Review: Hideous Love

Hideous Love: The Story of the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Stephanie Hemphill. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: The story of Mary Godwin Shelley, the woman who wrote Frankenstein.

The Good: I have always loved the story of Mary Shelley. To be honest, more than I love her creature, Frankenstein.

I’m not sure what was the name of the book I read about her; I don’t even remember whether it was fiction or non-fiction. I do remember how awful her stepmother was. And the romance of meeting and falling in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and running away with him even though she was only sixteen and he was married. And all the babies, and all the babies save one dying. The drama of it all!

Hideous Love, in verse form, tells that story. Of Mary wanting her father’s approval. Of Mary’s intense relationship with Shelley. Of their journey together, and their ultimate marriage once his first wife had died. Of the origins of Frankenstein.

I’m hardly an expert on Mary, Shelley, or their time, but I do know the generalities. Who Byron was, for example, and his relationship with Mary’s stepsister.

Hideous Love explains who the various people are, including Mary’s own family tree made up of various half and step siblings, as well as the various poets, philosophers, artists and others Mary encounter. It also explains how Mary’s father’s ideas about marriage and “free love” led Mary to think her father would be much more accepting of her relationship than he was.

My favorite part is in the initial love affair between Mary and Shelley. What is more difficult is the “after” part — Mary and Shelley getting older. Given the philosophy of “free love,” well, how free was their love? Hemphill addresses but does not answer some of those questions that really have no answer, namely, who else Shelley had a physical relationship with while he was with Mary.

Hideous Love brilliantly illustrates Mary’s emotional reality. Her hopes, her fears, what drives her, and how that changes and doesn’t change over time.

Here, some of my favorite bits:

“I am happier now

than ever I have been

more joyous

than when I am reading

my favorite book.

And then this, when talking about her stepsister and her fears about her stepsister and Shelley:

“Her design may have been

larger than that.

I notice when she bats

her lashes at Shelley

as though she holidays

with him alone.

I do not believe I have ever

wanted to throw

anyone out of a carriage more.”

Are Mary’s fears realistic? Or is it, having run away with a married man, that she doesn’t trust him? Is her stepsister really interested in Shelley? Or is her stepsister just lonely?

Shelley is always seen through Mary’s eyes. And here is more of a mystery — and again, a reason I want to read more about him — because I couldn’t quite get a handle on him. Oh, yes, Mary loves him. And he loves her. But at times I didn’t quite like Shelley. There was an arrogance about him, and a sense of entitlement almost, that made me love him less than Mary does. Was he really that careless about Mary’s feelings? Or, rather, that careless about others in general? But, then again — this is firmly Mary’s story. Not Shelley’s. So is this just how Mary began to see Shelley, when she was insecure? Or as she grew older and less enchanted?

Hideous Love is an emotional exploration rather than factual biography, so it doesn’t deeply delve into certain areas of Mary’s life and times. While there is enough shared for the reader new to Mary to understand what is going on, I think it’s best read by someone who already has some knowledge of Mary. Even for those who do know the basics, like myself, there were some parts I wanted to know more about. Hideous Love has some great back matter, with more information on Mary, her writings, and short information on the people in the book. For myself, I still wanted to know more about the lack of money, and borrowing, and how Mary and Shelley did and didn’t make ends meet. Libraries and schools who have Hideous Love should be prepared with more traditional biographies for readers who, like me, want more. And let me say — a book that wants you wanting more? That’s not a bad thing.

Other reviews: Teenreads; Librarian of Snark; Proud Book Nerd; Never Ending Stories.


Review: Born of Illusion

Born of Illusion by Teri Brown. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Walking down the street of 1920s New York City, Anna Van Housen looks like any other proper sixteen year old young lady.

It’s taken a lot for Anna and her mother, Marguerite, to get here. Years on the road, travelling, from performance to performance, sometimes one step ahead of the law.

Marguerite is a mentalist and a medium; Anna is an illusionist, a magician who opens for her mother’s act. Thanks to a new manager, they are in New York City, living in a good neighborhood, holding seances for rich and important people. Technically, yes, it’s against the law.

Why? Well, because it’s all a fake. A con. Tricks and slights of the hand, just like Anna’s magic tricks. It’s all about the show, and part of the show the identity of Anna’s father: Harry Houdini. A “secret” Marguerite shares when it’s to their advantage.

Is Houdini really her father? Anna longs to know the truth. Like him, she loves planning and performing magic tricks. She wishes that her mother would give her a bigger role in their show. Anna also has a secret: unlike her mother, Anna really is a psychic. She can’t control it and she’s learned to hide it, but she can see the future. She can talk to the dead. She wonders if she gets this talent from her father. She wonders if Houdini’s well known battles in exposing fake seances is because he knows that sometimes, it’s real.

Living in one place means that Anna has the chance to make friends. They include a relative of the downstairs’ neighbor. Colin Emerson “Cole” Archer III is about her age, and it turns out he has his own secrets. Owen Winchester is a respectable young man who likes Anna and also likes magic. Cynthia, the young wife of a rich man, enjoys the fun of seances. From both Cynthia and Cole, Anna learns that there may be others like her, a whole secret society. But, who can be trusted? Is the society there to help people with her talents, or to use them? And are Anna and her mother in danger because of those gifts?

Anna is torn: between keeping her ability secret and learning how to control it. As her visions become more personal, more dangerous, she wonders what to do next.

The Good: New York City in the 1920s comes alive, and Anna is an interesting person to talk about it. Because of her upbringing, she has a level of independence and a level of maturity that other sixteen-year-olds woudn’t have. She is often out and about on her own.

Anna loves that they are in one place, that they have a real apartment, a real home. She doesn’t love how they have it. Oh, she likes performing — she loves performing, actually, and wants to do more. She doesn’t love the fake seances, taking advantage of grieving people. She realizes this is a bit of a conflict, in that she wants the stability of living in one place, and making friends, but she loves doing something that requires performing on stage and travelling from town to town. I liked the details about just how the seances were faked, as well as some of the tricks behind Anna’s illusions.

And that secret society . . . .  It’s the Society for Psychical Research. It would be too tidy if the Society swept in and answered all of Anna’s questions. It does not. Anna tries to get more information, but it’s based in England so it’s hard to find things out. And who can she trust, really? That, really, is the mystery: are her visions real? What is the real danger?

Marguerite and Anna have an interesting dynamic. It’s just as much partners as mother/daughter; Anna is sometimes the one taking care of Marguerite. In the past, she has sometimes rescued Marguerite following a run-in with the local law. Marguerite isn’t even Marguerite. She was born Magali Moshe. Her name is as much a bit of show business as anything else about her. And what, exactly, is the story with Houdini?

Last point: Anna gets some answers about the Society, but not all. According to the publisher’s website, this is the first in a series about the Society, which is based on a real life organization. Born of Illusion works as a standalone; it’s a complete story, with an ending, even though it’s clear that there is more to learn about the Society and that Anna herself may have more adventures. The setting reminded me of The Diviners; and fans of that book, who are waiting for the sequel, will enjoy Born of Illusion.

Other reviews: Bookish Notions; Miss Print; A Reader of Fictions; Read Breathe Relax.

Crash and Burn, Part II

Yesterday, I talked about what I liked about Crash and Burn.

Today, I’ll talk about what I didn’t like.

In one word: sluts.

Crash is so perfectly described, so fully drawn — it is a great thing, to create out of nothing a fictional character who is so “real.” So real, that I got sick to my stomach about how he treated the women in his life.

I’ve gone around and around on this. Judge the book by the book: and it that sense, I loved it. Judge it by what it is trying to do: and again, it succeeds.

But by the end of the book — and maybe if this was a shorter book I’d feel differently — all I could think was, Crash is a selfish and manipulative dirtbag and I hope that it catches up to him sometime. Too bad it didn’t happen during the book itself. (Honestly, I want to use stronger language to describe Crash but I don’t want this post blocked).

Spoilers, from here on out.

There is a girl called Maddy. Maddy is rather a minor character; that’s another thing, how much weight do I give a rather minor part of the story? “Madelaine Brancato: Was once everybody’s mom. Super-responsible. But of course, thanks to me, as some people say — and I’m not gonna lie, they’re probably right — now the superslut of our graduating class.”

Maddy made the mistake of dating the charming if aimless Crash. Oh, at many points Crash denies that they were “dating” and it can be a bit confusing depending on what year he’s talking about. When Crash gets tired of her saying “no” to sex, he deliberately gets her drunk, trying to make sure she’s not so drunk she’ll pass out, arranging for a private place at a party for them to go to. That doesn’t work out, but what eventually happens is when Maddy gets tired of Crash pressuring her for sex, she gives him oral sex.

He, of course, tells all his friends.

Turned out that keeping the pressure on the bigger prize made the smaller prize easy to get. As in, every time we were together, I took out a condom or suggested that we have sex, and she said she wasn’t ready and then went down on me. It got to where it became automatic for her, without me saying anything . . . . So while I didn’t really feel anything for her, I was becoming addicted to getting head, so no way could I actually break it off with her.”

Maddy also becomes a bit of a “prize” in the contest between Crash and Burn.

And later, “to show off in front of my boys, I got Maddy superdrunk and then, to prove I could make her do whatever I said, I made her take her top off and even hook up with a genuine lesbian in the pool house in Kelly’s backyard.” And it just gets worse, and he knows he’s using her, and –

I just can’t.

I’m not going to argue about whether or not how Crash treats Maddy is authentic.

Obviously, the reason it bothers me so much is that it is authentic. Teenage girls are treated like objects, who exist to fulfill teenage male fantasies. The reason I am so bothered by how Crash views women and how he treats Maddy is because it is real.

It doesn’t mean I have to like it; it doesn’t mean I have to like Crash; it doesn’t mean that when I write a review, I’ll just ignore it as boys being boys. Too bad if this is what it means to be a girl today!

Of course, my reading was influenced by real life. By Kickstarter’s allowing the “Seduction Guide” to be funded. By reading posts like Female Sexuality in YA at Stacked. Or about Slut Shaming at WORD for Teens.

So, what do you think?

When a book illustrates an ugly truth about the reality of how some people treat others, how does that color your reading of the book?

Review: Crash and Burn

Crash and Burn by Michael Hassan. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: On April 21, 2008, Steven “Crash” Crashinsky saved the lives of every one in his high school — student, teachers, staff — when he somehow stopped his classmate David “Burn” Burnett from blowing up the school following a dramatic hostage situation.

Crash is now a hero, with all that comes with being a hero, including a book contract to tell his story.

This is his story. Is Crash a hero? Is Burn a villain?

The Good: I have to say: I loved this book.

I have to say: I hated this book.

So, here’s what we’re going to do. Today, I’m going to tell you about all the reasons I loved Crash and Burn. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what bothers me — and you can be the judge, if it’s me or the book.

Crash is a wonderful creation: so wonderful that I think he is real. I believe in him, in everything he does. Who is Crash? He’s an eighteen year old boy who just graduated high school, a boy who the world is in love with because he’s a hero. Crash tells his story be starting years ago, when he and Burn first met as elementary school students. At over 500 pages, the reader learns almost everything there is to know about Crash. He’s a slacker who likes to hang out with his friends, smoke a lot of pot, get drunk, and have sex with girls. Becoming a hero didn’t change that, except to give him more money to finance the partying and more girls who are willing. Oh, and instead of worrying about not getting into college because of his grades, every school wanted him. Nice, right?

And here’s something you need to know about Crash. He has ADHD. Crash and Burn is told by someone who doesn’t want to stick around for one memory too long, so it jumps in time, careening from the now of the summer after graduation to various thens in Crash’s life. This intricate structure, that both reflects Crash’s ADHD as well as his reluctance to tell us the truth, is brilliant. I almost want to reread and chart it out, to get the full impact of how wonderfully it recreates Crash’s mind, his thought process, his denials.

His denials: any book told in the first person means, unreliable narrator. Crash tells us, “I’m not gonna lie to you.” It’s the very first sentence of the book: and I believe that Crash does indeed believe the story he tells us. I also believe that Crash is very self-absorbed and self-centered with incredible tunnel vision and he doesn’t see the full story so is incapable of telling us the true story.

What is the story? The true story? Yes, Burn took a school full of people hostage. Yes, Crash saved them all. Crash then tells of how the two boys first met as children, and how their paths kept overlapping with each other. Burn is sent to a “special” school and then returns; he always seems a bit “off,” at least to Crash. Crash has a crush on Burn’s older sister; their mothers are friends. Crash seems to be trying to convince us all that he and Burn were never, could never be friends. He points to when Burn tries to burn down the school, showing himself as totally innocent.

And yet. And yet. As I read, I wondered. Burn saw himself as Crash’s friend; were they friends? Does Crash deny it a bit too much? This is part of why I loved Crash and Burn, trying to find out what was really going on, with Crash, and with the people around him. In bringing us through the years that lead up to the hostage crisis, Crash also tells a lot about his personal life, from his emotionally abusive father to his dismissive older sister, to the girls he likes and the girls he wants to sleep with, and all along the way I wondered just how true it was.

Take his father: from an early age, Crash’s father is emotionally abusive, believing that his son is deliberately being willful and disobedient. Crash can never be good enough, and his father never, ever cuts him slack. Talk about horrible fathers! But. But. But, Crash also describes his mother as being very protective of her children and a real champion on their behalf, so why did she tolerate how her husband treated their son? When his parents finally split up, it’s not to protect her children but it’s for herself: her husband has a girlfriend. And the girlfriend! She is a dream of perfection, someone Crash adores, and all I can think of is, there’s no way these two are together, unless Crash is leaving something out.

The sisters, the friends, family — all are people I believe in, even if I suspected at times that Crash left things out.

What else? I loved that Burn’s problems included his mental health. Crash and Burn doesn’t give any simple diagnosis, and it also avoids any simplistic explanations. Part of what it avoids? A narrative that is “Burn was bullied” or “Burn was an outsider.” Burn has problems, shown by his attempt to burn his elementary school down. It’s not helped by being dealt a pretty rotten hand, including the death of his father in 9-11. His family tries: there’s that special school he was sent to. In some ways, Burn is a mirror of Crash and Burn himself notes that their is a unique connection between the two. What, one wonders, kept Crash from becoming Burn? (At one point very early on I even wondered if Crash and Burn were the same person, but it’s not that type of book.)

One more observation: book design! It’s a terrific book jacket, and I love that it speaks to multiple things: Burn’s early attempt to burn down an elementary school, Crash’s pot smoking, and even 9-11. Take off the jacket, and underneath — there is an embossed, closed matchbook. I ADORE that type of design.

So yes, a lot to love: a slacker pothead hero who just likes to hang out with his friends and have a good time, a most unlikely hero. A complex backstory that paints an extremely detailed portrait of two teenage boys. An unreliable narrator that gives readers a lot to discuss (am I the only one who got a Madoff vibe from Crash’s father and stepmother?). A world where even the minor characters are fully drawn.

But Liz, you said you also hated Crash and Burn! How can that be possible?

Find out tomorrow!

Meanwhile, other reviews: Stacked; Author Interview at A Life Bound by Books; Shelf Awareness; Booklist Review; AshhReads; Forever Young Adult; Kirkus Reviews.

Also, two insightful posts from The Page Turn, the HarperCollins Children’s Books School & Library Blog: New Voices, A Word from the Editor and an interview with Michael Hassan.

Review: Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Cambodia, 1975. Arn, eleven, lives with his sisters and brother. The family is poor, yes, but they are close and have each other.

The are about to lose even that.

The Khmer Rouge seize power. Arn and his family and other inhabitants of the cities are sent into the country to work rice fields. It is part of Khmer Rouge’s politics and attempts at social engineering, but all Arn knows is that the Khmer Rouge kill people for any reason and no reason; that anyone who is educated is a target; that people are dying. That anyone, including Arn, could be next.

The children are separated from their families; like the other former city dwellers, they work long hours growing rice and only eat what they can grow. Luck touches Arn when the soldiers ask for musicians and Arn volunteers. It’s risky: attention from the Khmer Rouge often means death.

Arn’s goal is to survive, and despite the death and horror and killing around him, he does, day by day, moment by moment. Will he survive? And at what cost?

The Good: Never Fall Down is the fictionalized story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who, like Arn, survived the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields; became a musician and kept those around him alive; was a boy soldier. Chorn-Pond is now a humanitarian. At the end of the book, in addition to an Epilogue about what happened to the characters, McCormick relates Chorn-Pond’s involvement in the writing of the book,  her own interviews with people in Chorn-Pond’s life, the decision to make his life story a novel rather than a work of non-fiction, and the method the story is told.

When Arn leaves his aunt, she tells him, “Do whatever they say. Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blows one way, you blow that way. It blow the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” He listens to her, and her parting gift to him — to bend, to survive no matter what — saves his life. It also puts him in terrible situations, as witness to the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnam invade the country, Arn fears them more than the Khmer Rouge so he takes up a gun, fighting on the behalf of the Khmer Rouge, even though he is a child himself. He takes up a gun, yes, but he has little choice — he has to follow the wind to survive.

Arn’s story is chilling. It is one of physical survival, day in, day out, with little food and comfort. It is also about mental and emotional survival. He’s torn from his family, so remakes his family, looking at those around him as his brothers. Arn is not sentimental about this, and while he takes risks to get extra food, for example, it is always calculated risks. This group that he soon looks at as people he needs to care of, who care for him, who are substitute brothers and father, become necessary for Arn’s own survival as a human being.

What Arn does, and does not do, is told in a rather matter of fact way. Yes, Arn is horrified by the things he sees but at the same time, “in just one day a person can get use to seeing dead body.” Each day, each month, there is more for Arn to get used to. Along the way he has to maintain his sense of self, to not become what he sees around him, and in addition to the “brothers” he helps is the music he learns. The Khmer Rouge may want music for their own political purposes, but it gives Arn a goal, a community, connections. As the reader learns at the end of the book, part of Chorn-Pond’s humanitarian work includes founding the Cambodian Living Arts group to preserve traditional Cambodian arts.

One thing that terribly impressed me was how this story is told. In some ways, I was reminded of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, because of the way the child’s point of view is always maintained and not influenced by adult remembrances. During Never Fall Down, one is always in the moment with Arn. Nothing is softened because of the passage of time; no wisdom is shared from the future Arn who knows how things will work out. And, only the details that matter to Arn are told. For example, the last couple of chapters are about teen-aged Arn finding a home in the United States. As an adult reader I had so many questions — but McCormick doesn’t answer them, instead keeping the story strictly to how Arn sees things and what matters to him.

I confess, even though this book was recommended to me by several people, I avoided reading it until it got the National Book Award Finalist nod. I knew Never Fall Down would be an emotional read, and I wasn’t ready for it. I am around Arn’s age; I remember reading about this in the news and magazines but I don’t remember any books for children about it. I am so thankful it was named a finalist, giving me the push I needed to read it. Yes, it is heartbreaking. Yes, it relates some terrible things. Yes, the way people treat others is distressing. Death and bodies and killings. Arn survives; Arn triumphs; but it’s not in expected ways. I can see why this is a finalist. In one word: Arn, because Never Fall Down gives Arn a voice, and it’s a spellbinding voice that cannot be ignored. I’m also adding it to my Favorite Books Read in 2012.

Reviews and links: Reading Rants review (which includes link to an interview with McCormick and Chorn-Pond, including Chorn-Pond playing Cambodian music); The New York Times Review; NPR Author interview; TeenReads review.

Review: For Darkness Shows the Stars

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Elliot North, 18, has spent the last four years trying to keep her family’s estate running. It means not just making sure there is enough for herself, her father, Baron North, and her sister; but also enough to feed and shelter their many servants. The main reason this year there will be enough food is the family is renting out some property to a bunch of successful explorers.

Four years ago, Elliot had a chance to escape her disapproving, controlling father, and to join her best friend and sweetheart, Kai, in running away. Elliot chose duty. Kai, a servant, left, and she hasn’t heard from him since.

Elliot meets the explorers – including Captain Malakai Wentforth. Kai. No longer a teenage servant; now a very successful man. One who doesn’t forget, or forgive, that four years ago Elliot chose her class and her family over him.

The man, Malakai, is different from the teen Elliot knew; still, Elliot sees the boy she once  loved, and wonders if they have a second chance.

The Good: Sound familiar? Yes, this is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I’ll be honest; I haven’t read the book, but I adored the film with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The world in For Darkness Shows the Stars is post-apocalyptic; generations ago, genetic re-engineering and other scientific experiences “went too far.” The result was wars and a general destruction of society. The primary survivors were the Luddites, the people who had traditionally rejected the scientific and technological experimentation they saw around them. They are now a ruling class of Barons and Baronesses, owning estates and controlling the land. The other survivors were “the Reduced,” people intellectually damaged by the genetic treatments and biological experimentation around them. The Luddites both took care of the Reduced because the Reduced could not care for themselves, but they also used the Reduced as a free work force. They are basically serfs, tied to the land.

Where, then, does Kai fit in? As years and years passed, children began being born to the Reduced who, well, were not reduced — smart, inquisitive children like Kai. The Luddites call them “COR”s, or Children of the Reduced; they prefer the label “Posts”, as in Post-Reductionists. A significant part of the class struggle shown in For Darkness Shows The Stars involves how the Luddites treat the Posts no differently from the Reduced. Posts like Kai illegally run away from their estates to make their way in the world. It’s not easy; Kai’s success is remarkable. While some Luddites are like Baron North in their view towards Posts, others (like Elliot and other numbers) view Posts and Luddites as equals. Because the Luddites avoid anything new or any type of progress or change, Posts such as Kai bring new thoughts, ideas, and even fashion into the Luddite world.

As for Kai’s name, most Posts rename themselves, abandoning their servant identity. Thus, Kai becomes Malakai. One of the many clever touches in the world-building? All the Reduced are given simple, one syllable names because, well, it’s believed that is all they can handle. So the Posts are not just rejecting their past, they are also asserting themselves as full members of society by taking on newer, multi-syllable names.

I go so much into Peterfreund’s world-building because Persuasion’s plot hinges on significant class issues; so, at least for me, where a retelling succeeds (or fails) is in believably creating a world with equal class issues. In many ways, Elliot’s world seems more pre-Industrial (i.e., Jane Austen’s world) than post-apocalyptic. What ups the ante, what makes Elliot’s decisions and thoughts that much more heartbreaking, are the reasons for the class distinctions: the fear of science and progress, the fear of things that are new or different. At various times, Elliot cannot help but revert to the basic Luddite philosophy that any change is wrong. She is not, however, a total Luddite; she sees the stagnation around her.

I said that Elliot stayed to “take care of” the servants on her father’s estate. That is not entirely accurate. Yes, some are the Reduced, but even those who are so impacted are shown to have talents and depth and to be more than child-like or helpless. As Kai has shown, the Posts can take care of themselves and the Posts on the North estate end up working with, rather than for, Elliot. Posts can and do leave their estates. However, that is neither simple nor easy, even though Kai returns triumphant. The stories of other Posts tells the risks faced by those who run away.

Excellent world building does not a plot make; For Darkness Shows the Stars is not just the Persuasion story (reunion of separated lovers) but also about Elliot’s own struggles to do what is best for everyone around her. What is best for running the estate? How can she manage her father, who doesn’t care what happens to the servants on his estate as long as his own wants are met? Is it better to stay on the estate or pursue her own dreams? Does she even know what her own dreams are, since four years ago running away was Kai’s dream?

Oh, and as for the Persuasion story line. Loved it. Full of romantic drama: Elliot wanting Kai, Kai thinking Elliot thought she was too good for him, misunderstandings and angst. Lovely!

While For Darkness Shows the Stars is a standalone, as you can tell, I love the complex world created in it and would love to see more stories set in it. At the moment, Peterfreund has a short story companion to the novel, telling more of Kai’s time away from Elliot: Among the Nameless Stars.

Other reviews: Leila Roy at the Kirkus blog; Stacked; YA Librarian Tales.

Review: Summer in the City

Summer in the City by Candace Bushnell. Sequel to The Carrie Diaries (2010). Balzer & Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Summer in the City picks up right where The Carrie Diaries left off: seventeen year old Carrie Bradshaw is in New York City for a summer writing program. She’s just been mugged and has called the only number she has, a cousin of a semi-friend. Carrie goes with Samantha Jones to a party, and thus begins Carrie’s introduction to New York City in the 1980s.

The Good: If The Carrie Diaries was about Carrie becoming a writer, Summer in the City is about Carrie becoming a New Yorker. Her pocketbook may have been stolen within her first half hour in New York, but Carrie doesn’t hold that against the city. Instead, she plunges into life in the city in a way that is fearless, admirable, bold, and, at times, risky.

Carrie says yes to everything, it seems, accepting any invitation, going to any party, embracing life. She knows very few people in New York, so, also, when it comes to people (whether its friends or potential love interests) she plunges forward, following up on even the most casual “call me.” Carrie builds a family around her, a family of friends, because she isn’t afraid. Or, rather, she is afraid: afraid of being just like everyone else. Afraid of returning home a failure. Afraid of time ticking relentlessly by.

Carrie only has a few months before she has to leave for her freshman year at Brown, and, to be honest, she’s more interested in enjoying the city than in her writing. As time ticks down on her limited time, she concentrates more on her writing, hoping that if she writes a memorable play it will convince her father to let her forgo Brown and instead stay in the city.

As I mentioned in my review of The Carie Diaries, this is a prequel to the book, not the HBO series and movies. At Salon, a 1996 review reminds readers what the original Sex and The City book (not movie) was about. Yes, I read Summer in the City looking for references to Sex and the City — but the book.

Carrie is just out of high school, and her summer is magical; New York City is her playground, and she plays. She has disappointments and heartbreak, yes, but we all know that Carrie will become a New Yorker. It’s fun to see just how that happens.

Enjoy this series? The CW has picked it up as a TV series for the fall. 

Other reviews: Reading Rants; EW’s Shelf Life Author Interview.

Review: The Unseen Guest

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: Book 3, The Unseen Guest by Maryrose Wood, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Website for the book (with games, etc.) Book 1: The Mysterious Howling; Book 2: The Hidden Gallery.

The Plot: The three Incorrigible children (Alexander, Beowulf and Cassiopeia) and their governess, Miss Penelope Lumley, have returned from their London adventure and are happily ensconced in Ashton Place. Nothing ever remains safe and comfortable for these four, and unexpected guests of both the animal and human kind lead to new adventures and new questions about their mysterious origins.

The Good: I just love how smart the Incorrigible Children books are. The words, the references, the allusions, all of it. This book alone mentions dodos, derbys (the race and the hat), pince nez, ostriches, Edgar Allan Poe, rhetorical questions, puns, and synonyms.

If a reader stumbles upon this without having read the first two, there will be no confusion; Wood handily explains the premise: children raised by wolves now being raised by teen governess whose own parents abandoned her at a girls’ school. They will enjoy this one so much they will go back to read the first two; and, based on how carefully crafted and well-structured these books are, as a series, that reader will probably pick up on clues to the origins of the Incorrigibles and Penelope that the in-order readers like myself missed.

The unexpected guests are Lord Ashton’s widowed mother Hortense, her fiance, Admiral Faucet, and Faucet’s ostrich. The ostrich, the basis of Faucet’s several money-making schemes, has escaped and must be tracked down and found. Faucet wants to find it alive; Ashton, the hunter, wants it dead so he can place it amongst his other trophies. Faucet recruits the Incorrigibles to his cause, using them because their skills at tracking are superb. The scenes of Miss Lumley preparing for the expedition are hilarious, as her “must have” lists basically mean bringing all the comforts of home with them.

I could make this entire post quotes from the book; I’m showing my restraint by avoiding those that are too spoilery, or need to be read in context. Here is one that makes sense no matter what: “ a person who had recently made an error herself, and had gone to the trouble of correcting it, [Miss Lumley] knew better than to expect other people to be perfect at all times.”

Also fun? All the sayings of Miss Angela Swanburne, the founder of the school that Miss Lumley attended. Has anyone put together a site just of her sayings? Here are to classics: “new boots never fit as well as old” and “patience can untangle the knottiest shoelace, but so can a pair of scissors.”

The background mystery of these books — the origins of the children and Miss Lumley herself — continues to move forward. It does so at a slow pace; a few hints revealed, with the reader often guessing more than the characters. When the Incorrigibles go on their expedition, they gleefully recall their pre-Ashton Place days of living in a cave. With quilts and sandwiches. Sandwiches, Miss Lumley asks? The children laugh at Miss Lumley’s ignorance; of course, sandwiches! There are also the wolves, and the encounter with the wolves and the hints of other wolfish things continue to pile up.

Because this series continues to be smart, funny, and respects the readers; because I have no idea what the mystery concerning the Incorrigibles and Lumley will end being; because Miss Lumley is so brave and proper and smart, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Educating Alice; YA Librarian Tales; Compulsive Reader (guest post); Good Books and Good Wine (guest post).

Maryrose Wood went on a Blog Tour for this book earlier this year; a complete list of stops is at her blog, at Did you miss the Incorrigible Blog Tour? Here are the links.

Review: The Hidden Gallery

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 2: The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher. Sequel to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling.

The Plot: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling introduced readers to fifteen year old Miss Penelope Lumley, intrepid governess and recent graduate of  the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, along with her three young charges, the Incorrigibles. The three children had been raised by wolves (no, really) and Miss Lumley was hired to civilize them and teach them Latin.

Miss Lumley and young Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia now venture off to London, armed with a slightly-odd Guide Book. How much trouble can they get into, really? The three children wear their clothes, do their lessons, and only start howling when there is a reason to, such as the moon or a tempting squirrel. That incident at the Christmas ball — well, best not talked about, right?

It turns out that London has secrets of its own; or, rather, is an occasion for Penelope and her three charges to discover secrets about themselves.

 The Good: This series is so much fun! Penelope is a hoot and a half, especially because half the time she doesn’t quite realize either she or the children are funny. Or maybe she does? Here, from the start, as she begins her discussion with Lady Constance, the young, spoiled, and often ignored wife of the rich Lord Aston: “”Pardon me, Lady Constance,” she said, in the same soothing voice she used to calm the Incorrigibles when they were in the presence of a small, tasty rodent, or during a full moon, or when they had gotten worked up over a particularly thrilling bit of poetry.”

Incorrigible Children falls under the “better to read in order, but doesn’t hurt if you don’t” category. Each book, so far, has a standalone plot: The Hidden Gallery is primarily about the children’s London adventure, just as The Mysterious Howling was about Penelope and the children getting acquainted. However, there is a series mystery going on: the origins of both Penelope and the Incorrigibles. Tantalizing clues are given: after Penelope stops using the school-issued hair “tonic,” her hair color changes to one more resembling that of the three children. One character shows an odd reaction to the new moon.

Part of the brilliance of this series and the writing is just how all-ages it manages to be: Penelope is a teen, and she does have responsibilities appropriate for her age and role as a governess. She takes good care of Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia and does her best to teach them. At other times, she acts younger, such as with her continuing obsession with the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! series about the pony-crazed Edith-Anne. This makes Penelope the perfect main character for kids (including tweens or younger teens) who want to read about teenagers. And even those who may find Penelope too young won’t find the narrator too young. The humor is the type that works on two levels, like a great kid’s movie: funny enough for those who don’t get the jokes, even funnier for those who do. There is a play on words with matador/minotaur/metaphor that was brilliant.

The Incorrigibles in London had me laughing out loud. Penelope’s former teacher and mentor, Miss Mortimer, sends her Hixby’s Lavishly Illustrated Guide to London: Complete with Historical Reference, Architectural Significance, and Literary Allusions. It is howling good fun, especially as the illustrations are all of wildflower meadows and snowcapped mountain peaks. Is it good as a guide, though, especially when the directions to the zoo are “The way to the zoo your nose will tell, [f]or elephants are not hard to smell“? As for any more plot detail, well, part of the fun is seeing the trouble that these four manage to get into, despite the best intentions.

And did I mention the pirates? Oh yes, pirates.

I’m happy I waited to read Book 2 until Book 3 came out, because now I can dive right into The Unseen Guest.

Other reviews: Emily Reads; Book Nut; Eva’s Book Addiction.

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth. Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2012. Reviewed from copy from publisher. Edited to add: Morris Finalist.

The Plot: When Cameron Post’s parents die in a car crash, Cameron is left to be raised by her mother’s sister and father’s mother. On the day her parents died, Cam kissed a girl, her best friend Irene. Part of Cam is relieved that now her parents won’t know, that her secret is safe.

Cam is careful, but when she meets Coley — beautiful, popular Coley — Cam falls hard. Cam’s fears come true when her religious aunt discovers what Cam is hiding and sends her away to be “fixed” at “God’s Promise,” a “Christian School & Center For Healing” that will lead her from “the sin of homosexuality” to holiness.

The Good: The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron through several years, starting in 1989 with the death of her parents and on through 1993 when Cam has to make a decision about what to do about “God’s Promise.” From twelve to sixteen, Cam grows and matures, trying to find herself, trying to come of age in a time and place where she has little support and those she loves try to “fix” her.

Cam is strong; she may not realize it, and it may not be obvious. She has tough things to deal with: the loss of both her parents, and then coming of age in a time and place where she has to hide. She struggles, yes. She watches film after film in her room, both as a form as escape but also as a way to try to find herself; her film choices include Personal Best. Make no mistake, though: Cam is tough, emotionally. She is a survivor.

Cam is both isolated yet not alone. She is isolated from her grief, and isolated because she has to hide her relationships with girls. She is not isolated, in that she has friends. While Cam cannot be public about her emotions and love, she is not alone. She manages to make connections. There is Irene, with whom she shares her first kiss. There is Lindsey, visiting for the summer from the west coast, who Cam dates and who becomes Cam’s long-distance friend and mentor, a link to a world where people are out and proud and public. Then there is Coley, the girl who Cam falls for, falls hard, who presents a danger to the delicate balance Cam keeps between her private and public lives.

While Lindsey warns Cam against falling in love with a straight girl, whether or not Coley is straight is left up in the air. There are questions unanswered about Coley; the reader only sees her as Cam does, as Cam’s best friend, a smart, beautiful girl with the perfect boyfriend. Cam has other friends; there is also Jamie Lowry, one of the boys from school who is a better friend than Cam may realize. Jamie has figured that Cam likes girls, that Cam looks at Coley with desire.

Secrets can only be kept so long, and eventually Cameron finds herself in “God’s Promise.” The people who run God’s Promise are well intentioned, but you know what they say about good intentions. By “good,” I mean that they are presented with truly believing what they preach and thinking they are doing the “right thing”. The Miseducation of Cameron Post shows how harmful and damaging such “good intentions” can be, without creating any true villains. Yes, Aunt Ruth sends Cam to God’s Promise, and she is not always the most understanding person. But, she is never shown as mean or cruel; and while Cam, caught up in herself, doesn’t get into the details of what happened after her parents’ accident, Ruth quits her job and moves from Florida to Minnesota to be with her niece. Likewise, Cam’s grandmother (loving but unable to deal with Cam’s “problem”), leaves her own apartment and moves in with Cam and Ruth. Cam’s aunt and grandmother (who, remember, are not related to each other) both sacrifice their own lives and homes so that Cam can remain in her home. These two women have put Cam first and show her kindness and compassion. It would be easy to have turned Ruth into a caricature, but she is not.

And the writing! I love the writing. When Cam’s parents die she is sleeping over a friend’s house. She is aware that something has happened, that her friend’s father is about to enter the bedroom. “I think about [Mr. Klause] standing there, waiting, maybe holding his breath, just like me. I think about him on the other side of that door all the time, even now. How I still had parents before that knock, and how I didn’t after.”

It looking at books set in the past, I ask “why.” Is it just a way to avoid dealing with mobile phones and Internet? There was no moment, either for plotting or characterization, where I thought “oh, a mobile phone would have changed this entire arc.” Places like God’s Promise and the reactions of Cam’s friends and family could have easily happened today. Why, then, not have Lindsey provide Cam with playlists instead of mix tapes? Part of me wonders if (despite news articles to the contrary) there was a concern that what happened to Cam could “only” have happened years ago, not now. Then I looked at the author’s website, and saw that Quake Lake and the August 1959 Earthquake that formed it are real. While set in the late 80s and early 90s, the lake and the earthquake are both important to Cam’s story. To make that work (and it works very well), Cam’s story couldn’t be set in the present.

Other Reviews: Book Smugglers; NPR Books (by Malinda Lo); An Interview with the author at Presenting Lenore.