Tech run amok

Finally—a suspenseful story that I actually enjoyed! Take Me With You, by Tara Altebrando, is a combination of science fiction and suspense…although the science fiction is so close to reality that you could drop that out of the description with some justification. When I say that the events of this book could be “near future,” I’m talking weeks or months,
not years.

Four teenagers who attend the same school but barely know one another—Eli, Marwan, Eden, and Ilanka—are all summoned via the school’s messaging app to report to the music teacher after school about “an important matter.” When they arrive, there’s no sign of the teacher, and after waiting for a while, they think it must have been a mistake and prepare to leave. But there is a small black cube sitting on one of the desks, and as they talk it over, its sides light up with messages:

“Do not tell anyone about the device.”
“Do not leave the device unattended.”

They all agree that it’s weird, and the best thing might be to walk away, and then…

“TAKE ME WITH YOU…OR ELSE” appears on the cube, immediately followed by a fire alarm going off. As they evacuate, Eden grabs the cube and shoves it into her backpack, setting in motion a bizarre interval in all their lives as the instructions from the cube grow more arbitrary and more adamant and they all scramble to meet its demands. When one of them decides to disobey, there are scary consequences that make them all wonder how this is going to end.

The thing I think I liked the most about this book was that the characters, although invested in this mystery, were multi-dimensional (and multi-cultural, by the way) and had a lot more going on in each of their lives, so that the advent of the cube was mostly an irritant and an inconvenience (at least at first) rather than the main thing on which they were all focused. Too many YA books are mono-focused, and unless it’s very well done, it gets monotonous. But in this book, which takes on the topics of stereotyping, anxiety, grief, and racism, Eden has boy problems and family issues, Marwan and his family (and their restaurant) are experiencing xenophobia for being Egyptian, Eli is a gamer who is more comfortable in his created world than in the real one, and Ilanka is busy figuring out priorities, trying to decide whether it is more important to her to be accomplished or to be happy. So interaction with the cube either accentuates their dilemmas or brings up new ones to distract them, and becomes a part of the story rather than the whole. It also brings them together as a unit as a result of outward motivation rather than choice, which shows all of them how little they knew the people around them and how, if they paid attention, they might find previously unrecognized value in their classmates.

As for the cube itself…a fairly classic story of artificial intelligence gone wrong, but with the advantage that it’s something that could actually happen. Consider all the data collection, spying, and hacking that is already going on in the world. Then think about Alexa, already able to a degree to self-program, by learning from repeated experiences and providing what you want or need in your home or car. Now give her a little boost, so she is aware enough to become curious about human interactions and to experiment with your reality by trying out things you haven’t requested or approved, with little critical judgment about what is trivial and what is potentially catastrophic. Now you have the propelling idea.

The story, which is presented from the teens’ multiple viewpoints (mostly according to who is currently in possession of the device), is a compelling page-turner. I wanted to know what would happen to the characters, and I also wanted to know the origins and rationale behind the device and why it was presented to these four, at this time, and for what reason(s).

The whole tale definitely makes you think about the various uses of technology, and how vulnerable we are when we allow its intrusion too far into our lives. It’s time to wake up and make the hard choices about tech: whether to surrender to it, tame it and keep it on a tight leash, or banish it in the name of autonomy. This could be a great book for a group discussion in a book club. Pair this with Cory Doctorow’s For the Win to expand your ideas on this topic.

Twin folly

As do many, I love a good twin story. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of being a twin, probably because I’m an only child and so have never had a sibling, period. The idea of having one who looked just like me has appealed ever since childhood days with the dual incentives of the 1961 version of The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills, released when I was an impressionable nine-year-old and, two years later, the advent of The Patty Duke Show (in which American Patty has a British cousin, Cathy, who looks just like her, and can pass if she can manage the accent).

In the YA novel The Secrets We Keep, by Trisha Leaver, there is a lot happening on top of the two protagonists being twins. Ella and Maddy are in their senior year and, although they were inseparable and likeminded up through middle school, in high school there came a parting of the ways. Maddy somehow managed to ascend almost instantly to the heights of popularity, including being both a star athlete and the girlfriend of the prom king, while Ella, more independent and less outwardly motivated, got over her initial hurt at Maddy leaving her on the sidelines, made one close friend in Josh, and focused on scholastic achievement and art. She and Josh have plans after high school that include the Rhode Island School of Design, while Maddy seems wholly taken up with the high school experience. And although each girl has chosen the path that seems right for her, there can’t help but be some bad feelings between them as a result of those choices. Ella feels simultaneously excluded and put-upon, as Maddy avoids her most of the time but still relies on Ella to bail her out by lying to their parents and even taking an occasional Spanish test for her so Maddy doesn’t flunk out. Maddy, on the other hand, doesn’t understand why Ella won’t make an effort with her appearance and her social status, and feels like Ella is judging her when Maddy prioritizes the frivolous over the serious. Ella is tired of being “the sensible one” to their parents while Maddy gets to be carefree and irresponsible, while Maddy resents Ella’s good standing.

All of this comes to a head one rainy night when Maddy calls Ella in the wee hours to come fetch her from a party. Ella grudgingly goes, but the two get into a fight on the way home that ends in catastrophe when Ella jerks the wheel in irritation and the car hydroplanes into a tree. Ella wakes up two days later in the hospital; not only does she not remember the accident, but she also doesn’t remember who she is. There is a boy in her room, however, who seems familiar to her and keeps calling her Maddy, so she assumes that’s her name. It’s only a day later, after her parents and friends follow Maddy’s boyfriend’s lead in believing that she is Maddy that she realizes everyone has made a mistake and she is actually Ella. When she discovers Maddy is dead and that the last words they shared were hateful, Ella is overwhelmed by guilt and grief. She also sees how glad her parents are that she is alive, and jumps to the conclusion that they would prefer Maddy to Ella if they had to pick a sole survivor. In this confused and heartbroken state of mind, Ella decides that Maddy deserves to have the life she wanted and therefore, Ella will give it to her by becoming her.

This is where the whole thing began to break down for me. I could understand the mistaken identity thing and the survivor being reluctant to reveal she wasn’t who everyone thought she was, especially given that she assumes they would all have preferred her sister to herself. What I couldn’t fathom was Ella believing that it would make any difference to anyone but her whether she continued life as Maddy. She certainly can’t make anything up to Maddy; Maddy is dead. And whether or not her belief is true that everyone would have preferred that Maddy be the survivor, the idea that she can pull this off is laughable.

First of all, her sister is co-captain of the soccer team, up for a scholarship to college. Ella doesn’t play soccer. Second, she’s been with her boyfriend, Alex, for more than two years, and they have been having sex during all of that time. Ella is a virgin. Third…oh hell, there is no third. Maddy is dead! You can’t change that. You can’t be her. Get over it.

I guess it’s possible that grief could drive someone to these ridiculous lengths for a day or two, but…weeks? Weeks of pretending to be dumber than you are (Ella was in all Honors classes while Maddy is barely passing), less artistic (Maddy doesn’t draw), more fashionable (Ella hasn’t got a clue and resorts to old photos of Maddy to put outfits together), and reluctant to even exchange a kiss with your steady boyfriend of two years? Weeks of letting your parents believe this lie? Weeks of betraying your best friend by pretending not to know him? All in the goal of “giving Maddy a life”? C’mon.

Then there’s the whole sub-plot when Ella finds out that Maddy did something really bad and wants to put it right but doesn’t want to give herself away. The whole thing was so anti-climactic it might as well not have been included.

I guess I’m just on a roll for picking out suspense novels with implausible plots this week. There are a lot better books about twins out there, too, from the Bobbsey Twins to The Man in the Iron Mask! Or hey, go watch one of the two versions of The Parent Trap, 1961 or 1998: Deception is minor, hijinks ensue, true love wins, the end. Much the better choice.

Libraries, booksellers…

So, on the Facebook page “What Should I Read Next?” a lot of people have been touting the book The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, as a really good read. I took note because, as you know if you read this blog, I love books about books and reading, plus I’m a former librarian. Also, the description sounded intriguing! So the next time I had a break in my reading schedule, I remembered that there was a book about books that I wanted to read, and…I somehow ended up with The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix.

It’s on my Kindle, which The Midnight Library is not; but I’m pretty sure that I have a physical copy of that book floating around my house somewhere (although I may have confused it with The Librarian of Auschwitz, which is definitely in my living room pile), so I will get to it. But in the meantime…Garth Nix!

I have several friends who are huge fans of Garth Nix, particularly of his Abhorsen series that begins with the book Sabriel, and also the series containing The Keys to the Kingdom. I have picked up the book Sabriel several times meaning to read it, and then put it down again, because the whole necromancy theme doesn’t, in general, appeal to me. But people whose reading tastes I trust have consistently raved about him, so last year I purchased his YA book Newt’s Emerald as a remainder from Book Outlet. The description roped me in because Nix said he was inspired to write this historical fiction based in Regency England by one of my absolute faves, Georgette Heyer. And he got all the details right, plus he added magical elements, but…there are some books that—no matter how much you enjoy them in the moment—are just not memorable. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the book, but the things that were right with it were not quite enough. I liked it, it was cute, it was mildly entertaining, and…that’s it. So I wasn’t sure, when I started Left-Handed Booksellers, of what my experience would be.

I can definitely say that I liked it much better than I did Newt’s Emerald. There were several things that made it instantly appealing. First, it’s a “quest” book. The protagonist, Susan, is enrolled in art school for the fall semester in London, but decides to come a few months early, for several reasons: She wants to scope out her new surroundings, having visited London before but never lived there; she wants to try to pick up some work waitressing in a café to put some extra spending money by for the school year; and, last but not least, she wants to find her father. Her mother, an exceedingly vague lady whose manner most assume is the result of an excessive intake of drugs during the 1960s, has never told her who her father is, and in fact Susan isn’t positive Jassmine even knows for sure. But Susan, with a keen desire to find out, has written down a list of men her mother has mentioned over the years, and has collected a few artifacts that might be related to him in some way, and she is fully prepared to play detective.

Unfortunately, her first research foray is not only unsuccessful, but lands her in the middle of a situation with which she is not prepared to cope. The first man on her list was a vaguely gangsterish fellow named Frank Thringley, who used to send her a birthday card every year, but before she can question him, he is turned to dust by an exceedingly handsome young man wearing a glove on his left hand like Michael Jackson. Merlin turns out to be a left-handed bookseller, and explains to Susan that along with the right-handed ones, he is part of an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world, in addition to running several bookshops. This is the second thing that makes the book appealing: It is full of beguiling concepts and characters that all hang together to make a plausible, if not entirely logical, alternate London, offering constant surprises as you continue to read.

Susan has drawn unwanted attention from the wrong people, both human and otherworldly, with her mere presence at the death of Thringley, and discovers that her best bet is to stick with Merlin and his sister, the right-handed Vivien, to gain some protection and some aid from the booksellers, while trying to find her father and, incidentally, helping the siblings with a quest of their own.

Although the main and two subsidiary protagonists in this tale are all around 18 years of age, I would not necessarily characterize this book as Young Adult, although I’m sure it would appeal to any teenager who likes fantasy. But I think it would equally appeal to any person who likes fantasy, regardless of age. It’s briskly paced and intelligently written, and immediately engages you in the story, which is full of fanciful descriptions of all the old-world denizens. There are lots of adventures, mysteries, and surprises contained within its pages, and it comes to a satisfying conclusion while leaving the door open for more possible stories about the booksellers of London, which I, for one, would welcome.

I don’t know how it stacks up to Sabriel, but based on my enjoyment of this book, I may decide it’s worth my while to find out someday.

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.

Urban fantasy

I have really enjoyed such urban fantasy as I have read, although that has primarily consisted of some Young Adult stuff (Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series) and the many fine examples put out by the inimitable Charles de Lint, writing about the inhabitants, human and otherwise, of the mythical city of Newford in Canada. (My favorites are Memory and Dream, and Trader.) Until I became a teen librarian, de Lint’s books were my entire experience, and I still like them best out of the bunch, because they are much more about regular people, much less about the typical paranormals (vampires and werewolves) that appear in YA fiction, and also include a lot of Native American lore in their fantastical critters and back stories.

Last year I decided to explore a few more examples, so I read the first book in each of two series by the prolific Seanan McGuire: Rosemary and Rue, the first in her October Daye series; and Discount Armageddon, Incryptid #1. I sought out these books as a direct result of having discovered her Wayward Children series, about which I have previously written, which were such beautifully crafted, spare little gems that I just had to see what else was out there by this author.

I was taken aback when I read Rosemary and Rue, because the person who meticulously constructed the novellas in the Wayward Children series to be understated, magical, and lyrical was here so…explainy. She stated something, then stated the obvious about that something, and then restated it one more time in case you missed it. The story was interminable and exhausting. I felt beaten over the head by description, explanation, and back story and, on top of that, the egocentric voice of the protagonist simply overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it.

I then decided (bravely, I thought!) to try out the first book of the Incryptid series, and there I found blessed relief. Discount Armageddon, while being nothing like the serious literary fantasy of the Wayward Children series, was delightful, amusing, and original. The creation of the cryptids (“any creature whose existence has not been proven by science”); of the heroine who moonlights as a waitress by night to pay the bills while splitting the rest of her time between cryptozoologist and competitive ballroom dancer; and of the back story of the Covenant of St George were so original. The ability to switch gears between different types of storytelling and do them both so well completely exonerated her from the hot mess that is her October Skye series. (Sorry, fans of that. I don’t understand you.) It reminded me of my favorite of the urban fantasies in YA fiction, Lish McBride’s incomparable Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and its sequel, Necromancing the Stone.

This is all an extremely long lead-in to get to the news that I have discovered another urban fantasy series to enjoy: The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher, starring urban wizard Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. These may be old hat to many readers, but despite hearing about them over the years, I never tried one out until, frustrated by my inability to get any of the e-books I wanted from the library, I looked at my Goodreads “I want to read” list, noticed Jim Butcher’s name, and checked out book #1, Storm Front.

This book is a quick and pulpy read, in that Butcher models his story on noir fiction but with a lot of humor included, and set, of course, in a paranormal subset of the real world. Private Eye slash Wizard Harry has swagger, characterized primarily by his smart mouth and his black leather “duster” (coat) and magical staff. He is caught between a rock and a hard place by his need to make a living but also not contravene any of the rules and laws of the White Council against using black magic. He acts as a consultant for the Chicago police department but also takes on private cases, and sometimes these lead to conflicts, in this particular volume drawing Harry to the unwelcome attention of the Chicago mob.

I have to admit that clichés abound in this first book—particularly the depiction of all women present in the story—but I am assured by loyal fans on Goodreads that the series gets nothing but better as it goes along. Having enjoyed this one sufficiently to want to broach number two in the series, I’m giving those clichés the benefit of the doubt and plan to continue to seek out the adventures of Harry Dresden, just as soon as I finish the other two e-books I checked out of the library at the same time, since those have deadlines attached. So you can expect to hear more about Harry in future posts, and probably about Verity Price of McGuire’s Incryptid series as well.

And a timely sequel

I previously enthused here about The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen, and mentioned how excited I was to move on to the sequel, The Faithless Hawk. I picked that book up this week, and right away discovered two things I liked about it:

  1. It continued to be timely, in the same weird way as was the first book, as far as its association with current events is concerned;
  2. Although I had thought (I think because of the title of #2, which didn’t seem to indicate finality) that this was going to be a trilogy, it turned out to be a duology, complete in two books. I wouldn’t have minded reading more about these characters, but the second book was as tightly and dramatically written as the first, and you couldn’t ask for a better wrap-up. Since so many times a trilogy turns out to have either a weak second book or a rushed-to-be-completed third one, I was satisfied and happy with the arc of this two-book story.

The second book picks up about a month after the first one left off; Fie’s troop of Crows are still on the road, and they’re taking her Pa to a Crow way station, which is the equivalent of retirement. He will live there and provide safety and supplies for all Crow troops who seek sanctuary. While at his designated way station, Fie meets with an enigmatic caretaker who is supposed to be the contemporary stand-in for the mythical god “Little Witness.” But to Fie’s surprise, awe, and unease, the person she meets is the actual Little Witness, and she hints things to Fie about her past and her future that are truly disquieting. One of them is that Fie has not yet fulfilled her contract with the Covenant, which she thought she had met by saving Prince Jasimir and bringing him to the General who is keeping him safe while championing his cause. But apparently Fie’s indebtedness to the Covenant goes back many lifetimes and is, in fact, the reason why the Crows roam friendless on the roads.

Just when Fie is absorbing all of this, she and her troop learn of the death of the king, Surimir, by Plague, and they decide to make their way to the Prince, who is with General Draga and her son Tavin, Fie’s love (and the Hawk of the title). A short time after they reunite, however, they are all thrown into dismay and confusion by the machinations of Queen Rhusana, who will do anything to ascend the throne. Once again Fie realizes that the fate of the kingdom may rest on her unready but stubborn shoulders.

In The Merciful Crow, the focus was much more on the journey (both physical and metaphorical) made by Prince Jasimir, Fie, and Tavin, discovering more about the current situation of the kingdom and about each other, and specifically cultivating the romance between Tavin and Fie. By comparison, The Faithless Hawk focuses on a bigger picture: the system of magic, the history of the various castes’ birthrights, and politics in general. This book really fleshed out the world-building, but it didn’t neglect its characters; we also get to learn more about Fie and start to fathom why she is such a central character to this conflict.

The content I mentioned at the top of this review—about its being timely and in synch with current events—has to do with the examination of the entire system of governance, caste, and society. One character remarks,

“We made a society where the monarchs could ignore the suffering of their people because it was nothing but an inconvenience, and we punished those who used their position to speak out.”

I don’t want to give away the entire plot here, but a seminal part of this story is how the characters come to realize that if this world is going to work for everyone, simply substituting a new ruler at the pinnacle of the government probably won’t serve. The rules and systems need to be examined, and must adapt, change, or be abolished in order to make things safe for all people going forward. In The Faithless Hawk, it takes the predations of an unexpectedly corrupt ruler and the threat of a worldwide plague to make that plain.

Some trigger warnings about this duology: There are seriously gory, disgusting scenes with realistic and thorough descriptions of what has occurred; and the use of teeth in their form of magic/wizardry is creepy/troubling (especially to those of us with dental anxiety to begin with). But the books are well worth a few squeamish moments for their powerful portrayals. I hope this immersive fantasy gets the attention
it deserves.

The Disenchantments

Best friends Colby and Bev made up their minds in middle school that they were not going to be ordinary, were not going to do what everyone else does after high school—go to college, especially as a default. They may go to college someday, maybe even in a year, but in between, they want to have an adventure. They have been saving their money since they were 14, and are all set to spend some time with Colby’s mother in Paris (she’s there taking an immersion French class), and then go to Amsterdam, see a whole archipelago of islands and…who knows what else? The year is before them, and it’s up to them to choose. All their classmates are in awe of their plan, including sisters Meg and Alexa, the other two members with Bev in an enthusiastic (if not terribly good) girl band called The Disenchantments. The plan is: Graduate, spend a week on the road doing gigs with the band in small towns between San Francisco and Portland, drop Meg at her college there, take Alexa (who is a year younger and won’t graduate until next year) back home to San Francisco, and fly.

Imagine, therefore, how Colby feels when he pulls up in his uncle’s VW van to pick up the girls for their road trip, mentions to Bev (for the third time) that they really need to buy their plane tickets, and Bev blurts out that she has been accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design and isn’t going with him to Europe. She tries to play it off like a last-minute exciting chance that she got accepted…but we all know (as does Colby) that to get into a college you have to apply, to send transcripts and letters of recommendation and (for a prestigious art school) put together a portfolio. So this wasn’t exactly spontaneous, and yet Bev has gone along with him for months, supposedly sharing his enthusiasm for reading travel guides, making note of cool restaurants and must-see museums, and lying the whole time. And now they are shut up in a van together for a week, and Bev won’t talk or tell him why. It doesn’t help, of course, that Colby cherishes unrequited love for Bev.

This all sounds like a set-up for a slog through romantic teen angst, but it doesn’t turn out that way, not for the most part. For one thing, the chemistry between the four of them, the adventures they have while playing their gigs, and the good intentions of all involved—despite bad behavior—save the story from the utter mawkishness that it could have become. While relationships are important to the story, they encompass more than the romantic—we see the connections with family, friends, strangers that turned into friends, and strangers encountered once and left behind, and the book features some real moments with all of those.

The book was more of a quest for understanding and purpose, with Colby pondering his options for the next year. At that age, making a choice seems so definite and so daunting, but with Bev’s defection he is forced to realize that it’s really all up to him. Nina LaCour has set up a story that deals kindly and imaginatively with beginnings and endings, and captures both the intensity and uncertainty of teens on the cusp of adulthood.

It’s also a fun catalog of music preferences amongst the four, and the story of what it’s like to play your music in questionable venues you booked sight unseen, as well as a separate small quest to find out the origins of a tattoo—all of which lightens the mood from what could have been a fatally serious story.

I wish that whoever designed the cover had paid a little more attention. Some of the details of the four teens are right, and some are dead wrong, and it would have been so simple to dress them appropriately for this cover shoot so you could have teenagers say “Wow, that looks just like them!” The descriptions were vivid—why not go with them?

In terms of age group, I would say 15 and up.

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.

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.

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.