Review: The Waking Dark

The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman. Knopf. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: One day, a small town: Oleander, Kansas. Like so many other small towns, where everyone thinks they know everyone. Where everyone has secrets. Some secrets they don’t even know about.

A handful of people, with no connections to each other, go on murder sprees. Each murder ends in a suicide; or, in the case of one person, an attempted suicide. There are five survivors, who have to live with the horror they saw. Or, in the case of one, the horror they inflicted.

One year later, just as the town looks like it has recovered, or, at least, forgotten, a series of tornadoes descends. In the chaos that follows, the town is quarantined, sealed off from the outside world.

How much can one town take?

The darkness and horror has barely begun.

The Good: I loved this book so, so much!

I’m not the first to say “Stephen King” when describing The Waking Dark. First, because of the horror: The first chapter starts out with murder after murder, with people of all ages being killed by their neighbors and friends for no reason. And here’s the thing: these murders are not what make The Waking Dark horror. Rather, the horror is the worse that will come. It’s what people will do and will think. Neighbor turns on neighbor, and it soon likes almost as if the people who died the year before were the lucky ones.

Why did these handful of people become killers? The answer may be hidden in the history of the town, or it may be something else. After the tornadoes destroy part of the town, it’s not just the phones and Internet not working, it’s the military blockades around the town preventing anyone from leaving, or entering. Is it the isolation that makes those in the town of Oleander turn on each other? Or is it something more? Is the reason behind the destruction of Oleander and its people supernatural? Scientific in origin? Or something else entirely?

Second, because of the setting: a small town, who, even before the murders and tornadoes, was dying. Dying because of the loss of work, dying because of the rise of meth and drug use, dying because of just the general meanness of people. The portrait of Oleander, and those who live there, is sad and specific and full; Wasserman, like King, has created a world that appears to really exist. I’m sure that somewhere, Oleander is on a map and its inhabitants are flesh and blood.

There are five narratives running through The Waking Dark, overlapping and entwining upon occasion. Daniel Ghent, whose normal life ended years ago with the death of his mother and her father’s losing touch with reality. Julie Prevette, whose trailer trash family is notorious for their violence and crimes and meth. Ellie King, a Christian girl who needs to believe in God. Jeremiah West, high school football player and all around popular kid. And, finally, Cassandra Porter, who doesn’t remember what she did in the baby nursery but who is paying for it now.

Here is an early scene with Daniel: “Daniel flipped through the wrinkled page [of the comic book], past caped heroes who never arrived too late and punches that never left a bruise. He couldn’t remember ever being young enough to believe in that kind of world; he didn’t want to imagine his little brother ever being old enough to stop.” It tells so much about Daniel, and his life, and his childhood, and his brother, and their relationship, in just a handful of words.

Five people do not a town make. The Waking Dark includes many other characters, and this is another area where Wasserman is like King, because even with a few lines and a handful of scenes, she creates memorable, believable characters.

This is not a book about good-hearted people pulling together. When things go back in Oleander, they go really, really bad. What happens when people let the darkness in their heart out? When the meanness that you keep in check to be polite doesn’t have to be kept in check anymore?

The Waking Dark is also not about a handful of strangers banding together to fight back. The main characters know each other the way that teens in a small town would know each other. It takes a while for the five main characters to connect in a more meaningful way, and since all five are teenagers, for most part, they are without any real power to fight anything. This is a town where, within less than two weeks of the quarantine, people believe that a public execution by fire is a good thing. What can teens do to fight that? Not much; they best they can hope for is escape.

Towards the end, there is a line, almost a throwaway — “They had all deserved better.

And this is perhaps the true genius of The Waking Dark, and why this is horror. Because, yes, these five deserve better. But so does everyone in Oleander, whether they’re the young girl whose baby brother was murdered, destroying her family, or the local meth dealer who loves and wants to protect his niece. They all deserve better. We all deserve better than what life gives us: but that’s life. What happens, happens, and is neither punishment nor reward. Life doesn’t care what we deserve. It doesn’t care in Oleander, and it doesn’t care outside Oleander.

One last thing: Oleander is quarantined. And here is another example of why I love The Waking Dark. Even before the military closed the town off, it was a town that trapped people. Using teens as the main characters underscores how trapped people are: make someone a high school graduate and a reader may say, “oh they can always leave,” ignoring the ties of blood and family and friendship, ignoring that leaving a place, any place, requires someplace new to go and the resources to get there. And, not to give too much away about the ending, just because one is stuck somewhere doesn’t mean that isn’t home.

By this point, I’m sure you’ve all figured out that this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

The only thing I’d like to add is the diversity that Wasserman includes in The Waking Dark. One character is part Hispanic; another is gay.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Librarian of Snark; Rachel’s Reading Timbits; and author interview at Entertainment Weekly.

 

Review: Far Far Away

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, Random House. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Edited to add: National Book Awards shortlist.

The Plot: Jeremy Johnson Johnson is haunted by a ghost, and honestly, it’s not that bad. The ghost doesn’t want to hurt Jeremy; far from it. The ghost wants to protect Jeremy!

But protect Jeremy from what?  Well, from the Finder of Occasions, of course. Wait, you don’t know what the Finder of Occasions is? Guess what? Neither does the ghost.

So the ghost mostly hangs around, talking to Jeremy (the only person who can hear him), tutoring him in math and vocabulary (yes, the ghost is very concerned with Jeremy’s education and Jeremy is very concerned with not cheating so allows tutoring but not whispering answers), and observing.

Observing Jeremy’s father’s deep depression after his wife left him, leaving the boy alone. Observing the odd ways of the villagers and how they treat people. Observing how the ton Observing Ginger Boultinghouse and how she flirts with both Jeremy and the mayor’s son. It’s really all a ghost can do, observe.

And like the ghost, we observe, and wonder, and get caught up in Jeremy’s immediate concerns — taking care of his father, paying their bills, wondering how to pay off a big loan, doing well in school, and, yes, his developing friendship (or something more?) with Ginger — so we, like the ghost, forget the Finder is still out there.

And then the Finder finds Jeremy.

The Good: To begin with, the ghost is Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm. It is Jacob telling this story: “What follows is the strange and fateful tale of a boy, a girl, and a ghost. The boy possessed uncommon qualities, the girl was winsome and daring, and the ancient ghost . . . well, let it only be said that his intentions were good.” Because it is Jacob, and because it is a tale told after, the tone and style are distinct, original, and infuses the whole tale. In some ways, I was reminded of Bartimaeus, except the ghost Jacob is constantly concerned with the well-being of Jeremy; but, like Bartimaeus, Jacob has a bit of an ego about it. He is, after all, Jacob Grimm.

Jacob, as ghost, has wandered the world, searching for release from his ghostly state. He believes that if he helps Jeremy avoid the Finder of Occasions that will somehow help him move to wherever it is his beloved brother and other family members are. So, yes, his original attachment to Jeremy is selfish, yet despite that (and despite being a ghost) Jacob becomes a sort of father-figure to the practically orphaned Jeremy. Jeremy’s mother abandoned the family years ago; his father took her leaving bad and hasn’t left the house since. Jacob is a product of his own times, so he doesn’t quite get all the modern references or lingo which can be amusing. He also uses old fashioned terminology to refer to things, such as calling the town of Never Better a village and the inhabitants villagers.

References and allusions to folk and fairy tales fill Far Far Away. A person loses a shoe, and I thought of Cinderella. A story is told of Prince Cake’s and eating one and falling in love with the first person one sees. These casual references, and some of the humor (Jeremy’s name) lulled me into forgetting the darkness of the tales. I began to see the happy endings as Jeremy’s friendship with Ginger deepens, as a solution is shown for his family’s financial mess, as his father, perhaps, will leave the house….

And I forgot. I forgot, like Jacob did, that the Finder was out there — or, rather, like Jacob, I was just suspicious enough of all the people Jeremy encountered that I became suspicious of none. And, like Jacob, “I was carried away [by Jeremy’s happiness]… when I should have stood fast and remained vigilant.” Yet, at the same time, we the reader are tuned in to the danger that is coming because Jacob is letting us know.

And the danger. Because there is a ghost, because the Finder of the Obvious has a name out of a child’s story, because the reader has been told about fairy tales over and over, for a few moments there I thought this would be a fantastical danger. I forgot that while Jacob is a ghost, or sees things from a nineteenth century perspective, Jeremy’s world is our world. The danger is not a witch or a dragon. It is a person. And a person can be the most dangerous thing of all.

I thought, silly me, that since this was about fairy tales I would laugh a little. And I did. But I also cried, and was scared, and wondered at just how Jeremy could be delivered from the danger he was in because it seemed so hopeless.

Two of my favorite television series this year are Grimm and Once Upon A Time. In reading Far Far Away, I was reminded that Once Upon a Time is much more based on Disney fairy tales than the Brothers Grimm ones. Far Far Away is much more Grimm (TV series) in tone.

Because I enjoyed spending time with Jacob and Jeremy and, even, Ginger. Because the villagers were more than they appeared to be. Because Far Far Away stayed true to the spirit of folk and fairy tales. Because the tone and the way of telling was different from anything else I read this year. Far Far Away is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

 

 

 

Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan. Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Misskaella Prout is the witch of Rollrock Island, so ugly and disagreeable and witchy that no man would have her for a wife.

Misskaella has her revenge on those who keep her at arm’s length: she uses her magic to bring the person out of a seal, creating human seal-wives for the men of Rollrock Island.

The price the men pay is high; it makes Misskaella rich. But the price they are about to pay is even higher.

The Good: So, here’s the thing. I’m going to talk about this book as if you’re already read it.

If you haven’t, take a look at Jennifer Hubert Swan‘s post at Reading Rants. I’ll add this is a beautifully poetic examination of the selkie legend, based around the lifetime of one woman, Misskaella. It is told from many viewpoints over several generations, spanning Misskaella’s life, and Misskaella is just one of the narrators. Why is this young adult? It could easily be adult, and is a cross over book for adult readers; but the primary narratives and the times they cover are when the speakers are teens (or, based on what they say, appear to be teens. Lanagan, as you may know, is not the type to say “as I looked into the mirror at my brown eyes on my fourteenth birthday…”)

Now, it’s not so much that there will be spoilers, of course, but rather, this is the type of post where not reading the book means you won’t understand as much.

I read The Brides of Rollrock Island within a certain current events context: in the news was Stuebenville. Delhi. This article, Body Double Standard. People holding signs saying, don’t teach people how not to be raped but teach people not to rape. So here comes this book, about seals who are turned into beautiful women, who are then taken to be wives, and their ability to leave by returning to being a seal forbidden them by taking and hiding their coats.

How are the seals turned into women? Some can shed their seal coat and become human on their own; when they want to return to seal form, they put on their coat. Legends tell how the men who come across these women will hide the seal coats. In Brides, sometimes a person like Misskaella has the magic to “see” the person in the seal and transform them. The coat is hidden and locked away from the first moment. Misskaella’s ability is attributed to Misskaella’s father’s family having seal-wives in the past, making this a genetic gift. Interesting, because the seal-wives are repeatedly said to be beautiful and all that a man wants in a wife, while Misskaella herself is not beautiful and nobody wants her. Her seal-wife heritage is a negative, until a man wants a seal-wife of his own.

Misskaella begins making seal-wives for the men who pay her as revenge against her fellow islanders, the women for excluding and being non-supportive, the men for not wanting her. If she cannot have home and hearth and family the “traditional” way, she’ll earn it by selling her services and having her own house. If she cannot have family, she’ll “take” the husbands of the married women who pity her by creating seal-wives. And the biggest curse is for the men, by giving them what they think they want.

As I read this, I thought how damning this was towards the men of Rollrock Island. Given the narrative structure, I’m not sure if any man left Rollrock Island; women did, whose husbands and sons took seal-wives, taking their children with them. And in the narrative, at least one man resisted having a seal-wife, married a human wife, and took her back to Rollrock Island. Also, later, another witch is brought to the island, to help an aging Misskaella, and this witch’s offspring show that some men of the Island still want a human woman sexually.

Why damning of the men? Because what they want is not just a beautiful woman. They want a woman who is a blank-slate doll come to life, who will not be assertive or lose their temper or be cross or talk back or be anything other than an adoring wife. Take Dominic Mallett, someone who has a human fiancee but “accidentally” winds up with a seal-wife, the way people “accidentally” have affairs. Here are the words he uses to describe his seal-wife and then his human fiance, Kitty.

The seal-wife: “no one, no woman or man, had ever regarded me so steadily, so trustingly; “his girl only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me”; “this purer creature, unsullied yet, uninjured by the world;” “she put me at peace in a glance.” Note how it is all about how she makes him feel. Or is it? How can the seal-wife “make” another feel something? There is no magic; not everyone reacts to the seal-humans the same way. At least one man takes and keeps a human wife; and, at least one woman takes a seal-man lover yet doesn’t keep his coat, so that the seal can return to his seal identity at the time of his own choosing.

No — as Kitty says to Dominic, it’s his choices. His decisions. It’s not fault of the seal-women, or of Misskaella, it’s the fault of the men who want that “peace in a glance” rather than the humanness of a woman.

Kitty: “I could see how Kitty would be as an old woman, with this roundedness gone from her face, with this bitter tightness about her mouth.” “I could see how she would have scolded her children, the thin line of her lips.” Apparently, a seal-wife is never bitter. A seal-wife never scolds. Rather, a seal-wife kept from her coat is, at worst, depressed and moody and takes to bed every now and then but is not bitter.

This goes on for a few generations, spanning Misskaella’s life, so there both mothers and grandmothers who are seal-wives. In the second generation — just long enough for the boys to know no other life or other women — the sons of the seal-wives realize the distress of their mothers and conspire to return their coats. (Apparently, an offspring of a seal-human that is the same sex cannot live on land, so seal-wives have only land-sons). Why didn’t the earlier generation do this? I’m not sure; I think it has to do with the changes going on and taking time; and it could be that the first-generation of seal-wives were less depressed than the later ones, because they may have still had hope, they may not have realized their captivity would go on forever.

A fascinating discussion on Brides is going on at Someday My Printz Will Come. I also strongly suggest reading Aisha’s critique at Practically Marzipan. Part of the reason I like Aisha’s post is she calls the treatment of the seal-wives rape, and yes, that is what I see, also. And to bring it back to the various news stories I’ve been reading, I think it lessens what the men have done by calling the women “seductive” or some such wording. The women did not want or ask for this; not a single woman elected to stay with her husband once the coats are stolen back. To say someone is naturally seductive in this setting, doesn’t it lessen, then, what is inflicted upon them? Implying somehow that if the skirt was longer, if they weren’t so darn seductive, they wouldn’t have been kept?

I have complicated feelings about Misskaella. Yes, she is basically procuring women to be owned and used by men which means she treats those women as much as objects and things as the men do. How the women are portrayed is vague; for the various voices telling this story, not one is the voice of a seal-wife. Still, given the continuing ostracism she felt from her community, the dismissal, I admit it — I felt sorry for her. I pitied her. I understood her desire for revenge.

So how do I really feel? Reader, I adored this book. I’ve read it twice through, and reread individual sections several times more than that. Of course it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

I’ve mentioned a few other reviews of this already. I’ll also point out to Mark Flowers’s post Crossreferencing; as well as this interview with Lanagan at Booklist.

 

 

Review: Love And Other Perishable Items

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. YALSA Morris Award Finalist.

The Plot: Amelia, fifteen, is in love with Chris. Chris is her co-worker at the local supermarket.

Chris is twenty-one years old.

Chris is finishing up university, trying to get over Michaela, figuring out what he wants to do with his life.

Amelia looks longingly at Chris, Chris jokes around and calls her “youngster.”

The Good: I hate to do this, but there will be spoilers. I know, I know, I don’t like telling too much about the plot, but this is one of those situations where what happens and doesn’t happen, matters, matters very much.

So: know this. This is not a book where a fifteen year old and a twenty-one year old get together because she is so mature and so understanding and he sees her soul and age just doesn’t matter. This is a book about a young man who knows that a twenty-one year old does not date a fifteen year old. I feel like I have to get that out there, that this is not about a creepy twenty-something.

This is a book about that delicious, wonderful feeling of being in love, in having a crush that is so overwhelming it just consumes everything. That is what Amelia feels for Chris. It is both real and solid and full of possibilities, the possibilities of sharing time with the object of one’s obsession, of looking forward to a conversation as if it were oxygen, yet at the same time it is always an illusion, a dream, something that makes her brighter but is never real.

Amelia doesn’t even know what wanting Chris means: “The yawning six-year chasm between my age and Chris’s is not the only fly in the proverbial ointment of this ‘loving Chris’ business. I’m not even sure what ‘getting’ Chris would involve; all I know is I want him.”

Amelia’s life as a student is boring and typical. She has a best friend, Penny; her older sister Liza has left for university; she’s helping take care of her little sister, Jessica, and her parents are either working or tired. She doesn’t realize it, not really, just what Chris is giving to her, by being the object of her affections.

Chris, meanwhile, is lost and out of sorts. Love is both their stories, Amelia’s and Chris’s, so the reader sees the relationship from both their points of view. For example, Amelia barely knows who Michaela is, while Michaela who left Chris and broke his heart, is a significant person in his life.

Chris is finishing up university is almost over and he’s not quite sure what he’s going to do. He feels as if he’s staying in place, as he watches friends move out, get serious about girlfriends, get jobs. Amelia is, at first, just another coworker, one who happens to be bright and different and someone smart to talk to.  He is, for most of the book, terribly unaware of Amelia’s feelings. I say terribly because of course it is terrible for Amelia, but it also shows that he is just a nice guy.

Before it seems like Chris is a saint: he isn’t. At one point, he is cruel to Amelia; part of that cruelty isn’t as much about Amelia as about how lost Chris himself is at that point. While 21 is older than 15, it is still young and Chris does things that are thoughtless and cruel. Amelia, meanwhile, is self-absorbed in her feelings for Chris.

As the year goes by, the year of the two of them working together, there are highs and lows and funny parts. Working at the supermarket opens Amelia up to life beyond school, life not just of crushing on Chris but also of going to parties and having her first drink and her first kiss and even her first hangover. It’s a story told by both Chris and by Amelia, and part of the wonder of this books is how it balances and reveals and shows the two perspectives on the same year.

Love and Other Perishable Items works terrifically as a book about love and friendships and growing up: both Amelia and Chris are growing up, just in different ways. Amelia, as a fifteen year old; Chris, as a twenty-something  That their lives intersect at this critical time for both is one reason their friendship works so well; and it’s to Chris’s credit that he is always mature enough to be aware that the age difference is there.

As I was mulling over this book, I realized that geography plays a big role. Not in, “set in Australia!” No, rather in the geography of the lives of Amelia and Chris. For Amelia, a job opens up a new world beyond high school. It gives her a first crush, but also other opportunities that broaden her world, including going to parties and meeting people outside her school classmates. Meanwhile, what broadens Amelia’s life is another example of how narrow Chris’s life has become. He still lives at home; his friends are fellow university students; his job gives him money, yes, but other than that it’s really just a different place, same thing: parties, hanging out.

Amelia is enjoying how big her world is becoming; Chris, not realizing it, is trying to figure out a way to escape his narrow constraints. I love that it’s the same thing, from two different viewpoints. In talking about what is New Adult, that is another thing to consider: how a twenty-something’s life is about moving beyond the borders of a teenager.

I could go on and on about what I love about this book. Amelia’s parents are a teacher and a director, both educated but both in professions that don’t provide a lot of money. Her mother is often stressed out or just plain tired; her father isn’t always home and when he is, he isn’t the most communicative. Neither has the time (nor inclination) to be a helicopter parent. Hardworking but tired and underpaid professional parents aren’t always shown in books.

Because I loved both Amelia and Chris. Because of capturing that wonderful feeling of longing for another. Because Chris’s seeking something is just as achingly drawn. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other Reviews: Stacked Books; Jen Robinson’s Book Page; Forever Young Adult.

Review: The FitzOsbornes at War

The FitzOsbornes at War, the Montmaray Journals, Book III by Michelle Cooper. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2012. Sequel to Sequel to A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Life in Great Britain during World War II, as told by Sophie FitzOsborne. The FitzOsborne story began in the mid 1930s in A Brief History of Montmaray, centering on life on their small, island kingdom and how and why the Germans invaded and took over Montmaray. The family fled their home, and The FitzOsbornes in Exile was about their adjustment to life in England as well as what was happening in the years leading up to World War II.

The war touches Sophie, her siblings and cousins in many ways. Her brother Toby and family friend/cousin, Simon, are in uniform, as are many of their friends. Sophie and her cousin, Veronica, both find civilian ways to help the war effort. Family issues don’t stop just because a country is at war: younger sister Henrietta rebels against tutors and boarding schools, their aunt is concerned with money and status and her nieces’ possible marriages, and the question of the recovery of Montmaray looms over everything.

The Good: I have adored this series from the first page, when we met Sophie as she wrote in a castle on an island, surrounded by family and nothing else. A princess with no money or resources and a mad uncle.

The FitzOsbornes at War is both what I wanted and what I needed from this series’ conclusion, but also not what I expected. It tells the story of what it was like, being a young woman during the war: the fears, the desire to do something, the dangers, the rationing, the bombings, the worries over loved ones. Going in, I knew one thing for certain: people would be hurt. People would die. It would be dishonest for anything other to happen in a book about a war, a book where the main characters are young adults in their late teens and early twenties who are in the armed forces or in places being bombed nightly. Cooper is not dishonest. She does not hold back.

Sophie, as ever, is an engaging storyteller. This is her journal, and it jumps ahead, sometimes, but it’s always smoothly written. I adored not just the details of daily living, and a civilian’s view of historical events, but also the inclusion of real people such as Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy. Sophie is energetic, she is enthusiastic, she is wonderful. She goes through a lot; she suffers great loss; but she remains Sophie. The perspective is of someone who is trying, trying, trying so hard despite it all to be young, and to enjoy dances, and to fall in love.

Nope, I’m not going to give much more in terms of spoilers than that. Well, yes, the general history of World War II is hardly a spoiler, but the day to day things?The details? And how it all impacts Sophie and her family? That’s for a reader to discover, and to cry over. And, sometimes, even, to be happy about. As with the two previous books, when it comes to the real history and historical figures, it’s a mix of things a reader will recognize and things that will be new (did that really happen?).

The only thing I was disappointed about? I wish there had been more about Montmaray; there is some, don’t get me wrong, and I like what happens with that storyline and the resolution, but part of what drew me into the storyline was Montmaray so I wanted more. That said, I’ll be clear: I love this look at World War II.

As for who was hurt, who died, who lost, who loved? Oh. My. Goodness. I was shocked and I cried. And one of the resolutions was so perfect and yet so unexpected that all I could think was, well played, you. Perfect. This is the end of the trilogy,  yes — but am I the only one who wants more? Perhaps what is happening to the contemporary FitzOsbornes, the descendants of the ones who survived the war? (See how I did that, not giving anything away?)

Because this series, read in its entirety, is a wonderful whole story of Sophie’s life as a teenager and young woman. Because of the look it takes at the 1930s and 1940s. Because it’s not what I expected and it took wonderful risks that paid off. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

One last point: in part because of how Sophie and her siblings and cousins and friends age, this book easily crosses over, with appeal for both adults and teens. It also would make a terrific miniseries.

Other reviews: Oxford Erin; Read Alert blog from State Library of Victoria.

Review: The Stone Girl

Welcome to The Stone Girl blog tour!

The Stone Girl by Alyssa B. Sheinmel. Knopf Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Reviewed from eArc from NetGalley.

The Plot: Sarah Beth “Sethie” Weiss is a senior at the prestigious Franklin White girl’s school. She gets good grades, has a cute boyfriend, a perfect life. She is a scholarship student who works hard for it all. Working hard includes saying and doing all the right “cool” things around her boyfriend Shaw, whether it’s learning how to smoke a bong, sneaking into the empty apartment next door, or not holding his hand in public because he doesn’t like public displays of affection. Then there’s what Sethie does to make sure she looks the right way, to make sure the scale never goes above 111.

The Good: The Stone Girl is a character study: a portrait of funny, brittle, Sethie, smart in some areas, in others, not so much.

Sethie has — issues. 

Being smart does not change that she is convinced that she is one half bagel away from fat.

Being smart does doe not stop her from being blind to the truth about a boy who doesn’t want to hold her hand in public.

The outside world may see a typical New York City private school girl, thin and pretty and smart and cool. Inside, though, much more is going on.

My heart broke for Sethie; because she is so smart, and so funny, and I just wanted for her to stop her various, escalating, self-destructive behaviours. I’ll be honest: I’m hesitant to put any label on Sethie, such as anorexic or bulimic, depression or low self esteem. In addition, Sethie isn’t the most reliable narrator. There is no simple label to explain what Sethie does, what she is going through, what she feels. It’s why I see this as a detailed, intimate, emotional portrait of one girl; it’s not a problem book about a girl with an issue.

While reading The Stone Girl I dreaded just how bad it would get for Sethie and what it would take for Sethie and those around her to realize what was going on behind the perfect facade. The Stone Girl is Sethie’s descent, day by day, as things get worse and worse, as pounds go, as she discovers new ways to gain feelings of control over her life.

Sheinmel plunges the reader deeply into Sethie’s world view, yet not so deeply that the reader isn’t aware of a bigger picture than Sethie tells. Take Shaw, for instance. Here is Sethie meeting up with him after school, being the “cool” person she thinks he wants: “‘Hey kiddo,’ he says, and she stands next to him. He does not kiss her hello. He does not put an arm around her. To show she is his, she takes his cigarette from him, and takes a long drag from it.” For a few chapters, I confess that I thought she was indeed showing others this, that her friends and classmates did not kiss their significant others on the street. I believed what Sethie told me.

Everything else, particularly his failure to treat her as his girlfriend in public while he sleeps with her, screams to the reader that Shaw is not what Sethie wants him to be. However, there are other things that the reader cannot be sure of, because Sethie is so deep into her illness. Is her mother truly unaware, for instance. Is everything at school as perfect as Sethie says.

Sethie’s boyfriend does one good thing: he introduces her to Janey, who becomes her best friend. Janey may appear to be a Poor Little Rich Girl out of the pages of a gossip girl type book, with neglectful parents and plenty of spending money, but also becomes a good friend to Sethie.

Am I doing Sethie justice? I’m afraid I’m not — that this seems too dark or bleak. That Sethie seems too dark or bleak. It isn’t; there is also humor and laughter. Here is Sethie on August: “It’s the first week of September, but August hasn’t given up yet. Sethie thinks that August is like Summer’s bitter older sister — everyone looks forward to June and July, but by August, they want summer’s refreshing half-brother, September. No one longs for August by the time it rolls around. And then August doesn’t even have the good manners to leave on time. ‘Bitch,’ Sethie thinks with satisfaction.”

 There are friends and people who care about Sethie. Despite that — one of the things I loved about The Stone Girl? There is no saviour for Sethie, no new man or good girlfriend who will Save Her. The only one who can save Sethie is herself, but will she be able to?

One thing I like looking for in books: different realities being shown. Sethie is a private school girl, yes, but like the characters in Sheinmel’s earlier novels (The Beautiful Between and The Lucky Kind), it’s not the uber rich New York City, it’s one of scholarships, working parents, apartments rather than penthouses. Sethie is Jewish; and that’s another thing I like about Sheinmel’s books. They add to the diversity of books about people who are Jewish, books with people are not overly religious but who are culturally Jewish.

Because I worry about Sethie, and hope she is OK. Because Sethie’s head was a hard place to leave. Because I love Sheinmel’s writing. The Stone Girl is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: New York Times Sunday Book Review; blog tour stops; Kirkus Book Reviews.

Review: Jasper Jones

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: 1965 Australia. Charlie Bucktin, 13, is reading a book on a hot summer night when there is a knock on his window. It is Jasper Jones, the town “bad boy,” and he needs Charlie’s help. Charlie climbs out the window, not realizing he is leaving his childhood behind. Jasper’s secret shakes Charlie, yes; and it’s the beginning of Charlie looking at his town, his world, his family and friends with new eyes and seeing what’s hidden.

The Good: A classic coming of age, as Charlie leaves childhood behind him. I don’t want to say all that Charlie discovers, slowly; part of the process for the reader is going with Charlie on that journey. It all begins with Jasper knocking on Charlie’s window, forcing Charlie to leave behind the safety of his books and his parents’ home. Charlie’s awareness doesn’t happen all at once; and some things (the racism against his best friend for being Vietnamese) aren’t new to him. What is new is the way he looks at the world.

Charlie’s world is that of Australia about forty years ago. Jasper Jones creates a strong sense of place and time. A time where kids and teens have certain freedoms to explore and roam. A time when people’s casual and thoughtless and cruel racism and prejudices were open. In many ways, a smaller world than today. Charlie’s father tries to expand his son’s world in the only way his father knows, books. Those books are not the real world, but they prepare Charlie for the real world he realizes is all around him after Jasper knocks at his window.

Based on what Jasper shows Charlie, what he tells him, Charlie becomes a bit obsessed with those who inflict evil and those who let evil happen. He researches true crime in the library, including such then-current cases as Eric Cooke and Gertrude Baniszewski. What is “evil”? Why do people act, or not act?

I reread this book almost immediately; enjoying even more the layered story telling, the strong setting, the varied cast of characters. There is a magnificent chapter about a cricket game, and even though I know less than nothing about cricket, I was on the edge of my seat. There is also a romance. But, most importantly, there is Charlie.

Confession: I didn’t like this book at first. No, really. It was a DNF back in January. For a few reasons, it just didn’t “click” with me. But. But, people I knew and respected had picked this for a Printz Honor. I put it aside, knowing I’d take a second crack at it. And the second time, everything came together and this book really worked for me. Why? What had changed? I’m not sure; I wasn’t even going to mention it, except I think it’s important to note that how a reader reads a book can change. My first read focused on the character of Jasper (for various reasons, not a fan at first) and the mystery element (as a mystery-lover, I guessed the big mystery early on). My second read, I put these aside. I saw the Jasper/Huck Finn connections (one of the authors Charlie and his father read is Mark Twain), which made me appreciate what was happening with Jasper. And, I realized that this wasn’t a mystery book; or, rather, it didn’t matter whether I guessed things about it.

And, that’s all it took. A change of time, a different perspective, and a DNF becomes a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Leila Roy at Kirkus blog; Professor Nana; Guys Lit Wire; and Jasper Jones Reading Guide.

Review: Intentions

Intentions by Deborah Heiligman. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2012. Reviewed from eARC from NetGalley.

The Plot: Rachel is devastated when she overhears her Rabbi having sex with someone who is not his wife. Her parents’ arguments, she can deal with. Her grandfather’s death, she mourns. Her estrangement from her best friend, Alexis, she’s handling.

But her Rabbi? The man she looked up to and admired? Rachel had been the type of girl who liked going to the synagogue to learn more about her faith. Now, though, she is hurt and angry and distrustful. If a Rabbi cannot be trusted, who can? How can she believe in anything he taught her?

Distrusting what she was taught, Rachel begins to do and say things she never would have dreamt of doing or saying before.

The Good: Rachel is young and innocent at the start of Intentions, but the type of young and innocent who doesn’t know she is. Her faith in the Rabbi is like her faith in God: absolute. Trusting. Unquestioning.

Because she has faced some challenges — her parents’ fighting, grandfather’s death, grandmother’s erratic behaviour, Alex’s distance — she would have said she wasn’t young, or innocent, or naive. But none of those things, no matter the pain, involved betrayal; none involved seeing the clay feet of an idol. None destroyed how she saw the world. This, does. Rachel cannot confide in anyone, so keeps everything inside. She doesn’t tell anyone what she saw.

Rachel’s behaviour hurts herself and others; she ends up inflicting damage on Alexis as well as Jacob, the boy Rachel likes. It is not her intent to hurt them, just as it’s not the Rabbi’s intent to destroy Rachel’s faith. It’s not until Rachel harms others unintentionally that she can begin to handle what the Rabbi did. Here’s one of the things I liked about Rachel, or, rather, Rachel’s complexity: I don’t think this was the first time she hurt others. Alexis’s parents went through a difficult divorce, and since then the girls have not been close. Alexis shows anger at Rachel even before we see Rachel give her any reason to, which makes me think that Rachel failed Alexis without knowing it. Without knowing it. Intentions. This, then, is what Rachel is struggling with, what is the loss of her innocence: that even though we don’t intend to, what we do or don’t do impacts others. Her journey is not easy; Rachel does some things that made me angry. At one point I actually thought, rather meanly, “and you think of yourself as a good girl. Good girls don’t do that.”

No, they don’t.

That is the second thing Rachel is learning about: that it’s easy to think of oneself as “good” when hasn’t been tested. Rachel is tested and fails. I love that, because it’s a brave choice by the author. And it then made me think of myself, as a reader, that I judged Rachel that way.

One last thing: as I said, this begins with Rachel discovering, rather graphically, the Rabbi’s non marital activities. Without getting into spoilers, it turns out that some people knew what the Rabbi did, keeping it quiet, only whispering about it, so that some people don’t know. Those people who don’t know are all the more susceptible to the Rabbi. Secrecy: not good. Transparency: good. I found this “we all know and keep it a secret but we sometimes tell people so they know to be extra careful, oops too bad you didn’t know, know you do” so realistic that I got angry. This secrecy served to protect the Rabbi; it meant harm came to those wo weren’t connected enough to know the secret. Imagine the poor woman the Rabbi flirts with, who thinks she is special and it’s real, rather than that she is the latest in a string. Perhaps those keeping that secret don’t intend that type of harm, but it happens.

Review: The FitzOsbornes in Exile

The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the Montmaray Journals, Book II by Michelle Cooper. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to A Brief History of Montmaray; the final book is The FitzOsbornes at War. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie FitzOsborne and the rest of the royal family (cousin Veronica, 18; brother Toby, 18; sister Henrietta, 11; and friend/possible illegitimate cousin, Simon, 23) of Montmaray are now safely in England, living with Aunt Charlotte, following the events of A Brief History of Montmaray. In a nutshell: the Germans took over their small island home and the inhabitants of Montmaray fled to England.

England is full of parties and clothes and dances. No one wants to hear about a small island that was violently taken, no one wants to do anything other than remain at peace with the Germans.

The FitzOsbornes have lost their home; they are now royalty in exile. Aunt Charlotte’s good fortune to marry well means, well, they can depend on her large fortune to take care of them. Clothes, good food, servants — all are theirs. But what is the cost? Will they — like Charlotte — simply forget their home and heritage?

The Good:

The FitzOsbornes in Exile is a filler book, in a way, filling the gap between the loss of Montmaray in the first book and World War II. It turns out, of course, for the FitzOsbornes and for Europe, that the time period is hardly filler. Much happens.

A family tree at the front of the book is a helpful catch-up on the characters and their relationships to each other. Other than that, Cooper jumps right into the story. There is very little recap, and this falls under the category “best to read in order,” but primarily to understand the relationships between the characters and what happened that led to the loss of Montmaray.

The Montmaray siblings and cousins are refuges; foreigners in exile. The first half of the book is primarily the adjustment to this. Aunt Charlotte is wealthy, wealthy enough for a country house and a city house, lots of staff, and all the privilege that comes with being both rich and royal (she, herself, is a Princess Royal of Montmaray). Every now and then, Sophie flashes back to their near-poverty existence on Montmaray. It’s own country and monarchy, yes., but it’s a tiny island with little natural resources and a population destroyed by the loss of an entire generation of men during the Great War.

The siblings and cousins all have strong personalities, forged by the self-reliance needed to live on Montmaray as well as the isolation of the island. Veronica, no-nonsense and brilliant, robbed of an education because she’s a girl, who doesn’t allow that stop her. Sophie loves the good food and pretty dresses of her new life, as well as her freedom from drudgery (who wouldn’t?) but no heads are turned to a frivolous life.

The first half of the book is adjustment to Aunt Charlotte’s lifestyle, with Veronica and Sophie being introduced to Society — and failing miserably. Veronica doesn’t believe her only goal in life should be to marry well. Sophie is disappointed with how frivolous and shallow the other girls appear to be and is less than impressed with the young men who are the would-be suitors.

Cooper doesn’t rush the story; just like in real life, things take time and it takes awhile to find one’s footing. Sophie and the others have a new home and country to adjust to, as well as trying to figure out what they can do regain their home from the Germans. They may have titles, but it’s from a powerless nation. They don’t have money and are financially dependent on Aunt Charlotte. With the exception of Simon, who is a commoner with no connections or cash, they are teenagers.

I adore Sophie, as well as Veronica. These two are fantastic! The only reason I’m glad that the laws prohibit Veronica from inheriting is I’m not sure she’d do well with the politics needed to be a ruler; she sure has the knowledge and history and integrity. I’d follow both of them anywhere, in exile or not. Toby — Toby, to be honest, tries my patience. Picture Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited. His chief talent is charm. He charms people well, and I am charmed — until I remember that he is also the King of Montmaray and his carelessness doesn’t just affect him.

The only thing “alternate” about this alternate history is that Montmaray doesn’t exist. Cooper weaves the fictional Montmaray and FitzOsbornes into the real events of 1937 to 1939. It’s not just people — though, that happens, also, with Sophie meeting young Kathleen Kennedy. It’s also more nuanced, such as considering how the German occupation of Montmaray was practice for invasion.

War is coming, the reader knows this; but it’s still fun to escape into the gaiety and parties, as Sophie does, with the Upstairs/Downstairs/Downton Abbey vibe.

Montmaray and its peoples are so real to me that I worry, worry not just how they will survive the war years but also what will happen with Montmaray. Toby is king, and he’s gay. I love how accepting his family is, but this means there is no heir, right? Unless a son of one of the princesses can inherit? But even if they can, Montmaray was dying before it was lost. The FitzOsbornes are impressive, yet, but how can they revive this island?

I guess the fact that I’m concerned about a fictional island is a big giveaway: this is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Shelf Elf; Someday My Printz Will Come; whatch ya reading.

Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman. A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from NetGalley.  

The Plot: It started simply enough: a senior year independent study at the local college as a research assistant for a historian. Nora’s best friend, Chris, had done it the year before when he was a senior and he assured her it would be easy and fun, with the extra bonus of spending time with Chris, now a college freshman.

Professor Hoffpauer is obsessed with unlocking the secrets to “the Book,” the Voynich Manuscript, a book hundreds of years old that is written in code. “Historians, cryptographers, mathematicians, the NSA’s best code breakers gave it all they had, but the Voynich manuscript refused to yield.”

Nora is assigned a minor task: translating the Latin letters of Elizabeth Weston, written in the late sixteenth century. Weston was the step-daughter of Edward Kelley, an alchemist rumored to have broken the code.

Who would think a dusty volume and the letters of a long-dead girl would end in blood?

The Good:  If I’d known that my high school Latin class would lead to centuries old conspiracies, secret societies, and Prague, maybe I would have taken more than two years. Then again, it also leads to betrayal and murder, so maybe I’m just as well off not having become a translator of medieval manuscripts.

If I had to give an elevator pitch for this book, it would be Dan Brown meets Indiana Jones. A bunch of bright students use their knowledge of history and language to track down and discover ancient secrets, while trying to hide from secret societies with no qualms about killing to get what they want. (Except, I have to clarify: this is so much better written than Brown’s books.)

I fell for The Book of Blood and Shadow at the first sentence: “I should probably start with the blood.” Before she shares her own name, Nora tells us that “Chris will never be anything more than a corpse, . . . Adriane nothing but a dead-eyed head case,  . . . Max would be nothing but a void.”

Nora is a liar. Well, maybe not a liar, but rather, someone who withholds information. When she started at Chapman Prep as a scholarship student, she told people she was an only child. Chris knew her secret: her older brother had died several years before in a drunk driving accident, killing himself and a girl. Nora becomes best friends with Chris and his girlfriend, Adriane, yet they never visit her in at her house. They are both very close yet at arms length. In many ways, Nora is as full of secrets and hidden messages as the Book and letters she studies.

Nora is also a girl with few friends, but those friends she has mean the world to her. When those friends are threatened, it makes sense that Nora risks everything by going to Prague to get answers.

The letters that Nora studies are those of a teenage Elizabeth: Elizabeth’s father is dead, she is living in poverty while trying to regain her family’s property and position in court, she misses her brother and she is falling in love. Whether it’s because Nora knows what it’s like to live with secrets, or because she knows about grief, or about feeling alone, or has just begun to fall in love, she begins to identify with Elizabeth Weston.

Nora sweeps the reader into the story of how she began working on translating the Weston letters, of the friendship between herself, Chris, and Adriane, of falling in love with Chris’s roommate Max and, I confess, I forgot. I forgot the blood; or, rather, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was as shocked as Nora by the blood and broken bodies.

Nora isn’t stupid, and quickly realizes that there must be something more to the Book and the letters, something important, something worth killing for. Her pursuit of the truth, of who killed Chris, takes her to Prague. Prague is where Elizabeth Weston lived, and as her letters reveal, Weston herself knew the secrets of the Voynich manuscript and hid clues around Prague for her beloved brother to find.

Prague; even though this is a Prague of blood and murder and secrets and lies, Wasserman’s descriptions were such that I want to visit that city and see the ancient buildings.

Without being too spoilery, it turns out that the Book contains instructions to create the Lumen Dei, a machine that is a “miracle and it is [a] curse. It is bridge from human to divine. It is knowledge and power of God in the hands of man.” Two groups have sprung up around the Lumen Dei: the Hledaci, or “seekers,” who want the power of the Lumen Dei, and the Fidei Defensor, those who want to protect the world from the Lumen Dei. It is between these two groups of zealots that Nora finds herself, unsure of her role, not knowing which group killed Chris.

I’m afraid there isn’t much more I can tell, because part of the wonder of The Book of Blood and Shadow is the twists and turns it takes.

Because Nora was smart and brave. Because it makes Latin and history and learning and being smart cool and fun. Because it brings history alive. Because the Voynich manuscript, Edward Kelley and Elizabeth Weston are all real. Because I believed in Elizabeth’s own story so fully I forgot I only knew it through her own letters. Because now I want to go to Prague. Because Nora and her friends are a diverse cast of characters. Because it’s a standalone book. For all these reasons, The Book of Blood and Shadow is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.