Reviews

Review: The Secret Tree

By Casey Wilson

I first discovered Natalie Standiford with her lovely YA novel How to Say Goodbye in Robot, a moving portrait of friendship and the quirks that make it possible. So I knew I would be reading her new middle grades novel (Yes! Middle grades fiction on this blog! Miracles do occur!) The Secret Tree eventually, and during a visit to The Children’s Bookshop in Boston during the Children’s Literature Association Conference I decided to take the plunge and pick it up. (For the record, that shop is absolutely lovely. I wish we had one like it here in Gainesville.) I’m glad I did, because it’s maintains much of the spirit that I loved about How to Say Goodbye in Robot while still being its own entity.

The Secret Tree is set at that most precarious of times: just before the protagonist, Minty, is to begin middle school. She and her best friend Paz spend their days practicing roller derby moves, their friendship safe and secure – for now. One day, Minty spots someone watching the people in her neighborhood and chases the mysterious spy down, discovering in the process the Secret Tree of the title. Whenever Minty passes the tree, she finds notes hidden inside, secrets scrawled across them. These secrets reveal pain and loneliness and anger, and as Minty and a new friend begin to investigate them, she learns that all of the people she’s grown up with – Paz included – have their own lives and concerns.

All’s well that ends well – and I don’t think it’s a significant spoiler to say that The Secret Tree does end well – but Standiford layers the path to that conclusion with genuine emotion and real problems. The peculiar “magic” of the tree (very, very light magical realism here, and even that can be interpreted as straight realism, if you choose) serves as a catalyst for Minty, but the tree itself is mostly an afterthought. Instead, the novel is concerned with the humans in Minty’s neighborhood, and the way that they all have to learn to care for and trust each other in order to move past the secrets that the tree is supposed to swallow up. One late development regarding Minty’s new friend seems, perhaps, a bit too fortuitous, but by that point Standiford has built up enough goodwill that I, at least, was content rather than skeptical.

And that’s the core of The Secret Tree, really. It’s about building up goodwill for those around you, so that you might forgive what (few) flaws do exist. And at that, Standiford succeeds quite well.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Reviews

Rewriting Myth: Pullman takes a crack at the Bible

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is a part of the Canongate Myth series, or a collection of short novels retelling classical myths with a modern spin.  According to The Myths website: “The Myths is a long-term global publishing project where some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing.”  For this series, Margaret Atwood wrote The Penelopiad from the perspective of Penelope and her 12 maids, who Odysseus curiously hangs when he returns home.  Jeanette Winterson has rewritten the myth of Atlas, titled Weight, and Michael Faber has a more modern take on the Prometheus myth in The Fire Gospel.  All of these authors have approached the classical myths with their own set of beliefs, interests, writing style and personal views.  While this series is not explicitly intended for children or young adults, Pullman is probably best known for his YA series His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass).  The casual reader could be forgiven for looking at this short novel with large print, short chapters and straightforward narrative style and thinking that it fits right in with the rest of Pullman’s work.

It is no secret that Philip Pullman is an atheist and no friend of the organized church, especially the Catholic Church.  His Dark Materials, itself a retelling and retake on Paradise Lost, is extremely critical of the role of the Church in any given universe.  In his trilogy the Church/the Magesterium challenges and censors scientists, enforcing its version of truth no matter what the evidence shows.  The church also tortures children in an attempt to eliminate “original sin” and ensure a lack of curiosity, sexuality or resistance to church teachings through a non-scientific process that could render an entire population of people more docile and controllable.

With the controversy surrounding Pullman’s YA trilogy and the film adaptation of the first book, The Golden Compass, it seems almost cheeky for Pullman to publish a book with the title The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.  Those Catholics and devout Christians encouraged a boycott of The Golden Compass film because of its subtle references to the corrupt power of the organized church are sure not to miss the bait here.  In addition, the very concept that the Biblical story about Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection is a myth and one that could stand a modern, interpretive rewriting is sure to strike some people as a blatant attempt at blasphemous rabble-rousing, or as Pullman spoiling for a fight.  However, perhaps it is because this novel and the Myths series is not as popular as His Dark Materials, or because it is written for a more adult audience that this particular book has not received as much (negative/critical) attention from those who find it scandalous.  Perhaps it is the “literary fiction” marketing label has saved Pullman from a storm of criticism that a “bestsller” or “YA” label would have brought forth.  Continue reading

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

Review: For Darkness Shows the Stars

By Casey Wilson

By all rights, For Darkness Shows the Stars shouldn’t work. Diana Peterfreund’s latest novel is, in its most succinct form, a post-apocalyptic retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. As such, it is a bit of an uphill battle. Austen’s novels are intimately connected with the society of their time and place, and Persuasion is arguably her most mature story.

Peterfreund mostly avoids the pitfalls that could follow, by turning the future into a revision of the past. Extreme genetic modifications caused the “Reduction,” sparing only the “Luddites” who had rejected the practices entirely. The Luddites have thus stepped forward as the “caretakers of humanity” – specifically of the Reduced, who still bear the changes of the Reduction, most notable in their inability to speak in anything more than monosyllabic words. Some of the Children of the Reduced (or Posts) have moved past the limitations of their parents, however, and are again seemingly “normal” people. This world creates both an ingrained class-system – that is being upset by the rise of the Posts – and takes away most advanced technology, leaving us with a world as close to that of Austen’s as we can perhaps expect that far into the future. (Peterfreund discusses the choices she made in her world building over on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea series — it’s worth checking out.)

This also allows her to place heavy burdens upon her young protagonist – named Elliot, in a nod to Austen’s own heroine – that give some added heft to the choices she has to make. Before the novel begins, she has already had to choose duty to her family’s estate and a desire to protect the Reduced that live upon it from her father over the whims of love by rejecting her childhood friend Kai’s request that she run away with him. When Kai returns years later – as he must, in any good romance – they each still bear the scars of that decision. There is anger and hurt, mixed in with the feelings of love that remain. Peterfreund uses their childhood letters to each other to explore their past, and while they provide an ideal ramp up to the final letter of the novel, I found them to be the weakest part of the novel. There is plenty of charm to be found in them still, but I often wanted them to offer a little more depth than what their few sentences could share.

What does add some depth, however, is the way that Elliot constantly has to revise her worldview as the novel progresses, especially as she begins to question her dedication to Luddite society. There are a lot of questions ripe for discussion here, particularly with regard to the pros and cons of rampant technology and genetic modification in our food – and ourselves. But the novel only ever seems to brush up against these questions rather than address them head on, which I suppose can function either as an opportunity for readers to take up the questions themselves or a cop out – I’m more inclined to think of it as the former than the latter, though I’m not sure I’d argue either way.

On the whole, then, I think that For Darkness Shows the Stars does unexpectedly well with its potentially difficult premise. It’s not Austen, but it’s not meant to be. I’ve only read Persuasion once, a few years ago, which I think may be the perfect amount of distance to have with a novel like this – close enough to smile at the nods to the original, far enough to avoid any unnecessary outrage with the retelling. If you are the type that can forgive an urge to replace Austen’s England with two secluded islands in a far-off future, then give this book a shot. At worst, it will make you want to reread the original; at best, you’ll come to love Peterfreund’s vision as well. That’s a win-win, in my book.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Reviews

Trauma and Recovery: A Fantasy about Recovery and Reconciliation

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

An analysis of Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, the somewhat sequel to Graceling and companion/sequel to Fire.  For more about the complicated intertext/marketing relationship between these three novels, see my earlier post here.

SPOILERS FOR GRACELING AND BITTERBLUE

Bitterblue is a beautiful book and one that I believe is far more complex than either of its companion texts.  In the traditional storytelling sense, Bitterblue is the story that takes place after the “happily ever after.” At the end of Graceling, Katsa has killed Leck, protected Po’s secret and carried Bitterblue across the world to ensure her rightful place on the Monsean throne.  At the conclusion of Fire, Fire marries Brigan and adopts her daughter, King Nash and his armies defeat the rebellious Lords and repells their armies and Leck is dropped into a giant fissure in the earth, never to bother Fire or her friends again.  At the end of both of these novels, happily ever after reigns.  However, Bitterblue is about what comes next: the recovery of a nation that had been ruled by a madman. The novel traces through the complexities of recovery for a nation that has been led to ruin but also the emotional and psychological effects suffered by those closest to Leck and his administration.

Leck is possibly the most terrifying villain invented by an author that I have ever read. In the world of Graceling, certain people are born with special powers. These people are marked by their two different colored eyes. Graces are variable from useless (rotating completely around at the waist), to practical (cooking, balance, awesome at math, photographic memory), to artistic, (beautiful singing, sculpting) to the more mystical (predicting the future, predicting the weather, reading minds). Katsa’s power is that of survival: she can run faster, go without sleep longer, survive with less food and water than others and has incredible instincts that keep her alive when all others would have died.

Leck’s power lies in the more mystical realm: no matter what he says, people believe him. It comes very close to the power of compulsion (as used in The Wheel of Time and The Vampire Diaries), or various forms of mind control, except Leck doesn’t seem to have to exert any of his own power in order to be able to control others.  He says something and those around him have no choice but to accept it as truth.  His Grace lies somewhere in his voice, which Fire describes as grating and painful to hear.

Continue reading

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

Review: Messy

By Casey Wilson

Messy is the follow-up to writing team Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s debut YA novel Spoiled. Cocks and Morgan – better known here on the internet as “The Fug Girls” because of their immensely popular celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself – proved with Spoiled that they have a marvelous touch when it comes to poking at Hollywood culture, and in their sophomore novel they continue to produce a fun and funny world.

Admittedly, Messy’s plot plays out almost exactly as you expect it would upon meeting the characters. Max – an aspiring writer in need of money to attend a summer workshop at NYU – takes a job writing a personal blog for Brooke Berlin, daughter of one of the most famous actors in the world, half-sister to Max’s best friend Molly, and aspiring actress. And, of course, there are boys: Jake, the sweet but dim quarterback Max has crushed on for years and Brady, Brooke’s smart, self-effacing co-star who just so happens to love her blog. Hello, Cyrano.

But there are different kinds of predictable, and Messy’s characters are where you get the real surprises. Brooke, one of the two central figures in Spoiled, continues to be more than just a bratty little girl riding on her daddy’s coattails – she is instead an insecure young woman who would do just about anything for her father’s approval, and who is willing to put in the effort to make her dreams come true. Max is in many ways the stereotypical outcast writer chick, with her green hair and steel-toed boots, but she is blessedly self-aware of that fact. Jake could be just a goofy jock, but he’s a genuinely good guy who appreciates Max. And Brady – poor, confused Brady – is both an ideal love interest and an imperfect person. Cocks and Morgan show an incredible generosity of spirit to all those who appear in their pages, really. Even the most minor of characters – including one named Bone – are given small moments of shading.

It also helps that this book’s humor is real, pervasive, and incisive. The dream role that Brooke (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) lands with the help of the blog? Nancy Drew. The gritty revamp of the story is just the kind of thing I can’t believe hasn’t already happened – I mean, really, how has a “dark” version not been done? Similarly, the titles of the fake films and shows, including the ridiculous action movies that Brooke’s father, Brick, stars in, are the kind of so-close-to-the-mark-it’s-alarming parodies that the book is full of: Avalanche!, Kamikaze Dad, The Hangover 3D. In a world that just gave us Battleship, none of those would surprise me. There is always the risk that so many pop culture references will instantly date the book, and that may well be true. But there’s also something satisfying about a YA novel that can so breezily reference Twilight – it makes the world feel real, and lived in, and part of our own.

If you have to love something to parody it, then Cocks and Morgan clearly love the soapy stories of the rich and famous (and not-so-rich and not-so-famous) that they are teasing, mocking, and ultimately embracing here. This is a book that could not exist without Gossip Girl and reality TV and social media* – on about a thousand different levels – and as such the authors very wisely never take any of those things for granted. So do them a favor, and don’t take Messy for granted, either. Let the humanity behind the Hollywood plastic sheen surprise you.

*And for the record, it’s fantastic to see a novel that actually demonstrates an intimate understanding of the possibilities of social media without vilifying it.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Reviews

Review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

 “Insurgent,” he says.  “Noun.  A person who acts in opposition to the established authority, who is not necessarily regarded as a belligerent.”

“Do you need to give everything a name?” says Cara . . . “We’re just doing something and it happens to be in a group.  No need for a new title.” . . .

“I like it,” I say. “Insurgent.  It’s perfect”

Insurgent is the newly released sequel to Veronica Roth’s best selling novel Divergent. Overall, the narrative maintains the dramatic pace, suspenseful action and political intrigues of the original novel, while adding new, larger mysteries and expanding the scope of the dystopian world created in first novel.  Similar themes echo through the second book in new and explosive ways while new struggles, both internal and external, continue to rock the characters, specifically Tris and Four. However, the novel also suffers from second-in-a-trilogy disease, feeling at times exposition heavy, occasionally feeling like events are rushed or delayed in order to wrap up the dramatic ending of Divergent while setting up a larger scale for the next book.

((SPOILERS AHEAD FOR DIVERGENT))  Continue reading

Categories: Reviews

Review: I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)

By Casey Wilson

A medallion on the front of Stephen Colbert’s I Am a Pole (And So Can You!) proudly declares it to be a “Caldecott Eligible Book”. If you look carefully at the medal, you can see Colbert riding a flying pig – a self-aware indication of just what must happen for this book to move from “Caldecott Eligible” to “Caldecott Nominated”. This is not the next children’s classic – its movie rights probably won’t even sell, despite the plea to Pixar on the jacket flap – but it has been written and illustrated with a keen eye to picture book conventions.

I Am a Pole is about one pole’s quest to discover just what he is meant to do. Like many picture books, we are taken through a series of failed attempts at finding purpose – ski pole, maypole, tadpole – until he ultimately discovers that he has the greatest purpose of all: to be an American flag pole. It’s a familiar pattern and a familiar outcome that we have been trained to expect from many of our mainstream picture books.

But most mainstream picture books don’t have a stripper in them. Or jokes in footnotes. Or references to pagan rituals. Even the illustrations contain pointed commentary about corporate sponsorship. From cover to cover, Colbert and his collaborators (all refreshingly named outright on the copyright page) take on the conventions of picture books, and do what they can to both embrace and subvert them. Because there is sincerity here, underneath all the levels of irony that come with anything created by Colbert’s television persona. When the characters all salute the flagpole at the end, it’s out of respect, not just out of humor.

And when one of those characters is Maurice Sendak, it becomes clear that this book is sincere in its love of children’s books, too. This book has nowhere near the depth of the work of the man who is quoted on the cover as saying, “The sad thing is, I like it!” but it clearly adores both him and his books. Sendak’s author bio for Colbert is, perhaps, the best part of the book. I Am a Pole came out the same day that Sendak passed away, and Colbert rightly dedicated an entire segment of his show to unaired moments from his interview with Sendak from a few months back. Colbert told his viewers that, if they were unfamiliar with Sendak, they should read his books – and that they shouldn’t be intimidated, because they have a lot of pictures.

I actually can’t say the same for I Am a Pole. If you’re unfamiliar with Colbert and his show, the book will make little sense, even with the pictures. And it does live up to the second Sendak blurb on the cover – it is “terribly, supremely ordinary.”

But after Sendak, isn’t everything?

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Reviews

Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue: Together, They Are More

By Casey Wilson

I have literally started this entry ten different times now. There’s so much I want to say about Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue and its preceding novels Graceling and Fire that I genuinely don’t know where to begin. So I’m going to start elsewhere. Outside of Cashore’s novels, outside of YA lit, outside of books entirely. I’m going to start with Farscape.

Farscape is a sci-fi television series that went off the air in 2004. The details aren’t important – though you should definitely check it out, since it is smart and emotional and often completely bazoo – but for one: In the pilot episode, the lead John Crichton looks at Aeryn Sun and tells her, “You can be more.” He’s far from home and barely knows her at all; she’s a soldier who lives her life by orders. And yet. “You can be more.”

Those are the stories that matter to me. The ones where a character learns that she is more than just her circumstance, that she has agency and power all her own. When I look back across the books and movies and television shows that have meant the most to me, that thread is always there. Alias. Doctor Who. Moulin Rouge. The Lord of the Rings. They’re all about someone saying, “I can be more.”

And so are Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue.

Continue reading

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

Three Mini-Reviews

By Casey Wilson

Purity by Jackson Pearce: Purity is Pearce’s first contemporary YA novel, and it’s one that hits on a somewhat controversial topic: purity vows. After Shelby’s mother dies, she is determined to obey her mother’s last wishes and listen to her father – even when he wants her to participate in a purity ball. But that clashes with another of her mother’s wishes – to “live without restraint” – and, with the help of her friends, she has to figure out how to do both. Purity hits many familiar beats over the course of the story, building as it does on a well-engrained set of conventions. But it has its share of grace notes that make it Pearce’s story, rather than the genre’s. If family drama/romance are your thing, this wouldn’t be a bad addition to your list.

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman: Nora Kane finds herself in the middle of an ancient conspiracy after the murder of her best friend – one that takes her all the way to Prague. Blood and Shadow is very much in the vein of The DaVinci Code, though if my memory of the latter is correct, Wasserman’s book is much better written. That said, I think the novel’s real strength is in the character relationships. My mind would wander whenever too much time was spent in the past or on the conspiracy, but the instant we got back to Nora and her friends I always became fully engaged again. There are a lot of plot twists here – one too many, in my opinion, though you may well disagree – and they will propel you through the novel. Plus, there’s a lot of nerdy academia stuff here. It’s made for grad students. (Also: remind me to write an entry sometime about the rise of “BLANK of BLANK and BLANK” titles in YA fiction.)

The Selection by Kiera Cass: Sometimes, you just need a book set in a future version of the Americas featuring a protagonist named America who enters into a contest to become the nation’s queen and has to wear lots of pretty dresses and try to choose between the boy from home she’s always loved and the surprisingly sweet and normal prince. This is that book.

Casey is a PhD student who is gleefully catching up on recent YA releases now that the semester is over.

Categories: Reviews

Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

Having read Paolo Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, which takes place in a not-too-distant future after global warming has melted the ice caps and raised the sea level, I was excited to discover that his next book, Ship Breaker, took place in the same fictional universe but was directed at a YA audience.  The Windup Girl focused mainly on themes surrounding the genetic engineering of crops, diseases and people and the disastrous implications of that engineering gone wrong.  Likewise, Ship Breaker is also concerned with genetics, though I would argue in a far more familiar way: the main characters of Ship Breaker struggle mainly with the implications of family and class.  The main character, Nailer, is cursed with a violent, cruel, drug-abusing father who will kill and betray anyone, including his son, in the pursuit of profit.  Nailer is desperate to escape Bright Sands Beach, where he and everyone he knows is engaged in the backbreaking and very dangerous work of disassembling the stranded hulks of old oil tankers in order to sell the valuable scrap metal to major corporations.  He puts great store in the blood oaths of loyalty and mutual support that he swore to the rest of his lightcrew (responsible for stripping the ships of light metals like copper and aluminum) and he, like many, worship the Fates and gods of Luck.  Nailer recognizes that being born into this life of ship breaking means a short, brutal and cruel existence, from which there is no escape, except for those individuals with brains and luck.

When Nailer and his friend/work chief Pima stumble upon the wreck of a new ocean skimmer, wrecked by one of the frequent “city killer” hurricanes that sweep often through “Mississippi Alley,”  Nailer is unable to kill the lone survivor in order to ensure the wealth of the salvage goes uncontested.  The girl, Nita, turns out to be extremely valuable alive as a pawn between her father and uncle who are struggling to take control of one of the largest remaining corporate conglomerates in the world.  Nailer sees Nita as his way off of the beach and into a better life and turns against his father in order to see Nita, newly blood-sworn as crew, returned to her wealthy and powerful father.

Other readers of the novel are likely to comment on the “love triangle” between Pima, Nita and Nailer, though it is as subtle as Team Gale/Team Peeta in the first book of the Hunger Games and seems even less of a contest.  Nailer often comments on how Pima and her mother Sadna feel more like family than his own father, but regularly addresses Nita’s attractiveness, despite being a “swank” or rich girl with high-class taste. Nailer regularly fears becoming like his father, though he is assured by one of the genetically-engineered “half-men” Tool, that “Blood is not destiny, no matter what others may believe” (248).

The action of the book takes place against a stark backdrop of the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast.  Drowned cities, hidden under the ocean water, are regular set pieces.  The gap between poor and wealthy is depicted as obscene and uncrossable, as it takes the right family and clan connections (signaled by facial tattoos) to navigate through the complex caste systems of work and where one wrong move can find you cut from those clans for life.  The first third of the novel is relatively slow reading, as the oppressive work conditions and constrictive social structure appear to offer no reprieve for any of the characters.  However, once Nailer and Pima discover their “lucky strike,:” the action is quick and suspenseful.  The commentary on family drama and socio-economic status is powerful and insightful, especially when juxtaposed against the larger issues of global warming, corporate control of trade and global economic systems.  This book would be right at home alongside copies of The Huger Games and Divergent and should find a home on the bookshelves of fans of YA dystopias.

Rebekah Fitzsimmons is a graduate student at UF and will be teaching a special topics course on YA dystopian lit in the fall. 

Categories: Reviews

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