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: Midwinterblood

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Always, there is an Eric and a Merle; a hare and a loss; and the island of Blessed.

These are the constants.

What changes in the seven stories of Midwinterblood is the time, starting in the future, 2073, and going back in time again and again until the seventh story set in a time so far past it has no date. What changes are who, exactly, Eric and Merle are; and how they connect or don’t. On what is lost. And always there is the hare.

What is happening? What is going on Blessed?

The Good: I adore stories told like this! Going backward — 2073, 2011, 1944, and so on — emphasizes the mystery. To start at the “beginning”, if that is even the start, would reveal all at once — any tension would disappear.

Instead, it’s 2073 and Eric’s work takes him to Blessed, an isolated island. He meets Merle and feels an instant connection. He also finds himself almost seduced by the island himself, forgetting why he’s there. “The sun does  not go down. That is the first thing that Eric Seven notices about Blessed Island. There will be many other strange things that he will notice, before forgetting takes hold of him, but that will come later.

Something is wrong: despite the friendly villagers, something is obviously not right. But what? And that story ends and suddenly the reader is in 2011.

The island is still Blessed, but there are changes, to the island and the people and what is known or not know. Edward, an archeologist, discovers a viking funeral with two skeletons. He meets two villagers: Merle and her son Eric. There are other changes: there was no hotel or place for visitors to stay in 2073; in 2011, a guest house is mentioned. Changes the reader notices, but unknown and unknowable to the characters who know only their time, their place, their knowledge of history.

One thread is followed, then another, and I loved the mystery of it all. And, as well, the horror. The stories include those of war, of ghosts, even a vampire. The words hint at something more, something worse, and how did this story begin? How can it end? “And there was something about the words she used to tell the story that made them realize something bad was going to happen.”

Because I adore the creepiness; because this type of backwards story, with the mystery falling back in time to be discovered, is the type I love. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews (warning: some have much more spoilers than my review): Sonder Books; Reading Rants; The Book Smugglers; educating alice; crossreferencing (Sarah and Mark).

Review: Scowler

Scowler by Daniel Kraus. Delacorte Press, Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: August, 1981. Changes are coming; Ry Burke, 19, knows this. The family farm is dying and he, his mother, Jo Beth, and his eleven year old sister Sarah, will have to leave. Sarah hunts the sky for changes of a different kind: meteors are supposed to be falling this summer.

Some would wonder why the three Burkes stayed so long on the farm, considering the events of 1972. That was when Marvin Burke’s physical abuse of his family became so bad, he was sent to prison. Sarah was too little to remember anything, but both Ry and Jo Beth bear the physical and emotional scars.

Back in 1972, Ry and Jo Beth and Sarah barely survived. Ry, then ten, made it through with the help of three imaginary friends: Mr. Furrington, a teddy bear; Jesus Christ; and Scowler, an angry troll. Those childish toys and companions were put aside years ago.

Then Ry hears about a prison break, from the local prison. The prison where his father is.

Marvin’s coming home to the farm he loves. He’s coming home to the wife and son who sent him away. Ry is going to need his own strength, and the kindness, wisdom and brutality of his “Unnamed Three” childhood companions to survive his father once again — unless those companions turn on him.

The Good: Scowler flashes back and forth between 1981 and 1972, slowly revealing the full horror of what ten year old Ry and his mother survived. “Survived” is a bit of an odd word to use, considering, as Ry does, that “this was the Burke farm, over four hundred acres of nothing, and [Ry] was terrified to leave it.” What type of survivor stays in the place that defines them as “victim”?

What is survival? That is what Scowler examines, both the physical survival and the emotional survival. Ry’s ten year old self, scared and alone and desperate, made his three toys real. Mr. Furrington, the stuffed teddy bear with the British accent and the warm reassurances: “You can do it. I believe in you, old boy.” Jesus Christ, a Sunday School present: “Blessings unto thou. Thy teachers have toldest thou how.” And Scowler, a hideous homemade troll of teeth and metal whose fury and bloodlust is expressed in worldless rage: “Tk, tk, tk.

If you want, you can read Scowler as a horror story where these three toys do become real, to protect a small boy and later a young man. Or, as I do, you can read Scowler as a horror story where a person’s mind sometimes needs to invent and believe in things like the Unnamed Three to do what has to be done. Or maybe it’s simply a horror story because it contains people who believe the following to be true: “Things that emerged stronger from suffering were to be mistrusted” and “if enough time passes, the world ruins everybody.” Those are the truths one may believe on the darkest days; days like when Marvin Burke comes home.

Scowler is also a story about family; and while Ry is the main character, to me, Jo Beth is the true hero and the reason this book is set in the early 1970s and 1980s. I’m the type that wonders, why doesn’t she just leave? His abuse starts shortly after their marriage, why doesn’t she just pick up then and leave? For me, it’s easier to understand Jo Beth’s decision to stay realizing she was born about 1943, married about 1962, and so 1972 — well. 1972 isn’t 2013, is it, in terms of options for a woman in Jo Beth’s situation. It wasn’t until 1984 that The Burning Bed appeared as a TV movie, based on a 1977 incident, and yes, I think those things matter in understanding and sympathizing with Jo Beth’s decisions.

The language — the words that paint this time, this place, these people — are beautiful and horrible and terrible, and only horrible and terrible because of the horrible and terrible things they portray. Brutal things happen; a man doesn’t go to jail for over ten years “just” for hitting his wife. And that man that comes home seeking his revenge isn’t going to be content with “just” hitting. I confess, I skim-read a few pages because i had a hard time with it, and then I read the last few pages to reassure myself, and then went back to reading.

The Burke Farm in 1972 and 1981 — this is a real place, these people, their hurts and triumphs and fears, all real. Because of the horror, the easy person to name as a readalike is Stephen King. I thought of King’s portrayal of Jack Torrance; I thought of the death of a child from spinal meningitis in another book. But as I thought more, of the ties of family between mothers and sons and fathers and siblings, and of the creation of a specific place and time I thought of someone else: Pat Conroy.

So, yes, of course this is a Favorite Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Bookshelves of Doom; Stacked; boing boing.


Review: Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye. Penguin Books. 2012. Personal copy. Vacation reads, a series of adult books reviewed before holidays for your vacation reading.

The Plot: Christian has returned home, returned from the United States to Germany, to a place that is no longer the dark, small town he remembers but instead is a place of vacation homes and brightness. Retired, away from Germany for decades, he returns after the death of his mother.

He sees friends from his past: Martin, Alex, Linde. Their past holds secrets, the types of secrets that people in small towns know about but do not talk about. “Our secrets in Hemmersmoor were always open and always kept safe.”

An old man has returned to his childhood home. Come, let him and his friends tell you their secrets.

Be warned: these secrets are dark.

The Good: I’m not sure what I thought Your House is on Fire was going to be; oh, I knew it was about secrets, about what had happened to these adults as children, I expected twists and turns and  to be scared and horrified.

Still, knowing all this, I didn’t expect — I couldn’t know —

Christian says at the beginning, “I have returned, but not to the village I once left. That village doesn’t exist anymore, survives in only my memories and dreams.” I was thinking something like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story or Stephen King’s IT would follow. Both of those books are lighthearted romps with puppies and unicorns in sunny fields of rainbows and daisies compared to Your House is on Fire. I thought this was going to be creepy; it is, but it so redefines creepy that I’ll be frugal about how I use that word in the future.

I began, thinking ah, Christian is the main character because he begins the story. He lets us know hints of some of the secrets that will come (Alex’s time in jail, Linde’s scarred face, deaths in Christian’s family). After the prologue, though, there are a series of small chapters, each with a different narrator (Martin, Christian, Linde, Anke) telling a different story of themselves and their town, starting with when the children are seven. “Time is of no importance,” the reader is told — and Your House is on Fire tells us how true that can be.

Kiesbye never gives the reader a year, but he gives clues. The talk of two Germanys, of wars, of televisions and trainers in the present, let the reader know that this story is taking place after World War II, with these children born in the end days of that War. Lurking unsaid over this tale of tangled secrets, dark desires, darker actions is the bigger secret, unspoken but known, of the town’s role in that war and what lies behind the town.

The first story, told by Martin, is the story that let me know I’d fallen into a rabbit hole, had no idea what was up or what was down or what would happen next. Martin, only seven, is telling about the town’s fall Thanksgiving festival and the yearly contest for best stew, best roast, best baked goods. I settle in, and get what I expect in Martin’s story told from seven year sensibilities and then — wait, what? What just happened? No, it couldn’t, it didn’t go there — And Martin, almost innocently, always matter of factly, continues on almost as if he didn’t share watching a horrible crime.

This is a horror story, make no doubt about it. Is it a supernatural one? I think not, even though there are references to ghosts and witches, to folk lore believed as truth, to curses. It can be read as a place where belief makes old wives tales real; or it can be read, as I do, with ghosts and witches being used to try to understand a confusing world where a prior generations actions and inactions, no matter how much kept secret, tangle up the lives of the village’s residents and even children cannot escape.

The sins of the parents, though, is too easy an answer for what happens in Your House is on Fire. Christian, Martin, and the others have free will, after all — and what is most surprising to me is how long they disassociate themselves from their own actions. Perhaps this is also merely a reflection of the war years and the aftermath, the ability to not take ownership.

Have I been clear enough that I adored and loved this Your House is on Fire? I did; it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013; and I want others to read it. I love what is said and unsaid; I love the language. I love the hints that this is fairy tales made real, that this is history, that this is a Twilight Zone town made real. I love that it’s a story tightly told without any extra words. I loved the unflinching look, almost without judgment, at the darkness in people. I love how much is left up to the reader. I love how unsettling it was. Word of warning — if you need to “like” characters to read a book, then this is not for you. 

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Author Interview at CarolineLeavittville; Jenn’s Bookshelves.




Review: Long Lankin

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough. Candlewick Press. 2012. Reviewed from eArc from NetGalley.

The Plot: August, 1958. England. Sisters Cora and Mimi are sent to live with a relative they have never met. To make matters worse, their great aunt, Ida Eastfield, wasn’t expecting them and doesn’t want them. She’s rude and unwelcoming, full of odd rules and warnings about what the girls can and can’t do. Don’t open doors, don’t open windows, don’t go into locked rooms, don’t go to the church.

Meeting Roger and Pete, two boys from the neighborhood, makes things better. And worse. It’s Roger who suggest they go to the old church, forbidden by Auntie Ida. It’s there that Mimi sees something, something that scares her.

It also scares Auntie Ida.

Cora is determined to find the truth behind Ida’s warnings, her anger and fear, the whispers in the town about her family. She discovers a family curse going back hundreds of years, a history of lost children —  and that Mimi may be the next victim, unless Cora can figure out a way to save her little sister from the mysterious “Long Lankin.”

The Good: Said my lord to my lady, as he mounted his horse: Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss. “Long Lankin” is an old English ballad. I adore books based on and inspired by ballads and love what Barraclough does here with Long Lankin. I don’t want to give too much away, about what is real or what is myth from the original ballad, but I simply loved it. The tension, the suspense, the horror that all come from discovering the truth behind Long Lankin kept me up all night, as did Cora’s desperate struggle to save her younger sister.

Long Lankin is set in the village of Byers Guerdon, England in August of 1958. Cora and Mimi are from the East End of London, complete with accents and hand me downs of hand me downs. Mum is missing; Dad isn’t able to take care of his girls; so off they go to their grandmother’s sister. Long Lankin wonderfully creates the world of mid-twentieth century England, and it’s a time period that adds the the atmosphere that veers from suspenseful to warm. The girls are coming from a London with homes that don’t yet have indoor plumbing. Cora regards her aunt’s inside bathroom with a bit of disdain: “At home the privy is outside in the yard. I think it’s cleaner than having one in the house like this.” Ida Eastfield was born a Guerdon, the last of the Guerdons of Guerdon Hall and the village of Byers Guerdon. It’s a large house, but full of dust and decay, a place that has been neglected.

The girls are outsiders, but also insiders. Their grandmother Agnes, who died during the war, was Ida’s sister. It turns out their mother, Susan, who is “away” also has a tie to Guerdon Hall. Ida tells them nothing, preferring blunt words and smacks to explanations.

Long Lankin is told from the points of view of Cora and Roger — and Ida. Ida’s view of events shows the reader that Ida is more than what she appears to be now. “My worn-out tweed skirt lies over the back of the chair. The hem’s been hanging down for weeks. Will’s old shirt is in a heap on the floor and I’ll just pick it up and put it on again tomorrow, along with the brown cardigan I knitted before the war, the one I wore today, and yesterday, and the day before that. I know what I have become. I find in some small hidden room of myself a little corner of shame, but I quickly shut the door on it.” Ida is slow to reveal to the reader her secrets and the secrets of Guerdon Hall, but “the war” is her war, the Great War, and “the war” is also the losses she has suffered because of Long Lankin. It is a wonder of Long Lankin that Ida is not just as important a character as Cora or Roger, but also as sympathetic a character despite of how she treats Cora and Mimi.

Roger is a local boy, and, like Cora is about twelve. Unlike Cora, his childhood is almost ideal and worry free. Yes, his mother has her hands full with a houseful of children (Roger, Pete, Terry, Dennis, and the longed for girl, Baby Pamela), so Roger is asked to do errands and watch a younger sibling or make the tea, but his worries and fears are nothing compared to Cora’s, even before she realizes the threat to Mimi. His is a household with parents who love their children; his is a household with enough money. Roger doesn’t realize how lucky he has it.

1958 allows for both children to be independent: they can explore the countryside and village alone, visit people alone, with no adult tagging along or checking in nonstop via text or telephone. Neither Cora nor Roger realize it, but their childhood is touched by the two wars that took place before their births. It’s a time where certain things haven’t yet changed or been modernized, such as what a person can make of their lives. As Roger says of his father, “he read a lot of books, and if he’d been born into a richer family, he’d probably have gone to university.”

Into this child’s paradise of camps and swings and hikes comes the whispers and dangers of Long Lankin. What should have been a refuge for Cora and Mimi is actually the start of nightmares. Long Lankin, as Cora and Mimi discover, has a taste for children, has had for years and years and years, and once he’s noticed a child he is relentless. He has noticed Mimi. This is the second genius of Long Lankin: how Cora tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s an age without Internet; Auntie Ida doesn’t even have a telephone. It’s a mystery that goes back hundreds of years.

When reading this, I was reminded of three authors: Diana Wynne Jones, because Barraclough’s capturing of childhood reminded me of Jones. When Cora discovers a piano in her aunt’s house and wants to play, she sits down. But what child just sits down on a piano stool? “I sat down on the stool, one of those that whirled around and went up and down, and I must have whizzed round on it for five minutes at least before I cam to a stop, all giddy.” Stephen King and Peter Straub, because Long Lankin is a horror story about cursed generations, missing children, murders, witchcraft, and the supernatural.

Cora and Roger are about twelve, no older than thirteen; Mimi is four. Long Lankin only likes taking younger children. Cora and Roger are just old enough to be able to think they can do something, figure something out, but also young enough to not deny the ghosts or specters they see. Both are young enough to have freedom during summer holidays and not have to think about jobs or school or their own futures.

Ida’s story offers balance and deeper knowledg of what is happening. She also shows what happens when fear and heartbreak are too much for one person. One thing I really appreciated: despite the three voices, or maybe because of it, there were many loose ends to this story. Oh, the main story is told and resolved; but these are three real people, with bigger lives, and even Lankin’s life is more than what is in this book. I adored how some things remained fuzzy, to be guessed by the reader.

Because I won’t be able to sleep tonight. Because my heart broke for Ida. Because I cheered for Cora. Because I wondered if Roger realized just how lucky he had it. Because of the scares and the suspense. Because it’s a story well told, but not tidily told. Long Lankin is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012.

Review: Anna Dressed In Blood

Anna Dressed In Blood by Kendare Blake. Tor Teen. 2011. Personal copy.

The Plot: Theseus Cassio Lowood kills ghosts, just like his father before him. Years ago, his father was killed by one of those ghosts. Now Cas, a high school senior, travels the country with his mother, a witch, always on the hunt for ghosts. The hunt has brought them to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Anna Dressed in Blood. She is the ghost of a teenager killed in the mid 1950s, her throat slit, drenching her white dress with red blood. Since then, she has killed countless teenagers. Cas is there to stop her. What he doesn’t count on is making friends with queen bee Carmel and mind reader Thomas. What he doesn’t count on is falling in love with Anna.

The Good: I adore a good horror story, and this one delivers! I was reading so many good things about Anna Dressed in Blood that I bought my own copy, then put off reading it because I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to the hype. Yes, I know, so silly.

Cas is a loner, partly because he and his mother always move around so he doesn’t have the time to develop friendships, partly because he views what he does as a solo occupation. He doesn’t want friends; he’s not a ghostbuster, thank you very much (but if he was, he’d totally be Peter Venkman.) He takes what he does seriously. The ghosts he kills are killers themselves: they weren’t born that way, they didn’t die that way, it’s what they became after they died. “They might have been normal, or relatively normal, when they were still breathing, but once they die they’re your typical obsessives. They become fixated on what happened to them and trap themselves in the worst moment. Nothing else exists in their world except the edge of that knife, the feel of those hands around their throat. They have a habit of showing you these things, usually by demonstration.” The ghosts don’t even know they’re ghosts, they’re just replaying those last hours, and, sometimes, that involves killing others in the way they were killed. This is where Cas comes in, finding those deaths that ghost caused, hunting down the ghosts, and using his father’s athame to kill them, an athame that only works for him.

Something is different with Thunder Bay; something is different with Anna. Maybe it’s the number of people she’s killed. Maybe it’s because Cas witnesses her killing a local teen, and even as he sees her power (she tears the young man apart) he also sees that even though she could have killed him, she didn’t. Anna Dressed in Blood is too powerful for Cas to kill, too interesting for him to want to kill her, so he decides to try to figure out what makes her so powerful, what makes her so murderous, what makes her so different from every other ghost he’s met. To do that, he’s going to need help.

The people that Cas turns to  – his mother and an old family friend, plus local teens Carmel and Thomas and Thomas’s grandfather — are all fully developed, wonderful characters. Carmel is more than just a queen bee, handling both the news that ghosts are real and that they kill with a certain amount of common sense, as well as a baseball bat. Cas’s mother! Yes, she’s a witch, so she accepts what Cas does, and helps him, just as she did for her husband. Anna Dressed in Blood is full of the little daily details she does, such as putting the knife in a jar of salt for three days and making spells of protection around the house, as well as making a living selling occult supplies and candles and giving Tarot card readings.

Anna Dressed in Blood is both scary and romantic; Anna is both sympathetic and horrible, a murdered girl whose life was taken, a grand injustice, but also someone who has spent more than fifty years tearing apart anyone who steps into her house. The pacing is terrific; I especially loved it when I thought it was “the end” and it turned out much more was going on than I, or Cas, suspected. While Anna Dressed in Blood works as a standalone, I’m thrilled to say that there will be a second book about Cas, called Girl of Nightmares. As the author explains in her blog, “One thing that should probably be cleared up is that Anna Dressed in Blood was not the start of a series exactly. It was the start of a duology. So Girl of Nightmares is the end of Cas and Anna’s story.”

Because Anna Dressed in Blood lived up to its hype; because Anna scared me; because I cheered for Cas; because Anna Dressed in Blood is funny and full of pop culture references; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.*

*Technically? I read this in 2011 but literally ran out of room for the post. Perhaps I need to change this to Favorite Books Reviewed in 2012?

Review: Bobby Singer’s Guide to Hunting

Supernatural: Bobby Singer’s Guide to Hunting by David Reed. 2011. It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins. Review copy from publisher. A tie in to the CW TV show, Supernatural. Holiday reads. Here at Tea Cozy, holiday reads aren’t books about holidays; they’re grown up books for grown up readers to indulge in over the holidays.

The Plot: Bobby Singer’s brain is leaking memories. He has some blanks in his memory, and he doesn’t think it’s alcohol related. Things aren’t were they are usually kept, like the grenade launcher. And he just cannot remember how he got home from Ashland. Where are the car keys? Where is the car?

If Bobby was anyone else, well, there would be a medical explanation. Bobby is a hunter, hunting all those things that go bump in the night that are real: vampires, demons, werewolves, ghosts, well, you get the picture. Before Bobby loses all his memories, he wants to pass down some of his knowledge to Sam and Dean Winchester. Welcome to Bobby Singer’s Guide to Hunting.

The Good: Yes, this is a tie in with the TV show Supernatural. My love of the pretty, pretty Winchester boys is well documented. And I still they they would be awesome on a READ poster. Honestly, if you don’t watch Supernatural, this book is not for you. If you don’t watch the show, and do like horror and supernatural delivered in a way that is serious and scary and sometimes funny, give the show a try. Because there are season long story arcs, I’d recommend going all the way back and starting with Season 1; Bloody Mary, the fifth episode, is the one where this show really grabs you and says, watch this show. It’s more than two pretty, pretty boys and a terrific car.

If you watch Supernatural, Bobby Singer’s Guide to Hunting is a lot of fun. Who doesn’t love Bobby? And here is a whole book from Bobby’s point of view, as Bobby shares some of his past hunting stories. There is more on how he started hunting after his wife died; an explanation for Bobby’s fluency in Japanese; and what Bobby really thinks about John Winchester. It’s a series of short horror stories, with Bobby — well, he may not always win but he always survives. Up until his last case, in Ashland, and that frustrating lack of memories. It’s that tale that wraps it all together, sort of like how one story arc covers a season of Supernatural while there are monster of the week episodes as well.

Review: White Crow

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rebecca, 16, is spending six weeks of summer vacation with her father at the seaside town of Winterfold. It’s not a relaxing vacation: she and her father are barely speaking. Her boyfriend doesn’t call. She is alone and lonely when she meets up with Ferelith. Strange, brilliant, uncommon Ferelith. A friendship grows between the two teenage girls, a friendship born of loneliness and something more. Ferelith has been waiting, waiting for something. Or someone. And now Rebecca is here, lovely Rebecca, who doesn’t know or understand who Ferelith is. Ferelith wants to explore Winterfold’s dark past, and she wants company, whether or not Rebecca is willing.

Over a hundred years before, another unlikely friendship had sprung up in Winterfold, one between the village’s rector and a French doctor. The rector is obsessed with Heaven and Hell, the doctor, with what happens after a person dies. Together, they make a bloody pact to find the answers.

Answers that Rebecca and Ferelith are about to discover.

The Good: By this point, you may be aware that I enjoy both a good story and how that story is told.

The story: lonely, angry Rebecca. Smart, manipulative Ferelith. An odd, uneven friendship. Ferelith is brilliant but her interactions with people are distant. As she says early on, “I continued my education in a more important way, through the observation of everyone around me, because nothing is more important to learn in life than the interaction of a human being with another human being.” Her view of life is unique and she is drawn to the dark. “I think I was waiting, though I didn’t know what I was waiting for.” Ferelith creates situations to draw Rebecca into her petty thieving, trespassing, and explorations and Rebecca is only half-aware of Ferelith’s manipulations.

Winterfold is a dying town, literally. It is falling into the sea. House, churches, graveyards, have all disappeared beneath the relentless waves. Ancient, abandoned buildings give Ferelith much to explore.  (As an aside, Winterfold is based on a real town, Dunwich. I now want to go there on vacation.)

An unnamed rector lived in Winterfold a century before. His story is one of concern about Hell, of wanting to know what Heaven is like, and the doctor he meets who has an experiment to try to find the answers. All they need is volunteers. The dark rooms where the experiments took place draws Ferelith, and she drags Rebecca along.

How will this madness and horror end?

That is the story: unequal friendships, buried secrets, madness, blood, and the questions. Is there a God? Is there life after death? A Heaven or Hell? Angels or devils?

Now, how the story is told — that is where the book shifts into brilliance. Three voices, three points of view: Rebecca, Ferelith, the rector.

Ferelith, speaking in first person, speaking as if what she writes about has already taken place. All her chapters bear cryptic headings: I’m Not Dead. Catholic Day. Her thoughts are deep, layered.

Rebecca is more straightforward, third person, firmly in the present, talking about what is happening now, in a linear fashion with dates as chapter headings. It is not two people telling their different versions of the same event, or taking turns telling their tale. It is Rebecca’s story, with Ferelith letting the reader know the shadows and complexity which Rebecca is unaware of. Ferelith’s voice makes this compelling, suspenseful, scary, and Rebecca’s voice keeps the story grounded in reality and gives the reader to person to connect with.

The story of the two girls in the present is interspersed with the journal entries of an unnamed Rector where he asks questions about Hell, and gradually reveals just what is being done to discover the existence an afterlife. The reader learns what is happening, what happened, just in time to watch as the girls stumble upon the truth.

White Crow scared the hell out of me. But why? Not because of the horrors of the past. Rather, it’s because Ferelith so smoothly manipulates Rebecca, putting her in danger that is physical, emotional, and mental, playing on Rebecca’s trust and need and loneliness. It’s because the rector is so willing to rationalize events and actions, including manipulation and betraying trust.

Because White Crow scared me for all the right reasons. Because the image of Winterfold disappearing a foot at time haunts me. Because the triple narration showed just exactly how to use different voices and different perspectives. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: The Demon’s Surrender

The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Book 3 in The Demon’s Lexicon Series. Book One: The Demon’s Lexicon; Book Two: The Demon’s Covenant. Reading anything after this point is spoilers for the rest of the series. Personal copy.

The Plot: Sin and Mae have been named as the two potential future leaders of the Goblin market. For Sin, 16, a fourth generation Dancer in the Market, the Market is her life. Life used to be simple. Her enemies were the Market’s enemies: demons and magicians. Tourists, even her own father, are best kept at arm’s length. Take care of your own: those in the Market and her younger siblings.

How can Mae possibly become a leader when she is just a tourist, even if she is able to Dance up a demon? Plus, Mae’s brother Jamie is a magician in the deadly and ruthless Aventurine Circle. It’s not just magicians Mae seem close to; there are also the Ryves brothers. Know it all Alan, so self righteous, who Sin owes because he saved her baby brother. And Nick . . . Nick, whose handsome exterior masks a demon.

Will Sin win leadership of the Market? Or will she lose everything?

The Good: First things first; yes, this is a series, and yes, these books are best read in order. At this point, please check my prior reviews (links above) for The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant. The bigger question, with this being the last book in the series, is — is it worth it? Should a reader invest their time in reading this series? The answer, I’m happy to say, is “yes.” Those of you who were waiting because you want to read a series all at once will be richly rewarded with this intricate examination of magic, power, politics, choice, family, and love.

Each of the books in the series uses a different point of view to tell the story: first Nick, then Mae, now Sin. This shift in perspectives not only changes the knowledge and emotions motivating the narrator, it also shifts the story priorities and world-view. The Market as Nick and Mae saw it is different than how Sin sees it. Sin’s loyalty to the Market is so great, she hasn’t told her father about her younger half siblings.

As a born and bred Market girl, Sin often sees the trees and not the whole forest. Sin also has secrets of her own, that risk her future. Sin is a good choice to narrate the third book: it bring the reader into the tight, clannish Market world in a way they weren’t before, because the Ryves brothers were visitors with some knowledge and connections and Mae was a tourist overwhelmed with the newness of it all. It makes sense that now that the reader is more familiar with and comfortable with the Market world, that a Market girl tells the tale. It also increases the stakes of what could be lost if the Market is lost, because Sin — unlike Alan, Nick, Mae and Jamie — has no where else to go.

Sin has many different balls to juggle — sister, daughter, Dancer, friend, potential leader, student — much like Rees Brennan has many plot points that need to be addressed to create a satisfying end to this series. What can I say without spoiling the ending? Rees Brennan takes those threads and weaves a fulfilling and exciting story. Like the previous two books there are twists and turns and much plotting and the reader only knows what Sin knows. What Sin doesn’t know is that she’s in a Sarah Rees Brennan book. I know that not everything is as it looks, and people lie and hold back information. I figured out one twist (one of about, oh, a dozen) and I liked finding out I was right about at least one thing. And wrong about others. Further complicating it are certain things the reader has learned: Alan lies, a lot; and demons like Nick always tell the truth.

Sin and Mae’s relationship was refreshing, because they are two strong-willed, opinionated, ambitious women. It would have been easy to make them enemies, but they are not. They are friends who want the same thing. At times, on Sin’s behalf, I wish she got angrier at Mae. Sin recognizes it is better to have the warmth of friendship than the coldness of enmity. Can I also add that I loved that the Sin/Mae triangle was not a love triangle (who will get the boy?) but a power triangle (who will become leader)?

The Demon’s Surrender, like the two books that came before, is full of action and fight scenes: knives, swords, guns, and, of course, magic. People die; people get hurt. I’m not sure why,but the violence in this book really hit home, seemed more real, even though the earlier books had violent deaths. Maybe it was because Sin was not just fighting, as the others fight, but also protecting: a younger sister and toddler brother who depend entirely on Sin.

Oh, I’ll give one spoiler. There is a love interest for Sin. The unlikely Alan. Unlikely, because while readers of the series have adored Alan since the start (or, at least, this reader), Sin did not. It takes her a bit longer to come around to our side.

Alan, Alan, Alan. I have one critical thing to say about Alan, or, rather, the jacket illustration. I’ve been picturing him as Eric Stoltz (circa Some Kind of Wonderful), so the cover made me go “that’s not MY Alan.” But picture in my head aside, I love the colors and illustration: the burning sky, the London skyline (most of this is set in London), Alan and his bow and arrow that hints of battles to come.

I heartily enjoyed The Devil’s Lexicon trilogy and recommend it for its adventure, action, twists, turns, humor, and romance. Sin is a terrific, conflicted, complex character. For all this (and for how the book ended!), this is one of my Favorite Reads of 2011. I’m looking forward to rereading these books one right after another.

Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Scribner. 2010. Personal copy.

Part of my “holiday reads” for grown ups. What better Halloween author than Stephen King?

The Plot: Four stories.

In 1922, a man who loves his farm decides that his wife is what stands between him and a happy life farming. He involves his son, and winds up losing and he wanted to hold onto.

Big Driver is about the victim of a violent rape who decides to take justice into her own hands. The victim happens to be a writer of cozy murder mysteries and discovers that difference between real life and fiction.

In Fair Extension, a man makes a deal to have everything he ever wanted, and part of what he wants is his “best friend” to not be successful. It’s schadenfreude taken to an extreme level. What’s the price paid for such a deal?

Finally, the woman in A Good Marriage believes she has a good marriage, and the proof is the long marriage, the two successful children. What’s a good wife to do when she realizes her husband is a serial killer? 

The Good: Each of these four stories has a vaguely supernatural air about it. The story with the strongest supernatural quality, 1922, can also be read as a psychological horror story — the Tell Tale Heart. Only with rats.

I enjoy Stephen King’s books; when I compare books I read to him, it’s a very big complement. If I had to pick only one author that would still be read a hundred years from now, it would be Stephen King. For all that, for all that I love The Stand and The Shining and his other books, I think it’s his short stories that are his most powerful. Building a world in hundreds of pages? Easy, you have hundreds of pages! Building that same world in a handful of pages? Now that is talent. King writes horror, and I enjoy the horror he writes, but some of his most terrifying writing has not been about vampires and killer cars but about the loss of a child, the death of a sibling. These are the types of stories in Full Dark, No Stars. They scare the reader because they hold up a mirror to show something the reader doesn’t want to see, a window into what they fear is happening in the house next door.

What is really scary, for each of the stories, is not the ghosts or devil or other fantastical elements — it’s the everyday aspects of the stories. A man angry at his wife, who convinces his son to take sides, concerned only with “winning” his child, “winning” his farm, and is so focused on hurting his wife in order to “win” that he doesn’t realize the hurt he inflicts on his son and himself. A woman, beaten, raped, left for dead, who doesn’t want to go through life labelled a victim so takes the law into her own hands. The jealousy and resentment one feels towards one friends. And, the dilemma being between a rock and a hard place: expose a husband’s crimes and destroy the lives of your children who will forever be known as killer’s kids. All of those are about the real fears and temptations and choices people face. This is why Stephen King is a magnificent writer: because he gets into people’s heads, is fearless about showing the good, the bad, the gray, the dark wishes and dark choices.

In the Afterword, King writes that “I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. i want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief.”

The book has been set aside, and now the thinking . . . . It is not fearing a vampire child floating outside the window; it is fearing at what point one loses ones soul because they delight in the downfall of another. It is in discovering the consequences of taking a wrong detour. What would one do to survive?