Review: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Author: Kenneth Oppel 
Title: The Nest 
Format/Source: Hardcover/Purchased
Published: September 2015
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 244 pages
Genre: Middle grade gothic
Why I Read: Good creative team, intriguing plot, sister recommended
Read If You: Like creepy fairy tales, spooky stories, Coraline, etc.
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

This book kind of fell into my lap. I only added it to my TBR on 30 September. My sister talked a bit about it on the weekend. I wasn’t feeling any of the spooky books I planned to read, even though I want to read stuff that fits that mood. Suddenly I felt like I really needed to read this book, so I had my sister pick it up from work yesterday and I finished it this morning. Considering I have reading scheduled until the end of the year, this shows you just how much of a mood reader I can be. Thankfully, The Nest fits solidly in the realm of the RIP Challenge, becoming my first read for the challenge. I enjoyed The Boundless earlier this year, and Silverwing when I was young, but this surpasses anything Oppel wrote previously. I never would have expected such a satisfyingly eerie story from him.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know right away whether this book stands up to the claims that it’s a “haunting gothic tale for fans of Coraline” (skip this paragraph if you don’t really care). Normally I would not compare one book to another so closely in a review. However. I have been looking for a Coraline successor for years. I have read many books that purport to be spooky or creepy or eerie but come nowhere close. The Nest captures that feeling I found in Coraline. Some readers will forever say “It’s good, but it’s not as good as Coraline…” I acknowledge that The Nest is somewhat of a different story than Coraline. Regardless, I still recommend it to fans of Coraline. I think the book will appeal to Gaiman fans, as long as they aren’t too dead-set on finding a perfect spiritual successor to Coraline in this book. I hope future readers will come to love this story for itself, and not for the ways in which it is like Coraline! 

There was something wrong with the baby, but no one knew what. Not us, not the doctors. After a week in the hospital, Mom and Dad were allowed to bring the baby home, but almost every day they had to go back fro more tests. Whenever Mom and Dad returned, there were new bits of information, new theories. (1)

The Nest is a creepy fairy tale, a changeling story presented in dreamy eerie prose, peppered with melancholic moments and stinging moments. More than once did I make an anxious sound while reading. Oppel carefully portrays a believable family, living alongside a couple of darkly fantastical characters. Steven makes a great protagonist (I appreciated the portrayal of his anxiety/OCD – it’s never named) and the Queen a nasty villain. The dialogues between the two stand out as one of the highlights of the story. This isn’t the kind of story where the frightening ‘fantasy’ bits play a subpar role (I’m looking at you, Doll Bones). This story is all about Steven and his encounter with the wasps. The prose is just what I like for this kind of tale – sparse yet pointed and clear, creating (at least for me) a dream-like impression that makes the story feel truly otherworldly, especially when paired with a limited first-person narrative. One word that might describe The Nest is balanced. It’s got just the right amount of characters and dialogue, realistic bits and terrifying bits, all at a good pace with good prose.

Nicole was the one who was always all over the baby. She loved the baby. To her the baby just meant this wonderful happy new thing in her life. She said once, not long after the baby had come home, “Just let me bask in his glory!” It always made me feel mean when I watched Nicole with the baby. Because when I looked at him, I saw all the things that were supposed to be wrong with him; and I saw Mom looking tired and worried; and I saw Dad staring out the window, sometimes just into the distance, sometimes at our driveway, where the car was. (113-4)

The Nest is also a physically striking object, highlighting all the reasons I love a solid book. A handful of subtle yet stark illustrations by one of my favourite illustrator/authors, Jon Klassen, add a subtle boost of the creepy to Oppel’s prose. I found the illustrations less integral to the story than Dave McKean’s for Coraline, but they definitely add another welcome dimension to the tale. The book itself is also well-designed. I liked the soft pages and the typeface (which is just Baskerville, but anyhow.) This book has a glossy dust jacket with clear spaces poking through to the hardcover itself. Here are some photos to supplement my lacklustre description:

The Bottom Line: Not something I would have expected from Oppel, yet one of my favourite reads this year. A great collaboration with Jon Klassen. If you want something that embraces the spirit of Coraline and truly creepy middle grade tales, look no further.

Further Reading: 

Review: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente

Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Title: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland
Series: Fairyland #4
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: March 2015
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Length: 235 pages
Genre: Middle grade fantasy/fairy tale
Why I Read: Love the series
Read If You’re: Liked book #1 or #2 but weren’t so enchanted by book #3
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
Fairyland Book #3 disappointed me. I can’t recall exactly why (I didn’t review it, I didn’t remember the cliffhanger), though I can probably sum up my disappointment with “didn’t contain that wondrous magic of the first book”, especially concerning the plot (granted, to expect the sequels to match the originality of the first book is to expect the impossible – only once can you be introduced to September and Fairyland). The Boy Who Lost Fairyland refreshed my interest in this series with a delightful tale concerning Changelings.

September serves as an excellent guide through Fairyland. Valente’s decision to instead feature Hawthorn, a Changeling troll, and set a good chunk of the tale in Chicago may at first seem like an unnecessary stirring up of a winning formula – but it works. I found September’s adventures beginning to stale in the third book. With this book, I enjoyed meeting new characters who blossom throughout the story. Hawthorn will likely appeal to anyone who enjoyed September’s company. A break from September also makes me more excited to see her return to prominence in the final book.

 But this child knew very well that he was called Hawthorn and not Thomas, and was a troll on the inside, not a baby human. It was only that he could not tell anyone – his human mouth was so small and soft! He could not make any words come out of it at all. When he finally managed it, they were just the simplest and plainest ones, none of which were big enough to hold his trollness, or that he had once spoken to a giant Panther, or the wonderful, terrible, burning flight through the clouds. (39)

I did not expect so much of the story to be set in our world. This setting allows Valente to explore more realistic challenges that many young children face, most prominently that out-of-place feeling. I liked the Changeling perspective, showing a view of both our world and Fairyland that differs from September’s.

“The Laws of the Kingdom of School,” he squeaked. “One: A Teacher is the same thing as an Empress only a Teacher wears skirts and uses a ruler instead of a sceptre. Two: Be present at eight o’clock sharp or you will be marked Tardy and if you are Tardy enough you will be banished to the Land of Detention, where no food or joy can live. Three: If you write that you shall not do a thing five hundred times you cannot do it again for your whole life. Only Teachers possess this magic, as Mother and Father have never tried it[…]” (73)

While each of the previous books build on its predecessor, this book pulls together a variety of events and hints from the three other books. I recommend a reread if it’s been awhile. I struggled to recall the significance of some of the characters and happenings in the later half of this book.

I don’t think I need to comment much on the prose, save to reassure you that you’re getting the same lyrical goodness of the other Fairyland books!

And indeed, in the rippling red clouds above everything, a great number of treetops began to peek out. They were all very tall and very lush: great umbrellas of glossy leaves, lacy branches twisting and toppling together, cupolas of orange and fuchsia flowers, obelisks of braided beanstalks, huge domes like the ones Hawthorn had seen in his picture book about Pandemonium, but made of climbing roses and hanging babanas and iridescent turquoise bubbles that would not pop, even when they tumbled into thorns. Just the sort of place where the wind stills, grows sleepy, turns around in a few lazy circles, and settles down for a nap in a sunbeam. Everything was hot and wet and alive, like the inside of a summer raindrop. (9)

The Bottom Line: Although I love September, a change in protagonist renewed my excitement in this series. Valente maintains her charming story-telling while giving a fresh perspective of Fairyland.

Further Reading: 

Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Author: Robert Beatty
Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 14 July 2015
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Middle grade historical fantasy
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, caught my attention
Read If You: Like stories set on sprawling historical estates, maybe?
Rating★★½
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

“Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there and they will ensnare your soul.” Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There’s plenty to explore in the shadowed corridors of her vast home, but she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember. But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity before all of the children vanish one by one. Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

Rarely do I read a book, compare my thoughts on it to others, and then ask myself, “Did I read the same book as everyone else?” Usually when I dislike a book, I can pinpoint the reason to personal taste, not because I think it’s actually terrible and no one would like it. Reading other reviews of Serafina and the Black Cloak, I found myself thinking, “Um, I didn’t see those great characteristics at all…?” There’s a big gap between how I felt about this book and the positive reviews on GoodReads. I’m not sure how to explain that, but at least I can try to explain why I feel so meh about this one. (Recently I notice I compare my thoughts to others quite a lot…not sure if this helps or hinders my review style; that’s a subject for another time.)

I initially rated this three stars upon completion. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realize there isn’t any reason to give this three stars. It’s definitely a two star read on the GoodReads scale – ‘It was okay’ -, though two stars on the Reno scale sounds a bit harsh. It’s not that I didn’t have anything better to read. I didn’t mind following this one through, I guess because it’s so easy to breeze through a middle grade read. That’s another thing. I hate to be hard on middle grade. I can’t help but thinking I’m not the intended audience, I’m judging it by unrealistic standards, it’s gotta be alright if it’ll get kids to read, etc. But this is my blog; I’m writing to document my own thoughts on what I read. I touched on those struggles when I reviewed The Night Gardener. Serafina falls similarly flat for me. So much promise in the premise! But the narrative doesn’t live up to that the promise. I think I’m always trying to recapture the magic of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Inkheart, Artemis Fowl or Coraline – tales that I loved as a child and still love now. Is it just because of nostalgia or were those books really much better than the ones I’m finding now? (Another question for another day!)

The plot develops weakly and feels at times loosey goosey and dull. There’s little world building or back story, and this is important to me in stories with fantasy elements. (This especially bothers me when it comes to antagonists. I love a little more complexity, or at least explanation, for them. Count Olaf always comes to mine… granted, he did have 13 books to develop across.) The reader learns a lot through telling (as opposed to happening rather than showing), especially at the beginning and whenever new ideas are introduced. They’re just dropped in, with no strong incorporation into the tale (the ‘story’ of Serafina’s mother is the best example of this.) It’s a bit like deus-ex-machina, when something you’re not really expecting just pops up and becomes part of the story, no questions asked. This differs, though, from just being surprised by something. Not sure I can explain this…

That was the major aspect of the book I took issue with – lack of cohesion and developed back story – but there were other small components that didn’t work so well. A lot of is made of her unusual appearance, but it doesn’t affect her budding relationships. The conclusion felt odd. Too sweet, but also not sweet enough. I expected more from Mrs. Vanderbilt just “Ah, that’s great, I’ll give you a bed, then”. There’s a hint of an argument between Serafina and Braedon, which could have created a meaningful conflict beyond the problem of the cloaked man, but it peters out quickly with no consequence. There’s a relatively graphic death that I wasn’t expecting.

Some positives about the story are the setting and Serafina herself. I generally like the protagonists of these middle grade novels, even if I find their stories contrived or their worlds undeveloped. Her origins and upbringing make for a spunky character. Her voice defines the narrative. The Biltmore Estate is a great setting for a story like this. I wish it played a more prominent role, but a lot of time is spent in the forest surrounding the estate. I liked the description of the cemetery, though again – no explanation or real incorporation into the story.

The Bottom Line: I wanted to enjoy this story, and I wonder what a 10 year old would make of it. It wasn’t bad, certainly not ‘bad enough’ for me to stop reading, but after reaching the end, I realize there wasn’t anything that good about it. The story contains kernels of promise, though, and I’ll be watching to see how Beatty’s next attempt turns out.

Review: Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond

Author: David Almond
Title: Half a Creature from the Sea
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2015 (USA)
Publisher: Candlewick
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Middle grade historical/fantasy short stories
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, caught my attention
Read If You: Don’t usually read short stories; like the atmosphere of small town England ~1960s
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

This is a collection of dark, powerful and moving short stories from master storyteller David Almond, inspired by his childhood in the north-east of England. It features coming of age stories on the theme of closeness to home, deftly interwoven with illuminating autobiographical pieces on the inspirations behind the fiction. It is [features] black and white vignette illustrations. It comes from the author of the internationally award-winning Skellig.

I last read a short story collection years ago, I suppose. I only read such collections when an author I adore publishes one. Why did I pick up Half a Creature from the Sea? This sentence from the NetGalley description sold it for me: “Set in the northern English Tyneside country of the author’s childhood, these eight short stories by the incomparable David Almond evoke gritty realities and ineffable longings, experiences both ordinary and magical.” Seaside English setting + childhood memories + touches of magic = I want to try it! This book publishes in US in the fall, but since it’s already available in the UK, I’m publishing my review now.

The collection contains only eight stories. This also appealed to me – hopefully there would be few mediocre stories to wade through in hopes of running into the goods ones, as I hear tends to be the case with story collections. GoodReads says it’s 240 pages, but in Kindle-speak it’s only ‘Loc 1522’.  Eight stories was a perfect number for me. I breezed through the collection and didn’t find any story lesser than its companion. Each story has it own charm.

Almond’s own childhood heavily influenced these stories. A few pages of explanation prefaces each story, describing the story’s basis in Almond’s reality and sometimes how it became fictionalized. This telling doesn’t spoil the stories. Almond’s prose still flows clearly in these passages. Understanding the truths in the stories made them all the more vivid for me. I appreciated a bit where he mentions having rewritten one story many times, and will probably continuing doing so in the future. That’s not something you can do easily with novels.

“That’s the strange thing about writing stories – you put in something imaginary to make the whole thing seem more real.” (21%)

Another aspect of the stories I really enjoyed was the role of the Catholic church in the lives of the young boys. I haven’t read a lot of children’s literature where the children are so engaged in a real world religion. In that area, at that time, Catholicism was just a natural, integral part of their lives. I grew up in a church, but my experience differed greatly from the ones in the stories. I liked reading about how the church influenced the boy’s lives, and how their opinions changed and developed.

“Our duties to retain the faith and to please and obey God were much more important than our duty to love and to care for our fellow creatures.” (32%)

Although part of the reason I picked up this book was the mention of magical experiences, these play less of a role in the stories than I expected. Often the ‘magic’ is a minor part, a background note to the characters themselves. I didn’t even mind, though, because the stories are sweet enough without fantasy. The prose, too, is lovely. Almond writes the perspective of a young child well.

Perhaps by now you’re wondering the target age of this book. It appears to be marketed as middle-grade. Candlewick’s website says 7 to 9 years old (which I actually think could be too young) and the protagonists are all 10- or 11-years-old, but to me the atmosphere moves the stories beyond that level. Penguin RandomHouse’s website says young adult and Kirkus Review suggests 13-18, but certainly 14 is ‘too old’. Maybe this is one of those books you can enjoy as child, forgot about as a teen, and return to to find something new when you’re older. The Ocean at the End of the Lane gave me a similar vibe, albeit with a a lot more darkness. I don’t think 10-year-old me would have liked Half a Creature from the Sea so much, because A) I never read short stories (are they common in middle grade nowadays?) and B) there wasn’t a lot of fantasy, just touches here and there. I didn’t come to appreciate slice-of-life until my late teens. Regardless, I think this is a great book. Read it yourself, then pass it on to a young thoughtful reader or one who likes all things British.

The Bottom Line: Perhaps you’re not one much for short stories, but the description appeals to you. Give it a go, and maybe you’ll be wondering, like I am, why you don’t read more short stories!

Quick Review: Tuesdays at the Castle and The Night Gardener

Here are two middle grade novels with fantasy elements.

  •  Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
    • Series: Castle Glower #1
    • Rating: ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    • I devoured this book during April’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon. I think it’s a very fun, if not super deep, read. The castle intrigue and politics aren’t the most original, but they suit the story and are a lot of fun to read with the castle in play. The characters are well-balanced. I enjoyed this one and will read the sequel. I would recommend it for young readers who like ‘traditional castle fantasies’ (as I would have said when I was 10 :P). This is a good example of middle grade that could be enjoyed by anyone who likes this kind of story. 
  • The Night Garden by Jonathan Auxier
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • I don’t like to say a book is ‘good for middle grade’ – I like to think a book is either good for all ages or none at all. However, lately I’ve been thinking that’s not as terrible a statement as I once thought (“It’s good for middle grade”). Kids have a different mindset, a different set of experiences than adults. A book that’s great for kids isn’t necessarily going to be great for adults. Perhaps what I should be saying is the best middle grade is good for all ages – it doesn’t all have to be that way. Not every book for children needs to refuel my love of reading or spark a strong emotional response or revolutionize how I think. So. Now that I’ve cleared that up, I think this is a good book for middle grade 😉 The characters weren’t as developed as I like to read (though they do each have clearly defined personalities). I hoped for more from the Night Gardener’s story, some depth or ambiguity regarding good and evil but the line is pretty clearly drawn in that matter, but I think that’s appropriate for this book.
    • The story does have some spooky and dark moments, certainly if you’re ten years old and therefore relatively new to this type of story. 
    • I liked how storytelling vs. lying factored into the story.

If I was writing more objectively, I might say these two books are of the same ‘goodness’ level. After writing about The Night Gardener, I thought again about Tuesdays at the Castle and tried to identify why I enjoyed that one more than the other. I don’t think the characters are any more strongly written than in The Night Gardener, which seems to be my main criticism of that book. I guess it just comes down to my personal preference for story.  Have you read either of these books? How would you compare the two? (Can they be compared, given their greatly different subject matter?)