Book review: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Nightbird2Nightbird is a beautifully written, engaging story with a fairytale quality.  Anyone who’s ever wished there were fairy tales for teens and adults… here is one.

Twig is a 12-year-old girl who lives a sheltered life in a small town. Twig is painfully shy, to the point that people barely notice her, and she has no friends. At first we think this is because of her shyness… but then we learn that her mther is hiding some secrets, which is why Twig can’t invite anyone over.

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

I love the way we don’t find out until several chapters into the book that what Twig and her mother are hiding is Twig’s brother… who has wings. James has had wings since birth because of a curse put on the family hundreds of years ago by a witch. Once his wings grew too big to hide, the family moved back to Sidwell from New York, and isolated themselves from the mother’s former friends. James never leaves the house in daytime; only in the dark of night when he can fly through the sky unseen.

But it’s hard to keep a secret in a small town, and a long-standing legend of a local monster starts to heat up again when things go missing around town. We’re kept wondering, is it James who’s taking these things, when he’s out at night? Or someone else?

When a family moves into the witch’s cottage, which as been abandoned since the time of the witch, Twig meets her new next-door neighbours, Julia and Agate, and makes her first friend since kindergarten. James is growing more tired and impatient of his solitary life, and he’s starting to take more risks. Things get even more complicated when a “researcher” moves to town. Twig and Julia begin their own research, into the witch’s curse.

Having already given away the wings spoiler, I won’t give away any more; let me just say this is a truly magical book. The writing is beautiful, especially the descriptions of nature, and Twig’s shy-but-strong voice shines through.

The only down side is that the ending felt too rushed, and a couple of the plot points work themselves out far too easily and conveniently. Still, this book will make you want to find more fairy-like tales; it will leave you feeling happy and enchanted.

Mourning Cloak

Nightbird2

Note on the covers: they make the book look a lot more juvenile than it is, but don’t let them deter you. Although the book is technically mid-grade (mostly because of the protagonist’s age), it reads much more like YA. IMHO it deserves a cover that reflects this; if it were up to me, it would have a cover more like this one on the right.

Book Review: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

ChimneySweepersI’ve been an ardent Flavia fan since the first book in the series came out, so it pains me to say that this book is the weakest of the series. I’ll assume you’re up to speed on Flavia, eleven-year-old chemist, sleuth, and now heiress (and if you’re not, you MUST pick up a copy of the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), so I’ll launch straight into this book.

Flavia has been sent off to Miss Bodycote’s Academy in Toronto, her mother’s alma mater: a whole new setting, made necessary by the fact that a tiny village like Bishop’s Lacey had already seen too many murders in one year for any more to be believable (truth be told, it was stretching that believability by about the fourth book). Being Canadian myself, I was excited to see what this trip would bring.

Well, Flavia is still Flavia – determined, resourceful, and (truth be told) far too insightful for her years—but the setting, the plot, and the writing seemed very watered-down compared to the previous books in the series.

Flavia stumbles across a corpse on her first day at her new school, which is what we’ve come to expect of her, but the mystery itself never gripped me the way the other books did. No one seemed all that concerned that there had been a murder. What weakened the book the most for me, however, was the lack of enjoyable characters. Bishop’s Lacey is overflowing with them: Dogger, Professor Hewitt, Mrs. Mullet, Dr. Darby, Dieter Schrantz, even very minor characters like the Misses Puddock… these are what make the other books such a delight for me. In this novel, we are introduced to several characters in the school, but for the most party they were faintly sketched and seldom likeable. It didn’t help that the students all called each other by their surnames; this increased the feeling of separation and coldness. No doubt this was deliberate—the atmosphere of the school is one of isolation, not only of the school from society but between the characters—however, this makes for a bit of a dreary read! (Sorry Alan Bradley; I’m still a HUGE fan but this part really did leave me cold.)

Another massive missing piece, for me, was more description of day-to-day boarding school life. I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s boarding school series (and when I saw ‘grew up reading’, I mean ‘devoured and re-devoured’), so, given Bradley’s usually masterful powers of description coupled with a sense of humour, I had high expectations of this. However, Flavia only mentions one or two classes, and one or two meals. Now, even if it does have a culture of isolation, a girls’ boarding school is like a social experiment: I would have expected it to be teeming with interactions, cliques, friendships, hostilities, customs, unwritten rules—kind of like an ant colony, but much louder, and with far more passing of notes and copying each others’ homework. There were tiny, brief sketches of some of this, but SO much more could have been made of this, and was passed right over! Imagine the book Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but with 90% of it set in the entranceway; that’s what this felt like. Look, over there! – the good stuff’s all over there! Why aren’t you taking us inside? As a result, I never really believed in the school the way I believed in Bishop’s Lacey. It was missing the richness and interest.

Another thing that Bradley completely forgot was how huge a factor age is, in a school. What grade you’re in dictates whom you talk to and whom you scurry away from. Inter-grade friendships are uncommon in schools. We no longer know Flavia’s age, because although she’s introduced to us in the first book as being eleven, a year seems to have passed without her having a birthday. So let’s say she’s twelve… the only girls she almost makes friends with seem older than her (although we’re not told their ages either. In fact, we’re never told what age range the school houses). This would be really important!  So this killed a great deal of believability for me, too.

The other issue with creating a setting that is cold (literally and figuratively) is that you really have to work on other writing aspects if you want to keep the mood from getting dreary or morose. Here again, I felt like Bradley’s writing didn’t even come close to the gasp-inducing beauty of his previous novels. With almost all of his previous books, I’ve had to frequently stop and re-read sentences because they’re so beautifully crafted. With this book… not so much. It just felt like a weak watercolour version compared to the rich oil paintings that the others were.

If you’re a Flavia fan, obviously you’ll read this anyway (given how much I adore Flavia, I’d read her shopping list), but after finishing it, you might want to re-crack your copy of Speaking From Among the Bones, which to me, is Bradley’s best-written book to date. I look forward to seeing what the next one will bring.

 

Side note to Alan Bradley: could you write faster, please? A year is a very long time to wait.

Book review: Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little

deardaughterI’ve been reading a lot of non-YA lately, and I’ve also stumbled across a few genre-spanning books, which I really like (why do books have to be pigeonholed into genres?) – Liane Moriarty’s chick-lit-mysteries, and now Elizabeth Little’s chick-lit-thriller “Dear Daughter.” This book was like trying a new kind of chocolate bar: you know you’re not going to hate it — because hey, it’s chocolate! — but you’re not sure if it’s going to be that waxy type of chocolate that should really be called waxolate instead. Verdict: this was a fun, candy-filled treat that will keep me coming back for more!

When I was in my teens, I used to pick up a book with no expectations, and as a result enjoyed all books a lot more. Knowing nothing about Elizabeth Little and only having read a teaser review for this book, I did the same, and thoroughly enjoyed it. If you’re looking for a mystery that’s more high-brow or has writing that makes you gasp, then this isn’t the book for you; but if you’re looking for a page-turner with great characters and sarcastic humour, then check this one out.

Former it-girl Janie Jenkins has just finished her ten-year jail term for killing her own mother. The original trial had been a media frenzy, and as Janie describes, the verdict was decided by the public before the trial even began. She’s finally out and determined to prove her innocence… but wants to do it without the media getting wind of it. To avoid the paparazzi that are already trying to hunt her down, she dyes her hair and heads off to the small town that is the first clue to her mother’s murder.

Having once been a society gal – think Paris Hilton with a brain – but also having endured ten years of prison, Janie’s observations are cutting and wry. Janie is tough, feisty, and has no illusions about who she used to be. From the middle of a fight scene: The crowd below was growing louder. “Janie, what are you wearing?” “It’s off the rack!” I yelled. “Let us never speak of it again.”

Janie no longer cares about how she looks or who’s vying for the top of the social heap, but she still knows the game and has the ability to cut people down to size if she wants. The secondary characters in the small town are all likeable or like-to-hate, and it’s a delight to watch Janie, who really would prefer not to interact with anyone, have to deal with them all in her effort to find out her mother’s back-story (previously unknown to Janie: her mother came from a podunk mining town?), and how it led to her murder.

There’s no point me giving any plot away – let me just say it’s fun, gripping, and leads to a perfect chick-lit-thriller conclusion.

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Book review: Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

GetLostLet’s Get Lost is a book that I think is good, but not great, yet I really liked anyway. Confusing? Let me explain…

Let’s Get Lost is a novel that reads more like a set of five short stories. Leila is driving from Louisiana to Alaska, to see the Northern Lights. Along the way, she crosses paths with four other characters: Hudson, Bree, Elliot and Sonia. The first four stories are told from the point of view of these characters; and then the fifth story is told from Leila’s.

I’ve really grown to like switching-POV books, especially if the switches are for a reason: in this case, we slowly get to know more about Leila through the eyes of others before we finally “meet” Leila according to Leila. The only down-side to switching POVs is that there’s less connection with any one character. I really liked Leila, but I never felt connected to her, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the switching POV, or if the character just didn’t quite gel with me. Ditto for the other characters: I liked them, I just didn’t love them. The one I liked the most was Bree, and in this story the connection between Leila and Bree felt much more real. In some of the other stories – especially Sonia’s – the connection between the POV character and Leila was lacking chemistry.

Plot summary, without spoilers: Hudson is instantly attracted to Leila, and he invites her out on an adventure for the one day she’s in town. It goes well for Leila, but not so well for Hudson. Actually I found this story a bit bothersome; we learn later that the resolution is a happy one, but you can make your own mind up about whether you think Leila did something seriously wrong! Story 2: Bree is an orphaned runaway that Leila picks up. Bree and Leila bond quickly, and the reckless Bree gets them into trouble… and jail. Story 3: Leila runs (literally) into  a guy who’s just had a major heartbreak at prom. This story is plotted like an 80s teen movie – think Pretty in Pink or Say Anything – and the author gives a nod to this by mentioning 80s movies. The problem with this is that, just like 80s teen movies, the storyline is way too cliché and predictable. (Also, are we really mean to believe that teens today are watching 80s movies? Movies and TV have got a lot better since then; I’m convinced it’s only Gen X-ers who think fondly of 80s films.) Anyway, that story was a bit of a flop for me, but it was still an okay read. Then onto Sonia’s story… this one frustrated me most of all because IT DIDN’T MAKE SENSE! The plotting really fell down here. Leila has now crossed into Canada, and she meets Sonia in a rest stop. Sonia has fled a wedding because the first love of her life, Sam, died only seven months ago, and she’s feeling guilty about already having fallen in love with his friend Jeremiah, and isn’t ready to tell Sam’s family (who are parents of the bride). She and Leila cross back into the States, and then Jeremiah phones Sonia to tell her that the wedding rings are in the pocket of his jacket… which she has taken. The rest of the story is about the girls trying to get back across the border to return the rings, Sonia having lost her purse (and passport) at a rest stop. So this is where it gets flaky: anyone with any sense would tell Jeremiah what’s happened, have him drive to the border, and simply meet him there and hand the rings over. But the girls go to some ridiculous means to try to get over the border illegally, even though Leila offers to drive back over by herself. The other ridiculous part of this is, this isn’t the 1970s when driving over the Canadian/US border took all of 2 questions with one border question of “Where ya headed?” Now, customs are VERY suspicious of anyone heading back and forth across the border (hello car search!), especially if you’ve just picked up a complete stranger (hello possibility of not being allowed across, or being pulled into the office for some VERY intense questioning). Basically, these days you don’t cross the border unless you really need to, because it’s such a hassle. It makes no sense that Leila was even offering to drive Sonia back to her home in Washington State; if Sonia really was rude enough to bail on a wedding, she could have just slept off her bad mood and headed back the next day with another wedding guest. Or, ya know, sucked it up and gone to the wedding, because that’s what most of us would do! So this story fell REALLY flat for me, and made Leila look quite careless and stupid. Anyway, on to Story 5… this was mean to be the Big Climax to the book, and we do finally find out the real reason Leila’s heading to the Northern Lights, but to me it fell very flat as a climax. Leila then heads back home to Louisiana and there’s a story resolution that’s a bit cheesy but very likeable.

OK so, after all that complaining about characters, connections, and plots that fell flat… why did I still like this book so much? Well, I love a road trip book, and I love that we have a female character going on a road trip by herself. That’s pretty brave! It makes sense that she’d form bonds with people quickly, after the searing loneliness of driving alone (although I think the author should have gone into the latter a bit more; we’d have learned more about Leila), and it was enjoyable to see the effect that two strangers can have on each other if they spend some time together. And although I didn’t really love any of the characters (except for Bree – she’s great), I did like them all, and their stories made for an enjoyable read.

I think this is one of those books that boils down to expectations: if you expect a great book, you’ll be disappointed; if you expect a good book, you’ll be really pleased. I’d rate this three and a half stars out of five: it’s worth a read.

Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

SecretPlaceI’ve had a wonderful few months of discovering new, great authors, and this continues with Tana French. Well, she’s new to me; this is actually the fifth book in her Dublin Murder Squad series. The series shares some characters, but from what I can gather (I’ve only read 2 out of the 5 so far), each book has a different main character, which is a neat way to keep a series fresh.  Also refreshing is a murder-mystery series that’s set in contemporary Ireland! – what a nice change from the usual Small English Village With A Murder Rate Higher Than London’s, or Small American Town With A Murder Rate To Match New York’s. It was actually my YA obsession that drew me to this particular novel; it’s set in an Irish girls’ boarding school. And wow, the author pulls no punches in showing what contemporary Irish teens are like! I find that  lot of YA books these days are really sanitized (I’m as guilty of this as anyone else! – there’s a lot of pressure on authors to keep sex, drinking, and drugs out of books), but this one calls it like it is. The teens in this book, besides being precocious, sexually active (some of them), drug users (a few of them), and social drinkers, are remarkable in how nasty they are to each other. This is the teen social spiderweb laid brutally bare.

The plot centres around the murder of a boy from the neighbouring boys’ boarding school of St. Colm’s: a new clue is brought it to Detective Stephen Moran by one of St. Kilda’s students, Holly. Detective Moran heads off to the school with Detective Antoinette Conway, his superior, to question all the fourth-year girls, who were already questioned a year ago, with no results. The story is told in two timeframes: present day, and then a series of flashbacks told from the point of view of Holly and her three friends Julia, Becca, and Selena. The book is a slow-boiler, with plot (minus the flashbacks) taking place of the course of one day. But the switches of POV and flashbacks take away from the slow intensity of the detectives’ long, painstaking day of questioning. This gives us a double-unfurling of clues: the two detectives start to peel away the layers of secrets and lies, and at the same time, we see the past plot unfurl from the inside out, as the girls take the reader through the events that led up to the murder. As a device, it’s somewhat similar to The Gone Girl, and it’s a great way to give the reader much more information than the detectives can only draw out slowly, while keeping us guessing: not only who committed the murder, but what events could possibly lead one of St. Kilda’s girls to do it?

Holly’s group of four has a rival group of four in the school: Joanne, Gemma, Orla, and Alison, the Mean Girls of their year. Joanne is the leader and the other three the followers, and most of the school is afraid of them. Holly and Julia, however, can give as good as they get, and what really makes this book is the interactions between these eight girls. Wow, does it make me glad not to be a teenager these days! They are beyond mean, not so much in their actions but in their words; these girls would probably make Darth Vader run crying to his mummy.

At the same time that the flashbacks are unfolding the changing relationships between the girls, and with a few of the boys at St. Colm’s, we also witness the tenuously building (working) relationship between the two detectives, who have never worked together before. Conway is disliked by the rest of the murder detectives, mostly for being female, and Moran desperately wants to get in to the murder squad (he’s previously been working cold cases). This case is his first chance, and at the same time Conway’s last chance. This adds nicely to the overall tension of the book.

As usual, I will give no spoilers! Suffice to say that the plot develops beautifully. It is a bit slow going, but no slower than Gone Girl, so if you’re a fan of Gone Girl, Brit Lit, and YA, then this book will delight you. The plot will keep you guessing the whole time (although I guessed right, by about halfway through the book; there are little clues for the reader), and the resolution is superb. I look forward to reading the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad series. order online research paper