Reaper Man is a book that I find really hard to define. It would be so easy to simply describe it as a hil...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Reaper Man is a book that I find really hard to define. It would be so easy to simply describe it as a hilarious – or even absurdist – romp about the chaos that ensues after Death is (forcibly) retired without an immediate replacement to take over his duties. There are wizards running around, there are snow globes that pop out of nowhere then hatch into EVIL shopping trolleys (!!), a bunch of previously-undead people (including a vampire and a boogeyman) fighting for Undead Rights alongside the newly-undead Windle Poons. Whilst, in the meantime, basically oblivious to all the chaos, Death assumes the mantle of Bill Door and finds work at Miss Flitworth’s farm as a literal reaper man, helping with the harvest.
And this description above would not be inexact.
But it would be an incomplete one. This is a funny, absurd book and it does feature all of the above and it is perfectly fun and fine at face value. But it is finer when it comes to its metaphors and its thought-provoking themes. There is actually one fun moment of meta-awareness within the story when Windle Poons realises that the whole chaos surrounding him, the things happening to him are so full of metaphorical interpretations it is almost too much.
Anyways, one of the main ideas here is that when Death retires, the living cease to die – at least for a time. In a more immediate storyline, the building of this untapped life force causes many problems for the inhabitants of Discworld and allows for darker forces to try to exploit this gap.
The point is, no Death = no moving on, especially to those who are waiting for this idea of personified Death to come and collect them. Actually one of the recurrent ideas of the Death books (at least these two I have read) is that beliefis a force to be reckoned with and it infuses the entire concept of this worldbuilding.
One of the main characters here alongside Death is the elderly magician Widdle Poons who have lived an unremarkable life until he became undead. He died but there was no one to collect him so he came back to life only to find that he now has a strong body and a clear mind for the first time in decades. This extra time proves to be everything to him – at first, he is perfectly happy to go along with his friends’ plans to rebury him (alive) because he understands his being HERE is completely abnormal. But then he finds himself being needed…and that is a powerful motivator.
Meanwhile, Death finds himself with counted time for the first time. For someone who never had to count time before, this comes as a shock. It is the first time since the beginning of life that Death truly understands his harvest.
This juxtaposition of both storylines is fascinating because what happened to both these characters is a boon but in different ways. Widdle has more time, Death has less time but both find meaning. And it’s remarkable because it is still all so relative because minutes and hours and lives are still ephemeral in the great scheme of things but all so important to everyone.
So this is about Time and about life and about being needed, being helpful. It’s also about empathy: the ending of this book is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. It’s Death coming to a better understanding of his role, of his standing, of the humans he is supposed to harvest. His relationship with Miss Flitworth is a thing of heart-warming beauty and their final moments and their literal danse macabre are so full of compassion it almost made my heart burst.
And it is funny because Death becomes even more humanised – which is exactly what caused the problem in the first place – but he is now probably a better Death than ever before. You just ask the Death of Rats (and while at it, the Death of Fleas) what they think of it. (less)
A long time ago, all of the great Norse gods and goddesses died in the Last Battle. Only a handful of Valkyrie sur...moreThis review was posted at Kirkus.com
A long time ago, all of the great Norse gods and goddesses died in the Last Battle. Only a handful of Valkyrie survived and were sent to Midgard (Earth). Each of them was tasked by Odin All-father to protect powerful artifacts that once belonged to the gods themselves, holding on for their possible return one day.
And so the Valkyrie waited. And waited.
Until the events of World War II moved them into action. Tired of waiting and tired of not fighting in the countless wars that came before, the Valkyrie Mist urged her sisters to help the humans in their time of need and to use the powerful artifacts they each held. The consequences of their hubris* and mingling in human affairs were swift.
In modern-day San Francisco, Mist is finally making a life of her own still guarding—but never using—Odin’s Gungnir, the Spear that never misses its mark. Until, in just one day, a series of seemingly impossible events happen: She is attacked by a Frost Giant in a public park; comes across Dainn, a magic Elf in disguise; and realizes that her boyfriend was actually the trickster god Loki all along. And now he has taken Gungnir.
As it turns out, the Aesir are not dead after all—they have been merely cut off in another dimension. But now the bridges are open again and Midgard is in danger, caught in a deadly game between gods. Mist and her new ally Dainn must do anything they can to protect their artifacts from falling in the wrong hands. And then Mist learns a secret that changes everything.
Is there anything more frustrating to a reader than a book that shows a lot of promise and potential to start with but then goes off its tracks and derails completely into a confusing mess?
First the good: I love the premise of Susan Krinard's Mist, with the Valkyrie protecting powerful artifacts. The opening chapter, taking place during WWII, was a powerful introduction to their story portraying the Valkyrie in their emotional struggle between doing what they have always done (i.e. obey the gods as their servants) and developing a different way of life. I particularly enjoyed Mist’s take on that struggle, her choice to go from observer and servant to a strong fighter with agency. At the beginning, she really convinced me as a powerful and smart gods-defiant and angst-ridden champion.
But unfortunately, I felt all of this promise went wayward when the book suddenly changed tracks half way through. First of all, there was the abrupt point-of-view change. For the first seven chapters, the story is solely from Mist’s viewpoint. Then, all of a sudden, Dainn’s voice is introduced, then Loki’s, then even a few random paragraphs from a secondary character. It’s weird since it starts quite late into the story but also since it kind of detracts from the plot—some of it relies heavily on the secrets being kept from Mist, and since those are secrets that obviously both Dainn and Loki are privy of, Mist often comes across as frustratingly naïve. This would not be a problem per se if it wasn’t for the fact that it clashed so much with the portrayal of Mist as an extremely clever person for the first 7 chapters.
Then we have the fact that the main storyline shifts and the story becomes all about how Mist is the Most Powerful and Unique Being in the History of Ever (without even knowing about it) and who is also Beautiful Beyond Compare (without even realizing it). Without spoiling The Secret, it is hard to suspend disbelief that the above—her magic, her specific type of power, her extreme beauty—never made an appearance before. I am not going to mention the fact that the goddess Freya is merely reduced to how hot she is or that characters who have known each other for about 48 hours are willing to throw their lives away for one another, no actual relationship development needed.
Those problems are compounded by how the story is exposition heavy with back story and action-halting explanations that make the book rather…bland and emotionless. The actual development of the characters and storylines did not have enough depth to allow for us to care about the many emotional punches the book throws at the characters.
And finally, my main problem with the novel? The writing of the few LGBT and PoC characters. First of all, there is the implied attraction that one minor male character has for another male character. Then, the book features rape and sexual molestation, all of them always man-on-man. I like what Fangs for the Fantasy had to say about it:
Which brings me to GBLT characters – we have the implied Ryan and we have… Loki. In mythology Loki sleeps with anyone and everything up to and including the stallion Svadilfari. That alone doesn’t make him a good representation for GBLT characters. But in this book he has sex with one man – as a woman then changing his shape to a man to use as blackmail against his sex partner. And he lusts after and sexually molests Dainn, who he previously had sex with while shapeshifted to look like Frejya. There’s a whole lot of sexual predation going on here and it’s all directed at other men and leaves a general bad taste in my mouth.
Quite. The PoC characters are not better. One of them is a Japanese-American who randomly shows up in the story and magically seems to know martial arts. The other is a Mexican girl who goes around yelling expletives. This is where things made me incredibly angry not only because of the stereotype but also because some of the Spanish she spoke was wrong. At one point, she yells “idioto.” You do not say "idioto" in Spanish. It should be "idiota" for both men and women (unlike “stupid” which is gendered depending on who you are talking to). This might come across as a minor thing but to me it is incredibly offensive. Protip: If you are writing a Spanish speaking character and if you want the character to speak Spanish in the book, please do your research. Otherwise, it just sounds as though you are not being careful or respectful enough with cultures and languages not your own.
I want diversity and I want inclusion in SFF but this is not good enough, folks. Do your homework and avoid stereotypes. And I will leave it at that.
In Book Smugglerish, a disheartened 4 (maybe 3?) out of 10.(less)
Eve doesn’t recognise the face when she looks in the mirror, she has no true memory of her past and can ba...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Eve doesn’t recognise the face when she looks in the mirror, she has no true memory of her past and can barely function in the present. Everything – from walking and talking to understanding how the world works is all new to her. She’s been told she has lost her memory. She’s been told she is in a witness protection program for paranormal creatures, hiding from a creepy serial killer who is out to get her. She’s been told she is the key to find him and to stop his killing spree. She’s been told she needs to remember before it is too late and more young kids disappear. She’s been told she can trust the people who are helping her even if they look at her with distaste and mistrust.
She’s been told.
There are certain things she knows though. She knows she has undergone several reconstructive surgeries. She knows she can do magic – she looks at the mirror one day and decides that her eyes were actually green before and just like that, they are changed. She knows that every time she uses her magic, she passes out and has horrifying dreams (or are they visions?) always featuring a carnival tent, a magician, a storyteller and creepy dolls. When she wakes up after those black-outs she realises that days or sometimes even weeks have passed and she has no short-term memory of those moments.
Conjured is a beautifully constructed novel that goes from utterly disorienting to exceptionally horrific as its story progresses. It features an ubber-creepy carnival, a supernatural serial killer and an amnesic narrator. But its true core is a story about agency and identity and what it is like to forge both when there is no memory, no past, no sense of true self to start with.
It is more or less divided in two parts: the first is a progressive build-up to the revelations that appear in the second part. The former, a disorienting advance toward the truth about Eve, the latter an affecting horror story unlike anything I have read of late.
What impresses me the most about the novel is Eve as a character and the writing of her narrative. Since everything is from her point of view, we only ever know what Eve knows and she knows very, very little. When she wakes up with no memory, we are as lost as she is, not knowing who to trust, what happened in the past days or weeks. It is not only disorienting but also claustrophobic.
More to the point though, I loved how the author took such a gamble with Eve because she is essentially a blank slate narrator. To start with, she has little personality and no agency. And it is very interesting to see the way that the character progresses, not knowing who she is, what she can do, and what happened to her. Which is awesome because I sometimes feel that “strong female character” is often compared to kickass and immediately assertive so it is kind of a breath of fresh air to have a character like Eve who is developing her sense of self slowly and who is a quiet, timid character without being any less strong for that. When the second part comes and the deeply cruel, creepy and dark nature of her story is finally revealed, we come to have not only a deep understanding of why Eve is like she is and how important it really is when she finally voices her choice and forges her own sense of self.
All of this was superb: from the puzzling narrative to the development of Eve as a character, from her visions and fear to the creepily awesome horror in the latter part.
My only real misgiving about the novel comes with its romantic storyline and I confess to be on two minds about it. On the one hand, there is an element of insta-love as Eve has an almost immediate connection to a boy named Zach whom she meets at the library where she is sent to work. I was immediately put off by Zach when as soon as he met Eve she told her point-blank that they could never be friends because he wanted to kiss her. Okay, then.
On the other hand, Zach turn out to be a nice boy, who never lies (there are Reasons) and who is completely loyal to Eve. It is yet another breath of fresh air to have the guy be so besotted and awed to the point of being ready to drop everything for the girl – as abrupt as that turns out to be. The ending though is kind of perfect for them and for this story in the way that it is flawed and even perhaps, questionable.
Ultimately, this book is All About Eve and I really loved it, just as it is. (less)
In 2059, the world is a very different, very dangerous place. Thankfully, Scion exists and co...more2 1/2 stars. Original review posted on The Book Smugglers
In 2059, the world is a very different, very dangerous place. Thankfully, Scion exists and controls that danger, its cities bearing the slogan “Welcome to Scion, no safer place.” Scion regulates every aspect of its citizens’ life, from travel, to education, to occupation. Most importantly, Scion protects humans from the very real terrorizing threat of voyants; clairvoyants, that is people with the ability to divine the future, or control and commune with spirits, or any order of other mysterious, magical, unnatural ability. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is one such illegal voyant, who has turned to a secret life of crime and joined one of London’s underground gangs of clairvoyants in order to stay alive. Paige isn’t just any old soothsayer or sybil, though – she’s an extremely rare, very powerful order of clairvoyant with the ability to “touch” and walk in other peoples’ dreamscapes (otherwise known as a dreamwalker). So, when Paige is discovered by Scion security forces, captured, and thrown into the Tower, she fears that she will be tortured before she is killed, another vanished voyant in Scion’s legacy.
Except… Paige isn’t killed. She and a group of other voyant prisoners (plus one regular human) are transported from London to the supposedly dead and contaminated city of Oxford, where they are enslaved by a race of creatures called Rephaim. It turns out that 200 years prior a hole was ripped in the aether (the realm of the spirit that voyants can see and access in various ways), and these superior alien creatures emerged and instituted themselves as Earth’s supposedly reluctant “guardians.” The Rephaim have set up Scion as a dummy government, and have been farming its cities every decade – in a reaping called “The Bone Season” – for promising voyants to enslave and conscript into a fight against the Emim (mindless, ravenous monsters who have also traveled through the void in space). Very quickly, Paige learns that the Rephaim are anything but benevolent protectors; they are terrifyingly cruel, bearing absolute power and no vulnerability. Yet, as enraged, frightened and defiant Paige may be, her only chance of survival is to follow the orders of her masters, including the Rephaim that has claimed her as his responsibility, the beautiful (and aptly named) Warden. And, as Paige learns more about the Rephaim and their plans for Paige’s singular ability as a dreamwalker, she also learns that not all Rephaim are the same – that Warden might not be her enemy.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that The Bone Season is one of the most hyped and highly anticipated books of 2013. With its young author being touted as the next J.K. Rowling, The Bone Season has a whole lot to live up to. And, as with any super-hyped book, I’m always curious but more than a little wary because it’s a very rare thing for a book to actually live up to all the preceding hype. The Bone Season, is… well, it’s ambitious. It’s very ambitious and impressive in its imaginative scope. I loved the intricate hierarchies of “voyants” and power structures of street gang lords versus their puppet Scion government, just as I was impressed with the portrayal of the extensive power that the Rephaim have over regular humans and voyants alike. Two of my favorite things about The Bone Season are its fantastic depiction of the different levels of clairvoyance, as well as the examination of enslavement and the trappings of power. I love the way that we learn slowly about the truth of the Rephaim and their presence on Earth, just as we learn more about the voyants (especially Paige) that embody the human spirit to challenge, to rebel, and to survive – both the persecuted by Scion, and their abusive Rephaim overlords.
Those praises about the more complex thematic and worldbuilding aspects said, The Bone Season doesn’t actually quite manage to pull it off a cohesive novel because there’s so MUCH going on. Just as I was impressed with the many levels of voyants (not to mention the extensive glossary, maps, and power flow chart), there were many puzzling things about this world that don’t quite add up, or feel half-developed and then elaborated upon wildly at random intervals (in other words, it’s hard to suspend disbelief). The Rephaim, for instance, are not just powerful otherworldly creatures who have traveled through a rift in space to Earth, proclaiming themselves as Earth’s reluctant protectors and saviors from a race of man-eating carnivorous monsters called Emim. No, the Rephaim are also beautiful creatures (conveniently human in appearance) with their own type of superspecial connection to the aether, and who can feed off of human clairvoyant auras (and, in a very Twilight-esque twist, anytime a Rephaim aura-feeds, their eyes change color from golden honey brown to blood red). Oh, and these Rephaim also can heal themselves by drinking human blood (this new skill is revealed about 200 pages into the book). Needless to say, while there are many interesting ideas in the book, it’s a little tough to swallow a dystopian science fiction future with clairvoyants AND ghosts and poltergeists AND cruel psychic-vampire creatures.
In truth The Bone Season is, at its heart, a paranormal-cum-dystopian novel in the vein of many YA novels on the market today. It plays with the mundane, standby tropes of this genre: there’s the SUPER HOT paranormal creature that takes interest in the young pretty human girl; young pretty human girl also happens to possess an exceptional, unique, unparalleled power on which the Destiny of Everything hinges; after a period of trust issues and tension, romantic shenanigans ensue (thoroughly PG-13 romantic entanglements, I might add). It actually feels very similar to Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, with its feisty, special heroine, romantic overtones, imaginative world. But… lacking the same polish and writerly skill. That is to say, the writing is clunky and feels very much like a debut novelist’s first book. Infodumps about voyants and the Rephaim abound, with backstory and detail divulged in graceless, obvious ways (early in the book, for example, readers are entreated to a description of Paige when she is conveniently bored and pulls out her digital ID; we learn all the answers of Rephaim history in extensive point-blank Q&A sessions; and so on and so forth). The book is overlong, too; the overarching plot frequently lost in asides as Paige goes through her daily routine of anger and fear, alternately resenting yet needing to save/trust/inevitably falling for her smoking hot Rephaim keeper. (I don’t consider this a spoiler – it’s telegraphed from the beginning.)
So, my answer to the question posed at the beginning of this book (does The Bone Season live up to the hype) is a regretful no, though the book has some great ideas and an impressively ambitious agenda. Ultimately, I was entertained by The Bone Season and will likely return for book 2 (although, to be honest, I have no idea where this series will possibly go in a 7 – SEVEN! – book arc). Recommended, but with some reservations.
Let me preface this review by saying this: I’ve read three books about the apocalypse this week. One is se...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Let me preface this review by saying this: I’ve read three books about the apocalypse this week. One is set hundreds of years after an asteroid annihilates Earth (Starglass by Phoebe North), one is set six months before an extinction-event sized asteroid hits earth (The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters), and, finally, this one, set four years after an asteroid has crashed into the moon, changing it’s orbit such that it is much closer to the Earth. One of these books was good, one was superb, and one was very bad indeed.
Unfortunately, The Shade of the Moon is the very bad book.
Back to the review now:
It is four years after the unthinkable has happened, and civilization as it used to exist came crashing down. An asteroid collides into the moon’s surface, pushing its orbit closer to the Earth and unleashing catastrophe in its wake. Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions come first, followed by dramatic climate change, starvation, and global pandemics. In the four years since those early terrible days, humanity has rearranged itself into a new type of order – the rich, powerful, and lucky make their way into enclaves, where they are given food, electricity, air filters, education, and a chance at a real future. Everyone else, however, is left outside the enclaves, struggling to find ways to work, eat, and survive day to day.
Jon Evans is one of the very lucky – thanks to a pass given to him by chance and the sacrifices of his family, Jon becomes a “claver” in the enclave of Sexton. With his stepmother Lisa and half-brother Gabe, Jon has lived his last four years in relative luxury – going to school every day, working hard at his soccer game, eating fresh vegetables and square meals. Meanwhile, his mother, sister Miranda and brother-in-law Alex are “grubs” stuck outside the enclave in the equivalent of a shantytown – working hard labor jobs in order to survive. As tensions mount between the clavers and the grubs, Jon finds himself caught in the middle, torn between loyalty to his family, and a chance at the good life in the enclaves.
I’m flummoxed when it comes to this fourth installment in the Last Survivors/Moon Crush/LAWKI series. I love dark books, including gritty “realistic” reads. I appreciate it when authors craft unlikable main characters, and challenge preconceived notions of “good” and “bad” – especially in YA speculative fiction. What I do not love, however, are books that are gratuitous or hateful for the sake of shock value; I am not a fan of “darkness” without purpose. I do not appreciate it when a would-be rapist main character does not learn from his actions and is painted in a sympathetic light to readers. I do not like any of these things in any arena; it is all the more disheartening to read when it happens in a series I used to love.
I will lay it out simply: The Shade of the Moon left a bad taste in my mouth.
This is a book about a spoiled, entitled, and wholly un-likable main character. Jon’s family – including the two main characters we’ve met and loved in the first books of the series – has sacrificed everything to give this young man a chance at a normal, healthy life. In return, Jon is a bigoted asshole, more concerned about his own well-being than helping his family. He’s too important for his stepmother and his toddler half-brother; he hides behind excuses and is content to go with the flow instead of taking a stand.
On the one hand, I appreciate Susan Beth Pfeffer’s creation of such an utterly shitty character – that takes guts, and I’m not opposed to unlikable protagonists. That said, what kills me about Jon is how he is painted in a sympathetic light to the readers.
SPOILERS AND TRIGGER WARNING FOR RAPE (as well as liberal amounts of CAPS LOCKING and swearing) FOLLOW:
On top of all his other wonderful qualities, Jon is also a would-be/almost rapist. You see, there’s some major retroactive storytelling that happens in The Shade of the Moon – right before Julie’s death (thanks to the tornado and her ensuing paralysis), it turns out that Jon tries to force himself on Julie. You see, Jon is nearly 15 years old at this point, and he thinks that he is in love with Julie, and he tells her he loves her, which, in Jon’s head, should make Julie HIS. When Julie resists, he doesn’t stop and continues to force himself – his thirty pounds of extra weight and extra height – on the smaller, younger (13!!!!) girl. Julie miraculously fights him, and gets away – but terrified, she runs outside of the barn in which they are holed up, as she’d rather throw herself into the path of a tornado than be raped by her so-called friend. And this is Jon’s thought process as he recounts this:
He thought about that day harder than he ever had before. Yes, he’d wanted Julie. He was a teenage boy and she was a teenage girl, and that was the nature of things. If Julie hadn’t been so religious, or more to the point, if she hadn’t been so scared of Alex, who was so religious, she would have had no reservations about making love. It had been their last chance, probably the last time they’d ever see each other.
Jon knew now he’d pushed too hard, and he understood why Julie had panicked. But panic was an irrational response. Julie knew him and loved him and should have understood that he would never hurt her. But her fear of Alex was stronger than her love of Jon.
Now, if this was merely an insight into Jon’s mindset, leading to some kind of challenge to this utterly fucked up way of justifying his actions, that’s one thing.
But… it’s not. Jon’s bullshit rationalizations – well, it was HER fault for being too religious and scared, I wouldn’t have hurt her, silly irrational girl – are never challenged. In realtime during the book, Jon meets and falls in love with a new girl named Sarah (after a chapter, mind you) who also loves him back. Apparently. And Jon tries to push Sarah away to save her from another enclave boy’s rage by telling Sarah the story of Julie and PRETENDING TO WANT TO RAPE SARAH so she leaves him… BUT THEN Sarah learns that he didn’t REALLY rape Julie and he was just pretending to try to rape Sarah for her own protection (*CUE VOMIT*) and just like that, Sarah is all back in Jon’s arms and in love.
Need I say more? OK, why don’t I touch on the treatment of the other female characters. There’s Miranda, the protagonist from book 1, who is given a minor role here and basically is defined as Pregnant Mother (she’s also 19-21 TOPS at this point). Girls are routinely raped by the “claver” boys (apparently). One of the domestic workers in the main character’s house at one point goes up to Jon’s room, calls him “Mr. Jon” and says she wants to show her appreciation in a special way, if you catch my drift.
ARE. YOU. FUCKING. KIDDING. ME.
There’s also the gratuitous murder of Miranda and Jon’s mother – whom we’ve also loved over the course of the series – in the worst possible way. The suicide of Jon’s stepmother. The repeated allusions to further rapes and murders of women. There’s the unbelievable worldbuilding, the laughable rapey “romance.”
ALL of this is to say… what is the fucking point? There is so much death, so much bleakness without purpose, such shitty treatment of characters or continuity with the early books, that I can’t even express my disappointment and outrage.
There is nothing that can redeem this book or this series for me, and unfortunately, knowing how poorly Miranda and Alex are treated in these subsequent books has tainted my love of the first two novels. And… that’s all I have to say about that. I will not be back for any future books in this series. (less)
This is what you need to know about Ascension, in a nutshell: a main character who is a queer woman of colour, grappling with a debilitating chronic i...moreThis is what you need to know about Ascension, in a nutshell: a main character who is a queer woman of colour, grappling with a debilitating chronic illness in a context of poverty, who has a difficult relationship with her sister and starts to fall in love with another awesome female character who is polyamorous. IN SPACE.
If the above is not the definition of “shut up and take my money”, I don’t know what is.
Alana Quick is a sky surgeon in a crumbling shipyard who is forever worried about making ends meet. Hardly any vessels need to be fixed these days and Alana hasn’t been able to get a secure job on any ships so far. It doesn’t help that she has a painful chronic illness that is kept in check with expensive pills and whose cure looms in the horizon if only she could afford it.
Then a cargo vessel drops by looking to hire the services of her sister Nova (who is a spiritual guide) and Alana doesn’t think twice before stowing away. Maybe she can use the knowledge of Nova’s whereabouts as leverage to join the crew (this strange, strange crew that includes a fading girl, a wolf-man and a hot [HOT] captain) maybe she can join them on their quest to find a cure for their ailing pilot (and help herself as well).
But things are not that easy or as romantic as Alana expects them to be. There is real danger out there: the people who want Nova’s help don’t necessarily have her best interest at heart. When the unthinkable happens, all of a sudden they are all on the run for their lives.
There is a lot that is pretty awesome about Ascension including the way that Alana falls in love with ships, the hot (HOT) romance Alana and skyship captain Tev and the way that relationships and people are portrayed as fluid and ever evolving in a myriad of positive ways. But I was particularly impressed by its treatment of chronic illness and the fraught relationship between Alana and her sister Nova. With regards to the former, it is in the way that Alana pushes herself mostly because she needs to not only because she loves her job so much and nothing can stop her from performing it but also because she is poor and doesn’t have a choice but to work to pay for her meds. The contextual background of poverty is one that informs a lot of her decision-making and in a way this book could have been set right here, right now.
I especially liked how these two strands are so intricately linked in the way that their difficult relationship taps into the way both have learnt to relate to their bodies. Alana’s disease and the very real presence of pain makes her cling to her body whereas her sister wants to let it go. But for Nova, of course, it goes beyond that. It would be also so easy to reduce Nova’s decisions simply to a reaction to Alana’s illness but the story actually avoids this by making it a point to explore the topic of able body privilege. In this context this is a difficult topic because of how close both women are and the fact that Alana has limits doesn’t (shouldn’t) preclude Nova from having a choice to do what she wants with her own body regardless of how Alana feels about it. It is a strained, difficult relationship as a result and I loved this arc.
But there is not all there is to it. Alana’s narrative is one that is forged from her own experiences and prejudices and one that often exudes a certain level of naivety – part of her arc is that she still has a bit of growing up to do by learning to relate to other people. So in way, it is completely understandable that she’d behave the way she did, irresponsibly leaving her aunt behind on her own to join the crew of the Tangled Axon because of the dream as well as the possibility of a cure.
That said, it is not all rainbows and ponies. There is a certain lull in the narrative half-way through the novel and a certain tendency of the text to rely way too much on people not communicating with each other. At times it seemed that the plot only moved forward because of secrets that were kept for no good reason other than to prolong the dramatic tension.
But in the end, this was a pretty good novel. I can’t wait to read more adventures with the Tangled Axon crew. (less)
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when I fell out of love with Counting by 7s but it happened slowly yet inexorably in the hours after I finished reading it.
On the surface, this is an innocuous book, full of good intentions: it is a book featuring different stories about diverse PoC characters (including its protagonist). It is also a beautiful story about different kinds of families, about deep connections that can be formed between people from different walks of life and above all, it is about surviving adversity. It is a touching story that made me laugh and that made me cry. But it also made me ponder and question its main message.
Counting by 7s’ main character is Willow Chance, a little girl who has lost two sets of parents in her short life – she never knew her blood parents and her adoptive ones die in a terrible accident. She is all alone in the world apart from Dell, a school counsellor whose therapy methods are completely unprofessional; and from a couple of new friends she has met recently. Those friends are the siblings Mai and Quang-ha (who is also seeing Dell for his disruptive behaviour) who end up convincing their mother Pattie to take care of Willow temporarily.
Willow is a special person: she is a 12-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and with diagnosing medical conditions and who has found it difficult to deal and connect to people until this tragedy has forced her to.
The story is centred on Willow’s specialness – despite her oddness she is extremely endearing and moves everybody around her that they all end up changing their lives for the better. It is a touching story that made me laugh and that made me cry. But it also made me ponder and question its main message.
It is not for nothing that the official blurb compares it to Wonder by R J Palacio: it has a similar motif, a similar structure (head-jumping) and it provoked a similar reaction on me.
I had three main problems with the novel: Dell’s counselling theories that go basically unchallenged; the novel’s ending; and its strange relationship with money.
Dell – Dell is a terrible counsellor who doesn’t really know what he is doing and who often tries to exploit the system, who at first tried to exploit Willow’s knowledge for his own gain and who has a way of labelling his patients in an extremely problematic way. For some reason, schools sent him their worst cases and he does absolutely nothing to help them. In fairness, Dell is NOT supposed to be a good counsellor but he is shown in a fairly sympathetic light that is also supposed to be endearing and funny. Willow calls him out on the way that he labels the kids he sees but this is as far as the narrative goes on really challenging his role – in the end, he is shown as having grown and changed but no word is said about the kids whose lives he has affected negatively and who he was supposed to have helped. That his therapy method worked for Willow (because of her specialness) does not mean anything in a wider context but is everything that the novel is worried about.
The ending: in the end, Pattie ends up adopting Willow. Now, up until the very ending of the novel, Pattie was shown as a resourceful, intelligent, caring woman who loves her kids and who cares for Willow deeply. She is also someone who struggles to make ends meet, who runs her own small business but who still has financial problems. Her and her two kids live in a one room garage with no bathroom or kitchen. She shares a bed with her daughter. It is hinted that their living conditions is one of the main reasons why her son is having behaviour issues. They are presented as extremely poor which only makes their attempt to help Willow all the more heart-warming.
Then in the end it is revealed that Pattie is actually RICH, that she has been saving money all this time and has enough to buy an ENTIRE APARTMENT BUILDING. This is grating and confusing within the context of the novel because the Pattie that was presented to the reader throughout the novel is not someone who would impose such hardships (living in a garage!) on her own children for NO GOOD REASON. That she’d only reveal her money after her love for ULTRA SPECIAL Willow and not her own children serves only to reinforce Willow’s specialness.
Which brings me to my last point.
The Money issue: one of the main topics of the novel is the question of poverty and how it affects peoples’ lives. Surviving adversity despite poverty is one of the main drives of the novel and one of the connecting points between characters. In the end, the revelation that Pattie had tons of money all along and all of their money problems are magically solved undermines the topic of dealing with poverty. Plus, ANOTHER CHARACTER ALSO WINS THE LOTTERY BY THE WAY. He turns out to be the guy who is going to be the little girl’s adoptive father.
The book is so focused on Willow’s specialness that it forgets the rest of the world (like the other kids with equally real problems that Dell is supposed to be helping), backtracks on the portrayal of the rest of their characters and detracts from a powerful storyline about poverty to shower money on just about everybody.
I think it is that type of book that tries so hard to be about GOOD PEOPLE and it’s so well intentioned that I feel like a jerk for writing this review. In a way it is just like those “feel good movies of the year” that so often have problematic underlying messages that almost escapes your attention because you are injected with such a huge dose of happy-inducing saccharine storylines. But when you come down from that high, you hit rock bottom fast and furious. (less)
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a r...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a retelling of the Orpheus myth (but not like you know it).
All Our Pretty Songs: almost too good to be true. How is this a debut work? With this level of awesome prose? And gutsy storytelling? And by gutsy I really mean: simply writing a story that follows young characters who experience life – sex, drugs and rock & roll – in a way that is as real as any of all the other possible portrayals of teen life in YA.
So, unnamed narrator narrates: about her life and the life of her best-friend-almost-sister Aurora; and the way that she is always taking care of beautiful, volatile Aurora. There’s always been the two of them and their love and dedication and loyalty to each other. And there is a passion for music here that seeps from the narrative and that passion becomes almost tangible when they meet a musician named Jack. His gift is amazing and when he plays, everybody listens. And our unnamed narrator falls in lust and in love with Jack almost immediately (and definitely completely).
And even though the world we all inhabit is very much one of real things as it just so happens – as our narrator finds out – it is also one where things are real. So…when we say that everybody listens to Jack and that everybody pays attention to Aurora, we mean that literally. There is myth come to life here (and why the Pacific Northwest? Because “they” are everywhere) and the unnamed narrator – who is not beautiful or talented – sits in the margins, looking from the outside, unable to follow where they eventually go.
And the narrative is kind of dream-like and there are parts where there is a bit of stream of consciousness (kinda like this review) and as the story progress it becomes both more focused and more meandering if that makes any sense at all. What strikes me the most about the story is how even though the plot deals with life and death and danger and terror, the narrative is still extremely insulated because as worldly as the narrator seems to be with the parties and the sex and the drugs and the freedom, she is still a 17-year-old girl who makes snap judgements about people and whose narrow view of those she loves and about herself is still informed by her inexperience.
And I love her for all of that. I love that the narrator and the story is about complex relationships with close family, close friends, and sisterhood. Also with lovers and how love shapes her view of the world. So inasmuch as the narrator falls irrevocably in love with Jack, she is still involved in other stuff and with other people – I loved her relationship with her mother and with her friend Raoul. Plus there is a lot of negotiating that happens between how freely she has given her body and her heart and the fact that sometimes this is not enough to the other person. So this is definitely Coming-of-Age as much as it is Quest (when are those not the same?) . And central to this is also this self-awareness and this slow learning curve about what it means to be talented and beautiful which includes astute observations about our world and how we choose to look at people and allocate them “worth”. Because this is also a mythology retelling it all comes together:
"Once upon a time, girls who were too beautiful or too skilled were changed into other things by angry gods and their wives. A cow, a flower, a spider, a fog. Maybe you boasted too loudly of sleeping with a goddess’s husband. Maybe you talked too much about your own talents. Maybe you were born dumb and pretty, and the wrong people fell in love with you, chased you across fields and mountains and oceans until you cried mercy and a god took pity on you, switched your body to a heaving sea of clouds. Maybe you stayed in one place for too long, pining for someone who wasn’t yours, and your toes grew roots into the earth and your skin toughened into bark. Maybe you told the world how beautiful your children were, and the gods cut them down in front of you to punish you for your loose tongue, and you were so overcome with grief your body turned to stone."
Which just goes to show how these mythological beings (also EVERYBODY on the planet) are complete assholes who randomly and arbitrarily assign value to people.
Because here is the thing: as much as the narrator constantly tells us that she is unworthy because she is not typically beautiful or talented like her friends the fact remains that she is equally AWESOME. Even though she is flawed (who isn’t?), there is loyalty, and dedication, and determination and talent here in spades. Probably my favourite quote:
"I will not let the terror of the dark get hold of me. If this is a test, I will fucking pass it. I will pass any test this creepy skeleton in a crappy suit can give me. Let them turn me into stone or water or flowers. I came here for my lover and the girl who is my sister, and they were mine before anyone else tried to take them from me, before this bony motherfucker showed up on my stoop and let loose all the old things better left at rest. Jack I will let go; Jack is on his own, now. But I will die before I leave Aurora down here."
Dear narrator, you are so awesome and I don’t even know your name.
To sum up: great book. Really reminded me of Imaginary Girls and September Girls in terms of tone, narrative and themes.
All Our Pretty Songs can be read as a self-contained, standalone book but I understand it is the beginning of a series. I don’t know where this is going but I will follow and I will not even look back. (less)
"I stare at the drain in the center of the concrete floor. It was the first thing I saw when they locked me i...moreOriginal review posted on the Kirkus blog
"I stare at the drain in the center of the concrete floor. It was the first thing I saw when they locked me in this cell, and I've barely looked away since."
Cristin Terrill's All Our Yesterdays was a YA Buzz Title at Book Expo America this year, touted as “Terminator meets The Time Traveler’s Wife”. Needless to say that description made me equally eager and wary to read it: On the one hand, I am a sucker for time travel. On the other hand, past experiences with hyped YA science fiction have been terrible disappointments to me (hi there Matched, Shatter Me and Delirium). Plus let’s be honest: Those lofty, impossible to live-up to comparisons often do books a disservice.
As you can probably imagine, the comparisons to Terminator or Time Traveler’s Wife are not really that apt (but hey, what else is new when it comes to marketing, am I right?), but if comparisons are needed, I’d say this is more like a darker vision of Back to the Future (circa movie 2) than anything else.
It follows two versions of the same character. Em is in a terrible future where she is imprisoned alongside her boyfriend, Finn, and suffering unspeakable torture in the hands of someone she once loved. It’s a future where time travel exists and Em knows quite a lot about it. Marina is in the past, four years before, a privileged rich girl whose greatest worry in the world is whether her best friend, James, can possibly love her as much as she loves him. It’s a past where time travel is only but James’ dream. It is also a past that holds the key to a different future and Em—13 different versions of her—have tried and failed to alter it.
Now Em and Finn are on their 14th attempt, one that comes with a very specific instruction from one of their past selves: “You have to kill him.” They know what they have to do but it’s not going to be easy.
The story alternates between Em and Marina’s perspectives. They are the same character but wholly different. Em is broken but confident, Marina is rich and privileged but with no small degree of self-loathing. One of the biggest draws of the novel is exactly that difference and the way that Em will do anything it takes to make things up to Marina so that she won’t have to go through the same horrors she did. Em’s love for Marina is all the more heart-wrenching because it simply means that she has found love for herself—they are the same person after all. The book is also thought-provoking in the way that it raises questions: Would you do anything to save your past self from disillusionment and hurt even if it means erasing your own existence? Even if it means facing your worst nightmare, who also happens to be your childhood love? In fact, the notions of “greater good” and “good intentions” are thoughtfully examined in Em/Marina’s actions and also the villain’s (if you haven’t committed any crime yet, can you still be guilty of your future actions?).
There is quite a lot to genuinely like here: The romance between Em and Finn is sweet (albeit far too cheesy and PG for two 20-year-olds), the story gains momentum and gravitas toward its second half and the backs and forth between Em and Marina are very engaging. Plus, the time travel premise is really quite cool.
With that said…
Even though the elements of time travel just about hold themselves together, I am not entirely sure that the ending makes sense. As much as I truly appreciated the fact that the author went there (gut- wrenching ending for the win) it relies heavily on the premise put forth here that time is “sentient” and is constantly attempting to course-correct itself (this is why, should Em and Finn be successful in their mission, they will cease to exist) . But it seemed to me that this idea was only applicable when convenient to the plot, but in fairness, this wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment of the otherwise solid time-traveling shenanigans.
There were other elements that gave me more cause to pause, though. Even though there is an examination of privilege when it comes to economic and political standing, I think the story misses a beat when it fails to address Marina’s relationship to her Mexican maid, Luz. As the only obvious recurring non-white character, it makes me uncomfortable that Luz is stereotypically portrayed as an uber-dedicated, loyal, motherly figure.
And as much as I truly appreciated Em and Marina as leads and the way Em comes to love herself and find peace with who she was, I hated that she did so by contrasting herself to her two female best friends and by writing them off as shallow, slutty and bitchy. For a book so full of secondary male characters, who are all more powerful and more intelligent than the female characters who seem to be there as props, this comes only to add insult to the injury.
Overall, All Our Yesterdays was a mixed bag: quite entertaining and thoughtful but also awfully oblivious at times.(less)
WARNING, THIS REVIEW IS FOR BOTH BOOKS IN THE DUET.
Part 1: The Spoiler-Free Review
Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are the two Fantasy novels th...moreWARNING, THIS REVIEW IS FOR BOTH BOOKS IN THE DUET.
Part 1: The Spoiler-Free Review
Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are the two Fantasy novels that form the Dreamhunter Duet – they have been originally published separately but are effectively one story in two parts, hence this combined review. The two books were actually published in Australia as one omnibus edition called The Invisible Road.
The Dreamhunter Duet is set Southland, an alternate version of a New Zealand that has been colonised by 5 migrating families (some of them descended from Bible’s Lazarus). It features a story about families, about cousins, about lovers, and about friends. It is also a story about power and politics and dreams.
Above all, it is a story about a place. The Place. The Place is a fantastical realm that appeared suddenly a few years back and where a few specific people (dreamhunters) can travel into to capture dreams.
In terms of worldbuilding, there is a whole industry that has been built around The Place: dreamhunters capture dreams and then broadcast them to a paying, sleeping audience that gets to live through amazing experiences . In Southland’s capital, the most famous broadcasting place is the Rainbow Opera where the biggest names in dreamhunting can make a fortune. But it all goes much beyond that: Dreamhunting also affects the future generations of this nation because young people dream of becoming hunters (so that they can improve their lives) and there are also questions of politics, economic progress, fame and fortune connected to The Place and its different uses (most of them benign, some of them horrifyingly nightmarish).
Two of the most famous, most powerful Dreamhunter families are the Tiebolds and the Hames. Cousins-almost-sisters Rose Tiebold and Laura Hame are reaching the age where teenagers can try out dreamhunting and whereas Rose dreams about it and has built her entire life around it, Laura dreads the moment. Surprisingly, it is Laura who succeeds in becoming a Dreamhunter. The story follows the two girls as they deal with disappointments and successes and the narrative follows the two as well as the other members of their family. The overarching plot deals with a recurring dream that Laura’s father Tziga has and the mysterious uses he makes of it – all connected with a political plot.
And this is only but the barest bones of the duet. I devoured it like there wasn’t tomorrow a few months ago and although I admit that the details are now slightly fuzzy, the overwhelming impression I still carry with me is how this was simultaneously uniquely remarkable and horrifyingly problematic.
There is a LOT to unpack here: I think overall, in terms of worldbuilding, it is a remarkable fantasy and I have not read anything quite like it before. Everything in book 1 (and the vast majority of book 2) just blew my mind away in terms of the concept of the dreamhunting, the details of the world constructed around it, the combination with Judeo mythology (the early families who settled there, the Hame’s ability to create Golems ), the two girls’ friendship, how thematically speaking it all centres around free will and decision-making. I loved that the novel is constantly changing viewpoints and that we get to spend time with the adults and see their relationship with each other. I enjoyed the sweet romance between Laura and the young Sandy and above all I LOVED Rose, her forthrightness and the way she struggles to find meaning in the life that she has to build after her dreams of dreamhunting have been destroyed.
I also loved the way that gender roles are played and how Laura’s uncle (Rose’s father) is the central maternal figure of the story, for example. There is so much that is interesting and engaging with the topics of politics, power, family dynamics, gender roles, identity in these books.
It all sounds awesome, right?
The revelations at the end of the book and the ultimate resolution ruined the whole thing for me – my reaction is a blend of EXTREME personal dislike (I did not care for how things ended for the two girls and I had problems with a certain “vibe” I found in the narrative) and my questioning of the overall arc and general worldbuilding that make no sense after the final twist is revealed.
More about those in the discussion in the second part of this review.
I just wanted to end my part by saying this: I thought reading this was well worth it for the family dynamics and the impressive imagery. Despite my personal aversion for how things ended up, I still do not regret reading it.
(In other words: these are the most amazing books I have ever hated. Or the most fucked up books I have ever loved. Or something.)
I am both grateful and appalled that Ana put these books into my hands after reading them.
I am grateful, because as Ana says, the Dreamhunter Duology is mindblowingly amazing when it comes to worldbuilding, basic premise, writing style, and imagination. The concept of The Place – a mysterious land to which only a select few can travel, and even more select few can capture and rebroadcast dreams – is fascinating. The idea of “dreamhunting” itself and the commercialization and institutionalization of certain dreams is also unique and freaking fantastic. The Place and Dreams are a mystery, and I love the questions posed especially by the first book. Why are dreams tied to certain locations? Why do they feature certain central figures (convicts, in particular)? What do the dreams mean and where are they coming from?
Beyond the outstanding premise and world, I also loved the female characters in the duology, especially Rose (Laura…well, more on that in the spoiler section). Even though this is an alternate world set in the early 1900s, I love that Rose, her powerful dreamhunter mother, and even at certain points Laura (but really, more on that in a bit) are women that have agency and are empowered and make their own decisions – be it with friends, having sex for the first time, surviving a fire, and so on. I love the threads of friendship and of family in both of these books, especially when it comes to cousin Rose and her relationship with both her mother and cousin (who is really like a sister) Laura.
ALL THAT SAID – I agree with Ana in that there are some major, un-overlook-able problems with the book. I personally did not care for the ending – scratch that. I personally hated the ending of the book. While everything is nicely resolved and all the questions are answered (about dreams, The Place, Laura’s EXTRA SPECIAL SPECIALNESS), I resented the resolution and its implications. I hated the way that the girls’ storylines are tied up; I especially abhorred the romantic elements to this story so far as Rose and Laura are concerned. Especially Laura (whose character is basically ruined for me completely). Finally, this also bothers me deeply: the fact that this takes place in a kinda-sorta version of New Zealand, but a New Zealand that has been completely erased of its Maori population and history (more on that below).
Ultimately, I am torn when it comes to this duology. It’s undeniably brilliant, with an imaginative scope that is off the charts. It’s also incredibly infuriating, and left me feeling both creeped out and ripped off. Do I recommend it? Yes, because it is a duology that SHOULD be read, dissected, appreciated, and debated.
(In other words: I understand why Ana told me to read these books – because this is the type of thing that needs to be discussed. With spoilers. Below.)
Part 2: Book Discussion with ALL THE SPOILERS
**READER BEWARE! Spoilers follow below. If you have not read the duology and do not wish to be spoiled, LOOK AWAY**
After Thea finished the books, both of us frantically sent a flurry of emails back and forth and have condensed all our feelings into the following few key points. Ready?
1. It is revealed that the Place was created by Lazarus Hame, the future son of Laura and Sandy.
This Future!Lazarus! has a terrible life and so he buries himself alive and accidentally creates a living thing – THE PLACE! – which broadcasts his dreams from the future into the past as an attempt to communicate with other Hames so they can… help him. Survive. Because The Place is a NOWN, and NOWN is required to protect Laura Hame and all those she cares for NO MATTER WHAT. We both loved this (TIME TRAVEL! THE PLACE IS A SAND GOLEM!) and hated this (it is all about Laura and Sandy and their son and Laura’s innate greatness and goodness???!!!!!! WHYYYYYYYYY! What a waste of a perfectly good premise!). (Not to mention, OF COURSE after Laura has sex with Sandy, he supposedly dies and then Laura discovers she is pregnant. This is one of our most irritating pet peeves in literature. NO.)
2. This creates a HUGE worldbuilding problem.
If this is all about the Hame family and very specifically about their ability to create golems and shape clay/sand/dust/ash/food items into living things, HOW AND WHY can other people (non-Hames) become Dreamhunters and Rangers? How can they enter The Place at all? What about the other dreams (the Gate dream comes to mind)? There’s also the problem of paradoxes and fractured timelines. When Lazarus rises from the grave – where he has been buried alive but not dead for years and years – he is alive. And yet, his memories of his past are intrinsically tied to the existence of The Place in his childhood and his upbringing with his single mother (who is no longer a single mother). There’s a “many worlds” explanation that would allow this to work, but it feels a bit like a cheap cop-out.
3. In the end, the two extremely young female protagonists end up the book married and with children.
Laura finds Lazarus and saves him and then learns that he is her son. This happens exactly at the point at which she realises she is pregnant with her supposedly dead boyfriend’s baby. But because she KNOWS Lazarus, she has no choice but to keep the baby. Our feelings about this are complicated: do we accept this as Laura’s CHOICE or do we think this is not a “choice” at all because it was imposed on her by the plot? Laura is also effectively stripped of ANY agency because she acts on things that she is TOLD to do by her father, by her family, and even by fate itself. The whole history of this world and the entire plot hinges on young Laura having baby Lazarus. It is the end-all and the origin of the whole story. (Except for the fact that this Lazarus is from an alternate timeline and might not matter at all if Laura keeps the baby?)
Meanwhile, Rose marries Future!Lazarus! who is her cousin (we can even say that it is almost her nephew if you think how close she and Laura are, like sisters!!!) who is also a MUCH older man. Rose and her husband (Future!Lazarus!) live together with their daughter as well as Laura, Sandy and Baby!Lazarus!, whom Rose helps raise. It’s so fucked up we can’t even, especially considering the next point:
4. In the beginning of book Laura, in the footsteps of her father, creates a Golem, called NOWN. The relationship between Laura and NOWN is SO SO CREEPY.
The creative impulse behind Laura’s creation of NOWN (and then giving him his free will) is undeniably because of her desire for a father figure to take care of her following Tziga – her real father – and his disappearance. She creates NOWN to make decisions for her and to love her like a father tending a child… and more. There is DEFINITELY a sexual vibe between Laura and NOWN, with her need for NOWN to “cherish” her and love her in a very un-fatherly kind of way.
Basically, the duology as a whole has a really weird, really pervasive incestuous vibe going on that is never questioned at all.
5. Finally, a point that we find DEEPLY, INTENSELY problematic: erasing people from history.
The story takes place in an alternate history New Zealand-inspired location. BUT in this world, there are no natives to New Zealand at all. The island was colonized by the five migrating families who arrive to find the island empty…and that’s it. So BASICALLY the Maori – the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, who made their way to the islands in 1250-1300 CE – have been ERASED FROM HISTORY.
I’ve had this on my radar ever since it came out but it wasn’t until it won the British Science Fiction Award for...moreJack Glass is an impossible book.
I’ve had this on my radar ever since it came out but it wasn’t until it won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel this year that I decided to read it.
Jack Glass is ostensibly a blend of Golden Age Science Fiction and Golden Age Crime – to which point this is a homage or subversion is up for discussion. I feel it’s both.
The opening like is one of the best opening lines I have ever read:
This narrative, which I hereby doctorwatson for your benefit, o reader, concerns the greatest mystery of our time.
It’s a Science Fiction novel. Set in the far future – humanity has travelled extensively in the Solar System and spread out as far as it can go. There are trillions of us now, a minority of the super wealthy who run things and a vast majority of super poor – it’s not even simply polloi anymore, it’s sumpolloi – who inhabit shanty bubbles across the System with noting but the bare minimum for subsistence. Those who are really lucky end up working for the Clans and Corporations who run everything.
It’s a Crime novel. The story is divided in three interlinked parts: a prison story, a whodunit and a locked-room mystery.
Jack Glass is the murderer: we know this from the get go. There is a short – FANTASTIC – introduction that estate very clearly that whatever the crime is, he’s done it. So this is clearly a HOWdunit and a WHYdunit.
In the meantime: FTL! Faster Than Light travel – an impossibility according to the Law of Physics. Something that is both the epitome of Hope (imagine being able to travel even further afield, away from this horrendous reality and start anew!) and the possible end of all mankind (because new technology = undisputed potential for violence, exploitation and escalation).
The prison story opens the novel:
7 violent criminals are about to start their 11 year prison sentence on a far away asteroid. Their survival depends on them working together to make the asteroid habitable which is both about their survival and the point of their sentence: they are given the necessary tools to extend the one room they dumped in (an advanced substance locks them in and allows them some air), create new chambers, grow food after they dig and find ice. At the end of these 11 years, they go free, the corporation that dropped them there resells the now inhabitable asteroid, everybody wins.
If they can make those 11 years, that is. Because humans being humans, as soon as they are left there, a power hierarchy is established between the 7 individuals. 5 Alphas run things – the 2 at the bottom must take it. One of them is a fat whinny man who used to be a God but now is the butt of everybody’s jokes. The other is a legless man (in a universe where most inhabitable places are gravity-free, why would anyone even need legs?) called Jac who has an obsession with the glass pieces he finds embedded in the asteroid.
These two become the group’s the punching bag and also their sex playthings (they are regularly raped).
Needless to say: the prison story is also a locked-room mystery and to some extent a whodunit. We know something really bad is going to happen and we know that Jack Glass will do it because we have been told so. It is a case of sitting down and abiding time to see how exactly things will play out. This first part is perfectly horrible and suffocating in its unstopping violence. The violence and tension in this part could have been a huge deterrent for me to carry on reading hadn’t it been for the fact that the writing! Was so good! The obvious claustrophobic environment expertly replicated in the writing itself.
It’s impossible to escape this asteroid, we are told several times. But Jac needs to get away before the people who put him there realise who he really is.
In the end Jack does what Jack does best (the greatest criminal of all time, the biggest murderer the world has ever seen) and manages the impossible.
Then we move to the second part: The FTL Murders! This is a typical whodunit set in a “manor house” on Earth where the extremely wealthy and privileged sisters Diana and Eva are sent by their parents to celebrate Dia’s sixteenth birthday. They are the future of Clan Argent, genetically engineered to be master problem-solvers. Eva’s mastery of Science and Physics is equal to Dia’s mastery of virtual murder-solving. Both approach their subject in different ways – Eva is removed from any humanity whereas Diana’s approach is more sympathetic and humanised. Not that she has had any chance to actually be sympathetic so far as her privilege is so deeply ingrained.
The sisters are surrounded by their bodyguards, their servants and their tutor Iago all of whom receive hormone injections that hinder their sense of individuality and amplify their love for their employers. They would never EVER be able to hurt or be disloyal to Dia and Eva.
Which is why when one the servants is mauled to death (in a locked-room no less) no suspicion is raised about the safety of the two sisters. Instead, this becomes the perfect opportunity for Dia to apply her knowledge to a Real Murder.
It is painfully obvious to surmise who Jack Glass is in this scenario. But then again the WHO has never been the point. Things are not as simple as they look and the WHYdunit of this case is quite possibly the most important thing about Jack Glass.
Whodunit, Locked-Room, Prison Escape (yes, this too). The second part is all three at once as well.
It’s better not to say anything about Part III – a locked-room mystery that is most definitely a whodunit (even though we know it was Jack Glass!) and a prison escape – because it completely spoils everything else. But here is where things reach their climax, overall character arcs are revealed and motivations shift one more time.
How many times within the story we are told that things are impossible? And how many times have they been proved not to be? This is where homage meets subversion, I believe.
It would be so easy to take this book at face value and to simply say: Jack Glass is a lot of fun. The author is clearly knowledgeable about the genres he is writing. The elements of Science Fiction are just super cool even if they require a LOT of suspension of disbelief (the impossibility of certain things, the outlandish conclusion to part one).
That said, to take this book at face value is doing it a huge disservice, I think. But this is also where things become not only less fun but also potentially problematic once you really think things through.
The point is: the fundamental premise of the story and the very foundation of this cosmos are based on ideas that are so depressingly uninventive, old and downright boring to me: that humans are fundamentally bad and that things will always be shit apart from a few pointed individuals who will try to bring the Revolution to the rest of the humanity. Jack Glass and to some extent the narrative would like you to believe he is one of those (HE is not, of course. Dia is).
Basically, the universe is a prison of our own making and we are all trying to escape: the biggest locked-room/prison escape of ALL TIME .
In part one, we are constantly faced with the worst of humanity. We ourselves are locked in the story with a bunch of characters that are so violently and abhorrent bad they are almost caricatures. If there is one thing this book is almost TERRIBLE at is in writing some of its characters – most of them are only skin-deep.
Each part uses their “mystery” as fodder to explore the make-up of this future. We come to clearly understand its economic, social and political systems which place no value on human life because there’s so many of us. At the same time, Jack Glass continuously brings up the idea that there is an elemental importance and uniqueness of each human life – interestingly though he makes that point by exactly reinforcing the idea of valueless he is trying to dismantle. But that’s ok: I don’t really think we are to sympathise with Jack Glass at all. I know I didn’t because the degree of his sociopathy is incredible as is his extremely narcissist personality (seriously, it is all about him)(which might well be The Point).
I have to say this: some things make no sense to me.
The prison sentence on the asteroids is presented as an “elegant business model”. Really? In a universe where people obviously need new places to live urgently, it is a good business model to wait ELEVEN YEARS for each new habitable asteroid? Given the evident advanced technology, I am pretty sure it would be more logical to use that than prisoners to excavate asteroids little by little.
The question of what to do with the prisoners then would only be a question to follow the very premise ( people= valueless) to its logical conclusion. That this is not done sounds like a contradiction to me.
Similarly, certain ideas are info-dumped and hammered through and things are explained point-blank to Dia, a character who is supposed to be the cleverest person ever. Granted that this could be an attempt to question genetically engineered cleverness. But to be honest, I don’t think this makes sense given the portrayal of said character – it became clear that things were regurgitated for the reader’s benefit.
Why are people so far out in the future still doing the same shitty things , still being shitty to each other and also still talking about Shakespeare and quoting Sherlock Holmes? Are we not going to progress any more than that?
The tone of each different part changes and it is amazing how they suit the point-view narrator. I loved Dia’s point of view. BUT does this even make sense from a writing perspective given it is ONE character who is narrating it to us? Shouldn’t all parts sound the same?
Diana Argent made this book. She is an awesome character and to me, the book is all about her. She is geeky and lover her own importance as an individualistic, privileged member of an important Clan to start with. But as her arc progresses this viewpoint changes into growth and understanding of her importance as an individual who is also a part of a larger universe, literally.
My own interpretation is thus:
Jack Glass is not the main character of this story although he is the main character of this novel (only because the person doctorwatsonning it is clearly biased).
This is the biggest gotcha of Jack Glass.
I am inclined to doctorwatson this novel myself and deface the cover by replacing JACK GLASS with DIANA ARGENT.
I really just wish that Jack Glass and Diana Argent were not so SPECIAL in a universe composed of trillions of people.
Although I had severe misgivings about the rest of the novel, the ending made it all better. It is as perfect as an ending can be because it perfectly suits the different strands of the novel and is extremely cynical as well as hopeful (which is kind of weird, I admit) .
Like I said in the beginning: Jack Glass is an impossible book. It is super fun and inventive but has a supremely boring foundation because it is so pessimistic. But the ending is so hopeful!
It is both a huge triumph and a big failure! At the same time!
In other words: I liked it but I also didn’t. I highly recommend it: let’s talk about it. (less)
The more I read and review children’s books the more I find it all to be a Complicated Affair. Do I approa...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
The more I read and review children’s books the more I find it all to be a Complicated Affair. Do I approach them like the adult that I am or do I approach them bearing in mind their intended audience? And even if I come to believe that its intended audience would like the book do I still recommend it even though I found flaws in the book’s logic? To sum up: do I read for myself and write my review accordingly or do I bear in mind the book’s potential readers? This is a question that applies to all reviews but which is foremost in my mind when reading Middle Grade. Especially when it comes to books like The Water Castle.
In other words: I am conflicted about this book.
On the one hand, there are things that are excellent. The Water Castle tells the story of three young kids – Ephraim, Will and Mallory. The narrative’s viewpoint alternates between those three and it also includes extracts from one of Mallory’s ancestors, a young African-American woman named Nora who is writing a journal in the early 1900s.
Ephraim’s father has recently had a severe stroke and his mother decided to move from Boston to their family estate – known locally as The Water Castle – in a small town in Maine to help with his recovery. The Water Castle is now nothing but a huge mysterious house full of undiscovered rooms but its grandiose past still lives on in the minds of everybody in town as once the Grand Hotel where people came to drink its famous healing waters. Some say that the water actually might spring from the mythical Fountain of Youth, found by one of Ephraim’s ancestors and a possible explanation for the fact that everybody in town is so healthy and smart.
Mallory’s family have always been the caretakers of the estate, a position that has been passed down the lines on her mother’s side. Will’s family has always hated Ephraim’s family: their dispute over the discovery of the mythical Fountain of Youth a source of intense hatred on the part of Will’s family over the wealth generated for Ephraim’s family.
What the book does really, really well is to expound on this basic scenario by having the three children become friends and allies. They start by working together at school on a project about early North Pole explorers (a fun theme that runs through the book and connects both present and past) and then trying to solve the mystery of the Fountain of Youth. What happens next is a fun adventure following the three kids going around town as well as up and down secret rooms in the house. As the tension builds up, questions of immortality, of tradition and of inherited feuds are addressed – to uneven results.
It’s a really interesting set-up because each kid has a different motivation for going on this quest. Ephraim hopes to find the Fountain so that he can cure his father; but this quest also gives him a sense of purpose as he often sees himself as the mediocre member of the family since his older brother and younger sister often excel at everything. The relationship with his siblings is one of the best things about the book as well, especially the way that each kid deals with their father’s ailment. Mallory’s motivation stems from a childhood brought up on hearing fantastical stories about the Water Castle and about the Fountain. Her parents have always told her those stories as though they were true and their love for each other shone through the telling. But now her mother is gone, her parents are separated and what else about her life is a filthy lie? Finding the Fountain would definitely re-establish the order of things. As for Will, he needs to find the Fountain in order to explain it: as a budding scientist, all of this will only make sense if he can understand the properties of the water. It doesn’t matter that his father will probably kill him if he finds out that he is friends with Ephraim because it is time for idiocy and ignorance to end.
In the meantime, there are Nora’s journal entries: a young woman in the early 1900s, she is a learned scholar who wants to become an explorer and who is hired by one of Ephraim’s ancestors to assist him on his scientific research about the legendary water’s properties.
As you can see, The Water Castle offers a very rich story, with several interesting threads that blend together rather well. I loved the kids (including Nora) and their storylines but there were certain things that give me cause to pause.
The approach here is kind of awesome. It’s about taking what could be otherwise “magical” with an attempt to explain the Fountain of Youth through the scientific method by examining its properties and how it can even exist. In a way, this is much more Science Fiction than Fantasy and I would have otherwise really appreciated this hadn’t it been for the fact that the “Science” was of the hand-wavy variety. This wouldn’t generally be a huge problem – I can suspend disbelief – if it wasn’t for how the book seems to be so determined to have things set in a “realistic” scenario. It does that by introducing science lessons, science experiments and in Nora’s timeline, by having her interact with famous scientists like Nikola Tesla.
So what is wrong about the science here? First of all, they find out that the water contains a new natural chemical element which, in our world, as it exists, it is not POSSIBLE – all elements occurring naturally have been found according to the periodic table of elements (although it is possible to synthesise a new element which is not the case here). Then there is how they take the water (with this element in it), put the water in a barrel then use electricity to affect the water and create the Super Water which: no. This is a completely bogus experiment – the water within the barrel would not be affected in the way intended by the author in this scenario.
Yeah, I can’t believe I am going on and on about this and let me tell you, having a partner who teaches Chemistry and Physics is both a blessing and a curse. This is also where I take a break to ask: does this matter? If the book is good otherwise and I think that really fun for children, does it matter? I personally think it does: Science is important.
But moving forward, there are also flaws in the internal logic. One of the biggest ones has to do with the connection between Nora and Mallory’s mother and without spoiling: their true connection is clearly defined in the book (at least they were for me) and although it is SUPER COOL, it is not very believable that no one else would realise this given what this connection entails. It also makes one wonder about certain things: how come these kids are the only ones finding out about the true nature of the water? How come no one has ever found this barrel in the roof, or the hidden bottles of Fountain of Youth water (which are not well hidden at all considering how the kids find them). It is also puzzling that the author addresses racism in the present storyline by having Mallory being outspoken about it but it doesn’t at all addresses it in the 1900s storyline – Nora is a African-American girl who works at a hotel-estate belonging to a white rich family with white privileged guests and not once there is any indication that she is affected by any form of racism. As much as I completely loved her storyline, I also felt there was a weird disconnect there.
And I also think the super neat ending completely defeats the bigger questions asked about immortality in a way. It was a let-down for me because I am really not interested in magical cures and despite the “scientific approach” this is ultimately what it really was to me.
That said, this is my interpretation of the book – things are not really spelled out at all (although they seemed obvious to me) and I guess that part of the fun here is to argue over What Really Happens. The Water Castle is not really as bad as what the misgivings above might indicate and has enough awesome in it to make it worth reading if you are so inclined. (less)
And I am SO glad I did. My own take? I love it. I agree with those who say this is a feminist book. I think September Girls is not only NOT sexist, but also quite the opposite: I think it challenges sexism directly in a myriad of ways but also does so metaphorically. It questions patriarchy, the idea of “manhood” very explicitly and it does so in a beautifully written, languid, thought-provoking story. It’s absolutely one of my favourite reads this year.
Allow me to expound on why. Please note: I am hoping it is clear that I am not attacking different readings of September Girls but I feel I need to interact directly with some of the sexism claims because to me it is important to offer a different take. So here is my deconstruction of the novel and most importantly, of the claims of sexism levelled at it.
WARNING: ALL THE SPOILERS.
The story is mostly narrated by Sam, a young 17-year-old boy who is spending his summer with his father and brother Jeff at a remote beach house in a sleepy location full of strange, beautiful Girls. Sam addresses them with the capital G because they are so other: all equally blond, all equally weird, all beautiful, extremely sexy and – unexpectedly – coming on to him. When he meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, they start to fall for each other. Then he learns what the Girls really are.
September Girls is a dark, twisted, fucked-up fairytale in which mermaids (or beings that are very similar to mermaids) have been cursed by their Father . Sam shares the narrative with one of the Girls who is telling him – us – everything about them in this eerie, amazing tale. It’s almost like a siren song.
We are told that: their father curses them because he hated their Mother, who is called a Whore:
“We have been told that she was a whore, although we can’t remember who told us that, and we often find ourselves arguing over the true definition of whore.”
We are told that: the curse entails being sent away from home abruptly and with very vague memories of why and how. They show up at the shore one day, naked and barely formed. They can’t swim. Their feet hurt with every step. They don’t know how to speak, what to think and they don’t even remember their names:
“We come here without names. There are the names they call us. But those aren’t our names. The names they call us are not hard to guess. Comehere, Wheresmyfood, Trysmilingsometime, and Suckonthis are four common ones, but the list goes predictably on from there and only gets uglier. Those are the names they call us. Those are not our names. We choose our own names.”
We are told that: they have no identity or memory but they know that to break the curse they need to find a good, virgin boy to have sex with and so they must forge their identify in the way that will work best for them in attracting those boys. They forge it by the most immediate things they see in front of them: fashion magazines and TV shows and thus they realise that becoming sexy, blond girls will give them the best chance to break the curse:
“We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with sexiness that appears unconsidered. The women think we’re tacky, but we’re not interested in the opinions of women anymore. We learned long ago how unimportant the opinions of women are. We are here because our mother could not protect us. We are here because our father had an ‘opinion’ “.
We are told that: when they finally find a Virgin boy, their curse does not allow them to act – they must always wait for the guy to notice them. Only when the curse is broken can they return to their elusive home. They are all sisters but sisterhood is dangerous.
And it’s all horrible and unfair and just like Sam says at one point: these Girls’ parents are real fucking assholes.
A possible reading is to take those quotes and the curse itself at face value – they do sound incredibly misogynistic. That’s because they are. That is in fact, the point. If that curse and those quotes I chose are not a brilliant, REALLY OBVIOUS metaphor for how girls experience sexism in our society as well as an example of the weight of unfair expectations bearing on them, I don’t know anything anymore.
In a way I think the best criticism that could be levelled at the book is that at the end of the day, this could still be construed as a book that shows female suffering as a means to talk about feminism. And given that the way to break a curse is to have sex with a virgin boy, this could still be construed as a book that puts a lot of power on the hands of the male. That said, with regards to the former, ours is a world in which women do experience sexism every single day and even though I love to see diverse stories where those are not perpetuated, I also want to see stories that do acknowledge that, that do acknowledge the wtfuckery of fairytales and of ridiculous curses and above all, I want to read stories like this one which does exactly that in the way that it so cleverly addresses sexism and patriarchy.
My reading is that this curse is a mirror. It is a mirror reflecting our world – but in many ways it is also a broken mirror because the questioning is always there. It’s in the way that the Girls DO form friendships with each other. In the way that the Girls DO try to break the curse in a myriad of ways by attempting to leave the beach and the town: Girls have almost died trying. There are those who challenge the rules and those who simply accept their deaths without breaking the curse. And it’s not even a heteronormative story either: girls have fallen in love with other girls as well. This book would be a bad, sexist idea if the sexism wasn’t challenged at every step of the way, if their Father wasn’t presented as a raging misogynist who is worthy of contempt.
Reading is such an awesome thing and as I said, my aim is not to discredit other people’s readings of the book. I truly find fascinating the ways that readers have interacted with September Girls. There is for example, a passage that has been quoted in several reviews and used to support the claims of misogyny and sexism and slut shaming. I wanted to quote it here to as support exactly the opposite. In it DeeDee and Sam are chatting after her reading of the Bible:
“I like the parts about hos, even if they always come to a bad end. Eat a fucking apple, you’re a ho. Open a box, you’re a ho. Some guy looks at you: turn to stone, ho. See you later, ho. It’s always the same. The best one is Lilith–also a ho, but a different kind of ho. She went and got her own little thing going, and for that she gets to be an eternal demon queen, lucky her. No one likes a ho. Except when they do, which, obviously, is most of the time. Doesn’t make a difference; she always gets hers eventually.”
To me this passage is incredibly subversive and sarcastic. It shows that DeeDee is fully aware. To support my claim of awareness, she even says a bit later on: “I actually like hos myself. Maybe I am one – I barely know what counts anymore”. She has read feminist tracts and understands how society works: “I love how when boys have a completely unacceptable habit like peeing in the sink, science actually goes to all the trouble to come up with a justification for it.” Or when Sam “congratulates” her for having opinions, she says: “Oh, thank you, I’m so glad you approve of me having a thought in my brain.”
So to me? DeeDee = fucking awesome.
BUT even if taken at face value, even if we want to believe that DeeDee IS slut shaming in the Bible quote, it would also be ok in the context of this novel. Because there are Girls who do not question. There are Girls who simply go about doing what they are supposed to do. And that is also a significant way to portray internalized, unquestioned sexism – we are all part of this world after all and are all subject to sexist messages all the time. This is all the more clear in the book with regards to the Girls.
So I have written all of that and so far haven’t even touched on the subject of Sam and his dick or Sam and his raging sexism and how those connect to some of the criticism I have seen with regards to the book: the language used, the continuous swearing as well as references to sex and to private parts. To wit: I understand that each reader has different thresholds for what they like to read and how much cursing they can take and September Girls can be seen as extremely crass in parts.
But to me, it was not really crass as much as it is straightforward and bullshit-less. To me, Sam has a healthy relationship with his dick – he calls it a dick, he likes to masturbate and gets boners. There is this one time, he thinks to himself that all he wanted to do was to go home, relax and masturbate and go to sleep and – this is probably Too Much Information but at this point, I don’t really care anymore – I TOTALLY GET THIS, BRO.
There is also this one scene in particular that a lot of readers see problems with in which he is staring at this beautiful beach, he is feeling the sun on his back, it’s the first day of his summer holidays and he says something like “I felt a heaviness in my dick”. I totally get how sensual moments like these are, you know? But also, this is not all that moment entails: the heaviness in his dick is because:
“I felt strong and solid, more myself – the best version of myself, I mean – than I had in a while.”
The contextual meanings of all of this is that Sam is learning who he is, he is searching for an identity and to an understanding of what it means to be a “man”. This is a recurrent theme in the novel. This is the main point of the novel. As early as page ONE Sam talks about his father and brother thusly:
“The most obnoxious thing about them was their tendency to land on the topic of my supposedly impeding manhood: that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy – which vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair – but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next – ta-da! – a man, as if someone would even notice the difference.”
So for the entire book Sam is struggling with the idea of “manhood”. He is directly and explicitly struggling to understand what is it that makes a boy a man. His brother Jeff and his best friend Sebastian constantly sprout deeply offensive and sexist language when talking about girls. They use gendered insults all the time: “don’t be a pussy Sam”. And Sam – even though he feels uncomfortable hearing those messages – to start with, also uses that language, also refers to girls in a demeaning way. But the more his arc progresses, the more he changes.
He is not completely clueless because the questioning is there from the start as evidenced by the quote above but he is not quite there yet so throughout the book he says horrible things, he thinks sexist thoughts. And this just brings me back to how the narrative does not condone this, because it constantly puts Sam’s – and Jeff’s – ideas in check. And I like how the narrative does allow for sympathy for Sam (as well as for douchebag Jeff) as another boy struggling to break free of internalized sexism. But the point is: he grows out of it. He grows out of it beautifully by learning to respect and love the women in his life. And we are not talking about simply romantic love either although there is some of it. He learns to understand and sympathise with his mother, he forges friendships with other Girls and he falls in love with DeeDee. And love is a HUGE catalyst for change in this book but I really appreciated the way that love is not the end-all/be-all that will solve everybody’s problems. Quite the opposite in fact.
Speaking of Sam’s mom: this is another brilliant aspect of the book for me. Her arc to me, reads as an incredibly feminist arc. To begin with, Sam is the one to describe what happened to his mother and he does so by being completely oblivious: he talks about how his mom one day started going online, becoming addicted to Facebook, then reading the SCUM Manifesto and deciding to take off to Women’s Land to find herself. HE doesn’t understand anything about it. HE thinks his mom is crazy and has destroyed his family. THEN his mother comes back and that’s when his understanding of her takes place and it is beautiful: then we learn that his mother was struggling to understand her own life choices:
“I thought of what my father had said: about the choices she had made and the ones she was still making. She had decided to take action. Even if it had been pointless, even if it had been the wrong thing, even if it had just only led her back to us eventually, it was still action and that counted for something.”
And here is the gist of this book: it’s about choices and identity in a world that often tries to take those away from both women and men. I loved DeeDee and Sam because both are trying so hard to understand themselves and the world they live in. September Girls offers a deeper understanding of love, identity and a constant, non-stop challenge of ideas regarding “masculinity” and “femininity”.
The ending of September Girls is fucking brilliant. It’s bittersweet and fantastic as it brings the curse to its head with a twist about choices and moving on and love. The curse does not work in the way one expects it to work and the ending is so satisfying in the way that it doesn’t play into romantic expectations: love does not save anyone. This is a fairytale but not of the Disney variety (if there was any doubt). The plot itself is a languid, slow-moving summer-like story and I loved it. And now I also want to read everything Bennett Madison has ever written.
It’s a 9 from me and it will definitely be on my top 10 books of 2013.
A man returns to his childhood town in Sussex for a funeral, and finds himself drawn to the house at the end of the lane – the home of Let...moreThea’s Take:
A man returns to his childhood town in Sussex for a funeral, and finds himself drawn to the house at the end of the lane – the home of Lettie Hempstock, that funny girl who talked about funny things and claimed that the small pond in the back of her house was the Ocean. After forty years, he has forgotten everything about his childhood, but when he visits the Hempstock farm the memories wash over him like the cool waves of Lettie’s impossible Ocean. He remembers the day his parents started renting out his bedroom, and the South African opal miner who ran over his kitten, then later committed suicide in their family’s car. He remembers the ancient raggedy spirit (the flea), who is drawn to his town by the desperation of the miner’s death, who hitches a ride into the boy’s world as a worm in the sole of his foot. He remembers the horror of that spirit, who becomes known as Ursula Monkton, who threatens to kill him and destroy his family. Most of all, he remembers the Hempstock women – his friend Lettie, her mother, and grandmother – who are ancient, wise, and who help him against Ursula and her mischief, and the terrible things that come in her wake.
I always have a hard time starting off a review when it comes to books that I truly love.
I wanted to start this book with a quote, but it’s hard to select just one. Do I pick the first sad line from the first chapter, defining the nameless narrator’s isolation and childhood? (Nobody came to my seventh birthday party) (I lay on the bed and lost myself in the stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway.) Do I pick the quote when the eleven-year-old girl, Lettie, from the house at the end of the lane, takes our narrator into a strange place where they confront a gray raggedy monster? (Its face was ragged, and its eyes were deep holes in the fabric. There was nothing behind it, just a gray canvas mask, huger than I could have imagined, all ripped and torn, blowing in the gusts of storm wind.) Or how about that part when the young boy’s father does something terrible to his son in a fit of icy rage? (I was fully dressed. That was wrong. I had my sandals on. That was wrong. The bathwater was cold, so cold and so wrong.) Or any of the other haunting and terrifying and wonderful bits within The Ocean at the End of the Lane?
No. I’ll start with what needs to be said: The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a beautiful, unforgettable book. It’s a smaller story and a quieter one than I’ve come to expect from Neil Gaiman’s novels; certainly it doesn’t have the grandeur or scope of The Sandman or American Gods, nor does it possess the romantic fantasy of Stardust or the quirky wryness of Good Omens or Neverwhere.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is much more like Coraline, or the short stories in Fragile Things, Smoke and Mirrors, and Unnatural Creatures. This is a novel, and it’s a book meant for adults, but it’s actually a powerful, if slender, fable about childhood and memory and the painful process of losing and regrowing a heart as you grow up. This is how The Ocean at the End of the Lane makes you feel.
I loved this book. I loved it very much. I loved the simplistic writing style, narrated in the voice of our young seven year old protagonist. I loved the substance of the story, and its fantastical elements with its three Hempstead women, the terrifyingly wrong Ursula Monkton, and the frightful creatures that feast on misplaced fleas like Ursula. This is a horror fable that has been told before, with echoes of Gaiman’s other work (mythologies we’ve seen before, with Ursula-monsters like Coraline‘s Other Mother) – but even if the story is familiar, it’s the telling that is the magic.
I don’t think this is Neil Gaiman’s finest book, but it’s a damn good one. And I loved it very, very much.
Wholeheartedly recommended for readers young and old, for those who yearn for a simple story told with heartbreaking beauty. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of my notable reads of 2013, beyond any doubt, and without any hesitation.
What Thea said.
I am glad Thea covered the summary, what this book is about and some of its themes so that will give me some freedom to extrapolate on the latter as well as on the topic of author accessibility instead of repeating the same points. Neil Gaiman is one of most accessible writers out there – he is always on Twitter talking to people and I have attended three events lately (including one for this book) in which it became clear to me how much he engages his audience with kindness and openness. In the talk I attended 1 about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he says this is probably his most personal book yet: it started as a short story written for his wife as an attempt to show himself to her. If the book is not exactly autobiographical (even though the event that sets things in motion in the story DID happen to his family), this is probably a book that is infused with Gaiman-ess. Many of the themes, the ideas, the world-building, the horror are very familiar and I can see HOW the writing of it and the final result are Gaiman himself and his favourite things.
Anyone well acquainted with Gaiman’s oeuvre knows he is a worldsmith as well as a wordsmith: he is a creator of mythologies and a fabulous writer. This is very obvious here, in this little book of wonders. The word created of Ocean is a world that are most reminiscent of the Sandman collection and of Coraline to me. The villain Ursula reminds of the Other Mother as much as the “ocean” itself reminded me of the Dreaming. Recurrent themes such as three Hempstock women (Three witches? The three Moirai? The Kindly Ones?) and the painful process of growing up and becoming are also present here.
But enough with the familiar, here is what is most distinctive about it:
One of the most striking things about Ocean is its framing device. The story is narrated by an (unnamed) adult as he remembers details of his forgotten childhood. The brilliance stems from how the author managed to capture childhood and innocence through the eyes of a grown-up. The voice is at turns mature in its narrative and childlike in its reaction to those memories. It’s incredible because this juxtaposition works brilliantly: just as one is about to get inescapably entangled in the horrors of the narrator’s childhood, one remembers he has survived it – sort of. And it’s also great because this is a story that is both about being a child and about being an adult. The former exists in the way that the narrator as a child experience powerlessness and fear in the face of unspeakable terrors; and the latter in the way that the story portrays adulthood as a fluid, ever-evolving process that is not unlike childhood.
And then there are the descriptions of events and things in the book. The description of the places, of nature and above of all, of the food prepared by the Hempstocks is out-of-this-world: sensual and honest. It was easy to feel the darkness, to hear the sounds of nature and to crave the meals shared. In that sense, this is one of the most grounded books I’ve had the pleasure of reading because it was so vivid.
I loved Ocean but I started out thinking that it was a little book of wonders. I’d like to recant that “little.” The more I think about it, the more reasons I find to not only love wholeheartedly it but to feel that there is unparalleled scope and grandeur in this more intimate, quiet story. Watch it as this makes its way into my top 10 of 2013. (less)
Freighter pilot Marta Grayline is caught in the middle of an impending war between her home planet Nea and its neighbor Ada...moreOriginally posted at Kirkus
Freighter pilot Marta Grayline is caught in the middle of an impending war between her home planet Nea and its neighbor Adastre. When the war starts, she has nowhere to go but back to her family home in Gideon, a traditionalist, backward country in Nea, where women have little freedom. Away from her beloved job, her friends and her Adastran girlfriend and at odds with her conservative family, Marta feels incredibly isolated in Gideon. So, when the opportunity arises for her and her younger sister, Beth, to join the Novan Emergency Fleet, she takes it, no questions asked.
I love Susan Jane Bigelow’s science fiction novels because they are an incredibly complex mixture of awesome personal character arcs and great stories which often contain thoughtful elements including politics, social commentary and gender issues without ever making her books any less fun.
The Daughter Star takes us to a different universe than that of her excellent Extrahuman series. The gist of the story is: It’s hundreds of years in the future and, in the Family Ternary Star System, war has just been declared between its two main planets Adastre and Nea. The main reason for this war is, ostensibly, an attempt to control Haven, a third habitable planet that orbits the Daughter Star. Beneath this reasoning, though, lie hundreds of years of tension stemming from their shared history. The humans that inhabit these planets are the sole humans in the universe, forcibly moved to this Star System after Earth was destroyed by an alien species called the Abrax, who showed up to harvest the Earth’s atmosphere. Nobody has heard from the Abrax in ages (cue sound of Impending Doom).
It’s in this context that Marta’s—and to an extent her sister’s—arc develops. And it’s a story that is extremely personal but which does not happen in a vacuum. Marta is a member of a family, a citizen of a country, an employee of a government, a person with a diverse group of friends as well as a girlfriend whom she hasn’t seen in months. All of those inform her arc in different ways: There is her sense of freedom at constant war with the impediments imposed by Gideon’s government; her sense of self-worth that is a result of her talent as a pilot and which is constantly questioned by her family, who feels her worth is diminished because she is not married to a man.
Most of what surrounds Marta is conflicting, so it’s not surprising that she remains for most of the novel a confused mess who doesn’t know where her loyalty belongs: Which side should she support in this war? Who is right, who is wrong? Are the Abrax to be trusted? Is anybody to be trusted? Are her feelings for her girlfriend (the first girl she ever hooked up with) real love or a passing infatuation, and, if the latter, maybe she can get together with other women she meets along the way, right? But how can she even make her mind up when every single person or group she meets has a different story to tell and a different horse to back? History comes into play too, as the true story behind the settlement in Adastre and Nea come to light, showcasing corruption, class and social issues that still survive in the present.
The beauty in Bigelow’s stories is…that life is a complicated mass of different influences and there are absolutely no easy answers. This makes up for an engaging read as we follow Marta’s transformation from a somewhat naïve, hesitant girl who is a little bit oblivious and a lot impulsive into a mature, confident woman.
This is a new trilogy, each book following one of the Grayline sisters. I can’t wait for the next one.
In Book Smugglerish, a starry-eyed 8 out of 10.(less)
Zach, Poppy and Alice are friends who have known each other for ever. The three love coming up with awesome stories and to play them out with their ac...moreZach, Poppy and Alice are friends who have known each other for ever. The three love coming up with awesome stories and to play them out with their action figure toys. Their current story follows pirate William the Blade and his ally the thief Lady Jaye on a quest for The Queen, “played” by an ancient china doll. When they reach a point when William the Blade is about to find out the truth about his past, the unthinkable happens: Zach’s father throws away all of his action figures because according to him, at 12, Zach should no longer be playing make-believe.
Zach is furious but also ashamed and confused and instead of talking to his friends, he closes himself off and stops playing with them altogether. But then one night the girls show up at his house saying Poppy has been contacted by the ghost of The Queen – who claims that her soul is trapped in the china doll which has been made from the bones of her murdered body. The only way to free her (as well as the kids from its haunting) is to find where the girl used to live and bury the doll.
Adventure ensues as Zach, Poppy and Alice run away from home and go on their – this time, real – Quest.
Doll Bones was not quite what I was expecting. I thought this was going to be a good old romp with a strong horror bend. And in a way it was: there is a lot of fun adventure to be had and the doll is genuinely creepy especially since, for most of the book, we (and the characters) are not really sure if this is all happening in reality or only in their imagination.
But those aspects are almost bare foundation from which the author builds a story with a stronger focus on the relationship between the three kids and the importance of storytelling and creativity. Above all, I feel this is a tale about three kids on that threshold between childhood and adolescence and one that is deftly, thoughtfully handled by Holly Black here.
Zach’s father’s thoughtless action of throwing away his toys propels the story in a very interesting way. It is an outside force that informs internal conflict: adults telling kids they can be no longer kids and that their hobby of choice is childish and undesirable. The kids have to grasp this idea, and choose whether they internalise it or question it. There is a very interesting conflation here between the toys and their ability to continue with their game. Zach for example, believes he can’t play without them. But are the toys an essential part of their game or just tools? Similarly, Poppy, Zach and Alice are in that moment that growing up is just around the corner but not for all them at the same time or in the exact same way – Poppy for example is still desperately trying to hold on to what they have now, whereas Alice and Zach are almost eager to embrace change. Do finding new ways of interacting with the world, becoming interested in different pursuits as well as forming friendships with other people mean that their interaction need to change or that their friendship is no longer meaningful?
The answers to those questions are not clear-cut and in the end there is a feeling that things will have to inevitably change but not necessarily in a fundamental way. Storytelling, creativity, role-playing is something that can be equally important to adults and teens as it is to children. In addition to all of this, each kid’s family is also extremely important in how they interact with the world and I thought really interesting how each kid had a different background which created a more dynamic and diverse story. I really appreciated that Zach’s father’s action is addressed in the story very nicely and with unexpected poignancy.
In the end, Doll Bones turned out to be not as creepy as expected but more thoughtful than I was hoping. All in all, a very good read. (less)
Zoe is searching for a fresh start and a new job as travel book editor now that she moved back to New York City...moreOriginally posted on The Book Smugglers
Zoe is searching for a fresh start and a new job as travel book editor now that she moved back to New York City after her last job ended badly (i.e. in tears, after she had an affair with her boss, who turned out to be married). She comes across a position as a managing editor for a new series of travel guides in a new publishing house. But every time she attempts to apply for the job she stumbles on several people telling her not to, including the owner Phil. As it just so happens, the publishing house is owned by a vampire, most of its employees are other assorted creatures and human Zoe simply doesn’t belong.
Finding out that NY City has a subculture of monsters – the coterie – doesn’t really faze a desperate-for-a-job Zoe that much and desperate-for-a-managing-editor Phil hires her. Now she needs to learn everything she can about this new world and about the coterie so she can do her job properly. But everything turns south when she finds herself in the middle of a deadly fight for the soul of the city itself.
There is so much silliness to Mur Lafferty’s debut novel The Shambling Guide to New York City that I ask myself: do I review this with any degree of seriousness?
Yes, of course I review this seriously. Because even a light romp about a travel writer taking on a job at a shady publishing company in NY ran by a vampire and which caters to a (not so much) underground world needs to have internal logic, make sense and be competently written.
I know that there might a fun book here somewhere. There is after all, humour t be had with zombies turned travel writers, right? But the execution of this story leaves a lot to be desired. It follows an extremely familiar story pattern following a Special Heroine that finds herself in a situation where she Must Learn and who is then Guided by a Wise Personage and everybody seems to “just know” that she is Special. It’s boring.
And then we have the premise itself. I was expecting silly and camp (I mean, come on: travel guides…FOR THE UNDEAD! How awesome could this have been?) but I can’t get over how downright stupid the set-up is. Phil the Vampire decides to create a publishing house that caters for the coterie and sets up said company, rents an awesome office building, hires a bunch of employees (several writers, marketing guy, accountant, etc) but he still doesn’t have a managing editor or An editorial vision for his travel guides. So basically all these other employees are sitting around waiting for a managing editor. And because in the entire world of the coterie ( which, according to the world-building as put forth in the novel, seems to be extensive, densely populated and widespread) there is not a single person who could do this job. ONLY Zoe can be the managing editor, even though she is a human who knows absolutely nothing – zero, nada – about the world she is hired to write about.
This is, quite frankly, the WORST business decision in the history of business decisions ever (and please don’t tell me this is how the publishing world works. My illusions will collapse like a house of cards at my feet).
What this premise does do is to force the story to move a certain way: even after this decision is made Phil still refuses to tell Zoe the things about the coterie she needs to know to do her job because “vampires are secretive”. So Zoe takes upon herself to learn. Cue endless sections of info-dump, ridiculous enigmatic conversations, convenient connections between characters and set-ups in which Zoe comes across fae, goddesses, incubi, etc and does her “research”, thereby also informing the reader about the coterie and justifying the book. All building up to an ending that was extremely rushed, with a lot of hazy action sequences and an end-of-the-world event that felt incredibly small and localised.
At the end of the day everything in here felt extremely contrived and forced to me. The story and characters were not interesting or vivid enough to allow me to get pass any of these problems in order to have fun reading The Shambling Guide to New York City. (less)
“You hear stories like that all your life and think: cool, a ghost bus. But now we have to look at this stuff analyt...moreReview originally posted at Kirkus
“You hear stories like that all your life and think: cool, a ghost bus. But now we have to look at this stuff analytically... a ghost bus?! The “ghost” of a motor vehicle?”
In London, Detective Inspector Quill is about to bring down drug lord Rob Toshack, the culmination of four years of painstaking work. Toshack is arrested and taken into custody and when he is about to confess to all of his crimes, the unthinkable happens: He dies. It is a bloody, sudden death that puzzles the detectives and doctors working the case. There is something really weird happening here—something that might explain how Toshack was able to always be ahead of the law.
Co-opting the help of undercover cops Costan and Sefton and of intelligence analyst Ross, Quill sets out to investigate the whys and hows of Toshack’s death. Soon enough, the team come across something that alters the way they perceive the world and they discover that London has a hidden, sinister side. Worst of all, there is a supernatural serial killer on the loose, capable of altering memories and who is kidnapping and boiling children alive.
They have only but one choice: to go after her. Operation Toto—they are so not in Kansas anymore—is underway and they are armed only with their regular equipment and tactics. What can possibly go wrong?
A lot, as it turns out.
London Falling is an engaging combination of Urban Fantasy and Horror, featuring a plot that is as close to a crime procedural as it can be. Comparisons to Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series are inevitable to any fans of British Urban Fantasy. Both share a “hidden London” setting and cops as central characters. London Falling reminded me a lot of Rivers of London to start with, but there are two essential differences: The London here is a London that is horrifying and scary rather than whimsical and quirky (at least in this first entry, opportunities to explore this further will undoubtedly arise in further installments). And the main characters in London Falling are completely powerless and have no supernatural help, having to rely on their regular police procedures to face unimaginable evil. Heck, British cops don't even carry guns. This creates wonderful opportunity for awkward, hilarious moments where the cops have to follow normal procedure when dealing with the fantastical: You try and tell a goddesslike creature that she is under arrest and see what happens.
Similarly funny (but extremely thoughtful) is when the team reach a moment of despair and, without anything else to go on, they ask for a Pastor, an Imam and a Rabbi to “bless” objects so they can use them and the three, being the modern folks that they are, are horrified at such old-fashioned views. They insist on telling the cops that “holy water” and “sacred objects” are nothing but symbols and should not be taken at face value. These brief moments of levity are far in between though, as London Falling’s central plot deals with harrowing, sickening events.
Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the novel is the way the fantastical elements are explained. London is a city that is alive and changing, that is both traditional and modern (reminding me in a way of yet another recent British Urban Fantasy, Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son), and whose supernatural side is shaped by both personal and collective memories.
On the down side, I thought the writing to be a bit awkward in places, with weird breaks in the narrative and excessive head-hopping. One could also say that the characters do fall under certain stereotypical patterns but to me, there is enough interesting character development and back story here to make those characters come to life. Just about.
I also need to comment on the fact that the central group of characters is quite diverse. Two cops are Black (one of them gay); two cops are women (one of them the main chief of their entire organization) and no remarks are made on their ability to do their jobs because they are women. Bonus point: The only romance in the novel is the one between two blokes, Kevin and Joe.
At the end of the day, London Falling was simply a fun book and its epilogue, a tasty morsel for what is to come. I am very much looking forward to it.
In Book Smugglerish, an excited 7 out of 10.
 I await excitedly for the day when I won't need to remark on things that ought to be par for the course. Alas, that day is not here just yet. (less)
Lauren Beukes has been on my radar for a while but I never felt inclined to pick her books until l The Shi...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Lauren Beukes has been on my radar for a while but I never felt inclined to pick her books until l The Shining Girls came along with its promising conceit: Science Fiction meets Thriller in a story featuring a time-travelling serial killer and his one surviving victim looking for revenge.
In Depression-era Chicago, Harper Curtis walks into The House to find a dead body in the hallway and a room full of mementos from dead girls. Their murders, actions he has yet to commit. Those “shining girls” – bright young things, full of potential – call to him and The House obliges by opening its door to other times. And so Harper’s quest through time begins from the 30s to the 90s, alternating decades, back and forth as he stalks girls from their childhood to the moment he kills them.
But then in 1989, one of his victims – Kirby Mazrachi – miraculously survives his savage attack and a few years later becomes an investigative journalist looking for clues about her attack which she suspects was not random. The narrative mostly alternates between the two characters’ viewpoint, the chapters shifting in time, with Harper’s obsessively stalking these shining girls and Kirby’s obsessively stalking Harper.
It’s hard to say when exactly did The Shining Girls went off the rails for me. Perhaps in that awkward moment in which I realised that the time travel here was nothing but gimmick. Perhaps it is my own fault because I often think of time travel as Science Fiction rather than Fantasy but when it became clear that the speculative fiction element came with no explanation whatsoever beyond “it’s the House that does it”, I felt my interest in the story diminishing exponentially. Because at the end of the day, remove the time travel elements and the random “magic house” from this novel and all you have is just another thriller following a man viciously killing women in graphic detail.
I am perhaps being slightly unfair with this snap judgement. One could consider the time travel element and the endless loop that Harper and Kirby seem to be stuck on to be essential to the story and to work as a metaphor for the inevitability of his psychopath tendencies to kill women. Harper’s story starts with his course already traced ahead of him, he knows the girls are to die because he has already killed them:
He remembers doing it. He has no recollection of doing it. One of these things must be true.
But is he a slave to his own desires and influence the House or does the House influence him? I am not sure how much I care to answer this considering that there is a Magic House in my Science Fiction Thriller. In fairness, I am not sure how much the story cares to answer this either and this undoubtedly adds to the horror of it all.
As I write this review, it is becoming clear to me how much this bothered me though. I am not averse to elements of Fantasy in Science Fiction nor does it escape me the irony of calling time travel, science. This is obviously something that will affect readers differently.
But moving on: the fact that Harper travels through time does add an interesting historical element as the author tries to convey Chicago through time. This works only to a certain extent because at times the level of historical research became too obvious rather than seamlessly, vividly integrated. The problem here is that how short a space Lauren Beukes has in which to convey this sense of time and place. When attempting to encapsulate for example, Chicago in the 50s and the raging paranoia of the period in a few paragraphs, this is the superficial-at-best result:
For God’s sake, she’s not even a socialist, let alone a member of the Communist Party. But she’s artistic. And these days that’s bad enough. Because artists socialize with all kinds of people.
Finally, it is important for me to note that the focus of The Shining Girls is on extremely graphic, bloody, gendered violence. Harper is killing women and more than that, he is killing women who “shine” and who are “burning with potential”. I am not entirely sure how I feel about this idea of “potential” – what does it mean exactly, why use it as a departure point and premise? This makes me especially wary when it becomes clear that only a few special women have this so-called potential (to the point where the killer has to find these few women through time). Not to mention that some of the girls shine no more and this constitutes a problem for Harper. For example, one of the women he is supposed to kill, doesn’t “shine” because she is a drug addict who lost interest in life – and then we are faced with another similarly uncomfortable idea: that of “squandered” potential. I feel there is a judgement being made here and one could argue that said judgement is being made by a psychopath but I do not think this was addressed or questioned in the narrative enough.
Two things might counteract the above: Kirby and her brilliant, painful portrayal as a survivor (rather than victim) and the author’s attempts to give voice to each victim – even if very briefly and often stereotypically – which might be just enough to make them more than passing female bodies. Might. Maybe.
The Shining Girls is a not entirely successful genre blend (Horror, Historical, Fantasy and Thriller) but is a perfect example of the disconnect that sometimes happen between the reading and the reviewing. I devoured it in one sitting, turning the pages to see what would happen next. I sat down to write about it and it turned into something else altogether. (less)