Review of “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders

In the “Acknowledgments” at the end of this fantasy book, the author writes:

“I really hope you guys enjoyed this book. If you didn’t, or if there was stuff that didn’t make sense to you or seemed too random, just e-mail me and I’ll come to your house and act the whole thing out for you. Maybe with origami finger puppets.”

I am one of those who would need her to visit with her puppets. Much of the book didn’t make sense to me. The parts that did, I didn’t like so much. Bullying and the abuse of kids is not one of my favorite subjects. The author portrayed these not so much as tragic but almost flippantly.

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The story begins when the two main characters are in middle school. Patricia is a witch, and Laurence is an engineering genius. Both of them are treated as outsiders and hounded mercilessly, by their families as well as by their schoolmates. They remain somewhat oblivious to their ill treatment, however, except by withdrawing further into their odd niches. When they meet each other, they sense they can serve as allies to one another, although Laurence is a little freaked out by Patricia’s powers.

Laurence leaves for science school and Patricia for witch school; eventually they meet up again ten years later in San Francisco. Although they were supposed to be enemies – “science versus magic” – they ended up feeling bound together instead. But the apocalypse arrives, started in part by increasing environmental disasters, and it threatens not only their relationship, but the survival of the entire Earth (somehow equated in level of tragedy in this book).

Discussion: In some ways this book reminded me of The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, in terms of being creatively different, but also with very appalling imagery. It also had a similar mix of fantasy, horror, science fiction, alternate history, and social satire, with some romance thrown into the mix. But the writing in this book often seemed sophomoric or juvenile. A variety of plot threads are abandoned mid-stream. And none of the characters were developed with enough dimension to let the reader (or this reader) feel close enough to care. As for the ending, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Evaluation: I’ve seen a lot of praise for this book, and the blurb by Michael Chabon was astoundingly complementary. (In truth, however, it sounded to me like he was describing one of his own books rather than this one.) The author explored some interesting ideas, but I had to push myself to get through the book.

Rating: 2.75/5

Published by Tor, a trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Thunder Boy Jr.” by Sherman Alexie

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Sherman Alexie, who won a multitude of awards for his young adult book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, here enters the children’s market with his first picture book. He explained to Ron Charles of The Washington Post that he wanted “to help correct an ongoing problem: the lack of brown-skinned kids in literature.”

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Alexie’s sense of humor comes through in this fun story about a young boy who is a “junior,” named after his father. While the boy loves his dad, he wants an identity of his own, and throughout this story, proposes all sorts of alternate names. He wants a name that, as he says, “celebrates something cool that I’ve done.” He then lists some of these cool things, such as the time he touched a wild orca on the nose, or climbed a mountain.

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As with his book for young adults, a lot of the humor is self-deprecating. For example, he confesses that “I learned to ride a bike when I was three, so maybe my name should be ‘Gravity’s Best Friend.’”

The names he comes up with are quite humorous, but some Native American readers have expressed the worry that the book will provide ammunition for those who wish to make fun of Native Americans for the whole “Indian names” issue. I can see their point, but in my experience bullies don’t really need outside help; they are plenty able to be nasty with or without guidance. And when they can’t assemble facts, they merely adduce “alternate facts.” So why should we give up the positive aspects of the book for something that could happen in any event?

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On the contrary, I would like to think that young children exposed to diverse cultures might learn to appreciate them in a positive way.

Illustrator Yuyi (pronounced “ZHOO-zhee” ) Morales is a 2015 Caldecott Honor winner, as well as the recipient of several Pura Belpré Awards. In this book she clearly had fun putting the text into pictures. She also employed speech bubbles, based on what was already in the text, making them part of the illustrations.

The author told NPR what he hopes kids will take away from this book:

“The idea that, you know, you don’t have to be like your family to be a part of your family; that in fact you can extend the borders of your family. As one person, as one member of a family, you can make your unit larger with your ambitions and your ideas about yourself.”

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Evaluation: This is a delightful book that one hopes will mitigate the negative elements of the current environment in which non-white cultures are disparaged. With proper guidance, the story in this book can be used in a positive way to illustrate the diversity of American culture.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2016

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Review of “Missing” by Kelley Armstrong

I love when Kelley Armstrong starts something completely new, because she invests it with energy and and an interest that sometimes seems to wane in later books of series that she writes. With this new young adult book, I feel she is back at her best level of writing.

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Winter Crane, 17, spends much of her time in an abandoned shack around a mile from her family’s trailer in Reeves End, Kentucky. Her father is an alcoholic who is not averse to punching her around. Ironically, it is safer for her in the woods, in spite of a pack of feral dogs and other threats.

As the story begins, Winter discovers a boy, Lennon Bishop, beat up and hanging from a tree, and she rescues him. But it seems like whoever attacked him is trying to finish the job. Lennon leaves the cabin so Winter won’t be in danger, but before she can figure out how to find him, his older brother Jude shows up looking for Lennon also. Reluctantly at first, they opt to work together to find out who is menacing Lennon and now Winter as well.

Their relationship grows as they get closer to solving the mystery of what is going on and who is behind it. But the danger to them grows also.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this a lot, and am disappointed it will not be a series!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Crown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC

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Review of “Every Wild Heart” by Meg Donohue

Gail Gideon, 40, hosts a very popular call-in radio show for women who are “mired in one of the many states of heartbreak.” Gail counsels them on the air about how to move on with their lives. As she explained:

“That’s what The Gail Gideon Show was about, after all: finding love again after the darkness of heartbreak. Not love with a man – or another woman, for that matter – but with yourself. The show was a rallying cry for the single woman, a bad-ass-platform-boot kick to the stigma of singledom. It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, I told my heartbroken listeners. It’s never too late to become the person you want to be, with or without a life partner.”

Alas, this is a lesson Gail herself has not learned.

As she struggles to figure out how to follow her heart, we also learn the story of her 14-year-old-daughter Nicola (“Nic”), who has an affinity for horses and loves to ride. As the story begins, however, she takes an unwise jump with her horse, and ends up in a brief coma.

When Nic awakes, somehow she is no longer the unsure, stuttering girl she was before. Now she feels confident, and is willing to take risks in all areas of her life.

Gail is worried about her, but Nic is following her own heart, and Gail soon comes to appreciate what that means.

Evaluation: I was not fond of the main character, Gail, who was too self-absorbed for my tastes. I didn’t see why anyone else much cared for her either. But the story is actually about the developmental journeys of both Gail and her daughter. Nic more than makes up for Gail’s lack of appeal. She is brave, kind, considerate, and all-around delightful.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by William Morrow, 2017

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Review of “Where the Dead Lie” by C.S. Harris

Note: There are necessarily spoilers for previous books in this series.

Background:

This is the book twelve in the historical crime fiction series (and the last published so far) set in Regency England in 1813, and featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, the thirty-year-old Viscount Devlin. In the first book, he was suspected of a murder he did not commit, and had to become something of a Sherlock Holmes to find the real murderer to save his own skin.

In subsequent books, he was consulted on murders that involved the nobility, because he had an entrée into the upper level of society that would have been denied to the regular police. He agreed because the thought of anybody stealing away someone else’s a life was an abomination to him, especially after the traumatic instances of unjust murder he witnessed in the army, and for which he still felt guilt, even though he could not have prevented any of it.

Devlin is aided by the counsel of his friend, the surgeon Paul Gibson, who serves as a Watson to St. Cyr’s Holmes, as well as by Sir Henry Lovejoy, now a “Bow Street Runner” (detective) who has become a friend of Devlin’s. Devlin also has his young horse handler Tom, a former street urchin, to do reconnaissance work for him.

You may also wish to consult my post on “An Introduction to the Regency Era.”

As this book begins, a surreptitious burial was interrupted and the body thus discovered of a 15-year-old boy who had been raped and tortured before finally being strangled to death.

Devlin comes to believe that there is a person or persons in London mimicking the barbarity described in The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage, the novel by the French writer and nobleman known as the Marquis de Sade. The book, written in 1785 and smuggled out of France, tells the story of four wealthy men who resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification by the sexual abuse and torture of their victims, which gradually mounts in intensity and ends in their slaughter.

Drawing of de Sade dating to 1760, when the Sade was nearly 20 years old. It’s the only known authentic portrait of the Marquis.

In London in the early 1800s, unfortunately there was no shortage of potential victims. As the author recounts in her Afterword:

“There were tens of thousands of ragged children on the streets of London. . . . they frequently turned to begging, stealing, and prostituting themselves. . . . Sleeping in doorways, under bridges, or beneath the stalls of markets like Covent Garden, they formed the most vulnerable segment of the city’s motley population of poor.”

It doesn’t take long for Devlin to come up with the names of some in the aristocracy who might be implicated, but proving it, and stopping them from further abuse, is another matter.

There are also complications by the possible complicity of his father-in-law, the powerful Charles, Lord Jarvis, “the real power behind the Hanovers’ wobbly throne.” Jarvis is dedicated to protecting the House of Hanover, even if it means covering up some of the worst elements of the realm.

Even worse, one of the possible suspects may be about to become part of Devlin’s own extended family.

Hanover excess while the poor starved, personified by the Prince Regent

Evaluation: I love the recurring characters in this series and their evolving interactions. In additions, one always learns a great deal of history from the stories, with a number of crimes thrown in to add tension and interest.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

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