Friday, October 31, 2014

Wolf in White Van (John Darnielle)

Like so many books, I came to this one under false pretenses. Blurbs are so, so devious. Fortunately for Wolf in White Van, I was actually amazed by what I found. My initial understanding, that this novel was the story told in reverse of a crazy maniac who creates and runs mail-order games, is only about half-accurate. If you thought that was this book, too, it's not. Fair warning.

It is about a man, Sean Phillips, who creates and runs mail-order role-playing games. Think D&D, but you're playing alone and mailing in your moves to Sean. He is pretty housebound because his face was badly damaged in an accident, circumstances which we initially are not sure of. These games allow him to interact with other people without having to deal with their constant horror, sympathy, and scrutiny of his injuries.

This is a great life for Sean, except when it suddenly goes wrong. A young couple engrossed in his most popular text game, Trace Italian, a post-apocalyptic survival story, starts to lose their grasp on reality. Thinking that the game is a reflection of real life, they venture out to the Midwest to find the hallowed fort that all players are struggling to reach. It goes wrong, there are serious consequences, and Sean is stuck feeling guilty and innocent at the same time.

So not at all about a maniac. And technically the story runs in reverse, in that toward the end we find out what happened to Sean, but it's more of a memory novel than a backwards narrative. I was initially disappointed to discover that my presuppositions were wrong, and then I was delighted. What you'll find if you read Darneille's debut is something way better.

Sean is a great character, one of the best I've read this whole year. He's sad, he's quiet, he's isolated, he's lonely, he's a loner. If you're looking for a thrilling, plot-based novel, then never you mind, because this is one that's all about character, and it's done deliciously. I can't express how gripping his psyche is, how enraptured the reader feels while he's lost in his thoughts. Typically, I'm not a fan of heady novels, but Wolf in White Van really did it for me.

It's a bit difficult to review, because so much of it is centered around Sean's inner dialogue. It's not even that there are spoilers (really, there aren't). It feels silly to explain how good the book is, how carefully it was written, when you could just read it yourself. It's a very short, but it's worth every page. I'm struggling more than I thought I would with a review for this book. My shortest summary then: this novel is a delight, a painful character study, and you should read it.

My rating: 5/5
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Blood of Olympus (Rick Riordan)

Conclusions are hard. I read a lot of series in my youth, so I'm very familiar with the intense pressure of ending a storyline that spans multiple books. I can think of several big-name publishing events with bad finales, some which I haven't even read: the Sookie Stackhouse books, the Delirium trilogy, arguably Mockingjay, Allegiant! There are tons. I assume you're here, then, reading this, because you want to know if Rick Riordan screwed up his series with book five, The Blood of Olympus.

Well, he didn't. At the beginning of the book, we're only days away from the awakening of Gaea. Reyna, Nico, and Coach Hedge are en route to Camp Half-Blood with the Athena Parthenos via Nico's shadow travel, which is draining him of his life: he becomes less corporeal and functional with each trip. The rest of the gang (with a gravely-injured Jason in tow) has to find the goddess of victory, Nike, at Olympia, whose warring personalities are making it hard for the demigods to win the war against Gaea and her minions.

Of course, there are obstacles in the way, the most notable of which is Orion, a hunter who once loved Artemis, was killed, and has come back to fight for Gaea. He pursues Reyna, Hedge, and Nico as they get closer and closer to New York, and it prompts a lot of interesting conflict between, for example, him and the Amazons and the Hunters of Artemis. In general, I found the Nico/Reyna/Hedge story far more interesting to follow, not in the least because Nico and Reyna are probably the two most intriguing characters in this series. Reyna's backstory is really well-developed in this novel, in a way that's touching and painful, and I am always up for more Nico, whose complexity is, in fact, unrivaled by any character in the Heroes of Olympus series. While Percy may be my favorite character (I mean, isn't he everyone's favorite?), Nico wins the prize for most-thoughtfully-constructed.

But they're only about half of the novel. What about the other half? It was okay. I again took issue with the characters who get chapters of narration. We hear from Nico and Reyna, of course, but our other two perspectives are Piper and Leo. I'm not the biggest fan of Piper, but she is better in book five. The less she talks dreamily about Jason, the better (obviously). Leo, on the other hand, remains the most frustrating character to listen to. I've been pretty vocal about my distaste before, and it's entirely because of his unfunny jokes, which are so awkward. Nonetheless, I was a little more invested in his character arc than normal, and have been ever since the Ogygia/Calypso incident.

There's a shockingly little amount of Percy, Jason, and Annabeth in this book; Frank and Hazel aren't incredibly present, either. One of my biggest problems with Riordan's writing is the moments where he tries to sound like the age group he is writing for. Slang terms, awkward sentences ("Jason nodded at Percy like 'Sup?" or something very like it appears in the book, for instance), and stilted dialogue between characters (having Jason and Percy refer to each other by their last names to demonstrate their rivalry reads like every bad '70s sports comedy) marred my reading experience. If it's bad enough to pull me out of the book, then it should have been fixed.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cress (Marissa Meyer)

We're back! Don't read this review if you haven't already read Cinder or Scarlet, the first two books in this series. I will spoil those two books, because duh. It's book three. You've been warned.

Our focus now shifts to Cress, who is, in the world of the Lunar Chronicles, Rapunzel. A shell (if you're rusty on your terminology, that's a Lunar who can't manipulate people's bioelectricity to do the sort of illusions and persuasion we've already seen from Cinder and Queen Levana) deemed useless to society, Cress is taken by the Queen's head thaumaturge, Sybil, to a satellite to monitor just about everything on Earth. She's lived alone her whole life, become a skilled hacker and programmer--she even wrote a computer program modelled on a younger version of herself so she has company.

Mistress Sybil has asked Cress to find Cinder and give information about her whereabouts, which Cress does easily. However, she's hesitant to turn the gang over to her mistress, and not in the least because of the dreamy Carswell Thorne, whom we met in Scarlet. Instead, she signals to Cinder so that they might come to her rescue, but it backfires--Carswell and Cress end up trapped in the satellite, Scarlet is taken hostage by the thaumaturge, Wolf is grievously injured, and Cinder is saddled with a ton of guilt. And then the novel really gets going.

I will admit that I was disappointed with the second book in the series; I thought that Scarlet was an annoying character, hated how much page time she got, and felt the plot lagged too much. I was nervous to continue the series: what if The Lunar Chronicles squandered all the promise I felt in Cinder? Fortunately, that's not the case in Cress, not by a long shot. The first of my complaints--too much Scarlet, whom I didn't like--is handled by her kidnapping. She gets almost no time in this book, which for me was gratifying, and the scenes she does have are way more interesting than anything she was doing in the second book.

The plot is also far more interesting than in book two. I don't want to get into much detail for fear of spoiling more of the story, but suffice it to say that there is a huge desert sequence that has a lot of fun. It touches on ideas about marginalized communities and human trafficking in very meaningful ways that don't ever feel like smacks in the face (that is, these are serious issues and the book knows it, but chooses to subtly educate us instead of preaching about them). There's a "heist" sequence, too, and I'm always up for one of those. As is typical, we end on a really fantastic set of cliffhangers, which manage to ratchet up the excitement--I didn't realize how excited I am to see how Meyer ends everything until I got to the end of this novel.

For me, it's important that this series maintain a balance between external conflict--the fight sequences and the rapidly-approaching royal wedding--and internal conflict within the characters. I didn't feel that Scarlet achieved that balance, and I'm happy to say that I think we get that in this novel. Some of the issue relies on who is telling the story--I've already spoken about my distaste for Scarlet, but how does Cress fair?

She isn't the greatest narrator. There are things I really like about her--the early scenes of her in her satellite are touching and sad, for example. To think of that sort of extreme, total isolation is heartbreaking but fascinating, and the author does a terrific job of using the Rapunzel trope. On the other hand, Cress is a bit daffy, dreaming about love very naively and earnestly; she's perhaps at her worst when her thoughts turn to Carswell Thorne, who finally starts to breathe as a character where I felt he didn't in book two. I can't tell if these sort of loopy love scenes are reflections and commentary on the fairy tale genre or if it's maybe a systematic laziness.

Regardless, Cress is pretty well-balanced with Cinder, who far-and-away continues to be the best character in the series. Any time I get to spend with her is time well-spent, certainly. Her internal struggles remain the most interesting of any character in the book, because she's grappling with such huge decisions. It's strange to say that the more impossible her choices are, the more realistic a character she is--name one person you know in real life who finds out she's the secret queen of a world intent on destroying another. But it's exactly because of this ridiculousness that Cinder seems so well-realized.

I'm really looking forward to how this series concludes, first with an interquel (is this really the terminology? ugh) coming out in January about Levana (Fairest), and then the conclusion to the series, Winter, in November. Yay!

My rating: 4.5/5
Cress on Goodreads 
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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's newest book, and that should be enough of a review to read it. I'm a big fan of his work, for all the reasons I'm about to tell you.

This book is about Holly Sykes, whom we meet in the 1980s. She's a teenager and she's dating a much-older man, who definitely loves her. Angry with her mother, who disapproves, she runs away to his house, convinced he'll take her in because they're true love. Unfortunately, he's lying in bed with Holly's best friend, so then she really runs away from home. After a strange hallucination, she finds out her younger brother Jacko, an eccentric, hyperintelligent child, has gone missing.

And then we jump forward into the next decade. This is the thing that everyone's buzzing about. The Bone Clocks is divided into six sections, each one jumping forward to the decade after the previous one. We start in the 1980s and finish in the near-future, and we track Holly through it all. Sometimes she's a main character and sometimes she isn't quite so central, sometimes appearing toward the end of a section. As her life progresses, we are also slowly learning more about a group that Holly calls the Radio People, a cabal of psychically-powerful immortals who are waging war with another group of similarly-endowed people.

I'm hesitant to say more, but like the other Mitchell books I've read, the book is less about plot and more about...well, everything. He's really a great writer. I think people sometimes get too caught up in his metafictiveness, in the interconnectivity of his novels (which is only as annoying as you let it get--I've seen several reviews that bash the author for trying too hard to make his novels all part of the same world, but I was never once bothered by it; the more you focus on it, the more frustrated you might feel, but if you let it feel organic, you won't even notice), and in his penchant for telling stories innovatively. People praise him for his to perform unending narrative acrobatics. Of course, these are all reasons to love Mitchell, to shout his names from the rooftops, but it's important to acknowledge his talent in telling every one of his tales so precisely, so perfectly.

This book is, in terms of setting, all over the place. '90s Switzerland, 2000s Iraq, a futuristic Ireland after the world has started to fall apart. The narrators are all kinds of people: a sociopathic young man, war reporters, a self-centered writer (and Martin Amis parody?). Never once are these novellas unconvincing. Mitchell slips into each voice fully, devotedly, believably. as if every perspective were his own that he has spent his whole life living. It's dazzling to have him throw an entirely new scenario at us and watch it unfold rapidly and credibly. These novellas are populated with a wide array of characters, and not once do they descend into painful, boring stereotypes.  It's fascinating, and clearly not something every writer is capable of.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Whispering Skull (Jonathan Stroud)

Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review!

One of the things I truly, genuinely loathe in this world is "scary stuff." Movies about hauntings, demonic possessions, and the like have always really bothered me, partly because I know these things aren't real, that they don't actually happen, but despite that, I still get freaked out. I avoid the movies as best I can, spent high school avoiding Halloween parties because of everyone's desire to watch them. The year Paranormal Activity came out, I had trouble sleeping for three days after I overheard someone summarizing the movie. I still haven't seen it, but hearing about it was enough to leave me frightened.

So leave it to Jonathan Stroud to dish out exactly this thing I hate so much and make it--not just once, but twice--an engaging, carefully-constructed book that blew me away. Last year's The Screaming Staircase was one of the best books I read in 2013, and the word I used to characterize and define the book was "fun." I had no doubt that Stroud was going to be able to easily and masterfully sink back into this world for a second volume, and my lack of uncertainty was well-founded. It's a winner!

In the Lockwood & Co. books, we are living in a parallel world, one in which ghosts and hauntings are very much real, regular issues that people deal with. Adults aren't particularly sensitive to the phenomena--that is, they can't see or hear the ghosts--but they can be killed by them; only young people have a sixth sense for spectres and phantoms, and as a consequence, greedy adults have capitalized on their talents and formed agencies of youth who work diligently every night to eradicate ghosts. But our protagonist, Lucy Carlyle, doesn't belong to one of these groups; she is a member of the three-person company run by Anthony Lockwood (the other member is George Cubbins).

Six months after their adventures as detailed in book one, the company is called on to be present for an exhumation of the tomb of Edmund Bickerstaff, a doctor from a long time ago who developed a reputation for trying to communicate with the dead. A mysterious mirror that he was buried with--one that ensnares anyone who looks at it, and with dire consequences--disappears not long after they exhume him, so naturally, Lockwood & Co. are on the case hoping, to increase their notoriety.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters)

Thanks to the Penguin First To Read program for the opportunity to read this book early in exchange for my unbiased review.

Historical fiction is, for me, a dangerous game. Too many times have I been sucked into books that force heavy amounts of period detail down your throat, prose that wants to emphasize that its setting is so different from the present that it hurts. There are references to contemporaneous culture and repeated descriptions of old technology or perhaps scientific understanding of the world that, while perhaps initially engaging or surprising, grows stale by the end of the novel.

I was nervous but intrigued by The Paying Guests, so I gave it a shot. It's set just after World War I, in England, which is a time period I don't feel has been written to death (like World War II has, for example). It's the story of Frances Wray and her mother, two women left heartbroken by the loss of the men in their family to war and illness. Because Frances' brothers and father are gone, she and her mother are struggling financially--their rather oversize house is too expensive for them to afford, but they don't want to get rid of it.

With no other options, she opens her home to renters, which she refers to as "paying guests," from which we derive the title and also an idea of some of the pride and class distinction Frances has. The lodgers she brings in are a married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, and though it is difficult for her and her mother to adjust, the Wrays begin to accept the Barbers as a part of their daily lives. But then Frances, a closeted-by-her-time-period lesbian, falls in love with Lilian, and that's when it all starts to get interesting.

The first thing I want to address is, of course, what I mention at the beginning of this review, the danger of historical fiction. Fortunately, oh so fortunately, The Paying Guests does not sink into the trap. There are details that contextualize us, but they're written so naturally into the story that I never once felt slapped in the face with authenticity. It's the small, day-to-day things: having to heat bath water, an outhouse in the backyard, a mid-20s woman being considered a spinster. The storyworld of Waters' book is very textured and realistic, but never gets in the way of the plot.

Speaking of which, what an intricately-spun tale! I am afraid of spoiling what lies in wait for anyone who reads the book, but suffice it to say that Frances' amorous feelings for Lilian really complicate their living situation. The novel starts as a fairly straightforward (but dazzlingly-told) story of unrequited, forbidden love, but in turn morphs into a suspense novel and then a legal thriller. It also serves as a fantastic meditation on guilt: should I feel guilty about my own feelings? What about the actions my feelings have pushed me toward? It is magnificent no matter what kind of tale it's trying to tell.

What really anchors the story is the characters, especially with regard to Lilian and Frances. They are beacons of what it really means to be well-written: they're complicated characters who grapple with their emotions and the constraints placed on them by society. Their interactions are incredibly emotionally evocative: at times I could feel the burning desire, the horror, the panic as though it were my own. It is truly marvelous.

The Paying Guests is a long book--nearly 600 pages--and my only criticism is that it would have been slightly pruned. There are sequences that drag, sequences that the book probably could have done without, but it's still a gorgeous work. If you love subtle historical fiction, Sarah Waters' newest is certainly a go.

My rating: 5/5
The Paying Guests on Goodreads
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Sunday, August 31, 2014

100 Sideways Miles (Andrew Smith)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the e-ARC of this novel in exchange for my unbiased review!

And thank goodness for Andrew Smith. Seriously. All of us ought to raise him to the heights as a new leader of YA fiction because his books have perpetually stunned me. I'm so lucky to get to read his books, and we're all so lucky to have him around.

100 Sideways Miles is about Finn Easton, who is in high school and on the baseball team and generally cool and normal. Except he has epilepsy. Because a horse fell on him. The same horse that killed his mom and broke his back. His best friend is Cade Hernandez, maybe the only guy who fully understands and accepts Finn, even with his seizures. Cade is known for his charm and constant talk about his own sexual arousal.

When Finn was young, his dad wrote a science fiction novel about human-devouring angels coming to our world, a novel that upset a lot of people, including Finn. Why? Because one of the important characters is named Finn, and he has the same-colored eyes, and the same scar on his back. It makes Finn feel like he's not a real person.

Julia Bishop moves to his school, located in one of the more remote areas of California, and he falls in love with her. She's beautiful and perfect and understanding--one of their first interactions is her taking care of Finn after a seizure strikes, which always leaves Finn embarrassed, angry, and rude. And despite that, she likes Finn, too. So they have a relationship and it's cute and nice but of course something comes up (and I won't tell you what it is, so read the darn book).

Out of the three Smith books I've read (and all in the same year!), this one feels the most like a YA novel. I don't mean that in a bad way, because of course Smith takes the idea of a standard YA novel and injects it with actual, real feelings. Specifically, I was reminded of a John Green book, except it was a good book and not something that felt formulaic and boring and manufactured. Imagine that! A YA novel that deals with love and embarrassment in a straightforward way: no characters spewing pretentious statements at every possible moment, no quirky details that make you want to stab your own eyeballs, and no bossy writer behind the pages cackling and saying "Cry, you ugly fools! Cry!"

The story is realistic, and perhaps that doesn't mean sound like a compliment, but I am amazed by how realistic the relationships are. Finn knows he's not being nice to his parents but it happens anyway. There are no signs of bratty, entitled teen nor controlling parent. It's wonderful! He knows that his relationship with Julia might not work out, and he likes her for real reasons in spite of the challenges a relationship like theirs faces. I hate books that feature characters that fall in love with one another instantly, and though it would never work out in real life, they are happy together forever (at least until the book ends). But Smith is better than that, and it shows.

There's something so uniquely enjoyable about an Andrew Smith novel. The stories he tells are crazy, but they never lose their grasp on the truth inherent in their narratives. That's what amazes me every time I read one of his books: they are drenched in truth but never preach it; the characters never open their mouths and recite aphorisms that make me gag.

My point: Andrew Smith rocks. Stop wasting your life and read his books.

My rating: 5/5
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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier)

In my continuing series of "books that people are excited about in 2014," I picked up The Night Gardener a few months ago. I hadn't yet read Auxier's previous novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, but then I did. I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to his second book with a strange amount of glee, especially because it sounded so weird and unsettling. Also, a shiny, silvery cover.

Molly and Kip are two kids from Ireland who are basically orphans--their parents have been indentured into piracy, or at least that's what Molly's saying--leaving Molly in charge of Kip, who has a lame leg. They take a job working as caretakers of an old English estate for the Windsor family, who, because of recent financial difficulties, have re-inhabited the abandoned home. The mansion is rundown, overgrown, and is maybe making the family sick. There's a mysterious figure that appears in the house at night, or so Molly thinks, and she's starting to feel very unsettled, especially because the Windsors are oddly attached to the old tree on the property.

The Night Gardener is a middle-grade fantasy that aims in a lot of directions and successfull hits all its targets. On the one hand, this story succeeds in being a creepy "estate horror" like The Turn of the Screw or (to a lesser extent) Rebecca; there are a few passages that are genuinely perturbing, which is a great demonstration of how in control Auxier is of his mood, atmospherics, and suspense writing. The descriptions of the Windsors growing ever more wan are quietly frightening, and the scenes featuring the titular Night Gardener read almost like the pages of a scary movie script.

In another direction, it's fabulistic--there's magic and wishes and consequences and lessons for everyone. It feels very much like a fairy tale, a gruesome one, one that teaches about being satisfied with what you have. I, of course, love the aesthetic, which Auxier once again nails; there's a story within our story about the tree on the Windsor estate, a pseudo-fable that is very thoughtfully arranged (by which I mean it reads like it's been around for centuries). The message of the story bleeds into the character's lives as they realize maybe they're part of the narrative, another element that adds to the creepy feeling of the book.

A common thread in the author's two books is its inclusion of characters with disability. Here, it's Kip, who has a severely twisted leg. The inner dialogue that Kip has about his own physicality is engaging and painful. This year has been a year where people push for diverse literature, and so it's refreshing to experience a middle-grade novel with a disabled character that isn't necessarily keen to remind us at every turn about his disability, but can have serious, sophisticated monologues about himself. Like every other character in The Night Gardener, Kip is very thoroughly dimensional. All these characters, just like us, are driven by their fears: never being seen as normal, never seeing our parents again, being powerless in the world. He belongs to a cast of characters that is fascinating and breathing.

But that's not all. The meditation that this book offers on stories and storytelling is delightful, too. Molly and Kip meet an old woman who has dedicated her life to collecting and telling stories, and it inspires Molly, a character we are told early on has an almost supernatural ability to persuade people through her fictionalized versions of reality. Auxier wants us to consider how powerful stories really can be, how they can not only represent the world but shape and alter it, depending on how we wield them.

The Night Gardener is a fantastic novel, one that really pushes and presses the reader to think. Auxier's writing always feels like it's expecting--perhaps even demanding--more from its readers than the average middle-grade book. The book feels stunningly adult, whatever that means. He never lets the plot be clouded with puerile ideas or writing, and that was very refreshing for me. It's lovely to see books that work for all ages, instead of working so hard to tailor themselves to one age group. This is is for certain a keeper.

My rating: 5/5
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Monday, August 11, 2014

California (Edan Lepucki)

Here's a book that garnered quick buzz and made me angry for staying hidden from my radar. Thanks, Stephen Colbert for messing with my understanding of book buzz, for it's he that pushed this novel into the spotlight and made me run out to the bookstore for it.

Cal and Frida are a couple living in the wilderness in a post-apocalyptic California. Earth has started to fall apart--extreme weather all over the United States, reduced resources, etc. The two options for survival are on your own, like them, or in very exclusive, expensive gated communities. Frida realizes that she's pregnant and, unhappy with the prospect of raising the child in their isolated woodland location, they leave their little house in the hopes of finding other people, perhaps a settlement, that can take them in and help them nurture their new life.

At first, I wasn't interested in reading California, because really how many literary dystopias can I read before I stab myself in the eyes, but I read the first few pages in Barnes & Noble and was drawn in by the Lepucki's gentle, soothing, eye-opening writing. The novel opens with Frida longingly examining artifiacts of life from before the big crisis, like her long-dead cellphone. One item she pays tribute to is an expensive, unused turkey baster: a soliloquy to a kitchen implement isn't by any means a common way to engage a reader, but it certainly was an effective one.

There is a phenomenon involving books that happens to me very rarely--it's the desire for the book to go in a different direction than the one it did. It actually happened earlier this year with The Flight of the Silvers, an action-y novel that decided to move toward one plot when I desperately wanted it to go in another. It's hard for me to talk about Lepucki's narrative choices because it would spoil the whole plot, and I try hard not to be a spoiler. Let's just say that Cal and Frida find a settlement and the book is mostly about their time at the settlement; I would have much more enjoyed a story about them wandering, I think.

The thing is, Lepucki is a great writer. The reason I stuck with her book is because her prose is just so good; most of my reviews don't bother mentioning the actual word stylings, but this author's is good enough to merit a mention. I'm not a big fan of characters spending paragraphs philosophizing, but she does such a great job writing their thoughts on the page that I actually enjoyed it. Her characterization is pretty stellar, too. Cal and Frida are flawed creatures forced into terrible, dire circumstances, but they are never grotesque caricatures. They feel very grounded, and though they did get on my nerves from time to time (Cal, shut up about what might have been!), even that felt authentic.

But it's hard for me to fully enjoy a book that, in terms of its storyline, frustrated and bored me. I wanted to know more about the world Cal and Frida lived in, and less about the one microcosm they encountered; if this had been more of an episodic novel, featuring our main characters moving from settlement to settlement, I would have been more pleased. And I know it's not fair for me to criticize a book for the author's choice in, of all things, plot, but I can't help it. There was a lot of potential here.

California is made up of some really good pieces (the writing oh my goodness), but it doesn't really add up for me.

My rating: 3/5
California on Goodreads
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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nightingale's Nest (Nikki Loftin)

Little John Fischer's sister Raelynn died in a backyard tree-climbing accident and his family isn't doing well: mom is delusional, talking to and about the deceased member of the family all the time. She can barely leave the house and is almost always hysteric. Dad, who owns a tree and brush removal service, has started spending his meager paychecks on alcohol to drink away his despair; this leaves the Fischers in some dire straits financially speaking, and to compensate, John's dad makes him come to work with him.

The summer agenda: cutting down Azariah King's dying pecan trees. Mr. King is something of a celebrity, the owner of a chain of local dollar stores, and Little John's dad hates him but needs the money so reluctantly agrees to prune his property. Next door is the Cutlin family, notorious abusers of the foster care system; their latest child is Gayle, a very strange girl who watches Little John from the tree in their backyard.

The thing about Gayle is that she seems more bird than girl: she's frighteningly small, she clings to the (rotting) tree like it gives her life, and mostly importantly, she sings. But it's not an amateur, warbly voice. No, Gayle sings an enchanting song that has supernatural powers. It instills joy in nearby listeners and even heals a broken leg on a fawn, and once Little John hears it, he's hooked. So is Mr. King, and John can't help but feel that his desire to record Gayle's voice is somehow sinister.

So what did I think of the book? The reason I picked it up is because I heard it was based on a fairy tale, though I admit that prior to my reading Nightingale's Nest, I'd never come across Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" (and to be completely honest, I still haven't read the original). But since I was unfamiliar with it, I had to quickly throw any comparisons or expectations out the window, which was I suppose refreshing because for once I could judge the retelling only on its own merits.

In terms of the plot, there's a lot going on--it took me three paragraphs just to give the opening summary--and I'm not sure Loftin was able to keep a grip on all her disparate elements. The thing about the book that's most interesting (that is, the relationship between John and Gayle) is often put aside to pursue plotlines about John abandoning his friend Ernest after his sister's death or about his family's almost-eviction.