Review: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. Lish McBride. Henry Holt & Co. 2010. Copy borrowed from friend.

The Plot: Sam is your typical slacker — college drop out, working at a fast food restaurant to pay the bills for his tiny apartment, hanging out with his friends. Until the day he accidentally breaks the headlight on a Mercedes while playing potato hockey with his best friends, Ramon and Brooke. The car owner goes from angry at the damage to downright scary as he asks Sam who gave him permission to live in Seattle and why he hasn’t consulted the Council.

With that chance encounter, Sam starts finding out secrets — secrets he didn’t know about, secrets he didn’t want to know about. Sam thought Seattle and his world was normal. Turns out, it’s full of supernatural beings including necromancers. Turns out, Sam is one of those beings — he’s a necromancer. As in talking to and raising the dead.

The Good: As I explained in The Freak Observer, the Morris Shortlist books should be on your must-read list just because. If you need more than the equivalent of my saying “because I told you so,” for Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, know this: as the title indicates, it’s funny! Sam and his friends may be slackers, but they know how to quip. This book gives you supernatural, horror, humor, and even a touch of romance. It’s also done with wonderful style: Sam tells his story in first person, and other parts of the story are told in third person subjective, so you get inside their heads, their thoughts, their memories and background but without the same type of immediacy and closeness that Sam’s story gives you. The structure is also fabulous, with McBride quickly creating Sam’s “normal” world and then just as quickly introducing the supernatural, and just as the reader is processing the “new” of it all it switches to a  more knowledgeable point of view. This provides the reader with more context and background than Sam has, and offers great world-building.

What else? This book has crossover appeal for your adult readers of supernatural and horror.

Alright, so for all of you who don’t like spoilers, that should be enough to get you going. Go, read, and then return, because there will be spoilers. Oh, and there is an excerpt at the publisher’s website.

As explained above, Sam finds out there is more to his world — witches, necromancers, werewolves, fey, vampires, well, you get the picture.

What fascinates me (and makes me angrier than Sam, but that’s OK) is it turns out that his mother has known this, known many things all along, and kept it from Sam. It’s actually a classic parent move — withhold information to protect a child from being hurt, yet by never telling the child more damage happens. Here, long story short, Sam’s mother was aware of his otherness. I KNOW. And, honestly, I’m happy that Sam is shown as so close to his mother to forgive her but his not knowing means that when the big bad showed up? Sam was unprepared. I could deal with that. But then the big bad killed one of Sam’s good friends, and while Sam doesn’t blame his mother for that, I DO. Because I’m that type of reader. What this means from the book point of view is that McBride has created such engaging, flawed characters that I am getting mad at people who aren’t real. And getting mad for the best possible reason — because the characters are real and I have invested in all of them, including Sam, his mother, and his dead friend.

The secret leads to another strength of Necromancer. It’s all tied together. Sam’s floating, feeling disconnected, being, well, a slacker isn’t just because, well, he’s a slacker. As he realizes late in the book, if such an important part of himself was hidden, denied, unknown, no wonder he always felt as if he didn’t belong! So note that while this book is a funny as hell horror story, it is also classic coming of age — discovering oneself and accepting responsibility, with an emphasis on needing to understand and accept oneself fully in order to have a whole, integrated life. That the story comes with a talking head and a hot naked half-fey half-were hound girl in a cage is just extra goodness.

Finally, I love that Necromancer stands alone. Much as I love series, I also love not having to wait for a second (third, fourth, fifth…) book to find out what happens and to wrap up the story. That said, McBride has created such an interesting world that there could easily be other stories set in it, including stories about Sam as he learns more about his abilities. And, as Sam himself says near the end, “I froze. No corpse? Not good. No corpse meant he could still be around. Anyone who has ever watched a soap opera or a slasher flick knows that.” Thank you, Lish McBride, for that, because I am so tired of people in books and films and TV who don’t know that!

A Favorite Book Read in 2010 because: humor, supernatural,and  horror, all while balancing humor and a dead-serious plot.

Review: The Freak Observer

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston. Carolrhoda Lab. 2010. Reviewed from uncorrected proof from publisher.

The Plot: Loa Lindgren has had a year of heartbreak and loss. Her younger sister died; one friend left town, another was killed in an accident. Her family is shattered first by the loss of a beloved child and next by the economic stress of job loss.

The Good: The Freak Observer is on the shortlist for the Morris Award. Which means, in a nutshell, that The Freak Observer has been recognized as one of the five best debut novels for YA, which means that yes, your library should have it. So if you weren’t sure about purchasing — do.

This also means that if you love YA literature, you should read this (and the other nominees) because, well, it’s one of the five best debut novels. Read it to both get a better understanding of what that means and also then to be able to weigh on the discussion of the Morris Award and what novels did or didn’t make it to the shortlist.

And the reason for all this talking about a book without talking about a book is, well, I’m going to be talking about the book and may include spoilers because for me, for The Freak Observer, the beauty and strength cannot be discussed without revealing either plot points or character growth that some people would prefer to discover on their own.

On with the book.

 At first, Loa Lindgren’s life seems harsh and brutal. “I have a little yellow green blush of bruise under my jaw. . . . I could raise my hand and tell the whole class what I learned about pressure and force when my dad clobbered me.” Ah, the reader thinks as the pages turn, this will be a book about an abusive family.

The reader would be wrong. Loa’s younger sister Asta died the year before from Rett Syndrome, a disorder where for the first eighteen months of a child’s life everything seems fine and then the child stagnates and regresses. For years, her parents took care of their daughter. Woolston paints a picture of a loving family despite the stress, a working class family where the father works hard and comes home at night and reads aloud to his family and his dying daughter. He names his daughter after the names in books he reads: Asta Sollilja. (Yes, I am the nerd who researched what book her father was reading….)

Loa’s father is not a violent man, he is a man moved to violence because he watched a beloved child die, he lost his job and sees his wife and daughter working to put food on the table, and he is moved to the violent act against Loa because she has come home in a police car after having witnessed a friend die in a truck accident which may be suicide. Loa thinks, “What’s the difference? Why am I not a dead girl? I don’t for a minute know. I look at my dad. He can’t let himself be sad. He can’t let himself be frightened. But I’ve forced this moment. The fear jumps out of his eyes and into me like a hot spark. ‘You could’a been the dead one.’ That’s when he hits me with the plunger, because I could have been the dead one. He hits me because it is easier to be angry than to be afraid. I could have been the dead one, but I’m not.” This is a story not of the toll that caring for an child takes on a family, it is the story of what happens to the family after that child who has been the center of the family dies.

Loa is studying science and physics, and “freak observer” is something she researches as a special extra credit project. Loa explains, “a Freak Observer pops into existence as a self-aware entity that makes its universe orderly.” Loa’s universe is far from orderly, hasn’t been orderly since her sister died. Loa struck up a “friends with benefits” relationship with a boy from the debate team but then he left for a better school. She then began hanging out with Esther and others from school, until Esther was hit by a truck. Loa is not fixed, going from here to there, not quite sure what to do. The Freak Observer begins the day after Esther’s death, with flashbacks to the previous year — perhaps, then, the Freak Observer who gives Loa order is the reader, the book, the telling of the story.

After her sister’s death, Loa cannot sleep, has nightmares. Loa’s family did their best. “So I started going to grief counseling at the clinic. It was useful. The first day I went in, my mom made sure everyone was clear on the project. The insurance would pay for six visits. The plan was to get me fixed up in six hours or, if that wasn’t quite possible, to make me stop screaming in the night.” In this one sentence, Loa and her family are captured: they care, they do what they can, they don’t have much, and there is humor.

Loa’s family is proudly working class. They live in the house her father was raised in, indoor plumbing only came the generation before, they don’t take hand-outs. Sometimes it seems there are only two socio-economic realities in young adult books: urban poor or upper middle class suburbia, with the occasional rich city kids thrown in for good measure. Loa’s family doesn’t have a lot, and I’m sure others would see them as the poor country folk, but they get by. One of the interesting things that Woolston does is to provide two parents who have incredible depth of character yet limit what we see about them to what Loa sees and wants to see. She is at times dismissive of them, of their relationship, but what she tells us reveals to the reader a couple who have had a rough time, have three children they love, lost one, and then got knocked down again when the local lumber mill let her father go. He doesn’t find steady work, but her mother works a shift in a nursing home that doesn’t pay benefits.

Now comes the part that fascinates me — and the reason for those spoiler warnings — by the end of the book, the mother (who is probably late 30s) goes back to school, moving with her children into university housing while the father stays at the house because someone has to make sure that the pipes don’t freeze. Before you think this is a divorce — “he kisses my mom on her eyelids and goes. Like I said, some great romance.” Oh, Loa, I want to say — that is a great romance. And it also is an interesting reveal about her parents. They may have been frozen by the death and dying of a child but they are finding their own way to go forward. Their way forward would not be significant to some, as Loa now sleeps on a sofa in the living room. But, to her little brother’s great excitement, they now live someplace that gets pizza delivery. They now live somewhere that allows Loa an opportunity, a new school, a new place, without the physical isolation of their country home. Before, she was physically and emotionally isolated; now, the physical is removed and that allows the emotional walls to slowly dissolve.

So, yes, in a way the plot of this book can be summed up: “and then the family moved to town.” Seriously, though, the real strength of the book is the fascinating character of Loa and the glimpses into the people around her. Any one of them is strong enough to support their own book, because each has their own story or motivation or damage and we only see glimpses, the glimpses that Loa knows, and part of Loa’s growth is when she realizes that people do things for reasons that are not all about her.

Is this a Favorite Book Read in 2010? Absolutely. The Freak Observer and Loa got under my skin in a way few books do. Even better, the more I thought about it while writing this review, the more I liked it. To me, that is a real strength of a book — how it sticks with you. How it continues to make you think after you finish reading.

So, for your teen readers, how to booktalk it? Give it to the ones who prefer literary works, your readers of Sonya Hartnett. The ones who read for character. When putting together lists and recommendations about economic diversity and people struggling in today’s economy — include this. And, needless to say, those readers who are looking for a book that will make them cry? Look no further.

Review: The Curse of the Wendigo

 The Curse of the Wendigo by Rick Yancey. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 2010. Personal copy. Sequel to The Monstrumologist.

The Plot: 1888, New England. Will Henry and his guardian/employer, monstrumologist Pellinore Warthrop, are pulled into another hunt for monsters, this time, the Wendigo. The thing is — Warthrop doesn’t believe in the Wendigo. Monstrumology is a science, dedicated to the study of actual biological entities that others would call “monsters.” It is not about myth or superstition; there is nothing supernatural about monstrumology.

Problem is, one of Warthrop’s friends, John Chanler, went hunting the Wendigo in Rat Portage, Canada and disappeared. Chanler’s wife asks Warthrop to go find John. Warthrop and Will Henry go to western Canada to find Chanler. The search for the Chanler, the journey for the truth, will take them from the forests of Canada to the tenements of New York City.

The Good: What is that noise? Is it the Wendigo outside the window? Is it a vampire lurking in a basement? No, it is only the sigh of contentment (yes, contentment) that The Curse of the Wendigo is every bit as wonderful, fabulous, horrifying and thought provoking as The Monstrumologist. You hear something more? Why, that would be the sound of me turning all the lights on, of locking all the doors, of checking to make sure there are no open windows so that I can sleep tonight. Oh, I won’t sleep soundly…. but hopefully, I will sleep. As Yancey muses having read Will Henry’s journals, “The central question, the thing that woke me up in the dead of night shivering in a cold sweat, the notion that haunted me as I fought to go back to sleep . . . Could monsters be real?”

As with The Monstrumologist, this book stands alone: a creature is hunted, there is a resolution. The bigger story — the series mystery, as it were — remains the mystery of Will Henry and his journals. Yancey’s framing device is that, in the present day, Rick Yancey discovered the journals of recently deceased man who claimed that his name was Will Henry and that he was born in 1876. In the handful of pages before and after Will Henry’s memoir of his time with the monstrumolgist, Yancey discusses his own research into trying to discover who Will Henry was and how much of his journals were fiction and how much were fact. Those mysteries remain — and I am intrigued by how long Yancey will go with this series, with whether there will ever be (or can ever be) an answer to who Will Henry was. For more on the framing device, as well as the literary style of this series, see my review of The Monstrumologist.

In The Curse of the Wendigo, questions of faith, belief, and science are woven together. Warthrop repeatedly explains just why “myths” are myths, as opposed to the cold, logical science of monsters. It is amusing, actually, to think that Warthrop defends the existence of natural monsters against supernatural creatures, while the reader of these books discounts the monsters that are oh-so-real to Warthrop. Against the backdrop of “Wendigo: real monster or mythical creature,” The Curse of the Wendigo also asks questions about love and relationships, about what makes us human, about belief. What are the bonds between Warthrop and Will Henry? Between Warthrop and Chanler and Chanler’s wife, Muriel? Is John Chanler turning into some type of creature? Or is he going insane? And is that being caused by actual infection from a real beast or from a person breaking because of isolation and loss? Along the way, there is plenty of action, gore, and a further exploration of the science of monstrumology as practiced by Warthrop.

Once again, Yancey fills his book with unexpected humor and easter egg references to things and people that are “real.” Warthrop does something that puts his whole group in danger, and someone tells him, “Warthrop, I would have liked to have been included in this decision.” A throwaway reference is made to “that damned Irishman Stokely” or some other “S” name who is pushing the society to include vampires in the creatures it studies. Ah, vampires…. By having Warthrop be skeptical of the Wendigo (as compared to other characters), Yancey can include lore and stories about the Wendigo as Warthrop and his colleagues research and debate whether it is “real”. Because of this scientific approach, the monstrumologists also bring in lore and stories of the vampire, arguing that the two are at least related, if not the same creature.

The second half of the book is set in New York City, looking at both the privileged and the tenements. (Of course Jacob Riis makes an appearance!). Here, a description of the filth: “Each morning the manure was collected and hauled to special staging areas, called “manure blocks,” to await transport over the Brooklyn Bridge. The largest manure block was located on Forty-second Street, one block away from where a hundred thousand people got their drinking water, the Croton Reservoir.” Not only is Yancey giving the reader a peak at a historical time and place, he is also foreshadowing events that happen later. In addition, the depiction of the poverty, the cruelty, the filth shows that there are many monsters, many risks, many dangers in our world — even without Wendigos or vampires.

Because I love this series; because the writing can be beautiful while describing the unthinkable; because it makes me think; because it scares me; because the description of New York City in 1888 made me never want to travel back in time; it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

Review: Fixing Delilah

Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler. 2010. Little Brown. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Delilah Hannaford, almost seventeen, is in a car headed from Pennsylvania to Vermont. It’s been eight years since she’s been to her mother’s hometown. Back then, it was for her beloved grandfather’s funeral. Because of a fight between her mother, aunt, and grandmother, Delilah has never been back and hasn’t even talked to her grandmother since. Now, Delilah and her mother are heading home. To bury her grandmother. And to discover that secrets can pull families apart and truth, no matter how painful, can heal.

The Good: Family secrets? Including an almost decade-long feud? And a summer spent cleaning out the dead grandmother’s house? It’s easy to tell why I moved this book to the top of my to-be-read pile.

What moved it to my “favorite books read in 2010” list? Fixing Delilah  is not “oh noes, this thing happened eight years ago, here it is eight years later, sorry, all better now.” Oh, the book begins eight years later and yes, something happened, and yes, the three women work towards reconciliation. The family argument splintered the family, with Delilah’s mother and aunt barely speaking, but it splintered a family that already was broken.  As we find out from Delilah, she, her mother, and her aunt are not unscarred or untouched by the eight years and what came before. Delilah and her mother have issues that link back to before the fight. The fight is not “the event”; it’s one event in family dynamics and dysfunction.

Delilah’s past year has been turbulent: sneaking out at night to meet her “not boyfriend” Finn, shoplifting, denting her mother’s car, and that is not even getting into her grades and issues with her so-called friends. Meanwhile, her mother, Claire, has become a workaholic. Yes, her mother has turned her life around from being a struggling single mother to a successful business woman, but she also never takes a break, multitasking even when home. The two are almost strangers.

Slowly, Delilah reveals the things about her life, her mother’s life, that are the secrets that keep the family apart. Her Aunt Stephanie’s death at nineteen. Her birth father and the one-night stand before his death that resulted in Delilah. And, of course, the fight with her grandmother that tore the family apart. Delilah, her mother, and her Aunt Rachel are now thrown together to clear out the family home and get it ready for sale. In putting the house back together, they also put their family together.

Along the way there is romance; literally, a boy next door. And a true friend. Is it too coincidence, too serendipitous that this summer brings love and friendship? No.  Delilah cannot heal – cannot open herself up to truly connecting with others – until she works out things with her family. As that healing happens, she allows a friend and a boy fully into her life. It’s not easy, and not without hiccups, but then, healing and change never are.

How does this compare to Ockler’s first book, Twenty Boy Summer? You know the scene in the film, 10 Things I Hate About You, about the difference between love and like? Bianca says “There’s a difference between like and love. Because, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack. “ Chastity replies, “But I love my Skechers.” Bianca explains, “That’s because you don’t have a Prada backpack.” Twenty Boy Summer is Skechers, and Fixing Delilah is a Prada backpack.

Review: Revolution

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. Delacorte, an imprint of Random House. 2010. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: Andi Alpers, a senior, doesn’t belong anywhere and doesn’t care. After her brother’s death two years ago, her world fell apart. Her father, a Nobel winning scientist, always a worhaholic, moved out. Her mother’s grief registers itself in painting portraits of her dead son over and over. Andi’s about to be expelled from her expensive, prestigious private school but she doesn’t care. All Andi cares about her guitar and losing herself in her music with the occasional help of prescription drugs and a warm body.

Her father comes back into her life in “take charge, I can fix this” mode, as if Andi and her mother were another thing on his “to do” list. Her mother gets sent to a hospital and Andi is brought to Paris for her winter break, where her father can supervise her work on her ignored senior thesis. In Paris, Andi discovers the late eighteenth century diary of a teenage girl, Alexandrine Paradis, who was caught up in the French Revolution. Andi is captivated by the words of a girl her age. Twin stories unfold: Andi’s in the present day, Alex’s in the past, until the stories come together in a powerful ending that offers grace in a dark world.

The Good: Revolution is stunning.

The first section of the book, “Hell,” has an epigram from Dante: “And to a place I come where nothing shines.” Nothing shines in Andi’s life. Revolution begins with Andi’s privileged classmates (“a diplomat’s daughter,” “a movie star’s kid”) having a party. From the start, the connection is made between present day and the French Revolution with haves and have nots, an upper-class and underclass.

Andi’s grief over her younger brother’s death seeps through every page, every sentence, every act: “…and then I play. For hours. I play until my fingertips are raw. Until I rip a nail and bleed on the strings. Until my hands hurt so bad I forget my heart does.” Her grief is fueled by guilt for her role in her brother’s death as well as the breaking down of her family. “Rain washed away the blood long ago but I still see it. Unfurling beneath my brother’s small, broken body like the red petals of a rose. And suddenly the pain that’s always inside me, tightly coiled, swells into something so big and so fierce that it feels like it will burst my heart, split my skull, tear me apart.”

Andi’s father goes to Paris to visit and work with an old friend, a historian whose specialty is the French Revolution. Together, they are working on testing the alleged heart of Louis XVII, the “lost dauphin,” ten year old Louis-Charles, the child of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Did the child die, alone and broken and terrified? Or was he smuggled out for a dead child? Andi discovers a diary of a young girl, Alex, a poor actress who became companion to Louis-Charles. “They keep him in the Tower, a cold, dark room with one window, small and high. The guards are cruel. There is no stove to warm him. No privy. His filth piles up in a corner. He has no playthings. No books. Nothing but rats. What food he is given, he puts in a corner, to draw them off. He does not know his mother is dead and writes these words with a stone on his wall — Mama, please….   Once you were brave. Once you were kind. You can be so again.”

Andi works on her senior thesis, about a French composer who lived during the Revolution, reads the diary of Alex, wanders through Paris. Her Paris, the Paris of Alex, are told in wonderful detail. Past and present come to life. Andi’s music connects her with fellow Parisian musicians, including an attraction to handsome Virgil. Those relationships begin to anchor her in the present. At the same time, she is desperate to get home, to rescue her mother from the psychiatric hospital she’s been committed to, to not leave her alone.

The parallels: Andi’s privileged life, the privilege of the French aristocrats. Her brother Truman, dead at ten, a death Andi blames herself for. Louis-Charles, dead at ten, a death that Alex feels responsible for. Louis-Charles, imprisoned in a tower and denied any comfort or love; Andi’s mother, imprisoned in a hospital, an artist denied paints and brushes. The music, Andi’s own music and those she hears around her, tied to the past, to the musicians that came before, and her research into the French composer Malherbeau. The DNA found in people, the DNA of musical influence. It all works, comes together beautifully. My heart aches for Andi, wonders if she can forgive herself and become brave and kind again. I got caught up in Alex’s diary, with concern for that small boy, and wondered if Alex’s increasingly desperate and risky acts to try to let Louis-Charles know that he is not alone, he is not forgotten, he is still loved worked. Did they do anything? Did they ease her guilt, did it give hope? Does hope matter when the end of the story is a cold, brutal death?

Just because “the wretched world goes on, as stupid and brutal tomorrow as it was today,” do we have to be stupid and brutal? Or can we be brave and kind, no matter what the world brings?

About two-thirds through the book, there is a second section. “Purgatory,” again with a quote from Dante. Andi descends into a catacomb for a party with her new friends. And here, Donnelly makes a choice about the story that not everyone will love. I am personally torn as to what exactly happens, what it means. Andi is in a bleak place, unsure of herself and her place in any world, still seeking an end to the endless sorrow of her brother’s death. Whether what happens next is literal or not, real or a dream, Andi is given the opportunity to work towards redemption. The final chapters are “Paradise,” again Dante: “Till I beheld through a round aperture Some of the beauteous things Heaven doth bear; Thence we come forth to rebehold the stars.” Those of you who have read the book, let’s discuss that in the comments. Those of you who haven’t — don’t read the comments until you  have.

A revolution is an event: the French Revolution, the American Revolution. It is also a change in a way of thinking. This is Andi’s revolution.

A note on book design. I don’t have an e-reader; I’m not sure if e-books will replace physical books. I do know that the book design of Revolution shows the value of a physical object and how it adds to the book and is not merely a physical case to hold pages. In addition to the stunning artwork (a photograph of a modern girl, the painting of a 18th century girl, upside down, revolving) there is the red ribbon. Andi wears a red ribbon around her neck, holding a key that belonged to her brother; the surviving nobles of France wore red ribbons to remember those relatives killed by the guillotine.  The ribbon is glossy, raised, and the spine shows the key. The endpapers are blood red.

Oh, and for the historical fiction lovers like myself, there are acknowledgements and sources.

Because the language is stunning. Because Andi and Truman, Alex and Louis-Charles haunt me. Because I am still wondering at the difference between stupid and brutal, brave and kind, and whether it matters. Because my reservations about the book are about only a handful of pages, and those handful do not outweigh the seeking of braveness and kindness in ourselves. Revolution is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

Review: The Suburb Beyond The Stars

The Suburb Beyond the Stars by M. T. Anderson. Scholastic. 2010. Review from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Brian and Gregory, having survived The Game of Sunken Places, are preparing for the next Game. Brian, as winner, gets to plan it and is constructing it around old detective novels. Gregory, his best friend, is helping. The Game is part of a highly structured battle between two elfin groups, the Thussers and the Norumbegans. There are many rounds, and the ultimate winner claims the kingdom of Norumbega. The Game has been going on for ages.

Until now. Turns out, the Thussers are getting impatient. Brian and Gregory return to the mountains of Vermont to discover people are missing, the world is changing, and much more is at stake than one kingdom.

The Good: I cannot believe I didn’t review The Game of Sunken Places. Since it was published in 2004, I must have read it in my pre-blog days. I loved The Game of Sunken Places. It reminded me of the horror stories I read and loved as a teen, such as Shadowland by Peter Straub. Visiting mysterious relatives in a creaky mansion, a game come to life, high risk stakes. Actually, as I think on this — Stephen King has been known to read young adult books. I would love to see King talk about this book in his EW column.

The events of the first book are recounted at the start of The Suburb Beyond the Stars, helping out both the reader who hasn’t read the first book and the reader who read the first book years ago. I was a bit surprised when I found out about a sequel, because while I adored the first book it seemed like a standalone. Would this just be a rehash of the first book, except now being told from the point of view of the game-makers instead of the game-players?

Silly, silly me. I should know better. This is, after all, M.T. Anderson. If we lived in a world that valued genius writing the way we valued tanned twentysomethings who drink and go to the beach and clubs, Anderson would be a millionaire who required body guards to keep his fans away. “Tobin at the airport!” the headlines at TMZ would scream. His Delaware would be sung by American Idol contestants. Heck, Tobin would be one of the most popular baby names. My point being, never doubt in Anderson. Rehash? Silly, silly me.

Everything changes in this book. The Thussers have decided not to play the Game. They have not told the Norumbegans, of course. While Brian and Gregory were in Boston, playing by the rules, the Thussers have slowly begun to invade. Oh,  yes, this is horror — this is scary — but it’s funny and amusing. The Thussers invade by building a suburb, a SUBURB, to attract suburbanites and then use them and that place as their point of entry to our world. They plan on taking over the planet, one suburb at a time. This is biting satire.

I could write more. I could write about the unexpected, terrifying creatures Brian and Gregory encounter. I could tell about the plotting and twists and turns. I could go on about world-building. And oh, the language! The writing! The many post-its in my book, marking a particularly amusing sentence. I could write about how while this is perfect for middle school, older teens and adults will enjoy it.  I could share the excitement that the next book in the quartet, The Empire of Gut and Bone, is coming in 2011. But if I took the time to do all that, I would not have the time to explore the tie-in interactive website that Scholastic has put together. Before I go, two quick things. Yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010. And here is a link to the trailer for the book (because I cannot get it to embed in this blog).

Review: Room

Room by Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown. 2010. Borrowed copy.

The Plot: Five year old Jack lives with Ma in Room. His entire life, all he knows, is within these four walls. Rug, with the spot on it from when he was born. Bed, where he wakes up with Ma in the morning. Wardrobe, where he goes to sleep because that is when Old Nick opens the locked door, takes away the trash, bring supplies.

Jack tells his story, starting with the known World, then finding out that a world existed Outside, and finally trying to navigate a world full of people and things and smells and sounds. A story of safety and freedom, of known and unknown, and, through it all, the fierce bond he shares with Ma.

The Good: When I first heard about Room, I knew one thing. I didn’t want to read it. A woman kidnapped, raped, kept in a shed. A child born of that rape, raised in isolation. It was just too horrible to hear about, to think about. Why spend over 300 pages with the heartbreak of a woman who loses over seven years to a monster? When I read adult fiction, it tends to be mysteries or romance or historical fiction. The crime fiction I read tends to be told from the safe perspective of the police officer, the detective, the federal agent, not the victims. Even though I knew from reviews that halfway through Jack and Ma escape, I just didn’t think I could bring myself to read a story about broken people.

My friend Carlie Webber said she’d read Room and liked it, and since I respect her opinion, I borrowed her copy.

WOW. I loved, loved, loved Room. Jack, five years old, is the perfect narrator. Donoghue manages to convey not only Jack’s world view and a perspective limited by age and experience but also to give enough information for the adult reader to know more than Jack knows. We know the squeaks and gasps of Old Nick’s nightly visits is the nightly rape of Ma. We know that Jack’s self-centered desire to hold onto the familiarity of Room and his belongings from that time inflicts unbelievable pain on Ma who wants full freedom from Old Nick and Room. Having gained physical escape, Ma wants that time left in her past but to Jack, Room was never a prison. It was only a place that was safe and home — “safe” and “home” because of Ma’s strength.

Ma was kidnapped at nineteen, gave birth to Jack two years later. Instead of viewing her child as a punishment, as a part of Old Nick, as a monster’s child, Ma wanted Jack. The reader realizes that Jack saves Ma because in it gives her someone to love and care for. Ma carves out some type of normalcy for her son, and that keeps Ma from going mad. While isolated in a garden shed for years, Jack keeps Ma connected to the world. Jack doesn’t realize this, so cannot tell us, but the reader figures it out from the stories Ma tells Jack and from the daily routine she has created for her son.

Kidnapped people who escape: that is Room. Despite the “ripped from the headlines” plot, this is not a “ripped from the headlines” book. Yes, there is an escape, half way through the book, but most of the book is about the details of the life Ma and Jack share before and after. Jack’s voice and language mask the horror of the captivity, so there is never terror, there is no real sense of violence, beyond Jack’s hiding in the Wardrobe during Old Nick’s visits. Ma doesn’t scream or shout or beg. Jack never comments on it, doesn’t realize what is or is not happening, but the reader knows this is just another example of what Ma is doing to fully protect her child. So, too, does it protect the reader. There are no “true crime” details of kidnapping and torture and rape here.

Room is also about the bonds between parent and child and how love can both save and smother. Ma and Jack spend every hour of every day together. Jack is Ma’s whole life. What child wouldn’t want to be the center of his parent’s existence? This love saved Ma and saves Jack, but what happens to it Outside in a world where people don’t share one small room 24/7? Jack, like any child, has to learn to be his own person, not an extension of his mother.

In Room, Ma was a great mother because she had to be. She was focused: keep Jack safe, figure out a way to escape. Once escape happens and with that, the obligation and responsibility of being The Only One in Jack’s life ends, Ma is left with — what? Who is she now and what is her role?  She was Jack’s parent, friend, and teacher because she had to be and it is all Jack knows. Is it really selfish if, once out, Ma doesn’t want all three roles? Remember, none of Ma’s struggles are told by Ma. They are told by Jack, who just knows things have changed.

I’m hoping this makes the Alex Awards, the Award from YALSA for adult books with teen appeal. Stories about women kidnapped and held captive, some bearing children in captivity, are in the news. YA books include ones about teens who are kidnapped. How does one survive, mentally and physically, for years and years and years? Room answers this question, using fiction to tell a story true — people are resilient. They survive, battered but not permanently broken.

Because this is a story about surviving, no matter what; because it is a story of the sacrifices one can and cannot make; because it is about love, both generous and self-centered, giving and demanding, Room is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

The trailer:

Review: The Replacement

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Mackie Doyle, sixteen, knows he’s different from the other teens in Gentry.

On page five, Mackie admits that during the school blood drive “I could smell the blood — sweet, metallic. I could taste it in the back of my mouth and my stomach was starting to feel iffy.” Oh, the reader thinks, he just doesn’t like the sight or smell of blood. Four pages later, and Mackie tells about iron: “it hurts in a slow, exhausting way.” A couple of pages later, and Mackie explains how his kind preacher father told a five year old Mackie the story of Kellan Caury, a man lynched in the 1930s, back when the town had a bad spell and many children were disappearing and someone had to be blamed. The person who was “different” and noticed was blamed. The message is clear: don’t be different. Don’t be noticed.

By the end of the first chapter, Mackie shares something his sister told him. When Emma was four, she saw a baby taken out of her brother’s crib, and something else left.

That something else was Mackie. Mackie is not a teen who thinks he is different from those around him — he really is different.

The Good: Despite the number of details shared in the first chapter — Mackie’s appearance (“pale, creepy“, “how dark my eyes were,”sometimes, people got uneasy just looking at me“) and fear of being different, of being seen, of being noticed, the death of a classmate’s younger sister and the seemingly cavalier view of the tragedy by his classmates (“so, are your parents freaked out about the latest drama“) — the confirmation that something is wrong in Gentry, that Mackie is a changeling exchanged with a human child, that dark entities live beneath his town, doesn’t come for several more chapters. Rather than plunging into the action, Yovanoff takes her time to establish setting and characters.

Setting — Gentry. A town where a small child’s death is “the latest drama.” At first, I thought this was a brilliant line to show how Alice, the pretty girl Mackie was crushing on, was shallow. It was that, yes, but as the reader learns more about the relationship between town and the underworld, including the spilling of a taken child’s blood every seven years, the reader realizes it wasn’t an immature teen speaking. Gentry is the town where people see things out of the corner of the eye and ignore what is right in front of them. Alice isn’t being shallow, Alice is just born and raised in a town where a child’s death is the “latest drama” to be seen sideways and dismissed.

Character — Mackie, a castoff child of the underworld left in a human child’s crib. Usually these non-human children sicken and die, with everyone believing (or at least acting as if) it was the real human child. This, we learn, is what happened to Tate’s baby sister Natalie, the dead child. Or, rather, the dead changeling. Why is Mackie different? Why he is still alive? What world does he belong in?

Mackie seems cautious and distant from those around him, but he isn’t alone. His sister Emma loves him. His parents create a home without iron or metals. Mackie has friends, a girl he likes, a girl (Tate) who may like him. Don’t draw attention to yourself, he is told. His dizziness, his sickness, from being part of this world is getting worse and worse and his only salvation may be going underground to the Land of Mayhem and learning more about who he is. The reader needs to see Mackie’s struggles, see his loyalty to his human family and friends and their loyalty back to him, see the strange acceptance and salvantion offered in Mayhem. The reader needs to know Mackie as well as Mackie knows himself to understand, later, the dilemmas he face once the action starts:  who does he stand with? Where does his loyalties lie? Is it possible to save Tate’s baby sister who has been taken but is still alive underground? 

Because of the time Yovanoff takes with setting and character, when the action starts the reader understands and knows the stakes. Mackie’s dilemma is real, and the strange town of Gentry is less strange.

Horror! I enjoy horror, real, old-fashioned horror. Children, stolen and sacrificed ever seven years. At first I thought, oh, no, it won’t go there. It does! Yovanoff doesn’t take the safe out of showing a human child raised underground. Blood sacrifice is demanded, blood sacrifice is made.

The underworld, Lands of Mayhem and Mystery, is complex and ugly. Dark bargains are made. If something is different, if someone is ugly, is it necessary wrong or evil? Yovanoff takes all this and adds a sense of  morals and ethics. It’s just not the morals and ethics of those above ground. The horror is even scarier, because once Mackie goes underground and meets the Morrigan we realize (perhaps as reluctantly as Mackie himself does) that those from the Land of Mayhem are not evil. They are — different. Long ago gods who are now something less, who may become something more. That something more and something less is dependent on belief and the power of story: extreme feelings that can come from joy, happiness, misery, fear, — and music. (And for more of that, check out The Replacement playlist from the author.)

Yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010. And fingers crossed, I’m hoping to see it on the Morris shortlist.

Review: The Demon’s Covenant

The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan. Simon & Schuster. 2010. Personal copy.

The Plot: The story of Alan, Nick, Mae, and Jamie starts not that long after the events of The Demon’s Lexicon. Demons, magicians, and battles, oh my.

The Good: There will be spoilers.

For those who have not read The Demon’s Lexicon: if you like horror infused with humor, read my review, read the book, then get the sequel. Know that yes, this is a trilogy, and the sequel is as good as the first so yes, you want to invest your time in this one.

The rest of the review is for those of you who read The Demon’s Lexicon and are wondering — how’s the sequel?

Alan and Nick are dealing with the consequences of Nick’s true identity being made public. Meanwhile, Jamie is trying to balance school and being an untrained, unaffiliated magician. Mae is trying not to think about the magician she killed to save Jamie, as well as her relationships with both Alan and Nick and Seb. Seb being the main person bullying Jamie. Alan is concerned that Nick is going to end up giving in to this true nature and disaster will follow. Mae doesn’t want to lose her brother. Jamie wants to know about how to be a magician, even if it means meeting with Gerald, a magician known to see humans as sub-magician and not worthy of care or concern. Mae’s concern for Jamie brings her back to the Ryves brothers.

This is terrific horror. The demons are chilling in their difference from humans, the magicians terrifying in their belief in their superiority. As with the first book, the risks to body, to sanity, to life are quite real. And, as with the first one, the quartet of teens deal with stress, danger, and risks with one-liners that make me both laugh out loud and want to hang out with them. Without, of course, the threat of doom and danger. You know what it’s like? Redford and Newman at their finest, in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (If right now you’re going “huh? who are they?” don’t share your reaction with me, as it will make me cry. Just go to Netflix or your library or wherever you go to get movies. You won’t be sorry. Do share your new-found love of these movies.)

Alan, Alan, Alan. The older brother who will do anything, lie to anyone, risk everything, to protect his brother Nick. Including protecting Nick for the consequences of Nick’s actions. And Nick. Oh, Nick. The younger brother who see the world differently, knows he is out of step emotionally with everyone around him, yet wants to change (or at least pretend) for Alan.

And Mae…. can I officially be jealous of Mae? Because with who she ends up kissing, well, how can I not be jealous? I loved, loved, loved how this was handled. A female with multiple love interests? At the same time, no less? And for each one, I thought, “yes, this is right, pick him.” OK, maybe there was one I was a bit “eh” about. The Demon’s Covenant, while not a paranormal romance, does a terrific job of exploring attraction, want, need, lust, love, and sexuality.

Because I love me a book that can have me scared and laughing, often at the same time, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

The third book, The Demon’s Surrender, is due in 2011. I cannot wait!

Review: The Ring of Solomon

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel by Jonathan Stroud. Disney Hyperion Books. 2010. Reviewed from unedited version from publisher.

The Plot: Jerusalem, 950 B.C.E. King Solomon (yes, that King Solomon) rules Israel with wisdom and strength. And a ring — a ring that gives him unbelievable powers. King Solomon controls Israel, including the magicians of his court. Magicians control djinni. One of those magicians has a djinni named Bartimaeus.

The Good: I’m addressing this to three different readers. Sort of like choose your own adventure! First, new readers to this series; next, members of awards/lists committees; finally, people who have read the other books in the series.

New Readers: In The Ring of Solomon’s world of magic, magicians bind djinni and other creatures to do their bidding. Bartimaeus is one of those djinni, summoned to do a master’s bidding. Djinni are rarely willing conspirators; elaborate spells and ceremonies are required to both summon and bind them and one misstep by a magician frees the djinni. The djinni are not happy to be summoned and commanded, so those missteps usually don’t end well for the magician. Usually the magician ends up eaten. So there is danger and risk in magic. The djinni do have some free will. With Bartimaeus, that means he is snarky, looks out for number one (that would be himself) and always tries to figure a way out of serving his current magician. Oh! And whatever you do, don’t call a djinni a demon. It’s rather insulting.

In The Ring of Solomon, Bartimaeus serves a magician who serves the mighty Solomon and, of course, it is Bartimaeus’s story. It is also the story of Asmira, personal guard to the Queen of Sheba. Sheba hopes to protect herself and her country from the personal, political, and military advances of Solomon so she sends Asmira on a secret mission. Kill Solomon. Take the ring. 

There’s no way you cannot like Bartimaeus, in part because he’s funny, sarcastic, and smart. Does Bartimaeus speak the truth? “Dissemblers as we sometimes are when conversing with humans, higher spirits almost always speak truth amongst themselves. The lower orders, sadly, are less civilized, foliots being variable, moody and prone to flights of fancy, while imps enjoy telling absolute whoppers.” An example of Bartimaeus’s behavior is, despite Solomon’s power, Bartimaeus sings bawdy songs about him and, at one point, takes the appearance of hippo that bears a startling resemblance to one of Solomon’s wives.

Asmira is also very likable. First, she’s strong — as a member of the guard of the Queen, she’s been taught to fight from the time she could walk. Second, she’s smart. She even knows a bit of magic. She’s on a journey anyone can respect: save her queen, save her country. Since Bartimaeus is linked to someone who protects Solomon, and Asmira is out to get Solomon, well, you know these two kids will hook up at some point.

So, you have action, humor, great characters. You also have a continuation of a series, but set several thousands of years before the other series, so you do not have to have read the trilogy to understand this book. Be warned: once you read this book, you will want to read the entire trilogy.

People on awards and lists: while this is a part of a series, because it is set so far before the trilogy, this book truly stands alone.

If you have read and enjoyed The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Stroud, here’s what you need to know: it’s the Bartimaeus you know and loved. The Ring of Solomon is set thousands of years before the trilogy, so none of the humans mentioned in the trilogy appear here. It’s a whole new cast of characters. If, like me, it’s been four years since you read the books, that’s OK because the only character you need to know is Bartimaeus and how can you forget him? You don’t have to worry about remembering anything about plot or characters from the other three books. The final version of the book will have a list of main characters as well as a map.

Is The Ring of Solomon stand alone? Yes; no cliff hangers here. As someone who loves Bartimaeus and his unique voice, which makes me laugh out loud, I hope that The Ring of Solomon is just one of many additional books about Bartimaeus.

Is this one of my Favorite Books read in 2010? Does a djinni call when summoned?