"Infandous": Too odious to be expressed or mentioned.
There are those books that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. Infandous is one such book. T"Infandous": Too odious to be expressed or mentioned.
There are those books that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. Infandous is one such book. This is a short review of a short novel that is perfectly concise in its telling, beautiful in its writing, featuring a narrator with a strong voice and a story that is moving, discomfiting and ultimately healing.
Following young narrator Sephora Golding, we follow her through the summer before senior year. The story, taut and precise, follows the tentative steps of a young girl in the journey to womanhood: from her relationship with a beloved mother, their fraught livelihood in a one bedroom apartment, Seph’s creative pursuits and friendships, to her sexual awakening and experimentations moving toward a sense of self-determination. The latter I feel, is very important here and is expertly dealt by the author in the way that Sephora, in spite of things outside her control and the complicated choices she makes, is shown with sympathy, care and undeniable agency.
Seph’s world is populated with hardships and poverty, casual sexism and misogyny. Interspersed throughout are Seph’s musings on fairytales and mythology from Sleeping Beauty to Demeter and Persephone, Procne and Philomela. All stories centred on young women and agency.
A myth is not in the telling but in the endless retelling
From the opening pages, we know something is not quite well with Sephora. There is a feeling that runs through her musings as a narrator, that hint at trauma and unease which she is trying – her hardest – to work through.
Thus, one of the best – and most affecting – aspects of Infandous is exactly this: in the telling of the stories, in the creating of her art, lies the cathartic process of working through something infandous as a storyteller and artist in an attempt to come out on the other side. To be able to breathe.
Infandous is a superb contemporary YA novel. It reminded me a lot of the way that Stephanie Kuehn builds her stories like in Charm and Strange. It is also in the tradition of other recent feminist works by Courtney Summers, Rhiannon Thomas, Sarah McCarry and Laura Ruby....more
Down a path into the darkest heart of a forest, lies a glass coffin and in it sleeps a cursed prince with horns onReview posted on The Book Smugglers
Down a path into the darkest heart of a forest, lies a glass coffin and in it sleeps a cursed prince with horns on his head. As far as anyone knows, through countless generations, he’d always been there, forever asleep. No matter how many times people tried, or what anyone did – or how many kisses were pressed to the glass by both boys and girls – he never woke up.
But this is only one tale amongst many in the strange town of Fairfold, where humans and fae exist side by side in an uneasy truce of unspoken rules. For there is also the tale of Ben and how he was blessed with the gift of music – a blessing that turns into a curse. And the tale of Jack, a changeling swapped by his mother for protection and adopted by his human parents. And most important of all, there’s tale of Hazel, the girl-who-would-be-knight.
Fairfold’s inhabitants are protected if they follow certain precepts but sometimes, townsfolk go missing or go crazy. But no one will mention any of that in Fairfold, because the town thrives as long as the tourists keep coming to see the horned boy.
But something else lies deep in the darkest part of the forest and it’s growing stronger and stronger.
…And then one day the sleeping boy is awakened from his cursed slumber and no one knows why or how.
Except for Hazel and her beloved brother Ben.
This is a book of lies and lost memories. This is a book of tales and curses and love. This is Holly Black doing what she does best: with gorgeous prose that flows beautifully, complicated female characters and a story of back and forth, The Darkest Part of the Forest is the author’s newest book and an elaborate modern fairytale that subverts genre expectations.
Hazel is the narrator, as unreliable as it can be. Without spoiling the details of the story, much of The Darkest Part of the Forest delves into Hazel’s personality, sense of self-awareness and her memories – those that she suppressed and those she doesn’t know she has.
The storytelling builds around Hazel’s central relationships. First and foremost, the one between her and her brother Ben. Theirs is that type of loving, close relationship that at some point derailed because of an unhealthy mixture of secrets, shame, guilt and jealousy. It’s as complicated and complex as it can be and all the more engaging because of that. There is also Jack, the boy she loves and whom she never expects to love her back. Another thing that Holly Black does really well (see: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) is the exploration of one’s deepest desires, the attraction to danger and darkness and the lure of immortality. The relationship with immortal beings is also present and accounted for here, all the more important because of the story’s main pairings: Hazel and Jack; and Ben and the boy whose love declaration at a Time of Danger is the cheesiest, most happy-making thing in the entire novel.
Finally, there is Hazel’s relationship with herself.
Hazel’s narrative goes back and forth between past and present, revealing aspects of her life little by little as though she is afraid to let even herself know or remember the things she has done and felt. There are sides of herself that she is not aware of (oh, the fae and their bargains and curses). Discovering those, unveiling the Mysteries of Hazel and how amazingly courageous she is are what make the story (Night Hazel! Knight Hazel!) but also what sometimes, breaks it. There is a storytelling choice that keeps things from the reader for as long as possible – if I will be honest, it was at times frustrating because it felt forced. In parallel, even though I loved Hazel (just as she was), the representation of her emotional make-up was more told than she shown, with unfortunate heavy-handiness.
The explanation for her behaviour when it came to how she related to boys for example, was presented as a mathematical equation: starting with X and after Y happened it inevitably and neatly led to Z. Rather than a messy emotional state of mind that could be interpreted, I was left with what felt masticated hand-holding.
In spite of those criticisms, The Darkest Part of the Forest is a great, beautifully written tale that explores guilt, secrets, relationships, courage, fate and choices extremely well. Plus, boys kissing, girls kicking ass and a Monster With a Heart. All in all, a perfect start to 2015. ...more
Staying alive on backwater mining planet Thanda is no small feat – least of all a teenage girl completely on her own. Alone or not,Essie has a secret.
Staying alive on backwater mining planet Thanda is no small feat – least of all a teenage girl completely on her own. Alone or not, Essie manages to hobble together a living by her winnings in cage fights and her smarts with her droids and stitched-together tech. For the most part, she’s happy. Or she’s too tired to be happy; call it what you will.
But she’s still got a secret that could, one day, tear the galaxy apart.
That day comes when a strange ship crashes on Thanda, bearing a single pilot – an off-worlder named Dane, with an agenda of his own. Essie reluctantly agrees to help Dane with his ship repairs for the novelty and challenge of the experience, but quickly discovers that Dane is not at all who he appears. With her hidden past and true identity – the long lost heir to the empire, crown princess Snow of Windsong – exposed, Essie must make a choice. To escape her captors and resume her life of anonymity amongst the distant stars, or live up to her late mother’s legacy and do the right thing for her people and the galaxy.
I’m of two minds when it comes to Stitching Snow. The debut novel from R.C. Lewis, this reimagining of the Snow White is fairly fast and loose, but maintains the basic suite of tropes – e.g. there is an heir princess, a power-hungry stepmother, a poisoning of sorts, and a handsome prince. Unlike the Disney version of the tale, however, Stitching Snow places the focus squarely on Snow (that is, Essie in this version): a more active approach on the displaced princess’s perspective and experience. Unlike other traditional iterations of the fable which tend to portray a more passive Snow White, this science fictional version is an engineer and a tinkerer as well as a cage-fighter; she’s also worked hard to keep her identity secret, to stave off the more aggressive men of the mining colony, and maintain her independence. Essie’s characterization is brilliant throughout the book, managing to be tough without being abrasive, and vulnerable without being a pushover. It’s nice to read a levelheaded heroine (especially in YA SFF), who takes calculated risks but understands the importance of pragmatism. I’ve always felt that there’s an element of fear to Snow White – Snow’s terror at being murdered by the huntsman and caught by her stepmother – and in Stitching Snow, Essie’s fear of discovery or of being in a position where she cannot control the situation is a defining, palpable characteristic.
In the vein of pragmatism and tropes, at the onset of Sttching Snow (and indeed for most of the novel), R.C. Lewis does a fantastic job of taking certain key YA paranormal/SFF staples and ever-so-slightly twisting them. There’s the tough-as-nails heroine, for example, who happens to be a (beautiful) escaped princess who is making her way on a rough planet thanks to her mad science skills. She, of course, runs into a questing stranger who is obviously gorgeous, dangerous, and on a secret mission. The two are inevitably involved, romantically, as these things go in the trope-laden world that is softball YA SFF… Except that in Stitching Snow, key things are a little bit different. Essie is NOT head over heels in love with Dane after first setting eyes on him – she does not crave his touch immediately, nor does she romanticize the fact that he abducts her against her will. She’s pissed, she tries to escape, and there aren’t countless pages dedicated to Essie’s fluttering heartbeat every time Dane brushes by her. I appreciate that very much, jaded reader of YA SFF that I am. I liked that it takes time to develop these romantic inclinations between the two characters, and that cheese is (for the most part) kept to a minimum. It’s actually a fascinating exercise – are the tropes ok even if you’ve read them a million times before, or is it the telling that matters? If you change a few key details – the heroine doesn’t instantly fall in love with the hero – does that make the tropes bearable?
In the case of Stitching Snow…yes and no. While I enjoyed the slower building relationships between characters, ultimately these small twists to a very tried and tired trope-laden story still leaves you with a tried and tired trope-laden story. No matter how you cut it, this is still the story of an exceptional, beautiful princess who saves her kingdom with her exceptional, beautiful prince. On the subject of Dane, by the way, it’s incredibly irritating that he’s so much better at Essie at combat and that he gets to teach her how to improve her rough cage-fighting skills (did this bother anyone else?!), which are fine for someone self taught but never an obstacle for him. He’s also a tad too-good-to-be true, and despite the slow-building romance, Dane comes off as a stock, two-dimensional character who is there for requisite plot development points.
And then there are the other important factors in the novel: the overarching conflict, the worldbuilding, the villains and their motivations, and the science fictional aspects of the book with Essie’s tech. See, Essie ran away from home because her mother died, her father is a despotic tyrant king, aided by his new queen – the evil stepmother – who pretends to be a witch, but who really is an accomplished poisoner and at the forefront of technological age-reversal advancement. There’s a larger thread of conflict here throughout the galaxy as the Windsong royals are apparently poisoning parts of the populace, seeding pockets of unrest and chaos to continue a bogus war and maintain power. The theory is interesting, but as it’s never really explored in any depth or with any convincing rationale, I had trouble buying into the premise. Further, the villains in this piece come across as one-note sketches – there’s glimpses of a conflicted relationship between Essie and her father, but it goes nowhere (sadly). Similarly, the pacing of the book is remarkably lopsided, with the first two thirds of the novel solidly restrained, but the last third of the book frantically rushed.
And finally, the science fiction. Essie is an engineer and a tinkerer – she likes taking things apart and putting them back together in better, more creative ways. R.C. Lewis does a good job of building Essie’s character and establishing her competence and smarts, but sadly does the handwavey “this is science stuff, guys” thing by referring to all of Essie’s tinkering as “stitching” (like sewing, with “patches” and loose stitches holding technology together). I can’t help but wish there was something a little more tactile here, instead of a weak analogy to sewing.
Ultimately, Stitching Snow is an OK novel. It’s not the best YA Science Fiction book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly not the worst. A middle-of-the-pack, moderately entertaining but ultimately forgettable book....more
Eve doesn’t recognise the face when she looks in the mirror, she has no true memory of her past and can baOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Eve doesn’t recognise the face when she looks in the mirror, she has no true memory of her past and can barely function in the present. Everything – from walking and talking to understanding how the world works is all new to her. She’s been told she has lost her memory. She’s been told she is in a witness protection program for paranormal creatures, hiding from a creepy serial killer who is out to get her. She’s been told she is the key to find him and to stop his killing spree. She’s been told she needs to remember before it is too late and more young kids disappear. She’s been told she can trust the people who are helping her even if they look at her with distaste and mistrust.
She’s been told.
There are certain things she knows though. She knows she has undergone several reconstructive surgeries. She knows she can do magic – she looks at the mirror one day and decides that her eyes were actually green before and just like that, they are changed. She knows that every time she uses her magic, she passes out and has horrifying dreams (or are they visions?) always featuring a carnival tent, a magician, a storyteller and creepy dolls. When she wakes up after those black-outs she realises that days or sometimes even weeks have passed and she has no short-term memory of those moments.
Conjured is a beautifully constructed novel that goes from utterly disorienting to exceptionally horrific as its story progresses. It features an ubber-creepy carnival, a supernatural serial killer and an amnesic narrator. But its true core is a story about agency and identity and what it is like to forge both when there is no memory, no past, no sense of true self to start with.
It is more or less divided in two parts: the first is a progressive build-up to the revelations that appear in the second part. The former, a disorienting advance toward the truth about Eve, the latter an affecting horror story unlike anything I have read of late.
What impresses me the most about the novel is Eve as a character and the writing of her narrative. Since everything is from her point of view, we only ever know what Eve knows and she knows very, very little. When she wakes up with no memory, we are as lost as she is, not knowing who to trust, what happened in the past days or weeks. It is not only disorienting but also claustrophobic.
More to the point though, I loved how the author took such a gamble with Eve because she is essentially a blank slate narrator. To start with, she has little personality and no agency. And it is very interesting to see the way that the character progresses, not knowing who she is, what she can do, and what happened to her. Which is awesome because I sometimes feel that “strong female character” is often compared to kickass and immediately assertive so it is kind of a breath of fresh air to have a character like Eve who is developing her sense of self slowly and who is a quiet, timid character without being any less strong for that. When the second part comes and the deeply cruel, creepy and dark nature of her story is finally revealed, we come to have not only a deep understanding of why Eve is like she is and how important it really is when she finally voices her choice and forges her own sense of self.
All of this was superb: from the puzzling narrative to the development of Eve as a character, from her visions and fear to the creepily awesome horror in the latter part.
My only real misgiving about the novel comes with its romantic storyline and I confess to be on two minds about it. On the one hand, there is an element of insta-love as Eve has an almost immediate connection to a boy named Zach whom she meets at the library where she is sent to work. I was immediately put off by Zach when as soon as he met Eve she told her point-blank that they could never be friends because he wanted to kiss her. Okay, then.
On the other hand, Zach turn out to be a nice boy, who never lies (there are Reasons) and who is completely loyal to Eve. It is yet another breath of fresh air to have the guy be so besotted and awed to the point of being ready to drop everything for the girl – as abrupt as that turns out to be. The ending though is kind of perfect for them and for this story in the way that it is flawed and even perhaps, questionable.
Ultimately, this book is All About Eve and I really loved it, just as it is. ...more
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a rOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a retelling of the Orpheus myth (but not like you know it).
All Our Pretty Songs: almost too good to be true. How is this a debut work? With this level of awesome prose? And gutsy storytelling? And by gutsy I really mean: simply writing a story that follows young characters who experience life – sex, drugs and rock & roll – in a way that is as real as any of all the other possible portrayals of teen life in YA.
So, unnamed narrator narrates: about her life and the life of her best-friend-almost-sister Aurora; and the way that she is always taking care of beautiful, volatile Aurora. There’s always been the two of them and their love and dedication and loyalty to each other. And there is a passion for music here that seeps from the narrative and that passion becomes almost tangible when they meet a musician named Jack. His gift is amazing and when he plays, everybody listens. And our unnamed narrator falls in lust and in love with Jack almost immediately (and definitely completely).
And even though the world we all inhabit is very much one of real things as it just so happens – as our narrator finds out – it is also one where things are real. So…when we say that everybody listens to Jack and that everybody pays attention to Aurora, we mean that literally. There is myth come to life here (and why the Pacific Northwest? Because “they” are everywhere) and the unnamed narrator – who is not beautiful or talented – sits in the margins, looking from the outside, unable to follow where they eventually go.
And the narrative is kind of dream-like and there are parts where there is a bit of stream of consciousness (kinda like this review) and as the story progress it becomes both more focused and more meandering if that makes any sense at all. What strikes me the most about the story is how even though the plot deals with life and death and danger and terror, the narrative is still extremely insulated because as worldly as the narrator seems to be with the parties and the sex and the drugs and the freedom, she is still a 17-year-old girl who makes snap judgements about people and whose narrow view of those she loves and about herself is still informed by her inexperience.
And I love her for all of that. I love that the narrator and the story is about complex relationships with close family, close friends, and sisterhood. Also with lovers and how love shapes her view of the world. So inasmuch as the narrator falls irrevocably in love with Jack, she is still involved in other stuff and with other people – I loved her relationship with her mother and with her friend Raoul. Plus there is a lot of negotiating that happens between how freely she has given her body and her heart and the fact that sometimes this is not enough to the other person. So this is definitely Coming-of-Age as much as it is Quest (when are those not the same?) . And central to this is also this self-awareness and this slow learning curve about what it means to be talented and beautiful which includes astute observations about our world and how we choose to look at people and allocate them “worth”. Because this is also a mythology retelling it all comes together:
"Once upon a time, girls who were too beautiful or too skilled were changed into other things by angry gods and their wives. A cow, a flower, a spider, a fog. Maybe you boasted too loudly of sleeping with a goddess’s husband. Maybe you talked too much about your own talents. Maybe you were born dumb and pretty, and the wrong people fell in love with you, chased you across fields and mountains and oceans until you cried mercy and a god took pity on you, switched your body to a heaving sea of clouds. Maybe you stayed in one place for too long, pining for someone who wasn’t yours, and your toes grew roots into the earth and your skin toughened into bark. Maybe you told the world how beautiful your children were, and the gods cut them down in front of you to punish you for your loose tongue, and you were so overcome with grief your body turned to stone."
Which just goes to show how these mythological beings (also EVERYBODY on the planet) are complete assholes who randomly and arbitrarily assign value to people.
Because here is the thing: as much as the narrator constantly tells us that she is unworthy because she is not typically beautiful or talented like her friends the fact remains that she is equally AWESOME. Even though she is flawed (who isn’t?), there is loyalty, and dedication, and determination and talent here in spades. Probably my favourite quote:
"I will not let the terror of the dark get hold of me. If this is a test, I will fucking pass it. I will pass any test this creepy skeleton in a crappy suit can give me. Let them turn me into stone or water or flowers. I came here for my lover and the girl who is my sister, and they were mine before anyone else tried to take them from me, before this bony motherfucker showed up on my stoop and let loose all the old things better left at rest. Jack I will let go; Jack is on his own, now. But I will die before I leave Aurora down here."
Dear narrator, you are so awesome and I don’t even know your name.
To sum up: great book. Really reminded me of Imaginary Girls and September Girls in terms of tone, narrative and themes.
All Our Pretty Songs can be read as a self-contained, standalone book but I understand it is the beginning of a series. I don’t know where this is going but I will follow and I will not even look back. ...more
WARNING, THIS REVIEW IS FOR BOTH BOOKS IN THE DUET.
Part 1: The Spoiler-Free Review
Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are the two Fantasy novels thWARNING, THIS REVIEW IS FOR BOTH BOOKS IN THE DUET.
Part 1: The Spoiler-Free Review
Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are the two Fantasy novels that form the Dreamhunter Duet – they have been originally published separately but are effectively one story in two parts, hence this combined review. The two books were actually published in Australia as one omnibus edition called The Invisible Road.
The Dreamhunter Duet is set Southland, an alternate version of a New Zealand that has been colonised by 5 migrating families (some of them descended from Bible’s Lazarus). It features a story about families, about cousins, about lovers, and about friends. It is also a story about power and politics and dreams.
Above all, it is a story about a place. The Place. The Place is a fantastical realm that appeared suddenly a few years back and where a few specific people (dreamhunters) can travel into to capture dreams.
In terms of worldbuilding, there is a whole industry that has been built around The Place: dreamhunters capture dreams and then broadcast them to a paying, sleeping audience that gets to live through amazing experiences . In Southland’s capital, the most famous broadcasting place is the Rainbow Opera where the biggest names in dreamhunting can make a fortune. But it all goes much beyond that: Dreamhunting also affects the future generations of this nation because young people dream of becoming hunters (so that they can improve their lives) and there are also questions of politics, economic progress, fame and fortune connected to The Place and its different uses (most of them benign, some of them horrifyingly nightmarish).
Two of the most famous, most powerful Dreamhunter families are the Tiebolds and the Hames. Cousins-almost-sisters Rose Tiebold and Laura Hame are reaching the age where teenagers can try out dreamhunting and whereas Rose dreams about it and has built her entire life around it, Laura dreads the moment. Surprisingly, it is Laura who succeeds in becoming a Dreamhunter. The story follows the two girls as they deal with disappointments and successes and the narrative follows the two as well as the other members of their family. The overarching plot deals with a recurring dream that Laura’s father Tziga has and the mysterious uses he makes of it – all connected with a political plot.
And this is only but the barest bones of the duet. I devoured it like there wasn’t tomorrow a few months ago and although I admit that the details are now slightly fuzzy, the overwhelming impression I still carry with me is how this was simultaneously uniquely remarkable and horrifyingly problematic.
There is a LOT to unpack here: I think overall, in terms of worldbuilding, it is a remarkable fantasy and I have not read anything quite like it before. Everything in book 1 (and the vast majority of book 2) just blew my mind away in terms of the concept of the dreamhunting, the details of the world constructed around it, the combination with Judeo mythology (the early families who settled there, the Hame’s ability to create Golems ), the two girls’ friendship, how thematically speaking it all centres around free will and decision-making. I loved that the novel is constantly changing viewpoints and that we get to spend time with the adults and see their relationship with each other. I enjoyed the sweet romance between Laura and the young Sandy and above all I LOVED Rose, her forthrightness and the way she struggles to find meaning in the life that she has to build after her dreams of dreamhunting have been destroyed.
I also loved the way that gender roles are played and how Laura’s uncle (Rose’s father) is the central maternal figure of the story, for example. There is so much that is interesting and engaging with the topics of politics, power, family dynamics, gender roles, identity in these books.
It all sounds awesome, right?
The revelations at the end of the book and the ultimate resolution ruined the whole thing for me – my reaction is a blend of EXTREME personal dislike (I did not care for how things ended for the two girls and I had problems with a certain “vibe” I found in the narrative) and my questioning of the overall arc and general worldbuilding that make no sense after the final twist is revealed.
More about those in the discussion in the second part of this review.
I just wanted to end my part by saying this: I thought reading this was well worth it for the family dynamics and the impressive imagery. Despite my personal aversion for how things ended up, I still do not regret reading it.
(In other words: these are the most amazing books I have ever hated. Or the most fucked up books I have ever loved. Or something.)
I am both grateful and appalled that Ana put these books into my hands after reading them.
I am grateful, because as Ana says, the Dreamhunter Duology is mindblowingly amazing when it comes to worldbuilding, basic premise, writing style, and imagination. The concept of The Place – a mysterious land to which only a select few can travel, and even more select few can capture and rebroadcast dreams – is fascinating. The idea of “dreamhunting” itself and the commercialization and institutionalization of certain dreams is also unique and freaking fantastic. The Place and Dreams are a mystery, and I love the questions posed especially by the first book. Why are dreams tied to certain locations? Why do they feature certain central figures (convicts, in particular)? What do the dreams mean and where are they coming from?
Beyond the outstanding premise and world, I also loved the female characters in the duology, especially Rose (Laura…well, more on that in the spoiler section). Even though this is an alternate world set in the early 1900s, I love that Rose, her powerful dreamhunter mother, and even at certain points Laura (but really, more on that in a bit) are women that have agency and are empowered and make their own decisions – be it with friends, having sex for the first time, surviving a fire, and so on. I love the threads of friendship and of family in both of these books, especially when it comes to cousin Rose and her relationship with both her mother and cousin (who is really like a sister) Laura.
ALL THAT SAID – I agree with Ana in that there are some major, un-overlook-able problems with the book. I personally did not care for the ending – scratch that. I personally hated the ending of the book. While everything is nicely resolved and all the questions are answered (about dreams, The Place, Laura’s EXTRA SPECIAL SPECIALNESS), I resented the resolution and its implications. I hated the way that the girls’ storylines are tied up; I especially abhorred the romantic elements to this story so far as Rose and Laura are concerned. Especially Laura (whose character is basically ruined for me completely). Finally, this also bothers me deeply: the fact that this takes place in a kinda-sorta version of New Zealand, but a New Zealand that has been completely erased of its Maori population and history (more on that below).
Ultimately, I am torn when it comes to this duology. It’s undeniably brilliant, with an imaginative scope that is off the charts. It’s also incredibly infuriating, and left me feeling both creeped out and ripped off. Do I recommend it? Yes, because it is a duology that SHOULD be read, dissected, appreciated, and debated.
(In other words: I understand why Ana told me to read these books – because this is the type of thing that needs to be discussed. With spoilers. Below.)
Part 2: Book Discussion with ALL THE SPOILERS
**READER BEWARE! Spoilers follow below. If you have not read the duology and do not wish to be spoiled, LOOK AWAY**
After Thea finished the books, both of us frantically sent a flurry of emails back and forth and have condensed all our feelings into the following few key points. Ready?
1. It is revealed that the Place was created by Lazarus Hame, the future son of Laura and Sandy.
This Future!Lazarus! has a terrible life and so he buries himself alive and accidentally creates a living thing – THE PLACE! – which broadcasts his dreams from the future into the past as an attempt to communicate with other Hames so they can… help him. Survive. Because The Place is a NOWN, and NOWN is required to protect Laura Hame and all those she cares for NO MATTER WHAT. We both loved this (TIME TRAVEL! THE PLACE IS A SAND GOLEM!) and hated this (it is all about Laura and Sandy and their son and Laura’s innate greatness and goodness???!!!!!! WHYYYYYYYYY! What a waste of a perfectly good premise!). (Not to mention, OF COURSE after Laura has sex with Sandy, he supposedly dies and then Laura discovers she is pregnant. This is one of our most irritating pet peeves in literature. NO.)
2. This creates a HUGE worldbuilding problem.
If this is all about the Hame family and very specifically about their ability to create golems and shape clay/sand/dust/ash/food items into living things, HOW AND WHY can other people (non-Hames) become Dreamhunters and Rangers? How can they enter The Place at all? What about the other dreams (the Gate dream comes to mind)? There’s also the problem of paradoxes and fractured timelines. When Lazarus rises from the grave – where he has been buried alive but not dead for years and years – he is alive. And yet, his memories of his past are intrinsically tied to the existence of The Place in his childhood and his upbringing with his single mother (who is no longer a single mother). There’s a “many worlds” explanation that would allow this to work, but it feels a bit like a cheap cop-out.
3. In the end, the two extremely young female protagonists end up the book married and with children.
Laura finds Lazarus and saves him and then learns that he is her son. This happens exactly at the point at which she realises she is pregnant with her supposedly dead boyfriend’s baby. But because she KNOWS Lazarus, she has no choice but to keep the baby. Our feelings about this are complicated: do we accept this as Laura’s CHOICE or do we think this is not a “choice” at all because it was imposed on her by the plot? Laura is also effectively stripped of ANY agency because she acts on things that she is TOLD to do by her father, by her family, and even by fate itself. The whole history of this world and the entire plot hinges on young Laura having baby Lazarus. It is the end-all and the origin of the whole story. (Except for the fact that this Lazarus is from an alternate timeline and might not matter at all if Laura keeps the baby?)
Meanwhile, Rose marries Future!Lazarus! who is her cousin (we can even say that it is almost her nephew if you think how close she and Laura are, like sisters!!!) who is also a MUCH older man. Rose and her husband (Future!Lazarus!) live together with their daughter as well as Laura, Sandy and Baby!Lazarus!, whom Rose helps raise. It’s so fucked up we can’t even, especially considering the next point:
4. In the beginning of book Laura, in the footsteps of her father, creates a Golem, called NOWN. The relationship between Laura and NOWN is SO SO CREEPY.
The creative impulse behind Laura’s creation of NOWN (and then giving him his free will) is undeniably because of her desire for a father figure to take care of her following Tziga – her real father – and his disappearance. She creates NOWN to make decisions for her and to love her like a father tending a child… and more. There is DEFINITELY a sexual vibe between Laura and NOWN, with her need for NOWN to “cherish” her and love her in a very un-fatherly kind of way.
Basically, the duology as a whole has a really weird, really pervasive incestuous vibe going on that is never questioned at all.
5. Finally, a point that we find DEEPLY, INTENSELY problematic: erasing people from history.
The story takes place in an alternate history New Zealand-inspired location. BUT in this world, there are no natives to New Zealand at all. The island was colonized by the five migrating families who arrive to find the island empty…and that’s it. So BASICALLY the Maori – the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, who made their way to the islands in 1250-1300 CE – have been ERASED FROM HISTORY.
And I am SO glad I did. My own take? I love it. I agree with those who say this is a feminist book. I think September Girls is not only NOT sexist, but also quite the opposite: I think it challenges sexism directly in a myriad of ways but also does so metaphorically. It questions patriarchy, the idea of “manhood” very explicitly and it does so in a beautifully written, languid, thought-provoking story. It’s absolutely one of my favourite reads this year.
Allow me to expound on why. Please note: I am hoping it is clear that I am not attacking different readings of September Girls but I feel I need to interact directly with some of the sexism claims because to me it is important to offer a different take. So here is my deconstruction of the novel and most importantly, of the claims of sexism levelled at it.
WARNING: ALL THE SPOILERS.
The story is mostly narrated by Sam, a young 17-year-old boy who is spending his summer with his father and brother Jeff at a remote beach house in a sleepy location full of strange, beautiful Girls. Sam addresses them with the capital G because they are so other: all equally blond, all equally weird, all beautiful, extremely sexy and – unexpectedly – coming on to him. When he meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, they start to fall for each other. Then he learns what the Girls really are.
September Girls is a dark, twisted, fucked-up fairytale in which mermaids (or beings that are very similar to mermaids) have been cursed by their Father . Sam shares the narrative with one of the Girls who is telling him – us – everything about them in this eerie, amazing tale. It’s almost like a siren song.
We are told that: their father curses them because he hated their Mother, who is called a Whore:
“We have been told that she was a whore, although we can’t remember who told us that, and we often find ourselves arguing over the true definition of whore.”
We are told that: the curse entails being sent away from home abruptly and with very vague memories of why and how. They show up at the shore one day, naked and barely formed. They can’t swim. Their feet hurt with every step. They don’t know how to speak, what to think and they don’t even remember their names:
“We come here without names. There are the names they call us. But those aren’t our names. The names they call us are not hard to guess. Comehere, Wheresmyfood, Trysmilingsometime, and Suckonthis are four common ones, but the list goes predictably on from there and only gets uglier. Those are the names they call us. Those are not our names. We choose our own names.”
We are told that: they have no identity or memory but they know that to break the curse they need to find a good, virgin boy to have sex with and so they must forge their identify in the way that will work best for them in attracting those boys. They forge it by the most immediate things they see in front of them: fashion magazines and TV shows and thus they realise that becoming sexy, blond girls will give them the best chance to break the curse:
“We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with sexiness that appears unconsidered. The women think we’re tacky, but we’re not interested in the opinions of women anymore. We learned long ago how unimportant the opinions of women are. We are here because our mother could not protect us. We are here because our father had an ‘opinion’ “.
We are told that: when they finally find a Virgin boy, their curse does not allow them to act – they must always wait for the guy to notice them. Only when the curse is broken can they return to their elusive home. They are all sisters but sisterhood is dangerous.
And it’s all horrible and unfair and just like Sam says at one point: these Girls’ parents are real fucking assholes.
A possible reading is to take those quotes and the curse itself at face value – they do sound incredibly misogynistic. That’s because they are. That is in fact, the point. If that curse and those quotes I chose are not a brilliant, REALLY OBVIOUS metaphor for how girls experience sexism in our society as well as an example of the weight of unfair expectations bearing on them, I don’t know anything anymore.
In a way I think the best criticism that could be levelled at the book is that at the end of the day, this could still be construed as a book that shows female suffering as a means to talk about feminism. And given that the way to break a curse is to have sex with a virgin boy, this could still be construed as a book that puts a lot of power on the hands of the male. That said, with regards to the former, ours is a world in which women do experience sexism every single day and even though I love to see diverse stories where those are not perpetuated, I also want to see stories that do acknowledge that, that do acknowledge the wtfuckery of fairytales and of ridiculous curses and above all, I want to read stories like this one which does exactly that in the way that it so cleverly addresses sexism and patriarchy.
My reading is that this curse is a mirror. It is a mirror reflecting our world – but in many ways it is also a broken mirror because the questioning is always there. It’s in the way that the Girls DO form friendships with each other. In the way that the Girls DO try to break the curse in a myriad of ways by attempting to leave the beach and the town: Girls have almost died trying. There are those who challenge the rules and those who simply accept their deaths without breaking the curse. And it’s not even a heteronormative story either: girls have fallen in love with other girls as well. This book would be a bad, sexist idea if the sexism wasn’t challenged at every step of the way, if their Father wasn’t presented as a raging misogynist who is worthy of contempt.
Reading is such an awesome thing and as I said, my aim is not to discredit other people’s readings of the book. I truly find fascinating the ways that readers have interacted with September Girls. There is for example, a passage that has been quoted in several reviews and used to support the claims of misogyny and sexism and slut shaming. I wanted to quote it here to as support exactly the opposite. In it DeeDee and Sam are chatting after her reading of the Bible:
“I like the parts about hos, even if they always come to a bad end. Eat a fucking apple, you’re a ho. Open a box, you’re a ho. Some guy looks at you: turn to stone, ho. See you later, ho. It’s always the same. The best one is Lilith–also a ho, but a different kind of ho. She went and got her own little thing going, and for that she gets to be an eternal demon queen, lucky her. No one likes a ho. Except when they do, which, obviously, is most of the time. Doesn’t make a difference; she always gets hers eventually.”
To me this passage is incredibly subversive and sarcastic. It shows that DeeDee is fully aware. To support my claim of awareness, she even says a bit later on: “I actually like hos myself. Maybe I am one – I barely know what counts anymore”. She has read feminist tracts and understands how society works: “I love how when boys have a completely unacceptable habit like peeing in the sink, science actually goes to all the trouble to come up with a justification for it.” Or when Sam “congratulates” her for having opinions, she says: “Oh, thank you, I’m so glad you approve of me having a thought in my brain.”
So to me? DeeDee = fucking awesome.
BUT even if taken at face value, even if we want to believe that DeeDee IS slut shaming in the Bible quote, it would also be ok in the context of this novel. Because there are Girls who do not question. There are Girls who simply go about doing what they are supposed to do. And that is also a significant way to portray internalized, unquestioned sexism – we are all part of this world after all and are all subject to sexist messages all the time. This is all the more clear in the book with regards to the Girls.
So I have written all of that and so far haven’t even touched on the subject of Sam and his dick or Sam and his raging sexism and how those connect to some of the criticism I have seen with regards to the book: the language used, the continuous swearing as well as references to sex and to private parts. To wit: I understand that each reader has different thresholds for what they like to read and how much cursing they can take and September Girls can be seen as extremely crass in parts.
But to me, it was not really crass as much as it is straightforward and bullshit-less. To me, Sam has a healthy relationship with his dick – he calls it a dick, he likes to masturbate and gets boners. There is this one time, he thinks to himself that all he wanted to do was to go home, relax and masturbate and go to sleep and – this is probably Too Much Information but at this point, I don’t really care anymore – I TOTALLY GET THIS, BRO.
There is also this one scene in particular that a lot of readers see problems with in which he is staring at this beautiful beach, he is feeling the sun on his back, it’s the first day of his summer holidays and he says something like “I felt a heaviness in my dick”. I totally get how sensual moments like these are, you know? But also, this is not all that moment entails: the heaviness in his dick is because:
“I felt strong and solid, more myself – the best version of myself, I mean – than I had in a while.”
The contextual meanings of all of this is that Sam is learning who he is, he is searching for an identity and to an understanding of what it means to be a “man”. This is a recurrent theme in the novel. This is the main point of the novel. As early as page ONE Sam talks about his father and brother thusly:
“The most obnoxious thing about them was their tendency to land on the topic of my supposedly impeding manhood: that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy – which vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair – but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next – ta-da! – a man, as if someone would even notice the difference.”
So for the entire book Sam is struggling with the idea of “manhood”. He is directly and explicitly struggling to understand what is it that makes a boy a man. His brother Jeff and his best friend Sebastian constantly sprout deeply offensive and sexist language when talking about girls. They use gendered insults all the time: “don’t be a pussy Sam”. And Sam – even though he feels uncomfortable hearing those messages – to start with, also uses that language, also refers to girls in a demeaning way. But the more his arc progresses, the more he changes.
He is not completely clueless because the questioning is there from the start as evidenced by the quote above but he is not quite there yet so throughout the book he says horrible things, he thinks sexist thoughts. And this just brings me back to how the narrative does not condone this, because it constantly puts Sam’s – and Jeff’s – ideas in check. And I like how the narrative does allow for sympathy for Sam (as well as for douchebag Jeff) as another boy struggling to break free of internalized sexism. But the point is: he grows out of it. He grows out of it beautifully by learning to respect and love the women in his life. And we are not talking about simply romantic love either although there is some of it. He learns to understand and sympathise with his mother, he forges friendships with other Girls and he falls in love with DeeDee. And love is a HUGE catalyst for change in this book but I really appreciated the way that love is not the end-all/be-all that will solve everybody’s problems. Quite the opposite in fact.
Speaking of Sam’s mom: this is another brilliant aspect of the book for me. Her arc to me, reads as an incredibly feminist arc. To begin with, Sam is the one to describe what happened to his mother and he does so by being completely oblivious: he talks about how his mom one day started going online, becoming addicted to Facebook, then reading the SCUM Manifesto and deciding to take off to Women’s Land to find herself. HE doesn’t understand anything about it. HE thinks his mom is crazy and has destroyed his family. THEN his mother comes back and that’s when his understanding of her takes place and it is beautiful: then we learn that his mother was struggling to understand her own life choices:
“I thought of what my father had said: about the choices she had made and the ones she was still making. She had decided to take action. Even if it had been pointless, even if it had been the wrong thing, even if it had just only led her back to us eventually, it was still action and that counted for something.”
And here is the gist of this book: it’s about choices and identity in a world that often tries to take those away from both women and men. I loved DeeDee and Sam because both are trying so hard to understand themselves and the world they live in. September Girls offers a deeper understanding of love, identity and a constant, non-stop challenge of ideas regarding “masculinity” and “femininity”.
The ending of September Girls is fucking brilliant. It’s bittersweet and fantastic as it brings the curse to its head with a twist about choices and moving on and love. The curse does not work in the way one expects it to work and the ending is so satisfying in the way that it doesn’t play into romantic expectations: love does not save anyone. This is a fairytale but not of the Disney variety (if there was any doubt). The plot itself is a languid, slow-moving summer-like story and I loved it. And now I also want to read everything Bennett Madison has ever written.
It’s a 9 from me and it will definitely be on my top 10 books of 2013.
It was on my second run I found Ariel. She wasn’t Above. It was on the way back we found her, huddled down in a corner that was halfway fallen in,down in the old sewers where most people don’t ever get.I wouldn’t have seen her except she was shaking just the tiniest bit, vibrating like sharks or bee’s-wing; moving because things that don’t move fall to the deepest depths and die.
In Matthew’s world, there are two places: Above, belonging to the regular people and doctors and monsters called whitecoats, and Safe, belonging to the Sick, beasts like Matthew, below ground. In the sewers beneath the city Above, Matthew and his friends have peace and sanctuary. Everyone in Safe has a story, having escaped from the terrors of the whitecoats Above, and every beast—like Matthew with his scaled back and clawed feet, or Ariel with her bee’s wings sprouting and falling from her back—has a home in Safe. All save one, named Corner, who killed other beasts years before. When Corner comes back to Safe with an army of Shadow monsters, Matthew and Ari’s home is destroyed, and the few survivors must leave their sanctuary for the world Above. Here, Matthew must discover the truth of the Whitecoats, of Safe and of his beloved Ariel if he and his people are to survive.
Recently nominated for the Andre Norton Award by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), Above is Leah Bobet’s debut novel and an alternately beautiful and frustrating experience. On the positive end of the spectrum, Above is a gorgeously written book, with its hauntingly sparse and strange prose. Narrated in the first person through the eyes of Matthew, known as “Teller” to his people in Safe, the book’s greatest strength is its surreal, dreamlike feel. Matthew has lived his whole life underground and only has the stories of others to understand the world. As such, he has taken on the mantle of storyteller to pass on the knowledge of Above and Safe to others. This kind of oral recounting of history changes and shifts with the teller, so Matthew’s interpretations of Above, of his fellow characters and of reality itself is kaleidoscopic and bizarre—in a good way. The voice Bobet creates for her young male narrator is perfect in all its confusing, whimsical glory.
That said, Above’s strong narrative voice and stilted prose is also its undoing: What this book has in style, it lacks in substance. The actual meat of the book (that is, the conflict that has wiped out Safe and driven its survivors Above) should be the element that drives the story forward. And yet developing the particulars of the story or defining the world is sacrificed for developing voice and atmosphere, and as such nothing really happens for a good majority of the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of any concrete answers or development is frustrating in the extreme. And, as the book goes on and we learn the truth about Safe’s founder, Atticus, and his lover Corner, Ariel’s story and Matthew’s final choices...I can’t say that the payoff is worth it.
Above is a beautiful, melancholy kind of experiment. I love the idea of the book and certain elements of the writing, but as a cohesive whole? The excessive style does not make for a substantive read (in fact, if this was a novella or a short story, I feel like it would have been much more successful).
In Book Smugglerish, an apathetic 5 brittle bee’s wings out of 10.
As usual, when it comes to a Jaclyn Moriarty book, I find myself not knowing if I have the right words toOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
As usual, when it comes to a Jaclyn Moriarty book, I find myself not knowing if I have the right words to express the awesomeness.
BUT I WILL TRY, dear readers, just for you.
I just don’t know where exactly do I begin as there is so much to unpack in terms of characterisation, narrative, world-building, setting, themes.
Maybe literally with: “where”.
The World: our world, more specifically Cambridge, England. This is where Madeleine Tully lives with her mother, who seems to be losing her mind. They have run away from a rich, privileged life, away from Madeleine’s father and now are trying to make ends meet living in a dingy flat where they eat baked beans every day. Madeleine is homeschooled together with her two new friends Jack and Belle. Jack is kind of in love with Madeleine but Belle is suspicious of Madeleine’s stories. Madeleine wears all the colours of the world because she sees no colours in the world around her. She wants to go back home so maybe her father will come and rescue them if she apologies for running away.
The Kingdom of Cello: more specifically Bonfire, the Farms. A world where seasons change randomly, where crops are failing and everybody is waiting for the Butterfly Child to come and save them and where Colours are monsters. This is where Elliot Baranski lives with his mother after his father disappeared a few months before and after his uncle was killed in a Purple attack. Everybody thinks his father – a known womaniser – ran away with the school teacher who also disappeared that night, but Elliot knows different and is adamant a Purple has taken his father. He plans on rescuing him and proving everybody wrong.
Through time, The World has forgotten everything about the Kingdom of Cello but Cello’s citizens still study The World in their history lessons.
And now, there is a crack between these worlds and a mysterious random (at first) note slips through. Madeleine finds it and writes back…her letter is found by Elliot who knows Madeleine is in the World even though Madeleine doesn’t believe a world Elliot is saying about Cello. Nonetheless, the two strike up a correspondence and through these letters develop a strangely compelling relationship, helping each other along the way.
A Corner of White is an interesting hybrid of Fantasy and Contemporary YA. The latter comes through in the way that explores certain themes like self-identity, growing up, relating to others. Although those are obviously not exclusive themes to Contemporary YA, there are still typical of the subgenre and deftly explored here.
The Kingdom of Cello is a fantastical place with Fantasy elements that appear outlandish and random at first (colours as monsters! seasons that roam! a fantastical fairy-child that appears out of nowhere inside a glass jar!) but one which has a very specific set of rules. Although these rules have little to do with Science – which is what holds The World together.
Or so it seems. Science plays a huge role here because in The World Madeleine is studying Isaac Newton for her history class, and becomes more and more interested in the science of colours which she shares in her letters to Elliot. This appears random at first, like ramblings of a kid that doesn’t have a real footing in the world and who seeks reasons and roots through history and learning.
I don’t know physics enough to be able to tell if Newton’s concepts of Optics and colours have been used correctly but it seems to me that this is beyond the point: to see these kids engaging with these concepts is more interesting to me than anything else. Similarly, Madeleine’s friends Jack and Belle also become wholly interested in the two people they are studying, Byron and Ada Lovelace respectively. Random at first, these historical characters become intrinsically meshed into the narrative and into these three kids’ arcs in a way that is intriguing and thoughtful.
A Corner of White is also a hybrid in how it combines two narrative formats. Most of the novel is narrated by a kind of omniscient narrator who informs the story from different characters’ viewpoints. As such, Elliot and Madeleine might be the focus of the narrative but there are those parts from Jack and Belle’s point of view in the World and from Sheriff Hector’s in Cello. Hector’s narrative appears random at first as do Jack and Belle’s in the way these seems to be related to nothing at all of import.
But part of the book is also told in epistolary format and interspersed in the narrative are the letters between Elliot and Madeleine, newspapers clippings following the Royal Princesses travels around Cello in a journey that is random (at first) as well as bits from a travel book about Cello. If you know anything at all about Jaclyn Moriarty, you will probably know she is a genius when it comes to crafting epistolary narratives, specially the way that those relates to the plot and the characters. It’s no different here.
“Random at first”.
How many times have I used these words in this review so far? Just like the topics I addressed in this way, my choice of using these words is not random at all. Because in fact, in this book? Everything is important. Every single thing that at first appears random, is not.
A Corner of White is a book that expects a certain level of commitment and patience from its readers. And maybe not everybody might be invested in the type of story it tells or have the patience to see it unfold slowly. Slowly is the key word here because the stories, or rather the story it tells (because it’s just one, really, at the end of the day) is developed carefully and insidiously.
This is a book that is built on appearances and assumptions .
Nothing is like what it seems. The narrative is unreliable because everybody in this book is an unreliable narrator. Not because they mean to be but because nobody truly knows each other or in a way, themselves. Relationships are built based on misperceptions, a character appears silly and wacky when observed by another character but completely different when the viewpoint changes.
Above all, I absolutely loved how this was played into the story, which is full of moments of ambiguity. You might think you are reading about a random tea party in Grantchester but that can be interpreted as people developing roots and connections. That random sound that a character describes and it appears as an inconsequential piece of information, is not.
Similarly, the way characters perceive each other and the way external expectations are played here? Brilliant.
Take Elliot, for example, who is the golden boy of Bonfire. People expect great things from him; he is the best at everything (is he?). His friends, his mother all conflate his appearance as well as his physical resemblance to his father with who he is and as such everybody tells him that he is going to break his girlfriend’s heart because he is bound to be a womaniser. This obviously plays into a historical narrative that often gives power to the man as though he is the only one with the power in the dynamics of his relationships. But the narrative here turns this into its head, as Elliot is someone who actually truly loves his girlfriend and the one who ends up with a broken heart after his girlfriend makes the decision to go to university far away. And even though he eventually walks into that role he is expected to play, it is not for the reasons people ascribe to him or results in the expected way.
Those external expectations and interpretations are also at play here when it comes to reading the book. Is that character truly superficial or you think they are because of the way said character plays with the stereotype of superficiality?
What strikes me the most about A Corner of White is how very human a story this is. Populated with characters that make mistakes, change their minds, who learn that it takes time to grow up, and who often don’t see people for who they are but for what they hope them to be.
It also helps that as the story progresses, it becomes evident that there is something much larger at play between the worlds and that the limits of monarchy as a government form, the principles of freedom fighting, the consequences of privilege, the reality of poverty are very much part of this story as well.
On the downside, I missed the wonderful ways that Moriarty has developed friendships and relationships between girlfriends in her previous books. Perhaps this will be further developed in the next book. I also wished that her worlds were more diverse and not so uniformly white.
If you like Hilary Mckay, Megan Whalen Turner, Jennifer Nielsen and the way their books play with narrative in clever ways? You must read this.
Colour me (sorry, inevitable pun) completely in love with this. A Corner of White is definitely a Notable Read of 2013 and don’t be surprised if it makes its way into my top 10. ...more
At just sixteen years old, Kyra is one of the most powerful and celebrated figures in the kingdom - one of thOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
At just sixteen years old, Kyra is one of the most powerful and celebrated figures in the kingdom - one of the Master Trio of Potioners with exceptional talent, Kyra is also the best friend of Princess Ariana, who just so happens to be the direct heir and future ruler of the land. But one day, Kyra does the unthinkable: she attempts to kill her best friend by way of poisoned blade, and misses.
Now Kyra has fallen from upstanding member of society to villain, and she takes to the road, trying to stay ahead of the royal guard as well as tangling with other dangers that face a girl on the run (goblins, thieves, witches, handsome and charismatic traveling companions, etc). Though she's on the outs right now, Kyra is single-mindedly dedicated to her mission to find and kill Princess Ariana - the future of the kingdom depends on it. Luckily, she has the help of an adorable, magical scent-seeking pig (named Rosie) and one handsome and charismatic traveling companion (named Fred) and his wolfish dog to help her on her mission.
The debut (and sadly, last) novel from Bridget Zinn, Poison has a killer premise: smarmy and talented girl goes rogue and repeatedly tries to find and assassinate her best friend for specific reasons unknown.* Surprisingly, given the novel's core premise, the book isn't all doom and gloom; rather, Poison is a diverting, frothy romp of a fantasy novel. Written in a contemporary voice and featuring a snarky, strong female protagonist, this book feels and sounds very much like a fantastical Meg Cabot book (as many other reviews have pointed out before me). And, like Meg Cabot's books, Poison will certainly appeal to many readers - particularly those looking for some wit, lighthearted banter, and a sweet romance.
From a plotting perspective, Poison also does a fine job, creating a captivating mystery and chase story, as readers wonder why Kyra is so dead-set on killing the Princess - the reveal is solid, too (although the end of the book feels a little unresolved). On the whole, the romantic angle is of the instant variety, but sweet, the characters and world also of the fresh-faced, Pretty-Prince-and-Princess (of the western European) mold. And there IS an adorable magical pig who plays a main part in the story. Cute. Right?
These praises said, however, this is not exactly a deep or meaningful book - and the comparisons to the meatier works of Tamora Pierce or Kristin Cashore are, in this reviewer's opinion, way off base. Heck, even in comparison to some of the more lighthearted YA/MG fantasy novels - my favorite Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest books immediately come to mind - Poison can't quite stack up. The contemporary voice is intensely off-putting, and the haphazard, imagined magical rules and power structures (even at a very basic level) is frustrating. And yet, for those criticisms, I can't really fault the book because it is exactly what it presents itself as: fun, silly, with all the sweetness and airiness of strawberry shortcake.
Which is to say, it won't fill you up, but if you're in the mood for shortcake, you can't go wrong with Poison.
---------- *Sadly, Bridget Zinn passed away before the publication of this book, to cancer. You can read more about Bridget and her work here....more
**WARNING: This review contains slight, but unavoidable, spoilers for Ultraviolet. You do not have to have reOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
**WARNING: This review contains slight, but unavoidable, spoilers for Ultraviolet. You do not have to have read Ultraviolet to read Quicksilver, but if you want to be unspoiled for the first book, you should probably start there.**
Three months ago, perfect, popular seventeen year-old Tori Beaugrand disappeared into thin air. And then, just as inexplicably, Tori returns home, bloodied and beaten, but alive and whole.
Tori's disappearance is a mystery to the police and her friends, and she claims that she cannot remember anything of her abduction, or the weeks she was gone. More than anything, Tori wants everyone to forget, and to move on with her life as though nothing has happened.
Of course, the truth isn't so simple. Tori's disappearance is one that spans time and space, her secret one that no one - save for friend Alison and scientist Sebastian Faraday - can ever know. You see, Tori isn't like anyone else on Earth. And now she's being hunted by scientists who want to study her unique DNA, by a rogue cop that can't give up without knowing Tori's story, and by one of her own kind who will stop at nothing to continue his grand experiment.
Tori and her parents uproot themselves, changing their names and their appearances, in the hopes that they can stay safe. Now, Tori is Nikki - a brunette with a pixie cut and dark gray-blue eyes, who is homeschooled and works a part-time job at the local supermarket, trying to keep under the radar. All that goes to hell when Sebastian Faraday shows up in Tori/Nikki's life again, enlisting her help to build a device that could end their trouble once and for all. But to be successful, it will take every ounce of Nikki's unique skills - but more importantly, it means she will have to place her trust in others.
The companion book to 2011's Ultraviolet, Quicksilver is a fantastic science fiction novel from R.J. Anderson. Featuring yet another awesome heroine and a surprisingly high-stakes, unflinching plot, Quicksilver, to put it plainly, rocks. In other words: I loved this book.
As I've noted before, you don't necessarily have had to read Ultraviolet to dive into this book, but I strongly suggest you read that novel first in order to have a fuller understanding of the events and key players in Quicksilver. While Ultraviolet was synesthesiac Alison's book, about her false confession of murder and her institutionalization, Quicksilver tells the story of the girl who Alison supposedly killed - the perfect, beautiful girl who has it all, Tori. Except, Tori doesn't really have it all; in fact, her life is a carefully constructed façade. Adopted as a small child by her loving parents, Tori has always been a bit different - she's got unparalleled skill when it comes to assembling, visualizing and modifying technology, and a knack for memorizing numbers and easily solving complex mathematical problems. But more than her mechanical skills, Tori guards a much deeper secret - she's from a place far, far away, sent to Earth as a baby as a kind of twisted experiment.
Yep, that's right. Just like Ultraviolet before it, Quicksilver is a psychological thriller but it's also firmly a science fiction novel, complete with transporter devices, wormholes, and, yes, that eponymous element of quicksilver. And I'm happy to say that both the science fictional elements and technology elements are executed beautifully. Similarly, from a plotting perspective, Quicksilver rocks. Equal parts fugitive thriller and scifi blockbuster, you could say that this novel is kind of a page-turner. That's not to say that depth is sacrificed for action - quite the contrary. There are betrayals and hidden motives and resonant emotional connections. And the stakes are HIGH, people! The book kicks into high gear and the last quarter of Quicksilver is crazy intense. (In particular, Tori makes a gutsy, terrifying choice in the late chapters of the book and my goodness is it dramatic.)
And then there are the characters. I loved, loved, loved heroine Tori. And now, this COULD be considered a mild spoiler, but I'm divulging anyway because I think it is a vitally important part of (and draw to) the book. That is: main character Tori is an asexual protagonist.
“Milo,” I said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve only ever told one other person. And when I do, I . . . I hope you’ll understand.” Passionately hoped, in fact. Because if he said any of the things Lara had said to me when I told her, it would be hard to forgive him for it.
“I know,” he said. “You’re gay, right?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not sexually attracted to anyone. At all. Ever.”
Tori's not celibate (which is a choice); she's asexual (a type of sexual orientation).[1. If you want to read more about asexuality, check out www.asexuality.org.] It's rare to come across an asexual protagonist in fiction - especially in YA fiction! - but Anderson does a phenomenal job of carefully portraying Tori's asexuality, without making this Tori's Sole Defining Characteristic, or worse, portraying her asexuality in a superficial or offhand way. I love the careful distinction that shows Tori is a young woman who feels love, and rage, and loneliness - she's not sexually attracted to anyone, but she feels and yearns for emotional connection (I should also note that Tori is asexual but not - to my reading - aromantic). And finally, I love that Tori's asexuality is NOT misunderstood or treated as a part of her unique DNA, or as the result of some childhood trauma, or some other such humbug. I love that author R.J. Anderson directly addresses and refutes this in the book. That is awesome.[2. On that note, R.J. Anderson wrote a great post about Tori's asexuality HERE. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety!]
And you know what else is awesome? Tori's new friend, Milo, is a Korean Canadian, and the book skillfully deals with questions of interracial relationships and pressures, once again without feeling false or superficial. The relationship that unfolds between Tori and Milo is complicated, to say the least, but its one of my favorite YA relationships in a very, very long time. Heck, I'll just come out and say it - Tori and Milo are one of my favorite pairs of characters...ever.
With its skillful genre-busting, plotting and standout characters, Quicksilver is every bit as wonderful as Ultraviolet. Heck, I think I may even love it more than that first book. Absolutely recommended, and in the running for one of my favorite books of 2013. ...more
After her mother dies, seventeen year-old Delia McGovern is shuffledOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Warning: Slight spoilers included below!
After her mother dies, seventeen year-old Delia McGovern is shuffled from foster home to foster home, causing trouble because of her incessant need to do the right thing (even if that means calling child services on a foster-mother that chooses to smoke in the car with an infant). After her last foster family gives up on her, Delia convinces her caseworker from Social Services to let her spend the summer with her only relative, an estranged grandmother. Delia leaves landlocked Kansas and makes her way east to the New England coast to find her grandmother, who lives on the small, isolated Trespass Island off the coast of Maine.
Immediately, Delia immediately knows that something isn't quite right about Trespass. For one, no ferries go to the island, not even those for hire. For another, the island itself is shrouded in mist and mystery, protected by seemingly supernatural forces. When Delia finally arrives on Trespass, she's greeted with cold hostility, especially from her grandmother. No one comes to the island, and no one ever leaves - that is, no one except Delia's mother.
As the days pass, Delia learns Trespass's darkest secrets - its history of shipwrecks and curses, monsters and gods. And, in the midst of all these secrets, Delia's own past, her own inexplicable changes and abilities, come to light. Delia is the key to breaking the cycle of despair and the oppressive shackles of tradition on Trespass Island, but it may come at too high a cost.
At first glance, Revel may seem an utterly traditional and unremarkable paranormal YA novel. You have your typically sweet and delicate/china doll-like heroine ("You're so tiny. Like a little china doll." - direct repeat quote, by the way). Of course, this girl ends up being Super Duper Special, with unparalleled powers in a surprising TWIST. You have two hunky love interests (one sweet and down to earth, one supernatural and mysterious). You have a twisted, secretive society that has ridiculous, sexist traditions (in which sixteen year old girls are offered up as mating/incubation vessels for the supernatural creatures). There's also the familiarity of the mythology, and Percy Jackson-ish factor to the text - this is a book about demi gods, and children of Poseidon, no less.
While these are familiar and not-so-awesome elements, surprisingly, Revel is an enjoyable and satisfying read - because while it employs these familiar YA PNR staples, it also challenges them directly. I love that at the heart of Revel, this tiny china doll heroine Delia instigates change of her own free will by challenging the traditional order. When she discovers the truth of the yearly "Revel" ceremony, she repeats, insists, that she has a choice, and that just because something is traditional (the offering of daughters to sea-men as part of some antiquated pact), that doesn't mean that it is right. My favorite lines of the book:
I thougth of the men out there...about the curse that kept a sea captain and his men trapped here. About girls giving themselves because it was tradtion. I was so angry, the gasoline was probably overkill. My rage could have burned that field to ash.
YES. This. Also helpful: the "love triangle" is not really much of a love triangle, and it's resolved within this single book without any copouts or concessions (that said, of course, the boy Delia picks is thanks to a brand of instalove).
While the thematic core of Revel is strong, it's not without its weaknesses. From a writing perspective, the mythology and worldbuilding behind the book is interesting - curses, a Wicker Man-ish type of society, Greek mythology - but a bit cumbersome and not entirely convincing. In particular, the threat that faces Trespass Island in the form of invading monsters, and the betrayal at the heart of the plot, feels half-baked and tertiary to the story. I love the revelations of Trespass and its society (the truth of the sea monsters that guard the island, the secret of the "Hundred Hands" and the Old Ones) but everything felt a little...rushed. The images are wonderful (seriously, the image of the glaukos transforming bit by bit, or the truth of the protective reef surrounding Trespass are haunting), the writing is competent, and the characters are all decently fleshed out, if a bit melodramatic - the only thing missing is that essential sense of buildup and tension.
These criticisms said, I still enjoyed Revel thoroughly and can certainly recommend it....more
Nearly 800 years in the future, Earth and the rest of the universe is a very different place. Thanks to scienOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Nearly 800 years in the future, Earth and the rest of the universe is a very different place. Thanks to scientist Thaddeus Wallam-Crane, humanity is no longer limited by accelerated particle engines, or the restrictive harness of speed-of-light travel - Wallam-Crane's invention of "portals" mean that humanity can conquer the most distant stars, unrestrained by space and time.
Well, that's true for 99.9% of humanity. That remaining fraction, that niggling 0.1%, is Handicapped. Landlocked. Earth-bound. While the rest of humankind has taken to distant star systems and split into different subcultures with different beliefs and taboos and mores, only the Handicapped remain on Earth. Mocked and ostracized by the rest of society, these Earthers are labeled "Apes" and mercilessly portrayed as unevolved, unintelligent, and undeserving.
Jarra is one of the 0.1%. After her birth on some distant star system, Jarra's immune system immediately failed. Portaled to Earth and made a ward of the state (her parents, naturally, gave Jarra up as they had no desire to raise an ape child), Jarra's life hasn't been bad - she has close friends, a great ProMum, and a passion for knowledge. And she has a plan. At the age of 18, all humans become adults, and can choose a field of study. For Jarra, studying ancient Earth history is a no-brainer - but unlike the rest of her friends, Jarra is not content to go to an Earth university. Instead, she concocts an elaborate, brilliant scheme to attend University Asgard - a prestigious off-world college, with a first-year program excavating ruins on Earth. Masquerading as a Military child, Jarra's plan to fool her classmates - "norms" or "exos" - into thinking she's one of them. Then, when the time is right, Jarra will reveal that - HA! - she is an APE, and she plans on savoring the dumbfounded looks on those exo faces. But, as Jarra continues with her program she gradually learns that not all exos are horrible bigots - and she begins to want to WANT to stay in the Asgard program, to continue her career as a historian, and to befriend the norms in her class.
The debut novel from Janet Edwards, Earth Girl is an impressive, richly detailed work of science fiction. I mean, wow. Not only is the premise of the story, especially society's bifurcation between "exos" and "apes," masterfully executed, but there's a level of amazing nuance and refinement with regard to the history of this future human race and its reach across the universe. Make no mistake - slightly kitschy US cover or no, this is an honest-to-goodness work of science fiction, with different sectors, complex social strata, laws, and principles.[1. Ok, on the cover, I like the idea, but the girl wistfully cradling the Earth with the symbolic CHAIN! is a bit much. And the Jarra in my mind from reading this book? I don't think she'd be so artfully delicate and nostalgic. Not at all.] To me, this worldbuilding respect is Earth Girl's greatest strength - we learn about the history of Earth and humanity's journey to the stars in very clever, non-info-dumpy ways. Namely, this information is relayed through Jarra's voice, through classmates in her university course, through vids and assignments - all in ways that feel organic and genuinely interesting.
But more than a science fiction text, Earth Girl is also - wait for it - an archeology book. That's right. Archaeology. Similar to Indiana Jones, cowboying it up in his death-defying quest for the Ark of the Covenant, Sankara stones and the Holy Grail, Jarra is a member of an elite group of science fictional historical excavators who venture out into Earth's dangerous and crumbling infrastructure to find sealed relics of the past for research and posterity. And like Indy, Jarra's job is freaking awesome. We learn a lot about this future brand of archeology, the different techniques and teams involved in a dig, and it is all fascinating, wonderfully detailed stuff.[2. Seriously. I never thought I'd be so captivated by excavation technology, policies and procedures, but Earth Girl makes it at once believable and fun.]
The other huge standout for Earth Girl is its heroine, the defiant, know-it-all, unapologetic Jarra. I loved Jarra. Her wry sense of humor, her pride and strength of conviction - heck, I even loved her ridiculously complex false backstory and web of lies. If there's one thing Jarra is, she's thorough, and I can respect that. It's Jarra's voice that narrates and propels the novel, it is her struggle of identity and her own personal crisis of belief that sits at the novel's heart.
Of course, there are a few things that pointedly didn't work in Earth Girl. Most notedly, those were Jarra's exceptional skills, the plot twists (especially regarding Jarra's parentage, and particularly towards the end of the book), and the surprisingly fuzzy and unfulfilled theme of minority rights or equality. Most disappointing, to me, is the last - because it would seem that Earth Girl should be a cutting explication of a future society that heavily discriminates against a minority population. But, surprisingly, Earth Girl is much more content to tell the story of the exceptional Jarra - a heroine that time and time again, proves that she is brilliant. Not only is Jarra leagues smarter and more capable than her exo classmates, but she's also exceptionally talented compared to full-fledged adult historians. She has countless hours logged on dig sites. She can put on her cumbersome impact suit faster than the standard 2-minute military time. She is a brilliant tag leader, with a deep, unprecedented understanding and passion for history. She can nail targets with a single shot, fly a plane, and save lives. This is exacerbated by later plot twists, in which Jarra's family history is revealed, and at the end of the book when she is miraculously absolved of her deceptions (without even having to break the news to those she's been lying to for months!).
I was not a big fan of the way the book concluded - too rushed, and Jarra doesn't really come to a reckoning for the lies she's told. That's kind of a big deal. There's also the uncomfortably quick turnaround from Jarra's PTSD break back to reality - this also feels rushed and inauthentic.
But, while the conclusion of the novel feels too pat, the fact that there are future books in the series gives me hope. Plus, the parts of Earth Girl that are good are really good. Even with its shortcomings, this is an utterly engaging, memorable, wonderful book. Definitely recommended, and I cannot wait for more from Janet Edwards....more
Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to the absolutely fabulous, heart-breaking, thOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to the absolutely fabulous, heart-breaking, the-best-book-of-2012 Code Name Verity. I will come back to this later.
The plot summary of Rose Under Fire is rather straightforward: a young and naïve American girl named Rose Justice joins the allied forces in England flying planes for the War Effort. While on a short mission to Paris, she is captured by Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. There, she forms strong, deep connections to a group of young political Polish prisoners known as the Rabbits. The Rabbits were the victims of horrifying medical experiments and were protected by the rest of the Camp because of their attempt to bear witness to these atrocities by telling the world.
I don’t know how to write this review. It’s hard to concentrate on what happens in the book not only because it is a difficult topic (I’ve had nightmares two nights in a row now after reading it) but also because I think that I’d rather talk about the themes that arise from it. There are so many.
Just like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is an epistolary novel. Rose keeps a notebook before going to Ravensbrück where she writes about her experiences as a pilot until she is taken. The narrative resumes after Ravensbrück when Rose decides to write down her experiences – at least what she can remember of the six months she spent there. The final two “books” are written about one year later at the time the war trials begin.
It’s interesting: throughout the book there are four different Roses. But it’s always, always the same person. Because her voice is the same but the level of maturity is not – there is a question of superb writing skills here. Rose’s naivety and eagerness to start with are so painful because you just know they will not survive the war.
And I loved this because in these stories the Young and Naïve and Eager soldier is almost invariably a man. This is a book that is about a very specific group of women and how they experienced the war and those are varied even within the limited scope of this novel which concentrates in the Polish/French group of prisoners, especially on the small group formed by the Rabbits. I say “varied” because this is truly I think the core of the novel.
Because even within a similar group there are different experiences of this War and above all, different ways of coping. There are those that don’t, there are those who defy, there are those who cave, there are those who betray, there are those who subvert, those who fight, those who cry, those who laugh, those who do nothing at all, those who do all of this and more.
Actually, one of the things I think the most when reading stories like this is the topic of “defiance”. Ravensbrück was a camp that held political prisoners and some of them were resistance fighters. And as much as I admire resistance fighters, I am always more interested in the small, quiet, daily defiance which is so important too. The defiance that is quiet, incisive, patient, that whispers, that shares a piece of bread, that subverts orders the best way possible.
But there are those who, just like with coping, don’t fight at all. And who can begrudge or judge? No one and especially not this book. There is absolutely no sense of value or judgement in the different ways that each person deals with these atrocities, no right or wrong way. This is all the more important when it comes to the final part of the novel when it comes to the time of bearing witness at the trials. There are those who want to and can talk about their experiences. There are those who simply can’t: who can’t talk about it, who can’t bear to think of standing in front of people and talk about the unspeakable things that happened to them.
There is a huge focus on this because Rose Under Fire is a survivor story. This is important because there were so many that didn’t survive – there are so many that went into the fold nameless and voiceless. To the survivors then there is an extra layer of guilt, of why me and I don’t even dare to imagine what it must feel like. And all of that without being exploitative or simplifying everything by the false dichotomy of good vs evil although the Rose pre-Ravensbrück does think it is as simple as that which makes her friendship with a German guard all the more impacting.
And it is also “varied” because even though Rose is the main character and narrator, I don’t think she is the heroine. Her personal story is important but Ravensbrück’s is more, the Rabbit’s is more. Rose is almost unimportant. Because she is witness.
I think this is where novel completely diverges from Code Name Verity. Because that first book felt like a deeply personal story of two friends whereas this one is more about the whole. So, going back to Code Name Verity: if you have read it, you are probably thinking: is Rose Under Fire as good? I know because I wondered the same thing.
I have been deeply affected by both books in different ways. Because they are different books even if they have the same setting, and the same themes of loyalty and friendship between ladies. But Code Name Verity as heart-wrenching as it was, also had room for fun gotchas and twists because that was a spy book. The narrative here is drier and more straightforward – as it should be. They are both good books. ____
And then in the middle of it all, the details.
The fact that before the war ended and the Concentration Camps were liberated, the majority of the world thought that the news of what was really happening in those camps that were slowly slipping to the world sounded like anti-Nazi propaganda because who WHO could believe such things?
The shared horror of a forced haircut or ripped nylon tights as a naïve prelude to worse to come; saying grace before eating meagre meals; hysterical laughter; faux school exams; propping up the dead and hiding under planks; Vive La France!; flying around the Eiffel Tower; picnics and stitched gifts; red toenails and whispered poems. Maddie (Maddie!) and any mentions of Julie that brought it all back.
And all the heartache in the world.
The simplest way to finish this review is to go back and to say: MY EMOTIONS.
Let me preface this review by getting the big points out of the way: I loved this book. I loved it deeply. For its characters, its message, its grim and terrible beauty, I loved it.
And, I’ll preface this review by saying that it is a very different book than Code Name Verity – epistolary style aside – but for those differences, it’s actually a more powerful, and more important, book.
I have to echo two sentiments that Ana puts forward: first, I think Ana hits on a very important part of the success of this Rose Under Fire – there is no (or ok, there’s some, but it’s not much) passing of judgement. I recently read a nonfictional account of the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in The Nazi Hunters, which emphatically, repeatedly uses the labels of GOOD and EVIL; of absolute moral right, and absolute moral depravity. I appreciate the layers in Rose Under Fire; there are terrible, unspeakable things that happen and are inflicted by terrible people, but how there are others that are neither good, nor evil, but somewhere in between (prison guard Anna, for example).
Second, as Ana has pointed out in her part of the review, the theme of defiance and its many faces throughout the book is truly remarkable. I loved the heartbreaking depiction of the different levels of resistance and strength, from taking too long to do different tasks, to chasing after and nudging pilotless planes to their demise, to turning out the lights in a concentration camp and throwing handfuls of dirt while screaming to cause chaos. My goodness, how brave and strong and amazing these people all are and were.
These things said, I think what I appreciated the most about this book are the underlying themes of truth, and truth in storytelling. The truth will be heard. This is the single sentiment that we see Rose and her fellow prisoners in Ravensbrück fight for and rally behind, over and over again. Because the truth is what matters; the reality of the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück and the medical experiments they endured, the cold and starvation and hard labor they faced before being murdered. The truth.
It is perhaps unfair to compare this book to Code Name Verity, which is, as Ana says, an internal novel about two best friends, spies, and brilliant, unexpected lies. Rose Under Fire is a very different creature, without the huge walloping twists of the former novel, and more of a straightforward retrospective record of Rose’s life before and after Ravensbrück. It’s an important story, and one that is written with Elizabeth Wein’s beautifully skilled hand – I have to agree with Ana, the iterations of Rose before she tips that doodlebug and is captured by the Nazis is an entirely different Rose that is imprisoned and beaten in Ravensbrück. And that Rose is a different one than the terrified survivor, who fears her newfound space and freedom (to the point where any loud noises, like a telephone ringing, terrify her). The Rose that ends the book – the one that is reunited with her fellow friends and survivors, who goes to medical school following the war and after she has survived surviving – this is the strongest, most powerful Rose of them all. And I deeply appreciated and loved this character, so very much – moreso, I think, than the heroines of Code Name Verity.
Praises all said, the one key area where I felt that Rose Under Fire faltered, however, is in its epistolary narrative. (This perhaps is my own stylistic preference and nitpick, more than anything else.) Rose narrates the story through her journal before Ravensbrück as a daily diary, but after she escapes and survives the concentration camp, the narrative switches to a long, very detailed account of daily life and her encounters over that missing year. To me, this feels more than a little contrived (to be fair, I had the same issue with Code Name Verity and the plausibility gap of a hardened Gestapo officer allowing a young captured spy to write so much in a journal day after day of being imprisoned and divulging nothing of importance). I also was not a huge fan of Rose’s poetry, although I appreciate the importance of lyricism and poetry to the character. Personally, it wasn’t to my taste, but this is completely a matter of personal taste and not a failing of the writing at all.
The only other thing I will say about this book actually has very little to do with the book – and perhaps this is more of a personal reflection, or fodder for a ponderings post, than it is a fair commentary on the actual story itself. (This is code for me saying, please feel free to tune out now!) Still, I feel very strongly that something must be said: Rose Under Fire is one hell of a book. It’s a powerful, emotionally resonant historical novel about remembering and about surviving, and I truly appreciate and value that. That said, it’s also a story about a war that ended nearly 70 years ago. It’s also the story narrated by a beautiful, young, privileged, white girl who literally falls into a terrible situation. Please understand that I am not disparaging or arguing against the value of the rich canon of literature about the Holocaust, or the set of circumstances facing heroine Rose. I am simply saying this: there are so many wars, atrocities, even genocides that have happened in the last 70 years, and that are still happening now. Those truths and those stories are hardly represented today – much less in YA literature. And perhaps this doesn’t belong here in this review, but it’s something I am acutely conscious of, and I vow to do as much as I can to change this and draw awareness to the titles that do exist in these more contemporary, non-WWII centric eras. Because I am inspired by Rose’s story and by this book, because I think it’s important to talk, to remember, and to experience that truth through storytelling, I vow to read and review books from other, more contemporary wars, from viewpoints other than that of the white, the privileged, and the western European. (I think I’ll start with Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah – if anyone has any other suggestions, please, please let me know.) And that is all. ...more
(This was supposed to be a joint review but Thea refused to finish the book. Yes. It is that bad.)
After the death of her father, Northern Sophie Pethe(This was supposed to be a joint review but Thea refused to finish the book. Yes. It is that bad.)
After the death of her father, Northern Sophie Petheram receives an invitation to go live with her godfather, the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, in his plantation in Mississippi. Sophie has always longed for a more comfortable life and for spending more time with her godfather – whom she has always admired in a secretive, furtive way – and is at first, elated at the prospect. And to begin with, all goes well. Her godfather is charming and attentive (as well as extremely attractive), regaling her with his stories of the Exotic Orient and her surroundings are luxurious and decadent.
But soon she starts to realise that this new life is not perfect. Her guardian allows her very little freedom and is prone to dangerous, violent mood swings. She is also not really comfortable with the way he treats his slaves or that he even has slaves at all. Then Sophie learns of his past wives – all of whom have died tragically, all of whom have bronze hair as her own – and realises that something much more horrific is afoot and that her own life might be in danger.
Strands of Bronze and Gold is a gothic retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale transported to a pre- Civil War America. I was really intrigued about this from the get go and for its possibilities. Bluebeard is a fairytale that is extremely misogynist and sexist – one its motifs is the question of the “danger” of female curiosity, a question that fits into victim-blaming. It is also a fairytale with strong European roots.
As such, when reading this, I wanted to be able to see the issue of sexism addressed and to understand the author’s choice of moving this to Mississippi pre- Civil War. This is not a setting that can be taken lightly and above all, I wanted to see how the author dealt with the issue of slavery in this setting.
Unfortunately all of it was hugely disappointing.
Strands of Bronze and Gold has an unhurried developed story that fits not only with the gothic atmosphere of danger and mystery but also with the issue of Sophie’s slow transformation from extremely naïve and trusting to a strong-willed heroine who knows how to deal with her godfather’s mood swings strategically. This is a really interesting transformation in terms of how it addresses how Sophie – in a context of supposed powerlessness – can think strategically and empower herself by doing so. So, in a way, the topic of sexism is somewhat addressed here and I appreciated how Sophie was able to save herself in the end. The topic of female curiously being at fault for the wives’ fate is also removed here: Monsieur Bernard de Cressac is a dangerous psychopath and wholly to blame for the happenings in the book.
That said Sophie’s transformation is not really developed that well. For a story that is so slowly developed, the actual character’s arc happens suddenly and with awkward transitions. That is all the more clear when Sophie falls in love at first sight with another man – one minute they meet, the next they are in love.
Although I appreciated the attempt at portraying Sophie’s story as one of self-empowerment, I wasn’t wholly convinced by how this happened.
My main issue with the book though is the pre Civil-War Mississippi plantation setting and how this was incorporated into the story. This was bad; this was really, REALLY BAD. The book is populated with a series of POC characters, some of them house slaves, some of them cotton field ones and there is one freed slave as well. The problem is, these characters are not characters on their own and are there in relation to the white characters. Sophie for example is the Good Abolitionist, who wants to help the slaves. As such she sympathises, pities them and wants to help them. Which: fair enough. But she is so completely clueless about her privilege it is not even funny. At one point she sees slaves labouring in the cotton fields and pities them for their shabby clothes. She sees a pair of slaves who are in love and cannot get married and pities HERSELF for not having a love of her own. Priorities: she has them (not). And this could have served as an astute observation about Sophie’s naivety, except this is not questioned and only serves to illustrate Sophie’s forward-thinking and goodness. The same way that the ill treatment of the slaves serves only to illustrate the villain’s villainy.
I am not kidding, there is EVEN a Magical Negro: a freed slave who lives in the woods and who is happy, wise and helps Sophie in feeling less lonely.
There is also definitely a strand of White-Saviour approach by showing the work of Good White People helping with the Underground Railroad (but without mentioning the important work and support from freed, escaped slaves in the same).
And before anyone says something about how this is a historical novel and that the portrayal of Sophie and of slavery is historically accurate, allow me to reinforce the fact that there is a HUGE difference between writing a historically accurate character (whatever that might mean) and writing a story that does not challenge/question these views in the narrative itself. In that sense, Strands of Bronze and Gold is not doing anyone a service by portraying slavery as a Bad Thing from the point of view White Saviours and by portraying POC characters as offensive stereotypes.
This is all very problematic to say the least and tainted the whole book for me. I can not in good conscience recommend this book at all – in fact, I recommend you to stay far, far away from it. ...more
Warning: Out of the Easy is a historical novel set in New Orleans. In this review I refer to sex workersReview posted originally at The Book Smugglers
Warning: Out of the Easy is a historical novel set in New Orleans. In this review I refer to sex workers as “prostitutes” and “whores” just as in the book.
Warning: there are some spoilers in this review.
Ruta Septety’s Out of the Easy is the author’s sophomore novel after the highly acclaimed Between Shades of Grey. It’s a historical novel, set in the 50s in New Orleans, featuring teenager Josie Moraine whose first person morose, contemplative narrative is the book’s best feature alongside its historical framing.
The story follows Josie’s life in the French Quarter of New Orleans and her attempt to create a new life for herself, hopefully in a college over at the East, where nobody knows who she is. She is the daughter of a prostitute, and has suffered the stigma of prostitution her whole life: the whispers, the snickers, the pitying, the expectation she would turn up just like her mother follows wherever she goes. Even her name – Josie – is a prostitute’s name, her mother choosing it after a madam from her own youth.
Josie’s life is hard – working two jobs just to be able to maintain herself and to save money to go away to college. She is an assistant at a bookstore where she works with fellow booklover, friend and potential love interest Patrick. Patrick’s father Charlie is Josie’s father figure, supportive and friendly and whose declining mental health has been a great source of stress and sadness for Josie.
She is also a cleaner at one of New Orleans’ biggest brothels, the one belonging to Madam Willie, where her mother works. She is there every morning to clean up after the long hours of work and to work as an assistant to Willie. It also doesn’t help that her mother is a terrible person, an absent mother and a thief. To make things worse, a wealthy tourist gets killed after visiting Josie’s bookstore – and the mystery of this death might be linked to her mother’s recent activities.
This is the very basic summary of the book – the starting point for a story that intertwines different strands – all of which contributing to the main push to Josie’s departure from New Orleans.
There is something about Out of the Easy that made me incredibly uneasy – I have been thinking about why it was so since I finished reading it and I think it might have to do with the focus and frame of the story. There is a lot of disconnect between what the book tells me and what the story shows me.
It makes me uneasy that the stigma, prejudice and difficulty of prostitution is examined from the point of view of a character who is not a prostitute.
It makes me uneasy because of how this is framed. Please bear with me as I break down the main conflicting points:
The main character and narrator, is a prostitute’s daughter who works at a brothel as a cleaner. This brothel is one of the biggest ones in Nola and its madam a force to be reckoned with publicly and privately – the madam runs the brothel in a way that makes it a safe, healthy place for her girls, which is awesome. All the prostitutes there are portrayed as well-adjusted and moderately happy. You could also say they are all prostitutes with a heart of gold who have more of less have “adopted” the main character. In fact, the madam is Josie’s surrogate mother, friend, protector and confidant. Her actual mother is an Evil Whore and a Gold Digger. All of these women – apart from her mother – worry about Josie, want to protect her reputation and hope she will not become a prostitute – because they want better for her. Everybody thinks she is too good to be a prostitute and there is a great moment of tension in the novel where the main character is driven to almost become one because she needs money urgently but eventually she doesn’t do it and as such is shown as being morally superior.
So there is this clash between what the novel tells me (prostitution = not a good life; better not live it) and what it shows me (actual prostitutes in the novel = well-adjusted, moderately happy) and this clash could have been interesting as a complex portrayal of prostitution had it not been for the fact that this is only explored in a divided way – this is not a good life for JOSIE but hey, it is a good life for everybody else because what? They are suited to it? They are not as good as Josie? This is all the more obvious if one thinks at how there is a question of purity that is woven in the story. Although Josie is smart and capable of taking care of herself, she is also extremely naïve – but only when the text expected her to be. She barely registers the interest from her two suitors and when she kisses them, there is barely any focus on how she feels about it. But then she does immediately register when older men leer or touch her. She is squeaky clean in her connections to the people she might love but it’s almost as though sex is established as a bad thing and I don’t think this is actually addressed at all. And although I appreciate the fact that Josie as a character might think of sex as bad thing because of how she might connect it to prostitution, I would have wanted to see this actually explored in meaningful ways. This aspect is insidious, subtly presence in the narrative but definitely there.
I am asked to sympathise and understand the plight of someone who is not a prostitute at the same time that it shows me the prostitutes of the novel as living an almost glamorous life. There is social stigma and prejudice but only from the perspective of someone who is not an actual prostitute. I find this really troubling. I had hoped that the social stigma, sexism and patriarchy that is present in Josie’s life to have been examined in a wider context – how does it affect the people that actually live that life?
That said, it is very interesting that the main focus here is how Josie’s life is terrible because of said stigma. BUT even though she repeats that continuously, we see very little of her actual troubles with said stigma. Instead, what we do see is how she has this incredible support system in which the prostitutes, the madam, the madam’s employees, as well as a myriad of friends in the French Quarter and two love interests all love and protect her. All the time. Even the narrative is extremely supportive of Josie: in the end, the madam dies, leaving Josie well-off and therefore solving all of her immediate problems magically.
I also question how the problem of class is explored here – New Orleans is a setting rife for this exploration with the social and economic divides between those in the French Quarter and those Uptown. However, this clash, this difference, is explored only in superficial, stereotypical ways: the rich are only pretending to be happy with the books they don’t read and the pianos they don’t play. It’s all a façade that hides horrible people:
“Let me tell you something ’bout these rich Uptown folk,” said Cokie. “They got everything that money can buy, their bank accounts are fat, but they ain’t happy. They ain’t ever gone be happy. You know why? They soul broke. And money can’t fix that, no sir.” Meanwhile, the lives of the bohemians, intellectuals, criminals in the French Quarter, despite all the difficulty, are much richer, authentic, better. I have no patience for this simplistic approach.
The book does do a good job at showing another side of prostitution and I appreciated how the prostitutes weren’t tragic figures. I do think there is merit to Josie’s story and experience as the daughter of a prostitute. I just feel it is disingenuous how this story was explored and I am afraid this overshadowed any and all the positives.
Basically, I really don’t know what this book is attempting to do here but I do feel that this story lacks honesty in the development of the story. In some ways it is a book that lacks nuance – you know, a few shades of grey would have done it tons of good....more
Words like "gritty" and "powerful" are thrown around so frequently, especially iOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Trigger Warning: Rape
Words like "gritty" and "powerful" are thrown around so frequently, especially in describing the new wave of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fare, that they've lost their significance. But, at the risk of sounding cliche, I will say it because if ever a title deserved these words, it is this book: Orleans is gritty. It is real. And it is powerful.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, killing 971 people. Over the next fifteen years, hurricanes continue to batter the Mississippi River delta, culminating with Hurricane Jesus on October 20, 2019. Jesus is a system of unprecedented size and intensity, and kills an estimated 8,000 people after making landfall, leaving fewer than 10,000 survivors in its wake. Those that do survive face other horrors - deadly debris, a lack of basic necessities (like clean water and food), and subsequent violent crime.
And then, the Delta Fever.
A powerful bloodborne virus, Delta Fever infects and spreads without discrimination. Refugees that are evacuated from Nola and the surrounding regions bring the fever with them, causing an epidemic the likes of which haven't been seen since the Spanish Flu a century earlier. In response, the government walls off the waterlogged, infected states of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas. A permanent quarantine is put into effect (until such time as a cure is found), and these states are no longer a part of the country. And in this new, wild, world of infection and death, Orleans is born.
Fen de la Guerre is one of Orleans' children - fierce and hardened, Fen has grown up in the Delta and knows its rules and lessons all too well. An OP (that is, O-positive blood type), like the rest of her tribe and others of the O-phenotype, Fen is a carrier of the Fever but isn't affected by the disease. And, like her fellow O-types, this means that she faces incredible danger - the other As, Bs, and ABs contract the Fever and deteriorate quickly unless they receive fresh infusions of blood from universal donors - and they hunt, farm, and bleed Os in their desperation. It is this desperation that wipes out Fen's tribe of OPs, leaving Fen on the run with her beloved friend's newborn child. Fen knows too well the horrors that could befall an orphan in Orleans, and vows to keep the child alive and get her to the Outer States beyond the quarantine wall before the baby becomes infected with Delta Fever. On this mission, Fen's path crosses with an outsider - an idealist and doctor, whose research could mean the Delta Fever's cure, or its weaponization.
I admit that I was drawn to this book in part because it sounded reminiscent of one of my favorite films of last year: the resonant indie hit, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Beyond similarities in premise and setting, this book is also reminiscent of that film in terms of scope and raw emotional power. Like Beasts, Orleans has the same intensity and heartbreak; the same type of fierce, courageous heroine. But Orleans is undoubtedly a darker animal than that film.
The newest novel from Sherri L. Smith, Orleans is (as I've said before) a powerful book. It's a frightening look at what might happen to a world ravaged by climate change and a devastating epidemic - one that fractures a society into tribes of violence and even cannibalistic (exsanguinistic?) extremes. This might not be a book for everyone - it is dark, people. This is a world rife with abuse, rape, blood farming, and violence - but its also a book about the desperate struggle and right to survive. A story with hope at its heart, in the midst of so much blood and death. And this, this juxtaposition of hope in such unflinching brutality, is what makes Orleans such a resonant and important book.
In other words: I loved Orleans. I loved it deeply, painfully, and wholeheartedly.
From a pure plotting and worldbuilding perspective, Orleans is nuanced and utterly believable. This future world, hit by hurricane after hurricane, then rising water levels, then plague and isolation, might be a hyperbolic one - but it feels frighteningly plausible. The deadly Delta Fever and its dividing lines by blood type is also a unique and particularly horrific epidemic - even if this is the stuff of medical horror-fantasy, the rules of this particular fever make sense (and thus, allow for suspension of disbelief). Suffice it to say, Orleans is a grim tale and one that, to me, felt very, very real.
Heroine Fen de la Guerre - a beautiful and fitting name for our whip-sharp protagonist - is one for the ages. Fiercely loyal, Fen has grown up in the most nightmarish of dystopias. After losing her parents, she is taken in by some very bad people and has fought her way free from abuse, finding a new home, a new tribe, and a new family. Fen is a fighter, and her will to survive is the driving force of this book. I love that in spite of everything she has been through and every fresh horror she faces, she never lets go of that powerful flame of hope. I love that Fen is wholly capable, that she figures out her own way to save her friend's child - unlike other dystopian heroes, Fen cares first and foremost about survival. Not how she looks. Not about a dreamy teenage boy that swoops in to help her out in the nick of time. Fen's priority is the life of her best friend's baby girl.
Of course, Fen is not the only character in this story - her cutting narrative is joined by that of Doctor Daniel Weaver, an idealistic outlander who crosses the wall into Orleans in hopes of completing his research and finding a cure for Delta Fever. In contrast to Fen's hyperalertness and competence, Daniel is completely out of his element and wholly unprepared for the grim reality of Orleans. I love that when he and Fen do team up, it is out of necessity and again that desperate need to survive. Together, they form a new kind of tribe.
And then there's that important theme of hope - because as dark as Orleans gets, there are these embers of hope throughout. You see it in Daniel's first glimpse of the Superdome, with the countless hours of work the Ursuline sisters have put into preserving the bones of the tens of thousands dead. It's there when Fen chooses to hold on to her friend's baby girl and not abandon her to the blood-hungry dogs and men chasing them. And you better believe it's there when Fen makes a desperate last gamble to get the child over the wall, damn the cost to herself.
I say again: I loved this book. It is dark and gritty, and it might not be for everyone, but for me? Orleans is damn near perfect, and in the running for one of my top 10 reads of the year. ...more
Young Jaron - Sage that was - has ascended to the throne and accepted his rightful place as the ruler of CartOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Young Jaron - Sage that was - has ascended to the throne and accepted his rightful place as the ruler of Carthya. On the day of his family's funeral, Jaron, sick of his preening and power-hungry regents, decides to skip the services and instead takes to his gardens for time to reflect, alone. Unfortunately for Jaron, he is ambushed by an assassination attempt from none other than Roden, the former friend alongside whom Jaron trained as one of nobleman Bevin Conner's candidates for the role of false prince. Poisoned by ambition and hate, Roden has thrown in with the pirates (incidentally, the same pirates that Jaron had escaped years earlier) and leaves Jaron with a warning - the Pirate King will not stop until Jaron is dead. Confronted with an impending attack from the buccaneers to the west and the neighboring Avenian King to the south, for the first time in decades Carthya faces the very real and imminent threat of war. Jaron turns to his guard and council of regents for support. Alas, Jaron has yet to win the support of his father's court and the opportunistic captain of his guard neatly outmaneuvers the young King, forcing him to leave the capital and hide from other would-be assassins (while instituting himself as the Steward of the kingdom, of course).
Jaron hasn't come so far and fought so hard just to roll over and give up his throne and his people, though, and takes matters into his own hands. In order to stop the Pirates from bleeding Carthya dry and clearing the path for an easy Avenian conquering, Jaron sheds his crown and leaves his country to stop the pirates at their source, once again assuming the raggedy mantle of street thief Sage.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that The Runaway King was one of - if not THE - most highly anticipated books of 2013 for me. I loved The False Prince with the force of a thousand thunderstorms, for its clever politics, it's wonderful plot, and most of all, its star: the wise-cracking, too-clever-for-his-own-good Sage. The problem with books that you love so much is the niggling worry that the next book might not live up to expectations. Thankfully, The Runaway King is a wonderfully entertaining book that holds its own against the very high standard set by The False Prince. While it isn't quite as good as its predecessor, this middle novel in the trilogy is more than just mere filler, and advances the overall story - and Jaron's arc - in a meaningful and worthwhile way. AND there are pirates. And duels. And daring escapes and late night liaisons. In other words, I really, really liked The Runaway King.
Middle book syndrome can be a terrible and frustrating thing, but thankfully The Runaway King succeeds by virtue of its strong characterizations and purposeful plot. As with the first book, the true standout of this novel is our King and erstwhile thief, Jaron/Sage, however he's grown since the first book and at first, is in a bad way. He's prickly and defensive, he won't accept help from people, and infuriatingly he makes decisions for others before giving them the chance to explain their motivations or positions. This is incredibly frustrating when it comes to Jaron's actions towards his friend Imogene, and towards his betrothed, Princess Amarinda. In the case of the former, he cares so much for Imogene that he decides - all on his own without asking or consulting the girl in question - that he is too dangerous a friend and so he sends her away with cruel words for her own good. In the case of the latter, Jaron judges Amarinda incredibly harshly, thinking her a traitor for befriending the Captain of his guard and the imprisoned Connor. Insert copious eye-rolling here. What is awesome about The Runaway King, however, is that this idiotic, macho attitude is called out by the characters in the text - Imogene talks over Jaron's boorish behavior with Amarinda, and they figure out his motivations, and naturally they find a way to subvert his plans (ya know, by helping him in spite of his stubborn "I have to do this on my OWN" idiocy) and ultimately tell him what an ass he is being. Friends trust each other, and trust isn't Jaron's strong suit - but he learns this lesson by the end of the book (thanks in large part to the awesome, strong, confident characters of Amarinda and Imogene, of course).
I also love that for all the ridiculous shenanigans that Jaron pulls off - including scaling a cliff wall with a broken leg, challenging and 'beating' the Pirate King twice, he actually has to rely on people and friends. I think this message, more than any other, is what I liked the most about The Runaway King. It's all well and good to be a cowboy and blaze the trail alone, but any true leader knows they are only as strong as their team - a fact that Jaron learns the hard way after pushing everyone away, isolating himself to the point where he is so weak that he may lose his kingdom. Of course, Jaron happens to have some really great friends, and makes some new ones besides in this book - in particular, I loved Fink and Erick. There's also a nice, if slightly too-good-to-be-true arc that happens with Roden, Jaron's would-be assassin.
On the plotting side, I actually enjoyed the over-the-top craziness of the nobles, thieves, pirates, and traitors Jaron meets on his journey. As I jokingly told Ana in an email, this book reminded me a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean in that there's a strict Code to which the Pirates must adhere (and Jaron's understanding of that code helps him gain parlance with the scallywags), as well as a Pirate King and a Tortuga-esque lair, amongst other things. AND it's not just pirates! The Runaway King also features dastardly acts of treason alongside kind-hearted nobles (and not-so-kind-hearted-but-mostly-good thieves). A LOT happens in this book, ultimately leading to an inevitable war between the land-locked Carthya and its aggressive neighbors - but thankfully, Carthya has a King (and future Queen) that can step up to the challenge.
While not without its faults - including Jaron's bizarre blend of pigheadedness and an inability to do anything wrong (I repeat: he scales a cliff with a broken leg and then fights in a duel on that same broken leg) - The Runaway King is a solid, rousing read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and eagerly await the dramatic finish to the Ascendance trilogy!...more
Ten teens head out to a secluded Henry Island vacation home, just off the coast of Washington, for a weekend-Originally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Ten teens head out to a secluded Henry Island vacation home, just off the coast of Washington, for a weekend-long party. For senior Meg, the trip is a good excuse to get away and work on her writing and spend some quality time with her best friend Minnie before Meg leaves for her first quarter of college at UCLA. She doesn't expect to find her off-limits crush TJ at the party, complicating an already tense situation with Minnie (who has carried a torch for TJ since forever). She certainly doesn't expect to be spending the weekend with a group of unknown other people from a neighboring high school. But, there's plenty of booze and plenty of space, so Meg doesn't think too much of the fact that only ten people showed up to the party, or that their host is MIA.
When a storm hits the island and the power goes out, things start to get serious - and one by one, the guests at the party start to die from different "accidents." Each of the ten teens are connected by something or someone in their past - someone that is out to exact terrible, cruel vengeance.
Basically, Ten is the written equivalent of a teen slasher film - it's a mystery novel, but it feels much more in line with the likes of I Know What You Did Last Summer (book and film) and Christopher Pike's Weekend. In short, it's the kind of book I would have loved reading when I was 13, and I have to give Ten props because there really aren't too many thriller/mystery/murder/horror novels like this anymore - at least not in the YA space. As a loyal Christopher Pike (and yes, R.L. Stine to a lesser degree) devotee, I used to run through these like candy - and these days they don't really seem to be as big of a thing. As it stands completely on its own, Ten is a solid, entertaining teenage who-done-it, a throwback to 80s/90s YA mystery/horror, and all around a fun book.
From a character perspective, Ten sticks to the classic stand-by tropes for this particular type of YA horror/mystery - the heroine is the quiet, studious (virginal) brunette who is a loyal and shy, her best friend is predictably blonde, likes to party and is fast and loose with the dudes. While these tropes are familiar and irksome, there are welcome and pleasantly surprising deviations - the main love interest character is an intelligent jock (who is black), for example. That said, there's not much in the way of character development overall. Things happen to these teens, and they react predictably, well within their standard/stock definitions as characters (the bitchy control-freak superstudent is bitchy and controlling; the manic depressive character flies off the handle at the only person who is trying to help her adjust; the two lead characters find time to squeeze in a kiss and a cuddle). Then again, this is not really a character driven book. Really, this is the kind of book that lives and dies by its skill at telling a compulsively readable mystery/thriller - and in that respect, Ten is very successful.
So let's talk plot. The mystery, overall, is very much loyal to the Agatha Christie source material - the progression of the murders and the twist regarding the killer's identity are both in line with the original book, which I consider a good thing. The deaths pile up quickly and our cast of characters goes through the cycle of surprise-shock-paranoia-fear-anger-relief as they figure out what or who is behind the murders. The tensions ratchets up nicely with the body count, and all in all the ultimate reveal of the murderer is a nice surprise - unless you've read And Then There Were None, that is. (I take that as a positive, but your mileage may vary.) There are cool little allusions throughout for the Christie fan too - instead of cyanide, almonds are the instrument of poison (almonds of course are the source of cyanide), for example. And, on a bright note, Ten seems to have made an effort to be racially sensitive and inclusive, which is kind of a big deal, considering the original title and racist aspects of the Christie novel. Four of the main characters are people of color (asian, black, Samoan), and when certain characters make racist/stereotype comments, they are called out on them. That is cool. On the negative side, the book plays fast and loose with the term "crazy" and portrays two characters with real mental illnesses as "irrational" or "hysterical" - which is frustrating, to say the least.
Other things that bothered: I feel like the book should have been set in the 1990s or something, because there are some things that feel a teensy bit anachronistic. For example, early in the book, Meg pulls a facebook invite out of her bag - a printout of the invite, presumably? I don't think anyone does this, certainly not teenagers who can access said invites from computers or phones. On that note, did ONLY Meg, Minnie, TJ and Gunner get the same invite (or are these teens completely mystified by FB invites)? The whole point of the weekend party is to get 10 specific teens together, though they are expecting a much larger party, which doesn't sit right. Plus, in this time and age, everyone has a computer and a cell phone and can pretty easily access others (or the authorities, if need be). I'm not quite sure the intense isolation that happens on this island is entirely believable, or that the teens are so inept at finding a way to get help.
All in all, I enjoyed Ten. It's not the most memorable book, and there are certain things that bothered me, but it is undeniably entertaining and a competent YA mystery/thriller/horror novel. Good, fluffy, finish-it-in-about-an-hour reading. ...more
I was forewarned by friends and readers. I have read – and loved – a couple of other books by the author. So it’s not like I didnA THOUSAND STARS!
I was forewarned by friends and readers. I have read – and loved – a couple of other books by the author. So it’s not like I didn’t know the odds this would be good but this book? It blew my mind away. In its epilogue, Terry Pratchett says:
Thinking. This book contains some.
And that’s true: this is one of the most think-y books I have ever read. I loved it with every fibre of my being.
Nation is a book of ideas. Its main theme, that of construction and creation: the construction of a home, of a family, of rules, tradition and religion. It is about those building blocks of civilisation itself and of individuals, in a way that is both extremely rational and enormously emotional. Writing that line just now makes me realise how weird that might sound to those who haven’t read the book. Above all it makes me think about how hard it is to pull something like this off and to keep a balance between what drives a story and the story itself without making a book about ideas, a book that is solely about ideas. If that makes any sense at all – I am finding it extremely hard to write this review because how do you describe perfection? Especially when it’s so affecting?
Nation is a book about creation.
It starts with the destruction of everything one of its main characters knows.
There is a small island in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean in a world very much like ours (but not quite) where young boys go through a ceremony where they shed their boy-souls to gain their man-souls. Mau is on the Boy’s Island and is about to cross over to the main island to become a man when the big wave comes. He survives it but when he goes ashore to his home, to the Nation, he discovers everything he knows and everyone he loves has been washed away. His first action is to build a spear: “Without fire and a spear, you could never hope to be a man, wasn’t that right?”. But soulless Mau is all alone and nobody answers him.
All alone that is, but for Daphne, a young girl who was aboard the Sweet Judy ship, whose wrecked remains are now part of the Nation. They are different because their background, their language, their traditions are dissimilar. They are equals because they share this tragedy and because they are both thinkers. Together, they work to survive and to create a home for those who slowly start to come to the Nation in search of a haven after unspeakable tragedy.
First comes an old man, a priest who wants things to be kept as they always were and whose unquestioned belief in their Gods remains unshaken. With him, a young sickly woman with a newborn baby who is barely moving and can hardly feed. Everybody’s immediate response is to fall back into the roles they have always known: if the mother cannot feed her baby, the only one who can help is of course, the other female, Daphne. Except Daphne – a young girl raised by a grandmother who believes young ladies should be Proper – doesn’t even know how babies are made. Mau does what must be done in order to keep the baby alive. Hilarity ensues when he milks a wild pig but also: enlightenment for both Daphne and Mau. Women are not born knowing how to care for babies. Things that appear deep seated gender-led knowledge are not. A man’s soul is not created magically because one crosses from one island to another.
So, first comes destruction. Then, deconstruction: little by little, both characters observe this new world and question the old one in search of answers. It is a kind of stripping down to one’s very core in order to understand. But it is a stripping down without letting go of the past completely because the rules are there. So Mau is walking around the island and he hears the Grandfathers’ voices telling him what to do, to follow their traditions, not question their religion, otherwise there is no order. As much as Daphne abhors her grandmother’s voice inside her head telling her to be Quiet and Proper, she keeps listening to it non-stop. Motivation counts too and Mau is angry. He is angry at the Gods and that leads him to question their very existence. Daphne is not moved by religion at all but by Science. There is sympathy and compassion toward other characters and those find their own balance and their own way of surviving.
In a way, a wave came but they are not completely marooned because they have Tradition. But does Tradition serve them at this time of need or is that now an impediment? How important is it to keep going as it “has always been”? Or is this yet another misconception about the world? Slowly: the understanding that those are internalised voices and that questioning is good. To understand the HOW is all the more important: history becomes religion becomes tradition becomes internal rules living inside one’s head.
Then, forging and building. Mau and Daphne build themselves up and their thoughts are the roots on which they build a new Nation. And they do that by means of Scientific Method.
And that is accomplished in a story that is moving, sad, hopeful and funny. Mau and Daphne have hilarious misunderstandings before they lean to communicate. Their community is built and deep connections are formed between people. A new Nation is born out of the old and people still have parties, drink beer, laugh, love, pray and look at the sky.
Also: parallel universes.
I don’t know how my reading of this particular book has been affected by the fact that I am new to Terry Pratchett’s main oeuvre but this to me, was simply wonderful. Interestingly enough, limited as my Terry Pratchett experience might be, I found Nation to be slightly different in tone (not as funny) to the other books I have read from the author but exactly the same in how smart it is.
Nation is a rich and intricate novel. Yes ,it does have an obvious message about the power and importance of thinking, but this never overwhelms the characters or the story. I understood this very well when I started crying when the book was over. Plus, the epilogue is a wonderful gift from an author who truly understands his readers.
This book spoke to me in a deeply personal level and I can’t recommend it enough....more
I’d seen The Naming around Goodreads and was intrigued by it but not enough to actually pick it upOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
I’d seen The Naming around Goodreads and was intrigued by it but not enough to actually pick it up. I was glad when this showed up in the OSW recommendations.
The Naming was a weird book for me to read. It had tons of potential: tropes and scenarios I am familiar and comfortable with plus the fact that the main character was a girl (when often boys happen to be Chosen Ones). But I had a really hard time with the book because it was so boring and I just couldn’t get into it exactly because it was so familiar to the point of being derivative. There were things that could be considered “subverting” these familiar tropes (more on that later) but they were perhaps too minor or too superficial to mean anything of substance. That said, The Naming was an important read for me because it served to highlight and reinforce what I kind of already knew: how tired I am of the Chosen One trope, how much I dislike overly descriptive books and how I am might be over Epic Fantasy for now.
Like Ana, I’ve had my eye on The Naming for a while now. This is a book I frequently see lurking on shelves at my local bookstores and across the interwebs, and until recently, it has been one of those pick-it-up-read-the-blurb-put-it-back kind of books (love the cover and title, but there was never anything particularly OOMPH-y about the book that compelled me to buy it in the past). When this book surfaced on our OSW readalong poll list, I was thrilled because finally I had a reason to get into the Pellinor series.
And…I’m a little ambivalent when it comes to the actual book. I enjoyed certain aspects of the novel (and the story, when it is moving along and not just focused on the mind-numbingly mundane minutia of walking through the countryside and eating biscuits and berries and such). And, like Ana, I appreciate that the book attempts to subvert familiar tropes by instituting an unapologetic female character as its heroine and the Chosen One Who Will Save The Land From The DARK. That said, the book is needlessly protracted, the main character is (obviously) unparalleled in terms of abilities and power, and the story is a little bit reductive and familiar. The Naming isn’t a bad book – but it’s not a particularly memorable one, either.
1. Clearly, THE NAMING has some familiar, old school fantasy influences – which influences were the most apparent to you? Did this heavy reliance on traditional fantasy work in your opinion?
Ana: It’s funny how I saw so many influences from favourite books (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the most obvious one) but those left me cold here. I think this book was far too derivative, the world-building far too close to that of Tolkien (I mean, there is even an honest-to-Goddess Galadriel replica) for me to be able to enjoy it. The writing style, the long pieces of description and the “let’s walk all the way to Mordor” all reminded me of LoTR. It actually made me seriously wonder if I would be able to read (and enjoy) LoTR if I attempted a re-read now and I suspect the answer would be “no”.
Thea: There’s a fine line between homage and mimicry, and while The Naming has a few interesting ideas in terms of worldbuilding, the heavy Tolkien influences (and a little bit of GRRM, Susan Cooper, and J.K. Rowling) did not work to the book’s credit. The Naming borrows too heavily from its influences and works too closely to these older classic motifs, framing this book as a blandly predictable LOTR/Dark is Rising/Harry Potter rehash. There’s the entrenched and increasingly corrupt fellowship of Bards that refuse to Read the Signs that the Dark is Rising; there’s the downtrodden, orphaned girl who does not understand the Great Power she wields or her illustrious past and destiny. And to Ana’s point, not only is there a Galadriel figure in The Naming, but there are also “dark bards” called Hulls and an old evil king that has become a paradigm of evil (named Sardor). There’s an honest to goodness sorcerer who has turned to the Dark and resurrected the Evil. There’s even an analog of Rivendell hidden deep in the forgotten places of this particular magical world.
And, at one point, someone actually says “Winter is coming.”
2. In the same vein, let’s talk fantasy tropes. THE NAMING employs the old Chosen One standby – one foretold to staunch the rising darkness and Save The Land. Discuss the tropes in this book – what worked? What didn’t? Are you a fan?
Ana: Well, there is not only the Chosen One trope, but also its ultra familiar packaging – i.e. the Chosen One who is an Orphan and a slave who never knew or suspected her background.
I think that my apathy toward the novel was somewhat mitigated because the Chosen One happens to be a girl here. The potential was immense especially considering how there were attempts to talk about it within the story. Maerad is always questioning her role as a Chosen One as well as her background. One of the few positives was how the enemies of the Chosen One completely overlooked Maerad because to their minds the prophecy could not be about a girl. So in a way, the fact that the main character is a girl is not an accident – I feel there is definitely a feminist point being made here and I wonder if this aspect will be more developed in further installments.
That said: is the fact that the Chosen One is a girl subversive enough to compensate for the fact that she is still a Special Ultra Powerful Person who doesn’t even have to learn to use her Ultra Special Powers? I don’t think so.
It seems then that I am not a fan.
Thea: You know, I’m not intrinsically opposed to the Chosen One trope. Like most fantasy standbys, when it is done well, this trope is a beautiful thing (see everything from Harry Potter to Star Wars). Unfortunately, The Naming doesn’t really do enough with the tropes it employs to shake the oppressive mantle of formulaic blandness. Like Ana says, the fact that Maerad is a young woman and the Chosen One is, on its face, a good thing. The fact that Maerad questions herself, her destiny, and her abilities is also a very cool thing – not to mention the fact that she is growing up from child to woman (gets her period for the first time, struggles with desire/attraction) is also an interesting and different dynamic than the usual male Heroes that play this role in epic fantasy.
Of course, this is exacerbated by the fact that Maerad is not just the Chosen One, BUT she possesses unparalleled magical powers, she has the sweetest most beautiful singing voice and bardic abilities, she is effortlessly beautiful and everyone (except those that are Evil) loves her instantly. She learns how to read in a single lesson, she thwarts unbeatable evil with a single phrase, and… well, you get the picture. THIS to me is the most irritating part of the book. I like Maerad as a considerate, questioning, intelligent heroine (which humanizes her character), but I hate the fact that she is so exceptionally powerful and perfect (which de-humanizes her character and reduces her to a stock character).
3. Let’s talk about worldbuilding: this first book of Pellinor introduces a new fantasy world in the Western European paradigm, with a system of Bards and the threat of the Dark (dark bards called Hulls, and fearful creatures called wers, and Wights). What are your thoughts on the world of Annar? Well developed or underdeveloped? Memorable or forgettable?
Ana: I guess the answer is “Well developed” but “forgettable.” It’s well developed in the way that it well thought-through: the author obviously spent time creating her own mythos, her own world (considering the appendixes as well as the introduction). But again, it is so derivative and familiar and concerned about descriptions of random things and scenery that it ends up being forgettable. At least, that’s how I felt about it.
Thea: I love the idea of a society of magical Bards and the power of music and stories in The Naming and this fantastical world. The idea of that the world of Annar has different cultures and competing schools of Barding is a little Harry Potterish, but in a good way. I also like the idea of a young person coming into their power by discovering “The Speech” – that is, usually by conversing with animals (again, Harry Potter, anyone?). That said, all of these different worldbuilding nuances are lost in a bloated story and the more derivative, familiar aspects of the book.
4. On the character front, how does Maerad stack up as a heroine? How about Cadvan, her teacher and companion? What other characters did you like or not like in THE NAMING?
Ana: I am conflicted on this point: I kind of liked Maerad but because the writing or the execution of the story didn’t appeal to me, she ended up being rather non-descript. Her early dynamics with Cadvan when the two first meet almost drove me up the wall especially when he was horrible to her, telling her to “catch up” and I just wanted to punch him because the girl spent her life to that point as a prisoner/slave without ever knowing who she was and the potential for magic she had.
I read this one week ago and can barely remember any other memorable character and that’s a problem in itself.
Thea: When you separate Maerad from her awesome abilities and powers, I appreciate her more as a heroine. She has a sharp, inquisitive mind, and I like that she questions the people around her and her own role in this great future of saving the land and whatnot. I also appreciate the fact that for all Maerad’s unparalleled strengths and uniqueness, she’s not a badass warrior and struggles with violence.
I generally liked the supporting characters in this book, although they all seem to fall into helpful generous benefactor roles – the motherly Sylvia and smitten scholar Dernhil fall firmly into this category. The tortured Cadvan is an interesting mentor to Maerad – I do like that others question their relationship, and that you never really know what Cadvan is thinking (although his frequent patriarchal exasperation with Maerad is annoying, especially in the early chapters). AND of course, there is the late addition of the rascally Hem as a character – whom I enjoyed, even if his introduction to the story felt AGAIN very “All the Stars are Aligning as the Prophecy Foretold.”
What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about? And, most importantly, will you continue with the series?
Ana: Hummm…I am sorry to say I was not enthusiastic about anything. I was bored out of my mind and do not plan on reading the series any further.
I do have one last question I want to throw out there: would you consider The Naming a good introduction to Epic Fantasy to younger readers? Are there good enough aspects of the novel that would appeal to those who haven’t read a lot of Epic Fantasy yet?
Thea: The strongest parts of the book, to me, lie with Maerad’s characterization and the worldbuilding – although these elements are not without significant drawbacks (Maerad’s uniqueness, the world’s utter familiarity). There was one particular aspect of the book that bothered me that we haven’t discussed here – that is, there were parts of the book where the regular western fantasy speech would turn into crazy archaic speech, complete with “thee”s, “thou”s, and so on. (Talk about overkill and an entirely jarring experience.)
I think on the whole, I’m feeling a little more charitable towards The Naming than Ana, but I do think the book suffered from the most fatal of flaws: banality. This book is entirely too similar to other fantasy books that did it first and did it better. As I said before, this isn’t a bad book. It’s just not a particularly memorable one, either. I probably won’t be reading the next book in the series (unless someone can tell me that it gets REALLY GOOD).
I shamefully admit that covers play a huge part in the books I choose to read, more often even than author blurbs or bOriginal review posted at Kirkus
I shamefully admit that covers play a huge part in the books I choose to read, more often even than author blurbs or book descriptions. Case in point: Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Up until a few days ago, I had zero interest in the book because the cover, to me, screams “Contemporary YA story of summer!beaches!butterflies!” Even though I do enjoy the occasional Contemporary YA novel, it just didn’t appeal to me at a first glance.
This changed when Summer of the Mariposas was recently announced as a 2013 Andre Norton Award Nominee, meaning that it is actually a Speculative Fiction novel. That was what got me interested enough to read the book description, which then inspired me to actually read the book ASAP.
This is what this story is really about: a re-telling of The Odyssey following five Mexican-American sisters—Odilia and her four hermanitas—whose father has recently disappeared without a trace. After finding a dead man floating in the Rio Grande, the girls cross the border into Mexico to return the body to his family. Their trip is fraught with peril, with numerous encounters—including La Llorona (a legendary ghost who weeps for her lost children) who guides the girls in their subsequent journey to meet their paternal grandmother, and several figures of Aztec mythology. Their mission is to travel to the land of their ancestors so they can find themselves again, as sisters and as a family.
Sounds awesome, right?
The fantasy elements are, indeed, fantastic. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is an Odyssey re-telling (I don’t think the connections are strong enough to warrant that description), the Mexican and Aztec folklore and mythology are perfectly incorporated into the story. There is a strong element of subversion and reimagining as well, especially with regards to La Llorona’s story and the figure of Malintzin. The latter—a slave-turned-interpreter for conquistador Cortés and the natives of Mexico, and possibly the mother of the first Mestizo in Mexico—is a fantastic historical figure that has been much maligned through the centuries. Malintzin appears as a real character in the story, but there’s also an obvious parallel between her and Cortés’ story and that of the five girls’ parents—their light-skinned Spaniard father abandons their dark-skinned Aztecan mother (just as Cortés abandoned Malintzin). I loved how noticeably the story observes the religious syncretism prevalent in Mexico (and in Latin America as a whole), especially in the connection between two seemingly disparate mother figures: the Catholic Virgen de Guadalupe and Tonantizin, a goddess of Aztec Mythology.
Motherhood—literal and metaphorical—and sisterhood are perhaps the biggest central themes to the story. The relationship between the five girls is painfully, gloriously detailed with all the bickering, jealously, loyalty and love that one can expect of so many sisters.
These praises said, I was underwhelmed by the writing and a few thematic threads of the story. With regards to the former, there is a tendency toward oversimplification and simplistic writing, the dialogue often cringe-worthy and forced. Take, for instance, this scene between Odilia and a witch:
“That’s right! We know what you’re doing,” I said, my voice cracking momentarily. “But we’re too smart to be lulled to sleep by your lies anymore. I saw you baking last night. I saw what you put into those pies. But we’re wide awake now and we’re not going to eat anything you try to feed us. That’s why we gave those tortas to the pigs. You don’t believe me? Go see for yourself. Your pigs are probably snout down in the mud by now.”
Not to mention the repetition of one basic progression: Odilia and her sisters make a silly, stupid decision. They learn their lesson. They forget said lesson almost immediately to continue making silly, stupid decisions. They learn their lesson. And so on and so forth—frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it. Perhaps there is a point to be made that those decisions stem from how young they are, but that doesn’t exactly jibe with the way they are portrayed as smart in the novel at large.
There is also the issue of the premise itself: The sisters’ mission is orchestrated by the greatest goddess of their faith, and must be undertaken because…they need to learn how to be a family. It is completely unbelievable to me that the most important goddess in this pantheon would even concern herself with this one particular family just because. Then again, there is definitely an element of faith in this idea—everybody is special, therefore everybody is taken care of by the deities in which they believe.
Finally, there is also the question of why the girls were “chosen” (because of the goodness in their hearts) and how they should carry on their mission (by being noble and kind-hearted, and by not displaying anger and arrogance). This dichotomization of “good traits” (kindness) versus “bad traits” (anger) culminates when the girls face their father’s new wife, who is described as a cold, manipulative, loud, arrogant woman. That is, a woman who is diametrically opposed to their “sweet, loving mama.” This idea of kindness and nobility is often part of fairytales and folklore, but it is also a discourse that is used too often when addressing women’s stories, and in connection to female characters. The problem is that girls are often expected to be nice and kind. Even when they are angry, even when fighting oppression, they always must be nice and kind.
Summer of the Mariposas does have a strong start and a range of incredible elements peppered throughout. On the whole, though, as you can probably tell, I have complicated feelings about the book. It is a good book and I recommend reading it, but with some sizeable reservations....more
On the day Tegan Oglietti died for the first time, she had all the hopes for a bright fuOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
On the day Tegan Oglietti died for the first time, she had all the hopes for a bright future. She had just hooked up with the guy she had be in love for years and they were about to join a public political demonstration.
Then, chaos ensued.
When she wakes, Tegan is one hundred years in the future. Locked in a government facility, Tegan is effectively a guinea pig, the first ever person to be successfully revived from a cryogenic sleep. She is told she is part of an important project to bring back to life soldiers fallen in battle.
As an army brat whose father died at war, Tegan understands the importance of such a project and at first is compliant. But after some time, all she wants is to have a normal life again – even if she has to start from scratch. Even if she has to comply with some – but not all - of the army’s plans for her. Once integrated into this future, she realises that despite some obvious breakthroughs, not everything is perfect.
There are many, many things I loved about When We Wake: the voice, the narrative format, the thoughtful political discourse, the world-building and the characters.
First and foremost, this imagined (dystopian?) future that is both extremely scary and encouraging. In the 22nd century, Australia is a super-power. A land of plenty, a land of freedom where equality – in terms of gender, of religious tolerance, of sexual orientation - really and truly exists. But Australia is also a country in a world where climate change has altered ocean levels and reshaped borders, where the sun shines stronger and food is scarce. And Australia might be a land of plenty but its immigration policy makes sure it is Australia for Australians only. This is present in the wider political spectrum of law-making but also in the scope of overwhelming racism (since the third world countries – “thirdies” - are often blamed for the state of the world) and anti-immigrant attitudes.
The scary part comes from how this is a totally realistic future. More often than not, when reading futuristic Science Fiction – specially some of the latest YA Dystopian - I find myself completely unable to buy into certain versions of imagined futures. When We Wake presents a future that is a feasible and possible course of history based on the actual world we live in NOW, where climate change, current fucked-up immigration policies, racism could potentially combine to create this type of future.
Then, there is the question of the narrative which works twofold. One, because Tegan wakes up in the future and has to learn everything about it and the reader learns about the world alongside her. This avoids the trap of awkward info-dumping. Two, because of the narrative format: Tegan is telling this story and the way the narrative is framed – I won’t spoil the way or the how - worked really well. There were though a certain conciseness to the narrative and perhaps many aspects of the novel (like Tegan falling in love with her classmate, the Somali immigrant Abdi) felt underdeveloped but that conciseness fits the premise of the narrative perfectly.
I also loved Tegan. She is a very interesting character – self-confident and smart, prone to mistakes but able to learn from them. At first glance, she definitely conforms to a certain type of heroine in YA – the beautiful, almost perfect girl who everybody loves. There is a weird trend of heroine-writing in YA, in which they are mostly either oblivious at how pretty they are or unable to even acknowledge their skills and talents – I often feel uncomfortable about those portrayals as these fall into a traditional type of narrative that often imply that beauty should be natural and girls need to be nice and humble. Tegan, in many ways, breaks that mold by being confident and persistent, by knowing she is beautiful and being proud of it (and yes, granted: her beauty fits the "sleeping beauty" theme). Above all, I loved how she excells at understanding her circumstances and how she uses the power she knows she has. After all, Tegan is, for all intents and purposes, truly unique in the context of this world, important to the army and it's great how she sees that she can use this to her advantage. I specially loved how this understanding comes from a place of learning about politics, after listening to her social-activists friends and then slowly becoming more aware.
Finally, I truly appreciate how Tegan is surrounded by a diverse group of characters in terms of religious background, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity. But I would be remniss if I didn’t note that despite all this diverse background, the day-saving heroine of the piece is still very much in compliance with the vast majority of white, cis, straight protagonists in YA dystopias (or anywhere, ever) and that is a bit of a let-down. That said, in fairness, Tegan’s whiteness does not go unnoticed or unremarked within the story.
As I was writing this review, I came to learn that there will be a sequel – I am truly delighted about that even if I feel that the ending of When We Wake is perfect. Just the way it is.
The third novel from Karen Healey, When We Wake is, for me, a mixed bag. I loved the worldbuilding and the vision of this future Australia, in which there are plenty of good things - gender and sexual equality for one thing, true freedom of worship and religion, and a concerted effort to conserve and protect natural resources (heck, folks have turned vegetarian and collecting their own fecal matter for composting - which is a tax deduction sanctioned by the government). While there are many progressive changes, there are also plenty of terrible things in this future world - immigrants are demonized by the government, the press and the public, and are sent to the equivalent of death camps; the Earth's fragile ecosystem is heading towards rapid collapse; and xenophobia abounds especially where non-Australians are concerned.
It's this balance of the good with the bad that makes Karen Healey's future so vividly plausible and frightening. As Ana says, it's almost too easy to see how this type of world could come about, in which good-intentioned people do many things to help get the world back on track, but turn a blind eye to so many other terrible things.[1. If we're being honest, is this situation so different from our current world with discriminatory legislation, and with shows like Border Wars on television?] To me, this brilliantly conceived - if terrifying - future is the strongest part of When We Wake, and what separates the book from the many, many other bland YA SF/dystopias on the market.
Beyond the worldbuilding, however, I was a bit underwhelmed by the rest of the book. The premise of the novel, involving a seventeen year old girl who is cryogenically preserved following her untimely death and revived a hundred years in the future, is great if entirely familiar. The beautiful girl that slumbers for a century (or longer) only to be awoken and return to the world has been a fairy tale staple for many, many years, and is also gaining popularity in the current wave of YA SF - Beth Revis's lackluster Across the Universe comes to mind, as does the amazing and infinitely more successful A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan. There are many other similarities to familiar YA SF/dystopias and I won't spoil them, but they are very much there.[2. Ok - just one observation while we're on the subject of similarities. Did anyone else think that media specialist/stylist/coach Tatia was so very Effie Trinket?]
Familiarity aside, the bigger problem I had with When We Wake involves plausibility and suspension of disbelief. While the societal aspects of the worldbuilding in this book are phenomenal and utterly believeable, there is an enormous plausibility gap when it comes to the actions of the government and the technology of the period. With regards to the former, the Australian government has spent billions of dollars on preserving and reviving young Tegan, and it is on her continued health and survival that the whole success of a secret government initiative (The Ark Project) hinges. In what universe would such a secretive and controlling military let Tegan out of their custody, to go to school and prance about willy nilly with new friends? Yes, she has a bodyguard whenever she is in public, but Tegan is allowed access to nifty technology that can easily hack government databases with a single touch, and there are people out there trying to KILL her for goodness sakes. No. I call shenanigans.[3. If there's one thing that The X-Files or any other number of secretive-controlling-government books and shows have taught us, it is that expensive, vital assets like Tegan are not given freedoms.] In a similar vein, the technology in When We Wake is a little bit cringeworthy at times -- someone else pointed this out on their GoodReads review, but apparently in this future the internet really IS a series of tubes (really, Teeg and her friends all refer to the "tubes" throughout the book). Tegan - whose native time was the 2020s - doesn't seem to be very familiar with the tablet computers that are incredibly prevalent today in 2013, and has a hard time getting used to future tech. These future computers are basically tablets but on...scrunchable/foldable material with voice and motion command in addition to touchscreens (again, already possible with much of today's technology in 2013). And there's a scene where Tegan runs a search on "Koko" (she names her tablet Koko after the famous signing gorilla - again, doesn't really feel like something a teen in the 2020s would do or know), and runs spying/trace countdown apps to hack into highly classified government files. Again, this feels silly to me, and I call shenanigans.[3. Also, how wonderfully convenient that Tegan immediately befriends technological wizards that can hack into these sophisticated systems?]
On the character front, I'm similarly torn. I DO agree with Ana in her assessment of the YA heroine (in particular the dystopian YA heroine) - these gals are usually effortlessly, naturally, obliviously beautiful. They also tend to be white, with long dark hair for whatever reason (Bella Swan, what hast thou wrought!). Tegan is your uniform YA dystopian heroine in appearance - really pretty, petite, slender, with pale snow white skin, luminous large eyes, and long dark hair. That said, she knows she's pretty and she addresses it, and that's definitely a cool thing. I do appreciate her tenacity and her character voice, even if the narrative technique - i.e. narrating her story for an audience in retrospective fashion (involving FORESHADOWING OF DOOM) - isn't my favorite, I do appreciate the way everything ties together by the end of the book. I also love that Tegan is opinionated and passionate about music, that her love interest is a black young man from Djibouti, that her new best friend is Muslim.
That said, Tegan's brash tendency to lose her temper, to run her mouth without thinking, to leap into action without weighing the consequences of those actions is incredibly irritating - and again, a tendency that seems prevalent in many YA dystopian heroines. And I'm so tired of the heroine that doesn't think before she acts, that is lily white and beautiful and straight, who saves the world but manages to also fall in (insta-)love and look gorgeous at the same time.
All these criticisms said and frustrations voiced, ultimately, I enjoyed When We Wake (albeit with some sizeable reservations). The writing is solid, the worldbuilding (technology and government motivations aside) is amazing, and the direction of the series has promise. I'll probably be back for the next book.
This is going to be a difficult review to write and another one brought to you by my two hands.
Gabe Williams has big summer plans. He has his own (quite successful) late-night radio show at an obscure radio station where he geeks out on old songs with the help of his neighbour and mentor John (presumably the first DJ to play Elvis Presley back in the days). He is in love with his best friend Paige and hopes against hope she might feel the same way – although he isn’t exactly averse to hooking up with other equally hot girls should the opportunity arises. Above all though, Gabe is looking forward to the day where he can simply be Gabe. Because you see, Gabe was born Elizabeth and has just recently told his family and close friends that he is a trans guy.
The book chronicles Gabe’s summer in a story that depicts both his passion for music and his hopes for his future as well as the process of his FTM (Female To Male) transitioning.
SO: on the one hand, at a surface level Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is a really, really cool story. Gabe’s passion for DJing and for old songs is palpable and his relationship with his mentor John is awesome – the latter, a supportive presence, a mentor, a friend, a grandfather figure that admires and helps Gabe. This is all the more important at this particular moment when Gabe’s parents are still shocked at Gabe’s coming out when he is taking the first baby steps at being officially, openly Gabe. And those tremendously important first steps are really well depicted: like the first time Gabe introduces himself as Gabe; the first time he goes to a male restroom; his first attempt to go out on a date with a girl. As well as his ongoing dealings with his family and the bigots at school (who always though Liz was a freak but who know are thoroughly disgusted at Gabe).
And I am reading this and I am nodding along and I am thinking: yes, sirs, this appears to be exactly like what a transitioning FTM would face from A to B to C. As such, my other hand will tell you that Beautiful Music for Ugly Childrenis very informative in portraying the Trials and Tribulations of a trans teen.
But that first hand will say: yes, this is a really important story. And one that even acknowledges and addresses the many problems that LGBQT teens face including violence, bullying and bigotry without being completely tragic. It is an empowering story and who doesn’t love an empowering story? Especially when the ending is so hopeful?
But the other hand says: things seemed to have happened by rote, plot-wise. Almost as if there was a list of THINGS that had to happen in the transitioning process – with the uncomfortable implication that the process is the same for everybody. I never got the impression that Gabe was a real person with a really moving story beyond being a vessel for this tale to be told.
I was also quite uncomfortable with the way that Gabe interacted/saw girls (those who were not his love interest Paige), as those came across as merely receptacle/objects of his desire. There was also a weird vibe about gender roles and what “girls do” or how “girls behave” that sneaked its way into the narrative. On the other hand, it makes sense that Gabe would want to be completely dissociated from anything that remotely connects him to what is usually perceived as femininity (and therefore, to Liz). That said, I am not convinced that the narrative challenged this gender-role divide completely.
I do not want to undermine the importance of this book or the importance of stories like these simply being out there – especially for teens going through the same process or who are questioning – by saying that I don’t think that Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is a brilliant book. As such, there is definitely a divide between what I know to be an important story and how I wanted/needed/hoped this story to be told. ...more
On a small tropical island in the middle of the ocean, Veronika lives with three other girls and two caretakeOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
On a small tropical island in the middle of the ocean, Veronika lives with three other girls and two caretakers. The four girls are the exact same size and weight and age, distinguished by their different hair - Isobel with her lemon yellow hair, Caroline with her coconut brown hair, Eleanor with her black hair the color of wet tar, and Veronika with her rust red locks. Every day, Veronika and the other girls go on walks to observe and report back their findings to Irene and Robbert - two adults who look after the girls after their parents died in a plane crash - asking questions about what they've seen and learned. Every day follows the same pattern: wake up, go to class and ask questions, prepare dinner, sing, and sleep.
One day during her assigned walk, Veronika discovers something different - a girl lying in the sand that looks nothing like Veronica and the others. This mysterious girl has dark freckled skin and tangled long hair. As she wakes up, Veronika learns that this girl is the victim of a shipwreck and her name is May - and May is like Irene and Robbert with her soft skin and flesh and blood. May is different in other ways, too - she acts without thinking and considering, and she lashes out at Veronika and the others in fear and anger at times.
May's arrival means more for Veronika, the other girls, and their caretakers - others have discovered their island home and are coming for them all.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I started reading The Different Girl - the description makes the book sound like a familiar dystopian YA setup. Jaded as I am, I half expected this book to be about a group of (beautiful and innocent, of course) cloned girls, brainwashed and jolted into awareness of their prison by the arrival of an outsider (with a tepid insta-love romance thrown in there at some point). Thankfully, this is decidedly NOT the case.
Narrated in the stunning and perceptive first person point of view of Veronika, The Different Girl is, well...different. In a very, very good way. This is a true science fiction novel, about what it means to be alive - to be a "girl" - and the world in which these particular girls live. It's a challenging and refreshingly subtle read, filtered through Veronika's own focused and distinct observations. And because of this, it's the kind of book in which information is revealed very slowly, only gradually revealing the full picture. I'm trying my very best not to spoil, because this is the kind of read that depends on the reader making these observations and discoveries throughout - suffice it to say that when you start this book, it's best NOT to know too much about Veronika and her sisters.
From a stylistic and character perspective, I love Gordon Dahlquist's decision to tell this particular story from Veronika's point of view. The obvious narrative choice would be the newcomer May's viewpoint, and through her perspective we'd probably learn so much more (e.g. exactly WHAT Veronika and the girls are, the state of this post-apocalyptic world, etc) in point-blank fashion. In contrast, Veronika has only ever known the island and the routine she and the other girls undergo each day, the questions and tests she runs through each day, and the incomplete information about the past that she has been given by Irene and Robbert. May's arrival sparks something new and different within Veronika, and we see her thoughts and actions subtly change as she accommodates the new information brought in May's wake. I love the camaraderie that exists between Veronika and the other girls, the layered relationship between Veronika and her caretakers (Irene with her warmth, and in contrast Robbert with his frustrations and his demanding questions), and most of, the tension between Veronika and May.
While Veronika's narrative is stilted and focused on strange minutia, it's also wonderfully written and believable - I loved every second of Veronika's thoughts, we we readers glean little nuggets of information about her and her world as she learns. I love the tone of the writing, too, with its strange and stilted voice and Veronika's inherent unreliablility - she's not unreliable because she's lying to herself or to others, but because she is a very different kind of girl, and focuses only the information that she needs for the task or question at hand. I should also note that while we do get answers to some of the questions posed by the text and gradually see more of the larger picture, there are plenty of questions that are left unanswered - in my opinion, this is a good thing and I like the intentional vagueness and open-ended nature of The Different Girl (that said, your mileage may vary).
In short, I loved this book. The more I think about it, the more I love it. I love that this is a quieter novel about thoughts and characters, without much of a driving forward plot but plenty of food for thought. In many ways, The Different Girl reminds me of Genesis by Bernard Beckett (one of my favorite SF dystopian novels, ever) - both are shorter novels, but packed with ideas and challenging questions and complex relationships. The Different Girl is both a frustrating and rewarding read, and one that is refreshingly unique compared to the sea of bland softball sci-fi dystopia novels on the YA market today. Absolutely recommended - and in the running for one of my notable reads of 2013....more
On the one hand, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano is an incredibly engaging, thoughtful novel featuring aThis is a review brought to you by two hands.
On the one hand, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano is an incredibly engaging, thoughtful novel featuring a young girl learning about her own history.
Rosa María Evelyn del Carmen Serrano is the daughter of Puerto Ricans living in El Barrio, the Spanish Harlem neighbourhood in the 60s, at that point in time when change is coming – when the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group start protesting about the living conditions in El Barrio.
The novel follows the historical events from Evelyn’s point of view and depicts her own growth in parallel. Her point of view is coloured by her own experience as a young Latina living in a poor, forgotten neighbourhood in America, by her own relationship with a traditional, high-handed and reactionary mother and her increasing awareness of political and social issues surrounding their lives. The latter is motivated by the driving force that is her revolutionary activist grandmother who recently came to live with them. It is through her grandmother that Evelyn (not another Rosa, not another Maria, not another Carmen) learns about Puerto Rico’s rich and sad history of oppression and thwarted revolution and the roles that her own family has played in its goriest moment.
This is an extremely powerful story, that captures important historical moments and how they affect people both as individuals and as members of a community. It beautifully portrays the three main female characters of Evelyn (not another Rosa, not another Maria, not another Carmen) , her mother and grandmother and shows the segregation of ideals within one family and how it affects their bonds.
I specially loved Evelyn’s (not another Rosa, not another Maria, not another Carmen) progressive awareness that involved not only her active role within her own family (she starts off complaining that her mother always takes on the role of the slave by doing everything around the house but Evelyn herself never helps around either) but also her place as a young Latina girl (because there is also gender roles discussion here) who is proud of her heritage and history and wishes to contribute to that revolutionary moment in time. It’s a potent story, this one: Evelyn (yes another Rosa, yes another Maria, yes another Carmen) and her family’s story as a quiet microcosm that reflects the bigger chaotic picture.
On the other hand, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano is extremely condensed and its impact somewhat lessened by the fact there is very little in terms of actual development. It actually reads very much like a summary, jumping from point to point without the important connective tissue to turn this into a more cohesive whole. This is all the more glaringly obvious when secondary characters and plotlines are dropped like hot potatoes (Evelyn’s work at the department store comes to mind or one of her friends’ criminal activities) and Evelyn’s r-evolution happens at the speed of light.
I wonder if this and the fairly didactic tone the narrative often takes stems from the fact that the book’s intended audience are middle graders? I always feel frustrated when potentially awesome stories like these are dumbed-down especially when I think about other similar stories where the same cannot be said. In many ways, in terms of intended audience, historical and thematic core, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano reminded me of One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool and Flygirl by Sherri L Smith but those books succeeded in the way they did not pander to their readers and therefore for me, becoming the better stories.
Ultimately though, I appreciated and enjoyed reading this book very much but I cannot really say that those two hands are clapping enthusiastically… ...more