Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Four-Star Books Read in 2016: Short Stories and Fiction

Short Stories:

In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay: This collection by Paul G. Tremblay (author of The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland) features fifteen stories of fear and paranoia, stories of apocalypses both societal and personal, and stories of longing and coping.

I am terrible at taking properly detailed notes about short story collections, but this has one (Feeding the Machine) I remember vividly (mentioned in this blog post) for personal reasons, as well as the fact that it's a really well-written story. There's also one about a girl with two heads (where the other head keeps changing into historical figures) that is bloody brilliant. Overall my impression was that this was a fantastic collection. 

The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by Martin H. Greenberg: Before The Road by Cormac McCarthy brought apocalyptic fiction into the mainstream, there was science fiction. No longer relegated to the fringes of literature, this explosive collection of the world’s best apocalyptic writers brings the inventors of alien invasions, devastating meteors, doomsday scenarios, and all-out nuclear war back to the bookstores with a bang.
The best writers of the early 1900s were the first to flood New York with tidal waves, destroy Illinois with alien invaders, paralyze Washington with meteors, and lay waste to the Midwest with nuclear fallout. Now collected for the first time ever in one apocalyptic volume are those early doomsday writers and their contemporaries, including Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Lucius Shepard, Robert Sheckley, Norman Spinrad, Arthur C. Clarke, William F. Nolan, Poul Anderson, Fredric Brown, Lester del Rey, and more. Relive these childhood classics or discover them here for the first time. Each story details the eerie political, social, and environmental destruction of our world.

We all know I never turn up my nose at yet another anthology of stories about the end of the world. All the reviews seem to indicate that the ebook of this was a hot mess as far as editing went - I honestly don't remember if I read it as an ebook or not. The Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley was a reread for me, but it's fucking fantastic, so I'm cool with that. 

Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore: In these eight masterful stories, Lorrie Moore, in a perfect blend of craft and bewitched spirit, explores the passage of time, and summons up its inevitable sorrows and hilarious pitfalls to reveal her own exquisite, singular wisdom.
In "Debarking," a newly divorced man tries to keep his wits about him as the United States prepares to invade Iraq, and against this ominous moment, we see-in all its irresistible hilarity and darkness-the perils of divorce and what can follow in its wake…In "Foes," a political argument goes grotesquely awry as the events of 9/11 unexpectedly manifest at a fund-raising dinner in Georgetown…In "The Juniper Tree," a teacher, visited by the ghost of her recently deceased friend, is forced to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a kind of nightmare reunion…And in "Wings," we watch the unraveling of two once-hopeful musicians who neither held fast to their dreams nor struck out along other paths as Moore deftly depicts the intricacies of dead ends and the workings of regret…
Gimlet-eyed social observation, the public and private absurdities of American life, dramatic irony, and enduring half-cracked love wend their way through each of these narratives in a heartrending mash-up of the tragic and the laugh-out-loud-the hallmark of Lorrie Moore-land.

Lorrie Moore is one of the few authors who write non-genre short stories that I will read eagerly rather than dutifully. I often find that short stories that are just about, you know, life and people and eating salad and stuff are too amorphous and squishy to get a handle on - it's better for me if you have a zombie or vampire or catastrophic extinction level event structure to hang stuff on. But Lorrie Moore writes about dating after divorce (oh my god, I just wanted to throat-punch this woman and her spoiled suckhole of a son SO BADLY) and vacationing to avoid divorce (losing all your clothes and having to wear ill-fitting resort-gift-shop-wear while trying to seduce your husband so he won't leave you? Ninth circle of hell) and being married for a long time and NOT getting divorced, and it's all so poignant and riveting and perfect - even the salad eating. I love her. I worship her. I'd love to see what she could do with a few zombies or maybe a shape-shifter.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 edited by John Joseph Adams: Science fiction and fantasy enjoy a long literary tradition, stretching from Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne to Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, and William Gibson. In The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy award-winning editor John Joseph Adams delivers a diverse and vibrant collection of stories published in the previous year. Featuring writers with deep science fiction and fantasy backgrounds, along with those who are infusing traditional fiction with speculative elements, these stories uphold a longstanding tradition in both genres—looking at the world and asking, What if . . . ? 
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 includes 
Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Karen Russell
T. C. Boyle, Sofia Samatar, Jo Walton, Cat Rambo
Daniel H. Wilson, Seanan McGuire, Jess Row
and others
 JOE HILL, guest editor, is the New York Times best-selling author of the novels Heart-Shaped BoxHorns, and NOS4A2 and the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts. He is also the writer of the comic book series Locke & Key. 
JOHN JOSEPH ADAMS, series editor, is the best-selling editor of more than two dozen anthologies, including Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, and The Living Dead. He is also the editor and publisher of the digital magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare and is a producer of Wired’s podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

I bought this because Susan Palwick, a kickass fantasy writer and all-around splendid human being who lets me follow her on Facebook and likes my posts every now and then just to give me a special little thrill, had a story in it, but the whole collection was really good. In 'Help Me Follow My Sister Into the Land of the Dead' by Carmen Maria Machado, a woman crowdfunds her trip into the underworld to look for her sister - like, like, WOW. That was pretty much worth the price of admission right there. Seanan McGuire's story 'Each to Each', which I've read so many times now I've lost track of where I first read it, is here also, and it's mind-blowing. Susan Palwick's story was everything I expected - intelligent and kind and sad. Really recommend this collection. 

Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue edited by Christie Yant: It could be said that women invented science fiction; after all, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. Yet some readers seem to have this funny idea that women don’t, or can’t, write science fiction. Some have even gone so far as to accuse women of destroying science fiction with their girl cooties. So to help prove how silly that notion is, LIGHTSPEED's June 2014 issue is a Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue and has a guest editor at the helm.
The issue features original fiction by Seanan McGuire, Charlie Jane Anders, N.K. Jemisin, Carrie Vaughn, Maria Dahvana Headley, Amal El-Mohtar, and many more. All together there's more than 180,000 words of material, including: 11 original short stories, 15 original flash fiction stories, 4 short story reprints and a novella reprint, 7 nonfiction articles, and 28 personal essays by women about their experiences reading and writing science fiction.

McGuire's story is in this one too - actually, though, you can read it right here, and you should. Like, now. I'll wait. Well? Is it not august and resplendent? 
If you haven't followed the shit-show in the sci-fi world that's been developing over the past few years, whereby some disgruntled male writers have decided that social justice warriors (I love how that's a negative term) are ruining science fiction by daring to write about things like emotions and relationships and various things that make humanity human, the title of this issue won't make sense. That doesn't really matter - it's still a great issue full of great stories by female writers. 

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang: Ted Chiang's first published story, "Tower of Babylon," won the Nebula Award in 1990. Subsequent stories have won the Asimov's SF Magazine reader poll, a second Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the Sidewise Award for alternate history. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992. Story for story, he is the most honored young writer in modern SF.
Now, collected here for the first time are all seven of this extraordinary writer's stories so far-plus an eighth story written especially for this volume.
What if men built a tower from Earth to Heaven-and broke through to Heaven's other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if there were a science of naming things that calls life into being from inanimate matter? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? What if all the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity were literally true, and the sight of sinners being swallowed into fiery pits were a routine event on city streets? These are the kinds of outrageous questions posed by the stories of Ted Chiang. Stories of your life . . . and others.

Jesus, this book. So I read 'The Story of Your Life' in an anthology some time ago. Then I read it again. Some time passed and I read it yet again - forwards and backwards. Then I learned that it was being made into a movie, so I read it again and then bought Chiang's collection so I could force a bunch of people I know to read it also, mainly because I was pretty sure the movie was going to suck. Turns out the movie didn't suck, but the first person I lent the collection to is really enjoying it. As it turns out, that story, as much as it broke my brain, was probably the most accessible one in the collection. Chiang likes math. He speaks math like a language and then builds complex stories around math. Math and me? Not so much on the best of speaking terms. The stories dealing with religious concepts are also very cerebral, but I found most of the stories here challenging and very beautiful and I can see going back to all of them repeatedly and finding a little more in them every time. 

Fiction:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: THINGS FALL APART tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo's fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society. 
The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, and which elevates the book to a tragic plane, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo's world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries. These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized, and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. THINGS FALL APART is the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within. 

I'd been meaning to read this for years - a classic, referencing one of my favourite poems. Profoundly sad and moving and laced with an incredible feeling of inevitability and despair. There is a particular kind of sadness from observing a character who, although flawed, tries so hard to do everything right and maintain his integrity, to little avail. 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead - charismatic loner and college Darwinist - suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus - who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange - resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.

Four stars, for the literal "I really liked it" rating, not because I thought it was all that good. Compared to Middlesex, which was so rich and dense and subtle, this was kind of a sophomoric train wreck - someone in my book club opined that it read like a book he had started much earlier and then dug out to finish, and this struck me as exactly right. The scenes from graduate school, particularly about reading Derrida and Barthes and feeling terribly clever about interrogating social conventions, were amusing because they were so recognizable, but that's as far as it went - nothing very profound came out of them. Some of the elements of the marriage plot were discernible and interesting, but the book as a whole never managed to maintain any kind of structure or continuity about it, just random references and representations. I still really enjoyed reading it, but it seemed unfinished.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald: At first The Emigrants appears simply to document the lives of four Jewish émigrés in the twentieth century. But gradually, as Sebald's precise, almost dreamlike prose begins to draw their stories, the four narrations merge into one overwhelming evocation of exile and loss.
Written with a bone-dry sense of humour and a fascination with the oddness of existence The Emigrants is highly original in its heady mix of fact, memory and fiction and photographs.

I would suggest going to Goodreads and reading some of the reviews - I don't feel equal to enumerating the virtues of this remarkable book.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old friend in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.
Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn't heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie--who is 600 miles away--because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die. 
So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories--flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband. 
Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband's sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?

I wasn't caught right at the beginning. It seemed a little glib, and everyone Harold met was just SO unusual and quirky it was too pat. I got over it, though. It's a quiet story, but a good one.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper: I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I've gone there. I will try to remember to come back.
Etta's greatest unfulfilled wish, living in the rolling farmland of Saskatchewan, is to see the sea. And so, at the age of eighty-two she gets up very early one morning, takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2,000 miles to water. 
Meanwhile her husband Otto waits patiently at home, left only with his memories. Their neighbour Russell remembers too, but differently - and he still loves Etta as much as he did more than fifty years ago, before she married Otto.


Apparently this was the year for fictional old people going spontaneously walkabout. I'm not sure I really got this one - above all, what the heck was the deal with Owen? but I still enjoyed it.

The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke: "I first met my demon the morning that Mum said Dad had gone." 
Alex Connolly is ten years old, likes onions on toast, and can balance on the back legs of his chair for fourteen minutes. His best friend is a 9000-year-old demon called Ruen. When his depressive mother attempts suicide yet again, Alex meets child psychiatrist Anya. Still bearing the scars of her own daughter's battle with schizophrenia, Anya fears for Alex's mental health and attempts to convince him that Ruen doesn't exist. But as she runs out of medical proof for many of Alex's claims, she is faced with a question: does Alex suffer from schizophrenia, or can he really see demons?

When you read a lot of books, it's rare and special to come across something different - not capital-D Different, like some books try to be, just not quite the same. This doesn't quite fit in with anything else I've read, and I appreciated that. Not that the 'psychological or supernatural' thing isn't done - I've referenced it two or three times in these posts alone - but not quite like this. There's some beautiful drawing of the relationship between mothers and children here, and I think some psychological stuff related to living in Belfast. Apparently there is vast confusion created by the fact that the U.S. and U.K. versions of the book had different endings, which I think was dumb. I can still smell the onions on toast. 

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: Kit Noonan’s life is stalled: unemployed, twins to help support, a mortgage to pay—and a frustrated wife, who is certain that more than anything else, Kit needs to solve the mystery of his father’s identity. He begins with a visit to his former stepfather, Jasper, a take-no-prisoners Vermont outdoorsman. But it is another person who has kept the secret: Lucinda Burns, wife of a revered senior statesman and mother of Malachy (the journalist who died of AIDS in Glass’s first novel, Three Junes). She and her husband are the only ones who know the full story of an accident whose repercussions spread even further when Jasper introduces Lucinda to Kit. Immersing readers in a panorama that stretches from Vermont to the tip of Cape Cod, Glass weaves together the lives of Kit, Jasper, Lucinda and ultimately, Fenno McLeod, the beloved protagonist of Three Junes (now in his sixties). An unforgettable novel about the youthful choices that steer our destinies, the necessity of forgiveness, and the surprisingly mutable meaning of family.

I got this out of the library and let it sit for weeks, and then picked it up to remind myself what it was about, read the first paragraph and pretty much didn't look up again until seven hours or so had passed and the book was done. It wasn't perfect - there was one sort of deus ex machina death that pissed me off and a couple of sentences that jarred me right out of the narrative - but the flaws actually just highlighted to me how much I loved the rest of it. She has that ability to create a whole sprawling world and a wide-ranging cast of fully-realized characters and somehow keep it precariously connected. Not all of the characters are sympathetic, but they all seem like someone I might have met once. The questions of faith, and how much of their parents' secrets children are entitled to, and what is forgivable and not - they're all addressed but not answered, because how could they be? I was totally absorbed in a book, right when I really needed to be.

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems. 
Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the future they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.
This is a story about the power of family, the possibilities of friendship, the ways we depend upon one another and the ways we let one another down. In this tender, entertaining, and deftly written debut, Sweeney brings a remarkable cast of characters to life to illuminate what money does to relationships, what happens to our ambitions over the course of time, and the fraught yet unbreakable ties we share with those we love.

I kept vowing not to buy this just because of its heartbreakingly beautiful cover, and then I was in Indigo buying baby things and a very tall, very enthusiastic bookseller thrust it into my hands and I was basically helpless. Then I felt immediate trepidation about actually reading it, because do I actually LIKE books about dysfunctional families? I just pruned my Netflix queue ruthlessly on the basis of being weary of watching shows, however well-written and -acted, about people being horrible to each other.
Then I read it. All of it. Today, because I'm home from a week-end away and exhausted from driving and sleeping crappy broken hotel sleep. And I really liked it. I found almost all of the characters sympathetic to some degree - not because they were likable, but precisely because they weren't. They're not horrible, mostly, but they're not all that good, either, and I can relate to that. I loved how peripheral characters were fleshed out and nuanced as lovingly as primary characters. The writing wasn't show-offy, but it was very readable and very deft when outlining each character's flaws, foibles and personal mythologies.
Curiously, I found Amy Poehler's review - which the tall enthusiastic bookstore employee pointed to excitedly - kind of off-putting. Calling the Plumb family's dysfunction "juicy" puts a gleeful, gossipy, voyeuristic spin on it that I didn't find in the book at all. I found the obsessive worrying about money really sad, especially when it was because of an intense desire to create a safe, beautiful home which is something that none of the Plumb children really had, and the idea that someone would have to keep a secret about growing debt from their partner made me feel literally nauseous. I liked the review (I can't remember whose it was now) that said the book kept "its blade sharp and its heart open". The lens on the characters was unpitying, but in the end the gaze was mostly kind and somewhat forgiving. (Not so much for Leo. Leo was just kind of a dick.)

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty: Alice Love is twenty-nine, crazy about her husband, and pregnant with her first child.
So imagine Alice’s surprise when she comes to on the floor of a gym and is whisked off to the hospital where she discovers the honeymoon is truly over — she’s getting divorced, she has three kids and she’s actually 39 years old. Alice must reconstruct the events of a lost decade, and find out whether it’s possible to reconstruct her life at the same time. She has to figure out why her sister hardly talks to her, and how is it that she’s become one of those super skinny moms with really expensive clothes. 
Ultimately, Alice must discover whether forgetting is a blessing or a curse, and whether it’s possible to start over.

Did not break my streak of reading Liane Moriarty books and finding them invariably charming, readable, engaging and unexpectedly thought-provoking (Truly Madly Guilty did that, as it turns out). Her style seems effortless and is so enjoyable.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Following a scalding row with her mother, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.
For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.
A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting from occupied Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

Some of this was wonderfully cheesy and some of it was just wonderful. I remember one reviewer saying something about David Mitchell seeming to be just having a wonderful time writing (I think it was about Cloud Atlas), and I completely feel that here. This has the same sprawling, prodigiously imaginative, joyous creative energy as C.A., and I was just as pulled in, although for quite a while it seems impossible to keep all the narrative threads and concepts straight. The plot veers like Mr. Toad's wild ride from bittersweet family struggles and fragile loves stories to Marvel-worthy battles involving psychoprojectiles, souls egressing out of foreheads and gnostic serpents. Great fun.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: On a foggy summer night, eleven people--ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter--depart Martha's Vineyard headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the passengers disappear into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs--the painter--and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of a wealthy and powerful media mogul's family. 
With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the tragedy and the backstories of the passengers and crew members--including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot--the mystery surrounding the crash heightens. As the passengers' intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy: Was it merely dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations--all while the reader draws closer and closer to uncovering the truth.
The fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.
 

I'm not sure exactly how to review this. It's kind of a mystery and kind of a meandering philosophical novel. It goes fairly skillfully between the big, dramatic, world-shaking event and the daily minutiae of the characters' lives. For such a cinematic set-up, the characterization is richer than I would have expected. I didn't read it breathlessly, but I looked forward to picking it up again every day.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Four-Star Books Read in 2016: Mystery

Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries #6) by Dorothy Sayers: Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman's noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent as determined as he was to make her his wife.

I don't generally read cozy mysteries, drawing room mysteries, or old-fashioned mysteries - I like my murders modern and I get frustrated reading about casual sexism even though I know denial isn't the answer. But I've had a vague notion that I should read Dorothy Sayers for some time, and this was recommended to me by my friend Maggie (HI MAGGIE!) and I'm really glad I read it. It's so well-written, and I loved the leisurely pace and attention to detail given to the woman investigating on Lord Peter's behalf (I've forgotten her name). I often think murders would be much easier to solve these days if more people still rented out rooms in their houses - it seems much the best way to crack a case.
The Reckoning by Jane Casey: Described by The Irish Times as "a well-crafted mystery," The Reckoning sees Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan hunting the killer who tortured two paedophiles to death.
To the public, a killer who targets paedophiles is a hero. And even the police don't regard the murders as a priority. Maeve Kerrigan is shocked by the violence inflicted during these kills – the victims were made to suffer. She believes no-one should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. However, as this serial killer's violence begins to escalate, she is forced to decide how far she's prepared to go to ensure justice is served.

Really like this series. The main character is flawed but not a complete wreck like many series protagonists, and there seems to be room for her to grow and evolve. Good depiction of relationships, interesting plot. 

The Wrath of Angels (Charlie Parker #11) by John Connolly: In the depths of the Maine woods, the wreckage of an aeroplane is discovered. There are no bodies, and no such plane has ever been reported missing, but men both good and evil have been seeking it for a long, long time. What the wreckage conceals is more important than money: it is power. Hidden in the plane is a list of names, a record of those who have struck a deal with the Devil. Now a battle is about to commence between those who want the list to remain secret and those who believe that it represents a crucial weapon in the struggle against the forces of darkness.
The race to secure the prize draws in private detective Charlie Parker, a man who knows more than most about the nature of the terrible evil that seeks to impose itself on the world, and who fears that his own name may be on the list. It lures others too: a beautiful, scarred woman with a taste for killing; a silent child who remembers his own death; and the serial killer known as the Collector, who sees in the list new lambs for his slaughter.
But as the rival forces descend upon this northern state, the woods prepare to meet them, for the forest depths hide other secrets.
Someone has survived the crash.
Some thing has survived the crash.
And it is waiting.

This is a detective series unlike almost any other. It's magical realism more than fantasy or horror, and I always like fiction that is grounded in reality and yet allows for the possibility of extreme weirdness. 

The Wolf in Winter (Charlie Parker #12) by John Connolly: The next pulse-pounding thriller in John Connolly's internationally bestselling Charlie Parker series.
The community of Prosperous, Maine has always thrived when others have suffered. Its inhabitants are wealthy, its children’s future secure. It shuns outsiders. It guards its own. And at the heart of Prosperous lie the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the founders of the town…
But the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter draw the haunted, lethal private investigator Charlie Parker to Prosperous. Parker is a dangerous man, driven by compassion, by rage, and by the desire for vengeance. In him the town and its protectors sense a threat graver than any they have faced in their long history, and in the comfortable, sheltered inhabitants of a small Maine town, Parker will encounter his most vicious opponents yet.
Charlie Parker has been marked to die so that Prosperous may survive.
Prosperous, and the secret that it hides beneath its ruins…

Riffs on the ancient concept of sacrifice for godly beneficence. I felt really bad for the wolf. 

The Secret Place by Tana French: The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.
But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

This is another series that lets weirdness leak in. I loved how adolescent female friendships and politics were captured, the intensity and terror and depth of feeling. The detectives are always fully realized characters as well. Her books are often wrenchingly sad, but worth it. 

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) by Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo's Calling is a 2013 crime fiction novel by J. K. Rowling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
A brilliant mystery in a classic vein: Detective Cormoran Strike investigates a supermodel's suicide.
After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.
Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.
You may think you know detectives, but you've never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you've never seen them under an investigation like this.

Considering that Harry Potter relied, in my opinion, much more on narrative energy than great writing, it's nice to see that Rowling does, in fact, have some really solid writing chops. This is an interesting mystery but it's also a really great novel without the mystery, with deft characterization, keen insights on class differences, and sly humour. It went ever-so-slightly into overly-complicated explanations of the crime near the end, but I was easily able to forgive that. I will definitely continue following the series.

The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison: Near an isolated mansion lies a beautiful garden.
In this garden grow luscious flowers, shady trees…and a collection of precious “butterflies”—young women who have been kidnapped and intricately tattooed to resemble their namesakes. Overseeing it all is the Gardener, a brutal, twisted man obsessed with capturing and preserving his lovely specimens.
When the garden is discovered, a survivor is brought in for questioning. FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are tasked with piecing together one of the most stomach-churning cases of their careers. But the girl, known only as Maya, proves to be a puzzle herself.
As her story twists and turns, slowly shedding light on life in the Butterfly Garden, Maya reveals old grudges, new saviors, and horrific tales of a man who’d go to any length to hold beauty captive. But the more she shares, the more the agents have to wonder what she’s still hiding.

I signed up for a free trial of Kindle Unlimited and in general found that the books on offer were dreck. This was a notable exception, featuring a very different kidnapping victim. Maya is an uncommonly self-possessed and resourceful character, and I found the entire story captivating, from the events before her captivity to the aftermath. 

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner: Mid-December, and Cambridgeshire is blanketed with snow. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw tries to sleep after yet another soul-destroying Internet date – the low murmuring of her police radio her only solace.
Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.
Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?
 

I was perfectly satisfied with the mystery I read just before this one, but this is really a cut above - the writing style isn't overly laboured, but the characters are so much more fully realized, and the story is about relationships and introspection more than it is about crime. Very good.

Redemption Road by John Hart: Now after five years, John Hart is back with a stunning literary thriller.
Imagine:
A boy with a gun waits for the man who killed his mother.
A troubled detective confronts her past in the aftermath of a brutal shooting.
After thirteen years in prison, a good cop walks free. But for how long?
And deep in the forest, on the altar of an abandoned church, the unthinkable has just happened…
This is a town on the brink. This is a road with no mercy.
After five years, John Hart returns with Redemption Road, his most powerful story yet.

There are times when characters who are self-destructive are kind of annoying, because it reads as purposeful martyrdom without an honest cause. That's not the case here, although many characters are near or at rock-bottom. I felt completely submerged in this world - the sense of place, the deep familial and political connections, the conflict between tradition and one's sense of self. I haven't hit a disappointing John Hart read yet (there's a good reason he's one of those authors who gets to have his name in larger font than the title), and this was as dramatic, absorbing and affecting as the others. 

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas: A woman is found murdered in her bathtub, and the murder has been made to look like a suicide. But a strange symbol found at the crime scene leads the local police to call Commissaire Adamsberg and his team. When the symbol is found near the body of a second disguised suicide, a pattern begins to emerge: both victims were part of a disastrous expedition to Iceland over ten years ago where a group of tourists found themselves trapped on a deserted island for two weeks, surrounded by a thick, impenetrable fog rumored to be summoned by an ancient local demon. Two of them didn't make it back alive. But how are the deaths linked to the secretive Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre? And what does the mysterious symbol signify?

Okay, after what I said about the last Louise Penny book, it is almost unconscionable of me to give this such a high review, because it was nearly every bit as bad for being completely ridiculous as a police procedural and had all the same issues with a near-psychic mystic figure policeman as a protagonist and tending more towards philosophical investigations and spiritual events bordering on the supernatural than to a straightforward crime novel. And yet? I still adored it. I dunno. Maybe it's because they're French? No, wait, so is Gamache. I stand unrepentant. 

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda: Like the spellbinding psychological suspense in The Girl on the Train and Luckiest Girl Alive, Megan Miranda’s novel is a nail-biting, breathtaking story about the disappearances of two young women—a decade apart—told in reverse.
It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace. Back again to tie up loose ends and care for her ailing father, Nic is soon plunged into a shocking drama that reawakens Corinne’s case and breaks open old wounds long since stitched.
The decade-old investigation focused on Nic, her brother Daniel, boyfriend Tyler, and Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson. Since then, only Nic has left Cooley Ridge. Daniel and his wife, Laura, are expecting a baby; Jackson works at the town bar; and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter, Nic’s younger neighbor and the group’s alibi the night Corinne disappeared. Then, within days of Nic’s return, Annaleise goes missing.
Told backwards—Day 15 to Day 1—from the time Annaleise goes missing, Nic works to unravel the truth about her younger neighbor’s disappearance, revealing shocking truths about her friends, her family, and what really happened to Corinne that night ten years ago.
Like nothing you’ve ever read before, All the Missing Girls delivers in all the right ways. With twists and turns that lead down dark alleys and dead ends, you may think you’re walking a familiar path, but then Megan Miranda turns it all upside down and inside out and leaves us wondering just how far we would be willing to go to protect those we love.
 

Good characterization and interesting narrative technique, telling the story backwards. 

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer: Five footprints are the only sign that Daniel Buck was ever here.
And now they are all his mother has left.
Every day, Anna Buck guards the little prints in the cement. Polishing them to a shine. Keeping them safe. Spiralling towards insanity.
When a psychic offers hope, Anna grasps it. Who wouldn't? Maybe he can tell her what happened to her son...
But is this man what he claims to be? Is he a visionary? A shut eye? Or a cruel fake, preying on the vulnerable?
Or is he something far, far worse?

I had a total Baader-Meinhof experience with this title - I'd never been aware of the expression shut eye referring to fortune telling before, and right after I read this I came across a tv series with the same name on the same subject. Interestingly, this falls in line with the other books on this list where the mystery is twisted up with supernatural elements, even though this isn't the norm with Belinda Bauer's work. The reader has no clue until the very end whether we are in fact dealing with the supernatural or the psychological. I wouldn't say I love this quite as much as her Exmoor Trilogy, but I still really liked it.

Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall: A child is killed after falling from the Humber Bridge. Despite fleeing the scene, two young brothers are found guilty and sent to prison. Upon their release they are granted one privilege only, their anonymity. Probation officer Cate Austin is responsible for Humber Boy B’s reintegration into society. But the general public’s anger is steadily growing, and those around her are wondering if the secret of his identity is one he actually deserves to keep. Cate’s loyalty is challenged when she begins to discover the truth of the crime. She must ask herself if a child is capable of premeditated murder—or if there is a greater evil at play.

Really good illustration of the effects of crime on those left behind, and how those who commit crimes are so often not evil, but only caught up in circumstances beyond their control. The description of Humber Boy B's childhood is heartbreaking - the whole story is,  really. I jumped into this series in the middle, but I think I'll probably continue it. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Four-Star Books Read in 2016: Children and Young Adult

Children:

Timmy Failure #1: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis: Meet "detective" Timmy Failure, star of the kids’ comedy of the year. Created by New York Times best-selling cartoonist Stephan Pastis.
Take eleven-year-old Timmy Failure — the clueless, comically self-confident CEO of the best detective agency in town, perhaps even the nation. Add his impressively lazy business partner, a very large polar bear named Total. Throw in the Failuremobile — Timmy’s mom’s Segway — and what you have is Total Failure, Inc., a global enterprise destined to make Timmy so rich his mother won’t have to stress out about the bills anymore. Of course, Timmy’s plan does not include the four-foot-tall female whose name shall not be uttered. And it doesn’t include Rollo Tookus, who is so obsessed with getting into "Stanfurd" that he can’t carry out a no-brainer spy mission. From the offbeat creator of Pearls Before Swine comes an endearingly bumbling hero in a caper whose peerless hilarity is accompanied by a whodunit twist. With perfectly paced visual humor, Stephan Pastis gets you snorting with laughter, then slyly carries the joke a beat further — or sweetens it with an unexpected poignant moment — making this a comics-inspired story (the first in a new series) that truly stands apart from the pack. 

I was in love with the title and cover art of this before I read it on break at the school library during my placement. It's awesome. I gave it to my nephew for Christmas.

Speechless by Jennifer Mook-Sang: Jelly is as surprised as anyone when he decides that he’s going to win the annual sixth grade speech contest.
Just like that, Joe Alton Miles, better known as Jelly (because his initials are J.A.M. and his best friend’s are P.B.), is faced with overcoming not only his terror of being in the spotlight, but also the wrath of smart, popular Victoria, who believes that the prize (like all prizes) is rightfully hers. At first, Jelly only cares about winning the awesome prize (a new tablet), but as Victoria escalates her campaign against him, Jelly begins to realize that it’s not only the prize that’s at stake, but also his reputation, his self-respect and the friendship he values most. Jelly must dig deep inside himself to find out if he’s strong enough to stand up to Victoria and show everyone what he’s really capable of.
Hilariously funny and just as poignant, Speechless is about finding out who your friends are, giving back, standing up to bullying and finding your own unique voice.

Borrowed this from the elementary school library where I worked out of the Silver Birch Awards box. It's insanely readable and a really great story. The bully is more of a nuanced character than is sometimes the case, the relationships are very realistic and I was just as incandescent with rage at the perceived injustices as I would have been in grade six. Loved it.

Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie S. Tolan: Will anyone take on Jake Semple?
Jake Semple is notorious. Rumor has it he burned down his old school and got kicked out of every school in his home state.
Only one place will take him now, and that's a home school run by the Applewhites, a chaotic and hilarious family of artists. The only one who doesn't fit the Applewhite mold is E.D.—a smart, sensible girl who immediately clashes with the unruly Jake.
Jake thinks surviving this one will be a breeze . . . but is he really as tough or as bad as he seems?

Another one I read after shelving it multiple times at my kids' old elementary school. I rarely read children's books that don't involve magic of some kind, but this sounded interesting.  It's probably a little simplistic to suggest that all bad kids just need someone to assume they can handle responsibility and give it to them and whoa, look at them straighten right up, but it's not the worst place in in the world to start. It was a total feel-good read. 

The Time Paradox (Artemis Fowl #6) by Eoin Colfer: After disappearing for three years, Artemis Fowl has returned to a life different from the one he left. Now he's a big brother, and spends his days teaching his twin siblings the important things in life, such as how to properly summon a waiter at a French restaurant.
But when Artemis Fowl's mother contracts a life-threatening illness, his world is turned upside down. The only hope for a cure lies in the brain fluid of the silky sifaka lemur. Unfortunately, the animal is extinct due to a heartless bargain Artemis himself made as a younger boy. 
Though the odds are stacked against him, Artemis is not willing to give up. With the help of his fairy friends, the young genius travels back in time to save the lemur and bring it back to the present. But to do so, Artemis will have to defeat a maniacal poacher, who has set his sights on new prey: Holly Short. 
The rules of time travel are far from simple, but to save his mother, Artemis will have to break them all.and outsmart his most cunning adversary yet: Artemis Fowl, age ten.

This series rarely disappoints. Fast and fun, with great relationships between Artemis and the other characters. 

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu: Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn't help it - Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn't fit anywhere else. 
And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it's never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack's heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it's up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she's read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn't the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

I'm always up for a good retelling of The Snow Queen. This was a Red Maple or Green Oak or some kind of designated good book  in the library last year, and there's a lot of great stuff in it. Some of it dips into the darker side, and there are times when the rendering of Hazel's isolation in the midst of completely uncomprehending adults is uncomfortably intense and painful. The resolution feels honestly won and lacks any sentimentality. 

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham: The Luck Uglies is the first in a tween fantasy-adventure trilogy brimming with legends come to life, a charming wit, and a fantastic cast of characters-and is imbued throughout with the magic of storytelling.
Strange things are happening in Village Drowning, and a terrifying encounter has Rye O'Chanter convinced that the monstrous, supposedly extinct Bog Noblins have returned.
Now Rye's only hope is an exiled secret society so notorious its name can't be spoken aloud: the Luck Uglies. As Rye dives into Village Drowning's maze of secrets, rules, and lies, she'll discover the truth behind the village's legends of outlaws and beasts...and that it may take a villain to save them from the monsters.
The first in a series, The Luck Uglies is an altogether irresistible cross of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Stefan Bachmann's The Peculiar, and Chris Healy's The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, overflowing with adventure, secrets, friendship, and magic.
 

Sweet, clever and imaginative, much like its plucky and resourceful and entirely enchanting young female protagonist. I don't know that I feel the need to keep reading the series, but this was great.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm: Galileo. Newton. Salk. Oppenheimer.
Science can change the world . . . but can it go too far?
Eleven-year-old Ellie has never liked change. She misses fifth grade. She misses her old best friend. She even misses her dearly departed goldfish. Then one day a strange boy shows up. He’s bossy. He’s cranky. And weirdly enough . . . he looks a lot like Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist who’s always been slightly obsessed with immortality. Could this pimply boy really be Grandpa Melvin? Has he finally found the secret to eternal youth?

I'd never heard of this, but ended up sticking it on an Indigo order to get free shipping (as one does), and it was great fun. The publication date is 2014, but it somehow reads to me like something from an older, slightly more innocent time, although I can't quite say why and generally hate it when people insinuate that there was an older, more innocent time, so never mind. It interleaves science facts seamlessly with the story to great effect, and the dynamic between Ellie's mother and young grandfather is spot-on. I would love to see this become a classic shelved with The Westing Game and A Wrinkle in Time. 

Young Adult:

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge: In Caverna, lies are an art — and everyone's an artist. In the underground city of Caverna the world's most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare. They create wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned. Only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show (or fake) joy, despair or fear — at a price.
Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell's emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed.

It's become sort of a tradition (I did it two years in a row, shut up, it counts) for me to start the year with a Frances Hardinge book, but since I now find myself yearning to buy and read everything she's written immediately, it might be hard to keep up the tradition next year. I think she might be the Peter S. Beagle of her generation. Incredible world-building, wonderful characters, flights of imaginative fancy that are utterly original and yet seem completely logical and right once you are immersed in them. If I had a slight quibble with this book, it would be that it was a little difficult to visualize the faces of the Cavernans, and sometimes it seemed like their emotions did leak through to their expressions, which wasn't supposed to be possible. But the setting, and the story, and the political machinations, and the magical Perfume and temperamental Cheeses and murderous Wines? Blissfully strange and wonderful.

Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty: A #1 Bestseller in Australia and Book Sense 76 Pick
Life is pretty complicated for Elizabeth Clarry. Her best friend Celia keeps disappearing, her absent father suddenly reappears, and her communication with her mother consists entirely of wacky notes left on the fridge. On top of everything else, because her English teacher wants to rekindle the "Joy of the Envelope," a Complete and Utter Stranger knows more about Elizabeth than anyone else.
But Elizabeth is on the verge of some major changes. She may lose her best friend, find a wonderful new friend, kiss the sexiest guy alive, and run in a marathon. 
So much can happen in the time it takes to write a letter...
A #1 bestseller in Australia, this fabulous debut is a funny, touching, revealing story written entirely in the form of letters, messages, postcards—and bizarre missives from imaginary organizations like The Cold Hard Truth Association.
Feeling Sorry for Celia captures, with rare acuity, female friendship and the bonding and parting that occurs as we grow. Jaclyn Moriarty's hilariously candid novel shows that the roller coaster ride of being a teenager is every bit as fun as we remember—and every bit as harrowing.

I just love Jaclyn Moriarty's writing so much. She has a light, deft, slightly skewed voice and a gracious perspective on adolescent humanity. I will follow her anywhere.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones: There's been an accident!
Something's wrong!She doesn't know who she is, and doesn't know why she's invisibly floating through the buildings and grounds of a half-remembered boarding school. Then, to her horror, she encounters the ancient evil that four peculiar sisters have unwittingly woken -- and learns she is their only hope against a deadly danger.

Have I read anything else by Diana Wynne Jones? Let me check. I have Howl's Moving Castle on my bedside table but haven't read it yet. Oh yes, I read Fire and Hemlock, but don't seem to have reviewed it, and I'm sure I read one of the Chrestomanci books but don't seem to have recorded it, And Enchanted Glass. Okay, so I don't know, clearly I like Diana Wynne Jones, and this was really good, but deeply weird and unsettling. Apparently the situation of the four sisters vis-a-vis parental neglect and running feral (oh, HI SUE) which led many readers to plead inability to suspend belief was actually autobiographical and Wynne Jones had to TONE IT DOWN lest it beggar ALL belief, which, whoa. The narrator not knowing which of the sisters she is while being tasked with saving all of them puts the reader in a prolonged state of vertigo. Rich and dark and strange.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex: It all starts with a school essay.
When twelve-year-old Gratuity (“Tip”) Tucci is assigned to write five pages on “The True Meaning of Smekday” for the National Time Capsule contest, she’s not sure where to begin. When her mom started telling everyone about the messages aliens were sending through a mole on the back of her neck? Maybe on Christmas Eve, when huge, bizarre spaceships descended on the Earth and the aliens – called Boov – abducted her mother? Or when the Boov declared Earth a colony, renamed it “Smekland” (in honor of glorious Captain Smek), and forced all Americans to relocate to Florida via rocketpod?
In any case, Gratuity’s story is much, much bigger than the assignment. It involves her unlikely friendship with a renegade Boov mechanic named J.Lo.; a futile journey south to find Gratuity’s mother at the Happy Mouse Kingdom; a cross-country road trip in a hovercar called Slushious; and an outrageous plan to save the Earth from yet another alien invasion.
Fully illustrated with “photos,” drawings, newspaper clippings, and comics sequences, this is a hilarious, perceptive, genre-bending novel by a remarkable new talent. the planet from a really big catastrophe.

Thank-you, Sharon. So glad I didn't wait any longer to read this. I laughed out loud. I cried a little. It's warm and intelligent and goofy and kind-spirited and wonderful (sort of like you, I think). I gave it to my other nephew for Christmas.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: “There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”
It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.
Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.
His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.
But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.
For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.
From Maggie Stiefvater, the bestselling and acclaimed author of the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races, comes a spellbinding new series where the inevitability of death and the nature of love lead us to a place we’ve never been before.

I love Maggie Stiefvater. I like how this starts out unapologetically on the weird side of things, as opposed to introducing weird things to people who start out thinking they're normal. Some readers objected to how the four Aglionby boys are such types, but it didn't bother me. I also do have some time for the fact that being rich doesn't automatically mean your life is wonderful, although that's not the same as having patience for unawareness of privilege. It took me a while to pick this one up after buying it, but after reading it I ordered the other three. 

Timebound (The Chronos Files #1) by Rysa Walker: When Kate Pierce-Keller’s grandmother gives her a strange blue medallion and speaks of time travel, sixteen-year-old Kate assumes the old woman is delusional. But it all becomes horrifyingly real when a murder in the past destroys the foundation of Kate’s present-day life. Suddenly, that medallion is the only thing protecting Kate from blinking out of existence.
Kate learns that the 1893 killing is part of something much more sinister, and Kate’s genetic ability to time-travel makes her the only one who can stop him. Risking everything, she travels to the Chicago World’s Fair to try to prevent the killing and the chain of events that follows.
Changing the timeline comes with a personal cost, however—if Kate succeeds, the boy she loves will have no memory of her existence. And regardless of her motives, does she have the right to manipulate the fate of the entire world?
 

I just liked this. I'm not sure I have an adequate defence for that, and as I've already written, the following two books didn't really bear out this one's promise. I love time travel stories, with bonus points if there's some deep dark family mystery in the mix. It was well-paced and fun and a spin on the genre I didn't feel had been done to death, although I didn't really buy any of the romance wholeheartedly. 

Change Places With Me by Lois Metzger: Rose has changed. She still lives in the same neighborhood and goes to the same high school with the same group of kids, but when she woke up today, something was a little different. Her clothes and hair don’t suit her anymore. The dogs who live upstairs are no longer a terror. She wants to throw a party—this from a girl who hardly ever spoke to her classmates before. There’s no more sadness in her life; she’s bursting with happiness.
But something still feels wrong to Rose. Because until very recently, she was an entirely different person—a person who’s still there inside her, just beneath the thinnest layer of skin.

One Goodreads reviewer said she was afraid this book would struggle to find readers, and I share that concern, so please consider reading it. This was terribly, terribly sad and also very lovely. I really admired how the author was willing to allow the bad stuff to go on for such a long, long time, like real life time instead of novel-or-movie time. I don't want to say much about the plot (as if I ever do) because it would be impossible without giving it all away, but it addresses a very important question about grief and loss, and I thought it did it in an exemplary fashion.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston: Veronica Mars meets William Shakespeare in E.K. Johnston’s latest brave and unforgettable heroine. 
Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. At PHHS, the cheerleaders don't cheer for the sports teams; they are the sports team—the pride and joy of a tiny town. The team's summer training camp is Hermione's last and marks the beginning of the end of…she’s not sure what. She does know this season could make her a legend. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black.
In every class, there's a star cheerleader and a pariah pregnant girl. They're never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she's always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. The assault wasn't the beginning of Hermione Winter's story and she's not going to let it be the end. She won’t be anyone’s cautionary tale.

This is gutsy and smart, and the cover is so beautiful. I have a lot of sympathy for the readers whose experience was very different and thought this was an overly rosy view of the aftermath of rape, or a suggestion that anyone should just be able to control their narrative well enough not to suffer PTSD or have their life fall apart. But as one story, I appreciated it, especially the best friend character who was badass and brilliant and who I can imagine people in my life emulating. 

Fall Line by Tudor Robins: Everything’s forward.
Those are fifteen-year-old Chris Myers’ words for the year.
The next gate, the next race, his spot on the district ski team; they’re all his for the taking.
Except training is such hard work. And then there’s Jenna – the very opposite of hard work – gorgeous, curvy, and into partying. Into Chris.
Instead of moving forward, Chris is sliding back. Slower times, worse results, and his best friend, Tilly, drifting away.
“The thing you want is right in front of you,” Tilly said. Now Chris just has to figure out what that thing is – and how to get it – before it’s too late.
Fast-paced, fun, and intense, Fall Line is a refreshing read from start gate to finish line.

I'm always afraid to read an author's work once I know them and like them - what if I don't like it? What if I have to lie? I'm a pretty good liar, admittedly, but it's hard to lie about liking a book and make it convincing, and Tudor is a friend of a friend and I've talked online with her and had lunch with her and imbibed the sacred elixir with her (Diet Coke), so it was a risk. Happily, this is really good YA. The dialogue is letter-perfect, the inner life of the main character is completely convincing, and the whole thing is very realistic, especially to someone with a kid in a competitive sport. I generally prefer my YA with a vampire or ancient curse in the mix, but this is a refreshing slice-of-life example of the genre. 

Because You'll Never Meet Me by Leah Thomas: Finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Award
An Indie Next List selection
In a stunning literary debut, two boys on opposite ends of the world begin an unlikely friendship that will change their lives forever.
Ollie and Moritz are best friends, but they can never meet. Ollie is allergic to electricity. Contact with it causes debilitating seizures. Moritz’s weak heart is kept pumping by an electronic pacemaker. If they ever did meet, Ollie would seize. But Moritz would die without his pacemaker. Both hermits from society, the boys develop a fierce bond through letters that become a lifeline during dark times—as Ollie loses his only friend, Liz, to the normalcy of high school and Moritz deals with a bully set on destroying him.
A story of impossible friendship and hope under strange circumstances, this debut is powerful, dark and humorous in equal measure. These extraordinary voices bring readers into the hearts and minds of two special boys who, like many teens, are just waiting for their moment to shine.

This is a bold and cheerful fuck-you to the notion that realism and sci-fi or fantasy should be clearly defined. When I read the synopsis I was worried about whether the author could do the plot justice, and I feel like she succeeded in spades. This struck a chord with me particularly as someone who considers many people I might never meet to be friends in every sense of the word. The keen longing and misery that is often a large part of adolescence, compounded by the isolation brought about by disability, is captured really well, as is the soaring joy of making a real connection.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.
Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.
At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.
Until one day, he does…
As the world turns upside down, Hazel tries to remember her years pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?

OH MY GOD I loved this. Magical realism in perfect balance, wonderful characters, rich and satisfying story. The brother-sister dynamic is a nice change from the typical isolated heroine thing, and the parallel romances (NOT both hetero-normative) are extremely smile-inducing. Why didn't I give it five stars? I remember it as one of my favourites as the year. I should have given it five stars. I'm going back and giving it five stars. Now should I take it out of this post and put it in the five-star post? Nah, I'll leave it here. 

The Love that Split the World by Emily Henry: Natalie Cleary must risk her future and leap blindly into a vast unknown for the chance to build a new world with the boy she loves. 
Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start... until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.
That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.
Emily Henry’s stunning debut novel is Friday Night Lights meets The Time Traveler’s Wife, and perfectly captures those bittersweet months after high school, when we dream not only of the future, but of all the roads and paths we’ve left untaken.

Even though I'm not a hundred percent sure I know how it all turned out, I really liked this. I love the whole parallel worlds/mysterious prophecy thing, and it's written so well here. The sense of place is strong and the Aboriginal stories are lovely. I also love the illustration of the fact that (and this is why I kind of hated the end of How I Met Your Mother) we all have to learn that you can't ever have everything; every major life choice means giving something up, and sacrifice is a huge part of life and love.

The Rosemary Spell by Virginia Zimmerman: Best friends Rosie and Adam find an old book with blank pages that fill with handwriting before their eyes. Something about this magical book has the power to make people vanish, even from memory. The power lies in a poem—a spell. When Adam's older sister, Shelby, disappears, they struggle to retain their memories of her as they race against time to bring her back from the void, risking their own lives in the process.

LOVED this. A girl and boy who are best friends, bonded by reading and geekdom. The evolution of friendships through childhood into adolescence. Shakespearean mystery. A forgetting curse. Magic, mystery and melancholy. *rapturous sigh*

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan: Julia has the unusual ability to be . . . unseen. Not invisible, exactly. Just beyond most people's senses. 
It's a dangerous trait in a city that has banned all forms of magic and drowns witches in public Cleansings. But it's a useful trait for a thief and a spy. And Julia has learned--crime pays.
Her latest job is paying very well indeed. Julia is posing as a housemaid in the grand house of Mrs. Och, where an odd assortment of characters live and work: A disgraced professor who sends her to fetch parcels containing bullets, spiders, and poison. An aristocratic houseguest who is locked in the basement each night. And a mysterious young woman who is clearly in hiding--though from what or whom?
Worse, Julia suspects that there's a connection between these people and the killer leaving a trail of bodies across the frozen city.
The more she learns, the more she wants to be done with this unnatural job. To go back to the safety of her friends and fellow thieves. But Julia is entangled in a struggle between forces more powerful than she'd ever imagined. Escape will come at a terrible price.

Won this in a Goodreads giveaway. Wasn't sure what to expect, but it was a very pleasant surprise, although I think the title could be tweaked. Julia is a wonderful character - intelligent, level-headed and strong. The issue of magic works very well literally as well as metaphorically (extrapolated to other marginalized and vilified sections of the population). The plot has elements that are frequently seen in fantasy fiction, but doesn't feel stale or derivative. There are genuine moral dilemmas, real relationships, witches and giant spiders, so it's pretty much the total package. I look forward to the next entry in the series.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

I read a few pages of this and felt kind of weary at the thought of another plot involving an irascible older male and a frightened younger female and felt like it was kind of predictable how things were going to go. Then I got over myself. I read a lot. It's inevitable that certain tropes, themes, devices and relationships are going to show up multiple times. What matters is what's done with them. So I kept reading. What was done with them was really freaking good. I question the designation of this as YA a bit - there's a lot of horrible death, the sex is a little graphic - but I loved the book. I love the Polish setting and mythology, the way magic is explained was concrete and beautiful, the way the plot unfolds with several climactic points that then lead to new challenges is very skillful, and the relationship between Agnieszka and The Dragon is quite satisfying.

Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff: For fans of Lauren Oliver and E. Lockhart, here is a dreamy love story set in the dark halls of contemporary high school, from New York Times bestselling author Brenna Yovanoff.
Waverly Camdenmar spends her nights running until she can’t even think. Then the sun comes up, life goes on, and Waverly goes back to her perfectly hateful best friend, her perfectly dull classes, and the tiny, nagging suspicion that there’s more to life than student council and GPAs.
Marshall Holt is a loser. He drinks on school nights and gets stoned in the park. He is at risk of not graduating, he does not care, he is no one. He is not even close to being in Waverly’s world.
But then one night Waverly falls asleep and dreams herself into Marshall’s bedroom—and when the sun comes up, nothing in her life can ever be the same. In Waverly’s dreams, the rules have changed. But in her days, she’ll have to decide if it’s worth losing everything for a boy who barely exists.

After a bit of a bobble with Fiendish (which I forgave her readily), Yovanoff is back in fine form. Her characters are types that are often seen in YA literature, and yet she always seems to make them a little more vivid, a little more rounded, a little more engaging than many. And her romances always seem to grow organically and be eminently believable. And then there's a little something deliciously weird that gets thrown in the mix, and it's all very enjoyable. 

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness: What if you aren’t the Chosen One?
The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?
What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.
Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.
Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions.

Well this was just wonderful. It's slightly disingenuous to say this is about the normal kids living on the fringes of a universe where the superhero kids are constantly saving the day, because they're not all totally normal, but as a conceit it's brilliant and works marvellously. I especially love the chapter preludes where what's going on in the centre of the universe with the Buffies and Katnisses (the indie kids, this book calls them, and they all have names like Satchel and Slingblade and half a dozen of them are named Finn, and this joke just never gets old) is detailed in point form before we get back to the meat of the story, which is the kids with normal problems - alcoholic fathers, politician mothers, eating disorders, OCD, being in love with someone who isn't in love with you, etc. Oh, except one of them is actually a half-god. And the tone and dialogue is letter-perfect. I liked the Chaos Walking Trilogy, but I feel like Ness has really hit his stride with this one.