Hunger: a Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger.png5 stars

Wow. This book rocked my world.
It is so deeply honest and emotionally charged and utterly unforgettable.

It’s the kind of memoir, the kind of vulnerable confession that opens up an entirely new perspective and starts an entirely new dialogue– one that goes beyond the blanket body positivity statement that simply celebrates Big Beautiful Women, while ignoring some of the more painful barbs and day to day struggles and humiliation they face from other people in an environment that is not accommodating for their “unruly” and “massively corpulent” builds.

For a small moment I resisted taking this out. I was afraid it would be far too sad. I was afraid it would be far too triggering. Hunger: A Memoir Of My Body is both of those things at the same time, yet still undeniably a story about resiliency and hope. It is not a tragedy. It is not disgusting. What it is, is instead a no holds barred narrative of a woman who was gang raped at age 12. A woman who decided that food could bring her comfort, food could bring her safety. By building up her body, accumulating more and more mass her fortress would firmly be in place. What Roxane Gay didn’t realize was that her binge eating would lead to her becoming super morbidly obese and a prisoner in her own body. Her attempts at salvation ended up instead shackling her to more shame and self-resentment.

Hunger chronicles some of the most tumultuous times in Roxane’s life. In a series of 88 short chapters, she weaves us a tale of a young spirited girl who once her light was dimmed, turned her pain inwards. The chapters vary. Some are careful musings. Some are reflections on fond memories (or not so fond ones). Some are teeth-clenchingly heart-breakingly confessions. The words are weighty but not the prose is not dense. The pages race by and with it, drags us the reader deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole to the “hidden in plain sight” plight of women whose obese bodies don’t confine themselves to the norms.

If you read one nonfiction book this year, pick this.

Read this book this month.

Read this book today.

Read this book.

Advertisements

I Don’t Belong to You by Keke Palmer

Originally published on Goodreads June 20th 2017

Synopsis from Goodreads:

A sometimes serious, often hilarious, and always inspiring guide that encourages young women to live a life full of ownership, confidence, and freedom from singer and popular Scream Queens and Grease Live! actress Keke Palmer, delightfully illustrated in four color with Keke’s favorite inspirational quotes, journal entries, and memes. With a voice of empathy, tough love, and determination, Keke speaks about the challenges and triumphs she has experienced on her journey to finding her own voice and creating a beautiful life.

keke palmer book.png

3stars

I love the concept behind this book, and after watching Scream Queens Keke Palmer was on my radar — her hilarious Zayday Williams Kappa Kappa Tau sorority sister really stole the show!


Keke writes these little essays with a sassy, conversational voice, and liberal amounts of chatspeak and emojis. It’s like chatting with one of your best girlfriends. There’s a decent range of the subjects Keke covers and all with a very thoughtful and mature angle that doesn’t sound preachy or overly self-important. Keke owns up to her flaws, but she also TOTALLY celebrates herself. With energy, enthusiasm and her heart on full display she writes about her experiences with her nontraditional childhood as an actress (and breadwinner at aged 14), the dynamic between her very emotional self and her more closed off parents, and the crippling anxiety that occasionally reared its ugly head in her life. But it’s not all about the dark spaces Keke has been through, instead she also celebrates many things, such as embracing her passion for music and theatre, and how mindfulness and being kind and loving to herself really transformed her self image and her relationship with others. It’s pretty darn incredible of her to be so open and honest and you really get the sense that she genuinely loves life and people. There’s no negativity or complaining here. keke in scream queens 2.png

The reason why I opted to give this wonderful book 3 stars instead of 4 is that some of the chapters were just so so so so so lengthy and repetitive. I found myself wanting to skim at certain moments, and I skipped two chapters (one about spirituality, the other about community service) just because I had zero interest in those. Keke is very upfront with her love of God, which is amazing that she found love and encouragement through her faith, but it’s just not in line with my own beliefs. I completely respect Keke and think that’s AMAZE as I said before, but just doesn’t apply to me.

Another little qualm I had was there were moments when Keke just went on and on and on. The content is thorough, and even though it’s studded with fun emojis and silly bits, some it felt like it could’ve been trimmed away. Shorter chapters would’ve made this easier to digest and made it more of a zippy, punchy, and fun read.

The third little con for me is that much of what Keke explains here, about mindfulness, self-love and being a compassionate soul are things that I already know very extensively. This would have the most impact on someone who’s unfamiliar with what it means to be in the present, or struggles with their emotional relationships and sense of self. I’m not trying to imply I’m an expert therapist or anything, hahaha, but from some of the painful experiences I’ve been through I’ve come to my own awakening, as Keke did! Many of what Keke said is so universal and spoke to me, and I’m sure it will to many other girls and women. However, audience older than those ages may not get the most out of Keke’s candid confessions – her slang and emojis (which I LOVED) are a huuuuuge part of her storytelling, and they may not be able to relate to some of what Keke’s gone through and currently going after. 

Still I do recommend this book. Especially for teen girls and young twenty-something millennials. There’s an emphasis on female friendships and what it means to foster healthy relationships with others, and to really nourish your own creativity and let it GLOW!!! 🙂 I felt so much happiness and encouragement just from reading those words!

Scream Queens photo from IMDB — Cover Photo via Amazon

 

Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill

WIcked Girls.png

2 and a half stars

Stephanie Hemphill’s Wicked Girls takes us into the minds and lives of Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis and Margaret Walcott — three of the primary accusers during the Salem Witch Trials. These girls along with Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard incited a mass panic and persecution that shook their small town and took countless lives. What started off as playing with folk magic took a sinister turn when the girls suddenly were “afflicted”by dark forces. In the midst of judges, townsfolk and the most esteemed Salem-ers, these girls threw themselves into fits and cried out possession making a public spectacle in courtrooms, churches, taverns and their own homes, claiming to be victims of the devil’s torment and privy to the “Invisible World” a demon-infested supernatural hell.

Hemphill writes this novel entirely in poetry verse so it makes for a more intimate experience and it adds a sense of being fractured. The terse lines fluctuate between being cold and thoughtful, calculating even,  to a panicked frenzy and a resulting steadily mounting guilt complex because as Hemphill makes it only too obvious this fictionalized account takes the stance that the girls were faking it. That they were lashing out at families that threatened the status of their families, or that they were trying to punish wrongdoers, or in the case of Ann Putnam Jr. that once she found she actually had a platform and was projecting her voice to such a captive audience, that for the first time in her life she had real power, that she was a force to be reckoned with. For a twelve year old kept shackled to a rigid Puritan lifestyle, and daughter to a resentful mother and father, she finally found a way she could rise above everything holding her down, and back. By shrieking, “Witch!” Ann had the ability to create real change, that she and her wailing, screaming and writhing girl friends tipped the balance from life to death for many innocent outcasts.

wicked girls 2.png

Wicked Girls is not psychological thriller, but there is still a darkness and heaviness to it. It’s careful and deliberate, although at times Stephanie Hemphill tries far too hard to be profound. The poetry isn’t very moving and to be completely honest it was just okay. The chapters are short and sparse and the book as a whole can be read in a single evening and understood by readers as young as twelve. The message is simple enough that preteens won’t have any issues comprehending what goes down and what motives drive the girls.

The narrative structure smoothly flows between the passages and the alternating points of view, yet at times the language is a bit uneven. Hemphill will use phrases, word choices and structure her sentences in Puritan New England’s language of the day…yet she inadvertently switches back to modern day speech, sometimes even directly in the middle of a single chapter. The “ye” will shift back into “you” in a matter of stanzas. The attention spent on the girls is somewhat balanced, but the character development is shaky. Mercy is the most dimensional of the lot, Ann is somewhat rounded, and Margaret is f-l-a-t, FLAT, defined almost exclusively by her vanity and pettiness. We’ve got a Pinocchio situation here: she’s not a real girl on the page, even though historically she did exist.

This was published in 2010 so it’s not new and with it’s secondary title “A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials” I can imagine this often gets relegated to Halloween displays come October. I’ve always been fascinated by this period of witch persecution in New England, and am a massive fangirl for the supernatural and paranormal, so that’s what led me to seek this out. I’ve read several historical analysis books about the accused and accusers — my favourite of the bunch is Marc Aronson’s Witch-Hunt — but some of the fictionalized young adult lit out there on this is just “ok”. The novel Witch Child by Celia Rees left me unimpressed, and Witches! by Rosalyn Schanzer had its high points but was really just so-so.

Wicked Girls somewhere in between both of those books. It’s not a disaster, but it’s not amazing either. When it came to writing Wicked Girls Hemphill says she was inspired by “gossip and the girl group dynamics that led to false empowerment” that does show through in the narrative, so Hemphill met her goal but she didn’t craft an especially exceptional or memorable novel in the process.

This could be worth seeking out for big fans of the Salem Witch Trials but otherwise, it’s an shoulder-shrug just-okay kind of read. Moderately recommended.

Cover from Amazon

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Review first published on Goodreads April 28th 2017

Witch Child.png

Synopsis from Goodreads:

In 1659, the year her beloved grandmother is hanged in the public square as a witch Mary narrowly escapes a similar fate, only to face intolerance and new danger among the Puritans in the New World. How long can she hide her true identity? Will she ever find a place where her healing powers will not be feared?

2 and a half starsAt times this was a solid 2 star book. But there were a couple great scenes that redeemed “Witch Child” & made it more enjoyable.

Listen, I didn’t love this book. Author Celia Rees’s prose is often thick with descriptions YET utterly lacking in tension. For a book that takes place during the early years of witch hunt hysteria (hello, Salem) “Witch Child” is a mostly lifeless book. It’s really lacking in energy & at many times gets slow & dull. Think: long scenes wandering through the forest, just to marvel at nature. The plot progression here was shaky at best. Rees may have been trying to make this more character driven.


BUUUUUUT Mary– the 14-year-old implied witch and protagonist — isn’t a particularly interesting character. Because this takes a mostly “diary format” the point of view is sometimes very bland. Her dialog often sounds very scripted, I felt like I was reading a play, not a novel.


As for the rest of the characters: Rebeka, Martha, Sarah, Indian teen Jaybird & the antagonists are nothing special and very flat. I never got a sense of knowing who any of them were. Other than they had a strong bond amongst another– which is a positive part of Witch Child: it really promotes strong female friendships & the connection between women. So THAT I was happy to see!

Other than that the antagonists were VERY CLICHED. The puritanical ministers preaching about hellfire and damnation, we’ve seen a million times, as with the shallow mean girls: Deborah, Hannah, Judith & Elizabeth who use their resentment and jealousy to try to get Mary convicted as a witch. These girls are catty and cruel but seem cartoonish in their fury. I can’t take them seriously.

Soooo there’s a sequel to this called Sorceress. Will I be reading it? Nah! There’s just not enough incentive to pick up another volume about Mary, who’s already a half-realized character as it is, in a story that’s too wandering and slow and barely gets anywhere.
A shame, because I’m a HUGE fan of the witch genre.

It’s not a book but I highly highly highly recommend “The Witch” starring Anya Taylor Joy; it’s an historically accurate horror film that succeeds in everything Celia Rees tries to do here.

Witch Child cover image from Amazon
Split Anya Taylor Joy was captivating as Tomasin in The Witch

Anya Taylor Joy in The Witch. Photo credit IMDB.

Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson

Nooks and Crannies.png

4stars

In 1907 Six eleven-year-olds are plucked out of their normal routines in London when they’re invited to spend the weekend at the reclusive and most famously charitable Countess Of Windermere’s sprawling manor in the countryside.

Our protagonist is bright and inquisitive Tabitha Crum and her only friend a cute little mouse named Pemberley spend their days shut up in her dingy attic bedroom when they’re not reading Inspector Percival Pensive mystery novels or doing the endless chores assigned by her brash parents.

Her crawl space was an assembly of slanting ceiling, an uneven floor, and one tiny square window. The only luxury present was half an inch of honey candle perched on a jam jar lid next to Tabitha’s sleeping mattress, which was made of old sofa padding. The candle flame offered no warmth but lent a lingering scent of sweetness to her personal area that saved it from feeling unbearably cold in spirit.

This is a very British, very finely written mystery. The tone is more on the serious side, this isn’t a cheeky satire like Horton Halfpott and while there is humor, it’s more subdued than in Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike: Wells & Wong Detective Agency series. The narrative here is descriptive and is storybook-esque, it’s a little quaint, and entirely timeless. Nooks & Crannies is categorized as middle-grade, but like I’ve said so many times before I’d like to dispute that this is not just kiddie lit.

Nooks and Crannies kids.png

Had I been shelving this at a library I’d have a copy in both the children’s reading room and  the young adult, or teens, stacks as well. Yes the children are just that– they’re only 11 after all– but there’s nothing juvenile about Lawson’s writing. Absolutely anyone will be able to pick up Nooks & Crannies and have a marvelous time of it– most especially if they’re big on British humor and settings, the early 1900s time periods, and plucky, resourceful and clever heroines. The mysteries here are also well plotted and explained, but not overexplained. Lawson puts a lot of stock in her reader, and I love how the story reflects that and never takes on a instructional kind of manner.

Why, oh why, was it so much easier to interact with Pemberley than with people? It was desperately confusing to both yearn for others to include you and half wish that they wouldn’t.

This novel reads like Matilda meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory crossed with Clue. Especially with the narrative that revolves around the enigmatic hostess: Camilla Lenore DeMoss who fires her entire house staff every six months or so, and keeps her estate locked up tight. Newspapers and magazines are abound with stories speculating what she looks like and behaves like and stands for but no one ever seems to know for sure ANYTHING but that she’s incredibly generous with donating to a variety of charities. Beyond that, rumors of the ghosts of her deceased husband, sister and son haunting the Hollingsworth Hall have swirled around for years, could these unhappy haunts be a reason why the house staff leaves so frequently and has to stay mum?

Nooks and Crannies 2.png

In the same vein as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we have six children given the opportunity to be the winner of some humongous prize. In Nooks & Crannies is not confections that are up for grabs, but instead a hefty inheritance, a new house, and a surprise Grandmother to boot. The reason young Frances, Oliver, Edward, Viola, Barnaby, and Tabitha were summoned is revealed early on when the Countess confesses that their parents have been keeping secrets from them snaps them to an uncomfortable new reality: that they were all adopted from Basil House– London’s Oldest Home for Orphaned Infants and Children.

One of the six children is the child of the Countess’s son Thomas, and a serving girl he ran off with. The Countess, suddenly overcome by the need for grandmotherly nurturing plans on determining just who her grandchild is, so they can inherit a large fortune and live with her at Hollingsworth Hall. Permanently. Attended to by her elderly ladies maid, Mary Pettigrew,  left mute by a stroke, the only other person alive that can possibly identify just which child is a DeMoss, the Countesses seemingly charming dinner party turns sinister when Mary ends up dead after a freak power outage.  

That’s when the Clue vibes rain down on the story, and murder mystery becomes the real name of the game. Lawson has a talent for making Hollingsworth Hall dimensional and the characters grow beyond just their starting point tropes of “mean girl”, “smart aleck” and “devout do-gooder” to name just three. Many small details reemerge as concrete plot points. If Tabitha takes a moment to specifically describe it, you can be sure that it’s going to be something that will come back. Jessica Lawson doesn’t waste pretty words to describe just the background scenery. The symbolism behind the Countess’s swan seal is especially brilliant, as are the little clues tucked around her estate in the form of trinkets, oil paintings, and even mere names that are uttered.

NAC Countess.png

Illustrations accompany the text and the art style is charming and quirky. Its appealing aesthetic reminds me of the animated series Over The Garden Wall. These black and white images do go far in adding some more zest and zing to an already out-of-the-ordinary novel.

The one piece of criticism Nooks & Crannies just can’t dodge is that some of the things in the end seemed a bit too convenient. It’s almost as though it’s tied up just too tidily. Some of the big revelations aren’t so much earth shattering as they are puzzling. They feel entirely different than the carefully crafted set up that led us from point A to points B, C and D. I got the sense that Jessica wanted to spice things up, or throw us readers for a loop, but it left me feeling a bit stunned. I don’t often use the phrase “I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me” but that EXACTLY describes my reaction….and my bum is still kind of smarting from that sudden change in direction. Still, those are just peanuts compared to what is a delightful, heartwarming, and sometimes even spooky story. Nooks & Crannies is no dime-a-dozen McMurder Mystery churned off a conveyer belt. Tabitha Crum, along with her trusty mouse Pemberley and her new friends, is a heroine that is going to stay in my mind for many a year to come.

Images from cover and pages of Nooks & Crannies.

DNF: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

WDMR.png

1 star

There’s so much hype about When Dimple Met Rishi circulating in the online blogging community and among rabid YA readers. I did have a grain of skepticism about how it might actually turn out for me when I cracked it open especially because time and time again what is popular is not necessarily correlated with what is quality. I’m not into rom-coms but the concept of a young Indian American girl, straining against what she believes archaic traditions while trying to pursue her dream in coding and web design REALLY appealed to me.

I absolutely love comedians Mindy Kaling’s and Aziz Ansari’s commentary on their own “Indian-ness” and combating stereotypes in both of their respective books: Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Why Not Me? And Ansari’s Modern Love as well as their tv shows The Mindy Project and Master of None.

When Dimple Met Rishi is not remotely like either of those programs or novels. Instead it’s a lukewarm coming of age that wants to be more serious and edgy than it actually is. In the first couple chapters it was humorous to see the dysfunctional relationship between Dimple and her mother– both women have very different values, goals, and ideas about what it means to be successful. Her mom has always been fixated on the idea of Dimple getting hitched to an “Ideal Indian Husband”, a filthy rich, overachieving, career man, and never really considers Dimple’s coding dreams.

WDMR begins the summer vacation before Dimple’s Freshman year at college. She’s MINDBLOWN when her parents let her go to Insomnia Con. A prestigious and accelerated orgy of all things tech for college students at nearby San Francisco State University. She’s already been accepted to Stanford and is an eager-beaver to get going on designing her own app — the ultimate goal of the Con– and meeting her girl crush and idol, Jenny Lindt.

This academic sleepover camp isn’t just a chance for Dimple to start taking action on her passion in a more competitive environment, but it turns out her ‘rents were so supportive because they’ve arranged a little something special….Special as in, hooking Dimple up with fellow teen and incoming college freshman smarty pants, Rishi. A boy, who Dimple’s parents have had an agreement with his parents for him to marry Dimple.

WDMR 2.png

Yes marry her. The engagement has been longstanding with the Patel family ever since Dimple and Rishi were kids. But here’s the rub. Dimple has no freaking idea whatsoever. She also has never even really met the guy. Hence the title of the book, oh Sandhya Menon, you cheeky broad!

Their first encounter doesn’t go well, and Dimple clings to that mishap whenever she thinks of Rishi. Which she does. A LOT. Dimple is judgey and crabby and has a tendency to diss Rishi and complain about Rishi and her other peers. The story about an academically minded young woman joining forces with like-minded young adults to create something she’s passionate about seems to go POOF and fall by the wayside, and instead Dimple’s entire POV is angsty. Her commentary about a snooty trio So-Cal “Aberzombie” teens is a laugh at first, but gets stale.

The side characters in WDMR are neglected to a fault. I would’ve liked the female friendship between Dimple and her Dominican friend and roomie, Celia to have been more pronounced. (Diversity with a capital D is the name of the game here, as we’re described about the characters races often, which is why I point it out here.) We’re told in the beginning that Celia and Dimple have been chatting online for months but when they’re actually together there’s not a whole heck of a lot of bond between the two or a sense that they’d spoken or know each other, other than the superficial stuff. What the what! In the almost 300 pages I read of WDMR they had BARELY hung out and they never felt like truly living girls– just words on a page.

Dimple’s character was problematic as well. She’s a certified jerk. For someone embarking on a STEAM career and trying to combat stereotypes she’s pretty small minded and petty. She’s also very handsy. And I don’t mean in terms of groping Rishi or excessive PDA or anything, but in that she’s physically aggressive time and time again! Jabbing, slapping, elbowing, punching Rishi in the ribs. In just about every chapter she takes a swing at Rishi. I’m not sure what the author was intending with this: maybe for it to be funny? Hahaha walloping some dudes ribs is always good for a laugh, yeah? More likely than not it’s meant to enforce that Dimple isn’t just a “typical” girl. That she’s “tough” and doesn’t take BS. As does her open hatred for fashion, cosmetics, and anything remotely “girlie”. It’s very juvenile perspective to have.

Wearing makeup and cute, flirty dresses and skirts doesn’t make me any less of an intellectual than girls who don’t wear them. Enhancing my favourite features like my green eyes with mascara and showing off my long and toned legs that I exercise for on a daily basis doesn’t mean that I’m shallow. It’s not a stretch to say I have zero connection with Dimple.

WDMR 3.png

Along with the character catastrophes, WDMR’s greatest fault is the lack of narrative. The plot starts off promising enough, but quickly fizzles out and just becomes a will-they-won’t-they seesaw battle of wills between Rishi and Dimple. Only thing is that’s putting it loosely. There’s not a whole heck of a lot of action or tension or much going on. Insomnia Con is swept by the wayside and we’re trapped in Rishi’s and Dimple’s thought bubbles, which ENTIRELY concerns them crushing on slash fighting their feelings for one another. Yuck. I did not sign up for a soapy teen drama. What little story there was in WDMR sputtered to a halt come page 257 when Rishi’s athletic little bro, Ashish was about to give Rishi and Dimple some Bollywood dancing lessons for the Insomnia Con talent show. Yup. A talent show. What the what. Annnnd with that I was done. WDMR met the library book return slot.

What I wanted in When Dimple Met Rishi was a fizzy, frothy and summery read, like a soda pop on the menu at a bustling diner of books. Instead as far as fountain drinks go if this novel was served in a glass it’d be tap water. Lukewarm tap water. This is a rambly, plotless, disaster featuring underdeveloped side characters and a main character who finger-points and complains and doesn’t do much else. Not recommended.

Photos from When Dimple Met Rishi’s front and back covers.

DNF: Flame in The Mist

Flame in the mist.png

1 star

The cover is stunning. But that’s all this book has going for it.

I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews for Renee Ahdieh’s newest book Flame in The Mist. It’s been described as a kind of retelling of Mulan, and the feudal Japan setting instantly captivated me. I am absolutely in freaking love love love love with Rumiko Takahashi’s anime and manga InuYasha and have been for a decade now. Beyond that for many many many years I’ve also been an fangirl and totally bananas for the video game Okami which features brush art and a compelling storyline full of mythology, fantasy and horror, as well as the Asian-centric tv show Avatar The Last Airbender which was inspired by ancient China, Korea, and Tibet among other nations.

I’ll tell it to you straight: Renee’s book is none of the above and to be totally honest I really was not impressed with what I did read. And boy oh boy did I read far.

The writing is descriptive but descriptive to a fault, it’s so embellished and that it soon starts to feel forced and excessive. Renee may have been going for deep and poetic, but instead the prose is dragged down by the wordiness and I’m continually pulled out of the fantasy world of the novel.

To give you an idea for this, she spends two whole pages describing how the one-legged cook, Yoshi, a gruff papa-bear type character, boils eggs for Mariko to eat. Yup. In this case, less would really be more. I get the impression that Renee doesn’t trust us to imagine some of these scenes and scenarios for ourselves, so she shovels lump after lump after lump of dense details on us. If they were rocks and I the reader were an unwilling hiker, I’d be crushed to death by them. That’s how extreme it is. Gah.

Another issue I had with Flame in The Mist is that it relies on “telling”. I know, I know, that totally contradicts the excessive details complaint I lodged above, but it’s t-r-u-e, true. There’s so so so so much telling in terms of Mariko’s personality. I never got to know Mariko’s character by her actions. And her dialogue was dull as bricks on the page. It never felt like real words coming out of the mouth of a real girl. The whole thing felt rather scripted. Almost at times like I was reading a screenplay giving stage directions even.

Flame in the mist Mulan.png

A girl worth fighting for. 😉

We’re told time and time again that Mariko is brainy and outspoken and a girl ahead of her time. The feature that mostly shows through is her anger and her hatred– something that reminded me far too much of A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith, another feudal Japan disappointment with a horrible protagonist. Yes, Mariko doesn’t take crap from anyone but it feels so generic. As in her rage makes her a Strong Female Character and to that, I cry bullsh*t. Her revenge schtick and furious feelings just make her sound wound up, that doesn’t empower her as a woman.  

One of Mariko’s defining traits is that she’s so judgemental. Not just to the dudes, but towards the other females in the book by means of her childhood flashbacks and her thoughts. Female friendships are firmly rooted in my heart, I couldn’t imagine not having my girls in my life. Soooo continuing to see time and time again the absence of that friendship on the page, or the alternative girl vs girl stereotypical clashing is tiring and disappointing. Mariko is also ahead of her time, yes, but  the way Renee writes her in, it makes her sound like she doesn’t even remotely fit into the world. She’s far too modern sounding compared to the rest of the characters and that really irked me. I get trying to appeal to girls today in 2017, but a little more historical accuracy would’ve been a blessing, Renee. Sorry girl, but Mariko just DIDN’T do it for me. I wanted to wallop her in the face. And considering that I’m not a physically aggressive person, that’s really saying something.

Flame in the mist Kenshin.png

WISH Flame’s Kenshin was more like this knock out.

Many of the other characters were problematic as well. Mariko’s twin brother and the alternating point of view of Flame in the Mist , Kenshin (ha yup, like Rurouni Kenshin) is the dutiful, prized son, with fighting prowess and a devotion to his family. In a word he’s bland. In another word, he’s cardboard. There’s no essence of any kind of energy or spirit about him. What a downer.

The letdowns continue with how each of the male characters in The Black Clan are depicted. They’re all detestable. The group that Mariko tries to ingratiate herself into primarily consists of young men. Said young men: Ranmaru, Okami  and Ren are all dicks, and they’re all so similar to each other it’s like all the same person. *sigh* It gets really old hearing about how mean and rotten they are bullying Mariko. And reading about how they spend their time pelting her with rocks, sabotaging her tent, dissing her and what have you. I get it, they’re awful. Yet sure enough she’ll fall in love with one of them – my money is on Okami, who they also occasionally call Wolf because uhhh that’s what the word translates to in English– at least there was no Insta-Romance, but all the same, there’s also not any authenticity or chemistry to Mariko and Okami. I’m sure that won’t stop young adult reading fangirls from SWOOOOONING over him though. 🙄

Flame in the Mist is classified as some fantastical adventure. Yet the fantasy aspect of the book, supposedly it’s most defining element and genre, is only there if you squint. There’s a whisper of the supernatural, of the world of demons and spirits, but it’s not as front and centre as it is in books like Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and Serpentine which are far more magical and full of elaborate world-building, fierce female friendships, and characters that are well-crafted and dimensional. They blend mythology with original storytelling and I can’t recommend them highly enough. Yes they take place in Ancient China instead, but the prose is elegant and captivating, full of all kinds of sensory details, and the relationships the female heroines have with their respective male leads are egalitarian and balanced, much like those of in Studio Ghibli films like Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke. I envisioned those books as I went into reading Flame in the Mist and gosh oh gosh, was that a HARD let down.

inuyasha 2

I made the mistake of forcing myself to read through A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith and although it was less than 300 pages it felt like TWICE that length. Just read my review about in here on this blog. So is it any wonder that I gave up the ghost on Flame in The Mist which was almost double the pages of Darkly? To that I said, NOPE.

I stopped at pg 228, and as a whole, this book was a dead end for me. I had zero incentive to find out WHY the Black Clan decimated Mariko’s traveling party while she was enroute to her fiance in the capital or who was behind the other attacks that went down in the opening pages. Flame in The Mist did not pass go, it did not collect $200. Straight to jail it goes. And my library RETURN bin. Like so many calligraphy tattoos read, I have no regrets about not finishing this book. I’d rather fire up Mulan on DVD, rewatch InuYasha or re-read Cindy Pon’s books to get my fill of a mythical Asian world loaded with out of this world amazing female characters, heart-soaring instrumental scores, and triumphant successes.

Beastly Bones by William Ritter (Jackaby #2)

Beastly Bones 3.png

4 and a half stars

Beastly Bones is a triumphant sequel to William Ritter’s Jackaby. As Book Two in a proposed Four Book series I can proudly say this is very rare indeed, especially because there’s not a filler or wasted storyline in sight. Beloved characters return and are developed more, and not just the world of Jackaby, 1892 New Fiddleham is expanded, also Ritter pushes the envelope with how he defines the supernatural and unexplained phenomena.

Much like with Jackaby the plot here is a rousing success– threads aren’t left untied or tangled, and everything from the smallest discoveries to the game-changing revelation at the end completely and utterly makes sense. There’s not a shred of doubt in any of the big reveals, and there’s not a single moment where Abigail or Jackaby have “too dumb to live” moments. Ha. Its gotta be said!

Abigail and Jackaby start off by investigating a queer little creature known as a “chameleomorph”. One that it turns out, has the pesky habit of transforming itself to imitate animals, and the habit of taking down the human beings that take them in by chomping their necks. Delving into the world of Cryptozoology this time Abigail and Jackaby not only seek out answers in the city, but a shocking newspaper article leads to them the outskirts of the city. A humble farmer in Gad’s Valley dug up a massive skeleton while tilling his fields, one that is not only larger than a dinosaur, but winged as well…. And those chameleomorph killing sprees? Turns out they’re happening in the lush pastoral countryside too!

Beastly Bones 2.png

Will Ritter’s masterful descriptions are even more lovely here. He can work some serious magic with the way he paints the images of Gad’s Valley with just words alone, and once again I was able to imagine every second of this playing out like a movie in my head. The quirky banter between oblivious oddball Jackaby and the other characters is in full form, and even more hilarious and delightful than it was the first time around in Jackaby. The dialogue is punchy and such great fun it really adds a wonderfully fun element to an already exceptional series. Consider how he describes this fellow:

The second man was pink faced and pudgy, like an overripe peach, topped with a splash of beet-red freckles and a mess of orange hair. He rubbed his eyes and strapped a bulky burlap satchel to his back.

Familiar faces like Jenny, the resident ghost at 926 Augur Lane have more page time than before. Her budding friendship with Abigail is a total joy– reading them “talk boys” and get to know each other is one of the highlights of the first part of Beastly Bones. Female friendships aren’t always on display in young adult lit, so I’m always thrilled to see them in action, especially ones that feel as real as the bond between Jenny and Abigail who develop a sort of big-sis, little-sis, dynamic. There’s an added element of darkness when we see the more phantom side of Jenny, and how she’s having more and more “echoes” of her last moment before her untimely, and as of this book still unsolved untimely murder. It’s chilling to see her spectral anguish and adds more intrigue to her story, one that’s promised to be told in detail in book three: Ghostly Echoes. In Gad’s Valley, Abigail and Jackaby are reunited with Charlie Cane — now by under the surname Barker– and stay with him in his cabin while investigating the draconian bones….several of which, including a massive fang, begin to go missing.  

“Much of the essence of the living thing is distilled in its teeth. Did you know that? It’s why the tooth fairies are so fond of them.” Jackaby held the vial up reverently. The thing was slightly yellowed, its root a dirty pink.

There are oodles of new characters starring in Beastly Bones. Farmer Hugo Brisbee who uncovered the bones on his humble property, and lost his wife to a bite by an unknown creature not long after. Then there’s the team of scientists that scrabble to claim the dig for their own research and are more than a little thirsty for the recognition such a huge find will bring their names and reputations.

Haughty archaeologist Lewis Lamb and his goonish cronies, and young scientist Owen Horner, who is more than a little cocky, fight like cats and dogs and have some truly despicable qualities. Lewis and Horner despise one another and both accuse the other of thieving the bones and ransacking the dig site. Bold journalist Nellie Fuller jumps on the opportunity to cover this story, and she imparts a little advice to Abigail, love, she says, is limiting for women. And Abigail ought to cut it out with crushing on Charlie if she wants to really seize her life and opportunities and make a name for herself. Ouch. This reporter isn’t the only one with her claws out, and ready to take action.

A close friend of Jackaby’s, an exceptional hunter and trapper of exotic creatures Hank Hudson is also a core character. This hulking bearish man is known for setting his eyes on the rarest creatures out there and is always up for a new challenge even if it includes ultimately…slaying a dragon. *gulps*

Beastly Bones.png

Beastly Bones is a madcap dashing adventure of a book that’ll leave readers breathless and their minds buzzing with the latest whodunit reveals. There’s a pinch of romance here, one that’s carefully tended to, but that doesn’t take precedence. The partnership and sleuthing of the Seer Jackaby and his assistant detective Abigail are the heart and soul of Beastly Bones and their quests to uncover the truth always end up with delightfully peculiar results. This sequel is highly recommended and more than holds up to re-reads.  

images from algonquin young readers website

Jackaby by William Ritter

jackaby.png

4stars

When I went to Bookcon 2017 this June at the Javits Centre in NYC with my fellow blondie bookworm and friend Meghan we went to a panel called “The Magic of Worldbuilding!” That sparkletastic discussion was helmed by four leading ladies–including Marie Lu and Renee Ahdieh of Legend and The Dawn & The Wrath fame.

Author William Ritter wasn’t at TBC but his novel Jackaby the first in a quartet of books in the Jackaby series (I realize how confusing that looks. Will, what the heck man!) is a display of MAAAAGICAL WORLDBUILDINGGGG *cue the glitter and herds of ecstatically neighing unicorns* at its finest. This YA book was published back in 2014 and I was struck by a sudden desire to pick it up again because I was so impressed with it and taken with the characters and setting. Plus I’ve been in a  bit of a book slump: having been disappointed with When Dimple Met Rishi and The Flame in The Mist. 💩

So I finished my re-read of Jackaby and I stand by my original love and enthusiasm for this saucy, supernatural story.  It’s a marvelous read with A LOT going for it. To describe it in pop-culture terminology Jacakaby is Sherlock meets Being Human with a liberal dash of Gravity Falls and a nod at Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural.

Jackaby 2.png

Fans legends, folklore, and all things that go bump in the night will be over the moon with Jackaby. The unearthly beings that populate this world are numerous, and to mention just a few: ghosts, werewolves, and brownies as well as banshees, trolls, and a cursed man who takes the phrase “odd duck” to an entirely new level– wait ‘till you meet Douglas, trust me, my assessment of him is not “quackers”! Ha. I can’t resist a good fowl pun. The dynamics between all these supernatural beings is sure to excite fans of the show Being Human especially once readers meet the other residents of Auger Lane, an address that’s not quite as iconic as 221 Baker Street, but is pretty darn close.

Jackaby takes place in the fictional town of New Fiddleham in New England in the 1890s, and follows young twenty-something Abigail Rook. She was born and bred in England to an archaeologist father and prissy lady of a mother, and although she was given all the education she desired, her heart was really set on digging up dinosaurs and being a paleontologist! After running away from her boarding school she joined an expedition halfway across Europe and garbed like a boy, tried her hand at unearthing fossils, but instead her disguise snapped in a matter of moments, and the team turned up nothing but dirt and rocks. Refusing to return to London with her head bowed in shame, Abigail does the next best thing. She hitches a ride on a ship to America! With her trusty steamer trunk and a wallet that’s more than a little pathetic and dwindling by the moment, Abigail hits the cobblestone streets to seize her second chance at finding a job and a place of her own to stay. Anything but returning to London with her tail between her legs and her mum tut-tutting at her! Calm yourself, about spoilers because this is all explained in the first two chapters. Not as just a WALL OF TEXT but with plenty of description and Abigail’s emotions on display.

Fresh off the boat and out of the winter chill (this takes place in November. Anyone familiar with New England winters know how BRUTAL they are)  in a toasty pub Abigail comes face-to-face…err well nose to nose with a odd young man about her age who seems to have the uncanny ability to recognize where Abigail traveled just by looking at her alone! With his massive coat full of pockets, humongous kooky scarf and a haphazardly knit cap and a fervent energy buzzing about him, he’s like a more manic Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Everyone at the tavern seems to have something to say about this bizarre man and Abigail herself is instantly intrigued. Her path collides with Jackaby again when she spies an advertisement for a new assistant leads her to 926 Augur Lane. The architecturally eclectic abode is home to  a“Private Detection & Consultants Agency” specializing in “Unexpected Phenomena” and once again to R.F. Jackaby, who just so happens to be the man who met her at the pub!

Jackaby 3.png

Unwilling to be turned away and take no for an answer, yet completely unprepared for the paranormal madness that is about to descend on her Abigail embarks on racing about the narrow, winding, cobbly streets of New Fiddleham with this quirky detective, trying to uncover the gruesome killer of a journalist named Arthur Bragg at the Emerald Arch apartment complex: a man found just about entirely drained of blood. Egads! But he’s not the only one. There’s been a pattern of these victims all around the region with constant interference by the New Fiddleham Police Department, Abigail and Jackaby scramble to get to the root of the murders and apprehend the bloodthirsty creature responsible for it all. Jackby’s affiliation with the paranormal and the unseen world beyond ours is explained early on in the game:

“So what are you?” I asked. “A magician? A wizard?”

“The term I use is seer. It’s not a perfect title. It’s been used to define all manner of fortune-tellers and prophets over the centuries, but it’s simple and apt. I see. I am a seer. The Seer, in fact, in this usage. The one and only for the moment. There have been others in the past, but never two at the same time. It’s as though the ability leaves when one vessel dies and is reborn in another.”

Written in first person, we’re intimately connected with Abigail, who is one of the best female leads, hell, one of the best characters period that I’ve had the pleasure of reading about in a book. She’s plucky and although she’s skeptical and rejects some of the popularly held customs at the time, she still fits marvelously into the world and feels like a real girl. I was astounded that a guy wrote this novel because of how much I could relate to Abigail and how fleshed out she was. Some YA heroines tend to be lumped into the “dystopian ass-kicker”, tough-as-nails gals that openly hate and defy what they see as wrong and unjust around them, and lash out with their physically aggression and get tangled into love triangles. Well I’m THRILLED to report there’s nary a love triangle in sight in Jackaby. Her observation skills are the bomb, and after she meets kindred spirit (literally) Jenny, she gets even more stylish AF than she already is.  And Abigail, although feminine and totally confident in her femininity isn’t seen as a “damsel” or frivolous but is an intellectual. And she uses stereotypes to her advantage.

“That ridiculous performance of yours should not have worked,” said Jackaby.

“I’m actually a little offended that it did. I find most men are already more than happy to believe a young woman is a frail little thing. So, technically the deception was already there, I just employed it in a convenient way.”

The characters are living and breathing, rounded beings. From the quirky detective Jackaby himself, to the feminist sensibilities, resiliency and determination of Abigail, to the peculiar residents of Auger Lane, to loyal and .  Ritter has a cheeky and playful way about his writing that’s similar to Ransom Riggs and Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children yet is still entirely his own. Jackaby is unlike any other young adult book out there today and downright enchanting.

Jackaby 4

The tension between the police force helmed by the bullheaded, skeptic, Chief Inspector Marlowe who is constantly annoyed and exasperated by Jackaby’s peculiarity and pesky investigation methods is hilarious and the constant banter between the men is compulsively readable.  Joined by his dutiful, junior detective Charlie Cane, and with the ever present party-crashing politically inclined, ambitious jerk Police Commissioner Swift Abigail and Jackaby engage in more than a few madcap antics of their own.

Said Junior Detective, Charlie Cane has secrets of his own. Not to mention, eyes on Abigail. The crush that blossoms between the two is mutual and the romance is sweet and gradual and believable. The two obvi want to get to know the other more, but there’s no big epic smooching love-fest between them. It’s also crystal clear from the get-go that Jackaby and Abigail are just partners, associates, coworkers or what have you. Don’t fret about love triangle nonsense because it’s not here. YAAAAAY.

jackaby 5

Actor William Gillette created Sherlock’s iconic look.

The setting, New Fiddleham is practically a character in and of itself. As someone who’s lived in the New England region my entire life I can handily say Ritter’s descriptions are right on target. It’s written in such a way that it has a personality and charm to it, but also a darkness–one that’s underscored by the paranormal tone at the heart of the book. The prose here is elegant but not overly grandiose. Ritter is the man at showing, showing, showing, and not telling! He taps into all the senses with his observations on the sounds, smells, and sensations that Abigail sees for the first time, to the point that even readers who are unfamiliar with this region will be able to imagine the locations — from the shady alleyways, to the fishmongers shops, to the Emerald Arch apartment buildings and even the constables station and prison cells– in an instant. As I read this I was completely absorbed by the prose and could see it playing out in my mind like a mini movie something that happens when I read Harry Potter and Diana Wynne Jones’ novels like Howl’s Moving Castle.

Although this has some scary elements and disturbing moments, Jackaby is not a horror story. If you’re looking for a more gruesome and chilling dark mystery, give Rick Yancey’s The Montrumologist series and Joe Hill’s graphic novel series Locke & Key a read. But be forewarned that both are quite violent, graphic and not for those who have queasy stomachs and frighten easily! 😱 They’re hardcore horror stories, more than a little unnerving.

jackaby 6.png

Gillette again.

Jackaby is at its essence a mystery. And the plot isn’t some over complicated, tangled mess riddled with more holes than a cheese grater. It’s a well-paced, well-crafted, thoughtfully written thriller. But one of the drawbacks of these whodunits is once you figure out the culprit, that’s it. The novelty value of Abigail and Jackaby creeping ever closer to their suspects is knocked down a peg during re-reads, because even though it’d been a couple years since I first read Jackaby I did vaguely recall what happened. The initial trepidation I felt was just a shadow of itself this second go around. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less worth more than one read. For me, the world is so well-defined with a core cast of  irresistible characters and prose that is charming, descriptive and taps into the imagination from the very first page. Don’t let this treasure pass you by. Crack it open and delve into the mayhem and mystery of this madcap supernatural detective!

 

photos from google images and algonquin young readers website

Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger

Horton Halfpott.png

5 stars

I don’t often use this phrase as a descriptor but I can’t think of a single more appropriate word for it, sooo  at the risk of sounding like an owl, this book was a real hoot! 🦉 The wordy title alone ought to tip you off about what sort of book this is: Horton Halfpott and the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor OR The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset.

This middle-grade novella clocking in at just over 200 pages is A Series of Unfortunate Events meets Harry Potter liberally peppered with Dickensian characters and his brand of sharp humor. Except in this case our hapless protagonist isn’t a penniless orphan. Nor is he actually a wizard, or targeted by a failed actor hell-bent on stealing his fortune.  Instead, young Horton Halfpott is a penniless kitchen boy employed at Smugwick Manor, up to his eyeballs in washing dirty dishes on a daily basis…that is when he’s not gathering precious logs of firewood or getting whacked in the head over and over by the slap-happy cook Miss Neversly and her trusty wooden spoon. His large family and ailing father live quite a distance away, but the ever devoted son, Horton puts them first time and time again:

Every Sunday morning Horton ran down the road, through the village, across ten fields and three streams, to the cottage where his family lived. He gave his mother the single copper penny he had earned. She smiled and put it in a little tin can.

Horton Halfpott reads very much like a bed-time story. The narrative voice is cheeky and conversational and quite reminiscent of William Goldman’s narrator in The Princess Bride. Author, Tom Angleberger addresses the reader in just about every chapter, and almost always has something snarky to say. Horton Halfpott takes a playful, taunting look at snobby old money British families in the late 1800s –one of my absolute favourite time periods to read about in young adult and middle grade novels– and some of the reigning customs at the time.

Kitchen boys often turn out to be plucky little heroes with hearts of gold and a grim determination to see justice done.

Horton.png

The Smugwick estate is populated by a cast of  many characters including servants Chef Loafburton, Old Crotty, Footman Jennings and the Snooping Stableboys– Blight and Blemish who aspire to be promoted to butlers one day and a young lad, Bump, who’s Horton’s best friend and about his same age. In the beginning of each chapter there’s a scribbly, slap-stick drawing of whatever character is mostly featured at that point in time in the story. No these crude and squiggly illustrations aren’t graphic novel caliber and they won’t be winning any art awards, but they add an odd-duck, quirky touch to the look of Horton Halfpott. As an adult they crack me up and make me smile, so I can only imagine children reading this would see them as a real riot!

The Luggertucks themselves are present too of course! There’s the mischief making, ever evil-tempered spoilt brat and teenaged Luther. Then his mother and lady of the house M’Lady Luggertuck with her extensive collection of powdered wigs, ugly furniture and constant complaining and bitterness, as well as his grandfather the learned and veteran explorer Old Lord Emberley who also happens to be Horton’s friend and one of his only allies in the household– secretly sharing his precious library with the boy. In many ways this enormous cast is like that of a play, and I could easily see this being adapted to the stage!

Horton Halfpott is a comedy of manners and a mystery that any fan of the BBC or quirky, original stories will be keen on! The theft of the Luggertuck’s greatest treasure, the Luggertuck Lump: “Possibly the world’s largest diamond and certainly the ugliest” throws M’Lady into a right fit, and she sends for the Greatest Detective in ALL of England: Portnoy St. Pomfrey! A master big-bellied sleuth with an even bigger appetite who drives around a carriage that was once a Sultan’s Royal Outhouse! Ha! The sticky-fingered culprit isn’t caught quite quickly enough and soon other valuable objects get snatched like M’Lady’s favourite towering twenty-three pound wig, house guest Colonel Sitwell’s monocle, and a bust of Napoleon.

Horton Halfpott Lord Emberley.png

But wait! There’s more! Another thread in the story involves love! In particular, Luther’s idiotic cousin Montgomery Crimcramper, who’s holidaying at the Luggertuck Manor in an effort to woo Miss Celia Sylvan-Smythe, a girl he’s smitten with, but who couldn’t give one whit about him. Greedy Luther, hearing of the enormous fortune Celia is set to inherit, instantly goes about trying to sabotage his cousin Montgomery’s efforts, to get the girl for himself. Three guesses how that ends. 😉 And I’d be in remiss not to mention a some other antagonists in Horton Halfpott, a band of Shipless Pirates! These scallywags have an agreement with Luther, one that, spoiler alert: is positively No Good! As Captain Hook would say in Peter Pan, “Bad form!”

Horton Halfpott is a silly satire brimming with heart. With it’s over the top punchy, off-beat,  and quirky characters galore and a twisty, turny ribbon of mysteries woven throughout the plot, this a wickedly good tale that can be bolted down in one sitting. An absolute delight from the very first page to the last, this splendid story is a must-read for anyone who loves a good laugh, whodunits, Monty Python skits, the Robin Hood Men in Tights movie starring Cary Elwes, and Charles Dickens!

Images from hortonhalfpott.wordpress.com