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:

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:


How It Went Down

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

publication date: 2014
pages: 325
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9869-3

How It Went Down, a topical recent book by NAACP-award nominee Kekla Magoon, examines what happens to a black community when a young person is shot by a white man.

How It Went Down began with sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson, recently shot, bleeding on the sidewalk. His shooter, Jack Franklin, was soon apprehended but was released on a theory of self-defense. The facts surrounding the shooting quickly became muddled and contested. Was Tariq causing trouble? Was he carrying a gun? Was he a good kid trying to make his way through the neighborhood, or was he a colors-flying, drug-selling gang member? Does it really matter?

The book explored the shooting and its aftermath from many different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view. By presenting varying narrators, Magoon showed that we probably can never know exactly what happened in incidents that were a lightning rod for a community.

Magoon sprinkled the book with poetic and intriguing descriptions of the lives of her characters. An example is this passage by Tariq’s mother, Redeema:

Cops got a special way of knocking at the door. With the meat of the fist. Sets the whole wall a-shaking.

Next thing that comes – it ain’t never good news.

I also liked this description by Jennica, a server at a local diner, who changed her nametag to read Jen because:

People always wanted to strike up conversation about it. Oh, that’s pretty, and so forth. Especially some of the jerks who come in and think I’m into them because I smile and bring them food. Like they don’t even get that it’s my job; they think I’m doing it for fun or something, like I’m doing something special just for them.

Because the main action in the book, Tariq’s fatal shooting, happened before the book even began, Magoon spent time establishing side characters and their lives and peculiarities. She introduced love stories, night wanderings, and gang politics. Most of these were soggy and uninteresting. They were also scattered and random, which meant I didn’t really care about what was happening to them. Relatedly, none of the characters were fully-developed or deep enough, except maybe the one character the reader didn’t get to hear from, Tariq.

In How It Went Down, Magoon presented a need examination of her devastating topic, but it wasn’t as powerful or compelling as it might have been in more capable hands.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

Los Angeles Times
Books YA Love

The Queen of the Tearling

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

publication date: 2014
pages: 434
ISBN: 978-0-06-229036-6

The Queen of the Tearling is another addition to the extensive catalog of fantasy novels. The book followed Kelsea Glynn, as she was taken from her home at eighteen by a cadre of soldiers and forced into the role of queen of the kingdom.

The book differed somewhat from your average fantasy novel. First of all, it was written by a woman. Additionally, the main character was a woman, and an unattractive one, at that. Also, the setting wasn’t just some faraway land; instead, Johansen dropped tantalizing hints about the time period and location of the story – indicating the story might be set in Earth in the future.

These differences were welcome, although they didn’t raise the book above an average fantasy novel for me. Things that made the book different from other fantasy novels – a not pretty female protagonist, a futuristic setting – have all been extensively used in other genres and were, therefore, not that extraordinary.

Additionally, parts of the book were a little bizarre. Kelsea was always saying weird things at inopportune times and no one would react strangely to them. For example, Kelsea was injured while riding on her horse and her guard asked her if she could make it ten more miles to the stronghold. She replied:

What sort of weak, housebound woman do you think I am, Lazarus? I’m bleeding that’s all. And I’ve never had such a fine time as on this journey.

I thought Lazarus’s question was a reasonable one. And was Kelsea being sarcastic or was she really having an exciting time because she led a sheltered life? So either Kelsea made a sarcastic and overblown comment to a genuine question or she got easily excited and spouted off her feelings at a random time. Either option is bizarre. Additionally, people would react strangely to Kelsea at completely random times and she would allow it, even though she was queen and would seemingly want to squelch that kind of behavior. It seemed like sloppy writing to me, but it is possible Johansen was just crafting characters with somewhat strange thoughts and behaviors.

The writing was not all bad. The plot of the book was entertaining, with magic and political intrigue. Also, Johansen introduced several other characters besides Kelsea and she wove all their stories together compellingly.

For fans of the fantasy genre, The Queen of the Tearling is a welcome addition. For others, there are better fantasy books out there, and better books of any genre.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Fantasy Book Review
Wrapped Up in Books

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

publication date: 1993
pages: 329
ISBN: 978-0-446-67550-5

What is it about the Northwest that causes writers to craft dim and dark apocalyptic worlds? Seattlite Octavia E. Butler certainly did just that in Parable of the Sower.

Parable of the Sower presented the story of Lauren Olamina, a young girl living in the western United States in the not-so-distant future. The story began with Lauren living in a working-class gated community in the middle of an economic wasteland, where residents armed themselves against the “street poor” on their commute to work and cities were infiltrated by a new drug – called pyro – that caused the user to start fires and revel in them. The book only hinted at what caused this societal breakdown – was it climate change, income inequality, racial strife? As Lauren grew older and her life crumbled around her, she concentrated on a spiritual set of rules she was creating that she called Earthseed.

Although the plot sounds distinct and suspenseful, it was actually somewhat boring. Terrible things were happening in Lauren’s life, but Butler’s dispassionate writing style meant the whole plot seemed detached and unimportant.

Butler’s style wasn’t necessarily bad, however. The book was written in a diary format from Lauren’s point-of-view. Her unemotional style yielded several stark and impactful sentences. For example, Lauren’s diary entry from Wednesday, August 26, 2026, which contained just one sentence:

Today, my parents had to go downtown to identify the body of my brother Keith.

Additionally, although the book wasn’t necessarily interesting as I was reading it, it was thought-provoking and left me with lingering thoughts and questions. For example, Lauren’s relationship with Earthseed was provocative. Earthseed was a religion she was forming and creating and would perhaps one day be some sort of messiah for. However, she felt like she was just uncovering something that already existed. This implied creation myth imbued Lauren’s every action with a larger-than-life quality.

Butler also raised issues of labor and employment. In a world where labor vastly outweighs employment, what would happen? In Parable, the government and employers wrung as much as possible out of labor. Corporations reverted to the “company town” system, where workers lived, worked, and shopped at the company. Workers were paid in scrip that could only be spent at the company store. It sounds like a preposterous system that would never be allowed because of the human rights abuses that would easily occur. But company towns existed quite unchallenged for decades in the 19th and 20th century, a time when commentators thought of the United States as enlightened.

Butler also addressed the issue of race. Race is not a focus of Parable, but the issue is raised occasionally. I thought Butler handled it more realistically than other dystopian novels in that she did not just sweep it under the rug. Instead, some characters worked together but other characters were more aware of race and more divided by it.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book:

Badass Book Reviews
Opinions of a Wolf
The Stake

A Trove of YA Books

This winter, the place where I work held a YA reading challenge for staff. I didn’t take notes or write reviews on most of the books I read, but I thought I could include them here, ranked and broadly categorized. A few of these, I have already reviewed or will review in the future.

5/6: seek this book out

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater – 5/6 (couple-focused, supernatural)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth – 5/6 (coming-of-age)
Kiss of Broken Glass by Madeleine Kuderick – 5/6 (poetry)
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater – 5/6 (supernatural, action)
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare – 5/6 (couple-focused, supernatural, action)
City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare – 5/6 (couple-focused, supernatural, action)

4/6: worth reading

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – 4/6 (supernatural, action)
Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater – 4/6 (supernatural, action, couple-focused)
Partials by Dan Wells – 4/6 (dystopian, action, SF) 
Fragments by Dan Wells – 4/6 (dystopian, action, SF)
Ruins by Dan Wells – 4/6 (dystopian, action, SF)

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini – 4/6 (coming-of-age)
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural, action)
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney – 4/6 (poetry, coming-of-age, graphic fiction)
Panic by Lauren Oliver – 4/6 (coming-of-age, mystery)
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler – 4/6 (dystopian, SF)

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural, action)
City of Glass by Cassandra Clare – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural, action)
City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural, action)
City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural, action)
Trickster edited by Matt Dembicki – 4/6 (graphic fiction)

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner – 4/6 (couple-focused, action, SF)
Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural)
Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural)
This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner – 4/6 (couple-focused, action, supernatural, SF)
The Originals by Cat Patrick – 4/6 (mystery, couple-focused)

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver – 4/6 (coming-of-age)
Linger by Maggie Stiefvater – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural)
Forever by Maggie Stiefvater – 4/6 (couple-focused, supernatural)
Divergent by Veronica Roth – 4/6 (couple-focused, dystopian)
Legend by Marie Lu – 4/6 (dystopian, couple-focused, action)

Prodigy by Marie Lu – 4/6 (dystopian, couple-focused, action)
Champion by Marie Lu – 4/6 (dystopian, couple-focused, action)
A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis – 4/6 (coming-of-age)
Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl – 4/6 (comedy)
Isolation by Dan Wells – 4/6 (dystopian, action, SF)

Killer Instinct by S.E. Green – 4/6 (mystery, horror)
Catwings by Ursula K. LeGuin – 4/6 (children’s)
The Menagerie by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari H. Sutherland – 4/6 (children’s, action)
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers – 4/6 (supernatural, action, couple-focused)
The Night She Disappeared by April Henry – 4/6 (mystery, couple-focused)
El Deafo by Cece Bell – 4/6 (children’s, graphic fiction)

3/6: more good than bad

The End Games by T. Michael Martin – 3/6 (action, horror)
Dragon on Trial by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari H. Sutherland – 3/6 (children’s, action)

below this line, I would not recommend the book

47 by Walter Mosley – 3/6 (coming-of-age, supernatural)
Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George- 3/6 (mystery)
Fallen by Lauren Kate – 3/6 (couple-focused, supernatural)
The Iron King by Julie Kagawa – 3/6 (supernatural, action, couple-focused)

2/6: many problems

Infinity by Sherrilyn Kenyon – 2/6 (action, supernatural)

These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

publication date: 2013
pages: 374
ISBN: 978-1-4231-7102-7

In These Broken Stars, Kaufman and Spooner craft a traditional teenage love story; however, they compose it against a detailed and futuristic SF world.

The book introduces us to Major Tarver Merendsen and society girl Lilac LaRoux. Their story begins inauspiciously, as Lilac leads Tarver on, only to mercilessly reject him. After that, neither wants to see the other again; however, life has other plans for them and, as the spaceliner they are on sustains damage, they both end up in the same escape pod.

Both the characters, Lilac and Tarver, are very strong, engaging, and interesting. When Tarver first meets Lilac, I was immediately compelled by his inner monologue:

I know [Lilac’s] playing a game with me, but I don’t know the rules, and she’s got all the cards. Still the hell with it – I just can’t find it in me to care that I’m losing. I’ll surrender right now, if she likes.

However, I didn’t find much to differentiate them from any other YA main characters.

Although the authors’ characters were run-of-the-mill, their writing was more distinctive. The style of the book had an ethereal, wondering quality. An example is this passage, where Lilac is stranded just as it starts to rain:

More rain. If there’s any more rain than this, I think, we’ll need gills. We could swim up to the sky and leave this place with no need to wait for a rescue ship.

Another unique aspect of the book was its setting. As a SF book, it was set in a future where scientific advances far exceed our current technologies. The world the authors created was detailed and realistic. Further, the science of these new technologies made sense, as long as I didn’t dwell on it. However, I thought the book borrowed too much of its concepts and vocabulary from other works, especially Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Generally, this book was just fine and, in fact, I had a hard time putting it down. The characters were solid, the writing was striking, and the setting and plot were interesting. However, nothing seemed “fresh” enough; I felt like I’d read this book ten times before. Accordingly, I would probably only recommend this book to those who already have an affinity for YA of this type.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Midnight Garden
YA Fanatic
School Library Journal