When Plain Kate’s father dies of a fever, she isn’t left with much: a few clothes, some tools her father gave her, the woodcarving he taught her, and some loyalty from the townspeople. These are enough for a few years; she survives by carving objarka, charms that the villagers feel are too important to leave in the hands of the guild woodcarver, significantly less skilled than Plain Kate. Then an albino tinker appears, offering to purchase Kate’s shadow in exchange for her deepest wish, and when she refuses, strange things start happening—strange things that have the villagers muttering about witchcraft and Kate. Knowing she’ll likely be killed if she stays, Plain Kate takes the tinker’s offer: her shadow in exchange for ample traveling supplies. Well equipped and now accompanied by a talking cat, she leaves to find a new place in the world.

Plain Kate is well-written and absorbing; within a page or two, I could feel myself sinking into the world with a contented sigh. Kate is an appealing but not overly-idealized heroine, and a smattering of Eastern European and Roma (gypsy) folklore and tradition gives the book shape. Mostly, though, it’s about human nature: suspicion, desperation, family loyalty, mob mentality. To an adult reader, it’s a mite predictable, but not in particularly frustrating way; it didn’t feel like Kate was being daft by not putting things together, it just felt like the reader had a longer view of the situation. Kate had immediate concerns to distract her; the reader is looking for the big picture. The only significant flaw is the ending; it feels a bit too neat, and there are enough sudden changes to make the reader feel a bit jerked-around. Still, it’s a beautiful, gripping novel. And I didn’t even mind the talking cat!

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Plain Kate ~ Erin Bow

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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

Red Pyramid Kane Chronicles Rick RiordanThe Kane Chronicles, Book 1

The author of the Percy Jackson books is back, and this time he’s moved from Greek mythology to the Egyptian variety.

Carter Kane is fourteen and lives out of a suitcase, traveling the world with his Egyptologist father. Traveling a bit more than seems strictly necessary, if its just for professional reasons: most Egyptologists don’t need to switch hotels in the middle of the night, for instance. Of course, most don’t get shot at, either. Sadie Kane is twelve and lives in London with their grandparents, jealous of Carter for getting to spend his life with the father she only sees twice a year. It’s on one of those biannual visits that they all go to the British Museum, at which their dad blows up the Rosetta Stone and gets kidnapped by a fiery supernatural being. An Egyptian god? Yup. This is, naturally, followed by adventures and the need to save North America, if not the entire world.

The narrative is presented as a transcript of an audio tape1 recorded alternately by Carter and Sadie, complete with interjections as the on-mic sib responds to the teasing of the one off-mic, and distracting chapter openers as the narrator switches. It’s an annoying gimmick and the framework detracts from the book; not only does it slow the chapter transitions, the explanatory “author’s note” delays the start of the story, and at the end, the book comes to a satisfying conclusion… and then adds a completely unnecessary extra-extra gimmicky chapter, just to explain the main gimmick. I will grant that the extra chapter does set the stage for the second book, but in a frustrating rather than a tantalizing way; the first book really has been tied up, and instead of letting you close the book with a satisfied sigh, it stops dead and then introduces the conceit behind the sequel without introducing the plot of the sequel.

Gimmickiness aside, the other issue with the narration is a lack of distinction between Carter’s voice and Sadie’s voice. They have distinct personalities and interests—and are both appealing, sympathetic kid characters—but I got more of a sense of each of them as individuals from watching their actions than from hearing their voices. The name of the current narrator is always on the top of the page, and I found myself needing to check more than once.

Nonetheless, it’s a very fun book. The Egyptian gods running around have plenty of limitation on their powers while still being fairly badass, and the plot moves quickly, cleverly, and at times hilariously through various confrontations with deities and magicians. The magicians are members of the House of Life, a millennia-old secret society. They are not particularly happy with the actions of the Kane family; their ancient policy is that the gods should stay locked up, all of them, and the Kanes keep messing with that. Fittingly, the organization has difficulty displaying adaptability in reaction to the Kanes; this is the nature of humanity and bureaucracy. We find ruts, make them oh-so-comfortable, and never get out of them.

Sadie and Carter are multiracial; unsurprisingly, they have plenty of Egyptian heritage if you trace it a couple millennia back, but it’s been mixed with much other heritage, so their dad presents as black and their long-dead mother was white. Carter takes after their dad, while Sadie looks more like their mom, though, obviously, she’s darker. It’s really nice to see such a mainstream book dealing with race, and it does so well, particularly in Carter and his dad’s awareness of public perception of them as African American men.

I don’t know as much Egyptian mythology as I know Greek, so this was breaking more new ground for me than the Percy Jackson books had; this was a fun exploration of a pantheon with which I am not very familiar. I particularly appreciated that he gave credit to the existence of multiple versions of myths, accepting them all rather than choosing one, but with an explanation that made sense. I also appreciated that he casually left room for this and the Percy Jackson books to take place in the same world, but didn’t stress it or threaten to blend the two series.

The Red Pyramid is a creative, fast-paced adventure that suffers from its narratorial gimmick, but it’s only a flesh wound.

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1Yes, audio tape. Not a recording saved on a thumb drive or SD card, an audio tape. What is this, the 90s?

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The Red Pyramid ~ Rick Riordan
My reviews of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Book 1), The Sea of Monsters (Book 2), The Titan’s Curse (Book 3), Battle of the Labyrinth (Book 4), and The Last Olympian (Book 5)

Poison Diaries coverThe Poison Diaries trilogy, Book 1

Jessamine lives alone with her apothocary father in the remains of a monastery, tending their herb and vegetable gardens and keeping house while her father travels the county dosing people with his herbal remedies, searching for any books of horticulture that may have survived the burning of the monasteries, and caring for the locked garden Jessamine is forbidden to enter. Then a raggedy boy known only as Weed is brought to his father, a boy with a mysteriously close relationship with all varieties of plants, a boy suspected of putting something in the tea at a madhouse that made all the inmate sane, and something else in the town well that made the inhabitants crazy.

It’s all rather fascinatingly unhealthy—Jessamine, her relationship with her father, her relationship with Weed. She’s been alone, or alone save a man who looks down on her, for far too long; her first-person narration overflows with eloquent loneliness and desperation for human contact, and her initial reaction to Weed is predicated on her understandable need for a friend. Their romance, though it reeks of inevitability, is interesting; in addition to Jessamine’s issues, Weed is emotionally scarred and is even less accustomed to social interaction, having never really learned to bond with people. They cling to each other, both outsiders unused to being understood.

And then it trades its understated, complex psychology for an overstated, hallucinogenic quest and an abrupt ending.

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The Poison Diaries ~ Maryrose Wood (which has got to be the greatest name for an author of a plant-related book ever).

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

Magic Under Glass Corrected New Cover by Jaclyn DolamoreNim—Nimira—is a Trouser Girl, a dark-skinned singer and dancer from Tianshen—valued in Lorinar for little more than willingness to traipse around on stage in pants, traditional for women in her culture but exotic and erotic in a land of corsets and petticoats. During the day she scoffs at her fellow performers for their dreams of wealthy, handsome man whisking them from the grimy music halls and into high society, but when a well-to-do and attractive sorcerer offers her a high-paying job, she takes the chance. Even if the job involves singing with a piano-playing automaton and several singers have already quite, swearing that the clockwork man is haunted. Determined to stick it out, Nim doesn’t run when the automaton starts to moan; instead, she pays attention and they manage to communicate. He is, of course, a fairy who has been trapped in the automaton for thirty years (though, only really having consciousness when wound, for him it seems far less), and his very existence is threatened by a ranking member of the Sorcerer’s Council.

Magic Under Glass deals admirably with both racism and sexism; mostly this is apparent in characters’ reactions to Nim, but a potent mixture or racism and nationalism is also found in their views towards fairies and the nearby fairy country. Most impressively, this racially-tinged nationalism is seen even in characters who are not villains, while not being portrayed as acceptable; it condemns the anti-fairy sentiment while acknowledging that well-intentioned, kind-hearted people can say and believe things that make us cringe.

There are some interesting twists, especially in the limitations of magic, but there’s also a Jane Eyre parallel that falls rather flat. The portrayals of romance in the book are likewise mixed. The central romance, that between Nim and the man in the man in the automaton, is predictable and and its lack of development becomes problematic late in the story, when their circumstances shift and their emotions fail to respond. On the other hand, there are the visible remnants of a relationship that clearly was, at one point, deeply loving, but has realistically altered and shifted into something entirely different as the people and situations changed; an unrequited romantic interest—clear and hopeful, hesitant and uncreepy—further adds complexity and nuance.

The conclusion certainly paves the way for the forthcoming sequel, but it is a conclusion and not a cliffhanger or abrupt cut-off.

Magic Under Glass has strengths that far outweigh its weaknesses. Dolamore has pretty serious potential, and I’m rather intrigued by this sentence on her website: “My next book, Between The Sea And Sky, is about a mermaid and a winged dude. There is, of course, a love story and angst, and the vibe I was going for is Jane Austen meets Miyazaki.”

Jane Austen meets Miyazaki, from a writer who clearly has promise? I’m in.

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Magic Under Glass ~ Jaclyn Dolamore

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