Light Boxes

The inhabitants of a town wage war against February itself in an attempt to regain lost seasons, children, and dreams. This was all I knew about Light Boxes when I purchased it. I believe I'd seen it listed in some trusted source somewhere, perhaps noting Shane Jones as an interesting new voice in fiction. That, combined with the lovely cover, was enough to intrigue me so that it made its way in to my shopping cart if not in to my purse for an immediate perusal. I bought it and it sat in a stack of other books, so placed to remind me that I wanted to read each and every one of them "next" but I didn't pick it up until April -- perhaps I should have read it during February itself for a better sense of scene, but Jones conjures up the grueling month quite clearly (even for those of us who enjoy winter, it becomes bleak in its unending state). Do I call it poetry? Free verse? Surreal fairy tale that bleeds in to a horror story? A melding of fiction and poetic conjuration of imagery? An attempt to explain via metafiction the experience of Seasonal Affective Disorder? Well whatever it is, and it may be all those things combined, it's not your usual narrative, even when the story concerns a month made both flesh and eternal. Light Boxes is sad and thoughtful and, despite the ongoing nature of February, surprisingly brief in its tale.

Those who have grown up in oppressive winters will indubitably find a kindred spirit in Shane Jones, who envisions the horror of all horrors to be an endless February of ice, snow, and bitter wind. In this town, flight has been outlawed and so, earth-bound, the inhabitants cannot do anything but kindle within their breasts a revolution against February and hope that the sparks are not blown out before something takes hold. Layered worlds provide a scene that feels like an MC Escher drawing, opening holes in the floor that turn out to be gaping wounds in the sky, and children stolen from their beds tunnel underground to provide scraps of messages that convey hopes and war plans. I know of no clear way to describe this novel beyond these swirling images that dance like snowflakes. Yes, there is a story involving a father who must soldier to lead the war against February on after his daughter disappears and his wife dies in her grief. Perhaps it's best to approach this novel as a long free-verse poem, or, like Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, short observations that are tied together by theme and a strange, twisting narrative. In the end, it's not really that "main" narrative that stuck with me so much as the amazing details or vivid descriptions. Did I mention flight was banned? Think on this one idea for a moment... the concept of individuals burning and destroying anything that might rise above, like balloons or even birds... the concealment of treasured items... the painting of kites on a child's arms with the knowledge she will always have to wear sleeves to be safe, but at least she will never forget. The imagery is haunting and while the "story" might not be something that provides a sense of satisfaction, it does not fail in provoking wonder.

The narrative hinges on the experience of February as lingering and oppressively endless. Perhaps it's because I do not experience Seasonal Affective Disorder and actually take great delight in winter but the brevity of the book that I mentioned earlier extends beyond page count. Despite the knowledge that it must be so, the eternal February never sunk in for me, like ice melting through one's clothes. Though I also mean that it took me a little more than an hour to read this in its entirety. When I finished, I wasn't quite sure what to think. I still don't quite know what to think, but I am most definitely thinking of it and on it. So much was unexpected and left open. I had not expected the emphasis on layout and design to convey the poetic message. It could arguably be too kitschy to have such reliance but I never even considered that until after the fact. The design helps the scenes in many ways, though at times it was distracting. I also hadn't quite realized there would be such emphasis on vignettes stitched together to provide structure. The through narrative is exceedingly loose in retrospect, even if the reader does feel compelled on while reading, like a traveler lost in a blizzard who spies a light ahead. Perhaps that's the thing, though, I hadn't realized much of anything before I wandered in to Shane Jones's strange world and that might be just the way to go.

I will, however, likely have to sit on this book some time before I can start suggesting it to people in earnest. New York has just come in to bloom after a winter that had many begging for relief (not unlike the town inhabitants of this novel, though New Yorkers failed to come up with active plans to combat the lingering weather) and so to suggest that they read a novel about eternal winter amidst blossoming daffodils and tulips... well, perhaps not. It is most definitely a novel that benefits from a "right place, right time" attitude and to impose it upon a reader in any other situation would not be to anyone's benefit. Still, should you feel yourself in need of surreal experimentational literature at any point (particularly during a snow storm or chilly night), then I would recommend this slim volume. And I would ask that you report back to tell me if you can look at owls in the same way as you did before reading this book.

PS Goodreads fans should get a kick out of the fact that February himself ( http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/2224484-february ) thinks this is "a terrible book of lies."


St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves

Karen Russell's debut collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, is a fascinating trip into tales where, believe it or not, the twisted realities seem to surpass even the creations of wild, young imaginations.

There is something captivating (slash haunting?) about childhood -- a belief, real or imagined, that things were simpler... or at least that we were all less aware of the complications lurking around us. This is, of course, a construct of adulthood as we give our younger selves less credit, because children are startlingly observant. The children in Russell's stories are very clearly not unaware -- they see everything and know things are wrong even if they cannot put names or motives to the adult betrayals and issues. Their stories may all possess elements of magical realism, but it's the very true, wounded emotions that infuse the page which make them live and breathe.

The stories themselves are not connected to each other, but they share a general sense of magical realism that imbues the Floridian swamplands. The title story, "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," is perhaps the most unforgettable of the group -- children raised by their werewolf parents are willingly handed off to the nuns so they might have a chance at shaking off their lupine upbringing, as they themselves will never experience the magical change. In "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," a girl watches her potentially possessed sister experience a sexual awakening, fending for herself and a little too unaware of the danger that comes from outside a person, rather than within, even when it's not in alligator skin. Other stories feature theme parks made up of giant conch shells, an assisted living center where the elderly inhabitants occupy boats instead of apartments, and a disillusioned young star-gazer struggles to hold on to a sense of wonder in the world while slipping in to the grasp of peer pressure. While the settings and actual events may be strange and incredible, it's really the description of emotional states and changes that indelibly remain in the reader's mind. (Well, okay, the odd details stick around, too.)

Fans of Kelly Link will find a kindred spirit here, though Karen Russell narrows her focus on the Everglades and its environs. Her tone is quite perfect for the short story format, as she offers a concise and single glimpse at each settling that feels whole in its existence, even if one itches to know more. This is a collection that should not be missed if you enjoy short stories, twisted backwoodsy settings, or alligators in most any format.


Wicked Lovely

Among the darker paranormal YA books out there, Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely is the first in her series that deals with fairies... but most definitely not of the Tinkerbell variety. Twisted and somewhat lurid, these are fairies who do nothing in halves -- whether that's stormy anguish, vicious carnage, or orgiastic celebration.

Aislinn (called "Ash" by her friends) and her grandmother have always been able to see fairies -- and unlike everyone else who does not have the Sight, they've lived their lives in fear of what they can see the fairies do to each other and the mortals who cannot see them. This danger, however, is nothing in comparison to the danger Ash knows she'd be in if the fairies KNEW she could see them... and so she guards her secret and mentally chants the rules her grandmother has established: "Don't stare at invisible faeries. Don't speak to invisible faeries. Don't ever attract their attention." Ash keeps her head down and tries to spend as much time in her best friend Seth's "house" -- a steel train car, where the metal keeps the fey out.

The rules, however, change forever when Donia and Keenan appear. The Winter Girl and the Summer King start to follow Ash and she scrambles to figure out what they want from her... but simply by singling her out, they've taken away any chance for Ash to have a normal life. Now, as Keenan's newest choice to attempt the test to discover if she is the long-lost Summer Queen, Ash must come to terms with the fact that she is now fey, like it or not... but will being fey define the rest of her, too?

The set-up for this series is fantastic for fans of the paranormal genre -- a girl falling in love with her best friend is altered forever when she is forced to play a role in the fairy world. The pull of her personal desires pitted against her new fairy impulses is a tug-of-war within her own heart and only her strength can see her through. Very few characters are straight-forward and simple in terms of their own allegiances and wants, and the complications make for a storyline that is filled with twists and turns, even in this first book and most certainly in the ones that follow.

I'm probably not going to review each one of the subsequent installments, but I did manage to read all of them. (SPOILERS ahead for Wicked Lovely, but not really much else.) Ink Exchange isn't really a sequel to WL so much as it was a companion novel -- like a JR Ward kind of spin-off where the actions taking place dealt with other characters that didn't play a strong role before, but it all helps set up events for future books. Fragile Eternity can claim "sequel" status to WL, I suppose, as it returns to the complications surrounding the tangled lives of Ash, Keenan, Donia, and Seth. More and more, Ash is realizing what it means to be the Summer Queen -- and that her responsibilities to her court are undermining everything she once held dear. In Radiant Shadows, I started to loose interest, as it broadens the character scope to examine more people in the world in addition to the main ones, obviously pushing the storyline in to an even more epic scale. I forged ahead with Darkest Mercy, knowing it was the last, and I am glad that I made it through to see everything wrap up. Lots of bloodshed and sacrifice, as befitting the scale of actions, and somehow I felt like not quite enough sacrifice had been made. Still, a very interesting series and Wicked Lovely is the best of them all.

Even though Wicked Lovely was only published in 2007, it certainly feels like Melissa Marr beat the other dark paranormal YA writers to the scene -- perhaps because even with so many others flooding the market, Marr's series holds its own as creating one of the more twisted and intriguing worlds out there. If you enjoy paranormal YA and have made it this far without yet experiencing Melissa Marr, you should most definitely give at least Wicked Lovely a whirl to see what you think, as she's become something of a standard. It may not be my favorite series out there, but it is quite memorable.

The Girl in the Steel Corset

Within the acknowledgments at the end of her book, Kady Cross describes her original desire was to write The Girl in the Steel Corset as "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets teen X-Men." There's really no better way to describe this novel than that -- for Kady Cross did obviously want to write that novel. Her talent seems to rest in creating an interesting world and atmosphere where those kinds of elements can come together. The problem, though, is that a great number of other things seemed to fall by the wayside in order to craft such a world, including a clear narrative, character investment, and a large amount of tension within the story arc.

Steampunk and packed with adventure, The Girl in the Steel Corset opens upon a young serving maid named Finley Jayne who believes she's struggling with a darker side within, a side that unleashes when she's frightened or angry. Incidentally, we're treated to a display of this when the master's son decides he'd like to take advantage of the new serving girl, and he winds up beaten unconscious. As Finley is aware that she'll be lucky if she only winds up dismissed from her position and not arrested, the voice in her head offers some solid advice -- flee before either can happen. Dashing into the street as she escapes, Finley is nearly run down -- conveniently, by the only young man in all of London who can truly help her. Within his circle of friends, she finds even more frightening prospects than dealing with her own internal struggles -- the possibility of understanding, a useful place, and true friends.

The Girl in the Steel Corset gets major points based on cover and book design alone -- I loved the dips and curls of the script combined with the cogs on chapter pages and the lush cover is quite vibrant. My experience with steampunk literature is rather limited (aka Gordon Dahlquist and Gail Carriger), so perhaps staunch supporters of the genre would be able to really enjoy the detail that Cross goes in to. The world that Cross paints has the benefit of luxury (as one of the main characters and leader of the group, Griffin King, is a wealthy young Duke) being contrasted with the gritty world outside. There are still all kinds of crazy mechanical contraptions (including a whole lot of robots) and fashions that work in a good deal of body piercings. Introducing a unique element (or at least making it something *I* haven't yet seen before), Cross features a new form of ore that seems to function as a blended mechanical/organic composite -- and keeping this substance away from those who would use its powers for evil will obviously occupy a lot of time in the series... well, that and trying to figure out just how it works and how it has affected those who come in contact with it. Oh, and there's also this thing called the aether, which seems to encompass all living livings -- and dead ones, as it seems spirits exist in the aether. Are you smirking yet? I'll admit, I smirked quite often, and yet I think steampunk enthusiasts are willing to accept a lot of crazy things for the sake of fun, even if this seemed more sci-fi at times.

I would try to explain the plotline in greater detail, but truth be told, I still haven't managed to shake the feeling that I was tossed into a series midway through, and so I find it hard to summarize in anything vaguely resembling a linear trajectory. Even when you know the book says "Steampunk Chronicles #1," I still felt the compulsive need to do some internet research and see if there weren't, perhaps, other series somehow linked to this one... and even when I came up with nothing under this same author name, I still remain somewhat unconvinced that there isn't a manuscript floating around out there with earlier story installments for these characters. Without proof of that, though, my only explanation is that Cross seeks to put the reader on par with Finley, who is entering a group of friends rather late in the game, as they have a whole history of collaboration to their credit. There are, however, much better ways to suggest this than leaving your reader with the near-constant distracting feeling that she's missing something. It's downright frustrating to have lots of complications right at the start and a large cast of characters that obviously have convoluted emotions towards each other. The romantic tangles seemed to be more fitting for a second or third series installment, as triangles seemed already in place, and the characters themselves were never developed enough to the point where I felt like I sincerely cared for them. The story seemed to expect I would care about the good guys simply because I was told to (though some effort is put in to painting a "bad guy" as still being interesting and alluring). Finley herself is rather lacking in personality -- which almost seems hard to imagine, given that she's supposed to have two distinctly different sides, so you'd think at least one would jump out at you. Two strong male characters are drawn to her and yet I see no reason for them to feel this pull. And the villain? Well, I kept picturing "The Machinist" as Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget and that's just not a good sign. His motivations (once we get to know them) seem flimsy and evil-villainy where one might otherwise hope for some nuance or at least solid reasoning.

In the end, I was rather disappointed in The Girl in the Steel Corset as a trailblazer for YA steampunk. (The only thing that seemed to make it YA appeared to be the ages of the main characters and the PG romance. There are romantic storylines in play, but nothing that ever takes us beyond an impassioned kiss.) Even the title ultimately proved misleading, as the steel corset really isn't an integral element to the story, beyond it's not-so-subtle fusion of the time period's costume with industrial steel-work. Hopefully Cross will be able to hit her stride with later books and develop her writing abilities, but I'm rather doubtful that I'll pick up future installments in this series.

Please note that I received an advanced review copy of this novel courtesy of NetGalley for the purpose of review.


The Goddess Test

For everyone out there who thinks that all paranormal young adult fiction is flighty and completely monopolized by simple romances, I submit The Goddess Test as evidence to the contrary. At the heart of this novel is a girl struggling to cope with her mother's terminal illness -- including the practical ramifications of caring for her, the emotional challenges of saying goodbye, and the daunting confrontation of a future where the daughter is now totally alone. Classic young adult literature has a tradition of focusing on young people growing up and coming in to their own -- so in many ways, Aimee Carter's The Goddess Test seems to be melding the old with the new: the paranormal romance craze coming together with deeper, realistic conflict (which does not rest entirely with a romantic relationship). The combination doesn't always run smoothly, but I still believe The Goddess Test is definitely one of the more emotionally complicated and interesting supernatural YA reads of this year so far.

An upfront word of warning: Greek mythology purists will probably sputter and spew a bit at the liberties taken by Aimee Carter. It isn't as though she totally disregards classic mythology or anything so dreadful, but she does take creative license a bit beyond, say, the Percy Jackson series (which left the actual, older mythology relatively intact). Some of the reasoning behind these alterations are obvious given her plot requirements and most it gets explained with firm ties in to the general storyline. In her defense, Carter can easily call upon the innate malleability of mythology to make some small (and large) adjustments, but even I frowned once or twice before shrugging and moving on. It is, after all, her fiction. Purists of any sort have a tough time surviving the YA genre, so perhaps they'll have developed enough tolerance to accept that some things might never sit well, but that's no reason to disregard a novel and ignore its other, numerous benefits.

Kate's been living in the shadow of death for a long time now. Four years ago, Kate's mother was given six months to live... and has held on for all this additional time. It's only ever been the two of them together, without any additional family support, so coping with all of this is left entirely to Kate. Now, it appears the end is finally near and all her mother wants to do is die in the town where she grew up. So eighteen-year-old Kate drives them from Manhattan to Eden, Michigan and enrolls in the senior high school class at the local public high school, though with her attention always drifting back to her mother, school is not exactly topping Kate's priority list. Kate considers herself lucky to even make one friend (named James), though she doesn't quite endear herself to the school's queen bee, Ava, when Ava's boyfriend stares a little too lingeringly at the new girl. Given her general distraction, perhaps it's not surprising that Kate doesn't notice how odd things are around town... that is until a prank goes wrong and Kate tells a stranger that she'd do anything to bring back the dead Ava that five minutes earlier had been cruelly stranding her... even exchanging Kate's own freedom for half the year.

If you haven't figured it out yet, The Goddess Test is a story that builds upon the Persephone myth. The mysterious stranger offers a deal to Kate: in exchange for bringing Ava back to life, Kate must commit herself to living six months in the home of this tall, dark, and brooding individual. Ava regains consciousness, the bloodied head wound now gone, and Kate is severely spooked. At first, she refuses to believe any of it -- though Ava clearly reveres Kate for this action and now shadows her like James was already doing. When the stranger (who calls himself Henry) appears on her doorstep on the appointed date and Kate refuses -- Ava dies again, but this time with a much larger audience. This sends her running back to Henry to undo the action -- which cannot be undone, but he offers her an alternative... the opportunity to have more time with her mother until Kate is ready to say goodbye.

Kate spends her dreaming hours with her mother but her waking ones are far more complicated as she stays confined to the mansion that is Henry's home and the gate to the Underworld. The stakes of this little six month experiment turn out to be far higher for Henry than they are for Kate -- Henry, whose somewhat indifferent wife, Persephone, left him ages ago for a chance at real love, and who now rules the Underworld alone. Henry, whose godly brothers and sisters insist must find a wife who measures up to their expectations so as to deserve the prize of immortality, or else he will fade away and another take his place. If Kate fails the tests the gods and goddesses set forth, then she will walk away with her memory wiped, but Henry... and Kate finds that she cares more and more about what will happen to Henry, particularly as he himself does not seem very optimistic.

The Goddess Test features incredibly deep emotions -- and manages to convey this to the reader without too much over-kill. Eighteen-year-old Kate is managing to deal far better than expected with circumstances out of her control, but this novel still begins with a young person shouldering a burden far too large for her limited resources. Young adult literature found its roots in conveying messages of strength and courage, and so this story's roots are firmly planted in this tradition. Even if the reader were to miss the dedication to Carter's own mother, who has passed on, it's obvious that Carter is using the supernatural storyline to highlight what every grieving child might want -- more time with their loved one and more time to come to terms with what will inevitably be. The fact that the novel really rests upon the mother-daughter relationship is a welcome and fresh focus; and so it was somewhat disappointingly predictable that the romantic storyline tended to monopolize the second half of the novel. The mother-daughter relationship was not abandoned by any means, and the benefit of the shift of focus comes with knowing Kate is preparing herself for a life where her mother is no longer the focal point of her existence, but I was still frustrated with the shift (and equally so with any "resolution" to the experience of losing a parent, even if it's easy to foresee the ultimate ending here). As far as the Kate-Henry romance (for in =today's YA, a romantic relationship is practically required), readers will find the very complicated romantic storyline between them to be compelling. Personally, I also found it a little co-dependently twisted, but that didn't make it any less interesting. Henry, still somewhat broken over rejection from Persephone (who, he's quick to point out, he did not kidnap in this story's framework) is not very communicative even if he is outwardly pleasant and accommodating. There's a delicate balance to his representation that indicates he only takes pains to be polite and hospitable towards Kate and yet he can still come off as quietly tortured. Dark and brooding, he lurks about with far less power and might than one might expect from the lord of the Underworld -- there's only one moment in the story where the air seems to crackle with a hint of his power and it would have made for a sexier Bronte-esque hero if Henry were a bit more dangerous instead of being quite so sad and tender. (One can be all these things if one is a god, I think, for it would make for a nice volatile mix that would have fit well with the scene.) Kate herself obviously has hidden reserves of strength, but there's a strong reliance on others that doesn't seem quite right for a girl who seems to have absolutely no connections to anyone other than her mother when the story opens. That said, her own strong desire to fight for others once they do become important to her is very realistic and touching, particularly when she starts being convinced that her own interest in Henry has exceeded his own in her. James as sidekick and not-quite-really-a-rival-love-interest complicates things a little, but I was pleased Carter resisted the urge to make him a more prominent conflict than he already was. Ava's self-centered actions that were in no way malicious but only signaled a lack of thought for others were a rather refreshing addition to spice up the story when things were too moody. There's a whole host of additional characters, most of which serve a purpose and are somewhat transparent in their intentions, but the immediate supporting cast (particularly Ava and James) are nice, strong secondary characters.

Aimee Carter's debut work shows extreme promise for this fascinating new voice in the YA genre and even if I wasn't always pleased with her decisions, I was glued this book from beginning to end -- I devoured it in a single day and spent a good week with the story prominently swirling in my mind. There are some issues with predestination here that I'm still not reconciled to, but hey, we're dealing with the gods and goddesses so it's hardly uncommon for such a sentiment to be threaded through a story. The novel's impressive emotional depths owe a great deal to their status as tribute to Carter's feelings of loss for her own mother, but I hope that future Carter works are able to be just as fascinating without such personal ties fueling the story. Evidently this book is poised as the first in a series -- and I'm not quite sure how I feel about that, even if I was delighted with this, for I'm not sure where the story can possibly go that would be so compelling a place as this. The book stands on its own, I feel, and while there might be elements of discord, I appreciate the lack of a tidy bow. That said, I'll certainly be reading the next one and I urge you all to check out and mull over this auspicious new talent in the supernatural YA scene.

Please note that I received an advanced review copy of this novel courtesy of NetGalley for the purpose of review.