Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: 'The Iron Trial'

The Iron Trial (Book One of Magisterium)
By Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Fantasy MG
September 2014
Scholastic Press
ISBN: 978-0-545-52225-0

First, a fangirl moment. Holly Black is one of the most imaginative YA and MG novelists we have right now. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was a chilling, spooky YA novel with unexpected twists and an engaging protagonist. Doll Bones is a spectacularly successful MG horror novel with great characters, a plot that makes sense and some rather goosebumps-raising moments.

Teaming with Mortal Instruments, Infernal Devices and Bane Chronicles author Cassandra Clare, here is another story that is not the same as everything else out there.

The Iron Trial is the first book in the Magisterium series. It not only builds on the tropes so many learned to adore with Harry Potter, it’s a complete turnaround of what readers expect a hero’s journey to be. Callum Hunt, as a baby, survived a massacre of mages in a war against the Enemy of Death. His mother died after carving the message "Kill the Child" with her last breaths. His father, a strong mage himself, has kept Call from magic or knowing much about any of this for his entire life.

But now that he is 12, he has been called to take part in a series of tests to see if he qualifies for training at the Magisterium, where mages learn to control their power. Those who fail have their magic bound at the end of the first year, knowing only for the rest of their lives that they are missing an integral part of themselves.

Call is on orders from his father to fail. His father doesn’t want him there; Call thinks he will be harmed. Despite his best efforts to fail, he is chosen by one of the most talented mages. And now he’s torn. What if he could be good? And now, for the first time, he has friends. And he’s kinda good at this magic after all.
The training that Call and his new friends undertake, the friendships formed and Call's journey into discovering why he is different unfold with steady pacing. The world-building and character development work together very well here. The ending is an ending but also shows how the second book will continue Call's journey.

Whether recommending to a teacher for read-aloud because of the plot twists, or to readers who think all fantasy is the same or those ready for something that goes beyond Hogwarts, this is a book to put in their hands.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Review: 'No One Else Can Have You'

No One Else Can Have You
By Kathleen Hale
YA Thriller
January 2014
ISBN 978-0062211194

Sometimes a book receives notoriety and it’s tempting to read it to find out why. And sometimes that turns out to be a mistake.

No One Else Can Have You is billed as a darkly comic tale of a 16-year-old coming to terms with the death of her best, and only, friend in a dull and creepy town. Her mother died several years ago so she’s had experience with it.

Earlier this year, Hale’s novel gained attention when she tracked down a person egging on negative reviews of her novel and wrote about it in the Guardian. Then that received a backlash. So I had to find out what had caused all the fuss and fortunately had an ARC of the novel.

Fortunately, because I didn’t have to pay for it. Hale’s protagonist has a sardonic voice and the author has a dark view of small-town Wisconsin, where everyone is a hypocrite, drunk and a hunter. The protagonist, Kippy, had one friend, Ruth. But Ruth was killed and her body left in a corn maze after horrible things were done to it. Was the deed done by her vandalizing, womanizing boyfriend? Was the killer the middle-aged attorney in town who also was shagging Ruth? Or was it someone else?

Ruth’s brother comes home from serving in Afghanistan; he shot his finger off when Ruth was killed in an attempt to be sent home and now has a dishonorable discharge as the least of his problems.

Kippy’s father is a school counselor, calls her ridiculous names and keeps her close by. Their friend across the street lives by himself ever since his parents died in a truck accident when it collided with a deer. He mostly plays video games and collects stuff, but he was Kippy's babysitter and seems to be about the calmest, rational character in the bunch.

When Ruth’s boyfriend is arrested, despite every indication that he didn’t do it (especially when there is a subsequent murder), Kippy decides to find out who really killed Ruth. The sheriff doesn’t care who really did it because Ruth’s boyfriend also tried to have his way with his daughter and he hasn’t forgiven the kid.

All the relationships in the book are tainted in similar ways. The language used throughout is very fond of certain Anglo-Saxon terms. Everyone lives on beer and meat; the one time Kippy asks her father for a salad is sad and typical of the way Hale's story condemns everything Kippy sees. After Kippy’s father catches her trying to solve the murder, he has her committed to a mental hospital. Pre-publication publicity compared the novel to Fargo, and that was not accurate.

This novel disappointed on so many levels -- characterization, plotting, who the killer was. But overall, the biggest disappointment is that Hale's novel would have been so much more with some finesse. The sardonic tone is wonderful but the world is describes is so OTT that it doesn't matter. Not much of anything matters in Kippy's world. If you care, you get sent to the looney bin.

Ironically enough, that original review's complaint about the book apologizing for rape that set Hale off to stalking the reviewer? Didn't see that part in the actual ARC, unless the reviewer meant the subplot where the middle-age attorney shags the teenage murder victim in a consensual relationship. For fiction that's far worse in that regard, there's always a certain novel by Greg Iles.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday Sentence: The Moor's Account

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further commentary or context:

Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague collections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought.

-- Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 reading highlights

Best of reading lists are not my strength; I always forget something even with reading journals both physical and online. But here are some highlights from 2014:

Middle Grade Fiction

The Fourtheenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm
Holm pays tribute to her science forebear in a funny, wise and non-preachy book about parents and children, grown and not grown-up, when the new kid in Ellie's class turns out to be her grandfather. His experiment worked and he's now a 6th grader.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
Ophelia does not believe in magic in this novel inspired by The Snow Queen. But when her sword historian father takes on a job in a museum in a city where it never stops snowing, and she meets a boy in a locked room who has been waiting for her to rescue him, Ophelia has some rethinking to do.

YA Fiction
Don't Call Me Baby by Gwendolyn Heasley
The teen daughter of a mommy blogger does not appreciate having her whole life bantered about on the internet. And now her teacher wants everyone in class to blog. An entertaining coming-of-age story when those moments with your family are now things everyone online knows.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow (memoir)
The New York Times columnist's memoir recounts his childhood in rural poverty, his mother's incredible hard work, his confusion over his sexual identity and his college years. I loved reading his gentle words about hardships, and his honesty with grace toward others.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Mead relates the importance of various aspects of George Eliot's wonderful novel to various aspects of her own life in a book that is part literary criticism, part biography of Eliot, part memoir and wholly entertaining.

Literary Fiction

Benediction by Kent Haruf
Haruf's Plainsong introduced me to quiet, heartfelt midland fiction. Haruf, who died this year but finished one more novel, wrote here about the end of life of a good man who didn't always do the right thing.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
One of two books by Americans on this year's Man Booker list for the first time, Ferris's novel about a self-absorbed dentist is wild, wide-ranging and was a complete blast to read. Especially after I wondered if I was the right reader for it. A terrific book.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The other Booker nominee is about Rosemary's family, including her very special sister Fern. What I thought at first was a gimmick is instead a marvelous way to talk about how families relate to each other, how people relate to each other and how people and animals relate to each other.
History of the Rain by Niall Williams
A dreary story of a dreary Irish family where the rain makes everything look dreary. Except that it is not dreary. Bedridden Ruthie Swain tries to find her father through stories and it is transporting. Another Booker nominee.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Another reason for me to love Murakami and his translators. A young man traces what went wrong as a teenager with the friends who formed a tight circle, and what happened when they grew up. His work is wistful.

Most Grateful to Have Read:
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
Pete Snow is a social worker in western Montana in the 1970s. He tries to help the son of a survivalist, Jeremiah Pearl, who sees the era as the start of the End Times and has hidden his family in the woods. At the same time, Pete's family has fallen apart -- his wife has left, taking their daughter. When the teenager runs away, Pete experiences the helplessness on he saw in the families he tries to help. Henderson knows the people, he knows the land and he has written a complex, thoughtful and devastatingly honest work.

Biggest Regret:
A long list of books not yet read and other online reviews and critiques not read or properly lauded.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Lily King's 'Euphoria'

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:

"Who are we and where are we going? Why are we, with all our 'progress,' so limited in understanding & sympathy & the ability to give each other real freedom? ... I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world."

-- Lily King, Euphoria