Review of “Wildlife” by Fiona Wood

This is yet another amazing Australian Young Adult book that knocks you over with its honesty and emotional impact.

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The story is told from the point of view of two sixteen year old girls in Fitzroy, Australia. One is Louisa (“Lou”), who is trying to come to grips with the accidental death of her boyfriend Fred; and the other is Sibylla (“Sib”), who must confront a slew of social pressures that include sexuality. They are thrown together as two of six bunkmates at a school nine-week wilderness experience.

Lou wants to keep mostly to herself, but it’s not an environment conducive to privacy. She makes a connection with Sib’s oldest friend, a brilliant and reclusive (possibly Asperger’s) boy named Michael. Among the things about which they bond are bewilderment and frustration over Sib’s loyalty to her nasty best friend Holly, and Sib’s infatuation with Ben Capaldi, the school’s golden boy.

The entry of Ben into Sib’s life presents a number of new dilemmas for her. One, he is in the “popular” group, and that group has an edge of cruelty that is not really part of who Sib is. (But who is she, she wonders? She has always been someone who just “goes along”… Things happen around her and she just reacts, rather than stand up for her beliefs. Is insensitivity to others the price for being with Ben?)

Then there is the issue of sex, which seems to accompany a relationship with someone in the popular group. Sib has not yet had sex, but it looms large in her life:

…at sixteen, whether you have, or have not, had sex can sometimes feel like the Great Divide. It’s not like friends who used to be close are gone, it’s just that they’ve migrated to another country.”

Sib is “dead keen to cross ‘sex’ off [her] to-do list.”

She is fully aware of the risks and precautions involved. Her mother is a doctor who runs a Sexually Transmitted Infections Clinic in Fitzroy. Sib has memorized all of the “fun facts for teenagers” regularly promulgated by her mother, an excellent list which Sib runs through when thinking about what her mother would say about her having sex.

Lou’s agonies are of a more tortured nature. She is “dead keen” as well, you might say, but in her case it is to honor Fred’s memory. She misses him terribly, and worries that even taking an interest in the people around her would be like “cheating” on him. Why should she feel any happiness out of living if he is dead? She reflects:

I love you by remembering you. If I don’t think of you every time there’s something important, then doesn’t that mean you are no longer important to me? And how can I let that happen when you were so very much the important one to me?”

But she also understands, although it hurts her to do so:

And if I don’t keep you always in my mind, won’t memory walk away? Or stave thin? Don’t memories need maintenance? The trouble is that keeping it alive, giving it all that energy, will, determination, stops me from being alive in the present.”

Although Michael is rejected or ignored by most of the other kids, Lou thinks he is a lovely person – kind and thoughtful. He is, however, as besotted with Sybilla as Sybilla is with Ben. Nevertheless, he does so much to help Lou. At one point, he introduces her to the snow gum trees:

They have to survive such harsh conditions, such extremes of weather, bits of them die. And they are able to grow new wood around the old dead wood. That’s how they get to be such strange and beautiful shapes. They are hardier and more complicated than, say, the messmate or peppermint eucalypts farther down the mountain, which are protected by a softer climate.”

Lou is caring and smart too. She has affection for Michael, and is concerned about Sib, wanting to “save” her from the detrimental influence of her new crowd. She doesn’t feel free to speak, however, until the actions of some mean and vicious kids create a crisis. Lou exhorts Sib:

The only person you should be is yourself. You can’t control perception. All you can control is how you treat someone else.”

Sib is forced to try and figure out at last who she wants to be.

Discussion: There are so many aspects to this story that deserve mention, but the most significant is the treatment of sexuality. The author takes us through the gamut of attitudes toward it, especially the differences between how the boys and the girls think about it, and how, within those groups, those with good self-esteem differ from those without it. The author also puts into relief the heteronormative assumptions so characteristic of the majority.

The absolute best message of the book to me, however, is a somewhat spoilery one, so if you want to avoid it, skip to the Evaluation.

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DISCUSSION WITH SPOILERS: SKIP TO EVALUATION TO AVOID:

I was rather surprised that Sib ended up having sex with Ben, although given her physical attraction to him combined with her susceptibility to social pressure, I should not have been. But I loved her reaction to her first experience. After having sex for the first time she thinks:
 

Orgasm – huh – sooo much easier on your own. Who knew? How do people even coordinate it with all that distracting – sex – going on?”

 
I also loved that after she had gotten this landmark experience out of the way, she doesn’t feel the need or desire to repeat it until she is ready to do so; until there is a better prologue and build-up, which she and Ben have not had. It’s an important step she takes in asserting her own preferences apart from social pressures.

END OF SPOILERS.

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Evaluation: This is a moving and memorable story. The two issues it explores in depth – grief and sexuality – are handled expertly and with keen insight. As for the sexuality, I’d say it is about the best YA book I’ve seen for presenting the pros and cons of premarital sex with intelligence, understanding, and without didacticism. This book has won a number of well-deserved awards, including Book of the Year (Older Readers), Children’s Book Council of Australia.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. in 2014 by Poppy, an imprint of Little Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group.

Review of “The Girl With All The Gifts” by M.R. Carey

The Girl with All the Gifts is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel that distinguishes itself with a big twist uncommon to any zombie stories I have previously seen.

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Much of the story is told from the perspective of Melanie, a ten-year-old girl who lives in a cell in an army barrack outside of what was formerly London. Every day she is strapped into a wheelchair and taken to a school, which she attends along with other similarly-restrained children. But Melanie is smarter than any of the other kids, and she also has a crush on one of her teachers, Miss Justineau, who is the only one who treats Melanie with compassion. Miss Justineau often reads to the children from books about Greek gods and goddesses, and Melanie’s favorite is about Pandora, “the girl with all the gifts.”

According to legend, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods, as a punishment to humanity for Promentheus’s theft of the secret of fire. Pandora has all kinds of wonderful qualities, but she is curious, and can’t resist opening a box she isn’t supposed to open, which releases terrible evils out onto the Earth. One can assume Pandora’s tale is allegorical for the apocalypse that has destroyed most of the human race and created the “hungries” (as zombies are called), as well as the subsequent developments in the book.

Pandora by John William Waterhouse, 1896

Pandora by John William Waterhouse, 1896

Shortly into the story, the army compound where Melanie lives is breached by “junkers” (“survivalist arseholes”) who live off the land and take their chances. They have managed to organize; devise a way to protect themselves; and herd a band of “hungries” to use as bioweapons in their quest to capture the weapons and supplies of the base. Melanie, Miss Justineau, the base scientist Caroline Caldwell (a Nazi-like evil woman), and a young private, Kieran Gallagher, escape in a broken-down Humvee led by Sergeant Eddie Parks, who has become the default leader of the base and now of the escaping group.

They need to find refuge in a city with shelter and supplies, somehow making it through hoards of hungries, bands of junkers, and last but not least, by surviving the worst instincts of each other. All the characters reveal their strengths and weaknesses in the process, leading to an ending that is unexpected and impressively creative.

Discussion: Carey’s zombies are distinctive in two big ways. One, unfortunately, I cannot reveal. But the second reason is that the author actually accounts for their origin and nature in a scientifically plausible way. This certainly made reading a book about zombies more palatable for me, and added interest and realism to the usual zombie plotlines.

I also appreciated that the story is more character than action driven. All of the characters are fleshed-out (so to speak) except for Dr. Caldwell, who could have used a bit more nuance. As usual (and perhaps gratifyingly), it seems harder for authors to add nuance to evil.

The author includes occasional musings on what constitutes a “monster,” and whether one actually has to be a “zombie” to qualify. Gallagher, for instance, “…knows all about monsters, because he comes from a family in which monsters predominate.” In fact, one quite often has cause to wonder in this book who the real “monsters” are. This was a nice touch.

Evaluation: Zombie books are not my cup of tea, but this book is very well-done.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, a member of the Hachette Book Group, 2014

Review of “The Future for Curious People” by Gregory Sherl

The 2013 movie “About Time,” tells the story of a young man who uses his ability to travel back to the recent past in order to change what already happened. This book is similar to the movie in a way, except these protagonists have the ability to see potential futures – traveling forward, rather than back – so that they can make changes now if they so desire. Both stories conclude with a new appreciation for, and commitment to the “now,” but not necessarily by choice.

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The Future For Curious People is centered around the idea of centers for “romantic envisioning.” This new popular business allows paying customers to investigate possible futures with particular potential partners. Evelyn Shriner, a 25-year-old librarian, checks out what her future would be like with her boyfriend of two years, Adrian, and decides it is sub-par, so she breaks up with him.

Meanwhile, Godfrey Burkes is pressured by his girlfriend Madge to see the very same envisionist, and there he runs into Evelyn. Godfrey is not only somewhat appalled by the future he sees with Madge, but can’t stop thinking about Evelyn. Nor can Evelyn stop thinking about Godfrey.

Through a convoluted process that you know is inevitable, Godfrey makes his way to Evelyn, with enough obstacles in the path to make Odysseus’s trip to get to Penelope almost seem easier. Along the way, both of them think a lot about love and what it means, and whether or not they want to take the leap of faith required when one can’t know for certain that the future will hold a “happy ending.”

Evaluation: The author’s quirky writing style and ideas about love remind me of author Lydia Netzer in a (good) way. There is a subtle humor and sweetness that underlies the sometimes scathing social commentary, making this ultimately a “meta” love story about love itself.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2014

Review of “Sinner” by Maggie Stiefvater

I am one of those people who totally loved the “Shiver” series by Maggie Stiefvater and was sad that she repeatedly claimed to be done with the characters. She creates characters you love, and you don’t want them to be out of your life. So imagine my joy when I discovered she backpedaled, and took a break from writing the “Raven Boys” series to sneak in a book on Cole and Isabel.

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Cole St. Clair is a rock star, lead singer of the band Narkotika. Two years earlier he had passed out during a concert and went missing. In truth, he would have died, had he not been made a werewolf. And it was because he was a werewolf that he met Isabel, whose brother became a werewolf and died trying to stop being one.

Isabel went back from Minnesota to the L.A. area, and now Cole has just signed a deal to go to L.A. as well, to make a comeback via starring on a reality show. He misses music, and wants to play again, but what he really wants is to be with Isabel:

Isabel was the real thing. She was the song.”

Isabel and Cole both realize they are the only ones that really know each other. For every one else, they each put up a facade. Even Jeremy, Cole’s close friend and the former bass player for Narkotika, doesn’t know all Cole’s secrets like Isabel does. But Isabel is afraid. Her parents have taught her that love is quixotic and “happy ever after” is chimerical. She asks Cole:

‘What do you want from me?’

‘I told you,’ he said. ‘Dinner. Dessert. Sex. Life.’”

But what Isabel thinks is:

And here is what I was most afraid of: that Cole St. Clair would fall in love with me, and I’d fall in love with him, both of us human weapons, and we’d both end up with broken hearts.”

In spite of Cole’s persistence with Isabel, he is afraid too. His parents just seem tired, and weary of life. He doesn’t want to end up like that. But in running from that specter, he has gone too far, too fast, and lost touch with himself along the way.

Yet Isabel (and only she) knows what is inside of him:

How ridiculous to reduce Cole to his mess and his loudness, to be so furious with him that I erased the other true parts.”

At one point, Cole presses his forehead against Isabel’s and she holds his face and they stay like that for a while. She thinks:

It was so much us and so little him and me. Us, us, us. The opposite of lonely was this.”

So what, if anything, can convince them to overcome their fears and take a chance on each other? Isabel asks her uncle why his marriage didn’t work out, and he inadvertently provides her with the epiphany she needs, to decide one way or the other.

Discussion: Stiefvater’s writing is so richly evocative. Listen to her clever description of Cole’s first view of L.A. from the airport:

…craning my head to look out the deeply tinted window. View out the left: blinding-white cars. View out the right: fossil-fuelblack cars. Mostly Mercedes with a chance of Audis.”

And her knack for penning romantic dialogue is one of the best in the YA world, in my opinion. She doesn’t need to add explicit sex scenes – she manages to make her romance powerful and poetic all at once.

Even the epigraph she chose for this book is perfect:

Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Letters.”

Evaluation: If you are one of those people who did not get into the “Shiver” books because you saw they were about werewolves, you may want to try this one, because there is very little werewolf involvement here. Besides, Maggie Stiefvater is so enormously talented at story telling, it’s worth taking a chance you might encounter the presence of an occasional dog (as Cole calls himself) . . . .

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: This book can be read as a standalone.

Published by Scholastic Press, 2014

Kid Lit Review of “Glasswings: A Butterfly’s Story” by Elisa Kleven

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Looking at the jeweled illustrations of Elisa Kleven, author and illustrator of this beautiful book, reminds me of peering through a kaleidescope. No matter which way you turn, or on which area you focus, new patterns of gorgeous colors reveal themselves to you.

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This story tells what happens when Claire, a Glasswing butterfly (one with transparent wings), gets carried away from her family one day on a strong burst of wind. At first she is scared and lonely, but then she meets some new friends (a ladybug, a pigeon, and an ant) who guide her to an empty lot with flowers so she can eat:

Day after day, Claire fluttered among the flowers, sipping their nectar, carrying their sticky yellow pollen from plant to plant, helping new flowers to grow.”

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Kleven also describes the ways in which Claire’s friends help the new little ecosystem thrive. But still, Claire misses her family. Then one day, a group of Glasswings circles overhead, drawn by the big patch of color in Claire’s new garden. It is Claire’s family, and they have been looking for her. They swoop down, taking on the colors of the flowers behind them, and much joy ensues at the reunion.

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Evaluation: This story provides a lovely way to impart information about how biological communities work, and in particular the role played by Glasswing butterflies. But the real value of this book is in the stunning mixed-media illustrations. They teem with color and texture and detail, and will provide children with hours of delight trying to identify all the hidden delights in each picture.

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Rating: 4/5

Note: I got this book from the library, and had to wait for ages for it. An Elisa Kleven book is always a coveted object!

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2013

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Review of “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith

This is J.K. Rowling’s second pseudonymous book in a crime series featuring London private investigator Cormoran Strike and his dewy-eyed eager assistant Robin Ellacott.

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Strike is an ex-military policeman who lost a foot in Afghanistan, and is now just turning 36 in this story that begins eight months after the conclusion of the first book in the series, Cuckoo’s Calling.

Strike craves anonymity, much as he had in the army’s Special Investigation Branch, where your background and parentage didn’t matter as much as how well you did your job. But he is one of the illegitimate children of the rock star Jonny Rokeby, and when people find this out they tend to form an opinion of Strike as “no more than a famous singer’s zygote, the incidental evidence of a celebrity’s unfaithful fumble.” Strike has actually only met his biological father once, but he does know his half-siblings, and one of them, Al, helps Strike out in his latest case. In the process, Strike is amazed to discover that Al, Jonny Rokeby’s legitimate son and living a much more charmed life than Strike ever had, is envious of Strike, who has a purposefulness and usefulness that Al never has felt.

This case involves the murder of novelist Owen Quine. Strike had been hired by Owen’s wife Leonora to find Owen after he went missing. Strike does locate Quine, but what he finds is his body, in a very horrifying scene that not so coincidentally replicates a murder from Quine’s last as yet unpublished book, “Bombyx Mori,” Latin for “The Silkworm.” The silkworm, Quine once said, was a metaphor for the writer “who has to go through agonies to get at the good stuff….” Leonora immediately comes under suspicion but Strike is convinced she is innocent, and proceeds, with the help of the intrepid Robin, to prove it.

Discussion: Rowling’s writing is impressive as usual. As the story begins, for example, Strike heads out in the cold for an early morning meeting, and observes

A huddle of couriers in fluorescent jackets cupped mugs of tea in their gloved hands beneath a stone griffin standing sentient on the corner of the market building.”

What a nicely-done sentence. The couriers aren’t huddling; they are “a huddle of couriers.” The image of the cold is boosted by the fact that they clasp their tea mugs with “gloved hands.” And the alliterative “stone griffin standing sentient” adds a subtle rhythmic appeal to the description.

Strike then proceeds on to the Smithfield Cafe, “a cupboard-sized cache of warmth and greasy food.” Again the alliteration cleverly draws attention to the aptness of her phrasing, as we can picture exactly just what sort of place would have both warmth and greasy food.

Rowling pays obeisance to the common tropes of the genre – from noir elements, to Strike’s careful methodical examination of the facts, to having Strike bring all the suspects together in a Christie-like manner to facilitate the unmasking of the killer. But she does not employ the spare prose of the noir writer, exploring the philosophical issues raised by the murder and the suspects as well as just taking us through the solving of the crime.

The object of Strike’s investigation being a novelist affords many opportunities for commentary on the writing and publishing business, which I found a bit distracting. It’s hard to tell whether these are “meta” observations of J.K. Rowling or if they should be considered simply as revelatory of the personalities under suspicion. I was much more taken by the many astute observations made about the nature of love and relationships. One of the authors under investigation, Michael Fancourt, muses to Strike:

We don’t love each other; we love the idea we have of each other. Very few humans understand this or can bear to contemplate it.”

Later she has Strike rehearsing his relationship with his abusive former fiancée Charlotte, wondering if it fits the parameters of Fancourt’s paradigm:

Perhaps he had created a Charlotte in her own image who had never existed outside his own besotted mind, but what of it? He had loved the real Charlotte too, the woman who had stripped herself bare in front of him, demanding whether he could still love her if she did this, if she confessed to this, if she treated him like this….”

We can believe that Strike loved Charlotte for herself. Her cruel behavior to him serves to illuminate Strike’s steadfastness. In fact, many of the characters act as daubs from a pallet to fill in the portrait of Strike. Strike’s willingness to take on the impoverished Leonora Quine as a client, for example, places into relief his character as a champion of the downtrodden, as well as his disgust and impatience with his usual client pool of “the mistrustful, endlessly betrayed rich.”

Fancourt had also expressed to Strike his belief that men are primarily driven by the need/desire for sex; if a man tells himself a particular woman is “more fascinating, more attuned to my needs and desires, than another,” he is just revealing that he is ‘a complex, highly evolved and imaginative creature who feels compelled to justify a choice made on the crudest grounds.’”

Later in the story, Strike seems to substantiate Fancourt’s theory when he thinks about his sister asking him why he stayed with Charlotte:

‘Why do you put up with it? Why? Just because she’s beautiful?

And he had answered: ‘It helps.’

She had expected him to say ‘no,’ of course. Though they spent so much time trying to make themselves beautiful, you were not supposed to admit to women that beauty mattered.”

What an excellent observation.

Evaluation: J.K. Rowling is a masterful storyteller no matter what name she uses. I very much look forward to more installments of this crime series.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a member of Hachette Book Group, 2014

Review of “Trial by Fire” by Josephine Angelini

You might think a book with witches, alternate universes, shamans, and spirit-walking would be over the top, but I really enjoyed this book; it is well done and has some great characters.

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Lily Proctor is 17, living in Salem, Massachusetts, and beset by debilitating allergies that make her break out in rashes, overheat, and even convulse. Her older sister Juliet is a registered EMT and has had to save Juliet’s life a number of times.

Lily’s mother has been known to go around town hallucinating out loud and raving at strangers, providing yet another reason most of Lily’s high school peers avoid her – all except for Tristan, who has been her BFF since they were little. Although Tristan is now popular and a “player,” he has never abandoned Lily. Lily has always has a crush on Tristan, but for him, she is more like a sister.

As the story begins, however, Tristan actually kissed Lily three days ago, and now invited her to a party. She has never gone to a party because of her allergies, and eagerly accompanies him. In no time, however, he abandons her to make out with another girl, and someone slips vodka into Lily’s drink. She goes into convulsions, and barely recovers from a high fever. She is furious at Tristan for abandoning her, and dreads going back to school to face the jeers and taunts alone. When a voice in her head asks her if she is ready to leave her world, Lily says yes.

Lily then goes through a terrifying process, and when it is over, she realizes she is still in a Salem, but it just wasn’t her Salem anymore. She is in an alternate universe, brought over by Lillian, her other version. Lillian is sick and weak, and needs Lily’s strength to help her shape her world in a way she thinks will save it. Lillian has seen other universes; she knows all about the devastating effects of science and technology gone out of control. She is determined not to let that happen to her version of the universe.

Lily is desperate to find a way out of this world and back to her own. But then she learns how to harness the energy that manifested itself as “allergies” back in her universe, and it gives her control over her body and power over others. Maybe even more importantly, she meets Rowan, who teaches her what devotion really means.

But Lillian is not giving up, and starts a battle that may kill them all.

Evaluation: This is only the beginning of a series, but so far, it is quite good. The characters are ones you will want to follow into whatever universe they go.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, 2014

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