I picked up a Young Adult fantasy book mostly because of the title: It’s called Thief’s Cunning, by Sarah Ahiers. Who doesn’t love a good thief story? In fact, one of my favorite books ever is The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. Then there’s The Book Thief, The Pearl Thief, The Tale of the Body Thief, The Thief Lord…you get the picture. I have had excellent luck with reading and thieves! My luck seems to have run out, however, with this one.
First of all, despite its title the protagonist isn’t a thief! Allegra is part of a family of assassins (called “clippers”), and in fact the point is made early in the story that if they were to stoop to thievery in the course of their duties as assassins, their reputations would be destroyed. So what the heck? I searched in vain for thieves. There are Travelers in this book, and one of the triad of gods they worship is a sort of patron saint of thieves…but none of the Travelers follow through by stealing anything! There are two “thief” associations that could apply if not for the addition of the second word, “cunning.” The first is that Allegra wears a necklace that properly belongs to someone else, and it is, in fact, forbidden that she wear it. But she was given it by her uncle for her birthday, has no knowledge of its significance until much later, and didn’t in fact steal it. Her uncle could be characterized as stealing it, but there was no cunning involved, it was a simple notion: Mom’s dead, I’m being separated from my people, and I’m taking her necklace to remember her by.
The second association was that Allegra, in the course of her life, has herself been stolen several times and not told from whom, so she doesn’t have a clear sense of who she is. She has grown up with one story, learns there is a completely different one, then gets diverted into a third, and goes to pieces. The kicker line on the cover is, “With her past stolen, she’s taking the future into her own hands.” Um, not noticeably.
And boy, does she whine about it! The entire book is seething teenage rebellion against nothing in particular. Oh, these people took you in and made you a part of their family and loved you, fed and clothed you, trained you, but you can’t stand being with them for one more minute because they’re not “your” family and they lied about it? Oh, you have discovered your real family and long to go to them but you aren’t sure you’ll fit in there either (because they are the sworn enemies of your actual family)? Oh, you have taken up with a lovely boy (who likes you) and his pretty interesting tribe of people, but you still feel caged by their wants and needs and have to be on your own? Well, aren’t you special.
Honestly, apart from the lifestyle details depicted for the Travelers, which were interesting and somewhat in line with Travelers from our culture, I was so wearied by this book. It reminded me of the worst of the teen fantasy novels (I’m looking at you, Throne of Glass), in all of which the heroine can’t decide who she is and, rather than take positive steps to find out, she just lashes out indiscriminately and to no purpose, and gets herself in more and more trouble because she can’t control her temper or her impulsiveness or whatever we’re calling it in that book.
I also didn’t know this was a sequel when I bought it, and was initially going to stop reading it and seek out the first book (Assassin’s Heart), but I quickly realized that the events of the previous novel had taken place 18 years earlier, and plenty of context was given in this one so that I didn’t feel like I missed anything crucial. It’s possible I might have liked this one better had I read that first…but I don’t think so. That one sounds like a fairly kickass story about a woman who goes all out for her goddess and is rewarded with resurrection for her and her companion, which was interesting. Thief’s Cunning was not.
Sometimes themes develop accidentally, as you pick up a book here, a book there, and then view all of them at once, deciding what to read next. This particular theme was “fat women,” with one chick-lit debut and one YA by an author already known for heroines with size diversity.
Reviewing One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London, forces me to confess a deep and shameful secret: I have been known to tune in to an episode or two of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Let me hasten to say that I am not one of what the host calls “Bachelor Nation” (ahem pretentious much?)—in fact, it’s been more hate-watching than anything—but I have, over the many surprising seasons it has continued its hackneyed formulaic road to romance, checked it out. The primary motivation for this is a complex cocktail of wanting to see the pretty people and the exotic locales, to mock the uniformly sincere expressions of all the participants who think they might have feelings for someone with whom they have spent six hours, and to marvel at the idiocy or bewilderment of the families who condone this behavior by one of their own. The primary result has been to irritate my cat, who doesn’t like it when I talk back to the television set, particularly when it’s in a scathing tone; but somehow I am as unable to resist seeing what’s going on just once a season as I am prone to wonder who will win Dancing with the Stars.
For that reason, the idea that the show would cast a bachelorette who was of a body type not seen on television unless the actress is playing a grandmother or a police chief intrigued me. A bachelorette who wasn’t a size 4? One who might actually sit down at one of those candlelit tables and eat the delectable dishes laid out in front of her, rather than spend the whole meal sipping her wine and whining about her feelings? Bring it on.
The whole concept that a normal woman—that is to say, someone closer to the American average of size 16—could be celebrated as desirable to 25 bachelors seeking matrimony is enticing, though problematic. After all, regardless of the inclusion of body positivity, the show is still set up to see romance as a cattle-call competition, with the women as prizes.
I am somewhat embarrassed to say, therefore, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone looking for a story with a protagonist to whom they can relate: Someone who has transformed themselves on the outside but is still vulnerable and afraid beneath the surface; someone who decides she is brave enough to take a chance but who then constantly second-guesses herself based on everything that has been pounded into her by society, her family, other women, the men who have failed to requite her love, and the relentless trolls on the internet.
Bea Schumacher is a confident and stylish 30-year-old plus-size fashion blogger. She has good friends, a loving family, thousands of Instagram followers, but no romance. Her secret crush has strung her along for years, and has recently caused her to swear off men for the foreseeable future. But after she writes a blistering blog post about the show Main Squeeze (The Bachelor, thinly veiled) with its lack of body diversity or, for that matter, any kind of diversity in its legions of skinny white people going on fantasy dates, the show calls her and asks if she will be the next star. Bea agrees, but she tells the show’s new producer, Lauren, that on no account will she actually fall in love. She’s going on the show to make a point about anti-fat beauty standards, and maybe to boost her list of followers into seven figures.
Of course things will get more complicated. Of course she will be upset, confused, intrigued, tempted, repulsed, angered, and beguiled as she spends 10 weeks supposedly looking for love. But she can’t possibly let go of all her preconceived notions and believe in the HEA, can she?
The thing I liked about this book was that it turned the reality show on its ear. Yes, there were meet-cute moments and embarrassing tests and awkward interludes just like on the real-life show, but in between that, because Bea isn’t the usual fare, the bachelors (who are mostly the usual fare, either muscular and dumbly sincere or sharp, handsome, and deeply cynical), get jolted out of their complacency as she attempts to have conversations with them that don’t revolve around the typical inanities. Bea is portrayed as a real person, and she reaches out to find the real person in each of the men she ends up with after the “extras” have been kissed off. (I loved that instead of “will you accept this rose,” the woman here gives them a lipstick kiss or “kisses them off,” depending.) As on the show, you really have trouble trusting that the men are telling the truth about themselves, their feelings, and their motivations, which is compounded in the case of Bea.
I thought the author nailed the struggles of being a plus-sized woman, wavering from confident to terrified as she is confronted by the cruelty of society towards women who don’t conform to insane standards of beauty. (She also had some fun pointing out how a blind eye is turned to men in that same category.) She didn’t fall for the temptation to make her protagonist lose weight in order to find her HEA, she forced the show, the men, and the viewing public to accept Bea as she was.
The depiction of the reality TV world—the way things are manipulated to make ratings, the descriptions of the fancy wardrobe, the tensions of the timetable—were well done, as was the use of the social media inserts into the story—text messages, emails, TMZ articles, tweets, and blog posts all added dimension to the story.
Ultimately, the book does pander to wish fulfillment, but then, what did you expect? It’s a rom-com. But it’s entertainingly written and told, and does have a lot to offer about false standards of beauty and their equation with worth. So I say, a positive review.
By contrast, I became almost immediately impatient with both the author and the protagonist of Julie Murphy’s new book, Faith Taking Flight. I should have known better than to broach this book with no expectations, because I found her previous book, Dumplin’, to be full of contradictions that didn’t lend themselves to her avowed goal of advocating for plus-size teens. But the prospect of a fat girl who could fly grabbed my attention, and I jumped in with enthusiasm.
My enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay and derision as I experienced the thin plot development regarding the flying skills. Faith meets Peter, who tells her she’s been chosen to go through some kind of conversion to turn her into a superhero, because she has the potential to become a psiot. This conversation takes place at the mall. Then he tells her (alarm bells should be ringing) that she has to perpetrate a “cover” for herself over the summer—to tell her grandmother that she’s off to journalism camp. She agrees! She climbs trustingly onto a bus, goes to a secret underground facility, is locked in a room and assigned a uniform and a number, and then realizes she’s an experimental subject. Meanwhile, her granny (her guardian) sends mail and makes phone calls for the entire six weeks that she’s gone; Grandma Lou receives not one response, and doesn’t see this as a problem or institute any kind of inquiry, just assumes her granddaughter is fine? Come on. We discover later (way too late in the book) that Faith actually escapes from the facility with Peter’s help, whereupon she simply goes home and does nothing—doesn’t call the authorities, or wonder about all the other kids who were trapped there with her—she just gets a part-time job at an animal shelter, and resumes school in the fall. But this is the most unbelievable part of the entire story: She doesn’t fly! She has this ability, which would excite most of us beyond belief, and she doesn’t go out every night to try it out? doesn’t practice? doesn’t test her limits or tell her friends? No. She pulls it out when necessary (to save someone from falling off a roof, or to look for her grandmother when she wanders off, a victim of senile dementia) and that’s it. Right.
Meanwhile, we have the secondary plot, which is actually the primary one considering how much space it fills in the 338 pages of the book: The cast and crew of the teen soap opera (The Grove) with which Faith has been obsessed since childhood—to the point where she writes the premiere blog about it and publishes weekly recaps and commentary—moves its filming destination to her town, and the star of the show, Dakota Ash, supposedly meets cute with her over adopting a dog from the shelter, but then confesses that she has read the blog and knows who Faith is. Faith is over the moon (but still not literally, because not flying), and we get a lot of detail on this relationship, hurt feelings from abandoned “regular” friends as she tours the lot and has milk shakes with the star, yadda yadda. Oh, and this is the point where Faith explores the idea that she might be gay…or bi? After all, in addition to the tempting Dakota there’s also her journalism swain, Johnny….
Enter third plot: Animals (both strays and pets), homeless people, and random teenage girls have disappeared from town and no one can find them. One dog and one girl reappear, but are catatonic and provide no clues to the mystery.
So how does all of this fit together? Badly. Improbably. Unconvincingly. Incompletely. Because…there may be a sequel in the works. Yeah. Which would actually be good if it clears up any of the picked up and dropped plot points, the fuzzy background and world-building, and Faith’s inexplicable reluctance to use her friggin’ superpower! But based on this one, I highly doubt it. I discovered on Goodreads that this is a prequel novelization of a superhero from Valiant Entertainment comics. If I were the author of those comics, I would not be happy at this moment.
Before I forget, allow me to address the fat girls in the room: Murphy punts in this book as she does in Dumplin’. She gives the heroine the possibility of a romance or two in which Faith speculates, “But what could they see in ME?” and she almost lets her have it, but then pulls back to deliver the same blow fat girls always endure, when they are told that they are not special and that no one would want them. Yeah, maybe that message served the plot at that particular moment, but aren’t we all tired of the incessant battering of that already bruised spot on the fragile fat-girl ego? I know I am.
I finished the book, but I confess that it was only so I could better skewer it. Faith herself is an ebullient and somewhat refreshing protagonist, but she’s so weighed down by a thin, chaotic and nonsensical story line that she’ll never, ever get off the ground.
One thing you have to do as a reader, if you are not to be eternally disgruntled with life, is to try not to have outsize expectations of authors. That’s tough sometimes, particularly if an author has never disappointed you with a single one of her books until the one you are reading right now, which you cannot believe came from the same person’s formerly fertile brain. Sometimes it’s not a matter of your icon having written a bad book, simply that she has written one that doesn’t resonate with you, or is directed to a different age group than you expected, or was written earlier in her career before she developed the amazing story-telling abilities that hooked you later on.
There are several authors I have run across who have surprised me in this way: One of them is Elizabeth George, whose masterful mysteries featuring the unlikely detective team of Thomas Lynley, son of the peerage, and Barbara Havers, woman of the people, cause me much excitement whenever they emerge. When I found out she was also trying her hand at young adult books, I was excited to see what she would produce, particularly because, as a teen librarian, I was always looking for a gifted “new” author to pitch to my YA book clubs. I read the first one the minute it hit the library shelf, and was both amazed and dismayed; where was the intricate plotting of her adult mysteries? This pseudo-paranormal mish-mash couldn’t be a product of the same sharp, incisive wit! I’m told that they did improve as she wrote more of them, but I never found out, I stopped at number one. I am still a dedicated fan of Lynley/Havers, and steadfastly ignore the rest.
Another author where the contrast isn’t so wide but nonetheless exists is V. E. (Victoria) Schwab. Her book Vicious is among my top 10 favorite books of all time, and I tout her Shades of Magic series to all and sundry, from 12-year-olds to the elderly. But her two series for young adults—The Archived and Monsters of Verity—left me feeling not exactly disappointed but certainly underwhelmed. I did enjoy the first of her Cassidy Blake books (City of Ghosts) for slightly younger readers, and I am looking forward to reading her new, long-awaited The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which Schwab has spent 10 years bringing forth and of which she says, “I’ve put my heart and soul, my teeth and blood and bones into this one.” I’m really hoping that it falls into the “I want a copy so I can reread it multiple times” category and not into the “I’m wishing I had read something else this weekend” pile.
Anyway…that’s a long preface to say that I have experienced something similar this week with the book I chose. A few years back I read Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, an historical fiction novel of World War II, set in Nazi-occupied France, with an American and a British protagonist, both women, one a pilot and the other a spy. To say the book captured my imagination as thoroughly as one of its protagonists is held hostage by the Germans is an understatement. I read it straight through in one sitting, and wept profusely several times, the first occasion on which a book has caused tears since I was a teenager. The story, and the specific way it was recounted, simply bowled me over, and I actually couldn’t read anything else for a couple of days while I thought about and recovered from the book.
I remember, when I read it, thinking, “I do not understand why this has been marketed and sold as a YA book. Will some teens love this book? Definitely. Is it a teen book? Not in the least.” I followed up by telling blog readers, “I find myself sad that [CNV] has been marginalized in any way from finding its full audience, because this book deserves to be widely read. Adults out there, recommend this to your teens, and then read it yourselves, and give it to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus.”
As you can imagine, this set up high expectations for all the rest of Wein’s oeuvre, and when I saw one of them for a discounted price from bookoutlet.com, I snapped it up and prepared to be wowed.
The book is The Pearl Thief, and it is as different as night and day or, to be specifically British about it, as chalk and cheese, to her previous work, even though its protagonist is one of the women from CNV, at age 15. And it is definitely written for a younger teenage audience. Before you expect me to pan it, let me say that it was a completely enjoyable read. But I was unconsciously expecting a level of drama and pathos, based on Code Name Verity, that simply didn’t manifest in this story.
If I hadn’t had specific expectations of this author, I still think I would have been intrigued by the book and its subject matter. It takes place in Scotland in 1938, and drops in at the end of an era for one family whose “perfect little Scottish estate, with a ruined castle and a baronial manor, nestled in woodland just where the River Fearn meets the River Tay” will no longer belong to the family, now that the death of Julia Beaufort-Stuart’s grandfather has triggered a reckoning. Lord Streathfern did all he could to save the house and the land for his heirs, but the combination of a lingering illness and a downturn in the economy made it necessary to sell up to a boys’ school, and the family are now inhabiting a small section of the house while the school administrators oversee the renovations and conversions necessary to turn it into the institution it will become. This will be Julie’s last summer on her grandfather’s land, with her brothers, her mother and grandmother, and the few servants left, and then they will move back to their own Craig Castle near Aberdeen, taking her widowed grandmother with them.
By broad contrast with Julie’s sheltered and privileged upbringing, the other vital characters in this story are the two teenagers, Ellen and Euan, in a family of Travelers who have spent seasons on Streathfern land time out of mind, helping harvest “tatties,” beating the bushes and collecting the downed birds during shooting holidays and, in between, collecting tin from the townsfolk and weaving baskets from the withies in the marshy land near the river. This land was ceded to them by right for the past 300 years in exchange for a small fortune in river pearls (which play a vital role in the story), but now the changing fortunes of the laird will mean change for them all.
As the story begins, Julie has just arrived home for the summer three days before she is expected. When no one is around up at the house, she changes out of her traveling outfit into a T-shirt and an old kilt and goes out hiking around the estate, reacquainting herself with her favorite haunts. One moment she is lying on the bank of the river with one arm immersed, tickling for trout in the deep, cold water, and the next she is awaking in a hospital ward with a splitting headache from a lump on her head, being treated with disrespect and disdain as the “tinker” girl they believe her to be. She discovers that she was found, unconscious, on a path in the woods, and brought into the hospital by two of the Travelers; once her mistaken identity is resolved, her mother is called, and she returns home, feeling battered and wondering about how it all happened.
It soon becomes clear that the thump on her head was no accident, and that it is probably directly related to a missing employee of the estate, who disappeared on the same day she landed in the hospital. Along with the two travelers, Euan and Ellen, she seeks out the reason why anyone would have sought to hurt her or the missing man and, in the process, must stand up for her Traveller friends as local bias against them starts framing Euan up for murder.
This book is a delightful combination of murder mystery, coming of age story, and a serious depiction of prejudice, as exhibited by many of the “regular” people towards the Travelers they hold in suspicion and distrust for their alternate lifestyle. Although it wasn’t quite what I expected in terms of drama and emotional engagement, it surprised me (in a good way) with its exposition of the themes Wein did choose to explore. I think adults could enjoy the book, but it is definitely written with teens in mind, and is one of those books one could recommend that promotes empathy to its young readers. The book would be appropriate for anyone 12 and up, although probably a lower age of 14 would find it more relateable.
This review is also to say, placing expectations on your favorite authors and holding them to some rigid ideal may make you miss out on books they wrote that are different but nonetheless effective and providing of considerable enjoyment.
ADDENDUM: Today (according to a post on Facebook) is National Book Lovers Day. I’m not making a special post like for the cats, because EVERY day is book lovers’ day here @TheBookAdept!
I woke up this morning and checked the calendar to discover that it’s International Cat Day! I must commemorate that, or Gidget and the spirits of all my house cats who have gone before will haunt me. Here, therefore is an eclectic and by no means complete list of some books that feature felines as protagonists and companions. The array of adult books seem to fall into one of two camps: The cats who solve mysteries with their human counterparts, and the cats of science fiction, who are sentient to various degrees. The children’s books celebrate cats in all ways possible from the realistic to the bizarre. These are in no particular order, except possibly by the age of the humans to which they may appeal. If you wish to find hundreds more books about cats, look here, under “lists” in Goodreads.
The Cat Who… mysteries, by Lilian Jackson Braun, in which a reporter and his cat solve mysteries. First book: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.
The Mrs. Murphy mysteries, by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown, in which Mrs. Murphy and her human companion solve mysteries. First book: Wish You Were Here.
The Joe Grey mysteries, by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which there are talking cats and also a human who discovers an ability to morph into a cat. First book: Cat on the Edge.
Catfantastic: Nine Lives and Fifteen Tales, by Andre Norton, editor, in which sci fi and fantasy writers tell tall tales about furry felines. (Short stories.)
The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, in which the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s cat offers insights on happiness and meaning.
The Chanur novels, by C. J. Cherryh, in which a leonine species—the Chanur—take in a human refugee and by so doing threaten the interspecies Compact. First book: The Pride of Chanur.
The Cinder Spires books, by Jim Butcher, in which there are also cat clans and some naval airship action. First book: The Aeronaut’s Windlass.
The Cult of the Cat books, by Zoe Kalo, in which Trinity is left with a dead grandmother and a thousand grieving cats. A sort of Egyptian urban fantasy. First book: Daughter of the Sun.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot, in which the author describes cats each by their distinct personality. (Poetry.) Someone should set this to music…
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, in which a lonely old couple acquires companions. This is known as the original picture book for children.
The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, in which Sally and her brother receive a visit from a madcap cat.
Socks, by Beverly Cleary, in which the cat has to learn to share his family with their new baby.
The Warriors books, by Erin Hunter, in which a house cat discovers clans of cats living in the wild in the forest…. First book: Into the Wild.
Varjak Paw books, by S. F. Said & Dave McKean (illustrator), in which a cat goes Outside and overcomes challenges.
The Wildings books, by Nilanjana Roy, in which a small band of cats lives in the alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighborhood in Delhi, India.
The Feline Wizards series, by Diane Duane, in which feline wizards time travel to avert disasters. First book: The Book of Night with Moon.
The Cat Pack books, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, in which brothers Marco and Polo go adventuring. First book: The Grand Escape.
The Black Cat Chronicles, by Aileen Pettigrew, in which there are cats, zombies, and magic. First book: Soul Thief.
Stray, by A. N. Wilson, in which a cat without a home tells his own rather bleak story.
Tales of the Barque Cats, by Anne McCaffrey, in which cats are essential members of the crews of space vessels…until an epidemic threatens their extinction.
The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, in which a bull terrier named Bodger, a Labrador retriever called Luath, and Tao, a Siamese cat, travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to reunite with their people.
As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a huge fan of fantasy writer Robin McKinley. I reviewed my two favorite books of hers, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, here. I think she has inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. A friend and I recently discussed, however, how unpredictable she can be—we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one of them. Shadows, one of her lesser-known books, is one that I like.
But how to describe this book? In a weird way, it’s a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge of it. But it’s also a fantasy, because it’s all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.
Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it’s been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can’t deal. There’s his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that’s the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody’s shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in “science world” being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that’s where you have to “suspend disbelief” and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.
As I said, in Newworld, where Maggie lives, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In fact, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against “cohesion breaks,” or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It’s a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie’s worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he’s living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he’s shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie’s family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back—or was it?
Things I loved about this book: all the characters—her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird—incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn’t feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book—but I didn’t care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.
The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world; it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will ever be one is anybody’s guess, since McKinley mostly doesn’t do sequels. I hope so, because I grew fond of these characters.
So–would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.
I’m tagging this with the YA Fiction category because it reads as if it could have been written specifically for teens; but as with most fantasy out there, if you are a fantasy reader you don’t discriminate between teen and adult fantasy, it’s all just fantasy!
I have been anticipating reading Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, for several reasons: Although I didn’t care for her Grisha series because it was so full of angsty teenage indecision, I absolutely loved the duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, particularly the latter. I felt like Bardugo had stepped up her style and discernment by a lot in the second series, and also, I can’t resist a “gang of thieves” story.
I’m really not sure why Ninth House has been identified as an adult, rather than a teen, book. Admittedly, it’s far too gory and explicit for younger teens, but I could definitely see some of my former book club members from the 10th-12th grade club enjoying this. After all, the philosophy in writing for children or teens is that they always want to read “up,” which is to say, they want to read about a protagonist who is a year or two older than they are. As a freshman at Yale, the Ninth House protagonist, Alex Stern, is just the right age to appeal to seniors in high school. I imagine many parents of said older teens would still quibble with me, because they feel their children should be protected from such graphic fare; and there is a part of me that thinks everyone should be protected from it! But as you learn from reading a lot of books, sometimes you need that stuff to make a point, to expose a wrong-doing, to create empathy in your reader. (Plus, of course, for dramatic effect in your adventure story.) There were certainly plenty of opportunities for that here!
Within the first few pages of this book, I seriously considered putting it down without finishing it. There is a scene early on in which a group of students from one of the magical “houses” at Yale performs a “prognostication” by reading the innards of a man who is still alive (although sedated), with his stomach cut open and pinned back; when they’re done, they stitch him up and send him off to hospital without another thought for his well-being. Also present at the ritual were a group of “Grays,” ghosts who gave off a really frightening vibe. The entire scene turned my stomach, and since I hadn’t as yet invested much into either the story, the scene, or the protagonist (and didn’t really want to encounter more of this), I thought about stopping. But surely all my friends—both personal and Goodreads-type—who were bowled over by this book couldn’t be wrong? So I kept reading.
Ultimately, I was glad I did. Although it took a long time to understand what was happening and also to bond with the main character, I eventually came to appreciate both the bizarre behind-the scenes action and the dogged, flawed, yet honorable Alex, who didn’t give up no matter what.
“Could she grasp the ugly truth of it all?
That magic wasn’t something
gilded and benign, just another
commodity that only
some people could afford?”
Some things I liked about the book:
It gives this Ivy League school an ulterior motive for existing that is both completely creepy and also believable. The concept of a university elite is nothing new, but the idea that they became that way by the practice of necromancy, portal magic, splanchomancy (the reading of entrails), therianthropy (basically, shape-shifting), glamours, and the like is certainly novel!
The funniest part of this is at the end of the book, in an appendix, where the author describes the eight occult houses, reveals in what talent or magic each is invested, and then names graduates (from the real world) who have benefited by being members of the houses during their careers at Yale.
This is not just an amusing commentary, however, on how these students one-upped their futures by participating in magical solutions on the sly. As highlighted in the quote above, Alex comes to realize that magic, while theoretically accessible to whoever was trained or born to practice it, was in reality a tool of the rich and privileged that was sought after at the expense of the poor and defenseless. This is a huge theme of the book, and this is why the reader is able to bear with all the dark scenes, because they are so illustrative of our own contemporary world where billionaires are tripling their wealth during the pandemic while so-called “essential” workers are flogged back to their minimum-wage jobs, despite the danger, by the threat of unemployment. I don’t know if she intended it, but Bardugo here reveals the true “deep state” of influence,
bought and traded favors, and a deep disregard for anyone who gets
in the way.
Up against this mostly impenetrable and nearly unbeatable system of advancement is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, an underdog heroine if there ever was one. She is recruited (and given a full ride to Yale) to be a member of a secret society, Lethe, whose officers are trained to monitor the other eight houses for stepping over the line, and to report and penalize them when they do. Alex wants to use her special abilities for good, but quickly realizes that her job is mostly for show, and that there will be few consequences for any of these offenders, because to bring their activities out into the light would mean embarrassment for alumni, for administrators, and for Yale itself as an institution. What the people who recruited her don’t realize, however, is that first, Alex has abilities about which they (and at first she) are unaware, and that second, Alex has been conditioned by life as an almost constant victim to fight for herself and for other victims no matter how hard the going.
At its heart, Ninth House is a giant (and cleverly structured) mystery. There is a contemporary murder, there are disappearances of vital personnel, there is a string of dead girls from the past that may tie in, and Alex, despite discouragement from both her mentors and her opponents, is determined to solve it in order to bring justice for the have-nots that she sees as her equals.
But the book is not single-minded. There are also themes of friendship and (nonromantic) love, and a lot of social commentary. There is the gradual evolution, also, of the book’s characters as they confront issues and reflect upon their responses. One early-on thought from Alex that I loved was when she was pondering how easily things change from “normal” to not:
“You started sleeping until noon, skipped one class, one day of school, lost one job, then another, forgot the way that normal people did things. You lost the language of ordinary life.”
There were also, in amongst some fairly gruesome scenes that (if you are squeamish, you should be aware) include drug abuse, coercion, murder, rape, and the like, some inside jokes about college that I enjoyed, including some funny dormitory moments among roommates. One library-oriented joke, as noted by my Goodreads friend Lucky Little Cat, was, “I especially liked the special-collections library where occult search requests result in the delivery of either an avalanche of barely relevant books or one lonely pamphlet.’ Anybody who has been to college has encountered this result, with absolutely no occult assistance whatsoever!
Be aware that some readers have accused Bardugo of racism (because of a few comments on Alex’s Mexican origins), and of blatant sexism and misogyny in her portrayal of the rape scenes in the book (because they are pictured from the observer’s point of view rather than that of the victim’s). You will have to decide for yourself how you feel about these accusations.
Bottom line, apart from a rather confusing and disjointed few pages at the beginning, I found this to be a clever, nuanced read about white privilege (as symbolized by magic!) and the lengths to which people will go to cling to it. It also has both a protagonist and a secondary character that, while the book has a satisfactory ending, you are longing to follow into the sequel, which will hopefully be produced quickly.
When I dialed up Los Angeles Public Library’s catalog and looked at their e-book selection for Brigid Kemmerer, I found one more book that wasn’t included in either the Elementals, the contemporary fiction, or the Cursebreakers. It was a stand-alone and it was available, so I downloaded it.
Thicker Than Water is an anomaly, in that it starts out like a contemporary, turns into a murder mystery, and then makes a shift into the weird.
Thomas Bellweather is in trouble, with pretty much no one to whom he can turn. A few weeks ago, he and his mom moved to the town of Garretts Mill so that his mom could make a happy second marriage with her boyfriend, Stan. But two weeks after the wedding his mother has been murdered, and he’s left alone with his brand-new step-dad in a town full of strangers…many of whom believe that he was the killer. There’s not enough proof to lock him up, but there’s plenty to make every cop in town suspect him. Three of those cops, brothers, have a little sister named Charlotte who seems to be the only person interested in finding out the truth and, at least tentatively, extending a hand of friendship to him. But every time the two of them try to get together to work things out, mishaps turn into drama, and Thomas is deeper in trouble. Then, while looking through boxes of his mother’s things in the garage, Thomas makes a strange discovery about her past that turns everything he knows upside down. What, if anything, does this have to do with what’s happening today?
This book was immediately both frustrating and gripping. All the people in town who dedicate themselves to keeping Thomas and Charlotte apart, thereby delaying the vital information they need to discover to keep Thomas out of jail, was crazy-making, as was Charlotte’s alternating stance between trust and fear of Thomas. But what was weird to me was the pacing. The fact that the two protagonists are constantly being separated meant that the story line dragged behind where it “should” have been for a large part of the book, but then…
Since I was reading the book on my Kindle, I paid attention to the “percentage” of book finished. When something super significant happened, I glanced to the bottom of the screen and saw that the book was already at 81 percent, but this book was billed as a stand-alone. Hmmm, I thought: For me to get what I need from this story, we shouldn’t be at more than 65 percent at this point! (the voice of experience speaking) And sure enough, although everything was sufficiently revealed to solve the initial mystery, I was left with so many questions!
I can’t detail them here, because it would completely ruin the book for anyone reading this review, but I will say that I think Brigid Kemmerer owes us a sequel. These characters deserve more closure, and more exposure! The twist at the end needs further exploration and explanation! C’mon, what do you say?
After completing and thoroughly enjoying Brigid Kemmerer’s Call It What You Want earlier this week, I was positively compelled to read two of her other contemporary realistic teen fiction novels: Letters to the Lost, and More Than We Can Tell. Previous to 2015, Kemmerer was apparently known for her “Elementals” series about four brothers with paranormal powers, but when I read the descriptions, I wasn’t enticed to read one. I can’t say the same for her contemporary realistic novels, which I have practically inhaled one after another without stopping, becoming incensed when my Kindle ran out of juice at 2:30 in the morning about 40 pages from the end of the last one!
These books remind me of a few other authors—Dessen, Caletti, Rowell—because their books also contain that ideal combination of relationship and life events that propels the story. Even though there are elements of romance to each book, the primary motivation is understanding, empathy, and relationship. Although I have seen some young reviewers on Goodreads remark on the swoon-worthiness of various protagonists (as do some of the other characters!), most recognize that they are not reading these books for the romance but for the real-life transformations that occur as a result of the connections made by the people in Kemmerer’s books.
Letters to the Lost is, as one might assume from its title, an epistolary tale. While working his community service gig at the local cemetery by clearing up the debris left by its visitors and then mowing the plots, Declan Murphy finds a letter left by one of the headstones. When he picks it up and reads it, he feels a surprising affinity with the feelings expressed by its author and, in an impulsive moment, he pulls a pencil out of his pocket, appends the words “Me, too” to the end of it, and lays it back on the grave, never dreaming that the original writer would come back to find his alteration of her letter.
Juliet Young, who has been heartbroken for four months since the death of her photojournalist mother in a hit-and-run, is outraged when she sees that someone has dared to appropriate her grief, and writes another, indignant letter addressing not her mom but the encroaching P.S. person. This is the beginning of both a correspondence and a friendship that grows faster than either could have dreamed, as they each feel free in their anonymity to express some of their deepest feelings and fears.
The truth is, Declan and Juliet are not complete strangers to one another; but the public personnas they wear at school have blinded each other and almost everyone else to who they are or have the potential to be. It takes some extraordinary events to bring them out of hiding, for one another and with all the other people in their lives with whom they need to clear the air.
In More Than We Can Tell, one of the significant sidekicks from Letters to the Lost gets his own tale, which is a more than satisfying happenstance for those who loved the first book. He was an intriguing and important character in the first story, but although we gleaned bits and pieces of his history, there was so much more to tell. As in Letters, and also in the book I read earlier, Rev Fletcher gets a counterpart, Emma Blue, to help him reveal his story while dealing with the fallout from her own, and together the two are able to transition some difficult events with all the ambivalent feelings they stir up.
Rev has loving adoptive parents who took him in 10 years ago at age seven, and adopted him a few years later. He has for the most part put the effects of his troubled early childhood aside, but when he turns 18 and receives a letter from the father who abused him both mentally and physically, it sends him into a tailspin from which he is having a hard time recovering.
Emma has parents who love her, but her mother is hypercritical of Emma’s choice to follow in her father’s footsteps as a creator of video games. To escape the bickering between them, Emma focuses all her time and attention on the perfecting of a computer game she has created from scratch. But when an intrusive and insistent “troll” begins harassing her online, she is reluctant to reveal this problem to a mother who will order her to stop or a father who will be disappointed in her less-than-perfect design security.
Rev and Emma meet, and each serves as an outlet for the other’s private fears. But then issues arise that cause a lack of trust, and it’s not clear whether the budding relationship will survive them.
These books, while sounding formulaic (the alternating points of view, the pairing of two protagonists, the problems they must overcome) are in all honesty totally immersive, nuanced, and redemptive in tone. I can’t imagine a teenager who couldn’t relate to at least one, if not all, of these characters, and the “lessons” that are being taught are not heavy-handed. Some of the messages—that you can ask for what you want instead of passively waiting to be given it; that unkindness should always be resisted on your own behalf and that of others; that talking to people will mostly relieve all kinds of unfortunate misunderstandings; and that a moment is just a moment and a day is just a day, always making room for a different choice or change—are beautifully illustrated by these stories.
I do plan to read the sequel to the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale retelling Kemmerer has written, and I still maintain hers is one of the better and more original one of these out there, but I think her true strength lies in writing about real teenagers in the throes of their confusing, sometimes difficult lives.
I also have great admiration for her, in that she has written at least a dozen books between the years of 2012 and 2020, while simultaneously being married and having four sons!