Book Review: The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up (murder and strife but not much gore or sex.)

The Alcott home is weathering some rough times. There’s not enough money to support a family of four girls, so their “Marmee” must go away to work while her husband fiddles with his philosophical writing. Teenaged Louisa has to take charge of things in her mother’s absence, but she would rather be running full-pelt amongst the trees in Concord, talking with Henry David Thoreau, or writing her own stories. A fugitive slave arrives at the house of the passionate abolitionist family, so suddenly Louisa has another mouth to feed and too many secrets to keep. Secrets get mighty dangerous when a ruthless slave-catcher comes to town, looking to make life difficult for those involved in the underground railroad. Keeping her household together while protecting their hidden friend is difficult enough, so how can Louisa spare the energy to wrestle with her feelings for a visiting young man who has changed a lot since his absence? And how on earth will she have time to solve a murder in the midst of so many exhausting demands?

The Revelation of Louisa May is a “novel of intrigue and romance” starring Louisa May Alcott. Good old Louisa May, who wrote Little Women, lived in the town where I sell books, and put so many of my own feelings and failings into words.

“A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.” (from Little Women. I feel ya’, Jo March, like so many angry girls who write.)

But I also adore Louisa’s status as Kick-Ass Single Lady.

“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

Not only did Louisa never marry –though Jo eventually does in Good Wives she wrote encouraging other women to find contentment in single life. So I was puzzled to see the word “romance” on the cover of a book starring Louisa May Alcott. That word, I thought, would better apply to one of the “blood and thunder” stories she used to publish herself.

Fear not! Though there is a charming (and surprising) romantic entanglement in The Revelation Of Louisa May, nothing enormous happens that would change Ms. Alcott’s future as a self-supporting and entirely majestic lady of her own free will. So just put those worries straight out of your mind, ye acolytes of Alcott. Blood, thunder, and emotional moonlit chats make this story entertaining, but MacColl is enough of a historian to keep all the important details in line with what life was really like for the literary folks of Concord in the 1840s. Just with a little more murder, and some writerly speculation, thrown in.

In fact, the elements of intrigue and romance in this book felt more like sidelines to the rich portrayal of Concord Massachusetts in the age of the Transcendentalist philosophers. The plot sticks to the theme of MacColl’s previous novels about young women writers of the past, one about Emily Dickinson and one about the Bronte sisters, which places the literary heroines amidst SHOCKING MURDER and POSSIBLE HEARTBREAK and NECESSARY EAVESDROPPING. What fun! But historical fiction is tricky; an author needs to fit a solid fictional plot into the timeline of real peoples’ lives. When a novel is so focused on a single biographical subject, as this one is, things get even harder.

By making all the events surrounding this fictional mystery set up and resolve themselves in a fairly short period of time, Michaela MacColl is able to fit so many excellent details about her characters’ lives into the framework of an old fashioned who-the-actual-hell-has-done-it mystery. It’s not every story that has Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife as suspects, though. The careful interweaving of rumors and facts about these people into the story made me feel like I had fallen right into the past to see and hear them with my own eyes. (It may have helped that I was sitting on a bench on Walden Street as I read, but the descriptions and dialogue were vivid enough that I think they’d bring those famous fellows to life even if you’re not surrounded by their likenesses at all times.)

I wondered: how will Michaela MacColl give Louisa a mystery to solve and a romance to navigate when we already know so much about the Alcotts’ daily lives? (I know we might be a little overly obsessed with their every word and friendship in Concord, but lots of readers elsewhere admire the author just as much as her work.) Happily, there was a one document summer in which Marmee had to go away to work in New Hampshire, leaving teenaged Louisa to run the household basically on her own. I got to hear MacColl read from and talk about the book over this weekend, and she aptly pointed out that the first thing to do in a mystery for young readers is to “get rid of the parents,” so that unsupervised adventures might be possible. Abba (“Marmee”) would have been all too aware of any snooping and dashing about on her daughter’s part, but in her absence Louisa’s character is free to discover dead bodies and break into hotel rooms.

“What about Bronson Alcott??” I hear you philosophers cry. Well, he wasn’t exactly the most aware of parents. In fact, he was a pretty dreadful husband and father all around. Hugely influential in educational reforms, no doubt, and reportedly captivating when speaking to a room, but not a top notch dad. I think that Michaela MacColl did a respectable job of balancing Louisa’s admiration of her father’s ideals against her frustration at his inability to put the family’s security at a higher priority than his impractical notions. We can see that he’s not a lazy man; he chops wood and repairs their home and gardens for their vegetarian food. He just refuses to work for money, which might sound high-minded and impressive but actually made the Alcotts’ lives awfully difficult.

Much of the story’s tension actually builds around Louisa and Marmee’s anxiety about how to keep the family afloat. Most of Louisa May Alcott’s writing, including Little Women, was written with the rather mercenary goal to get paid ASAP. And I salute her for it, because she was so generous with her funds and made sure her family never suffered once she could afford to take care of them all. The moral bent of Little Women is absent in The Revelation of Louisa May, and we get to hang out with a heroine who knows what must be done and spends a good amount of introspective thought on the difference between ideals and necessity. I love Jo March intensely, but it’s nice to see Louisa as her own person sometimes, too.

Though there’s death and deception in this mystery story, it’s not wildly frightening or inappropriate. Even the romantic stuff is unusually clean for YA literature. I’d recommend The Revelation of Louisa May to readers 11 and up. If you’ve read and enjoyed Little Women, and understand about the underground railroad, there’s nothing here you can’t handle. Some background knowledge on what Emerson and Thoreau were thinking about will make their characters all the more interesting, but it’s not entirely necessary. The author’s note at the back of the book is incredibly helpful, and really rather fascinating. It was nice to see how an author of historical fiction chooses what to keep, what to change, and where truth is truly more compelling than fiction.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from Little Women that will have some connection to the events that follow. I liked this addition, and shall close my review with one of my favorites. I think it sums up the attitude of the book quite nicely:

” ‘I don’t think secrets agree with me, I feel rumpled up in my mind since you told me that,’ sad Jo rather ungratefully.”

Go pick up The Revelation of Louisa May if you’re into the Alcotts, like historical mysteries that aren’t too gory, or if you’ve ever wondered what those wacky Transcendentalists were like when they weren’t expounding on the glories of the woods. I liked this book and will probably read more of MacColl’s work, especially since she keeps choosing such complex and admirable young writers to feature as characters.

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Book Review: Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase is supposedly for middle grade readers and young adults, and I know my most morbid friends and I would have absolutely adored it at that age, when we spent our afternoons trying to get possessed by spirits in the church basement during Girl Scout meetings. However, it’s such a sophisticated and downright scary book that I think older teenagers and even adults who read it would not feel like they were reading a children’s book below their league. (I am, of course, a hundred percent in favor of older people reading all manner of kid’s books without a hint of shame.)   The Screaming Staircase is a supernatural thriller which is scary, funny, and intriguing to the very last page.

Jonathan Stroud introduces us to a modern London full of ghosts. In fact, the whole world is experiencing “the problem” of a dramatic rise in hauntings, for reasons yet undisclosed – and into that London he’s introduced our young teenaged narrator, Lucy, and the the indomitable Lockwood & Co. Part of “the problem” seems to be that adults are not sufficiently attuned to ghostly disturbances and therefore aren’t too effectual in ghost hunting. But kids are more susceptible to paranormal behaviors. Just like with suspected hauntings in the real world, there might be some presence in a haunted house but only someone with psychic sensitivity can make any sense of it. In The Screaming Staircase, sensitive kids are apprenticed to ghost hunters as the eyes and ears of operations or they work as night guards in important parts of the city after curfew has been put in place after sunset. Lucy starts out as one such apprentice, but quickly learns that adults are cowards and often unprepared, even when they’re supposed to be in charge. Reeling from a ghost-busting gone horribly wrong, she joins up with Anthony Lockwood’s agency, where the entire operation is run by young teenagers out of a London townhouse full of weird artifacts, sword play in the basement, and a mess of tea and biscuits.

Lockwood himself is dashing, clever, and positively brimming with enthusiasm to get rid of ghostly “Visitors” and make a name for his unorthodox little company. George, his chubby and sarcastic young coworker who researches things from a safe distance, cooks and conducts experiments on a haunted skull even when he’s taking a bath. George doesn’t inspire Lucy’s confidence quite so much at first, but Lockwood & Co give her a home and a way to channel her ability to hear Visitors into a sense of purpose. Together, the three of them take on a haunted house case which should just be a routine exorcism. Things go awry, as they so often do. They are unprepared, they find a mysterious dead socialite by accident, and they end up burning their client’s home to the ground. And that’s when The Screaming Staircase really gets going. Lockwood must agree to investigate the incredibly haunted estate of one of the richest men in the country – a fellow in the iron business does a good bit of business when supernatural disturbances become part of the daily forecast – and the three young ghost hunters get in way over their heads at Combe Carey Hall once they start digging deeper into the mysteries of its past. Blood pours down from the ceiling. Children from other agencies have disappeared mysteriously or been found dead the next morning. And yes, there is a staircase which wails and screams with violent medieval memories. Lucy, George, and Lockwood will have to rely on little more than their wits, their rapiers, and each other when they come face to face with the afterlife and realize that things are quite confusing enough on this side of the mortal veil.

When I say that I would have loved this book as a young teen, I want to make it clear that I was a creepy, weird little lass. The Screaming Staircase is scary. Ghosts in Stroud’s world range from spooky phantoms seen near gallows-trees to full-fledged nightmares attacking kids in their bedrooms. There’s horror in this adventure, but what a fun adventure it is! Ghost stories for children sometimes run the risk of being too old-fashioned (like Constable & Toop, which I enjoyed but which might not grab the attention of Middle Grade readers accustomed to high stakes and snappy dialogue) or too high-tech and superficial. Lockwood & Co seems to be a series which will fall comfortably in the middle of these two generalizations to give us riveting action and relatable characters while still retaining some of that old-time-y ghost story atmosphere. I love the fact that agents use rapiers to parry with spirits and the inclusion of folkloric beliefs like the protective qualities of iron and various spiritual artifacts. The hauntings themselves are appropriately motivated by untimely deaths and unfinished business, so fans of ghost stories for both kids and adults will recognize some of the patterns which move the novel’s plot along. I like traditional ghost origins, though, and was perfectly content to wonder vaguely at “the Problem” without wishing it had been entirely spelled out for me. Maybe in future books Stroud will give us the logistics of his haunted setting, but the story doesn’t suffer for his skirting the issue.

While the ghosts and haunted houses might seem straight out of a Gothic novel, the characters are decidedly modern. I challenge any reader to put this book down not wanting to hang out with Lockwood. He’s just so cool. George, too, is so much fun to read about. Lucy immediately dislikes his mocking manners, but I usually find that the sarcastic side-kick turns out to be my favorite character in any book. He acts as a great voice of unfortunate reason, but also turns out to be brave and loyal. Huzzah for a sidekick with depth! Lucy is surly, but eager to do a good job, and I found that I could easily relate to her character. There’s plenty of background to her past as a strongly attuned psychic, and despite life’s hardships she just wants to put her talents to good use. Of course, this being a children’s book, there’s a hint that there might be something more to Lucy’s powers. That’s not my favorite literary tradition of all time; kids do not always need to find out they’re destined by to save the world, sometimes they should be just a normal sword-fighting psychic trying to save London from supernatural foes… But, once again, the threat of “specialness” didn’t ruin the book for me.

A few points did make me raise an eyebrow and wonder about certain choices. The Americanization of Stroud’s British terminology was inevitable, I suppose, but for a book which talks about changes in temperature all the bloody time it was distracting to stop and wonder why these kids were speaking in degrees Fahrenheit during otherwise bone-chilling scenes. The major villain of the story isn’t revealed as a scoundrel until late in the book, so some other unpleasant characters are sprinkled throughout to act as antagonists to our intrepid heroes. Unfortunately, the rivalry between Lockwood & Co and another group of agents seemed shallow and petty to me. It’s always great fun to watch an arrogant twit make an idiot of himself so that protagonists can have revenge upon him later, but the bully and his cohorts were too one-dimensional to add much to the story besides a glance at why big agencies with adult supervision aren’t nearly as awesome. There’s also the gore-factor. I love scary stuff, but visceral grossness really bothered me as a youngster (and it still does). There are a few little descriptions here – not lengthy ones, but vivid – which would have certainly fueled some scream-worthy nightmares a decade ago. I hope that anyone who picks up The Screaming Staircase reads the cover blurb and flips through it before dedicating a night to getting lost in the story. It’s such an engrossing read you won’t want to quit halfway through, even though you might regret it later when you start hearing a steady drip-drip-drip in your dreams.

I heartily recommend Lockwood & Co to anyone who liked the charismatic characters in Artemis Fowl, as well as the mix of modern and old fashioned adventure. Spooky kids who liked The Graveyard Book but want a little more action will love it, as will anyone who wished that superstitions and sword fights were still part of every day life. Any grown-up anglophiles who want a straightforward ghostly adventure will also enjoy The Screaming Staircase. I hope Stroud will continue to write about the exploits of Lockwood & Co, even though this book ended very nicely without too many loose ends. There’s a lot to explore in his version of London, and I want to explore it with Lucy and her friends.

My review of the second book in the series – Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull can be read here.

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.

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.

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

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age recommendation: 14+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 +

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

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

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

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

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

Archived Review: Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on January 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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