Review: Wait For What Will Come

Wait For What Will Come by Barbara Michaels. Originally published in 1978. Image from HarperCollins ebook edition, 2009.

The Plot: Carla Tregellas is just another hardworking American when the lawyer contacts her to tell her the news: as the last member of the Tregellas family, she has inherited an old mansion in Cornwall. Carla, in her mid twenties, is very practical. She’ll use her summer vacation to go and see her inheritance and take care of getting it sold. There is no question of keeping it: she has little money, and the mansion comes with some land and the house, of course, but nothing else, really. Common sense says sell it and sell it quickly.

Things change when Carla is in Cornwall; when she sees the mansion. When she feels a connection to the place, something she never thought she’d feel. That’s before she hears about that she inherited not just a building; she also inherited a curse. Is the curse to blame for the strange things that start happening? Or is someone trying to drive her out, to force her to sell?

The Good: I was sad to hear that Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara G. Mertz) died this summer, so decided to read one of her books that I hadn’t read before. Then, given how Barbara Michaels = Gothic I had to post the review on Halloween. I selected Wait For What Will Come because BookRiot called it one of her best.

Wait For What Will Come has everything I want and expect in a Michaels’ book.

There’s the sudden inheritance! While Carla’s family has been in the United States for generations, the branch back in Cornwall didn’t do very well. The money’s gone and with the death of Walter Tregellas an heir had to be found. Carla is that heir! Or, rather, “the nearest surviving blood relative who still bore the family name.” I love discovering you’re a secret heiress. Bonus in that you never knew the person who died so it’s grief free. What a disappointment to a younger me to look at all my many relatives and realize that I could never be a long lost heiress.

Of course, Carla being the heiress isn’t a happy ending; or, rather, a happy beginning. No money left, house in terrible shape — BUT DID I MENTION IT’S A MANSION THAT IS HUNDREDS OF YEARS OLD. At first Carla is all “she may as well have a look at it before it went out of the family forever,” but then Carla begins to realize that hey, how many times do you get a MANSION THAT IS HUNDREDS OF YEARS OLD and so keeps postponing leaving and selling.

There is a — love rhombus? Let’s just say, there are multiple handsome young men falling over each other for Carla. The family lawyer, Alan Fairman. The local doctor, Simon Tremuan. The housekeeper’s grandson, Mike Penkowsky. Later on, Mike’s friend, Timothy O’Hara, stops by.

Then there are the various Cornish legends and myths that are mentioned and explained, including the Tregellas family curse! A FAMILY CURSE. A “sacrifice to the sea” must be made every 200 years. GUESS GUESS GUESS WHETHER THE 200 YEARS ARE UP. And that sacrifice is linked to demon lovers. Or dream lovers. Or both.

I love that it’s a curse that is every 200 years, because that is just enough time to have no idea what really, actually happened. I mean, it’s not like it’s within any type of living memory.

Wait For What Will Come weaves together a bit soap opera, a bit historical myth, some modern concerns about what to do with a building one may love but cannot afford, some mixed motives from the locals, all haunted by the possibility of the supernatural. Is the curse real? Is there a family ghost? Is there a realistic explanation to all that is happening, or is it a fantastical reason?

I thoroughly enjoyed Wait For What Will Come. But here’s my problem: other than Ammie, Come Home and Stitches in Time I don’t remember which Barbara Michaels books I’ve read. So, recommendations welcome!

 

 

Review: Pretty Girl 13

Pretty Girl 13 by Liz Coley. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Angie is on a Girl Scout Camping trip when she leaves her tent in the early morning to find a private space to “take care of business.”

Three years later, she appears at her own front door, confused, bewildered, with no idea what happened to her.

No idea where she’s been for the last three years.

She doesn’t even know three years have passed.

Angie looks at her parents, older, and acting so weird. She looks in the mirror and sees a face that she only vaguely recognizes. It is older, it is thinner. Her body is hers and not hers, with strange scars. Marks on her wrists and ankles.

Where has she been? What has happened to her?

The Good: A girl, lost, then found. A miracle! A miracle with so many questions, and Angie is the only one who can answer them.

Pretty Girl 13 is about Angie’s return to her family, with Angie thinking and believing she is a thirteen year old. Thinking and believing nothing bad has happened. Confused and angry and uncertain about the lost years. Angie cannot just step back into her old life, no matter how hard she wishes it, because time has passed. She is not thirteen. Her friends are no longer thirteen.

Pretty Girl 13 is about Angie’s journey in remembering what happened, while trying to navigate the world she is now in.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, even before Angie does, Angie did not run away. Angie did not get lost and wander in the forest for three years. Angie was not taken in by a kindly person wanting a child of their own.

Angie was taken by a man. And while he would say it was for love — it was not for love or kindness.

How Angie dealt with the trauma of the kidnapping and being held for three years and all that happened during those three years is complex; it is heart breaking; and it is not something that is discovered easily. Basically, she created multiple personalities to protect herself, so that things didn’t happen to “Angie.” “Angie” remained protected and whole, to return to her family as if nothing happened.

Except, of course, something did happen. And Angie has to become whole, to face the truth of those three years and the truth of the present. And that takes time.

One important thing to know about Pretty Girl 13: It is about surviving. Angie is a survivor. She does not realize it at first. It takes time: she and the reader realize it as she learns about the personalities that formed to protect her, personalities that are indeed part of her. A terrible thing happened; and it marked her; but it does not define her.

Other reviews: Belle of the Literati; Book Chic; Busy Bibliophile.

 

Review: The Bitter Kingdom

The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Conclusion of The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy: The Girl of Fire and Thorns (book one) and  The Crown of Embers (book two).

The Plot: Elisa, Godstone Bearer and Queen of Joya d’Arena, is running into the hand of her greatest enemy, the Invierne.

In Joya d’Arena, people have taken advantage of having a teeange Queen by seizing the country from her.

The Invierno, the enemy of Joya d’Arena, want Elisa — or, rather, her Godstone — and to make her come to them, they have taken Hector, Captain of the Royal Guard and the man Elisa loves.

Elisa travels with a small, trusted group: Belen, Mara, Storm (or, as Elisa describes them, “an assassin, a lady-in-waiting, and a failed sorcerer“).

All they have to do is rescue Hector; stop a war with Invierno; reclaim her throne; achieve peace for her country; and, oh, yeah — complete the act of service required by her Godstone, whatever that is.

It may be difficult; it may require sacrifice and tough choices; but this Elisa we’re talking about.

The Good: As I began The Bitter Kingdom I wondered, just how was Rae Carson going to wrap this up?

The thing to remember, of course, that this trilogy is about Elisa. It is about her journey, from protected child to strong queen. And what a journey! It is both physical — learning to fight, chasing down her enemies, running from others — and emotional. Learning to make the hard choices, including what is best for her country. And learning to find joy and happiness where she can get it.

Take Hector, her late husband’s good friend. Elisa was married to the king, a political alliance. She fell in love with a young man, and he was murdered. And now she has Hector. At the end of The Crown of Embers, Elisa had realized that marrying Hector would be a smart political move. Which means that The Bitter Kingdom includes their romance, which just gave me lots of smiles and happy.

Of course, it’s not all smiles and happy. But what is constant, for me, is the wonder that is Elisa. How strong she is, and brave. How much she has grown in three books.

As I said, this is Elisa’s story, so it is her adventure. She rescues and is rescued. She pushes herself as hard as she pushes anyone else, expects more from herself than others. She is also full of faith, and who wouldn’t be if they had evidence of God in the form of a godstone?

It is also the story of Invierno and Joya d’Arena, and their respective, battling origin myths that have led to centuries of hatred. Without giving too much away, I’ll say, I am still left with questions but in a good way. The “good way” being, I hope that Carson revisits this world, either in Elisa’s past or the future.

And, if like me, you want more, more, more now that the trilogy is over, semi-good news. There are two short e-novellas set in this world: The King’s Guard and The Shadow Cats. It’s only “semi” because that is “more” and “more” but not “more, more, more.” Yes, we readers ARE demanding.

Because The Bitter Kingdom is full of adventure. Because it has realistic politics. Because it’s about ages-old hurts that are hard to forgive and forget. Because I want to know more about the scientific and magical origins of this world. And because of Elisa. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Books With Bite; Magical Urban Fantasy Reads; Bookshelvers Anonymous.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Pain, Parties, Work

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. HarperCollins. 2013. Personal Copy. Vacation reads — when I review not-teen books that people may be interested in reading!

It’s About: In June, 1953, Sylvia Plath was a guest editor for the fashion magazine, Mademoiselle. 

The guest editor program was prestigious. The month long stay in Manhattan, editing the annual college edition of the magazine, was supposed to be both about fun and about work.

Plath returned home, to Massachusetts, after the program. In August of 1953, Plath attempted suicide.

Plath would go on to use these experiences in her work of fiction, The Bell Jar, shortly before her death in 1963.

But what about the real program, not Plath’s fictional account?

What was it like? What happened? What did it mean to be one of the best and brightest young women in 1953, in Manhattan?

It meant — pain, and parties, and work.

The Good: Why, yes, I was one of those teenage girls. One of those girls who read and adored Plath.

I won’t bore you with all the details of why and what, exactly, it was about Plath and her work that captivated me.

I will say this: part of it was, and continues to be, the documentation of a time in history (the 1950s and early 1960s) from the point of a view of a talented, articulate, woman who wanted both what her society said (home, husband, children) and more (success, on her terms, using her name). I watch shows like The Hour, Mad Men, and Call the Midwife, and think of Plath.

Pain, Parties, Work concentrates on one specific time in Plath’s life. For readers advisory purposes, I’ll be brief: interested in Plath? Yes, you’ll like this. Do I recommend this as the “first” nonfiction book to read about Plath? No; I think a broader biography is a better place to start, but once started, you will crave the details that Pain, Parties, Work provide. Pain, Parties, Work is also a good look at a side of Plath, the one who loved food and fashion and fun, that is sometimes forgotten, when Plath is thought of the author of Lady Lazarus and Daddy, as the woman who killed herself as her children slept.

So, is this just for Plath readers? No. Pain, Parties, Work is not just about Plath; it is also about 1953, and being a woman in 1953, and the types of other young women who came to New York for the summer to do what Plath did. It is also about Mademoiselle, and what it was (an “intellectual fashion magazine”) and the women who worked there, such as Betsy Talbot Blackwell and Cyrilly Abels.

It’s about a world where wearing white gloves, in the summer, mattered.

A world where girdles were required.

Those details — the clothes, the food, the clubs, the taxis, the lipsticks, how to survive New York City in a heatwave with no air conditioning —  I adored them. To me, this is what makes history interesting and makes it come alive.

Back to Pain, Parties, Work: for Plath, that was New York and Mademoiselle. The pain both real (food poisoning) and emotional, as she pushed herself to both succeed and to make this chance matter. Plath was well aware of the opportunity she had, and she wanted. The parties; much like any internship or program, while Mademoiselle was about the work the young women did during that month, it was also about being in New York and attending the various parties and events the magazine organized. And finally it was about the work, and Winder argues that Plath’s role as guest managing editor was perhaps not the best fit for her talents, even though it was most prestigious. It also was one of the more demanding guest editor jobs, with perhaps less time for some of the parties and fun.

Now that I’ve read Pain, Parties, Work, I want to go back and read The Bell Jar. I know, I know — The Bell Jar is fiction. But, it is about a specific time and place, and I think having read Pain, Parties, Work will give me a better understanding of that setting.

Because Pain, Parties, Work, is about such a short time in Plath’s life, it doesn’t give answers to the “why” of Plath’s life or the “who” she really was. Most, now, would diagnose Plath with depression, or bipolar. Yes, she attempted suicide later that summer; and Pain, Parties, Work can be read to look for clues of that happening.  However, those things are few and far between, and it wasn’t the whole Plath. Or, at least, the self Plath was presenting to others — the successful, confident, talented woman. Winder doesn’t write looking to provide answers, but the reader can, if they choose, make their own decisions about Plath.

Other reviews: Slate; BookSlut; A Bookish Affair;  Seeing Sylvia Plath With New Eyes.

 

Review: Wait For You

Wait For You by J. Lynn (who also writes as Jennifer L. Armentrout). William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2013. Personal copy.

The Plot: Avery Morgansten is starting college away from home, away from family. Not just away; she’s also chosen a college in West Virginia that she knows will have no one from her home town. She’s leaving all that far behind her.

Late to her first class, she runs into Cameron Hamilton, sending pens and notebooks flying. He’s handsome, he’s flirty, he’s nice, so Avery does what anyone would do.

She runs away. “I moved over a thousand miles to start over and I already mucked it up in a matter of minutes.

Except Avery runs into Cam again. And again. Walking home, he’s there. Once back in her apartment building? He lives across the hall. They share a class. Cam likes her.

Starting over isn’t easy. She hadn’t planned on handsome Cam. She hadn’t planned on falling for him. Is she ready for something to happen? Will Cam wait for her?

The Good: As I explained in my review of The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden, as part of my preparation for the ALA Conversation Starter I’m doing with Sophie Brookover and Kelly Jensen, I’m reading a lot about what “New Adult” is or isn’t, what is or isn’t being published, and, of course, reading some of the books that have the “New Adult” designation. Briefly, New Adult is primarily for a readership of ages 18 to 25.

I liked Avery and Cam, even if at times Avery was erratic in what she did or didn’t do. As a character, she didn’t really work for me until the second half of the book. Cam — Cam had the patience of a saint. It’s not just that Avery sent mixed messages; it’s that Avery had secrets, some pretty significant, and those secrets really affected her ability to truly connect with those around her. While the timeline of recovery made sense from Avery’s point of view, how did Cam see it? Especially a Cam who had no idea that recovery was even going on?

Oh, spoilers, by the way. So if you’re like me, looking for a NA book to read? This was a nice quick read; and (as far as I can be a judge after just two books!) contains the emotional impact that readers are looking for. So many feelings! Being honest, even there were certain things with the plot and Avery’s characterization that had me eye-rolling, or didn’t work for the type of reader I am, I really liked Avery, Cam, and their friends; liked the plotting in the last third of the book; and am going to keep my eye out for the sequels that tell the story from Cam’s point of view, as well as a story for Cam’s sister and Avery’s best friend.

Spoilers. As with Callie and Kayden, this had a certain level of hurt/comfort to it, except it wasn’t quite as overblown soap opera. The past that Avery is running away from is that she was raped, wasn’t believed, became the town outcast, was emotionally neglected by her parents, and had a suicide attempt. Cam’s past hurt is more a secret than a hurt: he beat up his sister’s abusive boyfriend and was arrested. Cam is supposed to be a “player,” but in terms of what is in the book, that just seems to mean that he has had lots of sex before he meets Avery. He never appears to be in doubt about wanting a relationship with Avery (at least, not in a “but I’m a PLAYER” type way), and never cheats on her.

As with Callie and Kayden, I kept wanting to yell at Avery, “therapists! they have therapists in West Virginia!” What I liked is that Avery is doing her best without any type of outside counseling; she truly believed, I think, that new place meant new Avery. To a certain extent, yes, that is true. But, as Buckaroo Banzai said, “no matter where you go…. there you are.” Wait For You turns out not be about Cam waiting for Avery to be ready, as Avery waiting for herself to truly deal with and address the rape and the aftermath. Cam ends up being an important part of her support system in this happening, but this is not Cam “fixing” Avery.

Here’s another thing I tend to yell at books that include unreported crimes, especially the type of crime that tends to be repeated by the perpetrator. “Call the police,” I say, “so it doesn’t happen to someone else. This isn’t just about you.” I won’t say how, but Wait For You addresses this point in a way I found satisfying. (It would only be “very” satisfying if there were a fourth book. But that’s as spoilery as I’ll get on that point.)

Other reviews: Interview with the author at Digital Book World; Avery’s Book Nook; Dear Author; Under the Covers Book blog; Babbling About Books.

I know it’s impossible and hardly fair to judge New Adult on two books. With both books, I was struck by the emotional intensity; the desire for reinvention; and finding someone to trust after a lifetime of not being able to trust. Since I’m approaching New Adult not just as a reader, but as someone wondering whether New Adult is a thing and how to meet readers’ needs, I’m glad I read them (and may try a few more) to understand what readers are looking for and what other books may meet those needs.

With the low price point of many of these books, I think “eh, it’s cheap enough, so why not buy it and see whether or not I like it?” From what I understand, that’s not an uncommon approach to these books and is part of the explanation of the high sales. So what if I don’t like it, or don’t read it? It’s just a couple of dollars! For those of you who want to spend even less, that is, nothing, there’s a free ebook sampler of New Adult titles called Between The Covers: The Hottest New Adult Books.

If you have suggestions for other New Adult titles I should try (especially one that doesn’t include recovering from sexual assault), please let me know!

Review: The Crown of Embers

The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2012. Sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

The Plot: Elisa, 17, is the Queen of Joya d’Arena following the death of her husband, the King. Her stepson, the Prince, is too young to reign.

Being a Queen isn’t easy:  she may bear the Godstone, have access to its power, have led the desert rebels and defeated the armies of the Invierne, but to her Quorum of advisers she is just a young girl, not a ruler. Assassination attempts reveal she has enemies but who are they? The Invierne? Or someone who wants her throne?

Elisa has the Godstone but isn’t quite sure how to use it. When she learns an ancient secret about the Godstone, she decides to risk everything to capture that power to lead her country. What will be the cost?

The Good: First things first: if you haven’t read The Girl of Fire and Thorns, please, do so. It’s necessary to understand where Elisa is now, how she became such a young queen, the different countries, the relationships between the people around her.

For those who have read the first book and are wondering about the second – yes, so good! If the first book was about Elisa growing up and gaining maturity, the second is about Elisa no longer being a girl and becoming a woman and Queen. “Becoming” is the key part; it’s not an easy path. It’s not about age or even about what she’s accomplished. It’s about Elisa taking responsibility: for what she has done and what she has not done, as both a queen and a woman.

Elisa is a queen, first. Carson writes about the reality of ruling, not the fairy tale. Crowns are heavy and uncomfortable. There is little or no overlap between what is best for the country, best for the Queen, and what is best for Elisa. Not only that, but as Elisa observes at one point, “being a queen means being strategic.” Elisa is pretty good at being strategic, but it’s still a learning process for her because there is nothing done without a cost. She may have been able to lead a group of close-knit rebels with one common goal, but ruling a country? With diverse interests? Who don’t know her? Such a different story. What strategies to follow? What is the right step? What is the least wrong step? Who can she trust?

Also: so much action! Assassination attempts and palace intrigue, an adventure in the desert, a ship, romance — well, I won’t give too much away.

One last thing: the last chapter. For what happens, what is revealed, and what is set up for the next book –it’s almost perfect. Why only “almost”? Because of the unbearable pleasure of having to wait for the next book. I particular liked what Carson didn’t tell the reader, what I – like Elisa – figured out on my own.

Yes, it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2012, because I just adore Elisa. (Though I have to say, I wish for a different cover. Elisa is brown skinned with brown hair, and I realize the cover is showing Elisa reflected in a gemstone, but, still.) I loved that this is a look at a “real” Queen, not a figure head or a “happy ever after” fairy tale. I loved that it’s about politics and trust as well as adventure and courage. I loved that not only is Elisa smart, but Carson expects me to be smart, also. I loved how this continues to be about Elisa becoming herself, growing into her own power and strength. And I love that I cannot guess where it will go.

Other reviews: Poetry to Prose; Leila Roy at Kirkus; Mimosa Stimulus review.

Review: White Devil

White Devil by Justin Evans. HarperCollins. 2011. Personal copy. Part of my Holiday Reads for Grown Up series; and what better book to pick than one that is not just a ghost story, but is a haunted boarding school story?

The Plot: American Andrew Taylor has been sent to an exclusive British boarding school, Harrow, for his final year of schooling. He’s under strict orders from his father not to mess things up like he did at his previous high school.

Harrow is old — and anything old has ghost stories, right?

Things are looking up when Persephone Vine (the only female student at the school) approaches Andrew about playing Byron in a play being written by Piers Fawkes, a poet and Andrew’s housemaster.

Then Andrew finds the body of a fellow student. One of the few who had been friendly to the new American. It’s quickly determined to be death from natural causes, but it’s enough for people to give Andrew a wide berth. There are even whispers of drugs.

It’s even more complicated because Andrew something someone — something — no, someone, by the body of the dead student. Who’ll believe him?

As Andrew learns more, he begins to believe that there really is a ghost at Harrow. But if the ghost is real, who is it? What does it have to do with the dead boy? And is anyone else in danger?

The Good: Let’s be honest. Ghosts aren’t scary.

No, really.

What’s scary is what ghosts does. What’s scary is never knowing where a ghost is. The way you can’t trust your eyes or ears. Not knowing what a ghost will or won’t do. Not being able to stop the ghost.

Andrew realizes not just that there is a ghost; not just that it’s killing people; but also, that it has something to do with Andrew. This isn’t something random; and it’s not something that has been going on for ages. It’s something old and dark and dangerous but perhaps scariest of all, it’s about Andrew. People are being hurt because of him. But why? And how? Andrew researches the school’s long past, with the help of Fawkes. Fawkes is haunted by something entirely different. As a young man, he’d shown promise and won awards and accolades for his poetry. Now, he’s a has been, his agent doesn’t return his calls, and his drinking is an open secret. He’s not the best person to handle the sudden unexpected deaths of people around him. What he is, though, is the best person Andrew has, and one of the few people Andrew can trust. And yes, this was scary and full of tension but I couldn’t help but love when Andrew starts looking into the history of the school and doing some in-depth research and reading original sources.

I have a bit of a soft spot for underdogs: Andrew, Fawkes, and Persephone are all underdogs. The lone American, the drunk, the girl. One of my favorite types of tragedies is the underdog so scarred that he becomes the villain. This is what happened here with the ghost — it is love turned to hate, want turned to destruction.

So — you have a ghost. You have a ghost who is killing people. You figure out who and why. And it’s all super scary and reading with one eyed closed. And now comes the real problem: can you stop the ghost?

This book was super scary; and it became even creepier when I read at the author’s website that Harrow is a real school. And while I don’t want to give away the ending, it was unexpected yet perfect and had me putting down the book because I couldn’t believe it and pacing around the room then picking it up again.

Other reviews: New York Times review; Jenn’s Bookshelves; S. Krishna’s Books; Jenny’s Books.

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: A Confusion of Princes

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. Harper Collins. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Prince Khemri is one of the ten million Princes who rule the Empire. To “ordinary folk,” these Princes seem immortal. And, it’s true, that they can be reborn in certain situations; and that they are augmented in what may appear to be super-human ways. Augmentation is around three types of technologies, or “teks”: Mektek (machinery); Bitek (biology); and Psitek (mental powers).

The sixteenth anniversary of his selection as a Prince-candidate is Khemri’s day of investiture as full Prince. He even gets assigned a Master of Assassins! Khemri has big plans, based on his grooming as a Prince and the things he’s been taught. He’s going to get a warship, go explore, make his mark, and become the next Emperor.

Turns out, his education wasn’t complete. Some details were left out. Like the competition between Princes can be deadly. Instead of sitting back and living out the adventures lived in his favorite Psitek experience, The Achievement of Prince Garikm, he finds himself being saved from assassinations attempts and enrolled as a Naval candidate because the Academy is one of the few safe places.

That’s all in the first thirty pages. That doesn’t even cover Khemri’s three deaths. Action, suspense, space pirates, and, yes, even a touch of romance in this intergalactic adventure.

The Good: Khemri is an idiot. No, really; he’s arrogant, because he’s a Prince; ignorant, because his education has been limited; and an idiot, because it takes him a while to realize his arrogance and ignorance are not positive qualities. Luckily, he has an experienced Master of Assassins, Haddad, and Khemri has enough self-preservation to know to listen to Haddad. It keeps him alive; and makes Khemri realize that he has things to learn. Fortunately for the reader, it takes Khemri a long time to stop being a total idiot. Part of why I loved this book is Khemri’s evolution from spoiled, privileged Prince to … well. I can’t tell everything.

The immersion into the Empire, via the experiences of this new Prince, is a second reason I enjoyed The Confusion of Princes. It’s clever, the way Nix shares knowledge of how it works with the reader. Instead of someone “new” entering this world, Khemri is someone who is privileged and of high rank. Someone who has had information downloaded to him, or tutors. He is supposed to know it all; and believes he does. The twist is Khemri keeps discovering what he doesn’t know. His frustration and rage are shown, and, I confess — at times made me laugh. Khemri may be an idiot but he’s my idiot. (Also? Khemri is telling this story after the fact; he knows what he was. He calls attention to the stupid things he does, and well, it’s funny.) Aside from that, the Empire is a complex, detailed place and I loved finding out more about it.

The action and adventure! Khemri is constantly on the go, either escaping assassins or alien attacks, or fighting duels, or accepting secret assignments. Sometimes it felt like Khemri was in the middle of some type of computer game; and it turns out there is an online game tie-in. Now, as that article explains, the game tie in didn’t work out quite like planned. But you know what? I love this type of stuff; thinking of new ideas, new ways to tell story, taking advantage of new technology, and, well, just playing with new ideas presented by today’s technology. Aside from that, I’m curious as to what gamers will think of the story, of the pacing.

Reviews: The Book Smugglers; Tor; io9.