Shelf of Honor


When Plain Kate’s father dies of a fever, she isn’t left with much: a few clothes, some tools her father gave her, the woodcarving he taught her, and some loyalty from the townspeople. These are enough for a few years; she survives by carving objarka, charms that the villagers feel are too important to leave in the hands of the guild woodcarver, significantly less skilled than Plain Kate. Then an albino tinker appears, offering to purchase Kate’s shadow in exchange for her deepest wish, and when she refuses, strange things start happening—strange things that have the villagers muttering about witchcraft and Kate. Knowing she’ll likely be killed if she stays, Plain Kate takes the tinker’s offer: her shadow in exchange for ample traveling supplies. Well equipped and now accompanied by a talking cat, she leaves to find a new place in the world.

Plain Kate is well-written and absorbing; within a page or two, I could feel myself sinking into the world with a contented sigh. Kate is an appealing but not overly-idealized heroine, and a smattering of Eastern European and Roma (gypsy) folklore and tradition gives the book shape. Mostly, though, it’s about human nature: suspicion, desperation, family loyalty, mob mentality. To an adult reader, it’s a mite predictable, but not in particularly frustrating way; it didn’t feel like Kate was being daft by not putting things together, it just felt like the reader had a longer view of the situation. Kate had immediate concerns to distract her; the reader is looking for the big picture. The only significant flaw is the ending; it feels a bit too neat, and there are enough sudden changes to make the reader feel a bit jerked-around. Still, it’s a beautiful, gripping novel. And I didn’t even mind the talking cat!

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Plain Kate ~ Erin Bow

Risk of retraumatization for those with sexual misconduct-related trigger issues.

Early in her junior spring semester at an elite, idealistic boarding school, Alex is date raped. At first, all she wants is to hide, to wash it away and pretend it never happened. She doesn’t want her parents to know, she knows that there’s very little the police can do1, and her school administration is convinced that anyone smart and driven enough to go to their school is honorable and perfect, and therefore said administration is basically useless. What her school does have is the Mockingbirds, a volunteer group of students who establish and maintain a code of conduct, putting students on trial when they break the code, and enforcing nonviolent, off the record punishment to the perpetrators. Encouraged and supported by her best friend and older sister, Alex turns to the Mockingbird and seeks justice.

Written by a date rape survivor, The Mockingbirds is painful and powerful. It’s extremely well written and forthright, dealing candidly with the gamut of emotions experienced by survivors: anger, illogical coping mechanisms, denial, guilt, confusion, fear. It gets into the way rape can affect all aspects of the survivor’s life; Alex is no longer comfortable walking around the school grounds or eating in the cafeteria, certain classes are difficult, whether because of her rapist or because of his friends, and even music, her primary interest and love, has been tainted by what happened. Though the plot revolves around the process of her case with the Mockingbirds, the emotional core and character development is in her slowly and haltingly reclaiming her life, her body, her sexuality, and her mind, from her trauma and post-traumatic stress. Alex’s friends and sister are amazing but realistic; they are angry on her behalf and they know what they want her to do, but they know they need to support her in what she wants to do and can handle doing, and not push her. Her assailant is also, unfortunately, realistic, oblivious to consent issues and never thinking of his actions as rape. The one false note was a series of connected English assignments; the assignment is reasonable, the extent to which the teacher takes it does not feel reasonable, and the teachers actions are hard to explain except as malicious—but the teacher is given no motivation or reason for malicious behavior. It’s a relatively small lapse in a book that is otherwise brilliant, dealing with a difficult issue with both honesty and sensitivity, and without leaving any doubt that the absence of a yes must always be assumed to be a no.

November 2010

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1As with most date rapes, especially those involving alcohol (or drugs) there’s no physical evidence worth a damn. Even if she hadn’t showered and washed away all the evidence, all it would show is that the sex happened, not whether or not it was consensual.

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The Mockingbirds ~ Daisy Whitney’s Blog

The Chosen OneAlmost-fourteen-year-old Kyra lives on a polygamist compound with her father, his three wives, and twenty siblings. She sneaks out to get books from the Bookmobile from the nearest library that drives by once a week, secretly meets a boy her own age to steal kisses, and her mothers speak longingly of their own childhoods—when they were allowed to leave the compound freely and non-Bible books weren’t burned—but generally, her life is happy, surrounded by family she loves. Then the Prophet announces that she’s been Chosen as the seventh wife of her fifty-year-old uncle.

It’s a very short, very intense book. Kyra’s pain, confusion, and wavering determination are palpable in the first-person narration. The violence, manipulation, sexual violence, and misogyny inherent in this sort of fundamentalist compound life are vividly but simply portrayed, but it doesn’t make demons of everyone who lives there; Kyra’s family, though obedient believers, are loving, well-intentioned people who stand by each other and try to protect Kyra as far as they are able. If that isn’t nearly as far as we would like, the past trauma of Kyra’s parents—including her father’s other wives— helps explain why they have such limitations.

The narration suffers a bit from ill-defined flashbacks; it’s sometimes hard to keep track of whether you’re reading about now or then. The flashbacks establishing Kyra’s relationship with the Bookmobile and the man who drives it are compelling and help establish how Kyra has developed her worldview; those featuring her romance with a boy her own age are less compelling and less interesting. Happily, they’re short enough and few enough to be mere blips in an otherwise powerful novel.

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The Chosen One

Will Grayson Will Grayson David Levithan John GreenCaustic, insecure Will Grayson (CIWG) has two rules: don’t care and shut up. His best friend, the very large and very gay Tiny Cooper, cares about many things and never shuts up. Currently, aside from falling in and out of love, Tiny is trying to hook Will up with a young lady and to produce, direct, write, and star in, a FABULOUS high school musical about his life. Meanwhile, morbidly depressed Will Grayson (MDWG) is constantly at war with his best friend, Goth girl Maura, barely exchanging two words with his stressed, worried mom, and finding his only solace in his internet boyfriend, Isaac. A coincidental meeting between the two Will Graysons acts as a catalyst, sparking change in friendships and relationships.

It’s hilarious. CIWG, written by John Green, is defensive, harsh, at times a terrible person, and an incredibly funny narrator. Even MDWG, written by David Levithan, sends many deeply funny statements out from the depths of his despair. (griping about internet slang: “or <3. you think that looks like a heart? if you do, that’s only because you’ve never seen a scrotum.”1). It’s also heartbreaking: both Will Graysons are in pain most of the time, and the writing expresses their depression, self-loathing, and need flawlessly. The girls are a bit underdeveloped and underrespected, existing almost as foils for the boys, but other things the book just nails. For instance:

gideon: yeah, and, i don’t know, when i realized that I was gay, it really sucked that nobody was like, ‘way to go’ so i just wanted to come over and say…
me: way to go?2

When I came out in high school, one of my classmates did say way to go. And that was really, really awesome of her. And this is a book that understands why that was important, and celebrates it, without losing the awkwardness inherent in just about every conversation ever held in a high school hallway or cafeteria.

It does get rather over the top, notably Tiny’s musical and, even more notably, the ending. It’s too neat, too perfect, too sentimental. And yet… I don’t cry over books. I certainly don’t cry over books while walking down the street in Brooklyn and I certainly don’t cry over unrealistically perfect sentimental bullshit endings. And yet… for this one, I did.

April 2010. I got an ARC from my mother, who works at a bookstore.

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1p. 2
2p. 181
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Will Grayson, Will Grayson ~ John Green ~ John Green’s Blog ~ David Levithan

Dreamdark Silksinger Laini TaylorSilksinger picks up where Blackbringer left off, and expands on it. Taylor’s faerie-inhabited world is full of bright colors and half-forgotten history, petty jealousies and firetime stories. Our heroine Magpie is still scruffy and foul-mouthed, questing with crows. In Silksinger, we’re introduced to Whisper, quiet, lonely, and desperate; and Hirik, elitist, awkward, and determined to right a millennia-old wrong. They’re fully fleshed-out, flawed, and lovable characters, and their emotions reverberate throughout the book. The plot itself isn’t treading new ground, but it’s serviceable and it allows a natural exploration of the world and its history as well as the characters. If I had to quibble with such an enjoyable read, it would be that the more we explore the world, the more questions I have: each faerie clan has a particular magical ability and often distinct physical characteristics, but how do they work out in interbreeding? Magpie’s clan is Windwitch, but does that date to her grandfather the West Wind or does it go back further? What is the intelligence level of devils, and how does their intelligence interact with their instincts and pervasive hunger? Luckily for me, there’s plenty of room for sequels and more exploration, so I may yet get answers to my questions.
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Silksinger ~ Laini Taylor ~ The Journal of Laini Taylor
My review of Blackbringer

Dreamdark Blackbring Laini TaylorMagpie is a bit of a feral faerie-child: having left the Dreamdark, a cradle of faerie civilization, at a very young age, she has spent her childhood travelling, first with her parents and then with a murder of crows. Once a theatre troop, the cheroot-smoking, foul-mouthed birds are now Magpie’s couterie, helping her track down the devils humans are forever releasing from their prisons in bottles, cast into the sea. A rumor of a new devil brings them to an abandoned ship; instead of the blood and gore that usually characterize a devilish crime scene, this one contains nothing but the abandoned bottle, sealed with the mark of the great djinn, and four pairs of empty shoes.

The world is brilliantly crafted, and in decline: the faeries have lost much of their magic, knowledge, and awareness of the natural world; the great djinns who wove the world are long asleep, uncaring about the world they created; the humans evolved without the djinn’s input and are wreaking havoc, what with the cutting-down of trees, digging-up of gold, killing of dragons, and unleashing of devils. It’s nice to have a faerie book in which humans are, at most, peripheral: it gives the book a pleasant independence and sets us in our place a bit. It deals with prophesy and destiny better than many; Magpie was born for a reason and with great power, and was the given gifts of further power by all the animals, but her free will is unimpinged. Even better, her birth caused a bit of a spillover into similarly-timed and -located faerie births, so at least a few faeries her age have hints of her gift. They, too, can help rejuvenate the faerie world.

The writing is beautiful and the book swept me away. I can’t say that it made a six-hour stay in the airport pleasant, exactly, but it certainly helped.

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Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer ~ Laini Taylor ~ The Journal of Laini Taylor
My review of Silksinger

The Lost Conspiracy HardingeLife on Gullstruck Island is smoothed by the Lost: capable of detaching their senses from their bodies and sending them far afield, they watch for incoming storms, carry messages across the island, and otherwise make themselves useful. The Lost are few and far between, and then, abruptly and without explanation, something happens to them.

Except for Arilou. The only Lost born in two centuries to the Lace, a tribe neither trusting of nor trusted by the Towners or the other tribes,&sup1; Arilou is the pride of her poor village. With her mind so often out of her body, her body is cared for by her younger sister, Hathin; Hathin makes sure she eats, makes sure she doesn’t get sunburned or hurt, and translates the words her too-little-used tongue garbles. But here’s the kicker: no one is entirely sure if Arilou really is Lost, or if she’s just an imbecile.

Lost or imbecile, the village has touted her as their Lady Lost for thirteen years, and with the other Lost gone, the Towners turn on her and her village. So Hathin must take her sister and run, searching for help and for answers.

It’s a really good book. The writing is deceptively straightforward, telling its tale simply but effectively, covering a variety of tricky issues without losing sight of the story being told. It delicately explores the way reasonable people are transformed into a mob, how scapegoating happens, how seeds of truth get buried in generation of myth, and, most potently, the way someone who has been ignored and undervalued comes to ignore and undervalue herself. Hathin is a great character, embodying bravery and determination, but also petty jealousy and insecurity. She brings the sparkling writing and well-developed, entertaining world to life.

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&sup2;Not entirely without reason; the Lace did kidnap and murder a mess of townspeople two hundred years ago, and the Towners did retaliate by killing all the Lace priests and Lost.

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The Lost Conspiracy ~ Frances Hardinge
My review of Well Witched

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