles of Tam Lin. If you want a thoughtful; twisting; incredibly well-researched modern adaption of the ballad, read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. That’s got a billion and twelve folklore references in it, too, but both the magic and the real world are far more intriguing. For anyone after a twisted and highbrow story of undergrad Classics students in way over their heads, read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tam Lin is a heavy-handed combination of the two genres, and while I would recommend it to devout fans of either genre and/or the 1970s, the novel just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its title.

Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Don’t be deterred by the annoying cover – this book is excellent!

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

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

Age range recommendation: 13 +

Nancy Werlin recommended Chime to me way back in the fall when I met her at the Boston Teen Author Festival. I was one of those insufferable young aspiring writers who blabs about her work-in-progress to patient authors, and I knew that Werlin had written some YA novels inspired by just the sort of faery lore which was also inspiring me.  She was kindly encouraging, and one of the first things she asked upon learning that my faery story takes place in a swamp was, “Have you read Chime by Franny Billingsley?”  I had not.  I was told that I must.  I believed her.  Then I promptly forgot all about such instructions and only sat down with the book months later when I needed something gloomy, youthful, and uncanny.
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There was a small void in my reading life, waiting for a natural tale of unnatural creatures, and Chime filled that void perfectly.  I didn’t have particularly high expectations of this YA novel: only that it would be swamp-y and contain faeries.  Well, it completely passed those moderate expectations – blew them out of the murky, slimy water, as it were – and then some.  This was a truly remarkable novel.  I’m wildly impressed with Franny Billingsley, and have a mind to track down all her other books so I can get lost in them, too.
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Chime is Briony’s story, and Briony would like to confess to her crimes and be hanged.  It’s one of the more interesting opening pages I’ve come across in my reading life.  Hangings? Swamps? Wickedness?  Sign me up!
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chime text
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From here Briony tells us, in her own words, the events leading up to her trial.  It’s sometime around the end of the 19th century, and the secluded English village of Swampsea has been living in tandem with some supernatural neighbors for ages.  The townsfolk have a special method for trying witches, to ensure that they don’t hang innocent women, but lately the Chime Child responsible for making that judgement has been making mistakes in her old age.  Anyone who wanders into the swamp carries bits of bible paper with them, as protection against the faery-like creatures who dwell there.  The “Old Ones” range from mischievous nature spirits to the downright malevolent entities like The Dead Hand.   A deadly swamp cough troubles the town, and people live in fear of the “Old Ones,” though they’ve grown used to living beside them by now.  And yet, as it always does, progress has finally made its way from London to Swampsea. Mr. Clayborne comes to drain the swamp, bringing his son Eldric with him from London in the hopes that the University lad might stop getting into trouble and attend to his studies in less invigorating environs.  Swampsea is going to get a railroad.  Swampsea is going to join the fashionable and modern world.  Unfortunately, those spirits and creatures who dwell in the swamp aren’t too pleased about these new developments.  They need someone to hear them, to side with them, and stop the process.  Or the Boggy Mun will keep inflicting the swamp cough on innocent townsfolk, like Briony’s sister Rose.
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Briony is the Parson’s daughter.  She is also a witch.  She admits that to us from the beginning.  There’s no point in hiding this fact, and she’s grown comfortable with the wickedness which must then be an inherent part of her being.  She’s always been able to see the Old Ones, but it’s her ability to call them up to do her bidding which makes her capable of destruction.  Swampsea, in all its superstitious vigilance, does not take kindly to witches who can summon the Boggy Mun to flood the parsonage and incapacitate her beloved stepmother.  There’s not a lot of sympathy in the village for a girl who caused her twin sister to fall, hit her head, and lose her wits when Briony was a child and couldn’t control her powerful urges.  Briony’s stepmother understood.  She helped Briony to hide her power, kept her from entering the swamp, and always repeated that they must never, ever tell her father, who would feel obliged as the Parson to turn his own daughter into the authorities.  But their stepmother is dead, and there are blank spaces in Briony’s memory.  Was the fire, which burned up all the fairy stories she used to write for Rose, really Briony’s fault?  If stepmother didn’t take her own life with arsenic, who killed her? What mysterious illness afflicted their entire family when they were children, but not anyone else in town until Eldric comes down with it, too?   What terrible secret is the addled Rose trying to convey to her twin sister – some secret about their birth which she was forbidden to tell long ago?  The more we learn about the answers to these questions, the less sure we can be about anything in the natural and unnatural world of Chime. If Briony can’t trust herself, let alone anyone else, who can we turn to for the truth?  You will want to read this book and find out, I promise you that.
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The story is wonderful, but the writing is even better.  Each time I’ve recommended the book, the only way I can describe the beauty which Franny Billingsley weaves into each paragraph is by saying, “I want this tattooed on my face.”  That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, and I probably won’t get lines from the book going across the bridge of my nose, but I can find no better way to express my enthusiasm. There really are some marvellously poetic arrangements of words; the images are occasionally mesmerising; and the dialogue is good, too.  Briony’s voice is unfaltering — at no point does the narrative drop into a more generic omniscient tone, which is impressive since Briony’s thoughts are always twinged with guilt and colored with distrust verging on desperation.  The narrative is so personal but also requires some careful exposition to get us comfortable reading about the freaky swamp and unusual customs which seem so normal to the characters.  Briony has a rather poetic thought process, herself.  While the sing-song formulas and imagined patter might seem out of place at first, it quickly becomes clear that our conflicted narrator draws upon these literary formats to distance herself from the serious (and deadly) concerns hiding behind her wordplay and hypothetical conversations.  She compares Eldric to a lion, herself to a wolf-girl, and has metaphors on hand for whomever crosses her path (human or not).  This could have grown tiresome very quickly, but I think that the technique was employed just shy of over-zealously, and therefore it worked out beautifully.  Remember that Briony’s a teenage girl, and that’s the time when we think of everything as our own personal fairy-tale.  It was an absolute pleasure to read every page of Chime.  Not a word was wasted, not an image used uncertainly, and I could picture every strange event quite vividly.  Whatever magical power Ms. Billingsley has over language, I’d make a few blood sacrifices to get a taste of it, myself.
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My complaints about this book are very few and not too consequential.  I don’t really like the title; it doesn’t have much to do with the majority of the novel.  But it’s not a big deal, the title isn’t horrible.  It just doesn’t hint at the general swampiness, the creeping sorrow, or the sharp dialogue which I enjoyed so much.  On that note, the Chime Child and some of the other minor characters weren’t as fleshed out as maybe they could have been.  There is so much going on below the somewhat-puritanical surface of Swampsea, and I wanted to understand every single secret.  Secrets are the whole point of Chime; how they can control us and turn us into something we’re not.  But most characters’ stories are pretty much left alone, unless they have anything directly to do with Briony’s.  I suppose that’s only fair, but I hate it when my curiosity isn’t satisfied.  The Chime Child only makes a few appearances, despite the incredible cool-ness of her job description.  Seeing “Old Ones” and dealing out death sentences: what a lady!  I wish there had been a few pages dedicated to such details, as well as to the other characters who made Swampsea such a fascinating stage for this story.
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There’s also the question of romance.  Eldric is staying in the Parsonage with Briony, Rose, and the girls’ father.  It’s not too surprising that things must escalate for the sake of the story.  I’m pleased to report that Briony and Eldric start out by developing an honest and entertaining friendship, forming a secret brotherhood and starting inside jokes just because they’ve been thrown together by circumstance.  He’s a city boy, and lives life at more her speed than anyone in her own village, so I didn’t find their interest in one another too forced.  What a damned relief!  My one complaint on the matter would be the sudden inclusion of another woman after Eldric’s affections.  The fashionable lady who is drawn to his artistic endeavours and starts turning up everywhere has a mysterious secret which makes her a little more interesting, but on the whole I thought her character was mostly unnecessary.  Jealousy made Briony catty rather than sharp, but even though this may have been an important layer to her character, the dangers presented by beautiful, manipulative Leanne weren’t nearly as interesting as the dangers presented by the swamp, the townsfolk, and Briony herself.  The matter was resolved satisfactorily, but it was probably my least favourite part of the book.
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Those tiny issues aside, though, I will reiterate that I absolutely adored Chime.  It’s just the sort of book I was wanting to read: intense and dark, but without the oh-help-the-world-will-end-if-we-don’t-save-it drama.  The drama here was powerful because we care about the characters and don’t want to see their lives turned upside down.  The rest of England — indeed the rest of the world — would go on without Swampsea if it had to, but that’s one of the many reasons I was so desperate to find out what would happen.  Magic isn’t always big and grand, it can (and should) be organic and subtle, earthly and timeless, with roots in one strange scene.  Chime gets this just right, on every single page.  The murky swamp and the dark corners of the town are each fraught with peril, and our narrator’s mind hasn’t much more hope, but in the end most mysteries will come to light.  What these answers might reveal about our heroine, her family, and her conviction in her own wickedness must remain to be seen.  Read the book to find out.  It’s beautiful and you’ll probably love it.