Iron Cast

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria9781419721922

publication date: 2016
pages: 376
ISBN: 9781419721922

This YA book reminded me of 2007’s book The City of Bones, the first of the Mortal Instruments series. They were both set in an urban world cloaked by a veil of mystical characters and phenomena. The main characters in both lived in a secret, separate haven built specifically for them. The plots involved enemies who were closing in and there were always hints of distrust, even betrayal. Further, both authors focused on quotations, poems, and music as part of the dialogue and as important plot points.

Although Iron Cast, which was set in pre-Prohibition Boston, might have been an heir to The City of Bones, there were some things it improved on – and others it wasn’t as successful with. I enjoyed the two main characters from Iron Cast, Ada and Corinne, very much. Ada was a second generation Swahili-Portuguese immigrant and Corinne was the sequestered daughter from a wealthy family. What brought them together was not their personalities or their backgrounds but that they both suffered from a mysterious affliction known as “hemopathy,” which gave them the ability to manipulate the minds of others using words or music, and an aversion to iron. Ada and Corinne were compelling, intricate characters that presented a wonderful example of female friendship. The best writing centered on Ada or Corinne. For example, here was a small bit from Corinne’s inner monologue:

She had spent her whole life trying to always be the cleverest person in the room, and it was just now occurring to her how boundless her own stupidity was.

The plot of the book was interesting enough. Ada and Corinne lived in the Cast Iron, an iron-free hemopath sanctuary run by Johnny Dervish. To pay Johnny back for giving them shelter, the girls ran cons and illegally entertained non-hemopath’s at Johnny’s club. The book focused on the girls’ schemes, as their iron-free world was threatened by those on the outside. Although the larger plot was fine, individual plot points were very contrived and unconvincing. I won’t be specific because I don’t want to give anything away, but several turns within the plot seemed designed merely to get Corinne and Ada to some predestined outcome.

Additionally, a large focus of the book was on words and music but those sections were often dull and tedious. Many passages quoted poetry or other lyrics but they held no passion or fire. After a while, I just skipped over them.

However, the book did contain some good writing. The description of the hellish Haversham Asylum was especially effective:

They went through a doorway at the end of a long corridor that opened into a large, low-ceilinged room. The sharp smell of disinfectant assaulted [Corinne’s] nostrils. This room was brighter than the corridors, with bright medical lamps that glared off the white tile and stainless steel surfaces. The brilliance temporarily blinded Corinne, and they were several steps into the room before she recovered. Once she did, the only thing she could really see was the man a few feet away from her. His face was so skeletal that for a split second she thought he was dead – but no, his gray smock moved barely with the slow rise and fall of his chest.

A lot of the book was just okay. But, Iron Cast created an intriguing world with two engrossing main characters that were worth the read. Ada, especially, as a person of color in early 1900s Boston, was especially captivating.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Olivia’s Catastrophe blog
School Library Journal
Heart Full of Books

Drag Teen

Drag Teen by Jeffery Self9780545829939

publication date: 2016
pages: 261
ISBN: 978-0-545-82993-9

This YA book followed JT and his friends Heather and Seth from Florida to New York as they entered JT in a drag queen competition to boost his confidence and win a college scholarship. I’m glad this book exists, because there should be books about people pursuing drag for fun and for life. However, this particular book was not great.

The writing was very uneven. The narrator skipped from one topic to the next and any emotional changes were generally jarring and confusing. Also, the author assumed that just because he described something in a certain way, then that thing made sense. Here’s an example, when JT’s best friend was introduced:

Heather was just as much of a mess as me. Which is why our friendship worked so well. We were the kind of outcasts they don’t make teen movies about. Heather was funny, biting, sarcastic, and had a variety of beautiful features, but none of them really went together, and her weight problems were even worse than mine, which meant she turned to her big personality to distract the judgmental eyes of our peers.

That paragraph was all over the place. And, those two sound like exactly the folks people would make teen movies about. A gay teen and his funny, overweight best friend? I think 60% of teen movies post-She’s All That have that combo in there.

Generally, the humor did not work. However, there were a few parts that I thought were funny. This line was one of my favorites:

We all awkwardly chuckled along with her, the way people do in action movies when the bad guy makes a lame joke and laughs at it while holding a weapon.

I also liked how buoyant and passionate the writing was. The author really loved his topic and his characters. Although a lot of the characters in the book were just props for JT or plot pieces, JT’s boyfriend and best friend, Seth and Heather, were well-developed characters with their own interesting back stories and lives.

This book had a lot going for it, including good main characters and convincing settings and motivations, but unfortunately the plot and writing were flawed.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Twirling Book Princess
Portland Book Review
Edge Media Network

Permanent Record

Permanent Record by Leslie Stella9781477816394

publication date: 2013
pages: 282
ISBN: 9781477816394

Permanent Record was a YA book with an uncommon main character – Badi Hessamizadeh, also known as Bud Hess. Badi was a young Iranian-American living with his family in urban Chicago. When we met Badi at the beginning of the book, he was in mandatory therapy after a suicide attempt and was leaving his old school because of his threats against students and blowing up a toilet.

When Badi started at his new school, his parents forced on him a new Americanized name – Bud Hess. Along with the new name, Bud wanted a fresh start at his new school, without the bullying and depression and maybe even with some friends. As the story continued, Bud refused to take his medication and his narrative became increasingly paranoid and violent. Bud found himself in almost the same situation he was in at his previous school.

The tone and voice of this book was classic young adult. It was angst-filled, with a lot of talk about girls and rebelling against parents and other authority figures. The dialogue was usually good, but not necessarily realistic. Leslie Stella did infuse the book with a lot of humor, some of it dark. For example, Bud described the new freshmen in school as having “the stunned look of livestock.”

I also liked the setting of a Middle Eastern-American household. Stella did a great job conveying Bud’s family as realistic Americans with an Iranian culture and background. Here was how Stella introduced Bud’s father:

We’re halfway through when Dad clears his throat, puts down his fork, and turns to me. “Son, I have some news for you.” . . . Dad lifts his palms in a gesture of surrender. “Now, now, do not derange yourself.” My father emigrated to this country – right here to Chicago, in fact – from Iran thirty years ago, and while he has only the slightest accent and is completely fluent in English (and Farsi and French), he’s retained some dialectical oddities.

Stella deliberately crafted the pace of the book. As Bud’s narration devolved into paranoia and desperation, the tone of the book gradually became less coherent and more frantic. Throughout all this, Bud’s actions and motives became less justifiable and more threatening. And yet we were still supposed to root for him, or at least identify with him. I thought Stella did an effective job of making Bud a sympathetic character even as he was unequivocally plotting violence against his alleged enemies. However, it did raise the question: how much sympathy, understanding, and forgiveness should we give a violent person, know matter how mentally ill or how bullied they feel?

What the book lacked in depth and character development, it made up for in an unusual plot and setting and funny writing. For people who like YA, or for those encountering depression, I would certainly recommend the book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Teen Librarian Toolbox
Drunk On Pop
School Library Journal

Zombies vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns edited ­­by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black9781416989530

publication date: 2010
pages: 415
ISBN: 978-1-4169-8953-0

This book was a compilation of short stories compiled by Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black. The book pitted zombie stories against unicorn stories, with the zombie stories championed by Larbalestier and the unicorn stories promoted by Black. The stories were by several authors, including Garth Nix, Meg Cabot, and Cassandra Clare. Each story was prefaced with an argument or an exhortation by both Larbalestier and Black.

In my opinion, the zombie side won. Although, actually, as readers, we often all lost. Even the best story, a zombie story by Alaya Dawn Johnson, left much to be desired. I don’t know if the authors weren’t very interested in the theme, or couldn’t explore what they wanted to explore in a short story, but the stories were usually hurried and lacked solid characters. Also, the dialogue was often rushed or unrealistic. Additionally, if the story was action-oriented, the action frequently did not make sense. Here was an example from the story “Purity Test” by Naomi Novik:

Otto yowled as whatever had been boiling in the cauldron went pouring over his alligator-skin shoes and steaming over the floor. He whirled and came at them with the wand. “What did you do? How did you do that? I’m going to flay the skin off your bones –” Then he got close enough that Alison could pull the Princess Leia maneuver and throw the chains around his neck. She jerked them tight and dragged him in close as his face went purple and red, and she snatched the wand out of his hand.

That paragraph was typical of the abrupt, confusing action that occurred in many of the stories. Also ineffective were the editorial passages written by Larbalestier and Black before each story. At times, Larbalestier was downright mean! This was how she introduced the first zombie story:

Hallelujah! After wading through Garth Nix’s ye oldey unicorn muck you now get to read a proper zombie story. Since Holly [Black] bored you all . . . I thought I should fill you in . . . on the different kinds of zombies.

Although none of the stories or writing jumped out at me as anything spectacular, there were a few highlights. Libba Bray’s zombie story “Prom Night” was good, as was Kathleen Duey’s unicorn story “The Third Virgin.” Alayah Dawn Johnson’s story “Love Will Tear Us Apart” piqued my interest enough that I read one of her books. The zombie story “Bougainvillea,” by Carrie Ryan, was perhaps the most well-written. Ryan’s writing was haunting and lyrical:

A lizard slides over her toes, and she jumps, her fingernails raking against the tiles as she scrabbles to stay put. She feels like someone has planted a tree in her chest and then pressed fast-forward on the world, branches growing and twisting and pushing her apart from the inside. It’s hard to breathe in the thick night air, and she tastes the dampness of impending rain in the back of her throat.

Although Zombies vs. Unicorns contained some compelling tidbits, I would not recommend it unless you are enamored with its subject matter.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of this book:

Fantasy Book Review
Dear Author
Books: A True Story

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness9780062415639

publication date: 2015
pages: 317
ISBN: 978-0-06-240316-2

After reading Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series a few years ago, I’ve been casually following him as an author. When I saw his newish book The Rest of Us Just Live Here, I was excited to pick it up. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations I had after Chaos Walking.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here followed Mikey, a normal guy who just wanted to graduate high school with his friends and the love of his life. The book explicitly contrasted Mikey and his group with the “indie kids” – you know the ones: they’re always too cool for prom or trendy clothes and they always find trouble. Usually the trouble came in the form of vampires, but sometimes also zombies or spirits or the like. This time the trouble came in the form of “the Immortals.” Every chapter of the book started with a description of what was happening with the indie kids as Mikey was living his unremarkable life. For example:

Chapter the Third, in which indie kid Finn’s body is discovered; Satchel – who once dated Finn – asks Dylan and a second indie kid also called Finn to skip school and help her talk to her alcoholic uncle, who is the lead police officer investigating the death; meanwhile, the Messenger, inside a new Vessel, is already among them, preparing the way for the arrival of the Immortals.

I thought this was a fun plot device. As the Bella Swans and the Harry Potters of the world go around fighting evil and their demons, we shouldn’t forget the ordinary people. As the title of the book made clear: the rest of us just live here. However, the book did not follow its own conceit. Instead of following a group of kids who were only tangentially or passively related to the indie kids’ action, Ness created characters that consistently were in the thick of things. It’s almost as though they were “indie kids” themselves.

Everything about this book was OK. The plot was fine, the characters were fine, the writing was fine, and the ending was fine. I laughed a few times but I also rolled my eyes a lot, in frustration or derision. The characters were supposed to be average, but in actuality one was part-god, one had a state senator as a parent, and most were involved in a love quadrangle. All of them were these “indie kids” that Ness had tried to ignore.

I kept comparing it to Rainbow Rowell, and especially Carry On. Carry On and The Rest of Us Just Live Here were published around the same time but, unfortunately, Rowell did a better job. She crafted a better anti-Chosen One story, with better characters and a better message. She even had better parenthetical asides!

If you liked Chaos Walking, you won’t necessarily like this book – it was very different. However, if you like contemporary YA you’ll probably like this just fine.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

The Guardian
Teen Librarian Tool Box
New York Times

Jackaby

Jackaby by William Ritter9781616203535

publication date: 2014
pages: 209
ISBN: 978-1-61620-353-5

William Ritter took several successful formulas – a Sherlock-esque antisocial detective, a supernatural mystery, a steam punky female narrator – and spliced them together to form Jackaby.

The book followed Abigail Rook as she arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, in 1892. Abigail stumbled upon Jackaby, an eccentric detective of the occult, and began work for him as his assistant. The two quickly (unnervingly quickly) encountered a murder that needed solving. Abigail and Jackaby worked together, along with a police officer, a banshee, and a ghost, to solve the case.

In general, I found the whole book to be quite tedious. Jackaby was almost a straight rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, except he argued for the metaphysical and not against it. As an example, here was Jackaby convincing a police officer to take them further into a crime scene, which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen in every Sherlock ever:

“Wait,” said Charlie, following. “I told the inspector [Marlowe] I would take you out of the building.”

“And so you shall,” Jackaby called over his shoulder. “Expertly, I imagine, and to the letter of the instruction. However, I don’t recall Marlowe giving any specific directions about time, nor about the route we take, so let’s have a quick chat with someone odd, first, shall we? I do love odd. Ah, here we are!”

I also solved the case 1/3 through the book and figured out the red herring about 2/3 of the way through. That’s not me bragging, because I’m not the type to “figure out” books while I read them. That’s me showing how transparent the plot was.

The writing was also tiresome. Ritter attempted to falsely insert drama and interest. Here was a small example, as both Abigail and Jackaby were walking from Jackaby’s office to the post office to work on the case:

My stomach was growling audibly as Jackaby paid the vendor for two steamy meat pies. . . .

“So, what we know thus far,” Jackaby said suddenly, as if the ongoing conversation in his head had bubbled over and simply poured out his mouth, “is our culprit left poor Mr. Bragg with a wicked chest wound and a grieving girlfriend, and he made off with a good deal of the fellow’s blood. . . .”

Ritter was obviously trying to create tension by having what Jackaby did be “sudden,” but I honestly do not know how Jackaby could have started that conversation any less suddenly. Was he supposed to say: “Alright, I’m going to talk about the case now, it’s coming up, just about to talk about it. Are you ready? Here we go. . .”

The unoriginal characters, thin plot, and simplistic writing meant that I had almost no emotional investment in the book.

The book wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Ritter did have some imaginative beasties and fantastical creatures. And there was one part of the book that I actively liked, when Abigail and Jackaby were questioning a woman:

[Hatun said,] “Oh no. been keeping to myself, kept my shawl on all tight all night, didn’t want anyone finding me after what I saw.”

“You were hiding in your shawl?” I asked.

Hatun gave the pale blue knit shawl around her shoulders an affectionate tug. “Only street folk can see me in this, beggars and homeless, like. Never had much cause to watch out for them – they’re good souls, the most of ‘em. For everyone else – well, it doesn’t make me invisible or nothing, just impossible to notice.” She smiled proudly.

Jackaby and I exchanged glances.

“Erm, I found you,” said my colleague.

Hatun gave him a knowing wink. “You don’t exactly follow the rules when it comes to finding things, though, now do you, Detective?”

I thought that passage was an effective commentary on how we can overlook the homeless and downtrodden.

If someone was intensely interested in this genre, I would recommend this book, because it followed the mold closely. For the rest of us, I thought the book had:

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book:

Nerdist
teenreads
Cuddle Buggery

Carry On

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell97812500495512

publication date: 2015
pages: 517
ISBN: 978-1-250-04955-1

Carry On was another entrant in the “Chosen One” category, a la Harry Potter, Frodo, and countless other (usually YA) novels wherein a main character is given Herculean tasks and, after many trials and tribulations, completes them. However, our hero Simon Snow wasn’t necessarily the wizard any of us would have chosen for the job. He’s a self-proclaimed “thug” who thought more about food than magic. In fact, Rainbow Rowell precisely and perfectly constructed characters that broke the mold of the genre. A girlfriend who was enamored with the bad guy. A mentor who was never around to counsel because he was off raiding people’s houses in a costume and a funny mustache. A wizarding world with cars, and laptops, and smart phones.

Rowell’s characters were superb and maybe the best thing about a very good book. I loved how realistic they were. Her characters went through shoplifting phases at 14. Some cursed, some drank, some fell in love and lust. And some just wanted out of the game entirely. This book reflected real people who just happened to be magic, and Rowell did a great job of crafting and describing her characters. For example, Simon’s girlfriend wasn’t interested in waiting around for him to complete his destiny:

‘I want to be someone’s right now, Simon, not their happily ever after. I don’t want to be the prize at the end. The thing you get if you beat all the bosses.’

And, as mentioned above, Simon was kind of a lovable doof. Here’s a description of Simon through the eyes of his roommate:

[Simon] likes to be the first person down to breakfast, Chomsky knows why. It’s 6 A.M., and he’s already banging around our room like a cow who accidentally wandered up here.

Beyond creating wonderful characters, Rowell created, as she always does, a wonderful love story. I won’t get too much into the identity of the characters, but Rowell created two young men whose relationship seemed like a remarkable inevitability. Rowell had a talent of focusing on the minute details of the people in love, without being overly descriptive or maudlin. For example, here’s a description of Simon from the guy who had a crush on him:

[Simon] swallows. [He] has the longest neck and the showiest swallow I’ve ever seen. His chin juts out and his Adam’s apple catches – it’s a whole scene.

Beyond the adorable love story with its delightful minutiae, the plot itself was actually quite good. There were twists and turns and several times where I was in suspense. Rowell crafted a story with sensible internal rules, solvable mysteries, and several believable villains. However, the few flaws in the book came from the plot. There were scenes that were muddled and character motivations that relied on suspension of disbelief to make any sense.

Overall, Rowell created an affectionate parody that perfectly satirized this beloved genre, while still creating characters and a story that will probably be a beloved part of the genre canon.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

Npr
Slate
Girl!Reporter