The LuxeThe Luxe is Gossip Girl set in 1899, right down to the commentary from the newspapers’ society columns.

It’s actually well enough written to be an enjoyable read, spiced up by descriptions of pretty dresses (I will admit it: I’m a sucker for a good ballgown) and some hot scenes. Moreover, I was surprised by the end to discover that I actually cared about some of the characters. This was a long time coming; at the beginning, they’re all pretty despicable. While they’re still deeply, deeply flawed, for the most part the heroes and heroines spend the book developing a better balance between their needs and wants and the needs and wants of other people – which sometimes means paying less attention to their own immediate wants, and sometimes more. The villainesses, however, remain one-dimensional throughout, and I’m really hoping they get their comeuppance in the sequels. Because yes, there are sequels, and yes, I totally have to read them.

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The Luxe ~ Official Site

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Donna Jo Napoli HushIn a Norse saga, there’s a mention of an Irishwoman captured and sold as a slave, Melorka. In Hush, Donna Jo Napoli takes Melkorka and gives her a book of her own.

Melkorka’s a spoiled teenager, firmly convinced of her royal superiority over the ordinary people and slaves, firm in her hatred of Vikings, and not very good at thinking before she speaks. Then comes her kidnapping, and her enslavement. Remembering her sister and her mother, she refuses to speak to her captors; listening to a fellow slave, she resolves to not speak to anyone. Her silence, flimsy though it is, becomes the only power she has.

It’s told in a first-person, present-tense narrative that works. Melkorka’s inner monologue reveals what she doesn’t say and lets us watch her adjust to her situation – and adjust again when it changes again. We see the helplessness of slaver, but also how the slave comes to have more strength than the princess ever did. It’s surprisingly gentle for a slave narrative, I think in part because it’s present-tense, but that gentleness is actually quite revealing. When Melkorka is experiencing something she can’t deal with, she thinks about it only obliquely, and that sideways experience is what we’re given.

The end is rushed and trite. Looking back on it, the beginning seems tacked-on, not really part of the story. But in many ways that’s part of Melkorka’s story; the experiences she has make her no longer the person she was. It’s a powerful book, which makes no excuses for the cruelties of the world but gives us a woman who can’t escape them, but can survive them.

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Hush ~ Donna Jo Napoli

Maud grew up in an orphanage. Now eleven, she’s thrilled to be adopted by three sisters, bought new clothing and books of her own, and brought to their house to live. She does find it a little weird that she’s brought there under cover of darkness and is told to stay in the house or walled-in garden, away from windows, and to sneak up the back stairs when visitors knock on the front door. And then she’s asked to help with the sisters’ fake seances, knowlingly defrauding people who’ve lost loved ones. It’s okay, though – she’s loved and wanted, and isn’t that enough?

Last year, Laura Amy Schlitz won the Newbery, and I was unhappy. You’d think a Canterbury Tales-esque book winning the Newbery would make me happy (just like you’d think that Neil Gaiman winning the Newberry would make me ecstatic), but no. The book was boring and had no overarching narrative. Hardly any underarching narrative, for that matter.

Now that I’ve read two of Schlitz’s three other books, I’m starting to wonder if last year was a case of “Laura Amy Schlitz is good, why haven’t we given her anything yet?” (Just like I wonder if Gaiman won this year partly because he hadn’t won for Coraline. Which is a better book than The Graveyard Book. Which also has only sketched connection between chapters; maybe Newberry committees just care less about narrative than I do.)

Because A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is good. (If I was going to continue my Newbery-committee snarking, I’d mention that it’s a better book than The Higher Power of Lucky, which won the Newbery that year, and deals with some of the same issues. But The Higher Power of Lucky throws in some extra issues which deserve discussion, and I don’t actually think A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is Newbery-worth, so I won’t snark. Except I just did. Oops.)

It’s good because it’s not oversimple; Maud’s negotiation of trust, ethics, love, and even truth are difficult. Every character is deeply and realistically flawed. Maud’s task is figuring out who can be trusted anyway.

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A Drowned Maiden’s Hair

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

A strange boy (Stephen Rose) moves to a small town in the east of England in the 1960s. For most of the kids already living there, he’s a curiousity, kicked out of seminary school, living with the village woman known as Crazy Mary, surrounded by rumors of his father’s odd death and his mother’s decent into madness. For Davie, he’s a fascination, particularly after he whispers “move” to a hunk of clay, and Davie could swear it actually does.

The dialogue is trite and overblown, the first-person narration doesn’t match the way Davie speaks, and while I can intellectually understand that fistfights were highly important to boys in small English towns in the 60s, I still don’t really get it. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating portrayal of the effect of someone captivating. Davie isn’t just swept up in the supernatural, nigh-unexplainable occurances, he’s swept up in Stephen Rose, in Stephen Rose’s certainty and belief. Reading Clay, I was continually torn between my impatience with the mediocre writing and the power of Davie’s story as he’s untethered from everything he knows.

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David Almond
Clay

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.

Ulster, 1981. Not history’s most gentle moment.

Ireland, 80 CE. Not history’s most gentle moment, either.

Of course, the gentle moments are rarely interesting.

Bog Child centers around Fergus as his life centers around his A-Levels¹, the Troubles², and, increasingly, the preserved body of a girl he found in the bog. Fergus is being pulled every which way, caught between the knowledge of his brother on a hunger-strike in jail; his growing friendship with a Welsh soldier on border-duty; his own desire to get out of Ireland and into Medical School; the companionship of the archeologist who comes to investigate the mysterious first-century bog body, the archeologist’s daughter, and his dreams of the girl in the ground.

The book’s treatment of the Troubles is very strong.  The sense of entrapment is palpable, as is the heady mix of absolute love for Ireland and absolute despair over what’s happening in Ireland. Fergus and his family and friends are all staunchly Republican³, but it’s fascinating to see the shifting lines of commitment and ideas.  A lot is left unsaid, but that’s as it should be – instead of being told, we’re right there with Fergus as he has to deal with the political climate and his family’s role in it.

Into all this is tied the story of Mel, the bog child, told through dreams and visions had by Fergus.  I can’t help but think the book would have been stronger without the dream plot device, either with the flashbacks simply existing as their own thing between Fergus chapters or even entirely without them – they’re overshadowed by Fergus anyway.   I’m also not without qualms as to the historical accuracy; I didn’t see any glaring issues, either with the narrative or the archeology, but there were a few things which had me straining to remember details of bog people, Iron Age Ireland, and ancient Irish, Celtic, and Germanic art.  While there’s a brief historical note on the hunger strike, there’s nothing about the subjects covered in the flashbacks, and the only sources she sites are a BBC documentary and a book from 1969. Basically, I’m withholding judgment on the historical accuracy until I’ve had a chance to run it by the friend who actually took Irish archeology – much of what I know I learned from helping her study.

But it’s not Mel’s book, it’s Fergus’s.  And Fergus’s book is worth a read.

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¹Advanced-Level examinations which UK students need to pass to go to college.  Think NEWTs, only without the magic.

²The violence and chaos in Northern Ireland from the 1960s through 1998. The Catholic minority of Ulster was primarily Nationalist and wanted to join the (primarily Catholic) Irish Republic, while the Protestant majority was primarily Unionist and wanted to stay part of the United Kingdom. Cue bombings, riots, and hunger strikes.

³In the Irish Nationalist sense, not the American Right-Wing Conservative sense.