Showing posts with label ghosts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ghosts. Show all posts

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Paris Pan Takes the Dare by Cynthea Liu

Rating: WORTHY!

Paris is one of three siblings, the others being older sister Verona and even older brother Athens. They're a Chinese family living in the USA. Their father fixes up houses and when he's done with the one in which they're currently living, he moves the whole family to a new fixer-upper and starts over. Paris hates this life. She hates even more the podunk village they just moved to.

The children were all named after cities because their idiot parents figured this would inspire them to go places, but this made no sense to me. The family is repeatedly presented as a traditionally Chinese one, yet not one of the cities was one in China? This was one of many issues I had with the Chinese angle of this story.

We're often told to write what we know, but we would have a very dull library if everyone did that. Stephen King never met any of his horrors, ghosts, psycho schoolgirls, or vampires. George Lucas never fought any Star Wars. Suzanne Collins never competed in any post-apocalyptic Hunger Games. The truth is that you don't have to write what you know! In fact, it's actually better if you don't, unless you happen to have led a really amusing, exciting, unusual, or adventurous life. As long as you make what you write sound plausible within its context, I'm good with it. It doesn't even have to be authentic as long as it's not idiotic!

I think this might be where this author went wrong with this book, because at lot of it felt like it was semi-autobiographical and the author seemed to be having difficulty with interleaving it effectively into a USA milieu. Maybe she was writing about some of own experiences, maybe she wasn't, but in trying to present a US family from Chinese roots, I think some things got lost in the translation.

Talking of which, the biggest annoyance was having Paris's parents speak pigeon English. This sounded condescending at best and racist at worst. Yes, I get that there are people who speak like that, but I didn't see how this contributed to the story. There was nothing in the novel (if there was I missed it) to suggest that the Pan family had just moved here from China, and there are better ways of portraying a language issue without making the speakers come off as lazy, incompetent or stupid. None of the kids had the slightest issue with English, indicating that the family had been here all their lives. This doesn't mean the parents had of course, but it made the difference between kids and parents glaring. This was a discrepancy which called for some sort of acknowledgement if not explanation, yet it was never raised in the story for any purpose.

The parents names are not given except for one reference to "Frank" - the dad. Now Frank is not a Chinese name and while Asians all-too-often adopt western names to make life easier on us klutzy westerners, and to whom subtlety of language is an alien concept for most people, especialyl in an age of lowest common denominator Internet chat and texting, Asians do have original names, so why would mom call dad Frank unless that really was his name? If he was actually named Frank, he wasn't born in China. Or maybe he was and the author was very confused. Like I said, there were better ways she could have written this.

It was not just in their language either. There are other ways in which they were portrayed as idiots. One was the constant moving of houses. It made no sense and was never explained. If it had been making them a fat wad of money, I could see a reason for it, but it wasn't! If this was their father's business, fine, but why not do this in a larger city where there are more houses to work on and no need to move the family miles away? On top of this, dad was portrayed as a heart attack waiting to happen and even when it did happen, he learned nothing from it. Idiot!

That aside, I really liked the Paris story, even though she was also portrayed as an idiot for a while. She was so desperate to make friends that she essentially became a performing dog for the alpha girl in her class, but she did wise-up in the end, and I loved the ending, especially the pro-active part Paris took in her own destiny. I'm just sorry it took her so long, but I liked her as a character, and I liked her brother and sister. I'm sorry we didn't get more of the relationship with Robin, the shy, outcast girl. That could have been a story to rival the one we did get.

The story involved the death of a girl of Paris's age (twelve), which occurred almost thirty years before. Paris, it turns out, is living in the house the girl once occupied, but her body was found in a creek bed out in the woods a couple of years after she vanished. We never do get an explanation of how the girl died, but Paris is so spooked by all the rumors that she starts thinking that the girl's ghost is maybe trying to contact her from "the other side"! Call me a science nerd, but I was really thrilled to see how the author provided a perfectly prosaic explanation for all the "supernatural" experiences Paris had. That was a real joy to read and is why, overall I recommend this as a worthy read for middle-graders.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due

Rating: WARTY!

I could not read this book the whole way through. I made it to about 70% in in terms of page count and almost two thirds through it in terms of the number of stories I read, but I simply could not continue reading because the stories were crushingly boring. In my experience with this author, the best thing about her has proven to be her astonishing name, which I love. I'm sorry I can't love what she writes, though!

There comes a point even with the best of good will that you need to cut your losses and move onto something that will provide a more rewarding read. To continue reading in a situation like this is really to indulge in what's known in economic terms as the sunk cost fallacy (I think wikipedia has it under 'Escalation of commitment'), and I do not subscribe to that! I did move on, and I didn't regret it because the advance review copy I moved to after this proved to be eminently entertaining! Life is far too short to spend it on books that don't thrill you from the off!

By the time I quit, I'd read nine of the fifteen short stories it contained. Only one of them had been interesting to me, and even that was nothing special since this kind of story has been done to death: laying a ghost by discovering long buried bones? This variation on an old theme brought nothing new to the oeuvre.

I got this book thinking it was a graphic novel of Tanarive Due stories, so I thought it might be interesting even though I hadn't liked the only other novel by this author that I read, which was Joplin's Ghost. It was included in a flyer from Net Galley advertising graphic novels. Two of the "graphic novels" were short story collections. I got both of them and liked neither! I am going to be very careful about requesting any more 'graphic novels' from Net Galley, rest assured!

This might sound strange to say, but one of my biggest problems with this novel was that it felt racist to me. It seems this author can write only about black families, and even then only about ones with issues or with silly superstitions. There are no Caucasians or Asians in her world. This is why it felt racist to me. And no, I'm not trying to suggest she's saying all African American families are superstitious or believe in ghosts or whatever. Clearly this whole book was written about the paranormal so that's a given, but the family circumstances of everyone she writes about here are awful and it felt like racial profiling! Are there no black families that lead relatively ordinary lives that she could write a paranormal story about?! Not according to this author, which is one major reason why I did not like this.

The story titles are as follows. They were divided in the book into sections which meant quite literally nothing to me, so I'm simply listing them here in order they appear in the book and ignoring the section headers:

  • The Lake
  • This was about some kids rowing up around a lake wherein resides something that's not very friendly to kids and which is also very hungry.
  • Summer
  • This is apparently about a baby which was apparently switched out by fairies, or something along those lines. It simply fizzled rather than have any kind of an ending.
  • Ghost Summer
  • The title story was the one I thought was ok, but as I mentioned it really offered nothing new or different. I think this is the longest story in the collection, and it honestly felt really long, but it avoided being boring.
  • Free Jim’s Mine
  • I honestly saw no point whatsoever to this story. It didn't seem to go anywhere to me. It touched on slavery and servitude, but cheapened that message by tossing in the supernatural element. It's like the author felt that slavery isn't bad enough by itself, there has to be something more - some horrific supernatural element added to the recipe to make it truly cook. I think the author and I will have to agree to disagree on that score.
  • The Knowing
  • Is it a blessing or a curse to know when people will die? The "twist" in this story was pretty obvious, so it really offered no kick for me, and making this story first person failed for me because I detest that voice.
  • Like Daughter
  • This is about cloning and again was boring and made no sense to me. There was no supernatural element: it was all sci-fi.
  • Aftermoon
  • This is a werewolf story which made so little of am impression on me that I completely forget what happened in it.
  • Trial Day
  • This is a story about a man who is on trial for his life, and whether or not someone who could help him will testify.
  • Patient Zero
  • This one, as was pretty obvious from the start, is the story of a kid who is immune to a plague that is slowly killing off everyone else on the planet. It was again first person and I found it obnoxious. I skimmed lots of it rather than read every last word, and it was at this point that I decided I couldn't bare to start another of these stories, so I can't tell you a thing about the remaining stories which follow.
  • Danger Word
  • Removal Order
  • Herd Immunity
  • Carriers
  • Señora Suerte
  • Vanishings

Like I said, life is too short and these stories were quite simply not speaking to me or entertaining me. I can't recommend this one at all. I don't get why she's so fond of Roots, either. From what I've read it would seem to be a mashup of fiction and plagiarism, so I have no desire to read it when there are more realistic books available on the subject.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Haunted on Bourbon Street by Deanna Chase

Rating: WARTY!

This novel sucked. It's about Jade Calhoun (I should have quit reading right there!) who is an "empath" in a world where everyone, without question, completely accepts all the new-age mumbo-jumbo. Jade moves into a new apartment in New Orleans for no good reason (she's from out of state), and encounters a ghost which apparently doesn't have a pleasant agenda. She immediately calls in a guy recommended by a friend who uses scientific equipment to try and record and measure the ghost. Why the empath can't do this for herself is a mystery. She's a friggin' empath! What use is she?

I'm guessing the real reason is to make sure she has lots of encounters with Kane (I should have quit reading right there, too!) who runs the strip club under her apartment. From the moment of their first encounter, Jade turns into a bitch in heat whenever Kane is around and it was so tedious, it was pathetic. Get a room already. Oh wait, she has one! But it's haunted! Oh god how will they ever make it through this???? Who the hell cares? And do I want to read more of this crap in a series? "NO!"

The thing is, despite Jade calling for help and being unaccountably terrified of this ghost, the blurb tells us, "'s up to Jade to use her unique ability to save" her friend Pyper (yeah, I should have quit reading right there, too). I'm really sorry, and I apologize to all women named Piper (or variants thereof), but I simply cannot take that name seriously, not at all. I just can't. But there you have it. If it's up to her, why did she bring in the science boys? Filler? Or fill her?

The blurb stupidly asks, as do all blurbs beginning with 'When' ask, "...she'll need Kane's help to do it...Can she find a way to trust him and herself before Pyper is lost?" I'm guessing the answer to that question is "Yes!" but it ought to be "NO!" and all of these characters ought to die horribly in a ghostly holocaust.

That would have unarguably been the best ending for this, and if it had happened that way, I would have rated this five stars. As it is, it honestly gets no stars. The one I gave it is only for the fact that "no stars" is not an option (Goodreads can't average it!); it just looks like the reviewer forgot to check how many stars it earned, and it doesn't count for squat. That's why I don't do stars as such. Either the novel is worth reading or it's not. It gets five stars or one, and to cut to the (Deanna) Chase, this one is definitely not worth reading.

I did love that if you write out the title and the author's name you get: Haunted on Bourbon Street by Deanna Chase - like it's the author who's doing the haunting. That was the best part about this novel.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Haunted by Meg Cabot

Rating: WARTY!

Read really annoyingly by Alanna Ubach, this novellette sounded interesting from the blurb, but it turned out to be yet another irritating first person PoV, which is worst person in practice, and it honestly had nothing to do with ghosts, not really. You could have taken the minimal presence of ghosts completely out of the picture and had very nearly the same story: a sixteen year old has literally nothing on her mind than boys.

Tiresomely, there's the trope bad boy that the mc falls for, and the standard issue best friend. Often I find I like the best friend better than the main character, but such was not the case here, so this story didn't even have that going for it. I actually didn't like anyone. I know this is a part of a larger world, none of which I'm familiar with, but that doesn't alter the fact that we had a weak and uninteresting main character, and a story which had nothing new to offer and not a thing to recommend it. I have no need now to read anything else in this world, nor anything else by Meg Cabot (and yes, it's ca-bot, not cab-oh, so there isn't even anything unexpected there).

Susannah Simon, the protagonist, is dating a ghost - she and other special snowflakes like her can physically interact with ghosts - but like I said, the ghosts may as well have been ordinary and very retiring people for all they contributed to the story. All that was left was your stereotypical and clueless high school girl in love, which is tedious, uninventive and done to death. Meg Cabot needs a new shtick, and she's not alone amongst YA authors in that respect.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Rating: WORTHY!

These three twelve-year-old kids, Alice, Poppy, and Zach, have a healthy imagination and play together in an elaborate fantasy world they've created, featuring pirates and mermaids, and evil queens, based on their respective toys - action figures, Barbie dolls, and this one bone china doll in Poppy's mom's cabinet. The way Holly Black evokes these kids and their passion for this fantasy world is remarkable. The way it's read by Nick Podehl contributed greatly to the atmosphere and representation of the kids, too. I can only speculate uselessly how I would have found this novel had I read it first rather than listened to it. I would still have liked it, but would I have liked it as much? More? It's impossible to say, just as it's impossible to say if I would have disliked it had the narrator been rather nauseating. You pays your money and you takes your chance! Except that in this case it's "You borrows your audiobook ...."

Zach's dad thinks Zach is too old and too male to be playing with dolls, so he throws out all of Zach's figures one day while Zach is at school. The boy already resented his father for disappearing for some time before slowly sliding his way back into the family, but now Zach honestly hates him. For reasons which I didn't feel were well explained, Zach is too embarrassed to admit to the girls that his toys were thrown away, so he brusquely states that he's done playing these childish games. This begins a thread of discord which runs uncomfortably through this story like a out-of-the-way itch

The girls are crushed, but he's adamant about his decision, until late one night Alice and Poppy show up outside his bedroom window with a story that Poppy has been having night-time visitations from the ghost of the bone china doll, which she says is made from real bones of a dead girl who wants to be buried or she will curse them. Poppy has some actual ashes and bone fragments she says were inside the doll. They look like they came from someone's cremated remains.

Zach isn't sure that she's being honest, and he only half-way believes the ghost story, but he's impressed by Poppy's earnest demeanor, and by Alice's bravery at risking being grounded for life by her strict grandmother. Alice said she would only go with Poppy if Zach came, and Poppy was determined to go alone if she had to. Zach may have been skeptical, but impressed by the strength of conviction in his friends, and interested in one more adventure with the girls, the three of them hop on a bus to East Liverpool in the wee hours. it's a three hour ride to whence this dead girl supposedly hailed. Their plan is to bury her and lift the curse.

Thus begins their quest! The story is told well and has a lot of action and adventure, and some interesting conversations and shifting allegiances. There are some less than noble behaviors indulged in by these three kids, and I would have liked to have seen some sort of remorse or cost to the kids resulting from these, but there was none. I didn't like that. That aside, though, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I recommend it not only for age-appropriate readers (/listeners!), but for anyone who likes a good adventure story.

Friday, October 30, 2015

I Text Dead People by Rose Cooper

Rating: WORTHY!

The very title of this novel strongly suggests that it's worth reading, but I've gone down that path before and been disappointed. I'm happy to report that in this case, it worked out exactly as the title promised - brilliantly!

This is a middle-grade novel about Annabel Craven. It's larded with trope, but at least it's not first person PoV, and the author makes the story work. Anna is the new girl in school, who comes with issues, such as the fact that she lives in Mad Manor - really Maddsen Manor (the sign has some letters missing) which came to her mom Valerie, via a deceased uncle, who evidently could see dead people, and was consequently deemed crazy. Anna's mom is a cosmetologist and hairdresser

On a rebellious impulse one day, Anna befriends school 'freak' Lucy, and shortly after this, Lucy dies. That's when Anna starts getting texts from Lucy. And other ghosts. The texts come in on this phone she found in the cemetery which borders Mad manor - the same cemetery where Lucy met her demise. Now Lucy is asking for help from Anna in getting a message to John, the school hot boy.

Meanwhile Anna is trying to fit in and get along with the clique of wealthy kids, including oddball twins Olivia and Eden, both of whom seem to have a dark side, as well as Spencer - the school photographer, and Millie, who seems also to have a secret life. How this all pans out is the meat of this story which is beautifully written, darkly humorous, and very entertaining. I recommend this for a really good read. It's a pity we don't see more adult books written in this vein.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Zen Ghosts by Jon J Muth

Rating: WORTHY!

This is the third of my children's Halloween book reviews for today. This one is a fine-looking work of art illustrated by the author. When Karl says there's a ghost outside, Michael hardly believes it, and he;s smart not to because this is Stillwater, the giant panda who wears a tiny wolf mask on his head. Karl explains to Still water that he's going to be a monster for Halloween, while Michael is still trying to choose between an owl and a pirate. Perhaps he could be both if Karl didn't object to that so strenuously.

When Addy joins them, Stillwater tells them of a ghost story they could hear after they're done trick-or-treating, and if they meet him by the big stone wall. The giant panda leads them back to his house and illustrates a story for them with some fine brush strokes. It's the story of Senjo and Ochu, two youngsters who were destined to be married until Senjo's father became so ill that he could not work. Senjo would have to be married off to Henryo instead. Ochu: Ouch!

Ochu decides to leave the village, but Senjo discovers his plan and abandons her father and leaves with him. I guess she was that kind of girl. On the other hand, he was going to sell her off to the highest bidet. It wasn't until the had married and had children that Senjo started to feel bad about deserting her sick parent. What will they find when they return? Well, I'm not even going to tell you, but it's awesome. I thoroughly recommend this one.

We're Going on a Ghost Hunt by Susan Pearson

Rating: WORTHY!

Continuing today's Halloween theme, we're going on a ghost hunt with a really stirring and adventurous text by Susan Pearson, and some cool illustrative work by SD Schindler. Four young kids (where are their parents?!) are rampaging across the countryside searching for ghosts, and nothing, not swamps, not windy woods, not rivers, no, not even cornfields are going to stop them, but when they find the ghost in a cemetery? Well, maybe they will stop then and beat a hasty retreat the way they came to hide under the covers. I loved this book for its feisty, adventurous spirit, and the crazy kids.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Secret at Haney Field by RM Clark

Title: The Secret at Haney Field
Author: RM Clark
Publisher: MB Publishing
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often reward aplenty!

What could be more appropriate in the depths of winter than a book about baseball?! This is actually the first fiction I've ever read that features baseball at its core. For those who need it, it features a nice glossary at the beginning, which was actually useful to me. I'm not a huge sports fan! And a huge sports fan might be what you have to be to properly enjoy this: note that it's really heavy into baseball terminology and trivia.

That said, I can tell you that I really liked the story and consider it a worthy read. It was inventive, atmospheric, well-written, and proves single-handedly that it's possible to write a first person PoV novel that's not vomit-inducing! Kudos for that!

April O'Day is obsessed with baseball. Unhealthily so, I'd say, but let's let that slide right on by. She's also a bit too much of a Mary Sue, but other than that, she's smart, helpful, confident, adventurous, and she has integrity and guts. That's not bad at all for a female protagonist, and a heck of a lot better than you get in your typical YA novel. Maybe that's because this is middle-grade and not YA? Middle grade females seem to have a heck of a lot more going for them than ever do females in YA. Hey, why is that?

April's summer thrill is that she gets to be bat-girl(!) for a week at the local minor league team - the Harpoons (a suitably phallic name for a sports team, let's face it). She does so well that she is allowed to stay on after her volunteer week is over. She proves her worth not just by doing her assigned job well, but also by giving tips to the players on their running, their swinging, and their throwing, and the team starts doing really well.

So far, so good, but one night when she's delayed leaving, and when the stadium lights go off, April thinks she sees shadows running bases - not real people, but transparent shadows. Maybe it's just her imagination. But she keeps seeing them. Her friend Darren sees them. So, too, does the owner, Mr Haney, who takes a shine to April and invites her to his owner's box. After a discussion, he authorizes her to find out all she can about the shadows.

It's pretty obvious what they are, but maybe middle-graders will take longer to figure out out. What's not so obvious is why they're haunting Haney Field. Are they connected with that large object which Haney keeps hidden away under the stadium? Are they connected with names missing from a plaque? Why does Haney turn hostile when he learns what those names are? Are they connected with events from seventy years ago? And why are they haunting Haney's field?

I really liked this story, despite some minor irritations. It told a good tale and although it was a bit too sugary, it had a good ending. I'm sure middle-graders will love it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter

Title: The Swallow: A Ghost Story
Author: Charis Cotter
Publisher: Tundra books
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new novel is reward aplenty!

This is yet another first person PoV. I began it thinking that fortunately, since this one isn’t YA per se, maybe it wouldn't be as bad as some of the execrable 1poV YA novels I've had to endure, but this is also one of those novels which has, as chapter headers, the name of the person narrating that section, which means it's 1poV, but with (in this case) dual perspectives.

It seems to me that if you have to do this, then you've chosen the wrong voice for your novel. Experience has demonstrated quite conclusively that 1poV is almost always the wrong voice, and the problems you generate by choosing that route are compounded if you make the first person more than one individual. The truth of this became clear as soon as the two narrators began interacting, and it became a confused mess.

So we have Rose and Polly jointly narrating this one. Winnifred Rose McPherson was in 1963, and lived in Toronto, Canada. She can see ghosts, which made for a very withdrawn child who feared that if anyone found out what she could see, she would be locked-up as insane. Polly lives (in the present or near present) in the same place with a large family, having three siblings of her own plus some children which her parents have fostered or adopted, so her home is crowded and Polly resents it immensely.

The author tosses in the tired trope of having both characters described themselves in the mirror, which is a no-no in this day and age. She has each of them list their favorite whatever, which is tedious. Who knows, maybe readers their age will appreciate a bald info-dump like that. I didn’t.

The story started to go downhill for me when one of the characters returns from the hospital after being confined there with a fever, and starts interacting with the other, one of whom lives at 41 Cemetery lane, while the other lives next door at 43. They become aware of each other in their respective attics where they're both either hiding-out or merely seeking seclusion. It’s pretty obvious that Rose died from the fever and doesn’t realize she's dead.

There is a slight math issue here. When Rose looks in an old family Bible to see if there's a mention of Winnifred Rose, she discovers a birth and death date: December 5th 1910 through January 8th 1923. This isn’t close to thirteen years - it's only slightly over 12, yet Rose considers it to be 13 years for some reason.

To cut a long story short, I couldn’t finish this novel. Rose and Polly develop a relationship, meeting in the cemetery and sneaking into each other's homes, and encountering some sort of evil ghostly presence, but it wasn't the least bit interesting to me. Maybe it will interest younger readers, but I find it hard to believe that any self-possessed twelve-year-old would really get a lot out of this. Maybe they would, but the novel seemed very old-fashioned to me, which I'm sure will appeal to some kids, but it seems too limited to appeal widely. I only made it a third of the way through, so perhaps I missed the good bits, but based on what I did read, this isn't a story I can recommend. it was too much to...swallow.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb

Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Publisher: Listening library
Rating: WARTY!

Read endearingly (for the most part) by Lauren Molina.

Note to Laura Whitcomb: the thing which Neptune holds in his hand is a trident, not a triton - unless, that is, you're trying to suggest that Neptune sports a fellow god in his hand....


Note right up front that this is the first of the "Light" series, yet another YA series, because we don't have anywhere near enough of those out there, do we? Just so's you know what you're letting yourself in for! This is one of at least a dozen novels with this same title - or a title very similar - so be careful what you pick off the shelf! It's also rather explicit sexually, too, so it's not necessarily for the younger end of the YA range (which inexplicably runs from 14 - 24).

The story begins with a ghost which is well over a century old, and which is always on the verge (for reasons unexplained, at least to begin with) of being dragged down into hell. The only way the ghost can avoid this is to haunt a living person (again for reasons unexplained) - and by this, I don't mean haunt in the traditional sense. The people the ghost chooses are unaware of the fact that they're being parasitized.

Once this is done, the ghost is safe from being dragged down, but the price is that it must stay within a relatively short distance of the 'host' person otherwise it hurts. This is very much appropriated from the daemon-person relationship in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, except in this case they're decidedly one-sidedly abiding by.

The ghost in this case is a young woman named Helen. What it really means to identify as female when you're not in an actual body is debatable, but no such debate is held in this novel. Indeed, the ghost is exactly like a flesh human being, except that there's no flesh, so that's weird to begin with. Having neither flesh nor skeleton, nor muscles, how it can even move is, again, unexplained. The ghost can see and hear perfectly well, but cannot taste, touch, or smell. Again, no explanation is offered for this specialization in sensory apparatus, but what this does mean is that we're not dealing with anything new or original here! It your bog standard, common-or-garden, clichéd trope ghost just like in pretty much every other ghost story you've ever read or that's ever been written.

The bottom line is that we get neither information, nor even speculation about what the ghost is: spirit, soul, energy? We don't know, and this is important for later events. We do get a summary of how the ghost spent the last century or so, but no real details. It's only at the very end of the novel that we find out how Helen ended up dying, and the ending is so sugary you will wretch as she did. The ending makes zero sense and it's quite simply stupid.

Another huge problem with this story is that Helen, the ghost in question, is pretty much exactly like a modern teenager. This is despite spending well over a century as a ghost! Helen relates that her birth predated the US Civil war, which means that she's somewhere in the vicinity of 150 years old. She didn't even die as a teen - she died at age 27, and was a married woman with a child when she died. Contrast this with her current behavior in which she acts exactly like a fifteen year old, which is convenient, because that's the age of the flesh-and-blood body which she steals. In this regard this is exactly the same kind of situation found in the ridiculous Twilight series (which I flatly refuse to read), where we have an 800-year-old (or whatever) vampire who not only looks like a high-school kid, but behaves exactly like one.

Again just like in Twilight, Helen finds a younger person with whom to fall in lust, but there's actually a bit of a twist here, because the younger person, although inhabiting the body of a teen, is (or was) a ghost just like Helen. The difference is that he has discovered that he can 'take-over' the 'vacant' body. In his case, 'vacant' is defined as a drug-addicted boy who was on the verge of dying from an overdose. The boy's 'spirit' vacated the body (why isn't explained), but the body did not die (again, why isn't explained), and James was able to 'assume ownership'!

It's this meat squat that he's occupying which allows him to see our main character. It's the first time he's ever seen another ghost. His name is James (although his body's name is Billy), and he's a century old (he was a soldier in his mid-twenties in World War One who died on the battlefield in France), so the discrepancy in ages is not as absurdly massive as in Twilight, but Helen is still half a century older than he is, by any measure. Despite this, both of them behave like, and have the libido of, the adolescent bodies they take over. It's completely unrealistic to the point of being farcical.

Typically this would turn me off the story, but I was listening to the audio book, and whether this made a difference or not, I can't say, not having read the text version. I found the reader's voice, while somewhat annoying from time to time, to be for the most part to be completely captivating. It was warm and engaging, with a nice, soft, mezzo-soprano timbre to it. The reader came off as a bit nervous here and there, and bit playful at other times, so it was really engaging for me. It was really nice to get this after so many audio books with really irritating readers.

Unfortunately, despite the pleasant voice, the story went completely off the rails. This happened when Helen wanted to get into a body to be able to interact with James just as she could with people when she was flesh-and-blood. She accomplishes this, after a false step or two, by taking over the body of a fifteen-year-old girl. Now this girl isn't dying. She's not an OD'd drug-addict like Billy was when James muscled in on his body. Jenny doesn't overdose; she doesn't get electrocuted, or drowned or anything else. Helen simply declares Jenny's body vacant and steals it for herself!

Frankly, this was nothing short of rape of the most appalling kind. It was a form of slavery an order of magnitude beyond anything which occurred during Helen's lifetime. It's an atrocious abuse (as the rest of the story reveals), yet Helen doesn't even bat an eyelid over it. Mild-mannered, shy, prudish, retiring Helen, who wouldn't say boo to a ghost, who was flesh at a time in history when gentility and deference were ingrained powerfully into young women, feels no compunction whatsoever about stealing Jenny's body from her.

Helen justifies this by declaring Jenny 'vacant' from some hollow vibe she gets from her body. She's described as 'empty'. This despite Jenny being a normal (if rather withdrawn and repressed) fifteen-year-old. She was living with her very strict religious family. They weren't fundamentalists in the derogatory sense, but they were strictly adherent, and tightly-controlling of Jenny, but not abusive (unless you count religious brain-washing as abusive, which I do, but that's not important to this story).

Now we can get back to the reference I made earlier about what the ghost actually is. In the case where James takes over Billy's body, the assumption which is thrust upon us (although the writing is so vague it's hard to be sure) is that his ghost - or his 'soul' had vacated his body, so he was effectively dead, a zombie, about to die physically as well as spiritually. Yet the body soldiered on. James was able to move in and take over, and the body recovered. Indeed, it recovered miraculously, because despite going cold turkey, this heavily-addicted long-term drug abusing body suffered absolutely no withdrawal symptoms whatsoever. I found that to be completely absurd.

That's not even the real problem from the PoV of this novel. The problem is the question of what exactly happened here. If the soul had left the body because it was dying, then how was James able to move in and set up shop? Why was he able to keep it going? If he was able to do so with zero effort on his part, then how come the original soul vacated the place? None of this is even addressed, much less explained. It's bad writing.

But it gets far worse when we compare this one to Helen/Jenny's case. Jenny wasn't even dying, so how do we explain the fact that her soul/spirit/ghost had vacated the body? If it had, then how come the body didn't die? How come Jenny was completely functional, carrying on conversations, eating meals, attending school, living, moving, and having her being? None of this made any sense whatsoever, and it's not even addressed, which is more bad writing. Helen has no qualms whatsoever about her actions, which is completely out of character for her. James's actions made some kind of sense (apart from the issues I've raised above), but Helen's did not.

But it gets worse. After Helen has robbed Jenny of her life, what's the first thing these two, one 150-some years old, the other a century old, do at their very first opportunity? They find a quiet place at school, and hop each other like bunnies. This is a girl from around 1875, and a boy from around 1915, completely shedding their origins, two people raised in eras of strict propriety completely dispensing with all propriety (and clothing)!

Now you can argue, if you like, that James was not only a guy, but also a soldier, and so probably had rather less restraint and inhibition than did Helen, but you cannot argue the same for Helen, since the author has already gone out of her way to make it abundantly clear what a prude she is, how retiring, restrained, inhibited, shy, withdrawing, and so on. Yet all of that is gone in an instant, both of them completely shedding everything, including clothes, no shyness whatsoever, no prudery in evidence, and screwing like two adolescents who had just had a radical inhibition-ectomy. It made. No. Sense. Whatsoever. This, for me, is where the story began to roll downhill under its own ponderous weight.

Since Jenny is fifteen and raised under strict religious rules, we can almost safely assume she's a virgin, but James was (as Billy) a heavy drug user, and he doesn't know squat about Billy or his past, so he cannot be sure he has no sexual diseases, yet he has no qualms about bedding this fifteen year old innocent body without even a thought, let alone a discussion, about condoms. Morons. And it's yet more bad writing that the author doesn't even think of addressing any of these issues.

The overall plot idea was really rather good. It was the execution of it which was full of holes. One major spoiler as an example: We learn early that Helen drowned, but we don't learn the details of it until near the end of the novel, and it's as dumb-ass as you can get. Helen is trapped in a flooding basement with her child. There's a window which is too small for Helen to get through, but out of which her child can scramble and walk way, yet this still sizable gap, big enough to fit a young child through, apparently doesn't let water through, because the basement continues to fill up to the ceiling and drowns Helen. Dumb. Ass. Stupid! Poorly plotted. Poorly written.

The moral of the story is trite - there is no hell: we make our own hell by worrying over the mistakes we made in life. Screw that. If there's an afterlife, then this life doesn't matter a damn, so I'm gon' party like it's 1666! And I won't spare a single thought for this saccharine attempt at a medal-winning novel.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffeneggar

Title: The Night Bookmobile
Author: Audrey Nifeneggar
Publisher: Abrams
Rating: WORTHY!

This is the second of two posts today reviewing books by Audrey Niffeneggar. This one is really an excerpt from a longer work The library, so I understand, but I found it intriguing and interesting, but not stunning or brilliant. It was serialised in the British newspaper The Guardian. It's about a mature woman, Alexandra, who leads a very quiet life (some would argue: too quiet!) and adores books.

She's out quite late one night walking the streets in her neighborhood in Chicago, lost in thought after an exchange of words with her rather less than ideal boyfriend, when she comes across a Winnebago camper truck and discovers that it's the night bookmobile.

Like the TARDIS, it's bigger on the inside, but that's not even the most fascinating thing about it. On inspecting the books along the shelves, she discovers that it's really a record of everything she's ever read: all the books she has read - and only ones she has read - plus aassorted signs, cereal boxes, and so on, that she's read, too.

She eventually leaves, but when she returns later, the night bookmobile has gone. She doesn't see it again for a long time and when she does, she asks to be employed there, but she's turned down. The driver/owner/manager/librarian suggests that she find a job as a librarian in her own life, which she does, and becomes very successful in her chosen profession.

Later, she discovers that there is a way to work at the bookmobile, but it's not quite what she had expected. I liked this book. It's not the kind of book that has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it's more like a conversation with an old friend or a partner about a topic (in this case your reading experiences) which doesn't really start anywhere or go anywhere, but leaves you feeling a bit better about life afterwards anyway.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Nifeneggar

Title: Her Fearful Symmetry
Author: Audrey Nifeneggar
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Rating: WORTHY!

This is the first of two reviews of books by Audrey Niffeneggar that I'll post today. And no, the other one isn't The Time traveler's Wife although I have read and liked that one. I found it on par with the movie, which I saw first.

This book is quite evidently rocketing towards becoming invaluable - I'm forced to assume so at any rate since B&N has a paperback listed at $62.17:

Elspeth twin nieces: Julia and Valentina, only just in their twenties, and when Elspeth dies, the nieces find thesmelves in possession of her flat (apartment) which is in London, near the renowned Highgate cemetery. Highgate opened in 1839, and has some well-known inhabitants, such as Douglas Adams, Mary Ann Cross (better known as George Eliot), Michael Faraday, Stella Gibbons, Karl Marx, and the parents and wife of Charles Dickens. Charles was, of course (and against his expressed wishes), buried in Westminster Abbey.

The two nieces are Americans, and all they knew about their aunt was that their own mother, Edwina, was Elspeth's twin. It turns out that it's a bit more complicated than that and many of you may well figure this out before you read too far. The younger twins are extremely close, so close in fact that it's actually a psychological disorder, and because of their closeness, they somehow failed to launch as the saying goes, and are both rather juvenile for their age. You know something is going to break at this point, you just don't know what, or how!

When the break comes, it comes large and serious. These twins have little interest in pursuing any sort of a life, much peferring to hang out together, dress alike, and exclude everyone but themselves from their life. Given that Elspeth's will stipulated that the twins will only inherit the flat if they reside in it for a year and their parents do not visit during that time, the two of them decide to go for it, and they get to know the area, the cemetery and their neighbors. It's these activities which slowly draw them apart.

The neighbors are, of course, all eccentric or larded with idiosyncrasy. Martin and Marjike seem to be perfect for each other. He is OCD, and she is his hostage. Martin creates crossword puzzles. Elspeth's boyfriend Robert is a scholar of the cemetery, and as they take an interest in it, they discover that their aunt has not moved on and still haunts the neighborhood - literally.

This novel is itself haunting. It's entrancingly written and the quirks and habits of not only the twins but their neighbors are captivating, especially when Elspeth's ghost shows up and Robert begins an affair with one of the twins. I had no problem reading it all the way through and enjoying it, but be warned there are eccentricities galore and oddball things happening. It's not another TIme Traveler's Wife although it does have some things in common with that. I really liked it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck

Rating: WORTHY!

Richard Peck attended the same university that one of my older brothers did: the University of Exeter in Britain (the same university which JK Rowling attended), but I'd never heard of him until a review which I read mentioned this novel. I picked it up at the library, breezed through it in a few hours, and now I'm a Richard Peck fan! This saddens me because it makes me only too painfully aware of how many other authors there are out there - authors I would love to read if only I knew who they were - authors I will never read because I will never hear of them. Like I said - life is too short!

This novel shows up how badly written all-too-many YA novels are these days, wherein the girl has to have a male love interest or she can't function, or the story has to be overwrought or overdone, or to have a love triangle. There is, I'm sorry to say, a large number of female YA authors who could learn a huge amount from Richard Peck about how to create great, and strong, female YA characters, and how to build and portray relationships between boys and girls.

The novel is very well written, moves at a decent clip without being too slow or too fast, tells an amusing, slightly creepy, a little bit sad, and ultimately a very rewarding story. It's set in 1913/14, and the main protagonist is Blossom Culp, a self-possessed girl who comes from a dirt-poor background. The story begins with her thwarting a scheme she overheard discussed by local high school ruffians, to overturn all the (outdoor) toilets in the neigborhood. This venture alone is worth reading the book for. It's hilarious and inventive, and is what gets Blossom started on the story path.

Blossom's mother has "second-sight" - she's clairvoyant and has a reputation in town. She's helped the police solve a crime or two, but she's very hard on her daughter. Dad is nowhere in the picture. The most interaction they've had with him in several years is a postcard which he's had to have someone else address for him since he's illiterate, so there never is a message.

Let me say right here that I don't have any belief in the occult. I think it's all nonsense and fraud. There is no valid evidence whatsoever of anyone having any supernatural powers, or of any life after death, but I do love a good story which pretends that there is, and this was a classic example of such a story.

Blossom isn't considered to have her mother's power, but an event with a little child becoming hurt and Blossom seeing it in her mind and alerting the child's mother to the incident, leads to her having increasingly common visions, including the advent of World War One. She has to carry this horrible, horrible knowledge alone because she knows no one will believe her or try to prevent it were she to reveal it. The odd thing, though, is that she also has a vision of a massive ocean liner sinking, and a tragedy attached to it - a tragedy above and beyond the hundreds of frozen corpses which the Titanic strewed across the North Atlantic.

It's this issue which really takes over and propels this story, and it's so well written and so inventive that it keeps you right there all the way through. I've often seen reviewers berate a story because the character shows no growth, or doesn't change, and I frankly don't get that mentality. A story isn't about necessary change or growth. it's about interesting events (if it's a good one!) and interesting people. This is a case in point because while things do change around her, Blossom really doesn't change throughout this story. We learn more about who she is as we go, but there really isn't anything to her at the end - save for experience - that's significantly different from how she appeared at the beginning, yet this story was amazing!

There is another novel set in this same world, featuring a male interest of Blossom's, and Blossom herself, but the story is told from the boy's perspective. I am sure I will be reading more Richard Peck stories. I recommend that you read at least this one, which is one of two Richard Peck novels I've reviewed, both about strong female characters, and both set in the same era.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters (aka Catherine Karp)
Publisher: Abrams
Rating: WORTHY!

Set in the last year of World War One, and during the deadliest pandemic the world has ever seen, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is an atmospheric, rather claustrophobic and unnerving novel about 16-year-old Mary Shelley (not that Mary Shelley, merely a namesake!) and her interesting adventures in San Diego.

Mary is forced to move there after her parents are arrested as German spies. By this neat literary device the author is free to allow Mary to exhibit her (for the time) somewhat scandalous attitudes and even behaviors which her parents would no doubt never countenance.

Mary, who for some reason is always referred to as Mary Shelley, but rarely in full as Mary Shelley Black, stays with her aunt, who happens to be only a decade older than Mary. In some ways Mary is happy to be there because it's the city in which she knew Stephen - a childhood friend who is now fighting in Europe. Stephen writes beautifully and he takes haunting photographs which he titles with anagrams so his older brother Julius will not figure out what the title is. I have no idea why he thinks this was necessary. Two of these pictures he has given to Mary. One is of a butterfly, and its title 'Mr Muse', Mary quickly resolves as 'Summer'. The other is of lightning striking water, and it's titled 'I Do Lose Ink'

Julius is a "spirit photographer" evidently of the kind who double-exposes photographic plates to make it appear to the photographic subject that the spirit of a loved one has appeared in the image with them (in exactly the way this novel's cover was made, of course!). Julius once caught Stephen and Mary in a somewhat compromising position and then exaggerated what he saw to cause problems for the two of them. Now Mary is to sit for him for another spirit photograph, and the only reason she agrees to this is to get Julius to confess his embarrassing and incriminating exaggeration about herself and Stephen to her aunt, and to give her the package Stephen left for her before he went to the front.

1918 was the year that composer Claude Debussy died, and Marie Stopes published Married Love, Manfred von Richthofen was killed in a dogfight, General Motors bought Chevrolet, 20,000 British soldiers died in one day fighting the Kaiser's army, Britain laid the keel of the world's first purpose-built aircraft carrier, and Italy and Japan fought on the side of the allies.

It was in January of 1918 that the Spanish flu (so called) was first noted in Kansas in the US (although it had already reared its ugly head elsewhere), and it spread rapidly, causing people to begin routinely wearing surgical masks and carrying posies and other pungent materials with them in a futile attempt to ward off what was actually an airborne virus.

It's hard now to imagine how virulent this plague was, when we're hearing almost daily of the deadly effects of the spread of Ebola in Africa, but that's a sniffle when compared with what this flu did. It struck world-wide and it killed millions upon millions, and the author does a rather scary job of conveying the fear and suspicion this disease engendered in people. I read Gina Kolata's book Flu on this pandemic, and I highly recommend it if you're interested in learning more.

Overall I was impressed by Cat Winters's writing. It was very atmospheric, realistic, and engaging. She's an author, for example, who knows that you can't (not intelligently, anyway!) say something like "So blue it was almost black." Instead, she correctly says, " blue so dark it was almost black."

I've seen writers (so-called!) make the mistake with other colors. Blue, for example, is a noun which describes a color, and which describes no quality of the color other than that it's blue, so it makes no sense to say that something is so blue that it's almost black. That's the same as saying it's so blue that it's not really blue. Patent nonsense! Simply amplifying how 'blue' something is relates nothing of its lightness or darkness. This isn't a matter of opinion; it's a fact which isn't rendered any less factual simply because more than one writer makes this same mistake.

Confusing the quality of brightness with the quality of hue isn't a smart thing to do, and there are very subtle ways like this in which we, as writers, can educate readers and bring them up with us instead of talking down to them. It was really nice to see a writer who gets this. There's hope that our YA writers will get there! Many of them already have.

The story draws us ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Mary, and the fate of her friend Stephen. Someone isn't telling the truth about what happened to him, and Mary, determined to discover and uncover what happened to him, becomes quite the detective.

I liked this novel in general. It wasn't the most thrilling thing I've ever read, but it drew me in and made me care about the main character, and it was well-written, and sometimes that's enough. The ending was a little bit dissatisfying, but given how strong it was overall, I'm not going to down-grade the novel for that. Mary isn't one of my great heroes, but she is a strong character who takes charge of her life and acts positively, and we need all of those females that we can get in YA literature!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Revenant by Sonia Gensler

Title: The Revenant
Author: Sonia Gensler
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WARTY!

This novel is about Willie Hammond, hiding under the name of Angeline McClure, posing as a teacher at a 19th century seminary which caters to girls descended from Cherokee native Americans. Why, exactly, she's doing this is never really revealed to the reader (at least in the majority of this novel. I didn't read it all but I read most of it). This is annoying at best.

The first problem is that the natives don't call themselves 'Cherokee' - which is yet another example of an ignorant English word replacing the original. They refer to themselves as Tsalagi, or Aniyunwiya as far as I know. If Gensler could not bring herself to call them what they call themselves, could she not have at least mentioned it in passing? And why did no-one have a Tsalagi name? Everyone had English names or Biblical names. The closest we got to a native American name was the trope love interest's last name. That was it! One name!

The method by which the main character, Willie, presents herself as Angeline - a new teacher at the school - is well done, but you know that one of the girls is going to betray her, and you soon discover who this person is. This was the first of many non-surprises. In addition to being predictable, there were other ways in which this novel made for uncomfortable reading. One was that it was too easy to forget that Willie is only seventeen and is merely posing as a teacher rather than actually being one.

She's not actually a mature graduate, so her behavior was irresponsible and childish on far too many occasions, but even as I kept on reminding myself that she was a poseur, I still could not escape feeling how dumb and irresponsible this main character was. Her whole life was dependent upon her carrying off this deception, and it was sad that she wasn't smart enough to realize how much she needed to do, and to make the required effort to get it done. I prefer my main characters smarter than this, but keeping her wits about her was not Willie's forte. There are different ways of being smart and Willie truly failed to embrace any of them.

This story had a Harry Potter time-lapse feel to it, I have to say. JK Rowling was obsessed with making every story last for exactly one school year regardless of what she had to sacrifice or puff-up to achieve that end. This resulted in some sad artificiality to that series as characters struggled pointlessly with problems which would have been resolved in short order by normal people. It was patently obvious that this happened for no other reason than to stretch the story across the school year.

In the same way, Gensler artificially delays things, or brings them to an abrupt and premature conclusion in order to create fake suspense and to stretch this story out over the school year. So while the novel begins in August of 1896, it takes a giant leap to Xmas of that year for no apparent reason other than the one which I just mentioned. Willie suffers grotesquely from this kind of writing by being repeatedly presented as incompetent, slow, stupid, and utterly incapable of getting herself organized no matter how many endless hours she has at her disposal.

Willie teaches English and has student compositions to grade, yet she puts these off day after day for no good reason. She's very much alone at the school, having only one 'friend', and she confines herself to her room often, yet she's always complaining that she has no time to do things. What? What exactly is she doing with her time that she has so little to spare? Is she surfing the web? Texting her friends? Watching TV? Listening to her iPod? Updating her status? Not in 1896 she isn't! She has only her school work to occupy her and she isn't even doing that!

The other inexplicable procrastination is in holding a second séance. Again what is she doing with her time that she can't facilitate this with many weeks to spare?! The problem with this school is that it's purportedly haunted by the ghost of a student who recently drowned herself (but she was actually murdered to protect a man's reputation, and this was so obvious as to be pathetic). It quickly becomes clear that there was far more going on here than Willie can evidently handle, which bespeaks badly of her.

The initials "e.s." (over which we're deliberately misled by the author: it's actually c.s. not e.s.), which Willie finds appended to a love poem secreted in her room, could apply to more than one person yet Willie never even considers this. One of the two primary candidates is a student. He's Willie's sad, sad, trope, inappropriate, clichéd, tedious, sad, trope, clichéd, (and did I mention sad, clichéd, and trope?) love interest from the nearby boys' seminary. In any self-respecting YA novel, he would have been the villain, but tiredly and predictably, he's not because there are so few self-respecting YA novels, and those are to be treasured when found. The other candidate is a mature male who frequents the school with good reason, and it quickly becomes obvious to readers (but not to Willie) that he's the perp.

While I flatly don't believe in ghosts and gods, demons and angels, spirits and witchcraft, etc., etc., because there's no good evidence for any of them, I do love a good story featuring these things. What spoils a good story about them is the inevitably prolonged build-up to a crescendo. What? The poltergeist can only make little scratching sounds at night? It takes a few weeks or months for it to be able to manifest and overturn tables and bring your home crashing down? Why?

What, the Ghost of Person Past can only tap, tap, tap at your window to begin with? They can make the room feel warm or cold, they can completely trash the chapel decor, but they can't come to you in broad daylight and simply say, "Hey, So-And-So murdered me!"? Bullshit! I know the suspense is needed to make a good novel, but it's ruined when this evidently powerful ghost has such artificial and transparent 'hurdles' placed so that it can't come right out and say what the issue is. It was obvious the ghost wasn't the dead girl, but I confess I got it wrong as to the ghost actually was, even though it was obvious that this character was also dead, and not simply missing.

The William Blatty novel The Exorcist, for example, transcended this 'slow build-up' problem because the demon had an agenda - this is why it lured people in very slowly, and that's why that novel worked so well even with a leisurely build-up of tension. There's no explanation given in this novel for this same thing.

While I was excited to read this novel and while I became quickly drawn-in initially, it turned to tedious and uninteresting with startling rapidity. In the end, I was skipping and skimming - especially those pages where Willie and Eli were together because it was so trashy and boring. I pretty-much skipped the last 25% and just skimmed pages to see if my guesses had been right. All but one of them was, and for as bad as I am at figuring out plots ahead of time, that ought to tell you something!

So I guess I'm done with Sonia Gensler. I loved her first novel, The Dark Between, which I reviewed the same day as this one on my blog, but I can't countenance, much less recommend, the poor writing which the main feature in this one.

The Dark between by Sonia Gensler

Title: The Dark Between
Author: Sonia Gensler
Publisher: Alfred Knopf
Rating: WORTHY!

This is the first of a pair of reviews on Sonia Gensler's work, the first two of her novels that I've ever read, and it speaks highly of her writing that after I'd read this one, I immediately started tracking down other books by this writer. She seems to have made this genre her specialty, but unfortunately, the second one I read, The Revenant was far less satisfying.

This novel reminds me a lot of Haunting violet by Alyxandra Harvey which I favorably reviewed back in May 2013. It has that same 'medium working with a younger female assistant who helps perpetrate fraud, and the subsequent exposure and consequences' as this one does, although the two are different stories.

Kate Pool is a fourteen-year-old whose entire existence is dependent upon aiding Mrs Martineau, a spirit medium (I don't say fraudulent medium because the two are synonymous in my experience) to rob mourners of their money. When the medium is exposed and seeks to devolve all the blame upon poor Kate, the latter throws herself on the mercy of one of the men who exposed her - Oliver Thompson, who is employed at nearby Summerfield College in Cambridge, and who has a connection with the man Kate believes is her father.

To his credit, Thompson steps up, and it's through this association with the college that Kate meets Elsie Atherton, a true clairvoyant (not that such a thing exists in real life, mind!) who believes she's ill and is required to take an addictive drug to combat this "mental illness" she supposedly has, and Asher Beale, a young American who is traveling in England. It turns out that Elsie, Kate, and Asher are all indirectly connected because of a rather evil and highly abusive scheme the three of them begin to uncover as Kate takes-up residence in the college and they start to interact on a regular basis. Soon the three are investigating unusual murders which begin to crop-up in town

Kate really is the unwanted child of Frederic Stanton (a man with whom Thompson is very closely associated through psychical research), who died in strange circumstances, the interpretation and understanding of which is one of the drivers of this novel. While Kate is the proactive, practical planner of the trio and Asher is a strong, protective, capable but not invincible resource, Elsie is at first a rather drug-addicted dreamer and romantic who puts herself in difficult situations because of her infatuation with an art teacher she once studied under. Not surprisingly, she's the one who makes the most growth, but her romanticism somehow fails to clue her in to the fact that Asher has fallen for her.

I was impressed with the realistic way this novel was written, and with the inventive and intriguing characters. It was based in some real history (the psychic research society coming out of Cambridge, for example) but wove that into the credible fiction which kept me turning pages despite my total disbelief in such things in real life. It's nicely-plotted and makes for a quick and comfortable read.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Archived by Victoria Schwab

Title: The Archived
Author: Victoria Schwab
Publisher: Disney
Rating: WARTY!

I can see why Disney-Hyperion wouldn't want a reviewer like me posting an advance review for a novel like this - a living dead version of Blade Runner, but guess what? They can't stop me reviewing it - they can only delay it, and hope I don't count. Newsflash: I do count! Everyone does! Deal with it Disney!

This novel begins in a really confusing manner. Once again it's a YA told in first person PoV because you know it's quite illegal in the USA to write a novel for teens that's not in first person. I once examined a library shelf holding 29 novels, and only six of them were not written in 1PoV, which I confess surprised me a little bit. I thought the percentage of 3PoVs would be lower, so maybe there is hope; maybe writers are becoming smarter? We'll see.

I digress. My confusion came from the author's assurance, right there on the first page of chapter one, that "There should be four of us. Mom, Dad, Ben, me. But there's not. Da's been dead for four years." I guess Schwab isn't familiar with punctuation. I note: a colonectomy after "us", the substitution of a period for a comma before "But", perhaps a semi-colonectomy after "not", but that's not what's confusing. My confusion can be reasonably politely expressed as: "Who the hell is Da?".

At first I thought it was her dad. I thought that her biological father was dead, and this "Dad" was her stepfather, but the more she rattles on about "Dad" the more he seems to be her actual father as opposed to a stiefvater - which is the German for stepfather don't you know - and isn't Schwab a name of German origin even if she isn't?

If you're confused by that last paragraph, you know how I felt at this point in reading this novel.

Perhaps Mackenzie - the main character with a Scots family name for a first name shades of Gabaldon - is speaking loosely, I thought, confused. I didn't know until later that "Da" referred to her grandfather. Who in hell calls their grandfather "Da"? Schwab appears not to get that there's a significant difference between creating mystery to intrigue your readers, and simply obfuscating for the sake of being obscure.

She uses the term "My parents" just a couple of paragraphs later, and the term "Da" disappears, replaced by "Dad" as though there is only one - the original one. Oh, except for this, on page five: "I try to picture a wall between Dad's hand and my shoulder, like Da taught me". Confusing your readers isn't a smart move unless you have a really good 'get out of confusion free' card in hand for later, but not too much later. Schwab didn't. Just out of curiosity, why would she picture a wall...on her shoulder - as opposed to say, a shoulder pad, or a Kevlar jacket, or a suit of armor, or a force-field? I have no idea.

I guess Schwab really wanted to ramp-up the confusion because also on page five we get inset bolded text that runs to page seven which appears to be some sort of flashback and it's not the last of these tricks, either. These things very gradually come into better focus for the reader, but by that time, the irritation level with this has risen significantly. The first of them was simply annoying.

The Bishop family is moving into an aged hotel which has now been converted to apartments. The reason for the move is so that a very selfish Mom can indulge herself in yet another of her whims: to run a coffee shop. The rest of the family (minus Da and Ben, of course) falls into line once more, but Mackenzie, aka Mac, is receiving messages from somewhere.

It turns out that Mackenzie works for the DEA: the Death Enforcement Authority! Instead of hunting down rogue androids, she hunts escaped...what? I have no idea. Let me backtrack. In this world, the dead are never really dead. Instead, their bodies are squirreled away in an archive for no reason at all, where they're kept with their bodies and memories intact in some sort of suspended animation, which begs the question as to what it means to claim that they're dead in the first place - because they're not. They can get up and get down.

When this happens, and apparently when it's in McKenzie's age range, she gets tickled in her pocket where some magic paper reveals the name and age of the animated corpse. She has to use her magic key to pass through a wall at a specific point she can detect. Inside is a corridor known as the narrows, which branches in multiple directions, and is lined with doors. She has to identify an escape door - usually the one through which she entered, and a return door through which she can slip the runner.

This novel was completely nonsensical. Nothing made a lick of sense, nothing was explained so that it might make some sense, and it was tedious and boring as all hell. I simply ditched it unfinished on the principle that life's too short to waste on a sad sack of meaningless and obfuscatory trash like this.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow

Title: Sorrow's Knot
Author: Erin Bow
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WORTHY!

How could anyone not want to read a novel written by someone named Bow, which has 'knot' in the title? It’s too precious - especially since this story has roots in native American culture with which the bow is also associated. Fortunately, the blurb made this sound worth reading, and even more fortunately, here is a novel written by a woman about a girl, and it isn't in first person PoV - see, YA authors? It can be done. You don’t need to be hide-bound by trope!

I'm not one of these people who worships native American culture as something magical. To me they are and were no different from any other culture: neither more nor less in tune with nature, neither more nor less "savage", noble or otherwise, than any people living in the same conditions. I don't believe they lived in harmony with nature in any way different from any other, similar culture. They would have exploited it just as much as any other culture had their numbers compelled them to. They were neither wiser, nor dumber than other cultures, and they fell pray to brutality and inter-tribal warfare, and to disease, just as other peoples did. This is not to say it wasn't evil, and a shameful tragedy, the way western Christians moved in on the land, and abused the natives chronically, but that's organized religion for you.

This is the first Bow novel I've read, and from what I read in the first 100 pages or so, I really felt that it was definitely not going to be the last. This is how to write a novel. Bow knows what to do and how to do it, and she has no qualms about getting to it. She has a previous novel titled Plain Kate which is now on my list to read and will probably be reviewed next month. That one is set in Europe.

I don’t know where Bow got her chops, and I'm about as far from an expert on native American culture as you can get, but every paragraph in this novel made me believe this was real; that this is how the people in the novel lived their lives day to day. She made me feel that this is how they thought and how they felt, but Bow doesn’t lecture or sermonize. She starts off with an almost unnoticeable prologue, but wisely, she includes it in chapter one as any decent author ought. This briefly describes the arrival of Otter into the world - not the animal, but Otter the daughter of Willow, the Binder-in-training of the tribe of Shadow people, who live in the village of Westmost, in Earthen dwellings right on the edge of the forest which harbors the shades of the not-so-benign dead.

And therein lies the story. Otter loves to hang out with Kestrel and Cricket, and girl and a boy her own age who are assigned to undertake various tasks in the village. One day, hauling up the decapitated corn stalks from the muddy ground in preparation for the next planting, the three of them encounter one of the shadows of the dead lurking in the dark in the corn roots. It enters Cricket's body and it’s only Otter's binding skills - advanced for someone her age - which draw out the shade and save Cricket's life. Her mother arrives very quickly, alerted by Kestrel's warning, and the shade is dispatched.

Cricket is very weak and is observed closely. If it was a white-hand shade, Cricket will be killed, because there is no cure for it (unless you count madness as a cure), but he's fortunate again: it wasn't. The real problem is that when the village binder dies and Willow, no longer the apprentice, takes over, Otter expects to become her apprentice in turn, but her mother rejects her own daughter. Otter has to go and live now in her own lodge, a dismal construction of wattle and earth, which has been empty for too long. As she's beginning to bemoan her unexpected and unwelcome fate, Kestrel and Cricket move in with her, and soon announce to Otter their own intention to become bound to each other, becoming Okishae, which is rare in this village of mostly women.

Their ceremony takes place after the water walkers - a tribe of mostly men - has made its annual visit to exchange children, the men giving up most of their young girls, the Shadow people giving up most of their boys in exchange. Amongst the new girls is Fawn, a binder who Willow adopts quickly as her apprentice, offering a further slap in the face to Otter.

In time Otter comes to accept Fawn, and Fawn Otter, yet even though they share some secrets, Otter still understands that she is effectively a nobody, with no skills to offer her village. That is until the night that the White Hand shows up at the village and manages to touch Willow. To protect the children sheltering in Willow's lodge - the best warded lodge in the village - Otter creates a binding on the lodge door, but she cannot undo it. Fawn attempts to do so, but she's tired after the night-long battle against the White Hand, and doesn't have the power to undo Otter's work. Despite Otter's help and warnings, the ward costs Fawn her life, and with Willow bearing the shape of a white hand over her heart and having only nine days to live, the only person in the village who can assume the task of being the Binder is Otter herself.

Sorrow's Knot is not only about a knotty problem, it’s about a world where people are tied in knots: they're bound, and constrained, and pinched, and restricted, and confined and pigeon-holed, so you may end up feeling some claustrophobia in reading this. I know I did, and that actually does contribute to the atmosphere of discomfort and unease which also pervades the novel - and not because it’s poorly written. Quite the contrary: it's beautifully written, and that's precisely why we feel uncomfortable: because the characters feel that way. Their whole life is lived in fear of the shadows which surround their village. This is why it's so ironical that these people are referred to as free women when they're anything but.

The village is called Westmost because it's the west-most village known - on the edge of the world so it seems, but the area it occupies is referred to as The Pinch - a suitably constrictive term for the life they lead. The village is encircled and circumscribed by slips and gasts and the White Hand, each form of spirit more dangerous than the last. These are malevolent shades of the dead who have not moved on, but which remain in the shadows, seeking to invade the body of anyone who is insufficiently aware and sufficiently right there. It’s funny because the shadows are constrained with colored yarn and this novel is a colorful yarn about rigid constraint.

The women are bound by tradition and are cruelly restricted in their choice of "profession"; for example it seems that Otter can only be a binder and if not that, then nothing. Kestrel can only be a ranger, never a binder. Cricket can only be a story-teller, and in the end is robbed even of that. No one can leave the village in safety because of the spirits, so they're confined to The Pinch and even there they feel unsafe at times. They're restricted to living in dark, dusty, or dank earth lodges, almost like they're living underground. The lodge can only be entered through a tunnel, curtained at either end. When Otter is rejected by her mother, she's forced to make her own home in a lodge which has been abandoned by someone else in this purportedly shrinking village. And she's one of the fortunate ones.

The only people who have any power over these haunting, tragic, creeping, heart-stopping shadows are the Binders - women of the tribe who are specially gifted and trained, and who can ward off the shadows by creating complex knots in leather cords. These knots can both repel and dispel the shadows, as well as harm the living. Even the dead are bound. A dangerous ceremony is conducted - only during the day - when a villager dies. The body is carried down the river (the spirits cannot cross running water) to the burial ground, but the body is not lowered into the earth; it is elevated into the trees, having been tightly bound hand and foot to prevent the spirit from haunting the village. But apparently this system is not working, and Otter slowly begins to realize why this is.

This is unquestionably a female-centric world, with strong women and very few males involved or even required (for the most part), but one problem I had with this was that even presented as such, there was a powerfully masculine ethos pervading the story. We're taught - for those of us who are willing to listen and learn - that women have a tendency to be better at cooperation than men typically are. That doesn’t mean, of course, that women cannot lead and that men cannot cooperate; it’s a tendency, not a law of nature! The problem then with this novel was that we saw so little of that; instead, we found that the powerful women were contentious and almost tyrannical in their behavior. A nauseating example of this is when a major character is expelled from the village, at the risk of his very life. This represents appallingly callous treatment for a compatriot - treatment that smacks more of masculine than of feminine behavior.

There are some problems with this novel. It’s never really explained how this rather Amazonian world endures. Marriage is almost non-existent. If there are so few men, how are the children born? Do a handful of village men service all the women, or when the mostly male traveler tribe comes up the river to visit once a year is there an orgy?! We don’t know. We do know there are a lot of children, but we're never advised or even offered hints as to how this circumstance came to be, and given what we are offered, how it can be said that the village is dying or shrinking!

Despite this novel being largely female-centric, there are two males who play a huge role, yet the two are essentially interchangeable, and it seems to me that the two main female characters are diminished by this, because they're so dependent upon, and moved by these men. This, for me, rather undermined the strong female presence with which we’re presented at the beginning. Having the one, I can understand, and it works well, but there comes a disturbing and thoroughly unexpected part where one character is effectively is switched out for another one who was just the same, like changing a light bulb, and I saw no sense in this. It was very effectively a betrayal of both the girls at the same time, especially since it effectively weakened the one, although the other continued strongly.

That said I liked this novel, and I consider it a worthy read.