Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando

dreamland social club.jpg

Standalone, Dutton Books, 2011, 389 pgs.

Being the daughter of a roller coaster designer used to be an exciting, if often lonely, life. Jane’s lived all over the world and been to almost every major theme park you can think of. And even when she was isolated and friendless, she had her energetic, eccentric mother to brighten life. “Used to” being the operative phrase, though; her mother died a while back, and her father’s fallen on hard times since. That’s why she, her father, and her brother are moving into the rundown old house left to them by her maternal grandfather on Coney Island. It’s free and available, and maybe with a little luck her father can get some sort of work at one of the parks. Coney Island’s an odd place to move to, though. Not only does nobody blink an eye at the boy with tattoos covering every part of this body, not only are the bullies in the school deliberately strange, but it has history. The island’s, yes, with its fairs and parks, but Jane’s too. Her family’s. Her mother’s. And that history is in danger of being lost.

I have to say, this was not at all what I was expecting out of this book. Not that I can say I know Altebrando’s work all that well, having only read one previous novel. The Best Night of Your Pathetic Life was a piece of feel-good fluff, though: fast, fun, and engaging, but not particularly deep.

And sometimes that’s all a piece needs to make an impact. I bought this book because I’d liked the previous one I read, and I liked that book because reading it brought me back to every goofy high school movie I’d ever watched with my friends in the summer. I don’t think the novel was exactly trying to be anything else, either.

Dreamland Social Club, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. This is a book that wants to Say Something, and it has all the pros and cons that make up the territory.

Specifically, on the cons side, its sometimes gets a little bogged down trying to make its point; it’s never exactly preachy in that obnoxious, didactic way, but story rhythm is sacrificed at times in order to work into the novel’s themes. Also, the main character, Jane, is a little stiff, in a way that I’m noticing more and more often in books that want to be serious and intellectual.

It’s not that she’s awful, but she’s written to be almost unbelievably sheltered in order to differentiate her from the community she’s moving into. I can buy shy stick-in-the-mud, even if it’s not my favorite archetype, but I can’t quite accept that a girl who’s traveled all over the world and lived in major cities, both in the States and abroad, doesn’t know what “the projects” are. Again, the point being made sometimes overrides the story.

In spite of what they sound like, though, those are honestly very minor complaints. The pros very much outweigh the cons in this novel, and that is pretty much down to two things: uniqueness and nuance.

YA is a fairly political genre, but it has a tendency to keep the drama at a personal level. Most things will make nods at the huge, overarching issues society faces, like racism or sexism, but often they really only bother to skim the surface of those issues. It’s rare that I see anything that really gets down into the details, rare that a piece talks about something that isn’t an identity issue, and even rarer that the politics being talked about connect so heavily to storyline and character arc.

Dreamland Social Club isn’t only a novel about gentrification. But it is still a novel about gentrification, and most of the personal drama involved has some connection to that main theme. The characters’ hopes and dreams hang on the tension between preservation and development that’s at the center of the book, their relationships live and die by it, and even our lead’s journey to find out about her dead mother’s life has major roots in it.

Altebrando’s skillful in depicting that tension, as well. There’s no uncomplicated “corporations are evil” message, like you might expect; this is an honestly nuanced look at the issue, and nobody’s exactly a mustache twirling villain here. The people promoting development are on some level trying to make things better, though they’re ignoring the needs of the broader community and carelessly knocking down history to do so. In turn, the people looking to preserve Coney Island have their hearts in the right place, but are also sometimes desperately clinging to things that have been fading for a long time.

And most of the characters fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Babette, a character with dwarfism, is firmly on the side opposing development, but also takes offense at the idea that they should go back to the old days when her most viable career option would have been as part of a freak show. Jane herself is torn between the two; she wants to preserve Coney Island as it is in order to find out about her mother’s past, but she also wants to see the parks flourish again in order to secure her father’s job and future.

The amount of nuance Altebrando brings to this issue extends to the rest of the novel, too. The characters are all fully realized, in spite of some of them being tropes that usually set my teeth on edge. Jane’s hyper-shy innocence and the standard high school bullies in particular could have been grating, but weren’t because they all had history and development.

Every other theme the book tackles, too, has at least the potential for the same sort of depth. The plot is mostly Jane settling into her new community: making friends and finding romance, getting involved in the conflict between the born-and-bred Islanders and the company looking to build new attractions, and attempting to find out what she can about her mother’s side of the family.

But even the very setup leads to some interesting questions. Is it wrong to be interested in the strange and the grotesque? Can “strange” be something you choose to be? How much of who we are is choice, how much is experience, and how much comes from who and what your family is? If you never knew that family, how much impact could they have on you, and can you find out who they were from outside sources? Can something that’s been lost, person or place, ever be reconstructed?

I can’t say the book fully answers any of those questions, in fact, it only ever touches on some of them. But I can see tons of little moments in it leading to good discussion. I like things that give me food for thought, even if I have to read it into bits and pieces myself. And to be frank, the ability to read nuance into a situation is something that a lot of books actively cut off.

Largely, though, this is an entertaining, interesting read, with likable characters and the ability to tackle some tough questions without being flat or annoying about it. And that’s something you don’t get every day.

Don’t Judge Alone: A Wrinkle in Time

Well, it’s certainly been a while since I’ve done anything but a straight review, hasn’t it? It’s been far longer since I’ve even touched on covers. Which is sad, because I really do love looking at covers and trying to figure out why the design choices that were made happened.

I wanted to look at an older novel this time, because while you can go into everything from what themes in the novel the designer was pulling on to what they shifted to make the novel more marketable in a more recent work, there’s one thing you can’t see the development of in a book that’s been out for under ten years. The way public tastes have shifted over the years, and the way a novel’s cover has adapted to new trends can easily be seen in something that’s been around for several decades, though.

You’d think I’d have done this before, since noticing those shifts was one of the first things that got me looking at covers.  The oldest series I’ve looked at, though, has been Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom, and that only dates to the 90’s, with the only changes being very recent. It really doesn’t have the same feeling of generational shift that some other books do.

So let’s look at a novel that’s turning fifty-five this year, albeit with a few caveats. First, I’m only looking at A Wrinkle in Time, not the time quartet as a whole here. There really are an astounding amount of covers for this series, and all of us only want to be here so long.

Second, along a similar line, I really can’t hit every cover even this single book has ever had. I’m mostly going to be pulling out the ones that I’ve seen most often and the ones I find most interesting, though if I’ve missed a favorite of yours let me know.

And lastly, I’m going to try to break this up by era, but without access to individual books, it’s apparently impossible to get accurate dates on each design. I’m seeing covers I owned as a child listed with publication dates of 2016, and ones that I know I didn’t see until I was an adult listed under 1973. A lot of this is going to be guesswork and general “before my era/after my era.” Again, if I get anything glaringly wrong, let me know.

So, start from the oldest, I guess? Here are the three I’ve seen that I know are definitively before my time.

The first is the first edition from 1962, the second I would guess to be early 70’s between the art style and the $1.25 price point, and the last I think is probably late 70’s or early 80’s. It’s the copy of the book my older cousins had, at least, so that seems about the right time period. And even in this short span of time you can see how far tastes have already changed, as we go from “classic sci-fi” to “hippie flower child” to “prog rock van door.”

Looking back, I think the only one of these that I actually like is the first edition cover. It’s minimalist and timeless; it still looks like something that could be put on a shelf today without too much difference. In fact they pretty much did that for the 50th anniversary cover, and even then I like this original better. The new one has all of the characters standing straight and tall, which is nice but doesn’t fit; the body language on the silhouettes here screams confusion and distress, which is how the leads first react to travelling by tesseract.

It’s also the only one of the three that seems to fit the whole story for me. The sunshine and rainbows of the 70’s cover fits only a very small part of the story. And as much as the glowing red eyes of the 80’s cover intrigued me when I was six, I can’t say doom and gloom fits the entire novel either. And neither of them reflect that this story is far more sci-fi than fantasy. A group of children looking like they’ve just been shoved into something they’re not remotely ready for, while metaphorically teleporting is a pretty good description of the plot, though.

Not that the cover that is my era is much better than the latter two.

a wrinkle my book

Oh the 90’s pastels.

This one gets major nostalgia points from me, as it’s the copy I owned as a child (and still do!) When I think of Meg and Charles Wallace, those are the faces I see. Aesthetically, though, it probably ranks below even the flying rainbow cover. Given, I think it does a better job of capturing the tone of the story than most of the other ones. There’s peace and wonder here, but also a looming threat.

A lot of the newer covers do a good job of capturing that tone as well. All of these post-date me, so they’re all 2000 or later. And even just looking at the art style you can see how much times have changed. The bright colors and realistic style are gone, in favor of more muted tones and heavy stylization.

These are probably my three favorite of the ones that post-date me. Between personal experience and research I’d guess 2005-present on all of them, though I couldn’t find any details on the middle one.

The first is sketchy, whimsical, and manages to cover enough ground in its little details that it feel like it represents the book as a whole. The middle cityscape covers a lot less, but the Art Deco style is beautiful enough that it makes up for it for me. Besides, in spite of depicting what has to be Camazotz, it doesn’t have the overwhelming feeling of horror that the 80’s cover above does; the shining city could be either utopic or dystopic easily.

The standout for me is the last cover done by the Dillons, but when it comes to their artwork that’s almost always the case for me. The children look a little awkward, but the witches and landscape in the background are perfect. And while everything’s ominous, again it’s not so overwhelming that it makes the novel look like it’s horror.

I know these three also post-date me, though I can’t give an exact point for the first. The second says “40th anniversary” on it, so about 2002, and I remember seeing the third in bookstores in late high school, so around 2004. I like them less than the three above, but thought they were interesting enough to point out. Most of the other covers I hadn’t seen before seem to stick to some stripe of “Mrs. Whatsit in centaur form,” but these go a different route.

I admit I find the comet tails cover interesting largely because it doesn’t appear to depict anything described in the novel. I’m not sure what they were actually thinking with it, aside from “generic fantasy.” And if I had to guess a date for it, I’d probably peg it as early 2000’s, too; it has the same feel that a lot of generic covers from that era have. It almost looks like a Lurlene McDaniel cover to me.

The other two are much better, though, looking both modern and unique. The middle, rainbow circles cover, depicting what I’m assuming to be kything, is probably my favorite. It calls back to the first edition cover, plays off an underused mechanic from the novels, and references the science fiction in the story in a way most of the covers don’t. And again, it looks very modern to me; this is one of the only covers I’ve seen that uses a photo instead of a drawing.

The last I probably find more unique than appealing. The art style is not my favorite, but I find it almost biblical or iconographical in a way. Which fits: religion has always been a major part of L’Engle’s worlds, in a way that I’ve never really seen come through before. It feels older than the other two, but I think it has its place.

What I like about putting all of these together, though, is that you can clearly see the shift in taste that’s happened over A Wrinkle in Time’s long publication history. It’s harder with the newer ones for me, but the older ones I can glance at and say “god, that’s so 70’s” easily. And I think as we move on, that will happen for the 2000’s era covers, too. And with that cultural shift in taste comes the fact that everyone who’s ever read this book takes away a slightly different view of it. Or, for an older person, maybe they see their view of it represented better.

So, do you have a favorite, or one that you thinks best represents the novel? Or did I miss one of yours? The question of what cover art connects the most to people is always so subjective, so I’m always interested to know what other people like best, and why.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirl

Standalone, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, 438 pgs.

Cath can’t help but worry about her first year at college. The whole experience seems explicitly designed to involve everything she can’t deal with. There’s the classes, which she knows are going to be harder than the ones at high school. There’s the worry about how her dad is going to handle living alone in their big house. There’s the fact that she’ll be far from home, away from everything she knows and every comforting thing she’s ever built up for herself. And worst of all there’s having to live with a complete stranger, since her twin and partner-in-crime Wren has apparently decided they need to split up and meet new people. Because Cath knows she’s a little weird. She would rather stay at home and read than party, she’s far happier trying to deconstruct a fictional world than trying to figure out her own life, and to top it off she’s one of those fanfic people. Really, she’s far more comfortable interacting with the other weirdos online than with the swathes of normal, judgmental people that college has to offer. And at one point Wren would have happily stayed back with her and Simon and Baz, their favorite characters. An increasingly distant Wren seems more than happy to leave everything that used to make the two of them happy behind and move on with her life, though. Unfortunately for Cath, she can’t seem to do the same.

Some spoilers in this review

Well, I did walk into this knowing it was going to be the song of my people. I can’t say I didn’t get what I thought I was going to here. I may have gotten a little more than that, actually.

I’ll start out by saying that I think this was a technically good book. The characters start out pretty complex and have some good development as they go through the novel. They’re all likeable and interesting, as well, so the plot stays compelling in spite of the fact that it’s mostly about the lead’s internal journey. And the story works in what I think are some important life lessons, to boot.

I’ll also say, though, that this book was so geared to be something made for me that it’s hard for me to take any sort of technical quality into consideration. I was always going to love this novel, because, like I said, it’s the song of my people. On more levels than I expected, really.

There are two main parts to that, and I’d like to discuss each of them separately, because wow, was I not expecting this book to pull at my heartstrings like it did.

So, the more obvious first. And by “more obvious” I mean what I expected walking in, which I did admittedly get. This is a novel titled Fangirl, where our lead is a megafandom BNF who is so shy in real life that she can barely interact with other people. As much as you’ll never know how much joy it brought me to write that sentence, you probably see where I’m going with this. I expected teenage awkwardness and the hijinks that come with it. I expected rom-commy character interaction, because it’s also abundantly clear this is a romance. Most of all, I expected a metric ton of nerdy references to eat my little geek heart out over.

I can’t say the book failed to deliver on any of those fronts, either. There definitely are funny moments here, and I even liked the romance, which is unusual for me. I’m typically uninterested in mutual support and care in fiction, but Cath and Levi were so down to earth and adorable that it was hard not to like them together. The portrayal here is less of star-crossed lovers who are perfect together and more of two people who are working very hard to grow into each other, and I did appreciate that.

And the nerdery, which was the main draw for me, was absolutely spot on. Either Rowell was actually an active part of the Harry Potter fandom during its heyday, or she did her research impeccably, because I was having about as many nostalgia flashbacks during this as I did while reading Soulbound, if for entirely different reasons.

Simon and Baz are so entirely Harry and Draco that I actually found it a little awkward when it was made clear that Harry Potter also exists in this universe. The little details are perfect as well, leather pants, vampires, snark and all. The snippets of Cath’s fanfic that Rowell scatters in really do capture the tone of being in fandom; I had to stop reading for a moment to writhe with happiness when I got to the one that was an actual “five times” fic.

I expected to relate to all of the fun things about this novel, though. I didn’t expect the other side at all.

Because intertwined with all the goofy fandom clichés is an actually somewhat painful story about learning to work around your own mental illness, and about learning to overcome the soul-crushing insecurity caused by it. One of the first notes I made about this book was that, within a couple of pages, I already felt a deep, heartfelt connection with Cath because we opened with her being nervous about college as a new situation with new people. And this connection continued as the novel went on, and it became more clear that what was happening with Cath was more an actual anxiety issue than just shyness. Rowell is as careful with her details on this front as she is on the fannish side of things.

Cath barely talks to her new roommate for the first couple of weeks she’s in class, because she’s afraid of looking crazy. She lives on granola bars for probably the first third of the novel because she’s too scared to brave the cafeteria. She has an internal scale for the intensity of what she’s feeling, and “protocols” to handle each level, because it’s the only way she can even begin to control what’s going on with her. And, even with that, small changes to her routine or comfort zone can really shake her, leave her unable to deal with things. Even small setbacks can do the same; she nearly flunks out of a class because she assumes her writing’s not good enough to even try at the final assignment.

And she throws herself into fandom to avoid having to deal with her real life.

It’s not only Cath, either. It’s never exactly spelled out, but it’s pretty clear her dad is bipolar. He has episodes where he works maniacally and goes days without eating or sleeping. And he doesn’t deal completely well without his two daughters there to keep him grounded. Her twin sister, Wren, has a breakdown at the end of their first semester where she nearly drinks herself to death because she’s trying so hard to be the stable, normal, cool one.

These aren’t the stereotypical shy loner, kooky parent, or party girl, and the problems their traits bring them aren’t flat half-issues. This is an honest, detailed portrayal of mental illness, warts and all, Of the way it can pick at you, even when things aren’t going badly. Of the way it runs in families, though the expression of it is different for every person. Of the way you sometimes have the choice between letting the pain drag you all down or using the understanding you have to try to lift each other up.

And if you take bits and pieces from all three characters, you have something that uncannily resembles my story. I’ve done a lot of those things. I still do some of them. I was not expecting the song of my people to sting quite so much. It’s hard to really be critical when you have something like that handed to you on page. I imprinted on the book early on, and it never left.

There are other subplots that I haven’t mentioned here, given. There’s the romance, and Cath learning to stand up for herself, and some stuff with the girls’ estranged mother. This is a coming of age novel on pretty much all fronts, and far from all of it was a direct one to one for me.

Still, with the overwhelming amount of things I related heavily to, analysis was never in the cards, here. I can’t say how this book will read to someone who has none of those experiences. For myself, though, I have to thank Ms. Rowell. We read for two reasons: to be taken out of ourselves or to see our own reflection. And I can’t say I’ve ever had a better example of the latter.

Chum by Jeff Somers

chum

Standalone, Tyrus Books, 2013, 208 pgs.

Six friends, a little sister, and a couple of lovebirds get smashed at a wedding. Sounds like the setup to a joke, right? Or maybe some godawful summer movie, where everyone comes together in the end to learn some stupid life lesson. You’d be wrong, on both counts, though. This is the story of the year it all falls apart, instead. This group might only have been together by coincidence, really, might only have ever held on to each other by threads, but the scissors of stress and nerves can wreak havoc on even the most casual group of acquaintances. Secrets can destroy you, even when you really shouldn’t care enough for them to be able to. Relationships can splinter, even when they’re supposed to be flimsy as air.

I think I really need to stop trying to like literary fiction. Or, really, serious slice of life in general, since I’m not sure how experimental or envelope-pushing some of the things I’m referring to are meant to be. These just aren’t my genres, regardless of how intellectual I want to be, and any attempts I make never seem to go well. As much as it’s horrifically unfair to write off what I’m sure is a vastly diverse group of works based on the worst elements in the lot, it always seems like one of those worst elements pops up and ruins whatever book I’m reading for me.

This has happened in almost everything that’s not genre fiction that I’ve tried to read over the past four or five years, barring classics. Last year I got one bright spot in Geek Love, which I thought had actually well developed characters and good tragedy, but everything else I’ve had a stab at has fallen flat.

Chum may be one of the worst experiences I’ve had on that front, too. For every other lit fic piece that I’ve badly disliked I can at least pick out something that I thought was interesting or unique about the work. This, by comparison, feels like the blandest mixture of every horrible stereotype I have about this type of novel that could possibly exist. This…this is not going to be a good review.

So let’s get the one good bit out of the way first. Character voice is incredibly strong here. The book switches viewpoints every chapter, and I could always tell whose eyes we were seeing through within a couple of sentences without being told, even from very early in the novel. That’s a talent in and of itself, and it’s probably the only thing I thought worthwhile in this piece.

Unfortunately I also hated every single one of the characters behind these distinct voices. Usually having a cast comprised entirely of awful people means at least one of them will be interesting, but that didn’t happen here. Instead it was all of the smug, with none of the entertainment value.

The best way I can describe it is in the context of Seinfeld, because on one level this book reminded me a lot of that show. I’d actually like you to do a thought experiment with me along those lines. If Seinfeld is too outdated you can fill in a more recent show with a similar cast. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Arrested Development, maybe?

You know how you watch those shows in spite of the fact that everyone on them is selfish and smug and generally terrible? Or sometimes because of it?

Now take the cast of characters from whichever show you’ve chosen and strip them of any quirks that might make them interesting to follow. Throw out anything that gives them actual personality and replace it with the most generic of flaws. This one’s a disgusting womanizer! That one’s completely shallow! Then take away any sort of layers they might have. Any moments where you see the humanity of these characters, no matter how small, are now gone. Replace everything that might make them seem like a person with ennui and disgust for life. And then, as a final touch, make everything about the presentation absolutely unfunny.

Does that sound like anything you’d actually want to read?

I honestly felt justified in my hatred of these people, because all I got from them was how much they hated each other, their lives, and themselves. And as much as that was probably the point, that setup has never been anything that’s going to make me like a book. This is a novel filled entirely with disgust and loathing, so that’s really all I got out of it. That’s how it always works for me.

And I get where that sort of thing could have appeal, but the execution thereof needs to not be completely uninspired for me to give a piece that credit. The plot here is fairly plain, and the structural shenanigans put in place to hide the terrible event at the center of it don’t do enough to keep it from being predictable. The horrible bits seem mostly to be there to reinforce the point that life sucks and people are awful, rather than to eke any sort of emotion out of the audience. The prose is very, very wannabe Hemingway.

And, perhaps most damningly, in spite of the characterization being distinct and consistent, it’s still not that well done. If you’re going to write a cast populated with awful people who are dysfunctional together, you really need to be willing to go into how they work and what makes them tick. When you instead slap a cardboard stereotype into every scene, all that’s left is how hateful they are. I can sum up each of the characters in about three words: Pretentious Hipster, Sleazy Womanizer, Narcissistic Rage Machine, Nagging Girlfriend, Jaded Ball-Buster, Slut #1, and Slut #2.

Which is honestly another problem. The author seems to have some very strange ideas about how women act and think. I had this post running through my head from the very beginning.

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And that feeling was consistent throughout, even when we’re in the point of view of one of the supposed-to-be straight female characters. I know I at least can say if I catch my best friend’s boyfriend cheating on her, my first thoughts are not going to be about the other woman’s boobs.

As a measurement of how bad this can get, about halfway through one of our main four women dies, and we get a sort of stream of consciousness monologue from her as it’s happening, which is all about the men she’s slept with. Really? No, like, memories of her family or thoughts about her hopes and dreams? Not even any sort of day to day minutia, like what she had for dinner or how she’s angry at her boss? No internal life whatsoever outside of who she’s banged?

The women are treated both confusingly and awfully here. I can usually get over that if the novel gives me a reason to, but, well, you’ve read the rest of this review. The insult didn’t help me in connecting to any of this, but I honestly don’t think I would have regardless.

If I thought Eating Mammals was a good example of why I avoid literary fiction as a rule, this book kicks that one to the ground, stomps on it, and then spits in its face. It has claimed its throne as the Alpha of literary bullshit, and I cannot for the life of me understand the appeal. If a piece of Chum isn’t stereotypical, it’s hateful. And, to be quite frank, most of the book is both.

Libriomancer by Jim Hines

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Magic ex Libris Book #1, DAW Books, 2012, 348 pgs.

Isaac’s been out of the game, for a while really. He’s still a libriomancer, a book mage, and still a member of the Porter hierarchy that governs them, but his ban from field work leaves him spending most of his days working as a librarian and surreptitiously tagging books for other Porters to use. Until the day a group of vampires step into his rural, Midwestern library, obviously attempting to get at him and spouting off about some coming war. And when he tries to take this to his higher-ups in the organization, he finds out that half of them are dead and the other half don’t know what’s going on either. Instead of explaining, they give him emergency leave to go back to the field and tell him to figure it out. Unfortunately there’s more going on here than just angry vampires, and the things Isaac uncovers lead straight to the heart of the Porters themselves: what they exist for, and what they’re hiding.

It’s always amazing to me, the ways in which what’s going on with you personally can affect your enjoyment of a book. Our mental states, experiences, and the things happening around us have a far greater weight on our media intake than I think we often give them credit for.

Obviously rereading a book as an adult and suddenly loving or hating it when you didn’t before is a known phenomenon, but even within a couple of years, with no major life changes, I’ve had vastly different reactions to pieces on reread. And I can’t help but feel that has more to do with my strictly internal mental state than with any new things that have happened to me.

All of this is basically being a long way to say I had a hell of a lot less fun with Libriomancer than I typically do with Hines’ work, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the book or because of me.

If I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably the latter. This really, really should have been fun; it has everything about Hines’ work that usually makes me give it that description, and, on multiple levels, it’s very much a story built for people who love books. Like a lot of his other series, it’s sort of pulpy and tropey, in a way that’s as much loving as it is mocking. If the Princess series was a take on Disney fairytales and the Jig the Goblin series a riff on generic high fantasy, this was almost a play on the summer blockbuster formula. We literally start here with a disgraced, loose-cannon magic cop having to step back into the field to redeem himself.

And like the genre it’s playing with, and again, as is typical of Hines, there may be dark elements present, but the plot never gets bogged down in them. It remains fast-paced and hopeful in tone, creating a sort of breezy feel that should have been fun and easy to read.

Also, like a lot of Hines’ work, it’s sort of nerdy. I mean, it’s about a secret group of magic librarians who use the world’s collective love of stories and suspension of disbelief to pull every cool thing fiction has ever offered to the world out of books to use. What genre nerd wouldn’t love that? There are constant little references to everything from laser guns to magic swords, all pulled from classic series and all of which our hero Isaac is willing to geek out over as much as the audience.

In a world peopled partially by every popular type of vampire you can possibly think of, because sometimes magical diseases can also be pulled out of the books. Our opening scene has Isaac fighting a group of “sparklers.”

And those are just the things I enjoy specifically about Hines’ books; this also involves a lot of things that I enjoy in novels in general. There’s no easily established good and evil here. Almost everyone is a little morally shady and playing according to their own agenda, and even the main villain is very much a product of the same system our hero is. Speaking of Isaac, he’s far from a perfect protagonist; he’s a little too reckless and headstrong, but as much as that leaves him running straight into stupid situations, he’s also clever enough to usually pull it off. All of the characters are well rounded and unique; none of them ever just fade into the background of the work.

The plot keeps itself moving too. We barely know what’s happening at the beginning, and never fully understand until the end, so there’s more than enough suspense to keep things going. The fact that most of this is action packed (like I said, summer blockbuster) keeps you barreling from scene to scene, too. And there’s enough of a personal element, enough of a character journey for the leads at least, to keep it from just feeling like stupid schlock.

So all of this sounds awesome, right?

I had such a hard time getting through this book, though. It took me about two months, which is ridiculously long for me. I kept starting, reading five pages, and then drifting away again, and even after I’d finished it, everything still felt unsatisfying. For a work that seems tailor-made for me, from an author I know I like, this is incredibly odd.

So, two theories.

One is, this is somewhat different from Hines’ usual work. It’s not that his books have been all happy fluff, far from it, but usually the dark elements there are more plotty than philosophical. And a lot of the passages here do get very metaphorical and metatextual. His prose in this book is far more lyrical than his typical, plain-spoken style, things are left far more up to interpretation than in his other pieces, and he’s attempting to dig into some fairly meaty ideas about how the love of narrative shapes people, in both good ways and bad.

There are questions in Libriomancer about everything from how group dynamics can sometimes leave people to fall through the cracks, to how a widely read novel can create a mass media experience that is both the same and different for everyone who participates in it, to where the lines of personal autonomy begin and end for a character pulled out into the real world. The fact that there’s a lot going on here is objectively good, but it is a departure from his norm. I can very much see having liked his previous books while still having trouble with this one.

Or there’s the other theory, which is that Life was Happening (and the capitals are justified there) while I was reading this. I was very busy, leaving gaps of up to a week between putting the novel down one night and picking it up again, and I can’t say I was in a very good mood during any of it. I know very well that I forced my way through this book because I was trying to not lose too much time, rather than because I felt like reading. And there’s every chance that affected my judgement. Like I said, if I’m honest with myself, I think that’s probably it.

So yes, this is a little more description than review. I do have the second in the series, Codex Born, sitting on my shelf, and I am planning on reading it soon. If it leaves me cold as well I’ll let you all know. Until then, there’s enough here that I should have really been into, and circumstances were suspicious enough, that I can’t just write this off.

King’s Cage by Victoria Aveyard

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Red Queen Book #3, HarperTeen, 2017, 512 pgs.

Trading her freedom for her friends’ lives, Mare has been captured by Maven and been taken back to Whitefire Palace. While the Scarlet Guard and the newbloods plan, make new alliances, and gear up for the coming revolution, she’s once again forced to dance on someone else’s strings. She’s once again forced to play a role that will work against everything she wants to fight for. But all is not as well in Norta’s court as the Lightning Girl’s capture suggests. The growth of the Scarlet Guard and the revelation of the newbloods have shaken the Silvers, and tensions are running high. The young king’s harsh decisions are not helping the growing rift among his supporters, either. And even in a gilded cage, Mare has her cleverness, her will, and her hatred.

Again, spoilers for all three books of the series

 

 

Well, this went better than expected. I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to review this book, considering my disappointment with the second in the series. I mean, I knew I was going to read it, because I have a hard time letting go of a story once I’ve started it, but it feels somehow unfair to review a book you pick up even though you know you’ll probably hate it. And if Aveyard hadn’t somewhat redeemed herself here I probably wouldn’t be writing this.

I’m going to just put my main relief out there, considering it was sort of the crux of my last review for Red Queen. She has, for the most part, fixed The Maven Problem. Which is wonderful, because The Maven Problem was really the only reason I didn’t enjoy Glass Sword.

For those of you who don’t feel like reading all of that, my major problem with book two and, retroactively, book one was that it seemed like she was completely depowering her villain whenever her heroes needed a convenient escape route. This sort of thing is the epitome of lazy writing, and not only ends up making your narrative’s internal logic wholly inconsistent, it pretty much kills any sort of tension your plot has managed to build.

Here, though, she actually bothers to explain that there’s a reason her supposedly genius antagonist so often does contradictory and self-defeating things. To sum up: his mother, who had the power to mess around in people’s brains, had basically been rewriting his to make him more what she wanted since he was very young. So, for every action he takes, he’s unsure if it’s coming from him or from her; so there’s always a small part of him that doesn’t want to do these things, or is at least unsure enough about it that he hesitates.

And this piece of information almost single-handedly fixes the plotting of the series. It makes him more broken than stupid, which allows him to still be threatening, and it introduces yet another conflict with the question of whether he can be saved.

Given, it doesn’t fix absolutely everything. The execution here is still kind of sloppy, and this information probably should have been introduced in book two so the illusion of giant, gaping plot holes never even surfaced. The Scarlet Guard still dealt with him in an absurdly naïve manner in book one, given everything else we’ve seen of them. And our heroes are still going on about how brilliant he is, even while he’s doing self-contradictory things.

Still, “left us hanging for a book” and “has given her character an informed attribute” are paltry sins in comparison to “has completely defanged her villain and made her plot nonfunctional.” I’ll take either of the former any day.

That aside, if anything I’d say this third book has sort of the opposite problem that the second one did. There I thought that the character interactions were beautifully done, and it was the plotting that was completely botched. And even looking back with an explanation for the plotting, I’m still willing to maintain that it’s a little too formulaic.

Here, though, Aveyard has taken some major steps to move beyond the standard Hunger Games route, and a lot of what she does in this book seems like a genuine attempt to deepen the worldbuilding and politics of the series. We’re not quite at Game of Thrones-level machinations, but there’s more than enough to carry the story and make it feel like we’re moving beyond narrative shorthand and tropes.

And I can’t even say the characters are bad, here. A lot of the good things about the previous books remain, and it’s clear that she’s still willing to take chances with her characters, to risk people beginning to dislike them. Mare spends a decent amount of time here vengefully murderous, as well as a decent amount of time wondering if that makes her no different from the people she hates. Cameron and Evangeline, both of whom loathe our heroine, get viewpoints, and it’s made clear that their dislike of her stems partially from Mare’s faults, rather than solely from their own. Cal, at the end of this, chooses his own privilege over what’s right, potentially breaking our lead couple’s relationship beyond fixing.

Our heroes are never written to be fully justified in everything they do, and that’s a sad rarity that I really do appreciate.

That said, the characters are also nowhere near as meticulously realistic in their reactions to each other as in previous novels. Again, they’re not bad, but that was the major thing that impressed me about Glass Sword, and it feels like it’s mostly absent here.

The worst of it, unfortunately comes from Mare herself, who careens wildly between hating Maven and feeling pity for him. While I can’t say the ambivalence is unjustified there, the way it’s done reads less like the natural mixture of sympathy and revulsion you’d expect out of the situation, and more like an author trying to string her audience along a little farther on the possibility of a redemption arc.

I never like it when I can see the mechanics behind an author’s writing so easily, but I also can’t say that I don’t expect some sloppiness out of this series. It’s shown up in every book so far, from the predictability in the first to the lack of necessary explanation in the second. Here it’s mostly in some problems with telling rather than showing and in the branched viewpoints that obviously only came up in this book because Aveyard couldn’t figure out how to fit all the information she needed into just Mare’s perspective.

That said, the sloppiness is nothing new, and those little pieces where it’s not perfectly put together haven’t yet ruined the series for me. Who knows, though? Maybe the as yet untitled book four will come around and once again drastically change my opinion on whether or not this is worth reading. Right now I find myself once more having fun with the series, so until that point, Red Queen has my money.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

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Standalone, Moyer Bell, 1997, 144 pgs.

Well, apparently when I say “short review” this week, I mean that literally. I don’t exactly know how much I’m going to be able to talk about this one, because there’s not exactly much to really analyze here. I guess that’s okay, though, because this is a very short book.

As a diary-style travelogue detailing its author’s several weeks in 1970’s Britain, it’s a very odd book for me, too. Anything nonfiction is outside my usual purview, and while I’ve probably read a couple of travelogues for classes here and there, I can’t exactly say I remember any of them.

Its shortness and its genre are also the reasons there’s no summary at the top of this review; there’s really not that much to it. All you need to know going in is that Hanff published an earlier book of letters written between her and a London bookseller which became somewhat famous, and then went to London for a book tour, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers. It’s very simple, really. I don’t even know if I’d say it has any sort of further meaning.

I couldn’t help but love this, though. Aside from being very witty, Hanff just has this joyous wonder about the entire experience which is instantly engaging. While on one level this is an outsider making commentary about a culture she’s not a part of, it’s not satirical. Instead it’s done with such love and humor that you can’t help but fall a little in love with everything you’re reading about as well. And that love and wonder is conveyed in such a unique and eccentric voice that, as scattered as it can sometimes be, you enjoy every little episode she talks about, down to her constant worries about spending too much money.

Other than that, though, I think I loved reading this just because on some level I connected to it: to what she values in life, to her thought processes. All of things in the preceding paragraphs were draws, from her great love of Great Britain, even when she has to take her martini making into her own hands, to the repeated refrain of “Well if X buys me dinner for the next several nights, I’ll have Y money left, meaning I can stay for Z more time” that becomes almost a running joke.

But I just don’t know if I would have enjoyed it quite as much as I did if it hadn’t been the diary of a woman who clearly loves literature, who spent years learning to read it properly without being taught, and who seems very much like she’d rather be doing that than be at a party, because she’s so awkward about socializing.

Like, look at this quote, taken from a passage where she’s a little fed up with one of her hosts:

“My problem was that by this time the Colonel and I had already had thirty straight hours of Togetherness and I’m not equipped for it, not even with the best friend I have on earth, which he isn’t.” (pg. 72)

That’s pretty much the introvert’s dilemma in a nutshell, isn’t it? I felt a deep, soulful connection with Helene Hanff at that moment, and also laughed a lot.

About half of the book is her waxing poetic about Donne and Shakespeare, and the other half is her worrying about being in the limelight, about having to be Proper in front of people, or about putting her foot in her mouth. I can’t say I don’t feel both of those sentiments.

And that might be a lot of why I liked it; everything about it felt right to me. Even the book’s strangely wistful ending felt like it fit in a way I can’t exactly pinpoint. If I ever penned a travel diary, I can see it looking very much like this, though probably less funny. And if any of that sounds like something you might feel in your bones, I’d suggest giving this a read.

Sometimes when reviewing you can really get in there and dig into the mechanics of how the story and characters are built, how everything about a piece works together as a whole. And sometimes all you can say is that something charmed the pants off of you. This? This charmed the pants off of me on pretty much every level there is, and that’s really all there is to it.