Shelf Reflections

Brazen by Katherine Longshore

“Mary Howard has always lived in the shadow of her powerful family. But when she’s married off to Henry Fitzroy, King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, she rockets into the Tudor court’s inner circle. Mary and “Fitz” join a tight clique of rebels who test the boundaries of court’s strict rules with their games, dares, and flirtations. The more Mary gets to know Fitz, the harder she falls for him, but is forbidden from seeing him alone. The rules of court were made to be pushed—but pushing them too far means certain death. Is true love worth dying for?”

One of my random interests is British history, especially the Tudor era. There was so much going on during that time period that it’s as good as any novel—the conflicts, the romances, the backstabbing, all contribute to a portion of history that’s nearly unbelievable. A lot of fiction has been written about the Tudor court, and with good reason. I feel that it’s an especially good subject to get teens interested in history, and Longshore’s novels are among the best contributions to that genre.

The seed of this particular book comes from the Devonshire Manuscript, which is a book of poetry written in many different hands, including that of Mary Howard, the young wife of Henry Fitzroy. The rules at Henry VIII’s court were strict, especially for women, and Longshore does an excellent job of using the Devonshire Manuscript as the backdrop for some of the young women pushing the boundaries of what’s expected of them.

I found Mary an easy character to like. While she is definitely a product of her era, the struggles that she goes through in trying to find her identity and make a place for herself in the world are ones that anybody can relate to. There’s not a lot of information about her life and activities, but we do know that she fought to retain the title that she got from Fitzroy, so she was obviously a strong-willed woman. The author invents a wonderful early history for Mary, setting her character up to become the individual that is known in history.

We may not know much about Mary, but there is a lot of available research on the Tudor court, and the author weaves details about daily life and cultural norms seamlessly into the story. You get a lot of fascinating information without even realizing it, and I’m willing to bet that it will spark some readers to investigate more on their own. Far from being dry and dusty, Longshore’s version of history is vibrant with color and activity and energy. Henry VIII in his early years was something of a “rock star”, handsome and magnetic, and readers will get the full sense of what that era was like.

It’s too bad that Longshore won’t be writing any more Tudor novels for the foreseeable future, because I’ve greatly enjoyed her forays into the lives of the women who helped shape England during one of its most tumultuous time periods. Brazen brings history to life in a way that few young adult novels manage, capturing the allure and dangers of life for the women in Henry VIII’s court.

This review was originally posted on June 30, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Wake of the Bloody Angel by Alex Bledsoe

“Twenty years ago, a barmaid in a harbor town fell for a young sailor who turned pirate to make his fortune. But what truly became of Black Edward Tew remains a mystery—one that has just fallen into the lap of freelance sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse.

For years, Eddie has kept his office above Angelina’s tavern, so when Angelina herself asks him to find out what happened to the dashing pirate who stole her heart, he can hardly say no—even though the trail is two decades old. Some say Black Edward and his ship, The Bloody Angel, went to bottom of the sea, taking with it a king’s fortune in treasure. Others say he rules a wealthy, secret pirate kingdom. And a few believe he still sails under a ghostly flag with a crew of the damned.

To find the truth, and earn his twenty-five gold pieces a day, Eddie must take to sea in the company of a former pirate queen in search of the infamous Black Edward Tew…and his even more legendary treasure.”

When I first started reading this series, I remember thinking that the language is a little anachronistic.  What I’ve realized in the interim is that readers shouldn’t necessarily think of this as a fantasy novel with a mystery in it; rather, it’s more of a mystery novel in a fantasy setting.  When I made that change in my reading, the language didn’t really bother me.  No, it’s not quite on par with a medieval-style world, but it fits in with the type of story Bledsoe is telling.

The characters are similarly down to earth.  This isn’t a novel where you’re going to get the extremes of heroism or villainy.  What you get are real people, albeit transposed into a fantasy world.  Eddie and the other characters are fallible human beings, making mistakes and struggling with their own issues just like any of us.  Even so, there are surprising moments of humanity, gentleness and kindness that make readers think of these characters as good people—not just characters, but as good people that we’d all like to know in person.

And speaking of characters… ah, Jane, how I adore thee.  The pirate queen turned privateer who helps Eddie in his quest is a bundle of energy and sass.  She gets some great lines, holds her own on a ship full of men, and commands respect from those in the book and readers alike.  Out of all the personalities in this novel, she’s the one that I’d love to meet the most.

The thing that I’ve enjoyed about this series, and this book in particular, is how Bledsoe can weave an intricate plot with tons of details and red herrings and have it all work out in a realistic way.  It doesn’t always wrap up neatly, but it does wrap up in a way that you could see happening in real life.  Yes, fantasy is escapist, but make it too fantastic and you really can’t relate.  I found this novel’s ending to be satisfying—not full of fireworks and heroics and derring-do, but satisfying.  And frankly, I like that more than fireworks.

Wake of the Bloody Angel is another stellar example of Alex Bledsoe’s writing.  This book is fun, full of adventure and witty dialogue, and thoroughly enjoyable.  If I could pull Eddie, Jane and the others out of the book, I’d buy them a drink and pump them for stories of their exploits.  Alas, all we can do is wait for another Eddie novel and hope that it’s not too long in the making.

This review was originally posted on August 22, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

“When Cat Novak was a young girl, her father brought Finn, an experimental android, to their isolated home. A billion-dollar construct, Finn looks and acts human, but he has no desire to be one. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection.

His primary task now is to tutor Cat. Finn stays with her, becoming her constant companion and friend as she grows into adulthood. But when the government grants rights to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world. As their relationship goes further than anyone intended, they have to face the threat of being separated forever.”

When I picked up this book, I expected to find something with a higher science fiction quotient—after all, the synopsis makes it sound like robot rights are a central issue.  What I got, though, was something far better: a love story that transcends the way we think about what is human and what isn’t.  Of course, it’s impossible not to compare this novel to The Bicentennial Man, but this story comes out ahead in that particular contest.  At the risk of sounding cheesy, the movie was about how many years you live, and The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is about how much life you allow into your years.

The love story takes center stage over the other plotlines concerning robot sentience and the state of the world in which this novel takes place.  It still feels like a fully fleshed out setting, though.  In fact, I hope that Clarke writes more in this world, because I would like to have seen a broader picture of the landscape and the people.

Much of the novel is achingly poignant.  As Cat grows up and grows older, her contact with Finn decreases and her life takes a turn for the worse.  Clarke’s writing at these moments is extremely evocative, and I felt genuine sorrow at what Cat goes through.  I wouldn’t necessarily call Cat a completely sympathetic character, as she doesn’t always treat Finn as well as she should, but believe me, you will feel for her by the novel’s end.

This book is a great Valentine’s Day present for the science fiction aficionado in your life.  It hits all the right notes and delivers a tale that is often heartbreaking but always has that element of hope that love will conquer all.  The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is a lovely and moving story, and I highly recommend it.

This review was originally posted on February 12, 2013.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

“The people of Fall River, Massachusetts, fear me. Perhaps rightfully so. I remain a suspect in the brutal deaths of my father and his second wife despite the verdict of innocence at my trial. With our inheritance, my sister, Emma, and I have taken up residence in Maplecroft, a mansion near the sea and far from gossip and scrutiny.

But it is not far enough from the affliction that possessed my parents. Their characters, their very souls, were consumed from within by something that left malevolent entities in their place. It originates from the ocean’s depths, plaguing the populace with tides of nightmares and madness.

This evil cannot hide from me. No matter what guise it assumes, I will be waiting for it. With an axe.”

Lizzie Borden mixed with Cthulu mythos. All righty then. I’ve been reading Cherie Priest’s books since she first started publishing, and I thought that this might be a bit weird even for her. I’m happy to say that it works just fine—surprisingly well, actually. I know almost nothing about Lovecraft’s Cthulu stories, so maybe that worked in my favor, but I honestly think that Priest is just that good of a writer.

The Borden murders are one of the great unsolved mysteries in America: two people found brutally killed with multiple axe blows; a suspect with a changing story; and no clear evidence as to what happened. Admittedly, I didn’t know a heck of a lot about the case, my basic knowledge consisting of the children’s rhyme quoted above. There are enough details about Lizzie’s life contained in this novel to make me go hunting around to see if they were accurate. And for the most part, they are. (Obviously, Lizzie’s dad and stepmom weren’t possessed by evil beings, but that should be apparent.)

Priest’s narrative takes the facts that are known and weaves them seamlessly with her horror story. She explains why Lizzie killed her parents, why she and her sister stayed in the same town after her trial, what caused she and her sister to fall out, and what Lizzie’s relationship was with a prominent actress of the time. There’s no point at which I felt the author’s imaginings interfered with actual facts, and it made the read that much more fascinating.

In reading this book, I was put in mind of Orson Scott Card’s distinctions between dread, terror and horror. Dread is the anticipation of fear, terror is what you feel in the moment, and horror is the aftermath. Much of this novel takes place in the realm of dread—monsters are rarely seen, but their influence is keenly felt as innocent people fall prey to them. There are moments of terror as creatures attack and mythical monsters sing their siren call. There’s very little horror aside from snippets when Lizzie sees the consequences of the supernatural events plaguing her town.

Although the mash-up seems crazy, the end result is a dark historical fantasy that draws you into it as surely as if one of Priest’s monsters had its hooks into your soul. Maplecroft is an incredibly unique and creative novel that brings the thrills from both fact and fiction.

This review was originally posted on September 8, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Angry Robot Books, based in England, often bills itself as a purveryor of SF, F, and WTF fiction. It’s that last category that often intrigues me the most. And nothing fits that better than Chuck Wendig’s novel Blackbirds. It’s edgy, in-your-face, and brutal… and it also tells a great story.

“Miriam Black knows when you will die.

Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.

Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.”

This is not a novel that pulls any punches for the sake of readers’ sensibilities. It contains sex, graphic violence, drinking, and enough cursing to make an entire convent of nuns faint dead away. Miriam is one of the most damaged heroines in the genre–she uses casual sex and hard drinking as a buffer against the violent death that she regularly witnesses. Most of the other characters have their own roster of anti-social tendencies as well.

And yet, it’s impossible not to sympathize with–and eventually like–Miriam. There are chapters in the story marked as “interludes”, in which Miriam tells her history to a reporter from a fringe magazine. Weaving together these vignettes with the plotline’s action gives readers a better picture of Miriam than they’d get from just seeing her in action. In the interstichals, she talks dispassionately about her life, answers questions about her feelings, and generally gives readers the chance to peer “behind the curtain”.

Miriam is a well-rounded character, but the others have equally unique voices too. As I already mentioned, most of the cast are not the most savory of characters. Among those, the one that struck me the most was Harriet, a short stocky woman who revels in violence. Her glee at causing pain caused me a few shudders. Contrasting these villainous types is Louie, the rough-around-the-edges trucker who nonetheless shows Miriam the first true kindness that she’s had for a long time.

Knowing how Louie dies, and knowing how long he has, gives the plot an edge of urgency. Of course, readers will wonder if there’s any chance of Miriam stopping his terrible fate, and that’s the question that reverberates throughout the novel: do we actually have choice and free will, or is our future already written? Miriam faces this question repeatedly, both in the “present” of the story and in flashbacks.

All these weighty matters aside, this is a novel that is tough to put down. Wendig sets readers up to want to know more, to want to keep reading and find out what happens next. There’s plenty of action to balance out the reflective moments, and readers won’t be long into the book before they’re cheering for Miriam and boo-ing the bad guys. Blackbirds is tough and gritty, and it isn’t afraid to get in your face with a curse and a puff of cigarette smoke. It’s not for sensitive readers, but this dark fantasy is a stand-out among the novels that equate “bloody” with “edgy”.

This review was originally posted on June 28, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

“For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.

One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…”

I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, since I enjoyed the movie and was curious to see how the events played out in the book.  The further I got into my reading, the more I realized that the movie took significant liberties with the novel’s plot (something that may be it’s own blog post in the near future); not only that, but the message of the story was quite different on film.  And honestly, I found–as I often do–that I liked the book better.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie does have its charms, but I found the novel to have so much depth and richness that the movie can’t help but suffer by comparison.  So, let’s get on with the review.

One of the things that struck me early on was the author’s use of dialogue… or, more specifically, the lack thereof.  Conversations are sparing in this story, with Hoffman choosing to let the tale unfold in the setting, the characters’ thoughts and actions, and in sensual details.  I use the word “sensual” here to indicate descriptions of details that appeal to the senses, such as scent and the quality of light in various scenes.  It lends the prose a lyrical quality, as the flow of the narrative isn’t constantly broken up with conversations.  I found that I was able to really sink into the story in a way that inclusion of dialogue wouldn’t facilitate.

To me, one of the most intriguing things about this novel was the way it dealt with magic.  I tagged this book as “magical realism” because the author is very careful to walk the line between having out-and-out magic happen and having it only be suggested.  For example, Sally’s daughter Kylie takes on the emotions of others that she encounters, so she could be an empath… or she could simply be an extremely sensitive person.  Granted, there are odd happenings in the town and in the lives of the characters, but I think it’s really left to the reader to decide if they think that what’s going on is supernatural or not–or at least, how much is supernatural and how much might be explained away by other means.  This is in direct contrast to the movie, where magic is used openly by all the characters at one point or another.

My greatest enjoyment in reading this book came from the depth of the characters and their relationships.  I felt that this novel had less to do with magic or with family as it does with the legacies of our families, if that makes sense as a distinction.  Hoffman shows the similarities and contrasts between the characters over and over again, drawing parallels with earlier women in the Owens family and their experiences with life and love.  The author shows how you can be both ensnared by those that came before as well as strengthened by them.  You may not always be aware of what you’ve taken from your family’s shared past, but eventually, you’ll realize what you’ve been given and how to incorporate it into your own life.  It’s a lovely message, not skimping on the fact that not everything you get may be positive, but it’s all there for you to deal with–or not–as you choose.

My one complaint about this book is that there’s a lot made at the start of the novel about the “curse” on the Owens women, that they’ll be unlucky in love (meaning that the men in their lives will die young and violently).  After the novel’s first section, though, that whole storyline seems to vanish for the majority of the book.  It doesn’t quite go away completely, but the emphasis it gets at the beginning isn’t held up through the rest of the story.  I think that a little more to prop up that bit of plotline would have gone a long way towards making the novel a truly cohesive whole.  As it is, it certainly doesn’t ruin the book to have that bit of plot thread left loose in the weaving, but I would have liked to see how it would have been integrated into the rest of the novel.

And now, having read this, I can go on to the just-released prequel, The Rules of Magic!  I would heartily recommend this book for a good Halloween read that isn’t scary and isn’t going to keep you awake at night, but instead will weave an atmospheric spell that’s a perfect complement to our cooling weather and fading daylight hours.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

Superheroes have been a part of our culture for decades. Figures such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are just as familiar to us as any legendary person out of actual history. And these mighty warriors have gained more fame in recent years as the film industry has updated them for the new millennium. Novels, too, have provided us with heroes to admire, and Carrie Vaughn’s newest book joins these ranks. After the Golden Age is a deeply affecting tale of the hero in each of us.

Celia West is an accountant, specializing in the kind of forensic work that helps bring criminals to justice. She lives in a modest apartment and appears to be, for all intents and purposes, normal. But she’s the daughter of Warren and Suzanne West, also known as Captain Olympus and Spark, Commerce City’s greatest superheroes. This makes Celia a favorite target for someone looking for a prime hostage.

But Celia’s efforts to stay out of the limelight are thwarted when her boss assigns her to the Simon Sito case. Sito, the Destructor, has a long and storied history with her family. Forced back into the world of the more-than-human, she is forced to confront—and answer for—secrets about herself that she’s long kept buried. And when her investigations turn up even more shocking secrets, she has to question almost everything that she’s known about the way her world works.

Before anything else, I have to admit that this novel puts me in mind of Pixar’s wonderful animated film The Incredibles, and in a very good way. Just as viewers got to know both Mr. Incredible and Bob Parr, so Vaughn shows readers both sides of all of the superhuman characters. The four main heroes of the Olympiad—Captain Olympus, Spark, Bullet and Dr. Mentis—have known Celia since her childhood, and thus the author is able to use her relationships with them to open a window into their dual natures.

This also gives Vaughn the opportunity to break a few stereotypes along the way: Captain Olympus, far from being a model of patience, has a truly nasty temper; Spark tends to cry when emotional; Bullet seems to be a bit goofy and laid-back; and Dr. Mentis is the most non-judgmental telepath I’ve ever seen. Far from ruining their “super” image, these flaws humanize them in ways that, again, make me think of The Incredibles. I will admit, Dr. Mentis quickly became my favorite character. Although he rarely gives away what he’s thinking, it’s that lack of judgment that makes him so easy to like.

Dr. Mentis may be my favorite, but that in no way diminishes my admiration for the author’s portrayal of Celia. Watching her struggles throughout the novel actually evoked sadness for me. Without giving too much away, Celia is forced to endure the pain of being judged for something that she did years before, with almost nobody taking into account the person that she had become between that event and the present-day of the story. It’s an all too common phenomenon, and Vaughn played it off so well that it’s impossible not to feel empathy for Celia. She’s a unique and complex “Everyman” character, and her actions remind us that we all have the capacity to be heroes in our own ways.

I was a little surprised at the direction that the plot went, but that’s because the dust jacket text made it sound like the uncovering of Celia’s secret was the crux of the story. But that reveal happens fairly early on, and the novel begins to delve deeper into events around Celia’s current situation. This is hardly a flaw, as the jacket text shouldn’t reflect on the story, but it did give me a moment of “Wait a second…” as things were revealed far faster than I was expecting.

But the plot that fills the space is satisfyingly action-packed, if a bit easy to predict in spots. I had suspicions early on as to who the bad guys were, and I was right, although I didn’t see the direction that said bad guys would go. And there are enough twists and turns as events play out that the novel doesn’t lag.

If the characters put me in mind of The Incredibles, the novel as a whole brings to mind the direction that most superhero stories have taken: watching our traditional heroes faced with an ever skeptical world. This novel eschews the simplicity of former years, where Superman would save the day and be applauded for doing so, and instead embraces the aura of The Dark Knight and the television show Heroes. The admiration is there, but tinged with the sense of entitlement that people are shown to feel towards their idols—“Either you perform to our expectations or we won’t support you anymore”. It’s lightly felt in After the Golden Age, but there are enough hints of it add an air of gentle melancholy to the Olympiad and their growing trials.

While I love Vaughn’s Kitty Norville novels, she has written something truly memorable in After the Golden Age. Without sinking to the gritty depths that some other tales have, Vaughn guides us through a realistic story of superheroes and those who are closest to them. Thrilling and affecting by turns, After the Golden Age showcases Vaughn’s considerable writing skills and provides readers with a memorable novel that you’ll want to read over and over again.

This review was originally posted on May 24, 2011.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard

“Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about.

Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper:

The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.

And then, in a frightening attack, a zombie delivers a letter to Eleanor . . . from her brother.

Whoever is controlling the Dead army has taken her brother as well. If Eleanor is going to find him, she’ll have to venture into the lab of the notorious Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces. But as Eleanor spends more time with the Spirit-Hunters, including the maddeningly stubborn yet handsome Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance.”

I was impressed with the character of Eleanor—she’s a high society girl thrust into a situation that would try the strength and will of anybody, and yet she doesn’t turn into a quivering mass of terror as the world goes to hell around her.  The author writes her with great believability, and her reactions are in tune with how I think a sheltered girl would act when confronted with zombies and ghosts.  She’s balanced between the understandable fear and disgust at what she sees and the courage that allows her to seek out her brother no matter what.

I also liked that, despite the location and time period, the author worked in some people of different ethnicities.  I especially liked Jie, the Chinese girl who bucks tradition by dressing in a boy’s clothes and who isn’t afraid to wade into a fight.  And I liked that she wasn’t just a token character, but participates heavily in the story’s action.

The mystery presented in the novel was well written and had some twists and turns that I didn’t expect.  Dennard scattered numerous clues throughout the book that all come together in the last part of the story in a climax that has some truly heart-stopping moments.  There are confrontations in a cemetery and in a massive exhibition hall.  There are explosions and chases and baseball bats wielded in self defense.  If you can’t find something to like in this book, you’re probably reading it with your eyes closed.

This novel is funny and serious by turns, hilarious and hideous in equal measure.  Something Strange and Deadly is a wonderful thrill ride through armies of the dead and the perils of choosing the right dress for an afternoon’s carriage ride.  I’ll be looking for the sequel with anticipation.

This review was originally published on July 24, 2012.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Passage by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of science fiction’s most inventive authors.  Her novel Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and she has continued to turn out critically acclaimed novels such as Lincoln’s Dreams and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Her latest effort, however, surpasses all expectations.  Tackling the controversial topic of near-death experiences, Passage explores the human mind and soul.

Dr. Joanna Lander researches such NDEs, but finds her work hampered.  The hospital’s biggest sponsor funds her research on the condition that Dr. Maurice Mandrake works there as well.  Mandrake writes popular books on the subject, with titles like Messages from the Other Side.

Predictably, associating with him does not enhance Joanna’s credibility.

Fortunately, another doctor receives funding to work on the NDE’s scientific aspect, and Joanna subsequently teams with this Dr. Wright, hoping to find the experience’s physiological basis.  They duplicate NDEs with drugs and record the images described by patients.

When a lack of volunteers threatens the study, Joanna goes under herself; she sees not the classic tunnel and light, but something strangely familiar.

Joanna repeats the experiment several times, hoping to recognize where she is during the NDE.  Her attempts to make sense of the images lead to an old high school teacher, a little girl waiting for a life-saving heart transplant, and a comatose man.  Meanwhile, Dr. Wright draws closer and closer to the source of the NDEs, a cause that he hopes can teach doctors about the dying brain, and how to keep it alive.

And, just when this novel seems to tidily pull all its threads together, Willis springs the book’s biggest surprise on the reader, and turns the story into a breakneck race against time.

Novels like this are difficult to describe, because they’re so wonderfully complex.  One can only hope that someone options Passage for a movie, because this story could give The Sixth Sense a run for its money.  Every action and movement fleshes out the story’s climax.  You can look back and think “Wow, I should have seen this coming!”  Willis pulls the wool over our eyes by being so entertaining that all the clues slip right by.

Even so, the characters truly bring this story to life.  There’s Mr. Wojakowski, a war veteran participating in the NDE study; Vielle, an ER nurse and Joanna’s best friend; and most of all Maisie, a brave little girl hiding her fear of dying behind an obsession with disasters.  Willis makes us feel something for them–all of them–and for this reason the last 200 pages are an emotional roller coaster.

One last little treat: Willis opens chapters and book sections with quotes ranging from famous peoples’ last words to the space shuttle Challenger’s final transmission.  One section starts with a quote from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which perfectly describes the story: “Do you think death could possibly be a boat?”

Passage is this month’s best novel, and it provides a great introduction to Willis’s considerable storytelling skill.

This review was originally published on May 17, 2001.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Waste of Space by Gina Damico

“Cram ten hormonal teens into a spaceship and blast off: that’s the premise for the ill-conceived reality show Waste of Space. The kids who are cast know everything about drama—and nothing about the fact that the production is fake. Hidden in a desert warehouse, their spaceship replica is equipped with state-of-the-art special effects dreamed up by the scientists partnering with the shady cable network airing the show. And it’s a hit! Millions of viewers are transfixed. But then, suddenly, all communication is severed. Trapped and paranoid, the kids must figure out what to do when this reality show loses its grip on reality.”

Judging by the chatter online about this book, it seems like you will either love it or hate it.  Me, I loved it.  I will say this, though: in order to appreciate this book, you need to like the kind of wacky, totally over the top humor that you’d see in a Monty Python sketch.  This novel is satire taken, unapologetically, to the extreme, and even if you like the book, you’ll probably find yourself shaking your head and saying “Wow” more than once at the sheer audacity of what you’re reading.

And Damico pulls no punches in setting up her little reality show.  Every aspect of it is spoofed to the max and beyond.  I found myself reacting to the book the same way I react to Stephen Colbert laying down a burn on a politician–with an “Oooooh!” of amusement and appreciation.  The one that really stuck in my mind was when the head of the cable channel sponsoring this show describes the “four golden tickets” of casting: disabled, gay, minority, and orphan.  The callousness with which the show plans to exploit these kids is stunning (although I admit that it was funny that the “disabled” kid was picked because he’d lost the tip of one finger), but at the same time, you get a kind of savage amusement at how blatantly the practices of reality shows are called out.  I also loved how the show had to start creating drama when throwing ten teenagers together into a small area didn’t produce enough drama on its own.  The fact that we get to see the thought processes that go on behind the scenes are (one hopes) greatly exaggerated, but they’re still indicative of what we all suspect or know about reality TV–just how unreal it is.

I think one of the allures of this book–and of reality TV in general–is that there is an air of unpredictability.  You may be able to script interactions, but you can’t completely control how the people involved will react.  That’s what gets people to tune in to Survivor and Big Brother year after year: we want to see a train wreck in progress.  And that’s what this novel lampoons all through its first half.  Then, suddenly, the novel takes a hard right and becomes something completely different while still retaining the framework that it started with.  It’s brilliant, because the author is using the exact same techniques that reality shows do in order to hold your interest.  She also uses the aforementioned framework to ensnare you: the entire book is told by someone purporting to be leaking behind the scenes secrets from the show that were never seen on the air.  So, you can add in the air of titillation at finding out something previously unknown to the the mix.

There were a couple of things that I wish the book had done better.  Most notable for me was that the book didn’t quite succeed in trying to show the real people behind the scripted stereotypes.  A few of the characters are successfully shown for who they are outside of the show, but I don’t think it went as far as it could have (and maybe should have).  Also, I had some lingering questions about events during the story that weren’t answered, and although I know that they weren’t meant to be answered, it still left me with a minor feeling of being left hanging.

All things considered, though, I think that this novel has enough to offer to more than overcome those small complaints.  An engaging format, a unique setting, and a plot that’s dialed up to eleven make this one of the most entertaining books so far this year, and definitely one of the most interesting.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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