Archived Review: Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on January 16, 2013

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: ***** (5 Stars)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Overall: ***** (5 Stars)
Age range recommendation: 13 +

This is the sort of novel I want to read all day, every day. This is the sort of book I want to write, except Lindsey Barraclough has already written it. And I’m so very glad she did.  Long Lankin falls into my very favorite tradition of modern literature: haunting stories inspired by unsettling British legends and faery stories, usually featuring young children and strange settings, but always grounded somewhat in our own realm and history. Other books I put in that category are Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones and The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea.

Inspired one of my favorite creepy old folk songs (of the same title), Long Lankin follows young Cora and her toddler sister Mimi from London to Guerdon Hall in the countryside in the decade following World War Two. Cora’s mother has been driven periodically insane by some dark memory from her childhood and their father can not take care of them, so they must stay with their less-than-maternal and wildly mysterious Great-aunt Ida on the ancient and decaying family estate. Guerdon Hall makes a perfect setting for this dark and haunting story: there are strange claw marks on the door, latin wards of protection on the gate, and Aunt Ida is vehement that no doors or windows are to be opened under any circumstances, and that they must never go into the yard when the nearby tide is out. Cora makes friends with a local boy, Roger, and his pack of comically English siblings, and soon enough the children break a few rules in pursuit of adventure in the small town. Unfortunately, their adventures in the forbidden church near the estate and their curiosity about the history of Cora’s ancestors prove to be more dangerous than they expected, and the twisted spirit of Long Lankin from the town’s old legend returns to continue his hunt for innocent blood.

The novel uses the general narrative of the folk song as background to the story we read: generations ago in Guerdon Hall a false nurse let Long Lankin in so that they could kill the baby and the mother when the lord of the estate was gone. In fact, the song lyrics make a ghostly appearance when Cora explores the forbidden attic centuries after the fabled murder, thus combining the real legend and Barraclough’s own invention almost seamlessly. She creates an origin for the song as well as a thrilling continuation of its nightmarish characters. While this appealed to me as a fan of the legend, it’s described well enough to be understood by a reader learning about the story for the first time, too. I loved reading little lines here and there which came directly from the song, and yet my prior knowledge in no way spoiled the novel’s plot or its ending. The plot has a traditional feel, but it was actually quite unpredictable and – to my eternal relief – there was no awkward and totally out-of-the-blue plot twist halfway through to ruin the ghostly atmosphere which Barraclough builds so well in the beginning.  In short, the pacing of Long Lankin is superb: a well balanced mix of spirited childish adventure and bone-chilling supernatural suspense.

Several aspects of Long Lankin help it stand out from the other “Young Adult Adventure” books which were its neighbors on Barnes and Noble’s shelf. For one thing, the main characters are a young girl and a young boy, but they are childish enough that their friendship never develops into one of those overwrought romances which weigh down so many other stories. Their determined innocence fits well with the setting of post-war England, and the drama of Long Lankin comes almost entirely from the horrifying imagery and the mysteries which surround Cora’s family. It was a blessed relief to read an entire book without one moment of tragic teenage romantic agony. The writing and story crafting skills which Barraclough demonstrates captured my interest on their own, and I hope that young adults who read this book appreciate that scary stories can be gripping without any real romance at all.

There is true evil in Long Lankin – and that evil is terrifying – but even the good characters have depth and faults. Cora and Mimi are likeable and sympathetic, but they can be brats at times (as children are). Their Aunt Ida wants to do the right thing and protect them, but she also desires peace and solitude and does not have the patience to raise children. Roger and his brothers try to be dutiful sons, yet their adventurous spirits get them into trouble and the natural selfishness which comes with childhood blinds them to their parents’ struggles. These characters all grow and learn as they fight against the shadows of evil – and sometimes each other – but the children never quite lose the power of their innocence. The character development is good but never contrived, another way in which Long Lankin is better than most books I’ve read for the same age group.

I’ve mentioned how frightening the book can be, and I want to make it clear that I am a twenty-two year old girl who has loved ghost stories and scary monster tales since I was a child. Consider yourselves warned, therefore, when I say that this book gave me chills. It’s a little bloody and very suspenseful, but nothing to make you slam the book shut in disgust. Instead, the creepy foreboding mood which starts early on just builds and builds until the very last page of the book.  Eerie dread which comes out of nowhere, the stomach dropping realizations that something is terribly wrong, and the paralyzing sight of a half-dead creature crawling outside your window: the book is full of these moments which would wake us up screaming if we dreamed them ourselves.

I would not recommend that anyone under the age of twelve start reading Long Lankin, despite the young age of its protagonists, unless those children have uncommonly obliging parents who do not mind waking up in the middle of the night to check windows. It’s scary stuff, even for me, and I’m a scary little person. Read Long Lankin if you love grim folktales, if you appreciate the charm of the English countryside and embrace the horrific past which so often accompanies that setting, and if you have several hours of uninterrupted reading time ahead of you. Once you start reading Long Lankin, you’ll be desperate to finish before you have to go to sleep.

Archived Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on November 6, 2012

Apologies for the short review and the brusqueness of tone, I originally reviewed the book on Amazon, because I wanted other readers of my interests to know that The Raven Boys is better than the cover and blurbs make it out to be.

Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: *** (3 Stars)
Plot: **** (4 Star)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: **** (4 Stars)

Age range recommendation: 13+

This is the first book by Stiefvater I’ve ever read, though she’s extremely popular in the UK and I’m assuming in America as well.  I ordered The Raven Boys on a whim because I needed another purchase to merit free shipping on some books for my dissertation, and it was new and caught my eye.  I had my doubts but read it anyway, and here is why I’m glad I did:

The cover of The Raven Boys featured a tag line of “if you kiss your true love, he will die,” and the back description went on about how “This is the year [Blue] will fall in love.” I was, therefore, a little worried that The Raven Boys would turn out to be a dark-but-uninspired teenage romance with hints of the supernatural but more emphasis on the love story than on “the sinister world of the Raven Boys.”

Much to my surprise and appreciation, The Raven Boys turned out to be a fascinating – and quite original – adventure story with only a bit of the obnoxious romance I was expecting. The Virginia setting was quite vivid, the characters were amusing, and the plot (privileged high school boys use their resources to track down an ancient Welsh king’s burial site, and a local girl with psychic blood gets drawn into their search through a mix of curiosity and fate) was well imagined.

The novel had plenty of faults: too many side plots running at once meant that the story-line seemed disjointed at times and the ending was rushed/not explained very fluidly, but these problems didn’t irk me as much as they could have since I genuinely enjoyed the mystery and atmosphere of the story. Stiefvater’s writing is neither noticeably brilliant nor glaringly awful, her characterizations can be pretty obvious at times, and the book falls into the YA trend of setting up for a sequel when the tale should have been told in a single, longer, novel. But it’s clear that Maggie Stiefvater tried hard to write an imaginative novel for teenagers, one which didn’t fall unimpressively into a tired-out genre, and I would say that she succeeds.

There is moral ambiguity; there is genuine angst about the role fate plays in a person’s life and choices; and there are reflections about family, friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice which will resonate with both young adult readers and we-who-are-technically-adults-though-we-hate-it. There is also a truly fantastic twist in the story, one which completely justifies what I originally thought was a terribly written character, and I will admit that I wanted to high-five Stiefvater through time and space when I realized that she had known what she was doing with that character all along.

I guess I would call The Raven Boys more of a supernatural adventure, a ghost story, or a boarding school mystery than a Young Adult romance. Sure, there are four boys who make one quirky girl seem like she’s the center of the universe (which is one of my least favorite trends in YA literature these days) but there are enough good bits to make up for that and to ensure that I will read the sequel whenever it comes out.

Archived Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on February 12, 2012

Star Ratings
Characters: *** (3 Stars)
Character Development: ** (2 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: *** (3 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Young Adult

I have very mixed feelings about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The concept of the novel is pretty cool; Ransom Riggs collected an assortment of vintage photos – seemingly unrelated despite the theme of incredible creepiness which binds them together – and wrote a novel about their subjects and settings. This appealed to me particularly because I am one of those losers who buys photos of old fashioned strangers from antique stores and yard sales. It’s a Lemony Snicket-style hobby and, in a way, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children managed to take that fascination in its own unique direction. At no point did I feel like he was ripping off Snicket or any other story of the sort. However, the creepy photos and interesting concept could not entirely make up for the novel’s disappointing turn of plot about one third of the way through.

The first few chapters of the book were amazing. The photos were mysterious, Jacob’s grandfather was a compelling character, and I found myself entirely engaged in the plot which started to unfold. Creepy Floridian landscapes! Unexplained floating children! Stories of monsters told by an old man with an armory in his basement! The woes of unappealing employment for teenagers! It was a promising start. When Jacob traveled to a remote island in Wales in his attempt to find the mysterious house which contained secrets from his grandfather’s childhood, I was all prepared for one of the best ghost stories of all time. The setting was atmospheric and the Welsh idiosyncrasies were amusing and when our intrepid protagonist began exploring the ruined house on his own I was nearly hopping with suspense. The abandoned orphanage, jars of suspicious stuff in a basement, the hidden stash of increasingly creepy photos: it all pointed to a chilling romp with some dead kids.

Then, immediately after the book really started to impress me, everything started going downhill. Instead of ghosts, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has time travel. Time travel is cool, I suppose, and the Home itself was interesting, but after such a creepy start I didn’t want to read what was essentially, The X Men As Children During World War II. Not only was the introduction of “time loops” a little anti-climactic, it wasn’t explained in sufficient detail to be believable. Yes, I know, time travel isn’t exactly realism, but I mean that the sudden turn of events was jarring and did not mesh with the novel’s beginning. I enjoyed reading about the peculiar children themselves; their powers, their lives at the Home, and their guardian. But from that point on the plot grew more and more far fetched, introducing evil mutated “peculiars,” under-developed villains called “wights,” U-boats, and a new plot which grew too big to be contained in one book. In fairness, Riggs is working on a sequel right now so the story has some time to grow into itself. I still couldn’t shake my disappointment, though, as I read on towards the end wishing that the book had stayed its original course and gone for creepy rather than action packed.

So who should read this book? I would recommend it to people who like Young Adult fantasies and aren’t easily frightened, but who also don’t mind a far-fetched story. I would recommend it more heartily to those folks like me who love weird old photos and unexplained shadows, to vintage fanatics, and to fans of Lemony Snicket and John Green (Snicket for the atmosphere, Green for the protagonist and narrative style). I would not suggest picking up this book if you are easily frightened, because there are some chilling descriptions and one ridiculously scary photo of a Mall Santa staring at some children with dead, pupil-less eyes. I just wish that the book in its entirety had managed to be as haunting as some of its better images and ideas.

Archived Review: Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on February 3, 2012.

 

Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 15+

The cover art and title of Mr Toppit proved to be slightly deceitful, I learned, for I picked it up on a whim expecting a mysterious gothic tale full of dark deeds and murky gloom. Upon reading the novel – and it is a quick, engrossing read – I found gloom aplenty and mysteries of a sort.  However, the murk and horror I was looking for were replaced with incredibly dry British wit and a series of dark family secrets paraded through the disparate settings of London, an English country home, and sunny California. The misery and tension arise not through willful villainy but through the difficulties which a relatively modern English family fails to overcome when Arthur Hayman – the narrator’s father and fictive author of a popular children’s series – gets run over in London and dies in the arms of an American tourist.

The whole plot of Mr Toppit revolves around the family’s inability to function after Arthur’s death, the sudden popularity boom his children’s books – The Hayseed Chronicles – experience as a result of the tragedy, and the American Laurie’s sudden emotional connection to the Haymans. The characters are extreme but realistic in their strengths and weaknesses; Charles Elton does a fine job of writing as a teenage boy, a frazzled woman, and a whole slew of other distinct characters who never lose their voice or seem too over-the-top. Luke Hayman makes an excellent narrator as the jaded inspiration for the child hero of his father’s Hayseed Chronicles, his sister Rachel is a tragic and manic hot mess, and their mother Martha (my personal favorite character) is the most stereotypically English manipulative bitch ever written. Laurie’s chapters did not appeal to me so much since I thought she was pretty unlikeable, but one could argue that she is the most human character. I just have an exaggerated dislike of stories about dumpy, emotional, middle-aged women struggling to find themselves.  I can’t say that the prose itself was particularly memorable but the Hayman family, and their secrets, will stick with me for quite a while.

The title of the book refers to an enigmatic character in the fictional series of children’s books which hold the plot together. Mr Toppit himself is a dark and mysterious figure who lives in the woods where Luke Hayseed (the Christopher Robin-ified Luke Hayman) has all sorts of adventures.  People in the novel speak of Mr. Toppit the way one might refer to Lord Voldemort or Marley’s Ghost.  If there was one aspect of the novel which didn’t quite grab me, it would have to be the portrayal of the Hayseed Chronicles. They seemed like a mixture of the Narnia series, Winnie the Pooh, and Grimm’s fairy tales; if they truly existed they might in fact turn out to be wonderful, but as a major factor of this novel’s plot they weren’t real enough. Walk-on characters consistently mention how influential the books were on their childhood, at one point they purportedly save lives on a hijacked plane, but at no point is the reader given a chance to understand why everyone in Charles Elton’s world loves the series so much. Why are The Hayseed Chronicles as popular as Harry Potter and as well loved as Peter Rabbit? There are a few interesting “excerpts” in Mr Toppit but it is sometimes hard for an author to invent what claims to be great literature without sounding forced. I had a similar problem with Tanya Egan Gibson’s novel How To Buy A Love Of Reading. (For the record, I liked Mr. Toppit way more.)

The tag-line on my library’s copy of Mr Toppit reads “Once upon a time a book broke a family.” I’m not sure Charles Elton managed to convince me of the book’s power, but he certainly invented an intriguing, funny, and often infuriating family of characters who can easily carry the weight of the book on their own. Even the characters I wanted to punch in the face like the pathetic Laurie, several greedy bastards in the film industry, and Lila the intrusive German illustrator perfectly illustrate the fundamental point of Mr Toppit; everyone wants to claim a special connection with the legacy left behind by someone who dies. In the end, despite my initial disappointment that Mr Toppit wasn’t about a dapper Victorian serial killer (an expectation that may have been entirely unfounded, though “Toppit” does call that image to my mind), I think that the novel succeeds in portraying the breakdown of a family that is at times hilarious, tragic, and consistently compelling.

Archived Review: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on November 5, 2011

Star Ratings
Characters:**** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:***** (5 stars)
Writing:*** (3 stars)
Overall:****(4 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 14 and up. (Frightening ideas and some graphic violence.)

Hello my poor neglected readers.  I had fully intended to review The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray in time for Hallowe’en, as it is one of my favorite scary books of all time, but alas I was figuratively drowning in school work, literally drowning in tea, and quite unable to form coherent sentences until now.  However, November is an appropriately creepy month – especially here in Scotland where it gets dark by four in the afternoon – and the novel does indeed take place in November, so I’ll review it now.

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray has a slightly deceptive title; it suggests a ghost story about a young woman with a strange name.  In fact, the book is less about a single haunting and more of a full-on supernatural onslaught in an alternative-history Victorian London.

The main character is a seventeen year old “wych-hunter” named Thaniel Fox, and he is one of those teenage protagonists blessed with an ability to perform any task a thousand times better than his adult counterparts.  Thaniel and his mentor in wych-hunting Cathaline (in anticipation of your questions: No, not a single character in this novel has a normal name) stalk and destroy immensely terrifying creatures called wych-kin who roam the streets of London.  London itself is different than it was historically in Victorian times: in an act of steampunk warfare the Prussians have bombed it from their airships roughly thirty years before our story takes place, and in certain parts of the city the wych-kin roam about unchecked.  When stalking a cradlejack – a monster who steals and eats babies, infecting anyone it bites – Thaniel comes across a traumatized girl his own age with amnesia.  This is Alaizabel Cray, and she is possessed by a cranky, super evil old wych.  The story centers around Thaniel, Alaizabel, and Cathaline as they learn about Alaizabel’s past and realise that much darker forces are at work than the monstrous wych kin who are growing in numbers too ghastly to think about.

Some readers may be confused by the extremely varied ratings I’ve given each aspect of this novel.  The writing and character development of this book aren’t too excellent, you can tell that the author was still in his early twenties when he wrote it and his style hasn’t been perfected yet.  He overuses certain words, like “clotted” and “lacquered,” to remind the reader how very dark and scary his version of London can be. As for the characters, each person is unique and fascinating but sometimes they are a little too perfect.  With the single notable exception of Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer), no teenager could believably be so proficient in this many fighting techniques, magical applications, and generally bad-ass skills as Thaniel.  He’s a likable character, levelheaded and cool, but when I first read this book I was fifteen years old and even then he seemed a little unrealistic.  The same goes for Alaizabel Cray; she is sweet, clever, brave, and sympathetic every time she speaks or acts, and it doesn’t quite add up.  Were I possessed by an evil spirit, I’d be grumpy and tired.  The minor characters are more believable, they each have their own strengths and foibles which round out the cast quite nicely.

Despite Wooding’s occasionally questionable writing, the plot in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is one of the best I’ve read in YA fiction.  He doesn’t just center around the relationship between Alaizabel and Thaniel, he writes a twisting, high-stakes tale which encompasses all of Victorian London from the police, to madhouses, to aristocratic cults, to beggar kingdoms, to serial killers.  The wych-kin themselves are each described in spectacular detail; there are new creatures the reader learns about in nearly every chapter and each is grosser and more sinister than the last.  Scrawny cradle-robbers with needle sharp teeth; the drowned splashing noises of the Draugs’ footsteps as they stalk their victims, the air growing cold and salty as they approach; the terrifying spectre which fills Alaizabel’s entire bedroom as it looms in darkness over her bed: this is the stuff of nightmares.  Once you have read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, you will never look behind yourself more than twice when walking at night, no matter what you might hear in your wake, for fear of getting devoured by Rawhead – the invisible stalker who only strikes on the third glance.

Chris Wooding has invented horrors I couldn’t even dream up myself, and I am notorious for screaming in my sleep from night-terrors.  The wych-kin are truly traumatizing, but the villainous humans aren’t much nicer.  The mysterious Fraternity – that dark cult which causes Alaizabel to become possessed as they carry out a nefarious scheme for power – is made up of corrupt policemen, cruel wych-hunters, and one truly nasty doctor who controls the city’s insane asylum.  Their rituals are creepy and completely immoral, and although Wooding’s writing style sometimes detracts from the story he is extremely talented at inventing and describing magic in an original but comprehensible manner.  The system of wards and summoning in the novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read and I was impressed by his inventiveness.

With the Fraternity and wych-kin for antagonists, those characters who remain in the moral middle-ground are evil enough themselves.  Devil-boy Jack, a psychic little boy with his eyes sewn shut, has absolutely no qualms about letting his friends die for the sake of a plan.  And he’s one of the kinder anti-heroes.  Stitchface is one of Wooding’s greater creations. He’s a serial killer who drives a hansom cab at night, wearing a woman’s wig over his mask: a gaping face sewn together from the skin of prostitutes he murders.  Yup, Stitchface is one of the good guys; the villains and monsters are way more horrifying than your regular psycho killer.  Hence, my age recommendation of fourteen and above.  “Not a bedtime book for those of a nervous disposition,” wrote The Times in its review of Alaizabel Cray, and I would have to agree.  Read this book if you want to be terrified, and if you don’t mind feeling entirely on edge when walking home at night, because you’ll soon be counting the number of times you look over your shoulder and jumping at every noise.

So, why should you read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, even though the writing is a bit iffy?  The setting is vivid, the plot is engaging, it features one of the best duels I’ve ever read, and the story is entirely unique.  It being a Young Adult novel, one could probably finish it in an evening, and that would be a November night well spent.   It’s an atmospheric novel, perfect for this time of year when the nights are long and the weather dreary.  Go and read it quickly, before November is over!

Archived Review: Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on July 4, 2011

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ****1/2 (4 ½ stars)
Age Range Recommendation: Ages 13 and up.

As the intrepid reader could probably figure out from the cover of this YA novel and its title, Bloody Jack has something to do with pirates.  Therefore, one can only deduce that I absolutely love it (and I do!).  However, Bloody Jack by L.A. Mayer does not follow the roving adventures of a pirate crew.  The main protagonists are, in fact, pirate-hunting members of the English Navy in the end of the 18th century.  More specifically, the main character and her comrades are lowly ships boys on the HMS Dolphin, and although I traditionally spurn the actions of pirate-hunters I do make an exception for this book because it is bloody amazing.

Bloody Jack begins in the rancid streets of London, where the narrator, Mary Faber, is a street urchin in a gang of beggar children.  Their main problems include hiding from a nasty fellow called Muck, who wants to sell their bodies to a doctor for dissection, and avoiding violent gangs made up of other urchins.  When Rooster Charlie – the leader of Mary’s gang – is found dead, she steals his clothes and disguises herself as a boy so that she can be left alone as she wanders London looking for a way towards a better life.  This better life is sought aboard the HMS Dolphin amongst some other rag-tag children as a ship’s boy, although there is a pressing problem of being discovered as a girl on the close quarters of a ship.  At this point, Mary changes her name to Jacky Faber and she and the other ship’s boys set sail for adventure.

The title of the book, “Bloody Jack,” comes from the nickname bestowed by the crew upon “Jacky” after she shoots a pirate in the chest during a raid.  As she insists so adamantly in her narration time and time again, Jacky is not actually brave at all.  She was just trying to save the boy for whom she harbored a very very very secret affection.  The adventures in this book are daring and impressive; there’s a good amount of violence and even more suspense.  However, my favorite parts of the story are Jacky’s adorable and funny descriptions of daily life aboard the HMS Dolphin.  She includes the science and complications of maneuvering a huge vessel, the cruelties inflicted upon ship’s boys by the bo’sun and midshipmen, and the horrors of trying to disguise one’s gender when puberty hits with full force.  Her narration is by turns funny, sweet, tragic, and biting; her description of the sound the bos’un’s whistle makes had me laughing like an idiot in Starbucks, only to have me trying to disguise my sorrow by pretending to choke on a donut soon after when she tells her mates not to to watch her if she is hanged because she doubts she’ll be very brave at the end.

I recommend Bloody Jack to anyone over 13 years of age for two specific reasons.

Reason Number One: I first read the book when I was twelve or so, and while I heartily enjoyed it some of the references to things like prostitution and other such wantonness went a little over my head.  A huge plot point involves Jacky going through puberty and not understanding what is happening to her, and this is much funnier once the reader does know what is going on.  In the second half of the story there is a bit of romance, and although I’m not going to give much of anything away, Jacky makes a few amusing statements which would be better understood by teenagers.  She is, at that point in the book, around the age of fifteen.

Reason Number Two: There are some seriously dark themes in this story.  At one point, Jacky stabs a member of the crew who tries to rape her, and this is why she’s terrified that she’ll be hanged.  There’s death a-plenty, even amongst the children, and the pirates they are hunting turn out to be incredibly cruel scoundrels.  Jacky describes in detail a time during her life in London when a teenage girl was hanged for criminal charges and wasn’t heavy enough to die immediately, and the portrayal of how the hangman breaks the girl’s neck is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Jacky’s voice is addictive and memorable, I found myself thinking in her style of speech for days after I finished the book, and L. A. Meyer writes so convincingly as a thirteen year old girl that it can be hard to remember that he’s a Navy veteran in his 60s.  The writing never ceases to be entertaining, even when the plot takes a turn for the far-fetched.  At one point Jacky finds herself flying over the ocean strapped to a kite, which I suppose could be technically possible but was certainly hard to picture.  However, these little deviations from the realm of realism never once impede the story’s progress.  The depictions of 18th century seafaring life are accurate without being pedantic; we learn about ships as Jacky does and she never fails to see the HMS Dolphin in a humorous light.  Unlike in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, which are also very good, the reader doesn’t need to keep a diagram of a ship handy (although there actually is one in the front of Bloody Jack.)  This being a book originally for children, things are presented clearly and amusingly, and it’s easy to feel as though the life of a ship’s boy is totally where it’s at.

There is a whole slew of Jacky Faber novels, the second of which is called The Curse Of The Blue Tattoo.  I shan’t mention the plot of the sequel as it contains massive spoilers for Bloody Jack, but it’s almost as good as the first book.  Although Bloody Jack comes from the point of view of a teenage girl, I would recommend the book to anyone who likes sea-faring adventures and anyone who likes coming-of-age stories which are both uproariously funny and deadly serious.

In a week your devoted Morgan shall be voyaging up to an island in Maine to stay in the town where Bloody Jack was written.  I go there every year and I’ve met Meyer’s wife a few times.  She works in the shop which sells his paintings, which are marvelous and very nautical.  I will think of you fondly during my adventures, dear readers, and I will wish very hard that my life were as awesome as that of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy on the HMS Dolphin.

Archived Review: Badass by Ben Thompson

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 24, 2011.

 

 

I’m breaking the mold here with some nonfiction, but when I want to read about pirates nothing so pathetic as genre conventions is going to stop me!

Look at the cover of Badass, by Ben Thompson. You may notice that the chick standing a little above the viking dude and bitchin’ centurion is Anne Bonny, my favorite pirate of all time, and she is wielding a gun with a combination of sexiness and overpowering rage previously unknown to the brotherhood of seafarers. Badass is not necessarily a book about pirates, it is a book about badasses in general from Antiquity (“Destroying your enemies from the beginning of human history to the fall of Rome in 476 CE”) all the way to The Modern Era (“Mechanized chaos and full-auto destruction: WWI to 2009”). However, there is an entire chapter devoted to The Age of Gunpowder (“Blowing crap up from 1453 to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914”), and within this chapter are uproariously funny profiles of Blackbeard and Anne Bonny. Horatio Nelson – who certainly wasn’t a pirate but was a badass naval officer and all-around inspirational gent – is also featured, as is Napoleon. Alongside the profiles about specific historical figures there are bonus snippets of fun information about aspects of the time period in question, so when one reads about Blackbeard one will also learn about other badass pirates and the unpleasant effects of scurvy. After reading this book, you’ll be full of all sorts of impressive knowledge, even if you didn’t enjoy history in school.

The chapters on these ladies and gentlemen of seafaring history are pretty short but hot-damn are they funny, and it’s nice to know that there is a history-themed book in the world written by a dude who isn’t afraid to call Anne Bonny and Mary Read “face-breaking hellions,” after spending several sentences discussing the fact that they did, indeed, have boobs.

People who have stumbled upon Thompson’s website, badassoftheweek.com, will not be surprised by the book’s tone, which sounds a lot like a college guy trying to explain to his friends the awesomeness of historical figures after several beers and too many video games. Even those of us who aren’t familiar with the website will easily be able to appreciate Thompson’s writing style, because while he does refer to Nelson’s mistress as “pretty much the hottest babe in the British Empire,” he also understands his history and can paint a pretty accurate picture of the badasses in question without detracting from the informal and enthusiastic style of writing. Sure, he mostly concentrates on their violent habits and astounding victories, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who picks up a book with this cover and title will be looking for entertaining tales of death and destruction rather than a comprehensive look into the economic and social histories of civilizations. If you want gory details and funny anecdotes about some of the most violent characters in history, this is the book for you. If you are offended by curse words and sarcastic sexism, or grossed out by stories of french pirates eating their prisoners’ hearts (and then being ironically eaten by cannibals themselves) then you should probably look for something more mature and way less entertaining.

I have forced myself to understand that not every historically-minded reader of this blog is quite as enthusiastic about piracy as I am, and while I am very disappointed in you guys, you will probably like this book anyway.  There is a chapter in the section on the Middle Ages about Wolf the Quarrelsome (“Mysterious barbarian leader who only appears in history twice – and both times he’s kicking someone’s ass,”) and if you’re more of a modern military history fan you could read about Manfred von Richthofen (“The Red Baron struck fear into the hearts of everything over the skies of Europe, except maybe a few species of birds.”)

Thompson writes for our generation; the generation of people born in the later decades of the 20th century who want sarcasm and memorable quips to be prevalent in every conversation and think all dialogue should resemble something scripted by Tarantino or, perhaps, Lemony Snicket. There’s no beautiful prose here but you will laugh out loud at least once in every chapter, and when people look at you strangely as you giggle uncontrollably in a cafe you can think smugly that – were Blackbeard still alive – he would probably swashbuckle them to death for the insult.

Archived Review: Abarat by Clive Barker

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 20, 2011

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: *** (3 stars)
Plot: **** (3 stars)
Writing:**** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 11 and up.
Abarat holds a very special place in my heart, it is one of my fifteen favorite books.  This is because there are few books for youngsters quite so magical, so alien, so funny, and so downright freaky-as-all-hell in all the world of fiction. I picked up the first book when I was in middle school and I was quite certain that I was the protagonist, Candy Quackenbush, in my own attempt to escape Chickentown and come across a magical jetty.  It changed my life.  Now, the third book in the series is rumored to be looking at a release date later this year, and I can’t wait to be thrown headfirst into the Sea of Isabella again.

One thing which makes the Abarat books unique is that Barker himself paints the illustrations, which are beautiful in some cases and spine-chillingly horrifying in others, and they capture the spirit of The Islands of the Abarat perfectly. You know you’re imagining the characters and the places exactly the way they were written because you see them in oils on the page, multiple heads and skull shaped islands in all their colorful, nightmarish glory.  Barker is an excellent painter; he can show the mood of an island in just a few colors or he can paint a crowd of monstrous people in every spectrum you could imagine, and the illustrations are so captivating it’s a surprise that the story and the characters and the prose can live up to the high standard they create.   When you all rush out to your local bookstore to buy seven copies of each book, make sure you get the full-color illustrated copies.  Spend the extra money, seduce a rich person if you must, but get the damned illustrations!

Somehow, Clive Barker succeeds in describing a world and its people even more vividly than images can express.  The plot is intricate and the world is complex, (think Cirque Du Soleil meets Inkheart meets HP Lovecraft meets something else twisted and ancient and a little familiar, like you’ve known about The Abarat all along and were waiting with your sextant to see the ocean spread out over the prairie.)  In fact, that strange feeling of familiarity is how the first book starts.

Candy Quackenbush is bored of Chickentown.  This is a fantastic way to begin the book because most teenagers reading the book will sympathise with her; she is neither rich nor particularly unfortunate, her mother calls her “morbid” but isn’t mean, and Chickentown is a grim exaggeration of any American town which thrives on a smelly industry and the crushing of dreams.  Told to do a school project about the history of the town, Candy finds the only interesting person she can think of, her mother’s friend who works at the hotel, and learns a legend about the town’s history involving a mysterious man who sat in a hotel room waiting for the sea to arrive in this landlocked town until he died, leaving behind only a sextant and an unpleasant stain on the wall.  It’s a haunting story, especially for those of us who feel the constant, sinister draw of the sea, and it infects Candy’s mind the way it infects the reader’s.  The next day at school she finds herself drawing a series of close wavy lines all over her workbook, and when asked by her typically-unkind teacher what in the fresh hell she is doing she realizes that she is drawing the sea.  I dare any reader who is still in school to sit in class after reading the first book and not cover every surface with the lines of the sea that Candy draws.  Anyway, the spirit of the ocean and the spirit of adventure enter our intrepid protagonist and she storms out of school after being humiliated by her teacher, and that’s when the adventure really begins.

This same mysterious force which inspired Candy to draw the sea brings her to a vast set of fields outside chicken town, and in a series of events to rival even the best adult fantasy novel, she comes across John Mischief (a red little man with multiple heads, all which have different personalities) and discovers a jetty and lighthouse in the prairie all within a few minutes.  In comes, too, the formidable and terrifying Mendelson Shape who is tall and has crosses sticking out of his back, and the chase which ensues is both wacky and a little traumatizing.  Candy, in an effort to save John Mischief, summons the sea from the lighthouse and the waters of The Sea of Isabella rush over the prairie and Candy is whisked away to the Abarat, where there is an island for every hour of the day, plus one which has no time at all.  In the Abarat there are humanoid people and there are circus-type creatures, there are mechanical insects which spy for the bad guys, there are fish-people who sing songs about hamster trees as they race through the water, there are goddesses and there are very bad men.  Christopher Carrion, the lord of Midnight, wears nightmares in a container around his face while his mother stitches henchmen out of dead bodies.  The descriptions of Carrion’s cruelty and the paintings of the horrors he inflicts will haunt the younger readers, but in a totally worthwhile way which is character building and, in my opinion at least, ensures that they will be fascinating and morbid young adults.  That’s the goal of successful villain-creating anyway, isn’t it?

The plot can get a little complicated, which is one reason I’d suggest that kids wait until they’re in middle school to start the series, and there are villains and heroes on a grander scale than Candy and Christopher Carrion which require a fair bit of thought.  Occasionally the plot falters, especially in the second book when Candy’s importance in the Abarat has to be justified as something more than That-Chick-Who-Got-Caught-Up-In-A-Magical-Mess, but hopefully in the coming sequels this will be cleared up.  The story incorporates modern technology on some islands and good old-fashioned children’s adventure book magic on others, and in Candy’s adventures through the islands people who seem genuine can be evil bastards while truly ugly creatures save the day.  This is not a sweet little story, and the sequel, Days of Magic, Nights of War is even darker.  However, despite all the corruption, the danger, horror, and images which could only be inspired in us lesser folk by a tumbler or two of absinthe, The Abarat will always be better than Chickentown.  I, for one, would do anything to suffer through Candy’s adventures.

What I’m trying to say here is the world Barker created is entirely new and yet familiar, and no matter how hard you try you’ll spend the rest of your life being a little disappointed that you can’t call up the Sea of Isabella in your own, chicken-scented and boring town.

Archived Review: Looking For Alaska by John Green

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 2, 2011.

 

 

Looking For Alaska by John Green

Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:**** (4 stars)
Writing:*****(5 stars)
Overall:**** (4 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 13 and up.

I first heard of YA author John Green via his wildly popular (with good reason) youtube channel Vlogbrothers, in which he discusses brilliant and hilarious subjects with his equally clever brother, Hank. At one point, he mentioned that the protagonist in his first novel, Looking For Alaska, was obsessed with the dying words of famous people, and I realized that I had to read the book as quickly as possible. Last words are morbidly fascinating, frequently funny, and it’s hard to dislike a character who has such a cool obsession. The book is not long and is easy to read; at 221 pages I was able to power through it in an evening.  While the writing is beautiful and the dialogue snappy there were moments when I had to tear my eyes away from the page to realize that I’d read something very deep and incredibly moving. I’m not always comfortable with having to think hard about morals and emotions, lacking them myself, but in Looking For Alaska there is enough sarcastic humor to balance out the wisdom. John Green treats teenagers with a respect not always present in books about high school.  He has his protagonist Miles “Pudge” Halter say,

“When adults say, ‘teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.”

My own fondness for Peter Pan-type manifestos aside, this little speech does a good job of summarizing the plot of the book as well as its message. The story concentrates on Miles, who leaves his dreary public school in Florida to attend Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama, where he meets the title character (and possibly the most compelling character in YA literature for quite a while) Alaska Young. Naturally, Alaska is gorgeous and quirky and smarmy and wise, but it is a mark of Green’s true understanding of teenage-hood that he doesn’t have Miles and Alaska launch into a romantic but doomed relationship. They both have significant others, neither of whom are bad or abusive.  For the first half of the book, when we are not reading about Alaska, Miles’ new friends spend a lot of time planning epic pranks, which are entertaining but not gripping enough to make up the entire plot of the novel.

Luckily (or unluckily as the case may be), a disastrously fatal event occurs in the very middle of the book, right after the reader has become accustomed to the easy and fun environment, which seizes control and makes the plot as important as it is. Green calls the first half of the book “Before” and the second half “After,” and at first I looked at the heading of each chapter and demanded “before WHAT?” but it was explained soon enough, and I was rather upset (successfully, I suppose) by the abruptness of how quickly life can change. There are still moments of humor in the second half of the book, but this is where the intelligence of Green’s writing shines through: as Miles and his friends have to deal with tragedy while still attempting to live through high school. On rare occasions I got a little put-off by the extensive introspection and the presence of feelings, but I think a more sociable person would not have problems with this at all.

My only other complaint is that, while the characters are memorable, their development seems a little stunted and hard to explain, although this is probably an inherent problem with writing relatively short books, especially ones like this with a cast of several unique major characters.  The portrayal of teenagers is spot on – I know this because I still sometimes think that I am fourteen years old and my reading-brain hasn’t changed much since I was – and it’s easy to forget that Green is in his thirties and has a young son. The characters are stressed but functioning (for the most part) and their occasional shortcomings are completely relatable because, hey, they’re trying to deal with death and understand World Religion at the same time. In this way, the book can be read by anyone who has ever been in high school and appreciated not only for its beauty and humor but also for its honesty.

Looking For Alaska has been challenged a few schools because of its treatment of sexuality and death, but as John Green aptly points out in his vlog “I Am Not A Pornographer,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHMPtYvZ8tM) it doesn’t glorify sex in any way; it shows quite accurately how awkward and uncomfortable it is to be a teenager. And, honestly, if someone is in high school and being told not to read the book by their concerned adult superiors, it’s all a bit late anyway. Teenagers know how unpleasant it is to be them, they don’t need to be shielded from their own realities.  As Green says in his video on the subject, with enough wisdom to make Confucius weep, “Shut up and stop condescending to teenagers!” The treatment of a student’s death, too, is not offensive but rather completely accurate.

When I was in a high school (similarly, a rather small private school) a student died in a car crash and no one knew what to do. The administration tried to be understanding, but they were sometimes too overly-sensitive and were criticized either for not giving us the day off or, conversely, for assuming that we needed to be treated like children. The students wanted to express their grief but they seemed to be all jumping on one bandwagon to mourn a kid they barely knew. I was confused and everyone was confused and that is what life is like. Looking For Alaska captures this perfectly.  Some of the dialogue seems to be lifted directly from the halls of my school and the writing is respectful without pandering to the reader or to the characters. No one is a villain, no one is a hero, everyone is just trying to sort out their lives and no reader should be able to find fault with this. I’ll repeat my earlier point: John Green knows what’s up. He’s got shit down to a science.