Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

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Book Review: The Sleeper And The Spindle

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Illustration: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 10 and up (So long as readers are familiar with the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales and know that things can get ugly.  Previous knowledge of the original Sleeping Beauty/Snow White stories will help.)

The Sleeper and The Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a stunning new fairy-tale picture book for Young Adults.  Or, rather than a picture book, perhaps I’ll call it an illuminated story.  The tale is dark and the pictures more so.  I was thoroughly entranced for the twenty minutes it took me to read Gaiman’s words and examine all the neat little details in Chris Riddell’s pen drawings.  Though the story is simply told, much like Gaiman’s earlier fairy-tale novel Stardust, the traditional style highlights the plot’s unique surprises and occasional shining side-remarks.

The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty.  Names are in sort supply in this telling.

Two kingdoms lie on either sides of an impassable mountain.  They share a border but nobody can get across to visit.  Three dwarfs burrow underneath, though, in order to get their Queen the finest silks in Dorimar.  The Queen is going to be married soon.

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final.  She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman.  It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices.

But the dwarfs don’t come back to Kanselaire with gifts of silk.  They come back with terrifying news: a sleeping sickness is taking over the land and is moving ever-closer to their own realm!  The Queen (who once slept a year under these particular dwarfs’ care and came out of it just fine) postpones her wedding, dons a mail shirt, grabs her sword, and leads the dwarfs on a quest to wake the sleeping princess, up in her tower guarded by thorns.

The way is sometimes dark: they travel underground.  It is sometimes frightening: cobwebby sleepwalkers move through a town like zombies.  And their quest is not quite what it seems.  The Queen kisses the Princess to wake her up, and that’s nothing compared to the real twist that follows.  Neil Gaiman’s description of evil stepmothers and youth-hungry enchantresses is spot on when the Queen confronts that evil fairy (or was she a witch or an enchantress? The folks at the inn can’t quite agree) who used the prick of a spindle to put the whole kingdom to sleep.  The Queen is young and she is brave, but her own past experiences with such cruel sorts makes her adventure in the tower more powerful than a mere rescue attempt.  The Sleeper And The Spindle isn’t a love story. Though it is short the tale followed a path just between familiar archetypes and new visions to feel full and satisfying.

Chris Riddell’s drawings are equal measures disturbing and beautiful.  They’re certainly phenomenal, and must have taken a great deal of work.  Mostly black and white with little highlights of gold, they contain skulls and thorns a’plenty, but also faces that seem delightfully alive even when the figure is fast asleep.  The Queen is lovely with her raven-black hair, and I adored the dwarfs’ innovative hats. If this is the sort of world in which fairy-tales happen, then I can easily understand why beauty, darkness, and grotesque wickedness are so important.  I can’t imagine the story being read without the illustrations, or the pictures without their accompanying tale.  They just fit together so nicely into the sort of book you want to own for centuries.

(Teenagers who enjoy The Sleeper And The Spindle might also like Donna Jo Napoli’s new YA novel Dark Shimmer, which has elements of Snow White and takes place in medieval Italy.  Fearless younger readers should also check out Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.)

Book Review: You Can’t Win by Jack Black

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars. This is a memoir.)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

The gents at my favorite coffee shop are on a roll with the book recommendations, lately.  You Can’t Win was described to me as “the memoir of a hobo turned safe-cracker turned house burglar turned highwayman turned librarian.”  You can probably imagine that I nearly dropped my maple spice coffee (yum) in eagerness to get my hands on a copy.  I ordered one the moment I got back to work, and have ordered another since to give as a gift.  It was just that good.  I want to call the book “inspiring,” but it’s probably a bad idea to immortalize one’s admiration for such a practiced criminal as Mr. Black on the internet.  So let’s just call it a riveting story, told with level-headed clarity and enough rollicking anecdotes to turn Jack Black’s life into a series of adventures well worth re-telling.

America in the early 20th century was a wild and crazy place. Saloons and opium dens were everywhere, housing wayward women and desperate men; bad men; or pretty much any other crooked variety of fella. Prisons were uniformly horrifying – even more so than they are today – and reforms had only just started. People still carried gold money on horseback. And security measures for houses and trains weren’t quite up to snuff. The West, especially, was paradise for train-hoppers; hobos; “yeggs”; stick-up men; gamblers… any manner of folk who made their living going against the law.

Jack Black (an alias, I believe) didn’t start out as a criminal. His story begins with a quite loving description of childhood years at a Christian school. Right off the bat, he ruminates on the lack of a mother in his life, though his portrayal of the nuns who took care of him shows that there was no lack of decent adult influence in his upbringing.

“It has often been a question with me just how much the best of it a boy has, who has his mother with him until his feet are well planted under him; who has a home and influences until he gathers some kind of a working philosophy that helps him to face the world… Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about but the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgment in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.”

Jack’s father, too, is described with respect and care. In fact, I was touched by how Mr. Black’s protective nature towards his father’s reputation and feelings only grew throughout his life of crime, which is why it’s not hard to sympathize with the distance he keeps between them in later, more adventurous, years. Even as a kid, his knack for business and shrewd observational skills get Jack into troublesome learning experiences.

“The books so fired me with the desire for travel, adventure, romance, that I was miserable most of the time.”

Well, it won’t be long before travel and adventure fill Jack’s days, though misery is always snapping at his heels. (As for romance… you won’t find much of it in You Can’t Win. One of many reasons I loved the book.) His first arrest is a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subsequent incarcerations are the unhappy results of more purposeful ventures. Jack Black writes candidly about his resilience in crime, neither apologizing for his misdeeds nor whining openly about the hard life of a roving thief.

I was wrong. I knew I was wrong, and yet I persisted. If that is possible of any explanation it is this: From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people. I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. I had lived in an atmosphere of larceny, theft, crime. I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarized, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions. That was the atmosphere I breathed. ‘If you live with wolves, you will learn to howl.”

Black’s unabashed memoirs are told in a fairly linear fashion, though every now and then he’ll mention the untimely demise of a fellow “yegg,” or write ominously about a future mistake as yet unknown to his younger self during the exploit of the moment. Most cases of foreshadowing lead to reciprocal and gratifying anecdotes later on in the narrative. Jack Black is a good writer: trust that he will reveal the conclusions of any and all story-lines that conclude neatly enough.

Characters – real people, yes, but certainly their colorful personalities deserve the term – filter in and out of his acquaintance as fate (or the judiciary system) lead their paths together and astray. From the first time he witnesses a fellow train-hopper get squashed by the cargo, through partnerships with the likes of “Smiler;” “Foot-and-a-Half George;” and “The Sanctimonious Kid,” Jack is a diligent observer of the attitudes that best suit a man on the road. Charming criminals, hardened ladies who orchestrate connections in crime, and even leaders of bloody prison break-outs take Jack into their confidence quickly and easily. I think that his quiet, unassuming nature serves him well in the field. Reading his recollections has made me want to write careful descriptions of the people I encounter: their mannerisms, their ways of speech, and even the measure of their moral standing. You never know when they might turn up in your life again, fifteen years later, harboring a grudge or willing to spring you from behind bars. Bums and highwaymen tend to have interesting backgrounds of their own accord, but it takes a memory like Mr. Black’s and a simple-but-crystallized handle of the English language to give such individuals real life on the printed page.

His voice never falters into sentimentality or veers towards the arrogance of a man who has succeeded where others have not. Sometimes he needs help, and he is grateful when he gets it. Sometimes he has the chance to assist a fellow disreputable soul, and he does so without expecting congratulations. There were runs of bad luck which made me cringe at the injustice of it all – a real life of crime has no guarantee of satisfaction at the end of several months’ plotting, despite what novels and films would have us believe. But there are still moments of triumph and even unexpected kindness to keep his mind in the game for so many years.

The era of saloon shoot-outs, railroad heists, and sacks of gold has dwindled into our less-thrilling modern age of electronic money and biometrics. I probably wouldn’t like to go through my days in a hail of bullets and a succession of jail cells, but it was awfully fun to read Jack Black’s account of such a life. His subdued good humor and unusually merciful view of human nature have rubbed off on me a little bit. If more “good” people adopted an attitude like this one “bad” man, I think we would all have a better idea of how luck and life all even out in the end.

“A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Penitentiaries! I see in the background four of them. County jails, workhouses, city prisons, Mounted Police barracks, dungeons, solitary confinement, bread and water, hanging up, brutal floggings, and murderous straitjacket.

“I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.

“Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another…

“In those twenty-five years I took all these things, and I am going to write about them.

“And I am going to write about them as I took them –with a smile.”

(Here’s another good review of the book, which helped inspire me to buy it sight unseen.)

Book Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (5 stars)

Character Development: ****** (6 stars. Deal with it.)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle will always be the Big Fat Exception to the I-rarely-read-sequels rule.  The third installment of this four book series comes out on October 21, and I urge everyone following the adventures of Blue and her Raven Boys to rush right out and buy it.  Buy it and read it and make bothersome noises at your friends until they read it too. The cover is gorgeous.  The premise continues to be sublime.  And these characters are so addictive I honestly don’t know what I’ll do without without them after the fourth book is over.  (Settle down on a rainy day and re-read the whole series in one go, I expect.)  Same as when I first read The Dream Thieves last year, I’m too excited about Blue Lily, Lily Blue to be eloquent or organized.  (My better Dream Thieves review can be found here.)  This review will be very long, and I’m not at all sorry.  I read an ARC of Blue Lily, Lily Blue last month, but stalled my review to reduce the risk of ruining things for people who still need to catch up with the series.  Be that as it may, there might be a some spoilers for the previous books ahead.  And as I read an ARC, a few details may have changed before publication.

The summer has ended, and Henrietta, Virginia, continues to be a weird; dangerous; wonderful place.  At 300 Fox Way – my favorite House Full Of Psychics in literature (and I’ve read a lot of Alice Hoffman) – Maura has gone missing.  Blue has no idea why or where her mother has gone, only that she’s underground and it has something to do with Blue’s father.  Blue is angry that her mother went off right before she started senior year.  She may be the only non-psychic in the house, but she’s determined to find Maura anyway.  Persephone is helping Adam develop his powers as the eyes and hands of Cabeswater.  It’s not easy for a teenage boy balancing a laborious job, school work, and the demanding expectations of an ancient enchanted forest.  Ronan sullenly adjusts (as best he can) to the realizations about himself and his family which he had to face the previous summer; a summer fraught with dangerous boys and hit men and dreams.  There’s still a lot to learn about Ronan’s powers as the Greywaren, and his own deep connection with whatever gives Cabeswater forest its magic. Noah has been struggling more and more to remain corporeal, despite his friends’ best efforts.  For the most part he’s as odd and lovable as ever, but something must be changing on the ley line, because his spooky moments have turned terrible to witness.  Gansey – Richard Campbell Gansey III – continues to be rich, determined, and (unbeknownst to him) doomed.  His fussy academic friend Malory comes over from England to assist in the friends’ quest for the sleeping Welsh king Glendower, but despite Malory’s often-comical huffing and puffing, the search has grown even more dangerous than before.

What if Gansey gets stung by a wasp?  What if they wake the wrong Sleeper?  Persephone, Maura, and Calla have seen that there are three sleepers: one to wake (presumably Glendower), one to leave very much alone, and one they aren’t quite sure about.  Three guesses which one they wake up.  In between their spelunking adventures, psychic consultations, and mystical research, Blue and the Boys have to worry about regular teenage stuff as well.  Blue wants to have adventures after high school, but money has always been a problem.  Adam’s money woes are even worse.  Ronan’s attraction to one of his friends might get in the way of the group’s dynamic, and Ganesy is preoccupied with keeping that precious balance at all costs – even when his own feelings for Blue must suffer for it.  They’re all worried about Noah.  Even school life at the prestigious Aglionby Academy takes a turn for the ultra-dramatic when the boys meet their new Latin teacher.  Remember how their first Latin teacher tried to kill them?  Well, this one might be even worse, and a whole lot better prepared for the job.  Even with a reformed hit man on their side and magic all around them, Henrietta has become a treacherous place for five young people on a quest.

I’m going to admit right now that Blue Lily, Lily Blue is, in my opinion, the weakest installment of the Raven Cycle so far.  That said, it’s also one of the best YA books I’ve read all year.  The Raven Cycle continues to be my favorite ongoing YA series.  Huh?  Well, the plot felt unnecessarily tangled here and there, while a few new characters struggle to carry the narrative’s building tension. Colin Greenmantle, the Very Bad Man who sent Mr. Gray after the Lynch family in the previous book, is wicked just for the sake of gleeful villany. This makes him and his bloodthirsty girlfriend extremely fun to read about, but their motives are never clear enough to inspire real concern. Where Ronan’s dreaming abilities as the Graywaren were integral to the plot of The Dream Thieves, and central to his character’s place in their banner of knights (for that’s what it seems like they’re becoming), the stakes against him aren’t nearly so compelling with such a shallow antagonist.

Gwenllian – another new character – was similarly frustrating sometimes, though I bet the mystery of her existence will be developed further in the next book. Basically Helena Bonham Carter’s ideal crazy-lady role, she acted as a good reminder that even with all the side-dramas playing out, the quest for Glendower is at the heart of this series. The magic that has taken over their lives is largely of the ancient and Welsh variety. Gwenllian makes it impossible to forget that history is full of scary, dark, heavily symbolic mythology.  Watching Gwenllian try the patience of every single woman at 300 Fox Way was immensely entertaining, too, since you can see how Blue is a product of her house whenever she gets impatient.  I’m interested to see how she changes the nature of their search.

The little weirdnesses are so very easily forgiven, though.  You won’t find a better ensemble-driven fantasy series around.  The setting is unique, and host to wonderful minor characters which could thrive nowhere else but in modern rural America.  Take the mountainous and booming Jesse Dittley, who blames Blue’s small stature on the suggestion that maybe she never ate her greens as a child.  He’s a much needed interjection of good-hearted Virginian warmth into the atmosphere, with his cursed cave and spaghetti-os. It was also terrifically amusing to finally meet the ever-so-British scholar Malory, on his own quest for a decent cup of tea.

The strength of the cast as a whole just keeps getting better and better. Everyone has hidden depths, and even when you know people are doomed, you just want to learn everything about them. Watching Ronan and Adam realize over and over that they’ve only seen the surface of their friends made me proud and sad and fiercely attached to them all at the same time. The passions behind the boys’ and Blue’s decisions are based on the intense bonds of friendship and loyalty. They find one another more interesting than all the big-ancient-magic stuff that goes on around them. Aarrghh I just want these young people to be happy, and I don’t know if they ever will! Maggie Stiefvater may be a fantasy writer, but she takes the follies of free will and the cruelties of fate to their realistic conclusions every damn time. Free will and fate like to behave unkindly to her characters, so reading plays hackey-sack with my heart. A++ character development. Six stars.

Magic functions so inventively in this series, with one foot in old Welsh mythology and one foot in dreams.  Maggie Stiefvater is rather a wizard at handling both styles.  She describes the uncanny creations that are dreamed into life as though she has a window into our own nightmares.  And the mythology… just… damn.  If you don’t want to dash to your library for books full of words spelled like lwwlywllyylwl after you’ve finished, then I don’t know how to get you excited about anything. (Lots of Ls and Ws in the Welsh stories.)  This year I found a review of The Dream Thieves over at Girl In The Pages which celebrated the way that characters never lose the sense of wonderment whenever they encounter magic in the world. So true! This is such an important element to fantasy – especially stories where regular modern life gets suddenly mystical – and I wish that more authors would embrace the eternally surprising nature of new discoveries.

The plot was so complicated, I know I will have to go back and re-read all three books in rapid succession before I can really wrap my head around all the intricate threads that are woven into these characters’ lives. It’s hard to believe that so much can happen in less than a year! It makes sense that each character has one or two plot lines which are most important to them, and since this is an ensemble-driven series that means there will be many different story arcs struggling to some fate at any given time. As a piece of a series, Blue Lily Lily Blue is a magnificent book, but it doesn’t stand so well on its own as the other two did. Suffers from a little too much going on at once, but I think that it will be worth it by the series’ conclusion. (The only real plot that begins and ends in this book was Maura’s disappearance, but even that hinges on unexplained cave phenomena and various prophecies.) For sure it has introduced and built upon some truly gripping, complex layers for the story, and I have faith that Stiefvater will develop all those twists and turns before she tragically finishes the cycle. The cruelties of literature, to keep us from being able to read them all straight through at once! Maybe I should have waited until the whole series was released to save myself the torture… But no, because then I would have never realized that Stiefvater’s newer books are so wonderful.

Holy heck do I need to know how this all comes together in the end. The plot is so twisted and involves so many cool pieces, but honestly it’s the characters who keep dragging me back to Hentrietta, VA. I would to follow these people to their fates even if it messes with all my reading plans. (Honestly, I had planned to read a different novel the day I finally saw this ARC on the shelf. Those other plans disappeared in a puff of ancient tomb-dust.)  I’ll drag this over-long review to a conclusion, now, with a fervent demand that anyone who hasn’t started reading The Raven Cycle picks up The Raven Boys straight away.  With such a lively mix of characters and an exciting plot, it’s highly recommended reading for all genders and all ages from 14 and up. A content advisory would include language and sex and violence. All of which are necessary. All of which are great.  Maggie Stiefvater has become one of my very favorite YA writers, and I stand in constant reverence of the mind that drives her pen.

Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”  That sentence appears twice in Maggie Stiefvater’s breathtaking novel The Scorpion Races.  The moment I read it, the first words in the prologue, I could feel that this was going to be a good story; a dark story; a story that draws on something old and deep and scary.  I knew it was inspired by the capaill uisge myths – vicious, man-eating water horses often called kelpies.  And that all of my friends who had read it before recommended it highly.  What I didn’t know was how beautifully Stiefvater would describe the island of Thisby, somewhere off Ireland, and the people who live there.  I didn’t expect to fall under the water horses’ spell myself.  I’m not really much of a horse whisperer: I think they’re cool and pretty, but sometimes it feels like they’re laughing at me.   (One time a big horse stepped on my foot to hold me in place while he bit my shoulder, and it has inspired some distrust.)  My own reservations were powerless in the hands of Maggie Stiefvater’s writing, though, because after a few chapters of The Scorpio Races I could feel why Puck and Sean devoted their lives to their horse-y companions. 

The Scorpio Races is about this island where, every November, a deadly race is held on dangerous water horses.  People capture the capaill uisge when they come out of the sea, the very act of which is the stuff of eerie seaside nightmares, and then try to train them into something they can ride.  But the sea is always calling the horses, driving them to drown and eat the men who would tame them.  As November approaches, tourists come to Thisby, more terrible creatures rise up from the sea, and the stakes get ever higher.  Two teenagers, living very different lives, have lost parents to the capaill uisge.  Sean’s father was killed in the races, long ago.  Now Sean trains water horses for the richest man on the island, and is famous for his victories in the Scorpio Races.  Puck Connolly is very much a Connolly, even after her parents died in a capaill uisge related boat accident.  She helps keep her family together; the only girl in a trio of siblings which isn’t so close as it once was.  She and her beloved horse, Dove, have to win the Scorpio Races if they’re to keep their home and independence.  The odds aren’t in Puck’s favor.  She’s the first girl to ever compete, and some people don’t think she should mess with tradition.  And even while the odds have been kind to Sean before, animosity from the boss’s son, and some troublesome feelings for Puck, might keep him from winning this year.  And that would mean giving up his dreams to own Corr, the capaill uisge who has become his closest friend.  When Puck and Sean become close their determination will have an even higher cost, because not everyone survives the Scorpio Races, and only one rider can win.

Setting is usually the most important thing when I’m reading.  If I can get drawn into the rhythm of a place and not want to leave, I’ll read the whole book no matter what.  And Thisby drew me right in.  (Not quite so fatally as the way capaill uisge draw humans into the sea and then eat them.  But pretty close.)  I loved Puck’s ramshackle house, where she and her brothers struggle to get by on their own.  I could picture Sean’s regular haunts on the cliffs and at Malvern’s stables.  I was afraid of the beach, but entranced by the shoreline all the same.  I felt safe from the storm in the butcher’s kitchen with his wife, Peg Gratton, dispensing sharp wisdom all over the place.  I’m sad that I’ll never witness the dark magic of Thisby’s Scorpio Festival, even though I’d probably turn senseless from all the colors, foods, people, and drums.  The seasons, rituals, and traditions of the Scorpio Races are an ancient, integral part of what Thisby is.  Puck and Sean even talk about how the island feeds off the blood – or bravery – of its people, and how they are as much a part of the weathered land as it is of them.  It’s been rather autumnal weather where I am this past week, and thank goodness for that, because reading about all the rain and wind made me want to go fetch one of my sweaters from Scotland.  The setting was just that good.

I’m pleased to report that the other aspects of this book were nearly as good as the sense of place.  Puck and Sean were complex narrators with interesting, honest motivations.  The story is told in alternating sections from each of their points of view. They were selfish sometimes and brave sometimes, and never one-dimensional.  My one gripe would be that sometimes it was hard to tell whose narrative had just begun, but that’s partly my fault for forgetting to read the chapter headings as I fervently read.  Their voices were similar, but that’s just because they shared such a fierce love for the island and for their respective steeds (I wouldn’t dare to call Sean’s Corr a horse, just as Puck can’t stand to have Dove called a pony).  They were each proud in their own ways, but learn to take the world in stride a little better by the end of the novel. 

There’s a little bit of romantic tension, but nearly all of the emotion in The Scorpio Races came from loyalty, family, and bravery rather than mercurial teenaged passions.  That’s the sort of story I like to read: one which doesn’t require amorous moping to make characters interested in one another.  So huzzah to that.  Puck’s relationship with her brothers was also done well.  She’s confused about her older brother Gabe’s sudden urgency to leave the island, especially since he’s been their main source of support ever since their parents died at sea.  She also wants to protect her sweet and slightly odd little brother, Finn, who was one of my favorite characters.  The townsfolk were lively and made Thisby seem real.  People on islands, man.  They’re my favorite sort of people.

For me, Maggie Stiefvater’s work can be either a hit or a miss.  I love the Raven Cycle and am beyond excited for the next installment.   On the other hand, I was wildly disappointed by Lament, and couldn’t get into the Shiver series either.  I don’t know why she suddenly started writing books I love around 2011.  It’s a happy mystery, though, and The Scorpio Races has solidified my belief that she’s become one of the best YA writers of modern fantasy writing today.  This is a stand-alone novel with an ending that left me satisfied but wishing I could stay on Thisby longer.   I’m kind of glad it’s not the beginning of a series, because I rarely have the time or presence of mind to follow through with sequels even if I love the first book.  It was just the right length, with an excellent balance of action and character development, and beautiful writing to carry the story through the weeks of October, leading up to the races.

Book Review: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Mark Of The Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson (Coming out in March, 2014)

I don't like to bend spines but I love the front and back covers of this book!

I don’t like to bend spines but I love the front and back covers of this book!

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****(4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: *** **(5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

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

How pleased am I to be giving this book five stars? So very, very pleased. It’s been a rough month and The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a wonderful distraction, a breath of fresh air, and a damned fine adventure to boot. It’s a new Middle Grade fantasy/adventure novel which will be hitting bookshelves this March, and I seriously recommend it.

We meet Piper in Scrap Town Number Sixteen – part of the Merrow Kingdom – on a night when meteors from another world are showering down. (As it happens, the artifacts which crash through the sky in a haze of poisonous dust come from our world; things like music boxes and copies of The Wizard of Oz. I thought that was pretty cool.) Piper is a scrapper, which means that she and the other poor folk in her struggling town go out to the fields after a storm to collect the strange objects and sell them to rich people from more prosperous industrial towns. After her father died in a factory working iron for a King who is obsessed with innovation and expansion, Piper has been living on her own in a somewhat hostile world. She has an unusual gift with machines and works as a mechanic to stay alive. Aside from her friend Micah, a little boy who wants to find something marvelous in the fields one day, she has few people she can trust and no one to take care of her.

All this changes when she finds a gravely injured girl in the wreckage of a caravan after a big meteor storm. The girl, Anna, has lost many of her memories and is being pursued by a mysterious and forceful man she only remembers as “the wolf.” Piper rescues Anna and is shocked to discover that the young girl has a tattoo of a dragonfly on her arm. The mark of the dragonfly implies that a person is terribly important to King Aron, and our resourceful young heroine decides to escort the frightened girl to the capitol city where she might reunite her with a grieving family and, she hopes, collect a reward for herself. I liked that Piper’s motivations weren’t entirely golden hearted. She has sympathy for Anna and feels obliged to protect her, but knows that her world is harsh and wants to build a better life for herself in the capitol. Piper and Anna board a train as they escape from “the wolf,” and find themselves treated with respect thanks to Anna’s tattoo and Piper’s ability to lie her way out of awkward situations. They meet a mysterious boy with a big – winged – secret and some rough-and-tumble train technicians with very kind hearts under all that soot.

A great majority of the book takes place on the train, but it isn’t all talking about engines and watching the scenery go by. Chases, attempted robberies, social climbing, library re-arranging, and all sorts of mischief takes places on the sturdy but old-fashioned 401. It’s a mildly steampunk setting, but Jaleigh Johnson never goes overboard with the technical descriptions. This isn’t one of those otherworldly books in which everything has a few gears slapped on it in order to render it appealing. When there are mechanical interludes, they exist for a reason. And, as this is a story aimed at readers 10 and up, I was perfectly content to have the scientific and political aspects of the Merrow Kingdom described only on a need-to-know basis. This is an adventure focused on the characters and a train with the politics and geography as mere backdrop, so the weird discrepancies were easily forgiven. (An example of this would be the weird blend of our world and the fantasy one: orange trees and “pika” trees exist in harmony, and there’s a statue of an elephant fighting a dravisht raptor, whatever that may be.) The Mark Of The Dragonfly is not a short book, though, and too much world-building would have been rather detrimental to the pace, so I suggest that readers just get cozy with the strange setting – one which is connected to ours through some space in the sky – and enjoy reading about Piper and Anna as they navigate the fraught world. They get to fly in the clutches of magical beasties, experience an awkward psychic encounter with a subterranean fantasy race, and fix gears and pipes which do way more than transport passengers. I was reminded of the TV show Firefly from so many years ago, both by the nature of the adventure and the vintage-sci-fi setting. Not to mention, the likable cast of characters to whom you can’t help but get attached. A whole range of emotions plays out within the four hundred pages: from joy to despair, and back through witty banter and friendly rivalries all the way to surprise and – dare I admit it? – warm fuzzy feelings.

There were a few pieces of The Mark Of The Dragonfly which left me wanting a bit more detail. How, exactly, were odds and ends from Earth crashing through the sky in the Scrap Towns? The idea is fascinating and the descriptions of that bizarre meteorological phenomenon were really cool, but after the first few chapters the idea is abandoned all together and never properly revisited during the course of Piper’s adventures. What were the villain’s real motives, besides greed and expansionism? When he got a chance to explain his actions, they almost seemed like noble delusions. And on that note, we never really learn why he’s called “the wolf.” I did work out the big plot twist long before it was officially revealed, but it was still done well with enough clues to convince me without making it too obvious. Bear in mind that I’ve also read loads more of the genre than the intended audience. (A note on the genre: The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a little like a less-complicated Mortal Engines, and I think that anyone who enjoys this book should consider testing the waters of more detailed steampunk-y children’s adventures. There’s quite a lot to choose from, at the moment. But Philip Reeve is definitely a favorite. Older readers might also enjoy Amy Leigh Strickland’s Rescue! Or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal.) These little distractions weren’t nearly annoying enough to make me dislike any moment I spent reading The Mark Of The Dragonfly, though, and I particularly think that young readers will be happy to immerse themselves in Johnson’s world without getting bent out of shape over a few technical difficulties.

The writing was straightforward and fun, the characters were delightful but realistic with faults and mistakes aplenty, and I was anxious to learn what would happen. When I finally did reach the end, I nearly did a heel-click from glee upon learning that there was no dreadful cliffhanger conclusion waiting to spoil my afternoon! I am so tired of Middle Grade series which rely on inconclusive endings to build suspense. (This is especially hard when you’re a bookseller and want to recommend an author, but the first of a series is sold out at your shop.) If Jaleigh Johnson decides to write another volume set in the Merrow Kingdom I will be thrilled to read it, but The Mark Of The Dragonfly can easily stand alone as a favorite book on the young readers shelf. I can’t wait to recommend it to kids who loved Inkheart and adults who want something new for the inventive and strong-willed young scrappers in their lives.