Reckless Cornelia FunkeAfter his father’s disappearance, Jacob Reckless is looking for answers and an escape from his life, his mother’s grief, and his brother’s neediness. He finds escape, and maybe a chance at answers, in a magic mirror he finds in his father’s study. Through the mirror is a medieval world full of the stories on which Jacob had been raised—there are witches who eat children, princesses with golden balls or eternal sleep, magical transformations, and treasure galore.

Twelve years later, Jacob is a treasure-hunter of renown with a fox companion and a stash of helpful magical items, and the world is at war: the Goyl, an angry, stone-skinned race are slowly defeating the human empire, due to a combination of better engineering, better tactics, and magic that lets the scratch of a Goyl’s stone claws slowly transform a human into a Goyl, body and mind. The human memories and consciousness dies as the body is transformed. And Jacob’s brother, Will, has followed him behind the mirror and fallen victim to a Goyl’s claw. There’s nothing to be done but go a-questing for something, anything, that might save Will from ceasing to be Will.

The exposition is a bit jerky, jumping between perspectives and characters too quickly to allow the reader to really get pulled into the story as early as I would have liked. Once the initial setup is complete, however, Reckless is a smooth, well-written—and well-translated—ride. It’s most-exciting for its world-building; it invents a new world and new stories, but also integrates familiar fairy tales in pleasantly dark, creepy ways.

The characters are well-developed and realistic. Unusual for a kid’s book, the main characters are in their early- to mid-twenties, and that’s accurate for their emotional development—they’re still dealing with sibling rivalry, abandonment issues, and jealousy, but they are dealing with them as adults, who are generally comfortable with who they are and their place in the world. I’m generally in favor of adults reading children’s books, but this goes beyond that; it’s really an all-ages book, like my recollections of The Hobbit—an adventure story not grounded in a particular stage of life. I love the exploration of the world and of the self that one generally finds in middle grade and young adult books, respectively; but this is good, too.

September 2010

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Reckless ~ Cornelia Funke

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Soul Enchilada David Macinnis GillBug’s daily life is a struggle. She dropped out of high school to take care of her grandfather, and when he died she was left with no family—really, with not much more than her grandfather had: one very nice car. A year after his death Bug is working pizza delivery and not quite making ends meet. And that’s before a demon shows up to repossess the car, and possibly her soul. Luckily there’s a cute boy who’s reasonably knowledgeable about this supernatural stuff, and more than happy to help.

After years of struggling for self-sufficiency and the need to prove, to herself and the world, that she is an adult and can take care of herself, Bug is very reluctant to even listen when someone else may be offering help, or knowledge. It’s realistic and it fits her character, but it makes for a frustrating read—I was rooting for her and so were many characters, and if she’d only slow down and listen to them, she’d have a much smoother time getting out of this pickle. Basically, she’s up shit creek and turning her nose up at everyone who tries to give her a paddle.

Luckily, the cute boy—Pesto—doesn’t give up easily and Bug softens a little by the end, so it’s not as disastrous as it could be. The romance that strikes up between the two is adorable—him failing to be anything other than an awkward nerdboy, her failing to be anything but a prickly, trash-talking, abandoned girl—and only overdone in one scene. The minor characters are great: Pesto; Pesto’s mother, combining a matriarchal force of nature and a source of comfort and gentleness; the gamer nerds working at the International Supernatural Immigration Service; even Bug’s grandfather, dead and gone though he is. It’s really the charm of these supporting characters that makes the book enjoyable, with some help from sheer silliness—who knew that hairspray was an effective weapon against demons?

Overall, it’s a book that reaches high and sometimes misses. (For instance, the high-stakes high-speed pizza delivery scene just made me want to hand both Bug and the author a copy of Snow Crash. Now that’s high-speed pizza delivery.) Still, it’s funny and cute, and it’s a refreshing change to see a working class girl and a primarily nonwhite cast of characters taking the lead.

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SoulEnchilada.com ~ David Macinnis Gill

the ask and the answer patrick nessThis is book two in the Chaos Walking series, following The Knife of Never Letting Go. This review does not contain spoilers for The Ask and the Answer, but it does contain spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go. You have been warned.

Things start out pretty grim: Todd, an illiterate native of New World, and Viola, the lone survivor of a scout ship sent ahead of several thousands of new colonists approaching on sleeper ships, have reached Haven, the biggest city on New World. Unfortunately, the cruel Mayor who killed all the women in his town thirteen years before, has beaten them to it, and the city has surrendered without a fight. Oh, and Viola’s been shot and Todd’s been captured. And then the Mayor starts with the manipulation and emotional abuse.

It’s a very dark book, even more so than the first. There’s quite a bit of torture, emotional and physical (he manages to stop just shy of the point where I would give up on a book every time). There’s terrorism, questions of acceptable methods of warfare, devils you know and devils you don’t. There are manipulative, charismatic leaders. It’s actually quite reminiscent of The Kestrel, the middle—and best—volume of Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy. However, where Alexander took his gentle man to ungentle, dehumanizing places without dehumanizing the reader, Ness’s work threatens to do just that. As an author, he’s as manipulative as the leaders he portrays. Perhaps this is a strength, but I’m not sure.

Like The Knife of Never Letting Go, it’s a gripping read, completely absorbing once it gets into your head. The characters are compelling, and their shifting emotional states and loyalties are painfully, beautifully real. I found myself meeting the (many) betrayals not with surprise or expectation, but with a sinking heart; like the characters, each betrayal made sense, and deepened the experience of reading the book. The stylistic annoyances of the first book are still present, though lessened and therefore less of a distraction; there are many fewer misspellings, and he’s toned down the habit of narrating exciting sections—
like this—
to give a sense of—
breathless—
anticipation—
though he does slip a few times. Including during sections narrated by Viola; what is annoying but understandable if it’s supposed to represent the way Todd thinks is less understandable if it’s divorced from a particular character’s voice.

The ending lost me a bit; after five hundred pages of the story hurtling along it abruptly loses focus and tries to go three places at once without resolving anything. Too much changed too quickly, and I was hard put to keep caring.

But for those first five hundred pages, I really cared. It is significantly flawed, but The Ask and the Answer is a very powerful book.

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The Ask and the Answer ~ Patrick Ness
My review of The Knife of Never Letting Go

I read a book about football.

And I liked it.

I don’t understand football. I don’t understand team sports in general.¹ When I was in high school, I completely avoided all interscholastic sports events. I was regularly accused of having zero school spirit, a charge which was largely justified, but really, high school football was also not that big a deal in my town.²

So an obsession with football is pretty alien to me. I watched the first season of Friday Night Lights and enjoyed it on an intellectual level, as a sociological study of a foreign culture.

Dairy Queen I flat out enjoyed.

D.J. is the only girl in a family of football men, poor but extremely hardworking farmers who are better at football than at dairy farming. Since her dad busted his knee, D.J.’s been doing all the farm work (and her dad has taken over the cooking, with mixed results) and is getting it done, though it cut into her ability to do schoolwork. Luckily, it’s summer, so all she needs to do is the farmwork. And do a favor for a family friend by training the quarterback of her school’s rival football team. And maybe fall for said quarterback. And definitely decide to go out for football in the fall.

And maybe learn communication methods other than her family’s abysmal passive-aggressive ones. And maybe figure out what’s up with her best friend and her little brother. And her parents.

In some ways, it feels like reading a therapy transcript. A very funny therapy transcript, minus the therapist. But with a lot of emotions and relationships, looked at through day to day events. D.J.’s often a bit of an idiot when it comes to people, but she’s so honest and drily humorous that it would be hard not to like her. I don’t understand football, but the overworked mom, the closeted friend, the frustrated dad, the isolated brother—he’s almost as closeted as the friend, it’s just not about sexual orientation in his case— are all real, believable, understandable people

Don’t worry; I’m still staying far, far away from football.

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¹There’s the cooperative part of the brain, and there’s the competitive part of the brain. These parts in opposition. Somehow team sports imply that they can be turned on simultaneously. This is… weird.

²Our team lost almost all the time, anyway. Occasionally, the town could muster up some enthusiasm for hockey or soccer. When we were winning.

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Dairy Queen ~ Catherine Gilbert Murdock
My review of Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Princess Ben

creature of the night kate thompsonBobby’s mother says she’s moving them to Clare for the summer to keep him out of trouble; in Dublin, he’s a bit prone to stealing cars, iPods, and purses with a small gang of older boys. She’s also taking them off to Clare to keep herself away from the moneylenders. Bobby doesn’t want to be in Clare, with the locals telling them about fairies, disappearances, and murders in the cottage where they’re living.

It’s a much darker book than Kate Thompson’s two earlier ones, though equally suffused with Irishness and just as well-written. Fairies appear mostly in the stories Bobby’s told—though his four-year-old brother keeps talking about a little woman who comes in at night for milk and chocolate—this one isn’t a fairy story, it’s a haunting portrait of a dysfunctional family trapped in their destructive patterns. Bobby’s mother is at least as messed-up as he is and their issues clearly play off each other’s. Bobby is struggling so hard against the misery and boredom of his life, but he’s barely able to see a way out that doesn’t involve substance abuse. And all while he’s struggling to get his footing and figure things out, strange noises and discoveries in the cottage throw him even more off-balance.

It’s short and powerful, with a blend of harsh realism and hope that makes it difficult but not overwhelming to read.

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Creature of the Night ~ Kate Thompson