The Monstrumologist

I didn’t expect to like this book.  And maybe because I set the bar so low, I allowed myself room to enjoy it.  The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey is about a doctor whose science is monsters.  His assistant is a twelve-year-old boy whose parents used to work for the doctor but died in an unfortunate accident.  The doctor took the boy in and is now training him to be a monstrumologist.

MonsterThe story is told in an interesting fashion.  It’s one of those story-within-a-story types using journals.  The frame story is of a man who is contacted by a mortician after finding the body of a man who claims to be over 100 years old.  The man’s body was found with several volumes of journals.  The mortician asks the man to read the journals and see if he can find any clues as to who the man is.  Thus, as the man reads the journals, we are given the account of the doctor and his assistant.

What I struggled with the most on picking up the book at the library is that I’m really into monsters and all that.  I’ve read some books with vampires (the Sookie Stackhouse series and Twilight, unfortunately) but usually supernatural beings aren’t my jam.  However, since this was nominated for a Printz award and I have several students who like reading books with monsters I thought I stretch my reading palate and give it a try.  I’m glad I did.

The author doesn’t take the monster part very seriously at all.  He makes them so over-the-top strange and unrealistic that it immediately suspended my cynicism for monsters.  Instead, Yancey focuses more on character development and plot.  While the book is almost five hundred pages, it reads very quickly.  In fact, it’s hard to really gauge how much time it took me to read because I’d start reading and then suddenly find myself one hundred pages into the book.  Because it was so well written, it really felt like watching a thriller film.  Which I’m a huge fan of.  The suspense and the action scenes are very well written that you really lose yourself to the plot and the action.  It’s very graphic in places but not so much that it’s gory.

I think that what would make me come back to this book is the characters.  While at first it seems that this is going to be another picaresque novel about a young apprentice and a crazy Frankenstein-like doctor, Yancey plays with that to break stereotypes and instead shows us that no matter our interests and stereotypes we are more a like than we think.  The doctor, who isn’t creepily old to be having a twelve-year-old assistant, and the boy actually bond over the fact that their fathers are dead and left them with a lot of stuff to work out.  And it’s in this bonding that they realize they have more in common than they thought.  So I do recommend this book.  And if you do find some monsters under your bed or in your closet, you’ll know who to call.

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Dodger

Man.  I really wanted to give this book five stars, but I just can’t.  The writing was on point, but the plot was just too amateur to reward it.  Dodger by Sir Terry Pratchett is the story of Dodger and his adventures in the slums and sewers of Victorian England and his sudden rise to fame and fortune due to his aiding a young woman, Simplicity, who is under attack.  Their quest to find her attackers and bring her to safety is the basis for Dodger’s adventures.

DodgerSound familiar?  It should.  It’s basically the story of a boy who could have been the basis for the likes of Pip of Great Expectations fame and Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist notoriety.  In fact, there’s a character named Charles Dickens in the book so it’s pretty heavy-handed that we are supposed to assume that Charles Dickens is going to be inspired by the events and characters in Dodger.  This is where the amateur plot comes into play.  When certain phrases such as, “great expectations”, “our mutual friend”, and “bleak house” are mentioned in the book, Dickens writes them down in the notebook that he keeps.  What saves this from complete disaster is that Pratchett is able to capture the style of the Victorians which showed that he can write well.  It just seems like he put more into the words rather than the plot.

I liked the characters and the plot overall, but Dodger’s rise to fame seemed too easy and too fake.  The downfall starts when he happens to get a haircut at…wait for it…SWEENEY TODD’S BARBERSHOP!!  [insert face palming memes here].  I really did groan out loud and roll my eyes.  This just seemed like one of those films where they cram a ton of famous and somewhat famous actors into a plot and call it indie (I’m looking at you, I Love New York).  Maybe if Dickens, Robert Peeler, Sweeney Todd, Queen Victoria, etc. hadn’t all been in the same book, I might have forgiven Pratchett, but after Dodger single-handedly takes down Todd and feels sorry for him, I prepared myself for the worst.

Ultimately we never really do find out who is after Simplicity.  We never know who her nefarious father-in-law is and why he hates her so much.  And yet this is what brought all the characters in the first place.  I feel like this is a prime example of an author missing the trees for the forest.  I like the Victorians and this period and I enjoyed seeing Pratchett play with history and literature in a tongue-in-cheek style, but to drop the ball with the main plot is like leaving the readers in the sewer beneath the brewer’s draft horses (if you venture to read the book you’ll understand otherwise just use your imagination).

The Scorpio Races

It’s rare that a book sucks me into its world and its characters and it’s rare that an author can maintain my interest for an entire novel and leave me a reading “high” at the end.  If you haven’t had a reading “high” it’s that feeling that the ending is so good yet not so perfect that it’s fake.  Instead, it does exactly what the author should do and leaves the reader wanting more yet satisfied with what they have.  Like a good dessert.

indexThe Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater does exactly that.  The story is about an island named Thisby that is known around the world for having the Scorpio Races.  The island is somewhat fictional but from the way they refer to it and some of the language I’m guessing it’s supposed to be an island off the British coast.  Like the Ilse of Manx, for example.

What’s unique about the island is that this is the only place in the world where the Capaill Uisce come ashore in the fall.  What are Capaill Uisce, you ask?  Well for those of you that don’t speak Irish or Scots, they are also known as Kelpies or Fairy horses.  They are wild yet can be tamed.  They are carnivorous, larger than land horses, and live in the sea.  They can live on land, but the sea is always calling to them.  During the fall, Thisby natives capture a Capall Uisce and attempt to tame it enough to run a race against other Capaill Uisce.  Or in the case of this book, a girl and her island horse (really a tall pony).

Ok, the premise might seem a little campy in writing, but honestly, the way Stiefvater handles it, you’d think this is an actual occurrence.  I think a big part of this is the characters.  The story is told from the two protagonists, Sean Kendrick and Kate “Puck” Connolly.  I don’t usually like alternating-point-of-view narration, but with this story, the two points-of-view help broaden the scope of the plot and make the narrators too emo.

By the end of the book I wanted to move to Thisby and befriend Sean and Kate.  Or at least have tea with them.  Maybe because this book takes place in November and I read it in November, but Stiefvater really makes you taste the salt in the air and the sea breeze on your skin.  To me, as a reader and a teacher, I give Stiefvater a lot of credit for taking a Celtic myth and modernizing while still able to transport us to Thisby with her craft and make us friends with a character.  All of the above are the elements of what I consider a good book.  Here’s hoping there might be a sequel in the works.

The Returning

The Returning by Christine Hinwood is a very unorganized book.  I’m still in shock after reading it that it was on the Printz Honors List.  The writing isn’t bad. In fact it’s easy to get lost in the book and devour a hundred pages at a time.  Yet, as the book progresses there is a sense that there’s no point to the book.  Things happen and there’s no rhyme or reason.

ReturningSo what’s the premise of this tome? Cam decides to leave home at a young age and join the war against the Uplanders.  I should mention that this novel is set a Middle Ages-esque time period and the Uplanders and the Downlanders are enemies. The Uplanders, lead by Lord Ryuu, have decided to make a foray into Downlander territory and stake a claim.  So Cam goes off to fight, gets his arm hacked off by Gyaar Ryuu, Lord Ryuu’s son and is sent packing, with a horse, back to his village.  He’s not content to live in his provincial village (I can’t help but think of the opening song in Beauty and the Beast) and decides to go back to the Ryuu family and join their ranks.

Why does he go back?  This isn’t given.  There’s no explanation as to why he feels more comfortable in the north rather than at home.  Granted, you could read into this from a psychological stand point and see it as a Stockholm Syndrome type thing.  Then there’s a very homoerotic element that runs throughout the book, but it’s not developed enough to be a firm explanation for the “returning”.

So all in all, I feel the reader is left with more questions than answers.  It feels like there needs to be a sequel just to explain the first.  If this were one of my students’ essays, I’d give them a D and ask them to address the questions that are left in the reader’s mind.

But at the same time I can’t believe how well Hinwood wrote all of this confusion.  Even while there’s no point to it, she does build an interesting world and introduce us to her characters.  So I’m giving her the D, and hoping she’ll write an amazing sequel so that I can give her an A in Cannonball Read 7.

Where Things Come Back

I’m still not sure what this book is about.  There’s two seemingly unrelated story lines in John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back, that only converge in the last three chapters.  Both story lines are set in the South.  The principle plot is set in Lily, Arkansas and the second is set in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia.

WhereLily, Arkansas is a sleepy, Southern town with nothing to do.  It’s home to Cullen and Gabriel Witter and Cullen’s buddy, Lucas.  What seems to plot about the relationship between brothers and male friendships turns dark when Gabriel goes missing.  What follows turns more philosophical.  Parents grieving, friendships forming, strengthening, and crumbling, and what happens to those left behind when a child/sibling goes missing becomes the core of the books premise.

The second plot follows two young men who are figuring out what God wants from them.  It takes a turn for the crazy when they become obsessed with the Apocryphal Book of Enoch.  While I at first had never heard of the Book of Enoch, as the boys delve into it, I suddenly remembered that the references in the Book of Enoch explained the movie Noah.  If you haven’t seen it, just know it doesn’t follow the Biblical account.  If you have seen it, those Watchers are actually mentioned in this Book of Enoch.

The two story lines intertwine at the conclusion of the novel, and I’m still not sure what the second has to do with the first but it doesn’t necessarily detract from the book as a whole.  It was well written, whether you understand the relationship between the two or not.  The character development and pacing of the novel was superb.  There were not typical YA stereotypes and it reads very quickly.

Over all, I believe that the author is attempting to say that even though we are faced with challenges everyday, it’s our reaction to them and the mindset we keep while attempting to overcome the challenges is what’s most important.