Nick doesn’t like Mrs. Starch, his biology teacher; she’s strict, a tough grader, and likes to use homework for both punishment and humiliation. Nonetheless, he’s worried when she disappears: a fire breaks out during a field-trip to the everglades, she goes back for a student’s dropped asthma inhaler, and never returns. The school insists she’s taking a leave of absence to deal with family matters, but it doesn’t make sense to Nick. With his friend Marta, Nick decides to investigate, even if he’s a little afraid of the number one suspect: a classmate recently antagonized by Mrs. Starch and with a history of arson.

Carl Hiaasen’s books are always fun: a dose of environmentalism, a dose of mystery, a dose of adventure, and leavened by his rather twisted sense of humor. Unfortunately, he’s getting a touch predictable, especially in his children’s books; having read both of his early kid’s books and about half of his adult books, I enjoyed Scat but the main plot never surprised me or held me in suspense.

The secondary plot, on the other hand, had me on the edge of my seat. Nick’s father is just returning from a tour of service in Iraq, and not entirely intact. Nick and his parents’ struggle to adjust and Nick’s father’s medical setbacks are masterfully portrayed, particularly as Nick fights for a sense of control over a situation in which really, he has no control.

And the rest of the time it’s running around the everglades saving panthers and defeating greedy oilmen, in true Carl Hiaasen tradition.

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Scat ~ Carl Hiaasen

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RunemarksMaddy has always been a bit of an outcast. Her father and sister are popular in town; perfectly normal, unimaginative, never dreaming, never wanting to hear any stories that aren’t in the Good Book. Maddy, on the other hand, dreams, imagines, loves stories. She also has a strange mark on her hand and can get rid of the goblins that like to sneak into the church and the basement of the inn. She’s useful because of that, but she isn’t liked. Except by One-Eye, a one-eyed wanderer her comes to Maddy’s town once a year, telling her stories and teaching her glams and rune-work: magic. The year Maddy is fourteen, things spiral out of control and Maddy—followed eventually by several other townspeople—is pulled into a dispute involving an ancient oracle and the Norse gods.

Loki the Trickster is, of course, involved, and the lines of loyalty and trust are appropriately fluid. This extends to the reader; we’re always in a bit of doubt as to why any character is doing what they’re doing, as it’s rarely for their stated reason. This gives it an interesting dynamic and the continuation of Norse myth occasionally sparkles, but for the most part, Runemarks falls flat. The human characters are overmuch pawns, of the gods and supernatural beings and of the church-like organization, rather than active figures in their own right. The Order, the church-like entity possessing the Good Book, is particularly troubling in the dehumanizing of its members; they have given up their names in favor of numbers tattooed on their arms and their sole emotional core seems to be ambition. Humans are often stupid, particularly in groups, but I found the lack of anything sympathetic from any character devoted to the Order to be unfortunate. On a technical level, lightning-quick changes in focus and point of view can be confusing and difficult to follow.

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Runemarks

Tender Morsels Book Cover Margo LanaganOutside a small village in (a slightly more magical) medieval Germany, Liga lives alone with her father. Who has been raping her regularly since she was twelve or thirteen. Liga’s life improves somewhat after her father’s death and the birth of her daughter, but a violent gang-rape undoes what little contentment she’s eked out for herself. Liga’s despair and desperation somehow push her into the magical world of her heart’s desire: a well-kept cottage near a quiet village where the taverns don’t serve alcohol and there is a no money, where women like and respect her, and where men are few, keep to themselves, and never threaten. It’s a peaceful and, above all, a safe place for Liga to raise her daughters: snow-white Branza and rose-red Urdda, with only a few incursions from real-world teenage-boys-in-the-shape-of-bears

It’s a fascinating book.

Mostly told in the third person Tender Morsels follows Liga’s life and focuses on her and her daughters. The deviations are lengthy first person sections told in the voices of men – some sympathetic, some really not – liberally interspersed through the book. These help the plot move along and provide context for the events in Liga’s dreamworld, but they do more than that; allowing these men to have a voice gives the book a balance it may not have otherwise had. Men are the primary instigators of violence and invasion in the book, but they are also thinking people. Even when they’re bears.

Rather than following a typical narrative arc (exposition -> rising action -> climax -> falling action ->dénoument), it proceeds rather like life: shit happens, it’s quiet for a while, other shit happens, minor shit happens, it’s quiet for a while, there’s a major change, it’s quiet for a while… and so on. This does make the book less sticky/gripping than many; you’re walking calmly through the book, not being pulled headlong by the movement of the plot. It’s also a relief; the plot revolves around some pretty horrible things and still other disturbing things, but, as life and time facilitate healing after trauma, the lifelike pacing facilitates the reader’s processing of what’s been read.

That the book spans years also lets Lanagan illuminate the nature changeability of desire, and the limits of our foresight and imagination. They live in a world constructed out of Liga’s desires as a traumatized fifteen-year-old, but she and her daughters grow and age; and as their desires change and grow, the limits of their world become apparent. It keeps them safe, but it cannot keep them from loneliness. At the same time, the very protection it gives hampers them as they grow older and must deal with incursions from the real world. And it keeps them content but not happy.

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Tender Morsels ~ Margo Lanagan

Phillip Pullman writes a Victorian mystery.

What, you need me to tell you more?

Sally’s father, a shipping agent, died on a recent shipwreck. Shortly thereafter, she receives a very odd, poorly-spelled, and most distressing note containing a remarkably vague warning. Naturally, being a spunky heroine¹, Sally sets out to learn the truth of the note, and, just as naturally, certain adventures, mysteries, dangers, and steps towards self-actualization follow.

As we’ve come to expect, Pullman writes an excellent yarn. It has none of the scope and grandeur of the His Dark Material books², but that’s okay; it’s well-written and engaging, and even if we’ve gotten used to spunky female characters, Sally is appealing, strong without being invulnerable or over-perfect. And sometimes, you just need a couple hours with a girl detective finding her way in a simpler time. Or at least, sometimes that’s what I need.

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¹I almost called her unconventional, but then I remembered that spunky heroines have their own convention. It’s just rarely recognized by the supporting characters.

²What were they thinking when they created a series title beginning with a pronoun? There’s no graceful way to refer to them, as both “The His…” and “A His…” sound awful. Series names should either come with a definite article (i.e., The Baroque Cycle) or be able to have one easily appended (i.e., Circle of Magic easily becomes the Circle of Magic books). Anyway.
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The Ruby in the Smoke ~
My review of
Once Upon a Time in the North

Thirty-five years before Lyra Belacqua stumbled into his life in The Golden Compass, Lee Scoresby won a hot-air balloon in a poker game. Off he goes to the Arctic looking for work and adventure. Adventure he finds; whether or not you consider what he’s doing work, I don’t know. Oh, and he meets Iorek Byrnison for the first time.

If you read Pullman only for the theology and eschatology, don’t bother with this one; there’s not much to it. It’s a straightforward story, fun and short. Enjoy it for what it is, and don’t look for anything more.

Oh, and it comes with a game, and that’s pretty damn cool.

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Philip Pullman
Once Upon a Time in the North

The Book Thief is very, very good.

Narrated by death, it follows Liesel’s adolescence in a small town outside Munich. From January 1939 through October 1943. Good times to be a German, eh?

Not so much.

Death tries not to pay too much attention to the humans – we depress him – but even so, he noticed Liesel each of the three times he saw her over those four years. And the last time, he took a book. Her book.

Now, in a way, our book.

The original Australian publisher classified The Book Thief as general fiction; it was the American publisher who decided that it was YA. I’m reviewing it here, yes, but I think as a whole I agree with the original publisher. Not that I feel it’s in any way inappropriate for teens – not that there’s much I think is – but it has strangely few of the elements I’ve come to think of as signifiers of YA. Liesel’s self-discovery has little to do with her coming-of-age; school is at most tangential to the story; first love is only slightly more central and its position of ‘first’ is hardly under consideration; I could continue, but that would be boring. I’m not sure it’s even really Liesel’s story, so much as it is Germany’s story, and even death’s story.

Whatever you call it, it is an excellent book.

This might have been a perfect book, if the author hadn’t been struck by Profundity Syndrome (more on this later). As it is, it’s a damn good book. Aslaug has spent her first fifteen years living alone with her mother in a house with no electricity or hot water – or mirrors. They almost never go anywhere except to forage for plants, which they use for food and medicine. Aslaug’s mother won’t tell her who her father is.

Madapple moves quickly from Aslaug’s mysterious childhood to issues of religion, control, family, love, and herbology – lots of herbology. Really cool herbology, complete with etymology of plant names and uses in folk medicine and magic. Told in alternating chapters of first-person narrative and court transcripts from Aslaug’s murder trial, it keeps the reader from being entirely sure what’s going on, and that’s a wonderful thing. The revelations develop organically, and it all falls into place with an amazing, well-timed precision.

Oh, and it revolves around virgin birth.

So why is it not perfect? Because after 400 pages of awesome, the 401st turns into a lecture on why what we just read is profound and what we should have gotten out of it. I hate it when authors do that. If you did your job right, you don’t need to give us the lecture. And if you didn’t do your job right, we’re not going to appreciate it no matter what.

Still, a trite final page isn’t nearly enough to make this anything less than an amazing book.