The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle
Janet Fox is a writer-friend I met while in the debut novelist marketing group, Class of 2k8, and then again at Vermont College. This is the first novel of hers I've treated myself to.
And what a treat! Part mystery, part paranormal, part thriller.
Basic premise: It's WW II and the Blitz is full on in England. Kat, Rob, and Ame are sent to live at a castle-turned-school in the Scottish highlands, while their mother weathers out the war in London, and their father is deployed to spy for the British on the continent. The castle-turned-school is run by The Lady, who isn't all she appears. She has lived for hundreds of years, collecting magic via the souls she steals from children. She only needs a few more to be immortal. Hence, the school. Yet, for each child's soul she takes, she loses a part of herself, turning more and more into an automaton. One of the teachers she employs is a secret German spy. Kat and Peter, an American sent to the school too, discover the spy and work to stop him. Time, however, is short. A different child disappears each day. And soon, the core of children fighting the spies and the witch fall prey to her magic. Until only Kat is left with the seemingly insurmountable task of defeating them all.
I can hear an editor saying, "This is a very ambitious project." And yet Fox pulls it off...I won't say effortlessly because anyone who has spilled a little ink knows just how hard writing is...marvelously. This is multiple character, genre mashing done well.
You know how Scooby and Shaggy are always saying "It's a witch! It's a witch!" (Or, is that Monty Python...) And then Thelma, Daphne and Fred prove it isn't a witch. It's the cook! Secretly, I was always pulling for Scooby and Shaggy. Just once, I wanted the witch to be, well, a witch.
I've finally gotten my comeuppance. This time magic is real and the witch is a witch. What's more, she's dangerous. So are the spies. And they are very real, too. Basically, there is something for camp Shaggy and Scooby and camp Thelma in this story.
Fox chooses an omniscient third POV to relay her story, arguably the only voice that could work, unless the writer were to use first person going from character to character, which seems a lot more cumbersome than omniscient third, given the host of characters. Her deft use of the voice reminds me of Susan Cooper's use of the same POV in a similar story, The Boggart. They are both excellent examples of how to use third person POV well.
I was charmed by The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. It's an entertaining, solid read. It also got me thinking. There are many similar objects and storylines in the piece that suffuse middle grade at present - automatons (steampunk), World War II, magic, England, the lone girl heroine. It makes me wonder where the field will go next. These themes have been incorporated into some incredibly creative conceits. But conceits, plural. See: Miss Peregrine's School for Peculiar Children, The Boggart, Code Name Verity, How I Live Now, The War that Saved my Life. Is it time to go in a new direction? Are there stories buried in the deeper folds of history that aren't being told, or haven't been told in a while? Although I say that, indeed, all of the books listed above are on my Kindle. So perhaps it's me. Still, I may go a'diggin'...
I love the books I struggle with. It's all about the challenge. Alexandra Bracken challenged me with The Passenger. And she's still challenging me. So let's hit the ring!
Basic premise: On the night of violinst extraordinaire and lifelong New Yorker, 17 year-old Etta Linden's premiere recital, her teacher is murdered, a hole opens up in time, and Etta is thrust into a centuries-old battle for control of basically all of humanity. Her only friend, Nicholas, is fellow time traveler, and secretly sent to keep Etta in line in her quest for the one object that can tilt the scales of power in favor of the least favorable hegemon, who now holds Etta's mother captive.
Get ready for a ride. Bracken takes readers from 1776 New York to WII London, the jungles of Cambodia, late 1800s Paris, and the deserts surrounding Damascus. There is nary a dull moment. Add to that a fierce romance between Nicholas and Etta, and you've got yourself perhaps the first summer read of the Spring.
What challenged me most about this piece was the balance of romance and action. Etta is no damsel in distress, but Nicholas, a former slave, comes from 1700s America and does have a bit of the hero to him, which is at once a fabulous twist on the hero and yet a hero nonetheless. Etta, however, coming from the present day, sees them as partners. Thus, there is a tension in expectations throughout the story - Nicholas trying to live up to an ideal no human can, and Etta not expecting it and working to redirect, to get him to see relationships in a different light. Again, kudos to Bracken. It's a struggle this generation of women, if not my own, faces with the cultural expectations through which the opposite gender has been raised to see itself.
So, despite all of that, because of the strong male character, this piece does devolve into a somewhat more, seemingly predictable romance novel. Granted, it does not end that way exactly. However, you've got to stick with it to find that out, and that may be hard if you're looking for something that doesn't tiptoe into classic romance lit, complete with swooning and getting swept away. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It's just a predictable one.
Which makes me question where YA is headed these days. This is just one book of many coming out, but it seems to be that we're falling back into old patterns. There are the realistic YA novels, such as the Fault in Our Stars. They're nothing new to literature (see, Catcher in the Rye). And there are the Twilight sagas, such as The Passenger. The one book I have a hard time categorizing, honestly, is The Hunger Games or Divergent. Dystopian? Sci-Fi? But yet YA?
Categorization is a fun hobby, like collecting stamps, but it doesn't change literature. Nonetheless, stepping back and looking at literature as a categorizer can give a writer an idea of where the tide may be headed. Perhaps Suzanne Collins great contribution has been - aside from a riveting read - genre mashing, pushing dystopian and YA together. It begs the question, what other unique mashes can we come up with? Writers of the world unite. Let's break some new boundaries!
For more great reads, and less revolutionary calls to arms ;-), skip on over to Barrie Summy's site. She's serving them up fresh and tasty!
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Illuminae The Illuminae Files
By Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
"First, survive. Then, tell the truth." That's one of the better loglines I've read in a while. And this is one of the better novels I've had the good fortune to read in the YA category in a while.
Basic premise: The morning Kady breaks up with Ezra their colony on the outskirts of the populated section of the universe is attacked and destroyed by a corrupt company. The "marines" of the galaxy beat back the attackers and rescue a handful of survivors. Their main ship, however, takes heavy damage, and it's a race against time to make it to the next outpost before they're attacked and destroyed by the same company. What they don't realize, until it's too late, is that the bioweapon used by the company to attack the outpost goes viral, starting a plague on the fleeing ships. The Artificial Intelligence, which runs the battle cruiser, has also taken heavy damage--mentally--and can't be trusted.
Basically, the odds of survival are stacked against not just Kady and Ezra, but everyone on the fleeing ships. Will anyone survive to tell the tale and bring the offenders to justice? Because, hey, we evil authors can and do kill of main characters all of the time.
Cue mad scientist evil laugh: Bwahahahaha.
Tongue and cheek aside, I haven't enjoyed a read this much in a long time. I had begun to despair that the realistic fiction bandwagon had set up shop, and it was going to be a long time before YA fiction came around to be fun and entertaining again. While this is touted as dystopian, don't let the moniker fool you, or put you off. This is sci fi. Fun sci fi. Edge of your pants sci fi. Star wars YA style. In other words, a breath of fresh air within the angsty teen lit of late.
The story is told mainly from Kady's POV, although using different formats for information sharing, i.e. texts, emails, reports, interviews, etc, does allow the authors to introduce different POVs. Again, breath of fresh air. Admittedly, I'm getting a wee bit tired of the female dominated genre.
While studies may show that mostly women and female teens read YA, that doesn't mean we'd only like to read female POV. Yes, it's AMAZING to have a female heroine. Love it. Love it like chocolate cake. But, if that's all you get, after a while, even chocolate cake gets boring. Please, please, please, if the world of publishing is listening, can we have a few more male POV stories? By that, I don't mean heroes who rescue the damsel in distress, just male POV. That's all. Let's get inside the mind of the male teen. What I wouldn't have given at that age to understand this mysterious anomaly.
For more warm winter brain food, stomp on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's serving them up with a healthy does of California sun!
I had trouble with this book, and every time I have trouble with a book I know it's one I need to think about more, which usually ends up turning into a book I have to review. This month's trouble maker: Husky by Justin Sayre. This is listed as YA by the publisher, but the main character is 12, so it sort of feels more like that, dare I say it, uncategorizable book.
Pause for gasping.
And kudos to Sayre.
Basic plot line: Davis, twelve years old, lives with his mother and grandmother in a brownstone in Brooklyn. He loves opera and is incredibly sensitive, with serious self-esteem issues. He doesn't like his body. It's the summer before 8th grade, the last weeks before the start of a whole new school year, and we spend them in his life. Nothing earth-shattering happens. Rather, it's a compilation of small occurrences that nevertheless cause a major change in the main character. Davis's friends change, evolving as adolescents do, finding themselves, his mom starts dating someone new after a very very long time of not dating anyone at all, Davis isn't invited to his best girl friend's sort of birthday party (which is just for girls), and Davis, too, is, without really knowing it, trying to figure out who he is while also searching for the strength to voice his own hurts and feelings.
According to the author, the main character is gay but Sayre said he wasn't himself if Davis knew. This isn't a coming out book, not in the sense of sexuality. It's more about finding one's self, a much larger concept of which sexual orientation is but one part.
The story flows seamlessly. The events that happen, their very triviality, is exceptionally well-written. And the characters are all extremely well drawn. In some ways, I think that's where I began to get hung up on the storytelling. Davis would spiral down so deeply into self-doubt or loathing that I began to be turned off as a reader. That probably says more about me than about the writing. I strive as a writer to walk that the line between believability and writing that's too well done, too realistic, too hard to relate to.
Reading those words, I think, again, it's me. It's not the story. But I didn't feel that way about Wonder, which is also a story about tough issues, finding one's way. However, Auggie didn't go so far down the rabbit hole that I couldn't or wouldn't follow him. Perhaps that is the difference between YA and middle grade? I'm positing. I'm not sure. And I'll probably spend another month chewing on the idea, trying to figure out what my personal takeaway is. Which is exactly why I had to review this book. One that makes me think, argue with myself aloud, while walking my dogs, and even puts me in a bad mood, that's a book that's causing me to grow.
The jacket to Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen is just too cool. I had to share an image of front and back up, which, incidentally, will be educational for young audiences. Hey Kids, this is what a library book used to look like. It came with a card, and the card got stamped with a date. That's how libraries worked before computers took over.
In Evil Librarian, Cynthia Rotschild must save her high school, but most importantly, her best friend from the evil scheming of a demon who has come to our world to wreak havoc, but run a very efficient library, complete with informative lecture on the Dewey Decimal system. When said demon takes Annie back to the demon world to be his bride, Cyn sacrifices the love of her live, Ryan, to follow and fight for Annie, all while also heading up the crew for the school's musical, Sweeney Todd.
This is an action-packed story that nevertheless delves so adeptly into the emotional ups and downs of its main protagonist with a healthy and delightful dose of humor and self-awareness. And it's not so scary I couldn't sleep at night. I am horrible with horror. This is horror done in a way that doesn't scar me. Whew.
At times, Cyn gets a little carried away with emotional description and waxing on. I found myself spacing now and again, but these moments are short-lived and do not throw the otherwise exceptionally well-balanced piece off kilter. And perhaps, ultimately, are truer to teenage angst and drama than anything else.
From a craft perspective, I enjoyed how Knudsen both builds suspense and keeps the reader on the edge of her seat. I don't think I ever realized before how much heavy lifting the present continuous can do in that respect. A great example of just how the verb can work for you is on page 321 (if you are still reading those archaic printed books :-): "He's coming, coming closer, and I'm waiting, and everything else just falls away. I'm listening for the call in my headset, waiting for the conductor's baton to drop and I'm ready. And the moment comes." And here is where the text changes to present simple, as well as short, jabbing sentences, that accent the fight scene. It's really a paragraph worth studying for style and craft. Verbs are it!
The Gollywhopper Games - Friend or Foe
This is my third romp through the Gollywhopper Games (3rd book in the series) and it was as fresh, fun and filled with as many unexpected twists as the first, which is saying something. These books are plot mixed with mystery (nod to Barrie) mixed with puzzles in a new spin on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a realistic twist. Every single puzzle or conundrum Feldman creates is both real and solvable. The reader has "skin in the game" so to speak because she can outwit the winner, if she wants, and solve the puzzles before she reads to the end. It's the kind of rush a reader longs for in a book, while sneakily being, dare I say, math at the same time.
Basic plot: Zane plays football, but after two concussions, he has to sit out for a season. He feels lost, both within his circle of friends and identity-wise when the strangest of tests arrives at school. All students are required to take it, although nobody knows why. Zane's teacher says the test is pointless, but when Zane aces it, pointless turns into a chance to play in the third round of the Gollywhopper Games. And the rush begins.
There are a lot of things to like both in the style of prose and the puzzles Feldman creates. I am amazed at the number of games and problems she has created now over three books, with no exhaustion in sight. This time around, contestants can play in friend mode or foe mode when solving the larger than life games and math problems Golly creates. Foe mode brings more points and also more obstacles. At the same time, a saboteur is at work to ruin the games. This B-plot keeps things interesting when the reader may need a mental break from problem solving, or a different kind of mystery to tackle, as well as putting the reader on edge. Will one of the contestants get hurt?
Characters are well developed, all going through a metamorphosis as they solve puzzles and advance. Even Zane finds a way to have his football without endangering himself, and discovers that football players might not be the only people with whom he shares common interests.
The thing that struck me most about this book from a craft perspective is a subtlety. Feldman uses observations by other contestants to deepen the relationships between characters. The story is told in 3rd person close (Zane). It is through his lens that the reader experiences the action. However, when describing relationships, other characters chime in, analyzing and interpreting the closeness or distance between characters. Feldman, because she has to do use so much descriptive work with puzzles, uses this valuable tool to keep the story from getting bogged down in descriptives. It's clever.
For more great Fall feasts, crunch your way on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's serving them with a piping mouthful of delectable dessert today!
Going back through the books I read this summer to choose one to review was a fun romp through my adventures over the last three months. I was torn as to what to highlight - lighthearted but meaningful (the series Breakfast with...Lunch with...and then Dinner with Buddha) or deeply deeply meaningful (Everything I Never Told You). I went for the latter because this piece not only walks the line between meat and potatoes and dessert (i.e. literary and fun reading) but also does things from a craft perspective that are really worth talking about and gets at issues currently in the collective conscious.
Basic premise: Teenage Lydia is missing. Later, she's found dead in the local lake. Was it suicide, or was it murder? The family unravels with Lydia's death, and in unraveling, reveals their own hopes and unfulfilled dreams, fears, heartaches, and regrets.
The great Tim Wynn-Jones once said that the focus of YA is learning to get a grip, whereas with adult lit, it's learning to let go. And there was talk amongst my author friends whether this is YA or Adult. I personally listed it as YA because teenage death is so very pertinent to the YA audience, but because Ng dips into the POV of every character from 8 year old sister to 45 year old father, I'm happy to list it as adult here. I have a feeling, much like, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, this will cross from initially adult literature to a younger audience. It's both that pertinent and that accessible, not to mention well written.
By telling the story from omniscient 3rd - first & second talking points - Ng enables us to see the effect Lydia's death has on each member of her family. Since the family is also Asian American in the 1970s, a time when multicultural families were rare, we get a glimpse into the effects of discrimination on all age groups, third talking point. Finally, the mom's, Marilyn, POV brings up a discussion that's been on my radar lately with teenage girls about to leave the house - can you really, as a woman, have it all? Fourth talking point.
Let's take omniscient 3rd, the much loved and hated POV. Arguably, it is the most fitting, especially given the title. We learn everything everyone didn't tell and might never share. Further, Ng sets it up so that only because of omniscient third can we, the reader, and only we, solve the mystery as to what really happened to Lydia (don't worry, no spoilers). That's making POV work for you.
The We Need Diverse Books campaign has a winner here. We get a glimpse into multicultural Asian families of the 1970s, and, with Ng's reader's guide, also of her childhood. Anyone who has lived in a foreign culture, understands what it means to stand out as different. This, of course, goes much further, because the Lee's are American, thus, not foreign to their setting or culture, and yet, because of prejudice, are treated as such. Add to that, that Lydia, because she could pass for white, suffers acutely and differently from every other member of her family.
I've already touched upon accessibility and pertinence to a widely diverse audience according to age, thanks to the multiple perspectives we get to experience, and that gets at the mother's POV. Marilyn is more than qualified and smart enough to be the doctor she wants to be, but she finds herself trapped in the role of stay-at-home mother once she gets pregnant and then married. To her, it's suffocating, only partially fulfilling, and ultimately drives her to put the crushing weight of all of her hopes and dreams on her daughter, Lydia's, shoulders.
Now here's the thing, women of the 1970s were breaking ground for my generation. When I got to college in the late 80s, classes were pretty evenly male/female. And yet, today, women still do not fill an equitable number of positions of leadership in business or government. Further, the pressing question for the generation of women just entering the workplace and about to enter college is: can I really have it all? Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor at Princeton, mother of 2, and someone I read extensively while working on my PhD because she's in my field, herself eventually left her position in the Obama administration for her family. She addresses the issue of work and family in a 2012 article - "Why Women Can't Have it All", in The Atlantic. This is great food for conversation and thought and really has me thinking about our perspectives as a society.
So, if you want a thriller that also leaves you hunched over like The Thinker deliberating all sorts of bigger issues, look no further. Everything I Never Told You is that book. And for other great Fall treats, skip over to Barrie Summy's site. She's dishing them out cool and crunchy.
I review books that surprise me, jar me, make me think. They are books I've bought, borrowed from the library, or been given as a gift. I do accept ARCs, but will only review a book if it moves me. It's about the writing. If I'm moved, I pass it on in a review.