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Book Review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (Coming Feb, 2014)

Review by Morgan.

(You can read about me meeting Alice Hoffman over at my personal book review blog.)

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15+. (Tragic deaths and sexual violence.)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is about – you guessed it – a museum full of extraordinary things. More accurately, it’s about Coney Island in the beginnings of the 20th century, when theme parks and amusements were the center of society’s attention. A “professor” with a mysterious past curates a museum with his daughter and housekeeper, and displays both strange artifacts and “living wonders” to the curious public. These “living wonders” are people with deformities or special skills who make their livings as performers, and through the eyes of Coralie – the professor’s daughter, whose hands are like a mermaid’s – we see the inner operations of the museum. Coralie’s connection with water extends past her webbed fingers; she can hold her breath for an almost inhuman length of time and swims through the Hudson River even in the depths of winter. Raised by Maureen, her beloved housekeeper, Coralie grows up sheltered and contained by the manipulative Professor Sardie. When she stumbles upon Eddie Cohen taking photographs in the woods one night, Coralie is drawn out of her small world of magical trickery and into the electric, ever-changing world of Manhattan. Eddie has changed his name and hidden his Jewish upbringing in order to escape from a painful past which still haunts him. As a photographer he has his eyes open to the beautiful parts of nature and humanity, as well as to the horrors which fill his city. Miserable working conditions for immigrants, violent crime, and selfishness are part of the reality which Eddie turns into art, and his extensive view of the world creates a strong contrast to Coralie’s immersion in the details of the museum. When Eddie tries to track down a girl who went missing after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, his quest gets entangled with Coralie’s yearning for freedom and a vivid cast of characters who shed light on a past which is best left forgotten.

I’ll start out with the aspects of the book I loved. Good news: there are several! First of all, the characters were really interesting and detailed. Coralie, Eddie, Professor Sardie, and Maureen demanded most of the narration’s attention, but the minor characters and historical figures kept the story lively, showing depth and personality even in the briefest of appearances. The “living wonders” are never reduced to mere circus freaks, partly because Coralie doesn’t see them as such and also because Alice Hoffman was careful to show that these people were performers rather than lifeless displays. In addition to the men and women in the museum, the novel features a fascinating Dutch hermit, a bird-loving livery man with a dangerous past, an impeccably dressed “wolf man” with a scholarly appreciation of gothic novels, and some really distasteful specimens of humanity who prove to be way more twisted than anything in Sardie’s museum.

The novel’s careful attention to detail extends beyond the characters and into the historical setting itself. Coney Island is shown at a time when the demand for bigger and more competitive spectacles reached a frenzy: electricity is new and exotic animals are exciting. Women still faint when they get surprised. The Dreamland amusement park, which was very real, is being built throughout the novel, and there’s constant tension between the museum’s old-fashioned charm and these newer, more splashy, amusements. In Eddie’s part of the story, the industrial city is growing faster than can be sustained and many peoples’ ways of life are swallowed whole. The events take place against a backdrop of progress as the city itself expands, but we are left wondering if progress was worthwhile at such a cost. Manhattan and Coney Island become characters in their own rights, and the small-ish geographical setting is written with such a careful eye to detail that whole worlds open up in just a few square miles.

As this was a historical novel, I was also impressed with Alice Hoffman’s incorporation of history into the fictional love story she tells. Her major characters are invented to suit the narrative’s purpose – I would say that most of her books which I’ve read have been distinctly character-driven – but the setting is so important to the atmosphere that it would be a shame had she not fleshed it out with real details from such a memorable time. Two famously disastrous fires act as bookends and frame the story: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire shows us the horrible reality of how badly immigrant workers were treated (good luck getting the image of young girls jumping nine stories to their death out of your head once you’ve read this scene), and the inferno which burned down Dreamland ends the action in a whirlwind of nightmarish confusion. Hoffman stations her characters in the center of the action for these momentous incidents, therefore revealing the small details which force us to imagine them as real experiences rather than just names and dates. Her attention to detail shows how the politics and events of a place affect everyone who makes up a certain environment; her characters do not simply exist within the setting but act to illuminate the setting’s importance on our history and our collective interpretation of the past.

There were some weird parts of The Museum of Extraordinary Things which I can’t quite qualify as either “good” or “bad”, but I want to mention them anyway. The language was so poetic, and there were so many obvious metaphors; repeated images; and extended themes, that I had a hard time getting fully immersed in the novel’s writing and plot. Persistent opposition of fire and water images, and the constant dynamic between the wild versus city expansion were beautiful at times but seemed too repetitive and might draw some readers out of the story. The narrative style and shifting points of view might cause similar problems for some readers. Within each section of the book we get a chunk of text written in first person from Coralie’s past-tense point of view, a connected piece in the third person following those memories, another first-person narration from Eddie’s past-tense point of view, and yet another description of those events in the third person. This structure works better in the second half of the book, when Eddie and Coralie’s lives intertwine more obviously, but it’s a little tiresome the first few times the style changes. It’s important that we can understand the differences between how the characters see their own lives and how they really fit into their surroundings, but I wish this could have been achieved in a less abrupt style. Like I said, though, by the end of the book I wasn’t bothered so much by the shifts, since the distant plot lines eventually got braided together into a bigger picture.

The only real problem I had with the book actually has to do with how the conclusion is treated for each of the characters we grow to love throughout the story. Everything gets tied up too neatly at the end, both during and after a few scenes of intense drama and confusion. There’s a rush of chance solutions and solved mysteries which seemed to pile upon one another in rapid succession, thus downplaying the shock and concern we should be feeling for these characters and the city as we read the penultimate chapters. The denouement of this book could have been incredibly moving as well as hectic, but so many conclusions happen in so little time that the emotional impact gets buried under a rushed listing of near deaths and daring escapes. I must admit that I expected slightly more from a book which remained subtle and richly detailed until the last few chapters. This is not to say that I disliked the book by the time I put it down. On the contrary, I’m now determined to read more about the time period, and I’m sure that the characters will stay with me for quite a while. I just wish that the final action could have lived up to the careful research and detailed characters which set up for what could have been an emotional conclusion to such an interesting story.

I would recommend The Museum Of Extraordinary Things to fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, as well as to tragedy junkies and anyone who liked the excellent (and woefully short-lived) HBO series Carnivale. Alice Hoffman raises questions about family loyalty, selfishness and sacrifice, trust, religious faith, the need for adventure, and the past’s impact on every choice we make. Even if you don’t know much at all about the early years of the 20th century, pick up this book in February for a peep into a very true – and relatively recent – world in which living wonders and shocking reality combined to create one of the most dreamlike atmospheres in America’s history. It will open your eyes and fire up your imagination.

Filed under Alice Hoffman the museum of extraordinary things book review coney island historical fiction circus freaks mermaids immigrants triangle shirtwaist factory fire Dreamland amusement parks creepy magical review fiction literature morgan

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Book Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-13

We have a stack of Rooftoppers on display at my bookshop right now, and I will admit that I was enamored with this new-to-America children’s book even before I read it.  The cover is beautiful and subdued; an old fashioned design which won’t look out of place tucked alongside classics like The Golden Compass and The Graveyard BookRooftoppers has a charming narrative voice which calls to mind some of my favorite children’s books like Inkheart and Peter Pan, alongside a timeless setting for secretive adventures similar to The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

While it shares some excellent qualities with each of these books, though, Rundell’s writing has a unique style all her own.  She chooses her words carefully but includes enough warmth and wit in all of her dialogue and descriptions to keep us smiling at her dreamy view of the world.  I say “dreamy” there simply because I’m not poetic enough this morning to capture the right words to describe the mood of Rooftoppers. It is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted to read sitting in the cold moonlight after everyone had gone to bed when I was nine or ten years old.  There’s beautiful imagery, international travel, clever conversations, and intrepid children having adventures in a word all their own.

The story starts with a baby getting rescued from the a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case by an awkward but kindhearted scholar.  From the second page, we get a reassuring peek into the nature of the relationship between rescuer and cello-baby: “It is a scholar’s job to notice things.  He noticed that it was a girl, with hair the color of lightning, and the smile of a shy person.”  Charles raises Sophie on his own, and she grows up happily in his curious house eating cake off books (she has a tendency to break plates), reading Shakespeare, and ignoring the tangles in her hair.  Sophie refuses to give up hope that her mother still lives, and a phrase which she and Charles share with each other on numerous seemingly-hopeless occasions is “never ignore a possible.”  The family they make is happy but unconventional and so, as it often happens in books about blissfully un-brushed and precocious children, the dubiously omniscient “state” decides to meddle.  The unfeeling Ms. Eliot, a rigid woman from the National Childcare Agency who is described as often speaking in italics, decides that Charles is unfit to raise Sophie.  It seems he knows so little about bringing up girls he has scandalously allowed her to wear a shirt which buttons on the right like a man’s, as well as a slew of other frustratingly closed-minded grievances.

In defiance of their orders to be separated from one another, Charles and Sophie risk everything to escape England with high spirits in the face of adventure.  They follow a clue found in Sophie’s old floating cello case to a music shop in Paris, and decide to try and find her mother while they wait to be left in peace.  One thread of the plot which puzzled me a little was the selflessness of Charles as he helps the child he raised go searching for a mother she had never met, but between his devotion to her happiness and the unlikely odds that the woman is even alive, I could easily shelve my cynical expectations.  In Paris, Charles and Sophie have to match wits with shifty police officers and obnoxious legal waffling.  Sick of hiding in her hotel room all day, Sophie climbs up to the roof, only to discover that the rooftops of Paris are home to groups of children living free from the rules of the streets below.  She strikes up a friendship with Matteo, an orphan who vows never to go down into the streets again, and some of his friends and learns that thrill and freedom of a life above city could provide her not only with a measure of safety from the authorities but also, if she’s very lucky; very careful; and very brave; a path to her long lost mother.

I knowthat the books to which I compared Rooftoppers were mostly stories with some fantasy elements, but this novel is actually not a fantasy at all.  I hesitate to call it “realism,” since the historical setting is rather vague to allow for the traditional elements of a Nineteenth Century children’s adventure, but there’s no magic other than luck, hope, and powerful music.  Many of the characters also bear descriptions which imbue them with almost fairy-tale qualities: for example, Charles “had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.”  Because the characters tend to see each other as wondrous beings, there’s no real need for dragons or spells.

It was an absolute pleasure to read about Sophie and Charles as they looked out for one another, and I was easily convinced by Matteo and his hardscrabble friends that the unconstrained world above ground is the best sort of freedom a child could imagine.  The characters in Rooftoppers were determined, resourceful, and hopeful even in the face of devastating disappointment.  If Rundell had been less skilled in her creation of a storybook atmosphere, I think I might have found some of the characters and events a little too good to be true.  Luckily, she writes so beautifully that even where the plot failed to surprise me it still managed to be delightful.

The tension in Rooftoppers sems mostly from the risk of characters losing one another, which is sweet and meaningful but means that readers who are easily frightened won’t find themselves haunted by the terrifying situations which are so plentiful in other Middle Grade novels.  (I loved me some terror when I was of that age, but I understand that some parents would rather not be woken to the sound of screams after their kid stays up too late reading.)  There’s a little bit of violence, but it’s more reminiscent of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan than any true evil.  The end was bittersweet and a little abrupt, but I was extremely relieved to see that there was no cliffhanger paving the way for a sequel.  Rooftoppers can stand alone as a charming book to read on a dark night, particularly if the power’s out and you’ve got a warm fire, and you’ll be thinking about Sophie, Charles, and the shadowy children against the sky long after their adventures are through.

I haven’t been so entranced by the rooftops of Paris since I went through a phase in  Elementary School in which I watched The Hunchback Of Notre Dame every afternoon.   I imagine that sensitive children with mysterious spirits, and grown-ups who miss the atmospheric stories which stuck with them throughout the years, will enjoy Rooftoppers.  It leaves you with your head in the clouds and your heart in your throat.

Filed under Rooftoppers katherine rundell rundell book review review lit children's book children's books kid lit fiction fairy tale vintage musician the golden compass the graveyard book inkheart peter pan hugo cabret england paris british YA middle grade morgan

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Book Review: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

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Review by Morgan.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age recommendation: 10+

(This review was also posted to Morgan’s own book blog: Navigating The Stormy Shelves.)

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

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

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

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

Filed under Mortal Engines Philip Reeve YA children's book books book review lit sci fi fantasy steampunk predator cities natsworthy valentine series speculative fiction futuristic morgan

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Book Review: After the Wreck I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, And Flew Away

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Review by Morgan

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-Banksand 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.

Filed under YA high school book review Joyce Carol Oates After The Wreck I Picked Myself Up Spread My Wings And Flew Away book review novel fiction drug addiction painkiller school teen oates new england crow death recovery grief morgan

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Book Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E Lockhart

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Review by Morgan

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 +

Happy summer, readers!  As Rosie and I have suddenly found ourselves in the Adult World with no school looming in our inevitable Septembers, I’ve found myself feeling rather nostalgic for books set in High School.  I didn’t always enjoy realistic YA fiction when I was still living the realistic life of a young adult, but now that I’m free of learning institutions, schools have gained a lot of appeal as settings for interesting and – sometimes – hilarious stories.  I read three books set in high school last week, and this is the first of them.  

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?

Filed under Frankie Landau Banks The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks E Lockhart high school YA book review teenage fiction literature prep school groton new england pranks feminism morgan

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Book Review: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Star Ratings

Characters: 5 stars

Character Development: 4 stars

Plot: 3 stars

Writing: 4 stars

Overall: 4 stars

Age recommendation: 16 and up

Review by Morgan

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

Oh yes, this is a messed up book indeed. It is absorbing and well paced, and I think I could have finished it the night I started reading just because it seemed impossible to extract my own train of thought from the antihero Frank’s own narration. However, I was so freaked out by a few of the scenes that I needed to take a break from the twisted world Banks has created in Frank’s head. There are only a few characters in The Wasp Factory, partly because it takes place on a tiny, secluded island somewhere just off the coast of Northern Scotland, but also because we see the world through Frank’s eyes, and Frank doesn’t find other human beings very interesting or important. He’s a sixteen year old with psychopathic tendencies who provides the reader with twisted rationalizations to the murders of his little brother and two young cousins which he committed years ago. The explanations to his actions are in such matter-of-fact tones that its difficult to get a read on the book’s narrator, making him all the more frightening. “Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through,” he says at one point, and the delusional logic which inspires his actions is presented in such an offhand manner that his thoughts seem even more monstrous than his violent acts. When he describes the creative but horrifying murder of little Esmerelda, against whom he felt no real malice, Frank assumes that his reader shares his unnatural view of the world and its rules: “I killed little Esmerelda because I felt I owed it to myself and to the world in general. I had, after all, accounted for two male children and thus done womankind something of a statistical favour.” What ate into my brain the most (oops, that’s a sick pun which will only make sense after you read the book) was the way that the murderous compulsions, the gory scenes of animal torture, and even the macabre rituals of The Factory and the Sacrifice Poles start to take on a weird rationality of their own as we get sucked into this book. Banks managed to tell a story with no real hero, following a character to whom it should be impossible to relate, and yet The Wasp Factory is still the sort of book that people read voraciously, desperate to understand what it is that’s horrifying them so much.

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

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

Filed under Iain Banks The Wasp Factory Horror Book Review Book Lit Psycho Scotland Scottish Fiction Iain M Banks Disturbing Literature Murder Killer morgan

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Book Review: Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough



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


Review by Morgan

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. Rosie will verify that when I saw the title of this book as we were aimlessly browsing Barnes and Noble, I seized it with such energy of action that it must have looked like I was struck by lightning. 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.

Filed under Long Lankin Lindsey Barraclough book review Young Adult YA Lit Folklore British Legend Cora Mimi review Literature Teenage Fiction Children's morgan

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A Short Review of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Review by Morgan.  Apologies for the short review and the brusqueness of tone, I originally reviewed the book on Amazon, because I wanted other readers of my interests to know that The Raven Boys is better than the cover and blurbs make it out to be.

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Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: *** (3 Stars)
Plot: **** (4 Star)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: **** (4 Stars)


Age range recommendation: 13+

This is the first book by Stiefvater I’ve ever read, though she’s extremely popular in the UK and I’m assuming in America as well.  I ordered The Raven Boys on a whim because I needed another purchase to merit free shipping on some books for my dissertation, and it was new and caught my eye.  I had my doubts but read it anyway, and here is why I’m glad I did:

The cover of The Raven Boys featured a tag line of “if you kiss your true love, he will die,” and the back description went on about how “This is the year [Blue] will fall in love.” I was, therefore, a little worried that The Raven Boys would turn out to be a dark-but-uninspired teenage romance with hints of the supernatural but more emphasis on the love story than on “the sinister world of the Raven Boys.”

Much to my surprise and appreciation, The Raven Boys turned out to be a fascinating - and quite original - adventure story with only a bit of the obnoxious romance I was expecting. The Virginia setting was quite vivid, the characters were amusing, and the plot (privileged high school boys use their resources to track down an ancient Welsh king’s burial site, and a local girl with psychic blood gets drawn into their search through a mix of curiosity and fate) was well imagined.

The novel had plenty of faults: too many side plots running at once meant that the story-line seemed disjointed at times and the ending was rushed/not explained very fluidly, but these problems didn’t irk me as much as they could have since I genuinely enjoyed the mystery and atmosphere of the story. Stiefvater’s writing is neither noticeably brilliant nor glaringly awful, her characterizations can be pretty obvious at times, and the book falls into the YA trend of setting up for a sequel when the tale should have been told in a single, longer, novel. But it’s clear that Maggie Stiefvater tried hard to write an imaginative novel for teenagers, one which didn’t fall unimpressively into a tired-out genre, and I would say that she succeeds.

There is moral ambiguity; there is genuine angst about the role fate plays in a person’s life and choices; and there are reflections about family, friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice which will resonate with both young adult readers and we-who-are-technically-adults-though-we-hate-it. There is also a truly fantastic twist in the story, one which completely justifies what I originally thought was a terribly written character, and I will admit that I wanted to high-five Stiefvater through time and space when I realized that she had known what she was doing with that character all along.

I guess I would call The Raven Boys more of a supernatural adventure, a ghost story, or a boarding school mystery than a Young Adult romance. Sure, there are four boys who make one quirky girl seem like she’s the center of the universe (which is one of my least favorite trends in YA literature these days) but there are enough good bits to make up for that and to ensure that I will read the sequel whenever it comes out.

Filed under Fiction Glendower Gothic High School Literature Maggie Stiefvater Mystery Teenage The Raven Boys Virgina YA lit Young Adult book review dark fantasy Raven Boys Stiefvater morgan

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Review of Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

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Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 15+
Review by Morgan
             
This will be a short review, as Morgan still has a few hundred pages of T.S. Eliot criticism to slog through before the weekend. “A short review from the ever-so-rambling Morgan?” I hear you ask, “Hallelujah! We thought she’d never learn to shut up!” Well, today is a day of miracles.

The cover art and title of Mr Toppit proved to be slightly deceitful, I learned, for I picked it up on a whim expecting a mysterious gothic tale full of dark deeds and murky gloom. Upon reading the novel – and it is a quick, engrossing read – I found gloom aplenty and mysteries of a sort.  However, the murk and horror I was looking for were replaced with incredibly dry British wit and a series of dark family secrets paraded through the disparate settings of London, an English country home, and sunny California. The misery and tension arise not through willful villainy but through the difficulties which a relatively modern English family fails to overcome when Arthur Hayman – the narrator’s father and fictive author of a popular children’s series – gets run over in London and dies in the arms of an American tourist.

The whole plot of Mr Toppit revolves around the family’s inability to function after Arthur’s death, the sudden popularity boom his children’s books – The Hayseed Chronicles – experience as a result of the tragedy, and the American Laurie’s sudden emotional connection to the Haymans. The characters are extreme but realistic in their strengths and weaknesses; Charles Elton does a fine job of writing as a teenage boy, a frazzled woman, and a whole slew of other distinct characters who never lose their voice or seem too over-the-top. Luke Hayman makes an excellent narrator as the jaded inspiration for the child hero of his father’s Hayseed Chronicles, his sister Rachel is a tragic and manic hot mess, and their mother Martha (my personal favorite character) is the most stereotypically English manipulative bitch ever written. Laurie’s chapters did not appeal to me so much since I thought she was pretty unlikeable, but one could argue that she is the most human character. I just have an exaggerated dislike of stories about dumpy, emotional, middle-aged women struggling to find themselves.  I can’t say that the prose itself was particularly memorable but the Hayman family, and their secrets, will stick with me for quite a while.

The title of the book refers to an enigmatic character in the fictional series of children’s books which hold the plot together. Mr Toppit himself is a dark and mysterious figure who lives in the woods where Luke Hayseed (the Christopher Robin-ified Luke Hayman) has all sorts of adventures.  People in the novel speak of Mr. Toppit the way one might refer to Lord Voldemort or Marley’s Ghost.  If there was one aspect of the novel which didn’t quite grab me, it would have to be the portrayal of the Hayseed Chronicles. They seemed like a mixture of the Narnia series, Winnie the Pooh, and Grimm’s fairy tales; if they truly existed they might in fact turn out to be wonderful, but as a major factor of this novel’s plot they weren’t real enough. Walk-on characters consistently mention how influential the books were on their childhood, at one point they purportedly save lives on a hijacked plane, but at no point is the reader given a chance to understand why everyone in Charles Elton’s world loves the series so much. Why are The Hayseed Chronicles as popular as Harry Potter and as well loved as Peter Rabbit? There are a few interesting “excerpts” in Mr Toppit but it is sometimes hard for an author to invent what claims to be great literature without sounding forced. I had a similar problem with Tanya Egan Gibson’s novel How To Buy A Love Of Reading. (For the record, I liked Mr. Toppit way more.)

The tag-line on my library’s copy of Mr Toppit reads “Once upon a time a book broke a family.” I’m not sure Charles Elton managed to convince me of the book’s power, but he certainly invented an intriguing, funny, and often infuriating family of characters who can easily carry the weight of the book on their own. Even the characters I wanted to punch in the face like the pathetic Laurie, several greedy bastards in the film industry, and Lila the intrusive German illustrator perfectly illustrate the fundamental point of Mr Toppit; everyone wants to claim a special connection with the legacy left behind by someone who dies. In the end, despite my initial disappointment that Mr Toppit wasn’t about a dapper Victorian serial killer (an expectation that may have been entirely unfounded, though “Toppit” does call that image to my mind), I think that the novel succeeds in portraying the breakdown of a family that is at times hilarious, tragic, and consistently compelling.

Filed under Mr Toppit Charles Elton Hayseed Chronicles Luke Hayman Laurie Martha Rachel Arthur Hayman Fiction Lit Book Review Dark English London morgan

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Book Review: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding


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Star Ratings
Characters:**** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:***** (5 stars)
Writing:*** (3 stars)
Overall:***1/2 (3.5 stars)

Review by Morgan.

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 14 and up. (Frightening ideas and some graphic violence.)

Hello my poor neglected readers.  I had fully intended to review The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray in time for Hallowe’en, as it is one of my favorite scary books of all time, but alas I was figuratively drowning in school work, literally drowning in tea, and quite unable to form coherent sentences until now.  However, November is an appropriately creepy month – especially here in Scotland where it gets dark by four in the afternoon – and the novel does indeed take place in November, so I’ll review it now.

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray has a slightly deceptive title; it suggests a ghost story about a young woman with a strange name.  In fact, the book is less about a single haunting and more of a full-on supernatural onslaught in an alternative-history Victorian London.  

The main character is a seventeen year old “wych-hunter” named Thaniel Fox, and he is one of those teenage protagonists blessed with an ability to perform any task a thousand times better than his adult counterparts.  Thaniel and his mentor in wych-hunting Cathaline (in anticipation of your questions: No, not a single character in this novel has a normal name) stalk and destroy immensely terrifying creatures called wych-kin who roam the streets of London.  London itself is different than it was historically in Victorian times: in an act of steampunk warfare the Prussians have bombed it from their airships roughly thirty years before our story takes place, and in certain parts of the city the wych-kin roam about unchecked.  When stalking a cradlejack – a monster who steals and eats babies, infecting anyone it bites – Thaniel comes across a traumatized girl his own age with amnesia.  This is Alaizabel Cray, and she is possessed by a cranky, super evil old wych.  The story centers around Thaniel, Alaizabel, and Cathaline as they learn about Alaizabel’s past and realise that much darker forces are at work than the monstrous wych kin who are growing in numbers too ghastly to think about.

Some readers may be confused by the extremely varied ratings I’ve given each aspect of this novel.  The writing and character development of this book aren’t too excellent, you can tell that the author was still in his early twenties when he wrote it and his style hasn’t been perfected yet.  He overuses certain words, like “clotted” and “lacquered,” to remind the reader how very dark and scary his version of London can be. As for the characters, each person is unique and fascinating but sometimes they are a little too perfect.  With the single notable exception of Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer), no teenager could believably be so proficient in this many fighting techniques, magical applications, and generally bad-ass skills as Thaniel.  He’s a likable character, levelheaded and cool, but when I first read this book I was fifteen years old and even then he seemed a little unrealistic.  The same goes for Alaizabel Cray; she is sweet, clever, brave, and sympathetic every time she speaks or acts, and it doesn’t quite add up.  Were I possessed by an evil spirit, I’d be grumpy and tired.  The minor characters are more believable, they each have their own strengths and foibles which round out the cast quite nicely.

Despite Wooding’s occasionally questionable writing, the plot in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is one of the best I’ve read in YA fiction.  He doesn’t just center around the relationship between Alaizabel and Thaniel, he writes a twisting, high-stakes tale which encompasses all of Victorian London from the police, to madhouses, to aristocratic cults, to beggar kingdoms, to serial killers.  The wych-kin themselves are each described in spectacular detail; there are new creatures the reader learns about in nearly every chapter and each is grosser and more sinister than the last.  Scrawny cradle-robbers with needle sharp teeth; the drowned splashing noises of the Draugs’ footsteps as they stalk their victims, the air growing cold and salty as they approach; the terrifying spectre which fills Alaizabel’s entire bedroom as it looms in darkness over her bed: this is the stuff of nightmares.  Once you have read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, you will never look behind yourself more than twice when walking at night, no matter what you might hear in your wake, for fear of getting devoured by Rawhead – the invisible stalker who only strikes on the third glance.

Chris Wooding has invented horrors I couldn’t even dream up myself, and I am notorious for screaming in my sleep from night-terrors.  The wych-kin are truly traumatizing, but the villainous humans aren’t much nicer.  The mysterious Fraternity – that dark cult which causes Alaizabel to become possessed as they carry out a nefarious scheme for power – is made up of corrupt policemen, cruel wych-hunters, and one truly nasty doctor who controls the city’s insane asylum.  Their rituals are creepy and completely immoral, and although Wooding’s writing style sometimes detracts from the story he is extremely talented at inventing and describing magic in an original but comprehensible manner.  The system of wards and summoning in the novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read and I was impressed by his inventiveness.

With the Fraternity and wych-kin for antagonists, those characters who remain in the moral middle-ground are evil enough themselves.  Devil-boy Jack, a psychic little boy with his eyes sewn shut, has absolutely no qualms about letting his friends die for the sake of a plan.  And he’s one of the kinder anti-heroes.  Stitchface is one of Wooding’s greater creations. He’s a serial killer who drives a hansom cab at night, wearing a woman’s wig over his mask: a gaping face sewn together from the skin of prostitutes he murders.  Yup, Stitchface is one of the good guys; the villains and monsters are way more horrifying than your regular psycho killer.  Hence, my age recommendation of fourteen and above.  “Not a bedtime book for those of a nervous disposition,” wrote The Times in its review of Alaizabel Cray, and I would have to agree.  Read this book if you want to be terrified, and if you don’t mind feeling entirely on edge when walking home at night, because you’ll soon be counting the number of times you look over your shoulder and jumping at every noise.

So, why should you read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, even though the writing is a bit iffy?  The setting is vivid, the plot is engaging, it features one of the best duels I’ve ever read, and the story is entirely unique.  It being a Young Adult novel, one could probably finish it in an evening, and that would be a November night well spent.   It’s an atmospheric novel, perfect for this time of year when the nights are long and the weather dreary.  Go and read it quickly, before November is over!

Filed under The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray Chris Wooding Stitchface Thaniel Fox Wych-Kin Wych Gothic Fiction YA Book Review YA Fiction Fantasy Steampunk Horror Monsters Victoriana Alternative History Fog London London Victorian Airship Cults morgan