A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

A Separate PeaceThis was the first book I chose for my library book club (because you know I need another book club…) for some very specific reasons: It had several copies available in the system, it was not terribly long, and it was a book I thought I probably should have read by now.

And, in fact, yes, this is a book that I should have gotten around to long ago, but it was never required in school and so I hadn’t actually heard of it until maybe a few years ago. It’s an obvious precursor to many of my favorite novels and very likely to my absolute favorite movie, Dead Poets Society. Young boys in boarding school coming of age? That is totally my jam.

This particular boys-coming-of-age-at-boarding-school story takes place in New England shortly after the U.S. entered World War II and is narrated by an adult Gene looking back at his time on campus, particularly one terrible horrible no-good very bad year. In that year, Gene and his bffaeae Finny avoid thinking about the war by doing other foolish and dangerous things, all leading up to this one thing that happens that haunts Gene for the rest of his life.

And it’s pretty great. Most War-era books I’ve read have taken place in the middle of the war and especially in the middle of the fighting, so reading about these boys so close to going off to war but so removed from the war itself was really interesting to me. And of course there’s the whole boarding-school/high-school atmosphere of everything mattering oh so very much and the incomparable importance of friends and grades and sports, which I cannot help but love from afar.

Gene’s internal struggles are the true heart of the novel, though, and they are struggles that I can sadly understand. He spends a lot of the novel wondering whether his best friend is really a friend trying to make Gene a better person or actually an enemy trying to bring Gene down to lift himself up, and although it’s obvious that it’s the former, Gene is pretty convincing that it could be the latter. I found myself shouting at the book more than once, “Hey, idiot! Seriously! What is wrong with you?!” Oh, how glad I am that I never have to be sixteen again.

The big downside to reading this novel is that I have read and watched so many of its direct and indirect descendants, so some of the important twists and consequences of the novel were preeeeeeeetty obvious because I’d seen them before. But I really would never have seen Leper’s (yes, that’s a character’s name) storyline coming. Poor kid.

Recommendation: For fans of boarding-school coming-of-age novels and those who have ever been insecure.

Rating: 7/10

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Touch of Frost, by Jennifer Estep

Touch of FrostSince I started my new job, my co-worker and I have been playing the Getting to Know You Through Books Game — you know the one. “You love Bartimaeus? You must be awesome!” “Oh, you read those books? Hmmm.”

We’ve attempted to find more common ground books, but it’s not going well. I thought she’d approve of its whimsy, but my co-worker didn’t get into The Eyre Affair, which means she is clearly beyond hope even with her love for Barty. It’s about a literary detective! There should not have been a problem! Sigh.

She recommended to me this series, starting with Touch of Frost, that she devoured via ILL (read: borrowing books from not our library) at our library but that I could easily get from the library around the corner from my apartment, and it sounded pretty good. YA, a gypsy girl who could touch things and know their history, mythology, monsters… sold!

But… eh. Like certain YA novels I have read recently, this is probably a book I would have devoured as a teenager (see: my obsession with the Sweep series), but after reading it I was just like, “I’ve read better.”

It’s a book that I thought suffered from trying to be too much like other YA novels, but may suffer from trying to be too much like Clash of the Titans, which I have not seen but which the author credits as her inspiration in the acknowledgements. Maybe if I had seen the movie, I would like this book better? That is a mystery unlikely to be solved.

The plot: Gwen Frost, a capital-G Gypsy who can touch objects and feel/see/experience things related to the objects and their owners, is forced to attend a private school for the descendants of apparently not-mythical warrior-types, like Amazons and Valkyries and Spartans and whatnot. She is attacked in the library and awakes to find another student dead, and feels bad enough when no one else cares terribly much (because warriors and also because the dead student was a jerk) to investigate. Things go horribly and magically wrong and Gwen ultimately sets them right and discovers why she’s been sent to this weird-pants school.

Which seems okay, but there’s a lot going on in this book. It’s a boarding school book and a book about mythologically descended teenagers and a book about a girl who doesn’t know her own history and a book about an intrepid girl detective (Veronica Mars is name-dropped, so plus ten points) and a book about a girl who likes a guy but can’t quite get with him and it is just a lot of books all at once! And none of the books are really well developed, so I couldn’t hang on to one and go with it because I just found myself lost. I get that you didn’t pay attention in “myth-history” class, Gwen, but that is no reason to know absolutely nothing about the school you attend, and even less reason not to believe in magic when you HAVE IT. Double sigh.

The ending, though… the ending is the best part of the book for me. Gwen finally finds out what the heck is going on and she also (spoilers?) gets some extra power to play with and makes some enemies, but then of course I’m meant to read the next book to find out what’s going to happen next and after this one I am just not motivated. I guess I’ll put that on the “maybe someday eventually” pile with rather a lot of other sequels.

Recommendation: For those who like mythology and adventures and don’t mind a simple, fast-paced plot.

Rating: 5/10

an RIP read

The Madness Underneath, by Maureen Johnson

The Madness UnderneathAbout a year ago I read and liked the heck out of Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star, so when I heard this sequel was coming out I put it on hold at the library as soon as it showed up in the catalog. And then I even read it right after I got it! That’s almost unprecedented.

And it was as delightful as expected, though it unfortunately suffers from Second Book in a Series Syndrome, which is to say that if you read this book by itself you would be like, uh, okay, but having read the first and knowing there’s a third you’re like, okay!

The story picks up a couple of weeks after the last book, with Rory recuperating from all the crazy back in Brighton with her parents and unsuccessfully attending therapy on account of her truth sounds like crazy. She just wants to go back to school, but when her therapist unexpectedly says that she can and she does, she realizes that maybe not doing any schoolwork for a couple weeks right before the end of term was not the best idea.

So she’s dealing with the crush of school and exams, and also the fact that she can… do that thing she does, and the related fact that she was brought back to London for a reason, and the other related fact that some new mysterious murders are going on and so is it any wonder that things go a little bit not according to plan?

I, as always, enjoyed Maureen Johnson’s writing and her accurate portrayal of a stressed-out teenager. I was also verrrry intrigued by how she ended this book, and am eager to see how this plays out in the next book. I just feel like maybe this book could have been compressed and that intriguing thing could have been the thrust of this story, or alternately that the book could have taken place over a longer timespan and we could have seen more of Rory’s schooltime woes (and that perhaps she could have spent more time trying to fix them?).

Recommendation: If you liked the first book, read this one, but maybe wait until closer to the next book’s release, because seriously I want to know what’s going to happen here!

Rating: 7/10

The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the StarOkay, so, I love me some Maureen Johnson on the Twitters, and I’ve liked me some stories written by Maureen Johnson, and so when MJ started shilling this book on her twitter feed, I was like, well, I guess I’ll check that out. If I had known how much I’d adore this book, I’d have been like, “OMG give me pre-order signed copy with presents now!” Oh, hindsight, for you are 20/20.

For those not residing in a jar (this is a Twitter MJ reference), The Name of the Star is a mystery story set in present-day London and featuring a Jack the Ripper copycat killer, which, I somehow had not realized how horrifyingly brutal Mr. the Ripper was and so let me just tell you right now that there will be stabbing and disembowelment and kidneys sent via post. Not too much, and only briefly, but now you are prepared.

Anyway, the story follows Rory, an American girl spending her senior year at a boarding school in London, not far from the Ripper’s hunting grounds. Once the copycat starts his bit up, the school gets a little lockdown-y, but Rory and her roommate sneak out on a murder night to watch the proceedings from the roof of the boys’ dorm (house? whatever) with Rory’s crush. On the way back to their room, Rory has a little chat with a super creeper face who happens to be hanging around their dorm, and then the next morning it turns out that there’s a dead body on school grounds and that that creeper was probably totally the killer. Eep!

And then there’s this twist that I wasn’t expecting and that I disliked and I was like, maybe I’m not going to like this book after all and maybe I should just stop reading but I was so intrigued by how they were going to get the SCF and then the twist just totally stopped bothering me and now I kind of like it a lot, because I think Johnson did a superb job of keeping the twist grounded in reality. Well, as much as one can, I suppose.

I’m not quite sure what it is about this book that I love, as opposed to the moderate to strong like I’ve had for her other stories I’ve read. I guess I just really liked Rory, who’s a smart kid that I would totally have hung out with in high school, and I liked the mystery and serial killer aspects, and I liked that even though I could see some things coming from pages away, the reveals were never exactly what I expected.

Now to just wait a year for the next book to come out! I’ll just be over here, twiddling my thumbs, impatiently…

Recommendation: For fans of mysteries and serial killers and boarding schools and stories that veer slightly out of the realm of reality.

Rating: 9/10

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart (22 September — 23 September)

Aaah I love this book!

That’s what I wrote as a placeholder for this entry before I started it, but it’s so true. This is one of those books that is thoroughly entertaining but sneakily makes you think about societal status quos and your own personal set of norms and it’s all sociological and anthropological and fun. Well, if you’re into that sort of thing, anyway.

Plot: Frankie Landau-Banks is an average teenager, starting her sophomore year at her not-so-average boarding school in Massachusetts. Things are going really well — she’s taking fun classes, she’s rooming with a good friend, and the boy she’s been crushing on forever (well, teenage forever) totally asked her out! Yay! But she soon realizes that Matthew and his gang aren’t really as into her as she is into them. Also they are part of an all-male secret society that Frankie’s father was in, and Frankie’s not too thrilled about that. She decides to start thwarting some of those aforementioned status quos, and it’s pretty awesome.

The book is full of sociological- and psychological-type talk about feminism and classism and ageism and fitting into the society inherent in a New England boarding school. Frankie’s not exactly a sympathetic character; she plays the same games that Matthew does and isn’t the nicest person. But you can definitely understand why she does what she does, and I at least was totally rooting for her and wishing I had the ovaries (because balls is a masculine construction, as Frankie’s sister points out) to pull off some of the pranks she does.

Oh, and there’s some bonus Wodehouse love, and you can’t beat that.

Rating: 10/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2008)

See also:
The Bluestocking Society
Persnickety Snark
Book Nut
Library Queue

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.