Posts tagged YA
Posts tagged YA
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2stars)
Age rage recommendation: 14+ (Or, you know, only people who are ok with lots of bloody violence. It’s a vampire book, after all!)
I was delighted by Holly Black’s new YA novel, The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, in more ways than one! It’s a disgustingly entertaining book, and I had the wonderful fortune to attend her reading and talk in Cambridge this week, where I got to hear about the writing process and what experiences go into the fantastic stories she tells. I read an ARC of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown a few days before it was released, and here are some of my thoughts.
First of all, it’s inspired by one of my favorite of her short stories, of the same title, in which vampirism is a disease which causes its victims to go “cold” for eighty eight days. If someone who’s survived being bitten by a vampire can withstand their all-consuming hunger for blood, they remain human. Vampires and the infected are quarantined in Cold Towns, and anyone who goes cold must surrender themselves or be considered a danger to society for obvious reasons. The thing about Cold Towns is, anyone can sign themselves into one, but you can never leave again unless you have a very special marker and aren’t Cold or a Vampire. Of course, this being the age of reality TV and live blogs, feeds come out of the Cold Towns glamorizing the constant bloodletting parties and the dramatic lives of the real vampires who live there. Misunderstood goth kids will do anything to become a vampire – though bitings are growing rare since vampires don’t want to create competition for the blood supply – and events like The Eternal Ball and Lucien Moreau’s highly-televised parties draw thousands of viewers from outside the heavily guarded walls. You should check out Holly Black’s short story in her collection The Poison Eaters, because it’s a great introduction to the dark and gritty atmosphere of the novel. (Please buy it from an independent bookshop, or ask your local bookseller to order it for you! Amazon is evil.)
So the background to the novel was awesome to begin with, but how about the book’s specific plot? Also awesome. Tana wakes up the morning after a drunken party to find that all of the other party goers – most of them her high school classmates and friends – have been brutally murdered. With her infected and infuriating ex-boyfriend in tow and a suspiciously helpful vampire boy in the trunk of her car, Tana heads to Coldtown hoping to get Aidan through three months of cold hell and somehow make it back to her father and sister. They encounter a pair of vampire obsessed siblings with connections in the nearby Coldtown, and things soon spiral even further out of Tana’s control when everyone around her becomes desperate enough to put their own desires – blood, immortality, escape from a mysterious past – above the struggle to stay mentally and physically human.
I liked Tana as a protagonist because her motives were simple and real. She wants to survive Coldtown, get back to her family, and convince her little sister that turning into a bloodthirsty monster isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She wants to figure out what horrifying force is pursuing the cute but terrifyingly-insane vampire who owes her his life; not because the two of them are destined to save the world (such an exhausted plot twist in YA these days) but just because she likes him. She wants to help her friends and keep them from biting her. She’s horrified but determined, and it’s easy to invest in her troubles because she experiences a conflict between the instincts of self preservation and loyalty in a completely realistic fashion throughout the whole book. The supporting characters have lots of depth and great backgrounds, too. Tana’s ex boyfriend is charming but frustrating, the famous vampires were terrifying but so completely fascinating, and the human inhabitants of Cold Town had really interesting lives. Plus, there was an awesome Trans* chick who kicked ass without functioning as a mere one-dimensional attempt at diversity! Woohoo!
Reading The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, I noted with interest which parts of the Vampire Literature tradition Holly Black had adopted into her own mythology, and which conventions she decided to ignore or subvert. It’s impossible to write a vampire book without involving some of the patterns and themes from a genre which has been so popular for centuries, and Black does a great job of acknowledging this while still letting her own creativity take center stage. There were obvious influences from Anne Rice’s vampire books – the attention loving villain reminded me an awful lot of Lestat – and some of the action scenes took on a Buffy-eque, cinematic style. It’s a bloody story, and the narrative never shies away from gore in favor of Romantic death metaphors. In fact, the violent descriptions are an integral part of the story’s dichotomy: the quest for a beautiful immortality appeals to the vainer side of human nature at the cost of our self restraint, but the reality of becoming a monster is hideous and painful.
I imagine that any reader will be able to spot hints of their own favorite vampire legends and series when they read the book. At her talk at the Cambridge Library, Holly Black mentioned a whole ton of books and movies which had built up her image of vampires and asked us which vampires we remembered igniting our interest as young readers. The list included: Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Carmilla, Sunshine, and even TV and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that 80s film The Lost Boys, among many others. Aside from the obvious lineage behind Coldtown, I also thought of some embarrassing obsessions from my teenage years which actually fit quite well with the tone and themes of the book. The sarcastic heroine reminded me a little of Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ short and bloody YA books, while the themes of loyalty; desperation; and gritty violence actually brought me right back to the years when My Chemical Romance was the soundtrack to my life. Their early albums I Brought You My Bullets You Brought Me Your Love and Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge go surprisingly well with the pace and structure of The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, though it was uncomfortable to hear the sounds of my fourteen year old weirdness eight years later…
There were a few aspects of the book which I thought could be improved upon slightly, but for the most part I really enjoyed it. The big, dramatic parts of the story actually belonged to the vampire characters and not to Tana herself, so there’s quite a lot of exposition and other characters talking about a history which the protagonist never experienced. However, I was glad to read a book about a teenage girl who isn’t the center of some powerful machination and who isn’t destined to save the world armed with nothing but underdeveloped special powers, so I didn’t mind that structure too much. Some of the interesting minor characters didn’t get enough page-time to satisfy me, but the book was a good length in the end so I suppose their moments had to be pared down to only the most essential contributions. I’m not sure if Holly Black intends to write a sequel to The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, but I was so very happy that it didn’t end on a dangling cliffhanger. If she releases another novel set in Coldtown –either about Tana and her friends or just in the same fictional timeline – I will be excited to read it, even though I’ll be grossed out and nervous for the next few days, like I was this week. The book is great on its own. If you’re after a gross and gripping tale about complex vampires, with a few clever twists, I think that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown will satisfy the morbid side of anyone looking for a disturbing and addictive book to read this Fall.
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: ***** (5 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ***** (5 stars)
Age recommendation: 15+ (Plenty o’ drugs and violence, but not much sex.)
Remember when Morgan was pleasantly surprised by the fact that The Raven Boys was much more exciting and mysterious than the dreadful cover-blurbs made it out to be? Remember when she wanted to give Maggie Stiefvatar a resonating high-five after it turned out that a confusing bit of that novel turned into one of the best plot twists in recent YA history? Remember when she was very curious about what would happen next? Well, readers, hold on to your proverbial and literal hats, because The Dream Thieves is even better than The Raven Boys. Morgan and Rosie can’t freakin’ shut up about it. Buckle up in your magically souped-up cars, because this is one sequel which took our expectations by the throat and hurled them into a parallel universe where everything is nightmarishly awesome, witty, legendary, hilarious, and other adjectives as well. Here’s what Morgan thought:
I can’t describe the plot of The Dream Thieves in much detail without spoiling the events of its predecessor, and I want everyone to enjoy The Raven Boys at least as much as I did, so spoilers begone! Therefore, in the vaguest terms possible, here’s what you can expect from The Dream Thieves: Four prep school boys, plus the only non-psychic girl in a family of clairvoyant women, continue their quest to find the sleeping Welsh king Glendower and tap into the magical energy which flows under the town of Henrietta, Virginia. But now, more dangerous obstacles lie in their path, and the mysteries around them are only getting weirder. The traumatic events which concluded the first installment of their story have failed to deter them from their magical investigations for long, and each character is forced to grow and adapt to the increasingly dire consequences of every decision they have made.
Gansey struggles to balance his wealthy family’s political aspirations and his own obsession with the Glendower legend, while his privileged background continues to create tension between himself and his less-fortunate friends. Adam is clawing his way up in the world with exhausting hard work and some ancient magical energy which he can neither control nor understand, following a decision he made with questionable logic at the end of The Raven Boys. Blue tries to reconcile her own place in a family of psychics, and work out how she fits into the boys’ close-knit circle, all while she has trouble dealing with the knowledge that she might soon be responsible for the death of someone she loves. Noah keeps disappearing at inopportune moments and he can’t go on ignoring the tragedy of his unusual past forever. Most interestingly, in this episode of their ongoing saga, Ronan throws himself into his dreams and his family’s violent history, getting into trouble along the way and testing his loyalty to his friends against his desire to channel all his anger into something dangerous. With external influences coming at the group from all sides, including a mysterious hit man; some hilarious but wise psychics; and one volatile Russian teenaged mobster jerk, the characters we grew to love in The Raven Boys must keep on their toes and continually face the darkness within themselves, even when that darkness threatens to take over completely.
The quest for Glendower and the legendary adventures in which our intrepid team of weirdos found themselves entangledfades to the background of The Dream Thieves a little bit. Have no fear; Gansey’s interests remain (mostly) intent upon his scholarly magic treasure hunt, but the narrative itself shifts focus from Gansey, Blue, and Adam to the angry and complex Ronan in this book. It’s still an ensemble-driven storyline – and I must say that this ensemble of Virginian teenagers is one of the best groups of characters I’ve read about in a long time – but while Ronan was a complete enigma of bitterness and fierce loyalty in The Raven Boys, we finally get some insight into his own role in the supernatural drama. Ronan’s nightmares are terrifying and his life is messed up, and I must admit it’s a pleasure to read about the darkness within him.
The scope of The Dream Thieves is both wider and more narrow, somehow, than its predecessor. History plays a less impressive role here, but the really cool bits of the story happen in the magic which lies within objects and people who seem perfectly ordinary but are, in fact, completely mind-bending. The magic is different, too. Gone are the formal rituals of sacrifice and divining, and there aren’t many magic words. This magic is organic and deeply personal to whomever is wielding power at any given moment. We get to witness more minor characters from the first book revealing their own gifts and histories, including the ladies of Blue’s psychic family, who had intrigued me in the first book and are much more developed in the second. These new developments aren’t necessarily preferable to The Raven Boys, but its nice to see that Stiefvater can branch out and still keep the story tight and her characters compelling.
The action really picked up in The Dream Thieves, too. I will be recommending this novel to teenagers who like drag racing, dangerous drugs, and mercenaries, as well as to those readers who look for interesting characters and mysterious plots. Some villains are detestable bastards, some are emotionally complex, and every new addition to the cast adds more tension to an already stressful storyline. Some of Stiefvater’s earlier books couldn’t quite sustain the necessary relationship between character and plot, but in The Raven Cycle she has found the perfect balance between fast-paced narrative and characters who seem so real you forget they aren’t your personal friends. In fact, the main characters are so well developed that it’s impossible to use them as one-dimensional vessels for the types of people you encounter in your own life. “You’re being so Gansey-esque,” is not a sentence one could say with authority, and neither is, “Stop being such a Ronan!” Each individual has such intricate motives and detailed history that they are entirely unique to this story. I hope that other YA writers will learn from Maggie’s excellent example and write characters who are people rather than mere representatives of “types”. She can write hilariously witty banter and serious ideas about loyalty and belief with equal precision, too. Even if you haven’t liked the writing style of some of her earlier books, try this series. I think it will surprise you in the best of ways.
After Rosie finished reading my already-battered Advanced Reader’s Copy, our loud and energetic freak-out session bounced between us shouting about how we couldn’t get over what events we had read about, on the one hand, to how we just wanted to read about these characters all day long, every day, with occasional breaks for snacks. I suppose that’s a sign that The Dream Thieves had everything one could ask for in a YA sequel: a compelling plot and fascinating characters. Also, Psychics! Hit men! Russian assholes! Rednecks! Politicians! Psychopaths! Brotherly affection! Brotherly loathing! Not-so-brotherly-affection! Ravens! Ghosts! Talking Trees! Tarot References! Need I go on? Maggie Stiefvater somehow made me care about cars and engines, and I don’t even like cars! But now I find myself gunning it at stoplights and pretending I’m Ronan whenever the engine gets loud. This series will infect your life, your dreams, and your driving habits. Just buy and read the book the moment it comes out in September. And read The Raven Boys right this very second, if you haven’t already, to prepare yourself for the awesome adventure which is headed your way.
(Review cross posted to my book review blog at The Bookshelf Pirate.
Have I mentioned how holy-shit-god-damn-can’t-stop-reading-infecting-my-dreams GOOD The Dream Thieves was?!? Because, holy shit! God damn, I couldn’t stop reading. It was infecting my dreams.
The characters. They are some of the best YA characters I’ve read about in such a very long tome. I hate caring about people, and I’m usually very good about avoiding such inconveniences, but somehow Maggie Stiefvater has convinced me to worry about things like selflessness vs. ambition, and personal sacrifice, and loyalty and shit. I love that we get MORE PSYCHICS! MYSTERIOUS DEADLY-DUDES! UNPLEASANT RUSSIANS! MY FAVORITE GHOST! PIGEONS AND RAVENS! And my favorite gang of five to ever seek out a sleeping Welsh king.
Also, the writing in this one was even better than in the first. Maggie Stiefvater, your words speaking to my brain are having a weird impact on that hollow part of my chest where emotions should live. It’s all heavy and fluttery and stuff.
And when the hell did cars become exciting?!? I’m supposed to hate cars. I hate them. But there I was getting uncomfortably excited about magical engines and other nonsense. What? Why? How?
Morgan was too delighted by The Dream Thieves to write an eloquent review this week. But buy it the moment it’s released, readers.
Review by Morgan.
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.
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ***** (5 stars)
Age recommendation: 16+
Review by Morgan.
The Basic Eight was definitely my favorite of the three high school books I read this month. In fact, I think it might be my favorite novel set in a high school of all time. And I really like books about young people behaving badly, so that’s saying quite a lot. As July reaches its inevitable conclusion, I can safely say that The Basic Eight was my favorite book I read this month.
The premise of The Basic Eight was exactly the sort of thing I love: a bitterly funny tale about the delusions of youth and shocking acts of violence, told with some really excellent narrative sarcasm. Flannery Culp is part of a rather self-obsessed group of pretentious and creative friends – eight of them in total – who think that their dinner parties are the social events of a lifetime and who have a “Grand Opera Breakfast Club” which meets in the French classroom. Their lifestyle, which starts out as merely decadent, soon spirals out of control when feelings of romantic betrayal seize control of our young narrator and she turns into a “murderess.” The story is told through Flannery’s edited diary entries, which she prefaces and annotates from jail, in order to produce her own version of events as she tries to win the public’s sympathy; dispel rumors of satanic influence; and paint herself as the literary heroine of her own perceived drama. Right from the novel’s beginning, we know that Flannery is in jail for killing a classmate, so the tension is carried by a truly magnificent cast of characters and a twisting plot. What begins as a sharp satire of coming-of-age stories soon builds into a nightmarish storm of violence, wealth, and absurdity. The fact that the novel’s major event is revealed straight away does not ruin the book’s momentum, either. On the contrary, I found that the format lulled me into a false sense of security, and near the end of the book I actually slammed the book on the table and shouted, “WHAT?!?”. The plot isn’t necessarily realistic, and the characters are larger than life, but I was completely hooked by The Basic Eight a few pages in and couldn’t get it out of my head.
Some readers will recognize Handler’s sarcastic style reminiscent of his pseudonym Lemony Snicket from the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think that The Basic Eight, as his first novel, was where he tested out some of his stylistic techniques. A study guide follows some sections of Flannery’s diary, with a list of vocabulary words and questions like: “Is it rude to bring an uninvited guest to a dinner party? Should you be excused if it’s your boyfriend? What if he’s dumb?”. This trick in one of the more obvious instances in which Handler points out the ridiculous trends in high school, and books about high school, and the way the world treats high schoolers in general. When the characters are involved in the play Othello, too, Flannery immediately points out the parallels between the play and the events in her own life in her commentary. So many YA books hide literary allusions and parallels to whatever the characters have to study in their English class within the course of the narrative, and I love how Daniel Handler laughs at that trend by making it absurdly obvious. The book is pretty scornful of how adults handle teenage troubles, and includes some absolutely laughable adults who try to analyze the group’s actions after the crime, in an obvious parody of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and best-selling child psychologists. I love it when books show how out of touch figures of authority can be with young people, and even though these characters are unrealistically inept the real-life associations are pretty on point. The Basic Eight might be about a group of larger-than-life figures in an extreme situation, but it also deals with some very real problems that teenagers face in high school: feeling threatened by teachers, not knowing whom to trust, trying to keep up appearances when your whole world is falling apart. Handler faces these issues with an arsenal of wit and cynicism, and I wish I had read this book when I was in high school myself.
I will only fail at explaining how funny this book was ,despite the grim subject, because I’m not a funny enough person to do the humor any justice at all. Let me just say that I could not stop laughing. I laughed when Flan and Natasha couldn’t find tomato juice so they made Bloody Marys with marinara sauce to cure their hangovers. I laughed when the entire school had to fill out an anonymous survey about their relationship with Satan. You will laugh at the egotistical group of friends but you’ll also laugh with them and around them and near them. The San Francisco Chronicle compared the book to an inside joke, and even though I always felt one step behind the antics of the Basic Eight, I loved trying to catch up with the group of friends who I now feel like I know personally. You will laugh even when blood is flying and kids are getting sick on way too much absinthe. Handler’s sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I can’t get enough of his sardonic wit and clever style.
I would recommend The Basic Eight to so many people. In fact, I’ve already shouted at three of my friends to go and buy it immediately. I picked it up because in an interview Handler said that invented the name Lemony Snicket while he was researching the extreme conservative organizations who liked to get involved in “satanic panic.” I’ve been a fan of his children’s books and his infectiously funny style of writing for over a decade, so I figured it was time to dive into the source. (I also recommend Adverbs, which is the only other of Handler’s adult novels which I’ve read.) If you liked the self-aware and hilarious style of A Series Of Unfortunate Events but want a more grown-up story, buy this book. I would also recommend The Basic Eight to high school teachers all over the country, because it actually serves as a good example of all sorts of literary themes and techniques. Flannery is the quintessential unreliable narrater: she’s completely untrustworthy but she also doesn’t trust her readers. There are allusions to Shakespeare, opera, poetry, and classic literature all over the text. The narrative structure in the novel is creative and intricate; Flannery’s editorial touches to her diary entries fade in and out depending on what she’s revealing, and there are moments when its difficult to separate her wiser (but incarcerated) later self from the earnest voice with which she writes as the events unfold. The structure keeps you on your toes and merits serious consideration, and I bet I’ll catch onto things I missed entirely when I read the book again.
If high school teachers were to assign The Basic Eight as summer reading, I think that it would have a generally positive reception from the students, and the fact that their parents might take offense at the subject matter just makes Handler’s observations all the more suitable. At times the book was witty and charming, I could compare it to John Green’s Paper Towns, but then there are other sections which contain all the confused boredom and rage of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. I heartily recommend it to fans of both genres. I would recommend it to anyone who thought they were the only classy and intelligent person in their own school, because reading it gave me a chance to laugh at what a self-involved moron I had been as a teenager. Really, if you want to read about high school this summer, just read this book. I can’t wait to read it again.
Review by Morgan
Characters: *** (3 stars)
Character Development: *** (3 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
Age recommendation: 14+
The next library book in my high school novel stack was the first YA book by Joyce Carol Oates I had ever read. I’ve heard good things about Big Mouth, Ugly Girl, but I ended up choosing After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away because I liked the cover and the long title was irresistibly intriguing. This was a much darker story than The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and while I tend to prefer funny young adult books over tragic ones I will say that Oates made a lasting impression on me with this novel. The writing was poetic and the narrative was fluid: I found myself so deep inside Jenna’s tumultuous mind that it got hard to extract my own thoughts and impressions from her stream-of-consciousness style and memorable voice.
The un-glamourous school setting in After The Wreck was vivid, chaotic, and realistic. It reminded me of the middle school I had attended, though the characters were older and, therefore, the stakes were higher. We read about Jenna’s high school experiences after she recovers from a terrible car wreck – one which kills her mother and changes her forever – and moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new life. After The Wreck is one part tragedy, one part angsty teen nightmare about addiction, one part coming of age story, and one part meditation on grief and forgiveness. Because the narrator is going through her own personal development as well as the unimaginable suffering of blaming herself for a parent’s death, the difficulties she faces are more dire than any which I experienced as a teenager, but the difficulties she experiences at school are universal and unavoidable. Untrustworthy and manipulative friends, unrequited love, substance abuse, frustratingly bad communication between adults and teenagers: these conflicts rear their ugly heads in most teenagers’ lives despite their varying backgrounds or past experiences.
Oates writes about the distinction between Jenna’s life “before the wreck” and “after the wreck” to keep the plot visible and clear, but the story really focuses on facing internal fears and external pressures. In her new town, Jenna meets a mysteriously aloof boy called Crow who inspires her to confront her memories and overwhelming sense of guilt, but he, like the other supporting characters in After The Wreck, seemed a little two-dimensional compared to Oates’s complex protagonist. I sometimes wished that we could get a more detailed look at such compelling figures as Crow and the volatile teenagers who adopt Jenna into their social circle, but I do think that the decision to keep the entire story from her limited point of view was important to maintain the story’s style and tone.
I would recommend After The Wreck to older teenaged readers who have a good chunk of time to devote to reading a harrowing (but ultimately hopeful) book. Joyce Carol Oates’s writing style is so absorbing and compelling that it’s best to finish this book in one day, or one might risk going about their real life as though they were still in Jenna’s fragile consciousness. Oates portrays the ferocity with which young people must face the worst parts of growing up in sympathetic detail. I may not have laughed much while reading After The Wreck, but each page brought a flood of memories from my own angst-ridden teenage years to mind, and I vote that’s one sign of a well-done high school book.
Review by Morgan
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?
Review by Morgan
Since this is an anthology of short stories, the star ratings will be slightly different.
Writing: *** (3 stars. The authors chose to present their stories in their raw and largely unedited forms: notes in the margins point out what they would like to change. Despite the rough writing in places, the general quality is very good.)
Arrangement: **** (4 stars. Stories are relatively varied and presented in an appealing order. I wish the final story had been stronger, though.)
Balance: **** (4 stars. We get a nice mix of fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, legends, and psychological darkness.)
Personality: ***** (5 stars. I mean to say that the authors’ personalities and their writing styles shine through their commentary in the best of ways. We see how they work as writers and it makes them even more lovable/admirable.)
Overall: ***** (4 stars. I really like this book!)
Inspired by their collaborative website, The Merry Sisters of Fate (merryfates.com), The Curiosties showcases quickly written pieces of short fiction by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff. The stories tend to fall within their collective genre of paranormal or speculative Young Adult fiction, but each author contributes stories which refuse to be contained by one genre or even – as the amusingly hand-written margin notes point out – by their own distinctive writing styles. Brenna, Tessa, and Maggie share their thought processes, inspiration, and their opinions about each others’ work, and we get to see how their voices have changed and developed as a result of their literary friendship. For readers who pick up The Curiosities as fans of one particular author, there will be plenty of familiar themes and fixations within these pages. But it’s the unexpected pieces, the stories which surprised the writer, and which her friends admit to wishing they had written first, which make this collection so valuable to admirers of these authors and their subjects.
I was only slightly familiar with the authors of The Curiosities when I started reading. I’ve shared my high opinion of Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys already, and I remember getting carried away into the dark and intricate world of Yovanoff’s The Replacement a couple of Novembers ago, but I wasn’t particularly well versed in their bodies of work and I’d never read Gratton at all (though I wish I had – she’s great!). My ignorance didn’t really matter, though, because through witty banter with her friends and wise thoughts on writing, history, magic, etc, each writer bares her personality and makes her voice as distinct as if we knew her personally. The informal tone of this collection sets off some of the truly dark stuff which it contains, and you get to read a well balanced combination of YA anthology and “How We Write” essay, all in one attractive package.
The stories themselves are excellent fun, provided that you enjoy the sort of writing done by these women. While the pieces are varied in terms of plot and format, and while the order in which they’re presented keeps the pace from dragging, they are resolutely stories for Young Adult readers who like elements of the paranormal; the esoteric; the sinister; and the weird. (A note: by “Young Adult reader”, I refer to anyone, young or adult or somewhere in between, who enjoys YA fiction.) You will find monsters and creatures to suit every taste, retellings of legends and stories prompted by fairy tales, good old fashioned ghost stories, horrifying visions of the future, and even some stories featuring no technical magic at all but which embody a perfectly chilling sense of dread. You will read about highschool, college, alternative historical settings, the ancient north, and steampunk or sc-fi cityscapes. There is kissing, killing, and wit galore.
What you won’t find in The Curiosities is grown-up, tightly plotted, examinations of every day life; at least, there are no mundane sensibilities left to carry a story on their own. But themes get heavy in this collection, underneath the strange and beautiful surface. Maggie’s pieces about geniuses behaving badly and legends existing in our world deal with questions of power, loyalty, and how to spend the time we have given to us. These are questions which The Raven Boys also handled very well. Tessa’s tales about monsters and complicated spells examine the importance of bravery in the face of sorrow and how traditions shape our lives. And Brenna’s stories about psycho killers tricked by even-more-psychotic killers, lonely ghosts, and wishes gone awry reveal the capacity for darkness which waits within all of us, and that desperate need for understanding which can save us when we’re young. These ladies know what they’re doing, and they do it well: telling us eternal truths hidden deep within compelling stories which appeal to our sense of the macabre and the fantastic.
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.
Review by Morgan
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: *** (3 Stars)
Plot: **** (3 Stars)
Writing: ***** (5 Stars)
Overall: ***** (4 Stars)
I found this book in the library by my old high school, when I was looking for a book by the same author I’d read as an early teenager; a book called Blue Girl which had punks and faeries and ghosts and just the sort of angst I had been into as a thirteen year old. Blue Girl wasn’t there, but Little [Grrl] Lost caught my eye with it’s painfully lame title and similar cover to the De Lint book I had been looking for. Sometimes self-indulgent teenage fiction is just the balm for the woes of a self-indulgent twenty-something, so I checked out Little [Grrl] Lost, with its shiny cover and outdated slang, and sat on the porch pretending to be a gothy freshman once more.
Charles De Lint can do a lot of things, and he does them well. I like his stories influenced by folklore, I like his urban fantasy, and I must say that his Young Adult fiction is pretty good too. Yes, Little [Grrl] Lost quickly became behind the times as far as teenagers and their interests are concerned, but when I read about a six inch tall “Little” with home made grunge tee-shirts and bright blue hair I couldn’t help but smile.
The novel’s main character is a fourteen year old human girl named T.J. who has had to move from the countryside and away from her beloved horse into the suburbs because her family’s finances have gone all sorts of downhill. (The details aren’t really explained, but the story starts after their move and the stock market isn’t exactly a riveting subject for most teenaged readers, so the plot doesn’t suffer). T.J. is a bit dull, a little too normal, and she clearly has no sense of fashion or adventure compared to the kids in the city where she now lives. Therefore, when the diminutive and feisty Tetty “Elizabeth” Wood storms out of her family’s home in T.J.’s wall, the angry Little (it’s what the six-inch-tall wall dwellers are rather obviously called) stirs up T.J.’s sense of style and personality as well as her belief in the unknown. The two teenagers band together despite their major differences in size and fashion sense; they’re both looking for independence and security in the big bad world. T.J. has no friends and no real personality. Tetty’s parents move away when they see that a “Big” has found their daughter and discovered their existence, so she’s now a little more on her own than she’d expected after her dramatic exit. There’s a children’s book author in town who seems to know about Littles and how they may be able to change back into the birds of their origins, so the two unlikely friends set off to find this woman though they have their own troubles along the way with hungry cats and creepy boys and life in the big city.
My favorite part of the book was after Tetty and T.J. find themselves separated. T.J. has to find the author on her own while perverts, gangs, and the promise of big-fat-trouble back home cause roadblocks on her quest. Tetty, on the other hand, finds herself in the company of more Littles, a Gnome with a talent for baking pies, a shriveled up old woman, and a complicated fairy wish quite literally weighing heavily on her mind and in her pocket. These are the details which made Little [Grrl] Lost seem timeless and universal despite the use of phrases like “as if” and “PDA”: a wish is dangerous if it places you in debt with a fairy; the ability to transform into a bird could be permanent or could disappear at a very inconvenient moment indeed; you’re safe in the goblin market as long as you remain polite and remember that nothing is ever free. These themes are true in ancient fairy tales, they’re true in “high fantasy”, and they’re just as true in De Lint’s fictional city where Littles learn about popular music on a stolen T.V. and human girls must be on the watch out for creepers and animal spies alike on every street corner.
I’d recommend Little [Grrl] Lost to grumpy middle school girls who are looking for a bit of magic in life, basically anyone who I would have been friends with as a teenager. The language is a little lame nowadays, and the plot isn’t as thought provoking as I know Charles De Lint has been in his other writing, but it’s a good story and a quick read. When I return it to the library this afternoon, I hope some kid will take it out soon, because it’s a decent introduction to an author who consistently adds just the right kind of magic to everyday life.