Real Princesses Sock the “Happy Ending” in the Face

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Title: Princesses Behaving Badly

Author: Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Genre: Biography, History

Publishing Info: November 2013 by Quirk Books

Jukebox: For a book that’s all about how badass some royal ladies were, I thought Beyoncé’s “Run the World” would be appropriate. The So You Think You Can Dance remix and the dance choreographed by Napoleon and Tabitha just makes the message even clearer. Who run the world? Girls. That’s all:

Hello, lovely readers! Time is escaping me these past few weeks, so here’s the short and sweet on Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. The premise, that real royal ladies aren’t anywhere close to Disney’s Cinderella or Elsa, is familiar. But this collection of bite-sized brunch reads about murderesses, plotters, pirates, and partiers was enough to catch my attention while doing my monthly BBB (Bookstore Bookcover Browsing, aka my stingy scouting mission to find new books without buying any of them). I finally finished this collection of stories after reading a couple chapters every month since January. The stories, told in McRobbie’s entertaining voice reveals the infinitely more lurid lives of Clara Ward, Pauline Bonaparte, and others. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy hearing about Lucrezia Borgia, the Renaissance Mafia Princess?

I enjoyed the casually humorous tone McRobbie adopted. It’s a little too “People Magazine” to be considered a serious academic research project, but that’s not McRobbie’s point. Early history is especially hard for me to like if it’s told in the dry, dense style of most academics, so I appreciate McRobbie’s attempt to treat every historical story as a compelling adventure worth knowing in the current generation.

However appealingly conversational the stories are told, the research is not solid. I caught myself believing the information in the stories even though McRobbie’s evidence was mostly circumstantial (hence the gossipy tone). One of the dangers in liking the writing style is that we tend to ignore the research holes or plot holes. McRobbie provides a biography at the end of the book, and the lack of multiple sources for each story is what finally woke up my skeptic side and gave my imaginative side a reality check. So it might be a stretch to call some of these princesses’ stories “historical biography.” Some of them have more research available than others, which is expected, but McRobbie should have done a better job citing her research in the actual stories. Otherwise, she ends up a little hypocritical, misinforming her readers when her first goal was to correct our misinformed image of real-life princesses.

McRobbie’s point was certainly made: princesses aren’t normal people, and they’re not perfect images of feminine grace and beauty either. Each is a messed-up of piece of work in her own right, brought on by the disturbing social environment that history has proved again and again comes with royal status.

Rating: 7 – good: would recommend, above average, has some problems but I can deal

A Literary Playground: When Characters Run Amok In Your Head

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Note: To the 72 email subscribers who received an accidentally published WordPress post a few days ago with a very, very rough draft of this review, I apologize and hope that those of you who took the time to read it were thoroughly entertained by my unedited exclamations to myself. 

Title: Midnight Thief

Author: Livia Blackburne

Genre: Realistic Fantasy

Publishing Info: July 8, 2014 by Disney Hyperion

Jukebox: Finding a song to fit Midnight Thief was harder than normal. I had to find a dark song because this is a dark novel, but I also had to find one that is constantly moving because the main character Kyra strikes me as the sort who is always alert, eyes roving and taking in the situation even if the rest of her body is still. What I came up with is Tesselate by Alt-J. At 55 seconds, the instrumental break embodies the graceful way Kyra can climb up any wall:

 

I’ve mentioned Tamora Pierce a few times already because of my great respect and love for her Tortall series. Since I began reading her novels in fourth grade, I haven’t met anyone who is quite as reverent as I am of her beautiful, no-nonsense prose and her incredible worldbuilding skills. Until now.

Introducing Livia Blackburne: author of her incredible debut novel Midnight Thief, graduate of both Harvard and MIT, blogger of psychology and neuroscience, Taiwan-born, and most importantly, as awed by Tamora Pierce as I am. Ms. Blackburne also cites Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor as her favorite books.

Basically, the Jukebox Muse can die happy now that she’s found her doppelgänger (except for the neuroscience part).

There are several reasons why I am in such a tizzy over this book and why others should be too. I rarely encounter two strong main characters, a fleshed-out world, a true threat, and a surprising plot in one book. Yet Blackburne managed all of them, and from the semi-cliff-hanger ending, I predict at least two more books. Now that she’s put all that good foundation work in, the rest of her series is her playground. And if Amazon’s labeling of Midnight Thief as “Grades 7 and up” gives you doubts about its maturity, ignore it. Pierce’s books are also tagged as “Grades 7 and up,” and I just reread it last week.

Blackburne sets up her world and her main characters so smoothly, I didn’t even notice it was happening. Unlike the infodumping issue I talked about in Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season, Blackburne introduces her two main characters, Kyra and Tristam, by walking us through their daily routines. Kyra, a 17-year old talented thief, lives at the Drunken Dog Inn with her patchwork family of Bella, resident cook, and Flick, longtime friend and fellow former street rat. She steals because honest work is scarce and she needs money. And plus, she’s eerily good at climbing walls. But just because she’s a thief doesn’t mean we get to know Kyra by watching her steal things. We watch her interact lovingly with Bella and Flick. We follow her down the dirty streets as she visits Idalee and her sister Lettie, two street orphans who are living the same, unforgiving childhood that Kyra barely survived before Flick and Bella took her in. We understand through these experiences why Kyra’s identity is more than her thieving abilities.

On the other side, Tristam is a 20-something knight working for the Master of Strategy. He has an unbending loyalty to the Palace, but dislikes the confining atmosphere of urban life and regularly volunteers for patrol so he can ride in the open forest that reminds him of his country estate. When strange Demon riders who train wildcats as their own children begin raiding farms and murdering innocents, including his close friend, Tristam immediately devotes all hours to finding the threat, to take revenge and to keep the city safe. Rather than giving us immediate satisfaction in the form of developing a character via intense battle sequences and dramatic dialogue, Blackburne gives us the day-in-the-life view of her characters. I’d rather discover with Kyra that the blood from her first kill doesn’t wash away in one night rather than watch her win an epic battle. Blackburne has let Kyra and Tristam sit in her mind for years, and her patience has paid off.

Blackburne has not only created two smart characters who nevertheless ruthlessly question their own decisions and morals, but she has also described them with natural prose. Not beautiful, natural. We are routinely awestruck by beautiful prose that describes otherworldly and unattainable experiences and people. Natural prose makes us feel every little hope and disappointment that all of us experience daily. Mountains and valleys as opposed to bumps in the road. While beautiful prose can make us cry and sigh for a heartbreaking minute, I can tell you confidently that I will more likely come back to a world carved in natural prose, a world like Blackburne’s created, because it’s a world in which one can live and breathe and stay for a while. It’s a world that, once planted in readers’ minds, will grow by itself, filling in holes and edges, able to take the information presented in the book and extrapolate.

Like the world, the main threat in Midnight Thief is layered. Though the Demon Riders that Tristam is hunting are a large antagonist, Tristam and Kyra are, for all intents and purposes, mortal enemies before they meet and decide to work together. Throw in James, head of the Assassin’s Guild (Blackburne also published a novella filling in James’s background that she says should be read after Midnight Thief), who convinces Kyra to break into the Palace but never tells her the reason behind her assignment, and Blackburne has a nice Jack-in-the-box of a plot to surprise us with its multiple outcomes.

Midnight Thief is 384 pages. I learned from Tamora Pierce’s FAQ on her website that publishers used to limit YA novelists to 250 pages because they thought the teenage audience wouldn’t have the attention span to read more. The Golden Compass and Harry Potter pushed that limit up to 300, but it still takes a lot of convincing to get more pages. I wonder if that was the deal with Blackburne and Disney Hyperion. With the amount of time and depth that the plot covers, Blackburne could easily fill up 500 pages with more of Kyra and Tristam’s backgrounds. There’s some authors that need the 300 page limit because it forces them to cut all the unnecessary content. However, I didn’t want Midnight Thief to end after 384 pages, to the point where I put the book down after four chapters so I could savor what Blackburne did decide to include. Now that it’s finished, all I and others can do is wait eagerly for the next installment in the series.

Blackburne said herself that Midnight Thief “is my homage to the medieval fantasies I grew up reading. Most notably, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness, which I’ve read and reread countless times. Unlike the Lioness Alanna, Kyra is a thief instead of a knight, and the challenges she faces are different. But I hope I’ve captured the same spirit, vulnerability, and courage that drew me to my favorite girl-power fantasies from my childhood.” Knowing Tamora Pierce’s literature as well as I do, I can congratulate Blackburne on the fact that I see a lot of Tamora Pierce in her writing choices. I also see a lot that is purely Blackburne, a gift that is backed by her education in some of the best fantasy literature out there.

Rating: 9 – so crazy good that if the plot, characters, and world were real I would just run away and join them

Waxing Poetic: We’re all romantics at heart

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Title: The Fault In Our Stars

Author: John Green

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Publishing Info: January 2012 by Dutton Books

Jukebox: First of all, the movie soundtrack for the book is spot-on. Second of all, I’m not going to use the soundtrack because where’s the fun in that? So here’s “Riot Van” by Arctic Monkeys. Every time I listen to it, I start imagining Hazel’s life after the book ends: some depression, some confidence, and some contentedness. Anyone who knows Arctic Monkeys knows their usual lively, garage-rock sound, so this laid-back, drifting song is rare. It’s a song that Hazel could be listening to while lying down in her back lawn:

Here we are again with one of those hyped-up books and one of those cult followings and one of those movies. I wonder if original movie ideas actually exist anymore (Planes 2? Really Pixar?). Putting all originality complaints aside, this book-to-movie adaptation is actually worth discussing.

The question I always ask first with what I’m beginning to call “hype books” is whether John Green and TFIOS really deserve all the publicity versus other books that weren’t lucky enough to get a movie, like Joan Bauer or Sarah Dessen‘s veritable treasure trove of realistic fiction. Of course I’m not going to say it deserves ALL the social media buzz, because when teenage girls and a hot male lead who waxes poetic get involved, everything always get way crazy (remember Team Edward and Jacob? It never stops). However, Green is quickly building a legacy for himself that deserves to be lauded alongside Joan Bauer and Sarah Dessen.

Plus, he’s a boss. Green didn’t get famous overnight after his first stab at writing. TFIOS may be his jackpot, but he’s well used to writing successful books: Paper Towns and Will Grayson, Will Grayson are both on my TBR list. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also a youtube giant who started VidCon.

With Green’s online presence in mind, it’s not surprising that TFIOS got so popular so quickly. And the story is attractively Nicholas-Sparks-like: Hazel, a 16-year old cancer patient meets 17-year old Augustus at cancer support group and they go to Amsterdam to meet a reclusive author and fall in love along the way. I won’t say what comes next, but c’mon guys, it’s a sad cancer story, you have to go into this novel with some expectation of being depressed. I certainly was pleasantly mopey for a couple days after finishing the book. And I caught myself imagining what Hazel’s life would be like after the book ended. It’s always a good sign when we want to continue a story in our own heads.

The difference between this book and the annoyingly sappy, repetitive Nicholas Sparks books is the hilarious dialogue. John Green puts so much of himself in all his characters, and in this case it works well. Green is a smart and quirky guy, therefore his characters have smart and quirky dialogue. The constant comments about the awkward, face-palm moments in life make the book flow naturally and feel realistic. However, the dialogue is also Green’s Achilles heel. There were many times when I was jolted out of the story because the dialogue had turned into a slew of pretentiously mature witticisms. That’s the danger zone: trying to be smart and funny while still making readers believe people actually talk like that in real life. The simple test is whether the dialogue can be read out loud in a convincing manner. I understand that Augustus’s outrageous one-liners are deliberately outrageous and he probably practices his speeches in front of a mirror, but there’s only so much Green can include of Augustus waxing poetic before it makes me cringe.

And while I don’t want to bash John Green too hard because I do think he’s created some quietly hilarious characters, I have to mention the first kiss scene while we’re on the subject of plausibility. I can deal with the improv kiss because emotions are just too overwhelming sometimes, but why must we have the important first physical connection in Anne Frank’s house (aka memorial of a 13-year old victim of the Holocaust)? With people clapping afterwards?? I’m sorry, but that’s really not how real life works. It would be fine if Green didn’t try so hard for the rest of the book to be a teenager’s realistic life, but the appeal of his book is that these kids are just like us. And while it’d be cool to have an audience applauding me after every major relationship checkpoint, that sadly hasn’t happened to me yet.

I only call out the occasional pretentious dialogue and that one ridiculous scene because it’s out of place in an otherwise perfectly flawed story. Hazel, quiet and sympathetic, and Augustus, wonderfully over-the-top, work well as the modern star-crossed couple. The few appearances of Hazel’s parents, who act as both supportive parents and best friends with their only daughter, were a close second to the main couple’s relationship. All in all, I thought the book was too short. John Green left me wanting more. Which is fitting, for a love story between terminal cancer patients and a moral about how fleeting life can be. I was stumped for a while on whether Green treated the effect of cancer on a teenager’s life too simply, but in the end I guess the book’s about struggling to have a life with cancer, not struggling to beat cancer while having a life.

Contrary to the book, I have no major complaints about the movie, a surprise to both you and me, I bet. I liked the characters of Hazel (played by Shailene Woodley) and Hazel’s parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) even more, and I appreciate Ansel Elgort’s ability to toss off Green’s pretentious dialogue as fake douchebaggery. It still doesn’t fly in the book, but it’s endearing in the movie. Gosh, Hazel and Gus have such great chemistry, considering that the actors played siblings in their previous movie, Divergent. There was a never a point in the movie where I lost focus or checked the time, thanks mostly to Shailene and Ansel’s impressive range of facial expressions. Plus, the voiceover was tastefully used to preserve Hazel’s first-person narrative. The movie did skip a lot of Gus’s health slowly deteriorating after the Amsterdam trip, but one has to make cuts somewhere in order to get the full immersive effect of other, more important scenes. It really was an incredibly faithful representation of the novel. So faithful that the first kiss scene was just as fairy-tale-like in the flesh as I imagined it to be.

It was a long, fulfilling movie. What felt like six hours was probably only two. It alleviated my worries about the book being too short to create enough depth in Hazel and Gus’s relationship and treating cancer too simply. It felt like a life had been lived, and that’s all we really ask for.

Rating: 8 - loved it: would definitely recommend, solid characters, writing, plot; might reread in a couple years

The movie soundtrack is worth a quick listen too. As individual songs, Birdy’s “Not About Angels”, M83′s  “Wait”, and STRFKR’s “While I’m Alive” stand out to me. The rest are a little to generically pop for my tastes. Regarding it as a whole, the collection of young artists delivers a fresh sound, representing the ups and downs of the story in all its teenage glory. Here’s the full soundtrack:

 

Anonymous Worlds

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Title: A Creature of Moonlight

Author: Rebecca Hahn

Genre: Fantasy

Publishing Info: May 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Books

Jukebox: The title of the song “All I Have to Do is Dream” pretty much says it all. It’s covered by local SF artist Lauren O’Connell, but was famously recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1958. O’Connell takes a decidedly more dreamlike approach to her rendition. Marni, the main character in Rebecca Hahn’s debut novel A Creature of Moonlight, takes a lot of walks in the forest. O’Connell’s subdued voice is what I imagine should be the soundtrack while Marni walks in her shadowy forest.

 

I read a lot of fantasy. Ever since a friend suggested Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series to me in 4th grade, I’ve thought that the ability to make up entire worlds, complete with a map, a government, history of alliances and warfare, and complex magic system is the best superpower ever. Everyone has their favorite books, and mine are the ones that endear me with their little gritty details of daily life. Immersing myself in those worlds, getting to know the characters who live in those worlds, is the best antidote for the times when the real world is just not cutting it.

Here’s where my made-up genre Realistic Fantasy comes in. Fantasy inherently means everything’s fabricated, doesn’t it? Yet when we look at some of the greatest fantasy series (Game of Thrones, Mistborn, Graceling), they are always built from real life. And that’s what I mean by “realistic:” experiences that readers can relate to as well as plausibility. The easiest way to realize a plausible world is to describe it as much as possible. And then you can layer on all the good stuff like family rivalries and rich cultural histories. This is the stuff of human lives. The things we’re all familiar with as a population. And thus, Realistic Fantasy is born. There’s only so much “fantasy,” or totally alien world, that an author can introduce to a reader before it just gets really confusing.

The thing is, Rebecca Hahn’s debut novel Creature of Moonlight isn’t introducing too much new material. It doesn’t introduce enough. There’s a kingdom. And a forest constantly moving inwards. And a dragon. But that’s it. We don’t know what kind of government this kingdom has. We don’t know how big this forest is. We don’t know what color the dragon is. There are no names except for select main characters. Now, some people can pull off minimalist description. Ernest Hemingway pulls it off in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Though I usually can’t stand Hemingway’s sparse style, the story works because he balances the lack of surroundings or detail with tense, crackling dialogue peppered with pointed silences. I’m not sure I can say the same for A Creature of Moonlight.

The plot is simple enough, revolving around a classic identity crisis. Marni, a half-human, half-dragon girl is heir to the throne and must decide whether to claim her throne or succumb to the calls of the magical forest and find her father, the dragon who lords over the forest. Her mother, the girl who ran away in to the woods and had a baby with a dragon (I was wondering about the feasibility of that couple until it was revealed that the dragon can take human form whenever he wants) is killed by her own brother (the current king), and Marni wants revenge. On top of that, the forests are moving in a couple feet every night and swallowing up farms and crops. Right away, Marni’s internal conflict is given precedent over developing the world around her. The forest she regularly escapes to could be any forest, filled with slightly weird creatures and brooding trees (though it does become more immersive in the last third of the book). The kingdom she lives in could be any kingdom, filled with unnamed rivers and run-of-the-mill lords and ladies. There’s a village. Somewhere. I think there were some hills, but I swear they were mentioned once and then they disappeared. It’s not like I need a detailed map, but there’s just not enough of a realized world here. Even the love interest is generic:

“He’s young, a black-haired, handsome man. Tall, and sure of himself. He’s been deferential to my Gramps to this point, and he speaks with an ease, a camaraderie the lords rarely manage.” (45)

That’s literally all the description we get for him, and he’s one of the main characters. So you might ask, if there’s barely any description, what makes up the entire book? Honestly, most of it is Marni’s inner thoughts. She dictates a lot of her actions, why she makes those actions, and what actions she might take next. There are no subplots, as her life and her inner conflict are the entirety of the book. Her narration’s dream-like flatness works as a constant reminder that the story is made up. Yeah, all fantasy readers know in the back of our minds that what we’re reading isn’t real, but a truly well-crafted world makes us feel a world could exist if it really wanted to.

I’d almost call the book uninspired, except that Rebecca Hahn’s way of making her descriptions and her world anonymous makes me think she’s deliberately typecasting everything. Part of me wonders whether she’s making a point with this anonymity, the fact that this conflict of identity and family could happen in any kingdom. Combined with Marni’s dream-like narration, we have a world and a situation that is slightly implausible. Surprisingly, I don’t mean that as a criticism; some of my favorite epic stories are the Greek myths, which are wholly implausible and very symbolic. The word “symbolic” is not well received by both my English teachers and me because it’s usually thrown around when someone doesn’t know what else to say. But we can’t escape the fact that if the kingdom and forest and dragon are deliberate symbols, then we have a story that could happen to anyone. And that’s powerful.

Do you remember what I said about fantasy having to relate to its readers? I may personally prefer fantasy literature that relates to me through the little concrete details of daily life, but there are so many other ways a story can connect, including great big symbols. At the heart of Creature of Moonlight, we have a girl discovering how she can live with her multi-faceted identity and history. With that reader’s mindset, the book connects as an appealing bildungsroman, or coming-of-age journey. But only with that mindset.

Rating: 6 - okay..but it could be better: would recommend with qualifiers; inconsistencies that raise my eyebrow

Explanations and Expectations: what is “The Next Big Thing?”

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Title: The Bone Season

Author: Samantha Shannon

Genre: Fantasy/Dystopian

Publishing Info: August 2013 by Bloomsbury USA

Jukebox: The main character Paige Mahoney’s strongest trait is her tenacity. She never loses sight of her goal to escape her captors and go back to her old life in the London underworld. Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence + the Machine, has that tenacity in her voice, no matter what she’s singing. In “You’ve Got the Love,” Florence is singing about a love that will pull her through thick and thin. Regardless of the lyrics’ relevance, I think of Paige when I hear Florence belt out all her angst:

I can see why so many people are debating whether Samantha Shannon will be the next J.K. Rowling. I can also see that comparing The Bone Season to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a terribly unfair comparison.

Shannon wrote her debut novel The Bone Season when she was a 21-year old student at St. Anne’s College. She got her big break when she interned with her future agent David Godwin. Even before the book came out, everybody started drawing comparisons to not only Harry Potter, but also Twilight AND The Hunger Games. Now, I don’t particularly like Twilight or the Hunger Games, but it’s obvious that those series and their authors have had incredibly successful careers (movies, crazy fanbases, etc.). So it seems that The Bone Season, which has been picked up by Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium studios and 20th Century Fox for a movie, is following the same path. But does that mean it should be compared to three of the most popular YA fantasy series in the last five years? Talk about impossible standards.

Plus, however flattering it may be to be up there with the likes of Harry Potter, it’s always a little sad when critics would rather say “Shannon is the new Rowling” than say “Shannon is NEW!” It’s hard enough these days to hash out fresh, original stuff without people immediately tagging you as “The next _insert famous author here_.”

If we evaluate The Bone Season without acknowledging all the comparisons, and keep in mind that this monster of a book was written by a 21-year old student, then Shannon’s debut novel is a great first effort. Shannon has laid down a ton of groundwork that she can explore in her projected six other books in the series (Seven books? Really? I wonder if that’s the agent, publisher, or Shannon talking). The world Shannon creates is refreshing, if familiar:

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London, 2059. Humans are divided into two groups: normal and clairvoyant. There are several kinds of clairvoyance powers, but all of them are able to access and manipulate the aether, or the spirit realm. London is run as a police state, controlled by the Scion agency, whose one goal is to find all the clairvoyants, arrest them, and kill them because of their unnaturalness. Paige Mahoney, the 19-year old main character, works in the underground crime network of clairvoyants. She is a dreamwalker, a rare and therefore valuable kind of clairvoyant. When she’s arrested, she is taken to the lost city of Oxford instead of being killed. Rephaim, the humanoid but not human race, govern the city and enslave the human clairvoyants to help fight off flesh-eating monsters called the Emim. As Paige meets and comes to know her mysterious Rephaim keeper, Warden, she also explores the city, makes friends, and tries to find a way back to London.

Phew. Everything’s much more complicated than that, but you get the idea. The clairvoyance system that Shannon creates is both her strong point and her most confusing one. In the first few chapters, it was obvious that Shannon is a first-time, big-scale writer. There was a lot of not-so-subtle exposition (“infodumping,” I believe it’s called) to try and explain all the details of the underground clairvoyant gangs, as well as what exactly a dreamwalker like Paige could do. Consequently, the chart detailing the types of clairvoyants and the map of Oxford are extremely helpful while reading. I like Shannon’s idea of reimagining the traditional skepticism towards clairvoyants, card-reading, ghosts, and mediums into a race of unnatural humans persecuted because of their “disease,” but hopefully she will address all of the still vague areas of her world building in future books.

The jerkiness of the first-person POV also indicated that Shannon was still getting used to being in the mind of her main character. Many phrases seemed like they were for younger audiences even though they dealt with darker, more adult themes. The mantra of my high school english teachers, “Show, don’t tell,” sounded in my head repeatedly while I was reading. With that advice in mind, I believe one more revision would have made The Bone Season a tighter, more effective book in terms of the writing. Shannon’s narrative is also permeated with a lot of fun clairvoyant slang, inspired partly by the 19th century London criminal underworld. However, in the beginning the terms are flung at us with no explanation, and it’s disorienting until you gain enough context. Or you could be smarter than I was and realize there’s a glossary in the back. Shannon’s writing does calm down and even out, so if you can deal with knowing only 70% of what’s going on in the first few chapters, it’s worth it when the setting shifts to Oxford.

I could list more inconsistencies, but everyone, remember again that Shannon just graduated from college last year. I’m reviewing someone who’s only a couple years older than I am. Yes, Shannon still has a lot to learn in organizing her plot details, working up to a romance, and executing the big final battle, but I was so impressed by the daring and scope of this first book, that I am definitely reading the second book when it comes out in October 2014. I am excited to see how Shannon has learned from her debut novel and have no doubt she will keep improving. Will it be the next Harry Potter? No, of course not. No author or book can ever forge the exact same career path as another. Will it be a treasured YA fantasy series? That depends on how Shannon and her writing grow and change in her future books. My high expectations come not from the careless comparisons to famous YA series, but from the intriguing world Shannon has begun to explore in The Bone Season.

Rating: 7 - good: would recommend, above average, has some problems but I can deal

This is the End: Justifying Murder

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Title: A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain

Author: Adrianne Harun

Genre: Fantastical Fiction

Publishing Info: February 2014 by Penguin Books

Jukebox: “They build it up just to burn it back down/the wind is blowing all the ashes around/ oh my dear god what is that horrible song they’re singing.” There is a lingering static in the background of Arcade Fire’s “Rococo,” either created by the screech of guitar strings and drums, or my imagination. A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain has the same lingering sense of uneasiness, that something is coming but is entirely unobserved until it’s directly upon us.

This is the end. This is the end. This is the end (okay, not the Seth Rogen movie). I turned the last page of Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain and those were the words going through my mind. Throughout Harun’s debut novel, there were many points where the words in front of me began to blur and condense into this four-word chant. Because this is a story about a dead-end town and people close to a dead-end. I’ve always imagined that once I finish a book and close it, the characters’ lives still go on, just unread and unobserved. I judge if an ending is successful or not on whether I can wholeheartedly believe that characters have a future they can look toward (Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, for instance). But after I put Harun’s book down, I wasn’t convinced. Actually, I was very confused. Nothing that happens in this book really assures me that anything changed after I finished the story. The focus of A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain is on five seventeen-year old best friends living in a small town in British Columbia: Leo, our Kitselas/Haisla/Polish/German narrator, Jackie, a big-boned Native girl working at the local camp kitchen, Ursie, who works at the local motel, Bryan, Ursie’s brother, and Tessa, who acts as a replacement mother for her large family. These characters are tied together by their hatred and fear of Gerald Flacker, leader of the gang who dominates the entire town with a thriving drug business, drunken brawls, and just plain intimidation. The entire story plays on the desire of the five friends, Bryan in particular, to get rid of the gang and all the trouble they bring, to finally have some power over the bad guys and also over their own futures. 

This desire to get rid of a villain who is plainly preventing everybody else from living a normal life strongly resembles Andre Dubus’s short story, “Killings”, in which the narrator Frank longs to avenge his murdered son by punishing the murderer once and for all (I recommend the Academy Award-winning movie based off of the short story). In both stories, the villains are regular faces around the small towns, totally unavoidable and totally untouchable, it seems. When I compare these two stories, it’s clear to me that Dubus does the better job in conveying the confusion, guilt, and moral grey area that is always present in a story that strives to justify murder.

Harun has the confusion and the greyness, but it’s more like a thin haze surrounding her entire story. Every time I thought something concrete was going to happen, the description dissolved into pieces of emotions and actions. I felt like there was a missing sentence Harun was withholding from me in order to understand exactly what was going on through the characters’ minds, let alone what exactly was happening. Dubus has the same problem, namely convincing us that violence is the only way out of a problem, but he is more successful because he is smart about clueing us in on how events in Frank’s backstory influences his every inner conflict about his future actions. Simply put: Cause and Effect. With Harun’s writing, I could never find that cause and effect. Things just seemed to happen for no reason, or a character would act a certain way as if possessed by a strange entity.

Granted, Harun does not hide the presence of an unseen “devil” throughout the book. In fact, she addresses it repeatedly, with Leo, the narrator, referring to it in the second chapter as the driving force for all of the crazy events in the town:

I want to yell: Look Sharp!  For as Uncle Lud might say, the devil could find a soul mate in a burnt teaspoon and he sure as hell can choose whatever forms suit his purpose…Look Sharp! As if that might have altered every part of the day the devil first arrived to meet us–the bunch of us–in person.

Harun establishes her unseen devil at the very beginning. And she continues its presence through short, periodical chapters called “The Devil Plays With a Telephone,” or “Laundry Day for the Devil.” So it’s not a secret that something unusual is happening to these kids in their dead-end town. I just think the explanation of what is happening to them is done poorly. Some people may call it magical realism, this vague influence of an anti-Deus ex machina figure, but I just call it confusing.

Then there are moments where Harun’s writing is spectacularly beautiful. Especially when she describes the simplest things:

Her laugh was a lucent bell, a golden peal I swore I saw arc and ripple in the shimmering air before its chime faded away.

Her writing definitely has its shining moments. Her prose reminds me of Lindsay Hill’s stream-of-consciousness style in Sea of HooksAnd to her credit, Harun’s novel was easier to read than Sea of Hooks (that one took me 2 months, vs 2 days), perhaps because of the shorter chapters and length (349 vs 273 pgs). However lyrical her writing may be, it’s not enough to keep a fragmented plot and weak character development glued together.

Speaking of the characters, I was also disappointed by how much I didn’t learn about them. After reading 273 pages about their lives, I still didn’t know much more than what the Amazon blurb says. The most interesting perspectives are of Ursie and Leo’s individual lives. Ursie’s job as a maid in the local motel, frequented by drunkards and gamblers and all-around no gooders, kept me happy, even with small details like Ursie’s love of Diet Bubble-Ups:

 Ursie admired the long-necked bottles and the frostiness Albie’s old soda machine achieved, and despite the odd aftertastes, despite her inevitable preference for Diet Bubble-Up, she savored every brand and would spend several considerate minutes before the soda machine each afternoon. Sometimes she was still gazing at the machine when Bryan’s old truck with its often-loose fan belt screeched into the lot.

Leo’s own struggles at home, to please his mother by finishing his online physics course and avoid going to mining college, also deserve a shoutout. When he assesses his self-worth, concluding “Yeah, it seemed to me that I was all bleak suggestion,” not only does it describe a lot of teenager’s fears of going nowhere, but it also addresses the stagnancy of the entire town.

Another thing to consider is that I may have missed the entire purpose of this story. It may have flown right over my head. I was certainly left feeling like I was missing the bigger meaning. Harun states in her acknowledgments that this story “was sparked by outrage over the ongoing murders and disappearances of aboriginal women along Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears…The story veered into a more fanciful narrative after a dinner party discussion of good and evil.” But the plot about girls disappearing off the highway barely comes into play throughout the story. Yet I understand how difficult it is to describe a situation where not even the main characters know exactly what has taken hold of them, let alone try to portray all the shapes and forms in which good and evil manifest.

A hazy novel, which for me never managed to go above a low, steady pulse of unrealized potential.

Rating: 5 - eh: choppy plot and character development, but the story has some interesting parts and a few redeeming characters

Fairytale Friends: one is Earthen and the other Fiery

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Title: The Golem and the Jinni

Author: Helene Wecker

Genre: Literary Fantasy/Historical Fiction (it’s basically its own category)

Publishing info: April 2013 by Harper

Jukebox: As an homage to Helene Wecker’s fantastical, darkly romantic portrayal of 1899 New York, here is “Gulag Orkestar” by Beirut. The name is a combination of influences, as “Gulag” is the name of the Russian agency in charge of forced labor camps during the Soviet era and “Orkestar” is the Serbian word for orchestra. Beirut’s songs all hold a melting pot of cultures, just as Wecker develops her characters in various ethnic neighborhoods. The clashing of instruments and voices reminds me of the constantly busy New York street life as well as the Golem and Jinni’s lonely night walks–that is, lonely until they meet each other.

The intro is long–skip to 1:01 if it gets too heavy:

Oh, how I love a good worldbuilder. Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is one to savor, guys. And not just for its well-built world, but also for its intriguing premise: A golem and a jinni are stranded in New York and must adapt to a human lifestyle. Both slowly carve a niche in their respective neighborhoods, the golem working as a baker and the jinni a tinsmith. At night, both of them restlessly walk the streets of New York to stave off loneliness and boredom (neither need to sleep). When they encounter each other on one of those walks, their friendship is instant, cemented over the shared experience of being an outsider. When a figure from their past threatens both of them, the Golem and the Jinni invoke both their convoluted past and newly present lives to save each other.

Wecker takes her time introducing us to the two main characters and the separate neighborhoods that are the focus of her world. Furniture maker Otto Rotfeld, desperate to go to America with a wife, asks Yehudah Schaalman, practicer of dark Kabbalistic magic, to create a golem that can pass as a human woman. Her specific traits are included too:

“Give her curiosity,” he told Schaalman. “And intelligence. I can’t stand a silly woman. Oh,” he said, inspiration warming him to his task, “and make her proper. Not…lascivious. A gentleman’s wife.”

When Rotfeld dies from appendicitis on the ship to America, the Golem finds herself without a master, lost and confused. As a creature made to obey other’s desires, she is pushed and pulled in every direction by strangers’ every whim and wish until Rabbi Avram Meyer discovers her on the street, takes her in, and names her Chava (hebrew for “life”). Close by, in Little Syria, tinsmith Boutros Arbeely accidentally releases the Jinni from a copper flask. Imprisoned for the last thousand years, the Jinni has no recollection of how he was trapped. Like Chava, he must learn to live among humans, taking the name Ahmad and working as a metalsmith.

Taking the first third of the book to show us how the Golem is created, where the Jinni is from, and how they learn to survive in a sea of foreign customs is a testament to Wecker’s thoroughness. She builds each character’s story, forging their pathways separately but never too far away from each other, so that when they eventually meet up, the moment is brilliant and magical:

His face–and his hands as well, she saw now–shone with that warm light, like a lamp shaded with gauze…She saw him glance at her, and then look again. Then he too stopped. At that distance she could not feel his curiosity, but his expression made it plain. What, he was thinking, is she?

Two impossible creatures of earth and fire, caution and recklessness, obedience and arrogance, defy all stereotypes and expectations to become friends.

The heaps and heaps of research Wecker must have done about fin-de-siècle New York only adds to the delicious contrast of mythological creatures living in historical neighborhoods. She immerses us in the details of New York’s supportive micro-communities: the shared, claustrophobic tenements of Little Syria, the community of women willing to sit overnight in a dead rabbi’s bedroom to guard his soul, and the glowing warmth of a rowdy dancehall. The solid descriptions of the immigrant population’s cycle of work and entertainment make it possible for Wecker to also describe the more magical parts of city life: The maze of rooftop pathways, filled with prostitutes and informal neighborhood councils around fire barrels, the formidable white mansion housing a reluctant heiress, the Angel of Death statue in Central Park. With this combination of fantasy and history, Wecker’s vision of New York is entirely her own. Wecker’s portrayal is slightly hard to believe, but in the way that we know we are reading a fairy tale and are eager to lose ourselves in the fantasy for a little longer. And never does her ability to whip glittering stories from the air impede the attachment we form with all the characters. Never do we doubt that their stories matter just because they are slightly impossible.

Chava and Ahmad’s stories will always be surreal because of their fantastical origins, but Wecker keeps her two main characters grounded in the very real questions they ask themselves every day: can people change, or are we slaves to our nature? Do our desires and fears govern us wholly and completely? Does free will exist? Their thoughts come uncomfortably close to the questions all of us hesitate to ponder. Wecker embeds in both characters the most elemental of human identities; between them they represent submissiveness, prudence, and above all the longing for independence and purpose. How can we not place a stake in their futures, place a part of our hearts in theirs and feel when they are angry, lonely, or hopeful?

The Golem and the Jinni’s struggle to adjust to the reality of their situation, all the while wishing they could just succumb to their true natures is the true reason to involve ourselves in their entire journey. Take the time to watch as the two try to sustain hope, to find a way out. Revel with them when they realize that the beginning of their way out is finding each other.

Rating: 8 - loved it: would definitely recommend, solid characters, writing, plot; might reread in a couple years