The Boneshaker Kate MilfordIt’s 1913, and Natalie Minks has two main goals in life: to make her clockwork airplane work, and to figure out how to ride the unusual bicycle that she’s convinced is the fastest in the world. Her life gets much more complicated when a traveling medicine show comes to town, bringing highly unusual and rather threatening medical men, mysterious remedies, and automatons that don’t need to be wound. Her town isn’t completely helpless—there’s more to several residents than meets the eye, include an old black man who once won a bet with the devil, and Natalie’s mother herself. Nonetheless, the danger is very real, and very close to home.

It’s a beautifully written book, redolent with love of storytelling, folklore, and traditional music. It’s not as tightly-woven as I wanted it to be, though; I had to Google Wilbur Wright’s death in order to figure out when the book was set, and a few times times minor characters were so briefly mentioned or lightly sketched that I had forgotten them by the time they reemerged with some importance later on. Similiarly, there are some interesting, important-seeming elements that are never explained; vagueness that contributes to a creepy, tense atmosphere early in the book is ultimately unsatisfying when clarity never emerges.

Natalie is a spunky tomboy, but not without context—she fits in perfectly with her mildly unconventional family, and if some of the townspeople aren’t overly approving of her choices of overalls instead of dresses, they tolerate her with affection. Her best friend is an effective foil: femme and frivolous, but brave when necessary. Natalie’s close-knit family is lovingly but honestly presented, with its members’ foibles and frustrations, its secret-keeping and its worry about Natalie’s mother, who is increasingly unwell—and Natalie’s obliviousness to her mother’s illness also has a ring of truth.

The Boneshaker is a version of the old Devil at the Crossroads motif, and it plays well with the guilt, desperation, hubris, and determination of the several characters who face the Devil across the campfire.

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The Boneshaker ~ Kate Milford’s The Clockwork Foundry

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lament faerie queens deception maggie stiefvaterDeirdre is a high-achieving high schooler, on a path toward a conservatory and a professional career as a harpist, with an implied specialization in Irish tunes. Especially reels, she’s very partial to reels. She’s much less partial to puking before every gig, but she does it anyway. Faints, too. Thus, it is unsurprising that the afternoon of a large student competition finds her in a bathroom, puking her guts out. It should be a surprise when a startlingly handsome young man whom she has only seen before in a dream is standing there holding her hair and making sure she doesn’t faint, but Deirdre seems incapable of being surprised by anything done by this mysterious and handsome young man. His name, we learn, is Luke, and he plays a mean flute. Suddenly instead of a solo, Deirdre is signed up to play a duet in the competition (No, that’s not a euphemism. Not entirely, anyway), and with Luke she plays better than she ever has, with mad improvisation skills she hadn’t thought she possessed. Oh, and she starts being stalked by faeries and four-leaf clovers. Which do not exactly bring good luck.

Stiefvater’s faerie lore is well-crafted and believable, with both enough beauty and enough cruelty to be compelling and interesting. I would have loved to see it more fleshed-out, especially as it relates to her family; the women of the family have a very bad history with faeries, but we don’t get enough details of the past two generations to really understand the backstory. Deirdre’s coming into her own magical abilities is also well-done, with the stage of disbelief lasting long enough to be believable but ending before it can become annoying. The resolution is quite clever, with an unexpected but fitting twist.

Much of the focus is on the romance, starting with Deirdre’s immediate trust for a rather suspicious man, moving through a lightning-quick flirtation, and on to a snogging/mad love that changes everything phase that takes up most of the book. It’s all taken a bit too much for granted; of course she trusts him instantly, of course he loves her. The lack of mystery makes it less exciting than I generally expect from a book that revolves so much around the romance.

And then there’s the age gap; he’s 1,348 years old (or possibly 1,348 plus 18 or so, it’s unclear).¹ She is 16. This is perfectly clear. As John Green said, “The reason it’s wrong for old people to have sexual relationships with children is not because we old people LOOK old. It’s because we ARE old.” He’s right. What happened to the rule of (age/2)+7? The youngest Luke should be dating is 674.² Add in his far, far greater knowledge of all this faerie-stuff and Deirdre’s aforementioned placid trust in him, and the result is a lurking uneven power dynamic.

Still, the writing is strong and the book is enjoyable, peppered with surprising moments of humor and clarity. It’s clearly a first novel and Stiefvater improved with Shiver, her werewolf romance novel. Lament now has a sequel, Ballad, and Shiver‘s sequel, Linger, is upcoming; I very much hope her upward trend continues.

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¹P. 75.
²I’m willing to concede that when supernatural ages are involved, this rule may cease to be valid. That said, I’m pretty sure that both people need to be supernaturally aged, or there had better be a pretty compelling explanation for why it’s okay anyway. Lament does not have such an explanation.

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Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception

impossible nancy werlinHave you ever really listened to the lyrics of Scarborough Fair? Even in the Simon and Garfunkel version, they’re a little bit creepy – asking a woman to do a series of impossible tasks to become a man’s true love. The version Werlin uses (one she crafted for the novel, though there are some recorded versions that are much closer to hers than to S&G) is much creepier – the woman has rejected the man (elfin knight) and must perform these three impossible tasks to avoid becoming his, and her daughters after her. And it’s a curse and a lesson for the Scarborough women, passed from mother to daughter as each gets pregnant at seventeen and goes insane just after her daughter is born. And so it has gone for hundreds of years, dozens of women, and now Lucy finds herself pregnant after being raped at the prom.

I spent most of the book wanting to hug her family – her foster parents and her childhood best friend. They did everything right. They hugged her when she needed hugs, they presented her options – including abortion – and offered their advice, but accepted it when Lucy disagreed. They took an unreal situation and developed a very real plan to solve it, simply because that’s what Lucy needed them to do. The Elfin Knight himself is seriously overdone, but he actually gets fairly little page-time, and otherwise the medieval curse and its resolution are woven seamlessly into Lucy’s twenty-first century issues as she struggles to deal with the rape, her pregnancy, school, etc, etc. The solutions she and her family find are creative but make sense. In the places it really matters, it’s really good.

So the Elfin Prince is over the top. So there are a few passages of ridiculous sap and profundity syndrome. [minor spoiler] So I wanted there to be a Scarborough woman born free of the curse, and am not satisfied to see the name die with the curse [/minor spoiler]. So I can’t not nitpick a little. But it dealt with rape and teen pregnancy well, with a remarkable family. Perhaps most importantly, it presented Lucy’s story as Lucy: it doesn’t moralize and say that the decisions she makes would be right for anyone else, just that they’re the right decisions for her.

It’s a book that makes it worth having Scarborough Fair stuck in your head for three days. And trust me, you will.

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

Todd is the last boy of Prentisstown, the remains of a colony founded twenty years before by a religious group wanting to found their own Eden. Instead, they found a war with the natives, a germ making the animals talk, and a germ that broadcasts the men’s thoughts to all around them. The all-male society of Prentisstown is nasty and brutish, though not necessarily short, as Todd waits for the birthday (thirteen, though the years are a different length, so he’s about fourteen by our count) that will make him a man.

Except one month before that day, he has to leave. Now. Even though he knows – he knows – that there’s nothing outside Prentisstown. He doesn’t understand when Ben and Cillian, the men who raised him, have a bag packed and ready to go, why it has a book even though all the books were burned years before, why they’re telling him to go. Now. But he goes.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. On the plus side, it’s gripping; it’s a Subway Risk¹; there’s some serious character development; it avoids the romantic pratfalls of too many YA novels; it deals with heavy issues well; and it’s the first of an unknown number, and bloody hell do I want to know what happens next.

On the other hand, the writing—
It’s so—
It’s so—
obnoxious, not least because it persists in doing that through the action scenes. Trying to create a sense of breathlessness; failing. It’s written in “uneducated boy-voice” (not that the author is uneducated; the narrator is uneducated), which very much fits the character, but made it very hard for me to get into. I actually stopped reading the first time I tried, at about 20 pages; since I didn’t get to the magic fifty pages, I did restart, and after slogging through the first thirty or so, was then unable to put it down. The spelling, however, bothered me. It is well established that Todd is uneducated; therefore the interesting grammar and persistent use of the word “ain’t” are completely fitting. However, it is firmly established that Todd can’t read or write. Therefore, he can’t actually be writing the narrative we’re reading and wouldn’t be able to tell correct spelling from a horse’s ass. Therefore, there is no need to misspell every word greater than three syllables. It doesn’t add to the sense of authenticity, it’s just annoying.

Then there’s Todd.

I hate it when characters are overly obtuse, when they’re idiots who can’t see what’s right in front of their faces. I will admit that sometimes it works – I thought a certain amount of obliviousness worked in The Last of the High Kings, but my dad disagreed; my mom thought it worked in Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons, but I disagreed. And you may disagree with me on whether or not it works in this case, but it would be hard to argue that Todd isn’t an effing idiot. When you are sent away from the only home you’ve ever known, when you suddenly learn horrible things about your community, when you realize that you’re hated, maybe you should, y’know, listen when people try to explain what’s going on. Yes, it’s hard to overcome knee-jerk reactions and rethink everything you’ve ever been taught; yes, it’s not easy to admit ignorance; yes, the desire to defend your family is strong; but at some point, maybe the first time someone tries to kill you, doesn’t the need to know take over? I really think so. And for much the same reason I hate embarrassment humor, I hate watching characters dig themselves into holes of sheer stupidity.

And then there’s the song. Todd is fixated on a song his guardian – and, it turns out, his mother – used to sing to him. He uses the song to keep him going. The title of book is derived from the song. It’s really, really, central.

The song is “Early One Morning,”, an old English folk song. It’s one I know — you can’t be a folk dancer without some folk songs worming their way into your consciousness. Plus, there’s an English country dance to the tune, though the lyrics are optional when you’re dancing. It’s one of the many folk songs about a girl being seduced and then left by her seducer. It’s less explicit than many such songs, especially in some versions (all folk songs have multiple versions), but it’s still pretty clear that that’s what’s going on. Therefore, in my head, it’s in the category Dirty Folk Songs.

So it’s really weird to have it show up as a song being sung to babies, down one generation to the next. As a song being used a promise: “And it’s a sad song, Todd, but it’s also a promise. I’ll never deceive you and I’ll never leave you and I promise you this so you can one day promise it to others and know that it’s true.”²

No. I’m sorry, but no. Not even getting into the Pie-Crust Promise³ issue, it’s about a man breaking his promise. In some versions, it’s about a woman worried that he’ll go on to seduce and leave more women after her. In a world with a very disturbing history involving men and women. I am so completely baffled by this choice. Seriously. Baffled.

I quibble and pick at details like this because there’s so much that’s really good about that book, and it frustrates me to see its potential not quite realized. It’s a very good book, reflecting on power, self-control, gender, society, social models, how we define ourselves (pair it with Graceling for a nice study of how our capacity for violence interacts with identity), trust, and growing up and coming of age. And did I mention the really wanting to know what happens next?

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¹A book that causes one to miss, or nearly miss, one’s subway, train, or bus station or stop. Reader beware.
²Page 418.
³From Mary Poppins, a promise that’s “easily made, easily broken.”

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The Knife of Never Letting Go ~ Patrick Ness
My review of The Ask and the Answer (Book 2)