Children's · Fantasy · Fiction · Teen Fiction · Urban Fantasy · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave

the empty grave
by: Jonathan Stroud

The Empty Grave is the fifth and final book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. I had put a hold on it at the library but the bookstore I walk by every day was having a 20% off sale after I’d been waiting for what felt like months, so I gave in and bought it.  (This actually isn’t the cover that I have, but I like it so much better than the UK version.)

If you’re not familiar with Lockwood & Co, it’s a YA series (maybe middle school) set in an alternate reality London, where deadly ghosts have suddenly appeared, called the Problem.  Only children can see the ghosts, so children are employed as agents to combat the Problem.  Throughout the series, we follow Lucy, a teenage ghost hunter, as she works with the Lockwood & Co agency.  In this final edition, Lucy and her coworkers are following clues to figure out what the source of the Problem is, using advice from a ghost that only Lucy can hear, and venturing into some of the most dangerous places in – and out – of London.

So unlike other books in this series, there’s not a big, bad ghost to overcome.  (This actually kept me from locking myself in the bathroom to read the book.*) Instead, Lucy is looking at clues for the Source and who or what is behind the Problem.  Though there is a bad guy, this book is more about answering questions the previous four books have set up.  I really enjoyed this approach – it had enough suspense to keep my heart racing but at this point in the series I wanted my questions answered more than I wanted another epic, hair-raising battle against a Big Bad.  And the questions were answered in a slow manner – not a huge info dump at the end, but enough information for the reader to work out with the characters what’s going on as the story unfolds.

By the way, this book would work as a stand-alone but I would highly discourage it – I think the series as whole works really well and I would encourage any reader to start from the beginning for narrative satisfaction. There’s an incredible amount of world and plot building that is best enjoyed when read in the intended order.

Stroud also does a great job of fulfilling some character issues and mysteries. For example, Lockwood, the owner of Lockwood & Co, is a dashing and romantic hero with a tragic backstory. The entire series is written in first person, from Lucy’s perspective, and it’s in this book that Lucy comes to terms with Lockwood’s unusually strong attraction to, and enjoyment of, danger and what that ultimately says about him.  It’s not overdone, but the reader is forced through the discomforting realizations as Lucy processes a new perspective.

This happens for multiple characters this book and adds a good bit of depth to the series as a whole. (It also happened in the fourth book for a different character, Holly.)  These realizations are mostly driven by a captured ghost that only Lucy can hear, which I appreciate, because it means that we get an age-appropriate reaction to an adult observation.  The children never feel uncannily mature or precociously adult but the reader isn’t forced into a world without any adult perspective. (See: A Series of Unfortunate Events.) This allowed Stroud to explore some character development that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible; yet, the ghost was written so that it (he?) doesn’t come off as the wise old adult.  Rather, he’s a wry, untrustworthy, and mysterious character forced into the role of observer.

Speaking of the ghost, Stroud answers most but not all questions posed by the series.  The questions he leaves unanswered are good ones – he gives the reader plenty to go on in order to develop their own theories.  So on the one hand, I appreciate that.  On the other hand – I want to know!  In general, things are wrapped up nicely; he leaves just enough points dangling that you can’t quite let the series go when you finish it.  Crafty, Stroud.  Crafty.

I absolutely loved this book, both as a standalone and as a completion of an incredibly good series. If you’re not into middle-school/YA, if you like dashing plot-driven adventure books with a satisfying romance, or if you like your horror to be Stephen King-level terrifying, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for an excellent mix of character development and plot line, a creepy but fun ghost story, or are looking for a great female-led adventure series, I can’t recommend Lockwood & Co enough.

*but I still stayed up until 3 am to finish it.
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Children's · Comedy · Fantasy · Humor

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

dragons
by: Terry “the fantastically funny” Pratchett

I am always delighted to find a new Terry Pratchett book.  Pratchett passed away (from Alzheimer’s disease) in 2015 and though inevitably there will come a day when I have read all of his works, I refuse to hasten that day any more than necessary, preferring instead to have his books delight and surprise me in the finding as well as the reading.

I found this one in the children’s section of the library, as I was searching out His Dark Materials, and, of course, I checked out it immediately.  I’ve said before that I prefer Pratchett’s adult works to his children’s, and while that’s true, his children’s book are still whimsical and absurdly funny adventures worth looking in to.  This particular book is a collection of short stories Pratchett wrote early on his career, reworked a little before publication as a book.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle contained stories from The Carpet People but there were plenty of other stories as well. I really loved the short story format; the quick reads meant the stories were intently focused on plots and absurdities and they made for a great laugh.  Plus, I read this during a 3-day research workshop, so the short stories were about all my brain was up for.

While the writing was simple and the structure much clearer than Pratchett’s normal style, it didn’t feel like I was reading something that was only intended for children.  Rather, it felt more like an all ages-type writing – clean and structured for kids, but cognizant of the fact that adults exist and might indeed be reading this very book.  Very Pratchett-lite; I could feel the zaniness and humor that I associate with him, but the plot lines were much simpler and the characterizations that I so love just weren’t there.

The stories also go everywhere, from King Arthur’s court to a tiny speck of dust to a living room carpet to a time traveling bus.  I think this was probably the best showcase I’ve read of Pratchett’s ability to set you up in a familiar plot line and then, in the blink of an eye, whiz you somewhere completely unexpected and leave you laughing.  Not every story does this expertly – these are some of his earlier works, after all – but many of the stories.  The stories do vary more than a typical collection of short stories work.  All of them work, but some work uproariously well and others just made me smile a little and turn the page.

I loved the illustrations – simple, funny, and very fitting.  I didn’t like that some words were written in a illustrative font; for instance, “huge” might have been written in giant, bold font, and “waggle” was always written in font with offset letters.  But I could imagine this making the book really fun to read out loud with a child.

If you’re not a fan of absurdist humor, simplistic writing, or thematically loose collections of short stories, then, alas, this might not be the book for you. If you have a child in need of some humor or if you want some funny, easy-on-the-brain short stories,  I would highly recommend Dragons at Crumbling Castle. If you are, for any reason, interested in Pratchett’s craft and his development as a writer, I would strongly recommend this book.  I think there’s a lot of insight to be gleaned from these works into how he developed his wonderful voice and style.

Children's · Uncategorized

Embarrassing Book Confessions

What’s your most embarrassing book confession?

I’ll tell you mine – it’s actually an embarrassing book habit at this point.

Jonathon Stroud is one of my favorite (YA) authors and a few years ago he started writing a series entitled Lockwood & Co.  I bought the first one without reading the blurb (I buy by author name a lot) and really enjoyed it! But I was surprised to find out it was a horror story. I don’t, as a rule, consume anything in the horror genre because I am incredibly easily terrified and find it a deeply unpleasant experience.

But I love Lockwood & Co and want to finish it, so every year, without fail, this happens: I buy/check out the latest book in the series and make a firm resolution not to read any of it after dark.  The first day, I’ll usually only read a page or two and things will be fine.  The second day, though, I’ll have enough time to get really into the plot, usually just as dusk approaches. No worries! I’ll get to a stopping point soon.

Invariably, as night truly falls, I’ll resolve to read just a few more pages or maybe to the end of the chapter, just to get to a good stopping point, get caught up in the story and, without fail, end up locking myself in the bathroom, scared witless, lights blazing, so I can finish the story and calm down enough to go to sleep, somewhere around 2 am. (And that’s usually only after listening to some P.G. Wodehouse after I’ve mustered up the courage to race from bathroom to bedroom and turn the lights off.)

Now, the fifth and final book has come out recently and I’ve put a hold on it in my local library.  Of course, this year, I absolutely will stick to my resolution and not read the book after dark.  Never mind the evidence of the past four years – this is the year I will be a sensible adult about things!

(For those of you wondering, I’m 28 and this book series has a target audience of/is appropriate for 12 year olds.)

Children's · Classics

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy

hairy maclary
by: Dame Lynley Dodd

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy is a classic Kiwi children’s book (I’m in New Zealand for a couple of years) and my writing professor read it to the class as an example of great children’s writing.

It’s a really fun, really cute book!  I’m going to go ahead and spoil the entire book, my apologies! It tells the story of Hairy Maclary, who walks through town and meets all of his friends, then runs into a mean tomcat and runs back home. The rhyming scheme is excellent – on par with Dr Seuss but without any made-up words.  The pictures are fantastic and I loved the descriptions of the dogs Hairy meets on his walk – I think my favorite was “Muffin McLay like a bundle of hay”- Muffin is a big fluffy Old English Sheepdog.

It’s the type of book that is best read out loud, and I can just hear a little kid piping in at the parts they love best, enthusiastically filling in the end of a rhyming couplet. It also lends itself to lots of different voices – one for each dog described, and a very scary one for the Scarface Tom, the meanest tom in town. I bought a copy for my best friend, who has an almost-two-year old and an almost-born baby.  (Her mom’s a children’s librarian so there’s some stiff competition in the books department.  I’m relatively sure they won’t have this one, though!)

If this book has one tiny little fault, I would say the conflict isn’t very exciting; they see the big tomcat and just run away in fright and that’s the climax of the story. However, it certainly doesn’t diminish from the joy of reading this book out load.

Anyways, this is an adorable kids’ book, perfect for the 4 and under crowd in your life. If you find a copy and you have some kids who love being read to (or you’re just a big fan of picture books yourself!) I definitely recommend getting a copy!

Children's · Contemporary Literature · Fantasy · YA

His Dark Materials

his dark materials
by: Phillip Pullman

I know I’m late to the game on this one! As a result, I might be a little more lax about hints than I normally am (though I promise not to reveal any major plot points!)

His Dark Materials, if you haven’t heard of it, is Pullman’s most famous work, a trilogy focused on the coming-of-age story of Lyra and Will, two children from very similar and vastly different worlds.  And I mean worlds literally! Lyra is from an alternative-world Oxford, where every person has a daemon, an animal companion that is part of them, yet separate.  It’s heavily implied to be a physical embodiment of something, though it’s the readers job to figure out what that is.

One of the reasons it took me so long to finish these novels was that I do not like it when you switch worlds in a book.  Maybe I’m inherently lazy but for some reason, I find the work of having to pull myself out of one fantasy world and force myself to learn another in the same book/series to be rather unpleasant.*

So I read The Golden Compass (a/k/a Northern Lights) way back when as a teenager, but the series of events at the end of TGC/beginning of The Subtle Knife made me put the books down.  I’ve been meaning to try and finish the series for ages and with all the buzz about Pullman’s new novel, I finally managed to do it.

The central conflict of the book is humans vs. the Authority, the Authority being God (the Christian God) or something very like it. Lyra and Will unintentionally find themselves in the middle of a battle to determine the fate of the world – of their worlds. They go on a epic adventure, discovering new worlds, fighting battles, making friends, and ultimately must make a decision that could change the universe forever.

This book is aimed at, oh, probably pre-teens and I think Pullman excels at writing for the audience. His children are believable and honest; they say important things in a way that is realistic and grave but never precocious or weirdly mature.  I really enjoyed his dialogue, especially in Lyra, who had a lot of grave epiphanies; they always rang true without becoming soppy.  The trilogy is told in third person limited, switching to various characters’ perspectives as needed but the narrator’s voice is always imbued with a child-like tone which helps add to Lyra and Will’s characterization.  This does mean the adult characters are simplified and not partly multi-dimensional but that works with with the inherent voice of the novels.

Pullman’s plot line and characters are both exceptional and his world-building is creative and fantastic.  There are some truly inventive places that come out in the second and third novels and he manages to connect the different worlds so that no one of them feels too disparate.  The praise and fame this series has achieved is definitely warranted.

However, even Pullman’s work is not without its faults and one of the things I didn’t care for as much was how black and white the conflict ended up being.  Perhaps this is just my reading of it, but I feel like a lot of the story line went: Will and/or Lyra is presented with a decision, they struggle with decision, they make decision, decision turns out to be the right decision.  I like my characters to mess up and struggle with regrets and unintended consequences sometimes! That being said, the continuing escalation of conflict allows for a beautiful path to maturity and it was a joy to watch Will and Lyra grow as characters.  As a coming of age story, I really couldn’t have asked for more.

But – and this is the biggest reservation I have about this novel – Pullman, in three books about religion, never actually takes on the concept of faith.  He plays a teeny tiny bit with it, with a character who is a former nun, and he touches on the concept of having faith in your friends, allies, and yourself, but, at least in my opinion, he never really takes on the concept of having faith in a power greater than yourself. While he tackles the concepts of souls, death, and the essence of life in way that is most satisfactorily thought-provoking, and he critiques the Catholic church in no subtle manner, I do think that by ignoring faith, whether by questioning its inherent moral value or using the lack of it as a critique itself, he has missed a fundamental truth of being a religious person.  And as such, it’s hard for me to take this book from a fantasy book that plays with the ideas of religion/organized religion to a book that uses fantasy to address and critique fundamental issues within Christianity.

In short, if you’re into fantasy and you’re looking for something compelling, adventurous, and deep, I would absolutely recommend His Dark Materials.  If you’re not into children’s perspectives or if you’re looking for something that gets at the fundamental nature of religion, than, alas, this is probably not the book for you.

Have you read His Dark Materials? What did you think? Leave a comment below!

*This is why I gave up on the Pern series, by Anne McCaffrey. One of her books has a really dramatic world switch and I got a paragraph into the switch, closed the book, returned it to the library, and never looked back.

Children's · Fantasy · YA

I Shall Wear Midnight

I shall wear midnightby: Terry Pratchett

Ah, two Pratchett novels in less than 7 days! My mom got them for me for Christmas and I ended up reading them one right after the other, due to my current need for light reading to relieve stress.

I Shall Wear Midnight is the most recent installment in the Tiffany Aching series that Pratchett writes for the young ones.  They follow the tales of Tiffany Aching, who starts off deciding to be a witch in The Wee Free Men and finally comes into her own as a witch in I Shall Wear Midnight.

My favorite Pratchett quote comes from The Wee Free Men, actually. It is sheer Tiffany, though she doesn’t say it, and goes as such:

“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

Tiffany is a great character.  She’s smart, perceptive, and full of common sense.  I’ve liked her in both books, even as she is noticeably more mature in this one. It’s hard to grow a character well, but Pratchett does it.  Tiffany, from whose point of view the book is told, in third person limited, has a sympathetic yet firm way of looking at people. This is helpful, as a dark force is beginning to turn the population of the Chalk and Ank-Morpork against witches and Tiffany must find a way to save herself without turning against the very people she’s supposed to help.

The book starts off with (spoiler!) a man having brutally beaten his daughter.  There are somewhat extenuating circumstances – dark forces are at work – and this and that happen, but in the end, the man never really receives punishment for his actions.  In contrast, there is a female character who is rather unpleasant, yet still a good person, and she receives a distinct comeuppance.

Don’t get me wrong – there was a whole lot this book got right but… That really didn’t sit well with me.  Perhaps because domestic violence, especially against women, too often goes unpunished in our society. Perhaps because the man who was deplorable but maybe redeemable didn’t require a punishment but the unpleasant yet good woman did; why is it easier to freely forgive a man beating his daughter than a woman being rude?

Anyway, onto things I really liked about this book.  Tiffany, like I said, is amazing, and the whole crew – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Oggs, and the Nac Mac Feegles – is there.  I loved Tiffany’s insights into growing up female and her interactions with Leticia, the other main female character.  Though they don’t quite develop a friendship, I thought the interactions between Tiffany and Leticia were the best parts of the book.  I especially loved how Tiffany, now working full-time as a witch and making adult decisions on a daily, if not hourly, basis, does not let anyone call her (or Leticia) a girl.

Tiffany’s narration of the plot was a nearly perfect blend of observations, reactions, and analysis.  Enough mundane things happened that you got a sense of who Tiffany is, and how the village runs, but never get bored.  Then the exciting and adventurous things occur, of course, and while I got swept up in them, I never lost the narrator.  It always felt like Tiffany was present and experiencing and reacting to the events rather than telling a story.

On the whole, it’s an excellent older child’s/YA fantasy book – better than most, I would say.  But – Pratchett’s Aching novels always feel to me like a simpler, slightly diluted version of his adult work; a toning down of the sharpest edges of wit and very little cynicism.  And I just prefer his adult novels.  I read these ones when I have a chance – but I don’t seek them out.

On the whole, if you’re looking for a YA novel with witty observations and great humor, or if you love Pratchett, you should definitely try reading this book.  If you don’t like escapism books that deliberately provoke thought, however humorously, or if you want your Pratchett with an adult edge, then, alas!, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.