Companions of the Night: A Halloween Chick Lit Wednesday review

Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande VeldeVivian Vande Velde is basically my hero. She is a master at taking traditional fairy-tale-like themes and making them fresh and totally unique. Companions of the Night (1995) does that for the vampire story.

Kerry’s little brother, Ian, had a simple request: drive to the laundromat to retrieve Ian’s stuffed bear. Kerry knew all the reasons she should tell Ian no (she had a big test to study for, it was the middle of the night, she only had a driver’s permit and shouldn’t be in a car without a licensed driver), but then Ian started to cry and Kerry knew she couldn’t say no–not if Ian was going to cry. It was late, there would be no traffic. Getting the bear would be simple.

And it was simple. Until Kerry got to the laundromat and stepped into what looked like a gang shootout. Or a kidnapping. Or a vampire hunt.

Unfortunately, the hunters think that Kerry is a vampire too. So she and the other supposed vampire, Ethan, have to escape. Adventure ensues.

Vande Velde, as is her way, also throws a romantic element into the plot. Happily, she does so without falling into the typical “Dracula seduction” style so common in vampire stories.

Every author has a different take on how vampires function in “real life.” I am quite fond of how Vande Velde explains their immortality. The explanation just makes so much sense, it’s great. In a way Vande Velde takes the mystique out of the whole vampire thing, trying to create realistic explanations for things like immortality and how a vampire can exist inconspicuously in the modern world. Overall Ethan is an exceedingly likable character even if he is, basically, dead.

Technically speaking the narrative is nicely written. This novel is very much like Vande Velde’s other works. In particular, parallels can be drawn between this novel and A Well-Timed Enchantment. Both have a similar plot formula and the narrations style is very modern in both.

Vande Velde also develops the characters of Ethan and Kerry nicely. The book is short, so readers are never bogged down with background information or “back stories” for the characters. Nonetheless, Vande Velde creates very dimensional and, dare I say, very real characters.

Companions of the Night is definitely an action story. The narrative is tightly wound, keeping readers ready for excitement and action.

Possible Pairings: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Hard-Boiled Speculative Fiction—in Yiddish! (a review of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union)

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael ChabonJews, Alaska, chess, and murder: usually these subjects don’t have a lot in common. That is until you read Michael Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007) where these elements come together to create the core of this quirky noir story.

Chabon’s novel is based on an interesting conceit: What if Jews had not been able to settle in Israel after World War II and, instead, were granted temporary residency on the Alaskan panhandle?

The original plan was set into motion around 1939 by Harold Ickes (Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior), in response to a plea from a Jewish community in the town of Neustadt requesting permission to settle in Alaska and escape the imminent threat of Nazi Germany.

The settlement was proposed in the Alaska Territory as a way to work around the United States’ existing immigration quotas, but fell through due in large part to a lack of political support and backlash from Alaskans who feared the prospect of foreign settlers for myriad reasons ranging from racism to increased competition for jobs.

In the novel, however, Ickes was successful in bringing his plan to fruition and Jewish refugees were given the Federal District of Sitka as a temporary settlement. That was sixty years before the start of Chabon’s novel when Sitka is getting ready to revert to the United States leaving the fate of the Alaskan Jews largely unknown.

Amazingly, all of these events are just a backdrop for Chabon’s actual story: an edgy murder mystery.

When Meyer Landsman moved into a local flophouse nine months ago he wasn’t looking to do much more than spend some quality time with his bottle of slivovitz and “the shot glass that he is currently dating” until Sitka finally reverts. Landsman’s plans change abruptly when the body of a local chess prodigy turns up in the hotel.

For reasons that elude even him, Landsman feels obligated to investigate the murder despite pressure from his new boss/ex-wife and other higher ups to drop the case. As the investigation continues, Landsman and Berko Shemets, his half-Tlingit partner, find themselves sucked into the underworld of the black hat community of the Verbover Jews and their nefarious undertakings.

Chabon also throws in several conspiracies, a cover-up scheme, a pseudo-terrorist plot, and lots of Yiddish phrases just to keep things interesting. This last touch is because the novel has the unique characteristic of being a novel written in English about characters who do not speak English: they all speak Yiddish instead.

So The Yiddish Policeman’s Union does require a bit of energy to read. At first, nothing is going to make sense. But Chabon eventually pulls it all together. The Yiddish phrases slowly start to become comprehensible, as do the various subplots Chabon incorporates into this very unique story.

Chabon’s prose has a strange charm, which might be expected from an author who won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a novel whose plot largely centers around a comic book hero. The narration is hard-edged, often gritty, but always with a smile threatening to form. (Jews from south of Sitka are referred to as “Mexicans.”)

From the first line, this story will grab a reader’s attention. Written in the present tense, it has an immediacy fitting for a book that tries to recreate the style of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective stories in a Jewish community.

Chabon starts off strong with a vision that he vividly crafts on the page. This vision begins to falter in the second half of the novel as Chabon becomes wrapped up in the complicated conventions common to noir stories. The explanations for several conspiracies come off as convoluted, if not entirely out of nowhere. The novel’s ending, too, is not as strong as its opening.

Shortcomings aside, Chabon has done a great service to the genre of speculative (or “what if?”) fiction by showing that it is possible to write a serious S. F. novel.

Milestone II

My mom had her first sales off of her website yesterday. We’re super excited.

For those of you playing along at home, my mom is a fantastic jewelery maker who sells a variety of unique handmade jewelery including domino pendants, bottle cap pendants, and resin cameos.

You can find her stuff in her store on ebay or at her website.

Check it out!

Missing Abby: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Missing Abby by Lee WeatherlyAbby is missing long before she disappears at the beginning of Missing Abby (2006) by Lee Weatherly. Narrated by Abby’s former-best-friend, Emma, the plot examines how their friendship deteriorated in the past while looking at the events surrounding Abby’s disappearance in the present.

This novel, Weatherly’s second, uses Abby’s disappearance to tell Emma’s story. The novel is told in chapters, one for each day after Abby is reported missing. As the story moves farther away from that day, the focus shifts from wondering what happened to Abby as readers begin to wonder what happened between the two girls. Because at thirteen, they are still girls–a fact that is not always obvious from the narration that seems to sound more like the voice of a seventeen-year-old.

Through a strange coincidence, Emma is the last person to see Abby before she gets off a local bus and vanishes. When Emma has to report everything she remembers about that day to the police she also starts to remember their old friendship. Anger often flares up through the worry Emma shows for Abby. Weatherly handles these conflicting emotions well, her narration making it clear that Abby is missed even while Emma is still angry with her.

Just why Emma is so angry at Abby is not clear until the last half of the story. Her reasons for ending the friendship are revealed in dribs and drabs that interrupt the regular narrative: “Freak. The word slithered into my mind, breaking the spell.” Through these fragments readers can piece the girls’ back-story together before Emma reveals the finer details.

Weatherly maintains a level of suspense throughout the story as Emma and Abby’s friends try to learn what happened to her. Emma’s cryptic references to “Balden” and “Karen Stipp” also draw readers further into Emma and Abby’s past. At the same time, the plot remains necessarily one-sided as Abby never gets the chance to tell her experiences.

I really like the message of this story. How, interestingly, it is only after Abby goes missing that Emma is able to realize how precious Abby was as a friend and subsequently find herself again. The writing only falters at the end, where Weatherly seems desperate to neatly tie up the loose ends of a story that was never clear-cut or neat.

As readers my have guessed, this book doesn’t end on an entirely up note. But if you can handle a slightly sad read, give it a try. Also, on a totally shallow level, I absolutely love the cover art on the hardcover edition of this book. The illustration is beautiful and is the main reason I became interested enough in this book to pick it up.

Possible Pairings: The Alison Rules by Catherine Clark, Alter Ego by Robbie Cooper, Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde

Milestone

This blog hit 1000+ views today. I am excited and felt like pointing it out to everyone.

I’d also like to say that it is not cool to criticize people for bad spelling because some people have an innate disability when it comes to spelling. It is, similarly, not cool to say that people are automatically better writers when they have “advanced” degrees and to suggest that one can guess a person’s education level based on their writing. Aside from being completely unfair to people who simply cannot write well (writing can be hard!), it is obnoxious and suggests that younger people are inherently less articulate than older people (who have had time to accumulate those advanced degrees).

The other kind of “graphic”

Overheard in the library:

Patron (father of two, aged 7 and 11): “Do you think ‘graphic novels’ are really appropriate for children?”

“Julie” [CR librarian extraordinaire for those of you playing along at home and/or trying to decipher my nicknames]: “Absolutely.”

Both patron and Julie look at the graphic novel section.

Patron: “Oh.”

These graphic novels are comic books, not the other kind.

Dumbledore’s out

J. K. Rowling announced yesterday to a packed audience at Carnegie Hall that Dumbledore, in her view, is gay. I never reached the level of obsession with Harry Potter that many others achieved so while I did spend many hours wondering if Dumbledore was dead I can’t say I cared if he was gay or not. He’s a great character and it just really doesn’t matter to the story.

What did upset me was when I logged onto facebook and found a group called “Despite His Sexual Prefereces, Dumbledore Still Rocks.” To be fair, this group was one among many other groups like “Dumbledore- the best gay man there ever was.” and lots of other groups that are very pleased with the announcement. But that first group got me wondering, why does anyone need to like him in spite of the fact that he is gay. Why does sexual preference have any bearing on whether or not Dumbledore rocks (we all know he rocks)? Why, for that matter, does it have bearing on whether or not anyone rocks?

I don’t think it should.

I admire Rowling for “outing” Dumbledore, even though it was after the series had ended and well after his significant contributions to the series were over. Rowling, in the article I linked to above, went on to say that she always thought of her books as an extended argument for tolerance, an argument well worth making.

“Going to be?”

Yesterday I announced to “Ralph” that I was going to dress up for Halloween with the implicit suggestion that he (and everyone else) should also dress up.

Ralph: “What are you going to be?”

Miss Print: “I’m going to be a witch . . . a purple one.”

Ralph (with raised eyebrow): “What do you mean ‘going to be’?”

Right through my heart Ralph, right through my heart.

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten MillerKiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City (2006) is Kirsten Miller‘s first novel. It follows Ananka Fishbein, a New York native, as she discovers a sink hole in her neighborhood when she is twelve. Not one to miss out on a good adventure, Ananka decides to investigate. In the hole she finds a hidden underground city and Kiki Strike, girl spy extraordinaire.

Spy that she is, Kiki disappears before Ananka can find out who she is. Luckily, Kiki stands out in a crowd thanks to her small size, pale skin, and blonde-white hair. Eventually the girls meet up again and Kiki begins to assemble a band of reject Girl Scouts to map the shadow city (note the title). The girls that Kiki finds are not what could be called realistic characters. In addition to a girl spy, Miller introduces girl master-forger, chemist, and master of disguise. In other words, this is one of those novels that really does require a willing suspension of disbelief. Probable or not, the girls definitely kick butt. Here’s a set of girl-power-embodying characters without all the messy contradictions common to the girl power feminist movement.

The first hundred pages or so is set up for the actual plot. At this point the narrator (Ananka) is 12 but still sounds like an annoying grandmother talking down to the readers–a fact that I found particularly annoying even if Ananka does offer some useful advice at the end of each chapter (how to be a master of disguise, how to avoid being followed, etc.) The story gets interesting around 150 pages in, which would be too late if the last half of the book wasn’t so good.

Some books can be described as noir films, others are color movies. This one is definitely a cartoon. But a really well-animated, thoughtful cartoon. It’s silly, but in this case that isn’t a bad thing.

Despite my misgivings, the story is  interesting (especially after the set up phase) and Ananka becomes significantly less irritating when the narrative catches up to the present time of the story. It’s a good book for girls who are trying to break away from the damsel in distress formula common to traditional fairy tales.

Some parts had me laughing out loud. Some parts were written down for future reference. In this book it seemed like Miller was still trying to define her writing voice, so hopefully things will only get better in the next installment.

Possible Pairings: Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley, New York City: A Short History by George J. Lankevich, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld

Extras: A review

Extras by Scott WesterfeldExtras (2007) is the fourth book in Scott Westerfeld’s critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling series (originally it was a trilogy).

Find it on Bookshop.

The first three books Uglies, Pretties, and Specials follow Tally Youngblood, a fifteen-year-old girl living in a futuristic world so dominated by plastic surgery that anyone who looks normal is ugly.

Extras is set three years after the events of the trilogy unfold, in a different city, with different main characters. The trilogy, however, sets the framework for everything that happens in Extras so while the book is great on its own it definitely assumes you know the story of the trilogy.In this new world, where everything is changing, being pretty isn’t enough to get by. Now it’s fame that matters. The more famous you are, the higher your face rank is. A higher rank means more currency in a world where celebrity is everything.

Everyone is trying to get more attention somehow: “tech-heads” are obsessed with gadgets, “surge monkeys” are hooked on the newest trends in plastic surgery, and “kickers” use feeds (think blogs but techier and cooler because it’s a Westerfeld idea) to spread the word on all the gossip and trends worth mentioning. But staying famous is a lot easier than getting famous. Just ask Aya Fuse. Fifteen-year-old Aya has had her own feed for a year, but her rank is still 451,369–so low that she’s a definite nobody, someone her city calls an extra.

Aya has a plan to up her rank though. All she needs is a really big story to kick. Aya finds the perfect story when she meets the Sly Girls, a clique pulling crazy tricks in utter obscurity. As Aya follows her story she realizes it’s much bigger than one clique: maybe the biggest story since Tally Youngblood changed everything.

Some sequels that bring in all new characters are annoying. Not this one. All of the “new” characters are original and, equally important, likable. The story is also utterly original covering very different territory than the rest of the series. It doesn’t pick up right where the trilogy left off, but a lot of questions are answered by the end of this book.

Like the other books in the series, this one moves fast. The story has a lot of action and several twists and surprises (some old characters even turn up). The plot is never overly-confusing though. Westerfeld does a great job of creating (and explaining) the futuristic world he has created in these pages so that it truly comes to life on the page.

At the same time, Extras is a very timely book. In a world where everyone seems to have some kind of website and is trying to be more popular or more famous, it’s fascinating to read about a city where everything literally depends on your reputation. Westerfeld raises a lot of interesting questions as Aya deals with the ethics of kicking her new story and tries to decide if honesty really is more important than fame.

Possible Pairings: Feed by M. T. Anderson, Jennifer Government by Max Barry, All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis, The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Proxy by Alex London, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Free to Fall by Lauren Miller, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, Scythe by Neal Shusterman