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Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Review by Morgan.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under tam lin pamela dean fairy tale faery folklore legend ballad fairy tale re-telling adaption college novel campus novel book review fantasy feminist lit 1970s fairy queen janet scottish folklore fairport convention celtic mythology fairy court terri windling

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Reading vs. Research: Pirate Edition (and a reading list)

Ahoy there, lubbers!  This is yer captain (Morgan) speaking, to alert you to some very important pirate info.  Over at my proper blog, The Bookshelf Pirate I have compiled a list of recommended reading for would-be salty dogs and pirate princesses.  Here thar be small reviews of the following nautical books:

Black Jacks: African American Seamen In The Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster

Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell

Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

I’ve also made a list of recommended reading.

Other pirate books to read for fun:

Pirates! by Celia Reese – Good historical fiction and girls kicking butt!

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson - A jolly adventure for younger readers.

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – My favorite story in the history of stories.  Captain Hook is a classic.

Capt. Hook: Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart and illus. by Brett Helquist – Great twist on Captain Hook’s backstory.  Obstinate young scallywags causin’ all sorts of trouble.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – Another classic sea adventure.  Long John Silver is one of the best pirate characters in history.  I want to be him when I grow up.

Silver: Return To Treasure Island by Andrew Motion – I bought this in Edinburgh last year and still haven’t read it.  Once it’s summer I intend to re-read Treasure Island and then dive into this continuation.

A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes -  Wildly under-appreciated novel about a pirate crew which ends up in charge of a bunch of children.  I get really excited about it here and even have it as one of my “staff picks” at the bookshop.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – Ridiculous but fun swashbuckling thriller.  Best taken with the same grains of salt as On Stranger Tides.

Other pirate books recommended for research:

If A Pirate I Must Be: The True Story Of “Black Bart”, King Of The Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders - I read this when I was in high school and Bartholomew Roberts has been one of my favorite pirates ever sense.  Entertaining story of an unbelievably cool captain.

The Republic Of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard – I think the subtitle says it all.  A rather sensationalized account of pirates and their enemies, but includes tons of great facts and talks about several important figures.

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story Of Captain Kidd by Richards Zacks – Whole book entirely about Captain Kidd, which was a gripping read but had tons of great information.  Helped me appreciate the sea shanty, too.

Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly – Real pirate adventures were sometimes even more bloody and thrilling than the myths Cordingly dispels.

A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (pseudonym) 1724. – Excellent contemporary account of real pirates written during the Age of Sail.  Shows how the world pirates lived in viewed them and profiles some Captains best not forgotten.  This book is still in print today.

Easy-to-read history books which mention some admirable pirates:

Famous Last Words by Jonathan Green – A morbid and entertaining collection of the last thing people said before they died.  Includes some great 18th century zingers as well as criminal’s last declarations before being executed, tragi-comical accidents, and some rather touching examples too.

Badass by Ben Thompson - An entire book devoted to famous badasses from history, written by the fellow behind badassoftheweek.com.  Naturally there are plenty of sword-weilding action heroes from the sea as well as land.  Includes Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, and Lord Nelson, amongst others.  You can read an old review I wrote of it here.

Princess Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie – Each chapter is about a princess from history who decided to lead thrilling lives of ill-repute.  Includes lady pirates and generally inspiring role models for every young lass who likes sporting a crown and a cutlass in equal measure.

Read the full post for reviews, pictures, and an inspirational news story about how a history book about Black seamen in the Age Of Sail inspired a convict to make a better future for himself.  It even melted my own cold captain’s heart.

Happy reading, you scallywags!  Yarr, and all that.

Filed under pirates book review pirate books history black history african american history age of sail reading list nautical books piracy bloody jack l.a. meyer black jacks powder monkey paul dowswell on stranger tides very nearly honorable league of pirates caroline carlson peter pan capt. hook captain hook treasure island bartholomew roberts captain kidd privateer feminist pirates female pirates black pirates bookshelf pirate morgan

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Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Review by Morgan

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 make 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.

Filed under boy snow bird helen oyeyemi book review fairy tale lit books boy snow bird snow white folklore vintage america african american magical realism brothers grimm hans christian andersen racism british lit oyeyemi boy snow bird review morgan

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Valentine’s Day Special: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

Review by Morgan. Originally posted on my book review blog.


Star Ratings for Why We Broke Up

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4  stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Daniel Handler, please be my Valentine.  There’s not a single damn thing you’ve written that I don’t love.  This includes the new picture book 29 Myths On The Swinster Pharmacy, which was authored by some suspicious bloke named Lemony Snicket. (Snicket writes an awful lot like Handler.)  But today is Valentine’s Day, so here is a love story which implodes spectacularly before Valentine’s Day even comes around.  Talk about good timing!  But honestly, I don’t like romantic stories very much, so this is the best I could do upon remembering the date.  February 14th?  So that explains the sudden, raging success of Junie B Jones And The Mushy Gushy Valentine at my shop.  (If I had to give a more thematic recommendation, that would be the one.  Can’t go wrong with Junie B, but Daniel Handler is even better.)


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Min Green and Ed Slaterton aren’t necessarily made for each other, but they fall in love and stumble around through a passionate high school romance until – quelle surprise! – they break up.  The book begins at the end of their story: Min is returning a box of relics from their relationship, and what we read is her long letter to Ed that goes with it.  Maira Kalman’s illustrations of each object – items like a file which meant to be baked into a cake, a weird spiky seed-pod thing, and a meaningful box of matches – are simple and interesting and make the reading process rather a joy.  Ed’s the basketball team co-captain.  His friends are jerks and he goes through life with the blinders of popular-senior-boy success blocking out a great deal of his surroundings.  Min has long been part of those surroundings, obsessed with old movies and drinking fancy coffee with her artsy friends.  But, she insists, she’s not actually artsy. She’s not good at art.  She doesn’t make good grades or like beer very much.  Yet, somehow, she and Ed start talking at a party. They start to date, stalk a possible movie star, insult each other’s friends, behave explicitly in parks, tell each other secrets, give each other weird gifts, and eventually break up.  Min’s bitter, tender, stream-of-consciousness letter is like one very long Tumblr quote, in the best of ways.  Open up to any page and you’ll come across something like this:

“And it wasn’t just us. It wasn’t just that we were high school, me a junior and you a senior, with our clothes all wrong for restaurants like this, too bright and too rumpled and too zippered and too stained and too slapdash and awkward and stretched and trendy and desperate and casual and unsure and baggy and sweaty and sporty and wrong.”

or this

“There are so many movies like this, where you thought you were smarter than the screen but the director was smarter than you, of course he’s the one, of course it was a dream, of course she’s dead, of course, it’s hidden right there, of course it’s the truth and you in your seat have failed to notice in the dark.”

It’s a surprisingly heartfelt story, and I don’t have much of a heart with which to feel.

Why We Broke Up is probably the most mainstream of Daniel Handler’s books: it distills all the sublime dialogue and weird adolescent energy so prevalent in The Basic Eight into something more realistic. In The Basic Eight, the teenaged characters are extravagant, and their lives go totally nuts as the plot gets weirder and weirder.  (Read my review of The Basic Eight here.  It was my favorite book I read in 2013.)   The opposite seems to be the case in Why We Broke Up.  Stylistically, the books are similar.  You’ll recognize your favorite weird Handler/Snicket-isms sprinkled throughout.  Big words.  Pretentious drinks.  Vintage pop culture.  Interesting food.  But Min, Ed, and the other characters just feel so vividly real, so tragically similar to the people you encounter on a daily basis – just with better one-liners.  Even the minor characters are excellent, and perfectly evoke the awkward balance teenagers almost always fail to strike between love, family, and friends.  And, since they’re minor characters in Daniel Handler’s capable hands, you know they’ll be witty and judgmental and possess obscure talents.  In this particular book, though, teenagers are distinctly teenagers even when they’re making igloos out of cubed eggs for an aging film star’s secret birthday party.

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My favorite part of the book?  They steal a sugar dispenser at one point, to make a cake which requires stolen sugar.  That’s just one of the Various Fictional Details which make Why We Broke Up an indespensable part of the Handler/Snicket universe I love so much.  Adults in this book are almost entirely useless, and that never fails to make me happy.  We’ve got kids navigating the treacherous world of romantic nonsense guided only by their disobedient hearts and terrible judgement.  We’ve got nerdy references and sordid affairs. If you want more nerdy references and sordid affairs, check out the Why We Broke Up Project, in which many of my favorite writers and some hapless readers share their own tales of heartbreak, woe, and bad music.  Isn’t that what this holiday is all about?  So happy Valentine’s Day, readers.  Don’t screw it up.

Filed under morgan book review why we broke up ya daniel handler maira kalman lemony snicket vfd illustration books romance high school teen lit bookshelf pirate the basic eight quote relationships valentine's day valentine

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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)

Review by Morgan. Originally posted at my book review blog Bookshelf Pirate Reviews.

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.

Filed under book review the winter people jennifer mcmahon suspense thriller horror necromancy book lit ghosts historical fiction vermont books morgan

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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)

 Review by Morgan. (Originally posted at my book review blog: Navigating The Stormy Shelves.)

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 our old review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell here.) 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.

Filed under morgan the accursed joyce carol oates jonathan strange and mr norrell susanna clarke historical fiction paranormal fantasy horror history book review satan demon mark twain upton sinclair woodrow wilson princeton jack london feminism race racism sexism socialism

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Book Review: The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Review by Morgan, originally posted at The Bookshelf Pirate.

Dear readers, it’s a really big deal that I’ll admit to enjoying this book. I don’t usually like nonfiction. I find biographies awkward and survival stories a bit of a drag. Until a few days ago, I was quite adamant that I disliked Elizabeth Gilbert, because I think that Eat, Pray, Love is one of the most overrated books to ever grace the bestseller list. I gave up on that memoir and deemed it self-indulgent waffling. So it took a lot of persuasion, a free book, and a snowy day to convince me to sit down with The Last American Man.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

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

Objectivity and research: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Holy crapoli was I surprised. This is not the vague life story of a guy who tries to be extra-manly in everything he does. This isn’t a collection of ramblings about freedom and liberty, or bald eagles, or a gun-nut holed up in a shack somewhere (though there are plenty of guns in Eustace Conway’s life, a powerful sense of freedom, and a few eagles, too). The Last American Man is the biography of a man who, at seventeen years old, set off with little more than a teepee and a knife to escape from materialist society and a tense home life where his dad expected impossible perfection. He hiked the Appalachian trail, became almost entirely self-sufficient, lived with the wilderness, and decided that it was his calling to share this way of life with other people. Eustace Conway considers himself a “Man of Destiny,” and Elizabeth Gilbert sets about chronicling his pursuit of that destiny. He started out giving talks about nature at schools, inspiring young people to consider their role as part of the earth. After countless adventures; some tragedies; and several meals consisting of porcupine, he has nearly become the sort of legendary figure Transcendentalists and gentleman explorers wanted to be, but didn’t know how.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s biography of Eustace Conway is very personal, examining one man’s ideal of giving up on modern comforts to live in the wilderness, but also surprising. Halfway through the book, after I became nearly convinced that this guy had all the answers idea about mankind and nature (and the future, and life…) the narrative changed just subtly enough to show the other sides to Eustace’s story. The girlfriends who saw him as some fantasized ideal were, in turn, berated and discouraged for failing to meet his impossible standards. Beautiful scenes of Eustace teaching kids at his camp to imagine themselves as the forest floor were juxtaposed with the demoralizing fact that not everyone can truly learn to live at one with nature, contrary to what he believed at the beginning of his journey. Chapters of freedom during a record-breaking horseback adventure across the country, an adventure which might impress Cormac McCarthy, were exhilarating.  But soon enough Gilbert reminds us that the modern world is no longer so amenable to earnest, determined, natural souls.

I loved reading about how Turtle Island, the nature preserve and farm Eustace Conway worked so hard to protect, was supposed to endure as a peaceful haven against industrial greed. And then, when legal fine-print and human reality began to tear down that dream several chapters later, I shared in a tiny piece of that heartbreak. While there’s no real plot to comment upon, this being a true story – and an unfinished one, at that – the book’s pacing was carefully constructed. She builds up a reader’s investment in parts of the narrative, and in the real subjects (who are so extraordinary they may as well be called “characters,”) so that the victories and challenges Eustace faces in his pursuit of destiny might affect us keenly.

The author has interviewed so many people in connection with her subject, and has spent a great deal of time with Eustace: sawing wood at his camp, talking in the woods, getting drunk, arguing. There are whole passages included from his extremely personal diaries, and while I felt that this intimacy seemed almost invasive, we get as well-rounded a portrait of the man and his beliefs as we could hope for. Gilbert has interviewed countless family members, acquaintances, enemies, and admirers of Eustace’s. It’s a level of personal investigation I can’t help but admire, especially because all that socialization with such strong personalities would have really stressed me out. (Clearly I should not become a biographer.) She also must have spent considerable time learning about frontiersmen from America’s colonization onward, because there are plenty of anecdotes showing how Eustace Conway is carrying on a tradition. That tradition is both one of returning to mankind’s roots and of pushing forward to some natural, pure horizon, and we’re left to decide for ourselves if Eustace will make it. Can we look past the fact that our hero has pushed so far away from the pressures of his childhood, only to be compared to his overbearing father once again? Is it enough that he has tried to live as a symbol of natural respect and self sufficiency, or do we need him to have ultimately succeeded in becoming a “Man of Destiny”? Does Eustace Conway owe us anything at all – owe us his belief that we can live as he does – the way he once claimed? Is he really the last American man?

This is an optimistic story, if not always an uplifting one. Despite the peaks and valleys and broken horse legs, I closed the book feeling a little comforted in the knowledge that this man – with his possibly-crazy vision for the world – has saved a few lives and opened countless eyes to the importance of loving the Earth instead of just living off it. I’m glad I read The Last American Man, and I’m willing to admit that it was foolish to judge Elizabeth Gilbert on only one book. This biography was riveting, touching, and yes, inspiring.

Filed under morgan the last american man elizabeth gilbert eustace conway survival nature biography nonfiction book review nonfiction review literature turtle island appalachian trail cormac mccarthy cross country americana self-sustainability wilderness lit books

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Book Review of 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)

Review by Morgan.  Also posted at my own book review blog, The Bookshelf Pirate.

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. InThe 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 & Toopwhich 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 inArtemis 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.

Filed under lockwood & co the screaming staircase jonathan stroud book review ya children's books ghost story supernatural thriller review ghosts London english literature children's lit young adult lockwood stroud bookshelf pirate morgan

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Review: The Mark Of The Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****(4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: *** **(5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Review by Morgan

(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.  The book is set to be released in March of 2014.)

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.

Filed under book review mark of the dragonfly jaleigh johnson middle grade morgan children's book review fantasy adventure steampunk 5 stars children's book lit literature review the mark of the dragonfly ARC books firefly royer goldhawk mortal engines

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Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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

Age Range Recommendation: 15 and up
Review by Rosie

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is the most compelling coming-of-age book I’ve read that didn’t have dragons in it.  It resonated with my own college experience, and reminded me of all the reasons I love fanfiction.  Rowell obviously knows a lot about the world of fandom, and she deals with it in a thoughtful way that can be understood by anyone, whether they participate in it or not.  

Cath and her twin sister Wren are eighteen, and leaving home for the first time to go to college.  Wren is excited and ready for the new experience, but Cath is terrified.  She and Wren have been inseparable for eighteen years, but now Wren wants to branch out, to the point where they won’t even be living together.

Wren is an important part of the story and has her own character arc, but Rowell mostly focuses on Cath and her struggle to go to class, get along with her terrifying roommate (and her ever-present boyfriend), and find the time to finish her novel-length fanfiction, Carry On, Simon.  This is where Rowell’s writing begins to shine.  Cath has a secret identity.  To everyone she meets at college she is just Cath, socially awkward, prone to panic attacks, and obsessed with a series of books about Simon Snow, teenage magician.  On the internet however, she is Magicath, the wildly popular author of numerous fanfictions featuring Simon and his maybe-evil roommate Baz.

Cath’s struggle to make her way in college will be familiar to anyone who has ever fought to fit in.  She is afraid of everything from walking home from the library at night to eating in the dining hall.  Her extreme introversion lifts only in her Fiction Writing class, where she works with a boy named Nick to write stories their Professor loves.  

In the meantime Cath’s relationship with her roommate Reagan, and Reagan’s boyfriend Levi is changing.  Reagan takes Cath under her wing and forces her to leave the room now and then.  Levi walks her home from the library, and brings her coffee from Starbucks.  Eventually Cath becomes friends with them almost against her will.  This comes in handy when her difficult family life starts to collapse just as finals start.

Cath has her belly of the whale moment over Winter Break.  She has several beautifully written conversations with her father that make it clear that despite all of her insecurities she is actually the most responsible and functional member of her immediate family.  We see another side of her that stays hidden when she’s at college, a side that jokes and laughs with her dad while managing the household with minimal effort, and writing an astonishing amount of fanfic in her free time.

Cath is easy to relate to for many reasons.  She deals with hard situations realistically, for one thing.  She cries, panics, and retreats into fantasy.  Then she gets up and does what needs to be done anyway.  Even though she has trouble meeting people’s eyes during conversation, or trusting her friends not to leave her she constantly challenges herself in her attempts to connect with others.  She’s also not afraid to stand up for herself when she feels it really matters.

One of the most poignant scenes occurs between Cath and her writing professor.  Her professor accuses her of plagiarism because she hands in a piece of fanfiction for an assignment, and Cath, rather than backing down, defends herself eloquently.  The conversation Rowell writes between the two will hit close to home both for those who condemn fanfiction and those who love it.  Cath is forced to see a side of writing she has never considered, and accept the fact that if she wants to be a writer she will have to branch out.  It’s the kind of moment everyone in college should have at some point with a caring professor.  

Fangirl covers Cath’s first year of college, a year fraught with family disputes, new experiences, and her own conscious attempts to open herself up.  Cath’s search for an identity separate from her sister is quietly riveting.  Rowell’s story is one that celebrates sisterhood, friendship, and the responsibility of growing up.  

I recommend Fangirl for everyone, but particularly teenagers nervous about going to college, or people who feel more comfortable connecting with people over the internet than in person.  This is a book for self-labeled nerds, bookworms, and midnight writers.  Read it under the covers with a flashlight while your roommate sleeps, or in between classes in the library instead of studying for finals.  Read it and remember that friends who love the same books as you are the ones that will stick around forever.

Filed under fangirl rainbow rowell book review ya literature cath avery coming of age rosie review teen romance romance fanfic in mainstream literature simon snow books mainstream