Category Archives: adult

The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne Jones
Candlewick, June 2018.

I really enjoyed Canadian Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place (2015) with its mix of beautifully written realistic prose and a magical element that just blended in. The Ruinous Sweep, an ambitious literary YA murder mystery has a similar blend of dream-like fantasy and intricately dense characterization.

In the first half of the novel, which flows from the present back to the recent and further past, 17 year-old Donovan Turner has been hit by a truck and is lying critically injured and semi-comatose in an ICU. His girlfriend Beatrice, Bee, sits with him and he starts talking but what is he trying to communicate? Woven through this is a hallucinatory account of Donovan’s evening which becomes an allegorical journey. With a too abrupt shift, in the second section of the novel, Bee starts making connections from Donovan’s hospital ramblings to his past (and the reader can make connections to his interior trek), and she launches her own investigation, though this is not a murder-mystery in a straightforward sense.

The writing is elegant and precise, sharply crafted and still staying true to the characters. Both Donovan and Bee are attractive, complex, flawed people, well-matched in their grope towards defining themselves: by nature she is “be” and he is “do” but in the novel’s present, they switch roles. Bee does, however, makes a crucial to the plot decision that just seems out of character. The adults seems a little too split into saintliness and evil, but given the guiding text maybe that’s deliberate.

Wynne-Jones has been inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of Donovan’s quest reflects Dante’s journey through the circles of Hell and Purgatory. However, there are few clues beyond the title and the epigraph that this is what the author’s doing. While I knew of the Divine Comedy, I wasn’t that familiar with it so I did a quick Wikipedia check and some of the parallels in the novel then made a bit more sense (eg Virgil, Dante’s guide, becomes Jilly, Donovan’s guide). Without this knowledge, and I suspect most teen readers will not be aware of Dante’s work beyond the title, the narrative moves into strange and weird territory without at least initial apparent reason. Maybe an Author’s Note would help? Also some of the events in Donovan’s hallucination don’t seem to make sense either as a link to his past or a clue to his present, though maybe they are an echo of Dante.

This is a challenging read to get into, but the reward is immensely fulfilling as Beatrice, like her namesake in Dante’s work, leads Donovan through purgatory and towards heaven. Ideal for teens and adults who seek out demanding reads.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

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Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

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blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2016.

Week 2 of new books by authors that I never pass up – last week was A. S. King, this week is a new to the US book by Marcus Sedgwick.

Before beloved British author Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons, he published a book of Russian fairytales and was a news correspondent and possible spy in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick’s thrillingly eclectic new novel, first published in Britain in 2007, is not a traditional biography and looks at Ransome’s time in Russia in three (a number that has fairytale significance) sections.

The first casts the Bolshevik Revolution as a fairytale of a great starved Russian bear being awoken from its slumbers and goaded into action by Vladimir (Lenin) and Lev (Trotsky). But it also gives a clear, if simplified account of the Tsar’s actions leading up to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty (for more on this, a reader can’t do better than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov), as well as placing Ransome in Russia after his marriage failed.

The story transitions to the second section, set over the course of one pivotal night, as Ransome readies himself for a secret meeting. He looks back over his time in Petrograd and later Moscow, which became increasingly byzantine: The British want him to pass on Bolshevik secrets and vice versa and tangled into this is a love affair with Trotsky’s private secretary Evgenia.

Finally, and once again cast as a fairytale quest, Ransome, now the narrator, goes back to Russia to rescue Evgenia and bring her to the West.

The big question for me is who is going to read this? Arthur Ransome is not the icon here that he is in the U.K. (and probably is not so much an icon there as he was 50 plus years ago). The style of writing, particularly in the first section, feels somewhat detached, and the complexities of Arthur’s travels and visa machinations become a bit of a blur. But as with his other novels and stories, Sedgwick weaves a jeweled net and will pull a willing reader in with an esoteric and sophisticated mix of romance, spy adventure, and fairytale.

Notes, a timeline, and documents at the end offer the reader the opportunity to tease out fact, fairytale, and speculation.

(Interesting to note that both UK covers are explicit about this being about the Russian revolution, whereas the US cover is much more of a fantasy cover).

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Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

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those who wish me deadThose Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta
Little, Brown, 2014.

Like All Involved, this is an Alex Award winning book – one that was written for adults but will also appeal to teens. I was absolutely gripped by it from the opening sentence, through a couple of excellent didn’t-see-that-coming-at-all twists, to the gratifying and credible conclusion.

14 year-old Jace Wilson witnesses a murder and is placed in a wilderness program to protect him from the perpetrators. Jace, along with 6 other boys, is led into the wilds of Montana by survival specialist Ethan Serbin, but even there he isn’t safe from the sinister and scary Blackwell brothers.

The mountainous backwoods setting, from blizzarding snows to rampaging wildfires, is a huge part of the foreboding atmosphere of this novel. The monumental and uncaring power of Big Nature, contrasts with the will of the people scrambling to survive against it and each other.

Jace is a bit of a blank, though his growing confidence in his survival skills is a nice touch. However, the lead really belongs to Ethan, the tough, indefatigable trainer, who won’t stop even when he has apparently run out of options. The Blackwell brothers seem a little bit too omniscient and indestructible, but their repartee is both menacing and entertaining.

I romped through Dead in a day on the beach, and it’s perfect for that kind of lightweight, don’t need to read anything too deeply into it, mode; but at the same time the quality of the writing, plotting, and characterization put it a cut above, and make it more than just a guilty pleasure.

All Involved by Ryan Gattis

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all involvedAll Involved by Ryan Gattis
Harper Collins, 2015 (Audiobook)

Set in 1992 Los Angeles at the time of the South Central riots following the Rodney King trial verdict, All Involved takes place over six days in the Lynwood neighborhood, and centers on a gang’s exploitation of the window of lawlessness provided by the breakdown in police control in order to shake up the hierarchy.

There are 17 narrators, who each tell a piece of an overall story, centering around the Hispanic gang of Big Fate and his acolytes. Many of the 17 are members of, or associated with, Big Fate’s click, but there is also a Hispanic nurse, a Korean high schooler, a Croatian firefighter, and an off the record Black law enforcer. Each one provides a snapshot of few hours on one of the six days and each individual appears only once. The remarkably clever plotting allows them to drive the narrative forward adding in texture and depth, while touching, sometimes only briefly, on the lives and fates of the other characters.

I listened to this over the course of a couple of weeks, and the use of multiple readers really enhanced the experience. Though there is a lot of gang lingo and some Spanish phrases (both of which are in a glossary in the book), the narrative flows easily, and the distinctly written characters are quickly established. It pains me to find myself caring about people who kill without apparent conscience, but I did, and wanted to know what was going to happen to them beyond the book.

All Involved won an Alex Award, given to books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults” and, as the majority of the characters are shockingly young, this is a perfect fit for older teens who enjoy fast-moving, intricately plotted novels, as well as those interested in recent social history.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

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hark a vagrantHark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant is not strictly YA, but nonetheless has enormous appeal to older teens. We’ve had several of the comic strips up in my library and, though it was a bit of a slow burn, they now have many committed fans among the cool young cognescenti.

The comics are witty, erudite, supersmart (though definitely not above a fart joke), have a feminist bent, and make me laugh harder than anything I’ve read or seen in ages. The black and white drawings are deceptively simple, but the characters’ expressions embellish many of the jokes. The helpful and funny footnotes aid comprehension, though not in an entirely straightforward way.lord byron

Collected from a long-running website, the short strips are mainly grouped around satirical literary themes. Hark! A Vagrant opens with ‘Dude Watching with the Brontes’ (“So brooding!”), has a poke at the Scottish Play when one of the three weird sisters can’t meet up when the hurly burly’s done because she has a dental appointment on her calendar, has Nancy Drew’s Ghost of Blackwood Hall playing Bennie and the Jets, and compresses Crime and Punishment into 24 panels, the key clue being Raskolnikov’s article “Murdering Old Ladies: Not Even a Big Deal”. Dracula, Edgar Allan Poe, Robinson Crusoe, King Lear, and many others, all get their serious ideas shredded for some pointed laughs.

Beaton also get some yuks from history with insights on some well-known topics like the French Revolution and the Founding Fathers, but also enjoying sport with the obscurity (at least to us) of Canadian history, and the downtroddenness of “every lady scientist who ever did anything till now.”

But writing any more just continues to prove that Kate Beaton’s writing is way funnier than mine, so the  best thing you can do is grab a copy of one of her books, or click onto her website and enjoy plenty of those satisfying I’ve-just-understood-an-obscure-reference chuckles.

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

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emperor of any placeThe Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick, 2015.

In this haunting and absorbing drama, Wynne-Jones movingly explores father-son relationships, the inexorability of war, and friendships across cultural and generational divides.

When 17-year old Evan’s father, Clifford, dies suddenly, Evan is forced to send for his grandfather, the military stickler Clifford E. ‘Griff’ Griffin II. Clifford had left home for Canada many years before to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War, and had little contact with his disapproving father after that.

When he died, Clifford had been reading a book, which turns out to be an unprinted journal written by a Japanese soldier, Isamu Oshiro, at the end of World War II. He had washed up on a deserted island in the Marianas which he calls Kokoro-Jima, meaning ‘heart (shaped) island’, and evoking Setsuki’s 1914 novel, Kokoro (and before you swoon at my broadreaching intellectual prowess, I should say that I only know of this book because I came across a reference to it in Hark! A Vagrant). This island is full of ghosts and demons, and one of the many lovely ideas in this book is when we learn what these all represent. Soon Oshiro is joined by an injured American airman, Derwent Kraft, and they gradually learn to trust and respect each other.

We know from the start that Griff is somehow involved in this story, because Kraft’s son tells Evan that his grandfather is blocking the publication of the manuscript. It is only towards the end that the two strands of the book become fully integrated, and blossom into an opportunity for the Griffin family to mend their fractured history. But there are parallels throughout the books: Mr Wynne-Jones does not shy away from explicitly linking Kokoro-Jima with Evan’s perception of his home as an island, albeit a “perfectly ordinary” one; similarly, both Evan and Griff use the language of the military to communicate more than just what they’re saying.

The author does a superlative job of showing Evan’s waves of grief and rage at his father’s death; and more subtly, the decades-old agony of Griff about the breach with his son that was never reconciled. As Evan remembers his gentle father, he rubs up against Griff’s abrasion before realizing it is a mask, and giving them both the opportunity to move forward.

Though this is marketed and priced as a YA novel, it has a very adult feel to it, and its thoughtful pace and lyrical language might limit its appeal to teens who are looking for a meditation on conflict, both global and personal, rather than an action-packed historical drama.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson.

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symphony for the city of the deadSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson.
Candlewick, 2015.

M. T. Anderson (Feed, 2002) uses the life and works of Dmitri Shostakovich, particularly his Seventh Symphony, as a springboard to examine the Russian Revolution, the subsequent Stalinist Five-Year Plan and Great Terror, and the Nazi siege of Leningrad, in this dense, thoroughly researched and occasionally long-winded narrative nonfiction book.

Though the 1941-44 siege is the focal point, there is 150 pages of build-up, laying down the context of the tragic complexities and ironies of life under Stalin, the Friend of the People: the many purges of groups and individuals who were perceived as a threat; the paradox of a grim reality that was “too dangerously real for Soviet Realism”; and the Party interpretations of what ‘the people’ wanted and needed, that changed from one day to the next.

The depiction of life in Leningrad during the 872-day siege is beyond shocking, as the populace starves to death resorting at times to eating grass, wall-paper paste and, ultimately, to cannibalism. The turning point, at least as portrayed in this book, is when Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is premiered there, inspiring the citizens and bringing the city back to life. But this was not the only symbolic premiere: the broadcast on NBC radio solidified the new friendship between the USSR and the USA.Dmitrij_Dmitrijevič_Šostakovič_(Дми́трий_Дми́триевич_Шостако́вич)

The author does a masterful job of laying all this out and it is clearly a labor of love. The lengthy bibliography, including many primary sources, and extensive source notes show the depth of research that went into the work, and he has obviously spent much time listening and interpreting the music.

However, for a large part of the siege account, Shostakovich is off stage as he was evacuated to Moscow fairly early on, leaving the narrative without an emotional focus. Additionally, there are some extended passages of musings and interpretation that slacken the pace, and just made me want to skip ahead.

Mr Anderson is honest in his author’s note, stating that “even the basic facts” of Shostakovich’s life are disputed. As he says in the text: “In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth.” This leads to some rather awkward sentences using ‘supposedly’ and ‘apparently’ to qualify the composer’s words and actions.

Nonetheless, this attractively produced book brilliantly shows how Shostakovich’s music was integral to Russian culture and identity during these turbulent years of revolution, purges and war, and while Symphony for the City of the Dead’s appeal may be limited, it will find an appreciative audience both as a narrative read and research source.