Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

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

Five years ago, Josh was twelve and sleeping with his history teacher, Mrs. Sherman, a fact which came to light following a disastrous spin-the-bottle game with his best friend, Rachel. Now he’s a senior in high school, the teacher has been released from jail, and when he bumps into Rachel after years of avoidance, he learns that she’s not mad at him for the reasons he thought she was mad at him. And she doesn’t want to stay mad at him; she wants to pick up where they left off. And he’s waiting to hear from his Holy Trinity of colleges while trying to keep up both his straight-A streak and his remarkable batting average.

It’s absorbing, powerful, and really well-written. Josh is an interesting but likable first-person narrator, his pain and issues omnipresent but not melodramatic or maudlin. The lengthy sections in which he goes through his relationship with Mrs. Sherman and its immediate aftermath are particularly stellar, and particularly creepy; the author doesn’t spare us the details of Josh’s first sexual experiences, though he does for some reason shy away from the vaginal intercourse and actions that focused on her body, rather than his. Throughout it all, we can see her manipulations as she carefully works Josh around so that he thinks the guilt lies with him.

In the present-day sections, we can still see the remnants of those manipulations, even after years of therapy and being told that it wasn’t his fault. He is still obsessed with what happened, so much so that he doesn’t realize that while people in his small town know and remember, that it’s not all they think about. He realizes that his best guy friend, Zik, is doing his best by always being there for Josh and never asking about it, but he never, for five years, thought about what that does to Zik and Zik’s friendship with Rachel. And when he does, we see how painful it is for him, how he sees yet another reason for him to apologize.

The major flaw in the modern-day sections is Rachel. She knows what she wants—Josh—and she’s determined to get it. Whether he wants her or not. Their conversations are sometimes painfully reminiscent of Josh with Mrs. Sherman; him demurring, her instructing. Yes, they are the same age and neither is in a formal position of power, but the massive guilt he feels toward her does put her at an advantage over him—and she uses it. She does not respect Josh’s sexual agency—his right to not say yes—and she is emotionally manipulative, using, perhaps unknowingly, some of the same strategies that Mrs. Sherman used. She is presented as a heroic figure putting herself on the line to rescue her friend from his issues, but her actions are reprehensible. Boy Toy took pains to remind us that boys can be raped and taken advantage off; unfortunately, it forgot that men can be raped and taken advantage of, too. Absence of a yes is a no, regardless of gender, and a yes must be freely given, not the result of manipulation or abuse.

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Boy Toy ~ Barry Lyga ~ Barry Lyga’s Blog

He’s a spoiled rich kid, she’s a slum rat. More specifically, he—Colbert—is the grandson and heir of the Supreme Commander, meant to lead the Worldshaker, a giant ship that travels on water or land, constantly roving and collecting resources for the betterment of its people. She—Riff—is not considered “people;” she’s just a filthy, locked in the bowels of the ship doing the worst of the grunt work. One thing—an escape—leads to another—an accident—and before you know it, there’s a full scale revolution on the Worldshaker.

Worldshaker is strikingly similar in premise to Mortal Engines, and, like Mortal Engines, disappointed despite my love of both dystopias and steampunk. In this case, the writing is perfectly fine and both Colbert’s stepwise enlightenment and the actions of his sister provided enough interest to keep me reading, but not enough to counteract the overall lack of distinction and two frustrating strange choices.

Strange Choice Number One:
Every single person involved in Colbert’s upper-class, best-available education is completely inane. The people of the Worldshaker have lost awareness and knowledge of their history and they are obsessed with their superiority over the filthies and with cleanliness of mind and body—these are important points to convey for worldbuilding and to forward the plot, but it does not require the education of the ruling classes—through schools and tutors—to be utterly nonsensical and pointless. In fact, it would be much scarier and more believable if the teachers were intelligent and their arguments basically logical; then we could see this as a plausible world, a frightening possibility that maintains itself through manipulation and propaganda. Instead, it’s just inane.

Strange Choice Number Two:
The filthies have one major strategic advantage over the upper decks, and they don’t use it.
Spoilers abound for the rest of this section
The Filthies’ stated purpose on the ship is to keep the boilers going and, by implication, keep the big engines and machines running. That’s why they’re still fed and a sufficient population kept alive. (A small percentage of Filthies are modified into Menials, speechless servants with their brains surgically limited who work on the upper decks). That means they have control over the boilers and the big machines. They could hold the movement, and thus the survival, of the Worldshaker hostage. They could threaten to destroy the engines and strand the ship forever. They could stop the ship and take advantage of everyone freaking out to attack the upper decks. They do none of these things. It’s not even acknowledged that they have this advantage! And then one of the upper decks people threatens to destroy the ship by overheating the boilers and making them explode, and no one, including the leaders of the Filthies, thinks to have them stop stoking the boilers, or dampen them, or open release valve, or a number of other things they could presumably do. Their entire reason for existence is just forgotten.
Enough spoilers! No more below

In general, it’s an okay book with a few interesting characters, but it’s nothing special.

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Worldshaker ~ Worldshaker

The Exiled Queen The Seven Realms, Book Two

This review does not contain spoilers for The Exiled Queen, but it does contain spoilers for the first book in the series, The Demon King.

None of our heroes are welcome at home anymore. Princess Raisa is running from an arranged, unwanted, and illegal marriage, and Amon is trying to keep her safe. Fire Dancer and Han, newly aware of their wizard heritage, are no longer welcome in the camps of the tribes, their childhood home/refuge. Both pairs set off for Oden’s Ford, a university city unaffiliated with any of the Seven Realms, and therefore free of the civil wars and ethnic strife plaguing the area. As our villains, Micah and Fiona Bayar, are also young wizards, it’s hardly surprising that they appear in class with Fire Dancer and Han. All the important people from the Fells—all the important people of the rising generation—are assembled.

In Oden’s Ford—or rather, in the Dreamworld that Han learns to access—Han meets Crow, a mysterious stranger who refuses to divulge his identity but offers to teach Han advanced magic he won’t learn at the school—fairly nasty magic, truth be told. It’s pretty clearly a bad idea, but Han is eager to prove himself as a magician, eager to gain power, and extra-eager to protect himself from Micah and Fiona Bayar. Plus, Crow is going to be important in later books. We don’t know how, yet, but he will be. Meanwhile, Raisa—known as Rebecca Morley, her classmate unaware of her royal status—is learning military strategy and other useful royal skills, plus some of the unfortunate practicalities of life as a Grey Wolf Queen and Amon and Dancer are each trying to figure out how they can live their lives and be happy, after something important to them has been taken away.

It’s almost 600 pages of character development, and it’s damn good. The writing is excellent, it moves along at a good clip, everyone is interesting and human and, well, developing. The politics and interpersonal relations started in the first book continue to expand in interesting and promising ways. So far, I’m really enjoying this series.

September 2010

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The Exiled Queen ~ Cinda Williams Chima
My review of Book One, The Demon King

Ten Cents a DanceIt’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old Ruby’s working canning pickled hog’s feet in a meatpacking factory. (Ewwww.) She is not happy with this arrangement, but her father is long dead, her sister is even younger than she is, and her mother’s arthritis is too bad to allow her to work—she formerly worked in the factory where Ruby is now—and someone needs to earn their daily bread. Barely. So when a local—and very attractive—bad boy dances up a storm with Ruby at a party one night and then tells her that she could make big money as a taxi-dancer, dancing with men who pay a dime for the privilege, she takes the advice and gets herself a new job. It’s hardly reputable, so she lies to her mother, and the work has its own expenses to be paid, so she spends more on gowns and makeup than she brings home, and, as these things tend to, the lies and the spending build and build. And then there’s the bad boy and what he wants from Ruby.

Ruby is an obnoxious brat who, as a fellow taxi dancer points out, never listens to advice. She manages to be a sympathetic protagonist anyway, in part because she’s vulnerable under her tough veneer and in part because it’s easy to see how blinded she is by the shiny things being dangled in her path, distracting her from how much she’s getting in over her head. Also, she means well; she does want to get her family out of the slums, she does want to give her kid sister a good life, she does want to be a good girlfriend. It’s hard to watch her try so desperately and fall so flat, but it’s compelling, too.

The writing in Ten Cents a Dance is very strong; Ruby’s first-person, slangy narration easily conveys a sense of time, place, and class status. Her casual racism—which, mercifully, diminishes over the course of the novel as she gets to know some people of color—is an honest reflection of her upbringing and is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without sensationalizing.

In some ways, the ending feels a bit too neat, but in other ways it’s a perfect compromise—not too grim, but not rosy, either. I think the sense of over-neatness comes from how quickly the final resolution occurs and the slightly over-sappy final pages. (Movies should not end with voice-overs. Neither should books. Metaphorically.)

Anyway, the ending to the novel may be a bit pat, but the ending to the book makes up for it: there’s an author’s note that relates, in a few simple pages, the story of the author’s aunt, a taxi dancer. It’s a nifty bit of oral history, and, while the novel stands alone, it provides an extra bit of context and connection.

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Ten Cents a Dance ~ Christine Fletcher ~ Christine Fletcher’s Blog

Foundling Monster Blood Tattoo Book 1 D M CornishMonster Blood Tattoo, Book 1

Rossamünd was abandoned as an infant and grew up in a foundlingery, never an easy place but worse for a rather small boy saddled with a name more commonly associated with girls. Nonetheless, he’s been looked after carefully by a dormitory master and a parlor maid, and he’s made it through twelve years or so at the foundlingery with his sweetness and innocence intact, ready to be hired away—preferably by the navy—and live his life in the wide, monster-infested world. Maybe, if he’s brave enough, he’ll even earn a monster-blood tattoo, inked with the blood of a monster he’s slain. Instead, he’s hired to be a Lamplighter.

Rossamünd is a bit of an idiot—among other things, he thinks being a Lamplighter sounds unexciting, despite the fact that his almanac shows the relevant road to cut through sparsely-inhabited, and therefore likely monstrous, territory—so he finds his first and second adventures on his journey to the Lamplighters’ headquarters, and those adventures make up this volume. It also hints on several occasions after something strange about Rossamünd, but though the details remain unclear, it’s entirely too easy to guess the outline but never properly revealed in this book.

Despite these frustrations, it’s an enjoyable book. The world is incredibly detailed—the area in which the entire book takes place is only a very tiny portion of the full map included in the frontmatter, and there are about a hundred pages of glossary in the back—and generally interesting, complete with magic/technology riddled with limitations and side effects, a wide variety of monsters—in temperament and intelligence as well as in physicality. Rossamünd is sweet and has a decided capacity to learn, so by the end of the book he’s much less naive and daft than he started. It’s slow-paced, but aside from the ending—which comes forty pages or so too late—that’s not problematic; their world is slow-paced in such a way that the pace and the language really fits.

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Foundling ~ Monster Blood Tattoo

Prince of Mist Carlos Ruis ZafonFollowing the outbreak of World War II, Max’s father moves their family from the city to the seaside, settling them in a house with a tragic history—the drowning of its owners’ only son, ten years previously. Once they move into the house, Max and his sister start finding creepy things—a particularly eerie cat (but I repeat myself), an abandoned statue garden full of circus figures, and home movies of the house and statue garden taken by the previous inhabitants. Still, Max and his older sister, Alicia, seem to be looking at a good summer when they meet Roland, a bored but cheerful teenager who’s happy to give them tours of the town, taking them snorkling over an old shipwreck, and there just may be sparks ready to fly between he and Alicia. Quickly, though, the situation goes from creepy to downright dangerous and the three find themselves deep in a story that started many years ago, with Roland’s adoptive grandfather, the shipwreck, the drowning of the boy, and a clown. Not a nice clown, either.

Sometimes Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes brilliant, amazing books (c.f. The Shadow of the Wind). Sometimes he wanders lost in beautiful writing and forgets that novels need coherent plots, too (c.f. The Angel’s Game). And apparently, sometimes he even lapses the beautiful writing. Not much; the majority of The Prince of Mist is beautifully and even hauntingly written, which makes the occasional burst of plodding, overwritten prose all the more painful.

I appreciate the intergenerational nature of the book and the theme of history repeating itself, but it suffered from a profound lack of both explanation and resolution. There was no attempt to ground the villain in anything concrete; he has magical powers but they are without context or reason, nor even a defined scope of what he can and cannot do. We’re told that his motivation is to not die, but how his action grant him longevity is completely unknown. He is just unexplained. The book’s conclusion is similarly amorphous: there is neither a sense of resolution nor a sense of work still to do. It reeks of futility; they tried so hard to be agents of change, but ultimately, things were done to them, not by them. And even as their lives have been profoundly affected by the events of the summer, on a not-much-larger level, nothing has changed. I can see a nihilistic beauty in that, but as I reader I found it deeply unsatisfying.

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The Prince of Mist ~ Carlos Ruiz Zafon