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

The Chosen OneAlmost-fourteen-year-old Kyra lives on a polygamist compound with her father, his three wives, and twenty siblings. She sneaks out to get books from the Bookmobile from the nearest library that drives by once a week, secretly meets a boy her own age to steal kisses, and her mothers speak longingly of their own childhoods—when they were allowed to leave the compound freely and non-Bible books weren’t burned—but generally, her life is happy, surrounded by family she loves. Then the Prophet announces that she’s been Chosen as the seventh wife of her fifty-year-old uncle.

It’s a very short, very intense book. Kyra’s pain, confusion, and wavering determination are palpable in the first-person narration. The violence, manipulation, sexual violence, and misogyny inherent in this sort of fundamentalist compound life are vividly but simply portrayed, but it doesn’t make demons of everyone who lives there; Kyra’s family, though obedient believers, are loving, well-intentioned people who stand by each other and try to protect Kyra as far as they are able. If that isn’t nearly as far as we would like, the past trauma of Kyra’s parents—including her father’s other wives— helps explain why they have such limitations.

The narration suffers a bit from ill-defined flashbacks; it’s sometimes hard to keep track of whether you’re reading about now or then. The flashbacks establishing Kyra’s relationship with the Bookmobile and the man who drives it are compelling and help establish how Kyra has developed her worldview; those featuring her romance with a boy her own age are less compelling and less interesting. Happily, they’re short enough and few enough to be mere blips in an otherwise powerful novel.

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The Chosen One

Evil CarterStuart is an outsider, a snarky, gay, non-Christian teen in a very conservative Christian small town. He may not have many—or any—friends, but at least the town’s population is civil, quietly hoping he’ll come back around to Christianity and become straight but not bothering him about it: (“‘We know you’ve chosen that lifestyle,’ Mrs. Farmson told me in her understanding voice. ‘I have faith that you will find the error of your ways soon”1). That all changes when, suddenly, both Sunday school/youth group leaders are moved to change their planned lessons and instead discuss the horror of the Sin of Onan—masturbation.2 And as luck would have it, Stuart’s little brother walked in on him enjoying a rather onanistic shower that morning, so Stuart is in a lot of trouble. Way more trouble than makes any sense at all. In danger from the suddenly-very-judgmental and possibly violent populace, Stuart turns to an understanding priest and a handy demonic informer—just what he needs to go up against a couple of fallen angels and save his own skin.

As a farce, it’s pretty fun. As a narrator, Stuart is flippant and entertaining, and there are some delightful little touches in the descriptions of small-town life, the pettiness of high school, and the effectiveness of tomatoes as a device of torture. As a farce should be, it’s completely over the top and hyperbolic. Unfortunately, it tries to explain the exaggeration and it takes itself a little to seriously to be convincing as a farce. And if it’s not a farce, it’s too unbelievable and somehow hopeful to be satisfying. Evil? blames homophobic/anti-masturbatory/anti-heretic/anti-whatever violence on supernatural forces; Humans are plenty capable of such violence without any outside influences, and by dismissing that tendency, the book undermines its own message of acceptance and live-and-let-live. If our discriminatory outbursts aren’t our fault, if we are not responsible for our own prejudices, then we don’t need to work to overcome them.

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1P. 14
2Though the book takes pains to point out that the story of Onan in Genesis can (and probably should) be read to condemn greed and selfishness, rather than masturbation.

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Evil? ~ Timothy Carter

Incarceron Catherine FisherFinn is a Prisoner in Incarceron: a giant, self-contained prison, sealed 160 years previously, in which lives the descendants of criminals and a few of the Sapienti, a clan of intellectuals who volunteered to be incarcerated to guide and offer wisdom to the inmates. Incarceron is a nightmare: violent, cutthroat, low on resources, subject to periodic lockdowns, everything taking place under the red glare of Incarceron’s Eyes.

Meanwhile, Outside, Claudia is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. She is caught up in court intrigue and an arranged engagement to a rather unpleasant prince. They are trapped by Protocol that requires them to live as if it is an earlier (but frustratingly vague) Era.

Then Finn finds a strange crystal Key bearing the same symbol that is mysteriously tattooed on his wrist; separately, Claudia breaks into her father’s study and finds an identical key.

I found the pacing to be off. I figured out a major reveal very early, and then got a bit bored as the same hint was dropped over and over again. Towards the end I had the opposite problem: things moved a bit too fast and with too many abrupt shifts—yes, they can get out! no, they can’t! Yes, they can! Jerk me around too many times and I will stop caring. Guaranteed. Incarceron didn’t hit that point, but it was a close call.

The world is interesting, though Outside is a bit underdeveloped: I wanted to be able to picture what Outside looks like, with its Era clothing, buildings, and transportation; to understand how their advanced tech fit around the edges of Protocol and the Era, and how their advanced tech is maintained; and, as we’re dealing with an upper-class arranged marriage, what the society’s gender dynamic is like. None of these details are really there. Incarceron is better developed and more creative, with vastly different societies and appearance in different areas. Tidbits of folklore and history are given as epigraphs preceding each chapter, offering tantalizing glimpses into the of depth to the world. Hopefully, the sequel will smooth out some of this volume’s kinks and delve deeper into the world she’s created—inside and outside of Incarceron.

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Incarceron

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

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

Ash Malinda Lo Lesbian Cinderella RetellingA Cinderella variant haunted by echoes of science clashing with belief and new religions clashing with old ones, Ash tells the story of a young woman untethered, trying to find a place in the world. First Ash returns, again and again, to the grave of her mother; then she shelters in the protection of a handsome fairy; later, she falls for a confident huntress and gets some confidence and agency for herself.

Ash is told in a gentle, largely expository style, fittingly reminiscent of oral tradition. The pacing is unusual; fairly slow, it thoroughly develops Ash and Sidhean, the fairy, before introducing Kaisa, the huntress. Between those two factors, it took a while to draw me in, but once it caught me I was caught but good. Ash’s slow emotional transitions are dealt with beautifully, one set of emotions fading—but not disappearing—as another rises up. The differences between Ash’s relationships with Sidhean and Kaisa are well drawn and a fascinating reflection of the differences in their personalities and statuses, his bitterness contrasting with her caution. Though the romance is important, it’s less central than in many Cinderella variants; the focus is more on Ash coming into her own, something she does slowly and believably, with a few natural stumbles on the way. Likewise, though it builds to a lesbian relationship, the fact that it’s queer is less central than in many GLBT books. For the most part, it’s treated as perfectly natural and obvious that there would be same-sex relationships. In fact, one of the few parts of the book that didn’t work for me was a few pages of Ash being confused and awkward because of the suggestion that her feelings for Kaisa could be romantic and/or sexual. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful, unusual book, and a pleasant reprieve from heavy LGBT-related books and new stories.

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Ash ~ Malinda Lo