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.

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.

The Perfect Letter by Chris Harrison (yes, *the* Chris Harrison)

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chris harrisonThe Perfect Letter by Chris Harrison
Dey Street Books, May 2015 (the day after the new season of The Bachelorette starts)

Adult romance novels are not usually my cup of tea, but as my teen daughter and I are avid fans of The Bachelor (affectionately known as The Bach in our household) and The Bachelorette, I couldn’t resist this when I saw a review copy was available. It’s an engaging, if not particularly original story, that will please fans of Nicholas Sparks’s oeuvre as well as the built-in Bachelor Nation audience.

Leigh Merrill seems to have it all – she’s a highly sought after editor for a respected publishing house in New York, and she’s dating the handsome and rich Joseph Middlebury who is besotted with her. After ten years away from her home state of Texas, she returns for a writers’ conference, and opens up a whole can of worms when her past comes back to bite her. And her past includes Jake, a rugged, and occasionally shirtless, cowboy, just out of jail for a crime he, naturally, did not commit. perfect letter

Of course Leigh is going to dump poor uptight Joseph for swoony Jake (even though few women in their right minds would actually do so), but Mr. Harrison does a decent job of making her decision process credible. He also does a fine job of creating the erotic chemistry between Leigh and Jake, though somewhat clunkily attempts to show Jake as an intellectual equal with Leigh by having him read Anna Karenina in jail.

Just when I thought I could see all the way to the sunset ending, in comes a whole new subplot. Mr Harrison is really good at writing skincrawlingly unpleasant characters – both Dale Tucker from Leigh’s youth and Russ Benoit from the present are genuinely nasty creations, who, in their own ways threaten both Leigh and her relationship with Jake.

So, yes, it is a familiar formula, but it slips down as easily as watching two hours of reality romance with a pitcher of margaritas and, speaking for the audience I’m familiar with, will be a pleasure, both guilty or otherwise for many teens.

Thanks to Dey Street Books and Edelweiss for the eARC

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

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USA cover

USA cover

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2015.

Marcus Sedgwick is a prolific and inventive writer. And a bit of a dish, judging by his cover photo. I have really enjoyed his two previous books: Midwinterblood, which won the Printz for 2013, is a collection of unsettling and creepy interlinked stories; and She is Not Invisible, a terrific mystery with a blind girl finding her way in New York, wrapped around the idea of “hidden patterns in the universe” and coincidences.

His new collection of stories, The Ghosts of Heaven, has a little of both – connected stories and a fascination with a phenomenon that promises meaning outside ourselves. There are four loosely connected stories, or quarters, set in different time periods. They’re presented in chronological order, though in an introductory note the author suggests that they can be read in any order. Within each quarter, spirals play a significant, though differing role.

In the free verse prehistoric story, Whispers in the Dark, a young woman accompanies an elder to the caves, where paintings are made to bring magic to help the people hunt. In the dark, she sees spirals like the ones she has drawn in the sand with a stick, and she stumbles on the thought of the written word.

The Witch in the Water is set in the 18th century in an isolated English village. A new priest, burning with fervent desire to root out witches, sees a young woman, Anna, dancing in a spiral after the funeral of her mother. Her mother was a “cunning woman” and Anna takes after her – and this, combined with her brother’s epilepsy and some vindictive villagers, leads to an inevitable Thomas Hardy-esque fate.

British cover

British cover

In the Gothic 1920’s tale, The Easiest Room in Hell, a naïve and altruistic doctor keeps a journal when he starts a new job at an insane asylum, which has a massive central spiral staircase. One of the inmates is terrified by this shape, which seems to go into the “darkest depths” at one end and into the “expansive heavens” at the other.

Finally, The Song of Destiny is set on a huge space ship spiraling through time and space as it transports 500 people to a New Earth. Keir Bowman (2001 references!) is a Sentinel who wakes up for 12 hours every 10 years to ensure all is well. On one of his shifts he believes he sees another person, and, on another, he hears a signal from space that suggests there’s another life form out there.

The quarters reference each other and are connected by thematic threads including solitude, both imposed and sought, discovery, connection and death. Though written in different styles, they all share a disquieting atmosphere of dread. I felt that the middle two stories were much more successful than the top and tail – I found the verse rather stiff and uninvolving in the prehistoric story; and the scifi quarter ends up in a swirl of pseudo-meaningful metaphysics.

However, that’s just my opinion, and I’m sure other readers will prefer different stories. But whatever floats your boat, this is a stylish and erudite collection that will appeal to mature teen and adult readers.

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

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tomboyTomboy by Liz Prince
Zest, 2014.

Liz Prince always wanted to wear boy’s clothes and take part in activities that boys flocked to, like baseball. She wanted to be a boy, not because she felt she was a boy, but because she felt that boys had all the fun. She had a handful of friends – other tomboys or boys. And she had crushes on boys – mostly unrequited, though not in one rather cruel instance – and sometimes on her friends who were boys, which mostly didn’t work out too well.

But it is only when she starts talking to an older woman, Harley, that she begins to sort out who she is and where she could fit in. Harley asks: “Do you hate girls? Or do you hate the expectations put on girls by society?” – though at the time Liz doesn’t see that there’s a difference to these questions. It’s only later, when she’s reading a zine, that she comes to the realization that she “wasn’t challenging the social norm, [she] was buying into it!” by believing that girls could only be giggling cheerleaders in pink frocks. She has the epiphany that she could be a girl on her own terms, and having made that realization, she can find a community.tomboy_excerpt_panel_v2_blog

Told by the current Liz, who occasionally breaks into the narrative to comment on her younger self, this graphic memoir uses simple line drawings to keep the story moving along, with occasional breaks into diagrams using those international symbols of male and female from bathroom doors, along with mathematical symbols.

As a tomboy myself – not as hardcore as Liz, but not as weedy as the celebrity she calls out – I found this a very sympathetic read. And though the conclusion she comes to, that we should all be accepted for who we want to be, sounds glib on paper, I think we can feel the struggle it was for her to get to that point and actually believe it. I work with teenagers, and I see some of them having the challenges that Liz had to find their place in the world, and I applaud any book that is as honest as this one about the thorny path that can take.