“A World Without Fathers”: All Our Pretty Songs

A review of All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry

St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry

by REBECCA, March 3, 2013


Beautiful, carefree Aurora lives every moment to the fullest and takes what she wants, whether she’s moshing at concerts, throwing elaborate parties in her mother’s crumbling Seattle mansion, or stalking her latest sexual conquest. Her best friend, our unnamed narrator, has always been content to be the moon to Aurora’s sun. They balance each other and they’re sure that nothing can ever come between them. But this summer they’re going to learn that everything in life has a cost‚ and that sometimes there’s no good choice to make when it comes to protecting the people you love.


I want to spend a second on the plot of All Our Pretty Songs, because I think the Goodreads blurb misrepresents it. And, although I’ll say more about it than I usually would, I don’t think it spoils anything—in fact, if I’d had a better idea of what the book was actually about, I would never have waited so long to read it!

Aurora is the daughter of a Kurt Cobain-esque figure who made it big and then died when she was a kid. Her mother, Maia, haunts the halls of their huge, crumbling house like a wraith, strung-out, leaving Aurora to do whatever she wants. Aurora and our unnamed narrator are a tight duo: they go to shows and parties together, hang out on the beach, and tell each other everything.

This summer, though, at one of Aurora’s parties, a beautiful musician named Jack shows up, and his music is irresistible and otherworldly. The narrator and Jack begin a romance, which surprises and delights her because people are always attracted to Aurora rather than her. But, as the narrator spends more time with Jack, Aurora drifts deeper into the world drugs and powerful industry people that her parents couldn’t escape. A world that will seduce Jack, too, though for very different reasons. In the end, the narrator has to go on a quest—but she isn’t sure if it’s a quest to find Aurora, or to find herself.

All Our Pretty Songs is a stunning debut by Sarah McCarry, with prose by turns lush and biting. It’s set in a realist Seattle, but, in a Francesca Lia Blockish kind of way, the city itself becomes a magical world in which music, art, clothes, and friendship create altered states that transcend realism. Then, of course, there’s the way that All Our Pretty Songs is an intertext with the Orpheus myth. Yep, as in, there is a Hades and a ferryman and other such familiar figures. I use the term “intertext” instead of “adaptation,” because:

1. An adaptation uses another story as its engine, whereas All Our Pretty Songs simply dips into the world of mythology to animate the stakes of the story, which are not the stakes of the Orpheus myth.

2. A knowledge of the myth in question does not completely give away the entire story (thank you, god, Sarah McCarry for not falling into that shockingly common trap!).

3. I hate adaptations and I love this book; so there.

Dirty Wings Sarah McCarry All Our Pretty Songs is, at heart, a story about intimacy: how it empowers us, but also makes us susceptible to grief; how it reveals truths about us, but can also distract us from discovering those truths about ourselves; and how, finally, it is a force far beyond our control. The narrator’s and Aurora’s intimacy is one of sisters, and it echoes the intimacy their mothers had before the aftermath of Aurora’s dad’s death divided them (their story is the subject of the second book in the series, Dirty Wings). The narrator’s intimacy with Jack is a revelation to her, since she’s never thought of herself as beautiful or lovable. And, as the story progresses, the narrator feels a greater intimacy with her mother as she finds herself replicating some of her mother’s struggles.

As I mentioned, I hate adaptations. I nearly never come away from them convinced that the adaptation was anything other than an uninteresting and unnecessary cheat in which the author took a narrative blueprint and danced all over it, either to lend legitimacy to their work or to avoid having to think up a narrative arc on their own. But All Our Pretty Songs completely earned its intertextuality with Greek mythology because it managed to cut to the heart of their power. The Seattle that the narrator, Aurora, their parents, and Jack live in is one in which music and art is a calling; an avocation. For them, it is worth sacrificing for—indeed, much of what they do already feels like they making sacrifices to it. Sex and drugs are just two of the ways they can both sacrifice and escape. It feels absolutely right, then, that music and drugs would narratively open up the visible world to the invisible just as they do figuratively.

It’s interesting to look at ratings of All Our Pretty Songs on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever because it’s one of the most equal distributions of opinions I’ve seen. I’m always intrigued by books where it’s split between half the people loving it and half hating it; that’s usually just an indicator of taste. All Our Pretty Songs is clearly a book that readers are ambivalent about, though. In some ways, I think it’s a very atypical young adult book, which might account for the spread: the audience it’s marketed toward isn’t expecting its slow dreaminess, or its focus on prose, or its meandering quality. And, to come full circle, I think the blurb (and the cover, which I think is a real mis-fit) sets readers up for a coming-of-age love triangle set in the Seattle music scene. And that’s definitely not what we get.

I’m incredibly excited by this debut and I can’t wait to read the second book. Are there places that feel a bit repetitive here or drag a little? Sure. But the prose is so lovely and the voice of the narrator so true that I was always compelled to read, sentence-to-sentence. If it’s not to your taste, you’ll know it in ten pages because, yes, that’s how the whole book is. But, if it is . . .


War For The Oaks Emma Bull

War For the Oaks, by Emma Bull (1987).

Eddi McCandry just broke up with her boyfriend and her band in one night, and now she’s being chased by a dude who can turn into a dog. How much worse can things get?! Well, she could be a mortal caught in an epic, age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of the fey . . . and the dude who can turn into a dog could be forbidden to leave her side. Ever. But Eddi is a rocker and a badass, so she does what anyone would do in her position: she starts a new band—a band so good that maybe music isn’t all they’re making. My full review is HERE.

Violet & Claire Francesca Lia Block Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Ecstasia Francesca Lia Block Primavera Francesca Lia Block

Violet & Claire (1999), Weetzie Bat (1989), Ecstasia (1993), Primavera (1994), by Francesca Lia Block. Violet and Claire are a duo similar to the narrator and Aurora. All Our Pretty Songs is to Seattle what Weetzie Bat is to L.A. Ecstasia and Primavera have a Bachanalian/dystopian take on music’s power to create and destroy.

Teeth Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth, Hannah Moskowitz (2013). The line between realism and myth is blurred in Teeth, and the prose is beautiful. Check out my full review HERE, and my post on the genre of the Oceanic Gothic, of which I’m convinced Teeth is a part, HERE.

procured from: the library

All Our Pretty Songs Sarah McCarry


Oy Vey: Heck Yes, Proxy!

A Review of Proxy (Proxy #1) by Alex London

Philomel, 2013

Proxy by Alex London

by REBECCA, July 22, 2013


As a Patron, Knox has and does anything wants, as if there were no consequences to his actions. Because there aren’t. Well, not for him. Syd is Knox’s Proxy: any transgression of Knox’s is taken out of Syd’s hide. It’s been this way since they were boys, and Syd has learned to deal with the nerve-spasming pain of shocks, the beatings, and the manual labor. But when Knox kills a friend, Syd’s punishment may as well be a death sentence. But there are things brewing that are larger than Knox and Syd. In this future, where everything has a price, two boys will set out to see if they can take down the system.


denver-skylineIn the world of Proxy, the city where Syd and Knox live (where Denver once was) is considered the only real seat of civilization left on the continent, and the Proxy system the only thing preserving that civilization. The barrier between wealthy Patrons in Upper City and Proxies in the trash heap of Lower City is as wide as it is literal, and Syd and Knox both know that their positions are fixed. Knox has to live up to his father’s bloated corporate legacy and Syd has to play by every rule he’s given if he hopes to live out the last two years of debt that he incurred when he was rescued as an infant—then maybe he can have a life that’s a little more of his own making.

Knox has all the latest gadgets and he and his friends spend their time hacking, drugging, teching, and partying. Syd can fix anything, and lives in a tiny room off Mr. Baram’s shop. The day Proxy opens, Knox steals a sports car and takes it for a deadly joyride, and Syd tries to concentrate at school, but gets outed by his teacher in front of the whole class, including his crush. Both boys are feeling pretty rough, and things only go downhill from there.

Proxy by Alex London and my cat

I was trying to show you how the cover is metallic, but look at my cute cat.

Proxy‘s world is vividly rendered and Alex London deftly implies volumes about its rules and textures within a few chapters. Nothing is wasted; nothing is left unexplained. There are the typical markers of class divide, from the food to the technology, but it all feels particular to this world and—Hallelujah!—it’s a world that isn’t based on a set of suicide-inspiring misogynistic stereotypes, thank you Alex London.

Indeed, gender is something that Proxy gets very refreshingly right. It’s not the point of the story, but there are characters of all types, genders, and sexual orientations here, and reading it made that place in my heart that is defensively tensed when I start every new book unclench a little.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

After Syd finds out he’s been sentenced to pay the debt for a life taken, Syd, Knox, and a friend set out on a cross-country journey that is part rebellion, part quest, and part desperation. I’m not saying much about the plot because it’s a joy to watch unfold and I don’t want to ruin anything. Suffice it to say, it’s fast-paced without sacrificing detail, and shies away from annoyingly predictable choices even when it hits its comfortably in-genre stride. There are risks, there are stakes, and it all feels worth it.

Proxy isn’t a perfect book. It starts out alternating between Syd and Knox’s points of view, but once they meet, each chapter combines their POVs, which is confusing and, I think, a missed opportunity for learning more about their characters, which, while they definitely develop over the course of the novel, are more based in attributes than in voice. But I hope that will develop in the sequel. The writing is solidly invisible and despite the few weaknesses, Proxy soars.

Proxy by Alex London and my cute cat!

And now she is being sucked into the book. Noooooo!

In a market glutted with dystopias, Proxy is a very unique book and a really fun read, despite its grim subject matter. There are a lot of awesome details that I’ve not mentioned, like a strand of Jewish mysticism, some awesome biotech stuff, a rebel movement (always my favorite part of dystopias!), and some definitely snappy patter. My favorite detail: in this society, orphans are named after literary characters, a demonstration of how little value books have in Proxy‘s present), so there are shout-outs to famous lit all over the place—Syd’s full name is, tellingly, Sydney Carton, the Charles Darnay look-alike from A Tale of Two Cities. Delightful.

It’s also wonderful to find a gay character of color in a major YA dystopia. While we’re seeing more and more complex queer characters, race is something that YA dystopias have mostly left alone, except when it’s majorly stumbled. Alex London writes race and class into the world of Proxy and it’s much appreciated. Can’t wait for the sequel!

Not convinced? You can download the first three chapters of Proxy for free HERE.


The Culling by Steven dos Santos

The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos (2013). Speaking of there being more queer characters in YA fiction, I loved The Culling, which I try hard not to call the gay Hunger Games because that makes it sound derivative, but really it’s like the gay Hunger Games in all the best ways! My full review is HERE.

Magic to the Bone (Allie Beckstrom #1) by Devon Monk Magic in the Blood (Allie Beckstrom #2) by Devon Monk Magic in the Shadows (Allie Beckstrom #3) by Devon Monk

The Allie Beckstrom Series by Devon Monk (2008-2012). The Allie Beckstrom books aren’t necessarily similar to Proxy in terms of plot or style, but Devon Monk’s urban fantasy series is based in a similar proxy system. In this world, set in an alternate Portland, every act of magic exacts a price from the user, and the wealthy (and the immoral) offload that cost onto people who have contracted to take it or have been forced to do so. The series went off the rails a bit after the first few books, but it’s a lot of fun and doesn’t often crop up in YA circles, since Allie Beckstrom is in her early twenties.

procured from: bought! That’s how excited I was to read Proxy. And I’m glad I did, because the cover is gorgeous.

There But Not Back Again . . . Yet: Movie Review of The Hobbit

A Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson (2012)

The Hobbit Peter Jackson

by REBECCA, January 7, 2012

My dad first read me Lord of the Rings when I was in kindergarten because I was constantly begging to be read to and he figured he might as well kill two birds with one stone: read me something really long so I’d stop asking for new books, and get to revisit a series he wanted to re-read. My theory: he kind of thought I’d think it was boring and let him off the hook. Either way, I loved it, and he loved re-reading it. And, later, of course, I read The Hobbit. I didn’t love it as much as Lord of the Rings—it didn’t have the same depth, the same epic quality that had so captivated me. Instead, it was a small story, a story about one person taking a chance and exceeding his expectations, about a gang with one seemingly modest goal: take back what was once stolen from them. Still, if Aragorn was my first literary crush, Thorin Oakenshield was my second (imagine my confusion when I saw the animated version in the late 1980s and they had animated Thorin to look like my grandfather; awkward).

The Silmarillion J.R.R. TolkienWhen I learned that Peter Jackson and the team were back in NZ on the Lord of the Rings’ old stamping ground to film The Hobbit I had mixed feelings. On one hand, why mess with a world that you’ve executed so beautifully ten years before? On the other, I’m a sucker for seeing geekdom come to life, so I took the path less traveled: excitement. But then I learned that Jackson was making another trilogy instead of one film and my heart sunk again. Why would you set a film version of a small story to the same scale as the film versions of an epic trilogy? (I wouldn’t.) But then I began to read articles explaining that Jackson was including material from The Silmarillion and some of Lord of the Rings’ Appendices and I got excited again—how great for some of that oft-lost stuff to see the light of a studio set! That’s all to say that when the lights dimmed the other day and I finally got to see The Hobbit, I was conflicted, and more than ready to know one way or the other.

And, predictably I suppose, it was a pretty mixed bag. I saw The Hobbit with my parents and my sister and their consensus was that the movie was definitely “entertaining” and “enjoyable.” I agree. But I mostly agree as someone thinking of The Hobbit as merely one more piece of what I’m increasingly beginning to think of as “The Jackson-Tolkien Complex”; that is, Tolkien’s novels and paratextual materials, the art of people like Alan Lee and John Howe, whose visions thrilled me as a kid and went on to greatly inform Jackson’s films, the Lord of the Rings movies, and, now, The Hobbit films.

That is to say: while entertaining and enjoyable,  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a great film in its own right; removed from the Jackson-Tolkien Complex it doesn’t really stand on its own for what I think are pretty predictable reasons.

The Hobbit is a quest story, which means that it doesn’t break down into any kind of neat tripartite system that would lend itself to a trilogy. As my dad said, “I didn’t expect it to end where it did. I kind of forgot it was being made in three movies, so when it ended, I was still waiting to see what was going to happen with the dragon.” Without major restructuring of the plot, there would be no way to really signal what the three phases of the story are. Jackson ends the first film with the lyrical image of the thrush knocking a snail on the rock of the lonely mountain to forecast what will happen later, but there was no dramatic structure to the film.

Thorin Oakenshield The HobbitNow, don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with a movie that takes its time: I will watch Braveheart, Gladiator, or Last of the Mohicans any day of the week. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ended . . . well, unexpectedly. And, while Jackson has, indeed, added bits and bobs from The Silmarillion to flesh out the backstory, The Hobbit speeds through some scenes while lingering overlong on others. While the dinner scene that introduces the dwarves functions just like the scene in the book—to exaggerate the dwarves’ bufoonishness and Bilbo’s contrasting prudish domesticity—it is unnecessarily long and rather cartoonish. It does, however, create a nice contrast for the entrance of Thorin Oakenshield in all his long-maned glory (a perfectly proud Richard Armitage).

Jackson has shot The Hobbit using high-frame-rate projection (48 frames per second rather than the typical 24, for the first time ever). While this looks beautiful in many of the middle-ground and closeup scenes, for the sweeping and swooping extreme long-shots of Middle Earth that take up the first 20 minutes or so of The Hobbit, it results in the vertiginous effect of the foreground looking distractingly blurry (I didn’t see the film in 3-D because it makes me sick, so I can’t comment on what effect the higher speed had on that technology). The other problem, which I’m not sure whether to ascribe to projection speed or CGI effects, is that the new settings Jackson et al have developed for the film, while beautiful, take on the appearance of mere backdrops because we see so little of them. When the dwarves are captured by goblins, we see their home, a huge tent city in the hollow of a mountain, lined with tiers of lean-tos. While this setting is detailed and full of action, because we spend so little time there and see so little of it close up, it has the feeling of a video game background populated with a slew of CGIed goblins rather than, say, the fully brought-to-life Shire.

Bilbo Baggins the HobbitThe acting was typical of Peter Jackson’s casting in Middle Earth, I think. When played straight, everyone is pretty good; when going for laughs, they aren’t nearly as subtle as they should be, as if Jackson wants people to know that just because he’s making epic movies about battles of good and evil it doesn’t mean he’s lost his sense of humor (even if that humor is of the banal the-fat-dwarf-breaks-his-chair-hardy-har-har variety). Andy Serkis’ Gollum is even better than it was in Lord of the Rings, its briefness merely highlighting his marvelous range. And while he’s playing essentially the same role as Dr. Watson on Sherlock, Martin Freeman is absolutely pitch perfect as Bilbo and every time one of the dwarves made a stupid joke or there was yet another cut to the “pale orc” standing and looking evil I wished we could just go back to watching Bilbo be delightful. The award for the best (and most unexpected) character appearance goes to Sylvester McCoy’s wizard, Radagast the Brown, who speaks to animals, knows hedgehogs by name, and has a line of bird shit running down the side of his face from the birds he keeps in a hair-nest under his hat (huzzah!).

So, all in all, a mixed bag. A treat, I think, for those of us who know The Hobbit well and simply enjoy watching a beloved world come to life; but perhaps a miss for the uninitiated, the impatient, or the narratively-conscious. Final result: made me want to go back and watch all the special features from the Lord of the Rings dvds. See you in twenty-six hours!

The Hobbit

What about you? What are your thoughts about The Hobbit or the Jackson-Tolkien Complex?

A Review of The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle #1) by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic, 2012

The Raven Boys Maggie Stiefvater

by REBECCA, November 5, 2012


Blue: the only non-psychic in a super-psychic family, rather than having an inferiority complex, Blue is open-minded and appreciative of the possibilities that others see

Gansey: a monomaniacal to-the-manor-born nice guy—who ever thought something so delightful could exist!?

Adam: a scholarship townie too proud to accept anyone’s help, he is honorable to a fault

Ronan: angry, self-destructive, genuine, loyal to his friends, he seems as scared of himself as others are of him

Noah: though he always seems to fade into the background, he is great at finding things . . . and people


Blue’s family has foreseen that if she kisses her true love he will die, so she has no intention of ever falling in love. But then she meets Gansey, Adam, and Ronan and gets caught up in their pursuit of a magic larger than she has experienced. And she gets caught up in them.


Binary Ode, by Adam S. DoyleFirst of all, can I say how pleased I am by this use of “Cycle”? It just makes me expect some glorious, Wagnerian epic. And I’m sure it won’t disappoint. Second of all, I adore this cover. You can’t really tell from the picture, but the paper it’s printed on has this really beautiful nacreous coating. The image is by the wonderful Adam S. Doyle, who also did the forthcoming cover for the paperback edition of The Scorpio Races. You can check out more of his work HERE. Third of all, I want to say the word Aglionby all the live-long day.

In The Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater  combines a number of my favorite things for a delightfully balanced story that makes me immensely excited to read the rest of the cycle (apparently there are to be four? yay!), but still feels like it could stand alone. In Henrietta, West Virginia, Blue is the only one in her family without the sight, but she acts like an amplifier to the powers of those around her. Her whole life, Blue has avoided who she calls Raven Boys, boys from Aglionby, the private school in town, but one night at work, she meets four of them and is drawn into their quest for the ley lines, magical lines that Gansey (the true quester) believes will lead to a long-buried king. Gansey is driven in this quest, and Adam and Ronan are devoted to Gansey, so they’re devoted to the quest. As Blue’s friendship with the boys deepens she sees that there is truth to their quest and that, perhaps, her own story is connected in ways she never would have expected.

Glendor's BannerWhile I certainly enjoyed the interlocking plot elements, The Raven Boys‘ greatest pleasure for me was the friendship among the Raven Boys, who are a rather unexpected crew. Gansey, in particular, is a gorgeously conflicted and surprising character. He is accustomed to leisure and privilege, and is driven by his monomaniacal desire to find the body of Owen Glendower, a Medieval Welsh king. With his meticulous research notebook, his khakis, and his friendships with old British dudes, Gansey is the kind of ageless character that I’m really drawn to. He seems like he could be from any time since, like, the 1920s. His friendships with boys as different as Adam, Ronan, and Noah add to this quality. He is the center of their group, and his sincere dedication to his quest and to the well-being of his friends connects them to him in ways that I imagine will only grow more complicated in the next books.

Also, I loved that Stiefvater seeded a number of things that I imagine the next books in the cycle will take up (what a fantastic and sinister final line!). It’s hard to make these tidbits both really compelling and not like big, shiny buttons labeled “HEY, I’m going to press this in the NEXT BOOK!” and Stiefvater nails it.

Blue comes from a tight family and we get the sense that they have been her main relationships thus far, so her new friendship with the Raven Boys feels full of discoveries for her. Blue’s relationship with Adam is sweet and makes sense: she is a townie who wouldn’t ordinarily poke a Raven Boy with a stick, and he is a scholarship kid who lives in a trailer and has much more in common with Blue than with his friends. It seems exactly the kind of first relationship that they would each have. Blue’s feelings for Gansey, on the other hand, are more complicated and much less clear. They’re not romantic—although, neither is her relationship with Adam, exactly—but more like the recognition of something she respects but cannot control, like an untamed animal.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The different worlds of Aglionby and Henrietta are also particularly vivid, and Stiefvater’s engagement with class is really well-done. In the way of all the best storytellers, Stiefvater manages to use the differences in economic and cultural backgrounds to develop her characters and the intricacies of their relationships:

“Adam had once told Gansey, Rags to riches isn’t a story anyone wants to hear until after it’s done” (131).

“Gansey knew he had to make a difference, had to make a bigger mark on the world because of the head start he’d been given, or he was the worst sort of person out there” (131).

“A wrinkle formed between Adam’s eyebrows as he looked away. Not at the double-wides in the foreground, but past them, to the flat, endless field with its tufts of dry grass. So many things survived here without really living. He said, “It means I never get to be my own person. If I let you cover for me, then I’m yours. I’m [my father’s] now, and then I’ll be yours.

It struck Gansey harder than he thought it would. Some days, all that grounded him was the knowledge that his and Adam’s friendship existed in a place that money couldn’t influence. Anything that spoke to the contrary hurt Gansey more than he would have admitted out loud” (133).

The only uneven thing about the book, for me, was the perspective. The roaming, third-person perspective is part of what makes the character development so strong, but it also gives the narrative a bit of a floaty feeling; I often found myself backtracking a few sentences because I realized I had shifted from one character to another. I think this was partly because in the chapters that focus on Blue, she’s the only one who we’re following, whereas in the chapters that focus on the Raven Boys there are several perspectives.

As you’ll remember from my review, I adored Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races—it was gorgeous, a soaring yet restrained duet. The Raven Cycle promises the opposite: all of Stiefvater’s beautiful writing and insightful characterization in a sprawling, wide-reaching tale that explores magic, fate, the limits of belief, and, you know, dead kings. COUNT ME IN!


Donna Tartt The Secret History

The Secret History  by Donna Tartt (1992). Something about Gansey put me in mind of Donna Tartt’s character Henry, a wealthy scholar totally out of touch with contemporary life or mores. They both have this delightfully nineteenth-century intellectual thing going on—the notion that knowledge is the highest pursuit and its own reward that only the very wealthy can envision for themselves. The Secret History is one of my favorite novels, so Gansey’s touch of Henry-ness delighted me. I write about The Secret History and a ’90s series that totally rips it off HERE.

Practical Magic Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (1995). Blue’s psychic-y, clairvoyant-y family is a little like the Owens family in Practical Magic. If you’ve only ever seen the Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman movie (don’t get me wrong: I love it and my sister and I watch it at least ten times a year, but . . . ) the book is far superior and completely different in tone. Check out my review of both the book and the movie HERE.

The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (2011). I know it’s totally cheating to put one of Stiefvater’s own books as a readalike, but I really feel like they go together in some way. Besides, as a bonus, you can read my review HERE and laugh at how I cried all over myself in public. Good times!

procured from: the library! But you should feel free to get me a copy of my very own for Chanukah, since I’ll certainly want to re-read it.

Alif the Unseen: Hack the Planet (and all connected realms)

Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 2012

review by Tessa


Alif – teenage hacker, selling online anonymity to the highest bidder
The Hand – whatever mysterious part of the semi-dictatorial/monarchical government that wants to destroy the hackers and gain control of everyone’s secrets and therefore lives
Intisar – rich Arab girl who knows a little too much about ancient secrets (also is sort of stringing Alif along even though she’s arranged to be married)
Dina – Alif’s serious & smart neighbor & friend since childhood, pulled inadvertently into the political turbulence caused by his chosen profession.
Vikram – an out of this world underworld contact who sees fit to help Alif and not eat him, thankfully


Alif’s life is falling apart a little. The government’s men in black have found an advisor who actually knows what (s)he’s doing and all the best hackers are being shut down. It’s the worst possible moment for Alif, as his one true love totally broke his heart, then sent him a really old book called The Thousand and One Days that makes the Hand’s pursuit of him even more frantic. He’s got to find out how it all connects before he loses his mind or dies or a little of both.


Alif’s world is never named, but it is populated with Muslims and Hindus and full of references to the class differences between Arabs and Indians and how Alif can’t get anywhere because he’s half one and half the other.  The reader can feel free to assume that it’s a fictionalized version of a general Middle East – it’s only described as “The Persian Gulf” — with all the political unrest and religious and cultural heritage that implies.

One of the things I loved about reading Alif the Unseen was how the world was immediately itself but never explicitly named, which gave it a real world grounding with a sheen of fairy tale.  The prologue opens the story in ancient Persia, with a conversation between a jinn and a manuscript writer, full of dankness and mysticism loaded with real dirt and organic necessity:

“‘Why?’ Reza had asked the creature desperately. ‘Why won’t you let him see you?’

In response, the thing had grown teeth: row after row of them, crowded together in a sickening grin.

. . . The thing seemed amused. It had appeared without a sound, and sat quietly within the confines of its chalk-and-ash prison at the center of the room, regarding Reza with yellow eyes. Reza suppressed a shudder. The sight of the creature still filled him with warring sensations of horror and triumph. When Reza had first summoned it, he had half-disbelieved that such a powerful entity could be held at bay by a few well-chosen words written on the floor, words his illiterate housekeeper could sweep away without incurring any harm whatsoever.”

After introducing the fact of the jinn, the book moves into the present, from one chalk word that traps a jinn so that it will have to come back night after night to tell its stories, to a device that can send as many words as one likes out into the world and never guarantee a response.  A reality grounded with a smartphone set up with a bypass of the “encryption installed by whatever telecom giant monopolized its patent. It displayed the fourteen text messages [Alif] had sent to Intisar over the past two weeks, at a self-disciplined rate of one per day. All were unanswered.”

Wilson smartly builds her world so that it doesn’t have to explain itself.  Dina knocks on Alif’s wall in an Arabic message – the Arabic script shows up within the text matter of factly and without footnote.  The reader is never told what “praying maghrib” means, what a chaiwalla is (though we can guess) or what article of clothing a thobe could be, in that annoying way that authors can insert a word in another language and immediately translate it, as if that’s how code-switching people speak, for the benefit of invisible readers watching their lives unfold. The references are part of Alif’s life, and he doesn’t have to explain them to himself. The reader can decide whether to look it up – it’s not there to make the narrative more “exotic”, it’s there because it’s his reality.

When Alif is thrown into the knowledge that his world and the world of the jinn both exist, it’s pretty rad. Pret-ty rad.

What is the book’s intention? Does it achieve that intention?

The back of my copy of Alif the Unseen (it’s an ARC, okay, so check the real thing out and make sure I quoted everything correctly) calls it “cyberpunk adventure with the enchantment of Middle Eastern mythology”.  Well, copywriter, I don’t know about “cyberpunk”. That puts me in mind of Billy Idol.

Alif combines a tense chase-based plot set in a society rife with baddie government spies and underground freedom fighters.  I’m glad that Wilson chose Alif as her protagonist – he’s a smart teenager with the misguided idealism of neutrality – he doesn’t care who uses his skills as long as they pay him.  He’s young and inexperienced enough that I can laugh at this line of his and still believe it would really come out of his mouth:

“‘You can’t marry this chode,’ he said hoarsely, ‘You’re my wife in the eyes of God if no one else.’”

Don’t judge the book by that line, by the way – it’s an example of good characterization through embarrassing dialogue.

So instead of a spy thriller set in the oh-so-trendy Arab Spring or an updated Kite Runner-esque allegorical knockoff, we get something so much better. A story with a conflicted narrator I can believe in, who has a real friendship with a real girl who lives a life according to religious beliefs that are portrayed in a real way, with respect but also through Alif’s slightly cynical teenage eye.  You can feel the years of friendship between Alif and Dina, and the ways that they have put the armor of stereotypes on each other as they grew up and a little apart, but how they can’t ever really believe that armor.  Alif lends Dina his fantasy novels (Philip Pullman!) and chats with her on his roof, and I could feel the comfortableness between them, and also the tiredness that had already sprung up from knowing where they were bound to go in life.

It’s Alif’s involvement with the studious, beautiful, and ultimately fickle Intisar that changes those courses, and sets them off through the city and into the blurred borderlands between worlds.  Along the way there’s a seriously ridiculous hacking scene that deserves top billing with the stuff that goes on in the classic movie Hackers, or even Lawnmower Man.  It’s forgiveable, because the rest of what Wilson writes is nimble and exciting. She argues culture and political morality through the reality of her characters and their world – sure, at a couple points the fabric of the story wears through a little and we see the bare philosophical points sticking through, but mostly I’d say that you’re in for a fun and substantial reading experience, one that’s probably unlike most of the other books published this year.


I wrote this review referencing an Advance Reading Copy, so any mistakes in quotation are mine, and you should buy a copy of the real book or get one from your library today.


Isn’t G. Willow Wilson a really cool name?


Daughter of Smoke and Bone / Laini Taylor – similar mix of fun and meaty story with Issues Underlying, and the whole World Beyond This One

Half My Head Is Quiet: Stick, by Andrew Smith

A Review of Stick by Andrew Smith

Feiwel and Friends, 2011

By REBECCA, August 10, 2012

Stick Andrew Smith


Stark (Stick) McClellan: Born with only one ear, Stick is used to hearing the world a little slant

Bosten McClellan: A high school junior with a temper who wants to be free of his father

Emily Lohman: Stick’s best friend, who shows him how a family could be

Aunt Dahlia: Stick and Bosten’s great-aunt who lives in a cozy bungalow in California and introduces them to the wonders of surfing, sleeping in, and Evan and Kim Hansen

Evan & Kim Hansen: Twin surf angels who take Stick and Bosten under their wetsuited wings


14-year-old Stick has always had his brother, Bosten, to look out for him, but when their abusive father learns that Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home. Once Bosten leaves, Stick takes his dad’s car and sets out to find him, thinking he headed to Aunt Dahlia’s house in California. Without much money or any connections, Stick finds himself in, erm, sticky situations (sorry!), which he handles because he has no other choice.


Saint Fillan's cave

Saint Fillan’s cave

Stick and Bosten’s cold, perfectionist mother and violent, exacting father have turned their house into an army barracks. There are rules to follow—the boys can’t have hair longer than half an inch, must always tuck in their shirts, can’t wear pajamas, can only shower on the weekends—and consequences if those rules are broken. Not only beatings, but being locked for days in what Stick calls St. Fillan’s room, the spare bedroom that is bare except for a sheeted cot and a bucket. Both Stick and Bosten, though, are warm, hungry for love beyond each other’s. Bosten is in love with his best friend, Paul, who runs hot and cold on him, and Stick feels awed and humbled by the love his best friend, Emily, shows him. The world of Stick, then, contains two extremes of love—the depths of joy that can come from intimacy as well as its poisonous inversion when intimacy is used as a weapon.

Mr. Zogs Sex waxThe structure of the book was particularly interesting: it’s kind of  folded in half. It’s divided into three sections, where the first is about Stick and Bosten’s life in Washington, the second about their visit to California to stay with Aunt Dahlia, and the the third the journey from the former to the latter, again, when Stick makes the same journey to follow Bosten. I bring this up because it facilitates one of my favorite thing about both Stick and Andrew Smith‘s work more generally (you can check out my review of The Marbury Lens here), which is that his novels take us to many different places, but each of them feels like the novel’s home when we’re in it. When Stick is in Washington, and the brothers are going to basketball games, getting into fights, and going to school in the damp chill, I feel fully sunk in that world as a reader; same with when they’re surfing in bright California. Then, when Stick travels to California to follow Bosten, the genre of the book really changes, from being an interpersonal drama to being a kind of adventure-quest-thriller. It doesn’t feel like a shift at all, though, but rather a natural outgrowth of the world and characters to which Smith has introduced us.

did this book live up to its intentions?

Stick Andrew SmithA thousand times, yes. Stick is a book that has so many things going for it that it’s hard to know where to begin. Wonderful characters who have deep relationships with each other? Check. Stick and Bosten’s conversations are as elliptical and offhand as tight siblings’ can be. Serious emotional and physical threats that bring out those characters’ depths and fears? Double check. Stick and Bosten’s father is chilling, but in a human way, so he can’t be written off as exaggeration or romanticization. Similarly, some of the people that Stick meets on his way to California (about which, obviously, I’m being quite vague, because I don’t want to give things away) exemplify the kind of terrifying way that the world feels out of your control at 14. Still, Stick is a survivor, so strongly drawn is he to get to California and make sure Bosten is all right (you might remember that I featured Stick in my list YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse.)

Stick is also a beautiful exploration of very different types of masculinity. Throughout the book, we get many examples of how Stick and Bosten’s father thinks men should be, down to his conviction that men don’t wear pajamas or use shampoo. Bosten and Stick don’t agree with their father’s notions, but, as Stick says, they never even thought about the rules. It’s just the way things are. Being gay does not, of course, align with their father’s notions of how a man should act (although, further, we get hints that perhaps these rules are as much for Mr. McClellan to clarify for himself how he feels he must be as they are for his sons). Throughout Stick, then, Stick is exposed to multiple models of all the other ways to be a man there are besides his father’s, some violent, some desperate, some generous.

Stick is a wonderfully-written, exciting, and moving story about brothers, about need, and about the many ways we can rescue each other. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

personal disclosure

I love love love books where siblings are best friends because my sister and I are planning to take over the world! Also, I love the cover of this book so much.


Brothers Bishop Bart Yates

The Brothers Bishop by Bary Yates (2005). A totally amazing book about brothers, love, obligation, sex, archaeology, and the ocean.

Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). The voice in Punkzilla is extraordinary. I sort of feel like Bosten and Punkzilla would meet and Bosten would adopt Punkzilla because he would remind him of Stick.

My Heartbeat Garret Freymann-Weyr

My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr (2002). A short and lovely book about the relationship between Ellen, the older brother that she adores, and his best friend and lover.

procured from: bought

Re-Read: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles

A Review of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards

HarperCollins, 1974

By REBECCA, August 6, 2012

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles Julie Andrews Edwards


Ben, Tom, and Lindy Potter meet Professor Savant one Halloween night, and aren’t sure whether they believe him that there is a place called Whangdoodleland, where the last of that kind rules over a kingdom of otherworldly creatures. But, the more they practice the Professor’s methods of using their imagination to get closer and closer to Whangdoodleland, the more convinced they become that they can travel there and meet the Whangdoodle. Once they’re in Whangdoodleland, however, they realize that imagination is a dangerous tool that can be used against them just as easily as they can use it for their own purposes.

why am i re-reading this?

Julie Andrews as Mary PoppinsI’ve been feeling a little lazy and uninspired in my reading lately. Maybe it’s the oppressive heat of this interminable summer; maybe just a little slump brought on by a borderline-shameful bout of attention-span-ruining tv on dvd watching; I dunno. Either way, I decided it was time to go back to my roots and pull one of my childhood favorites off the shelf. I first read The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles as a very young kid (it’s middle grade, I should mention) and had no idea that the author who created this super creative world was none other than the rather stern, besmocked, rosy-lipped Mary Poppins that my sister made us watch repeatedly. What?! Someone who can act, sing, dance, and write? No fair! Inspiring!

I have really strong memories of the world of Whangdoodleland from reading it as a kid. It’s filled with awesome creatures and gorgeous landscapes:

“Their first impression of the forest was that it was dark and gloomy. But as their eyes adjusted to the light, they saw that it was unusually colorful.

The plum-colored trees had brown, gnarled trunks. Most of them were embraced by a vivid pink ivy, growing and twining around the tall columns and twisted limbs. Garlands of the honey-cream flowers hung from the branches, linking one tree to another. The floor was mossy and bedded with ferns the color of amethyst. Huge pearl-white and crimson orchids grew at the side of the road, which pointed straight as an arrow into the dark interior.

Then they saw the eyes. There were thousands of them—large, unblinking, tortoiseshell-yellow orbs staring down through the leaves from every part of the forest” (169).

Julie Andrews Edwards The Last of the Really Great WhangdoodlesBut my favorite thing about The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was that Professor Savant wasn’t able to get to Whangdoodleland without the Potter kids because the only way to get there is to have a boundless and malleable imagination—an imagination that only children have. So, Savant engages the kids in what is, to them, a great adventure; at the same time, though, he is placing them in great danger because he is dependent on the resource of their imagination. Lindy is seven, Thomas is ten, and Ben is thirteen. By the logic of the book, Lindy has the deftest imagination and is better than her brothers at surrendering to it entirely. Some of the most interesting moments in the book are when Ben, on the cusp of losing his childish ability to view reality as something different, is unable to do what he needs to do to keep himself and his siblings safe. At the start of the book, his maturity makes him responsible and trustworthy; someone Lindy looks up to. But, in Whangdoodleland, he’s something of a liability, and Edwards does a great job of capitalizing on those moments.

did the book hold up?

Mostly. I had forgotten that the mythology of mystical creatures in Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles is that these creatures used to have a lot of power when people believed in them, but

“as the years passed, man became involved in technology and agriculture and industry. Of course, it was natural for him to want to learn about his environment and the laws of nature, about the universe and how to get to the moon, and so on. But as he broadened the new part of his mind, so he closed down a beautiful and fascinating part of the old—the area of fantasy. The more knowledge man gained, the more self-conscious he became about believing in fanciful creatures. People began to think that such things as dragons, goblins and gremlins didn’t exist. The terrible thing is that when man dismissed all the fanciful creatures from his mind, the Whangdoodles disappeared along with them” (34).

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles Julie Andrews EdwardsThis sets up the stuff about kids’ versus adults’ imaginations and their relative power really well. One of the tropes that I often like in middle grade fantasy is the way that fear gains power the more you believe in it—the nightmare of imagination’s power. Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles has a splash of this for sure, but it wasn’t quite as dark as I remembered. The Prock, a skinny, slinking man who I always thought of as a sinister villain when I read the book as a kid now appeared to me as a totally reasonably watchdog of the magic of Whangdoodleland. He tries to stop the Professor and the Potters from getting to Whangdoodleland and meeting the Whangdoodle because he fears that if they can get there then humans could potentially overrun Whangdoodleland.

The scenes where the Professor trains the Potters to get in touch with their senses and imaginations totally hold up (plus they are constantly eating picnics and scones and stuff, yum!) and I found myself wishing, just as I did when I was a kid, that I could go on grand adventures via my imagination.

The only thing that felt a great deal different on this reading was the quest that the Potters go on to get through Whangdoodleland and meet the Whangdoodle. It didn’t seem quite as tense and suspenseful as I remembered, and the little clues they get along the way didn’t seem quite as clever. Still, though, the meeting with the Whangdoodle was just as delightful as I remembered and the ending just as good.

Check out this awesome art that a 3rd grade class did after reading The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles:



Swamp Gaboon!

procured from: my home library

So, what about you? Any childhood favorites you’ve been meaning to dust off?

When the light from the lost land shall return: The Dark is Rising Sequence

As I make my way to ALA Annual, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite series, written by an author who will be awarded for writing it at ALA Anaheim 2012. Susan Cooper, I’d say it’s well-deserved.

by Tessa

The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence
Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010 (omnibus edition)

Over Sea, Under Stone, 1965
The Dark Is Rising, 1973
Greenwitch, 1974
The Grey King, 1975
Silver on the Tree, 1977


Major Goodies:
Simon, Jane & Barnabas Drew – goodhearted & resourceful, but un-magical
Will Stanton – young but Old
Merriman Lyon – little bit Indiana Jones, little bit Gandalf, a lot Merlin
Bran Davies – mysterious albino harp player of the Welsh mountains

Major Baddies:
The Black Rider – evil
Caradog Pritchard – human but twisted by jealousy
Those Whom The Dark Embodies – variously evil, whether in yachts or in caravans


The Dark is Rising! Well, technically it’s been rising for hundreds of years. But now things are getting serious and the Old Ones need work quickly.  They have to depend on the help of children: three resourceful siblings, the last, youngest member of the Old Ones, and a surprising progeny appearing out of time. Or else the world will be a truly terrible place.

How did you encounter this series?
I was stuck on Narnia for a long, long time and had never heard of Susan Cooper or this series until I was wandering the stacks of the School of Information Science Library in search of something suitable for my booktalking assignment for my Children’s Services course. And there was The Dark is Rising. A book about an epic snow in a small English town, and the discovery of old knowledge and new responsibilities for its protagonist, Will Stanton.  Cozy and cold, mythic and childhood-nostalgic, hopeful and thrilling each have their place in this book. It was the perfect thing to curl up with in a silent, chilly Brutalist university building under the guise of classwork.  I still can’t think of a better book to read on a snowy day.

photo by flickr user enigmatic

It’s four days until Christmas and one day until Will’s birthday. Will is happy in his crowded house with all his brothers and sisters – the only thing he can wish for is more snow, “beautiful, deep, blanketing snow” so it feels like a real holiday.  His sister chops onions to season a meal in the warm kitchen as Will goes to feed the rabbits with his brother.  His family is the kind who walks to the neighboring farms to sing carols and drink hot cider in celebration of Christmas.  They live the kind of poor but idyllic life that sounds so appealing in books – the kind where hard work yields greater appreciation for family and the gifts of nature.

Something’s off, though, and it’s not just the thin, gray snowfall. The rabbits huddle in the corner of their hutch, afraid of the smell of Will’s hands. The radio blasts static when Will walks by. The crows in the grove of horse-chestnuts spring up and wheel around uneasily the sky when he passes. On the road, Will says he sees “a weird-looking man all hunched over, and when he saw me looking he ran off behind a tree. Scuttled, like a beetle.”  When Will mentions it to Mr. Dawson, his neighbor, Dawson just says “The Walker is abroad.”

And so Will, though he doesn’t know it yet, is introduced to the world of old knowledge, situations and phrases that seem plain but are otherworldy. As a reader, I was powerless to resist a book with this combination of rural life and eerie signs.

Plus, it had rad illustrations by Alan Cober:

photo by flickr user Ojimbo

Cooper, who won the 2012 Margaret A. Edwards award for this very work, is concerned with how good can defeat evil. The Edwards committee describes it thus: “one of the most influential epic high fantasies in literature, Cooper evokes Celtic and Arthurian mythology and masterly world-building in a high-stakes battle between good and evil.”

Cooper prefers the terms Dark and Light to good and evil, and interestingly, the Light side here is ready to sacrifice things for its cause – it can come off as cold and practical.  That trait speaks to Cooper’s ambition for the scale of her story. It’s epic on  both sides, it encompasses three different kinds of magic as well as at least two different belief systems/mythologies, and the network of dark and light spans the world. But she doesn’t forget that humans are at the heart of the struggle, and her human characters are essential to the battle, as well as human imperfection. As Merriman says: “Every human being who loves another loves imperfection, for there is no perfect being on this earth–nothing is so simple as that.”

There’s so much to cover! Each book is centered around finding an item or items that will allow the Light to overpower the Dark side, and the searches happen to have to involve youth and unsuspecting humans.  Here’s a list of the things that need to be recovered over the course of the books:

  • The Six Signs (wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone)
  • The Grail
  • The Harp of Gold
  • The Crystal Sword

Although most of the stories center in either Cornwall (the seaside), Buckinghamshire (the forest), or Wales (the mountains), the last book takes place in a land out of time and space.  Giving each book a quest in a small location but imbuing it with big implications that stretch out across time ensures that the series has tension and balance. The smaller quests draw the reader into the books, while the larger quest draws the books together into the sequence.  It’s both mysterious and comforting, and I think that great balance in construction and tone is one of the reasons it has remained a fantasy classic.

What are the books’ intentions and are they achieved?
You don’t have to take my word for it, these books are influential and award-winning for a reason. I remembered being initially enthralled on my first read, and was able to read all five in under a month on my second read with the same amount of enthusiasm.

Let me make a list of how these books achieve their greatness:

1. exploration-type adventure

Can we all agree that exploring things is fun? Cooper’s characters get to explore their surroundings, usually in search of something, using clues (as in the first  and third books), or exploring one’s familiar home surroundings with new eyes (as in the second book), or exploring the legendary past with a real life person from it (the fourth and fifth books).

image via World Digital Library

2. historical mysteriousness
King Arthur and his dudebros feature heavily in these books. You don’t have to be an Arthur nerd from way back to enjoy this. You can simply revel in the way the plot doesn’t falter under the weight of the heavy literary baggage that comes with Arthurian legend. Like a fine batter, it incorporates, and even adds some pagan fun (“fun”) into the mix. This is the stuff of tragic folk songs ONLY OLDER.  The books have pedigree, and they treat it with pomp.
3. noble cause
Like many fantasies this book has a world that lives behind our world and behind what we see, but this one is very close to us. The Old Ones live all around us, and they rely on us not ever expecting their magic to be real to keep themselves hidden. The world that Will, Merriman, and the Drews are working to save is very much their world and our world, made out of the darkness and light in everyday life, and so the cause matters all the more.  In one scene, Will encounters a bigoted man and thinks that:

“From the moment when he had heard the man in the car begin to shout, and seen the look in his eyes, he had been no Stanton at all but wholly an Old One, dreadfully and suddenly aware of danger. The mindless ferocity of this man, and all those like him, their real loathing born of nothing more solid than insecurity and fear… it was a channel. Will knew that he had been gazing into the channel down which the powers of the Dark, if they gained their freedom, could ride in an instant to complete control of the earth.”

And then, the Light comes back in an equally quotidian way:

“Tea was laid out on the orange wicker table, glass-topped, that stood outdoors with its matching chairs in high summer. Will’s spirits began to rise. For an Old One with the tastes and appetite of a small boy, it was hard to despair for long over the eternal fallibility of mankind when confronted with home-made bread, farm butter, sardine-and-tomato paste, raspberry jam, scones, and Mrs. Stanton’s delicious, delicate, unmatchable sponge cake.”

the Greenwitch lies under the sea… photo by flickr user greenwich photography

4. real danger
There are snows that threaten an entire village. A man’s life and livelihood ruined by suspicion and jealousy, which makes him go and change the course of the lives around him.  Servants make wrong decisions and exist in a limbo of fear for hundreds of years, and their minds are warped so much they can’t even save themselves when help is offered. A slimy, isolated, covetous totem of the sea haunts the mind of a girl:

“she knew suddenly, out there in the cold dawn, that this silent image somehow held within it more power than she had ever sensed before in any creature or thing. Thunder and storms and earthquakes were there, and all the force of the earth and sea. It was outside Time, boundless, ageless, beyond any line drawn between good and evil. Jane stared at it, horrified, and from its sightless head the Greenwitch stared back. it would not move, or seem to come alive, she knew that. Her horror came not from fear, but from the awareness she suddenly felt form the image of an appalling, endless loneliness.”

5. deep magic
Not only do we have the kind of magic that existed at the Round Table, passed down in an awesome (I say that with full meaning) way through the Book of Grammarye, there is also even older magic. I like to call it space magic in my head, but that’s just me. This is the stuff that can be used for such unearthly things as this accident:

“He could never explain, afterwards, how he came to stumble. He could only have said, very simply, that the mountain shrugged. … The mountain did shrug,… so that a piece of the path beneath Will’s feet jumped perceptibly to one side and back again, like a cat humping its back, and Will saw it with sick horror only in the moment that he lost his balance and went rolling down.”

WALES. by flickr user formalfallacy

6. modern but ancient (and gorgeous) locales
I want to go to everywhere that is in this book.  The hedges, paths, stone walls, sheep cottages, creeks, boulder-strewn mountains, and cliff-buttressed seas are wonderfully described.  Here’s one small moment from Silver on the Tree that exemplifies the natural detail thrown into the descriptions:

“Jane peered closely at hedgerow and field as the car turned out into the lane, and saw Barney gazing too, but there was no sign of anything except white fool’s parsley, and rose-bay willow-herb tall in the grass, and the sweep of the tall green hedges above.”

And here at the beginning of The Grey King:

“The earth smelled clean. Yarrow and ragwort starred the hedgerows white and yellow, with the red berries of the hawthorn thick above them; the sweeping slopes where the valley began to rise were golden-brown with bracken, dry as tinder in this strange Indian-summer sun. Hazy on the horizon all around, the mountains lay like sleeping animals, their muted colours changing with every hour of the day from brown to green to purple and softly back again.”

7. you matter
All this magic and legend wouldn’t mean half so much if it weren’t anchored to humanity. There’s a clear division between the Old Ones and what humans are, and the Old Ones clearly need the humans to win, even if they don’t share the same morality (for lack of a better word).  It’s Will’s family and the sea captain of the house that the Drews rent in Cornwall, and the good sheep farmers in Wales that make the world worth saving. Cooper writes these people in so you know them.


The Snow Spider / Jenny Nimmo / 1986
The first in a trilogy, though I’ve only read this one. It’s set in Wales and involves sheep and magic and is utterly charming. It captured my imagination when I read it as a kid. But there’s a darkness in there, too.

Under the Mountain / Maurice Gee / 1987
More on the sci-fi tip, it’s a story about twins on vacation in Auckland, New Zealand,who discover that there are creatures posing as humans under a mountain. Tense creepfests ensue.

Disclosures & Digressions

1. I’ve never seen the movie they made based on the second book, and I suggest you do the same. And so does Susan Cooper: “You do have to do violence to a book to make it into a screenplay — the two mediums are so different,” Cooper says. “But the alteration is so enormous in this case. It is just different.” from this NPR piece on the books and their transition to a movie.

2. There was less food than I had expected! I always expect a lot of food in fantasy/quest stories so I tried to keep track.  Here’s the pages that I managed to mark, saying the things they ate:

“a stack of fresly-baked scones cut in half, thickly buttered and put together again; a packet of squashed-fly biscuits; three apples; and a great slab of dark-yellowy-orange cake, thick and crumbling with fruit.” (21)
“a dish of gooseberry tart and a small jug of cream.” (50)
“three plates of cold mackerel and salad covered up on the kitchen table, left for their lunch.” (157)
a sandwich: “the bread was soft and new, with plenty of butter, and in the middle there was some delicious kind of potted meat.” (175)
“two fried eggs, thick slices of home-cured bacon, and hot flat Welsh-cakes, like miniature pancakes fleck with currants.” (750)
the afore-quoted “home-made bread, farm butter, sardine-and-tomato paste, raspberry jam, scones, and Mrs. Stanton’s delicious, delicate, unmatchable sponge cake.” (863)

It’s a wonder these children aren’t diabetic with massively high cholesterol.

3. I hereby call for a reissue with the old Alan Cober covers. You can’t improve on them, and they didn’t try very hard (I’m sensing they were going for boy appeal in the redesign and ended up in Clip Art Purgatory). This is worse than replacing Stephen Gammell’s iconic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark illustrations, because at least they replaced him with another real artist, Brett Helquist (they still shouldn’ta done it, but anyway). Please compare:

More images here:


My Hideous Proto-Progeny: This Dark Endeavor

A Review of This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book One by Kenneth Oppel

Simon & Schuster, 2011

by REBECCA, February 10, 2012

Awesome & relevant cover


Victor Frankenstein: impulsive and mischievous teen with a taste for theatrics and daredevilry

Konrad Frankenstein: more docile and charming firstborn twin and Victor’s other half

Elizabeth Lavenza: adventurous and smart cousin-sister-friend of the twins

Henry Clerval: Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth’s best friend; many-phobia-ed budding playwright

Alphonse Frankenstein: the twins’ father, a liberal and a scholar

Julius Polidori: an elderly former alchemist with an underground laboratory

Dr. Murnau: cutting-edge scientist who awakes Victor’s interest in the natural sciences

Krake: Polidori’s lynx familiar



How far would you go and what would you risk to save your soul mate? When Konrad falls ill, Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry undertake a grand and dangerous adventure to save his life. Forever.

aw, twinsies!

yikes, twinsies!


As you likely guessed from the self-explanatory title, this is a story of Victor Frankenstein (that’s Dr. Frankenstein, to you, thank you, he worked hard for that degree in creative revivification) in his early years. As this is a prequel to Frankenstein, it takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, during the French Revolution. Now, before you say to yourself: self, I don’t appreciate when random authors think they can do whatever they like with the most perfect novel ever written—or, for that matter: self, I don’t dig historical fiction and I don’t understand why Frankenstein has all those glaciers in it—pause to consider several things.

First, This Dark Endeavor is a totally contemporary-feeling young adult novel, so it doesn’t feel like historical fiction at all, except in a bit of a Jacques-Tardi-adventure-punk way.

Second, for all that it has the word “apprenticeship” in the title, this is really an adventure story. It contains tree-climbing, animal-evading, death- and parent-defying shenanigans, and, yes, the wrestling of a giant prehistoric fish. Indeed, Victor isn’t really much for the old book-learning, even if he does become fascinated by the dark arts. He’d really rather explore things, or jump off of them. Konrad is the better student; perhaps even the better human being, Victor sometimes feels—and Victor often waits to see what Konrad’s response is before he knows how he feels. So, when Konrad suddenly becomes ill, Victor sees for the first time what it is to be truly alone (ah! “alone, bad; friends, good”—break my heart). Bereft and terrified, he will stop at nothing to save his brother.

Now, anyone who knows me at all knows that I have a vast soft spot for monomaniacs, especially when their pursuits aren’t purely selfish. While Victor begins the novel with nothing more than a curious spirit and a desire to “create something, some great work that will be useful and marvelous to all humanity,” his drive to save Konrad (or is that his only goal?) quickly enters the monomaniacal territory that Frankenstein readers will recognize (35).

The setting—the streets, forests, and lake of Geneva, and the Frankenstein family château—is well-drawn, but not belabored, as it is merely the backdrop for the adventures and discoveries that unfold. The real treat for me was watching the character of Victor emerge from an ordinary teenage boy to the driven, tormented man we know he will become. Oppel has a light touch, and he manages to create the circumstances for this development realistically and without preciousness as it regards Frankenstein. This was impressive, indeed, especially given that Oppel did indulge in multiple references to Shelley’s novel and its intertexts, which will likely tickle Frankenstein enthusiasts and pass benignly under the notice of others.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Oppel seemed interested in similar things about Victor’s life as I would be: what sparked his interest in science? how did that interest, ahem, grow to take on a life of its own? what’s the big f-ing deal about Elizabeth, anyway? is Victor actually super-smart or just deluded? There is no moralizing here, even when the Frankensteins’ liberal atheism butts up against Elizabeth’s Catholic tendencies; Oppel offers no answers to the budding questions raised about life, death, and nature. Nah, he’s too busy writing a fast-paced adventure story, even if the goal of that adventure is of the alchemical sort:

Elizabeth gave a shriek, for the answer had come from behind us. We all whirled to behold, standing in the doorway, Father.

“You’ve discovered the Biblioteka Obscura, I see,” he said, torchlight and shadow dancing disconcertingly over his craggy face. . . . “And would I be right in assuming, Victor, that you were the one to shake hands with the door?”

I heard Konrad chuckle.

“Yes,” I admitted, “and it very nearly crushed my hand!”

“No,” said my father, “it was not designed to crush the hand, just hold on to it. Forever.”

I looked at him, shocked. “Truly?”

“When I discovered this secret passage as a young man, no one had descended the stairs for more than two hundred years. And the last person to do so was still here. What remained of him, anyway. The bones of his forearm dangled from the door. The rest of his ruined body had fallen into the shaft.”

“We wondered if we’d seen . . . a finger bone down there,” Elizabeth said.

“No doubt I missed a bit”’ said father. (21)

In short, This Dark Endeavor is not such a dark endeavor, after all. Oppel’s companion novel has very little of Shelley’s doom and gloom “workshop of filthy creation.” It’s more a château of slightly besmudgéd creation. Oppel uses the details and backstory of Shelley’s original as a canvas on which he paints his own picture of a particular moment in which a group of teenagers come of age through their quest—a bit like a Stand By Me for the upper class 18th century set. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a superficial story, simply that Oppel doesn’t treat the material with such deference that he is afraid to have fun with it. The writing and pacing are deft, but not showy, and the story immediately engaging, even if it isn’t particularly complex.

personal disclosure

I feel honor-bound to mention that I worship Shelley’s Frankenstein. This, of course, made me delighted by the prospect of this novel, as well as dubious that it would be able to do much more than flesh out the backstory that Shelley already gave us. Also, I think I expected Victor to be something like a youthful combination of Snape and Heathcliff: a dark and brooding potions savant. I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case. One thing that I was particularly looking forward to in this book was the potential character development of my favorite Frankenstein character, Henry Clerval. While Victor is busy grave-robbing and corpse-knitting, Henry is, you know, writing poems and reading books, and probably wearing flowers in his buttonholes. So, while we do get a view of the teenaged Clerval, he’s not particularly developed and we miss out on seeing the seeds of their mutual love and admiration. Ah, well, perhaps in the next installment.


The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (2007). Both books engage historical mysteries/quests for knowledge in appealing and unique ways.

Procured from: I received this book from the publisher and was in no way bribed or compensated to write this review.

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