Robin McKinley

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a huge fan of fantasy writer Robin McKinley. I reviewed my two favorite books of hers, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, here. I think she has inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. A friend and I recently discussed, however, how unpredictable she can be—we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one of them. Shadows, one of her lesser-known books, is one that I like.

ShadowsBut how to describe this book? In a weird way, it’s a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge of it. But it’s also a fantasy, because it’s all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.

Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it’s been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can’t deal. There’s his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that’s the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody’s shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in “science world” being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that’s where you have to “suspend disbelief” and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.

As I said, in Newworld, where Maggie lives, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In fact, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against “cohesion breaks,” or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It’s a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie’s worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he’s living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he’s shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie’s family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back—or was it?

Things I loved about this book: all the characters—her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird—incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn’t feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book—but I didn’t care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.

The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world; it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will ever be one is anybody’s guess, since McKinley mostly doesn’t do sequels. I hope so, because I grew fond of these characters.

So–would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.

I’m tagging this with the YA Fiction category because it reads as if it could have been written specifically for teens; but as with most fantasy out there, if you are a fantasy reader you don’t discriminate between teen and adult fantasy, it’s all just fantasy!

 

Guns and diversity

itendsWhile scrolling through the Los Angeles Public Library’s e-book offerings, I came across a young adult novel that had been hyped to me, and it was available so I checked it out and started reading. The book is This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, and I was curious to see how it would explore the incendiary subject of school shootings.

One of the reasons that several people encouraged me to read this book is that it is written by a “We Need Diverse Books” member, and has two female lesbian protagonists (and one is also Latina), a prominent character who is Middle Eastern, and so on. But what I found was that this was more of a problem than an advantage, because the author gave their credentials as if she were cherry-picking specific examples of ethnicity and sexual identification to appear in her novel for the sake of that alone. I guess what I’m saying is, not only did their diversity make no significant difference to who they were in the context of the story, but it seemed to further accentuate “otherness.” She stereotyped them.

The basic plot of the book is that a boy, Tyler, who dropped out of school the year before, is scheduled to come back and try again, but instead, while the first student body assembly of the year is taking place in the auditorium with only a handful of students and a couple of teachers missing, he locks all the doors from the outside, enters through a stage door, and begins shooting people.

The story is told from four points of view, two of them in the auditorium and two of them outside trying to figure out what is happening and hoping to help their siblings and classmates to escape. There are also some other viewpoints represented via a few students’ texts to one another and one boy’s entries on his blog.

The narrative jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the present moment. The protagonists are all related in some way to the shooter—one is his sister, one is his ex-girlfriend, one is his sister’s girlfriend, and the last is that girlfriend’s brother. All have a history with Tyler, and each of these, as recounted, gives perspective on their interactions with him. You do gain some knowledge in this way about what may be some of Tyler’s issues, but because there is never any internal, first-person view given by Tyler, most of that is left unexplored, and this becomes a huge flaw. Tyler is largely painted as an evil guy, and since he isn’t allowed to speak for himself, we never find out the nuanced details that brought him to this place. I’m not an apologist—I realize that not every kid who is abused or friendless or bullied turns into a murderer. But this book had the opportunity to explore that, and instead Tyler is a smiling, vindictive, one-dimensional jerk with a gun. And the protagonists, despite the sharing of their back stories, are also one-dimensional to the point where the two female characters’ narratives sound so similar it’s easy to get confused about who is speaking.

The book initially confused me as to its power, because it is written on a breathless timetable in which minutes are literally counted down (one chapter being the action taking place between 10:00 and 10:06 a.m., etc.), and that gives the book a pace and a tension that builds on initial foreboding to boost the reader onto an emotional high. The countdown and the jumps between narrators keep you enthralled as you wait to see what’s happening inside the auditorium while you’re outside, and what’s happening outside when you’re inside. It took arriving at the end of the book and feeling strangely let down (and also emotionally manipulated) to make me realize that although the pacing pushed me to the end, once I got there I was devoid of answers, or even of much content. The book is so thoroughly focused on the events of 54 minutes that it fails to provide sufficient context to explain them.

The charitable interpretation of this book would be that the author was well intentioned but simply overwhelmed by the scope of the issue and therefore told it as best she could but without diving below the surface. This problem was accentuated by the time frame she set herself in the plot—I feel like the need to keep the tension at a certain pitch precluded her flashbacks from going into sufficient detail to satisfy. The less charitable would be that this topical subject was sensationalized for the sake of book sales.

hatelistMy recommendation would be that you read Jennifer Brown’s Hate List instead, a book that is successful at breaking down the barriers between victim and villain in its shooter, at explaining the survivor’s guilt of the people who knew him best, and in showcasing the dark thoughts that everyone has but most never act upon.

 

Ninth House

I have been anticipating reading Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, for several reasons: Although I didn’t care for her Grisha series because it was so full of angsty teenage indecision, I absolutely loved the duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, particularly the latter. I felt like Bardugo had stepped up her style and discernment by a lot in the second series, and also, I can’t resist a “gang of thieves” story.

ninthhouseI’m really not sure why Ninth House has been identified as an adult, rather than a teen, book. Admittedly, it’s far too gory and explicit for younger teens, but I could definitely see some of my former book club members from the 10th-12th grade club enjoying this. After all, the philosophy in writing for children or teens is that they always want to read “up,” which is to say, they want to read about a protagonist who is a year or two older than they are. As a freshman at Yale, the Ninth House protagonist, Alex Stern, is just the right age to appeal to seniors in high school. I imagine many parents of said older teens would still quibble with me, because they feel their children should be protected from such graphic fare; and there is a part of me that thinks everyone should be protected from it! But as you learn from reading a lot of books, sometimes you need that stuff to make a point, to expose a wrong-doing, to create empathy in your reader. (Plus, of course, for dramatic effect in your adventure story.) There were certainly plenty of opportunities for that here!

Within the first few pages of this book, I seriously considered putting it down without finishing it. There is a scene early on in which a group of students from one of the magical “houses” at Yale performs a “prognostication” by reading the innards of a man who is still alive (although sedated), with his stomach cut open and pinned back; when they’re done, they stitch him up and send him off to hospital without another thought for his well-being. Also present at the ritual were a group of “Grays,” ghosts who gave off a really frightening vibe. The entire scene turned my stomach, and since I hadn’t as yet invested much into either the story, the scene, or the protagonist (and didn’t really want to encounter more of this), I thought about stopping. But surely all my friends—both personal and Goodreads-type—who were bowled over by this book couldn’t be wrong? So I kept reading.

Ultimately, I was glad I did. Although it took a long time to understand what was happening and also to bond with the main character, I eventually came to appreciate both the bizarre behind-the scenes action and the dogged, flawed, yet honorable Alex, who didn’t give up no matter what.

“Could she grasp the ugly truth of it all?
That magic wasn’t something
gilded and benign, just another
commodity that only
some people could afford?”

Some things I liked about the book:

It gives this Ivy League school an ulterior motive for existing that is both completely creepy and also believable. The concept of a university elite is nothing new, but the idea that they became that way by the practice of necromancy, portal magic, splanchomancy (the reading of entrails), therianthropy (basically, shape-shifting), glamours, and the like is certainly novel!

The funniest part of this is at the end of the book, in an appendix, where the author describes the eight occult houses, reveals in what talent or magic each is invested, and then names graduates (from the real world) who have benefited by being members of the houses during their careers at Yale.

This is not just an amusing commentary, however, on how these students one-upped their futures by participating in magical solutions on the sly. As highlighted in the quote above, Alex comes to realize that magic, while theoretically accessible to whoever was trained or born to practice it, was in reality a tool of the rich and privileged that was sought after at the expense of the poor and defenseless. This is a huge theme of the book, and this is why the reader is able to bear with all the dark scenes, because they are so illustrative of our own contemporary world where billionaires are tripling their wealth during the pandemic while so-called “essential” workers are flogged back to their minimum-wage jobs, despite the danger, by the threat of unemployment. I don’t know if she intended it, but Bardugo here reveals the true “deep state” of influence,
bought and traded favors, and a deep disregard for anyone who gets
in the way.

Up against this mostly impenetrable and nearly unbeatable system of advancement is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, an underdog heroine if there ever was one. She is recruited (and given a full ride to Yale) to be a member of a secret society, Lethe, whose officers are trained to monitor the other eight houses for stepping over the line, and to report and penalize them when they do. Alex wants to use her special abilities for good, but quickly realizes that her job is mostly for show, and that there will be few consequences for any of these offenders, because to bring their activities out into the light would mean embarrassment for alumni, for administrators, and for Yale itself as an institution. What the people who recruited her don’t realize, however, is that first, Alex has abilities about which they (and at first she) are unaware, and that second, Alex has been conditioned by life as an almost constant victim to fight for herself and for other victims no matter how hard the going.

At its heart, Ninth House is a giant (and cleverly structured) mystery. There is a contemporary murder, there are disappearances of vital personnel, there is a string of dead girls from the past that may tie in, and Alex, despite discouragement from both her mentors and her opponents, is determined to solve it in order to bring justice for the have-nots that she sees as her equals.

But the book is not single-minded. There are also themes of friendship and (nonromantic) love, and a lot of social commentary. There is the gradual evolution, also, of the book’s characters as they confront issues and reflect upon their responses. One early-on thought from Alex that I loved was when she was pondering how easily things change from “normal” to not:

“You started sleeping until noon, skipped one class, one day of school, lost one job, then another, forgot the way that normal people did things. You lost the language of ordinary life.”

There were also, in amongst some fairly gruesome scenes that (if you are squeamish, you should be aware) include drug abuse, coercion, murder, rape, and the like, some inside jokes about college that I enjoyed, including some funny dormitory moments among roommates. One library-oriented joke, as noted by my Goodreads friend Lucky Little Cat, was, “I especially liked the special-collections library where occult search requests result in the delivery of either an avalanche of barely relevant books or one lonely pamphlet.’ Anybody who has been to college has encountered this result, with absolutely no occult assistance whatsoever!

Be aware that some readers have accused Bardugo of racism (because of a few comments on Alex’s Mexican origins), and of blatant sexism and misogyny in her portrayal of the rape scenes in the book (because they are pictured from the observer’s point of view rather than that of the victim’s). You will have to decide for yourself how you feel about these accusations.

Bottom line, apart from a rather confusing and disjointed few pages at the beginning, I found this to be a clever, nuanced read about white privilege (as symbolized by magic!) and the lengths to which people will go to cling to it. It also has both a protagonist and a secondary character that, while the book has a satisfactory ending, you are longing to follow into the sequel, which will hopefully be produced quickly.

 

One last title

When I dialed up Los Angeles Public Library’s catalog and looked at their e-book selection for Brigid Kemmerer, I found one more book that wasn’t included in either the Elementals, the contemporary fiction, or the Cursebreakers. It was a stand-alone and it was available, so I downloaded it.

thickwaterThicker Than Water is an anomaly, in that it starts out like a contemporary, turns into a murder mystery, and then makes a shift into the weird.

Thomas Bellweather is in trouble, with pretty much no one to whom he can turn. A few weeks ago, he and his mom moved to the town of Garretts Mill so that his mom could make a happy second marriage with her boyfriend, Stan. But two weeks after the wedding his mother has been murdered, and he’s left alone with his brand-new step-dad in a town full of strangers…many of whom believe that he was the killer. There’s not enough proof to lock him up, but there’s plenty to make every cop in town suspect him. Three of those cops, brothers, have a little sister named Charlotte who seems to be the only person interested in finding out the truth and, at least tentatively, extending a hand of friendship to him. But every time the two of them try to get together to work things out, mishaps turn into drama, and Thomas is deeper in trouble. Then, while looking through boxes of his mother’s things in the garage, Thomas makes a strange discovery about her past that turns everything he knows upside down. What, if anything, does this have to do with what’s happening today?

This book was immediately both frustrating and gripping. All the people in town who dedicate themselves to keeping Thomas and Charlotte apart, thereby delaying the vital information they need to discover to keep Thomas out of jail, was crazy-making, as was Charlotte’s alternating stance between trust and fear of Thomas. But what was weird to me was the pacing. The fact that the two protagonists are constantly being separated meant that the story line dragged behind where it “should” have been for a large part of the book, but then…

Since I was reading the book on my Kindle, I paid attention to the “percentage” of book finished. When something super significant happened, I glanced to the bottom of the screen and saw that the book was already at 81 percent, but this book was billed as a stand-alone. Hmmm, I thought: For me to get what I need from this story, we shouldn’t be at more than 65 percent at this point! (the voice of experience speaking) And sure enough, although everything was sufficiently revealed to solve the initial mystery, I was left with so many questions!

I can’t detail them here, because it would completely ruin the book for anyone reading this review, but I will say that I think Brigid Kemmerer owes us a sequel. These characters deserve more closure, and more exposure! The twist at the end needs further exploration and explanation! C’mon, what do you say?

 

Historical fic for middle school

galleryThe Gallery, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald, was a sweet, if slight, middle-grade book with some historical context that was fun to read about. It is billed as an art “mystery” taking place in the Roaring ’20s, although there wasn’t a lot about it that was too mysterious.

I liked the spunky protagonist, the 12-year-old kitchen maid Martha, and I enjoyed exploring her relationship with her mother, the housekeeper for the wealthy Sewells of New York City, as well as her interactions with the other staff, the family members, and various odd characters with whom she comes into contact. But I felt like the book would have been vastly better if there had been more of a connection between Martha and Rose Sewell herself, the mysterious “madwoman” sequestered in the attic about whom the book was supposedly written!

The 1920s setting was fun (Prohibition, extravagance, cool clothes), and I enjoyed learning more about the Irish working classes and the rich titans of industry, but the main reason for which I picked up the book—details of Rose’s art gallery, which is, let’s face it, in the TITLE—was a disappointment.

We got a few descriptions of a small percentage of all the supposedly amazing paintings from Rose’s collection that were squirreled away in her attic, a little Greek and Roman mythology thrown in to explain those images, one quick and unsatisfactory trek through the Met, and that was it. I felt like the central ploy—to “save” Rose (and her inheritance) and get her out of the attic—wasn’t explored nearly enough, and the ending was abrupt and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the story.

Also, I will echo another reviewer on Goodreads who deplored that this author actually gives away THE central plot point of Jane Eyre in a middle school book, thus spoiling the future reading of a classic! No, no, no!

This book had the feel and the potential of such entertaining historical fiction as Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mysteries, but turned out to be hit or miss—pleasant, mildly entertaining, and mostly forgettable. Nice cover design…

 

More Kemmerer!

After completing and thoroughly enjoying Brigid Kemmerer’s Call It What You Want earlier this week, I was positively compelled to read two of her other contemporary realistic teen fiction novels: Letters to the Lost, and More Than We Can Tell. Previous to 2015, Kemmerer was apparently known for her “Elementals” series about four brothers with paranormal powers, but when I read the descriptions, I wasn’t enticed to read one. I can’t say the same for her contemporary realistic novels, which I have practically inhaled one after another without stopping, becoming incensed when my Kindle ran out of juice at 2:30 in the morning about 40 pages from the end of the last one!

These books remind me of a few other authors—Dessen, Caletti, Rowell—because their books also contain that ideal combination of relationship and life events that propels the story. Even though there are elements of romance to each book, the primary motivation is understanding, empathy, and relationship. Although I have seen some young reviewers on Goodreads remark on the swoon-worthiness of various protagonists (as do some of the other characters!), most recognize that they are not reading these books for the romance but for the real-life transformations that occur as a result of the connections made by the people in Kemmerer’s books.

letterslostLetters to the Lost is, as one might assume from its title, an epistolary tale. While working his community service gig at the local cemetery by clearing up the debris left by its visitors and then mowing the plots, Declan Murphy finds a letter left by one of the headstones. When he picks it up and reads it, he feels a surprising affinity with the feelings expressed by its author and, in an impulsive moment, he pulls a pencil out of his pocket, appends the words “Me, too” to the end of it, and lays it back on the grave, never dreaming that the original writer would come back to find his alteration of her letter.

Juliet Young, who has been heartbroken for four months since the death of her photojournalist mother in a hit-and-run, is outraged when she sees that someone has dared to appropriate her grief, and writes another, indignant letter addressing not her mom but the encroaching P.S. person. This is the beginning of both a correspondence and a friendship that grows faster than either could have dreamed, as they each feel free in their anonymity to express some of their deepest feelings and fears.

The truth is, Declan and Juliet are not complete strangers to one another; but the public personnas they wear at school have blinded each other and almost everyone else to who they are or have the potential to be. It takes some extraordinary events to bring them out of hiding, for one another and with all the other people in their lives with whom they need to clear the air.

moretellIn More Than We Can Tell, one of the significant sidekicks from Letters to the Lost gets his own tale, which is a more than satisfying happenstance for those who loved the first book. He was an intriguing and important character in the first story, but although we gleaned bits and pieces of his history, there was so much more to tell. As in Letters, and also in the book I read earlier, Rev Fletcher gets a counterpart, Emma Blue, to help him reveal his story while dealing with the fallout from her own, and together the two are able to transition some difficult events with all the ambivalent feelings they stir up.

Rev has loving adoptive parents who took him in 10 years ago at age seven, and adopted him a few years later. He has for the most part put the effects of his troubled early childhood aside, but when he turns 18 and receives a letter from the father who abused him both mentally and physically, it sends him into a tailspin from which he is having a hard time recovering.

Emma has parents who love her, but her mother is hypercritical of Emma’s choice to follow in her father’s footsteps as a creator of video games. To escape the bickering between them, Emma focuses all her time and attention on the perfecting of a computer game she has created from scratch. But when an intrusive and insistent “troll” begins harassing her online, she is reluctant to reveal this problem to a mother who will order her to stop or a father who will be disappointed in her less-than-perfect design security.

Rev and Emma meet, and each serves as an outlet for the other’s private fears. But then issues arise that cause a lack of trust, and it’s not clear whether the budding relationship will survive them.

These books, while sounding formulaic (the alternating points of view, the pairing of two protagonists, the problems they must overcome) are in all honesty totally immersive, nuanced, and redemptive in tone. I can’t imagine a teenager who couldn’t relate to at least one, if not all, of these characters, and the “lessons” that are being taught are not heavy-handed. Some of the messages—that you can ask for what you want instead of passively waiting to be given it; that unkindness should always be resisted on your own behalf and that of others; that talking to people will mostly relieve all kinds of unfortunate misunderstandings; and that a moment is just a moment and a day is just a day, always making room for a different choice or change—are beautifully illustrated by these stories.

I do plan to read the sequel to the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale retelling Kemmerer has written, and I still maintain hers is one of the better and more original one of these out there, but I think her true strength lies in writing about real teenagers in the throes of their confusing, sometimes difficult lives.

I also have great admiration for her, in that she has written at least a dozen books between the years of 2012 and 2020, while simultaneously being married and having four sons!

 

Contemporary YA

While scrolling through books on bookoutlet.com in the search of a few more to round out my $35 minimum, I came across Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer. The name sounded familiar to me, so I looked her up on Goodreads and realized that she was the one who wrote the fairy tale retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I liked so much, so although it didn’t appear to be fantasy, I decided to try this one, which seems to have been written (or at least published) between that book and its sequel, A Heart So Fierce and Broken, which I also own but have not yet read.

whatuwantHaving read both books, I can see that Kemmerer has created for herself something of a formula, although in this case that’s a good thing. One of the ways that her fairy tale book worked was to tell it from two perspectives—those of the enchanted prince and the commoner girl—and this book echoes that by also giving us two protagonists with story lines that intersect.

The male protagonist, Rob, is a victim of circumstance, although many of his peers think he is more than that. Rob’s father, Rob Sr., a financial advisor, was a mini Bernie Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme on his clients that lost them all their money. To add insult to injury, when he was turned in Rob’s father tried and failed to commit suicide, and survived in a vegetative state, needing constant care from his now destitute wife and son. Rob had been working as an intern in his father’s company when all this transpired, and despite his protestations of ignorance, his classmates and their parents who were injured by his father’s actions refuse to believe that he wasn’t “in the know,” causing him to become a pariah at his high school. He’s basically putting his head down and trying to survive for the rest of his senior year until he can get out of town.

The female protagonist, Maegan, has her own issues: Despite being an honors student with high grades, Maegan questions her abilities and makes an impulsive decision to cheat during her SAT test. She is caught, resulting in 100 other kids’ tests being invalidated and discarded. So Maegan has her share of abuse to survive, and is likewise walking around school in a solitary bubble. Fun fact: Maegan’s dad is the cop who arrested Rob’s dad.

The two share a calculus class, and when their teacher pairs everyone up for a class project, Rob and Maegan are the two conspicuously left standing, ending up together. Neither of them is happy about this and both consider asking the teacher to change the assignments, but with the prospect of having to be third wheels on teams who don’t want them, they resign themselves and tentatively try for a way to work together.

Kemmerer does a brilliant job of first investing you in their situations and then illustrating how these two closed-off teens are gradually able to open up to one another and seek sustenance in an unlikely friendship. Prior to Rob’s family’s “fall,” he was one of the privileged, über-popular lacrosse stars, while Maegan’s family is from much humbler blue-collar origins, although Rob and Maegan’s sister, Samantha, share a love of lacrosse that bridges an initial gap. The sub-plots in the book, involving Rob’s former best friend, Connor, who is determined to constantly remind everyone of Rob’s supposed culpability, Rob’s new and unexpected friend, Owen, with whom Rob conceives of a “Robin Hood” plan to assist the have-nots, and Maegan’s sister Samantha’s secret pregnancy, further enliven the story.

The book explores such themes as right and wrong (doing right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right ones), trust, responsibility, mistakes, and transparency, but does so in such a way that the reader never feels imposed upon by those themes. Kemmerer presents black and white and every shade of gray as they appear to all participants and makes the reader as eager as the characters to resolve the issues, find justice, and give the misunderstood some relief. There is romance, but it’s far from the dreaded insta-love; this is realistic young adult fiction at its best. If you are a teen who enjoys contemporary fiction, this is a writer who will give you what you want.

I have already lined up Kemmerer’s other two contemporary novels on my Kindle.

 

 

Spooky YA

When placing a recent book order, I decided to catch up with some YA books that have been out for a few years, some so I could move further into the series, others just because I felt they were books I should have read in order to maintain “street cred” as an expert in young adult literature for my class at UCLA. One such book was City of Ghosts, by V. E. (Victoria) Schwab.

I was initially taken aback as I began to read, because all of Victoria’s other YA books are targeted more towards high school students, and
I had expected the same here. City of Ghosts is definitely a middle school offering—in fact, if a kid is a precocious reader, I think this could reach down into the upper levels of grade school—5th grade
for sure. But once I realized what I was reading, I settled in to enjoy this story.

CityofGhostsCassidy Blake died by falling into a river. She was saved from permanent death, however, by a ghost named Jacob, who snapped her out of it and in the process became somehow attached to her. Now he is her faithful invisible sidekick in her world, and because of her NDE (near-death experience), she is a regular guest in his world, which she has nicknamed “the Veil,” because when she enters the world of ghosts, it’s like pulling back a curtain and stepping through a window.

Cassie’s parents are ghost-hunters, of a sort. Nothing so crass as the people on TV who stumble around in dark houses trying to film ghosts as proof they exist—her father is an historian, while her mother enjoys the story aspect and is enthralled by old folk tales of ghosts and specters. Now, however, the two have been invited to host a TV show about the world’s most haunted places. The first filming site is the ancient city of Edinburgh, Scotland, which teems with restless phantoms. Cassie has no idea what she will confront in a city so steeped in haunted history.

The descriptive language, particularly Cassidy’s sensations inside and outside of “the Veil,” lent a lot to the power of the story. I had a bit of a hard time believing that while her parents were “inspecters,” they didn’t believe in Cassidy’s sidekick, or see that there was something going on with her. I know her dad was fixated on the historical and didn’t endorse the supernatural aspect, but it seems like her mother, so involved with the legends, could have been a little more receptive—or perceptive. Maybe that changes in the next books in the series?

The introduction of the ghost hunter Lara and the mysterious Findley added a lot to the story, as did Cassie’s encounters with both personal and historical aspects of “ghosthood.” The “villain” was a convincing choice as an avatar from several cultures, and yielded a satisfyingly scary climax to the story.

Some of the material here is familiar from other writers and other series, particularly the concept of the near-death experience providing a heightened sensitivity to ghosts, and the idea of people sending ghosts trapped in the “in-between” to their final rest by releasing them from their rote repetition of a particular moment in their life/death. The first concept is dealt with in greater depth in Maureen Johnson’s three high school paranormal mysteries, Shades of London, in which a girl first discovers her own ability to see ghosts, and then finds out that there is a coterie of secret ghost-fighting police, called the Shades, who want her to join up with them. The second is covered in the delightful five-book Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud, set in an alternate universe where “the Problem” (ghosts everywhere) is out of control, and only children are able to see and fight them. Schwab’s account is by no means derivative—I only mention these other series because they could be a natural progression as the younger middle schoolers who enjoy City of Ghosts want older fare.

Since Schwab has written three series for older teens (The Archived, Monsters of Verity, and The Near Witch), you might think I would refer young people to those; but honestly, I didn’t enjoy any of them beyond a point. This is odd, because her adult books (the Shades of Magic series, and the Vicious books) are among my all-time favorites—to the point that I have re-read all of them several times. My experience with teenagers from my librarian days is that they feel likewise—they are tepid about her YA books, but madly enthusiastic about the ones she has written with adults in mind. And especially with the Shades of Magic books, she has provided for the attraction of that audience by creating two protagonists young enough to appeal to teens while complex enough to attract adults.

I find it so odd when one writer writes for two audiences with such different results, but I have encountered it numerous times. I love the adult mysteries of Elizabeth George, but practically panned her young adult paranormal series. It’s also interesting when someone writes under two names, and you read both of them as separate authors, come to completely different judgments about their work, and then discover that they are the same person, as happened to me with mystery writer Barbara Vine, who is also Ruth Rendell. While I like Rendell’s books, I find them a little dry, a little cold, and sometimes frankly off-putting, whereas Vine’s books are much more to my taste—softer, more intimate, less clinical.

If you are a young adult, you should certainly not take my word for it that Victoria Schwab’s YA books won’t be to your liking. There are so many YA books that I have loved while teens said “take it or leave it,” and so many others that I couldn’t stand but about which teens gush over how good they are. But I can tell you that my recommendations of her adult books have met with universal approval, and I look forward to the new one arriving this year in October—The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. That is one book for which I will put in an advance order.

There is currently another Cassidy Blake book to be read (Tunnel of Bones), shiveringly set this time in the catacombs of Paris, and a third book in the series is due out in 2021.

 

Circus!

I’m at the end of Week Six of self-quarantine, and feeling restless. That’s not to say that I agree with any of these initiatives to hurry to open things back up—we stay inside to lower the curve, to protect others and ourselves, and it isn’t time yet. But I can acknowledge my feelings and those of others who are going a little stir-crazy.

So, what could be better to read in a time of restriction than something completely escapist? And what could be a more familiar escape trope than running away to join the circus? It’s a notion secretly cherished by people young and old. Running away is one thing, but in this fantasy, destination is all.

strangerI have a few favorites in the run-away-to-the-circus panoply of titles. First on my list is A Stranger at Wildings, originally titled Kirkby’s Changeling, by Madeleine Brent (otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell). At age 13, Chantal discovers the devastating truth about her parentage, and is about to be sent to an orphanage; instead, she decides to disappear into the world of the circus that has just paused in her English town on its way to Hungary. We follow Chantal’s career as a trapeze artist until she turns 18, at which point events conspire to change her life and send her back to England. But she’s not sure she wants this change, especially if it means leaving her circus family. It’s pure gothic magic in the style of Mary Stewart.

MeridonThe book Meridon, by popular historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, is one of my personal favorites, because the protagonist is both a gypsy and a bareback rider, so you get lots of horsey bits. But the book is the third in the Wideacre trilogy, and you really do need to have read the first two in order to understand particularly the second half of this book. All three books are engaging (although a bit scandalous here and there), so if you have the time…and you do…? The first two are Wideacre and The Favored Child (neither of which has any circus motif).

The following would most likely be found in the young adult section:

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, by Amanda Davis, is a coming-of-age book, a triumph over adversity book, a story in which a seriously damaged and divided girl gets the chance to work through it all and pull herself together, with a backdrop of circus life that jumps off the page. The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and individual, and the story-telling is captivating. I wish the publisher had designed a cover to match.

joinedThat Time I Joined the Circus, by J. J. Howard, tells of Lexi, a snarky New York City girl, who makes a huge mistake and faces a terrible tragedy. In the face of this, she decides she must track down her mother, who is rumored to be traveling with a circus somewhere in Florida. Lexi doesn’t find her mother there, but she does find a temporary home with the circus. In this story, what the protagonist is running from is equally as important as what she is running to, and she
has to resolve these issues, which are dealt with in jumps from past
to present.

girlwireEven in the circus sub-genre, there are books with “girl” in the title!
Girl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond, is a little different, in that most of these stories start with someone running away to the circus, but Julieta Maroni is already a circus performer who is fleeing her family to convince her father, the best wire walker in the world, to join the giant Cirque American despite his feud with their other stars, the Flying Garcias. It’s a rather obvious Romeo-and-Juliet set-up, but it’s also a mystery, a fantasy, and a great depiction of performances on the high wire and trapezes. It has a sequel,
Girl in the Shadows, with a different protagonist but taking place at the same circus.

Some more adult books in this sub-genre:

nightcirc

One title to which your mind will probably immediately go is The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern, in which the circus is the magical, seductive background for both a battle of wills and a deeply romantic love story.

johannesAnother is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, a funny gothic tale about a man who sold his soul to the devil, but decides he wants it back. Satan agrees to a wager: Johannes has to persuade 100 other people to sign over their souls in exchange for his own. He can have one calendar year and a traveling carnival as the timeframe and setting to achieve his task. Johannes summons an unearthly crew and takes his show on the road.

mechaniqueMechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine portrays a post-apocalyptic future in which a band of lost souls travels from one ruined city to the next, bringing their marvels to eager crowds of war-ravaged humans. It’s been described as steampunk, as a prose poem, and as a disjointed tapestry of image and text that will only appeal to a few—but those few rave about it.

elephantsIn Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, Jacob Janowski, 23 years old and only days away from his final exams to become a veterinarian, is devastated (and stricken by poverty) when his parents are killed in an auto accident. He hops a freight train that happens to be transporting a circus, and soon becomes an integral part, caring for the animals while yearning after a married woman and a difficult elephant. The story is told in flashback, from the viewpoint of an elderly nursing home resident reflecting on his past. (There is also a movie, though I haven’t seen it.)

bluemoonThe Blue Moon Circus, by Michael Raleigh, is the highly rated story of ringmaster Lewis Tully, who gathers together an eclectic group of people to form an independent traveling show. It’s sweet and funny, with likeable characters both human and animal, and a lot of heart.

 

fulltiltThere are also those stories of circuses that occupy the dark end of the spectrum, the evil circus or carnival from which you wish to escape, such as the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, Full Tilt, by Neal Shusterman, or The Carnivorous Carnival, by Lemony Snicket. (To this day, hearing the eerie carousel music soundtrack to the movie version of Something Wicked can really mess with my mood.)

Goodreads has quite a comprehensive list of “circus and carnival books” you might want to visit, if one of these books whets your appetite for more “escapist fiction”! One I have always wanted to try is Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.

 

 

En pointe

After my trip down childhood’s memory lane,
I decided to jump over to read a YA novel set in a ballet school in Manhattan.

tinyprettyTiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, takes the usual envies, rivalries, and jealousies of adolescent girls and ramps them up exponentially by placing them within the rarefied atmosphere of one of the elite—and therefore intensely competitive—ballet schools feeding into the American Ballet Theatre. The girls in the story are at levels 6-8, the top three at their school, and therefore about the equivalent of juniors and seniors in high school, except that their preferred outcome to academic distinction and college is a place as a dancer at the top ballet company in the country.

The authors do well at distinguishing the various personalities among the girls. There is Bette, a dainty ice-blonde diva with a perfect turnout, whose older sister’s legendary prowess weighs heavily on her. Her boyfriend, Alec, is also her talented dance partner, looks as if he could be her taller, more muscular blond brother, and is the son of one of the members of the board of trustees, giving him (and Bette by extension) an edge.

June, Korean name E-Jun, is fighting against both the school’s and her mother’s judgment to keep her place; her dance technique is all but perfect, but she has never been cast as anything but an understudy, and is desperately starving herself and rehearsing hours a day to change that judgment. It doesn’t help that her fellow Koreans at the school shun and belittle her.

Eleanor, as Bette’s best friend, has been eclipsed by her in every way, although gaining a certain caché by being a part of her entourage; it’s hinted that she may have found another, less reputable way of working herself up the corps de ballet ranks into a solo position. And Giselle, known as Gigi, the new girl in school, is a mixed-race carefree Californian, immensely talented but not used to the intense and sometimes hateful climate of these surroundings, and with a secret malady that puts her at a disadvantage should anyone find out.

ballerina-music-box-15

There is a back story involving the previous new-girl-in-school, Cassie, a cousin of Alec’s who was injured last year when she was dropped from a hold during a rehearsal and broke her hip. Will, the dancer who dropped her, has a secret that certain people were willing to keep if he would help them out by removing Cassie from competition, but no one thought it would be so permanent. Henri, a newly enrolled student from France, turns out to have a connection with Cassie that has brought him to the school to discover who sabotaged her career. And now that Cassie has been replaced by Gigi, odd occurrences start up again to dog her progress, from malicious rumors to damning pictures to active attempts at injury.

I can definitely see how both the romance of the dance and the competitive snarkiness of the dancers in this book would appeal to teens. It’s another iteration of Gossip Girls, but with ballet as its background. The characters are well defined, the world-building backdrop of ballet school is convincing, and the drama is compelling.

shinybrokenThe big flaw for me was that there is absolutely no resolution in this book. Suspicions are high that Bette is behind the pranks that turn ugly, but then we discover that in fact she is only accountable for a few of the most obvious, and someone else behind the scenes is conducting the rest of the campaign. We receive hints at who it might be, but nothing is ever confirmed, and after reading the entire book waiting for resolution to the mystery, I discovered that there is a whole other book, Shiny Broken Pieces, that you have to read to find out what happens to Bette, June, and Gigi! And while I mostly enjoyed this volume, by the end I was weary of the tiresome back-and-forth he-said-she-said of who was responsible for what, and I don’t think I have the patience or the interest to pursue those answers for another almost 400 pages! Perhaps I’ll come back to this story someday…

There are numerous other books, some written for teens, that incorporate ballet (and other kinds of dance, too, of course) in fiction. One I read and enjoyed was Bunheads, by Sophie Flack. Another is the dark and disturbing The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma. And of course there is the classic children’s book, Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild, immortalized by Meg Ryan in the movie You’ve Got Mail. If you like this theme, here is a list of YA Dance Books compiled by Goodreads members, some of which you might enjoy.