Occasionally I come across a book that’s not so much a story as it is an exploration of place and setting. Nick Lake’s In Darkness, a diachronic accou...moreOccasionally I come across a book that’s not so much a story as it is an exploration of place and setting. Nick Lake’s In Darkness, a diachronic account of Haiti taking place over the tumultuous post-earthquake present and its revolutionary past. Lake draws a number of parallels between the two, and there’s an omnipresent sense of fervour and chaos throughout.
We see the Haiti of the past through the eyes of the revolutionary Touissaint L’Ouverture as he leads a slave uprising, but also through the eyes of “Shorty”, a gang-member teen who lies pinned beneath the debris of a hospital in the aftermath of the 2012 Haiti earthquake. The two are connected through voodoo, with the spirit of the former re-emerging in the latter, whose buried, darkened state is reminiscent of that needed to create a zombie–a zombie, of course, is reborn from the darkness...
In my recent review of Chris Priestley’s Mister Creecher I mused on how humanity and physicality are inextricably tied: no matter how transcendant one...moreIn my recent review of Chris Priestley’s Mister Creecher I mused on how humanity and physicality are inextricably tied: no matter how transcendant one aims to be intellectually, ethically, and spiritually, one’s humanity will always be judged, at the outset at least, by how well one meets the physical criteria of humanness. The idea is nothing new, and it’s one that’s been explored throughout literature, with those who are deformed or physically disabled subject to being shunned or isolated. In particular, it’s an idea that’s looked at in postapocalyptic fiction, and to a lesser extent dystopian fiction. Curiously, these deformities are always the result, whether directly or indirectly, of scientific advances: in this genre, such advances either seem to result in genetic manipulation or all-out warfare.
HG Wells, for example, warns against “godless” scientific tinkerings in The Island of Doctor Moreau (review) and The Invisible Man (review), while John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (review) looks at a postapocalyptic society in which deformities across the entire natural world have become the norm. And there are countless novels, ranging from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale through to more recent works such Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien (review), where systemic female sterility is the result of our intellectual foibles. It’s impossible not to see a moral dimension in these: there are echoes of The Scarlet Letter in both the Atwood and the O’Brien, and the disturbing renegotiation of the perception of women in society is starkly confronting. Similarly, Wyndham’s characters see physical deformity as a moral aberration, not sheer genetic ill-luck, and Wells spends a good deal of time examining the breakdown of humanity in the subjects of his books.
Pure, the highly anticipated dystopian release from Julianna Baggott, incorporates all of the above, with an all-encompassing approach to the genre that blends not only postapocalyptic elements but dystopian ones as well. Baggott’s world is one devastated by the “detonations”, a series of blasts designed, it seems, to wipe clean the slate of humanity in order that we can begin once more anew. A select group of “pures” is isolated within the controlled environment of a dome, while those who do not meet these criteria are left behind to fend for themselves in the desolation that follows. The parallels to World War II are palpable, with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki looming large in the shadow of the “detonations”, and the eugenics approach taken by those in power all too evident. (There is a weird irony, though, that the “pures” are ghettoed in the dome, with the rest of the world ostensibly, although admittedly more in theory than in reality, unfettered around them.)
This sense of history repeating brings to mind Walter M Miller’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, which occurs some several hundred years after the “flame deluge”. In Miller’s classic, genetically ravaged “misborns”, also known as the “Pope’s Children”, roam the earth, and anti-intellectualism is rife, with science and learning demonised as having facilitated the nuclear holocaust. Miller’s narrative approach is cyclical, with humanity slowly rebuilding its technological prowess only to become seduced by its power once more, and there are echoes of the same happening in Pure. Not only do we see parallels between WWII and the detonations, but also the ceaseless efforts of the pures towards self-improvement. Where the wretches left behind seem, at least superficially, to be doing little more than surviving, those within the dome are constantly self-experimenting, undertaking trials to improve themselves physically and intellectually. There are echoes of Wyndham here, with the drive for perfection or purity being linked to moral superiority. And indeed, like the Wyndham there are consequences of imperfection: whole crops, for example, are destroyed if they reveal any sort of abnormality that diverges from mainstream perfection.
But the issue with the pures’ efforts to regain supremacy is that their efforts require involved artificial adaptation. They strive to recreate the agriculture and livestock of old, yet are doing so by forcing these approaches on to a landscape that is utterly changed. Moreover, their own artificial adaptations are conducted with a view to eventually being able to survive in the outside world once it is again inhabitable, but yet they’re doing so without engaging at all with this world. In contrast, it’s the wretches on the outside who are best adapted for survival. Curiously, they’ve undergone adaptation of their own (some vague thing to do with nanotech that’s resulted in their becoming “fused” to whatever organic or inorganic matter was close to them at the time of the detonations), and despite their physical deformities, are doing a surprisingly decent job of surviving in what is little more than a wasteland.
The idea of these fusings recalls of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, in which criminals are “remade” and made monstrous through terrifying amputations and Frankensteinian additions, and where there exists a group of “fReemade”, escaped “remade” criminals. In Pure, as can no doubt be extrapolated from the not-so-subtle title, these physical deviations are a political statement of sorts, and are given overwhelming emphasis–but to, in my opinion, the detriment of the plot. Astonishing amounts of page space are given over to describing the endless horrific ways in which humans can be melded with cars, children’s toys, glass, animals and even other people. So much, in fact, that this almost become the point of the book. And though there’s a hazy sense of politicisation surrounding it all, Baggott is so vague on the political context that it’s all rather meaningless.
This is unfortunately true throughout the book: there’s an odd sense of Pure being less a story and more a setting: it’s almost as though the author uses her pen to pan across the landscape rather than to allow the reader to engage with it. Perhaps, of course, that’s the point–after all, the pures look out, “benevolently, from afar”, from their domed world, but are otherwise utterly disengaged from the reality of it all. But as a reader, it does become tiresome. It takes some several hundred pages for the plot to truly kick into gear, and when it does things become increasingly shaky. Baggott uses the affordances of anti-intellectualism and revisionism to glaze over the social and political circumstances behind the detonations, but where this approach works in novels such as 1984 or Brave New World (review), where there are solidly rendered socio-political contexts and where propaganda is carefully used to manipulative effect, in Pure it simply feels like handwavium: the characters are rendered ignorant so that any concrete information need not be imparted to the reader. Baggott does seem to make her own attempt at the Two Minutes’ Hate in that there are constant repetitions and recurring motifs: protagonist Pressia’s deformed hand is mentioned more times than I can count, and the word fused is an endless refrain. The intention seems to be one of desensitisation through repetition, but the result is a book that feels painfully tautological. The narrative voice, unfortunately, strikes with the same dullness as the endless repetition of “doll-head fist” and “fusing”: dirge-like sentences, soulless descriptions of destruction and despair, and a general wallowing hopelessness.
This repetition is true of the characters as well. Though the book switches between four points of view, two of which in my opinion are extraneous, the voice is unchanging throughout, which seems strange given that two of the point of view characters are uneducated “wretches”, while the others are hyper-privileged dome dwellers. I also found it curious that the two key “wretch” characters were only deformed in a minor way. Though those around them are scarred or changed almost beyond recognition–and often beyond function–Pressia sports a “moon-shaped” scar around one eye and a doll-head fist, while Bradwell has been fused with a flock of birds, leaving his back aflutter with wings. There’s a slightly canted sense of beauty to their deformities, and I find it interesting that the author chose two relatively unaffected characters to contrast with the “pures”.
Perhaps Pure‘s biggest strength is that it draws so strongly on much of the superb dystopian and postapocalyptic fiction that precedes it, making it a useful summation of a lengthy reading list. But as a novel in its own right, I’m afraid I feel that it doesn’t offer much that’s new–and in a genre that’s so oversaturated as this one, a book needs more than a beautifully rendered setting to truly stand out.
In Michael Grant’s BZRK, there’s a war taking place. A war at both the macro and nano levels.
In my house, whenever a Michael Grant book arrives, a sim...moreIn Michael Grant’s BZRK, there’s a war taking place. A war at both the macro and nano levels.
In my house, whenever a Michael Grant book arrives, a similar war takes place. The battle to be the first to read it. Unfortunately, my fiance is larger than I am, and has rather a smaller to-read pile, so his supremacy in this area is unsurpassed.
For a book to appeal to my fiance, it has to be a prototypical boy book: so fast paced you’ll get papercuts from turning the pages, filled with gore and violence, and with all sorts of nerdy, techy things. Needless to say, BZRK rated highly with him (he came to bed at 2am the day the book arrived to tell me so. Thanks for that).
Suzanne Collins‘s The Hunger Games seemed to break out overnight like some sort of internet meme or infectious disease. Like the Lolcat phenomenon, th...moreSuzanne Collins‘s The Hunger Games seemed to break out overnight like some sort of internet meme or infectious disease. Like the Lolcat phenomenon, the first I heard of it was when it suddenly appeared on virtually all of the various blogs and twitter counts I follow. Now, I’ve never been an early adopter (case in point: the sequel to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, is already out, with the third in the series, Mockingjay soon to be released), so it took me a while to get around to reading this book.
I must say, my initial impressions were mixed. Despite the glowing cover blurbs from Stephen King and the Times, I did have to fight to get past the truly execrable cover design, which resembles an ’80s video arcade game home screen combined with a few random, seething pieces of clip art and an awful police sketch of the main character. A few more struggles were ahead of me as I forced myself through the opening pages, trying desperately to identify with a rather unlikeable main character with the bizarre name of Katniss Everdeen. Not to mention the fact that the book seemed to have several curious parallels with the Japanese novel Battle Royale (recently released in English through new publisher Haikusoru).
The blurb of The Hunger Games:
In the dark vision of the near future, a terrifying reality TV show is taking place. Twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live event called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed. The blurb of Battle Royale:
A class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill until only one survivor is left standing. (Admittedly, a wide array of books such as The Chocolate War and Lord of the Flies could easily fit in with this theme, too, but these two are so close in plot that I’m curious to get my hands on Battle Royale for comparison)
The Hunger Games takes quite some time to warm up and get going. We’re introduced to Katniss and her impoverished existence in The Seam, a down-and-out area of a place known as District 12, a coal-mining district where poverty and disease are widespread. The worldbuilding in these initial sections I found quite stilted and info-dumpy, with Collins trying desperately to situate the forthcoming conceit of the Hunger Games in a world that feels uncertain and rickety. The notion that the Hunger Games are some sort of government powerplay to defray potential uprisings from the citizens in the various districts seems unsubstantiated and unbelievable, and I found myself battling to suspend my disbelief at this very central tenet of the book.
Katniss is, of course, picked to participate in the Hunger Games, along with her vague schoolyard acquaintance Peeta, and the remainder of the first half the book concerns itself with Katniss’s transformation prior to her participation in the Hunger Games. This is where things could really have become interesting, as Katniss is transported to the main capital city, where things play out drastically differently from her District 12 home. However, we’re given only a superficial treatment and examination of the place in preference for a lot of fiffling about with beautiful costumes and delightful feasts (an approach which is described quite accurately by bloomberg.com as ‘“Gladiator” meets “Project Runway”’).
Soon enough, though, the starting gun for the Hunger Games is fired, and the reader is launched into the meat of the novel: the fight to the death of the 24 teenaged competitors from the different districts. This section is where Collins shines, and the vast majority of the battle between the different competitors is tautly and claustrophobically written. I did feel that the time scale of the games seemed a little stretched out, with days apparently passing between attacks on the different competitors, and that there was a sort of odd tension between passivity and aggression that didn’t quite gel with the way the characters were drawn. Moreover, the emphasis of Katniss’s relationship with Peeta, some sort of ostensibly romantic relationship apparently drummed up for the viewers of the Hunger Games, really didn’t work for me, particularly when the book reaches its climax, and the most potentially tense and morally ambiguous scene of the book is sidestepped in an excruciatingly frustrating manner that is only further aggravated throughout the extended denouement.
While The Hunger Games has some disturbingly tense moments, for the most part it feels desperately as though it is trying to justify its premise with the inclusion of ineffective and poorly wrought social commentary and allusions. I can’t help feel that if the book had simply avoided trying to contextualise itself in any sort of political or social sphere, and just allowed itself to be a silly battle to the death, it might well have been a more successful literary exercise.(less)
As a (hobbyist) tango dancer, I’m no stranger to the aches and pains that come with being on one’s feet in ridiculous heels all night, but having zipp...moreAs a (hobbyist) tango dancer, I’m no stranger to the aches and pains that come with being on one’s feet in ridiculous heels all night, but having zipped through Sophie Flack’s Bunheads, where hours of en pointe dancing on a daily basis is the norm for her protagonist, I’ll never whine about my bunions again.
I first happened across M.T. Anderson‘s work after hearing rave reviews of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which is a quite frankly marvello...moreI first happened across M.T. Anderson‘s work after hearing rave reviews of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which is a quite frankly marvellous young adult historical novel set in Colonial Boston during the time of the American Revolution. Listening to a podcast of Anderson’s erudite presentation at the State Library in Victoria, Australia further endeared his work to me, and I have since been on the lookout for the rest of his oeuvre. One book of which, I’m pleased to note, popped into my possession for the sum of a dollar. One can hardly complain. (Okay, the deal was 10 books for $10, so I have quite a bit of reading to report on in the coming weeks)
The book in question was Thirsty, Anderson’s debut novel, which appeared in 1997, almost a decade before the publication of the first of the two volumes of Octavian Nothing.
Thirsty is a teenage coming of age vampire novel, and superseded much of the urban fantasy and vampire stuff that’s filling the shelves today. This is a good thing, as even against the current context of all things fangy and sparkly, Thirsty still feels quite fresh in terms of its narrative and its approach to vampirism. The book itself has a bit of a dated feel, of course, and Anderson’s prose is nowhere near the level of his current work, but in general Thirsty is an interesting take on the vampire mythology.
The book is set in an alternate America where vampirism is commonplace, and accusations of vampirism and subsequent lynchings are eerily normal. Anderson opens Thirsty against the backdrop of one such show trial, and it’s quite creepy to watch the apparently morally upright crowd watch with bloodlust as a vampire is put to death. In fact, main character Chris munches on a takeaway snack from McDonald’s as the event goes down, and the contrast between his indifference and the violence of the scene is quite striking.
Anderson deliberately sets this up, of course, as it is here that we realise that something is not quite right with Chris, who has been plagued by an unusual hunger and physical discomfort over recent weeks. We find out soon enough that Chris is himself succumbing to vampirism, and it’s fascinating to watch Anderson’s treatment of his predicament. The focus here is not so much as Chris-as-vampire, but rather Chris-as-outsider, and the larger part of the novel, references to vampire overlords and shadowy henchmen aside, examines the way Chris deals with this new persona that has been thrust upon him by puberty. Chris struggles to maintain his relationships with his friends, given that his thoughts and interests lie elsewhere now, and as the narrative progresses, his alienation from them, and from his family, grows to a painful degree.
While there are some disappointing elements to this book–largely the vampire overlord subplot–the real beauty of Thirsty is in Anderson’s intriguing treatment of the standard coming of age drama through a lens of vampirism. The book is not entirely successful in what it sets out to achieve, but it’s a thoughtful and curious examination of alienation and loss.(less)
I’ll be the first to admit that the Percy Jackson novels are somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me. One can sum up this pleasure simply by linking it w...moreI’ll be the first to admit that the Percy Jackson novels are somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me. One can sum up this pleasure simply by linking it with the appropriate drink to have on hand when reading it: some books go well with a red wine, others with a rich port. Percy Jackson is best served with a glass of ultra-strong red cordial. In fact, one of the things that’s so great about these books is that they’re extremely up front about what you’re going to get. The usual formula for the first couple of pages is something along the lines of: Percy goes to a new school, and MONSTERS APPEAR! In fact, the MONSTERS APPEAR! theme pretty much sums up the Percy Jackson series as a whole. On the surface, these books shouldn’t work. Events happen at break-neck speed. A huge cast of characters comes and goes with alarming alacrity. Sound effects litter the pages. But whether you think that it’s because of, or in spite of, all of this, there’s no denying that the books are exceedingly good fun.
Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth is the fourth in the Percy Jackson series, and it brings with it a bit of emotional baggage from the previous few books, which are becoming slightly darker as Kronos’s off-stage forces are being mustered. Having seen MONSTERS APPEAR! at his new school, and having caused a bit of a ruckus as a result, Percy is whisked off to Camp-Half Blood, a place of relative safety. Or at least, a place that once boasted this status. Increasingly, its inalienable walls are being breached, a fact that the perspicacious Annabeth, Percy’s not-quite-girlfriend, attributes to Kronos and his forces having found their way into the Labyrinth, a vastly complex maze that exists beneath the world as we know it. The Labyrinth boasts myriad doors and gateways, one of which, Annabeth explains, happens to be on Camp Grounds. She fears that it’s only a matter of time until the traitorous Luke and the armies of Kronos invade the camp, and makes the point that they need to do what they can to impair the ability of these forces to navigate the Labyrinth. One way of doing so is to obtain a maguffin (ie, mystical item that serves little other purpose than to give the characters something to search for) known as Ariadne’s String, which apparently has the ability to show its owner the way through the maze. This string, it turns out, is somewhere in the depths of the maze, in the chambers of Daedalus, the original creator of the Labyrinth.
And with that, we’re off racing through the Labyrinth and all of its fiendishly complex twists and turns. There are monsters galore, including a hundred-handed cyclops, flesh-eating horses, and all sorts of unpleasant snakey things. Percy and his friends rely on their own ingenuity, deus ex machine galore, and, occasionally, the help of a mortal, to get them through the Labyrinth and to complete their quest. There are some fabulous parts in this book that will set readers guffawing (or tittering, if you’re not so much the guffawing type): an encounter with a sphinx who has traded problem-oriented riddles for high-stakes multiple choice tests due to the demands of external accountability is definitely a highlight. There are all manner of great nods to Greek mythology that will no doubt raise a grin here and there, too. In addition, it’s been interesting to watch Percy’s relationship with Annabeth develop, as well as his growing maturity in his relationship with his mother and new potential step-father.
However, while Riordan does tackle some complex themes in these books, they can be overwhelmed by the sheer pace of the action. When they are given some air-time, they contrast strongly with the rest of the narrative, and come across as a touch didactic—a scene where Percy discusses loyalty and filial love with Dionysus comes to mind, as does a brief rumination on environmentalism that occurs towards the end of the book. The break-neck pacing can also serve to diminish some of the more powerful scenes of the book, as there’s none of the “lull” before them that would serve to build tension. The final battle scene in the book, for example, should be far more gut-wrenching and powerful than it is, but unfortunately struggles to stand out against the countless other fight scenes that have come before it. Character and setting suffer a little bit, too, although Riordan does a good job in painting a picture using as few brush strokes as possible. Two areas where I felt this didn’t necessarily translate well were the Labyrinth itself, which never felt as vast and complex as it should, and the scene where Percy comes across Kronos, which plays out in a simple and almost caricatured manner. I admit to, from time to time, become a bit lost (pardon the pun) as to the actual reason that they were down in the Labyrinth, as there were several quests happening simultaneously, and all of which seemed rather interchangeable.
But in a book such as this, these gripes are minor. None of these things are what Riordan is setting out to do. Riordan’s readers are invested in a rollicking adventure story full of heroic and immensely likeable characters, and this is what Riordan does astonishingly well. It’s impossible not to cheer for Percy and his friends as they find themselves in all sorts of arcane situations, and hey, a little bit of cleverly reworked Greek mythos on the side doesn’t hurt, either.(less)
Last Chance Texaco is a solid read that’s both sympathetic and eye-opening, and that moves along at a pace that will have readers turning the pages. I...moreLast Chance Texaco is a solid read that’s both sympathetic and eye-opening, and that moves along at a pace that will have readers turning the pages. I found it an interesting complement to two similarly themed books I’ve read recently: The Language of Flowers and Zelah Green.
Languid, dark and poetic, The Wish House is unlike any young adult novel I’ve read recently. In fact, with its rich language and dark undercurrents it exhibits a similar aesthetic to Helen Dunmore’s Talking to the Dead. Even the setting is similar: a blazing hot summer, so hot that the world seems to fade and feather a little, and a ramshackle manor beneath the roof of which all sorts of amoral curiosities appear to be playing out.
But unlike Talking to the Dead, Rees’ novel is a coming of age story, that of Richard’s summer-time encounters with the bohemian Dalton family, and in particular with Clio, the daughter of brooding, eccentric artist JA Dalton. It’s the early 1970s, and the divide between the Dalton family and Richard’s own couldn’t be greater–with his crossing the line between the two, of course, signalling his entry into adulthood. The Daltons are a local curiosity of sorts, with their rambling manor-house, their drug-taking and their free-love stance; in contrast, Richard’s family is almost crushingly pedestrian, all fishing trips and trashy novels read around a formica table.
When Richard steps into the Daltons’ world, he’s transported, and there’s a sense of his entering, in some way, a sort of fantasy realm. The dreamlike prose and disconnected tone of the narrator’s voice almost make it feel as though Richard is on some faerie path as he meets with the nymph-like Clio in the woods, is tempted by Clio’s witchy step-mother, and poses for the strange and reclusive Dalton. So entranced is Richard that he’s almost unable to believe it when others speak unfavourably of their own interactions with the Daltons. Richard sees them in a way as his, and it’s in his gradual acceptance that this isn’t the case–and perhaps that he shouldn’t be wishing that this is the case–that we begin to see his character growth.
The Wish House is a dark story, and there’s a sense of dread and dissonance that runs through its pages; in a way it reminded me of the work of Margo Lanagan, who’s noted for her eerie, suggestive writing. There’s something terribly disturbing about the dynamics of the Daltons, and there’s more than a hint of incest and perhaps other unspoken abuses here. We get a hint of this when Clio and Richard begin to play a game of make-believe in the woods, and while Richard is growing too old for such things Clio, who is usually sexually aggressive and jaded in her worldliness seems to be utterly delighted by the innocence of the childhood game:
“Clio had never played like this before and she took a deep delight in it. She had been to lots of places and had lived in a series of different communities, but she seemed to have spent most of her time with adults…It seemed that he was living in a much younger time, rediscovering lost childhood delights…”
A large part of the creepy sense of the book is provided by the framing device, which is that of an art show Richard is attending some six years after this particular summer with the Daltons. We learn that the artist JA Dalton is now dead (it’s on page 5, so no spoiler complaints, please), and the tension between Richard and Clio hints that something has gone terribly wrong. This is further explored not just in the summer-time narrative, but in the series of catalogue descriptions that are spliced between the chapters, each detailing a piece of work by Clio or her father, and providing a grim counterpoint to the dreaminess of the rest of the narration.
Unfortunately, for all its beauty and depth, I did feel that the book suffered from a couple of flaws, the first being the bland character of Richard, who is really largely a lens for the fascinating, conflicted Daltons–and in particular the women in the family. The second is the ending, which I felt was somewhat of an anticlimax in both its relative prosaicness and its inevitability. Given the sheer looming sense of evil throughout the book, the revelation about Dalton and his relationship with his family (sorry, I’m being deliberately vague here) feels almost reined in, as though forcing it to keep in line with YA sensibilities. But in all, this is a challenging, memorable read full of complex, contradictory characters, and it will certainly remain with me.(less)
“Travis,” says his mother as Travis pours beer into plastic cups for the two of them. Leaning forward, keeping her voice low, as though they’re doing something naughty, she adds, “you’re not twenty-one.”
Travis may not be twenty-one, but as he points out, he’s a veteran of a foreign war. Having just returned from Afghanistan, and suffering PTSD after witnessing the death of his best friend and fellow Marine, Travis is in a strange, in-between place. Travis might have thought that he would be returning to some sort of comfortable, familiar stasis, but what he really finds is a limbo-like purgatory where everything’s changed around him–and he, unwittingly, with it. His mother has been struggling with his absence and her fears for his safety, while his father has been seeking his affections elsewhere. His brother has taken up with his ex-girlfriend in his latest effort to take away whatever Travis prizes. It’s trivial enough stuff compared with life in a war zone, but Travis is a different person now, and things are starting to affect him in surprising ways: at times he’s quick to anger, at others he’s emotionally disconnected, and others again he’s craving numbness.
But sitting in the waiting room of a counselling clinic for military personnel, Travis looks over at the other veterans–all of them far older, far more traumatised, and feels as though he is seeking help under fraudulent pretences. He’s too young, too healthy, he tells himself. This despite the fact that he’s struggling to sleep through the night, that he finds himself reacting to loud noises and flashes, and that he’s seeing visions of his dead best friend. But it’s not something that he mentions, not even to his fellow leave-takers, all of whom seem to be enjoying living it up on home soil. But the sense of camaraderie and coping is smothered with an ersatz veneer. One is drinking too much, speeding, thrill-chasing: “It’s like real life isn’t big enough for him any more,” reflects another, who for his own part is spending his days desperately chasing proof of his own masculinity. There’s a masculine code her that’s enforced from both within the military and from those looking on from without–a sort mentality of boys will be boys–as they should be.
Travis’s own emotional health is certainly questionable as well. In addition to the more salient symptoms listed above, Travis seems to be acting with more aggressiveness and thoughtlessness than he might have before being shipped out. There’s a rebelliousness to his behaviour that speaks of asking to be tested, and his tolerance for unfairness seems to have lessened. He lashes out at his brother and father in a manner that seems surprising to them: this sort of behaviour is clearly not the Travis of old. And yet, in hurting others, he also seems to strive to hurt himself. By sleeping with his ex-girlfriend (his brother’s current girlfriend), he’s hurting everyone involved–including himself. “No, I don’t love you,” Paige says at one point, “But it would have been nice if you’d loved me.”
It’s interesting that Travis’s return seems to herald a change in his attitude towards women, as well. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that it’s largely the women who offer support to soldiers on the ground–providing care packages and writing letters and so on–but also because the women in his life are more emotionally available. For example, though Travis’s relationship with his mother seems distant at the beginning of the book, he becomes her champion by its end, motivated in part by the endless support she has shown him, and by his father’s snide reaction to her efforts, which in addition to hurting Travis’s mother are also an affront to Travis. Travis’s budding relationship with Harper also demonstrates a gradual transformation of his attitudes: Travis, years ago, began a rumour about Harper that has since shattered her confidence, but is finally beginning to admit to his wrongdoing and see Harper as a person.
This brings me to what I felt was probably the weakest aspect of the book: the romantic relationship. Although I did appreciate that the relationship between Harper and Travis began in a tentative, nervous manner rather than lightning bolts and the sudden desire to jump each other, I just didn’t quite buy the romance: or at least, I don’t quite buy it from Harper’s perspective. Perhaps it’s that the book is written entirely from Travis’s point of view, so it’s difficult to get much more than a glimpse of Harper, but I couldn’t quite imagine that there was much more to the relationship than a close friendship. I didn’t understand why Harper would be willing to spend time with Travis given that he is single-handedly responsible for ruining her reputation (and while we’re on that topic, I kind of loathe the idea of a female character being so smeared by a malicious rumour about her virginity that no one wants to have anything to do with her, while the male characters are free to go and do whatever they want). I also didn’t buy her forgiving Travis for his shenanigans with Paige, particularly given that she is entirely new to the relationship world and has already been slighted by Travis in the past–although I do appreciate the open ending here, which I felt was realistic. Still, given the brevity of the book, I couldn’t help but feel that a strong friendship would have worked better here than a romantic relationship.
The book’s brevity also means that some of the many other plot threads get curtailed and go unresolved, which is a shame. The relationship between Travis and his brother and father doesn’t quite get the page space it needs to feel real, and Travis’s brother and father as a result aren’t fleshed out as well as characters such as Travis’s mother, and even his dead friend’s mother, both of whom feel surprisingly well-rounded. The awkward relationship with Harper and her father was another thing that was touched on momentarily, but was never truly examined. I couldn’t help but feel that the book either needed to be narrower in scope so that these weaker threads were excised altogether, or broader, so that they could be given the space they deserved.
Something Like Normal is a quick yet thoughtful read that provides commentary not so much on PTSD and the war experience as the blurbs I’ve seen might suggest, but rather on the identity limbo experienced by young recruits whose personal identities are still being established as they’re first shipped out, and on the complexities surrounding the public’s perception of military personnel. Though I do feel that it would have benefited from some further fleshing out of the supporting characters, it’s a solid debut. (less)
Echo Emerson’s days of being part of the cool group are over. Sure, she might have been the girl who topped every class, won awards for her art, and who filled in her afternoons with all sorts of upbeat extra-curricular stuff, but things have changed. Now she spends her days making as little impact as possible on the world. She hides her scarred arms beneath sloppy, long-sleeved jumpers, avoids eye contact with her peers, and quietly slinks off for hours or mandated counselling.
The rumours abound, but no one’s quite sure what happened to transform Echo from a friendly, bubbly teen into the ghost she’s become. Even Echo doesn’t know, because her memories of the night that completely changed her life are hidden somewhere deep within. All she knows is that her mother had something to do with it. And she and her counsellor are determined to reach back in time to stitch back together Echo’s lost memories.
But Echo doesn’t plan on falling for the troubled Noah, a foster care boy who’s struggling with a past of his own, and who’s doing his best to repress it with whatever numbing influences he can find. When the two are assigned as study partners, with Echo given the task of getting Noah’s grades back up to scratch, the chemistry between the two is impossible to ignore, though neither wants to admit it. Echo’s in no state to be thinking about a relationship, after all, and Noah’s nothing but bad news. But as the two grow closer, they realise that they’re not as different as they seem, and that perhaps they do, after all, inhabit similar worlds. The obvious comparison for Pushing the Limits is Simone Elkeles’ Perfect Chemistry, and I’ll admit that I found myself frequently making comparisons between the two as I read. Both are told from dual perspectives and feature a privileged female slumming it with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, but who despite his tough exterior in reality has a heart of gold. And both take the relationships between their main characters into directions that make me slightly uncomfortable. In Perfect Chemistry I disliked the fact that the relationship essentially stemmed from a bet between the hero and his best mate; in Pushing the Limits I disliked the fact that Noah seemed to compete for Echo, going so far as to get into a punch-up with her (admittedly jerky) ex, and the constant reiteration of her being “his”, and belonging to him. Though Noah apparently loves her to the point of getting down on one knee (yes, really), he seems often to treat her more like a beautiful object rather than a person.
Echo, who is clearly emotionally damaged and has serious trust issues, struggles with choice and agency, and invariably capitulates to authority. Her constant refrain for the first half of the book is “yes, Daddy”, as she avoids any sort of confrontation with her overbearing and overprotective feather. It’s hard to believe then, that Echo truly falls for Noah: it’s very often tempting to see their relationship as one into which Noah, who is very often aggressive and authoritative, has drawn her. This is particularly the case given that Echo also agrees, though she loathes the idea, to date her ex, Luke, persisting through several dates with him even though he demonstrates no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. Echo comments at one point that Luke behaves around her like a dog marking its territory, but yet, Noah does exactly the same thing with his constant claiming and possessiveness. On the flip side of the coin, Noah frequently calls Echo his siren, raising the suggestion that he’s being drawn into something against his will. Is this relationship more about the irresistible lure of chemistry than it is any actual desire to get to know and love someone?
In addition to the problematic nature of the romance plot, I often found it difficult to understand why Echo makes the decisions that she does, and in part I think this is because of the fact that there’s so much going on in this book that she’s being pulled in all manner of directions as the various subplots require. Although Perfect Chemistry certainly had its fair share of drama, from memory it was largely kept to the key romance narrative. Pushing the Limits, on the other hand, attempts to fit in an immense amount of material, but in doing so confuses and dilutes our understanding of Echo and her gradual overcoming of her past. Echo is not only attempting to remember the night where she was so horribly injured, but she’s also attempting to deal with her grief at her brother’s death, with her father’s pressure over her future career, her stepmother and erstwhile babysitter’s pregnancy, her awful ex, and being bullied at school. And there’s a similar amount of complexity on Noah’s side, making for what feels like a good deal of drama, and a fairly slow middle.
So many of the other characters act in ways that are strange and surprising, too, and it’s hard to fathom the motivation behind their behaviour. Why does Echo’s father push Echo’s relationship with Luke–and to such a degree that he’s essentially encouraging the two to spend the night together–despite being frightfully conservative, not to mention surely aware of Echo’s dislike for the boy? Does Grace really care so much about Echo’s injuries that she’s ready to ditch a friend over it? And why does Noah break in to the school at the end of the book? And, while I’m asking the tough questions, why does he comment so frequently on Echo’s hair smelling like cinnamon?
Though Echo did grow on me, it did take me a good while to connect with her, and I think in part this was because of the drama that as constantly being sent her way. The book bordered on melodrama at times, and I felt that this detracted from the realism that the author seemed to otherwise be striving for. For example, the circumstances behind Echo’s injuries were given enormous emphasis, with all sorts of flash-backs and nightmares and angst, but were eventually revealed to be fairly anticlimactic. When what happened is revealed, it’s fairly promptly cast aside in a way that doesn’t, to me at least, feel satisfactory given that this event is what has apparently defined Echo for so long. I also found the depiction of Echo’s mother’s mental illness a little disappointing, particularly since it was effectively the reason for Echo severing her relationship with her mother. I also found the resolution of Noah’s problems a little abrupt: throughout the book Noah’s key goal is to claim guardianship of his brothers, but this thread is eventually wrapped up with a single conversation, which I didn’t feel was enough to do this complex issue justice. Finally, I just didn’t quite feel the progression of the relationship between Noah and Echo. Though I was on board with their falling in love and their passionate affair after that, the very adult, serious turn that the relationship took seemed a little much for a YA, even if it is a YA romance. I know that Harlequin is all about the happily-ever-after ending, but I felt that this one was a little overt for a book geared at teens, and the more of these books I read, the more concerned I am about “first love” being consistently portrayed as a “forever” love.
Although I did have my reservations about the relationship between Noah and Echo, I suspect that many of my problems of this book could have been done away with with some streamlining of the book’s middle in favour of a more measured approach to the conclusion. This isn’t a bad read by any means, and I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy it–I did. I think that many of my complaints are due to my being old and grumpy and averse to relationships that emphasise possessiveness as something desirable.(less)
When my mobile phone was nicked from my bag on the Buenos Aires subway, I was completely oblivious. But now, thinking about it, it’s quite clear who the culprit was: Katarina Bishop, art thief extraordinaire and heroine of Ally Carter’s Heist Society novels. (Why would an art thief still my phone, you ask? Clearly you’ve never seen the brilliance of my Retro Camera pics.) Since successfully robbing the Henley Museum, Kat’s found herself addicted to the high that comes with pulling off a major heist.
But Kat’s not your regular art thief: she’s the Robin Hood (in tights, yes, but the cool kind of tights) of the art world (NB, Kat, I am of the poor, not the rich, so do return my phone when you’re done with it). Kat’s line of work involves pinching priceless works of art from galleries or private collections and returning them to their rightful owner. But when it comes to art, ownership isn’t always clear cut (ever heard of, say, the Greek marbles?). Sometimes people may claim ownership for reasons that may seem valid to them, but might not stand up to further investigation, for example.
And sometimes people flat-out lie.
This is the situation in which Kat finds herself when, tasked with stealing the priceless Cleopatra emerald and returning it to its rightful owner, she finds out that said owner might just be taking her for a ride. Needless to say, Kat wants that emerald back so that she can put things to rights once more. But what do you do when your newest enemy not only knows all of the oldest art thief tricks in the book, but practically invented them?
While I’ve enjoyed Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls books, the Heist Society series is by far the superior of the two, and hits the heights I’ve been hoping the Gallagher books would reach. The plotting is smart and character-driven, with Kat and her team actively moving things forward rather than simply finding themselves in situations from which they must detangle themselves. The plot also progresses in a way that makes sense, with the characters responding logically to events, something I’ve found lacking in Carter’s previous books. The characters are neatly differentiated, and although they’re archetypes all the way, they’re deliberately, self-consciously so: Carter is writing a larger than life series here, not nose-in-the-air literature. And while Kat struggles with the same identity issues as Cammie of the Gallagher Girls books (wanting to rebel against what is really a rebellious life to begin with) this is depicted less through exposition and more through her interactions with others.
I did find, however, that there were sections in Uncommon Criminals that could have been excised: these were largely those involving secondary characters, or where Kat and her buddies were planning their next heist. As much as I enjoy reading about luxury yachts, I’m not sure that there’s a place for them in a book about filched emeralds, for example. In an effort to render Kat’s world more believable, too, the author hints at wider social/familial networks, but this is sadly ineffective, resulting in a list of names that aren’t attached to anyone in particular and highlighting certain characters/actions that feel as though they should carry some weight in the plot, but don’t.
Still, in all, Uncommon Criminals is an immensely fun read, and I can see excellent things to come in this witty series. Just so long as Kat stops stealing my stuff, of course…(less)
Though Daisy Appleby is surely the world record holder for Most Times Deceased and Revived...moreThis review originally appeared at Read in a Single Sitting.
Though Daisy Appleby is surely the world record holder for Most Times Deceased and Revived, she’s not going to end up in the Guinness Book of World Records anytime soon. Why? Because Daisy wasn’t brought back by something as mundane as CPR or a defibrillator machine. She was brought back by a top-secret drug that’s still in its preliminary testing stages. The kind of drug that has the possibility to utterly change not just the finality of death, but the way people live their lives. After all, if you knew that you could be brought back to life with not even the merest of side-effects, wouldn’t you do things differently?
But though Daisy may be a little blithe when it comes to things like bringing her Epipen to school or balancing precariously atop a section of cliff-top railing, for the most part Daisy wants nothing more than to be normal. Being a part of a top-secret testing regimen means that each time something happens that may compromise the anonymity of the project, Daisy and her “parents”, two programme operatives, have to move elsewhere, assuming new identities each time. It’s a life that could be likened to being a part of a military family, or perhaps someone in a witness protection programme.
Having been revived from her fifth death and accordingly shunted off to a new home in Omaha, Daisy is determined to live a normal life not overshadowed by thoughts of death or the rigorous testing required by the programme. For the first time in her life, Daisy begins to reach out to others, and she finds herself not only with a best friend with whom she has everything in common, but with a maybe-boyfriend as well. But when it turns out that Daisy’s new best friend is suffering from terminal cancer, she finds herself facing a tremendous ethical battle. How is it fair that Daisy has access to the Revive drug whenever it’s needed, and yet others such as her best friend are not able to access it at all? And why are such trials being undertaken clandestinely, out of the view of the public? What does this mean for the future of the drug and the public’s ability to access it should they need it? Or is death something that is universal unless one has the money and means to make a choice otherwise?
Revived is beautifully and movingly written, and Patrick’s strong characterisation allows her to explore not only these questions, but also related themes, such as the cultural taboo of death and sickness–Audrey, for example, is shunned by her peers, while Daisy, who appears physically healthy, is accepted by them–and the human response to the loss of a loved one–something that Daisy has not before experienced first-hand, but rather has (at times selfishly) been the cause of.
But yet, despite a strong set-up, Revived doesn’t quite hang together. There are parts where things seem to happen too easily: those Daisy tells about the Revived program are immediately receptive to the idea, rather than treating it with a degree of scepticism, for example. And the ease with which she is able to access top-secret programme files doesn’t feel realistic. I also found the pacing in the latter half of the book an issue: the book seems to shift gear half-way through, changing from a quiet, almost literary pace to one a good deal faster, with a sudden dash to Texas culminating in an action film-esque ending that involves a sniper and a scene involving a bees’ nest that, given how the book opens, is just far too neat to be believable.
Still, these issues aside, Patrick has a knack for coming up with intelligent high-concept ideas, and the writing chops to make something of them. I suspect that with a few more novels under her belt she’ll be very good indeed.(less)
About a year after my husband and I started dating, his father suggested a family outing to help to get to know each other better. Being in the proper sycophant mode that the early stages of a relationship require, I readily agreed. Of course, by now I know to thoroughly question any suggestion of my father-in-law’s, and even then I had a slight inkling of a warning bell, which I, unfortunately, ignored.
As it turned out, the family outing involved spending the night in the local cemetery. As every well-adjusted family is wont to do. My father-in-law, you see, is a strict buddhist with a slight sense of the cuckoo, and rather liked the idea of getting close to his spiritual side by, well, getting close to some spirits. And so, off we went, sleeping bags and pillows and thermoses of green tea in tow, to sleep in a rotunda in the centre of the cemetery. All went generally well (perhaps thanks to the chanting and circle walking of my father-in-law) with two exceptions. The first was that in the middle of the night we were woken by the police, who were highly dubious about our getting in some shut-eye at the cemetery.
And the second was the many, many floating white orbs that dotted the photos my father-in-law took that night.
Let’s just say that it’s fortunate that unlike Cas Lowood, the ghost-busting protagonist of Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood, we weren’t there to cast any spookies back to the spirit realm. A couple of buddhists (the Chang family) and a pacifist (me) probably aren’t who you want to bank on when it comes to getting your Buffy on. Trust me when I say that you’re better off placing your bets on Cas, for whom ghost slaying is a family vocation that goes way back.
That’s not to say that cleansing the world of things that go bump in the night is necessarily easy. You see, Cas’s dad was brutally killed one night in the line of duty. Killed, and then eaten, with great big chunks torn out of him. So it’s all up to Cas now, and it’s a duty he takes seriously, fielding reports of ghostly activity, moving in to take out his target, and then moving on to the next one.
But Cas has just received word of a mean ghost. A horrific ghost. A ghost who tears its victims from limb to limb, splits them in two, gouges their hearts out. A ghost who leaves its victims piling up in the basement. A ghost who was once Anna Karlov, but who is now Anna Dressed in Blood, and who Cas might, just might, be falling in love with.
This, as you might imagine, is never a good thing. Particularly given that Anna has just eviscerated one of the kids from Cas’s new school, and seems quite intent on gutting and drawing anyone else who crosses her path. Particularly since there have been other deaths reported in the area recently; other deaths that may have been at the hands of Anna. What’s a boy to do when the girl he’s crushing on has a very questionable, very homicidal way of showing her affection?
But although Anna Dressed in Blood starts out all jeepers creepers and gore galore, its Gothic, moody vibe seems to ebb away as the story progresses, and the horror promised by the set up never actually eventuates. As suggested by the very large quote by Cassandra Clare on the cover (“spellbinding and romantic”), the book is MR James diluted with a good dose of Twilight, and it’s the romantic element, tenuous that it is, that results in the book being less suspenseful than might be hoped. It’s a book that I expected to be vicious and cruel and witty and elegant, but rather it’s a bit more like a mid-season episode of Buffy. And not the singing episode, either.
Anna-of-the-grisly-name may be initially presented as an all-out terror who has the capacity to quickly end Cas’s ghost-hunting career, but we quite promptly learn that she has no ability to harm him, or even an interest in doing so. This, as you might imagine, rather reduces the tension of the narrative. The apparently fearsome nature of Anna is further diminished as we learn more about her and as she switches between different forms, but rather than this endearing her to me, to be honest I felt a little disappointed by the gradual unravelling of her character. It’s rather like if Samson went out to hunt Goliath, only to find that this fearsome warrior of legend was quite content sitting inside his home and reading the newspaper. “Sorry, Samson, lad. I’ve retired so that I can spend more time on my vegetable garden. Jolly good that you called by, though, eh?”
Because of this positioning of Anna and Cas, the way that the plot eventually unfolds feels a little by the numbers, and the second half of the book didn’t hold my interest as much as the first. The Anna situation is effectively put away two-thirds through the book, resulting in a good deal of page extent that had still to be filled.
I couldn’t help but feel that I was reading a series set-up more than a self-contained novel, and that this book was designed to bring the various key characters together, familiarise us with Cas’s back story, and introduce the real baddie for the series. As noted above, the plot involving Anna is almost side-stepped in order to deal with this element, something which, though probably the eeriest part of the book, was resolved surprisingly quickly and with relative ease.
Perhaps the weakest element of the book is the characters themselves, and the fact that they seem so devoid of emotion. I found it difficult to believe the way in which Cas’s school friends and his mother reacted to the various ghostly shenanigans and, oh, you know, the brutal murders of their friends, and I think it’s partly this that caused the book the lack the suspense I was expecting to feel. When characters react to such terrible things in an emotionally uninvested manner, it’s hard to believe that there’s much at stake, or much to fear. I know that teenagers are famously apathetic, but I did feel that a more significant and ongoing reaction was warranted here.
The characters are similarly removed in their other interactions, and it’s hard not to see them as forced–the would-be romantic tension between Cas and Anna as well as that between two of Cas’s new friends just feels more like a plot machination, and there’s something that just rings false about it. I do wonder, however, whether this might be partly due to the fact that the book is told from Cas’s perspective, and Cas, who has just a wee bit of a superiority complex happening, is perhaps not the most perceptive when it comes to other people’s emotions.
Though Anna Dressed in Blood lacks the horror and tension needed to fulfil the promise of its opening, and its characters are underwhelming, it buzzes along at a solid pace, and there’s enough here in the way of witchcraft and voodoo and ghosties to keep one’s interest. Despite my reservations about the underwhelming plot and characters, I’m interested to see where Blake takes the next in the series. As a Cemetery Slumber Party survivor, I’m pretty sure I can hack it.(less)
Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series has become big news of late, what with the release of the tie-in film and the reissuing of the books with some add...moreRick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series has become big news of late, what with the release of the tie-in film and the reissuing of the books with some added bling to their covers. My goodness, that YA section has more sparkle going on than a certain love-struck vampire—but I digress.
Sea of Monsters is the second in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, which, as might be expected, follows the misadventures (in addition to the occasional adventure) of young Perseus Jackson, a young demi-god who owes his existence to a naughty dalliance between Greek god Poseidon and a rather homely mortal woman. The gods, it seems, are still alive and well—which perhaps is unsurprising given that they are indeed immortal—and much like the times of old, they still quite enjoy stirring up things on the mortal plane. And, despite his best efforts, Percy seems to find himself in the middle of things.
After a relatively uneventful school year with nary an expulsion to his name, Percy is looking forward to spending the summer at Camp Half-Blood, a rather ugly-named place for the various and numerous offspring of the gods to be themselves and spend time doing godly things such as building chariots and telling campfire stories. Unfortunately, Percy’s last day at school doesn’t quite go as blissfully as planned, and he finds himself an unwitting participant in a rather gory game of dodgeball that results in the immolation of his school. Yes, Percy is on the run again. Fortunately, the timely appearance of demi-goddess Annabeth means that Percy and his misfit friend Tyson, whom he has taken under his wing, are able to duck off to Camp Half-Blood relatively unharmed.
However, things are scarcely better at camp than they are back at school. There has been a substantial rearrangement of the powers that be, and the protective tree serving to keep dangerous forces out of the camp’s bounds is dying a slow death from poison. Things only get stranger from here: Percy is aghast to find out that kind but dopey Tyson is actually a long-lost half-brother, and he’s even more perturbed when he starts having dreams about his satyr friend Grover, who is being pressed into some unwanted nuptials with a rather unattractive cyclops who holds captive not only Grove, but also the famed Golden Fleece of Jason fame. Yes, it’s time for a mission to recover both Grover and the Golden Fleece in order to restore life to the dying protective tree.
I’m fully aware how crazy and breathless this all sounds. And initially, the pacing of the novel does take a little time to become accustomed to. You need to boast a pretty high level of fitness to read this book without panting (never have I been more thankful for my nightly jog). But Riordan makes it work, and Percy Jackson is a hilarious and exhilarating read. The book is bursting with witty dialogue and clever asides relating to Greek mythology and history, and the way Riordan transposes the Greek pantheon into a modern day context is original and refreshing. A fun and zany read.(less)
My husband’s best friend is currently training to be a paramedic, and any conversations I’ve had with him of late have revolved around the idea that really, we’re just lumps of flesh and bone. There’s a matter-of-factness that comes with working in the medical field, something that forces people to distill down our humanity into an organic system, a framework of guts. After all, when your job involves scraping someone off a country road or performing CPR on someone who’s been out far too long, it’s easier to create that distance. Why wouldn’t you?
But sometimes those systems don’t work as expected. My mother, for example, who was pronounced dead after falling into the Murray River as a child.
And Delaney* Maxwell, protagonist of Megan Miranda’s Fracture, who was dead for more than eleven minutes before being revived. And who, upon waking from a coma, finds that she’s not quite the same person she was. Delaney, although exhibiting completely normal responses to everyday stimuli, has developed a new sense that the doctors don’t know to test for: a hyperawareness of death, which she experiences as an itch, a tug in her brain.
Though Delaney attempts to return to normal life, focusing on completing her final year of high school and becoming embroiled in the various love triangles and stoushes with best friends that are par for the course, she can’t shake the effect of this new sense. Death, after all, is everywhere, and Delaney finds herself surrounded by people whom she knows are close to death, but whom she can’t help. This, of course, makes her reflect constantly on her own mortality: who is she to have been able to cheat death, and for what reason? Should she step in and try to change things, or should she simply stand back and allow fate to take its course? The question becomes even more pressing when it seems that someone may indeed be attempting to interfere with the lives of these sickly people–a self-appointed angel of death who asserts that he is merely hastening the inevitable.
Fracture‘s premise is an intriguing one, and I was immediately taken in by Miranda’s elegant writing and by the fact that the book takes a largely scientific approach to the near-death experience rather than a paranormal one. Unfortunately, the book is often uneven in places, spending too much time focusing on odd and unresolved side-plots, such as Delaney’s mother’s difficult relationship with her parents, and an awkward love triangle that never quite works. Delaney is also an uncomfortably passive character, sullen and unlikeable, and it’s not always a pleasurable task to trudge through the myriad scenes in which she responds only internally or actively avoids communicating her feelings rather than actually doing anything to change her circumstances. She’s so easily led about that I wonder whether Miranda is making an allusion to zombie-ism, or whether Delany’s character is designed as a stand-in for the idea of abject fatalism and its consequences. Other elements feel too tidy, such as the way in which Delaney is befriended by a stranger who has been through a similar experience to her own, and the last few scenes provide a conclusion that’s so jarringly neat in its circularity that it’s difficult to accept.
I admit that when I started Fracture it was only days after having read Revived (see my review), which looks at similar issues. However, though both novels have their flaws, they make for fascinating side-by-side reads, and are highly complementary. Revived focuses on the ethics of both bringing the dead back to life, but also of bringing only a select group of certain individuals back to life; Fracture, on the other hand, in a way looks at euthanasia and end-of-life care. Curiously, both explore the ideas of whether death should be something placed in the hands of institutions or individuals; both also look at the role of “fate” in death and the notion of whether all lives are of equal worth. If you’re going to read one or the other of these, I do recommend reading them together as companion volumes. Try Passage by Connie Willis while you’re at it, too.
*Incidentally, I do think using the names “Delaney”, “Decker”, “Carson” and “Janna” all in one book might have been a little over the top. Isn’t everyone in America called Jennifer?(less)
In the few months before my little sister started primary school, she had a new best friend: Cookie. Cookie trumped her other friends with ease, in large part because Cookie was imaginary. Imaginary friends, of course, are subject to the creative boundaries of their imaginers, and are also bolstered by their imaginers’ sense of what a friend should be. Needless to say, Cookie was essentially flawless.
Cookie also disappeared not long after my sister started primary school. She was discarded in favour of real friendships, which my sister promptly discovered that, although full of arguments about who sits where and who has the best lunchbox, are far more fulfilling than a passive intellectual creation.
That imaginary friends are typically fleeting is something about which Budo, the eponymous narrator of Matthew Green’s Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, is all too aware. Budo has reached the ripe old age of five, which is quite a significant milestone given the typically butterfly-like lifespan of most of his kind, and indeed in that time he’s seen many imagined creations fade away before him. It’s an unusual application of the longevity trope, and is made all the more interesting by the fact that although Budo is long-lived compared with others of his kind, he is human enough that he compares himself not with other imaginary friends, but with people. He’s a sort of imaginary Pinocchio: self-aware enough that he knows what he’s missing out on.
But Budo’s continued existence is contingent on the fact that his imaginer, Max continues to believe in him. Should Max stop doing so, then Budo will fade away. But, of course, part of growing up involves sloughing off the need for an imaginary friend as company or, in the case of Budo, as someone to help solve one’s problems. Budo’s desire for longevity, then, requires that Max never grows up, something for which Budo guiltily finds himself hoping. Budo’s ambivalence is understandable: he’s not only a creation of the (presumably) autistic Max, but an extension of him, much like some of the other imaginary friends in the book. Although Max is an intelligent boy, his ability to express himself or engage with others is severely deficient, and it’s Budo who demonstrates proficiency in these areas. In contrast, although Budo is lingustically and emotionally capable, he is unable to physically interact with others in the world around him, much as Max is emotionally unable to do so.
It’s a fascinating set-up, but things start to turn pear-shaped when we move away from the mundane day-to-day events of ordinary life and suddenly find ourselves embroiled in a thriller. Budo, although certainly articulate for a five-year-old imaginary spectre, is too much of an innocent to be able to describe the resulting story with the gravity and eloquence that’s required, and the effect is something that feels occasionally naff, but worse, often little more than a series of events with no underlying motivation or reason. The motivation behind what happens to Max is never convincingly explicated, for example, and the entire escapade for this reason doesn’t quite ring true; neither does the ending, which is discordantly coincidental.
There are other scenes that feel superfluous to the plot, such as the shooting in the gas station, and those that act as flimsy excuses for the plot not moving in a particular way. Indeed, in one scene, Budo realises that he could easily put a stop to the mess he finds himself in simply by asking another imaginary friend to talk to their imaginer, but instead designs a hugely circumspect solution to the problem that’s a little baffling in its complexity and which seems to push the boundaries of the internal consistency of this novel. Not to mention bloating out the page extent by a good hundred pages or so.
Still, awkward plotting and painfully expositional narrative aside–Budo has no qualms in repeating himself–the premise of this one is certainly enough to pique one’s interest, and will have readers reflecting on their own childhood selves. The final few pages mark growth in both Max and Budo, and although inexorable, provide satisfying closure to the question that’s hung over the novel since its opening sentence. Fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time will likely enjoy this.(less)
British author Catherine Forde has put together a stark and uncomfortable novel with Skarrs, but it’s a narrative that drags you in, and you’ll find y...moreBritish author Catherine Forde has put together a stark and uncomfortable novel with Skarrs, but it’s a narrative that drags you in, and you’ll find yourself abjectly fascinated by its painful catalogue of characters and their stilted interactions.
Danny has his hair shorn down to a number one on the day of Grampa Dan’s funeral, an act that hints at the troubled mind that we are to become horribly familiar with throughout the book. Grampa Dan was a war veteran, having been captured and held as a POW in Japan, and it’s difficult not to link the then and the now. In fact, this is exactly what Forde sets out to do. The narrative follows Danny’s delinquent behaviour, tracing the poisonous events and relationships that gradually lead to his downfall, and contrasts it with a recorded narrative of Grampa Dan’s experiences at the hands of the Japanese. Both narratives coil around each other, spiralling ever downwards into despair and desolation, with Grampa Dan’s dark points contrasted with those of Danny. It is an interesting juxtaposition: Grampa Dan’s small efforts of rebellion, such as keeping a visual record of his suffering, contrasts significantly with Danny’s own self-destructive rebellion, and highlights the fact that, unlike Grampa Dan, he has a degree of agency, but is unwilling to take any responsibility for his actions, instead allowing himself to become swept up in a maelstrom of horrors at the insistence of his friend Jakey.
Danny has fallen in with, to use a cliché, a bad crowd since moving schools. His once strong friendship with Richard has dwindled over the years, and has suffered even more with vehement and jealous Jakey on the scene. As it turns out, Richard is one of the few remaining links that Danny has with Grampa Dan, whose absence becomes more real to him as he struggles to deal with the desperate and dangerous circumstances in which he finds himself. Danny relies on his art, a skill inherited from his grandfather, and his obsession with white-power band Skarrs to deal with the difficulties facing him. Forde positions the two as the conflicting light-and-dark elements in his life, and as Danny’s self-awareness grows, and with it his sense of empathy and compassion, he turns away from one and towards the other.
Danny and Grampa Dan’s stories are intertwined throughout the book, with both reaching a dark point together. However, while Skarrs is gritty and at times painful, it is not a novel of hopelessness, and when Grampa Dan’s time in Japan finally comes to an end, we know that Danny, too, is heading towards some degree of salvation.
Skarrs is an idiosyncratic book, and there are elements with which some readers might struggle, such as the heavily vernacular voice used for Danny. In addition, there are some plot points that are too neat and “just in the nick of time” that detract from the otherwise harsh reality of the novel; likewise, the character development sometimes feels a little forced, being shoehorned in to make a certain point at an appropriate time. It reminds me somewhat of Anne Provoost’s Falling, a novel dealing with fascism in Belgium, in terms of its thematic approach and its characters; both employ main characters who are frustratingly easily led by charismatic individuals, but fight to redeem themselves. Overall Skarrs is a moving and thoughtful book, and most readers, teens and adults alike, will likely take something from it.(less)
My husband Jono and I have pretty divergent reading tastes: his section of the bookshelf is largely business books and non-fiction, whereas mine's largely fiction with the odd piece of narrative non-fiction thrown in. But there is some overlap in our reading habits, and zingy fiction that treads the line between MG and YA definitely comprises a large part of that meeting of our Venn reading subsets.
If you've been following my Twitter feed at all, you'll probably know by now that Jono's a big fan of Ally Carter's books, and that he's ploughed through both the Gallagher Girls series and the Heist Society books with the kind of fiendish concentration that only a computer programmer can manage.
Since he's such a fan, the crew at Hachette Australia and I thought that it might be fun to get his thoughts on Carter's latest, Perfect Scoundrels...and some fun photos while we were at it.
Steph: There aren’t many books that manage to capture your attention enough that you don’t end up putting them aside or skimming through to the end, but Carter seems to be a pretty reliable go-to for you. What is it about her books that keeps you reading rather than reaching for your phone or laptop?
Jono: I prefer the Heist Society series to the Gallagher Girls, mostly because I find the story of how the main character, Katarina Bishop, unlocks the puzzle of each heist quite interesting. That coupled with lots of action and a fast moving plot should keep me reading early into the morning.
Steph: A fast moving plot is definitely a must-have item for you, although I'm a bit the opposite: I find that I get narrative whiplash when things move too quickly for me to keep up with. In Perfect Scoundrels I found myself flicking back to refresh my memory about who was who. Was this an issue for you?
Jono: Nope. Though, Perfect Scoundrels probably expected you to already be familiar with a few characters that were introduced in previous books.
Steph: All right, then, smarty-pants. What about the ending of this one? Although I enjoyed the first three-quarters of the book, I couldn't shake the niggling feeling that everything wrapped up a little bit too quickly and conveniently, with essential characters just popping up out of nowhere to help Kat and her crew resolve things. What did you think about this?
Jono: It did end too quickly. The author just wrapped it up so suddenly. It was like the editor said, “hey, quick, you need to get this book submitted!” The pace exponentially increased until it fell off a cliff. I also didn't like how the way that the return to the Henley was dealt with. I just felt like in the first book in the series it was so hard to get into the Henley, but in this book they managed to get in straight away. It sort of damaged the whole "puzzle" nature of the books. I much prefer the books when they're about nutting out the puzzles and trying to come up with something really creative and unexpected. This time around it felt like this real smoosh between Gallagher Girls and Heist Society.
Steph: A smoosh?
Jono: It is smoosh. It's not even a mix. It's a smoosh.
Steph: Okay. On a similar note, I found that the book suffered from an odd expositional quirk. Every chapter either starts with a truism about Kat and her life, or with a sort of cinematic scene-setting that gives us an overview of a scene and then zooming in to give us a closer look. This sort of thing works in a serial novel or a film, but I found it out-of-place and cumbersome in a book--particularly when it was used at the beginning of every chapter. It kept me distanced as a reader and meant that it took me a while to settle in to each chapter. Did you have any issues with the writing at all?
Jono: The writing didn’t really bother me too much. I’ve always been more of a plot person. If it bores me, I’ll just skip it, so I don’t really notice it.
Steph: How about the romance side of things? I know that you were frustrated over the romantic arc in the Gallagher Girls books, but you seem to be much more on-board with the relationship arc in this series, even though in this one we begin to see the romance element become more prominent.
Jono: In Gallagher Girls I found being exposed to the thoughts of an early teenage girl on her crush a little too icky for my liking. The romantic elements of the book were given a lighter touch than in the Gallagher Girls series so it didn't bother me too much at all. The thing with Gallagher Girls is that you get in the head of this teenage girl who's having these crushes, and it's just too much. In this series the romance is sort of there, but only because they're angry with each other. The romance is there to add tension rather than just being sappy. There aren't a lot of sappy moments, and I'm not continually in Kat's head hearing her act like a teenage girl.
Steph: I couldn’t help but feel that Perfect Scoundrels suffered from “scope creep”. I feel that the series is at its best when it’s focused on heists and double-crossings, whereas here we end up in a sort of Austin Powers quasi-parody territory with the introduction of a device that essentially has the power to change the world. I couldn’t suspend disbelief with this plot element, and given that each book in the series seems to be ramping up the stakes, I’m a bit nervous about where the next in the series is going to go. What were your thoughts on this?
Jono: I enjoy the puzzle-nature of the books, and Perfect Scoundrels doesn't have the raw puzzle solving nature as the earlier two books. I didn't really think of it as scope creep; really, the Austin Powers-esque plot reminded me a lot of Gallagher Girls. It seemed as if the author was blending together the Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series, so it's no surprise that at the end of the book is a novella that blends the two worlds together.
Steph: You have mixed feeling about the Gallagher Girls books, so what do you think about the fact that the novella blends the two worlds? Is this something you want to see more of in the future?
Jono: It depends where the author takes it. Probably some people will prefer one series to the other depending on whether they prefer action or getting into the heads of the characters, so it will depend on which one gets more emphasis. Personally, I read for these clever plots and I enjoy seeing an author subvert your expectations. When you're in your twenties or thirties you've read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies, so I like seeing how authors can make something new out of an action story and surprise the reader.
Steph: Well, as a thirty-year-old guy you're not exactly her target reader...and yet you're a huge fan. Do you think that Carter has cross-gender appeal? If not, what's the key to getting guys to read her books?
Jono: The Gallagher Girls books seem targeted at teenage girls, whereas Heist Society appears to be targeted at a wider audience. Strong female characters have strong cross-gender appeal, and provided there's a strong, fast moving plot with action, guys like me would love to read it. The Gallagher Girls books have a lot of action, but there's so much other stuff that I can't relate to--the girls talk about crushes and things that I'm not that interested in. Whereas the Heist Society books have a lot of action, and don't spend too much time in the character's head. Books need to get to the point and keep things moving, and I think that the Heist Society books do that.
Steph: So you'll keep reading to see where Carter takes both series?
Jono: I'm interested in seeing where Carter takes the Gallagher Girls-Heist Society hybrid thing, particularly if she can incorporate the Heist Society puzzle-type thing into a new book. I don't want the novella to just be a side story: you have people who are invested in two different worlds already, and you've gone to all the effort of blending together the worlds, so I want to see what happens with that set-up. There is a danger of having her characters all feel really similar--am I going to be able to distinguish between the different characters in the different worlds? It'll be really interesting to see how she set it up.
Having got myself into the odd twitter battle over annoying coinages such as “intrepreneur” and “staycation”, I have to say that a book with the title Adorkable didn’t quite endear itself to me right away. Indeed, I spent a good bit of time warily circling it lest it throw a series of other horrendous neologisms my way.
And, well, it certainly did, but the fact that said neologisms were hidden between myriad slang terms such as “totes”, “whatevs” and “ridic”, while ameliorating their shudder-inducing influence a bit, didn’t exactly help in dialling back that wariness. Having just come from Shirley Marr’s delightful Preloved, where I wallowed quite delightedly in all sorts of 80s and 90s references and embraced my mid-twenty-something-ness, let’s just say that within a few pages of Adorkable I was feeling, like, totes ancient. For an oldie like me, Adorkable is sort of like watching a Japanese game show with Finnish commentary: you’ve got no idea what’s what but, still, you’re oddly drawn to it.
Adorkable is a sort of tale of two kiddies for whom it’s the best of times and the worst of times: there’s mega-angsty Jeane Smith, who has more twitter followers than Aston Kutcher, is able to spout catch phrases from the Guardian Opinion columns, is a pro at circular knitting, and who laughs in the face of a diabetic coma by subsisting solely on Haribo lollies. I swear she was in most of my first year uni classes, by the way. And then there’s Michael Lee, who’d be your typical all-American overachiever except for the fact that he’s British and half-Chinese, which makes him both not very American and an underachiever in his parents’ eyes. (Huge props for having an Asian love interest.) Jeane’s rather vocal about being the poster girl of I’m-so-like-different-from-you! while Michael’s desperately trying to find the centremost point of the middle of the road.
The two couldn’t be more different: indeed, each represents everything the other has spent their life railing against, and is mildly appalled by. If their wardrobes mated, their offspring would be something akin to Oscar the Grouch with a GAP logo; if their iTunes playlists did the same, I’d imagine it would end up being something sounding as ear-gougingly awful as Bartok. However, aesthetic, philosophical and social differences aside, each is suffering that oh-so-familiar identity crisis known as growing up, and there’s plenty of the bad and awkward to go along with the good.
The bad and the awkward comprise the first hundred or so pages of the book, and our hero and heroine largely interact through angsty glances, squabbles over mainstream hoodies vs orange tights imported from Sweden, and discussions of the uprising of the teenage proletariat (ie, Jeane).
But then, thanks to some cheating partners and the uniting force of Twitter where love blossoms over @ replies, Jeane and Michael totally get it on. And on. And on. (And then off). Just so long as no one else is aware what’s going on, it’s all good, right? After all, Jeane’s a sexually empowered lass who’s quite happy to rub crotches (NB: if you think that’s crude, you’re probably going to tsk tsk a bit at this book) with a chap and then go about her business of taking over the world via social media. And Michael, well, he doesn’t really do emotions, but, hey, sex! But, of course, in our modern day 1984 (which admittedly is a little more Truman Showian than Orwellian), it’s tough to keep these sorts of shenanigans a secret…
Even as a ye olde timer, I wanted to love Adorkable. There are elements of it that are very, very clever, and it’s so brash and bold with regards to sex and relationships that it’s hard not to give it some r.e.s.p.e.c.t, or whatever it is that the kids these days do. (Hand claps? A West Side sign? An animated .gif?) Manning gets how shufflingly awful teenage relationships can be, and how they’re as much about revulsion and confusion and the desire to be in a relationship, damnit!, as they are about any sort of attraction. Her depiction of sex and the intimacy that may or may not accompany it is refreshing: there are no sparkly vampire lads or crashing waves on the beach here, just stickiness, flabby butts and an awareness of how difficult it is to pull off a pair of skinny jeans without standing on the cuffs of said trousers. There’s a frankness here that’s sorely needed in teen fiction, or at least the stuff I’ve been reading, and it’s nice to see an author let sex just be a thing rather than something that transforms an individual, or that results in guilt and self-loathing. (Ten bucks says that this book will be banned in US school libraries.)
But Adorkable is a book that’s largely driven by its two main characters, and though the reader knows that they’ll eventually grow into beautiful butterflies and redeem themselves, it’s, frankly, a bit tiresome waiting for them to emerge from their chrysalises of wank and self-obsession. Jeane vociferously positions herself as an authority on every. subject. in. the. world., and while it’s good to see a heroine happy to carve her own niche in the stone tablet of history, her outspokenly judgemental and derisive nature against the “norms” makes her difficult to identify with, especially in the first half of the book. (Not to mention that her analyses sound awfully like she’s been skim-reading her Twitter feed for sound bites.) To be honest, I had to force myself through those initial scenes involving Jeane spouting off and gurning her way through life. Michael, on the other hand, is portrayed as an image-conscious spunk muffin; other than his good looks, he’s inoffensive and reactive to the point of blandness. And though we gradually get an insight into what’s behind the kevlar-like shell of Jeane’s attitude problem (Ha! She has parents like mine!), Michael remains a little uninspired.
Moreover, although the book really hits its stride when Michael and Jeane hook up in an impassioned merger of featherwool and Ralph Lauren polos, things begin to peter out towards the end after the all-essential revelatory scene that marks the beginning of the narrative end (sorry, avoiding spoilers here), and I couldn’t help but feel that the book, rather than ending on a high note, kind of slumped across the finish line, a bit like a hipster on a fixed-speed bike climbing a hill.
Adorkable is a strange beast. It’s quite an adult read, almost as though it’s written for prehistoric people like me looking back at that reviled period of life that’s known as adolescence: it’s written through a lens of gritty self-awareness and reflection, and I wonder whether it’ll resonate more with adults than its intended teen audience. Still, the writing is effortlessly witty and incisive, the themes of identity, sexuality and social normativity are cleverly explored, and the character of Jeane, despite her ongoing pain-in-the-arsedness, is deep and unusual enough to make this one eminently worth the read.(less)
If I were asked what the most haunting phrase in the English English is, “stage four pancreatic cancer” would have to be somewhere towards the top. It is, after all, a phrase that’s virtually synonymous with death. There’s something so terrifying about this disease, more than so many others: it’s an invisible disease that devours from the inside out. It’s a disease that people don’t know how to deal with, one that seems to make no sense–why would one’s body turn on itself? It’s a disease that flouts all of our typical grieving processes, our goodbyes. It’s the awkward silence that descends on a room and makes everyone who they are.
It’s also something that follows you no matter how far you run, and for the first time in her life Taylor Edwards, who has made a habit of running, is being forced to stand her ground and follow something through to its conclusion. When Taylor’s dad is diagnosed with terminal cancer, her family decides to spend the summer–a last summer–at their old lake house in Pennsylvania. But it’s a decision that means not only that Taylor has to face the inevitable death of her father, but a past that she’s been outrunning for years.
The Edwards’ summer home is a strange mix of the new and the old: some things, like the decor, have remained utterly unchanged in the past five years, while others, like their neighbours, have changed completely. The neighbourhood is mix of the familiar and the strange, much like the situation with Taylor’s father. A successful lawyer, he’s always been strong and successful in Taylor’s eyes: until now, she has seen him as a rock-like figure in her life, never changing, but always just there. It’s not that Taylor doesn’t love her father, it’s just that there have always been priorities she’s put ahead of getting to know him. After all, if you see someone as unchanging, then your future with them seems infinite.
But now Taylor can see the changes: from day to day there are differences in his conduct, his manner, his aspect. And although he’s wasting away, ageing at some sort of supernatural rate, he wants this summer to be one where he can experience as much of his children, his wife, and the rest of his life, as possible. The family has perhaps three months together until everything changes forever. But Taylor’s torn between wanting to spend as much time with her father as possible and his need to be able to get his affairs in order. And so Taylor leads what’s largely a normal teen life: beginning a love affair with a childhood friend; rekindling a friendship with her best friend from years ago. Getting a job for the first time. Helping her brother find a date, and her sister find her first best friend. Taylor uses the summer to atone for the wrongs she feels she has committed, and also as a second chance for her and her father. Her father, on the other hand, uses it to relieve all of the things that have meant so much to him throughout his life–and to encourage his children to become the people they have always wanted to be. But time, of course, is running out.
Second Chance Summer is a beautiful novel in so many ways, and there are parts of it that are tremendously strong: the end had me very close to tears. But I was disappointed by the scope of the book: the emotional impact of Taylor’s father’s illness and her growing relationship with him, which is the key aspect of the book, was diluted by the various side plots of summer love, friendships, and summer jobs. In particular, the terrible deed that Taylor keeps so obliquely referring to, and which turns out to be very much a mountain out of a molehill, is hugely overemphasised, with a good half of the book spent focusing on this element and not on the more crucial plotline of her father’s illness, her family’s reaction to it, and Taylor’s subsequent growth as an individual because of it.
The problem with red herring of Taylor’s past shows up in other places, too: there are things that we’re led to believe should be more important than they are, which becomes quite exhausting in a book that’s as emotionally challenging as this. There are, throughout the book, scenes that feel like they should go somewhere, but don’t: for example, Taylor’s boyfriend’s reaction to an abandoned dog seems to hint at something more than what we get: the reader expects a plot-related progression rather than a simple emotional reaction.
However, this aside, there is a good deal here to like, and I adored the relationship between Taylor and her father, not to mention all of the ways in which each tried to “make right” their relationship through small but meaningful gestures–buying licorice, watching certain films, having pun wars–but with the many subplots on display here the book feels bloated to the point that much of this loses the emotional impact it should have had. It’s when, at the very end, the novel condenses back down to just the family that it’s at its best, and Matson’s considerable skills as an author show through.
Second Chance Summer is deeply moving, but I couldn’t help but feel that its lack of focus dampens its emotional impact. (less)
You know what they say about throwing rocks at your characters in order to keep things interesting? Well, Mickey Bolitar, hero of Harlan Coben’s new spin-off YA series, has had more than a few boulders chucked his way over the past few months: think a Donkey Kong-esque onslaught of barrels of misery. His dad’s dead, his mother’s turned into a junkie, and his almost-girlfriend Ashley has suddenly upped and vanished. (Not to mention that he’s just about to start at a new school, and he’s just had a run-in with his town’s resident Grandma Death.)
There’s not much Mickey can do about his parents, although he suspects that there are a few as yet unearthed mysteries involved there, but Mickey does have a touch of the knight-in-shining-armour inclination that he puts to good use in trying to figure out what’s happened to his girlfriend. With the help of cranky goth girl sidekick Ema and nerdy hacker Spoon, Mickey sets about solving the mystery–only to find that it’s a far bigger mystery than he might have guessed, and that his family is a part of it.
While it’s not unusual for a novel such as this to begin with a bang, and indeed this one does, the problem with doing so is that the reader can be left treading water until they figure out what’s going on. Readers familiar with Coben’s work for older readers, such as the Myron Bolitar series, may have more luck here, but given that we’re talking about an adult versus a YA audience, I’m not sure how true this is. Certainly, I found myself floundering a little as we were flung from a heeby-jeeby Grandma Death scene in to your typical first day of school scene. As obligatory as the cliques-in-the-cafeteria scene is in the YA novel, it does put an odd damper on a novel that’s just warned the reader that all sorts of terrible things are going to go down.
Fortunately, Mickey does don his sleuthing hat fairly promptly, and it’s not long before he’s hanging out behind Grandma Death’s home (okay, so her name’s Bat Lady, but all I can think of is the granny from Donnie Darko), breaking into student lockers, visiting tattoo parlours and staking out strip clubs. Why yes, those last two do feel strangely out of place in a YA novel, but I suppose this stuff is the bread and butter of the crime world. To be honest, although the mystery has some interesting aspects, the story behind Ashley’s disappearance just felt familiar and tired. Instead, it’s the mystery surrounding Mickey’s parents and their connection with Bat Lady that’s the really intriguing element of this novel, and I suspect that this aspect will be gradually teased out as this series grows. Unfortunately, the latter gets slightly jumbled up amidst an array of fight and flight scenes, car chases and strip club visits, all of which I found a tad messily written and terribly cliched. And even after finishing the book, I still can’t get past that first scene in which Bat Lady emerges from the depths of her house to croak “Your father’s not dead” at Mickey whilst pointing a crooked finger at him–it just sets such an odd tone for the book, and the book is far more of a thriller than the horror/mystery this first scene would suggest.
I admit to having trouble with some of the characters as well: with the exception of Mickey’s family and Ema, they often lean towards being little more than flat archetypes whose use is merely to move the plot forward. Spoon, for example, is good fun, but his role is largely off-stage, and typically involves helping Mickey and Ema get the information they need to further their search for the truth. Ashley, likewise, is essentially a Maguffin: she’s the reason for this whole sleuthing business, but plays no role in the book at all. Even the basis for the search seems a little odd, as Mickey seems to have hardly known her at all. Also, is it normal for fifteen year old boys to be 6’4″? Because, goodness, I feel extremely short right now. Shelter is a quick read overall, and Coben’s sense of humour helps to hide some of the over-the-top plotting, I found it too exaggerated and overblown for my tastes.(less)
One day, after school, a group of my school friends and I were waiting for the train at Camberwell station. The girls from my school were huddled together, gigglingly pretending not to notice the boys from the local high school. But it was hard not to notice when one of them nonchalantly pulled out a knife and began jokingly waving it about. We were fortunate that the boy in question was more interested in big-noting himself than actually getting violent, but I still recall that moment with striking clarity.
Like I was, Rose Smith, protagonist of Anne Cassidy's Dead Time, is a private school girl unused to the jostling ways and posturing toughness of the local co-ed school. Unlike me, however, Rose has been thrust into its midst as a transfer student, and the dissimilarities continue from there. While my parents are merely separated, Rose's have disappeared entirely. And where all I saw on the train station that day was a kid fancying himself as a hard man, Rose has witnessed a murder.
Rose, however, is no stranger to death: the likely death of her mother and step-father, who have been missing for years, has long been playing on her mind. Since then, Rose has utterly closed herself off to the idea of loss, seeing such things as a personal weakness: she's affected a tough, almost callously cool image. But there is one weakness in Rose's armour, and that's her step-brother Joshua, who's recently come back on the scene and who is determined to finally uncover the truth behind the disappearance of their parents. And so Rose finds herself attempting to deal with Joshua's decision to reopen the wound that Rose has been avoiding all of these years, but worse, she finds herself a suspect in the murders of two of the students at her new high school.
Dead Time is one of the few young adult mysteries I've come across in some time that doesn't have a paranormal element to it, although for some reason I was expecting one--perhaps the slightly ghostly looking cover led me astray. It's also a strangely circuitous read, and I can't say that I was satisfied by what transpires. Rose is painted as an unlikeable character, something that of course affects a reader's enjoyment of a book, but her prickly, taciturn character also results in the book becoming almost tiresomely circumspect. Her propensity to ignore people or avoid discussing things with them means that there's an ongoing repetition of the interrogative elements--and to be honest, for the majority of the book it feels that things are inching along at the pace of a particularly slow, unpersonable snail. Random note: this is also the second book I've read this week that's used the trope of butterfly tattoos.
The plot, too, is circuitous, but in a way that's more unfocused than intriguing. The murder Rose witnesses, for example, quickly sinks into the background as we become privy to additional layers of mystery and intrigue involving cover-ups, assumed identities, and convenient emails and bits of evident cropping up from the past, and by the end of the book it's difficult to say what the intended main focus of the book. I was dissatisfied with the resolution of the murders of Rose's school peers, and with the resolution of the book overall: it's hard to see this book as much more than a springboard into the rest of the series.
Cassidy's characterisation, however, helps salvage what is otherwise a flat, dull read, and Rose, while difficult to like, is well fleshed-out and believable. Even the minor characters are given the space they need to become more than names on a page, and the reader does get a good sense of the class divide that's part of what separates Rose from those around her. Still, unless Rose grows to be a more sympathetic character, I can't see myself enjoying further books in this series. (less)
Lauren Oliver’s Delirium (see my review) posited a world in which love is outlawed due to its perception as a dangerous disease whose symptoms result in all manner of illogical actions, and where a puritanical government has mandated what amounts to an anti-emotion treatment in order to stifle any sort of passionate response to stimuli. It’s a sort of surgically applied Brave New World mixed with the heavy-handed government of 1984, but unfortunately with none of the context, let alone understanding of that context, that made these seminal dystopian works so memorable. Delirium, rather is a Romeo and Juliet tale of star-crossed love, with the anti-love context providing little more than a brutal way in which to keep protagonist Lena away from her love interest Alex: in sum, it’s essentially a romance novel slapped against a flimsy dystopian context. After all, forbidden love is even more exciting when it’s illegal, right?
Pandemonium picks up after Lena’s flight into the Wilds, an area beyond the government’s jurisdiction that’s apparently full of fearsome individuals who still have the power to feel emotions. Lena, mourning the loss of Alex, is taken in by a group of such individuals who nurse her back to health and gradually train her up to get her anarchy skills on, and the narrative alternates temporally between her time in recovery and her present-day efforts to infiltrate and take down a political organisation bent on extending further the already draconian application of the anti-love “cure”.
But Lena’s efforts go terribly wrong, and she, along with Julian Fineman, the teenage figurehead of the anti-love group, is taken captive by another insurgent group. Secreted away in a cell, the two find themselves in a battle of ideologies. And by ideologies I mean sexual attraction–apparently Julian, despite his chest-thumping and fear-mongering, isn’t entirely sold on a future of physical or emotional abstinence. What follows is a series of escape attempts, inter-factional battles and quite a bit of reading of Dickens (cf Shakespeare, who was the bard of choice in the first book).
I had a number of issues with the world-building in Delirium, and I’m afraid that those same misgivings persisted through Pandemonium. Despite being aware of the fairly puritanical religiosity of much of the US, I still can’t quite fathom the reason behind the decision to create an emotionless world. Given that this “cure” seems to be applied only in parts of the USA, why hasn’t an international organisation stepped in? Moreover, if the “cure” is so successful in dulling emotions of all types, why are there so many militant, forceful groups getting together in its favour? Given Lena’s description of cured individuals as “zombies”, surely utter apathy would be a more believable approach?
It’s not just the world-building that stymies the reader’s efforts to suspend disbelief, however. The writing style, for one, doesn’t help matters. It’s so painfully earnest, and there’s absolutely no levity here whatsoever–I had to force myself through what felt like a rather extensive extract from the angsty journals I wrote as a teen, and for a book that comes in a close to 400 pages, it’s honestly quite a chore. The sharp, staccato-like writing combined with the use of present tense doesn’t help matters, and nor does the confusing alternation between the past and present narrative threads, the purpose of which I don’t quite understand–perhaps it’s to distract from the fact that the “past” sections are much quieter than the explosion-filled present?
Moreover, the narrative itself takes a few turns that seem oddly glib given the seriousness of the writing style and the constant reiteration of the oppressiveness of the government. Certainly, love triangles are all but mandatory in young adult books at the moment, but the introduction of one here seems unnecessary and out of place with not just the characters involved, but also the direction of the book itself. In addition, the revelation regarding the circumstances behind Lena and Julian’s kidnapping raises all manner of questions, and the appearance of a certain person thought long lost to Lena and the re-entry of a certain key character on the very last page of the book are head-shakingly contrived. These plot elements would work in a book that’s not aiming for such realism, but Pandemonium is so determinedly serious in tone that they’re quite jarring.
While I did appreciate the development of Lena’s character, overall I found Pandemonium quite a challenge to finish. There’s something in Oliver’s incessantly grave writing style that just rings false to me, and which in tandem with the world-building issues prevents me from connecting with her books in the way that I’d like.(less)
A few years ago I went on a ghost tour of Melbourne. Our motley group of giggling teens and haughty goths trailed along behind a guide who walked us through the cobbled lanes of Melbourne, stopping frequently to point out places rumoured to be visited by those wronged during their lives. Some of the gory facts taken away that night included the fact that the Queen Victoria Market was once better known as a cemetery, as were the popular picnic grounds of the Flagstaff Gardens. (Unfortunately, the wooden grave markers dotting the area were filched for use as firewood by the poor families living in the city’s north, so it’s impossible to know whether you’re lunching atop a grave. Yum.)
One of the spookiest sections of the tour, however, involved walking through an old parking area filled with twisted sheets of twisting metal and wooden pylons that had been eaten away by time and the elements. I can’t tell you why, exactly, but something about it just felt so very wrong. It was this, more than the stories that we heard that night, that persisted in our memories. There’s something about that sensation of perhaps connecting with that other world that entices and fascinates.
Andrew Hammond’s CRYPT (Covert Response Youth Paranormal Team) series is all about teasing out our inexplicable interest in the ghostly, and with the much-haunted setting of London as his playground, there’s no shortage of material upon which to draw. Traitor’s Revenge, the second in the series, focuses on a series of hauntings occurring in London, largely around Parliament, and the CRYPT team is sent in to determine the motivations of the vengeful spirits. But the visitations in question aren’t your ordinary spook-in-a-sheet fare: these ghosts are violent, bloodthirsty, and willing to kill in the name of their cause. Just what this cause is is what CRYPT agents Bex and Jud need to figure out, as the escalating attacks are not only putting civilians at risk, but are threatening to put the secretive CRYPT into the public eye–which is not exactly a desirable position for a covert secret service group. But the more research the agents conduct, the more deeply they find themselves embroiled in a ghostly coup that has its origins in a famous historic event from more than 300 years ago…
As noted, Traitor’s Revenge is the second in this series from Andrew Hammond, and unfortunately lacks much in the way of grounding material: I would recommend reading the first in the series to get a better feel for what CRYPT is and who its operatives are. To be honest, even by the end of this I was a little hazy on the programme and its agents, and the “youth” aspect of the programme confused me: despite the fact that this book is billed as a YA, there’s actually little to suggest this, particularly given that many of the (myriad) point of view characters are older adults.
Though the book offers an intriguing mystery that will appeal to English history buffs, I couldn’t help but feel that the mystery element suffered from the narrative approach taken here. The format is one of case reportage, with time-stamped snippets involving the victims, witnesses, and of course those investigating the case. It’s one that I felt detracted rather than added to the sense of dread that Hammond was attempting to evoke: it’s hard to become invested in characters who are introduced and killed off in a single scene, and the constant switching between points of views made it difficult to know with whom I was meant to identify, particularly since Bex and Jud seemed so oddly peripheral.
This is in large part due, I think, to the matter-of-fact writing style, which I found distanced me from the book and its characters rather than involving me in it. I love a good ghost story, but I simply found myself unengaged for the vast majority of the book. The fact that one of the POV characters was an initially unnamed individual possessed by an evil spirit referred to sycophantically as “master” really didn’t help, either–this is just such an overplayed trope, and one that makes me cringe. It pains me when authors deliberately obscure the identity of a key character, and I feel that it cheapens the quality of the story being told. The book is also filled with odd moments of jargon that seem to serve little purpose: there’s one scene, for example, that discusses in depth one character’s sports car for no apparent reason.
At first glance, there’s a lot about this book that should appeal: it’s full of ghosts, secret agents, spooky histories, and mysteries! But the bland, humourless writing style, the cursory characterisation and the endless point of view switches make it less engaging than I might have hoped.(less)
I know this is terribly cynical of me, but the first thing I wondered when I picked up Of Poseidon was whether the author had heard of the seven figure deal for Josephine Angelini’s Starcrossed (see my review), and had decided to cleverly transpose the latter on to a mermaid setting. There’s something in the writing style, in the setting, and in the relationship between the main point of view characters that for some reason seemed to me to recall Angelini’s debut. Even the cover is not unlike Starcrossed, although admittedly girls in dresses floating/falling/swooning about aren’t exactly a rarity these days.
Unfortunately, though I had high hopes for this one, being fairly unversed in the whole mermaid subgenre, I had similar issues with Of Poseidon as I had with Starcrossed.
Of Poseidon is a tale of star-crossed love between teenaged Emma and the brooding Galen, whom she meets whilst spending a summer’s day at the beach. It’s a fairly memorable meeting as these things go: not only does Emma feel the snap-crackle-and-pop of attraction towards Gale, but her best friend is also mauled to death by a shark. Emma, however, escapes unharmed, somehow spirited to shore by a mysterious force.
It’s enough to make Emma wonder whether perhaps she’s not quite the regular teenaged girl she’s always assumed she was, and after a few flashbacks involving her speaking to fish and being saved from drowning by various piscine creatures, the reader’s pretty certain that there’s something a little unusual going on here. Enter Galen, a violet-eyed syrena youth who’s convinced that Emma’s natural form involves a tail and some gills. Galen stows his own tail and gills to set up a new life in a swanky abode (complete with swanky sports car), and sets about enrolling himself in all of Emma’s classes, following her about and threatening another guy with severe bodily harm for taking Emma out on a date. Ah, a stalker with a propensity towards violence: it’s everything I want to see in a love interest. Emma promptly falls under Galen’s spell, and together they set about attempting to determine whether Emma really is just a regular gal, or whether she’s truly one of Galen’s kind.
I’m afraid to say that I failed to connect with this one on a number of levels. The writing style, first, feels too modern for the type of story being told, and the combination of present tense with alternating first and third person POV feels terribly jolting and jerky, particularly given that the short chapters mean that we’re switching POVs with machine-gun rapidity. This alternating POV also means that there’s quite a bit of overlap in the narrative, and based on these poor mechanics I found it difficult to become invested in the narrative on any meaningful level. The plot itself is lacklustre, and when the book culminated in a cliffhanger I was a little perturbed–it seemed that not enough had happened to be able to justify such an ending.
The syrena mythos, too, is confusing, and I struggled to fully comprehend the meaning of the various houses/factions and what is entailed by belonging to one or another. The discussion of the syrena biology and evolution feels unwieldy, as well, and is introduced through a series of long speeches given by a marine biologist rather than worked into the novel in an organic manner. Also, there are violet eyes. Please, no more violet eyes.
Then there’s the hackle-raising relationship issue and the massively problematic portrayal of women in this book. Forced marriages are the norm in syrena culture, with the prevailing attitude being that the involved parties will get used to it. Emma, thankfully, rails against this, at least initially, but then gets involved in a plot to attempt to make a character involved in a forced marriage see that she is actually meant to be with her mate. Emma’s also apparently completely enamoured of Galen’s mortifying approach to wooing her. Now, I understand that there’s something lovely and wistful about being swept off one’s feet, but being followed around, having someone waiting outside your window, cut you off from your friends and family, threaten those around you is not exactly what I think of as a healthy relationship. Unfortunately, this idea is being further and further entrenched in the YA paranormal/mythology genre by the idea of “mating for life”, which somehow equates possession with love (and which I shall explore in a post later this week). This relationship approach is worsened by the fact that Emma is such a passive character: without her relationship with Galen there’d be little to define her.
In all, this was a disappointing read for me, and I personally would have preferred a different POV approach and a more restrained approach to the teen romance element. Still, given the book’s subject matter and heavy romance plot I don’t doubt that it will have widespread appeal.(less)
I’m going to let you (“you” being the entire internet) in on a secret. When I was a teen, I was a goth. I played the guitar, read lots of depressing Russian literature, wrote terrible poetry, and even worse short stories. (Occasionally, foolish people paid me for them, helping entrench my emoness [emosity?] even further.) I, like Janet Adley of Planet Janet, most certainly had my Dark Phase, although admittedly mine wasn’t quite as deliberately telegraphed as Janet’s (indeed, mine didn’t involve checklists). Other than the purple mullet thing that Janet’s got going on there, that could pretty much be teen me on the cover.
All I can say is thank goodness that I didn’t keep a diary, because no one, repeat no one, needs to be privy to the innermost workings of teenage Steph. My feelings about this are only underscored after having cringed my way through this epistolary novel (written, Janet tells us, in a “diary of feminist celebration” given to her by her militantly everything -ist lesbian aunt whom Janet nicknames “Sappho”). Oh dear, was I really like that? Is that me in those pages?
Janet, like many teenagers, runs contrary to the theories of Copernicus: she may be off on her own planet, but as far as she’s concerned, everything revolves around her. Her gravitational field of arrogance and hubris is so dense that it cripples sense and reason in mere moments, and her ability to blithely ignore everything that’s going on around here has, like silicon-based lifeforms, surely never before seen.
Having passed the mid-point of their teens, Janet and her best friend Disha decide that it’s time to become the deep and serious fashion statements unique individuals that they suspect they need to be if they’re to venture out into adulthood. Janet wants to get in touch with her starving artist side and experience true love while she’s at it–both of these goals are non-negotiables at the top of her Dark Phase checklist.
But Janet’s orbital efforts are complicated by the fact that she, gasp, shock, horror, does not actually live in a vacuum, but is rather surrounded by all sorts of selfish individuals who have their own lives to live, and who are apparently heedless of Janet’s Plathian ambitions. Needless to say, whatever can go wrong does go wrong, and Janet’s journals quickly become a very, very bitter and snarky comedy of errors.
If you imagine the well-meaning but slightly idiotic Greg Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid as a cynical and put-upon teenaged girl, you’ve got Janet and her life. Like Greg, she’s oblivious to what’s going on around her, as well as completely ignorant of the consequences of her actions, but she’s a good deal more angsty about life in general (and has a habit of bolding and CAPITALISING and using pretty fonts* for emphasis). So although her parents’ marriage is falling apart around her, her crush is more interested in her brother, and her brother is being stalked by a girl from university, Janet spends her days dyeing her trousers black and pretending to read Camus. Oh, and facilitating the general demise of her parents’ relationship by helping her father have an affair, setting up her brother with Janet’s own love interest (“What do [people] think? That they’re GAY?” she asks) and letting her brother’s stalker into the house for a cup of tea.
At times it’s amusing to read along with such a face-palmingly self-interested character–the reader is always a good few hundred pages ahead of poor Janet–but it does become tiresome after a while, and midway through the book I felt I’d got about as much out of Janet’s painfully awkward transgressions and general nitwittedness as I could. Part of this, I think, is because although the Wimpy Kid‘s Greg Heffley, mentioned above, is similarly off on another planet, there’s an innocence to his actions that isn’t there in Janet’s. Janet is often out and out mean, and it becomes difficult to identify with a character who calls her mother the “Mad Cow” and her brother “the greatest argument for abortion”.
And though the author frequently tantalisingly dangles the carrot of redemption in front of us with phrases like:
“I know [my mother] was only kidding, but Disha’s words from the other day came back to haunt me and I stared at her for a few seconds like I’d never seen her before. Maybe D’s right and EVERYBODY–even my mother–has a secret, inner self.”
She promptly follows them with phrases like:
“Maybe, deep down in her secret self, [my mother] (primary school teacher and graduate of the St John Ambulance first aid course) really would kill someone.”
Unfortunately, Janet never does manage to pounce upon that carrot, and though there’s a glimmer of growth in her character by the end of the book, it doesn’t feel satisfying. Often what’s more interesting is the use of Janet as a lens for the examination of the rituals involved in growing up, with Janet’s naivite and utter assuredness in her own knowledge often appallingly highlighted across all manner of social issues. Still, if you can abide snark and don’t mind spending an evening with a character whose good side appears to be nonexistent, Planet Janet does offer some gems of insight into the teenage condition. A condition from which I’m rather glad I’ve recovered.
*I am well aware that Comic Sans is not a pretty font. WordPress is a little limited in the font side of things(less)
“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news,” begins Stormbreaker, the first in Anthony Horowitz’s bestselling Alex Rider series.
I would definitely concur. The last time someone buzzed me at three in the morning it was my twenty-one-year-old sister-in-law asking to borrow a MacBook cable for someone’s twenty-first speech. Of course, the adventures that followed my own early-morning contact simply involved a bit of sleep-deprived conversation and then some more sleep. There was nothing at all about my uncle having been brutally murdered, his identity being revealed as an MI6 operative, or my being recruited as a young spy to monitor some dodgy wheelings and dealings relating to school computers.
But where life (and sleeping patterns) went quite promptly back to normal for me, the same is not true for Alex, for whom all the above applies. Soon enough, he’s narrowly escaping near-death situations, playing with Go-Go-Gadget devices, and kicking broody chaps out of aeroplanes. For their own good, of course. And then there’s the whole undercover assignment thing where Alex is sent to investigate self-made millionaire Darrius Sayle, whose “computers for all!” philanthropic program seems just a little bit dodgy.
Stormbreaker is a quick and zippy read, but it’s not without its problems. Alex suffers from the everyman-type characterisation issues that plague many heroes in similar series: he’s a fairly flat, bland character who’s really only painted into existence by those around him. He’s given little personality of his own; rather he’s the sum of his skills and gadgets. Where a character in another book might surprise you with an emotional outburst, Alex surprises you with Secret Karate Skills. Or his ability to drive a car. Or his knowledge of jellyfish.
The fact that he’s largely acting alone means also that he’s in charge of McGuyvering himself out of various near-death situations, and the set-up and resolution of these events does become a little samey-samey after the first couple of times. Because there’s no one around for Alex to really engage with, we see very little emotional response from him (ho hum, my uncle’s dead, chaps), and it’s hard to really empathise with him–or feel that he’s ever really in danger. So much of that tension, after all, arises from the way that other characters respond to dangerous situations.
Although there is a reasonably large cast of secondary characters slinking around in the background it’s hard to ignore the pall of stereotyping that’s been cast over them. We have brutal Russian assassins, cruel and humourless Germans, a squat and fat bad guy from Beirut, and two MI6 operatives who fall fairly blatantly along traditional gender lines–the inscrutable, stoic male and the maternal, concerned female (one of three, from memory, females in the whole book). It’s not hard to see that Horowitz is taking his cues from James Bond, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep abreast of social developments, surely.
However, even though I have my qualms about certain elements of the book (I haven’t even touched the plot here, but let’s just say, 14-year-old boy, MI6 and evil via school computers, shall we?), it is overall zingy, action-packed fun, and it would be remiss of me to tear apart the book for being pretty much what it professes to be from the get-go. It’s silly, it’s over the top, and it contains enough action and intrigue that I’m sure there are a bunch of kids out there secretly hoping for their door buzzer to ring in the middle of the night. (less)
When it comes to speedy pacing, I suspect that Ally Carter has few rivals: Rick Riordan may get a look in and Michael Scott may be able to sneak a peek, but by the time they did so Carter would’ve moved on. If you like to wallow in beautiful details and clever subtleties, Carter’s books likely aren’t for you. If, on the other hand, you’re a child of the Twitter generation, struggle to sit through anything longer than a commercial, and got through high school by reading abridged versions of classics, well, you’re probably in your element.
Out of Sight, Out of Time, the fifth instalment in Carter’s best-selling Gallagher Girls series, features all of the frenetic pacing, jokes about disabling operatives using nothing more than an empty tube of toothpaste and a choice phrase in Swahili, and double, triple and quadruple crossings that we’ve come to expect these books. However, despite its breathless pacing, it also shows a more mature side of Carter as an author, with improvements in characterisation and thematic depth.
Where its predecessors followed fairly similar plot progressions not unlike those of the Harry Potter books, Out of Sight, Out of Time differentiates itself immediately by picking up not within the hallowed walls of the Gallagher Academy, but rather in a monastery in the Alps, where protagonist Cammie Morgan has just woken from a coma. This set-up opens up the narrative possibilities available to the author, and makes for a refreshing–albeit not always successful–change in approach.
Carter plays up the coma element with a camp amnesia/sleeper-agent subplot: upon awakening from said monastery, Cammie realises that she’s lost all memory of the past summer, and is determined to retrace her footsteps to fill in the gaps. The result is various around-the-world jaunts, explorations of secret hiding places, revelations about special bits of jewellery and bets being made on whether it’s possible to be a quintuple agent and, if so, what the pay would be like (okay, I made up that last one, but there is at the very least a triple agent in this book, and you’d want some serious danger money coming in if you were in this person’s shoes).
But yet, this outwardly different plotting approach is actually a decoy, with the end result being something akin to Memento: kind of cool when played backwards, but when pieced together, actually a fairly straight-forward narrative. Tricksy! As might be expected given the previous books, the plot can eventually be summarised thusly: the dastardly Circle is out to get Cammie, who must use all of her wiles to remain a step ahead of them at all times whilst simultaneously trying to figure out whom to trust and what on earth happened to her missing father.
It’s fun, and it’s zippy, but even with the amnesia element thrown in, it’s so very familiar. Though the latter few books in the series have offered some welcome character growth, I can’t help but feel that the plot arc is stagnating, offering us only the tiniest of reveals (and the inevitable cliffhanger) upon the completion of each outing. This is particularly true in the case of this volume, which culminates with only the most incremental of plot arc advances.
Moreover, though perhaps it’s the cautious old lady in me, I can’t help but think that a world-renowned organisation of spies would be, oh, just a wee bit more careful when it comes to undertaking their super-secret spy missions. How is it possible that Cammie, despite being in a safe house and surrounded by a half-dozen top-notch spies, is able to end up sleep-walking the streets of Rome? (And indeed, how is this possible even without all of the above security?) Why on earth is Cammie so willing, when raiding a bank vault for an uber-important clue, perfectly willing to trust a random guy who appears out of nowhere (and who may as well have uttered the line, “Why hello there, trusting young girl. I am not at all a suspicious man who wishes to kill you.”)? I understand that Cammie is suffering from memory loss, but goodness, does this go hand in hand with utter disregard for self-preservation*?
The Gallagher Girl books are without a doubt cheery, breezy reads, and I do appreciate the fact that Carter’s characters are diverse, supportive and feminist–and that the love interest is actually a nice chap rather than a moony, oppressive stalker–but I can’t help but feel that a little more rigour needs to be applied in terms of the advancement of the plot.
*If these are the sorts of people heading up our intelligence agencies, it’s no surprise that this case of this MI5 bloke being found zipped up in a suitcase was labelled as “potentially suspicious” only after trying to re-enact the event 300 times. (less)