Safety Tips For Last-Minute Holiday Shoppers: Independent Bookshops

Have you left your gift-getting merriment until the last days before Christmas? Has your usually ungenerous spirit been inspired by songs of holiday cheer and familial pressure to scramble around looking for the perfect gift? Have you decided that everyone’s getting books this year because, screw it, they can just go read quietly for an hour or two and maybe leave you in peace? First of all, thanks for coming to your locally-owned independent bookshop! We love you for thinking of us, because if you want to live in or visit the sort of town that has a bookshop, you need to buy your books there. Otherwise, it will go away.

Most days of the year, we book-selling elves want nothing more than to guide you to the perfect book which will delight the recipient or provide you with hours of blessed relief from reality. Come browse in October, and you’ll get plenty of advice about which spooky books to get the beloved children in your life, and which terrifying books to give to those kids who have always kind of pissed you off. Come in Spring and we’ll be happy to hunt down the most obscure book about gnomes for you, even if your only specifications are, “It was about gnomes and I saw it here four years ago.” We will gladly accept that challenge in March or April. We like to recommend books, we like to sell books, we especially like to hear how much you love bookshops. But see that calender? No, not the one in our sadly depleted calender section, which is in such a state of disarray after so many picky dog-lovers have pawed through it looking for that one special golden retriever monstrosity. The one on the wall. It’s the double digits of December. There’s an endless sea of customers crushing into our shop at all times. Everyone wants books and everyone wants attention and we poor book-selling elves have only so many books and so much attention to give. This is my official storm warning for bookshops everywhere until January. But, with some helpful safety tips, we might all make it through this season alive and without too many paper cuts.

1. If you expect any book-selling elf to have read every book in the shop then you’d best stay home, for you won’t get out of that store intact. Have you tried every single variety of baking soda in your supermarket? Have you personally eaten off every plate in the department store where you work? Shelf-elves are too busy fending off rabid customers with thesauruses to even read the books that have been on their lists for years. They probably don’t have an opinion on which guide to fixing your racing bike is the most riveting read. But they will happily spin you a big old lie which directs you towards the most expensive option. Save yourself some unwarranted frustration and only ask for opinions if you’re ok with hearing, “I have no idea. But I hear The Goldfinch is bloody fantastic.”

2. Decide which books you want to purchase before you get to the till. Have those books in your hands. Don’t run to the opposite end of the shop “just for a second” once your chosen books have been entered into the all knowing and unforgiving register system. Yes, that photo book of soggy canaries was just too adorable for words. Yes, your daughter-in-law’s cousin’s boyfriend would probably love it. No, there is no time for you to go deliberate over adding it to your pile. Once your money is in the hands of the cashier, you’re done shopping. Once those books are in a bag, they’re yours. It’s just as binding as making a deal with the devil, but book-selling elves have absolutely no interest in your soul, and our forced smiles aren’t quite as convincing.

3. It’s also vitally important that you have money to pay for your books. Pieces of highly-valued paper or imaginary numbers on a plastic square are equally acceptable, but do have them on your person. Being unprepared puts other shoppers at risk of waiting a whole minute more for their turn, and that can get violent very quickly. And a violence spreads quickly amongst the shelves. Don’t be the cause of a bloodbath in the poetry section just because – silly you! – all your money is in Cincinnati.

4. Know at least one thing about the person for whom you are buying a book. If you only know their age and gender, you’re in very real danger of giving a terrible Christmas gift. Each customer is allotted roughly two minutes of shelf-elf attention at Christmastime. Use your two minutes wisely. Rationing might be the only way to save your family. Those who survive this season tend to know some very important specifications when asking for a recommendation: age, general interests, a book they have recently enjoyed, particular dislikes, and reading abilities. A note for doting grandparents: your special little snowflake might not be as smart as you think they are. Roald Dahl was correct in Matilda; the children in your lives might be vapid idiots, you just can’t see it. Give an example of what they’re reading and you won’t insult them by giving something too difficult or too babyish.

5. If your nine year old is easily terrified and still has to sleep in your bedroom after reading something scary, do mention that before someone sells you The Graveyard Book or Outside Over There. Even if a book has won awards and is considered a classic, it might still scare the stockings off your cowardly offspring. Don’t blame authors, librarians, or booksellers if you’re kept all night. Read a few pages of the damn book before buying it. Know your child.

6. I’m just going to say it again: KNOW YOUR CHILD! I have never met your child. I can’t promise they will like a book! I can tell you what I would have liked if I shared your child’s reading preferences. I can say what other children have enjoyed. If you don’t know what your kid wants to read, how can you expect other people to do any better? We’re not psychics, we’re just well-read and practiced liars.

7. It’s a suicide mission to telephone a bookshop on December 21st and try to sell your credit card software/ office supplies/ self-published collection of poetry to the frazzled and helpless soul on the end of the line. Not only will you certainly crash and burn, but you might find yourself caught in the cross-fire and riddled with angry words which said phone-answerer isn’t allowed to direct towards the paying customers. On that note, if you think that Black Friday is a good time to do cold calls in a busy shopping town to try and sell your paper products, you are not cut out for the job and should quit before you’re crucified. All salesmen shall be executed on sight.

8. If you don’t have an advent calender by the second week of December then there’s no real point in looking for one. Give up. Get comfortable in your advent-calender-less den of loneliness. That’s no one’s problem but yours.

9. Bring a whistle and a light if you intend to wander into the depths of the bargain book corner all alone. Avalanches from the travel section may spill over and smother you, or enormous coffee table books – heavy with photos of artistic gardens and/or unhappy musicians – might crush your toes and leave you stranded, starving, with only books about weaving (discounted up to 75%) to keep you company in your last hours. It’s futile to ask any booksellers who might be dashing by on an urgent errand for help navigating the dark labyrinth of bargain books. They aren’t in our computer system, they don’t appear on any maps, and you might come across some nameless long-forgotten monster under the table. Blow the whistle if you need to be extracted.

10. Don’t tell the exhausted bookseller behind the desk that they should really get outside / read this book / enjoy the sunlight. They probably haven’t been outside in daylight since November. This particular book elf wakes up before sunrise and gets home long after dark, and she spends her daytime hours trying hard not to bite off the heads of people who are lucky enough to have time to shop and read and breathe fresh air. Meaning well gets you nowhere in December Book Land. Recommending anything religious or trying to start a political discussion will spell your certain doom, too, so perhaps it’s best to just keep one’s opinions to one’s self until you’re safely outside in the reportedly-cheerful winter air again.

11. If you think you’re disappointed that the UPS and FedEx shipments haven’t arrived with your book, imagine how much the bookshop is suffering. Do not poke the angry dragon with your tiny but aggravating sword.

12. There are magic words which can be employed to get cheerful service, and none of those words are “You need to gift wrap this.” Try, “please,” or, “if it’s not too much trouble,” or, “when you get the chance.” Polite customers get nicely wrapped books. Insufferable hoverers who expect instant Martha Stewart get shapeless lumps of paper and curses.

13. Books are not for skating. If a child steps on a book, you can kiss that cute little baby foot goodbye.

BONUS TIP: If you buy hundreds of dollars worth of Middle Grade and Young Adult books for the older kids who often get ignored by Toys For Tots and other such organizations, the blessings of book-selling elves will fall down upon you like loving paper snowflakes. If you let a particular elf who loves those books pick out her favorites, and if you listen enthusiastically to recommendations, your health will be toasted so very warmly at closing time, after most other shoppers have been either forgotten or blighted. You are what Christmas is all about.

Buy books for kids in need. Be patient with the exhausted people helping you. Don’t be picky, rude, or entitled. That’s the only way to get out alive.

All Hallow’s Read Suggestions: YA and Children’s Books

I’ve got excuses for the scarcity of reviews this month, and they’re waiting at the end of this list.  But first, here are some random books amongst the dozens which I’ve been recommending to young readers as Halloween approaches.  I encourage all of you to participate in Neil Gaiman’s invented holiday known as All Hallow’s Read, which we celebrate by making presents of books which scared us; or creeped us out; or made us tiptoe up the stairs a little faster with a chill on the backs of our necks.  Give those books to friends of yours who should share your fear.

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Some of the books I’ve chosen truly terrified me, while others had a great spooky atmosphere without actually causing nightmares.  There’s a Hallowe’en book out there for anyone who enjoys the holiday, no matter how brave they feel in the darkness.

1. The Graveyard Book and Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

The editions with illustrations by Dave McKean are the best.  Wonderfully spooky stories for middle grade readers and above.  Coraline has been a classic for ages.  It has a black cat, a mysterious old house, a scary parallel world, monstrous grown ups, a mouse circus, and the terrifying threat of having buttons sewn on as eyes.  The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book but it’s set in a graveyard with ghosts and vampires raising the young hero as opposed to animals.  It’s one of my favorite books to recommend to children who can handle a bit of gloom; there’s a reason it won the Newbury Award, people!  I will say that the opening scene of The Graveyard Book is really grisly and disturbing, but if you can get past the first chilling chapter you’re in for one of the most atmospheric and well-told ghost stories published in the past decade.

2. Constable and Toop by Gareth P Jones

An old-fashioned style of ghost adventure book which came out earlier this month, Constable and Toop reminded me of the books by Eva Ibbotsen I used to really like as a child.  It’s spooky and charming, starring likable heroes who have to combat darkness with tenacity and luck.  Sam Toop’s dad is an undertaker with a mysterious past, and young Sam hangs around a lot of dead folk.  It’s not just corpses who demand his attention, though; Sam can see ghosts and they’re desperate for his help because something’s going terribly wrong with the haunted houses in London.  Constable and Toop is a dark Victorian adventure through London with enough violence to be scary without turning into an absolute gore-fest.

If you liked Constable and Toop, go find old copies of  Eva Ibbotson’s Dial-A-Ghost and Which Witch?  I like them even better.

3. Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

I’ve already written a review of Long Lankin, which you can read here.  It’s properly terrifying, exactly the sort of horror story which haunts my nightmares and makes my blood run cold.  Even though the main characters are young children, this is definitely a book for teenagers – the plot is inspired by a disturbing English folksong about horrific murders, and there plot is dark and twisted.  The atmosphere of a decaying English estate in the 1950s with something evil lurking just out of sight is so chilling and vivid.  Even though Long Lankin doesn’t actually take place near Halloween it’s the perfect book for someone who wants to stay up all night quaking with nerves, but who isn’t necessarily keen on big splashy gore and nonstop action.  This is the eeriest book I’ve read in ages, and if you’re looking to give an All Hallow’s Read gift to someone who really wants (or deserves) to be scared, this is a good choice.

4. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

This is another one I’ve already reviewed.  Really creepy found photos are combined with a dark and mysterious plot to make a unique sort of YA horror novel.  I think the first half of the book is a little more Halloween-y than the second, and in my review I explain why I was disappointed with the story’s direction, but it’s got really uncanny photographs of ghostly children and some great scary scenes.  I would give this one to teenagers who like to find weird objects in thrift shops and make up scary stories about them trying to gross each other out.

5.  The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff.

Not only does The Replacement have a great Halloween party scene with some dead girls dressed up as themselves to hide amongst the living, it’s also a great example of how a small-scale YA horror novel can be just as gripping as one in which the whole world is at stake, as long as it’s written by the right author.  I loved Brenna Yovanoff’s take on the changeling myth – I mean, can we talk about how the cover alone shouts “hey, Sarah, read me right now!”?  Her story about a changeling boy trying to protect his town from the monstrous faery-creatures who influence the area is scary, entertaining, and somehow very moving, too.

Since I’m the sort of person who spends Halloween midnights waiting for faeries at crossroads, I really enjoyed this book and thought that the teenage angst and moral dilemmas worked very well against such a sinister background.

6. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury is always a great bet, and I actually gave this book to a friend on the first All Hallow’s Read after Gaiman declared it a holiday.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is technically a YA/children’s book, but adult Bradbury fans usually love it, too.

I think this passage from the book sums up the tone of writing and easily explains why it’s a great Halloween read:

“For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenxy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles-breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”  (source of quote, because I can’t find my copy of the book.)

(If you liked this – I hear Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree is great but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Any opinions?)

7. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

This is another new book which came out in October, and one by a favorite YA author of mine.  You can read my full review here.

Vicious vampires + a believable heroine + snappy one-liners + the coolest explanation of vampirism in YA fiction right now (oh dear I hate temperature puns) = an excellent addition to the growing vampire mythology.  This book is grisly and violent.  If you really want to get into the spirit of things, read it right before you go to a Halloween party.  Just don’t freak out if, when you wake up from your drunken haze, all the other party goers have had their blood sucked dry.

8. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Read my original review of this book here.

Again, this YA horror novel is not necessarily Halloween themed, but it’s so densely atmospheric and dark that October’s the perfect time to read it.  Wooding’s book takes place in Victorian London, but unlike Constable and Toop, this one is relentlessly frightening and meant for teenagers rather than middle grade readers.  It contains great villains, complex musings about the nature of evil, the terrors of bedlam, and plenty of fog.  Give it to steampunk readers looking for a break from the gadgets, and old fashioned goths who aren’t afraid of monsters hovering above one’s bed at night.  (This book made me scream out loud in my sleep two nights in a row when I first read it as a freshman in high school.)

9. The Tailypo

I will never forget the first time I heard this story read allowed in my elementary school library class.  It’s about a hermit who cuts off a creature’s tail, and then the creature stalks him repeating “I’m coming to find my tailypo” until it finally eats the hunter and his dogs on a dark night.  The stuff of my earliest nightmares.

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Apologies and excuses:

This has been a very busy October for yer dedicated Captain o’ these pages, what with my escapades at The Boston Book Festival and various nerdy adventures on land  and by the sea.  My moments of freedom have been few and far between, and while I’ve read at least ten books since finishing Rooftoppers I haven’t yet managed to write a half-decent review.  There’s quite a tempest loomin’ on the horizon of my bookish future as well, as the holiday season is approaching, so the good ship Bookshop has been battening down the hatches for the busiest months of the year.  My reviewing energy may dampen a little in the near future, but never fear.  Neither hell nor high water, nor indeed a plague of paper cuts from wrapping paper, can keep me away from saying stuff about books for long.

Book Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: She Rises by Kate Worsley

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 15+ (some violence and language; unpleasant sexual situations)
She Rises was a strange combination of things I love and things I hate, and while I definitely thought it was an interesting and beautiful book there were some details which made me shudder on a non-literary level.  Before I get my review underway I will mention that while I’m quite keen on seafaring violence, and am perfectly content to read about despicable characters, I had to skim over several instances of sexual depravity in order to keep reading.  If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, and if you like nautical adventures and tragic (rather than sordid) love stories, She Rises might be the book you wish you’d read over the summer.  I was happy I brought it with me on my weekend trip to the Maine coast, even though it takes place mostly in England or on British ships, because it was atmospheric, intense, and beautifully described.  This novel is as much a story about the irresistible (and deadly) call of the sea as it is a tale of how unlikely relationships can form all-consuming bonds of devotion.  Worsley writes about that intensely dramatic devotion in the close quarters of female society, on the one hand, and amongst conscripted men in the brutal 18th century Royal Navy, on the other.

The stories of Luke Fletcher and Louise Fletcher are told in alternating chapters, which I found distracting at first but which fell into a rhythm to match the tossing of the warship Essex on waves after about four or five chapters.  Louise tells her story in the second person, recalling the events which took her from a life making butter in a dairy to that of a lady’s maid in Harwich.  We read about the intimate memories which shaped her intense loyalty to and fascination with her charming but volatile mistress in an almost voyeuristic fashion; these words are spoken with love and trust, so their very presence upon the page made me feel like I was privy to a secret which I shouldn’t hear but which was too mesmerizing to ignore.  Louise’s chapters were a little slow to capture my interest, but soon enough the touching, emotionally complex story drew me in with its layers of social intrigue and budding identity struggles.  The almost painfully earnest levels of devotion had echoes of Jane Eyre or even Wuthering Heights, if the Bronte sisters had focused more on women’s personal relationships with each other; there’s plenty of brooding and temper tantrums but also admirable portrayals of friendship.  I found Louise’s mistress hard to understand at certain points in the novel, but since we are getting Louise’s version of events it makes sense that her portrayal of Rebecca might suggest an inscrutable, almost idolized figure of personal power.

In contrast to Louise’s languorous early chapters, Luke’s first pages begin with his disoriented realization that he’s been press-ganged into the Royal Navy and is stuck upon the warship Essex with nowhere to run or hide.  We’re dropped right in the middle of action, and I found myself instantly invested in poor Luke’s undesired adventures, despite the fact that his parts of the novel are told in an almost detached third person point of view.  The difference in narrative voice is dramatic and easy to follow, and my only complaint about the structure was that I would find myself thoroughly engrossed in Luke’s difficulties amongst the sailors only to be snatched away from the scene and placed back in the stuffy Harwich house, and vice versa.  Both story lines gripped my attention relentlessly. Luke’s situation appealed to me slightly more because I’m a huge fan of nautical adventures, but the fact that I was always disappointed to leave a character at each break says some good things about Worsley’s pacing abilities and careful planning.  The seafaring chapters had all the historical detail and high-stakes adventure of Patrick O’Brien’s series, and the young sailor forced to learn the ropes while surrounded by chaos reminded me of the Jacky Faber books.  However, Worsley never shies away from the harsh realities of 18th century life on land or on the oft-romanticized sea.  Luke forges loyalties out of necessity and fear, he witnesses depravity; cowardice; and betrayal, and he must eventually choose between his own morals and his desperation for peace and safety.  I tend to imagine that the life of a powder monkey or a bonnie sailor would totally have been the life for me in times past, but reading about the tribulations suffered for months or years away from land, and the extremely unpleasant circumstances of press-ganged men, reminded me that a life confined to soggy wood and endless crowds of men could get both stifling without privacy and endlessly lonely.

The sailor characters were colorful and vulgar; I can picture them even now as though I had sailed with them myself, though some events aboard the ship happened so abruptly that I had to pause and consider what might drive the rather underdeveloped officers to make such strange decisions.  Luke’s scenes focused on the inward turmoil of a character without any privacy in much the same way that Louise’s chapters showed how two people can eschew all other company and still experience worlds of their own.  The novel’s minor characters fell flat a few times, but this wasn’t so important since the important relationships were really forged between five or six individuals and their vivid surroundings.  She Rises is both an introspective novel about human intimacy and a story about how heavily one’s surroundings can influence someone’s path.  From the dairy farm, to ballrooms, to cramped hold of a ship, to the terrifying freedom of the rigging, and back to dry land, the Fletchers wander in and out of distinctive settings as well as in and out of peoples’ lives, changing drastically as they do.

I loved the descriptions of the sea’s power, not only aboard the ship but also in Louise’s seaport town where the rising tide can flow through the streets and the patterns of commerce and social interaction are dictated by the temperament of the sea.  The Fletchers are cursed with an inability to ignore the call of salt water, and since I love the sea more than I love most people, this was the relationship which fascinated me most in She Rises.  No character has complete control over their own destiny, nor do they even have true agency over their most private identities, and this tragic but beautiful inevitability is reflected through the ever-changing but also timeless landscape of water and horizon.  The setting is written with such reverence that I’m sure Kate Worsley must feel that draw of the tide herself from time to time.

Despite this novel’s fixation on the sexual side of human interaction and the occasional disjointed leap from characters’ motivations to their actions, I found it thought provoking and evocative.  The plot is handled cleverly – and well it had to be – since there are a few dramatic twists which would be spoiled had she been lazy with her structure, though I did guess one ahead of the reveal.

I would recommend She Rises to fans of tense seafaring adventures, readers who expect their romance to come with a large serving of tragedy and frustration, and anyone who is interested in how gender and identity play a part in our perception of our fates; our abilities; and our environments.  Think Great Expectations meets Master and Commander meets Orlando.  If you’re going to be near the coast at any point this year, bring this book so you can appreciate the eternal power of the sea while also appreciating the fact that it’s much more comfortable on dry land, in modern times, than it was in the salty life you’ve imagined for yourself when your day job gets unbearable.  At least you haven’t fallen asleep a free individual and woken up as an unwilling member of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, where life is short and your story’s harrowing.

Book Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

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

Age rage recommendation: 14+ (Or, you know, only people who are ok with lots of bloody violence. It’s a vampire book, after all!)

 

I was delighted by Holly Black’s new YA novel, The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, in more ways than one! It’s a disgustingly entertaining book, and I had the wonderful fortune to attend her reading and talk in Cambridge this week, where I got to hear about the writing process and what experiences go into the fantastic stories she tells. I read an ARC of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown a few days before it was released, and here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, it’s inspired by one of my favorite of her short stories, of the same title, in which vampirism is a disease which causes its victims to go “cold” for eighty eight days. If someone who’s survived being bitten by a vampire can withstand their all-consuming hunger for blood, they remain human. Vampires and the infected are quarantined in Cold Towns, and anyone who goes cold must surrender themselves or be considered a danger to society for obvious reasons. The thing about Cold Towns is, anyone can sign themselves into one, but you can never leave again unless you have a very special marker and aren’t Cold or a Vampire. Of course, this being the age of reality TV and live blogs, feeds come out of the Cold Towns glamorizing the constant bloodletting parties and the dramatic lives of the real vampires who live there. Misunderstood goth kids will do anything to become a vampire – though bitings are growing rare since vampires don’t want to create competition for the blood supply – and events like The Eternal Ball and Lucien Moreau’s highly-televised parties draw thousands of viewers from outside the heavily guarded walls. You should check out Holly Black’s short story in her collection The Poison Eaters, because it’s a great introduction to the dark and gritty atmosphere of the novel. (Please buy it from an independent bookshop, or ask your local bookseller to order it for you! Amazon is evil.)

So the background to the novel was awesome to begin with, but how about the book’s specific plot? Also awesome. Tana wakes up the morning after a drunken party to find that all of the other party goers – most of them her high school classmates and friends – have been brutally murdered. With her infected and infuriating ex-boyfriend in tow and a suspiciously helpful vampire boy in the trunk of her car, Tana heads to Coldtown hoping to get Aidan through three months of cold hell and somehow make it back to her father and sister. They encounter a pair of vampire obsessed siblings with connections in the nearby Coldtown, and things soon spiral even further out of Tana’s control when everyone around her becomes desperate enough to put their own desires – blood, immortality, escape from a mysterious past – above the struggle to stay mentally and physically human.

I liked Tana as a protagonist because her motives were simple and real. She wants to survive Coldtown, get back to her family, and convince her little sister that turning into a bloodthirsty monster isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She wants to figure out what horrifying force is pursuing the cute but terrifyingly-insane vampire who owes her his life; not because the two of them are destined to save the world (such an exhausted plot twist in YA these days) but just because she likes him. She wants to help her friends and keep them from biting her. She’s horrified but determined, and it’s easy to invest in her troubles because she experiences a conflict between the instincts of self preservation and loyalty in a completely realistic fashion throughout the whole book. The supporting characters have lots of depth and great backgrounds, too. Tana’s ex boyfriend is charming but frustrating, the famous vampires were terrifying but so completely fascinating, and the human inhabitants of Cold Town had really interesting lives. Plus, there was an awesome Trans* chick who kicked ass without functioning as a mere one-dimensional attempt at diversity! Woohoo!

Reading The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, I noted with interest which parts of the Vampire Literature tradition Holly Black had adopted into her own mythology, and which conventions she decided to ignore or subvert. It’s impossible to write a vampire book without involving some of the patterns and themes from a genre which has been so popular for centuries, and Black does a great job of acknowledging this while still letting her own creativity take center stage. There were obvious influences from Anne Rice’s vampire books – the attention loving villain reminded me an awful lot of Lestat – and some of the action scenes took on a Buffy-eque, cinematic style. It’s a bloody story, and the narrative never shies away from gore in favor of Romantic death metaphors. In fact, the violent descriptions are an integral part of the story’s dichotomy: the quest for a beautiful immortality appeals to the vainer side of human nature at the cost of our self restraint, but the reality of becoming a monster is hideous and painful.

I imagine that any reader will be able to spot hints of their own favorite vampire legends and series when they read the book. At her talk at the Cambridge Library, Holly Black mentioned a whole ton of books and movies which had built up her image of vampires and asked us which vampires we remembered igniting our interest as young readers. The list included: Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Carmilla, Sunshine, and even TV and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that 80s film The Lost Boys, among many others. Aside from the obvious lineage behind Coldtown, I also thought of some embarrassing obsessions from my teenage years which actually fit quite well with the tone and themes of the book. The sarcastic heroine reminded me a little of Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ short and bloody YA books, while the themes of loyalty; desperation; and gritty violence actually brought me right back to the years when My Chemical Romance was the soundtrack to my life. Their early albums I Brought You My Bullets You Brought Me Your Love and Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge go surprisingly well with the pace and structure of The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, though it was uncomfortable to hear the sounds of my fourteen year old weirdness eight years later…

There were a few aspects of the book which I thought could be improved upon slightly, but for the most part I really enjoyed it. The big, dramatic parts of the story actually belonged to the vampire characters and not to Tana herself, so there’s quite a lot of exposition and other characters talking about a history which the protagonist never experienced. However, I was glad to read a book about a teenage girl who isn’t the center of some powerful machination and who isn’t destined to save the world armed with nothing but underdeveloped special powers, so I didn’t mind that structure too much. Some of the interesting minor characters didn’t get enough page-time to satisfy me, but the book was a good length in the end so I suppose their moments had to be pared down to only the most essential contributions. I’m not sure if Holly Black intends to write a sequel to The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, but I was so very happy that it didn’t end on a dangling cliffhanger. If she releases another novel set in Coldtown – either about Tana and her friends or just in the same fictional timeline – I will be excited to read it, even though I’ll be grossed out and nervous for the next few days, like I was this week. The book is great on its own. If you’re after a gross and gripping tale about complex vampires, with a few clever twists, I think that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown will satisfy the morbid side of anyone looking for a disturbing and addictive book to read this Fall.

Book Review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Dream-Thieves-Cover

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 15+ (Plenty o’ drugs and violence, but not much sex.)

Remember when I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that The Raven Boys was much more exciting and mysterious than the dreadful cover-blurbs made it out to be? Remember when I wanted to give Maggie Stiefvatar a resonating high-five after it turned out that a confusing bit of that novel turned into one of the best plot twists in recent YA history? Remember when I was very curious about what would happen next? Well, readers, hold on to your proverbial and literal hats, because The Dream Thieves is even better than The Raven Boys. I can’t freakin’ shut up about it. Buckle up in your magically souped-up cars, because this is one sequel which took my expectations by the throat and hurled them into a parallel universe where everything is nightmarishly awesome, witty, legendary, hilarious, and other adjectives as well. Here are my thoughts, in some semblance of order this time:

I can’t describe the plot of The Dream Thieves in much detail without spoiling the events of its predecessor, and I want everyone to enjoy The Raven Boys at least as much as I did, so spoilers begone! Therefore, in the vaguest terms possible, here’s what you can expect from The Dream Thieves: Four prep school boys, plus the only non-psychic girl in a family of clairvoyant women, continue their quest to find the sleeping Welsh king Glendower and tap into the magical energy which flows under the town of Henrietta, Virginia. But now, more dangerous obstacles lie in their path, and the mysteries around them are only getting weirder. The traumatic events which concluded the first installment of their story have failed to deter them from their magical investigations for long, and each character is forced to grow and adapt to the increasingly dire consequences of every decision they have made.

Gansey struggles to balance his wealthy family’s political aspirations and his own obsession with the Glendower legend, while his privileged background continues to create tension between himself and his less-fortunate friends. Adam is clawing his way up in the world with exhausting hard work and some ancient magical energy which he can neither control nor understand, following a decision he made with questionable logic at the end of The Raven Boys. Blue tries to reconcile her own place in a family of psychics, and work out how she fits into the boys’ close-knit circle, all while she has trouble dealing with the knowledge that she might soon be responsible for the death of someone she loves. Noah keeps disappearing at inopportune moments and he can’t go on ignoring the tragedy of his unusual past forever. Most interestingly, in this episode of their ongoing saga, Ronan throws himself into his dreams and his family’s violent history, getting into trouble along the way and testing his loyalty to his friends against his desire to channel all his anger into something dangerous. With external influences coming at the group from all sides, including a mysterious hit man; some hilarious but wise psychics; and one volatile Russian teenaged mobster jerk, the characters we grew to love in The Raven Boys must keep on their toes and continually face the darkness within themselves, even when that darkness threatens to take over completely.

The quest for Glendower and the legendary adventures in which our intrepid team of weirdos found themselves entangled fades to the background of The Dream Thieves a little bit. Have no fear; Gansey’s interests remain (mostly) intent upon his scholarly magic treasure hunt, but the narrative itself shifts focus from Gansey, Blue, and Adam to the angry and complex Ronan in this book. It’s still an ensemble-driven storyline – and I must say that this ensemble of Virginian teenagers is one of the best groups of characters I’ve read about in a long time – but while Ronan was a complete enigma of bitterness and fierce loyalty in The Raven Boys, we finally get some insight into his own role in the supernatural drama.  Ronan’s nightmares are terrifying and his life is messed up, and I must admit it’s a pleasure to read about the darkness within him.

The scope of The Dream Thieves is both wider and more narrow, somehow, than its predecessor. History plays a less impressive role here, but the really cool bits of the story happen in the magic which lies within objects and people who seem perfectly ordinary but are, in fact, completely mind-bending. The magic is different, too. Gone are the formal rituals of sacrifice and divining, and there aren’t many magic words. This magic is organic and deeply personal to whomever is wielding power at any given moment. We get to witness more minor characters from the first book revealing their own gifts and histories, including the ladies of Blue’s psychic family, who had intrigued me in the first book and are much more developed in the second. These new developments aren’t necessarily preferable to The Raven Boys, but its nice to see that Stiefvater can branch out and still keep the story tight and her characters compelling.

The action really picked up in The Dream Thieves, too. I will be recommending this novel to teenagers who like drag racing, dangerous drugs, and mercenaries, as well as to those readers who look for interesting characters and mysterious plots. Some villains are detestable bastards, some are emotionally complex, and every new addition to the cast adds more tension to an already stressful storyline. Some of Stiefvater’s earlier books couldn’t quite sustain the necessary relationship between character and plot, but in The Raven Cycle she has found the perfect balance between fast-paced narrative and characters who seem so real you forget they aren’t your personal friends. In fact, the main characters are so well developed that it’s impossible to use them as one-dimensional vessels for the types of people you encounter in your own life. “You’re being so Gansey-esque,” is not a sentence one could say with authority, and neither is, “Stop being such a Ronan!” Each individual has such intricate motives and detailed history that they are entirely unique to this story. I hope that other YA writers will learn from Maggie’s excellent example and write characters who are people rather than mere representatives of “types”. She can write hilariously witty banter and serious ideas about loyalty and belief with equal precision, too. Even if you haven’t liked the writing style of some of her earlier books, try this series. I think it will surprise you in the best of ways.

After my friend Rosie finished reading my already-battered Advanced Reader’s Copy, our loud and energetic freak-out session bounced between us shouting about how we couldn’t get over what events we had read about, on the one hand, to how we just wanted to read about these characters all day long, every day, with occasional breaks for snacks. I suppose that’s a sign that The Dream Thieves had everything one could ask for in a YA sequel: a compelling plot and fascinating characters. Also, Psychics! Hit men! Russian assholes! Rednecks! Politicians! Psychopaths! Brotherly affection! Brotherly loathing! Not-so-brotherly-affection! Ravens! Ghosts! Talking Trees! Tarot References! Need I go on? Maggie Stiefvater somehow made me care about cars and engines, and I don’t even like cars! But now I find myself gunning it at stoplights and pretending I’m Ronan whenever the engine gets loud. This series will infect your life, your dreams, and your driving habits. Just buy and read the book the moment it comes out on September 17th. And read The Raven Boys right this very second, if you haven’t already, to prepare yourself for the awesome adventure which is headed your way.

A Brief Freak-out about The Dream Thieves (ARC) by Maggie Stiefvater

So good it merited a terrible selfie in my pajamas.

 

This is not a proper review but I really need to mention how holy-shit-god-damn-can’t-stop-reading-infecting-my-dreams GOOD The Dream Thieves was.  Because, holy shit!  God damn, I couldn’t stop reading.  It was infecting my dreams.

The characters.  They are some of the best YA characters I’ve read about in such a very long tome.  I hate caring about people, and I’m usually very good about avoiding such inconveniences, but somehow Maggie Stiefvater has convinced me to worry about things like selflessness vs. ambition, andpersonal sacrifice, and loyalty and shit.  I love that we get MORE PSYCHICS! MYSTERIOUS DEADLY-DUDES! UNPLEASANT RUSSIANS! MY FAVORITE GHOST! PIGEONS AND RAVENS! And my favorite gang of five to ever seek out a sleeping Welsh king.

Also, the writing in this one was even better than in the first.  Maggie Stiefvater, your words speaking to my brain are having a weird impact on that hollow part of my chest where emotions should live.  It’s all heavy and fluttery and stuff.

And when the hell did cars become exciting?!?  I’m supposed to hate cars.  I hate them.  But there I was getting uncomfortably excited about magical engines and other nonsense.  What? Why? How?

I’ll try to write a proper review on Wednesday, but no promises.  Just… buy The Dream Thieves in September.  And read The Raven Boys right now if you haven’t already, despite the misleading cover-blurbs.  You can thank me later.

High School Books Part III: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

I loved this book so much I took selfies with it.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 16+

The Basic Eight was definitely my favorite of the three high school books I read last week.  In fact, I think it might be my favorite novel set in a high school of all time.  And I really like books about young people behaving badly, so that’s saying quite a lot.  I know that July’s not over yet, but I’d venture to say that this was the top book of my month.

The premise of The Basic Eight was exactly the sort of thing I love: a bitterly funny tale about the delusions of youth and shocking acts of violence, told with some really excellent narrative sarcasm.  Flannery Culp is part of a rather self-obsessed group of pretentious and creative friends – eight of them in total – who think that their dinner parties are the social events of a lifetime and who have a “Grand Opera Breakfast Club” which meets in the French classroom.  Their lifestyle, which starts out as merely decadent, soon spirals out of control when feelings of romantic betrayal seize control of our young narrator and she turns into a “murderess.”  The story is told through Flannery’s edited diary entries, which she prefaces and annotates from jail, in order to produce her own version of events as she tries to win the public’s sympathy; dispel rumors of satanic influence; and paint herself as the literary heroine of her own perceived drama.  Right from the novel’s beginning, we know that Flannery is in jail for killing a classmate, so the tension is carried by a truly magnificent cast of characters and a twisting plot.  What begins as a sharp satire of coming-of-age stories soon builds into a nightmarish storm of violence, wealth, and absurdity.  The fact that the novel’s major event is revealed straight away does not ruin the book’s momentum, either.  On the contrary, I found that the format lulled me into a false sense of security, and near the end of the book I actually slammed the book on the table and shouted, “WHAT?!?”.  The plot isn’t necessarily realistic, and the characters are  larger than life, but I was completely hooked by The Basic Eight a few pages in and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Some readers will recognize Handler’s sarcastic style reminiscent of his pseudonym Lemony Snicket from the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think that  The Basic Eight, as his first novel, was where he tested out some of his stylistic techniques.  A study guide follows some sections of Flannery’s diary, with a list of vocabulary words and questions like: “Is it rude to bring an uninvited guest to a diner party? Should you be excused if it’s your boyfriend? What if he’s dumb?”.  This trick in one of the more obvious instances in which Handler points out the ridiculous trends in high school, and books about high school, and the way the world treats high schoolers in general.  When the characters are involved in the play Othello, too, Flannery immediately points out the parallels between the play and the events in her own life in her commentary.  So many YA books hide literary allusions and parallels to whatever the characters have to study in their English class in the course of the narrative, and I love how Daniel Handler laughs at that trend by making it absurdly obvious.  The book is pretty scornful of how adults handle teenage troubles, and includes some absolutely laughable adults who try to analyze the group’s actions after the crime in an obvious parody of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and best-selling child psychologists.  I love it when books show how out of touch figures of authority can be with young people, and even though these characters are unrealistically inept the real-life associations are pretty on point.  The Basic Eight might be about a group of larger-than-life figures in an extreme situation, but it also deals with some very real problems that teenagers face in high school: feeling threatened by teachers, not knowing whom to trust, trying to keep up appearances when your whole world is falling apart.  Handler faces these issues with an arsenal of wit and cynicism, and I wish I had read this book when I was in high school myself.

I will only fail at explaining how funny this book was despite the grim subject, because I’m not a funny enough person to do the humor any justice at all.  Let me just say that I could not stop laughing.  I laughed when Flan and Natasha couldn’t find tomato juice so they made Bloody Marys with marinara sauce to cure their hangovers.  I laughed when the entire school had to fill out an anonymous survey about their relationship with Satan.  You will laugh at the egotistical group of friends but you’ll also laugh with them and around them and near them.  The San Francisco Chronicle compared the book to an inside joke, and even though I always felt one step behind the antics of the Basic Eight, I loved trying to catch up with the group of friends who I now feel like I know personally.  You will laugh even when blood is flying and kids are getting sick on way too much absinthe.  Handler’s sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I can’t get enough of his sardonic wit and clever style.

I would recommend The Basic Eight to so many people.  In fact, I’ve already shouted at three of my friends to go and buy it immediately.  I picked it up because in an interview Handler said that invented the name Lemony Snicket while he was researching the extreme conservative organizations who liked to get involved in “satanic panic.”  I’ve been a fan of his children’s books and his infectiously funny style of writing for over a decade, so I figured it was time to dive into the source. (I also recommend Adverbs, which is the only other of Handler’s adult novels which I’ve read.)  If you liked the self-aware and hilarious style of A Series Of Unfortunate Events but want a more grown-up story, buy this book.  I would also recommend The Basic Eight to high school teachers all over the country, because it actually serves as a good example of all sorts of literary themes and techniques. Flannery is the quintessential unreliable narrater: she’s completely untrustworthy but she also doesn’t trust her readers.  There are allusions to Shakespeare, opera, poetry, and classic literature all over the text.  The narrative structure in the novel is creative and intricate; Flannery’s editorial touches to her diary entries fade in and out depending on what she’s revealing, and there are moments when its difficult to separate her wiser (but incarcerated) later self from the earnest voice with which she writes as the events unfold. The structure keeps you on your toes and merits serious consideration, and I bet I’ll catch onto things I missed entirely when I read the book again.

If high school teachers were to assign The Basic Eight as summer reading, I think that it would have a generally positive reception from the students, and the fact that their parents might take offense at the subject matter just makes Handler’s observations all the more suitable.  At times the book was witty and charming, I could compare it to John Green’s Paper Towns, but then there are other sections which contain all the confused boredom and rage of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.  I heartily recommend it to fans of both genres.  I would recommend it to anyone who thought they were the only classy and intelligent person in their own school, because reading it gave me a chance to laugh at what a self-involved moron I had been in high school.  Really, if you want to read about high school this summer, just read this book.  I can’t wait to read it again.

High School Books Part II: After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age recommendation: 14+

The next library book in my high school novel stack was the first YA book by Joyce Carol Oates I had ever read.  I’ve heard good things about Big Mouth, Ugly Girl, but I ended up choosing After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away because I liked the cover and the long title was irresistibly intriguing.  This was a much darker story than The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and while I tend to prefer funny young adult books over tragic ones I will say that Oates made a lasting impression on me with this novel.  The writing was poetic and the narrative was fluid: I found myself so deep inside Jenna’s tumultuous mind that it got hard to extract my own thoughts and impressions from her stream-of-consciousness style and memorable voice.  

The un-glamourous school setting in After The Wreck was vivid, chaotic, and realistic.  It reminded me of the middle school I had attended, though the characters were older and, therefore, the stakes were higher.  We read about Jenna’s high school experiences after she recovers from a terrible car wreck – one which kills her mother and changes her forever – and moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new life.  After The Wreck is one part tragedy, one part angsty teen nightmare about addiction, one part coming of age story, and one part meditation on grief and forgiveness.  Because the narrator is going through her own personal development as well as the unimaginable suffering of blaming herself for a parent’s death, the difficulties she faces are more dire than any which I experienced as a teenager, but the difficulties she experiences at school are universal and unavoidable.  Untrustworthy and manipulative friends, unrequited love, substance abuse, frustratingly bad communication between adults and teenagers: these conflicts rear their ugly heads in most teenagers’ lives despite their varying backgrounds or past experiences.

Oates writes about the distinction between Jenna’s life “before the wreck” and “after the wreck” to keep the plot visible and clear, but the story really focuses on facing internal fears and external pressures.  In her new town, Jenna meets a mysteriously aloof boy called Crow who inspires her to confront her memories and overwhelming sense of guilt, but he, like the other supporting characters in After The Wreck, seemed a little two-dimensional compared to Oates’s complex protagonist.  I sometimes wished that we could get a more detailed look at such compelling figures as Crow and the volatile teenagers who adopt Jenna into their social circle, but I do think that the decision to keep the entire story from her limited point of view was important to maintain the story’s style and tone.

I would recommend After The Wreck to older teenaged readers who have a good chunk of time to devote to reading a harrowing (but ultimately hopeful) book.  Joyce Carol Oates’s writing style is so absorbing and compelling that it’s best to finish this book in one day, or one might risk going about their real life as though they were still in Jenna’s fragile consciousness.  Oates portrays the ferocity with which young people must face the worst parts of growing up in sympathetic detail.  I may not have laughed much while reading After The Wreck, but each page brought a flood of memories from my own angst-ridden teenage years to mind, and I vote that’s one sign of a well-done high school book.

Review of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Star Ratings

Characters: 5 stars

Character Development: 4 stars

Plot: 3 stars

Writing: 4 stars

Overall: 4 stars

Age recommendation: 16 and up

It took me two nights to read The Wasp Factory, not because it was particularly long – it’s actually quite a short novel – but because it’s one extremely tense and disturbing little story. I’m still reeling from the news of Iain Banks’s death, it’s a tragedy for the literary world and for the Earth in general. I had only read The Crow Road before I first met him, and a bit of Stonemouth after, but I’ve been wanting to read The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas ever since he did two talks with the St Andrews Literary Society in the past couple of years. I had the amazing luck to go out with Iain and his lovely girlfriend (now widow) Adele upon both occasions, and he was such an interesting and funny man. In fact, he was witty as hell even when he was writing about his own mortality. The universe is worse without him, but was improved by his 59 years of existence. So, thinking about him and unable to sleep, I finally picked up The Wasp Factory to see if it was as distressing as everyone had told me it was.

Oh yes, this is a messed up book indeed. It is absorbing and well paced, and I think I could have finished it the night I started reading just because it seemed impossible to extract my own train of thought from the antihero Frank’s own narration. However, I was so freaked out by a few of the scenes that I needed to take a break from the twisted world Banks has created in Frank’s head. There are only a few characters in The Wasp Factory, partly because it takes place on a tiny, secluded island somewhere just off the coast of Northern Scotland, but also because we see the world through Frank’s eyes, and Frank doesn’t find other human beings very interesting or important. He’s a sixteen year old with psychopathic tendencies who provides the reader with twisted rationalizations to the murders of his little brother and two young cousins which he committed years ago.

The explanations to his actions are in such matter-of-fact tones that its difficult to get a read on the book’s narrator, making him all the more frightening.  He says at one point:

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through,”

and the delusional logic which inspires his actions is presented in such an offhand manner that his thoughts seem even more monstrous than his violent acts. When he describes the creative but horrifying murder of little Esmerelda, against whom he felt no real malice, Frank assumes that his reader shares his unnatural view of the world and its rules:

“I killed little Esmerelda because I felt I owed it to myself and to the world in general. I had, after all, accounted for two male children and thus done womankind something of a statistical favour.”

What ate into my brain the most (oops, that’s a sick pun which will only make sense after you read the book) was the way that the murderous compulsions, the gory scenes of animal torture, and even the macabre rituals of The Factory and the Sacrifice Poles start to take on a weird rationality of their own as we get sucked into this book. Banks managed to tell a story with no real hero, following a character to whom it should be impossible to relate, and yet The Wasp Factory is still the sort of book that people read voraciously, desperate to understand what it is that’s horrifying them so much.

There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding Frank’s father, a bit of suspense as his older brother makes his way home after escaping from a lunatic asylum, and a bit of philosophy as Frank makes observations about human kind – observations which are so poignant because his view of our species is removed by a few degrees of madness. However, the plot focuses largely on Frank’s personal inner turmoil and the methods with which he comes to terms with his actions and desires. The story is a “page turner” because of the writing and the characters, not necessarily because Banks wrote a tightly constructed plot. I suppose I would call The Wasp Factory a thriller of sorts, but mostly because of the thrills of revulsion I got whenever a particularly gruesome scene forced its way into my imagination. There are a few twists in the book, and one huge one which provides quite a shock, but this is a story about a murderer more than it is a story about murders. Iain Banks writes so well as a dangerously unstable young man that it’s difficult to imagine him as the jovial, hilarious, and warmly friendly fellow who he really was.

I’d recommend The Wasp Factory to anyone who spends the moments before they fall asleep wondering if they’re in danger of going mad, because it shows the shocking depth to which some people’s inhumanity can reach. It’s also the sort of book which would appeal to mystery readers – though the mysteries in the plot are certainly less interesting than the narrative voice – as well as to fans of distinctly Scottish writing, and violent books like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange. I gave it an age recommendation of sixteen and older because, despite the fact that the protagonist is a teenager, Banks does not shy away from the sort of horrific imagery which you can’t bleach out of your brain no matter how hard you try to imagine yourself in a happy place. I tried to think about kittens to comfort myself about halfway through the book, but that only upset me more because Frank or his brother would probably mutilate those kittens… It’s disturbing, is what I mean to say, and when you’re a young kid and already disturbed enough as it is, this sort of writing won’t do your developing brain any favors. That being said, I think it’s a fascinating example of realistic fiction with a taint of horror and some extremely dark magical thinking. Banks’s writing skills are impressive, and reading The Wasp Factory has encouraged me to try and get my hands on some of his Science Fiction (written as Iain M. Banks) this summer, to read more about the imaginative worlds which lived in this talented and inspiring author’s mind.

Iain with me and a friend a The Central after his second talk with the St Andrews Literary Society.