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Book Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: She Rises by Kate Worsley

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Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 15+ (some violence and language; unpleasant sexual situations)

Review by Morgan

She Rises was a strange combination of things I love and things I hate, and while I definitely thought it was an interesting and beautiful book there were some details which made me shudder on a non-literary level.  Before I get my review underway I will mention that while I’m quite keen on seafaring violence, and am perfectly content to read about despicable characters, I had to skim over several instances of sexual depravity in order to keep reading.  If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, and if you like nautical adventures and tragic (rather than sordid) love stories, She Rises might be the book you wish you’d read over the summer.  I was happy I brought it on my weekend trip to the Maine coast with me, even though it takes place mostly in England or on British ships, because it was atmospheric, intense, and beautifully described.  This novel is as much a story about the irresistible (and deadly) call of the sea as it is a tale of how unlikely relationships can form all-consuming bonds of devotion.  Worsley writes about that intensely dramatic devotion in the close quarters of female society, on the one hand, and amongst conscripted men in the brutal 18th century Royal Navy, on the other.

The stories of Luke Fletcher and Louise Fletcher are told in alternating chapters, which I found distracting at first but which fell into a rhythm to match the tossing of the warship Essex on waves after about four or five chapters.  Louise tells her story in the second person, recalling the events which took her from a life making butter in a dairy to that of a lady’s maid in Harwich.  We read about the intimate memories which shaped her intense loyalty to and fascination with her charming but volatile mistress in an almost voyeuristic fashion; these words are spoken with love and trust, so their very presence upon the page made me feel like I was privy to a secret which I shouldn’t hear but which was too mesmerizing to ignore.  Louise’s chapters were a little slow to capture my interest, but soon enough the touching, emotionally complex story drew me in with its layers of social intrigue and budding identity struggles.  The almost painfully earnest levels of devotion had echoes of Jane Eyre or even Wuthering Heights, if the Bronte sisters had focused more on women’s personal relationships with each other; there’s plenty of brooding and temper tantrums but also admirable portrayals of friendship.  I found Louise’s mistress hard to understand at certain points in the novel, but since we are getting Louise’s version of events it makes sense that her portrayal of Rebecca might suggest an inscrutable, almost idolized figure of personal power.

In contrast to Louise’s languorous early chapters, Luke’s first pages begin with his disoriented realization that he’s been press-ganged into the Royal Navy and is stuck upon the warship Essex with nowhere to run or hide.  We’re dropped right in the middle of action, and I found myself instantly invested in poor Luke’s undesired adventures, despite the fact that his parts of the novel are told in an almost detached third person point of view.  The difference in narrative voice is dramatic and easy to follow, and my only complaint about the structure was that I would find myself thoroughly engrossed in Luke’s difficulties amongst the sailors only to be snatched away from the scene and placed back in the stuffy Harwich house, and vice versa.  Both story lines gripped my attention relentlessly. Luke’s situation appealed to me slightly more because I’m a huge fan of nautical adventures, but the fact that I was always disappointed to leave a character at each break says some good things about Worsley’s pacing abilities and careful planning.  The seafaring chapters had all the historical detail and high-stakes adventure of Patrick O’Brien’s series, and the young sailor forced to learn the ropes while surrounded by chaos reminded me of the Jacky Faber books.  However, Worsley never shies away from the harsh realities of 18th century life on land or on the oft-romanticized sea.  Luke forges loyalties out of necessity and fear, he witnesses depravity; cowardice; and betrayal, and he must eventually choose between his own morals and his desperation for peace and safety.  I tend to imagine that the life of a powder monkey or a bonnie sailor would totally have been the life for me in times past, but reading about the tribulations suffered for months or years away from land, and the extremely unpleasant circumstances of press-ganged men, reminded me that a life confined to soggy wood and endless crowds of men could get both stifling without privacy and endlessly lonely.

The sailor characters were colorful and vulgar; I can picture them even now as though I had sailed with them myself, though some events aboard the ship happened so abruptly that I had to pause and consider what might drive the rather underdeveloped officers to make such strange decisions.  Luke’s scenes focused on the inward turmoil of a character without any privacy in much the same way that Louise’s chapters showed how two people can eschew all other company and still experience worlds of their own.  The novel’s minor characters fell flat a few times, but this wasn’t so important since the important relationships were really forged between five or six individuals and their vivid surroundings.  She Rises is both an introspective novel about human intimacy and a story about how heavily one’s surroundings can influence someone’s path.  From the dairy farm, to ballrooms, to cramped hold of a ship, to the terrifying freedom of the rigging, and back to dry land, the Fletchers wander in and out of distinctive settings as well as in and out of peoples’ lives, changing drastically as they do.

I loved the descriptions of the sea’s power, not only aboard the ship but also in Louise’s seaport town where the rising tide can flow through the streets and the patterns of commerce and social interaction are dictated by the temperament of the sea.  The Fletchers are cursed with an inability to ignore the call of salt water, and since I love the sea more than I love most people, this was the relationship which fascinated me most in She Rises.  No character has complete control over their own destiny, nor do they even have true agency over their most private identities, and this tragic but beautiful inevitability is reflected through the ever-changing but also timeless landscape of water and horizon.  The setting is written with such reverence that I’m sure Kate Worsley must feel that draw of the tide herself from time to time.

Despite this novel’s fixation on the sexual side of human interaction and the occasional disjointed leap from characters’ motivations to their actions, I found it thought provoking and evocative.  The plot is handled cleverly – and well it had to be – since there are a few dramatic twists which would be spoiled had she been lazy with her structure, though I did guess one ahead of the reveal.

I would recommend She Rises to fans of tense seafaring adventures, readers who expect their romance to come with a large serving of tragedy and frustration, and anyone who is interested in how gender and identity play a part in our perception of our fates; our abilities; and our environments.  Think Great Expectations meets Master and Commander meets Orlando.  If you’re going to be near the coast at any point this year, bring this book so you can appreciate the eternal power of the sea while also appreciating the fact that it’s much more comfortable on dry land, in modern times, than it was in the salty life you’ve imagined for yourself when your day job gets unbearable.  At least you haven’t fallen asleep a free individual and woken up as an unwilling member of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, where life is short and your story’s harrowing.

Filed under she rises kate worsley book review historical fiction nautical book literature adventure romance gender bending 18th century gender identity lesbian sea ocean sailors sailing ships england british brit lit morgan

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Book Review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

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Star Ratings

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.

Filed under The Dream Thieves dream thieves Maggie Stiefvater Raven Boys raven cycle gansey blue adam ronan noah YA book review book review lit teen dreams books YA fiction YA lit paranormal fantasy virginia mystery glendower magic sacrifice dark morgan

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Book Review: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

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Star Ratings

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.

Filed under Daniel Handler The Basic Eight Lemony Snicket book review YA high school murder humor book review literature othello absinthe San Fransisco prison teenage irony school opera satanism parody 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 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: Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal by Amy Leigh Strickland

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Star Ratings

Characters: ****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)


Plot: **** (4 Stars)


Writing: ***** (5 Stars)


Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 Stars)


Age range recommendation: 13 +

Review by Morgan

This is the first novel I’ve ever read entirely on an e-reader, and while I was a little perplexed by the whole experience I’m so glad that I chose to embrace technology this once. Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal is one of the most entertaining books I’ve had the pleasure to read in a long time. I found myself staying up late after an exhausting day of traveling around Sweden, desperate to finish the final 200 e-book pages before the battery ran out.

The book begins with the discovery of a mysterious journal in a locked attic trunk, a journal belonging to the discoverer’s father, and an assortment of strange objects brought to light for the first time in many years. Perhaps this is a clichéd way to begin a story, but I must admit that I was drawn in by the set up. After all, this sort of beginning usually leads to the sort of adventure I look for in a title like Rescue! After only a couple of pages we delve right in to Royer Goldhawk’s journal, which starts on September 5, 1883, “in which Royer Goldhawk embarks on a perilous and unexpected journey.” It was exciting to read a steampunk novel which takes place in the USA rather than England or Europe, and the bustle of New York City is where the action begins. Royer is a student at Columbia who spends his spare time at his friend Benjy’s pawn shop. He’s a mild-mannered fellow, compared to his more boisterous friend who lends plenty of comedy to the story, who loves engineering, his parents, and a girl named Mercy Winmer. When America Loveguard – a fashionable but indelicate vaudeville performer and mutual friend of Benjy and Mercy – invites them to her show, Royer attends more out of a desire to see Mercy than America, whose boldness he finds improper. However, the afternoon soon takes a disastrous turn when a villain with a dirigible kidnaps Mercy in broad daylight. Failing to rescue her, Royer does manage to steal a mysterious document off the flying machine, and this document inspires the wealthy criminal to buy off the police force and hire men who kill Royer’s parents and pin the blame on him. A beautiful kidnapped woman, airships, corrupt police, mysterious documents, murder, and pawn-shop combat all within the first forty pages? It’s the start to an exciting journey across the USA in a time when the country was only half-mapped, and the drama continues when Royer, Benjy, and America board a train to escape their pursuers and, against the odds, rescue their friend.

Royer records the details of their travels in his journal, recounting each day’s events with wonder when the adventure begins but with growing maturity as their courage and loyalty are tested over time. This style of writing – daily journal entries – means that we can never be too sure how the story will progress, though obviously Royer survives to write it down each night. The framing narrative of the trunk in the attic, which comes back again halfway through the book, also suggests that Royer meets his wife at some point in the tale, but aside from this fact and the preserved objects which subtly foreshadow what’s to come, each entry keeps the suspense and sense of discovery alive. The friends meet a one-legged and one-armed drifter with a lust for revenge who joins their band, they encounter a voodoo priestess who tells them that the stolen scroll has to do with fairy magic, and they combine forces with a goggled gun-slinger after a train robbery quite literally derails their quest. We’ve seen similar characters and plot twists before in fantasy novels and cowboy serials, but they come together to make something unique in Strickland’s book. Even when she introduces magic into the plot, enough characters are skeptical about its existence to keep the twist from seeming like an easy way out. There’s a bit of romance and some sexual tension, but the action and memorable characters are what keep the story going. The events builds up to a stressful denouement which features a charged combination of magic and old fashioned science, and the final pages of Royer Goldhawk’s journal clearly set us up for a sequel. By that point, the excitement should have drawn any reader in so deep that they’ll be scrambling for the next installment. I, for one, can barely wait to learn what happens next – so she’d better publish the second book soon!

Amy Leigh Strickland has created an enormously satisfying steampunk adventure with wild western and fantasy themes running through it; but unlike many novels in those genres, Rescue manages to be simultaneously fast-paced and well researched. We get just enough detail about ingenious mechanics and magical scrolls to keep the action within the realm of fictional possibility, but Strickland never lets her prose get self-indulgent. Some fantasy and steampunk stories get too absorbed in the cleverness of their designs and draw us out of the plot completely, but not in this case. On the other hand, she has obviously done her research. Her knowledge of the time period ensures that the setting is vivid and believable rather than just a vague backdrop. I was particularly impressed with the descriptions of commercial enterprises which were just starting at the time; the expanding territories and railroads; mechanics; historical syntax; and even little details like the standardization of timekeeping and Edison’s experiments with light and sound. As our heroes travel from New York to New Orleans to the Wild West – meeting fascinating characters along the way – intrigue, action, and historical detail blend damn near seamlessly to create a vivid world and a compelling story. What more could you ask in the first book of what promises to be an addictive series?

I’d recommend Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal to steampunk fans who want something a little different from the conventions of that genre; to adventure enthusiasts; and those readers who like their fantasy stories to be realistically presented, and their historical fiction to be truly exciting. While the characters are adults, it would be an appropriate book for young people as well. I know that thirteen year old Morgan would have been in love with it. You can buy the kindle edition for an absurdly low price at amazon.com, and it looks like there’s a paperback version available as well. Seriously, folks, buy this book and read it if you’ve got a few hours to kill and need some excitement in your life. Just don’t blame me when you’re desperate to know what happens next.

Filed under steampunk book review adventure fantasy lit book western Amy Leigh Strickland Strickland Amy Albro steam punk Royer Goldhawk faery fairy voodoo books review literature Morgan Rosa isilwenmacar riddlerose historical fiction scifi cowboy novel morgan

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Book Review: The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan

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Characters: *****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)


Plot: *** (3 Stars)


Writing: **** (4 Stars)


Overall: **** (4 Stars)


Age range recommendation: 16 +

Review by Morgan

I read this book in two sittings, so it’s clearly got plenty of excellent qualities. I love child-detective stories, especially when those intrepid youngsters are the protagonists of adult novels and, therefore, their deductions about the complex world around them can be completely off track, often to hilarious or poetically tragic results. Despite Gwenni’s tender age of twelve, The Earth Hums in B Flat is about a grown up mystery: yes, there’s a disappearance and death and useless police officers, but the real plot revolves around the little mysteries which flourish in silence to engulf families and entire towns. Our odd little heroine narrates the novel in first person, providing an endearing perspective on events which might be only depressing, rather than intriguing, if they were reported through a more down-to-earth point of view.

Gwenni’s home life is difficult with an unstable mother and a cruel sister; her best friend and she are growing apart as they disagree about the importance of boys vs. magic plans; and to top it all off the intimidating father of two children she takes care of has disappeared, pursued by a mysterious “black dog.” Mr. Ifan Evans' disappearance causes little ruptures in the every day order of Gwenni’s small Welsh town, and when she decides to take matters into her own hands like the detectives in her books, she uncovers more secrets than answers and learns that some stones are best left unturned. The Earth Hums in B Flat is an easy and delightful read, and I enjoyed watching Gwenni’s observations about human nature develop from naivety to somber comprehension without ever losing the innocent edge which make the betrayals of the real world even more poignant. It’s not an uplifting story, though, so while fans of The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie by Alan Bradley will enjoy the similar narrative style, don’t expect an up-front story where the murderer is evil and a clever child’s perseverance necessarily prevails. The family in The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie is dysfunctional in an amusing way; but the families in Gwenni’s town are just plain messed up. There are a few intriguing minor characters, and the setting – a Welsh-speaking village in the 1950s – is seamlessly described to create a unique stage for story’s events. Some elements of social awkwardness around language, war, and class are seamlessly woven into the small-town plot, placing the story in a wider context which should appeal to anyone with an interest in British cultural history.

While I found the writing to be captivating and the characters compelling, there were a few things about The Earth Hums In B Flat which left me feeling a little let down once I reached the novel’s end. Namely, the end of the novel itself. While I was prepared for a pessimistic ending – meaning, I knew that this was not the sort of mystery which would end with peace for the village, justice for all, and due credit going to the amateur detective – I can’t help but feel that Mari Strachan could have let Gwenni receive a little more credit for the hardships she experiences at the hands of her mother and the small minded town. Some characters were sympathetic and kind, especially her memorable grandmother and absurdly saint-like father, but many of the people who made her life difficult never really get their just deserts. Of course, this is how the world works: a child might be in the right, but those who were wrong might never admit or even realize their faults.

Life isn’t fair, and although the unfairness of this novel left me feeling unsatisfied, I can see that it was an important element in the book’s message. Strachan is honest about how ignored young people can feel, how adults never listen even when they should, and this is a point made time and time again in children’s books but not nearly enough in fiction aimed at adults. There’s nothing wildly inappropriate here, some domestic violence and intimated deviancy, but younger readers might be disappointed by The Earth Hums in B Flat because the plot is driven by subtle relationships rather than action, and the writing expects that readers would have passed the point in their lives when they thought like Gwenni does. We must be able to see where she’s mistaken in her judgement to understand the story’s full scope. I enjoyed this book – it was the perfect cure to a day of feeling generally unwell – and I’d recommend it to someone who wanted an absorbing and self-contained story, a mystery which doesn’t follow the patterns we’ve come to expect, and a reminder of how magical life can be when you’re young and how strange it is when life fails to meet your fantasized expectations.

Filed under The Earth Hums in B Flat Mari Strachan Wales Book Review Lit Review Book Mystery English British Welsh Child 1950s Gwenni Morgan Ifan Evans Vintage Literature Flavia de Luce morgan

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Bit Review of Fool’s Run by Patricia McKillip

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Fool’s Run by Patricia McKillip

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

Age Recommendation:  17+

Review by Rosie

This is the first book of Patricia A. McKillip’s that I didn’t like that much. I still liked the style and the characters, but the plot was minimal even for her, and she lost a lot of the things she’s usually best at. She normally flows several different characters and storylines together in this fabulous tapestry of fairy-tale wonder, but this one fell a little flat. I never quite got my feet under me. I liked the obvious sci-fi bits - the spaceship and the prison - but I just couldn’t get through to the characters and their motivations. I would recommend any of her other books, but leave this one until you already love her and can handle one bad grape in the bunch.

And now that I have said that I will say this:  you will never again hear me be anything less than violently enthusiastic about anything Patricia McKillip writes.  That one paragraph pained me more than most things I’ve ever written.

Filed under Fool's Run patricia a mckillip book review book sci-fi science fiction rosie

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Review of Father’s Day by Buzz Bissinger

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Father’s Day by Buzz Bissinger

Star Ratings
Structure: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Insight: ** (2 Stars)
Overall: *** (3 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 17+
Review by Rosie

This review merits a small caveat: I did not originally write it for this blog.  It’s written in a very different style than my usual.  Father’s Day is a memoir, and therefore cannot really be judged on characters or plot.  It’s a true story.  I didn’t love it.  I would recommend it for people who have a loved one with brain damage.  I am lucky in that no one in my life has ever suffered something like that.  I think that a lot of my problems with Father’s Day stem from not really connecting to the major issue.  I just can’t relate.  I’ve never been close to anyone who was operating at less than full brain capacity.  I wouldn’t have chosen to write a review of this book, but having written it I figured I might as well share it with you lovely lot.  Enjoy!

The subtitle of Father’s Day is misleading.  It reads, “A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son.”  It should read, “My Struggle to Understand My Extraordinary Son,” or something similar.  The book isn’t really about Buzz Bissinger’s savant son Zach, it’s about Buzz himself.

The book is structured around a road trip, but like the road trip itself it goes in a few unexpected directions.  Buzz expects that Las Vegas will be the most exciting part of their trip for Zach and spends a great deal of time talking about his plans for what they’ll do in Sin City.  As it turns out, he’s wrong.  On page 161 he writes, “Odessa has been the most powerful part of the trip…. Once again Zach and I have set a road trip first: nobody in the history of the world, ever, has chosen Odessa for a vacation.”
The book is defined by Buzz’s shattered expectations.  He expects two healthy sons.  Instead he gets one healthy son and Zach, brain damaged through no fault of his own due to oxygen deprivation at birth.  He expects his sons to make something of themselves.  Instead he writes of Zach’s job as a grocery store bagger, saying, “I cannot imagine my son doing such work at the age of twenty-four.  It shames me…” (Bissinger, 1).  He expects Zach to enjoy Las Vegas.  Instead, Zach is overwhelmed and unable to process anything.  Perhaps appropriately, my expectations were not met.

Buzz spends most of the book inside his own mind and emotions.  He spends a lot of time analyzing his reactions to his son, and he writes them all down with precision and honesty.  He recounts conversations with Zach that mostly consist of Zach saying “yeah,” and Buzz trying to see whether he understands.  The conversations are opaque and Buzz can’t parse them.  He knows how to interact with Zach and what questions he needs to ask to make sure he’s functioning correctly, but he doesn’t understand Zach’s thinking process at all.  As a result Zach is an enigma to the reader.

Since Buzz recounts his difficulties in accepting Zach’s condition we see the internal struggle he goes through every time Zach shows obvious signs of his condition.  What he doesn’t spend any time on is speculation as to what Zach thinks about when he’s clearly hiding his condition to save his father’s feelings.  Buzz does an excellent job of recounting his own struggles, but barely says anything about Zach’s.  For a memoir supposedly about his son, he doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing his emotional state.  He portrays Zach as emotionally flat, only occasionally registering a vague like or dislike for something.

Buzz tries to show his love for his son by extolling his phenomenal memory and loving nature.  Most of this comes across as a man snatching at anything good about his child’s mind.  Where Buzz succeeds is his introspection about his son.  When Zach surprises him with a picture of his family at the very end of the trip Buzz is overwhelmed by gratitude.  He says, “What made you bring it?” and Zach answers, “I just wanted to I thought it was nice we all stayed together here remember?” (Bissinger, 217).

This is the point where Buzz accepts that he may never know how his son’s mind works.  It’s a cathartic moment for him.  Zach clearly has a sense for emotional closure but it doesn’t work the same way as Buzz’s.  Buzz reacts by thinking of his own parents and their mutual need for each other.  He realizes that he and Zach need each other in the same way.  He will continue to take care of Zach for as long as he can because this is his son, no matter how different.

He sums it up by reminding the reader, “It was said of Zach during the trip that he has a sixth sense for sincerity.  But he also possesses a seventh sense of saying the right words at the right time even if he doesn’t know why they are the right words.” (Bissinger, 235).  Admitting that he doesn’t understand is a huge step for Buzz.  He finally gets it that Zach is a complete person no matter how damaged.  He’s working to get by in the world just like everybody else.

Filed under father's day buzz bissinger zach bissinger memoir book review book book reviews Book Recommendations rosie