The Book Adept

Enchanting

Did I mention that I can’t resist a book with ravens, crows, or other corvids? Or a book that features an artist or painter? I found one that incorporates both, and bought it mostly based on its title and cover: An Enchantment of Ravens, by Margaret Rogerson.

The story in brief: Isobel is a portrait painter who lives in Whimsy, a town outside of time (it’s always summer there, the seasons never change) because it is adjacent to Faerie and the “fair folk” like to wander the town in their avid pursuit of what they call “Craft,” which is anything creative made by human hands. Faerie don’t “do” Craft—in fact, if they take up a pen, a brush, a sewing needle, they crumble to dust. So they are eternally fascinated by its expression, and will pay in valuable enchantments.

Although she has made many portraits of and for the fair folk, Isobel’s most esteemed patron is Gadfly, who seems particularly smitten with himself and for whom she has painted multiple pictures. One day Gadfly tells her he has recommended her to Rook, the autumn king, who wishes a portrait. This flusters Isobel, because of his rank and because he hasn’t been seen in a hundred years. But he turns out not to be so intimidating (although definitely self-regarding), and while painting him, Isobel and he develop an affinity for one another, although it is far stronger on Rook’s part than it is on Isobel’s. She knows better than to fall in love with a member of the fair folk—that would be to break the “Good Law,” and there are two choices after the law is broken: Death to both faerie and human, or the human drinks from the Green Well and becomes a faerie herself. Since she desires neither, she protects her heart and remains wary.

As she paints Rook’s portrait, however, she struggles for the first time with a likeness, and when she finally solves the problem, she has inadvertently painted human sorrow in the eyes of the autumn king. He is so incensed by this that he drags her off to his court to stand trial for this crime, and that’s the beginning of their adventure together.

I enjoyed reading the first part of this story quite a bit: The details of the painting were realistically rendered, and the banter between Isobel and her clients was entertaining, as were her behind-the-scenes thoughts and her back story. I gave a big sigh as I continued, however, because I thought to myself, This is going to turn into a typical mushy YA romance—they will probably fall in love and it will end disappointingly.

I was pleased and relieved to discover myself mistaken: Isobel has a lot more to her than do most YA heroines, and she sees her adventure with Rook as a task to endure and complete with the goal of getting back to her foster mother, Emma, and her twin “sisters,” March and May (they were formerly goat kids, turned into girls by a drunken fair one and adopted by Emma and Isabel). It is her stubborn resolution that saves her (and sometimes Rook) from misadventure for a good part of the book.

I won’t reveal more of the story; I will only say that while parts were predictable fairy tale trope, most of it is fresh and not typical. See for yourself—it’s not a long read, and I found it entertaining.

If you like it, you might also enjoy The Bride’s Farewell, by Meg Rosoff; Far, Far Away, by Tom McNeal; or Reckless, by Cornelia Funke, all of which are different from one another but share the quality of quirky original fairy tale with An Enchantment of Ravens.

Serendipity

In the days that seem longer ago than five months, my habit was to browse library shelves, picking up the books that caught my eye and taking them home perhaps based on the cover, or the description on the flap, or the chance reading of an elegant sentence from a randomly selected page. Achieving serendipity is much harder when you are purposefully searching a catalog, or “browsing” on a vendor’s website. If you don’t know what you are looking for, then a catalog is pretty useless, unless you happen upon something as a result of searching for something else; and vendors’ websites have their own perils, since they are designed, above all else, to sell.

So when I happen upon a book, buy it because I was arrested by the title, and discover that it is “all that” and more, I celebrate Serendipity in all her happy godlike majesty. Such was the case with She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. I was attracted to the title because I had just finished reading Charlaine Harris’s Gunnie Rose books and this title echoed of “Western” and female empowerment and freedom, and also most likely because my favorite character of Harris’s (albeit in another series) is named Harper. It was a discounted selection on bookoutlet.com, so the expense didn’t stop me; and it was an unassuming, fairly short little book, that I could happily squeeze in between the fat fantasies that are my usual fare. It also turned out to be the Edgar Award-winner for Best First Novel of 2018.

I’m so glad I picked it up. The theme seems an unlikely one to say you “enjoyed”: Nate McCluskey, recently freed from prison a few years early on a technicality, is under death sentence by a gang called Aryan Steel. (They wanted him to work for them on the outside, and they didn’t take it well when he said “no.” The man who tried to convince him and came out second best—i.e., dead—was the brother of the gang leader.) Not only did they put a contract on him, but they also decreed death to his family, which consists of an ex-wife and an 11-year-old daughter, Polly. So Nate shows up at Polly’s school and whisks her away before anyone can notice, including her mother who, with her second husband, is already lying dead in the family home. The rest is a saga, albeit short, about how Nate and Polly evade both the bad guys and the police and try to find a way to survive, free of fear, somewhere out there in the future.

The narrative is spare, told in third person but alternating between Nate’s and Polly’s points of view, and for that reason it becomes all the more engaging, because the author knows how to change it just that little bit to make it feel like the character in question. And the imagery is occasionally so beautiful! Nate believes that if he (“they,” says Polly) makes it painful to have Nate around in revenge mode, perhaps Aryan Steel will lift the bounty on Polly and he can send her away somewhere anonymous to grow up. So they begin by trapping someone who will tell them some of the gang’s biggest operations, and then they show up at the house where the largest methamphetamine stash is hidden in the coat closet, and take both their revenge and the meth. Afterwards, Polly thinks about the evening and looks in the mirror:

She was glad that her dad had hurt the man who had looked at her like that, and she felt bad for feeling good. It seemed when she was a kid she only ever felt one thing at once. She could be happy or sad but she’d only be that one thing. Now she never felt only one thing. It was like walking wearing two different-sized shoes. Nothing was ever level or smooth.

The evolution of Polly into a little badass is poignant and also frightening, both to the reader and to her father; while he teaches her to be tough, showing her choke holds and coaching her in boxing, when she puts his teachings to good use, the new person looking out of pale blue eyes so like his own gives him the willies. The narrative strengthens as it goes, mostly because the author doesn’t just recount the difficulties the pair endures in their quest to stay hidden but also lethal, he also lets the reader watch as the connection between them as father and daughter—not strong to begin with, since Polly hadn’t seen her father since she was almost too young to remember—grows, solidifies, and turns into something palpable. The other feature that proves engaging is Polly’s stuffed bear: Yes, she knows that eleven is too old to carry around a stuffed animal, but Polly treats him more like a ventriloquist’s dummy than a cuddly toy, and uses him both to express the innermost feelings she can’t bring herself to voice and to disarm people. It’s pretty hilarious to see a weathered ex-con gang leader react first with surprise and then with engagement to the pantomimes of a teddy bear in the hands of a girl who is turning into a consummate con artist right before your eyes.

This was a powerful book, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller. It has everything you would want; even more amazing that it’s a first novel. I look forward to see what’s next from Jordan Harper, if he can pull this off on his first try.

Making note of the “readalike” component: I would liken Harper’s narrative style and sense of drama to that of Peter Heller, though his sentences aren’t as choppy; and another book that comes to mind that you might like if you enjoyed this one is Canary, by Duane Swierczynski.

The Dog Days of Summer

Yes, indeed they are, in California. Unrelentingly hot and humid, not to mention smoky…

So many idioms, positive and negative, in our eclectic language, relating to dogs!

     “Going to the dogs.”
          “Sick as a dog.”
               “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
                    “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
                         (and its opposite) “There’s life in the old dog yet.”
                              “Dog in a manger.”
                                   “A dog-eat-dog world.”

They go on and on. But the one appropriate to this blog post is:

Every dog will have its day.


Why? Because it’s National Dog Day!

In celebration of that, you could read and enjoy a book about a dog! There are many from which to choose, encompassing the preferences of all ages and popping up in all genres. Here are a few suggestions…

FICTION

Just Life, by Neil Abramson
Here is my review: https://bookadept.com/2020/02/04/empathy/

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
On the eve of his death, Enzo, a terrier/lab mutt, reflects back on his life. A philosophical dog, Enzo believes that he will be reincarnated as a human, so he has spent much of his life closely observing his human, Denny, and the rest of his family, so that he will have a head start in his next life. Charming, sad, insightful.

Suspect, by Robert Crais   
In this departure from his Elvis Cole series by this popular mystery author, Crais examines the relationship between two broken cops, one a person, the other a dog. Scott is an LAPD cop with PTSD, trying to recover from a violent assault in which his partner, Stephanie, was murdered. Maggie is a sniffer dog, formerly with the Marines, who lost her handler to an IED and is equally traumatized. Eight months later, the two are paired as Scott tries out for the K9 unit as a way to stay on the job. [mystery]

The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams   
This is a tough one to read, heart-wrenching and tragic in parts, but so beautifully written. It’s the story of two dogs who escape from the horrors of a medical testing laboratory, and attempt to learn to live in the wilderness with the help of a fox named Tod, after the lab puts out a public alert that these dogs may be carrying bubonic plague. Find out what happens to Snitter and Rowf.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski   
A young mute boy and his family happily live and work on their Wisconsin farm that they have turned into a dog-breeding kennel. Then the incursion of an ill-intentioned relative and a personal tragedy send the boy running away into the Wisconsin backwoods with three loyal dogs he helped raise. This seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate…which will you be?

Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo   
India Opal Buloni, 10, is sent to the market (the Winn-Dixie, a southern supermarket chain) by her father, the preacher, for two tomatoes, a box of macaroni and cheese, and a bag of white rice. She comes back with a dog. The inadvertent acquisition of Winn-Dixie (the name she gives the dog in a moment of panic when she claims him for her own) helps Opal befriend a quirky group of locals, and also to deal with the loss of her mother, who left when Opal was three. A Newbery Honor Book. [children’s fiction]

NONFICTION

Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck   
In September of 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a road trip in his pickup truck, Rocinante, accompanied by his distinguished French poodle, Charley. It was a quest to reacquaint himself with the flavor of the country’s identity. Given the decade in which this autobiographical work was written and lived, the identity (at least in the southern portion of the trip) was tumultuous. But it’s also a thoughtful firsthand account of the beauty of the country and the character of its varied people.

Travels with Casey, by Benoit Denizet-Lewis   
America has the highest rate of dog ownership in the world. Denizet-Lewis, secretly insecure that his dog, Casey, didn’t like him, decided to explore both his personal relationship with his own dog and the relationships of other Americans with theirs by taking a four-month, 32-state, 13,000 mile trip in a rented motor home, interviewing dogs and their owners in every setting and profession. This Steinbeck-lite journey is entertaining and often hilarious.

Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty   
A poet celebrates the 16 years he shared with his two beloved dogs, Arden and Beau, during a period of devastating personal and human tragedy. Beautiful and sad.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean   
Allegedly found in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel in France during World War I, then brought to Los Angeles by Lee Duncan, the soldier who found and trained him, by 1927 Rin Tin Tin had become a Hollywood star. Orlean researched both the dog and the legend; her book spans 90 years and explores both dogs and Hollywood.

The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare     
A scientific study of how dogs think (and their genius at getting along with people). What motivates your dog, and how much has he learned through cohabitation with you? “Dognition” has some surprising aspects!

POETRY

The Trouble with Poetry, and Other Poems, by Billy Collins
Not all of the poems in this book are about dogs, but the ones that are…are not to be missed.

Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver
“But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also the good attachments of that origin that we keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.”

Please note that this list is not necessarily “the best” (who decides that, anyway?) and by no means complete; it is an eclectic sampling of all sorts of books about dogs, from every viewpoint (including their own), but there are hundreds more. Just Google “best books about dogs” or search for lists on Goodreads and you’ll see what I mean!

If your inclination on National Dog Day is to go beyond the act of reading a book, here are some other ideas:

  • Adopt a dog
  • If you can’t adopt, volunteer at a dog shelter or rescue organization
  • If you can’t volunteer, donate to one
  • If you’re broke, you can still give old towels and blankets
  • Help out an ill or elderly neighbor by walking his or her dog
  • On a lighter note, have a party for your dog, or go for a long walk in a new place

If nothing else, greet the dogs you meet along the way today with a hearty “Happy Dog Day!”

What? You say you’re a cat person? Then here’s a final read…

Dog vs. Cat, by Chris Gall

Bringing closure (not really) to history’s greatest battle…



Magical realism?

I greatly enjoy magical realism, that kind of story where everything seems perfectly normal except for that one exceptional element that steps outside the boundaries of everyday life. I recently picked up Midnight at the Blackbird Café, by Heather Webber, and by the end of the book I was wishing that both the magic and the realism for which the book is touted had been a bigger part of it, because this book, while in some places magical, is not realism: It’s a cozy.

Not to say that the magical elements felt tacked on—on the contrary, they were the most compelling elements. The most charming part of the narrative, for me, was when the story flashed back to the grandmother, Zee, telling the legend of the blackbirds to her granddaughter, Anna Kate. After Anna Kate’s mother made Zee promise not to talk about the blackbirds, Zee kept to the letter of the law, but that didn’t stop her from sharing their heritage in stories:

Once upon a time there was a family of Celtic women with healing hands and giving hearts, who knew the value of the earth and used its abundance to heal, to soothe, to comfort. Doing so filled their souls with peace and happiness. Those women held a secret. The women are guardians of a place where, under midnight skies, spirits cross from this world through a mystical passageway to the Land of the Dead. The tree keepers, black as twilight…came from overseas a century ago, drawn to a small southern town. There, a passageway is marked with large twin trees. Where their branches meet and entwine, a natural tunnel is formed—and at midnight, that tunnel spans this world and the heavenly one. Twenty-four keepers, black as twilight.

The basic story is this: In Wicklow, Alabama, there is a café, always run by women from the same heritage, where eating a piece of pie can give you a dream in which you receive a communication from a dead loved one. Out behind the café, behind its garden filled with herbs and vegetables, are twin mulberry trees, and from between these trees, at midnight each night, come 24 female blackbirds, who perch on the trees and sing until 1:00 a.m. and then leave the way they came. The trees, the bird, the women’s bloodline, and the pies are all somehow mystically entwined.

Anna Kate has returned to town to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café. She was planning a quick trip to sell the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but Granny Zee’s will contained conditions, among them that Anna Kate had to keep the café open and running for a period of months before she can dispose of it. (Of course it did.) So Anna Kate, who is enrolled in medical school for the fall semester, settles in for the summer to learn the business from Zee’s two long-term employees, and in the process begins to get to know her father’s side of the family, from whom she has been estranged her entire life. Her mother left Wicklow at 18, pregnant with Anna Kate and determined never to return after the shabby treatment she received from the Lindens, Anna Kate’s father’s family, and she kept that promise. But in a town the size of Wicklow, Anna Kate finds it difficult to avoid practically constant contact with her parents’ past, including the family ties she was determined to ignore for her mother’s sake.

The 24 blackbirds make a rare appearance in daylight to swoop past during Granny Zee’s funeral, and an eager bird-watcher reports the phenomenon of a flock of Turdas merula, a kind of blackbird not ever seen on this continent. Suddenly the sleepy town, which has lately closed the doors to half the businesses on its main street, is mobbed by birdwatchers, who camp out, frequent the café, buy food and supplies, and prove ripe for the villagers’ marketing of souvenirs of their trip. Following them come the reporters. Like magic, the town finances and the town spirit are revitalized, all due to the blackbirds. But what will happen when their caretaker turns her back on them, sells the café, and heads off to medical school, leaving people without the knowledge of the pies’ secret ingredient to fail to keep the covenant with the door to the other world?

You can probably write the rest of the book for yourself, based on my description because, as I said earlier, it’s a masquerading cozy, a “relationship fiction” book with magical elements. Arguments, the airing of dirty laundry, the placing of blame, the process of forgiveness, reconciliations, and new love interests all lead to doubts about departure from Wicklow for the two protagonists. I didn’t mention there were two? One is Anna Kate, whose existence wasn’t known to the Linden family until she arrived in town for the funeral, and the other is Natalie, the much younger daughter of the Lindens, who is Anna Kate’s aunt despite being only a few years older than she is. Natalie is living in the Lindens’ guest house with her toddler, Ollie, after the death of her husband, trying to come to grips with the tragedy and, with gritted teeth, trying not to react to her mother’s constant oversight and criticism. Both she and Anna Kate come in for a large dose of that.

I did enjoy this book to a point, and I don’t mean to sound like a snob; but the author ranges perilously close to stereotypical with the main characters, and definitely crosses that line when it comes to the depiction of the town “characters.” The southern accents, attitudes, and clichés were a little too “sweet tea,” in my opinion. The transformations wrought by all the brangling—particularly that of Seelie Linden—were too pat and too easy, verging on cheesy. It’s formulaic, and the formula has become threadbare from use. Webber writes well, so it never exactly descends to the level of a Hallmark movie, but at times it comes close. She also needs to learn to vary her metaphors when it comes to romance: If we had to endure mention of Gideon’s “molten lava eyes” one more time….please, no.

Still, it’s hard to find books with good magical realism included, and the way that part of the story was handled was charming and fresh, so seek it out for that advantage, and see how you react to the book as a whole. Be prepared to crave pie, not to mention biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, barbecue….

Dystopia 4 kids

As a teen librarian, I have been recommending Charlie Higson’s “Young James Bond” books for years to kids of a certain age, but in all that time I never really registered his other series, although we stocked it. Recently, I saw the first book offered at a discount and picked up a copy of The Enemy, his first in a series of six dystopian/zombie books.

“Zombie” is a little bit of a misnomer for the villains in these books: Some kind of plague washed over the City of London (or the world? nobody in this first story knows for sure), and everyone over the age of 14 caught it. They first got sick, and then they lost their minds; some of them died, but the rest went around indiscriminately trying to eat anything that wasn’t nailed down, including their own families. So all the kids 14 and below are on their own, figuring out how to survive and having to fight off the grownups or, as some poignantly call them as they shamble around the city, the “moms and dads.”

The story opens on a crew of about 50 kids who are living in an abandoned Waitrose supermarket building, which two of their number who are good with mechanics have secured with the previously existing metal shutters and some other nifty reinforcements. They’ve been doing okay up to now, but since the food in the supermarket ran out, they have had to forage farther afield to feed everyone, and have had to accept things to eat that they wouldn’t previously have considered. So when they check out the underground swimming pool at the local rec center and see an untouched vending machine full of Mars bars and Cokes, they could be forgiven for not being as careful as they should have been with their scouting efforts before jumping into the pool to retrieve the booty. This is the first graphic incident in which we see the ruthlessness of the enemy they are up against, and this is when Higson lets the reader know not to get too fond of anyone, because everyone is disposable!

The writing is so atmospheric, almost like a script in the way it sets up and delivers scenes to the reader. It’s also (be warned) bloody, graphic, and gruesome, almost to the level of The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, which is saying something! But to alleviate that atmosphere, there are strong friendships and alliances, distinctive characters, witty banter, and a powerful narrative voice.

This series couldn’t help but bring to mind the equally gory Gone books by Michael Grant, in which a strange translucent dome comes down over a beach town and all the adults are magically transported elsewhere, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. I believe both authors drew on the classic Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and Higson also cites I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, as his inspiration. I enjoyed Grant’s first book but honestly felt that by book three he had jumped the shark; I hold out much higher hopes for Higson’s tale of horror.

Higson says in an interview (at the back of the book) that his two “wants” were to write a book where the kids were in charge and supposedly free to do whatever they wanted (on your own in London! Wheee!), but also a book that was truly scary because they were impeded by a serious problem. One of his readers confided in Higson that he felt safe reading the James Bond books because the protagonist does grow up to be, well, James Bond, so he’s never going to get seriously hurt or killed off. Higson accepted that as a challenge for this series, and says that he would purposefully write his characters to be endearing in some way to the reader before deciding to eliminate them, and also that he would read his pages to his son before bed to see if they were scary enough to give him nightmares. (Note to Social Services: Don’t give Higson custody of any more kids.)

The book is scary, and also gripping as the kids are approached by an envoy from another group, whose members have taken over and are living in Buckingham Palace and want the Waitrose kids and another group from the same Holloway neighborhood to join up with them. They claim the neighborhood is much more secure there, as are the grounds and buildings of the Palace, and that they are growing their own food to provide for themselves, so they need the help. The Waitrose kids wonder: Is it salvation, or is it a trap?

Because everything in life is always a little too good to be true, there are of course things they are not being told by their prospective hosts. They also run into some serious hiccups in getting across town to the Palace, and begin to notice disturbing new behavior from some of the grownups, who seem to be becoming both more aware and more organized. Then there are the hidden dangers from zoo animals in the park, evil people living in the tube stations…you name it, there are perils on every side.

The brilliance and also the frustration of this series is that the first book begins well after the main action has already transpired, and because you only have the children’s perspectives, you don’t know what happened: Was it really a plague, some kind of biological weapon gone wrong, or something else? No one knows or even wonders much any more—it happened, life changed forever, and at this point, it just is. The big question on everyone’s mind who is old enough to speculate: What happens when their oldest members
turn 14?

On Goodreads I discovered that book #2 jumps back in time and is a sort of prequel to fill you in on some of what has gone before. I can’t wait to find out.

My experience with series is that I am always on a seesaw trying to decide whether I hope to love it or hope to hate it; for one that has seven books in it, I dip a little more towards “hope to hate” because taking a time-out from my headlong rush to read everything in one big eclectic mashup in order to pursue one series by one author makes me feel a bit stalled in my tracks. On the other hand, if it’s a good series, there’s the payoff. I don’t think I will read #2 immediately (I have 12 books in the queue ahead of it), but it won’t be that long from now that it persuades me to take it up again. That’s saying a lot, because I am neither a horror nor a zombie aficionado. But I like good writing, good story-telling, and engaging characters, and this series has it all.

Downscale COA

I tend to think of “coming of age” novels as those in which a teenager starts finding his/her stride, discovering what’s important in life and making some meaningful moves towards growth and change. For some reason (probably because there are so many of them for which this is true), the COA novel has become synonymous in my mind with boarding school books, i.e., the kid who survives the trials and tribs of that rarefied atmosphere and comes out better on the other side. I’m thinking of books like Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican, The Mockingbirds, by Daisy Whitney, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart, books in which the artificially fraught surroundings of the protagonists mold or shape them in some way.

Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, is nothing like that.

First of all, the protagonist is already 22. He’s probably never owned a proper striped tie, and (in his easygoing way) would view all the inhabitants of those stories as effete slackers. Or perhaps I’m wrong—perhaps he would wistfully wish to be one of them, reading his way through the school library and finding a kindred soul with whom he could discuss the books he loves.

The truth is, Miguel “Mike” Muñoz is himself kind of a slacker. He loves his work as a landscape guy (but won’t call himself an “artist,” he just does his thing) and takes inordinate pride in a uniformly mown lawn, pristine edges, raked beds, and well-trimmed hedges. His secret desire is to let loose his knack for making shrubbery sculptures (topiary), but nobody is interested in those skills.

Mike starts life way down low on the spectrum. He lives with his mother, who is divorced and works every shift she can pick up at the local tavern; his older brother is developmentally disabled and has the mind of a petulant five-year-old inside the body of a well-fed moose; his father gave up all responsibility long ago and never looked back; and Mike is stuck holding the bag a lot. He serves as his brother’s care-giver and minder five days out of seven while his mom is working, precluding much of a social life. His boss is the worst, and the first moment of reckless clarity in Mike’s life comes when he rebels against picking up dog shit (it’s a Saint Bernard, to give perspective) and quits. But unlike those with a side hustle or a skill, Mike doesn’t really have the luxury of quitting a job, lousy pay and conditions or not—he has no experience in sales, can’t fix a car or wield a hammer—and soon he is desperately seeking out any job on offer. He gets a helping hand from a few unlikely people, but is then beaten down again when the so-called help turns out to be self-interest on his “savior’s” part and Mike once more gets the shaft.

There were many things to like about this book. As the narrator, Mike is conversational, funny, and honest, and his narrative sucks you over to his side even as you see all the ridiculous mistakes he makes in his attempts to get by. You really experience things from the perspective of starting from nothing—knowing what it means to go hungry, to have to share a space with way too many people, to take two steps back for every step forward. There’s a scene where he’s on his way to a new landscaping job when his truck, on its last legs for years now, simply gives up the ghost. Mike doesn’t have money to fix it, or even to tow it away, so he puts the key under the mat, pries the vin number tag out of the dashboard, unloads his lawn mower and a few precious tools, and abandons his ride to march home down the highway, pushing the mower along the verge. It’s a symbolic scene of how things go for him.

This is not your typical story of a guy who wants to rise from the ashes to make a million and set himself up in a McMansion, either—Mike just wants to afford minutes for his cellphone, and move out of the garden shed in his mom’s back yard. He wants to be able to sit and read for as long as he wants, to buy what he’d like to eat instead of what he can afford, to treat his friends to a beer or two. In this way he is at odds with the people in his story who exploit him on their own way to their perception of success. They don’t understand why he isn’t driven, like they are, or motivated by money to stick with a job they hate, yielding a lifestyle they don’t have time to enjoy.

This book has a lot to say about the structures and classes of people in our society, showcasing the lives of the privileged vs. those of the poor, whether they be white, brown, or black. It exposes the “by his bootstraps” philosophy as the fallacy it is for many or most people, and shows what those people who do embrace that philosophy are willing (or have) to do to make it come true, usually not such a pretty picture.

I did grow a bit impatient with Mike, because every time he encountered Tito, his former mate from the landscaping business and heard his tale of woe about low pay and bad conditions, I was silently thinking, There, Mike, there is your solution! but he didn’t pick up on it. I loved the relationship in which he eventually finds himself, so unconventional and yet so true to his innocent personality that takes people at face value and works with their quirks and flaws (such as his racist, homophobic friend Nick). Over all, experiencing this narrative was a delightful outtake in a run of more typical reading for me. It was my first book by Jonathan Evison, but I don’t think it will be my last. It also contained a love letter to librarians, which pushed it over the top in my estimation! (And I loved the cover.)



	
	

The problem novel

In general, I don’t like to go after people’s beloved authors, and Margaret Peterson Haddix is certainly one of those. She has established a constant and abiding presence in Young Adult Literature over decades, mostly through the popularity of her two long series, Shadow Children and The Missing, and the Just Ella books, that all seem to hold their appeal for subsequent generations of young teens.

Last week, I picked up a 2018 stand-alone book of hers (of which she has also written close to 20), and was immediately transported back to the 1980s. That would be fine if the book had been set in the ‘80s, but unfortunately its timeframe was present-day Ohio and Spain. The reason I was feeling the ‘80s vibe was that The Summer of Broken Things is such a typical example of the “problem novels” of the 1980s that took YA Lit from being innovative, gritty, and real to being contrived, preachy and smug.

I teach YA Lit at UCLA in the masters program for librarians, and its history, stretching from the saccharine Seventeenth Summer to the lively and realistic On the Come Up, is a specialty. So I recognize a problem novel when I read one.

Michael Cart, author of Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism (2016), says that the success and innovation of the gritty realistic novels of the 1970s bred pale imitation and that “The problem novel is to young adult literature what soap opera is to legitimate drama.” The definition of a problem novel is that the book is more concerned with a condition or social concern, and the characters are manipulated to work out the “lesson” that is the subject of examination.

The initial premise of this book might have been okay. I say “might have” because it was so obviously a set-up for something that it also might have been doomed to failure from the start; but I can see how someone could make this story work better if they tried hard.

The Armisteds are a fairly well-to-do family (David is a business tycoon of some kind, and Celeste is an interior designer) with one daughter, 14-year-old Avery, who has been raised in an atmosphere that satisfies her every whim. David travels a lot for work, and has decided that this summer, instead of Avery going to soccer camp as she would prefer, she will accompany him to Spain for 10 weeks, spending half-days during the week (while he is working) in a Spanish immersion class for teens. He realizes that this is not good news to Avery (even though most teenagers would be stoked to travel in Europe over the summer), so he decides that Avery will bring a friend along. Avery then feels better about the trip—until she realizes that the friend has already been selected for her, and it’s a girl she used to play with as a young child but hasn’t seen in years.

Kayla Butts and Avery were best friends back when Avery was five and Kayla was seven, but although the families have stayed in touch with Christmas and birthday gifts over the years since, there has been no real contact between the girls. Kayla is now 16, and has grown up in circumstances far different from Avery’s: Her father was in an auto accident just after she was born, and has been completely disabled—unable to speak, move, or function—ever since. She and her mother live with her maternal grandparents, and Kayla’s mom works at the nursing home where her husband lives. Kayla has grown up hanging out there, with the result that most of her friends are in their 70s and 80s and, while she is an expert on black-and-white TV reruns such as Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies, she is awkward and baffled when it comes to contemporary culture. It doesn’t help that the family lives essentially paycheck to paycheck and Kayla’s best clothes come from Target (the others are from Walmart or the thrift shop).

Now, suddenly, Kayla has this amazing opportunity to go to Spain for a summer, and she should be glad—but she’s not sure about her role as Avery’s “companion,” she’s uncertain about and made uncomfortable by the accepting of constant “favors” from the wealthy Armisteds, and to put the icing on the cake, Avery is every flavor of spoiled brat and taking out her petulance on Kayla. And while Kayla is well used to being bullied in school for being tall, awkward, and fat, not to mention poor and shy, the prospect of putting up with Avery’s special brand of entitlement all summer is such a disincentive that she’s tempted to jump out of the cab to the airport and go home again.

As I said, this sounds like a set-up that might work: It’s definitely a “learn this lesson” kind of theme, in which Kayla gains confidence and a broader experience while Avery learns to be more generous and think of others as well as herself, but if a story like that is done with subtlety and humor, why not? The unfortunate truth here is that these girls are all kinds of cliché and, not satisfied with setting them up that way, the author continues to punch up every aspect of their personalities that caters to those clichés until they become grotesques.

(Parenthetically, why is it that the poor girl is always the fat, awkward one with mousy hair, and the rich girl is blonde and physically fit? And why do authors feel the need not just to point out these differences but to somehow make it a “redemption” when the poor fat girl steps up her physical activity and “actually” starts to look better? I’m so tired of the fat-shaming, the poor-shaming, the idealization of physical perfection. In this book, it takes the form of Avery bouncing along wherever she goes while Kayla and Avery’s dad arrive sweaty and out of breath. The number of staircases climbed—in the airport, in the Spanish apartment, in the school building—are endlessly and daily enumerated, with the fit girl impatiently urging everyone on and the two out-of-shape people panting and taking rests on the landings. Enough already!)

Further, not satisfied with creating the “problem” of Avery’s entitled snottiness and Kayla’s crippling self-doubt as the theme of the book, Haddix then reaches out for an additional “problem” for both girls that is so obviously manufactured as to be painful. One wonders (because one is constantly coached to do so) from the beginning of the book how these two families became friendly and stayed in touch so relentlessly, considering the material differences in their lifestyles, and this little nugget proves to be the tie that binds, but the way Haddix has the girls react to it is completely over the top. Yes, it’s something they probably both should have known about sooner; yes, Avery has every right to feel somewhat betrayed that her parents didn’t let her in on this secret, and ditto Kayla; but to create such drama around this factoid that doesn’t essentially have any lasting effect on anyone is absurd. Avery spends days in floods of tears. Kayla won’t speak to her mother or read her emails, and contemplates leaving the Armisteds to their just desserts (i.e., each other) and seeking out a youth hostel. The drama ramps up so precipitously and for such an extended period as to become ridiculous, and that’s all before the specter of divorce pokes up its head (that’s a spoiler but you know it’s coming all the way through, so I don’t care).

As if that weren’t enough, a final dramatic moment ensues that insures we get a meet-cute resolution to multiple issues, and by this time all you want, if you are any kind of reader who enjoys realistic character development and a plausible story line, is to throw the book across the room or, say, drop it in the bathtub and leave it there.

There were a few fleeting moments when the story was saved by tertiary characters: The two Bulgarian boys who are taking the Spanish immersion class and who are enthusiastic about Kayla and fairly indifferent to Avery’s charm; the snotty British Susan, who gives both Kayla and Avery good advice and some perspective in the midst of a soccer game involving all their classmates and some Spanish players; and some of the old people at the nursing home whose conversations with Kayla are pretty amusing. But these only make it more obvious that this is a talented writer who could do better but has instead opted for the ultimate in stereotypes to make a story few will fail to see as both flawed and overwrought, right down to the title of the book, which looks at two girls experiencing a European country for the first time and can only focus on what’s wrong with the picture and not what’s right. The only thing I liked unreservedly about this book was its cover, and not because it was relevant but simply because it was pretty.

A timely fantasy

I was a bit conflicted about reading The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen—it sounded like just my kind of thing, but a rather stern friend on Goodreads panned it for ableism and said lots of nasty things about it, which made me pause. But it got such consistently good reviews from everyone else that I decided maybe she had a pre-emptive bee in her bonnet when she read it, and went ahead.

First of all, I can’t resist any reference to crows, ravens, magpies…. Second, just the description on Goodreads let me know that it was a book with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and that the protagonist and her caste were the scapegoats. I love a scapegoat.

What this book turns out to be (and I can’t decide if Owen purposefully wrote it that way or not, but she had to be aware) is a perfect analogy for Black Lives Matter. The Crows are the bottom-most caste in society, and their duty is wrapped up with their so-called luck: They are the only people on the planet who are immune to the plague. Thus, when a case of plague is reported, a beacon fire is lit and the Crows show up to collect the body and dispose of it before the infection spreads any further. They are also both celebrated (by the dying) and reviled (by everyone else) for being mercy killers: The plague is not a comfortable way to die, and if the sufferers ask for mercy, the Crows will deliver the killing stroke that puts them out of their misery. The only way to stop the plague’s spread is to burn the body and all possessions.

You would think that society would appreciate this service, which protects everyone but the sufferers from a hateful death, but instead the Crows are essentially treated as the equivalent of India’s Untouchables. Not only do they suffer from disparaging remarks and taunts (and sometimes thrown garbage and other insults), but some of the people who seek their assistance then turn around and are reluctant to reward them for their service. The Crows are dependent on the viatik (payment) for survival, since their sole duty is to roam the roads watching for plague beacons, and for that they must have resources for survival—food, clothing, shoes, weapons, wagons. So the Crows have one answer for this, but they mostly suffer anything that comes rather than pull out this ultimate revenge: They refuse to dispose of the body, guaranteeing eventual death by plague to all in that village, which will be quarantined and burnt to the ground.

Fie, the protagonist, is the future chieftain of a band of Crows, and she is learning the various aspects of being a leader from her Pa, including delivering the killing stroke, and what her people call “bone magic”—they save the teeth of dead witches, which can be called upon to deliver various defenses, including inattention (invisibility) and fire. Fie has developed a justifiably cynical attitude in her 16 years as a Crow, watching her Pa and their troop receive more abuse than coin, and so when the royal palace—housing the pinnacle of castes, the Peacocks—sends up a plague beacon, she understandably hopes for a decent payout that will support her people for a while. Instead, the troop receives, along with the bodies of the Crown Prince and his personal guard/body double, the ultimate insult from Queen Rhusana; so when they discover that the two young men have faked their deaths in order to escape the queen’s plans to reign (which have included multiple attempts on the prince’s life), Fie is ready to cut their throats anyway. Instead, she drives a hard bargain with Prince Jasimir: If the Crows help him reach his supporters and he lives to assume the throne, he will materially protect her people—with guards, with respect for their function in his society, with acknowledgement that they are also his people.

The rest of the book is an account of Fie’s desperate attempts to honor her oath. The other members of her troupe are betrayed and taken hostage, and she must step up as chief, making her responsible for getting Jasimir, the Hawk Tavin, and herself halfway across the country of Sabor, undetected by the Oleander Gentry (a group of vigilantes who target Crows), skin witches, ghasts, and everything else the queen can throw at them. It’s an exciting tale of near misses, tragedies, and miraculous recoveries, but what really struck me was the progression of understanding, as the story goes on and the three become more intimate, about what the oath between the Crown Prince and the Crows really means.

Jasimir is the epitome of white privilege: He has been raised in the highest caste, and believes in the abstract that he has a responsibility to rule his people well, but doesn’t take into account that a portion of his people are left out of his concern or indeed of his attention, and that far from being taken care of, they are persecuted at every turn. As he begins to realize the breadth of the bargain he has struck—that he will compel members of his guard, the Hawks, a higher caste than the Crows, to protect them—he and Fie have a series of conversations that reveal how shallow is his understanding of what it means to be an advocate for all of his people, and how unwilling he is to change.

Fie was sick of bartering for her right to exist. She stood to face him down. “And who in the twelve hells do you think Crows are? Someone else’s people? Someone else’s problem? Because you already made my oath with the rest of Sabor: You protect your people and set our laws, and we pay for your crown. That’s your oath as king. You just don’t want to keep it with Crows.”

It’s such an on-point discussion of what those who are at the top are willing to witness in the mistreatment of those at the bottom, without caring or maybe without even noticing, and what happens when this inequity is brought to their attention. Will they step up and do the right thing? Or will they make excuses—it’s too radical a solution, others won’t go for it, maybe someday, of course we’ll take this under consideration, we can’t do that but maybe we can do this…. It’s a microcosm of every so-called conversation between white men in power and black people subject to their influence.

At the same time, it wasn’t obvious or preachy, it wasn’t made clear that this was the secret agenda for which the book was written—The Merciful Crow is a fantastic saga of an adventure, of good against evil, of hunters and hunted, of choices, chance, and character. The protagonist is the perfect mix of uncertain with stubborn, fueled by anger, pride, and honor. Her two companions exhibit their own personalities uniquely and completely. The bad guys are sufficiently overwhelming and scary to justify the terror in which the trio operate at the thought of being caught by them. And the story, as all really good fantasies are, is complete within itself and yet leaves the door open for a sequel (The Faithless Hawk, which is being released today!). I was blown away by this book (especially knowing that this was a debut author), which gave me similar “feels” to Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. It’s billed and published as Young Adult, but recommend it to everyone you know who loves a good saga.

No thieves

I picked up a Young Adult fantasy book mostly because of the title: It’s called Thief’s Cunning, by Sarah Ahiers. Who doesn’t love a good thief story? In fact, one of my favorite books ever is The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. Then there’s The Book Thief, The Pearl Thief, The Tale of the Body Thief, The Thief Lord…you get the picture. I have had excellent luck with reading and thieves! My luck seems to have run out, however, with this one.

First of all, despite its title the protagonist isn’t a thief! Allegra is part of a family of assassins (called “clippers”), and in fact the point is made early in the story that if they were to stoop to thievery in the course of their duties as assassins, their reputations would be destroyed. So what the heck? I searched in vain for thieves. There are Travelers in this book, and one of the triad of gods they worship is a sort of patron saint of thieves…but none of the Travelers follow through by stealing anything! There are two “thief” associations that could apply if not for the addition of the second word, “cunning.” The first is that Allegra wears a necklace that properly belongs to someone else, and it is, in fact, forbidden that she wear it. But she was given it by her uncle for her birthday, has no knowledge of its significance until much later, and didn’t in fact steal it. Her uncle could be characterized as stealing it, but there was no cunning involved, it was a simple notion: Mom’s dead, I’m being separated from my people, and I’m taking her necklace to remember her by.

The second association was that Allegra, in the course of her life, has herself been stolen several times and not told from whom, so she doesn’t have a clear sense of who she is. She has grown up with one story, learns there is a completely different one, then gets diverted into a third, and goes to pieces. The kicker line on the cover is, “With her past stolen, she’s taking the future into her own hands.” Um, not noticeably.

And boy, does she whine about it! The entire book is seething teenage rebellion against nothing in particular. Oh, these people took you in and made you a part of their family and loved you, fed and clothed you, trained you, but you can’t stand being with them for one more minute because they’re not “your” family and they lied about it? Oh, you have discovered your real family and long to go to them but you aren’t sure you’ll fit in there either (because they are the sworn enemies of your actual family)? Oh, you have taken up with a lovely boy (who likes you) and his pretty interesting tribe of people, but you still feel caged by their wants and needs and have to be on your own? Well, aren’t you special.

Honestly, apart from the lifestyle details depicted for the Travelers, which were interesting and somewhat in line with Travelers from our culture, I was so wearied by this book. It reminded me of the worst of the teen fantasy novels (I’m looking at you, Throne of Glass), in all of which the heroine can’t decide who she is and, rather than take positive steps to find out, she just lashes out indiscriminately and to no purpose, and gets herself in more and more trouble because she can’t control her temper or her impulsiveness or whatever we’re calling it in that book.

I also didn’t know this was a sequel when I bought it, and was initially going to stop reading it and seek out the first book (Assassin’s Heart), but I quickly realized that the events of the previous novel had taken place 18 years earlier, and plenty of context was given in this one so that I didn’t feel like I missed anything crucial. It’s possible I might have liked this one better had I read that first…but I don’t think so. That one sounds like a fairly kickass story about a woman who goes all out for her goddess and is rewarded with resurrection for her and her companion, which was interesting. Thief’s Cunning was not.

The Kiss-off

one2watchSometimes themes develop accidentally, as you pick up a book here, a book there, and then view all of them at once, deciding what to read next. This particular theme was “fat women,” with one chick-lit debut and one YA by an author already known for heroines with size diversity.

Reviewing One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London, forces me to confess a deep and shameful secret: I have been known to tune in to an episode or two of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Let me hasten to say that I am not one of what the host calls “Bachelor Nation” (ahem pretentious much?)—in fact, it’s been more hate-watching than anything—but I have, over the many surprising seasons it has continued its hackneyed formulaic road to romance, checked it out. The primary motivation for this is a complex cocktail of wanting to see the pretty people and the exotic locales, to mock the uniformly sincere expressions of all the participants who think they might have feelings for someone with whom they have spent six hours, and to marvel at the idiocy or bewilderment of the families who condone this behavior by one of their own. The primary result has been to irritate my cat, who doesn’t like it when I talk back to the television set, particularly when it’s in a scathing tone; but somehow I am as unable to resist seeing what’s going on just once a season as I am prone to wonder who will win Dancing with the Stars.

For that reason, the idea that the show would cast a bachelorette who was of a body type not seen on television unless the actress is playing a grandmother or a police chief intrigued me. A bachelorette who wasn’t a size 4? One who might actually sit down at one of those candlelit tables and eat the delectable dishes laid out in front of her, rather than spend the whole meal sipping her wine and whining about her feelings? Bring it on.

The whole concept that a normal woman—that is to say, someone closer to the American average of size 16—could be celebrated as desirable to 25 bachelors seeking matrimony is enticing, though problematic. After all, regardless of the inclusion of body positivity, the show is still set up to see romance as a cattle-call competition, with the women as prizes.

I am somewhat embarrassed to say, therefore, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone looking for a story with a protagonist to whom they can relate: Someone who has transformed themselves on the outside but is still vulnerable and afraid beneath the surface; someone who decides she is brave enough to take a chance but who then constantly second-guesses herself based on everything that has been pounded into her by society, her family, other women, the men who have failed to requite her love, and the relentless trolls on the internet.

Bea Schumacher is a confident and stylish 30-year-old plus-size fashion blogger. She has good friends, a loving family, thousands of Instagram followers, but no romance. Her secret crush has strung her along for years, and has recently caused her to swear off men for the foreseeable future. But after she writes a blistering blog post about the show Main Squeeze  (The Bachelor, thinly veiled) with its lack of body diversity or, for that matter, any kind of diversity in its legions of skinny white people going on fantasy dates, the show calls her and asks if she will be the next star. Bea agrees, but she tells the show’s new producer, Lauren, that on no account will she actually fall in love. She’s going on the show to make a point about anti-fat beauty standards, and maybe to boost her list of followers into seven figures.

Of course things will get more complicated. Of course she will be upset, confused, intrigued, tempted, repulsed, angered, and beguiled as she spends 10 weeks supposedly looking for love. But she can’t possibly let go of all her preconceived notions and believe in the HEA, can she?

The thing I liked about this book was that it turned the reality show on its ear. Yes, there were meet-cute moments and embarrassing tests and awkward interludes just like on the real-life show, but in between that, because Bea isn’t the usual fare, the bachelors (who are mostly the usual fare, either muscular and dumbly sincere or sharp, handsome, and deeply cynical), get jolted out of their complacency as she attempts to have conversations with them that don’t revolve around the typical inanities. Bea is portrayed as a real person, and she reaches out to find the real person in each of the men she ends up with after the “extras” have been kissed off. (I loved that instead of “will you accept this rose,” the woman here gives them a lipstick kiss or “kisses them off,” depending.) As on the show, you really have trouble trusting that the men are telling the truth about themselves, their feelings, and their motivations, which is compounded in the case of Bea.

I thought the author nailed the struggles of being a plus-sized woman, wavering from confident to terrified as she is confronted by the cruelty of society towards women who don’t conform to insane standards of beauty. (She also had some fun pointing out how a blind eye is turned to men in that same category.) She didn’t fall for the temptation to make her protagonist lose weight in order to find her HEA, she forced the show, the men, and the viewing public to accept Bea as she was.

The depiction of the reality TV world—the way things are manipulated to make ratings, the descriptions of the fancy wardrobe, the tensions of the timetable—were well done, as was the use of the social media inserts into the story—text messages, emails, TMZ articles, tweets, and blog posts all added dimension to the story.

Ultimately, the book does pander to wish fulfillment, but then, what did you expect? It’s a rom-com. But it’s entertainingly written and told, and does have a lot to offer about false standards of beauty and their equation with worth. So I say, a positive review.

BlogDingbat

By contrast, I became almost immediately impatient with both the author and the protagonist of Julie Murphy’s new book, Faith Taking Flight. I should have known better than to broach this book with no expectations, because I found her previous book, Dumplin’, to be full of contradictions that didn’t lend themselves to her avowed goal of advocating for plus-size teens. But the prospect of a fat girl who could fly grabbed my attention, and I jumped in with enthusiasm.

faithMy enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay and derision as I experienced the thin plot development regarding the flying skills. Faith meets Peter, who tells her she’s been chosen to go through some kind of conversion to turn her into a superhero, because she has the potential to become a psiot. This conversation takes place at the mall. Then he tells her (alarm bells should be ringing) that she has to perpetrate a “cover” for herself over the summer—to tell her grandmother that she’s off to journalism camp. She agrees! She climbs trustingly onto a bus, goes to a secret underground facility, is locked in a room and assigned a uniform and a number, and then realizes she’s an experimental subject. Meanwhile, her granny (her guardian) sends mail and makes phone calls for the entire six weeks that she’s gone; Grandma Lou receives not one response, and doesn’t see this as a problem or institute any kind of inquiry, just assumes her granddaughter is fine? Come on. We discover later (way too late in the book) that Faith actually escapes from the facility with Peter’s help, whereupon she simply goes home and does nothing—doesn’t call the authorities, or wonder about all the other kids who were trapped there with her—she just gets a part-time job at an animal shelter, and resumes school in the fall. But this is the most unbelievable part of the entire story: She doesn’t fly! She has this ability, which would excite most of us beyond belief, and she doesn’t go out every night to try it out? doesn’t practice? doesn’t test her limits or tell her friends? No. She pulls it out when necessary (to save someone from falling off a roof, or to look for her grandmother when she wanders off, a victim of senile dementia) and that’s it. Right.

Meanwhile, we have the secondary plot, which is actually the primary one considering how much space it fills in the 338 pages of the book: The cast and crew of the teen soap opera (The Grove) with which Faith has been obsessed since childhood—to the point where she writes the premiere blog about it and publishes weekly recaps and commentary—moves its filming destination to her town, and the star of the show, Dakota Ash, supposedly meets cute with her over adopting a dog from the shelter, but then confesses that she has read the blog and knows who Faith is. Faith is over the moon (but still not literally, because not flying), and we get a lot of detail on this relationship, hurt feelings from abandoned “regular” friends as she tours the lot and has milk shakes with the star, yadda yadda. Oh, and this is the point where Faith explores the idea that she might be gay…or bi? After all, in addition to the tempting Dakota there’s also her journalism swain, Johnny….

Enter third plot: Animals (both strays and pets), homeless people, and random teenage girls have disappeared from town and no one can find them. One dog and one girl reappear, but are catatonic and provide no clues to the mystery.

So how does all of this fit together? Badly. Improbably. Unconvincingly. Incompletely. Because…there may be a sequel in the works. Yeah. Which would actually be good if it clears up any of the picked up and dropped plot points, the fuzzy background and world-building, and Faith’s inexplicable reluctance to use her friggin’ superpower! But based on this one, I highly doubt it. I discovered on Goodreads that this is a prequel novelization of a superhero from Valiant Entertainment comics. If I were the author of those comics, I would not be happy at this moment.

Before I forget, allow me to address the fat girls in the room: Murphy punts in this book as she does in Dumplin’. She gives the heroine the possibility of a romance or two in which Faith speculates, “But what could they see in ME?” and she almost lets her have it, but then pulls back to deliver the same blow fat girls always endure, when they are told that they are not special and that no one would want them. Yeah, maybe that message served the plot at that particular moment, but aren’t we all tired of the incessant battering of that already bruised spot on the fragile fat-girl ego? I know I am.

I finished the book, but I confess that it was only so I could better skewer it. Faith herself is an ebullient and somewhat refreshing protagonist, but she’s so weighed down by a thin, chaotic and nonsensical story line that she’ll never, ever get off the ground.