Fictional Food

I guess that should really be “food in fiction,” because there’s nothing fictional about the food except that it appears in a novel.

Are you one of those readers who has to ration your supply of cozy mysteries because every time the author describes some sumptuous treat in the pages of your book, your tendency is to fetch some to enjoy yourself while reading? It’s all too easy to put on a pound or two if you let fiction be your guide, and the food to which I am specifically referring on this Hallowe’en day is, of course, that treat traditional to Thisby Island, the infamous November cakes created by Maggie Stiefvater for the pages of her book The Scorpio Races.

Every October on the island of Thisby, the capaill uisce, or water horses, emerge from the sea like foam made flesh. The giant horses are a danger to anyone who comes near, being both predatory and carnivorous, but the islanders have a yearly tradition of capturing and training them to run a race along the beach on the first day of November. Winning the Scorpio Races yields both fame and substantial fortune, but the races also take many lives. Katherine (called Puck) has decided to enter her land mare in the races to earn the money to save her home, while Sean Kendrick is competing for the right to buy the water-horse stallion Corr. The two teens, both orphaned by capaill uisce, become both allies and competitors in this race for glory or death.

In the cold and damp that is a Thisby November (think Wales or Ireland climate), there is nothing more welcome than a cup of salted butter tea (thanks, I’ll stick to English Breakfast) and a hot, sweet, buttery November cake. Here is a link to the recipe, created by Maggie. They are not simple to make, nor are they cheap, but they are well worth the trouble. The description from the book:

Finn finds my left hand, opens my fingers, and puts a November cake in my palm. It oozes honey and butter, rivulets of the creamy frosting joining the honey
in the pit of my hand.
It begs to be licked.”

The Scorpio Races
Maggie Stiefvater

If your food plan doesn’t allow for such treats, at the least you can make a yearly tradition of reading The Scorpio Races, one of my favorite books by Maggie Stiefvater and perhaps soon to be one of yours as well.

Readers (and artists) in the family

For the past few months, my cousin Kirsten has been perfecting the art of making paper flowers from the pages of her favorite books. The Arcana Chronicles, by Kresley Cole, is a post-apocalyptic young adult series (five books in total), and she’s just starting a read-along with a fan group on Facebook (it’s a re-read for her).

In the first book, Poison Princess, in which tarot cards come to life, activated by an event called the Flash, red roses have a special significance for the Empress card, which plays a primary role in the series.

I haven’t read the Arcana Chronicles (or any of the books), and on Goodreads it seems to be one of those polarizing series that gets either five stars or one, but I couldn’t resist featuring Kirsten’s beautiful roses, for which she “used a basic technique for the flower, but created my own pattern for the curves and the underside (so as to display the title page), then used a pre-fab pattern for the sepals and leaves, but modified it slightly.”

So creative! Thanks, Kirsten, for allowing me to show them off.

Indigenous mystery

The Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley, was mentioned by one of my students in my Young Adult Literature class this past quarter as a book both by and about an indigenous voice from the Ojibwe tribe. It caught my attention because I have read several books set within the same locale (Sault St. Marie, in Michigan’s upper peninsula) and culture (Anishinaabe), though none that made that culture a central feature of the plot, and none written by a person from within the Ojibwe tribe, so I was particularly interested.

The first part of the book does a wonderful job of immersing the reader in the protagonist’s current life and giving the background necessary to set the scene and understand the issues. Daunis Fontaine is the product of a daughter from a wealthy white family who falls for a charismatic Objibwe hockey player, but her origins are something of a scandal, since her mother’s family forbade the relationship and her father ended up with someone from his tribe, who made a rather calculated play for him and also got pregnant, with the result that Daunis has a half-brother, Levi, who is almost her same age. Her mother courageously insisted, after Daunis was born, that she not be kept by her white family from her Ojibwe roots, so Daunis has grown up a part of both cultures, although she identifies more closely as one of the Anishinaabe, embracing native values both religious and secular.

The author also effectively embeds her story in the racism and atrocities historically visited on the tribes, as well as being immensely informative about such topics as traditional medicine, rituals and ceremonies, tribal elders and councils, contemporary politics, and the sense of family and community that characterize this culture; and she (mostly) manages to do so without being too didactic.

She uses the vehicle of a new boy at school, a recruit for the hockey team who needs to be introduced to all the nuances of life in the “Soo,” and has Daunis’s half-brother Levi, captain of the team, designate Daunis as Jamie Johnson’s “ambassador” who will tell him what he needs to know. The text is thus salted with indigenous words, concepts, and teachings that are explained by Daunis from within that context.

All of this makes the book sound more like an educational piece of nonfiction than a complex and multilayered mystery, but the wealth of scene-setting detail actually makes the puzzle to which Daunis is addressing herself much more plausible and compelling.

Daunis was supposed to be on her way up to Ann Arbor to start her college career at the University of Michigan, but two personal tragedies—the death by overdose of her beloved Uncle David, and her maternal grandmother’s debilitating stroke—keep her at home, with a plan to enroll instead in the local community college so as to be there to support her rather fragile mother through these twin losses. One person who is thrilled that she’s staying is her best friend, Lily, who will now be attending college with her.

They say tragedies always come in threes, and as a devastating event shocks Daunis into realizing that there is something dark destroying her native community from within, it is revealed to her that there are also outside interests attempting to solve the dual mysteries of addiction and suspicious deaths that are plaguing the people of Sugar Island; she makes the pivotal decision to get involved with ferreting out that solution.

The story is tense and suspenseful, with a protagonist facing many complications—perhaps too many. There is so much going on within this plot and surrounding this one person: Daunis’s biracial identity, her sick grandmother and dead uncle and father, her best friend’s meth-addicted boyfriend, her inexplicably ended hockey career, her new boyfriend’s secrets…it’s a lot. I do think the author does a good job of keeping all the balls in the air, but perhaps it would have been a better story with a few of these details ironed out of it. Because Daunis (and the author) has so much to juggle, some parts of the book become repetitive as the reader is reminded several times of the various elements in play. This is a first-time author with a slight tendency to over-explain, with the result that there are a few jarring moments in the book when Daunis suddenly seems to channel a third-person voice that is commenting on the action from an omniscient place outside the story line. A little more editorial notice should have been paid.

Having said all that, it truly is a riveting and emotionally realistic read, with a wealth of detail about the Anishinaabe peoples that you won’t stumble across in many places, and I applaud the author for managing to write a gripping tale while including such a rich, in-depth setting for it. This is definitely a book to add to your YA reading list.

In case it wasn’t made plain by my description of the story, there are many gritty, explicit events in this book that may prove overwhelming for the sensitive, so keep that in mind when recommending it—it’s definitely for older teen readers, not the middle school crowd.

Moxie

The setting of this realistic young adult novel by Jennifer Mathieu seemed so appropriate when I began reading it a couple of weeks ago, and even more relevant at this present moment. It takes place at a high school in a small East Texas town, and the atmosphere there reverts back to the 1950s with its misogynistic focus on football players who can do no wrong and girls who are expected, for the sake of “school spirit,” to put up with their endless immature sexist bullshit as well as their overbearing sense of entitlement.

One junior girl, previously something of a nonentity at the school, starts to get fed up and looks for inspiration to her mother’s past. Although she and her mom returned to Texas to live close to her grandparents so her mom could afford to support them, in her youth Vivian’s mother was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in 1990s Seattle, and the vestiges of her rebellious lifestyle reside in a shoebox on the top shelf of her closet. Although Vivian has previously sorted through the contents of this box, one night after the most egregious offender from the football team—the quarterback, who also happens to be the school principal’s son—takes out his sick sexist humor on the new girl in class, Viv hauls it out again and looks for inspiration. She ends up creating a feminist ‘zine she calls Moxie, gets copies made at the local printshop, and hits campus super early to anonymously leave stacks of them in all the girls’ bathrooms.

While magazines are generally produced by publishing companies with the purpose of making a profit, ‘zines are self-published for a small circulation, distributed locally or through mail order, and are mainly created to spread bold, strong, revolutionary ideas.

Although she mostly did it just to let off steam (and isn’t even sure that she herself will take the action that she is advocating for others in its pages), Vivian’s ‘zine provokes a response from other girls that carries it far beyond what she ever intended, and Vivian is caught up in a movement she feels she may have started but ultimately doesn’t own. The validation from her classmates helps her develop a more solid sense of who and what she is (a person with options and a feminist), and the concluding chapters of the book are particularly gratifying in their empowerment of these girls. This is an excellent portrayal of grass roots activism for teenagers in this fraught political climate.

It also tackles white privilege regarding feminist issues, and features some people of color who fill Vivian in on the differences they experience when it comes to being feminist. And it avoids cliché in that it also doesn’t completely stereotype all the males in the story—Viv has a love interest who is doing his best to support, understand, and participate in her experiment, and he is portrayed realistically—sometimes he just doesn’t get it, but he listens and he learns. It’s great modeling.

Finally, it features a lot of fun music from the ’90s Seattle scene.

Although the story and writing are somewhat low-key, the entire effect of this book was a vital exploration of the awakening of girls to a situation in life that need to be changed and the tools they can pick up to do so. Although the things they do, set in the context of high school rituals, might in some cases seem trivial, the result of their actions is to propel them on to bigger goals, and in the process to include more and more people in the awakening. I’d love to see this on high school reading lists, although taking into account the contrariness of teens, that would probably mean it wouldn’t get read. So I will just say, if you are a librarian, a sister, a parent, or a teacher who wants to inspire some girls to think more of themselves and each other, hand them Moxie.

Nearly

I followed through on my intention to read more young adult books by Elle Cosimano, by checking out her duology about Nearly Boswell. Yes, that’s her name, although she makes her friends call her Leigh, because she thinks a name like Nearly makes her stick out too much. Nearly is a girl who likes to operate below the radar for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that she has a special “gift” (or curse): If she touches someone, skin on skin, she can feel their emotions, and can usually tell whether they are lying or being truthful. Although this sounds useful, functionally it can be overwhelming, giving her a bunch of information she doesn’t really want to know. Other reasons include that she lives in a run-down trailer park with a mom who makes her living as an exotic dancer, and Nearly doesn’t want to give anyone more reasons for verbal target practice at her expense.

Nearly’s father left them five years ago, and (a pivotal plot point) Nearly reads the personal ads daily, searching for a message from him (since he communicated with her in that way once before). But what crops up instead are a bunch of weirdly worded clues that end up being the precursors to murder—all of people somehow associated with her life. Now she’s in a race to interpret or solve the clues to try to beat the murderer to the next victim, assisted by Reece, a new love interest who may not be someone she should trust.

This mystery is solved in the first book, but events begin to repeat themselves in book #2, as Nearly navigates her way through an internship at the town crime lab (although the clues appear as chemistry formulas rather than as personal ads) in a weirdly familiar way that just can’t be happening, given that the person most likely to be tormenting her is now locked away in prison. It also doesn’t help that Reece is working as an informant for the police and is involved with another girl as part of his undercover personna. When a skeleton is exhumed from the local golf course, Nearly has to wonder: Could it be her con man father buried there? or is it someone he murdered?

These are suspenseful reads, a little dark, and rather brilliantly plotted. Teens who enjoy the Naturals series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes would probably love them. The books are Nearly Gone, and Nearly Found.

Missing the mark

I read two books this week about which I was kind of excited, both of which didn’t pay off in the way I was hoping they would.

The first was The Final Girl Support Group, by Grady Hendrix. I hadn’t read anything by Hendrix, but people rave, so since I’m not much of a horror reader but am trying to keep up with some new books in that genre that I could recommend, I decided to try this one, which didn’t sound as terrifying as some.

The premise was interesting: In slasher movies, the “final girl” is the one who’s left standing at the end, after having fought back and defeated the killer, cutting short his terrifying rampage. This book purported to explore what happens to real-life final girls after the trauma is ended. The answer is, the trauma never ends. There may be an actual threat offered by a surviving villain (one who, for instance, has gone to jail rather than dying, and could therefore escape or be released) or from a crazed fan; or the ongoing villain could simply be the PTSD that lingers long after the events are history.

This book focuses on six “final girls” (women) and their therapist, who have met for more than a decade to try to exorcise their demons, and the action in the book is triggered by one of the women going missing, followed by other events that indicate someone knows who they are and is stalking them, one by one. The premise goes on to promise that the “girls” will stick together and have each other’s backs.

I’m not going to waste a lot of time on this review. I struggled to find a description for the book: It was supposed to be horror…but the emotion of fright was never once evoked. The scenes were so disjointed and the red herring got passed to so many different people that in the end, I just didn’t care that much. Add to that a bunch of intensely unlikeable characters and a somewhat boring narrative and all I can say is, interesting idea, poorly executed, don’t bother.

The second was the book Grown, by Tiffany D. Jackson. I had selected this book for my Young Adult Literature class in the mystery category without having read it, because it was a book that included diverse characters, written by a credible (and award-winning) author of color.

The blurb on Goodreads said: “Author Tiffany D. Jackson delivers another ripped-from-the-headlines mystery that exposes horrific secrets hiding behind the limelight and embraces the power of a young woman’s voice. When legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots Enchanted Jones at an audition, her dreams of being a famous singer take flight. Until Enchanted wakes up with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night. Who killed Korey Fields? Before there was a dead body, Enchanted’s dreams had turned into a nightmare. Because behind Korey’s charm and star power was a controlling dark side. Now he’s dead, the police are at the door, and all signs point to Enchanted.”

First of all, whose idea was it—the publishers, the author’s?—to try to position this book as a murder mystery? That is specifically what the blurb on Goodreads promises: It makes it sound like the book is all about “Who killed Korey Fields?” In that blurb, Enchanted (the main character) almost serves as a set-up rather than as the whole point of the story. But (spoiler alert) the murder doesn’t happen until you are almost 80 percent through the book, and is, compared to the rest, a minor plot point. The author specifically says in her author’s note at the end, “This book is about the abuse of power. It’s about the pattern of excusing grown men for their behavior while faulting young girls for their missteps. It’s about the blatant criticism of girls who were victims of manipulation…. About the individuals who were meant to protect and serve never believing victims in their moments of bravery.” So why not position the story directly? Why promote what amounts to deceit? I am honestly surprised that more reviewers aren’t calling this out.

The book is a vivid and sometimes horrifying depiction of a teenage victim of “Me Too,” who is stalked, groomed, essentially held captive, and abused by a 28-year-old celebrity. Korey Fields prefers young girls, and uses his celebrity as a music star to draw them in by promising them assistance with their singing careers. Enchanted Jones has an amazing voice and dreams of stardom, and she is captured by the twin allures of that and the personal attention Korey begins to lavish on her. She ends up leaving school and her family behind at age 17 to go on tour with Korey, supposedly protected by a guardian (who is in Korey’s employ and is possibly one of his former victims), only to encounter the crazy, jealous behavior and punitive actions of an exploitative sociopath who must be the center of attention no matter what.

I can see all the reasons why so many people embraced this book and gave it high marks. It deals with issues that need to be shouted about—loudly. And its focus is about and from within the Black community, where these issues are even more perilous. But there were so many problems with it that I couldn’t give it the credit I wish it fully deserved.

I feel like the author punted in some ways. She starts out with a clear idea of where she wants to go, but then doesn’t follow through in areas that matter, and that’s too bad, because there was real potential. The story gets confusing when her characters don’t know, act, and do as the real people in this situation would. There’s way too much random here.

Some specifics:

The main character was all over the place. I can see her initial star-struck reaction when this man shows interest in her and supposedly wants to promote her career, but honestly, her ongoing level of naiveté, given her background and family dynamic, was flat-out ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that a teen girl could get herself into this situation—but not this teen girl, the way she is initially written. And the mistakes that she makes in attempting to defend herself, after the murder occurs…anyone who had ever watched five episodes of any police procedural TV show would understand such concepts as chain of evidence and illegal search and find another way to make sure that somebody paid attention to the things that would exonerate her.

And looking at that family dynamic: There are certainly hordes of teens out there with parents who aren’t paying attention and/or just don’t care, but that’s not how these parents were set up. Sure, their life was pictured as busy and full of worries (primarily financial), and they placed a lot of reliance on their eldest to help out and babysit the rest of their children, but this is painted as a household in which everyone acts responsibly, and even if their daughter insisted she leave school and go on tour with a male musician who is 11 years older than she is, there’s no way that these parents were going to allow that. These parents, the way they were drawn (and the father’s lay-off and financial woes are not sufficient distractions) would have been all up in her business to find out how she got to know him that well in the first place, and stuff would have come out that would have waved all kinds of red flags on the way to the big one, which is, Are we really letting our daughter, who we care enough about to send to an expensive private school and harangue about her homework and college prospects, be a dropout and go away with this man? No. Sorry. I just didn’t buy it. And if you are saying Yeah, but the girl was determined—again, not this girl. She wasn’t described as someone with the self-confidence, bull-headedness, or fortitude to demand and get her way, or to leave without permission. On the contrary, she is nervous, unsure of herself, all of the characteristics that would lead to the initial situation of his being able to groom her, but would not promote the action she then takes. It just happens, somehow, and that’s one of so many things that just happen, without enough back story to create believability.

There were a lot of things to appreciate about this book, but there were so many small details that jangled that the cumulative effect was an atmosphere of disbelief for the reader (or at least this reader), which is the complete opposite of what the author was trying to achieve with her thesis of “please believe the victims.” I admire her desire to write about girls being sexually coerced and exploited by adults who know better, and to focus specifically on black girls, who continue to be the most disregarded, but the way she went about it was simply inadequate. There were elements that rang true, but just as many that made me say “Oh, c’mon!” more times than I should have during a narrative such as this. I give her respect for her attempt, and her storytelling kept me reading to the end despite all the missteps…but it could have been so much more powerful.

(I do love the cover…)

Ash (aka Cinders)

Back in 2012, I read Malinda Lo‘s science fiction book, Adaptation, and gave it a four-star rating and a good review. It was good storytelling, had romance both gay and straight, and hey, aliens!

Ever since then, I have meant to go back to her and at least read Ash, her Cinderella retelling with a sapphic twist, and this week I finally did so, as part of my preparation for my “speculative fiction” unit at UCLA for my Young Adult Literature class.

I have to say I was underwhelmed. There are nice things to say about the book: The writing is sometimes lyrical, and the scene-setting imagery (descriptions of forests, countryside, hunting on horseback, etc.) is lovely. Some of the characters are attractive, at least in their physical descriptions. But it seemed like Lo didn’t quite know how to both present/exploit the original fairy tale and then deviate from it effectively (or provocatively, as most readers would be expecting).

The details of the original that were retained were clichéd, with the stepmother being almost a cartoon caricature and the daughters’ personalities left unformed beyond the usual, which is to say, the elder is egocentric, frivolous, and mean, while the younger (less attractive and therefore less valuable?) retains a smidgen of humanity. The father likewise becomes the bum who didn’t pay the bills and left everyone in the lurch. And the prince (central to the original tale) has barely a cameo appearance in this book. The character of Aisling’s absent (dead) mother was so much more fully formed than most of the people in this story who were alive—it was both disconcerting and not ultimately useful.

You would think, against this backdrop, that the main players—Aisling or “Ash” (Cinderella), the King’s Huntress, Kasia, and the mysterious Fae suitor, Sidhean, would shine. They don’t, and nor do their relationships. Although Ash regards Sidhean with awe and wonder and looks forward to his visits and his company, there is little emotional involvement visible from either side (except for one or two extremely brief repressed moments on Sidhean’s part), and the prospect of going away with him does not fill Ash with joy, despite her miserable lifestyle from which one would think she would be desperate to escape.

Likewise, the meetings with the Huntress only hint tentatively and subtly at there being any kind of fascination (on either side), let alone attraction, and are so quietly and decorously handled that you keep wondering if you imagined reading the synopsis of the book in which these two supposedly fall in love. There are moments…but they remain unarticulated until almost the very end, and there is little sense of who the Huntress is, with few glimpses into her past and present and almost no indication of her feelings. There is no love story here, except in the vague dim recesses of the two characters’ minds—no verbalization, no wooing, no physical manifestation.

In effect, this book has an almost totally flat affect. Although there are conflicts (as Ash learns from her rather obsessive reading of fairy tales, it’s a big deal to go away with a fae into his land, where time moves differently and people can become trapped forever), they are not ultimately dealt with as if they are that significant. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, but the resolution with Sidhean was puzzling, abrupt, and unsatisfying.

In this setting/world it also seems that a relationship with a fae prince is so much more scandalous than is a lesbian one—which seems almost completely taken for granted—that the reader is denied even the frisson of forbidden love, and when the two women eventually get together, it verges on mundane. And I mean, we all say we want books in which same-sex relationships are accepted and taken for granted, but…this is a fairy tale retelling in which “Ash” supposedly ends up a princess, married to a prince, so…shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks when that doesn’t happen?

I was just puzzled by this book—especially all the ways the author chose not to go. It’s not exactly a pan—it’s a pleasant enough read, and has some interesting moments—but it was so much less than I hoped or expected.

Genre assumptions

The book I chose to read this week was the perfect example of being led into genre mislabeling by certain aspects of content. The book is Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn, part of the “Dragonback” series. Because of the presence of dragons, and also because of the series title (making it sound like people were riding on the backs of dragons), I assumed going in that this would be a fantasy. After all, dragons are mythical creatures, right? and their presence would probably indicate world-building that involves some kind of medieval setting?

I was dead wrong. The only thing I got right about this book was believing that it would be a solid addition to my list of books for middle school readers, and that I might possibly be fortunate enough to have discovered one that was particularly appealing to boys, who are more typically reluctant readers than are girls at that age.

Dragon notwithstanding, this is science fiction. The dragon is one of a race of poet/warriors (the K’da) who are symbiotic with other select species and need them in order to live. The dragons transform from three dimensions to two, and ride around on (and receive sustenance and life from) their hosts while giving the appearance of being a large and elaborate tattoo—so instead of people riding dragons, it’s the other way around. And all species involved in this book are space-faring, with much of the action taking place on ships and in spaceports and outposts on various planets.

There aren’t too many books with dragons that anyone would consider sci-fi; the dragons of Rachel Hartman, for instance, while able to shapeshift back and forth between their native shapes and human form, are set within a construct that is definitely medieval in nature, as are the conflicts explored in her books. Same with the dragons of Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Chris Paolini, Jasper Fforde, and, of course, Tolkien. Even Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, alternate history in which dragons are the steeds ridden by the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, figure more as fantasy than anything else.

The only dragon books of which I’m aware whose author has attempted to claim science fiction status are those of Anne McCaffrey. Since these are telepathic fire-breathing dragons that bond for life with their riders, many have scoffed at McCaffrey’s claims. Her rationale for the premise is that mankind travelled to the planet Pern via rocket ships, only to discover that their new home was beset by deadly spores that traveled from a red planet to theirs in irregular cycles that lasted a decade or two every once in a while; they used their science to take the native fauna they called fire lizards (miniature dragons about the length of a forearm) and super-size them through selective breeding to wipe out the spores by breathing fire on them. (Her premise would be a lot more believable if she had also thought to use science to explain how these spores from the red star survive the unbearable heat of entry into the planetary system only to be destroyed by a simple toasty breath!)

Anyway, back to my middle school series. Zahn’s voice is perfect for his protagonist, who is a 14-year-old thief named Jack. Jack’s parents died when he was little, and his uncle Virgil, an interstellar conman, raised him to be an innocent-looking but precocious assistant for his various illegal exploits, so Jack has lots of talents like breaking and entering, computer program manipulation, and being a quick-thinking fast-talker. But his uncle died a little while back, leaving Jack alone except for the computer that runs Jack’s ship, upon which Uncle Virgil imposed his personality, so that “Uncle Virge” is still in some sense with Jack, imbued with the same sly, evasive, self-serving qualities that his human uncle possessed.

Uncle Virge is unhappy, therefore, when Jack decides to rescue and play host to Draycos, one of an advance team of K’da warriors who landed on a supposedly vacant planet where his people were intending to settle, refugees hiding out from their mortal enemies. Somehow their enemies already knew their destination, however, and managed to destroy all the advance ships and everyone on them save Draycos. Draycos has a few months to figure out what happened and from where, exactly, the threat lies, so that he can return to the main emigration ships of his people and re-route them somewhere safe, and Jack has undertaken to help him.

It turns out, however, that Draycos is at least as helpful to Jack as Jack is to Draycos, given his superb warrior skills. The two of them make a good team—the boy with lots of undercover experience to get them where they want to go with no one the wiser, and the dragon, honorable and principled, who can protect them along the way.

I finished book #1 and proceeded on to the second, Dragon and Soldier, and I plan to keep going with the rest of the series. So far, book #2 is as imaginative and delightful as was the first, my sole complaint being that each book ends rather abruptly so that you feel an immediate need to access the next volume, which is actually a decided advantage when it comes to luring the reluctant reader to keep going. I believe that those middle-schoolers (and anyone who loves science fiction and/or dragons) who discover these books will do just that.

Christmas thriller

It’s that time of year when all the people in the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” are asking for Christmas- or holiday-themed books. The presumption, of course, is that these will be cozy, feel-good, Hallmark-type stories to foster that precise experience of flannel pajamas and plucked heartstrings by the fire. But who’s to say that a Christmas story can’t be perilous and full of drama?

On the recommendation of Ivy-the-Librarian (one of my colleagues also on FB), I picked up the Libby (OverDrive ebook app) global Big Library Read community book for the month of November, Five Total Strangers, by Natalie D. Richards. It’s categorized as Young Adult, although it should properly be New Adult, since all the characters but the main protagonist are college students. Mira, however, is 18 and still a senior in high school, so I guess that was the determiner. Honestly, though, this book could be enjoyed by anyone who likes a heart-pounding suspenseful ride.

“Ride” is used literally in this case: The back story is that Mira, who has been living in California with her father while going to an arts-based high school, is returning to her mom’s in Pittsburgh for Christmas. While she usually gives herself a lead of three or four days before the holiday to travel, this year she pushed it to the last minute and is flying in on Christmas Eve morning. Unfortunately, due to the onset of a record-breaking snowstorm, she arrives in Newark to discover that her connecting flight has been cancelled and the airlines are sending passengers to local hotels until the skies clear. But Mira is determined to make it home for Christmas with her mom—it’s the first year they will be without her Aunt Phoebe, her mother’s twin sister who passed away a year ago from cancer, and Mira knows that her mother will need support to get through it. So when her seatmate on the flight into Newark says she is renting a car with three other friends and will be happy to drop Mira off in Pittsburgh, Mira jumps at the chance to be a part of the ride-along with Harper, Brecken, Josh, and Kayla.

Harper seems to be a reassuringly mature and well organized person, as well as friendly to and protective of Mira, so Mira feels confident climbing into the SUV with her and her friends. What she shortly learns, however, is that none of the others knows each other—they met at the airport and agreed to share the rental car—and now she is living out any parents’ worst nightmare, your child in a car with four strangers. Who knows what could happen?

In fact, more disasters and drama occur than one could imagine, even in these adverse circumstances. Above and beyond the tension created by the truly terrible weather and the constant driving hazards it presents is the gradual realization that someone in the car is actively trying to sabotage the trip, making such essentials as cell phones and maps disappear just when they are needed the most. But why? This is essentially a locked-room (in a car) mystery, and the ramp-up of stress is palpable. I especially identified with Mira’s conflicting feelings as she went from being determined to make it home to be with her mom to realizing that perhaps her own safety was going to have to take precedence over a picture-perfect Christmas, could she but bring herself to run screaming from the car.

I had some basic caveats as the story progressed: There is too much speculation with no progress or resolution on at least one character, while another is left too vague, considering a role as a major actor in the plot. I was also a bit irritated by some of the too-pat coincidences. But overall, the suspense is well maintained, the red herrings are effective, the breathless quality keeps amping up throughout, and you are poised to let out a tension-generated shriek should a housemate tap you on the shoulder or a pet jump in your lap at a pregnant moment.

If you want a book with a Christmas vibe but without the hearts and flowers, Five Total Strangers is definitely a Yule tale with a different effect! Because this is the Libby book for November, most larger libraries have unlimited copies of the e-book available for remote checkout. Access it, curl up with your cocoa, and prepare to be traumatized.

Witchy? or whiny?

I will be teaching Young Adult Literature at the UCLA library school again this coming spring quarter, so I am starting to gear up for that by trying to catch up with a couple of years’ worth of teen fiction. Although I teach the history of the literature, I also like (and need) to be up on the latest thing in as many genres as possible. This week I chose a fantasy/paranormal by a first-time author—The Nature of Witches, by Rachel Griffin—partly because, well, it’s October! Time for witches.

The book has an interesting premise: There are weather witches, who are each attuned to a particular season—Spring, Summer, Fall, or Winter—and their gifts allow them to manipulate both the weather and the well-being of the earth, in ways that specifically relate to that season. So Spring-born witches, for instance, are skilled at digging their fingers into the earth and making plants spring from seeds and grow to maturity in whatever time period they wish, while Winter-born witches are better at manipulating water, making it rise up out of the ground into the atmosphere, creating storm loops that provide more precipitation. All witches draw their power from the sun.

In their world, as in ours, the populace is in general ignoring climate change, and its effects are worsening. In this story, the depredations to the earth by greedy developers and exploiters are beginning to outweigh the witches’ abilities to preserve the status quo, and witches are burning out attempting to keep the earth from spiraling into a decline. The general population of non-witches are called “shaders.”

The protagonist of the book is Clara, who is a rare and special “Ever” witch—that is to say, she has an affinity with all seasons, not just one, and can use her powers no matter what the season, while those identified with a particular quarter of the year are powerful during those three months and much more helpless during the other nine. But Clara doesn’t have good control of her powers; she has, in the past, injured or killed people when she unintentionally diverted her power and overwhelmed them, and as the book opens, she is considering staying outside during a total eclipse, which would strip her of her powers, in order to be able to live a normal life. But the fact that she is an “Ever,” able to work in every season and to harness powers not available to regular witches, means that this would be an incredibly selfish act on her part, so she is torn.

On Goodreads, I rated this a three, for concept, and also for some of the truly beautiful visual images the author presents as a part of her earth-loving witches’ consciousness. But you could definitely tell that this was a first effort on the part of the author, without some of the world-building skills necessary to a good fantasy, and also with a particular kind of teen vibe that, while common in YA Lit, is neither endearing nor enjoyable.

I loved the idea of weather witches, and having them be identified with one season, with all those season’s priorities and perspectives, was effective. Also effective was to have the one “special” witch, the “Ever,” as the protagonist. So far, so good. But to characterize everyone not a witch as a “shader” and give so little attention or perspective as to who the “shaders” are (yes, we know, the “common person,” but there’s a big spectrum there!) was to slight the entire background of the story.

First of all, am I being obtuse when I don’t comprehend how the word “shader” relates to ordinary non-witchy people? I don’t get the term. Second, although it is mentioned multiple times that the shaders have ignored the limits of the witches’ abilities to maintain the world in their eagerness for continued expansion and growth, there is little attention paid to how those communications between the two factions take place, what specific warnings have been delivered, who is in charge, etc. There are a couple of organizations mentioned by name and subsequently by initials that you have to keep looking up because they are so unmemorable, but nothing is included about their interactions except that, latterly, shaders are “beginning to pay attention.” Not good scene-setting. We needed more detail, some history of association, some BACKGROUND.

As for my second caveat about the specific teen nature of the protagonist…what I am talking about is a self-involved view of the world that relates anything and everything back to the feelings and emotions of the main character. The world revolves around her, and her obsession with her powers cuts in front of any regard she may have either for her loved ones or for the world at large. Yes, she spends a lot of the book protesting that she would give up her powers in order to keep her loved ones safe…but then she continues on, justifying and hedging her bets and putting them in danger anyway, only to cut them off again when playing with her powers gets her in trouble. And she continues to muse fatalistically on the necessity for her to be stripped of her powers in order to live a happy life, regardless of how it would deprive the earth at large of a savior of whom it has desperate need. In other words, she’s selfish, self-involved, myopic, and kind of whiny!

Far from being reserved to this particular book/author, this kind of character is prevalent in a percentage of teen-directed fiction, and although a certain amount of the observation of teen behavior and (lack of) emotional maturity may be true and accurate, it’s not fun to read. I’m not saying that authors shouldn’t write teens authentically, only that there might also be a little bit of aspirational imagining of them as rising above those thought patterns and behavior, and not at the end of an interminable 300+ pages but nearer the beginning!

This book got some enthusiastic five-star ratings, and I’m betting a lot of those are from teens who felt the romance and allure but didn’t mind the erratic and selfish thinking so much. But I would have enjoyed more back story and less angst. I call this “dithery fiction” because we spend the entire book listening to the character saying “what if” but taking forever to settle to a decision. Yes, she shows moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over, dither some more. It’s ultimately so tiresome that it makes it hard to enjoy the rest of the story.

(I did like the cover image!)

This could be Clara, with spring flowers growing up around her
in the meadow where she and Sang meet.