Review: Engines of the Broken World

Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee. Henry Holt & Co. Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Merciful Truth’s mother is dead. She and her brother don’t quite know what to do, so they put her under the kitchen table.

Each year there are fewer and fewer people, so there aren’t even that many they can turn to for help. It’s just Merciful and Gospel and the Minister. The Minister shares the words of righteousness: so a lot of nosy advice but not much by way of practicalities.

Merciful doesn’t know what to do. And that’s before she starts hearing something from the kitchen. Before she starts hearing her dead mother’s voice.

The Good: “It snowed the day our mother died, snow so hard and so soft at the same time that we could neither bury her nor take her out to the barn.”

Let me be very, very clear: this is the strangest, weirdest, most original book I’ve read all year.

Let me think twice about that…..

Nope, right the first time.

At first I thought — from her name and manner of speech — that Merciful and her brother lived in some type of religious settlement, one that has rejected modern conveniences, set slightly in the future. A place where most of those had left.

That’s a bit right. When Merciful talks about her world shrinking and people disappearing and the continuing sense of isolation, I thought it was a metaphor. A exaggeration. Instead — it’s real.

For the rest, that was all our animals gone, and winter only just beginning, and that was a bad thing. Though if the fog was really coming, and the end of everything with it, I didn’t guess it much mattered.

Merciful’s world is slowly ending, it is indeed a broken place, and somehow, for some reason, the small cabin that Merciful and Gospel shared with their mother and the strange Minister is hanging on. The Minister — what is the Minister? It’s always been a part of their lives. It’s like the table in the kitchen.

I didn’t guess it much mattered.” If the world is ending, if everything is going, dying or disappearing into a fog, does anything matter?

As I read this, I kept thinking — really? A book about the world ending, not with a bang but a whimper, as fog slowly creeps in, as the cold descends, as the dead don’t stay dead, as the Minister warns and preaches and cautions and threatens. And the horror of Engines of the Broken World is not gore or slash or monsters. It’s the voice coming from her dead mother’s body, it’s the cold and fog, it’s the dwindling resources, it’s the growing sense that there may be no way out.

The voice coming from Merciful’s dead mother slowly begins to make sense. To call to Merciful. To make some sort of sense. It cautions Merciful about the “machine,” and the reader quickly realizes what the “machine” is. Merciful herself has never heard the term before. And the Minister, in it’s animal shape — and pay attention to that form — speaks. “I am a Minister of Grace, shaping the world to make it better, holier, more suited for the Lord.”

And Merciful looks at the Minister, and thinks, “It sounded like normal Minister talk, but I had never heard this line before, never in all the days of my life. I wondered if this was what Auntie had been talking about, because these words made it sound like the Minister was certainly changing things, making the world different. Destroying it, but maybe to save it?

What is the nature of Merciful’s world? Is it, indeed, our world? Or is there something else going on?

Engines of the Broken World is about the end of the world, and what one young girl does as that world ends. It’s about discovering the origins of the world. It’s about God and faith and religion and belief. It’s about learning that the world may be destroyed — or saved — or both — and a decision having to be made, a decision only Merciful can make.

As I said — the strangest, weirdest, most original book I’ve read all year.

So, of course, it’s one of my Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Jenna Does Books.





Review: An Incomplete Revenge

An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear. Henry Holt. 2008. Macmillan Audio. 2008. Listened to audio borrowed from library. Narrated by Orlagh Cassidy.

A holiday is coming up, so here’s a book for the grown ups. I’ve done this once or twice before, so just added the tag “holiday reads” to those books.

The Plot: England, 1931. Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator, is asked to do a routine investigation into a real estate and business purchase. The economic slump had made cases hard to come by, so Maisie is happy for the work and happy to be of assistance to James Compton, son of the family who have been both mentor and employer to Maisie. She discovers a village where petty crimes and small fires are ignored, a village hiding from its dark past.

The Good: This is fifth in the series about Maisie, a girl who began life as a servant and has ended up a university-educated woman running her own business as a psychologist and private investigator. Maisie’s past, her education, intellect, and intuition mean she fits in many places, listens, hears more than people say and sees more than people realize. I cannot begin to say how much I adore Maisie.

An Incomplete Revenge offers a look at a village scarred by the Great War. A zeppelin dropped a bomb on an village in Kent and the town seems to have never recovered. James Compton wants to buy a business in the town, but a bunch of petty crimes and small fires gives him concern, enough to hire Maisie to look into it. It’s the time of year when working class Londoners take a working vacation in places like Kent, harvesting hops. The Londoners are given a place to sleep and get paid; for a few weeks, they escape city life. The reader (and Maisie) learns about this, as well as observes the tensions between the Londoners, the people in Kent, and the gypsies.

I cannot say how much I love all these details of life in the 1930s.

The mystery is also quite good; most of Maisie’s mysteries involve not just looking at the crime, but also looking at the victims and the suspects and doing so as a psychologist. What makes them tick? Why do people do what they do? And, as always, this is a generation haunted by the Great War.

Winspear also weaves contemporary issues in; here, the sons of Maisie’s best friend, Priscilla, have just started school. At the new school, they are bullied. Seeing how Priscilla, Maisie and the headmaster react to what is happening at school with the boys is fascinating, especially given today’s attitudes. The kindness of people to those who they consider “us”, the harshness and cruelty to the “other” are also explored, both in terms of the English and the gypsies, Londoners versus the people in Kent, the English and the Germans.

Priscilla and her sons. Priscilla and Maisie are friends from University days. Both left school to volunteer for the Great War; Priscilla lost all three of her brothers. She now has three sons, and part of my heartbreak reading these books is doing the math, figuring out how old the boys are now and how old they will be in 1939.

Another interesting relationship that develops during the series is that of Maisie and Billy Beale. Billy is a working class Londoner, who fought and was wounded in the Great War. He now works for Maisie; as the series continues, Billy’s responsibilities and input into the cases increases. One of my personal frustrations is that, given different circumstances and education for Billy, I think he could one day be a partner in Maisie’s work. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing that, given he doesn’t have Maisie’s education, connections, or accent; and he also has a wife, mother, and small children to support.

Reading the series in order: My review of the first book in the series, Maisie Dobbs. I think it’s best to start with the first book, because it begins in 1929 then jumps back in time to show Maisie’s rise and path. This is especially for those readers drawn to these books because of the setting. Imagine Downton Abbey, but instead of the girl who teaches herself typing in hopes of being a secretary? Imagine she’s caught reading in the library, and offered private tutoring… as long as she still does all her household duties. Those of you who have watched such shows realize just how impressive Maisie’s climb is. Because the first book concentrates on Maisie’s teen years (as well as the 1929 mystery), it’s the one with the most teen appeal and was awarded a 2004 Alex Award by YALSA.

After the first book, in all honesty, unless you hate spoilers, it’s OK to read the books out of order. Each book stands alone, but time moves forward so Maisie’s relationships and friendships change and grow, and people come and go. People die, babies are born. Maisie continues to grow and mature; but, there is no series plot arc.

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.