The Shadow Society: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Shadow Society by Marie RutkoskiDarcy Jones doesn’t remember anything before the day she was abandoned at a Chicago firehouse. She was five years old.

Since then, Darcy has been bounced from foster home to foster home–never quite fitting in, never quite putting down roots.

Things finally seem to be different on Darcy’s first day back at Lakebrook High. Her second year at the same school, Darcy finally has friends and even a foster mother who seems keen to keep Darcy around; all simple reasons for Darcy to be happy.

Then a new boy arrives at the school and eyes Darcy as if she were an enemy, maybe even a threat. Conn McCrea is both fascinating and frightening as he insinuates himself into Darcy’s life. As she gets to know Conn she also begins to discover strange truths about herself and a world that shouldn’t exist–a world where the Great Chicago Fire never happened and creatures called Shades have created an organization called the Shadow Society intent on eliminating humans.

Darcy always wanted to be part of something, to belong somewhere. But she may have more than she bargained for with Conn and infiltrating the Shades in The Shadow Society (2012) by Marie Rutkoski.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Shadow Society is Rutkoski’s first young adult novel. She is also the author of the popular Kronos Chronicles series for younger readers.

Part fantasy, part alternate history The Shadow Society is an evocative novel that is as haunting as it is enchanting. Rutkoski masterfully brings not one but two versions of Chicago to life on the page with characters that are charmingly real and entertaining. While the story is grounded in Darcy’s journey to find the truth about herself, the novel also is refreshingly grounded with strong friendships. (Conn and Darcy’s complicated relationship doesn’t hurt either.)

A well-realized world and completely delightful characters come together with a gripping, surprising plot to create a winning combination in The Shadow Society.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Shadow Society by J. Q. Coyle, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Two Summers by Aimee Friedman, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Pivot Point by Kasie West, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

You can also check out Marie Rutkoski’s Q & A with Andrea Cremer about The Shadow Society here:


Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire: A Review

Skulduggery Pleasant Playing with Fire by Derek LandyEveryone’s favorite skeleton detective/wizard (and snappy dresser) Skulduggery Pleasant and the precocious Stephanie Edgley are back in Playing with Fire (2008) the action packed follow up to Derek Landy’s debut novel Skulduggery Pleasant.

Find it on Bookshop.

Playing with Fire picks up about a year after the first novel. Stephanie is officially apprenticed to Skulduggery Pleasant, learning more elemental magic, and helping Skulduggery fight crime under her taken name, Valkyrie Cain. Throughout the novel, it was impressive to see how deftly Landy handled the unusual name change of his main character as well as her negotiation of people who know her as both Valkyrie and Stephanie.

Skulduggery and Valkyrie are dealing with the usual mayhem and misfits when news of something really unpleasant comes their way. Baron Vengeous, one of Skulduggery’s old enemies, is back in town and dead set on bringing a monster called the Grotesquery back to life to wreak some havoc. Cobbled together from pieces of the most feared, not to mention brutal, monsters ever seen the Grotesquery has to be stopped before it becomes invincible. Oh and before it calls the Faceless Ones back to Earth to destroy everything.

With the help of Tanith Low, the two detectives set out to find and destroy the Grotesquery. But, as often happens, complications get in the way. In addition to possible corruption in the Council of Elders, Valkyrie and Skulduggery have to deal with Billy-Ray Sanguine–simultaneously one of the most likable and most horrifying villains of the series thus far.

On top of that, Valkyrie is beginning to feel like a stranger in her normal life as Stephanie Edgley. Using an enchanted reflection to go to school and otherwise act as her proxy, Valkyrie keeps telling herself that is the price for a life of adventure and magic. Still, as the problems mount and Valkyrie finds more twists and danger, it starts to seem like there will be a higher price to pay.

The important thing to remember about this series is that Skulduggery Pleasant was an insanely awesome, utterly original book. Given the high bar set by its predecessor, it was perhaps unavoidable that Playing with Fire would not be as good.

There is an old adage that before leaving the house a person should take off one accessory; if this book were a person, it would instead add one more. Landy piles villains on top of villains so that names begin to blend together and necessitate rereading. This novel is also rife with battle scenes–too many, really, in relation to the plot. Finally, and this one can be fixed, the end of the book left a lot of questions unanswered.

Taken together, these things lead to the possibility that Playing with Fire is a bridge book which serves more to transition from the first book and pave the way for the third book in the series than to stand on its own. (Clarifying example: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was a bridge movie.) Thus, while much of this book was not as marvelous as the first it is still entirely possible and even likely that the third book The Faceless Ones (due out in August 2009) will be another powerhouse of a book.

The emblematic banter and humor were still present, but not often enough. Ironically, given the name of the series, Skulduggery Pleasant really did not have enough page time in this book.

Possible Pairings: The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris, Jackaby by William Ritter, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

The Blue Girl: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Blue Girl by Charles de LintCharles de Lint is one of my favorite authors although my constantly writing Derek de Lint instead of Charles de Lint might lead you to think otherwise. He has been one of my top authors for a few years already based solely on the awesomeness that is The Blue Girl (2006).

I want to read everything he’s written, no easy task because he’s written a lot, but so far have only polished off two books from his oeuvre (this one and Little (Grrl) Lost). Both, coincidentally, have been exceptional enough that they rate as Chick Lit Wednesday books.

Like many of De Lint’s books, this novel is set in Newford and firmly grounded in the urban fantasy genre with which he is so often associated. The story opens with the heading “Now” as Imogen describes a nightly ritual, perhaps dream or perhaps reality, that occurs in her bedroom:

It starts with this faint sound that pulls me out of sleep: a sort of calliope music played on an ensemble of toy instruments. You know, as though there’s a raggedy orchestra playing quietly in some hidden corner of my bedroom, like the echo of a Tom Waits song heard through the walls from the apartment next door. Rinky-dink piano, tinny horns and kazoos, miniature guitars with plastic strings, weird percussion.

It ends with the appearance of creepy characters parading out of Imogen’s closet, “patchwork creatures made out of words and rags and twigs, of bits of wool and fur, skin and bone”, followed by Pell-mell the imaginary friend Imogen gave up on years ago now made scary by the intevening years. When Pelly reaches for Imogen’s comforter saying, “I’ve missed you sideways,” is it something sinister or an endearment? Only time will tell.

In order to explain how Imogen’s now got so weird, De Lint works backward looking at Imogen’s past. Specifically, the next section of the book is called “Then” and begins right after Imogen moves to Newford with her mother and Jared, her brother. (The book alternates between “Now” and “Then” segments of varying length until the two points in time converge about a third of the way in.)

I could actually spend even more time talking about the prose and structure of this novel, because both are rich with detail. But, on the other hand, I feel like if I keep doing that, I’ll just end up quoting the whole book in this review. It’s that amazing.

So instead of getting into a lot of the minute details, here’s some basic information on the three characters who share narration of the book (that’s right, three first-person narrators, crazy!)

As astute readers may have guessed, Imogen is the star of the novel and the “blue girl” mentioned in the title. The fantastic cover art by Cliff Nielsen, incidentally, is exactly how I would have imagined Imogen myself. Anyway, before moving to Newford, Imogen was not the quirky character readers will come to know and love. She has a past that she’s trying to leave behind, except for the being tough part–that stays. Imogen, in a Stargirl-esque manner, likes to reinvent herself. As part of her reinvention, Imogen decides she needs a new friend who turns out to be Maxine, whether she likes it or not. Maxine is everything Imogen is not–geeky, bookish, and meek–she is also everything Imogen needs in a friend (and vice versa).

Add to the equation: Adrian, a lonely ghost who spends his time avoiding angels; the aforementioned imaginary friend, and a group of nasty fairies and you have all the makings of a plot rife with action and suspense.

At the same time, De Lint’s text here is rich. Sometimes “rich” is a euphemism for “dense” but not in this case. The prose is evocative, creating not only a strong sense of place within the story but also helping readers to actually know each of the characters. The writing never seems excessively long, rather De Lint manages to make each bit of information or description feel vital to the story as a whole–the writing is that tight. Aside from that the plot, which admirably manages a broad scope of time, is excellent from the first sentence to the last.

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst, Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga, The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Lily’s Ghosts by Laura Ruby, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Skulduggery Pleasant: A Modern Fantasy for Modern Readers

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek LandySkulduggery Pleasant is a sharp dresser, a detective, a wizard, and, in addition to being rather charming, he has “a voice so smooth, it could have been made of velvet.” The only thing that keeps Skulduggery from being the perfect man is that he’s not exactly a man: he’s a living skeleton. He is also the main character in Derek Landy’s debut novel, Skulduggery Pleasant (2007).

Find it on Bookshop.

Despite sharing his name, the novel does not actually start with Skulduggery. It starts with Stephanie Edgley and the death of her favorite uncle, Gordon. Stephanie was Gordon’s favorite niece which is why, at the age of twelve, she is named sole benefactor of his significant estate. That’s when the trouble really starts and everything changes for Stephanie.

Enter Skulduggery, magic and Nefarian Serpine, one of the best villains seen in recent fantasy novels. Stephanie refuses, much to Skulduggery’s dismay, to stay out of the dangerous world of magic and becomes an apprentice of sorts as the two investigate Gordon’s death and its connection to an old (literally ancient) foe trying to tip the balance toward evil. For good.

This story might sound vaguely similar to other fantasy/action plots. But it’s not. Landy borrows some elements from other popular children’s fantasies, perhaps most obviously from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” trilogy.

Like Le Guin’s keystone work in the genre (A Wizard of Earthsea first published in 1968), Landy focuses on what he describes in the novel as “the quieter course” for magic: Elemental magic. What that means, basically, is the wizards here don’t use wands and Latin spells. Instead, the power comes from the air, fire, water and earth–but earth magic is defensive and “purely for use as a last resort.”

The power of naming also plays an important factor here, much in the same way it did in A Wizard of Earthsea (and even perhaps in The Namesake although the power there was much more figurative to say the least). Everyone has three names. The one they are born with, the one they are given, and the one that they take. If you know a person’s true name (the one they are born with) you can control them absolutely. But there’s no need to worry because a taken name seals the given name, protecting it. True names need stronger protection, a fact that becomes more important as the story progresses.

This truly modern fantasy is set in contemporary Ireland, which is where Landy lives. The narrative is modern and has a lot of verve. So much so, in fact, that some reviewers have said Skulduggery Pleasant reads more like a movie screenplay than a novel. This connection makes sense. Landy wrote the screenplays for two Irish horror films (Dead Bodies and Boy Eats Girl) before writing Skulduggery Pleasant.

The story here does have a cinematic scope. Some novels are cerebral–relying heavily on what happens in the characters’ heads to drive the story along. This is not one of those novels. It doesn’t have to be. Landy’s descriptions are concrete and the plot straightforward, both of which lend themselves to film adaptation. The novel presents readers with all the information they need through the author’s narration.

Landy’s novel is mostly compared to movie scripts because of his dialogue. When the characters talk they are witty. Oftentimes they don’t really talk, they banter. Take for example, this exchange between Stephanie and Skulduggery:

“Mr. Pleasant, you’re a skeleton.”
“Ah yes, back to the crux of the thing. Yes. I am, as you say, a skeleton. I have been one for a few years now.”
“Am I going mad?”
“I hope not.”
“So you’re real? You actually exist?”
“You mean you’re not sure if you exist or not?”
“I’m fairly certain. I mean, I could be wrong. I could be some ghastly hallucination, a figment of my imagination.”
“You might be a figment of your own imagination?”
“Stranger things have happened. And do, with alarming regularity.”

This exchange is illustrative of the novel as a whole. The dialogue and, to some extent, the prose have a snap that is more often associated with a movie or a television show than with a book. I must admit that distinction never made sense to me. A book’s merit has more to do with good narrative and engaging characters than whether or not it sounds like a “real” book and this book has both.

All in all, the theatricality of Skulduggery Pleasant will probably prove to be an asset since, according to RTE Entertainment, Warner Brothers bought the movie rights for the entire series (a proposed total of nine books) in 2007. Book two in the series Playing With Fire will be released in May of this year.

Possible Pairings: The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris, Jackaby by William Ritter, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Little (Grrl) Lost: A (reactionary) Chick Lit Wednesday review

Little (Grrl) Lost by Charles de LintLittle (Grrl) Lost (2007) is Charles De Lint‘s latest novel set in the fictitious city of Newford, the setting for much of De Lint’s work that helped to establish the urban fantasy genre. The Blue Girl from 2006 is another novel set in Newford (Cliff note plot to that book: Punky teen Imogen wants to start fresh, and mistake-free, when her family moves to Newford. She makes friends with Maxine, straight-laced girl with an overprotective mother. As time passes the girls observe strange happenings at their school and wind up matching wits with some very mean fairies among other things.)

The story in Little (Grrl) Lost is refreshingly straightforward for a fantasy: Fourteen-year-old T.J. is furious when her family has to leave their farm and move to Newford. To makes matter worse, T.J. has to leave behind her horse, Red, and her best friend. T.J. has a hard time adjusting to city life and making new friends–until she meets Elizabeth: a punky teenager who lives with her family in the walls of T.J.’s house. Elizabeth is a Little by name. And literally, standing only six inches tall.

As time passes, the girls form an unlikely friendship and begin an even more surprising adventure as they navigate their way through Little-lore and the urban streets of Newford as T.J. tries to help Elizabeth find her way in the Big world (and maybe find her own place in Newford at the same time).

This novel is extremely complicated stylistically. The story is told in multiple points-of-view with varying narration styles. The amazing thing about this technique is that De Lint still manages to create a seamless narration. He transitions between sections easily without being redundant or leaving the reader at a loss.

In order to better establish the difference between the narrations, De Lint writes T.J.’s section using the traditional third-person, past tense narration (“Jane walked to the store.”) incorporating periods from Geoff or Jaime’s perspective to flesh out certain events. Elizabeth’s sections, on the other hand, are written in the first-person, present tense (“I walk to the store.”), a style that is becoming very common in contemporary novels. (This style is also what makes Elizabeth’s sections of the narration sound more like De Lint’s other YA Newford novel, The Blue Girl.)

Most of the novel is set in the course of two very eventful days for the girls. Nonetheless, the narrative feels expansive. De Lint takes his time, fleshing out the details of T.J. and Elizabeth’s adventures. The story is also fairly light, maintaining a generally upbeat feel.

The important thing to remember about the story is that T.J. is fourteen while Elizabeth is sixteen or seventeen. For this reason, T.J.’s sections of the story read younger than the rest. And rightly so. In addition to creating very individual “voices” for the protagonist’s, De Lint also makes their age difference (and personality differences) clear with the divergent focuses of their narrative segments. That’s really hard to do without making the characters seem exaggerated or flat.

Unfortunately, for prolific authors like De Lint comparisons become inevitable. The most obvious one being between Little (Grrl) Lost and The Blue Girl because the novels are both YA and close together in terms of publications. To be clear, this is not a fair comparison. The Blue Girl is longer which means it has more space to deal with plot issues, and the characters are older which means they are not going to sound like T.J. In fact, beyond being set in Newford, the books have nothing in common.

Little (Grrl) Lost does, however, have the same character types as The Blue Girl: punk “bad” girl (Elizabeth/Imogen) and normal “goody-two-shoes” girl (T.J./Maxine). The difference is that the “good girl” gets a chance to voice her own opinions instead of leaving all of the narration to her best friend. This narrative split does, of course, create a different kind of novel but it is used here to good effect.

Despite its relatively short length, Little (Grrl) Lost is rich with detail, but the narrative is never over the top with description or explanation. Even with its numerous narrative voices, the story is never redundant. Basically, Little (Grrl) Lost gets everything right in terms of writing conventions. De Lint once again brings Newford and his characters (Big or Little) to life in this vivid and magical novel.

Possible Pairings: Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

War for the Oaks: a review

War for the Oaks (1987) by Emma Bull. Find it on Bookshop.

War for the Oaks by Emma BullI’ve had a copy of this book on my shelves for three years and finally found the time to read it this summer. Being a bit more of an adult book than a lot I’ve been reading lately, the print was a bit smaller and it took a little longer to read. But it was soooooo worth it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that any story with a phouka (alternately spelled pooka) is better for it. Harvey (with James Stewart) made brilliant use of this creature. Emma Bull does the same in War for the Oaks. Originally published in 1987, this book is set in Minneapolis where Eddi McCandry is trying to make a living as a rock and roll musician. When the novel starts, Eddi’s prospects in the music department are not so good. To make matters worse, she is soon recruited by the Seelie Court to help them make war. That’s right, Eddi is drafted into a faerie war. In order to keep her safe (until she has to risk her life in battle), the phouka is dispatched as her bodyguard.

There is something kind of awesome about a book that can combine rock music with something as fantastical as faeries. Bull does it wonderfully. Each chapter title is a song. Music excerpts abound throughout, sure to entertain even those of us unfamiliar with music of that period. Bull also spends a lot of time describing the process of making music–what the band sounds like on stage, how rehearsals go, etc. Instead of being boring or draggy, they’re really interesting and show how very much effort goes into this process.

At times the plot seemed a little predictable, but I’m still not sure if that’s just because I’ve been reading quite a few fantasy books lately instead of from anything in the writing. It doesn’t really matter though because it’s not a bad predictability. Rather, it’s the kind that leaves a sense of satisfaction because it feels like the plot is going along as it should be.

Bull’s writing style was down to earth without being stale and her characters will not easily be forgotten. The phouka, in particular, is a favorite for too many reasons to enumerate here. So, if you haven’t guessed, I strongly recommend this book. If you like music, if you like phoukas, if you like fantasy, if you need something to read, if you believe in magic–this book is for you.

Possible Pairings: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson, A Well-Time Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Harvey (movie)