Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to the absolutely fabulous, heart-breaking, th...moreOriginal 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. (less)
On a Red Station, Drifting is a science fiction novella by Aliette de Bodard, and its recent nomination...moreOriginal review posted over at the Kirkus blog
On a Red Station, Drifting is a science fiction novella by Aliette de Bodard, and its recent nomination for Best Novella in the 2012 Nebula Awards put it on my radar. I'm glad, since this proved to be a remarkable read.
At first glance, one can see familiar science fiction trappings in its setting and basic premise: At some point in the future, Prosper Space Station is at a crossroads point of its long existence. Its resources are depleted as one of the consequences of an ongoing war, its greatest minds called away to join the fight for the Dai Viet Empire. Worst of all, its artificial intelligence, the Honoured Ancestress, once the mind that connected everyone and offered guidance and protection, is now faltering, ailing and wilting away to unpredictable results.
This familiar setting is just a departure point from which to deeply explore aspects of this imagined future in meaningful ways that combine the private and the public. The excellence here comes from the realm this novella chooses to concern itself with, as well its narrative focus. The former relates to family, tradition and ancestry and how they affect people's lives. Everyone in Prosper Station is related and interconnected both by blood and by the AI’s always present company. To some, this is a positive aspect that offers comfort. To others, it’s a prison that is worth questioning. Ancestry is so important as to be literal, real: To those who are worthy, there are mem-implants of their Ancestors offering guidance and counsel. The more mem-implants one has, the greater the individual.
Of course, the question of what exactly makes one worthy is central to this story. In this version of the future, people are tested for their abilities; those who fail these tests are forever branded as lesser beings, unable to have mem-implants of their Ancestors, often saddled in marriages against their will to greater partners and discriminated against what is perceived as lack of achievement. Interestingly, gender plays no role in this: Lesser and greater partners can be either male or female and a great number of lesser people left behind on Prosper Station are actually male (their greater wives off to war).
These social, cultural, historical strands are examined closer—privately, personally—in the lives of two women, the two main characters that share the narrative focus: Station Mistress Quyen and her distant cousin, a visiting Magistrate named Linh. Linh is an educated official, used to exert power, who shares her mind with several mem-implants of her Ancestors. Her arrival at Prosper Station is what sets things in motion—the reasons for her coming there are a matter of life and death. Quyen effectively runs the Station but, as a lesser individual, she is burdened by her own sense of inferiority which shapes her interactions with most people. Quyen is the only one who truly understands what the Honoured Ancestress’ ailment really means to Prosper.
These two characters are believable, incredibly strong female characters whose strengths lie in how their characterisation allows them to be complex, flawed individuals. Their interactions are fraught with tension and miscommunication stemming from their different sense of self-worth. And each woman’s arc eventually leads her to make choices, those choices a balance of questioning and acceptance.
This is an extremely political story in every sense of the word: on a macro scale of fighting for one’s beliefs in impossible situations and within the microcosm of the domestic, the individual—this dichotomy not really a dichotomy at all, as the micro and macro often intertwine in an inextricable tangle.
This is a beautifully realized story and the characters, plot, theme and writing are expertly crafted. My one regret is that I did not read it before we sent out our Hugo Award Nominations.
…And then, one day in the not so distant future, once On a Red Station, Drifting inevitably becomes the SciFi classic it’s meant to be, we can all look back and remember this horrendous cover with fondness. Maybe.
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.
Words like "gritty" and "powerful" are thrown around so frequently, especially i...moreOriginally 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. (less)
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a r...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a retelling of the Orpheus myth (but not like you know it).
All Our Pretty Songs: almost too good to be true. How is this a debut work? With this level of awesome prose? And gutsy storytelling? And by gutsy I really mean: simply writing a story that follows young characters who experience life – sex, drugs and rock & roll – in a way that is as real as any of all the other possible portrayals of teen life in YA.
So, unnamed narrator narrates: about her life and the life of her best-friend-almost-sister Aurora; and the way that she is always taking care of beautiful, volatile Aurora. There’s always been the two of them and their love and dedication and loyalty to each other. And there is a passion for music here that seeps from the narrative and that passion becomes almost tangible when they meet a musician named Jack. His gift is amazing and when he plays, everybody listens. And our unnamed narrator falls in lust and in love with Jack almost immediately (and definitely completely).
And even though the world we all inhabit is very much one of real things as it just so happens – as our narrator finds out – it is also one where things are real. So…when we say that everybody listens to Jack and that everybody pays attention to Aurora, we mean that literally. There is myth come to life here (and why the Pacific Northwest? Because “they” are everywhere) and the unnamed narrator – who is not beautiful or talented – sits in the margins, looking from the outside, unable to follow where they eventually go.
And the narrative is kind of dream-like and there are parts where there is a bit of stream of consciousness (kinda like this review) and as the story progress it becomes both more focused and more meandering if that makes any sense at all. What strikes me the most about the story is how even though the plot deals with life and death and danger and terror, the narrative is still extremely insulated because as worldly as the narrator seems to be with the parties and the sex and the drugs and the freedom, she is still a 17-year-old girl who makes snap judgements about people and whose narrow view of those she loves and about herself is still informed by her inexperience.
And I love her for all of that. I love that the narrator and the story is about complex relationships with close family, close friends, and sisterhood. Also with lovers and how love shapes her view of the world. So inasmuch as the narrator falls irrevocably in love with Jack, she is still involved in other stuff and with other people – I loved her relationship with her mother and with her friend Raoul. Plus there is a lot of negotiating that happens between how freely she has given her body and her heart and the fact that sometimes this is not enough to the other person. So this is definitely Coming-of-Age as much as it is Quest (when are those not the same?) . And central to this is also this self-awareness and this slow learning curve about what it means to be talented and beautiful which includes astute observations about our world and how we choose to look at people and allocate them “worth”. Because this is also a mythology retelling it all comes together:
"Once upon a time, girls who were too beautiful or too skilled were changed into other things by angry gods and their wives. A cow, a flower, a spider, a fog. Maybe you boasted too loudly of sleeping with a goddess’s husband. Maybe you talked too much about your own talents. Maybe you were born dumb and pretty, and the wrong people fell in love with you, chased you across fields and mountains and oceans until you cried mercy and a god took pity on you, switched your body to a heaving sea of clouds. Maybe you stayed in one place for too long, pining for someone who wasn’t yours, and your toes grew roots into the earth and your skin toughened into bark. Maybe you told the world how beautiful your children were, and the gods cut them down in front of you to punish you for your loose tongue, and you were so overcome with grief your body turned to stone."
Which just goes to show how these mythological beings (also EVERYBODY on the planet) are complete assholes who randomly and arbitrarily assign value to people.
Because here is the thing: as much as the narrator constantly tells us that she is unworthy because she is not typically beautiful or talented like her friends the fact remains that she is equally AWESOME. Even though she is flawed (who isn’t?), there is loyalty, and dedication, and determination and talent here in spades. Probably my favourite quote:
"I will not let the terror of the dark get hold of me. If this is a test, I will fucking pass it. I will pass any test this creepy skeleton in a crappy suit can give me. Let them turn me into stone or water or flowers. I came here for my lover and the girl who is my sister, and they were mine before anyone else tried to take them from me, before this bony motherfucker showed up on my stoop and let loose all the old things better left at rest. Jack I will let go; Jack is on his own, now. But I will die before I leave Aurora down here."
Dear narrator, you are so awesome and I don’t even know your name.
To sum up: great book. Really reminded me of Imaginary Girls and September Girls in terms of tone, narrative and themes.
All Our Pretty Songs can be read as a self-contained, standalone book but I understand it is the beginning of a series. I don’t know where this is going but I will follow and I will not even look back. (less)
Note: I chose NOT to include huge spoilers for the series so that anybody can read this post in which I try to tell you WHY you should read this serie...moreNote: I chose NOT to include huge spoilers for the series so that anybody can read this post in which I try to tell you WHY you should read this series. You’re welcome.
Let me start by saying: wow. WOW.
I just can’t get over how good The Spark is. I’ve finished reading it a couple of days ago and haven’t recovered from the experience yet.
Roughly, this is what happens in The Spark: Valen, roughly one year since events at the end of Fly Into Fire. Penny “Broken” Silverwing and Sky Ranger now have a baby son, Amos. Teenager Dee is trying to take control of her powers of fire. Along with the few surviving extrahumans they have made a life for themselves apart from everything and everyone, an oasis of presumed tranquillity and as it eventually turns out, unwise recklessness. An ally and friend betrays their location to the Confederation and shit hits the fan monumentally.
And then ten years pass.
I know. I couldn’t believe it either.
I sat down to write a regular review but all of a sudden…the review became something else. Because I realise that not everybody has read the first two books in the series, because I want more people to read then, I thought: instead of writing a regular review of this third book, I ought to write about the series as a whole and why I love them and why I think ALL THE PEOPLES should be reading this.
I have been reading and raving about this series since last year but with The Spark it reached a level of awesome that is off-the-charts.
Read this series if you like Scifi: like, proper, well-developed Scifi complete with space travel and superpowers and alien races. But also: dystopias. Proper, thought-out Dystopias with a government that seems to be on your side but it really are not. A government whose tentacles seem inescapable and there is real danger out there. One does not simply fight the Confederation. There are always consequences.
Read this series if you like politics: read this for the politics of the Confederation and how it controls many places at the same time but also how it attempts to control the lives and minds of people. Read this for the unrest, for the realisation that there can be no complete stability when people are exploited and subjugated and controlled. Read this for the resistance – in all forms and shapes – and for the beginning of an awesome revolution.
Read this series if you like awesome, complex characters. I just can’t even begin to describe how awesome this group of characters is and how their arcs evolve and progress beautifully. How there is angst, and sacrifices, and choices to be made and conflict. These people are put through the wringer and no one is safe. This series do not pull punches and is at times, truly heartbreaking.
Read this series if you like superheroes: whose powers are often not a blessing but a curse, whose powers don’t magically solve their problems or the problems of the world. If you like people with powers and whose struggle to accept them, control them is a lifetime struggle. These people struggle to understand who they are with or without those powers.
Read this if you like serious conflict: internal and external. The frame of the series is how an extrahuman who can predict the future contacts our characters from the past to let them know what they need to do to make a better future for everybody. Read this if you think this is fucked-up and unfair and how are these people NOT pawns on an already set course they cannot (can’t they?) alter.
Read this if you like diversity in your stories: for there are people of many races and many sexual identities. In fact, one of the main characters is a transgender person.
The Spark is a patently mature work from this author. It is a rounded, polished work and and the ending, when it comes, is as bittersweet as it can be and a perfect fit to the overall feel of this series. It is an open ending, full of potential and hope – and I hope to gods that Susan Jane Bigelow goes back to this world one day and allow me to spend more time with these characters.
I simply cannot recommend this series enough. The Spark is a serious contender for a top 10 spot this year.(less)
**WARNING: This review contains slight, but unavoidable, spoilers for Ultraviolet. You do not have to have re...moreOriginally 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. (less)
Thousands of years ago, the people of the turtle made the desert their home and divided in...moreOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Thousands of years ago, the people of the turtle made the desert their home and divided into several clans. It was a difficult way of life and many people died in the harsh desert. Those souls of the first dead wandered around our world until they found the Dreaming, where they remained.
But the souls could not rest in peace in the Dreaming when they could see how their people suffered in the desert. And so it has come to pass that the souls of the dead ancestors, using the magic of the Dreaming, created the Gods – one for each clan. And now, every hundred years they send the Gods’ souls to walk around their people so they can help them survive.
But the souls of the Gods cannot inhabit just anybody – they must enter the bodies of a Vessel, a person who has connections to the Dreaming and to magic. Liyana is the current Vessel of her clan and has prepared her whole life to be the vessel of her Goddess. She loves her life and her family but she is prepared to sacrifice herself and to die so that her clan can live, especially now with the Great Draught. The day arrives for her Goddess to come and Liyana says goodbye to her family and to her clan, then dances the night away calling for the Goddess.
But her Goddess never comes. And although she has done every single thing right, although she has danced with a pure heart, her clan deems her unworthy and leave her behind. She is devastated and expects to die alone in the desert.
Until a God walks into her life – he is Korbyn, the trickster God, inhabiting his own vessel. He brings news that some of the Gods (including Lilyana’s) have been kidnapped. They say need to find their vessels and then go in search of the missing Gods and Goddesses.
In the meantime, the Emperor of the people-not-of-the-desert is also finding a way for his own people to survive the Great Draught – and will stop at nothing to make it happen.
Vessel is an absolutely brilliant book and I found very little to criticise. It reads a lot like an old-fashioned adventure Fantasy and it features a very thought-provoking premise. Everything works here – the lovely writing, the well developed world-building, the vivid desert setting and the characters. Lilyana, is an absolutely fabulous character: ever so practical, determined to do her best for her family (especially her little brother) even as she is trapped between wanting to live and knowing she must sacrifice herself.
In that sense, the most striking aspect of Vessel is how thought-provoking it turned out to be. This is a story full of questioning and the author incorporated this questioning really well into the narrative – in the way that the story is told, with the way the characters interact with each other and with their world.
The premise – the thing that these Vessels MUST believe, as they have been told all their lives is that 1) the desert clans cannot survive without the magic of their Gods and 2) the Vessel must die so that the clans can carry on living. But are those things even true? I thought fascinating how, as the story progresses and as Lilyana and the other Vessels interacted, different facets of these “truths” were disclosed. From different ways of thinking and different ways of living to how each clan is different and how they treat their Vessels differently.
The Vessels themselves are portrayed with variety: there are those who don’t question anything, those who are completely dedicated to their Gods, those who do not want to die or even care about their Gods. And of course, there are the Gods themselves – to some they are benevolent creatures, to others they are but leeches. Although the better developed God-character is Korbyn (and who doesn’t love a trickster God) , the other Gods and Goddess all embody different aspects and act accordingly – some love the people they come to save, some only care about enjoying a body once again. Do the Gods even need the bodies of the Vessel to work their magic? Is there even logic to all of that?
In addition, there are great discussions about tradition, faith, destiny and survival. The presence of the Emperor – a young, charismatic leader - brings a bit of politics to the proceedings: should all the peoples unite against a common enemy? Or should they fight for their independence no matter what? There is no easy solution to this question and as such none is presented here.
There is also an incredible amount of importance given to stories and storytelling within this world. Often Lilyana will tell traditional stories of her people which in turn, bring up other questions. How do you interact with the stories and the myths – are they supposed to be seen as truth? Are they supposed to be lessons? What do you take from those lessons?
On the down side, the Emperor is not as a fleshed-out character as he should have been. And the romantic development (as “right” as it turned out to be) between certain characters was perhaps too abrupt and underdeveloped. Those things said, they did not detract at all from the reading experience.
In summation: I really, really loved Vessel and think it is a superior, welcome addition to the YA Fantasy ranks.
I also love how the author succinctly, perfectly described the book:
“Vessel is a story about losing your destiny and what happens after.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Ana - Vessel is a beautiful, thought-provoking, brilliant gem of a novel that I loved from beginning to end. In fact, I think I'll come out and say it - it easily makes my shortlist of notable reads of 2012, and may even hit the top 10 list. Suffice it to say: I loved this book.
Ana has already talked about the awesome writing and questions that the novel poses, observations that I echo. I love that while Vessel is a fantasy novel about a girl whose destiny is thwarted and who finds her own way to help her people, it is also a parable about growing up. When Liyana is young, she - like everyone else in her clan - unwaveringly accepts her tribe's way of life, their beliefs and traditions. She does not want to die, necessarily, but she knows that by letting her goddess Bayla use her body as a vessel, she will be saving the lives of her clan, as countless vessels have done before her. When Bayla doesn't come as summoned, however, everything that Liyana has held as simple truth, everything she has been taught and told is challenged. And isn't that the way it always works? Gods or Goddesses aside, Liyana's eye-opening journey about the history of her people and the infallibility of her deities and elders is one with any reader can identify.
Another standout feature of Vessel are the characters themselves: protagonist Liyana, the big-hearted trickster god Korbyn, the other vessels Pia, Fennick, Raan, and the mysterious Emperor himself. Liyana, our heroine, is sorely tested throughout - abandoned by her clan (but given a chance at survival by her loving family), abandoned by her goddess, she must fend for herself in order to survive. Even when she is joined by the trickster god Korbyn (who was able to make it to his vessel safely), Liyana remains calm and in control, grounded in her own sense of self and always remembering that she is a vessel and that she must find her goddess Bayla. I love how her perceptions of both her world and herself change over the course of the novel, as Liyana clings stubbornly to her desire to live - and why shouldn't she? The other vessels are also given life and depth, from Fennick of the horse tribe and his brawny pigheadedness - but with a heart of gold beneath his bluster - to Pia, the beautiful blind songstress who is a haughty princess at first, but a true pure and perceptive soul. Of course, my favorite other characters are Korbyn, the beguiling trickster who comes to care for Liyana as more than just the vessel for his beloved Bayla, and Raan, the stubborn, questioning contrarian of the group. Raan is the only one that voices her defiance of being a vessel, who questions why she must die - which comes into play in the pivotal climax of the novel.
And the plotting! Vessel is an adventure novel, spanning the desert and another empire, even to a forbidden lake of magic and the creatures that guard it. The plotting and worldbuilding in this book are truly masterful, unique and utterly memorable.
Ultimately, Vessel reminds me of the great sweeping works of adventure fantasy that made me fall in love with the genre - and Vessel will be placed on my beloved books shelf, right in between my collection of Jacqueline Carey and Rachel Neumeier novels.
Ana: 8 - Excellent
Thea: I'll see Ana's 8 and raise it to a 9 - Damn Near Perfection(less)
I'm quite sure that, in twenty or thirty years' time, people will say about this morning, "I'll never forget where I was when I heard the news."
So begins The FitzOsbornes at War, with the news of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announcing that the country at long last is at war with Germany. Sophie FitzOsborne may be a princess, but she and the rest of her family have been in exile from their invaded homeland for two years. While the events at the end of The FitzOsbornes in Exile ended with a rousing declaration against the aggression of the Nazis, who had invaded and seized their homeland, finally England is at war. For Sophie, war is a frightening, unfathomable beast - and with her brother Toby (current King of Montmaray) and cousin Simon enlisted in the Royal Air Force, fear is an ever-present companion. At least for the first few months, nothing seems to be happening. Sophie and her cousin Veronica move to London and take up in a small flat adjacent to the grand Montmaray House, finding ways to help with the war effort - Veronica finds a position with the Foreign Affairs office, while Sophie takes a role in the Ministry of Food. When the fighting starts in earnest, food and everyday items are rationed, and bombs start falling on London, the grim reality of war sets in. And for Sophie, for her beloved family and dear friends, nothing will ever be the same.
A far cry from the engagements and parties of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, or the smaller daydreams of a girl staring out of her ruined castle on the rocky shores of A Brief History of Montmaray, The FitzOsbornes at War is a more somber, but ever more powerful book. It's an older book (Sophie is now in her twenties), but it also deals with the most grave subject matter - the crescendo of discordant war and fear to which the first two novels were building. Easily, this third and final novel is the best of the Montmaray books; the most heart-rending, the most resonant. And, as with the first two novels, The FitzOsbornes at War all hinges on voice. An epistolary series of entries, related in english to us but coded in kernetin, it is Sophie's voice that drives the Montmaray novels, and it is her voice that makes this final act so resonant and truthful. Unlike, say, Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity (which is also an epistolary novel of WWII, but far more extravagant, with characters that are spies and pilots in the thick of action and interrogation), Cooper's is a book that examines the sacrifices and horrors, the tedium and changes to everyday life endured by those in London during the Blitz and subsequent years. Through Sophie's journal entries, we see how she and Veronica prepare their flat for blackouts every night; we huddle with them as the bombs fall; we feel their keen edge of frustration and impotence as night after night they rush to the cellars to sleep, they queue for hours for a bar of soap. It's a completely different kind of story of war, a quieter one, but one that Cooper masterfully relates through Sophie's honest, engaging voice.
As a heroine, Sohpie has grown so much over the course of these three books. The childhood dreams of her journals as a sixteen year old on Montmaray feel like a whole lifetime apart from this new older, wiser protagonist. She still struggles with her feelings and relationships with her other family members, but she has grown into confidence and self-acceptance; her narrative spends less time worrying about luncheons and the schemes of Aunt Charlotte, and turns to other, deeper reflection - relationships and love, yes, but also the roles women play in the war, of her own sexuality, of her own beliefs and self-worth. It's not just Sophie that changes here, though. We also see a dramatically changed Toby - whose heartbreaking arc is a departure from the carefree charmer of the past - and a Veronica that comes to grips with her own emotions and attachments. Henry is a girl of sixteen, whose exuberance and rebellious nature remains unchecked, driving her to become expelled from school and to enlist, while Simon too becomes a much more serious and conflicted character as the war progresses. And, as this is a novel of war and struggle, not everyone makes it out alive. No one makes it out unscarred.
There are so many other characters, too - the Stanley-Rosses, the Kennedeys, and more play a vital role in this third novel. You may recognize some of the names - Billy Hartington and Kick Kennedy, for example - who actually were real figures. As with the first two books, The FitzOsbornes at War blends historical fact with fiction effortlessly. This novel, however, is far more extensive in breadth and depth of research; I'm in awe of how much research went into the writing of this book. (Don't believe it? There's an extensive author's note at the end of the book explaining which elements are fact and which are fictitious - it's a very, very long list.) Informative and thorough without being info-dumpy or preachy, accurate without being dry or boring, The FitzOsbornes at War touches on everything from wartime ration pamphlets to auxillary airforce responsibilities and stations.
What else can I say about The FitzOsbornes at War? I loved this book. I loved it because it tore out my heart as I anguished with Sophie and her dear family and friends. But I loved it more because it gently restored that same heart, injured, bruised, bleeding, but hopeful - hopeful for the future of the FitzOsbornes, for Montmaray, and for the war-battered world in the aftermath of so much horror and death. If there's one thing that The FitzOsbornes at War does, it gravely and truthfully shows that in war, there are no winners, no glorious shining victors. Everything changes for Sophie and her kin in this book, and through her frank, heartbreaking narrative, we observe the saga of a family struggling to survive in wars senseless, fickle path of destruction.
This is a cathartic conclusion to a brilliant trilogy; a tale of endurance and hope and bitter change. I dearly loved The FitzOsbornes at War, and will cherish it as one of my favorite reads in the years to come. One of my top 10 favorite novels of 2012, and a perfect, if heartbreaking, end to a truly amazing trilogy.
And I end this review with an earnest plea: if you haven't read the Montmaray books yet, please, please give Princess Sophia and her family a try. You will not regret the journey - though you may like me lose a piece of your heart to the FitzOsbornes along the way.(less)
Wowza, I don’t even know where to start with this review. There is so much that is so excellent...moreOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Wowza, I don’t even know where to start with this review. There is so much that is so excellent about A Face Like Glass, I hope I won’t miss anything of importance as there is so much to unpack.
A Face Like Glass is just like Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery: sophisticated without being pretentious or boring, thought-provoking and smart without being any less engaging, fast-paced and just plain fun. It features a strong (read: well-developed) female protagonist who has a superb character developing arc, as well as other equally well-developed female characters (be them allies or foes).
In the underground city of Caverna craftsmen create wondrous things to those who can afford like cheeses that can you make you see the stars and wines that allow you to forget your worst memories. To those who can’t enjoy these marvelous things – a sure sign of their status – all that is left is a life of drudgery. More than anything else though what separates the rich and poor is the faces they wear. For the people of Caverna, unlike those from the above-world, are born with blank faces and must learn how to make expressions – the richer the person, the more expressions they are able to learn and afford. These facial expressions are taught by Facesmiths who develop catalogues like the the very famous Tragedy Range (with face of utter sadness and despair).
Its own tagline is unbeatable in terms of summarizing the plot: “a stand-alone tale of deception, cheese-making, betrayal and strategic amnesia”. And that’s basically what happens in the book but against the backdrop of an incredibly thought-out Dystopian world. With a self-assuredness that we so rarely see these days in Dystopian YA, the world that Frances Hardinge created is a meritocracy of money and good relations which has degenerated completely into backstabbing aristocrats that vie for keeping their power. The lower class, the laborers that truly make Caverna work and run are thought to be happy with their lot and surely they do not need to be taught more faces because why would they need them. Thus, of course labourers are only taught a handful of faces to begin with, all of their repertoire part of a range of servile facial expressions. This of course, shows the artificiality of this society: the more faces you are to make, the more lies you can tell. On the other hand, if you don’t have a huge range of faces, how can you express your unhappiness if no one thinks you are even able to feel enought to warrant them?
Enter Neverfell. A young girl who was found living alone and with no memories in the tunnels of one Caverna’s Cheesemakers and became his apprentice. All her life Neverfell was told to wear a mask when in public and she has believed that she had a horrible, disfigured face. But to her utter surprise she finds out – after becoming involved in a Cheese-sale gone awry – that her face is not disfigured at all. What she finds out is worse: her face is capable of fluid, natural expressions that show exactly how she feels. Neverfell wears her thoughts and feelings on her face and that, in Caverna is the most dangerous thing of all. But there are people that definitely finds such a thing to be useful and that’s how Neverfell ends up becoming a pawn in a dangerous game of power.
The progression of this story follows Neverfell in a character arc that shows realistic, slow growth. For the first part of A Face Like Glass Neverfell is nothing but a pawn being moved from side to side and things happen to her. But as she starts to interact with people and learn about the true facade of life in Caverna, the more she grows, changes and becomes an active participant not only of her story but of everybody else’s in Caverna. Just like in this author’s previously mentioned books, her heroine is truly revolutionary. And the best thing about it? She is allowed to be and to remain different. And her growth and all the happiness and unhappiness that come with it show on her face. There is an amazing scene toward the ending that gave me goosebumps: when Neverfell finally learns the truth of how she ended in Caverna. That was dark, heartbreaking and utterly devastating.
A plot to overthrow the government, a thief with impossibly difficult targets, mapmakers capable of driving anyone who speaks to them to insanity over things like the twisted twistness of Caverna are also part of this fantastic story. It is a work of art, this book. It is beautifully written, it is clever and fun, it has social commentary both in obvious and subtle ways and a heroine who is totally awesome.
Frances Hardinge’s books are definitely on a class of their own. A Face Like Glass is simply superb and come December, you will most definitely see it on my top 10 of the year.
Everything that Ana said.
Unlike Ana, this is my first foray into the works of Frances Hardinge – but just like Ana’s experience with Fly by Night, I immediately fell head over heels in love with Hardinge’s work (and now I need to read ALL THE BOOKS from this fantastic author).
A Face Like Glass begins with whimsy, and, like a vein of deep blue green in the finest artisanal cheeses concocted by Master Grandible, this whimsy runs throughout the novel. Whimsy, with an undercurrent of the sinister and the dreadful. There’s something very Lewis Carroll-ian about this novel (complete with a white rabbit leading our heroine out of the cheesemaker’s home and into the strange world of Caverna), something similar in tone and skill to Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, something reminiscent of the darkness in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Like all of these truly spectacular, wonderful works of fiction for young readers, A Face Like Glass is written in unfalteringly whimsical style and tells a ridiculously imaginative story (free from cliches, message-making, or formulae). And like all of these works, beneath the charm there is something truly sinister and biting about A Face Like Glass – which we feel from the first time a character compares his granddaughter to a bottle of rare and powerful wine, as a tool to be used to protect the family.
In short, I loved A Face Like Glass. I loved it from the first, small human footprint left in a giant cheese, from the first mention of our heroine Neverfell and her great and terrible face that must be covered by a mask (though we aren’t told exactly why until much later in the book). I loved the world of Caverna, a subterranean empire where babies are born not knowing how to express emotions – these people must learn to craft “faces” and know when to adorn a face that matches the situation (and they will pay very, very well to learn such skill from facesmiths). In such a strange world, where every facial movement must be calculated and applied, the slightest misstep – sneezing, pointing accidentally with one’s pinky finger, looking into someone’s right or left eye, spilling a single drop of wine – means ostracism or death.
For young Neverfell, who is curious, guileless (because of her fluid face), and utterly different than those who have grown up in Caverna’s stilted – yes, even quite dystopian – society, these rules are incomprehensible and impossible to follow. So she gets into trouble. A whole lot of trouble. And she must figure out who she is, why she can’t remember her past, what her tenuous links to certain characters are, if she is ever to fully be herself and not just a little mad. Neverfell’s blend of naivete and steel (for there IS anger and frustration beneath her honest exterior) is fascinating, and, like Ana, I found myself amazed by not only Neverfell, but the other characters (particularly the female characters, like Zouelle and Madame Appeline).
Needless to say, I loved A Face Like Glass, and I’ve discovered a new fantastic, favorite author in Frances Hardinge. Absolutely recommended, and in the running for one of my top 10 books of the year, as well.(less)
Maeve, the fourth daughter of Lord Sean and Lady Aisling of Sevenwaters, has lived apart from her immediate f...moreOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Maeve, the fourth daughter of Lord Sean and Lady Aisling of Sevenwaters, has lived apart from her immediate family for ten years. As a child Maeve fell victim to a terrible fire, scarring her face and body and costing her the use of her hands. For ten years since, Maeve has lived with her Aunt Liadan and Uncle Bran in Britain - sent away by her parents at first in the hopes that Liadan would be able to find a salve or poultice that could help Maeve heal and regain some movement of her fingers and hands. As the years pass, however, and the reality of Maeve's condition sets in, she learns from her foster family how to be brave and strong in the face of adversity, how to accept herself, and live a happy, normal life. Maeve is resigned to never be married or run a household in the manner that a chieftan's wife would, and instead, she hones another skill - Maeve has a natural gift for communicating and soothing animals, and uses her skills to train horses in Bran's stables. As for Sevenwaters and her birth parents, Maeve has little desire to ever return home, where she believes she will certainly be seen as an embarrassment to her father, and a weight on the household to her mother.
All of that changes when Lord Sean writes a desperate missive to Bran - Sevenwaters faces a dire threat. The men and two sons of neighboring Chieftan Cruinn of Tirconnell have disappeared while riding through Sevenwaters woods, and despite Lord Sean's search efforts, the corpses of Cruinn's men are turning up one by one, murdered in cruel, unimaginable ways. Mac Dara, the cold king of the fair folk, is behind the Disappearances - his end goal, presumably, to lure his only son Cathal back to Sevenwaters, to force Cathal to succeed Mac Dara's reign of darkness and grief. Mac Dara's actions have a more immediate and sinister implication, however, as Sevenwaters faces threat of war from Cruinn and other clans that have fallen out of kinship with Lord Sean. In order to appease and soothe these tensions, Lord Sean implores Bran to send his finest, most prized stallion across the sea to Erin as a peace offering while Sean's men continue to search for Cruinn's sons. The journey from Britain is long and hard, though, and for Bran's prize horse - a skittish stallion named Swift - only Maeve can calm the beast enough to endure the journey.
Maeve's long overdue return to Sevenwaters is fraught hardship and heartbreak, as she must confront her past and face her family, but it bears the promise of hope and love, as well. Her homecoming is the key to stopping Mac Dara; together with her younger brother Finbar, and aided by two loyal hounds, Maeve must journey to the Otherworld and fulfill a long forgotten geas to protect those she loves from all harm and safeguard Sevenwaters' future.
The sixth in the Sevenwaters series, Flame of Sevenwaters is an Epic Book (note the capitalization). There's a sense of gravity throughout this novel, as the 'coming storm' feel of all the previous books - including the first trilogy, with the events of Child of the Prophecy - come to an inevitable, high-stakes showdown. It's terrifying and exhilarating, with all of the prophecies and geasa revealed, as older figures like Ciaran, and newer faces like Maeve and Finbar, desperately make one last play to safeguard the future of Sevenwaters.
And dear, sweet readers - I loved this book. With the force of an exploding, devastatingly enormous supernova, I loved this book.
Part of the reason for this love is Flame of Sevenwaters' heroine, Maeve, who narrates this tale. Like her sisters and her family that preceded her in the prior books, Maeve faces a daunting task that requires incredible courage and dedication. More than that, Maeve also faces physical and emotional challenges unlike any her sisters have ever confronted. Her scars and the lack of use of her hands has made Maeve approach daily life in a different way than Liadan or Clodagh, or even, arguably, Sorcha. Though she must rely on a maidservant to help her eat and perform tasks like washing and dressing, Maeve is defiant and refuses to indulge in self-pity. Instead of becoming a passive heroine, Maeve builds her ability to sense emotion and empathize with animals and humans alike. Her fear, similarly, is not that she will never been seen as beautiful or that she will never marry, nor does she necessarily fear stigmatization - instead, Maeve's greatest fear is being helpless. Her strength is deep-rooted in this belief in herself and her refusal to become an object of pity, making her at times a prickly and stubborn heroine, but one worth rooting for wholeheartedly. Believe me when I say that Maeve is tempted and tested in this book, but even if she has fears and doubts, she never loses sight of who she is and what things matter the most to her - that is, the safety of those she loves, be they dogs, horses, or her beloved younger brother Finbar.
Beyond Maeve, this sixth volume also reintroduces many familiar faces, while acquainting readers with new ones, too. Among the familiar there is Finbar, no longer a helpless babe, who has grown into a solemn young boy with an uncanny gift for seeing what is to come. The bond Maeve and Finbar form is tentative at first as they are complete strangers, but grows quickly - Maeve years to give Finbar cause to hope and smile and live a normal childhood, while Finbar takes heart from his sister's defiance and courage. There's also the reintroduction of Ciaran, who plays such an important and pivotal role in this last fight against Mac Dara. Liadan and Bran make an appearance, as do Cathal and Clodagh (all my favorite, most beloved characters in this universe - outside of Sorcha and Red, of course). As for new faces, Cruinn the grieving chieftan missing his sons is a powerful figure, as is the introduction of conflicted druid (and unlikely bodyguard to Finbar), Luachan. Besides Maeve, though, my favorite characters are beasts - the two wild hounds, Bear and Badger, that Maeve finds in the shadowy regions of the woods, and beautiful horse, Swift. All three creatures play vital roles in this novel and I will not say how or why - just that though the journey is heartbreaking, it is so worth it.
As always, Juliet Marillier's writing is spectacular and lush, though I will say that the plot of this final book takes a tad too long to get going - there is lots of introspection, of Maeve dealing with her return to Sevenwaters and trying to get away from the family keep. This isn't a bad thing as it helps solidify her character and motivations, but the bulk of the actual story takes a good while to start moving. This is a minor criticism in what is an otherwise flawless novel that actually diverts from the other Sevenwaters entries. I appreciate Marillier's different approach to the structure of the book - in which Maeve's narrative is interrupted with six smaller interstitials, detailing a druid's journey - just as I appreciate her creation of a heroine that is not hale and flawlessly beautiful. Nothing against Clodagh or Sibeal, who are wonderful heroines that are powerful in their own ways, Maeve is a different kind of beautiful, whose appeal has nothing to do with her outward appearance. I love that Maeve remains true to herself throughout the book, that there is no miracle cure for her scars or her hands, though there is hope and love aplenty for her future.
And then there's the journey Maeve undergoes itself! I don't want to reveal too much of the particulars of said journey, nor do I want to reveal details of the final showdown to unseat Mac Dara from power. Suffice it to say, the stakes are as high as they have ever been, and the journey every bit as perilous - if not moreso - than those taken by any of Maeve's predecessors.
In short (though it may be too late to call this review short), I adored this book and its singular heroine. Flame of Sevenwaters is every bit as heart-wrenching as Daughter of the Forest, and as powerful as Heir to Sevenwaters. Absolutely, wholeheartedly, enthusiastically recommended - and beyond a doubt, one of my top 10 books of 2012.(less)
From the moment that Seraphina was born and made her way, screaming, into the world, she immediately knew tha...moreOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
From the moment that Seraphina was born and made her way, screaming, into the world, she immediately knew that she was different. Able to recall her birth and time as a baby, Seraphina grows up to a precocious young girl, infuriatingly hidden away by her overprotective father. Of all her father's rules, one rankles most of all - Seraphina is forbidden from playing music. After she discovers her mother's flute and teaches herself to play it, with the goal of shaming her father into assenting to giving her music lessons, her father is enraged, and terrified. The exchange leads Seraphina to discover one of the most desperately hidden secrets and truths of her young life - and her life from that point onward will never be the same.
As a result of that earthshaking night, Seraphina is allowed her music if nothing else, and apprentices under Orma, a saarantas dragon in human form. As her skill grows, so too does her reputation, and soon Seraphina becomes the apprentice of the finest musician in the kingdom and tutor to the crown princess herself. Attention, however, for someone in Seraphina's position comes at a terrible risk, and soon she finds herself embroiled in the ever-increasing tensions between the dragons and humans of the Southlands. When a beloved monarch, Prince Rufus, is killed by means that look very much like a dragon attack, the truce between the two species is strained to its limits - unrest from anti-draconian factions and religious brotherhoods take to the streets, while the dragons themselves survey the fraying political situation with disdain.
At the heart of this powder keg, Seraphina struggles to calm tensions and encourage understanding. Working to uncover the truth of Prince Rufus' murder with Prince Lucian Kiggs, bastard heir and captain of the guard, Seraphina also struggles with her own abilities and heritage, which threaten to overcome her and reveal her deepest, most guarded secret.
It is very hard to write this review without spoiling anything, so I apologize if anything here is slightly misleading - it would be a shame to spoil any of the developments and turns the story takes along the way. What I can tell you, dear readers, is that Seraphina is a beautiful, majestic creature of a novel in style and in substance - so much so, that it is hard to believe that this wondrous book is Rachel Hartman's debut novel. Dragon fantasy novels are a dime a dozen (though perhaps not so much en vogue as they once were in earlier decades), but Hartman takes what could have been a very tired magical creature novel and weaves a complex world rife with inter-species tension and bigotry, a refreshingly unique and awesome sense of magical ability, and an ode to what it means to feel and be...well, not just human, but a sentient, respected living creature.
There's a richness to every facet of this book, from character to world, but there are two superb aspects of the book to which I must draw your attention, dear readers:
First, there is the amazingly nuanced and genuine relationship between human and dragon that underscores the main conflict of Seraphina. I love that dragons are not treated as majestic beautiful shiny creatures in this book - they are both familiar and alien, cooly logical, precise, and uncaring of human sentiment (or are they?). The idea of dragons that can shift into human form is not an unfamiliar premise, but the behavior of these dragons and their reverence of knowledge and attitude towards humans is decidedly unique and beautifully constructed. As Seraphina makes the comparison to Princess Glisselda early in the novel, to dragons, humans are not too different than cockroaches - reproducing quickly, stubborn to kill, scattering and multiplying. But more than just cockroaches, humans are interesting, and their ability to create art and their messy emotions are what fascinate and seal the peace between the two species. The tensions that follow this uneasy truce are wholly believable, and I love the careful, nuanced way that the story develops this storm and feeling of mistrust on both sides of the treaty.
The second outstanding aspect of the novel, and most important to me, is the character of Seraphina herself. People, I LOVE SERAPHINA SO MUCH. Struggling to conceal the secret that would mean her immediate doom, walking the fine line between the world of dragons and humans, Seraphina is an enterprising, wonderful heroine for whom you cannot help but feel and cheer. She tries to keep herself separate from others, but yearns so much to end the lonliness that has characterized her entire life - in particular, her relationship with the dragon Orma is a wondrously complicated construct. Her relationships with other characters are fantastically done, too, from the impish Princess Glisselda to the cuttingly intelligent Prince Kiggs.
And I haven't even touched on the richness of art, the melodic quality of the writing that sits so beautifully against the music that moves Seraphina so, the thread of creative joy that runs throughout the novel! Nor have I touched on the wonderful conceit of Seraphina's emergent memories, gifts from her mother, and latent abilities that need tending in the form of a magical garden (and what this translates to in the real world). But therein lie spoilers, and I promised not to spoil.
Suffice it to say, there are many, many beautiful things about this novel. I loved Seraphina from cover to cover, and I dearly hope that fantasy lovers everywhere take heed and read this remarkable, wonderful debut. Seraphina is another lock for my favorite books of 2012, and I emphatically recommend it to all. (less)
Listen closely. Do not draw attention to yourself. Once you have found a secure location, stay where you are...moreOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Listen closely. Do not draw attention to yourself. Once you have found a secure location, stay where you are and help will come soon.
This is not a test. Listen closely. This is not a test.
On the day that Sloane Price decides to kill herself, the world ends.
Wait. Let me start again, six months earlier --
One day, out of the blue, Sloane's 19 year old sister Lily runs away, leaving Sloane utterly on her own. In the months following, Sloane's life turns into a bleak, nightmare of fear and pain from which there is no escape. Sloane has, alone, absorbed the brunt of her abusive father's fury - and after six months, she has no more to give.
Now. Back to the beginning --
On the day that Sloane Price decides to kill herself, the world ends.
The dead come back to life, and Sloane finds herself banded together with a group of five other high school students. The six have made their painstaking way across their ravaged town and have only barely managed to reach Cortege High, taking refuge in the school's strategic location, its stores of water and food. Together, the group grapples with the loss of their families, they struggle to make peace with each other, and to survive the horror that lurks outside their makeshift barricades.
For Sloane, whose world had already ended with the loss - the abandonment - of her older sister, she struggles to find meaning in a world where life has already been sapped of any value or purpose.
Wow. I haven't read any of Courtney Summers' work before, but This is Not a Test is one hell of a place to start. With sparse, beautiful prose, and a deeply disturbing, resonant character in the narrator of Sloane, This is Not a Test is, beyond a doubt, one of my favorite books of 2012.
The best works of apocalyptic fiction (particularly of the zombie persuasion) force readers to confront the essence of human nature when pushed to the brink, or when facing unspeakable devastation. Summers' novel does exactly that, but through the lens of an already deeply hurt character who is so desperately grasping for meaning in a senseless world. Sloane's world just happens to have zombies in it. The bulk of the novel takes place within Cortege High School's barricaded walls and does play with many familiar zombie tropes - the need for supplies, for protection, the immediate distrust of outsiders, the common ways to become infected and kill those infected...you know the drill. Instead of being mundane, however, Summers' take on zombies focuses more on the human factor and the struggles within each of her core characters. It is through Sloane's words and her unique perspective of bone-chilling dissonance, that This is Not A Test surpasses the mere label of zombie novel, and becomes a truly, utterly powerful work.
Related through Sloane's brutal, cutting first-person narration, reading the book is a claustrophobic and harrowing experience. Sloane frequently slips away from the detail of the present to a more stream-of-consciousness type of internalization, always with the crushing weight of loss at the forefront of her mind. And that's really the key - loss. More than mere grief or fear, it is the palpable sense of loss that characterizes This is Not a Test. From the loss of loved ones, to the loss of civilized society, to the loss of any kind of tractable sense of life as it once was, this gaping, aching hole punched through a ruined world - due to the walking dead, or to a sister's abandonment - is the novel's defining theme.
From a character perspective, This is Not a Test also plays with some familiar tropes, but excels in terms of development, heart, and depth. Our motley crew comprises familiar figures in the zombie apocalypse space - the aggressive hotheaded dissenter, the coolly assured leader, the peacekeeping appeaser, and all the others that fall on one side or the other. Yet, while these broad strokes seem fairly stock, the characters in This Is Not a Test are not devoid of their own color. I love the tension between the angry, frustrated jock Trace and the calm, calculating leadership of Cary, just as I love the unconditional love and understanding between twins Grace and Trace (cute names, right). There's the sniveling nobody, Harrison, and the quietly observant Rhys who watches Sloane carefully. And then of course, there's Sloane herself, who remains distant from the group for as long as she can, absorbed in her own pain and resolved to end things once and for all.
Make no mistake, this is a stark, grim affair. Characters die, hearts are broken, dreams are crushed. But at the same time, a girl finds a reason to move on and live - and that is all kinds of awesome.
I loved this very beautifully oppressive, cloying nightmare of a book from start to finish. I will say it once again, so listen closely. This is Not a Test is, beyond a doubt, one of my favorite books of 2012.(less)
"The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea."
It’s funny how just the other day I was talking about writing craft, the combination o...more "The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea."
It’s funny how just the other day I was talking about writing craft, the combination of skill and care that is so important when putting together a story and how certain books unfortunately fail in every conceivable way.
It is possible that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the antithesis to every single terrible book I’ve read lately. In fact, Aristotle and Dante is the kind of book that gives me hope that the universe might be still be an ok place to live, that publishing is not only a heartless business but also a place where craft still survives and good stories live on. You just need to be able to find them.
And what a find Aristotle and Dante turned out to be.
It’s the story of two friends, Ari and Dante, who meet when they are fifteen, during a summer of utter boredom. Their friendship is a balancing act: sweet and tender, playful and serious, full of intellectual interactions and questioning about life, the universe and everything. It is a beautiful story of friendship – although their friendship does eventually develop into an AWESOME romantic relationship that comes from falling in love with a person you already love so much. I like just-friends story and they are so important but Ari and Dante’s friends-to-lovers story felt so right there is no resentment from this reader.
I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.”
The story is narrated by Ari and it’s his point of view that colours the narrative. Ari is a loner who likes to wallow in its loneliness and who is in a state of constant anger: at the secrets his family keeps from him, at his father for not being open and talkative. Dante is in a way, his opposite: quick to laugh and play, an artist and philosopher as well as a crier. Except as it turns out, they are not so different after all – and soon Ari learns to love poetry and philosophy and words whilst still being the same questioning, angry Ari (it takes him some time to learn that boys can cry too). The letting go of this anger (for a myriad of reasons) is one of the driving points of the novel and one that comes with a series of moments of self-discovery and life-discovery. It’s very interesting too the way that Ari’s narrative is somewhat unreliable although not on purpose because it is very clear that Ari represses his feelings and don’t tell us how he truly feels about certain things because he doesn’t know them either – but his actions speak more than a thousand words.
Aristotle and Dante is a smart, intelligent, engaging coming-of-age story and a deep, thoughtful exploration of identity and sexuality. It turns out that both Ari and Dante are gay although it takes Ari the whole book to come to terms with it, whereas Dante is much more conformable in his own skin when it comes to his sexual identity. But there are other sides of who they are that are also thoughtfully examined here: both are Mexican-Americans and both ask themselves what does that even mean.
“Maybe I’ll just mown lawns.” “That’s imaginative” “Too Mexican for you, mom?” “No. Just too unreliable.” “Flipping burgers. That’s reliable. Not very imaginative, but reliable. Come to think of it, it’s the perfect job for me. I’m reliable and imaginative.” She shook her head. “ Are you going to spend your life beating up on yourself?” “You’re right. Maybe I will take the summer off.” “You’re in high school, Ari. You’re not looking for a profession. You’re just looking for a way to earn some money. You’re in transition.” “In transition? What kind of a Mexican mother are you?” “I am an educated woman. That doesn’t un-Mexicanize me, Ari.” She sounded a little angry. I loved her anger and wished I had more of it. Her anger was different than mine or my father’s. Her anger didn’t paralize her.
Both Ari and Dante are on the threshold of adulthood and the book is sublimely competent in evidencing those moments when you are trying to define who you are as well as who you want to be and how teenagers feel the need to be treated like people. There is family history and influencing, social restrictions and expectations of what a man should be, violence and bigotry as well as love and acceptance and thematically speaking, this is a book that hits all the right spots. Every character is fantastically portrayed and I just loved how this is also a book about families, about relating to them and especially how finding out who you are does not stop when you become an adult, it is an ever evolving narrative of your own life. There is a lot of care given here to Ari and Dante’s parents as well.
All of that put forth in a way that blew my mind away. Here is where I go back to the issue of writing craft. Because this book? It’s beautifully, impeccably written. The writing is very straightforward, simple and concise. BUT never ever simplistic and one gets the feeling that every word is chosen very precisely, very carefully to create a profoundly affecting story with an intricate narrative. It is a book that trusts its readers too – no pandering here – and there are pages and pages of pure dialogue where the reader must fill the gaps.
This amazing writing skill is also present in terms of “voice”. The story follows the two boys for two years, and the narrative voice matures just as much as the two do – Ari and Dante start very young-sounding and immature then as the story progresses they both sound older.
I think the best thing I can say about the book is how I can see Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe as a book that can be picked for a lit class to be dissected for its craft and examined for its themes BUT only after the reader is able to recover from becoming a blubbering mess of FEELINGS and ensuing powerlessness to form coherent thoughts all because they identify so much with the story.
Aristotle and Dante discovered more than the secrets of the universe – they also discovered the secrets to my reading heart. (less)
1943, England and France. Maddie and her best friend Queenie (“Verity”) are a sensational team, a pair of unlikely best friends. One: an English commo...more1943, England and France. Maddie and her best friend Queenie (“Verity”) are a sensational team, a pair of unlikely best friends. One: an English commoner, a pilot for the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) with a passion for flying and a penchant for mechanics. Two: a Scottish aristocrat, a spy with a way with words, working with the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Both: doing their part for the British War Effort.
No. No, no, no. Wait a minute. I am doing this wrong. Let me start again.
It starts with a confession: “I AM A COWARD”. And it comes from a female spy captured by the Gestapo in France. Under torture, she caved in and spat out codes and airfields locations. She will do anything, anything to avoid being interrogated again by SS von Linden and this means coughing up everything she knows about the British War Effort. But her story starts with Maddie, the pilot who brought her here and in telling Maddie’ story – and eventually her own – she hopes to buy a few more weeks of life. Any life is better than no life even if she knows she will be killed in the end. She does it for clothes – of all things – and because she can’t cope. She is the worst of all people in time of war: a collaborator.
Her story mixes first person and third person narratives. The first comes with the immediate horror, the guilt, the fear, the trapped-in -a–cell-with-her-torturers-observing-her, no food, no sleep, her ankles tightly bound to the chair, an iron rail tied against her spine and the certainty that her best friend is dead and soon so will she be.
The latter is her best friend’s Maddie’s story and how she became a pilot with the ATA, how they met, how they became friends and everything about their friendship including who they met and how they became part of the War Effort which involve some of the secrets the Nazis are not supposed to know.
And so, the Scottish spy tells the truth.
If I were writing this review on paper it would be smeared all over because of my tears. I haven’t stopped crying since I finished reading this book a few hours ago.
This is an amazing story and it feels like it was written especially for me. It features so many of my favourite things: it is an epistolary novel and I love them. I also happen to love books with unreliable narrators and there is always a degree of unreliability when it comes to the narrator of an epistolary novel but a spy narrating a story under duress? That has got to be the most elemental of unreliable narrators and as such, how much of her confession is really the truth?
All of it? Parts of it? None of it?
When she describes her torture, her bruises, her broken heart, her fear and her guilt, I believe she is telling the truth with all my heart. I believe her and I understand her. I expect I would crumble under torture and no one can ever convince me that a person who caves in under torture is a spineless coward. On the other side of the spectrum, I don’t want her to be telling the truth either. Such a bright, effusive, clever young woman, hand-picked to be a spy? I want her to be brave – like the French girl next door to her who is tortured every single day and hasn’t said a word. Most of all, I just really want her to be cleverer than the horrible people interrogating her. But how much of that is an impossible expectation based on unfair standards? This is a great source of conflict and this book offers a great opportunity for an examination of bravery, cowardice and patriotism. How impacting is this line?
“The warmth and dignity of my flannel skirt and woolly jumper are worth far more to me now than patriotism or integrity.”
On top of this, this is also a book about writing (because Verity is in effect writing a novel when she is writing her confession), about the love for reading, about the Second World War, the roles women could play at the time and also: PERIL, SUSPENCE AND SPIES!! It is all SO CLEVER, it actually reminded me of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen Thief’s books. That is all I am going to say on the subject because saying more is to spoil the story and this to me, would be unforgivable.
Above all though, Code Name Verity is about its two main characters, two incredible women (I LOVE them. I.LOVE.THEM) and the friendship they had – they are indeed sensational and I wish I could tell you how or why but I can’t really tell you more about Verity without stealing her thunder. This too, would be unforgivable. It also features one of the best lines about friendship I have ever read, a line that is so simple and so spot on and so true when it came to these two characters, it made me start crying from that moment on:
“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”
Isn’t it just?
Granted that there was a degree of suspension of disbelief required: I mean, would the Gestapo be so patient with the manner that “Verity” has chosen to write her confession? At times, I also felt the language was perhaps too modern…Do I really care about those? No, I don’t. When a story is this good, the characters so vivid you wish they were real people, the writing so gripping you feel like your heart is being torn out of your chest? That’s the stuff that reminds me how wonderful reading can be.
Code Name Verity is a sensational book. Hands down my favourite read so far this year and already on my top 10 of 2012.
One last thing: I feel I need to pass on the kind advice I received before I started reading it. If you decide to read this book, keep a box of tissues at hand. There will be tears, and they will be sad ones. But it’s worth it, it is SO worth it. (less)