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

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Mark Of The Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****(4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: *** **(5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Review by Morgan

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of The Mark of The Dragonfly and a few details might change before publication.  The book is set to be released in March of 2014.)

How pleased am I to be giving this book five stars? So very, very pleased. It’s been a rough month and The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a wonderful distraction, a breath of fresh air, and a damned fine adventure to boot. It’s a new Middle Grade fantasy/adventure novel which will be hitting bookshelves this March, and I seriously recommend it.

We meet Piper in Scrap Town Number Sixteen – part of the Merrow Kingdom – on a night when meteors from another world are showering down. (As it happens, the artifacts which crash through the sky in a haze of poisonous dust come from our world; things like music boxes and copies of The Wizard of Oz. I thought that was pretty cool.) Piper is a scrapper, which means that she and the other poor folk in her struggling town go out to the fields after a storm to collect the strange objects and sell them to rich people from more prosperous industrial towns. After her father died in a factory working iron for a King who is obsessed with innovation and expansion, Piper has been living on her own in a somewhat hostile world. She has an unusual gift with machines and works as a mechanic to stay alive. Aside from her friend Micah, a little boy who wants to find something marvelous in the fields one day, she has few people she can trust and no one to take care of her.

All this changes when she finds a gravely injured girl in the wreckage of a caravan after a big meteor storm. The girl, Anna, has lost many of her memories and is being pursued by a mysterious and forceful man she only remembers as “the wolf.” Piper rescues Anna and is shocked to discover that the young girl has a tattoo of a dragonfly on her arm. The mark of the dragonfly implies that a person is terribly important to King Aron, and our resourceful young heroine decides to escort the frightened girl to the capitol city where she might reunite her with a grieving family and, she hopes, collect a reward for herself. I liked that Piper’s motivations weren’t entirely golden hearted. She has sympathy for Anna and feels obliged to protect her, but knows that her world is harsh and wants to build a better life for herself in the capitol. Piper and Anna board a train as they escape from “the wolf,” and find themselves treated with respect thanks to Anna’s tattoo and Piper’s ability to lie her way out of awkward situations. They meet a mysterious boy with a big – winged – secret and some rough-and-tumble train technicians with very kind hearts under all that soot.

A great majority of the book takes place on the train, but it isn’t all talking about engines and watching the scenery go by. Chases, attempted robberies, social climbing, library re-arranging, and all sorts of mischief takes places on the sturdy but old-fashioned 401. It’s a mildly steampunk setting, but Jaleigh Johnson never goes overboard with the technical descriptions. This isn’t one of those otherworldly books in which everything has a few gears slapped on it in order to render it appealing. When there are mechanical interludes, they exist for a reason. And, as this is a story aimed at readers 10 and up, I was perfectly content to have the scientific and political aspects of the Merrow Kingdom described only on a need-to-know basis. This is an adventure focused on the characters and a train with the politics and geography as mere backdrop, so the weird discrepancies were easily forgiven. (An example of this would be the weird blend of our world and the fantasy one: orange trees and “pika” trees exist in harmony, and there’s a statue of an elephant fighting a dravisht raptor, whatever that may be.) The Mark Of The Dragonfly is not a short book, though, and too much world-building would have been rather detrimental to the pace, so I suggest that readers just get cozy with the strange setting – one which is connected to ours through some space in the sky – and enjoy reading about Piper and Anna as they navigate the fraught world. They get to fly in the clutches of magical beasties, experience an awkward psychic encounter with a subterranean fantasy race, and fix gears and pipes which do way more than transport passengers. I was reminded of the TV show Firefly from so many years ago, both by the nature of the adventure and the vintage-sci-fi setting. Not to mention, the likable cast of characters to whom you can’t help but get attached. A whole range of emotions plays out within the four hundred pages: from joy to despair, and back through witty banter and friendly rivalries all the way to surprise and – dare I admit it? – warm fuzzy feelings.

There were a few pieces of The Mark Of The Dragonfly which left me wanting a bit more detail. How, exactly, were odds and ends from Earth crashing through the sky in the Scrap Towns? The idea is fascinating and the descriptions of that bizarre meteorological phenomenon were really cool, but after the first few chapters the idea is abandoned all together and never properly revisited during the course of Piper’s adventures. What were the villain’s real motives, besides greed and expansionism? When he got a chance to explain his actions, they almost seemed like noble delusions. And on that note, we never really learn why he’s called “the wolf.” I did work out the big plot twist long before it was officially revealed, but it was still done well with enough clues to convince me without making it too obvious. Bear in mind that I’ve also read loads more of the genre than the intended audience. (A note on the genre: The Mark Of The Dragonfly was a little like a less-complicated Mortal Engines, and I think that anyone who enjoys this book should consider testing the waters of more detailed steampunk-y children’s adventures. There’s quite a lot to choose from, at the moment. But Philip Reeve is definitely a favorite. Older readers might also enjoy Amy Leigh Strickland’s Rescue! Or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal.) These little distractions weren’t nearly annoying enough to make me dislike any moment I spent reading The Mark Of The Dragonfly, though, and I particularly think that young readers will be happy to immerse themselves in Johnson’s world without getting bent out of shape over a few technical difficulties.

The writing was straightforward and fun, the characters were delightful but realistic with faults and mistakes aplenty, and I was anxious to learn what would happen. When I finally did reach the end, I nearly did a heel-click from glee upon learning that there was no dreadful cliffhanger conclusion waiting to spoil my afternoon! I am so tired of Middle Grade series which rely on inconclusive endings to build suspense. (This is especially hard when you’re a bookseller and want to recommend an author, but the first of a series is sold out at your shop.) If Jaleigh Johnson decides to write another volume set in the Merrow Kingdom I will be thrilled to read it, but The Mark Of The Dragonfly can easily stand alone as a favorite book on the young readers shelf. I can’t wait to recommend it to kids who loved Inkheart and adults who want something new for the inventive and strong-willed young scrappers in their lives.

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

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Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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

Age Range Recommendation: 15 and up
Review by Rosie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The Quick by Lauren Owen (to be released June, 2014)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Review by Morgan

(Let it be hereby stated that I read an advanced reader’s edition of The Quick, which may still be waiting on final edits.)

When a friend and colleague of mine at the bookshop insisted that I read The Quick the moment she finished it, I knew right away that I would have lots to say about this debut novel. It’s one of my favorite kinds of story, in one of my favorite settings, but there are a few twists which caught us both off guard.  The Quick is a complex novel with a Victorian setting, a Gothic atmosphere, and a sweeping narrative. It’s also a monster story of sorts. I would have been utterly puzzled to realize – a hundred pages in – that there was some serious slaying to come, had my friend not mentioned her similar surprise. Neither the title nor the package revealed much about this book’s nature from the start. Since I have the galley and not the finished product of the book, I can’t help but wonder how heavily Random House intends to advertise the supernatural bent. On the back of my copy, it only says: “An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London”. Well, there’s menace aplenty and a grim sort of magic alongside what I can only call the “creature aspect” (to avoid spoiling too much). I was held in suspense once I finally got engrossed in the story, but it took me much longer than usual to immerse myself in Owen’s writing. As for the “epic scope,” I suppose that the many intertwining narratives and the multiple main characters prove that statement to be true.

The Quick starts out in Aiskew Hall, one of those large and drafty mansions in the English countryside which set the scene for so many sprawling novels. James and Charlotte are very young children when we first meet them, orphaned after their father’s death, and subject to uncertain futures. The scenes about the children’s games and fears were picturesque and I was charmed by their environment. I guess Lauren Owen grew up in an old Yorkshire boarding school, and her descriptions are excellent. From the secret passages indoors to the gardens outside, Aiskew Hall is a wonderful location. It’s too bad we don’t get to read more about it, as soon enough the setting switches to London.

Oh, Victorian London. So many distinctive tales have tramped up and down your streets – Dickens spin-offs have strolled alongside grisly horror stories. Sassy steampunk heroines now follow the same footsteps as eccentric detectives. There’s no real shortage of Gothic mysteries or supernatural horror crammed into that city’s ever-expanding boundaries of fiction, and I’m not sure if The Quick added anything too terribly new to the landscape. But there’s such an extensive literary heritage to late 19th century London that I do understand the appeal in borrowing the city’s peculiar brand of storytelling magic. While she doesn’t really break any new ground by setting her debut novel around a mysterious gentleman’s club in the darker parts of London, Owen does have a talent for creating atmosphere. I read the book over a couple of dreary late-November evenings and I was surprised every time I stepped outside to see neither hansom cabs nor top hats. I’m still keeping an eye out for ragamuffin pickpocket children (often my favorite characters in these sorts of books). When James and Charlotte experience the bustling hubbub of city life for the first time, their confusion and awe made the disorienting metropolis seem immediate and real.

After graduation, James moves to London and gets rooms with an eccentric friend-of-a-friend. He tries his hand at writing poetry, then moves on to plays after they see a production by some bloke named Wilde. Christopher Paige is lively and dashing while James is more of a reserved, respectful sort of fellow. Their personalities clash nicely and as their friendship deepens we get an entertaining glance at life in London for gentlemen with money enough to make society’s expectations the most pressing of their problems. It took a while, but eventually I found myself absorbed into the details of domestic issues and witty banter.

Right as their story started to get really interesting, though, Part II of The Quick introduces an entirely new point of view and style. I felt marooned and disoriented to be suddenly presented with The Notebooks of Augustus Mould in Chapter Six, and not only because the heading reminded me a little of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (a very different sort of book indeed, though equally British). At this point, Owen started to take a Dracula-esque approach to her narrative. By treating the excerpts from Mould’s notebooks as an active component of the story, and by using shifts in perspective to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the novel introduces four or five new plot lines and main characters.

A threatening presence causes gossip in London, haughty idealists take charge of a secret society, a little girl learns why some streets are off-limits, and a shared tragedy brings two unlikely friends together to face an evil which is damned difficult to kill. As the story progresses we do come to understand how everyone will eventually interact to create a high-stakes confrontation, but I spent half the book trying to find connections rather than giving my full attention to the plot. Much in Stoker’s style, Owen uses her structure to show how menace can unite people and affect a great many lives. I do wish she had brought the different groups of characters together earlier on, though, especially since the men and women themselves were distinctive and their interactions were downright fun to witness. The pacing was stilted at times, which detracted from the strong descriptions and appealing aesthetic. In the second half of the book, I found some redemption when the many different threads eventually did come together to propel us towards an exciting conclusion. The focus was just a little off – too many influences from the genre’s long history were vying for attention – and I felt that the novel couldn’t quite contain its own scope.

The author has borrowed an awful lot from her literary predecessors: The Quick contains distinctive elements of Dickens, Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Anne Rice, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The editor’s note which came with the galley mentioned that Lauren Owen started out writing fan fiction of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. Push through the slow start and clunky narrative shifts to where the action begins, and you’ll see how Joss Whedon has made his mark. Even though I had a hard time getting comfortable with the balance between the book’s Victorian style and its eventual supernatural standoffs, I had a great time with each of those aspects in their own way. Some characters seemed straight out of Great Expectations, what with their moral qualms and social hardships. Others were gunslingin’ badasses with tragic pasts. I was happy to read about violent little kids and a mysterious occult library, though there were times when I wondered if I should be reading two different books instead of this one.

Now that I’ve finished reading The Quick, I’m intrigued to see what sort of reaction it will get once it’s released into the wild. I think there’s some strong writing and great characters, and while the premise isn’t particularly original it was interesting and fun. The target demographic of readers is difficult to define, though. You’ll need to have an appreciation for Victorian sensibilities in order to get through the first half of the book, but you can’t be too picky about style or easily annoyed by clunky narrative structures. On the other hand, it might appeal to readers of dark and violent Gothic adventures like The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – tense stories which don’t rely too heavily on historical realism – but the language might make the pace drag on for fans of that genre. I happen to be right in the middle of that spectrum and did enjoy The Quick. Anyone picking up the book will find it necessary to suspend their judgement and expectations along with their disbelief. If you can do that, then the interesting descriptions; absorbing atmosphere; and memorable characters will keep you reading right through to the book’s mysterious ending.

If you liked that show “Ripper Street,” I think you’ll feel right at home in The Quick. If you were enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus (Rosie and I reviewed it here) you will probably enjoy it, too. The Quick is less stunningly magical than The Night Circus was, but I think the characters were more believable and the personal relationships were handled better. I read books for the atmosphere more than anything else, and I’m happy I stuck with The Quick. You can definitely tell that it’s a first novel, and I hope that Lauren Owen will develop a style which is more distinctly her own as her writing progresses. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for any of her future work, and I hope she continues to write darkly aesthetic stories which transport us to a more mysterious time and place.

Filed under Morgan the quick lauren owen book review review gothic victorian gothic literature london dickens dracula supernatural fiction random house ARC vampire literature books England English Oscar Wilde

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

Review by Morgan.

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

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

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

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2stars)

Review by Morgan.

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.

Filed under Holly Black Coldest Girl in Coldtown Coldtown vampire YA Book Review YA lit new YA books horror fantasy review morbid goth vamp halloween 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