It was a truth universally acknowledged that my brother Charles was a hopeless gamester, a ridiculous over-slOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
It was a truth universally acknowledged that my brother Charles was a hopeless gamester, a ridiculous over-sleeper and the one sibling too lazy to take part in any family arguments, no matter how exasperating our sisters might have been (and usually were).
Kat Stephenson, untrained Guardian and youngest member of the Stephenson family, has saved the day, and now must deal with the consequences. Thanks to her efforts, Kat's eldest sister Elissa is marrying the man of her dreams (and newly found substantial fortune, also thanks to Kat), Mr. Collingwood. Her brother Charles' sizable gambling debts are repaid, Angeline and Kat are restored with modest dowries, and all seems to be looking up for the Stephenson family. On the day of the wedding though, things go terribly awry when the ceremony is rudely interrupted by one Mrs. Carlyle - mother to the (formerly bewitched) Frederick Carlyle, come to rescue her son from the scandalous, ruinous clutches of Angeline Stephenson. After receiving a vindictive letter from high-society darling, Lady Fotherington, Angeline's prospects seem ruined as she is revealed publicly as a witch - her true love, Frederick, is taken away by his enraged mama, his inheritance threatened to be withheld should he choose to dabble with the likes of the Stephensons. Even worse, after learning this news, Kat confronts fellow Guardian, Lady Fotherington (whom has always had it in for Kat and her family, stemming from some past brawl with Kat's mother) - and promptly gets herself thrown out of the Guardians' order, much to the glee of Fotherington.
In order to salvage the family's reputation before the gossip of witchcraft can reach the rest of society, Kat's Stepmama whisks away the family (sans newlywed Elissa) to Bath, under the guise of paying a visit to their Stepmama's very rich and well connected cousins and enjoy the locale's health restoring properties. In reality, Kat's Stepmother's plan is simple and direct - they are at Bath to find Angeline a husband before Lady Fotherington's malicious handiwork catches up to them.
Things at Bath, however, do not go smoothly to plan. First, there's the problem of tricking Stepmama's rich cousins into accepting the Stephensons as guests (thanks to Kat's quick thinking and storytelling). There's the problem of saving Angeline from her own ridiculous schemes to push everyone away. Most importantly, there's the question of the restorative springs at Bath themselves - wild magic is afoot, and it involves Kat's brother Charles, her cousin Lucy, and the Guardians themselves. With Kat expelled from the order, though, she has to rely on only her own wits to solve the mystery and save the day.
Well, folks, what can I say? Renegade Magic is every bit as fantastic as Kat, Incorrigible - heck, it's even better. Everything that I loved about the first book and came to expect from the second book - Kat's penchant for mischief-making and magic-wielding, the love and understandable frustrations between Kat and her family, for two - are present in abundance here. The ante is upped in Renegade Magic, in terms of plot complications (they are wonderful), character development (especially between Kat and her various family members), and in terms of Kat's abilities herself.
Let's talk plot, first. The storyline for Renegade Magic is more complex than the first book, throwing in not only romantic entanglements and magical mischief, but also some serious conflict in the way of Kat getting kicked out of the Guardians' order, being stripped of access to the Golden Hall, and her powers forever destined to be stunted as she will never have formal training by any Guardian mentor. Things get even more drastic when Kat stumbles across some dangerous wild magic in the bath houses, ancient Roman rituals amassing crazy amounts of power, and must figure out who is behind the gatherings before her brother Charles ends up a sacrificial lamb to someone else's dastardly scheme. There's also the ever-present tension between Kat and Angeline, as Angeline is hell bent on her ridiculous schemes to make her Stepmama go apoplectic, and stick it to society at the same time.
In fact, I think my favorite parts of Renegade Magic involve Kat and Angeline and their relationship. As with the first book, clearly both sisters love each other (and by way of comparison, Kat and Angeline's cousins, Maria and Lucy are a great example of nasty sisters), though they do have their own tensions and animosity. Angeline still refuses to share their mother's spell books with Kat, and clearly harbors resentment towards her younger sister for inheriting Guardian powers and a position in the secret order of society magicians. At the same time, Kat jumps into trouble head-first, even with the best of intentions (protecting her sister and brother, for example) without thinking of consequences. There's also more inclusion of Kat's Stepmama - giving her more of a voice and full dimension as a character that does love her stepchildren, for all her blustering - which is fantastic. Plus, this time around, we are fully introduced to brother Charles (who needs more conviction, but actually does stand up for his sisters), and best of all, Kat's father - who finally takes a stand for his family in a gloriously fist-pump-of-awesomeness pivotal moment.
Of course, the success of the book relies on Kat herself, and she's stronger than ever in Renegade Magic. Just as clever, just as quick-witted, and just as wonderfully headstrong, Kat is a heroine with her heart in the right place, who will do anything for those she cares about. And that is pretty freaking awesome.
I loved this book to bits, and I cannot wait for more. Absolutely, enthusiastically recommended, and easily a notable read of 2012....more
On a crisp Christmas eve, the elderly Arthur Kipps rests contentedly in front of a roaring fire, surrounded bOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
On a crisp Christmas eve, the elderly Arthur Kipps rests contentedly in front of a roaring fire, surrounded by his stepchildren and loving wife Esme. All is at peace with Arthur's world; all is as it should be. But when the young men start to tell ghost stories, Arthur's idyllic night is ruined. It is only now, after so many years, that Arthur puts his pen to paper and tells the story that haunts him - the story that keeps him up at night shaking with terror, the reason for his distress this Christmas night.
Arthur writes of a time, many years earlier when he was a young man, engaged to a lovely young woman, and only starting to make his way in the world as a solicitor. Assigned the task of sorting out the affairs of recently deceased client, the reclusive widow Alice Drablow, Arthur is sent to the small farming town of Crythin Gifford. From the start of his trip, something seems off - every time he attempts to speak with townspeople about the deceased Mrs. Drablow, he is met with deflection, blank faced fear, or completely ignored. Frustrated but eager to do his job, Arthur dismisses the cryptic warnings of the townspeople as superstitious nonsense and makes his way to the desolate and secluded Eel Marsh House. Situated on the marshes at the edge of the town, a place where sea and land are nigh indistinguishable, Eel Marsh House sits quietly, waiting for Arthur. Travel to the house is treacherous and can only be reached by pony and trap on the Nine Lives Causeway - a road that is completely submerged and impossible to traverse once the tide comes in each night. Despite the desolation of the home, despite the words of caution from the town, Arthur takes to the house and decides to stay there - no use making a cab come back and forth for him every day - until he has concluded his business.
That is before he realizes that there is something more to Eel Marsh House and Alice Drablow's legacy; before he hears the dying cries from the marsh, night after night; before he spies the wasted woman, dressed in black, with pure malevolence radiating from every fiber of her being.
The Woman in Black is Arthur's story - the first and only time he is brave enough to tell it. And dear readers, it is perfect. An atmospheric ghost story of the gothic persuasion, The Woman in Black is spine-chilling, traditional horror at its best. I am so very glad I read this book.
A slim volume at under 200 pages, The Woman in Black packs quite the punch and is an exercise in restraint - part of the reason I personally feel that many horror novels fail is because of a desire to pack in as much possible descriptive language as possible, as well as a tendency towards unnecessary (lengthy) explanation. Ms. Hill's novel, however sparse with page count, is dense in the development of its ideas and the execution of atmosphere. And, like the best storytellers, this author knows when her tale is done, and that the most horrific and frightening things are best left stated sparsely (as the end of the novel proves). There are no tawdry descriptions of cobwebbed halls or specters bathed in blood, wailing pathetically as they roam the halls of a haunted manor - rather, Ms. Hill's work relies on the creation of atmosphere, of setting and the unsettling feeling of terror that awakens and quickens in our narrator's heart, slowly, gradually, and subtly.
The success of The Woman in Black hinges entirely on description - but instead of describing the spectacle of ghosts, Susan Hill focuses on description of setting. Eel Marsh House is a place that holds its own with some of the finest iconic places of horror and the macabre; desolate as it is, Eel Marsh House stands with Hill House, the House of Usher, Amityville, and Hell House. I loved the palpable sense of hopelessness and isolation as Arthur recounts the still beauty - and malevolence - of the solid stone manor at the edge of the world. What better place to lay a story of despair and hate, of unfulfilled vengeance and desire for death?
For, even as the adroitly detailed setting is what makes the novel succeed, at its heart, The Woman in Black is a ghost story about a specter with unfinished business, and Arthur, our unfortunate narrator, the man who catches her attention. I don't want to spoil the story, but I will simply say that it works. As straightforward and traditional a tale as this is, it works.
In terms of writing, I would be remiss if I did not mention Ms. Hill's command of language and style, fitting in perfectly with this post-Victorian/early-Edwardian narration. Like Eel Marsh House, caught between land and sea, so too is narrator Arthur Kipps torn between an age of rationality and the Victorian superstitions and ghost stories of the past. This struggle expertly characterizes Arthur and his narrative throughout, and it makes him more than just a talking head for a ghost story by humanizing his flawed, unfortunate character.
Ultimately, The Woman In Black does exactly what it should - it creeps, it unsettles, it horrifies. I loved this smart, gothic horror novel and eagerly await the film in 2012 (even if the film is terrible, you'll have this amazing little book to fall back on). Absolutely recommended - and I am making Ana read it immediately....more
I absolutely loved The Forest of Hands and Teeth - it was one of my top 10 books of 2008 - and while I wasn't quite as blown away by The Dead-Tossed Waves, the second book in the series, I loved the book and eagerly awaited the third novel. The only reason I took so long reading this book is because I didn't want the series to end... is that selfish of me?
For every year of her life, the scarred, isolated Annah has survived and endured. When she was five, she survived the Forest of Hands and Teeth with the help of her friend Elias - though it came at the cost of leaving her twin sister behind. In the maze of brutal desperation that is the Dark City, Annah and Elias have grown up pretending to be brother and sister, clinging to each other for solace. But when Elias decides to leave and join the Recruiters, the protective forces charged with hunting down the infected undead, Annah is left alone for the first time and forced to fend for herself. Keeping her head down to avoid the cruel, prying eyes of others, Annah makes her solitary way through a bleak life of endless gray, clinging to the hope that Elias will soon return to her.
After three years without word from Elias, though, Annah must deal with the reality that he may not ever be returning. As she chooses to leave the Dark City to make her own path and discover what may have happened to her family in the forest, fate has her come across a girl that looks like a smoother, unscarred version of herself - Annah's twin sister, Gabry. Proud and beautiful, Gabry stands up to the cruel Recruiters that guard the bridge to the Dark City from the Neverlands, as does a haunted looking young man that is somehow immune to the undead, named Catcher. In return for her defiance, the Recruiters take Gabry prisoner, all while Annah watches on helpless to stop them. As Annah desperately tries to rescue her twin, drawing the eye of more Recruiters, Catcher insinuates himself into Annah's life and is determined to help her - for the sake of his friend Gabry, and because of a promise he made to Elias.
Catcher and Annah's struggles, though terrifying, become inconsequential as a sleeping horde of thousands of unconsecrated move on the Dark City, overwhelming its defenses and infecting with each bite of their gnashing teeth. Annah and Catcher are desperate to find Gabry and Elias, and bring the group to safety. In this cold world, though, safety comes at an impossible premium - in return for the shelter of the Recruiters, paid for by Catcher's unique immunity and ability to scavenge undetected by the undead, Annah, Gabry and Elias's lives hang in the balance. In order to truly live, not just survive day to day in a listless experience defined by fear, Annah knows she must find a way to escape her prison and lead those she loves to safety. But even if she can leave, where is there to go in a world overrun by so much death and hopelessness?
In the third and final novel of this series, author Carrie Ryan is brutal, unrelenting, and masterfully sadistic with her readers. Let me just put it this way: The Dark and Hollow Places is pretty damn awesome. Continuing the story told in The Dead-Tossed Waves from the perspective of heroine Gabry's long-lost twin Annah, The Dark and Hollow Places slightly overlaps with the last book before moving on, bringing to a conclusion the threads of the previous novel. While I think The Forest of Hands and Teeth's Mary, with her dreams of the ocean and a future beyond the stifling fences of her village, will always be my favorite of the trio, Annah is a close second. Though she is Gabry's identical twin, Annah's experiences have scarred her, literally and figuratively. While Gabry has grown up safe and loved by her mother, Annah's life has been one of pain, quiet, and struggle. While Gabry did not remember anything of her past, not even the fact that she had a twin sister or how they were separated in a fearful trek through the forest of hands and teeth, Annah has never forgotten the twin she left behind and shoulders the heavy burden of guilt for that decision every day of her life. While Gabry skin is smooth and unmarred, her mannerisms self assured and beautifully proud, Annah uses the barbed-wire scars that run down her face and body as both shield and weapon.
Most importantly, Annah is a fighter. Unlike her more sheltered sister, Annah has been forced to survive in the Dark City and make it on her own when Elias leaves. When Catcher enters the picture, Annah resists putting herself in anyone else's hands, determined to take care of herself and be beholden to no one. Of course, while Annah's determination and strength is something to be admired, it's also a double-edged sword as she holds everyone away from her to protect herself. I loved the tension between Annah and Gabry, as Annah fights resentment and love for the sister that has the kind of life Annah could not. But rather than succumb to bitterness, I loved that Annah finds a way to not only reconcile with her sister and Elias, who abandoned her, but to embrace the experiences that have shaped Annah as a person.
The other characters in this piece are more varied. Annah's counterpart is Catcher, who we met in The Dead-Tossed Waves, who struggles with the gift and curse of his immunity - a gift, because he can walk through the unconsecrated untouched; a curse because the Recruiters use his ability to scavenge for supplies and hold those he loves hostage. The relationship that blossoms between the scarred Annah and the broken Catcher seems, perhaps, inevitable, but for the most part I believed it (even if the degree of their attachment seemed to happen awfully quickly). Gabry is given a different dimension in this book through Annah's narrative, too, and she emerges as more sympathetic than she may have been in the last book. Interestingly, Elias comes off as kind of a jerk in this book, having left Annah on her own in a terrifying city to join the Recruiters for some questionable reasons (and after a big incident that has left Annah even more emotionally wounded). My only serious character qualms extend to the villainous Recruiters - who seem almost uniformly, predictably villainous. The cruel, woman-brutalizing, violent army types are a tired staple in zombie fiction, and in The Dark and Hollow Places this trope is in full force. I so wanted Ox, the leader of the Recruiters, to have more depth and texture as a character, and while he seems to understand Annah in a way that others do not, this character's particular end came off as a bit melodramatic.
From a plotting perspective, I loved that we get even more concrete answers in this book. The Dark City is given a historical context and we learn just how long the unconsecrated have been walking the earth. We learn about the hordes, the overwhelming infection that has taken over the world (if we are to believe Ox and the Recruiters' map). There are no further "breakers" in this novel, but there wouldn't be with a horde on the move, with so many infected around. We also learn, at the very end, just who Annah and Gabry really are.
Like the other books, there is an oppressiveness and bleakness when we learn of the extent of the infection and how there might not be any escape anywhere as the Dark City and the Neverlands fall. But there's also the resilient underlying theme of hope and love, ever important in a future so bleak.
The Dark and Hollow Places is a haunting book with a strong heroine, a compelling storyline, and answers questions raised in the prior books. I can only hope that there will be more from Ms. Ryan in this world (even if the planned trilogy is completed), but Annah's is a perfect, bittersweet note on which to end the series. One of my notable reads of 2011, and absolutely recommended. ...more
Once upon a time, there was a long line of kings who were all served by the Faithful Johannes. When the formeOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Once upon a time, there was a long line of kings who were all served by the Faithful Johannes. When the former king passes away, he tells Johannes to serve his son as loyally and helpfully as he served him, and his father, and his father's father, and so on.
Ever faithful, Johannes agrees.
Johannes also agrees to the last king's wish that his son never see the secret portrait of the golden princess, for fear that the young king would fall hopelessly in love with the cursed woman. But somehow, the young king finds the portrait, and he falls hopelessly in love. When the king steals the golden princess and makes her his new queen, Faithful Johannes learns that great tragedy is in store for his sire and his wife - unless Johannes can stop the curse. And stop them he does, but at great personal cost - for he cannot speak of the curse without damning himself to stone. When the king and queen learn of Johannes's great act of loyalty, of under-standing (that is, standing beneath them and shouldering their responsibilities and beliefs), the king decides he will do anything to bring Johannes back to life - even behead his own twin children. And behead them he does.
Johannes is restored, the children are saved from their death because of the power of love and sacrifice, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But not really.
You see, these two children are Hansel and Gretel, and when they learn that their father killed them for another, they decide to run away from home (lest he decide to kill them again someday). Together, the twins steal off into the woods, and stumble upon a house made of cake. And so their adventures - a tale very dark and grim indeed - begin.
I loved this book. I loved the whimsical narration style with frequent asides to parents and children (who will, presumably, be reading this book aloud together). I loved the fact that Mr. Gidwitz does not patronize and makes his children protagonists go through some really harrowing, bloody, terrible ordeals. I love that he makes them do this and the only reason they prevail is because they are children. As with authors like C.S. Lewis, Adam Gidwitz knows that children are the true heroes, not their silly parents, and A Tale Dark and Grimm is true to this fact throughout.
The most impressive thing about this novel, however, is as true to the spirit of Grimm's fairy tales as it is to the substance of those fables. There's the familiar Hansel and Gretel tale with the witch and her oven, but there's also the story of seven sparrows, a boy that turns into a beast, a twisted, handsome young man with green eyes and a taste for flesh, trickery and gambling with the devil himself, and a formidable dragon. I loved all of these stories, and how each adventure would bring Hansel and Gretel back on the path towards their true home.
In short, I loved this book. It's exactly the type of book I would have loved as a child, and exactly the type of book I would give to readers who like their fairy tales with some bite. Absolutely, wholeheartedly recommended, and one of my most notable reads of 2011. ...more
"When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign."
Hannah Payne, daughter, sister, lover, has been convicted of the murder of her unborn child and must suffer the consequences of her unholy acts. In this version of the future United States, criminals are no longer allowed to place an economic strain on the populace by way of incarceration; instead, offenders are "melachromed", injected with a virus that turns their skin a bright color to signify their crime to society. Yellows, for short sentence misdemeanors. Blues for child molestation. Green for crimes like arson, assault, robbery. Red for murder - Hannah's crime. Chromes are allowed to walk free and live out their sentence with their skin so dyed, but are ostracized by upstanding citizens and are the subject of cruelty, rape, assault, and even death by the hands of vigilante justice groups while the government looks the other way.
When Hannah wakes up in her holding cell after being sentenced and chromed, she feels the crushing, inescapable weight of despair. Her mother refuses to acknowledge her, and though her father and her sister try to offer what support and comfort they can, nothing can fill the void left in Hannah's heart. For though Hannah chose to have an abortion, she desperately loved - and is still in love with - the man who impregnated her. She loves him so much that she got the abortion, and refused to name him at her trial in order to protect his identity. For her beloved is none other than the venerable Reverend Aidan Dale, a celebrated minister and icon of hope and sanctity to millions, the Secretary of Faith to the President of the United States, and a married man.
Utterly alone, marked for her crime for all to see, Hannah must struggle to find the will to carry on, to protect the ones she loves, and to fight for her basic right to live and be free.
When She Woke is the second novel from Hillary Jordan and, as with her first book Mudbound, has garnered immense critical praise. The praise is for good reason, too, as this novel is every bit as provocative, incisive, and culturally significant as promised. For any author to take on the formidable task of expounding on Nathaniel Hawthorne's opus seems a doomed effort, but Ms. Jordan manages to not only use The Scarlet Letter as inspiration, but uses Hawthorne to create her own contemporary, politically charged social commentary. In form, Ms. Jordan tips her literary hat to Hawthorne with her character names and general storyline - Hannah Payne for Hester Prynne, Aidan Dale for Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl - though there are notable deviations from the inspiring work. Most notably, Aidan Dale is the married man (as opposed to Hester, who fears for Dimmesdale's life because of her husband, Chillingsworth's desire for revenge), and unlike her namesake who does not ever take off her Scarlet Letter, Hannah chooses to leave her home and seeks to free herself from her chromed skin that singles her out as a social pariah. But while these significant deviations are present in Ms. Jordan's novel, When She Woke remains true to the heart of Hawthorn's work, focusing on the central themes of the human condition, the notion of "sin", and, above all, the importance of personal identity. As each Novembrist in this book says, "it's personal" and Hannah's experiences - everything she's endured and survived, everything she's fought for - have finally given her an inviolable sense of self (much like Hester Prynne before her). Of all the themes and plots in this book, it is Hannah's path to self-discovery that resonated the most with me. Hannah is a passionate soul and headstrong in her youth, but she isn't an infallible, perfect, or even exceptionally remarkable type of character. The reason her arc is so compelling is because she's brave and strong, but she's also incredibly sympathetic; her self-awareness grows because she is forced to confront her beliefs and everything she has been taught. Hannah is the product of external circumstances, but given her own volition and voice when she realizes just how cruel and broken her world truly is.
From a dystopian standpoint, Ms. Jordan's future America is chilling in its plausibility. The line between church and state is increasingly encroached upon, and Hannah's experiences play on the hyperbolic scenario where Roe v. Wade is overturned, a Secretary of Faith is installed in the Cabinet, and those who would fight for reproductive freedom and the rights of a woman to her own body are considered heretics and terrorists. Though the political and societal commentary will certainly rub some the wrong way, and do stray a bit towards the heavy-handed at certain points, for the most part, When She Woke is a restrained, eloquent critique of extreme conservatism, faith, and sexuality.
This is not a book for everybody, but it is a thought-provoking, poignant, and undeniably important novel. Absolutely recommended, and one of my notable reads of 2011....more
There once was a young girl named Hazel who loved dueling pirates and robots, superhero baseball, and daringOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
There once was a young girl named Hazel who loved dueling pirates and robots, superhero baseball, and daring adventures to strange new worlds. Together, Hazel and her best friend Jack have traveled to Narnia, defied the Magisterium, and been the heroes of Hogwarts, using their limitless imaginations to explore impossible kingdoms and thwart formidable enemies. In the words of the sage Forrest Gump, Hazel and Jack were like peas and carrots, and nothing could ever separate them.
But one day, Jack changes.
He gets something in his eye, and seemingly overnight, Jack begins to act like a different person. Suddenly, he does not want to play with Hazel and her babyish games anymore. Heartbroken, Hazel cannot begin to understand what could have made her best friend change so dramatically, so quickly - but everyone, including her mother, tells her that it is "normal" and part of "growing up". Then, following his personality change, Jack disappears. His mother distractedly tells Hazel that he's gone to help out his elderly aunt Bernice - an aunt whom Hazel has never, ever heard of before. Things seem even worse when Jack's other friend, Taylor, comes by to tell Hazel that he saw Jack in the woods following an impossibly tall, thin woman all in white. No one else seems to care that Jack has gone missing, and Hazel knows in her heart that something is not right with her best friend. And so, with a compass, a treasured baseball, and a backpack of odds and ends, Hazel bravely heads into the woods to defy the Snow Queen and to save her dearest friend.
You know how there are some misguided people out there that say that young adult and middle grade books are written solely for children, and therefore can't possibly achieve the same levels of nuance and poignancy that adult books do? To those jaded souls I say: read Breadcrumbs. This novel from Anne Ursu and illustrated by Erin McGuire is a thing of beauty in both art and story, drawing not only from the fables of Hans Christian Andersen (including the Snow Queen, the red dancing shoes, and the little matchgirl, amongst others), but also the contemporary works that have captured imaginations - including Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and Stan Lee. Ms. Ursu manages to pull from those influences and create a unique, utterly memorable work of art of her own. In other words, I loved Breadcrumbs.
The most wonderful thing about this novel, in my opinion, is the blurred line it walks between fantasy and reality. When Jack stops talking to Hazel, it could very well be because he has a magical shard of an ancient, cruel mirror caught in his eye that has frozen his heart - but at the same time, it could simply be a metaphor for growing up and apart. Even the best of friends change as they get older; some leave "childish things" like imaginary fortresses and daring adventures to made-up places behind, while others let their imaginations run as long as they can. In this sense, I felt that Hazel's story holds such a powerful meaning because it could be construed as a dream, or some kind of alternate vision of those childhood friendships that drift apart with age. I personally prefer Ms. Ursu's imaginative quest metaphor; in the beauty of hope and love that prevails to bring back those closest to you, even if they push you away.
Breadcrumbs is a beautiful fable that follows young Hazel on an impossible journey not only to save her best friend, but to discover her own sense of worth. So many times on her journey, Hazel questions herself - because, as a perpetual outsider, Jack is the only person that has ever made Hazel fit (or so she thinks). With her parents recently divorced, her father has a new life with a new family and no time for Hazel or her mother, and Hazel herself feels alone and awkward in a school that does not appreciate her scope for imagination. Furthermore, as an adopted child from India, Hazel feels even more estranged from her classmates. I once read a piece by Neil Gaiman in which he elucidated that children's fiction is cruel and often horrific in the extreme, and for novels like Breadcrumbs (and Gaiman's Coraline or The Graveyard Book, for example) this is an undeniable truth. Adults are sadistically tough on their young protagonists, forcing them to lose their families and suffer all kinds of grave injury, all in the name of a true hero's journey. On Hazel's journey through an enchanted wood, she picks up the pieces of herself, which is a beautiful thing (if achieved by cruel means). I dearly loved her character and felt for her on every step of her frosty, frightful journey.
And I haven't really said much of the allusions to various myths and notable childhood fantasy works! Rest assured they are there, and they are wonderfully wrought. Though Hans Christian Andersen's fables are at the heart of the journey, there are countless other allusions throughout. The only thing that felt a little off to me in the whole novel was the level of Hazel's literary prowess and how some of her thought processes felt a little older than her fifth-grade age. That said, the narrative voice of the novel is otherwise flawless. I absolutely loved this heartbreaking gem of a novel, and recommend Breadcrumbs to readers of all ages. Yet another notable read of the year - and quite possibly the best contemporary middle grade novel I have read, period. ...more
"Once upon a time there was a girl who was special. This is not her story. Unless you count the part where IOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
"Once upon a time there was a girl who was special. This is not her story. Unless you count the part where I killed her."
So begins Alison's strange, mind-bending tale of mystery and madness. At nearly seventeen years old, Alison has always been reserved and cautious around her family and her peers because she has always had a secret to hide. While others experience reality through regular senses, Alison has the ability to taste colors and feel the trustworthiness of alphabetical letters; in short, she has the ability to perceive of the world in a whole new dimension of sensation. From a young age, Alison has learned that she must never speak of her perceptions for fear of looking crazy or being pushed away, as she has been time and again by her classmates and even her own mother.
But one day, Alison's darkest, most secret fear comes to light when she awakens in a cold, clinical room with no recollection of where she is or how she got there. She finds herself an involuntary patient in a mental institution, checked in after violently lashing out at her mother and the police after confessing to the murder of classmate Tori Beaugard. While the police cannot prove that she killed Tori, Alison was the last person seen with her. As she struggles to put the pieces together of her fragmented memory and tries to find a way to be discharged, Alison discovers that her perceptions are more than the delusions of a crazy person - and that she may have abilities beyond anyone else's reckoning.
Ultraviolet is the first novel I've read from R.J. Anderson, and I must say that I am incredibly impressed and surprised. The greatest strength of this Canadian genre-spanning novel is its element of surprise - upon starting Ultraviolet, I had no idea what kind of novel it would be. Would it be a contemporary YA title about an unreliable narrator that has tragically lost her grip on reality due to the myriad traumas of her home and school life? Would it be a paranormal book about a misunderstood teen that discovers she has superpowers of unknown origin? The truth lies somewhere in between. Alison is a misunderstood girl that has learned to hide not only her perceptive abilities but also her feelings, out of fear of being hated, pushed away, or thought of as insane. She's also not simply "crazy" - there are explanations and layers to her condition, which are unfolded gradually over the book. While I won't define how this happens, or what exactly this story entails (therein lie some huge spoilers, and with a book like Ultraviolet, it's best experienced going in completely ignorant), I will say that I loved the unexpected, genre-transcending elements of the novel.
From a writing standpoint, too, Ms. Anderson's prose to describe Alison's sensations are brilliant and feel effortless. Take for example this section:
"A tastes like blueberries - the kind that grow wild around here, not the big watery ones you get in stores. B is like those candy hearts they sell around Valentine's Day. And C doesn't have a flavor exactly, it's more like a very light perfume. Then there's D." I began to layer shades of blue and green, trying to get the right intensity of teal. "D has hidden depths, it's sort of mysterious..."
In addition to the style and the story, I think Ultraviolet also succeeds with the strength of its unreliable heroine. We know little about Alison when the book begins other than the fact that she has awoken in a strange place and has no clue as to how she got there - but as her memories begin to return and her perceptions filter through the narrative, we begin to see a complete picture of a young girl that has been isolated, starved for affection and human interaction. We see her strained relationship with her mother, her distant relationship with her father, her friendships with those at Pine Hills Psychiatric and those at home. It's a tragic picture, but one that Alison is able to finally put together for herself by the end of the novel as she realizes how isolated she has made herself. Alison's transformation across the spectrum of the book is phenomenal, and though Ultraviolet ends on a bittersweet note, Alison finally discovers who she is and what she is worth. And that, dear readers, rocks.
I truly loved this book - although the big twist (you know there has to be one in this type of story!) is bound to put off some readers, I personally loved it. Ultraviolet is a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it to all. ...more
The Name of the Star follows Rory Deveaux, an American teenager from Louisiana as she attends her senior yearOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
The Name of the Star follows Rory Deveaux, an American teenager from Louisiana as she attends her senior year at a London boarding school. Her arrival in England coincides with the outset of a series of gruesome murders by what seems to be a Jack the Ripper copycat. As the bodies pile up, Rippermania spreads throughout England and Rory gets stuck in the middle of it all when she becomes a witness after seeing a mysterious man on school grounds. A man no one else has seen and who becomes the prime suspect of the crimes. As the plot and mystery unfolds, Rory finds herself in great danger and part of a group of people that are, apparently, the secret ghost police of London.
I have yet to read a Maureen Johnson story that I didn’t like. Her books are generally infused with a generous amount of the type of humour (quirky, clever) I love, plus a dollop of awesomesauce and a teaspoon of freshness to make them stand out in whichever crowded genre she decides to write (Contemporary, Paranormal).
Uninspiring culinary metaphors aside, The Name of the Star is a great book. I would say it has two main segments or shall we say, it's part contemporary novel, part paranormal thriller and both are markedly different in terms of tone. Its first half reads more like a contemporary novel as Rory arrives and settles in in England – it follows her adventures at the boarding school and trying to fit in, trying to making friends and attempting to understand England: its school system, its laws (specially with regards to teenage drinking, a revelation to an American), its different accents and social structure and above all, OMG, field hockey. This first part is slowly developed which I found was great because it not only gave the story a real sense of setting and atmosphere but also provided insight on who Rory is. And she is a great heroine: funny, smart, friendly, lover of all things food, talkative (“we Deveauxs preferred to talk you to death, rather than face you in physical combat”), trying hard to adjust to a new life, a new life by the way which she chose to lead. This is also really cool: I loved how she would bring up her life in Louisiana and reminisce about her crazy family but also be aware that she needed some time apart to experience the world on her own. This sense of independence is very important to what happens later in the story.
During this first part, the Ripper case is almost a secondary plot line, surfacing here and there until it becomes the main story after it is clear that Rory has abilities that only few possess: she can see ghosts. The why and the how are explained with aplomb and are intrinsic part of the paranormal world that the author proposes. This second part is markedly different: things Rory didn't know exist are revealed, her interests change and so do her group of friends. In the first part of the novel, she is really close with her room mate Jazza but this relationship becomes strained when Rory becomes the bearer of a secret she is not allowed to share. The drama and danger are significantly amplified and the story becomes a thriller and it makes sense that life at the boarding school and regular activities fade into background noise. It is only to be expected and I loved this shift because it exemplifies how Rory life will change from now. It is not everyday that one discovers that ghosts are real and how are you supposed to go on with your normal life when you learn that?
Not only that, but all of a sudden Rory is part of something really big: she learns about this secret police, one of the biggest Governmental secrets (and just as a quick aside: haha, Scotland GraveYard) in the UK. I won't dwell on this because the fun part of the book is to discover it all alongside Rory, but allow me a quick description of this secret police and how it appears in this story: it is basically ghostbusters. With teenagers. In London. It's kind of ridiculous but awesome at the same time – it appeals to my inner geek so I bought into all this. I suppose it will be different for each reader.
There is some romance but it is more of the “let's make out for now” variety rather than the “ you are my one and only, let's stay together forever” type, which is always a plus and it is such a secondary part of the story to nearly make it tertiary. [1. I am firmly on Team Stephen, by the way. In case you are interested. But only because Callum seems to be taken by a really cool character.]
Finally, the particular Jack the Ripper storyline is wrapped up nicely but something huge happens in the very final page that made me salivate for more. This is another great aspect of the novel and one that speaks volumes about how good it is. I am sick and tired of everything being a series these days but I would read more of The Shades of London now if it were available. This series has real potential: all characters are well developed with background stories that beg further development; what happens in the end opens up a can of worms that will have to be dealt with and is basically an even greater life-changing event for Rory and finally, there are real philosophical, ethical aspects to what the Shades do and I want to see how it will be explored in further instalments.
This book was really and truly a joy to read. Please miss, can I have some more? ...more
Ana: I’ve been excited about reading Skyship Academy ever since I first heard about it in the build-up to BEA last May when Thea put it on my radar because it sounded soooo good. But Holy SciFi YA Batman! I was not prepared for how much fun I would have reading it or for how cool and well developed the SciFi elements would be. Add to that a couple of great protagonists, and a HOLY CRAP A WTFPOLARBEAR type of twist at the end and ergo: this a pretty decent, fun Scifi book.
Thea: Like Ana, I was extremely enthusiastic for this novel. A post-apocalyptic Earth with an ongoing war between renegade “Shippers” and bureaucratic “Surfacers”? There’s a lot of potential there, and, for the most part, The Pearl Wars delivers. Though I feel the writing from both a plotting and characterization perspective lacked focus in the first two thirds of the novel, the ideas are so strong and compelling that I felt it was worth the effort. Plus, the big reveal in the book’s final act is definitely a good one (and yes, almost WTFPOLARBEAR status).
On the Plot:
Ana: Skyship Academy starts off with a bang with the two main protagonists facing off – and this encounter not only kicks off a weird reaction on both of them grating each with awesome and terrifying abilities but it also gets the story going as they need to find out more about these abilities, about each other and how can this possibly be connected with the way things are in the world. From that point onwards, the story is fast paced, interesting and I was glued to the pages until the – AWESOME – end. Although I could see one of the twists coming miles (and miles) ahead, I was very much not prepared for the main revelation in the end – it turned everything up to that point upside down and it opens up the story for loads of further development.
In terms of setting, I loved all elements of the world-building and I found everything to be very believable and intriguing not only in the terms of how the world came to be in the state that it is in but also how everything functions right now. I loved the separation and difference between the Skyshippers and the Surface dwellers and how it all involved complex politic, economical, scientific and social circumstances. Although I am not necessarily an expert (far, far from it) one of my favourite things about Scifi, especially futuristic Scifi is how it can be fun but also extremely insightful about the state of the world. I believe the author managed to combine both aspects really well, and never to the detriment of the other.
I was really impressed with this book – and can hardly believe it is a debut novel. I admit that I am one of those annoying readers who tends to question everything and usually has several “Wait a Minute” moments when reading. But I found myself relaxing and truly enjoying the ride – right now there is really, no greater compliment from me.
Thea: Overall, this is a fun, generally fast read with some truly awesome ideas. While I agree that the book ends on a high note and finally gets moving by its final act, I do think that The Pearl Wars suffered from a lack of focus and could have been a lot tighter for much of the novel. The book does, as Ana says, begin with a bang as Skyshipper Jesse Fisher finds himself dangling off a twelve-story building in a Fringe Surface town at the mercy of Cassius Stevenson, one of the cruel supersoldier in training types for the Unified Party (the official government for what used to be the USA). Then, something inexplicable happens when Jesse and Cassius are together and both begin to develop something akin to superpowers. Much of the novel is spent following these two separated characters as they struggle with their disparate worlds: one at a Skyship Academy (which is a secret cover story for Pearl Hunter training), and one at a Unified Training Camp (on the surface of the planet). While I loved the idea of this dichotomy of Skyshippers and those from the Unified Party, with their different ideologies but eerily similar endgame (i.e. prevailing over the other party and controlling all the Pearls), I felt that there wasn’t really enough background or detail given about these two warring camps. Early on, we learn that a mysterious woman known as Madame is in charge of the Unified camp, but other than the name Madame and a few scenes in her office, we don’t really know anything about her or her party. Or what they stand for, or really want (other than some heavy-handed “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” type of stuff at the end of the book). The same applies to the Skyshippers – we know they have their own leader, Alkine (whose name sounds a lot like Adama, teehee), and are some kind of nebulous party that broke with the official government back during the apocalyptic war, but the detail I yearned for was sadly neglected.
The overall effect is that this world is very dichotomous – very black and white, right and wrong. Towards the end of the novel when the big reveals come (and finally some of those juicy details sort of come to fruition), this simplistic divide is only exacerbated as there is the heavy-handed/not-so-thinly veiled Message about Terrorists and Homeland Security.
There’s also a frustrating lack of plot direction, initially, with too much time spent on Jesse being disinterested with his studies, sucking at something that is akin to Skyship capture the flag, and otherwise being generally incompetent. In contrast, Cassius is hyper-confident and effective, managing to deus-ex-machina his way around dusty wastelands and magically catch up to Jesse every time he seems to have escaped. That said, I did love the tension between Jesse and Cassius from a narrative perspective (Jesse’s first person versus Cassius’s third person narration), and the differences in their characters and personas – but more on that in a bit.
I know it sounds like I’m being unduly harsh with The Pearl Wars – and I don’t mean to be. The ideas in this book are superb, and there is so much potential for greatness here. I love the concept of Pearls (and the big reveal concerning them late in the book); I love the ideas behind this iteration of Earth and its destruction. I love the general plotline of this book and the direction it ultimately takes, and I am hungry for the next installment. I just wish there was a tighter focus for those exposition/buildup chapters instead of so much time wasted on pointless action that does nothing to advance the story, and perhaps a touch lighter hand, thematically, later on in the novel.
On the Characters:
Thea: I have to say that I loved the dual protagonist approach to this novel, with Jesse telling his shaky side of the story and displaying his insecurities, versus Cassius’s more assertive, aggressive third person storyline. The contrast between these characters is a sharp one, and I appreciated the very different perspectives (although the narration point of view makes it seem like Jesse is the “good guy” versus Cassius’s misguided aggression). Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of Jesse – the boy is helpless and virtually incompetent when it comes to anything (he’s basically a dude in distress, and needs bailing out at every turn by his more adroit female companions). He’s clumsy, flies under the radar at the academy, and basically has no desire to continue in his career path as a Pearl Hunter for the Skyship cause – and that’s fine. I just wish there was a little more meat to his character, perhaps some further introspection or a more distinct voice. As it is, he’s kinda the male equivalent of a Bella Swan: nondescript except for one super special thing (in this case, Jesse’s…superpower, for lack of a better word). That super special thing IS pretty cool though, and Jesse does show some mettle by the end of the book, so I do have hope for him in future installments.
Far more interesting to me were the secondary characters and supporting cast. Cassius, Jesse’s foil, is a driven young man with an axe to grind, and I loved his single-minded determination. With the developments that happen in this novel and his feelings of discovery and betrayal, Cassius’s character arc is far more interesting to me than Jesse’s and so very promising for future books in the series. There are also two badass female characters in the novel – Avery, with her own compelling twist of a story, and Eva, the most battle-hardened of the younger Academy ensemble.
Then, of course, there are the two opposed heads who don’t really get much time or depth – I’m referring to Madame, the utilitarian leader, and Captain Alkine, the Skyship commander. As I mentioned in the plot discussion above, I don’t think enough time or detail was assigned to these two characters and Madame borders on the caricaturish end (what with her wearing impeccable designer suits and certain dialogue choices) and Alkine a bit too good to be true. I do like that there is mystery around both of these adult characters, but hope they are a little less two-dimensional in the next book. Certainly, Mr. James alludes to mixed motives on both characters’ parts – I just hope that thread is fleshed out.
Ana: I too, loved the dual narration and although it took time to get used to the shift between first person/third person narratives, I believe the narrative choices suited both characters perfectly. I agree with not only Thea’s assessment of Cassius but also how he proved to be the more interesting character because of what he was going through. His new-found ability actually has a much bigger, terrible outside effect that made his arc even more compelling.
Having said that: although Cassius is the more interesting character, I completely loved Jesse. I loved the fact that there is a bit of gender reversal role here because he was a dude in distress, who was self-doubting and basically not really good at what he was supposed to be doing. I felt he was as developed as Cassius and I loved how the two are as different as to almost be direct opposites.
As for the secondary characters, I felt they were pretty well developed as well including the two girls Avery and Eva who were strong character but not only because they were kick-ass – because they had compelling back stories and distinct voices. And I actually felt the same way about the two adults as well and I LOVED Madame as a villain. I felt the allusions to both these characters’ past and the way they acted during this story were enough to convince me that Alkine is not entirely on the side of Good nor is Madame completely on the Dark Side of the Force. And that is awesome. I totally loved these characters and how they have so much potential to be even more awesome and I simply can’t wait for more.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: With a cool premise, great writing and world-building, fantastic characters and a twisterrific ending, Skyship Academy just made into my notable reads of 2011 list. And now I am simply dying for more.
Thea: The Pearl Wars is a solid, fun read, and though it starts on shaky ground, it ends with a hell of a bang. I’ll definitely be back for more.
Ana: I was super excited about reading Ready Player One because of its promising premise. And it is indeed chock filled with awesome stuff and so much 80s nostalgia to make any geek happy. It is fun and entertaining in a really cheesy way. Unfortunately, as we all know, “fun” does not necessarily mean “good”.
Thea: Oh, I disagree. I absolutely loved this book in all its geeky, cheesy, nostalgic abandon. Essentially a quest game brought to life, I found Ready Player One to be an immensely entertaining, well written, and nicely conceived novel. Heck, it’s probably going to end up on my longlist of notable books of the year.
On the Plot:
It is mid 21st Century and the world is in a really bad shape with an ongoing energy crisis, catastrophic climate change, several wars worldwide and widespread famine and poverty. The vast majority of the world’s population spends their time connected to OASIS, a multiplayer, multiuniverse online game that evolved into a global phenomenon of virtual reality: for all intents and purposes Oasis IS the real world. And it is free and readily available to everybody.
The creator of this virtual utopia was one James Halliday, an ’80s obsessed geek who prior to his death hid inside the OASIS source code clues and puzzles that would give his entire considerable fortune, as well as the control over OASIS, to one lucky winner: the one who successfully solves the puzzle.
Enter Wade Watts, a teenager who just like the rest of the world has been obsessed with solving the riddles left by Halliday, spending the majority of his days learning everything he can about the 80s since the riddles seem to be based in that pop culture of that decade.
And then Wade stumbles into the first puzzle and unlocks the first gate – and all of a sudden shit gets real.
My reading experience of Ready Player One happened in two stages: stage one, the most basic level, started as soon as I heard about the book and got super excited about it. It continued throughout the majority of my reading and it can be simply summarised as: I had fun. I mean, I am a child of the eighties and this is a book that is basically a love letter to that decade. From arguing as to whether the soundtrack of Ladyhawke is awesome or crap (I vote awesome, by the way) to talking about songs, movies and video games that made the decade. It also has a pretty decent plot and the discovery of each clue leading to even more puzzles appealed to the geek in me (although I am not really a gamer, I really love riddles and puzzles). There is a bit of romance on the side and an intriguing setting in a collapsing world, which one could definitely argue is half way through becoming a dystopian (virtual) reality.
The second stage started as soon as I started reading the book and therefore in parallel to all the fun times I was having, I felt I was sort of battling through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. For every awesome pop reference, there was the huge amount of exposition; for every cool mystery, there was the pedestrian writing; for every plot twist, a Deus Ex Machina; until eventually the fun times were completely eclipsed by the realisation that this book might be fun but it is most certainly not good. Not in the opinion of this reader anyway.
Starting with the ridiculous amount of info-dump and exposition. Yes, some of it was interesting: it was cool to know how the world became such a horrible place; it was cool to learn about the Oasis and how it works. But it was done in a really clunky and clumsy way. Not to mention that it was completely illogical to have so much information dumped about the world and the Oasis. Because you see, in principle, this book is being narrated by Wade Watts to the population at large in an attempt to tell the truth about him finding that first clue – therefore he is telling this story to other people who should already know all these things and how Oasis works because according to our own narrator Oasis was something that “most of humanity now used on a daily basis”.
I could also continue and nitpick for example that the premise of the book – that Oasis creator is an 80s maniac and the 80s are the most important thing to break the puzzle – is never really upheld. There are references to many things outside that decade and one pivotal scene in the novel is a play by play of Monty Python and The Holy Grail –a 1975 movie. Geeky? Hell yes. Awesome? FOR SURE. But outside the very premise of the novel. How does that make any sense?
There is also one small sequence that I think encapsulates my biggest problem with the novel.
**SPOILERS FOLLOW** (highlight to read)
In this one scene, Wade finds out that his best virtual friend had been lying to him for years. When they finally meet in person, instead of a White heterosexual, male (as per his avatar) the best friend turns out to be an African American Gay Female. In about one paragraph following this revelation, Wade goes through a life-changing realisation that it doesn’t matter, that he still loves her as his best friend because they connect and I quote:
“[...]on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.”
I truly do believe that this was intended as a beautiful message of acceptance. Which is you know, nice. Except that I don’t think there is anything even remotely inconsequential about gender, skin colour or sexual orientation and to say so like this, in a hand-wavey way left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. The mere fact that this “beautiful” realisation by the white/male/heterosexual main character happens immediately after the girl explains that she HAD to pretend to be a white male so she could have a better life proves this. The mere fact her mother threw her out of the house because she was gay proves this.
And this is my main problem with this novel, that it brings up really important and complicated issues then brushes them aside simplistically. You can include there not only the gender and race issues but also the stuff happening in the real world: the poverty, the wars, the energy crisis, the murders. There is nothing wrong about having fun and being entertained by geeky stuff but these things are part of the book as well so why not truly develop them?
Thea: And here is where I thoroughly disagree with Ana.
I think there is a fundamental difference between Ana and I that makes this book meh/not good for her, but fascinating for me – and that, dear readers, is the writing style. Like many works of geek-lit, Ready Player One is unabashedly exposition-laden. It details the origins of OASIS and its creator Halliday, it explains and describes in depth immersion suits, player inventories, pop culture references, and other assorted awesome geekish potpourri. For some people, this will be very, very boring (and there’s nothing wrong with that – that’s a reader’s preference and prerogative). For me, who finds this sort of prolonged descent into explanation and detail fascinating, it was brilliant. If I had to grade Mr. Cline’s exposition-saturation in this book, I’d place it somewhere between Mira Grant’s Newsflesh books (impeccable detail, TONS of exposition but about such awesomely fascinating subjects and in such a convincing voice that it just *works*) and Cory Doctorow (more unrestrained than Grant, with characters that tend to sound exactly the same – i.e. like Cory Doctorow). Like Ms. Grant, Ernest Cline does a bang-up job of explaining Wade/Parzival’s world to readers, and I loved every second of it.
As to the offense that much of the geekish references throughout the book are from periods outside of the 1980s, to this I say, so what? The ’80s are central to Halliday’s easter egg hunt and to the core pillars of the game and OASIS itself, but I don’t think it need be contained to a single decade. There are plenty of other miniverses within OASIS – Star Wars, the Whedonverse, Monty Python, Rivindell, you name it. I took the ’80s fixation as a locus of geek knowledge, but not an exclusive one. Personally, I loved the often fleeting mentions of different memorabilia and trivia from different realms of geek culture. My only big complaint was that for all that Halliday is a supposed SciFi/Fantasy geek, which extends to novels, there was a decided lack of literary allusions throughout the game, and even those few literary references would pull from the movie versions of those books. For example, there is a pivotal part of the game that is derived from Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – except that the derivation is not from the book, but rather the movie (that is to say, Blade Runner).
The other complaint I had regarding Halliday and his canon, and the other references made by Wade to some of the great works of SF/F literature and geekdom at large was the mysterious absence of almost all female creators. There was ONE mention of Pern (Anne McCaffery), but that was basically it. No Ursula Le Guin, no Octavia Butler, no Norton, no Rowling, no Pierce, or Bujold. That’s frustrating. At the same time, though, just because they aren’t mentioned by this character narrator doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. I just wish they were a bigger part of the overall universe (which, in the tradition of gamer geeks, seems to be largely white and male).
**SPOILERS FOLLOW** (highlight to read)
As to the last objection Ana raises regarding the reveal that Aech is not a white heterosexual male but in actuality a black, gay female – I actually take no offense to Wade’s phrasing at all. When he calls gender, race, and sexual orientation as “inconsequential” I read him as being intentionally glib – because OF COURSE these things matter to everyone in the world, virtual or not. But because their friendship is so strong, he wouldn’t let anything ruin it. Of course, it’s easy for Wade to say this as a white heterosexual male himself and I understand how it can be read as dismissive or indicative of a larger problem. I personally didn’t find it offensive or malicious, even on a subtextual level.
On a nitpicky note, Aech doesn’t actually pick her avatar or choose to be a white male in OASIS. It’s something that her mother made her do as a child (this is the same mother that threw Aech out after she came out of the closet), and something that Aech continued as she grew older, even after getting thrown out of her mother’s home.
As to the mechanics of the plot and universe, I have to admit that I am very tired of Virtual Reality as the replacement for all things in the future (this is SOOOOO ’80s/early ’90s), but in the context of this novel, it works. The more dystopian aspects of the world also worked for me, as I can easily imagine a future where cities are crumbling and megacorporations like IOI basically rule the world. The tension between the Sixers (those GSS employees hellbent on discovering Halliday’s egg and winning absolute control of OASIS) and gunters (true believers that hunt for the egg to uphold the ideals of opensource geekdom, man) is beautifully rendered and fraught with serious tension. Should the Sixers win the prize, OASIS – the world’s most vital, and only expanding infrastructure – would begin to cost a nominal fee. Something beautiful and organic would become corporate, twisted and ruined – just like the rest of the Real World that Wade and his friends inhabit.
And, while I still find virtual reality a bit silly and dated, I loved the juxtaposition of this ideal environment in contrast to the devastated real world. Is the OASIS actually a utopia? Even if the simulation isn’t controlled by GSS, there are many disturbing things about the people so happily plugged in and utterly cut off from tactile reality. Mr. Cline addresses these issues in the book without being heavy-handed or delivering Big Messages about the state of the world, and I respect that.
On the Characters:
Ana: I am already feeling like a party-pooper but here goes the truth: to be honest, I don’t really have a lot to add on this character part as they were for the most part stock, forgettable geeky characters. Wades’ arc is basically told instead of shown and that really does not float my boat at all.
Thea: I agree that the characters are basic archetypes and do not go through any dramatic arcs – but then again, this is a purely plot driven novel. Wade is your typical, everyday gamer (actually, he’s of course a lot more BRILLIANT than the typical gamer, since he’s able to pop out a perfect game of pacman in a few scant hours and conquer all types of ridiculously difficult, nigh impossible arcade feats on the first try). He’s totally dedicated to the gunter cause, he’s read and watched and mastered ALL of the games, films, comics, books, music, etc mentioned by Halliday. There isn’t a lot of introspection, but I don’t really mind that as Ready Player One isn’t that kind of book.
Furthermore, I loved that for all that Wade is your typical white male gamer, the rest of the core cast is varied in terms of gender and race. Art3mis, Wade’s cybercrush – who turns out to be a top gunter in her own right – is my favorite character in the book. Brutally smart, just as dedicated as Wade and as knowledgeable, Artemis is a badass that won’t sacrifice her dreams for anything. That’s awesome.
But perhaps what I loved most is how these characters had to truly collaborate and work together to win the prize at the end. Is this a tad idealistic? Yes. With so much at stake, you’d expect more backstabbing and nastiness, but the High Five (the first five gunters to get on the scoreboard) proceed with honor and dignity.
As to the villains, well, they are a simple as they come. Motivated by greed and power, the Sixers are mostly anonymous except for one Big Bad Baddy (it’s all very Agent Smith and his ilk). There’s no deeper meaning or gravitas here – but for this novel, I didn’t really miss it.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: In keeping with the 80s motto, it is as though the author was torn between being inspired by Blade Runner or a John Hughes movie but not managing to get either completely right. I have to say that it was fun for the most part, but totally forgettable.
Thea: I wholeheartedly disagree. A mashup of films, music, games, and all other things geeky, I loved Ready Player One. One of my notable reads of the year, and absolutely recommended for the nerd in all of us.
Karl Stern is an artist, an older brother, a dreamer, and a Jew. In 1935 Berlin, Karl’s Jewishness is a curse, especially since his family is not religious, and he does not feel connection with his heritage in any way. As a blonde, fair-featured teen, he can even pass for Aryan – at least Karl thinks he’s evaded suspicion until he’s cornered by the “Wolf Pack” (a group of Nazi Youth members at Karl’s school) who decide to mete out punishment on the Juden boy. Karl takes a cruel beating, and though bruised and bloodied he rushes to help his father at the family art gallery for a the latest opening, knowing how dire the family’s monetary situation is. At the gala, an extraordinary thing happens, as Karl stands in shock when Max Schmeling, German boxing heavyweight hero, walks into his father’s gallery – and somehow knows Karl’s father. Even more astounding is the fact that Karl catches Max’s eye, and in return for a painting, the legendary boxer offers to give Karl lessons at his training club. What boy – especially a skinny, beat-up boy like Karl – could resist?
As Karl begins his rigorous training routine at the Berlin Boxing Club with his hero, the world seems to deteriorate around him. His school becomes increasingly hostile towards the few Jewish gentiles enrolled. The Nazi Youth gradually begin to take over the school, assimilating even his close friends. And, as Germany comes to a critical point with the passing of the Nuremburg Laws and poised on the precipice of calamitous change, Karl must use his newfound strength and decide who, and what, to believe in.
Based on the devastating days leading up to the brutal devastation of Krystallnact, The Berlin Boxing Club is a beautiful, harrowing beast of a novel. A sports book, a coming of age story, and a historical recounting of the early days leading to one of the greatest atrocities in human history, Mr. Sharenow’s historical fiction novel told through the eyes of young Karl Stern is an incisive, powerful read. Based on the events in Germany from the early to mid 1930s and centered with the figure of Max Schmelling, The Berlin Boxing Club is both historically accurate and manages to be emotionally resonant without being emotionally exploitative – and in a novel dealing with the events leading up to the Holocaust, this is no small feat.
Even more importantly, The Berlin Boxing Club is never preachy nor didactic – its protagonist, Karl, is conflicted and openly admits, repeatedly, how he would have loved to join the Nazi Youth, how he feels rage and exclusion when his friends start to wear the uniform and how much he just wishes he could simply join in the movement. He despairs that his younger sister and father look traditionally Jewish with dark curly hair, hooked noses, and large lips. In this sense, I loved that Mr. Sharenow never takes the easy way out and lets his protagonist off the hook. Instead of Karl turning into a champion for his fellow Jewish classmates and the weak, Karl only gradually comes to the realization that his hero Max might not be perfect. I loved the tension and internal conflict that Karl faces at each turn in the novel – from his own fervent and conflicted desires to distance himself from his Jewish birthright, with his frustrations with his pacifist father and depressed mother, to his gradual disenchantment with his boxing hero. In fact, ALL of the characters in The Berlin Boxing Club are fantastically detailed and conflicted. Among my favorites are Karl’s family (his father, mother, and younger sister), as well as Karl’s stuttering cornerman from the boxing club, with the big heart and the keen eye. Of course, there’s also Max Schmeling himself, and I think Mr. Sharenow does an admirable job of humanizing a larger than life character that never joined the Nazi party – but never stood actively against it, either.
And on top of all the writing accolades in terms of character and plot, The Berlin Boxing Club is also a love letter to the sweet science and the greats that fought in the ring in the 1930s, just as it is an illustrated novel with an Al Jaffe-esque flair. As a boxing fan, I still don’t know too much about the sport in its earlier days and it was fascinating to learn about the great Jewish boxers in America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the training sequences that Karl would engage in, the fights he finally gets to fight, his hopes and struggles and dreams. In short, I loved this book.
Powerful without being exploitative, never descending into triteness or slipping into emotional manipulative territory, The Berlin Boxing Club is one hell of a novel. Absolutely recommended, and one of my favorite, notable reads of the year....more
For centuries, Romeo and Juliet have been the ultimate symbol of tragic romance; the embodiment of love at any cost, the couple has been a touchstone for star-crossed lovers across countless generations. But what if the love that claimed the lives of these young lovers was actually a lie? What if, instead of killing themselves for love, there was a more sinister, supernatural plot afoot? What if Juliet was actually betrayed by her beloved and slain by his hand, an innocent sacrificed so that Romeo could achieve immortality? For the past seven hundred years, Juliet Capulet has fought against her former husband for the souls of pairs of lovers, because Romeo’s plan didn’t quite go as smoothly as expected. While Romeo willfully killed his bride in order to achieve immortality and entrance into the Mercenary ranks as an emissary of darkness, Juliet was also enlisted to the Ambassadors, those guardians of light diametrically opposed to the Mercenary cause. The pair are thrown into the bodies of mortals and are locked in a never-ending battle against each other: Romeo tries to convince soul mates to kill one another thus winning their souls for his cause, while Juliet does everything in her power to keep the soulmates safe and in love. Unfortunately, Romeo always seems to prevail.
Their latest assignment, however, is different than the countless others. This time, Juliet finds herself in the body of a teenage girl named Ariel – a girl with low self-esteem, only one friend, and an overbearing, critical mother. Ariel has just had the worst date of her life (after intercepting a text message from her date Dylan, who it turns out was only dating Ariel to win a bet to get her to sleep with him), and in her anger Ariel has caused a fatal car accident. Juliet takes over Ariel’s body just as she drives off the road, and, as fate would have it, Romeo takes over the body of her date Dylan after he is killed in the crash. As Juliet/Ariel desperately tries to flee Romeo/Dylan’s gleeful violence, she finds help in the form of a teenage boy driving a passing car. Instantly, Juliet feels a connection to this boy, Ben, but she knows better than to let herself get distracted from her mission. And yet, there’s something about Ben that she cannot ignore. When she finally discovers who the pair of soulmates are, however, Juliet’s job becomes infinitely harder – because the pair she must protect is her troubled best friend Gemma…and Ben. Added to this emotional turmoil, Juliet senses that there’s something very different this time around, and she begins to listen to Romeo’s warnings that their time is almost up. As Juliet questions the Ambassadors and the mission she has dutifully carried out for centuries, she also finds herself in the middle of another star-crossed romance, as the relationship between her and Ben blossoms into true love.
Phew. Juliet Immortal, the new novel from YA author Stacey Jay, is a complicated ode to true love, despite all obstacles. Let me just reiterate how cool the concept of this book is. I loved Juliet’s characterization, and this unique spin on one of the Bard’s most prolific tragedies. Take Juliet’s words to heart:
That horrible play. That contemptible, lying play he helped Shakespeare pen all those hundreds of years ago when he first twisted our story to fit his agenda. It worked far too well. Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy did its part to further the goals of the Mercenaries – glamorizing death, making dying for love seem the most noble act of all, though nothing could be further from the truth. Taking an innocent life – in a misguided attempt to prove love or for any other reason – is a useless waste.
Awesome, right? The interesting thing is, for all that Juliet Immortal is based on Juliet’s rage at having been duped by Romeo in a whirlwind romance that culminated in her death, it’s a little odd to see that in this book, 700 years in the future, the same pattern repeats itself. Again. Juliet falls almost instantly in love with Ben (who also falls almost instantly in love with her). I don’t hold that against the book, though – this simply was not what I was expecting when I picked up Juliet Immortal (I was thinking more of an urban fantasy, fight to the death, epic battle sort of thing). Instead of truly turning Romeo and Juliet on its head or denouncing the play, this novel cleverly subverts its source material by reinterpreting the players and rewriting the ending. Ultimately, Juliet Immortal finds a way to take the impulsive, all-consuming romance of Romeo and Juliet and reinterpret it for a contemporary era with a wiser, stronger heroine. Unlike her fourteen year old counterpart, this version of Juliet knows that the relationship she had with Romeo was starry-eyed adoration fueled by obsession and not real love. She has grown and has learned from her mistakes. This time around, Ms. Jay gives Juliet a chance at true love, but allows her to make different choices – she involves her mother and confesses her feelings (YAY for present parents in YA), she doesn’t go along with half-cocked plans of elopement, and, most importantly, both Juliet and Ben fall in love with each other as equals and true soulmates. It’s all very meta, really (there’s even a school play within this book, in which Romeo and Juliet play characters – West Side Story, naturally).
The reason why Juliet Immortal truly works, though, is because of the strength of its heroine. This is another character-driven novel, in which an angry, bitter Juliet finds a way to believe in love again and come to a sense of self-enlightenment by learning to forgive. Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Juliet’s rage and anger is not solely directed at Romeo, and the strength of this revelation is an incredibly empowering message. As much as this is a novel about falling in love against all odds and logic, it’s also a book about self love and acceptance. That, dear readers, is really, really cool. I also loved that Romeo is given enough dimension to make him seem real and not a villainous/evil character for evil’s sake. Rather, Romeo is charming and dangerous, selfishly narcissistic, and yet there are redeeming qualities to his character (as misguided as he might be). The only character that I felt needed more development was Ben, Juliet’s new love interest. While we are given glimpses of his past, his falling in love with Juliet seemed a little too quick, and his character a tad undercooked.
The other faltering aspects of the book lay with the worldbuilding and plotting, especially as the book builds to a dramatic ending. From a worldbuilding point of view, I love the ideas of Mercenaries and Guardians, however these two warring factions remained mostly anonymous and undefined throughout the book. Big Boss level Mercs and Ambassadors finally show up late in the novel (mostly to propel the plot and lead the book to said dramatic conclusion), but we don’t learn much more about them, why they exist, or what their real goals are. There is some discussion of ulterior motives all around, but it all felt rather underdeveloped. Also, though I loved the choice that Juliet ultimately makes at the book’s climax, I really wasn’t a fan of her last chapter. Although I loved the spirit of the chapter, I hated the cheesiness. I should note that in contrast, Romeo’s last chapter was pretty awesome.
Though not without its weaknesses, Juliet Immortal managed to surprise me and, ultimately, win me over. Although the book isn’t quite what one would expect given the premise of the novel, it’s a beautiful story of self-discovery and the ability to love, even in the face of impossible adversity. Easily the best paranormal YA romance that I have read in a very long time, I wholeheartedly recommend Juliet Immortal to lovers of romance, and to those who long for a more empowered heroine in this very popular genre. ...more
The woman returns from the store with an armload of books. She reads them quickly, one by one, over the course of the next few weeks. But when she opesn the last one, the woman frowns in surprise.
All the pages of the book are blank.
Every single one.
So begins Ben Loory’s strange and wondrous collection of short stories for both the nighttime and the day. This is the author’s debut work, and it sparkles with imagination, strangeness, terror, and wit. Each of the collection’s 40-odd stories averages at around 5 pages and are unrelated, save for the same sparing prose and atmospheric oddness. Imaginatively reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s older work, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is simply…unique. For collections and anthologies, I usually like to say a few things about each story, however given the number of those in Stories, this is impractical. Instead, I will just ruminate on just a few of my favorites. These include:
“The Book” – in which a woman purchases books from a store, discovers one has no words in it and publicly rails against those who would purchase it;
“The Octopus” – in which a solitary, apartment dwelling cephalopod with a fondness for tea and spoons hears from his family in the sea;
“UFO: A Love Story” – in which childhood sweethearts discover that love triumphs all ambition and personal folly;
“The Hat” – in which a malevolent hat seems to follow a man;
“The Magic Pig” – in which a man asks for a sign from God to prove His existence, and is taunted by a dancing wooden pig;
“The Rope and the Sea” – in which a boy and his girlfriend pull a mysterious rope in the ocean to find a canvas covered pair of corpses;
“The Tree” – in which a tree decides to walk and explore the world;
“The Sea Monster” – in which a man dies at sea on a hunt to kill sea monsters, but inexplicably is alive and in town when the voyage returns;
“The Man and the Moose” – in which an unlikely friendship begins between a skydiver and a talking moose;
“The End of it All” – in which a man loses his wife to invading aliens, and embarks on a mission to find her;
As with any collection, certain stories shine more than others and this is certainly true of Mr. Loory’s debut. And yet, none of these stories are bad. As a whole, the collection is both eerie and heartening, strange and lovely. Short fiction – especially of this brevity – is hard to write and can be even more painful to read, but Mr. Loory manages to pare down his stories to those words and phrases at the core of any good tale – adventure, heart, pathos, catharsis. Some stories are bright and some are dark, some have a deeper resonance, some simply are. One thing is certain: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is utterly unique, magnificently memorable, and indubitably ineffable. It was a pleasure to travel through the talented Mr. Loory’s imagination, and I am excited to return one day (or night), very soon....more
Jack Holloway has always been the best at one thing: looking out for himself. With his latest contract with formidable intergalactic juggernaut ZaraCorp as a prospector on a class III planet hundreds of light years away from Earth, Jack and his trusty dog Carl (whom Jack has taught to detonate explosives) survey the planet for the next big mineral deposit to be explored and exploited for copious amounts of profit. When Jack accidentally blows up a cliff face – much to the frustration of the already PR-beleaguered ZaraCorp – he hits the jackpot. Jack has discovered a seam of the incredibly rare and precious gem sunstones, and as a disbarred lawyer that knows how to finagle his way into the best possible contract, Jack will soon become filthily, disgustingly rich. All that’s left to do is sit back and relax as the credits start rolling in.
Except there’s one small, slightly furry problem. When Jack returns to his makeshift home, he discovers that a strange feline-looking creature has broken in. Offering the admittedly adorable creature food and shelter, the little “fuzzy” soon leads his family to Jack’s outpost. In an attempt to get back on his ex-girlfriend’s good side, Jack invites Isabel (who also happens to be the resident biologist on Zarathustra XXIII) to check out the new, adorable mammalian species. Much to Jack’s chagrin, however, Isabel’s study of the fuzzies leads her to believe that the species is much more than just a new adorable species of intelligent pets. She believes they are sapient – which poses huge problems for ZaraCorp, and for Jack. Should the fuzzies turn out to be sapient creatures, capable of complex thought, reason and communication, ZaraCorp’s E & E license will be revoked immediately, leaving Jack’s potential fortune (and ZaraCorp’s billions of credits of financial security) in sunstone gems untouched. Jack’s got a big decision to make – but will he choose to look out for himself, once again? Or will he become champion of the Fuzzy Nation?
Well, color me impressed. Fuzzy Nation is flat-out fun. It’s the quintessential beach read for the geekish, for the lover of ewoks, for the champion of fanfic. As someone that loves all of these things (yes, even ewoks), reading Fuzzy Nation was a blast. The plot itself is simple and familiar – Big Bad Corporation wants to mine a relatively primitive planet for its incredibly rich resources. Species X – in this case, fuzzies – stands in Big Bad Corp’s way. A fringe group of humans, sympathetic to the fuzzies’ cause, also throw a wrench in the BBC’s machinations. At the end of the day, the greedy bad guys lose, the fuzzy-lovers win, and karmic balance is restored to the Force.1 Clearly, John Scalzi is pretty damn adept at plotting and storytelling, and Fuzzy Nation is no exception. Effectively playing on familiar tropes and somehow humanizing adorable furry creatures (there’s one section near the end of the book that seriously had me fistpumping in triumph for Papa Fuzzy), this novel completes the task it set out to accomplish by entertaining and emotionally engaging its readers.
But what about those tropes, you ask? You’re tired of reading about big bad ecologically corrupt corporations and righteous aliens and their human lovers, you cry!2 Even if you are tired of this particular type of story, rest assured true believers, that Fuzzy Nation holds a few unexpected and very welcome deviations from the norm. What differentiates this novel from the rabble lies with Mr. Scalzi’s ambiguously motivated protagonist, and in the unexpected courtroom drama aspect of the novel (yes, you read that correctly). Jack Holloway, our intrepid protagonist, is kind of a puzzle. Though he claims to have been disbarred for noble purposes, though he is kind to his dog Carl and a generally easygoing, smarmy type of dude, Jack has a selfish streak. More similar to, say, Han Solo or Sawyer (from Lost), Jack is best at looking out for numero uno, and there are many times over the course of this book where I personally had no idea what exactly Jack would do. Almost more than anything, money seems to motivate Jack Holloway – even the kind actions he performs for the Fuzzies are questionably tainted by the betterment of his own self-interests. This ambiguity is a welcome trait, especially for a protagonist in this type of story (because, let’s face it – the selfless hero type is never as much fun as the renegade with a heart that just might be bought with gold).
The other unexpected and completely welcome aspect to Fuzzy Nation is the courtroom intrigue that colors and determines the fate of the eponymous Fuzzies. As a former corporate lawyer, Jack knows his way around courtrooms and cases, and it’s intriguing that unlike almost every other book or film that uses the Big Bad Corporation vs. Primitive/Indigenous Creatures trope, Fuzzy Nation climaxes not on a battlefield, but in a courtroom. The winners of this war accomplish their feat through bureaucracy, not bloodshed. It’s a pretty cool conceit (even if it is almost completely, utterly unbelievable).
Overall, Fuzzy Nation is a solid, completely entertaining read. One can’t help but wonder if Mr. Scalzi will go the route of Mr. Piper before him, and expand on a fuzzy universe. I’d certainly be up for reading more. ...more
Ana: I love ghost stories (even if I am scared of them) and I love novels set in Victorian times, so reading Haunting Violet was pretty much a given. The potential was even greater considering that the heroine and narrator is a con artist who finds herself having to solve a very real murder with the added bonus of a sweet romance between childhood friends. And you know… I really enjoyed reading Haunting Violet. It was a fun, quick read but unfortunately that’s all it was as it never truly reached its potential for greatness.
Thea: First off, I have to disagree with Ana because I don’t think Haunting Violet is necessarily a horror title. It’s much more of a ghostly mystery (just because ghosts are in a book doesn’t mean they are horror, just as vampires or werewolves in a book are the same). Ahem. That said, I enjoyed Haunting Violet much more than dear Ana – it’s a scam job, a mystery, a novel about abuse and relationships and love – and I truly enjoyed it from beginning to end.
On the Plot:
Ana: Violet Willoughby has spent most of her childhood assisting her mother in her fraudulent séances. She doesn’t believe in ghosts and she wishes they could have a different life, but the options for a young girl with no means and no connections are not exactly that great. Still, being somewhat famous in the spiritualist circles has proved to be a potential way out for Violet with the prospect of a good marriage just within her grasp.
But, when Violet and her mother are invited to attend a house party in the state of their patron, Sir Jasper, Violet starts to see real ghosts. One of the visiting ghosts is the spirit of a murdered girl looking to catch her killer and only Violet can help. With the help of her childhood friend Colin, she sets out to investigate the murder and unveil the mystery and catch the villain.
Haunting Violet starts off really well and I truly loved its first 100 pages or so. I liked the writing style and Violet’s voice. I enjoyed reading about Violet’s moral struggle with regards to their way of life and her inability to break free from her mother. This struggle was even more interesting if you consider the background of the Victorian society and the few options afforded to a penniless, bastard, young woman like Violet. I also enjoyed Violet’s relationship with Colin and how it started to evolve from friendship to love. In addition I have always been strangely attracted to stories about séances and the craze that seemed to have spread out throughout Europe at that time. Not to mention that the first scenes with the ghosts were truly terrifying.
But those were the first 100 pages. I think the best way to explain how I felt about the story is how it seemed it never truly evolved much beyond those first 100 pages of introduction. It is like the author only but scrapped the surface of all the different threads that were presented to start with. Starting with the Victorian setting – some things were only but glossed over like issues relating to gender and class and the dialogue sounded extremely modern. All things considered, this is really nothing more than a Wallpaper Historical (in terms of accuracy and setting). Now, I don’t really mind reading wallpaper historical novels all that much and have in fact, enjoyed several of them throughout the years but that is as long as everything else in the novel works well: characters, plot, writing. But as it turned out, everything in Haunting Violet was sort of wallpaper-y, with no real substance. The romance develops without any real depth, the characters are wishy-washy, the mystery was contrived and lacked believability in the way that it was investigated. And the whole thing surrounding Violet’s “powers” sounded quite hokey actually: like for example, all of a sudden there was talk about of “third eye” and Violet learnt how to open and close it in her FIRST attempt. Not to mention that every time the ghost of the murdered girl showed up and Violet asked a direct question about her murderer, something would happen to prevent the ghost from clearing that up – and that was extremely contrived.
What started like a good read with a lot of potential, soon turned out to be a frustrating read with underdeveloped threads and characters, shortcuts and inconsistencies. It was still somewhat fun to read but I could see the potential for a truly great story but alas, it never came to be.
Thea: From the other side of Smuggler Headquarters, I have to say that I patently disagree. With regards to the setting and historical accuracy, I do agree that dialogue had a tendency to slip into the more modern vernacular, the setting itself didn’t seem inaccurate to me (but then again, I’m the American of the duo so take that with a grain of salt). There wasn’t any modern sensibility ham-handedly forced into the novel, and for that I was extremely grateful.1
But as to plotting, storytelling, thematics? Haunting Violet does a fantastic job of weaving a primary murder mystery alongside the story of a young girl’s struggle to find a place in the world, as she is a bastard daughter forced into a life of deception and thievery by a manipulative, abusive mother. The book does a fantastic job of examining the Victorian fascination with Spiritualism, and both the devotion and skepticism mediums invoked as seances became haute couture. I loved seeing the brashness of Violet’s mother, “Mrs. Willoghby,” as she ingratiates herself in high society with her many parlor tricks. I would argue that it is this storyline, Violet’s struggle to find a place in a society, acceptance from her mother, and her battle between her conscience and pragmatism, that is the core thematic arc of Haunting Violet.
Of course, at the heart of Haunting Violet, there is the mystery story as well. There’s the small matter that Violet – despite not believing in ghosts and being the daughter of London’s most famous spiritualist hack – starts to actually see ghosts. At Rosefield, Violet keeps seeing the ghost of a pale girl with bruises around her neck and wrist, dripping water and lillies. Soon, she learns the identity of her spectral visitor is Rowena Wentworth, a girl who mysteriously drowned the prior year. Rowena’s ghost will not rest until her twin sister is safe from the grasp of her murderer, and Violet, with the help of her friends Elizabeth and Colin, is the only one who can help discover the truth. Although the villain of the matter is fairly obvious (at least once all of the pieces are in place), I didn’t hold that against the book as the mystery unfolded in an organic, slightly spooky (in a good old fashioned ghost story) type of way. Also, I loved that not everything is sunshine and ponies in this book – as befitting a penniless, bastard daughter of a defamed medium. The ultimate reveal comes to a violent crest of action and drama, and though our intrepid heroine saves the day, she doesn’t become the long-lost heiress to a fortune, nor does she marry her true love and live happily ever after. There’s happiness, to be sure (and I did enjoy the romance, but be warned it is a tertiary plot at best), but it isn’t a Disney-pretty-princess conclusion. And I liked that a lot.
On the Characters: Ana: Character-wise, Haunting Violet presented the same sort of problem I had with the setting and the story. The seeds for good characters were ALL there. Violet was interesting to start with but….she was simply not developed enough as a character. I feel like I barely know her and what moved her which is basically how I feel about the majority of the characters (and there were SO many of them). I could just about see glimpses of awesomeness. Violet’s mother for example, had a really good shot at being to be a conflicted character and sympathetic villain but was nothing but one-dimensional villain. I know close to nothing about Colin beyond him being nice to Violet. There were again, glimpses of his past, but the conversations about it started but never ….ended.
Violet really seemed to struggle with her mother’s lack of ethic but did nothing about it. She wanted to investigate the mystery but her friends were the ones to really do the work – it is as though she was not an active character in her own story. Was that the point of her character arc?? I don’t think so – the denouement was resolved without Violet actively doing anything.
The fact that I actually liked them all (or perhaps I liked the idea of these characters) just adds to the overall frustration.
Thea: In contrast, I thought the characters were well-developed and rounded, especially where Violet, our protagonist, is concerned. Violet’s struggle is a tough one, as she must battle between her guilty conscience and the reality that this is the only way she and her mother can afford to feed themselves and make a living. As Colin puts it in the book, no one will hire Violet as a governess, because Ladies do not want overly-pretty governesses under their roofs. And, while Violet feels bad about drugging old ladies and deceiving her friends Lord Jasper and the young, spirited Elizabeth (daughter of an Earl), she has no qualms about pickpocketing, stealing silverware, or taking advantage of other snooty peers and high society types. The real struggle, however, is with Violet’s relationship with her beautiful, talented, yet petulant and cruel mother. Mrs. Willoghby is a manipulatress of the highest order, ruthlessly attempting to ingratiate herself in the peerage through her act as a medium and using her daughter as marriageable bait. Violet is constantly torn between embarrassment for her beautiful mother’s drinking and gleeful lack of propriety, and a desire to do right and earn her mother’s respect, if not affection. This struggle defines Violet’s character – embarrassed, ashamed, but responsible and reluctant to leave the mother she both reviles and admires. And that’s to say nothing of the ghost story arc that also shapes Violet over the course of the book – the discovery of her abilities, her fear and reluctance to acknowledge the truth, and the gradual acceptance to discover the villain responsible for a young girl’s death.
I enjoyed the other characters in the novel, too, especially Violet’s friend Elizabeth (who unfortunately does not get as much screen time) and the angry Tabitha, twin sister to the murdered Rowena. Of course, there’s also Colin, Violet’s childhood friend and love interest, who is handsome and conveniently there for Violet at every turn. Though I enjoyed the romance that blossoms between these two characters, I could have used a bit more backstory for Colin.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana:Haunting Violet started off really well but turned out to be a frustrating read from the middle onwards. Still, I breezed through it fairly easily.
Thea: I really, truly liked this book – far more than I was expecting to like it. Haunting Violet is a tantalizing ghost story and murder mystery, fraught with seances and spirits, deception and secrets. But more than that, it is the story of a girl, coming into her own – a story that resonates in any time period, with any audience. Wholeheartedly recommended.
In a world that has succumbed to extreme climate change, North America has been rendered a frostbitten wasteland, locked in a second ice age. In the midst of this frozen disaster, however, a few thousand refugees have left the mainland in a mass-boat exodus to a volcanic island, christened America Pacifica in memoriam for the world left behind. Building it out with landfills, using technology to convert salt water to solvent, and feasting on artificially flavored jellyfish, America Pacifica is one of the world’s last outposts. Eighteen year-old Darcy has lived on the island her whole life with her mother, in the shanties that make up Little Los Angeles. One day Darcy’s insulated world is cast asunder when a strange woman approaches her mother, and the next day Sarah disappears from work, never to return home again. For Darcy, Sarah was her entire world and she will stop at nothing to discover the truth of her mother’s disappearance. As Darcy prowls America Pacifica’s dark underbelly and delves deeper into her mother’s secrets, however, she learns more about Sarah’s role in the founding of America Pacifica, and the island’s ugly past, and future.
The first thing I should preface my review with, and put up in blazing boldface capital letters, is: THIS IS NOT A YOUNG ADULT NOVEL. Seriously. It’s not. it’s also not your typical YA “dystopian” romantically inclined drivel. Don’t go into this book thinking that it is, because you’re not gonna be a happy camper. I’m going to go off on a little bit of a digression here, so bear with me. I think one of the *key* differences is said best by one of the characters in the book:
Sometimes someone would try to unite us, get us to share our food or sleep in shifts so we’d have enough blankets. Those people would always fail – once, twenty kids beat a woman to death for suggesting we cut our vitamins in half. They failed because they tried to appeal to the goodness in us, and that goodness was all frozen out. But Tyson knew how to find the bad in people and use it for good.
Last year at Book Expo America, Ana and I had the mixed pleasure of listening to some authors (mostly YA) talk about their take on “dystopias” – which sparked some interesting dissension. According to one (now-famous) dystopian YA author, dystopias are essentially bad situations but there has to be some light at the end of the tunnel. On the other end of the spectrum, the adult-audience author (interestingly, also the only male author) on the panel disagreed, saying that there need not be any such hope. The bleaker the better, and dammit all to hell with the rest.
Having been an apocalyptic and dystopian fiction fan for many years and having reviewed quite a number of these subgenre titles on this blog, I don’t think either one of these authors was right or wrong – there are countless combinations and flavors of the dystopic. But, having read quite a few so-called dystopian YA titles in the past year or so since the genre has exploded in one big Hunger Games-fueled world of homogeneous blandness, I will say that the thing that seems to separate the big boys from the drivel is that the truly awesome dystopian novels tend to be the ones that are bleaker, grittier, and realer. Have you ever noticed when you’re reading a YA title like, say, Matched or Across the Universe or Delirium that there is never any real worry that your beautiful, intelligent, fair-minded protagonists will fail? That there’s never any question of whether or not their rebellions against the EEEEVIL OVERLORDS (because of course The Powers That Be are ALWAYS single-mindedly EEEEVIL) will ever go awry? That their ridiculously idealistic hopes for peace and freedom and emotion will ever be thwarted by pragmatism?(See Footnote 1)
No. Because these so-called dystopias are nice and pretty and sanitized; they are happily, blissfully formulaic and lack teeth. I’m not saying all YA dystopias are like this – certainly, many of my personal favorites in the dystopian/apocalyptic canon are YA titles (see the exultant adoration I have for Patrick Ness, Michael Grant, Susan Beth Pfeffer, etc). But what these novels share with books like America Pacifica, with Orwell or even McCarthy, is the fact that there is no guarantee with these novels. You don’t know that a character will prevail, or live happily ever after with their man/lady-love, or even survive. I loved that tension in this book, and it is one of the things that salvaged some of the unevenness with regards to writing and storytelling.
Mini-rant said, allow me to elaborate on America Pacifica itself as a novel. As I said above, I love that the book is unforgivingly harsh, reveling in the shit and stink of America Pacifica, the sizzle of entirely jellyfish based foods and synthetic nutrients, the addiction of solvent and inequity of its citizens.(See Footnote 2) America Pacifica is an ugly, hard place to live, a bit reminiscent of Paolo Bacigalupi’s vision of the Gulf Coast in Ship Breaker, with the more adult content and edge of The Wind-up Girl. To find her mother, Darcy will do anything (and it’s really not pretty, folks – but it’s believable, gritty, and real, and that’s what matters). The concept of America Pacifica as an island refuge in a planet destroyed by global warming is brilliantly realized in all its brutality and horror, from the inequity of its overpopulated banks, to the solvent clogged sea beyond. If nothing else, Ms. North does a beautiful job of world-building and setting, and also plays with important themes nicely (absolute power corrupting and all that jazz). In characters, things are similarly well-written, as Darcy’s thoughts are almost impressionistic, recalling memories of her mother juxtaposed against her interpretation of the things that happen around her. In many ways, America Pacifica is Darcy’s reluctant coming-of-age story; neither beautiful nor particularly smart, Darcy is a normal, passively accepting woman that would have been content to live the rest of her days with her much-loved mother in their small, sweat-stinking apartment. In her determination to find her mother and the stilted thought-process that defines this narrative, however, Darcy comes to life as a memorable, sympathetic character.
These praises said, America Pacifica is very clearly a debut novel, and suffers from a number of first-novel types of issues. Namely, a lot of conversations that explain the history of America Pacifica (info-dumpy telling, as opposed to showing), a lack of intensity as the book approaches its climax, and some uneven storytelling. While the novel itself is based on a brilliant concept and the plot sounds great on paper, the execution of that story was cumbersome and ill-paced, spending far too much time on exposition and a disproportionately short amount of time on the actual meat and potatoes of the plot (especially in the book’s final act, with the revelation of America Pacifica’s past and future, and the fate of Sarah) – although I should say that I felt the direction of the book is spot on, and the ending is perfect (I could not have seen this book end any other way). Anna North, a seasoned online and short fiction writer, certainly has a story to tell and a unique, memorable style that is visually evocative and impressionistic – so despite the missteps in the storytelling, I have no doubts in the storyteller.
Overall, I finished America Pacifica with my thirst slaked, and my head full. This is a contemplative novel that, in spite of its flaws, leaves an impression on its readers. I, for one, cannot wait for more from Ms. North in the future.
Footnotes: 1. Note, these protagonists all manage to save the world AND get the boy of their dreams – AT THE SAME TIME! That’s some fan-freaking-tastic multitasking, right there, ain’t it? ↩ 2. On the jellyfish note – it’s really cool to see an author that does a little research. Did you know that jellyfish are one of the few species that thrive from overfishing and climate change? With global warming, jellyfish can expand their tentacled reach into parts of the ocean that were formerly uninhabitable for them, and the lower number of fish means that there is so much less competition. Hence, those huge Finding Nemo-esque Jellyfish Blooms. In fact, if things continue the way they are at this rate, we could very easily live in a world where the only real seafood left for humans to eat will be jellyfish. ↩ ...more