Review: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger Book Cover Dodger
Terry Pratchett

A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he's...Dodger.

Seventeen-year-old Dodger may be a street urchin, but he gleans a living from London's sewers, and he knows a jewel when he sees one. He's not about to let anything happen to the unknown girl--not even if her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.

From Dodger's encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disraeli, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery.

Beloved and bestselling author Sir Terry Pratchett combines high comedy with deep wisdom in this tale of an unexpected coming-of-age and one remarkable boy's rise in a complex and fascinating world.

Review:

I don’t usually presume to speak for famous authors, let alone one as prestigious as Charles Dickens. In this case, however, I feel justified in saying that Dickens would probably have been very, very pleased with Terry Pratchett’s Dodger.

Pratchett’s reimagining of The Artful Dodger, who appears in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, is nothing short of a masterpiece. This story is packed with everything I love in a book: a charming, clever scallywag of a main character; a colorful and unforgettable supporting cast; tongue-in-cheek wit; inside jokes that you may only get after reading the book for a second time; and a setting that is so unique and well described that it’s practically a character in its own right.

We first meet our scrappy protagonist when he springs from the London sewers on a stormy night to rescue a young woman being beaten in the street. This feat brings Dodger to the attention of Charlie Dickens and his friend Henry Mayhew, who happen to be passing by at the time and assist Dodger in taking the unconscious lady to safety.

Dodger, infuriated by the treatment of the beautiful, mysterious girl, refuses to rest until her attackers are brought to justice. Assisted by Dickens and a motley assortment of waifs and urchins, Dodger sets forth to track down the people responsible for the girl’s mistreatment and do whatever it takes to secure her safety.

It’s usually characters that make or break a book for me, but in the case of Dodger it’s actually the setting that made me fall in love. This isn’t to say that Dodger doesn’t have fantastic characters – it does, and I’ll get to them in a minute. However, the setting is so spectacular, so vividly drawn, that it outshines everything else in the book, even its charming hero.

Like Dickens, Pratchett has a gift for bringing 19th-century London, in all its glory and filth, to life on the page. The sounds and smells and tastes of London permeate the book until you can actually hear the coaches rattling by and smell the fog rolling in from the Thames. It’s a world of chimney sweeps and violet sellers, pickpockets and Punch and Judy puppet shows, prostitutes and games of Crown and Anchor at the local pub. There are a million little details that build the “character” of London and enrich the story, from the slang the street urchins use (“cove,” “tosher,” and “Bobbies”/ “Peelers” are a few of my favorites) to descriptions of the weather:

“The rain was falling faster now, rain that was undeniably London rain, already grubby before it hit the ground, putting back on the streets what had been taken away by the chimneys. It tasted like licking a dirty penny.”

Pratchett does more than simply paint a picture of London; he paints it in a way that is insightful and entertaining. Dodger is filled with observations that are as amusing as they are astute, such as this description of the Thames: “[One] could only call what was in the river ‘water’ because it was too runny to be called ‘dirt.” There’s a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor, not just in the story itself but also in the helpful and hilarious footnotes that are used to explain certain words and facts within the book.

The setting may be my absolute favorite part of Dodger, but the characters come in at a close second. I’ve always been delighted by crafty, mischievous characters, and Dodger fits the bill perfectly. He’s scrappy, resourceful, and a skillful actor, able to produce tears on demand or charm the pants off of a well-to-do passerby. He’s an all-around fun, hilarious, and wily protagonist, and I couldn’t have loved him more if I tried. Although he’s a little rough around the edges and liable to pick your pocket as soon as look at you, Dodger’s what the folks in this book would call a “decent cove.” He’s always quick to jump to the aid of the defenseless, even if it means donning a dress in order to save a group of young flower girls:

“And so when the sharp-suited gentlemen who liked to go down among the poor flower girls to see if there were any new blossoms they could pluck came to ply them with strong liquor until they could have their wicked way with them, they would actually be subtly directed to the shrinking and simpering violet who was, in fact, Dodger.

Actually, he had to admit that he had been incredibly good at it, because to be a geezer was to be an actor and so Dodger was better at being a shrinking violet than any of the other flower girls who had, how could you put it, better qualifications. He had already sold quite a lot of his violets because his voice hadn’t broken then and he could make himself a real little virgin when he wanted to. After a few hours of this, the girls tipped him off to the whereabouts of a particularly nasty dandy who always hung around the smaller girls, and who was heading towards him with his nice coat and his cane, jingling the money in his pockets. And the street applauded when a suddenly rather athletic little flower girl grabbed the smarmy bastard, punched him, dragged him into an alley and made certain that he would not be able to jingle anything in his pockets for some time to come.”

The secondary characters in Dodger are spectacular as well. Historical figures make cameo appearances, such as Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdetts-Coutts, Robert Peel, and John Tenniel. There’s also a cast of fictional – but no-less-interesting – characters with fun names like Mary-Go-Round, Messy Bessie, and Stumpy Higgins who play small yet memorable roles in the story.

Dodger‘s phenomenal setting and smart, hilarious characters make this book a definite must-read. My enjoyment of this novel grows every time I read it, something I intend to keep doing as often as possible.

Review: Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher by Lenore Hart

Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher Book Cover Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher
Lenore Hart

Becky Thatcher wants to set the record straight. She was never the weeping ninny Mark Twain made her out to be in his famous novel. She knew Samuel Clemens before he was “Mark Twain,” when he was a wide-eyed dreamer who never could get his facts straight. Yes, she was Tom’s childhood sweetheart, but the true story of their love, and the dark secret that tore it apart, never made it into Twain’s novel.

Now married to Tom’s cousin Sid Hopkins, Becky has children of her own to protect while the men of Missouri are off fighting their “un-Civil” War. But when tragedy strikes at home, Becky embarks on a phenomenal quest to find her husband and save her family---a life journey that takes her from the Mississippi River’s steamboats to Ozark rebel camps, from Nevada’s silver mines to the gilded streets of San Francisco.

Time and again, stubborn but levelheaded Becky must reconcile her independent spirit and thirst for adventure with the era’s narrow notions of marriage and motherhood. As she seeks to find a compromise between fulfillment and security, she also grapples with ghosts of her past. Can she forgive herself, or be forgiven, for the lies she’s told to the men she’s loved? Will she ever forget the maddening, sweet-talking, irresponsible Tom Sawyer, the boy who stole her heart as a little girl? And when she is old, and Huck and Tom and Twain only memories, whose shadow will still lie beside her?

Review:

Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher has an interesting premise. Tom Sawyer’s childhood sweetheart setting the record straight? Yes, please! Tell me all about the “real” people from Mark Twain’s literary adventures! Show me who Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher grew up to become! Let me see Becky’s life “then” and “now” and watch as she tries to reconcile who she used to be with who she is today!

I got all of these things in Becky, but they turned out to be significantly less satisfying than I had anticipated. There were two reasons for this. The first is that I was bored out of my mind. The second is that I didn’t like a single one of the characters.

Becky just didn’t hold my interest. Scenes that should have been riveting – stagecoach robberies, Civil War battles, mining accidents – were somehow lifeless and dull. Becky is so practical and matter-of-fact about all of the events in the book that I couldn’t muster up any excitement or fear or joy for anything that happened. It doesn’t help that any real action in the book is suffocated by too many historical details and descriptions. I’m usually very interested in historical fiction, but in Becky the minutiae killed me. While I did learn a lot about the Civil War, especially that the motivations and loyalties were a lot more complex than I’d realized when studying the war in school, I quickly got lost in all the names, dates, and politics. Hard-core history buffs will likely enjoy the nitty-gritty details in the book, but they were too much for me.

My biggest complaint about Hart’s book is that I had a hard time connecting with the characters, specifically Becky and Tom. Characters don’t necessarily need to be likable for a book to be a success, but I do feel a reader should be able to sympathize with them at least a little bit. That wasn’t the case here at all. I couldn’t stand how selfish Tom and Becky both are and couldn’t summon any empathy for either of them. Nor could I fathom what Becky found so appealing about Tom. He’s supposed to be bursting with charm and charisma and an adventurous spirit, but all I could see was his immaturity and asshole-ness.

And Becky…don’t even get me started. I couldn’t stand her. She’s determined and brave, yes, but that’s because she’s looking out for priority number one – herself. I get that she goes to great lengths to rescue her husband in the middle of a war, but it seemed to me that she tries to get Sid back not because she wants to keep him safe, but because she doesn’t want to be inconvenienced by not having her protector and helpmeet there. If she really loved or cared about Sid at all, she wouldn’t have cheated on him with Tom, end of story. This made it impossible for me to respect her, and even if she hadn’t been a cheater, her hard pragmatism and gruffness would have kept me at arm’s length.

I’m being hard on Becky, but I was so looking forward to this being a different kind of book. Again, hard-core fans of historical fiction will probably take to this story much more than I did, but it was decidedly not for me.

Review: This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

This Dark Endeavor Book Cover This Dark Endeavor
Kenneth Oppel

The purest intentions can stir up the darkest obsessions.

In this prequel to Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, Frankenstein, 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein begins a dark journey that will change his life forever. Victor’s twin, Konrad, has fallen ill, and no doctor is able to cure him. Unwilling to give up on his brother, Victor enlists his beautiful cousin Elizabeth and best friend Henry on a treacherous search for the ingredients to create the forbidden Elixir of Life. Impossible odds, dangerous alchemy and a bitter love triangle threaten their quest at every turn.

Victor knows he must not fail. But his success depends on how far he is willing to push the boundaries of nature, science, and love—and how much he is willing to sacrifice.

Review:

Prior to reading This Dark Endeavor, my only knowledge of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came from watching Frankenweenie and Young Frankenstein. I knew the bare minimum of the plot – a mad “scientist” creates a monster out of spare body parts and uses electricity to bring said monster to life with disastrous results – but that was it. I didn’t really have a desire to learn any more, either, and I never had any real interest in reading Shelley’s iconic work for myself.

All of that changed after I read This Dark Endeavor, a prequel to Frankenstein that shows Viktor Frankenstein taking the first steps on his path to knowledge and power. Even I, knowing as little as I did about the original story, was captivated by Kenneth Oppel’s teenage Frankenstein. Young Viktor is an incendiary combination of inquisitiveness, pride, jealousy, and brilliance, and it was fascinating to see the first sparks of wonder and desperation that would eventually set his world aflame.

Viktor Frankenstein is a memorable character if ever there was one. He’s dramatic, theatrical, and mercurial, with an excitable imagination and a hunger for adventure and renown. He loves his family and friends with all his heart, but darkness and jealously lurk beneath his surface. He simultaneously adores and envies his twin brother Konrad, who is Viktor’s dearest friend as well as his greatest rival.

When Konrad falls ill, Viktor determines to do whatever it takes to keep his brother alive, no matter the cost. Aided by his childhood companions Elizabeth and Henry, Viktor embarks on a dark quest for a cure, a quest that ignites Viktor’s curiosity and lays the groundwork for the events of Shelley’s novel.

This Dark Endeavor has a deliciously gothic feel that made me shiver and grin while reading it. Viktor and his accomplices discover secret passageways, explore hidden libraries housing forbidden tomes, and creep through dank cellars. There are portentous dreams, sleepwalking maidens, and beakers full of organs and fluids. The pages burst with alchemy, magic, and elixirs whose ingredients must be gathered in darkness. It’s not a frightening book, but it is an atmospheric one, and I enjoyed this very much.

Something else that I loved, though it may seem silly, was the precise, specific language in the book. How often does one get to read about characters who use words like “scoundrel,” “apparatus,” “ghoulish,” and “phantasmagorical?” Rather than coming across as tedious and contrived, Oppel’s diction feels authentic and right, and it pleased me greatly.

I may not have had any desire to read Frankenstein previously, but after finishing This Dark Endeavor the first thing I did was high-tail it to Google to search for anything about Frankenstein that I could get my hands on. I applaud Oppel for interesting me in Shelley’s classic at last and can’t wait to find out what I’ve been missing out on all these years.

Review: Jane by April Lindner

Jane Book Cover Jane
April Lindner

Forced to drop out of an esteemed East Coast college after the sudden death of her parents, Jane Moore takes a nanny job at Thornfield Park, the estate of Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star on the brink of a huge comeback. Practical and independent, Jane reluctantly becomes entranced by her magnetic and brooding employer and finds herself in the midst of a forbidden romance.

But there's a mystery at Thornfield, and Jane's much-envied relationship with Nico is soon tested by an agonizing secret from his past. Torn between her feelings for Nico and his fateful secret, Jane must decide: Does being true to herself mean giving up on true love?

An irresistible romance interwoven with a darkly engrossing mystery, this contemporary retelling of the beloved classic Jane Eyre promises to enchant a new generation of readers.

Review:

This is probably going to send my high school English teachers into convulsions, but I actually liked April Lindner’s Jane more than Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

If you’re not familiar with the story of Jane Eyre, it’s about a young woman – Jane, of course – who comes to work as a governess to the child of a wealthy man, Mr. Rochester. Over time Jane falls in love with Rochester, but because she’s plain, quiet, and modest she holds no hope that he’ll ever return her affections. Jane’s spirit and goodness do eventually captivate Rochester, but just as the two reach the brink of happiness a dark secret is revealed that puts their relationship at risk.

I read Jane Eyre in high school and again for one of my literature classes in college, and I liked it both times. It wasn’t until I read Jane, though, that I felt like I truly connected with the story. Lindner is faithful to Brontë’s masterpiece but freshens it up, making the story more interesting and polishing Brontë’s characters until they shine. All the parts that I found unlikely or boring in the original are changed or gone completely in this retelling, like the tedious opening scene in the Red Room, Jane’s time at school with Helen Burnley, etc. What remains is the heart of the novel: an unlikely romance between a dowdy young girl and her wealthy employer, a love story about being true to yourself no matter what.

Here are just a few of the things I loved about this book:

Mr. Rochester is a rock star. Literally. In Lindner’s adaptation, Mr. Rochester is replaced by Nico Rathburn, a famous musician with a history of drug abuse, trashed hotel rooms, and a string of volatile relationships. Although some die-hard Brontë fans might faint dead away at the thought of a rock star Mr. Rochester, I assure you it works surprisingly well. For one thing, it provides the necessary context for fitting Jane Eyre into the modern world. Nico’s fame explains why he’s so wealthy and sought after, as well as why it’s unexpected for him to be seen with unremarkable, unworldly Jane. The rock star lifestyle also adds all sorts of interesting complications, like paparazzi, groupies, world tours, band mates, and gossiping maids who want to sleep with their boss. And let’s be real – what book doesn’t get more exciting with the addition of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll?

Jane is the epitome of quiet strength. At the beginning of the book, Jane seems like a bit of a weirdo. She rarely smiles, doesn’t approve of swearing, and is completely out of touch with popular culture. She’s never had a boyfriend, is serious and reserved to the point of being somber, and would rather spend her free time listening to classical music than socializing. If you happened to be seated next to her at a dinner party, never having met her, you’d probably be bored to tears within the first five minutes.

And yet…once you get to know her, you realize there’s much more to Jane than meets the eye. She may be odd and quiet and subdued, but her plain exterior hides a strong, passionate spirit. Anything Jane feels, she feels deeply, and she wants to be desired and loved just like anyone else. Jane may not be outgoing and flashy, but Lindner imbues her with a quiet courage and resolve that I really admire and respect.

There’s a strong message about being true to yourself. As already mentioned, Jane is nothing to look at. I don’t mean she just thinks she’s ugly but in reality is just unconventionally beautiful; no, Jane is legitimately not attractive. Many girls would try to change this, spending a ton of money, time, and effort on hair care regimens and beauty products; not Jane. There’s one scene where two of Nico’s band mates’ girlfriends take Jane under their wing and give her a makeover. Jane is amazed at how gorgeous she looks, yet she washes the makeup off before Nico ever sees her. She knows in her heart that the glamorous girl in the mirror isn’t her, and she won’t compromise herself, even if it means missing a chance to impress Nico.

Does it hurt Jane’s feelings when people tease her because she’s plain? Absolutely. Does she wish she were beautiful? Hell, yeah. But that doesn’t mean she’s going to change who she is. This isn’t a novel about a geeky girl who gets a makeover and then gets the guy. It’s a novel about a girl who gets the guy because she DOESN’T get the makeover. Jane’s refusal to be anyone but her herself – plain face and all – is a huge part of what makes her stand out and shine.

Jane and Nico actually build a real relationship. I had no complaints about the romance in Jane Eyre, but it wasn’t until Jane that I really saw why Jane and Rochester, or in this case Jane and Nico, fall for one another. In Brontë’s novel, Jane and Rochester don’t really do much together besides talk and occasionally take a stroll. In Jane, Nico and Jane actually spend time hanging out and establishing a rapport. They go for walks, paint, spend time with Nico’s daughter, and go out for seafood. Nico teaches Jane to swim. They tease one another and bring out each other’s best qualities. For example, Jane has a wonderfully dry sense of humor that only comes out when Nico’s around:

“I’m not even sure I have a bathing suit,” I told him[…].

“What?” He was frowning at me now. “No bathing suit? Are you sure you’re not a nun?”

“Some nuns swim,” I said.

I’m grateful to April Lindner for taking a classic that I liked and retelling it in a way that made me appreciate it even more. It won’t be for all Jane Eyre fans, but it definitely worked for me, and I know I’ll be reading Lindner’s other retelling, a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Review: The Trouble With Flirting by Claire LaZebnik

The Trouble with Flirting Book Cover The Trouble with Flirting
Claire LaZebnik

Franny's supposed to be working this summer, not flirting. But you can't blame her when guys like Alex and Harry are around. . . .

Franny Pearson never dreamed she'd be attending the prestigious Mansfield Summer Theater Program. And she's not, exactly. She's working for her aunt, the resident costume designer. But sewing her fingers to the bone does give her an opportunity to spend time with her crush, Alex Braverman. If only he were as taken with the girl hemming his trousers as he is with his new leading lady.

When Harry Cartwright, a notorious flirt, shows more than a friendly interest in Franny, she figures it can't hurt to have a little fun. But as their breezy romance grows more complicated, can Franny keep pretending that Harry is just a carefree fling? And why is Alex suddenly giving her those deep, meaningful looks? In this charming tale of mixed messages and romantic near-misses, one thing is clear: Flirting might be more trouble than Franny ever expected.

Review: 

It’s no surprise that I enjoyed The Trouble With Flirting – after all, it’s a retelling of Mansfield Park, my favorite Jane Austen novel. What did come as a shock was just how MUCH I enjoyed it. I love, love, LOVE this book, and I want you to love it too. 

Here are the things you need to know about The Trouble With Flirting:

It’s set at a summer theater camp for high school students. Franny Pearson, our protagonist, is suckered into spending her summer with her stodgy aunt working in Mansfield College’s costume department. As you might imagine, a theater program full of aspiring teen actors has no shortage of colorful characters. The zany kids and the melodrama that they bring are part of what makes this book so much fun; LaZebnik’s portrayal of the theater world is so spot-on that it’s almost comical. There’s the drama of people not getting their coveted roles, or wanting to have a say in their costume design, or being upset that their crush is running lines with their rival. It brought back memories of my own theater days and kept me smiling throughout.

Franny is an utter delight. Hilarious, smart, and entertaining as hell, I couldn’t have asked for a better heroine than Franny Pearson. She’s one of those characters who’s always up for meeting new people and trying new things, which allows her to be drawn into interesting scenarios and relationships. She’s easygoing and fun, and even when she isn’t thrilled about a situation she takes it in stride and tries to make the best of it. She approaches all things with humor and directness and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She’s also flawed, like all great characters, which adds to her believability.

There are great romantic twists and turns. I was positively giddy over the romance in this book. There’s a love triangle with two guys who are each appealing and multi-dimensional; relationships peppered with humor, banter, and actual conversations; and dates that are fun, sweet, and sexy. Best of all, the relationships aren’t predictable. The title, cover, and synopsis may make The Trouble With Flirting sound like light-hearted fluff, but there’s more to this book than summer flings and casual romance. LaZebnik is able to flout clichés and take the plot and characters down unexpected paths, making the romance that much more rewarding.

It’s gut-bustingly funny. Franny has a wicked sense of humor, as does Harry, and in scenes where they play off each other LaZebnik had me laughing so hard I was close to tears. I was so charmed by their exchanges that I couldn’t stop smiling. The little quips, observations, and tongue-in-cheek comments kept me laughing almost constantly; I’m talking giggles, snickers, and even outright guffaws. Here are just a couple of quotes to highlight this point:

“I want to ask the guy up front if he has any antique books about the care and feeding of dogs. My mother collects them.”

“Really?” Isabella says. “My mother collects diamond bracelets.”

“My mother collects headache medications,” I say.

And:

“I’m fairly hopeful you’ll survive this injury, Franny.”

“Unless gangrene sets in.”

“Gangrene always sets in,” he says darkly.

“What are you talking about?” asks Julia as they all gather around us again. “No one gets gangrene anymore.”

“They do in old books. If Franny were a Hemingway heroine or something, gangrene would set in and she’d lose her leg. Or her life.”

“But I’d be very attractive on my deathbed,” I add.

LaZebnik is a master of writing teenage relationships. She excels at capturing the camaraderie of a bunch of theater kids thrown together for the summer. Every scene involving Franny and her friends feels organic and right, whether they’re taking a trip to the beach, eating lunch, or simply hanging out in the student lounge. It’s the little details that make the relationships ring true – the playful nudges, the bickering and teasing, the way Franny’s friends crowd together and sprawl on top of each other on the common room couch.

It’s impossible not to have a great time reading The Trouble With Flirting. I was charmed, delighted, and surprised by this Mansfield Park retelling, and it will be a while before I stop grinning whenever I think about it.