Book Review: Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

This book did not make me happy, it was not a particularly fun reading experience, but it was wonderfully engrossing.  Smith Henderson sure knows how to tell a story.  The little details he included while writing made me feel entirely transported to the impoverished, and often grimy, setting for this big, heart-rending drama.  It’s a long book.  Maybe it could have been a hundred pages shorter.  But even though some pieces dragged on a bit, I got through this larger novel in only two days because I was so curious to see what was going on around Tenmile, Montana. 

In the small, dilapidated town: Would Pete, the social-worker main character, be able to pull together the crumbling pieces of his own life?  His brother’s on the run from justice, his romantic entanglements end in disaster, and he drinks past the point of confusion.  (I thought that some of the female characters Pete meets weren’t given enough depth in their characterization, but this could just be a reflection of his own misjudgements.)  And what will happen to the messed-up families Pete visits for his job?  He genuinely cares about these kids who need his help, but there’s not much to be done, in such hopeless environs, for people who have nearly given up hope themselves.  The scenes in Tenmile showed a bleak reality behind the quaint picture I used to imagine when thinking about the vintage Midwest.

In cities and streets across various state lines: Would Pete’s thirteen year old daughter make it on her own? Would she make ithome intact? She ran away from her alcoholic mother, and her dad wouldn’t have been much help either.  As Pete says to his ex-wife at one point: “I take kids away from people like us.”  Rachel starts calling herself Rose and tries to act as grown-up as possible, but she soon finds herself in all sorts of gritty peril.  Other runaways and alluring boys are quick to take advantage of her wayward state.  This plot line was told through a series of questions and answers, like in a social services interview.  Rachel’s voice was determined and more hopeful than most, but her future looks bleak.  Sadder, still, is the fact that Pete knows what sort of trouble she could get into.  He sees it every day in his work.  And yet he’s still powerless to bring her back. 

And then, the most interesting — most American — series of questions arose from the woods and caves and rivers around Tenmile.  What’s up with Benjamin Pearl, the feral little boy who brings Pete into the woods, where he and his father live? Jeremiah Pearl is mesmerizing and dangerous: a survivalist who believes the end times are rapidly approaching.  He and his son live in the woods, denying most outside help, guarding against strangers, and asserting that American money will soon be useless.  Benjamin likes Pete’s company, even though the Pearls never quite trust the social worker, and after a while Pete spends more time camping, walking, and talking with the family.  Jeremiah Pearl may be covered in dirt and firing bullets into conspiracy theories, but his freedom and conviction appeal to Pete’s curiosity.  But curiosity leads to darker questions: Where are Benjamin’s siblings and his mother?  Why do they think the end times are coming?  Is the little boy really safe with his father, who is religiously harsh and could endanger them in the elements?  Are the Pearls part of a bigger, more threatening conspiracy than Jeremiah’s rebellious distribution of defaced currency and warning shots in the woods? 

The final questions were the strongest and most compelling part of Henderson’s book.  The Pearls, and the stories about them, reveal a specific American culture which I’ve only ever encountered through exaggerated caricatures until now.  Even as I dismissed Pearl’s ravings as extremism, I could understand how some people get drawn into the fervor of paranoia.  Especially in an area which the government tends to neglect until they need to come in with guns a’ blazin’.  The mystery of Jeremiah’s past, the uncertainty of Rachel’s future, and the desperation growing in Pete’s present circumstances kept my interest in Fourth Of July Creek, but the setting and tone will stay with me even longer than the plot.  Montana in the 1980s.  Who would have ever thought I’d voluntarily read 500 pages about people there?  I guess I’m getting more curious, with age, about the strange lands within my own borders. 

The characters I met in and around Tenmile have broadened my horizons a little, and made me 100% certain that a life in social work is not my cup of tea.  Even with all of Pete’s bad decisions and terrible coping skills, his sympathy for struggling people kept me sympathetic to his own tribulations.  When I slammed the book shut, at the heart-breakingly ambiguous ending, I wanted some assurance that everyone would be ok.  I may not these character’s lifestyles and beliefs, but they all just want hope and I wish that there would be enough to go around.

I recommend this book for fans of the vivid rural atmosphere in that show True Detective, violence and sorrow and grit included.  People who are comfortable facing the tragic realities of disastrously unstable families.  Anyone with little interest in conspiracy theories, or curious about the extreme characters who really do see the wrath of god in our near future.  This book is definitely for adults only, as very bad things happen to young people and those bad things are described without flinching.  Maybe it’s not the sort of book you want to cram into your suitcase for a vacation, but once you get into the story you’ll be constantly thinking about Tenmile, Montana until the very last page.

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Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

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

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review : The Quick by Lauren Owen (coming out June, 2014)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

(Let it be hereby stated that I read an advanced reader’s edition of The Quick, which may still be waiting on final edits.)

When a friend and colleague of mine at the bookshop insisted that I read The Quick the moment she finished it, I knew right away that I would have lots to say about this debut novel. It’s one of my favorite kinds of story, in one of my favorite settings, but there are a few twists which caught us both off guard.  The Quick is a complex novel with a Victorian setting, a Gothic atmosphere, and a sweeping narrative. It’s also a monster story of sorts. I would have been utterly puzzled to realize – a hundred pages in – that there was some serious slaying to come, had my friend not mentioned her similar surprise. Neither the title nor the package revealed much about this book’s nature from the start. Since I have the galley and not the finished product of the book, I can’t help but wonder how heavily Random House intends to advertise the supernatural bent. On the back of my copy, it only says: “An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London”. Well, there’s menace aplenty and a grim sort of magic alongside what I can only call the “creature aspect” (to avoid spoiling too much). I was held in suspense once I finally got engrossed in the story, but it took me much longer than usual to immerse myself in Owen’s writing. As for the “epic scope,” I suppose that the many intertwining narratives and the multiple main characters prove that statement to be true.

The Quick starts out in Aiskew Hall, one of those large and drafty mansions in the English countryside which set the scene for so many sprawling novels. James and Charlotte are very young children when we first meet them, orphaned after their father’s death, and subject to uncertain futures. The scenes about the children’s games and fears were picturesque and I was charmed by their environment. I guess Lauren Owen grew up in an old Yorkshire boarding school, and her descriptions are excellent. From the secret passages indoors to the gardens outside, Aiskew Hall is a wonderful location. It’s too bad we don’t get to read more about it, as soon enough the setting switches to London.

Oh, Victorian London. So many distinctive tales have tramped up and down your streets – Dickens spin-offs have strolled alongside grisly horror stories. Sassy steampunk heroines now follow the same footsteps as eccentric detectives. There’s no real shortage of Gothic mysteries or supernatural horror crammed into that city’s ever-expanding boundaries of fiction, and I’m not sure if The Quick added anything too terribly new to the landscape. But there’s such an extensive literary heritage to late 19th century London that I do understand the appeal in borrowing the city’s peculiar brand of storytelling magic. While she doesn’t really break any new ground by setting her debut novel around a mysterious gentleman’s club in the darker parts of London, Owen does have a talent for creating atmosphere. I read the book over a couple of dreary late-November evenings and I was surprised every time I stepped outside to see neither hansom cabs nor top hats. I’m still keeping an eye out for ragamuffin pickpocket children (often my favorite characters in these sorts of books). When James and Charlotte experience the bustling hubbub of city life for the first time, their confusion and awe made the disorienting metropolis seem immediate and real.

After graduation, James moves to London and gets rooms with an eccentric friend-of-a-friend. He tries his hand at writing poetry, then moves on to plays after they see a production by some bloke named Wilde. Christopher Paige is lively and dashing while James is more of a reserved, respectful sort of fellow. Their personalities clash nicely and as their friendship deepens we get an entertaining glance at life in London for gentlemen with money enough to make society’s expectations the most pressing of their problems. It took a while, but eventually I found myself absorbed into the details of domestic issues and witty banter.

Right as their story started to get really interesting, though, Part II of The Quick introduces an entirely new point of view and style. I felt marooned and disoriented to be suddenly presented with The Notebooks of Augustus Mould in Chapter Six, and not only because the heading reminded me a little of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (a very different sort of book indeed, though equally British). At this point, Owen started to take a Dracula-esque approach to her narrative. By treating the excerpts from Mould’s notebooks as an active component of the story, and by using shifts in perspective to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the novel introduces four or five new plot lines and main characters.

A threatening presence causes gossip in London, haughty idealists take charge of a secret society, a little girl learns why some streets are off-limits, and a shared tragedy brings two unlikely friends together to face an evil which is damned difficult to kill. As the story progresses we do come to understand how everyone will eventually interact to create a high-stakes confrontation, but I spent half the book trying to find connections rather than giving my full attention to the plot. Much in Stoker’s style, Owen uses her structure to show how menace can unite people and affect a great many lives. I do wish she had brought the different groups of characters together earlier on, though, especially since the men and women themselves were distinctive and their interactions were downright fun to witness. The pacing was stilted at times, which detracted from the strong descriptions and appealing aesthetic. In the second half of the book, I found some redemption when the many different threads eventually did come together to propel us towards an exciting conclusion. The focus was just a little off – too many influences from the genre’s long history were vying for attention – and I felt that the novel couldn’t quite contain its own scope.

The author has borrowed an awful lot from her literary predecessors: The Quick contains distinctive elements of Dickens, Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Anne Rice, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The editor’s note which came with the galley mentioned that Lauren Owen started out writing fan fiction of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. Push through the slow start and clunky narrative shifts to where the action begins, and you’ll see how Joss Whedon has made his mark. Even though I had a hard time getting comfortable with the balance between the book’s Victorian style and its eventual supernatural standoffs, I had a great time with each of those aspects in their own way. Some characters seemed straight out of Great Expectations, what with their moral qualms and social hardships. Others were gunslingin’ badasses with tragic pasts. I was happy to read about violent little kids and a mysterious occult library, though there were times when I wondered if I should be reading two different books instead of this one.

Now that I’ve finished reading The Quick, I’m intrigued to see what sort of reaction it will get once it’s released into the wild. I think there’s some strong writing and great characters, and while the premise isn’t particularly original it was interesting and fun. The target demographic of readers is difficult to define, though. You’ll need to have an appreciation for Victorian sensibilities in order to get through the first half of the book, but you can’t be too picky about style or easily annoyed by clunky narrative structures. On the other hand, it might appeal to readers of dark and violent Gothic adventures like The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – tense stories which don’t rely too heavily on historical realism – but the language might make the pace drag on for fans of that genre. I happen to be right in the middle of that spectrum and did enjoy The Quick. Anyone picking up the book will find it necessary to suspend their judgement and expectations along with their disbelief. If you can do that, then the interesting descriptions; absorbing atmosphere; and memorable characters will keep you reading right through to the book’s mysterious ending.

If you liked that show “Ripper Street,” I think you’ll feel right at home in The Quick. If you were enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus (Rosie and I reviewed it here) you will probably enjoy it, too. The Quick is less stunningly magical than The Night Circus was, but I think the characters were more believable and the personal relationships were handled better. I read books for the atmosphere more than anything else, and I’m happy I stuck with The Quick. You can definitely tell that it’s a first novel, and I hope that Lauren Owen will develop a style which is more distinctly her own as her writing progresses. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for any of her future work, and I hope she continues to write darkly aesthetic stories which transport us to a more mysterious time and place.

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.

Mini Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

This is just a tiny little review, mostly copied from my blog, because I don’t have enough time to do a proper write-up of Grave Mercy but I do want to recommend it to anyone who likes historical YA fiction.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4  stars)

Age recommendation: 13+

I borrowed Grave Mercy from the library, following my best book buddy’srecommendation. I’d seen some girls get really excited about the sequel in the Teen section a few weeks ago. Rosie just had to say, “Nun-assassins in 15th century Brittany,” and I immediately flopped into a comfy library armchair to start reading.

Grave Mercy follows teenaged peasant Ismae as she escapes from a brutal marriage to become a handmaiden of Saint Mortain, the God of Death from the Breton peoples’ old religion. I loved reading about her time spent at the mysterious convent with other nuns, learning about concealed weapons, proper dancing technique, and the importance of protecting her country and its duchess from France and other, more cunning, enemies. When Ismae gets sent to investigate the source of political turmoil, she needs to co-operate with a man of questionable loyalty, and her loyalties to her heart; her convent; and the Saint of Death himself are tested as she finds herself involved in the Duchess’s court navigating treachery with no one she can trust but herself. I loved the historical details of Grave Mercy; Ismae is self-reliant and brave without ever adopting a perspective so modern as to draw us out of the story’s time period.

There is an element of romance in the book which I didn’t necessarily enjoy, but it never quite overshadows Ismae’s strong feelings for her country and her devotion to Saint Mortain, so I shan’t complain too much about that here.  I think that other readers might find that the romantic elements add another layer of interest to the story, if they like that sort of thing.  Rest assured that there is more to Ismae’s motivations than her own heart, and her love interest is an interesting character in his own right.

I didn’t know much about Brittany before I read Grave Mercy, but now I have a newfound respect for the young Duchess Anne, who is a major character in the book and a complex but admirable role model. Ismae herself is all sorts of awesome, especially since she recognizes her weaknesses and questions authority with such honesty that her own journey of faith is nearly as suspenseful as the dangerous plot which comes from the political intrigue.  The historical detail was subtle but intelligent; I closed the book feeling both entertained and educated. And, come on, Death nuns with crossbows! I can’t wait to read the sequel, which focuses on a different Sister from the Abbey of Mortain who appears briefly in Grave Mercy and left me curious about her role in the grand scheme of things.

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.

Book Review: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

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Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

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

Age recommendation: 10+

In all his years as an apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy has never doubted the moral supremacy of Municipal Darwinism; that is, mobilized cities and towns hunting each other down and consuming weaker suburbs for resources all over the ravaged carcass of Earth. London, his beloved city, is on the move and he’s sure it’s the best city-on-wheels in the whole world. After all, his hero Thaddeus Valentine – the dashing airship explorer and collector of Old-Tech like mysterious compact discs and other artifacts from before the Sixty Minute war – is a Londoner, and Tom wants to be just like Valentine someday, despite his own lowly status as an orphan apprentice at the museum. When he rescues his hero from a revenge-bent young assassin girl, though, Tom finds himself stranded on solid ground while London thunders on in search of better hunting grounds, and he must come to terms with the numerous secrets which suggest that London is not as ideal as its townsfolk (and passengers) assume. The adventures which await our young hero star a cast of unforgettable characters including a deformed girl with a painful past, some museum curators with more gumption than meets the eye, a charming but mysterious rebel pilot, treacherous villains with impeccable manners, and a roving town operated by greedy pirates. The more Tom learns about the world London travels over, the more he begins to realize that someone needs to take action before history repeats itself. And, as Valentine’s daughter Katherine is simultaneously realizing from aboard London – where some seriously scientific tension has been building – the world might need to be saved sooner rather than later.

It took a little while for me to decide that I loved Mortal Engines. It started out as a decently interesting Young Adult adventure, with good elements of futuristic world-building as well as steampunk-ish atmosphere and an interesting premise, but the cool idea of cities eating each other wasn’t enough to draw me in. Luckily for me, a friend had mentioned that the story picked up after the first few chapters, and I’m incredibly glad that I kept reading. Once Reeve introduces some devastating betrayal to the plot, and Tom Natsworthy gets a chance to prove himself as a morally complex character, the intrigue of Mortal Engines picks up steam and demands your attention until the very end. The last hundred pages or so were so exciting, so unexpected, and so well written that I stopped trying to savor the book and just read as furiously as possible. The ending especially…well, let me just say that Mr. Reeve breaks the conventions of children’s fiction with great skill. I know that there are books which follow Mortal Engines, but even on its own it was an unexpected and inventive book; one which I have already recommended to several young readers on the hunt for some thrilling adventures.

The characters Tom meets on his adventures were truly unique, and while I might be slightly biased since so many of them are pirate-types, I can promise that they are written very well even beneath their swashbuckling surfaces. Philip Reeve does an excellent job of showing how difficult it can be to reconcile one’s actions with what one believes is right. The book’s young heroes must sometimes let other people get hurt in order to preserve themselves and their missions. The villains aren’t necessarily soulless monsters (although those exist in the story, too). Bad guys love their families, good guys can be selfish, and most of the people living in this messed-up world just want to get through their lives without having to experience their town getting eaten by a bigger one. I tend to prefer YA adventure and speculative fiction to have more young characters than adult protagonists, but in Mortal Engines the grown-ups and children alike are vividly drawn and memorable. With extremely high stakes driving the action, it was nice to read a book in which individuals were defined by their skills, courage, and choices rather than their ages or, indeed, their races and political beliefs. Heavy ideas like the politics of imperialism and scientific exploitation contribute to the story’s drama, but the mix of historical atmosphere and inventive future setting of Mortal Engines remains a consistently well-balanced stage for Tom’s story.

I would recommend Mortal Engines to young readers who want more adventure than romance in their books, and who don’t expect everything to turn out just fine as they read about harrowing journeys. The book is appropriate for anyone aged eleven up, and would appeal to fans of steampunk; pirate stories; and both historical and science fiction. Think the age group at which series like Artemis Fowl and The Chronicles of Chrestomanci are aimed. The writing style is traditional and old fashioned without being annoyingly so, and there is a fairly equal balance of genders and races to keep more than just pretty-but-awkward teenage white girls feeling represented. Even adults should read this book, especially anyone who has enjoyed Stephen Hunt’s The Court Of The Air or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. It’s a great story, one which has been captivating readers for over a decade, and I hope people will be talking about it for many years to come.

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.

High School Books Part I: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

I started my new job on Tuesday, at one of my favorite bookstores in the state, so Monday marked the end of my last ever summer vacation.  I’m feeling a little nostalgic for the comfort of knowing that every September school would start again and the real world would disappear for a while, and maybe this nostalgia is what inspired me to read three books in a row which were set in high schools.   I find that I enjoy realistic (or semi-realistic) YA fiction about high school and college much more now that I’m officially done with my formal education. The miseries associated with institutionalized learning have had a chance to fade, leaving me with rather fictionalized memories of my adventures and friends.

The three books which I read in rapid succession last week were The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart; After the Wreck, I picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away by Joyce Carol Oates; and The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler.  I’ll post my thoughts on each book over the next three days, saving my favorite for last, and I hope you lovely readers will leave comments with your own favorite books set in high schools.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 +

A friend of mine recommended The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks to me because she knew I had gone to a prep school in Massachusetts very much like the fictional “Alabaster Preparatory Academy” in the novel.  I think that Alabaster is actually based on the other slightly-snobby-prep-school in that particular town, but I must say that the similarities in the characters, setting, and inner workings of the Academy certainly brought me back to my teenage years of napping in the arts wing and complaining about the administration.  The storyline is fairly simple: in her sophomore year at Alabaster, ambitious Frankie Landau-Banks acts out against people’s expectations and the school’s outdated, exclusionary legacy by secretly taking control of The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.  The Basset Hounds have been an all-male circle dedicated to drunken parties and elaborate pranks since 1951, and when Frankie starts dating one of the head members she decides to shake things up and prove that a girl who was once nicknamed “Bunny Rabbit” can mastermind plots and keep her identity a secret better than a bunch of self-indulgent boys.

The plot is interesting enough, but it’s the characters who really carry The Disreputable History.  While they’re all undoubtably in the privileged yuppie category – with a few exceptions – they’re well written and extremely funny, and none of them are purely good people.  I appreciate the way that E. Lockhart (aka Emily Jenkins) was able to write likable characters with winning personality traits while still acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that no one is the best version of themselves in high school.  Like real teenagers who are trying to carve a place for themselves in the world, the fictional students of Alabaster have to change, grow, and sometimes recognize that they aren’t turning into the sort of person they’d like to be.

The relationships and friendships in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks are pretty similar to what I remember from my prep school days, and while the themes of loyalty and obligation are blown a little out of proportion, thanks to the secret society plot line, the big concerns of the novel were realistic and would be relatable for most teenaged readers.  I don’t usually look for stories focusing on high school social circles, but in the midst of so many books about lovestruck teenagers facing supernatural destiny in oppressive futures I actually enjoyed the down to earth themes in The Disreputable History.  I also really enjoyed the way that Lockhart dealt with the inevitable romantic tension which built in young Frankie’s life: for those of you who are tired of young people defying all odds to be together, read through to the end of this particular book for teenagers.  Even though its set in a co-ed boarding school and dating plays a huge role in the plot, our heroine Frankie comes to some rather enlightened conclusions about how romance fits – or sometimes fails to fit – into a time of turbulent self-discovery.

I’d recommend The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks to fans of boarding school stories like Looking For Alaska, to readers who wish that YA heroines could carry their own story without any help from true love, and to anyone who can recognize the ridiculousness of some prep school traditions.  I enjoyed laughing at the parallels to my own school, but also enjoyed the novel for its own merits.  Since it’s a fast read and not a challenging story, it would be a good book to take on a road trip this summer, or to read when September rolls around if you’re lucky enough to be heading back to school yourself.

Also, there are grammar jokes.  And who doesn’t love a good grammar joke now and then?