The Mysterious Howling

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book One: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

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This children’s book series is inspired by gothic novels and literature about governesses, books like Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw. It gently mocks that tradition while paying homage to it. The protagonist is Penelope Lumley, graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, in her first governess job at Ashton Place, in charge of three feral children. They’ve truly been raised by wolves. Of course, under her tutelage, they make remarkable progress, but not quite enough to avoid a crisis when the lady of the house wants to throw a big holiday party. The children’s antics and mischief are silly in a way that young readers will appreciate. The children’s origin is a mystery that will drive the entire series.

The best thing about this series might be that it teaches kids new words and concepts in a fun way. Ideas like hyperbole and irony are introduced in a way that’s funny, and words that will stretch the vocabulary of young readers are used in contexts that make their meanings crystal clear. The sense of humor driving the narration is somewhat dark, perhaps only a step to the sunny side of Lemony Snicket. Hopefully, familiarity with the gothic tropes found here will make readers eventually seek out the books that inspired this series.

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Atlantia

Atlantia by Ally Condie

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I really liked Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy, so I was happy to pick up her next YA fantasy romance. Atlantia is about two sisters, Rio and Bay, growing up in a city under the sea. Their mother dies mysteriously, and soon after, Bay decides to leave Atlantia and go to the surface, surprising her sister. Rio, the narrator, has a secret talent: she’s a Siren, and her voice can compel people to do things. The plot is driven by a mystery about Rio’s mother’s death, the society’s origins and Bay’s reasons for going Above.

This novel suffers in comparison with the Matched books. The concept of the setting is more ‘out there,’ and the romance plot is less well developed, so the fantasy elements have to carry more weight. It’s still worth reading for anyone who likes the genre, though.

The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

TheFlamethrowersKushner This novel is about a young artist in 1975 New York. She’s called Reno because that’s where she’s from, and she’s interested in filmmaking and motorcycles. Much of the plot is driven by her relationship with Sandro Valera, an artist whose family owns a motorcycle and tire company in Italy. The climax comes when she is visiting his family in Italy and witnesses a riot protesting the Valera company’s labor practices. The setting was probably the most interesting part of the book to me. The art scene when Manhattan was cheap, the urban unrest in both New York and Milan, the underground resistance movements that Reno got involved in were fascinating. The novel definitely has concerns larger than the protagonist’s love life, and its politics were definitely in sympathy with these workers’ movements. There was even a passage describing the Valero company’s expansion of its rubber harvesting operations into Brazil, including the perspective of a worker in the second person. Two characters, Ronnie and Giddle, were total enigmas to me: they seem to come from nowhere and have no past, so they constantly reinvent themselves, and this involves lots of lies. By the end Reno has been used and betrayed, but she seemed to be picking herself up from it all in a way that I admired. It’s a gritty book, and one that immerses you in its grittiness.

A Million Suns

A Million Suns by Beth Revis

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This book is a sequel to Across the Universe, second in the trilogy set on a spaceship bringing colonists from Earth to a new planet. It’s told in alternating chapters from Amy and Elder’s perspectives. Amy comes from Earth and was cryogenically frozen; Elder was born on the ship and is its young leader. They have a budding romance that gets less focus than you might expect in this genre, but so much other stuff is going on that it didn’t bother me.

The structure of the story is a mystery. It begins with Elder directly addressing the crew on the question that was revealed to be crucial at the end of the first book, and he gets an answer that baffled me in all the best ways. Amy and Elder follow clues left by Orion, the first book’s villain, to find out what the ship’s real problem is. The answer was something I didn’t expect, and I love it when books surprise me. Meanwhile, Elder has to deal with increasing upheaval on the ship: people disagree with his rule and are refusing to work and to distribute food fairly. And people are getting killed by overdoses of Phydus, a Xanax-like drug that makes them calm and compliant. The plot depends on things happening very quickly; I kept wishing I could call time out and sit everyone down to talk things out. I enjoyed this book just as much as the first one, and that’s saying something. I’ve already started the last one and it’s as much fun as the first two.

The Happiest Toddler on the Block

The Happiest Toddler on the Block: The New Way to Stop the Daily Battle of Wills and Raise a Secure and Well-Behaved One- to Four-Year-Old by Harvey Karp, MD

9780553802566_p0_v1_s260x420I read The Happiest Baby on the Block over a year ago and thought it was ok. This book is about as good as that one is. It gives a few good tips and tells parents some ideas of what to expect from the developmental stages between ages 1 and 4. Throughout the book, Karp uses a metaphor comparing kids to cavemen, comparing the growth children experience as toddlers to the way humans evolved over millions of years. The tone and style reminded me of children’s television, so I found reading the book somewhat irritating. I felt I was being talked down to.

The core method of this book, the thing that’s supposed to make toddlers so happy, is that parents are instructed to reflect the toddler’s emotions back to them in simple, emphatic language. This gets the toddler’s attention and makes him feel understood. When he feels understood, he calms down and becomes more cooperative.

I haven’t really found this to be the case with my son. I like the idea of making him feel understood, but making it clear to him that I understand how he feels does not seem to have any effect on his tantrums unless it follows by my giving him what he wants. He’s a pretty stubborn, determined, focused kid, and he doesn’t just forget about the fact that he’s not getting that thing that he wants. I’ve tried to do what the book says, but mostly it just means his crying is joined by my fake-crying. The overall volume just increases.

Maybe I’m not doing it right. Reading parenting books and not getting the amazing results they promise makes me feel like a worse parent because obviously I’m not doing it right. Oh well. At least I’m trying.

Fairest

Fairest by Marissa Meyer 1402928540000-The-Fairest-cover-e1402943140653

Fairest is a prequel to the Lunar Chronicles, a series that combines fairy-tale-inspired characters and skeleton plots with a fantastical future setting. It tells the story of Levana, the villain, evil queen of the moon. Most of the focus here is on her twisted marriage and her disfigured face. It’s easy to feel sorry for Levana: she’s somewhat humanized here, mostly through showing how her older sister abused and bullied her, and how desperately she wanted to be loved. However, I think this story does fall short of the real tragedy that the most fascinating portrayals of villains achieve. Levana’s psychology is pretty childish in the way that she uses people and simply discards them when she is done with them. Even in the beginning, she proves her innate villainy with her enthusiasm about a plan to unleash a plague on Earth in order to sell the antidote and improve Luna’s trade position. In the end, the way she shuts down her own ability to love and chooses to become the villain we know from the other books is pretty chilling. It’s a pretty short book, and the copy I read included a teaser for the conclusion of the Lunar Chronicles: the first three chapters of Winter. Meyer’s series seems strongest when it focuses on the heroes; maybe it’s ok for her villain to be kind of flat. I’m looking forward to Winter, coming out this fall.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

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This book is the first of a series that takes place on a planet colonized recently by humans. The protagonist, Todd, is the youngest boy in Prentisstown, one of the most distant outposts. Prentisstown has no women; Todd grew up in the knowledge that a war with the planet’s original inhabitants had killed the women and released a toxin of some kind that made all the men’s thoughts audible in a constant stream they call Noise.  The action of the story begins a month before Todd’s birthday when he becomes a man, when he meets a girl, Viola, in a swamp. They run away from Prentisstown together and begin to discover what really happened years ago to Prentisstown’s women. I enjoyed Todd’s folksy, humorous voice immensely. It reminded me of Huckleberry Finn: like Huck, Todd has a heart of gold, and is in the process of losing his innocence.

I was particularly impressed with the way the Noise worked on a deeper level as a metaphor for “othering,” as a psychological explanation for how and why we separate into “us” and “them.” Because on this planet, everyone can hear men’s thoughts, but women’s thoughts stay private, men have a sort of automatic knowledge and trust of each other, while women seem untouchable and mysterious to them in comparison. They find it hard to trust women without being able to read their thoughts as they can a man’s. Todd and Viola encounter several towns where the people dealt with this problem in different ways: in Carbonel Downs there was a kind of sexual apartheid, in Far Branch there was a matriarchy, and Prentisstown, where Todd grew up, had the worst solution of all. It was sometimes jarring to hear the words Todd applied to Viola because of growing up in this world: “it,” “void,” “empty,” “nothing.” This denigration of the other comes from fear and vulnerability, the precarious position of being totally known by someone who you cannot know equally well, whose difference makes them seem unknowable. Toward the end, when Todd realizes he cares about Viola, he says he does know her and hear her Noise, showing that love can break down the barriers created by prejudice.

Fair warning: this is a very brutal and violent book, the kind where you get attached to the characters and then watch them suffer.

Sometimes the plot was far-fetched and extreme, like the villain that wouldn’t die, the final explanation for his pursuit of Todd, and Todd’s own multiple near-death experiences. It was sometimes hard to believe that secrets could be kept at all in a world of mind-readers, and there were times when I thought Ness might have been selective about applying the rules of his world to the action for the sake of narrative effect or convenience. But overall, it was a fun, action-packed book that I’d recommend to anyone who likes this genre. It might be a particularly thought-provoking book for a boy who’s resistant to reading books about girl protagonists. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. A studio has bought film rights for it, but I haven’t heard anything about casting or filming yet.