Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

source: goodreads

I often wonder if I’m in danger of becoming a fairy-tale villain. I don’t like little children. I’m greedy, I’m selfish, and I occasionally think about cursing people into small amphibians or enchanted sleeps. Like Boy, the main character in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, I spend an awful lot of my time looking in mirrors. It was fascinating to watch Boy’s progression from abused daughter to possibly evil stepmother, especially since it’s easy to see how we might follow the same path if we were in her place.

It’s 1953 and Boy Novak has run away from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York City.  She chooses to make her home in a Massachusetts town peopled by skilled craftsmen despite her lack of any artistic occupation. The magazine quizzes tell Boy that she might be frigid, and there are times when mirrors seem to enchant her while she sees truer reflections of herself walking across the street, invisible to everyone else. It takes Boy a little while to get her bearings, though she’d never admit this to the characters who try to befriend her, but eventually she puts a past love behind her and marries a teacher-turned-jeweler; a widower with a stunning little daughter whom Boy can never quite figure out. “[Snow] was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.” (p 71) Just as Boy starts to grow comfortable in Flax Hill with Arturo’s family the Whitmans (that’s right: Snow Whitman and her stepmother…) she gives birth to a little girl of her own. Snow is the one to suggest the name Bird, and Bird grows into an inquisitive and lively young teenager who does the name justice. Bird also comes out brown skinned, which exposes the Whitmans as having Black ancestry in the not so distant genetic past. They might live in a fairly accepting Northern town, but this is still 1950s America, so everyone is pretty shocked when Boy chooses to send Snow away to stay with Arturo’s estranged sister and her more obviously  Black husband instead of Bird. Thus begins Boy’s transformation into something of an evil stepmother, something of a protective mother despite the cultural obstacles, and something of a confused fairy tale heroine in her own right. As family secrets get tangled into legend or pulled out into the open, a realistic portrayal of self preservation versus difficult truths mixes with the stuff of bedtime stories to create a touching and clever novel which enthralled me completely.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of re-told fairy tales. I like stories which are fairly obvious in their parallels and I also like mostly-original novels which follow an understated pattern of fairy tale logic and contain hidden references along the way. Oyeyemi has borrowed the fairest-of-them-all conflict, the child-sent-away plot catalyst, and the magical qualities of names for her novel. She has sprinkled her tale of new beginnings and re-shaped families with references to “Snow White,” most obviously, but also a whole library of other myths and legends.

That being said, Boy, Snow, Bird is not really a fantasy novel. I mean, there are no dwarves and no magic apples, but there’s also no concrete suggestion that all this talk about curses or fate might be truly serious. Maybe the fact that all three title characters don’t show up in mirrors, sometimes, should be read as pure metaphor. Maybe Boy Novak runs away from her vicious father with the grim profession to a secluded town just because the time is right, and not because she’s following the well-trodden path of all those girls who struck out, cursed, for unknown lands in the storied traditions before her. Maybe Bird can’t really talk to spiders. Maybe the mystical powers girls like Snow and Sidonie hold over boys – regardless of race in such a racially aware time – comes from something within them that isn’t so much magical as genetic or psychological. Who knows? All I know is that Helen Oyeyemi did a marvelous job integrating some of my favorite themes and traditions into her writing. Every few pages, I have passages underlined in pencil or sticky notes pointing out of my copy of the book, marking my favorite references both obvious and minute. I bet there are plenty I’ve missed, too. There were connections with the German and English tales we’re all quite used to, but also some references to the Black American legends of John the Conqueror and the more Romantic poem Goblin Market; mixed allusions are hidden all over the place and I wanted to high-five Oyeyemi from afar every time I noticed one of my favorite obscure little legends.

Aside from the layer of magical motifs which embellished Boy, Snow, Bird, there were several other aspects which rather enchanted me. Yes, the characters were memorable – though I thought that the male characters were distinctly less developed than the vivid female ones – and the setting made a nice stage for the volatile time period in which the story takes place. (It was pretty odd to read about a fictional New England town which was meant to be less than an hour away from mine. Every time the characters went to Worcester I couldn’t help but picture the streets and restaurants I’ve personally encountered.) But it was the way that certain characters interacted with each other and learned to distrust their first, second, third impressions which really caught my attention. When Bird gets work as a coat check girl on a party cruise simply because she’s got blonde hair – the 1950s were absurd – and strikes up a friendship with Mia, who masquerades as a blonde to write an article about the whole shindig, there’s a bit of foreshadowing there for the bigger disguises which will reveal themselves in time.  All clever plotting aside, it was entertaining to watch their friendship develop, and to see how Mia’s doggedly inquisitive personality rubbed against Boy’s challenging one. The bookshop owner who later employs Boy is an ornery old English lady who turns out to be full of little surprises, not the least of which being her patience and understanding to the three precocious young black children who spend their afternoons reading at the shop instead of going to school.  Since Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel which focuses on race, I was glad to see these kids through the eyes of a lady who has absolutely no time for racist nonsense. Think Aunt Eleanor from Inkheart, dispensing thoughtful advice about theoretical curses rather than facing down real magical villains. The supporting cast of ladies, including those who had ugly pieces of their souls hidden away, were as carefully characterized as they were diverse. I didn’t really mind the fact that Boy’s husband and the other menfolk weren’t so interesting. They just seemed more realistic, less complex, a little drab; and maybe that’s part of what made the book seem to follow Anderson’s and the Grimms’ formulas. The honest woodcutters (or jeweler, in this case) and the kingly fathers rarely have any clue what’s going on under their noble, hardworking noses. It’s the women and children who notice the threats in nature and in their own reflections.

My favorite interaction to witness was probably the correspondence between the nearly grown up Snow and her half-sister Bird in the middle section of the book, which was told from Bird’s perspective. We get such a romanticized picture of Snow from Boy’s chapters – not always in a good way – that it’s hard to see her as a real person for the first half of the narrative. But she finally gets to have a bit of her own voice in the letters she exchanges with Bird, who doesn’t have any set opinion of this beautiful but incomprehensible girl just yet. “I don’t think Mother Nature likes us much,” Snow writes to her sister once they finally make contact. “If she did, she wouldn’t make the things that are deadliest so beautiful.” (p 230) It’s observations like that one which turn Snow into more than just a beautiful concept against which other characters can hurl their dreams and prejudices and insecurities. For all that Boy finds herself at internal odds with her stepdaughter once her own daughter is born, this is an observation which sounds like it could have come straight out of Boy’s head.

The conflicted stepmother and the fairest of them all aren’t so different, and in the end I read every one of their own encounters with my breath held a little, waiting to see if there would be violence, or tears, or retribution, or forgiveness. This book isn’t a fairy tale, it just shows us a picture of diverse life half a century ago through the window of the folklore we recognize, so no one falls asleep after eating a poisoned apple. The forgiveness and acceptance we seek while reading Boy, Snow, Bird does come to pass in the end, up to a point. But it’s a fraught road to get there, and you can’t be quite certain that things won’t soon tumble back into the deceptive, treacherous world of hidden identities and quiet manipulations. I’m choosing to hope that there might be a happy ending for Boy, Snow, and Bird, though, because I grew attached to all three of them. Even if true happiness isn’t an option, I closed the book wishing that they might survive whatever harrowing journey through the woods they three had embarked upon together.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

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

Advertisements

Book Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

I read The Winter People a week ago, but was holding off on a review until I could let the story settle in my mind.  In the meantime, I actually got to meet Jennifer McMahon at a cocktail party in Boston. This means I had a chance to berate her with questions about the book over crudités and macarons.  Questions like “why the heck was that doll so sinister?” and “When do you think you’ll allow your young daughter to read your super creepy books?”.  She was so much fun to speak with; warm, kind, funny, and not at all unnerving despite the general tone of her fiction.  To be quite honest, I think The Winter People would only be getting 3 stars from me, had I sat down to write this review right after I closed the book.  But, after meeting Jennifer, I have a new appreciation for some of the little details which vexed me.  So bonus points for being delightful.

The Winter People is sort of a literary thriller, if I’m using that term correctly.  I don’t generally read much suspense fiction, preferring ancient-folklore-is-real-and-scary style horror to the find-them-before-its-too-late genre.  The Winter People had a good mix of both, though, not to mention a healthy dose of oh-crap-don’t-go-out-in-the-woods.  The novel’s events stem from  the tragic story of Sarah Harrison Shea, after her daughter disappears in the woods one winter in 1908.  Excerpts from Sarah’s secret diaries and her husband’s own experiences show how a mistake from the past can utterly ruin someone’s chance for future happiness, especially when that mistake involves betraying a pissed-off medicine woman and failing to appropriately dispose of her mystical belongings.  Oops.  Sarah’s friends and neighbors start to worry that she’s sinking into madness after Gertie is found dead, but there is someone scratching at the closet door and something killing animals in the snow.  Could it be that Sarah’s Auntie really taught her how to summon life back into the bodies of the dead when she was a child?  And how much misfortune must befall a devastated lady before we can forgive her for trying her hand at necromancy?  It should not come as a shock to any fans of supernatural mysteries that the price for tampering with natural fate is almost always much worse than the original tragedy.

Sarah’s dairy entries are revealed through a modern lens in The Winter People by way of two other personal encounters with whatever dreadful forces are at work in the woods of West Hall, Vermont.  Nineteen-year-old Ruthie and her sister Fawn live in Sarah Harrison Shea’s old farm house, and their mother has just gone missing.  Nothing to worry about; it’s not like they’re totally isolated, living near a stone circle called “The Devil’s Hand,” without computers, but with Fawn’s imaginary friends to keep them company!  Oh wait – yes they are, and I got very nervous right away for the girls’ wellbeing because I was immediately invested in their characters in a way which I couldn’t quite care about Sarah Harrison Shea.  Ruthie and Fawn are realistic and likable.  The elder sister’s valiant attempts to remain level-headed in times of crisis only made their eerie situation all the more urgent and uncanny, especially since things quickly escalated from the vaguely mysterious circumstances of their mother’s disappearance to a desperate hunt for answers underground, at gunpoint.

The modern chapters of The Winter People are full of action and investigation, while Sarah’s diary entries focus on a slow build of supernatural suspense and emotional disturbances.  In nearly all of my reading experiences, I’m more receptive to the latter sort of story.  Give me ancient curses and haunting visions, and I’ll be in my reading chair for the rest of the afternoon.  But I think that McMahon actually did a much better job bringing the characters and the story to life in Ruthie’s chapters of the book.  Naturally, the big concern was over Fawn’s safety as things rapidly progressed beyond the sisters’ control, but I also rather liked Ruthie’s UFO-spotting redneck boyfriend and even her exacting, slightly paranoid mother.  Maybe I knew that the Harrison Shea family was doomed from the start and gave up hope on a happy ending for them, but I was holding my breath for Fawn and Ruthie.  Whenever the little girl mentioned a creepy little fact she supposedly heard from her doll, and every time they discovered a new claustrophobic secret passageway in the house, I wanted to jump into the pages and help them get out of there ASAP.  There’s one scene in which Ruthie and her boyfriend honestly pry some boards off of a closet door which has been obviously barricaded from the outside to keep something in.  Ack!

The biggest flaw I found with The Winter People would have to lie in the minor characters who are meant to push the plot forward.  I couldn’t bring myself to care one way or another about the grieving artist who moved to Vermont and finds her fate intertwined with Ruthie’s and Sarah’s, despite the fact that I understood her importance to the mystery.  This book is as much a study of grief as it is a scary story, and this woman had lost her husband after he got tangled up in the supernatural draw of West Hall.  Her attempts to rediscover his last moments brought some important catalysts to the plot – and provided opportunities for exposition – but I just found her character to be a little too convenient.  The same goes for the baffling woman who holds the answers to some of Ruthie’s questions, a rich and possibly delusional lady who is also struggling with having a child taken away from her.  (McMahon writes a lot about lost children – several of her other novels seem to follow a similar theme.)  Sarah’s niece, who could have been really interesting given her fascination with mediums and the spiritualism of the early 20th century, also fell a little short of my expectations.  Of the three supernaturally-inclined ladies in the novel’s historical chapters, Auntie was the most intriguing, but even she wasn’t developed enough to be entirely believable as such an important character.  The superstitions behind the “sleepers” wasn’t explained in enough detail for my liking, but I tend to get overly enthusiastic about folklore and magical lore, and I don’t think that the book suffered too much for the vagueness of those details.  Maybe if Auntie had a bit more time in the spotlight, some of my questions would have been cleared up.  But I doubt many other readers will be bothered by the occasional lack of clarity, there. It’s really too bad that the minor characters fell flat, because the major characters were complex people with emotional depths which made their desperate – sometimes ill-advised – decisions stressful and compelling.

The little sensory details – like a girl-shaped figure in a blurry photograph or the sound of something scuttling around a dark room – amped up the tension in the book even when the plot itself threatened to fall into somewhat conventional patterns.  I really liked the way Jennifer McMahon could focus on how one small thing out of place can change the atmosphere entirely, and she carried those details from the historical chapters all the way to the modern, exciting conclusion.  As I reached the novel’s end I started to get really stressed out that things might not get resolved before I ran out of pages, but the ending was fairly satisfying if not a little hard to believe.  But, honestly, this is a book about grieving women raising the dead and terrified teenagers trying to put them back down again.  Suspend your disbelief for a while, especially if you like smart thrillers and can handle some chilling descriptions. Curl up with The Winter People and a blanket next time a snowstorm keeps you cooped up inside.

Book Review: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

 

 

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

 

This is the sort of big, clever, historical, dry book I really like. But, as a fairly obvious warning: it’s big, clever, historical, and dry. It won’t be the sort of book everyone likes. I feel compelled to admit that it took me nearly a week to finish The Accursed, and that’s a long time for me. The writing was complicated, the plot took enormous detours, and the “historian” narrator sometimes talked himself in circles. As it’s the depths of winter, and I have a comfortable reading chair, I can totally get into sprawling stories with an endless parade of characters. The setting and drama – and there’s drama a’plenty – captured my attention even if the novel’s pace was sometimes a slog. I happily kept reading through the superfluous chapters about socialism and the transcribed Christian sermons because I was determined to see what befell the characters. I’m also not bothered by academic prose. Many people ain’t got time for that shit. And that’s ok, but this will not be the best choice for those readers.  I’m giving the book 3 1/2 stars rather than 4 because I don’t know tons of folks to whom I would recommend this book, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

The Accursed is the history of mystifying, diabolical events plaguing the well-to-do families of Princeton in the early 1900s. Real figures like Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London play major roles in the affluent setting, though the fictional Slade family is at the curse’s center. The book contains extensive footnotes; chapters told in letters; diary entries; and an ever-changing cycle of points of view. We read about the story’s strange events, horrors which are inexplicable to so many people, through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of perspectives. I assumed that I knew who the main character would be in the first chapter, and got attached to the fellow, only to change my mind completely in the next chapter. And again, and again, the focus shifted. In situations like this, it gets hard to decide who is right, who is wrong, who is hallucinating, and who sees the truth. When unexplainable phenomena – and is it really phenomena, at that? – strikes a group of people set staunchly in their respective ways, everyone sees his or herself as a hero and a saint. The devil wanders in and out of The Accursed in several guises, and eventually it becomes hard to tell whether evil forces or human nature are to blame for so much humiliation, ignorance, passion, and misery.

It would take me ages to try and formulate a concise summary of the 688 page saga’s plot. A lot of stuff happens in Oates’s book. A stranger comes to town. Young women behave in ways their families could never have imagined. Political and social unrest presses in on Princeton, in the form of lynchings nearby and the rise of the working man around the country. The rich are fearful, the rich are scandalized, the rich write in their diaries about who won’t be invited to tea again anytime soon. There’s a nightmarish bog-kingdom where a supernatural villain imprisons his transfixed wives. There’s a big to-do about campus politics. A girl’s school is attacked by invisible snakes. Sometimes 1906 Princeton seems just as exotic as Bermuda and Antarctica, where certain characters escape from the claustrophobic social scene even though they cannot escape the curse’s reach. Mark Twain annoys the heck out of Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda, and that made me very happy. (Team Twain!) Men murder their wives, women think about poisoning their friends, Jack London is a jerk when he’s drunk, people travel in their dreams. The pages are many and the plot goes all over the place.

It gets harder to figure out where Hell has a hand in the novel’s events as the novel progresses, and, interestingly, the narrator himself isn’t too sure. The child of some minor characters in The Accursed, our narrator has set out to chronicle the events with an eye for including all the facts. All. The. Facts. Some readers will get really annoyed about this, because there are many details which could have been overlooked without altering the plot one bit. While constructing an in-depth study of a certain time and place – and the social complexities therein – Joyce Carol Oates may have been a little self-indulgent with the editing process. But I honestly had fun with this book. I liked the witty banter just as much as I liked the horrifying visions. I learned new things: before reading The Accursed I couldn’t have constructed two sentences about Upton Sinclair or Woodrow Wilson. Now I want to go find out what sort of people they really were. I also appreciated how the inherent racism and sexism of the time period was brought to light, without pardoning the characters for their ignorance. Some younger characters learn to be more thoughtful about their fellow man as their world changes around them, and some otherwise likable men and women tout hideous opinions which should make any reader today cringe. Oates neither excuses nor condemns the accepted judgements of the early 20th century. She just subtly reminds us how dangerous it is to think that certain races, genders, and classes deserve their misfortune. Because misfortune happens to everyone in this story, and it’s impossible to say if anyone deserves the fates they suffer.

I have recommended The Accursed to a friend who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, because the style and subject are similar. Both books are heavy with historical details and vivid characters. They each take a fascinating time period and introduce supernatural elements to the scene, thus exposing the ridiculous qualities of real life, which may as well be fantasy for all the sense it makes. I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell quite a bit more than I liked The Accursed, because I thought the supernatural elements were more cohesive and the plot was much cleaner. (You can read an old review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell here, which I wrote with my best book-friend.) That being said, fans of American history and literature might well prefer The Accursed. There were themes and structures of folklore in each book, each rooted firmly in the country of its origin. The nightmare world in The Accursed followed some grisly fairy-tale patterns which reminded me of Clarke’s haunting fairy lands. I can’t really compare The Accursed to other examples of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing, because it is so different from the few books I’ve read (like the YA novel I read over the summer). The writing here is so invested in the historical and biographical tone I almost forgot that such a curse never really existed. I’ll take that as a very good thing indeed, because if I’m drawn into a world so deeply I lose myself in it, then the book must be doing something right. Not all of you will like The Accursed, and it may not always be the right time to delve into such a behemoth, but if you’ve got time to kill and a mind for some complex drama, give it a try. At the end, you’ll be able to return to the real world more easily than some of the doomed characters you meet along the way.

Safety Tips For Last-Minute Holiday Shoppers: Independent Bookshops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Image

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 III: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

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

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 16+

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

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

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

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

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

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

High School Books Part 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?

Review of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Star Ratings

Characters: 5 stars

Character Development: 4 stars

Plot: 3 stars

Writing: 4 stars

Overall: 4 stars

Age recommendation: 16 and up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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