Review: The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell

Review: The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell

©Harper & Row

The genre: Children’s literature

The gist: A fairy tale story about an unconventional, self-made family.

The background: In elementary school, my library teacher (yes, we had a library class. I can only guess every class was about the Dewey Decimal System?) gave my class a list of all the Newbery Honor books. She encouraged us to read as many as we could by the end of the school year, so sure enough it became something of a competition. The Newbery books were flying off the shelves, and one of the first ones I could get my hands on was a peculiarly small, square book called The Animal Family. From the first page, I loved it. The world was so ethereal and utopic that I never wanted to leave.

And I’ve read it over and over again since. As cheesy as it sounds, it still holds the same kind of magic for me as when I first read it as a kid (though I think books from our childhoods can tend to do that). I’m transported every time. It’s not only one of my favorite childhood books, but one of my favorite books. So here’s its much-deserved review.

The tea: 1965’s The Animal Family is an underrated, little-known gem.

Authored by poet Randall Jarrell with illustrations by iconic children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, this book packs a lot of punch in a small package.

Let’s talk about Mr. Sendak for a second first: Though Sendak is known for his distinctive character designs like in Where the Wild Things Are, among others, the drawings in The Animal Family are all landscapes or embellishments. A cliff, a forest, an ocean, a cave, some decorative vines. The pretty, penciled illustrations show just how wide his range was as an artist, and some of his distinct style shines through in the forest drawings that remind me of the forest-y scenes in Where the Wild Things Are.

The choice not to illustrate any of the characters adds to the magic of the book, so the reader is free to imagine the them however they wish.

Now, the story. The events are simple, but even in prose, Jarrell’s poetic insight lifts the story off the page, and that’s what makes this book truly enchanting.

A hunter lives alone “where the forest runs down to the ocean” and begins hearing a lone mermaid singing from the water. Over time, he befriends her, she decides to live on land, and they soon add members to their makeshift little family one by one, including a bear, a lynx, and a boy. The five-creature family lives happily ever after.

What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in genuine, even wise sweetness. Every time a new member is added to the family, it’s mentioned how they couldn’t believe they used to live without them. Once the hunter has the mermaid in his life, he can’t imagine how he used to live alone. Once the mermaid and hunter have the messy, sweet bear cub in their life, the mermaid remarks, “To think we used to live without a bear!” And when the boy comes into their life, his being found on the beach after a shipwreck fades to less of a truth than the one they tell him: “We’ve had you always.”

It’s a warm hug of a book, without being cloying. It’s a celebration of self-chosen families. Of adoptive families. Of friends. Of the ones you pick to have by your side not out of obligation but because you want and like them there.

Like in fairy tales where you don’t question an enspelled maiden sleeping a hundred years, you don’t question the practicality or realism of a lynx, bear, and human living together, nor the existence of mermaids. But unlike many fairy tales, Jarrell gives the story just enough detail to make the characters real and lovable: in the conversations the hunter and mermaid have learning each other’s language (“Whatever you say has that—that walnut sound,” she says to him); in the specific, thoughtful ways the hunter helps the mermaid adapt, like building a rocking chair for her because the land is so still compared to the ocean.

When I first read this book as a kid, it was, and is, unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It’s novel in every sense of the word—the perfect of example of the art form’s namesake.

The wrap-up: Read this book. Read it alone. Read it to your kids. Give it as a gift. It’s, sadly, out of print, but easy enough to find used for a decent price. And there’s always the library. I’m not promising it’ll blow you away like it did me, but I’m pretty sure it’ll warm your damn heart.

The rating: 5/5

The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy.

—Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family
Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

©HarperTeen

The genre: Fantasy, dystopian, YA

The gist: A teen girl copes with her unexpected role in a world where people are divided into classes by the color of their blood, red or silver.

The background: I saw this pop up on Goodreads about a year ago and was taken in by the bold, minimal cover, high rating, and dystopian/fantasy setting. I love detailed worldbuilding, and the premise of this one—where people have either red or silver blood and the Silvers have supernatural powers—sounded cool. I was ready to jump into this four-book series.

The tea: This book read like an extremely watered-down Hunger Games. It’s Diet Hunger Games. Or, as one Goodreads reviewer put it, the Walmart version of Hunger Games. I know tropes and formulas in genre fiction exist for a reason—because they’re tried and true and they work—but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes every time I came across yet another structural element or plot point of HG in Red Queen, without Aveyard having done the work of infusing the heart and soul.

Like HG, Red Queen is set in a dystopian-like (albeit fantasy, which HG is not) world with a tyrannical government, and each opens with a fear-mongering, government-held event meant to scare the masses into submission (the Reaping in HG, First Friday in Red Queen). Also like HG, Red Queen is narrated by a sixteen-year-old heroine with a special skill that makes her resourceful and scrappy (Katniss’ in HG is archery/hunting, Mare’s in RQ is pickpocketing), has a gentler and younger sister she worries about, lives an impoverished life in an impoverished region, becomes an unwilling mascot for the revolution, and gets a catchy nickname (Katniss is the Girl on Fire, Mare is “the little lightning girl”). Finally, RQ features a love triangle in which the heroine struggles to choose between a sweet boy and more headstrong boy (coughcough Peeta and Gale…).

I think I’m accidentally making this book sound better than it is.

Because the fact is, the best elements of The Hunger Games—a fleshed-out world, a flawed but strong heroine who has solid motives you can empathize with—weren’t there. Maybe I’m being unfair; HG is exceptionally good. But even without comparing the two, Red Queen falls flat. It’s light and inconsequential. I didn’t feel anything when reading it. I couldn’t buy into it.

That said, I do give Aveyard some credit for the somewhat unique world she created with the Silver superpowers and blood color determining one’s station in life. But it’s almost like she didn’t know her own creation enough to dig deeper and, disappointingly, barely scratched the surface.

The wrap-up: Don’t waste your time. The YA, fantasy, and dystopia genres have so many better books to offer.

The rating: 1.5/5

Review: the Merciless series by Danielle Vega

Review: the Merciless series by Danielle Vega

©Razorbill

The genre: Horror, YA

The gist: Four-book series. Various high school girls deal with a demon possession.

The background: If it’s not clear already, I’m a horror fan. So the first book in this series, with its simple, bold cover design of a pentagram on a hot pink background, caught my eye on Goodreads in 2017. And after I read the description—that Vega’s story is Stephen King meets Mean Girls—I was instantly on board.

The tea: These books are like candy: what they lack in substance they make up for in fun.

Vega doles out sharply written, suspenseful, and scary scenes straight out of a horror film, even if she might not fully deliver on the backstory for the evil present in her series’ world. And if a book merely describing a character suddenly standing in a doorway makes me compulsively flick my eyes to my own doorway—just to make sure—I know picked the right book. That’s what I signed up for.

Deeper, psychological horror, this series is not. And while, at the end of the day, I prefer the kind of horror that sticks with me when I go to bed at night, I also appreciate a good, truly creepy moment, one that might be forgotten hours later but puts you a little on edge in the moment. (Though a grotesque scene from the series with a spoon comes to mind that I actually wish I could forget.) And the Merciless books deliver in spades on that front.

Another thing I like about this series is that it places horror in a contemporary, suburban world. Vega is far from the first to do this, but I love stories that plop the extraordinary right into the middle of the ordinary. In the Merciless series, it’s a demon hiding in Anytown, USA—in the local high school, the local church group, even in an empty model suburban tract home.

I devoured this series pretty quickly and didn’t end up much wiser for it, but I had a damn good time. Like I said: horror candy.

The wrap-up: Does what it says on the tin; no more, no less. If you’re a horror fan and go into it without too many expectations, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the series as much as I did.

The rating: 3.5/5

I’m allowed to be afraid, I remind myself, taking a deep breath of the hot, stale hallway air. I’m just not allowed to run away.

—Danielle Vega, The Merciless
Review: Malorie by Josh Malerman

Review: Malorie by Josh Malerman

©Del Rey

The genre: Horror

The gist: Sequel to Bird Box. A woman and her two children survive in a world with mysterious creatures that make people go insane upon sight.

The background: Like a lot of people with Netflix access, I watched the movie Bird Box when it came out in December 2018. After reading some articles on it and discovering it was based on a book, I added my name to the very long waitlist at the library—turns out I was not the only one who had this idea—and months later, I finally got to read it. It was suspenseful, creepy, and just as fast-paced as the film.

Speaking of the film, Malerman said in the Acknowledgements of Malorie that he never planned to write a sequel, but people in his life saw the movie and started asking him, “What happens next?” And he decided he wanted to find out too.

The tea: I really liked this book. Like its predecessor, it was well-paced, kept me interested, and had some chillingly creepy moments. Malerman writes with an elegant focus that lets you truly step into those creepy moments, not to mention the head, mind, and fears of protagonist Malorie and her two kids.

We get a liiiiiiitle more insight into the creatures themselves, though not much. And I think it’s better that way. They’re scarier mysterious.

Getting two new POVs thrown into the mix with Malorie’s kids, Tom and Olympia, was a refreshing take on the Bird Box world, especially from characters who were literally born and raised in it. They don’t fear the creatures the same way Malorie and other adults who knew the “old world” do, and it was cool to see their curiosity about the creatures butting heads with Malorie’s relentless and single-minded philosophy of “living by the [blind]fold.”

Malorie wants to survive. Her kids want to live. This causes some beautiful tension, because neither are wrong.

My only grievance is that the ending got resolved too quickly, it would’ve been nice to have seen the last thirty or so pages fleshed out more.

There was also a blind train, which was dope. A train is always a fitting setting for a suspense/horror/mystery novel. (Thank you, Agatha Christie.)

The wrap-up: Despite my initial worry that this book might fall into some common sequel pitfalls, I was pleasantly surprised with its originality. If you like horror, Malorie is a satisfying read.

The rating: 4/5

She remembers yelling, so much yelling, so much saying, “No no no, Tom, NO!”

But if you tell someone “no” enough times, they start thinking “yes” just to hear something else, just to hear a different word, they start thinking YES.

—Josh Malerman, Malorie
Review: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Review: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

©St. Martin’s Press

The genre: Sci-fi

The gist: First contact novel set in an alternate 2007. An American girl serves as an alien species’ sole interpreter for planet Earth.

The background: I wanted to read this book because I’ve been a fan of author Lindsay Ellis’ insightful and funny Youtube video essays for years (I’ve even featured some of her work for PBS on this blog). With a graduate degree in film, and as an observer of media and pop culture, she has a keen understanding of storytelling tropes and techniques, and I was excited when she announced she was putting out her first novel—a series, in fact, with book #2 coming out in fall 2021.

Axiom’s End was officially released July 21, 2020, but with the pandemic going on, I guess bookstores said “fuck it” and I wound up getting my hands on a copy the day before.

The tea: There were things I really liked about this book, and there were things that I wanted it to do better.

The dynamic between the protagonist Cora and the main alien Ampersand was nice, but I don’t know how earned it was; the trust just seemed to be there despite their different backgrounds, and it felt like they got too close too fast. The descriptions of aliens and the worldbuilding around their civilizations were well-thought-out. I really enjoyed the philosophical discussions the characters (human and alien) had about culture, life, and language. The dialogue read as realistic to me (one of Ellis’ MFA focuses was screenwriting) and the pace was good. Especially at about halfway through, I couldn’t put it down.

Also, the cover art is sick.

As for what I wanted more of, I wish the writing had made me feel a stronger connection to the characters or concerned about what happened to them. I didn’t really feel the tension of what was at stake for Cora and her family, only between Cora and Ampersand. There were also some minor inconsistencies that threw me, which I’ll chalk up to editorial oversight.

Finally, it’s mentioned early on in the novel that Cora studied linguistics, and I was a little let down this didn’t come into play in a significant way when she became an alien interpreter; maybe it will in the books to come.

The wrap-up: I went into this knowing that long-form sci-fi without dystopia isn’t totally my thing, and I still found it an enjoyable read, if a little disappointing. The subject matter is interesting, and Ellis’ exploration of the theme of embracing “the other” is a fresh take and kind of heartwarming.

The rating: 2.5/5

There it was. Not everything could be explained, at least not with the limits of spoken language. But there was something comforting to it. Their mutual inability to understand each other leading to a place of understanding.

—Lindsay Ellis, Axiom’s End