Review: Mad Girl’s Love Song

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson. Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Personal copy. One of my “vacation reads” — books for the grown ups, reviewed around holidays, when you may want to take time off from reading young adult books.

It’s About: Sylvia Plath before she met Ted Hughes in 1956. Which means, a close examination of Plath’s childhood, college years, and first months in England.

The Good: I’m working my way through the 2013 books on Sylvia Plath; this past August I reviewed Pain, Parties, Work, about Plath’s New York City summer in 1953, before her suicide attempt. Mad Girl’s Love Song is a slightly broader look at Plath — the years before 1956 — and next I’ll be reading American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson. While I’m approaching these three books in a particular way — start small and focused and moving to books covering larger time periods — for those new to Plath’s biography and works, I’d recommend the opposite reading order.

So, Mad Girl’s Love Song! By focusing on the pre 1956 years, Wilson gets the chance to really dive into the details of Plath’s adolescence and college years — into what made Plath. It also creates a focus on certain aspects of Plath’s life that, I think, get lost in books that cover her entire life.

On the one hand, Plath had a privileged upbringing. She went to a terrific high school, and then a top college. She had opportunities and encouragement. From the start, she looked to publish her work and did publish.

On the other hand, the Plath family financial background was such that those things did not come easily. After Plath’s father died, her mother selected a town to move to based on both the school system and possible college opportunities. The family valued education, yes, but did not have money or any real connections. Part of her mother’s sacrifice in selecting the right, the perfect, town for her children was sharing a home with her own parents. The house they lived in was so small, that Plath and her mother shared a bedroom.

People can read things different ways — but being that family, the family where you share a room with a parent, with the working mother and grandfather — of course, Plath felt the pressure of expectation to make all these sacrifices worthwhile. As Mad Girl’s Love Song explores, Plath was aware of what was being done for herself, as well as her brother. She worried about money and finances. Yes, she had scholarships, but there was no margin of error in her college studies — scholarships could be lost. And, of course, being on scholarship at a prestigious school meant she was surrounded by those who were much more well off than she was. Plath was grateful and thankful and resentful.

Mad Girl’s Love Song also provides a look at the 1953 suicide attempt, and what lead up to it, and what happened after. The problem with looking at this time in Plath’s life is that, well, who knows what Plath’s current diagnosis would be? What does what we know now influence how we look at Plath’s life and actions? What are things she did or didn’t do because of her mental state, as opposed to the result of being a driven woman in a time that didn’t allow many avenues for female ambition?

As I said in my review of Pain, Parties, Work, I watch and read things set in the 1950s and think of Plath. Did you know that the fictional Betty Draper was born the same year as Plath? And like Plath, attended a Seven Sisters college?

I think of Betty (and think of Plath when I watch Mad Men) when I see and read about Plath’s romances. Her number of boyfriends and relationships, often overlapping, and what it meant within the context of the 1950s — it shows another side of her character that can be lost when the biography centers more on her life with her husband. How did Plath define herself and her world around her? And what does that have to do with the suicide attempt and her treatment? What about the push-pull of her world and her own desires, a world where the Betty Drapers were the success stories? And it’s all the more tricky because Plath documented so much, so well — but also presented different “selves” to different people, and no “one” presentation was the “real” one.

Which brings us to something else about Mad Girl’s Love Song. Sometimes, the biographies written just after a person dies are the most honest and raw because the memory is fresh. But, sometimes, there are still people who are being protected; there are people who are too close to the event and the person to even talk, let alone talk honestly. Time passes; Plath has now been dead for 50 years. Wilson includes much more detailed insight into Plath, from the people in her life, which I hadn’t read before.

Other reviews: The New York Times; The Telegraph; P. H. Davies.

 

Review: Aristotle and Dante

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR. 2012. Copy from library. Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: Summer, 1987. Angel Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is fifteen, and it’s the start of another lonely, hot summer in El Paso. Bored, he goes to the local swimming even though he can’t swim.

“I can teach you how to swim.”

With those words, Ari meets Dante Quintana, also fifteen. And makes a friend. In some ways they are opposites — Ari is quiet, Dante talkative and confident. But they make each other laugh.

Through ups and downs, good times and bad, even long distance, their friendship endures and grows. Ari still feels alone, though; and when Dante tells Ari that Dante prefers kissing boys, Ari isn’t sure what to do. Or how he feels. Or what he wants.

The Good: Another terrific selection by this year’s Printz committee!

Ari tells the story, and oh, Ari is so — alone. He has such barriers up. Why? He has parents who love him, yes, but his father, a Vietnam Vet, is not a talker and Ari craves communication. Perhaps that explains part of the reason he likes Dante, because Dante and his family are talkers and huggers.

Ari’s family holds secrets, secrets that are danced around. His father’s nightmares from Vietnam. Ari’s older brother, now in prison, whose name and crime are never mentioned. Other secrets are ones that Ari doesn’t even guess at, but the secrecy colors his life and is part of the reason Ari isolates himself.

Aristotle and Dante is not just about the friendship between young men; it’s also about family. And love. And acceptance. And connections. And good people trying to do the right thing. And it’s the power of meeting someone, and being known, and kissing, and holding hands.

I also loved the diversity in Aristotle and Dante; both boys are second or third generation Mexican American. Dante talks about not being as Mexican as Ari, because Dante’s skin isn’t as dark. Mentions are made about the amount of Spanish that is (or isn’t) spoken at home, food that is eaten. Dante is the only child of a college professor and a psychologist; Ari’s parents are a high school teacher and mailman, and Ari is the youngest of four with several nieces and nephews. So there is diversity in terms of the main characters being Mexican American, but also in terms of what being a “Mexican American” means.

Dante likes boys; this is shown gradually, over the course of the book, as Dante himself comes to realize it. I don’t want to get spoilery here, but — well, here’s the thing. Sometimes, I watch movies with my mother and she turns to me and she asks, “I don’t want to know how it happens, but will this have a good ending? Will it be OK for that character?” And so I won’t tell the details, and I won’t say it’s easy, but I’ll say — it’ll be OK for Ari. It’ll be OK for Dante. It’ll be more than OK. And when I cried at the end of this book, it was in part happy tears.

The secondary characters are also so fully drawn that even when they are on the page for only a short time, I feel like I know them. That they are as real as Ari and Dante; but of course, it is Ari and Dante, and especially Ari, that is known best. And oh, the quotes! Because this is Ari’s story, all are him talking. “But love was something heavy for me. Something I had to carry.” “When do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?” “Maybe I wanted too much.” How could I not love Ari?

One last thing. As the story of Ari’s older brother was gradually revealed, as well as the depth of the impact of his crime and loss on the family, I had some “well what about thoughts” about Bernardo. In book print in my reading journal, I have “BUT WHAT ABOUT BERNARDO??” written down. I sternly told myself, this is Ari’s story, don’t be so demanding as a reader. And then — and then — what Aristotle and Dante delivered to me. It was perfect.

The combination of language; Ari; Ari’s beautiful family; Dante; and the warmth and goodness and compassion, even in the presence of hate; for all of these, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Teach Mentor Texts; Librarian of Snark; SLJ author interview.

Review: Out of Reach

Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos. Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rachel, sixteen, is on a mission. To find her older brother, Micah. Micah, 18, is a meth addict. One night, he didn’t come home. When Rachel gets an email saying Micah is in Ocean Beach, an hour away, and in trouble, she prints it out and puts in a drawer. Waits a week, studies it, wonders if it’s a joke. Finally she tells Micah’s friend Tyler, who asks her — what is she going to do?

She’s going to go to Ocean Beach. See if she can find her brother and bring him home. Tyler comes along, and together, they will search the streets for Micah. What if she waited too long? What if she can’t find him?

The Good: Out of Reach takes place over the twenty-four hours that Rachel and Tyler go in search of Micah. During that time, Rachel thinks back on what has led her, what has led Micah, to this point.

The structure of this novel matters, because it is about such an intense subject matter: Micah’s addiction to meth. By showing his use only through Rachel’s flashbacks, Out of Reach keeps the focus on the true point of the story: not Micah, not meth, not addiction, but what addiction does to family members.

Arcos shows the complexity of Rachel’s feelings: wanting Micah home, but wanting a healthy, non-addict brother. Guilt over the delay in responding to the email, guilt over not telling her parents about Micah’s escalating drug use, guilt even over being the “good” daughter to Micah’s “bad” son. It’s not just guilt; it’s also anger. Rachel “decided that when we found Micah, I would ask him, ‘why?’ but no matter what answer he gave, I knew I’d still want to punch him in the face.”

Out of Reach shows the impact of Micah’s addiction on the rest of the family, but even then, the focus is tight: a day in Rachel’s life. In a way, this makes the tragedy of what has happened to the Stevens family easier to handle, because it is told by Rachel after the fact — after the use, after hearing that “Micah claimed he used as an artistic experience, saying that he connected with the universe when he was high,” after the rehab not paid by insurance, after discovering that Micah has spent his college fund on drugs. It doesn’t lessen what has happened to this family and Rachel, but it makes it a bit easier to handle because it’s all things Rachel already knows, has already processed. What Rachel hasn’t processed, and what this book is about, is realizing that physically and emotionally and mentally, Micah is “out of reach” of his family and nothing any of them do or say can change that.

Out of Reach is about Rachel emotionally and mentally processing the loss of her brother; this internal journey is shown via the external journal Rachel takes with Tyler, driving to Ocean Beach and going street by street, block by block, looking for a trace or sign of Micah. She takes this journey with a good friend of Micah’s. This provides the tentative romance, more light flirting than anything else. It doesn’t detract from the seriousness of what is going on with Micah — rather, it is another external example of the internal road to healing and wholeness that Rachel is on. It’s OK to have have feelings for a guy, to have an ice cream cone, even if her brother is missing, even if her brother is addicted.

I can see why this is a National  Book Award finalist: the tight plotting, the careful balance of showing the horror of what Micah’s addiction without having Micah’s journey and story take over his sister’s story, Rachel’s’ own journey in processing what Micah means to her and what his loss has done to her. This is Arcos’s debut novel, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on the Morris shortlist.

Review: Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rownie is one of “grandchildren” of the witch, Graba, children she’s collected to run her errands. His mother is dead; his older brother, Rowan, brought Rownie to Graba knowing the shelter she offered was better than nothing. Now Rowan is missing, and Rownie is looking everywhere for him.

Rowan was an actor, something illegal in the town of Zombay. When Rownie finds an acting troupe made up of goblins, he finds out that they knew Rowan. Can the goblins help him find Rowan? What causes a human to change into a goblin? And will Graba let Rownie go?

The Good: One of the good things about reading the National Book Award Finalists after they’ve been announced is that I read from a place of, “why this book? what made this special?” It also makes me read outside my “same old, same old.” The bulk of my reading is usually young adult, so it was nice to be pushed into reading a middle grade book for younger readers.

With Goblin Secrets, quite a few things made my list for “why.”

There is the world building in Goblin Secrets: and what a world! There is magic and science. Graba is a witch, with gearwork legs shaped like chicken’s legs. She uses magic to move her house around. (I know! A twist on Baba Yaga!) Goblins were once human, and now that they are changed operate under different rules than humans. Humans acting is disallowed, both because it is frowned upon to pretend to be something you are not but also because there is real power in wearing a mask. Rowan was discovering that power, and it may be the reason he is now missing. Perhaps, overall, what I liked best about Goblin Secrets was its mix of familiarity (goblins and witches and curses) and originality (coal made from hearts, gearwork legs and soldiers, dangerous pigeons). I’m reminded of the books I loved as a child, the ones that gave me enough for my imagination to wander in the world even after the story was done.

The magic — this is a magic both real and magic created by belief. Yes, when Rownie puts on a mask he feels different and acts different and there is power. But it’s not perfect power: at one point, Rownie loses that magic when being pursued: “the charm was broken. The Grubs had broken it with a look and a smirk, without even trying.” What at first seems to be just a quirk in a fairy tale (acting is outlawed) turns out to be have more serious and sinister meaning. Not everything is explained; it’s Rownie’s world, and things are the way they are.

And Rownie: finally, Rownie, who Gaba says is eight but Rownie himself is sure he is closer to ten. So young, to be practically on his own. Living with Graba means a roof over his head, and errands to run, but it doesn’t mean food or comfort. His brother was all Rownie. The adventures he goes on once he meets up with the goblins: the risks of illegal acting, hiding from Graba, running from her “Grubs” (her “grandchildren”), saving the city of Zombay. I can easily picture him running through the streets as his oversized coat billows out behind him.

I said “finally” and I lied. As I put this review aside for a few days, different parts of the book came back to me. The other characters, from Rownie’s “sister” Vass who is being taught to be a witch by a witch jealous of any competition; and the goblins themselves, full of secrets and knowledge: Patch, Semele, Essa, Thomas, Nonny. The plays and the masks; the town and the river. A real ending, not a start of a trilogy. An examination of family: brothers Rowan and Rownie; Graba’s “grandchildren”; the goblins.

Other reviews and links: Enchanted Inkpot interview; Heavy Medal review; The Book Smugglers; the book website.

Review: Black Heart

Black Heart (The Curse Workers, Book Three) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Book One: White Cat. Book Two: Red Gloves.

Spoilers for first two books.

The Plot: Cassel Sharpe, 17, couldn’t stay out of trouble if he wanted to. (Now that’s a question; given his talents, his family, and his background, does he want to?)

The Feds are forgiving his past crimes if he works for them, using his unique talent as a transformation worker, someone who can transform whatever he touches.

His mother is in big trouble with the local crime boss, and all will be forgiven if Cassel does him one little favor. Cassel knows there is no such thing as one favor. It’s complicated by the fact that neither the mob nor the feds can now he’s working for the other. Oh, and another thing — the crime boss just happens to be the father of the girl Cassel loves.

Just to make things all that more simple — not — Cassel has to worry about his senior year in high school. Classes, avoiding demerits, friends, and a possible blackmail scheme.

It’s all in a day’s work for someone with a black heart like Cassel.

The Good: Black Heart is the third book in the trilogy about “case workers,” an alternate world that looks a lot like ours with one simple twist: curse workers. People who, with a touch of a finger, can kill you — or erase your memory — make you fall in love — or, in Cassel’s case, transform.

In the first two books, Cassel discovers his particular gift and realizes he has to make a choice about his future. Black Heart explores Cassel’s need to choose and what that means; and the ties, both blood and friendship and love, that link him to other people and what those ties mean about his future.

Black creates a flawless world, full of such tiny details as a society that always wears gloves so that a naked hand is more shocking than a naked body, to bigger issues such as the impact of the criminalization of people based on genetics beyond their control.

Are the feds the good guys and the mob the bad guys? Are curse worker by their nature criminals?

Cassel’s mother worked a politician, and it ended badly, with repercussions large and small. Is the only way to fix it to kill the politician? Will Cassel do that? Meanwhile, Cassel’s mother stole something from someone very powerful. Problem is, this happened years and years ago. Will Cassel be able to hunt through his family’s shady past, a mix of lies and truths and rearranged facts, to find the missing object?

Cassel narrates, and, as with the others, his observations and delivery are delightful. On love: “Lila would still be mine. Mine. The language of love is like that, possessive. That should be the first warning that it’s not going to encourage anyone’s betterment.”

Cassel on how he was raised to be able to con anyone, regardless of curse magic: “Mom taught it to me when I was ten. Cassel, she said, you want to know how to be the most charming guy anyone’s ever met? Remind them of their favorite person. Everyone’s favorite person is their own damn self.”

As with the previous books, Cassel appears to share everything with the reader, but holds back somethings. Not only is the book a con — a con of the reader — isn’t any book? At one point, Cassel thinks about someone, “she’s kind. She’s good. She wants to help people, even people that she shouldn’t.  . . . It’s easy to take advantage of her optimism, her faith in how the world should work. . . . . When I look into Mrs. Wasserman’s face, I know that she’s a born mark for this particular kind of con.” Later as he listens to something his brother is telling him: “the story he’s telling adds up . . . . Barron’s story is messy, full of coincidences and mistakes. As a liar myself, I know that the hallmark of lies is that they are simple and straightforward. They are reality the way we wish it was.”

Aren’t writers con artists, and readers the mark? Happy marks, happy to be born that way, because we want the story, we want the story to work, we want to like what we read. We enter into a bargain with the author: tell me lies, and I’ll believe them to be true.

If you’re one of those people who waits until it’s complete to read and buy a series, you have a new set of covers. If you aren’t, you have a cool thing to explain to people who look at your shelves and wonder about the change. And, if you wait till a series is over to make sure it’s worth investing the time: yes, this series is worth it and then some. Black Heart nicely wraps up the most important questions in Cassel’s journey, yet doesn’t answer every question or resolve every little thing. I could easily see a new series (possibly even a for-adults series) set in this world.

Other reviews: Sonderbooks; Ex Libris; Q&A with the author at Novel Novice (Part One, Two, Three).

Review: Every Little Thing In The World

Every Little Thing In The World by Nina de Gramont. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division. 2010. Library copy.

The Plot: Sydney Biggs, sixteen, is a good girl. That’s what she tells herself. She also tells herself that her mother is over-reacting about Sydney and her friend Natalia “borrowing” Natalia’s parents’ car to go to a party, despite both girls being grounded. And there was the time she pretended to be at Natalia’s and stayed overnight at her ex-boyfriend’s. And her mother’s reaction to Sydney’s grades slipping is a bit over the top. What else is Mom over-reacting about? Sydney quitting the swimming team. And sneaking away to spend a weekend with Natalia, Natalia’s boyfriend, and Sydney’s kind-of boyfriend.

Sydney’s divorced parents are disappointed and angry, and that’s why Syd now finds herself spending a month at Camp Bell Wilderness Adventure, canoeing in the wilderness.

Actually, Sydney doesn’t mind. A month away from her parents? A month away from the not-quite boyfriend? A month to not have to think about anything?

A month to not have to think about being pregnant?

If her parents are unhappy with staying out late, drinking, and lying, imagine how they’d feel if they found out she’s pregnant.

The Good: Every Little Thing In The World is a sensitive, thoughtful look at young teen facing a difficult decision. What should she do about her pregnancy? For Sydney, going away to Camp Bell is the perfect escape, rather than the punishment her mother thought it would be. Things get more complicated than she wants when her best friend, Natalia, comes along. Yes, Natalia is her best friend; but Natalia has her own issues and secrets to work through. Syd knows that any help or advice Natalia offers is based on Natalia’s own hopes and fears, rather than what Sydney wants or needs.

Sydney comes from a complicated place, and one of the things I adored about this book is none of those complications were fixed. Her life is messy, and it remained messy. Her mother, hurt by her divorce and struggling to make ends meet, is not as warm or open as she once was. Her father is so tied up in living the “perfect” life with his new family that he doesn’t see the damage he inflicts on those around him. Syd’s the poor girl at a rich private school, and Sydney is well aware that she is the only one at her school who doesn’t have nice clothes or endless spending money. The reader realizes well before Sydney that Sydney’s problem is not a pregnancy: it’s being too passive in her own life from fear of disappointing those around her. She had sex with someone without using a condom, because she was afraid of what he’d think of her for asking. She’s content for Natalia to always be the star, and to get the boys Natalia isn’t interested in.

Camp Bell becomes a place where Sydney can assert herself; not just in what will happen to her body and this pregnancy, but also in her own future, in creating new patterns and ways of being.

I have one mini-rant. I truly despised Syd’s father. Okay, maybe despise is to big a word. When Sydney was young, he became obsessed with eating healthier. The obsession grew and mutated into other areas, such as a conviction that oil will soon run out resulting in the culture crumbling. Sydney, a young teen when she first heard this, had such bad nightmares that visitation was temporarily ended.

Sydney, musing on her stepmother and mother: “Kerry still spent half the day doing what my mother had gotten divorced to avoid: making elaborate, organic meals from scratch. They were never ready when my father walked through the door, and he always heaved a sigh of disappointment at the the world’s inability to measure up to his high ideals.” Kerry, who before her three children in three years had been a trim athlete, now weighs almost two hundred pounds, a form of rebellion against her husband’s “high ideals.” Is her father realistic? Yes. I still wanted Kerry to pick up her kids and leave, to do something about her youngest’s permanent diaper rash, or to at least stop hiding her secret stash of “forbidden” food.

Let’s add this on a positive note. The canoeing group involves eight teens (four girls, four boys) and two counselors. I love the relationships that develop between Syd and her fellow campers. Yes, there is a cute boy who Sydney likes and who likes Sydney. Sydney’s growth isn’t just internal; it’s shown in how she interacts with others. And that cover? That is Sydney by the end of the book: strong and confident, becoming her own person.

Other Reviews: Stacked; Steph Su Reads.

Review: Drink Slay Love

Drink Slay Love by Sarah Beth Durst. Margaret M. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Meet Pearl. She’s a typical sixteen year old vampire: sleeps all day. Fond of blood. Has a charming, handsome boyfriend named Jadrien — of course he’s a vampire. Humans are food. She lives with her Family; her parents (Pearl was born a vampire of vampire parents), aunts, uncles, cousins. And then, she gets staked. By a horn. A unicorn’s horn. Suddenly, she can walk in the sun. And humans start looking like something more than food. How can she make friends with humans, when to her Family, they’re dinner?

The Good: Oh, Pearl. When introduced to Pearl, she’s like something out of a teen vampire TV show, with handsome boyfriend, black leather clothes, an attitude to match and a fondness for ice cream. Well, actually, humans who have just eaten ice cream.

Durst has created a whole, original culture for her vampires. The Vampire King of New England is coming to town, and Pearl’s family has to provide the entertainment and refreshments. How to meet the blood needs of such a large group? Why, if Pearl can walk in the sun she can go to high school. What better place to find potential meals? What I liked most about the vampire culture in Drink Slay Love was the cruelty and violence. As the name suggests, as well as the killer unicorn, there is humor, fun, adventure, and love. But there is also violence; this is a vampire novel, after all. Vampires drink human blood; vampire hunters slay vampires.

The violence is not explicit, but it’s there, and I loved the way it was handled. Let’s put it this way: vampires aren’t afraid to dish out the violence, which means they aren’t afraid to take it. Pearl’s “norm” includes not just physical training and sparring that leaves even super strong vampires feeling battered, but also punishments. Going to high school were punishment is talking to a counselor is almost laughable.

The unicorn stabbing the vampire . . . . I won’t say where this goes. Pearl’s Family doesn’t believe she was attacked by a unicorn because unicorns aren’t real. Pearl knows better and tries to track down the unicorn to show her family. I don’t want to give this part away, but well played, Sarah Beth Durst. Well played indeed.

Often, young adult books are coming of age.  Pearl’s coming of age has a twist: she’s coming of age as a vampire (literally, with a Fealty Ceremony where vampires drink each other’s blood and swears oaths of allegiance), but also she’s be-coming, becoming more of a human. Drink Slay Love is both Pearl’s progress from thinking, believing and acting like a vampire to something that, while not human, is less vampiric. At the same time, Drink Slay Love is action filled; the Vampire King is coming, Pearl’s job is to arrange the feast, plus she’s preparing for the Fealty Ceremony, then there’s hunting for the unicorn, all while attending high school for the first time.

Review: Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Atheneum Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Library copy. Morris Award Short List.

The Plot: Some things don’t come back; like Cullen’s cousin Oslo, dead from an overdose. Some things may come back, like the woodpecker that people believed was extinct until one self-important and pr-savvy professor came to town. In the town of Lily, Arkansas, eager, dream filled teens leave town, sure of bigger and better things that await them, and return because of heart break or sick parents or accidents. Lily, where things come back . . . . sometimes.

Will Cullen’s missing younger brother be one of those things that come back?

The Good: I confess; despite the many good things I’d heard about this books, from people like Kelly Jensen and Jen Hubert Swan, I didn’t put it on my to be read list because — and I cannot believe I’m admitting to this evidence of shallowness —  I didn’t like the cover.

First things first. How much did I love this book? It made me totally rearrange my scheduled blog posts, shifting a bunch of posts, in order to post this book in 2011 so I could call this a Favorite Book Read in 2011 (oops, spoilers, sweetie!) and then go revise my blog posts about my favorite books to add Where Things Come Back and finally to shift those favorite posts from the last week of 2011 to the first week of 2012. I know Sondy understands, that a favorite list isn’t done until the last day of the year happens so I shouldn’t have even tried to post them in 2011.

Where Things Come Back starts in a morgue, with seventeen year old Cullen identifying the body of his older cousin, Oslo. Cullen’s family and friends are introduced, a small circle of people in a small town. This is, at first, what Where Things Come Back seems to be about: small town boy coming of age. Strangely, another story is introduced, about a young man, Benton Sage, on a mission in Ethiopia a story that seems to have nothing to do with Cullen. On page 55, Where Things Come Back shifts: Cullen’s younger brother, Gabriel, disappears. It becomes a story of the loss of Gabriel, the search for him, but is also the story of how Cullen’s life goes on, because that is what happens. It is not just that the clocks don’t stop; it is that life is not so uncluttered that all else fades away and disappears along with the lost one. This is the first reason I love this book: Cullen’s life is full and messy and complicated. His reactions, his parents, are jagged and not linear.

Cullen’s brother is missing. And this is the second reason that I love this book: the mystery of Gabriel’s disappearance. That it isn’t introduced until over fifty pages in, and at only 228 pages, that means that almost a quarter of the book has gone by. An interesting choice; and one that allows the reader to know Cullen “before.” Or, rather, “during.” Cullen is another reason why Where Things Come Back is a favorite book read: Cullen, with his close relationships with a handful of people, his girlfriend issues, his anger that the town spends more time looking for the lost woodpecker than his lost brother.

When and why this story is being told is another strength of this book: just enough for the reader to know it’s not “now.” There is Dr. Webb, who says such things as “most people see the world in bubbles.” Who is he, when is Cullen talking about him? When is this taking place — the clues of this being in the past are few and far between, such as “the president can’t pronounce ‘nuclear’“. “I was still trying to figure out who I was back then.”

Zombies. At certain times, Cullen imagines life as a zombie movie. “His mind begins to wander and think about zombies.” At first, it’s simple day dreaming, making himself the hero in a zombie movie. Later, as he fears the worst, that Gabriel is dead because Gabriel wouldn’t run away, zombies become less about escapism and more about fears and nightmares.

Remember Benton Sage? How and why Benton matters to Cullen is ultimately revealed, and I gasped out loud when I realized the link between the two stories. No, really — I had been making a few guesses as the story progressed and Benton’s saga took some turns, but where it went . . . I didn’t see it coming.

Because of how much I enjoyed this book; because of the complexity of Cullen’s loss and grieving; because I’ve reread the ending a half dozen times; and because I’ve been searching for other reviews, looking for insights and analysis; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: This Dark Endeavor

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by Luke Daniels. Review copies from publisher.

The Plot: Victor Frankenstein, the teenage years. What made the boy into a man who was driven to create the monster?

The Good: Confession: I’ve never read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I’ve read the comics, watched the movies. That’s all you need, really, before reading This Dark Endeavor, but something tells me I would have gotten more out of the book had I been more familiar with Frankenstein. The “more,” though, is not anything about plot or character or writing; all those are independent of reading the original. Rather, I image that there were slight asides, references that I didn’t fully appreciate, but, didn’t miss because I didn’t know to miss them.

This Dark Endeavor delves into just what motivated young Frankenstein. Victor has a twin brother, Konrad, older by a few minutes, but those moments are enough to make Konrad the golden child, the one everyone loves, the one who gets everything easily: the better student, the better fencer, the one all the servants love. The one their cousin Elizabeth loves. Victor’s feelings towards his brother are conflicted. He loves Konrad, is devoted to him, but is also jealous of all Konrad has and all Konrad is. When Konrad falls ill, Victor resolves to be the one to save him. It’s as much about saving Konrad as proving himself worthy; proving that he, Victor, is just as good — if not better — than his brother.

Since Victor is only a teen, how can he save his brother? His wealthy father has hired the best doctors available, how can Victor compete with this?

Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth made a discovery in the Chateau Frankenstein: a secret room, both library and laboratory, created by a long ago ancestor who practiced alchemy. Their common-sense father forbids them to enter the secret room, but Victor becomes convinced that somewhere in there is the secret to saving Konrad.

Victor’s search drives the novel, and it’s a fast paced, exciting, exhilarating adventure. Victor has to do many things, from research in the library to translating old books, from the highest points to the deepest caves. Sacrifices are made, all to save Konrad. Elizabeth and a friend, Henry, participate in the search. Elizabeth is gutsy and brave; and, unfortunately for Victor, in love with Konrad. Henry is the poet of the group, and maybe it was Victor’s retelling but sometimes Henry seemed too aware of his role as the one who is excitable and emotional. Listening to this on audio made for a very exciting commute, with breathless adventure after breathless adventure.

The alchemy that Victor practices is more scientific than magical. For some things, it was if the alchemists Victor studied had just enough medical and scientific information to suspect the proper way to treat something. Seen through the modern reader’s eyes, Victor’s alchemy seems little different, if not slightly better, than the medicine practiced by the specialist doctors his father consults.

Victor doesn’t flatter himself. He shows his flaws, especially his jealousy and quick temper.

While it’s hard for me to say that Oppel captures the style of Shelley’s writing because I haven’t read the original, This Dark Endeavor, like Monstrumologist and the Octavian Nothing books, sounds like it was written in the time it was set yet remains accessible.

Over at Someday My Printz Will Come, Sarah looks at This Dark Endeavor through the lens of the Printz, pointing out strengths and flaws. At The Book Smugglers, Thea said it’s one of her favorite books this year.

Because Victor’s voice is compelling. Because his choices took me on a breathless adventure. Because This Dark Endeavor was both an extended game and a literary wonder. Because its made me want to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 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.