Review | Croak, Gina Damico

Lex Bartleby’s parents send her to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer in the hope that hard farm labour will help her with her anger issues. It turns out that Uncle Mort isn’t actually a farmer, but a Grim Reaper, and he is going to train Lex to be a Reaper herself. Gina Damico’s Croak has a funny premise and a cast of colourful characters. It starts off very weak, in my opinion, but the story gets better as it goes on, and I loved the ending.

My main issue with Croak is that Lex’s anger issues were just overdone. The book begins with her in the principal’s office for having bitten (literally!) a classmate because he’d called her a vampire. She’s sixteen. She’s also been a straight-A model student until a couple of years ago, when, for no apparent reason, she starts beating up practically everyone she meets. Her parents take her home and say they need to talk. “Are restraints really necessary this time?” Lex asks. I thought it was just another snark until I read that the mother really did bring out jump ropes to tie Lex to a chair, just so she won’t punch her parents when she learns she’ll be spending the summer with Uncle Mort.  Lex’s twin sister Cordy wonders if the ropes amount to child abuse, and by this point, I’m already picturing Lex as a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic. I’m also wondering, if her parents are that scared of her, why they didn’t just ship her to a psychiatric facility at any point in those two years. For that matter, why didn’t the school do anything? Just because Cordy is still acting normal doesn’t mean that Lex’s parents are immediately cleared of all suspicion.

Over the next few chapters, Lex throws a shoe at a bus driver, stabs her uncle with a stick and threatens to beat a stranger with his sunglasses. The romance in the book kicks off with Lex giving the boy a black eye and him giving her one back. I’m not generally queasy about violence in books, and to be honest, Lex’s antics are too exaggerated, cartoon-style, to even make her scary. Still, Lex is beyond bratty. When Uncle Mort cuts off one of her rants and orders her to grow up, I wanted to hug him.

Her discipline problems are explained somewhat — apparently, all born Reapers have serious rage issues until they enter Croak, the town where Uncle Mort lives and one of the Grim Reaper centres in the US. Still, I don’t see the connection. In the Percy Jackson series, Rick Riordan explains that demigods are dyslexic because their brains are hard-wired to read Greek, and that they have ADHD because their bodies are designed to react quickly in battle. I love that, because I can understand how such characteristics can signal that one is a demigod. In Croak, however, I have no idea how wanting to beat everyone up is directly linked to being a Reaper, especially since the Reaper’s job is actually one of mercy — freeing the soul trapped a body that’s already dead.

Fortunately, it gets better. Once Lex begins training and realizes how much she enjoys being a Reaper, her anger issues fade a bit, and the book gets much more interesting. Lex and the other junior Reapers have noticed some mysterious deaths, possibly at the hands of someone from Croak, and investigate. It’s an interesting mystery, and it takes us right into the world of Grim Reaping. I really like the other junior Reapers, especially Elysia, whose bubbly personality adds some welcome cheer to the group. The whole world of Grim Reaping is very well fleshed out, and I loved learning details such as their use of jellyfish and their version of alcohol. The story just kept getting more interesting, as the mystery deepened, leading up to a powerful climax. Good on you, Ms. Damico. Brave, emotional twist, especially in what I presume is just the first book in a series, and I admire you for raising the stakes this early.

I also love that Croak raises an interesting moral dilemma. The most important rule for Reapers is that they can only take the souls of their targets. This seems fairly straightforward, but what if they enter the scene of a murder? What if they have to take the soul of an innocent child and see the man who killed her just a few feet away? In my review on Loss, I complained that the author played it safe and kept her protagonist from really exploring his dark side. In contrast, I love that Damico shows how torn up Lex is about letting murderers go. Surely it’s only justice to take the murderer’s soul as well, or at the very least, turn him in to the police. Yet such justice is beyond a Reaper’s jurisdiction, and there are dire consequences for any Reaper who disobeys this law. Lex is torn, and I love that Damico isn’t afraid to explore this subject. It’s a slippery issue, with no straightforward answer, and I enjoyed reading about it.

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Review | Loss (Riders of the Apocalypse), Jackie Morse Kessler

Imagine you’re a fifteen year old boy bullied at school. You take care of your grandfather with Alzheimer’s, you’re secretly in love with your childhood best friend, and you avoid social networking sites because the last time you checked online, you met with a barrage of taunts and insults. Now imagine you find out that, because of a deal you unknowingly made when you were five, you are now destined to become one of the four Riders of the Apocalypse. Specifically, the current Pestilence is unable to Ride, and the power to spread disease and create plagues is in your hands. That’s the choice Billy Ballard faces in Jackie Morse Kessler’s Loss, the third book in her Riders of the Apocalypse series.

What a compelling concept! I was immediately attracted by the tough moral and emotional conflict promised by such a plot. I could see Billy go from playing the victim to possessing immense power, from fear to strength to (and much more difficult) realizing that true strength goes beyond the knee jerk revenge impulse. How far will he take his abilities? Will the bullied become the bully?

Unfortunately, Kessler opts not to delve too deeply into this aspect of the story. The back blurb tells us that Billy is horrified after he makes people sick, and so he decides the current Pestilence should take back his crown. This sets into motion the next part of the story, where Billy needs to track down the current Pestilence — now “completely insane [...] poised to unleash a plague” — and stop him. Does this bullied teen have the courage and the strength to face Pestilence and save the world? This is a much more ordinary quest/young-hero type story, and quite frankly, much less compelling than the first part.  I had hoped that the part where Billy has to face his own dark side would take up at least half the book. However, he’s such a good kid that he spends barely even a couple of chapters wreaking havoc before he’s plagued by guilt (sorry) and sets off to save the world.

Kessler plays it safe with Loss, and that disappointed me. This is not to say that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. If you’re looking for an inspirational tale about how a bullied kid can overcome fear and become a hero, Loss has that. It even includes a lesson on how learning someone’s story can help change your perspective about them — Billy finds out about the past of the current Pestilence, and this new knowledge transforms the figure from Billy’s nightmares into an old man who inspires sympathy. Personally, I would’ve preferred more action. Most of Billy’s hunt for Pestilence takes place in Pestilence’s memories and consists of Billy learning about Pestilence’s past. Worse, Kessler includes in these memories characters from literature (names changed somewhat, of course) — they did play important roles in the story, but I just found it too cutesy a device.

I found Loss too preachy, even as an anti-bullying inspirational book. I think the reason it felt so heavy-handed was that Kessler couched the message in fantasy/adventure terms and that part fell flat for me. Not enough adventure. Death, incarnated as a pale, blond street musician, is the most fascinating character in this story, and Pestilence in the past is certainly a tragic figure. Billy is definitely sympathetic, and I love the scene where he stands his best friend up because the bullies are also in the pizza parlour and he doesn’t want to face them. They just weren’t given much to do for most of the book. Kessler also reminded us several times that Billy wasn’t used to fighting back. That would then be followed with either “so he curled up into a ball and took a beating” or “but this time he’d had enough.” Good in terms of message, but also too obviously trying to get that message across.

There were several scenes I liked, particularly the one where the grandfather stands up to death and the one where Billy makes the bullies sick. I also like the idea near the end of white blood cells fighting disease; I thought that was a cool spin, and wish Kessler had done more with it. Loss had several interesting snippets, but not much of an overall impact.

To be fair, I’m not the book’s intended audience. I do think it will resonate more with a younger reader (tween/teen). Personally, I prefer books that really explore a character’s dark side (e.g. Hunger Games trilogy, or Stuart MacBride’s crime novels), and I thought this tale provided the perfect opportunity. That being said, Loss does offer a bit of hope for kids who are bullied, or who may have been conditioned to think of themselves as losers – Loss shows that they have the potential to be heroes.

Out of curiosity, have you read any particularly amazing anti-bullying YA novels?

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Review | The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood

Ever read a book you love so much it takes you forever to write a review for it? A book so amazing that you realize whatever you can write just won’t give it justice. That’s how I felt after reading Jo Walton’s Among Others, and that’s why it took me weeks to figure out what to write about Benjamin Wood’s amazing debut novel The Bellwether Revivals

Publisher McClelland and Stewart calls the book “part Brideshead Revisited” — how could I resist? The parallels to Brideshead are clear — nursing home care worker Oscar Lowe is drawn to the Bellwethers, a wealthy family of academics. He falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a Cambridge student, and befriends her brother Eden and their group of friends. Cambridge in fact becomes almost a character itself in this novel — characters speak of it so lovingly, so knowledgeably, that it almost takes on the mystique of Brideshead. Like Oscar, we are attracted to this world where we don’t need to worry about putting food on the table; rather, we can spend hours debating philosophy and discussing literature. The novel is set in the early 2000s, but something about the way Wood writes makes the story feel like it was set in the past. Perhaps this insulated world Oscar inhabits with Iris, Eden and their friends insulates us as well, provides us as much of an escape as it does Oscar.

With the Brideshead comparison, I was expecting the book to be mostly about Oscar’s relationship with the Bellwethers, but the story takes a much darker turn. The very first chapter, “Prelude,” does give us an idea of the tragic outcome at the end — Eden Bellwether is “still breathing, but faintly,” there are other bodies around, and Oscar says, “It’s over now…We can’t go back and change it.” What happened? We don’t know, but we know the story won’t end well. I agree with this blog review that revealing the end in advance allows us to then focus on the nuances within the events. From a lovely tale of romance and privilege, we are introduced into a chilling story of psychopathy.

Much of Bellwether Revivals focuses on music, something hinted at by the prologue being called a “prelude.” When we are introduced to the Bellwethers, it’s because Oscar is drawn to a church where Eden is playing the organ. I love Wood’s description: “There was a fragility to this music, as if the organist wasn’t pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer.” I imagine thready, tentative notes, and almost ethereal melody with the power to cast spells.

Eden is a gifted musician, but more than that, he believes music has the power to heal. Literally. Many acknowledge the power of music to bring comfort and influence emotions, but Eden, influenced by the ideas of Johann Mattheson, believes music can actually, physically affect behaviour. He says Oscar entered the church not just because of a generic attraction to Eden’s music, but because the music was specifically designed to get someone to enter a church and sit down. It’s a disturbing notion, one we could easily dismiss as utter nonsense, yet it also offers an intriguing possibility of hope. What if music can do more than just comfort those with terminal illnesses? What if music can actually remove tumours, reverse Alzheimer’s? What if music can, literally, heal? Eden firmly believes it can, and that he can create such music.

Iris believes her brother is a narcissist, as in actually has a psychological disorder and isn’t just being arrogant, and she turns to Oscar for help. To be honest, I thought her insistence on her brother’s psychopathy was a bit odd — it seemed a harmless enough belief, and I wasn’t sure why she was so determined to have her brother examined. I also didn’t really understand why Oscar was so willing to be involved. I found the romance between Iris and Oscar the weakest element in the story — I saw that he was attracted to her, but I didn’t really see how he became so devoted to her so quickly. I didn’t really see him in love, which bothers me mostly because he ends up having to go to such lengths to help her out in this story. That being said, it wasn’t enough to turn me off from the story, because all the other plot lines were so gripping.

As we learn more about Iris and Eden’s childhood, and as Eden takes his belief in music’s healing ability to even greater extremes, we begin to understand that Eden isn’t quite as harmless as we may have thought. One of the most fascinating characters in the novel is Dr. Herbert Crest, a psychologist who has studied Narcissistic Personality Disorder and who, losing his personal battle with cancer, is writing a book Delusions of Hope, about his failure to find an alternative cure for his condition. This makes him a prime candidate for Oscar to approach for help regarding Eden; perhaps Dr. Crest can expose Eden as a fraud. Or, perhaps, can Eden possibly prove Dr. Crest wrong?

Here’s the thing: Eden’s charisma affects even us. What if Eden isn’t a fraud? What if his music really can heal people? A rational part of my mind kept insisting that his ability couldn’t possibly be real, and yet another part of me couldn’t help but hope it was. As Dr. Crest says, “Hope is a form of madness. A benevolent one, sure, but madness all the same.” Yet it is a madness that we almost want to embrace. I’ve lost several loved ones to cancer, I also know others who have survived it, and I can’t even begin to describe how much I think cancer just really, really sucks. So when we have a character who might, conceivably, have the ability to cure cancer with music, well, it’s a seductive idea. Even within fiction, the tiniest, slimmest chance of a cure is offered, and yes, I want to believe in it. Eden, to me, had his controlling, arrogant moments, but I also wanted to believe he was a hero, that he did have this power, that, even in fiction, cancer could be conquered.

The potential of Eden’s power seduced me, and the reality of Eden’s megalomania devastated me. His desperation to have his power proven right, and to be viewed as a hero and a healer, leads to some truly horrifying acts. I think it’s because I was so sucked into this world that I was affected so completely. It was almost painful to be so disillusioned by Eden, not so much with regard to the veracity of his healing power, as with the realization that Eden is ultimately only after power.

I absolutely love Bellwether Revivals! A powerful, gripping story that seduces us much as the charismatic, frightening Eden Bellwether casts a spell over the people around him. In so many ways, Eden is a predator, and like any predator, he also has the ability to lure his victims. Bellwether is chilling because we realize how easy it is to be sucked in, indeed to want to be sucked in. For the reader, as for the characters, the return to reality is painful, but necessary. Difficult to believe this is a debut novel. Benjamin Wood is definitely an author to watch, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Follow Benjamin Wood on Twitter: @bwoodauthor.