Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Snicker of Magic (Natalie Lloyd)

Felicity Pickle is a word collector: she sees them swirling around people and she writes them down in her special notebook. Sometimes they're real, sometimes they're not. She is also a drifter. To be more exact, her mother is a drifter--whenever she feels as though she's beginning to settle into whatever town they've wandered to, her mom is ready to take off. Felicity is tired of the lifestyle, so when they wind up in Midnight Gulch, her mother's small, Southern hometown, she can't be more excited. This, she feels, is the place where her family can settle down.

Midnight Gulch, according to our narrator, is a town of magic; the families who have lived here for centuries used to have powers, like invisibility or emotionally-evocative cooking. But the magic dried up some time ago because of two brothers who were cursed by a witch, a curse Felicity wants to break because she believes it will stop her mother's restless travelling. She plans to do so with the help of her new-found friend, Jonah, and the rest of her family.

There was a lot about this book that called out to me. The most prominent of these is the magical realism of Midnight Gulch. I loved the moments in which we discover the backstory of a particular family and their particular power. Lloyd does such a great job using this to achieve surprising emotional depths: one family in particular has the ability to go invisible, and the story is very sad. It's exactly what I want out of my magical realism, to make me feel very real emotions from situations that aren't so real.

But the setting was the only thing that, for me, sparkled. It's possible to accuse the book of being a little aggressively Southern: A Snicker of Magic didn't want us to forget we were in a quaint town where people's big aspirations are to be country music stars. There are other good things in the book--Jonah, who is the town's anonymous do-gooder, was fun to read about, and I really enjoyed Felicity's aunt, Cleo. In fact, most of the characters are interesting and enjoyable, if a little dramatic in their despair.

The glaring exception, unfortunately, is our narrator herself. Felicity reminds me of Holden Caulfield in her constant repetition of certain words and phrases. It's not a technique I'm ever fond of, and I know from my cursory skimming of other reviews that this drove other readers just as crazy as it did me. "Spindiddly" is not a word I care to hear again. Lloyd is also a bit overfond of "uniquely" spreading text over the page, often as a way of ending chapters. It felt like a cheap transitional tool.

When Felicity sees words around people, they appear in a bolded, italicized list. It veers between gimmicky and fascinating, becomes sometimes she describes how the words make her feel, and when Lloyd goes in that direction, I found myself satisfied because they are truly moments of poetic joy. But when the words appear and without commentary, I was more peeved than pleased.

Ultimately, A Snicker of Magic was a good book. It really was. There's magical realism, which is almost always enough to sell me, and a well-fleshed cast of characters and a setting that feels like something from an HBO show (which I mean as a compliment even though I've never watched an HBO show). But it bugged me a little every now and again, and that's why I hesitate to rain down praise.

My rating: 4/5
A Snicker of Magic on Goodreads
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Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Riverman (Aaron Starmer)

Aaron Starmer's The Riverman really snaked its way into me. I was totally caught my surprise and before I knew what was happening, the book had wrapped itself around my heart and started squeezing me. Wow.

Alistair Cleary is a pretty normal boy living in a normal 1970s town. His neighbor, Fiona Loomis, is a little weird, and everyone knows it. One day, she asks him to write her biography, saying that she is thirteen despite only having had 12 birthdays. Alistair, with an eye for a good story, is intrigued and agrees. The story she tells him is strange--there is a magical world, Aquavania, that she has been called to over and over since her childhood, one where the only rules are her own, where she can stay as long as she likes but never ages physically.

She can create anything she'd like, and she does. Fiona discovers that other children inhabit worlds of their own that border hers, and that one by one they are disappearing as an entity called The Riverman enters their creations and steals their souls. She's scared and alone and she needs Alistair. The only problem for him is that he doesn't believe her. He's convinced that this is all an elaborate cover story for her problems at home but, concerned for her welfare, he continues listening to her tale.

The novel is about so many other things, though. It's about being a kid and going through weird stuff. It's about hiding and secrets. I really dislike making comparisons, but this book reminded me in all the right ways of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Black Swan Green, and that's no small compliment; Gaiman and Mitchell are two of my favorite authors, and Starmer holds his own and gleams just as brightly with these two luminaries. The idea of these secret fantasy worlds we use to regularize the world around us, and about the observations of a child as he grows up, are pitch-perfect. Delightful.

Alistair is an engaging narrator--he never sounds too precocious or pretentious. He doesn't believe Fiona's story, but his doubts and questioning feel natural: he never slips into "annoying acceptance mode" where he tells us over and over how it's impossible, but demonstrates very realistic empathy and concern for this girl who is kind of weird and friendless. Fiona, too, is a stunning character, trusting and patient and frightened. You can almost feel the panic bubbling underneath her calm.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Noggin (John Corey Whaley)

I was hesitant to read this book only because its author, John Corey Whaley, also wrote Where Things Come Back, a novel with a premise that intrigued me, a Printz medal that convinced me, and an execution that disappointed me severely. Unfortunately, this book was much the same. Alas.

Clearly, I'm a sucker for interesting ideas, and the one behind Noggin is definitely promising. Travis Coates is sixteen and riddled with cancer--he's going to die, and everyone knows it. But a medical team comes to him in his last days and offers him a crazy chance: store his head cryogenically and, in a hundred years maybe, science will be advanced enough to transplant it onto another human's body. Knowing it's unlikely but with nothing to lose, Travis and his family agree to participate.

And then he wakes up five years later, attached to a perfectly healthy body. Travis can't tell that any time has passed, but everyone from his life--including his best friend Kyle, who confessed his homosexuality to Travis in one of their last conversations, and his girlfriend Cate--have had to mourn his death and move on. So he's more than a little surprised to find out Kyle has gone back in the closet and that Cate is engaged to a new boyfriend. Stuck at 16, since he didn't age a day during his cryogenic preservation, he has to return to high school while dealing with being a celebrity/miracle.

Too bad the book refuses to go anywhere interesting. The beginning of the book is fun, sure: Travis is struggling to adjust to the world, and for awhile at least, Whaley does a good job. I have spoken several times before about the danger of making a character "special": if you give your protagonist magic powers or a superhero ability that other people don't have, you then have to find a way to let the character adjust and absorb that power into his/her understanding of his/herself. I have read a lot of really terrible variations on this, sometimes even whole books devoted to the character struggling to understand this new "version" (yes, I'm talking about Divergent).

For Noggin, coming back to life is Travis' "power." I understand that it would be incredibly difficult to re-enter a world that has existed five years without you, but it seems that Travis can't do anything but fuss about it. I wanted the book to be exciting and exploratory, but it's just a bunch of paragraphs of our narrator reminding us that "it's not fair because things are different now :(". I get it, and I sympathize, but if that's all you have to say, it's not a good novel.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)

My previous Helen Oyeyemi experience was her 2011 book Mr. Fox. It intrigued me because everyone was very excited that it was a retelling of the Bluebeard story, but after I finished it, I felt strange: certainly I had enjoyed the book, but I felt like I hadn't fully grasped it, like there were about 600 more things running underneath the surface and I had only glimpsed 9 or 10 of them.

But I was willing to give Boy, Snow, Bird a go because it was billed as a retelling of Snow White, albeit one that played as much with ideas of race as it did with fairy tale conventions: Boy Novak runs away from her abusive father and ends up in a small town in Massachusetts. Among others, she meets Arturo Whitman, who has a beautiful daughter named Snow. Everyone who meets her is delighted by her, charmed by her innocence and gorgeous appearance.

Eventually, Snow marries Arturo, and when she has his baby, she makes a discovery: Arturo's family has been passing for white for decades, but her baby, Bird, has the dark skin that reveals the Whitman secret. Boy is accused of sleeping with a man other than her husband, and her in-laws suggest that she send the baby to live with Arturo's dark-skinned sister. Outraged, Snow instead sends Snow away, convinced that her stepdaughter is not all she seems.

I can say with certainty that it's the most interesting method of retelling the story I've come across. Maybe the biggest issue I have with the book, though, has little to do with the book and a lot to do with the blurbing and publishing hype. It feels to me like Oyeyemi thought to herself "what about a Snow White story?", but by the time she finished, said "that was a great jumping-off point, but this book is something else now!" The big push when the book was released focused on the fairy tale aspects, and it forced me too hard into drawing parallels that weren't really there. It's more about archetypes than plot, as far as retellings go.