Japanese author and Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata is famous for his ‘palm of the hand’ stories, stories so small and taciturn that they could fit i...moreJapanese author and Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata is famous for his ‘palm of the hand’ stories, stories so small and taciturn that they could fit in the grasp of one’s curled fingers. These stories comprise mere moments: a meeting of gazes, a gesture, a brief downfall of rain, the arranging of flowers, the steeping of tea. They are like wells: despite having a small, hemmed in surface of finite dimensions, their depths are unknown, dark, requiring close examination, speculation on behalf of the reader. Read the rest of this review here.(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)
Seventeen-year-old Lena lives in a world where love is taboo, where passion is anathema, where poetry and art have fallen by the wayside, and romantic...moreSeventeen-year-old Lena lives in a world where love is taboo, where passion is anathema, where poetry and art have fallen by the wayside, and romantic tendencies must be put down at all costs. Stringent social conditioning helps guide young citizens through the complexities of these norms, while upon reaching their majority a more comprehensive solution is offered: a procedure, not so far removed from a lobotomy, that results in a total dulling of the emotions. Read the rest of this review here(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)
Miss Sheck is correct when she tries to convince Tommy and Luke that The Last of the Mohicans is not the most boring book in the world. The most borin...moreMiss Sheck is correct when she tries to convince Tommy and Luke that The Last of the Mohicans is not the most boring book in the world. The most boring book in the world, it turns out, is something far more sinister, and far less likely to be assigned for Year 8 English. But when the only existing copy of this book comes into Luke and Tommy’s possession, they find that they’re facing an adventure rather more enthralling than those involved in their usual pranks and mischief-making. The book has the power to change the course of history forever, and for that reason it’s sought after by a group who will stop at nothing to make sure that they, and only they, wield its power. Luke and Tommy find themselves racing against time–quite literally–as they attempt to thwart the nefarious plans of a group of militants who are determined to ensure that their own particular vision of the future is realised. The rest of this review can be read here(less)
The Shadow of Malabron is the first in a trilogy by new-ish author Thomas Warton (not to be confused with the Nobel Laureate of the same name). It’s a...moreThe Shadow of Malabron is the first in a trilogy by new-ish author Thomas Warton (not to be confused with the Nobel Laureate of the same name). It’s an uneven offering, and one about which I’m a little ambivalent.
The book starts with an interesting prologue of sorts that hints at something fable-like to come, and sets up what seems as to be an intriguing and novel idea. Unfortunately, as is often the case with prologues, the book turns its attention elsewhere, and the reader is soon looking on as young teen Will Lightfoot bickers with his widower father and young sister as they embark upon a camping trip.
The notion of setting up camp in a new and unknown place, of course, is a harbinger of things to come, and soon Will finds himself in a motorcycle accident that lands him in what is apparently known as the Perilous Realm, a sort of parallel story-world. The name of the place is apt, as Will finds himself being hunted down by the Night King. As is frequently the case in this sort of quest-based epic fantasy, Will is befriended by a motley assortment of allies, and with them, he sets out to find his way home.
There are a few good moments in The Shadow of Malabron that point to Warton as a writer to watch. There are some neat turns of phrase scattered here and there throughout the novel, as well as some great moments such as the library that is physically constructed from books. As a whole, though, the novel is competent but nothing notable: it goes through the motion of a standard epic fantasy without daring to step off this oft-travelled path in search of something new for readers to enjoy. This is a shame, as Warton clearly has some talent as an author, and a more creative take on the premise could have resulted in something quite interesting.
As it is, The Shadow of Malabron is a fast read that many young readers will likely enjoy, but that many adults will find themselves comparing with classics such as The Lord of the Rings and other well-known quest-based novels.(less)
Oddly enough, the day I began reading 172 Hours on the Moon I also read that Neil Armstrong had agreed to give a rare interview, a coup wrangled by an accountant, of all people. The Armstrong interview was newsworthy in that he has been famously tight-lipped about his experience on the moon, helping to fuel conspiracy theories about whether we’ve been told the truth about the circumstances surrounding the moon landing–or whether the moon landing ever happened in the first place. It’s this sort of scepticism that 172 Hours on the Moon exploits, positing that the various space programmes around the world have fallen by the wayside for reasons that we, the public, have never been told. But, of course, none of which can be benign.
In the novel, a lottery is held to send a trio of teenagers to the moon as a way of rekindling interest in the NASA programme and therefore securing further funding (which will in turn result in some moustache-twirling evilness, we’re told by evil Dr Blank at the beginning of the book). The teens have their various reasons for entering the lottery, but they generally fall under the heading of escapism, rather than, oh, actually wanting to go to the moon. Of course, given that the entire moon trip comprises roughly three weeks, the teens in question could probably have come up with a slightly easier way to run away from home. But anyway.
Fishy things begin to occur before the teens head off on their moon trip, with various telegraphed weirdnesses including the recounting of several Japanese horror stories pinched straight from the gazillions of straight-to-DVD Japanese horror films I watched as a uni student; a homeless guy with a shopping trolley offering thinly-veiled warnings; and various POV switches to people involved with earlier moon flights who had lived to tell the tale (but, of course, just barely).
When the teens do arrive at the moon, the point at which the book ostensibly begins, but which actually occurs more than half-way through, there’s the disconcerting sense of reading a combined novelisation of Moon, Event Horizon and Aliens. The government nefariousness suddenly turns into something much more eerie, and though it’s a chilling enough situation, it feels massively disconnected from the first half of the book–other than the prologue jammed on to the front to give some sort of validity to this awkward shift in plot. And I must say that I’m getting a little tired of the ol’ getting-sucked-out-of-the-space-capsule death scene.
172 Hours on the Moon is painfully awkward in a number of ways: the main conceit of sending teenagers to the moon as a PR stunt, for example, is a bit of a head-scratcher to begin with, particularly given the motivations behind it. Sure, I’ll buy Laika the dog in space, but I’m fairly sure that the idea of sending a bunch of minors up into relatively untested waters is fairly likely to be vetoed by any sort of sane government-sponsored body. Especially when we find out just why space travel has become a thing of the part.
The pacing and plot are all over the place as well, with, the aforementioned issues regarding the story kicking in late and the bizarre “warnings” that seem to be desperately trying to link the second half of the book to the first, but don’t succeed in doing so. Even the tone of the book shifts dramatically half-way through, with an ending that feels a lot more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or 28 Days Later than it does anything to do with a moon landing, and a key character who just kind of…vanishes.
On the more micro-level, the prose fails to inspire, and the dialogue is much the same–although admittedly this may be a translation issue. The book is also littered with illustrations and sketches that distract from rather than add to the experience, and to be honest, it’s hard not to feel that there’s something very amateurish about this entire production.
As a bit of a sci-fi buff, I have to say that I was disappointed by this one, and I’m not sure that I’d seek out anything else by this author. (less)
**spoiler alert** Despite the sanitised reproductions flitting across theatre screens or rendered in block-colour glory in children’s picture books, f...more**spoiler alert** Despite the sanitised reproductions flitting across theatre screens or rendered in block-colour glory in children’s picture books, fairy tales have traditionally functioned less as sumptuous rags to riches accounts railing against strict class systems and more as rather pointed cautionary tales designed to keep children both morally upright and close to home. Frequently, the take home message is something along the lines of avoid the woods at all cost or never trust a stranger. It’s a sign of a confident author then that Jackson Pearce in her retelling of Little Red Riding Hood adheres far more strongly to this warily paranoid paradigm than to the increasingly romanticised take on the monstrous that is being seen with increasing frequency in today’s young adult genre fiction. Read the rest of this review here(less)
Everyone does what they can to extend their lives, whether it be exercise, healthy eating, crystals and quack healers, or a bribe or two slipped to so...moreEveryone does what they can to extend their lives, whether it be exercise, healthy eating, crystals and quack healers, or a bribe or two slipped to someone in power. Most of us, though, aren’t ripped out of our personal timeline moments before facing death. Most of us don’t find ourselves in the employ of a mysterious organisation working to save the world from the dangers of time travel…by using fire to fight fire. For Maddy, Sal, and Liam, however, this strange turn of events is reality. All have been pulled from situations where imminent death threatens–the sinking of the Titanic for Liam, a present day plane crash for Maddy, while in 2029 a fire should have claimed Sal’s life–and have been given a second chance as skilled operatives. Read the rest of this review here(less)
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is a classic story by noted speculative fiction author Ursula K LeGuin, and is one that is bound to resonate with m...moreThe Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is a classic story by noted speculative fiction author Ursula K LeGuin, and is one that is bound to resonate with most readers for some time afterwards. Omelas is a utopian society in which everything seems to function in not simply an orderly, but in almost an enlightened manner. But the crux of the story is that the glory of Omelas rests firmly on the continued torment of a single child. The question posed by the story is a seemingly simply moral dilemma: would you, could you walk away from Omelas? Read the rest of this review here(less)
"Francois Rebelais. He was this poet," says Miles Halter. "And his last words were 'I go to seek a Great Perhaps.' That's why I'm going. So I don't have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps."
Miles Halter's going away party to celebrate his move to boarding school is attended by two people. That's not to say that Miles is necessarily unpopular. He's just not the sort of person who registers with others. He's almost a blank slate of a person in many ways, someone who exists as a reflection of others, someone who's reactive. Even the personality quirk to which he clings--his fondness for the last words of famous people--is almost desperately contrived. It's almost an SOS, a flag to wave to keep him from being swept out completely into the sea of ordinariness.
Fortunately, Miles' roommate, the posturing, awkward Colin ("The Colonel"), promptly draws him into a friendship circle of not-quite-outcasts, not-quite-rebels. They're kids who are just different enough to stand apart from the privilege and entitlement of the school's day students. Together, they're a group who hit all of the flailing insecurities of being a teenager, and for Miles they're someone. "I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails."
For Miles, the brightest spark of the group is Alaska Young. "If people were rain, I was a drizzle and she was a hurricane," he says. Alaska is intelligent, angry, beautiful, and very, very volatile. She rails against characterisation, throwing perceptions and misconceptions back in the faces of everyone around her, showing just how much other people can so easily become our own creations. "You love the girl who makes you laugh and shows you porn and drinks wine with you. You don't love the crazy, sullen bitch," she says to Miles at one point. And Miles agrees. He's all too aware that the respect and engagement he feels towards her is undermined by the fact that he's attracted to her. And perhaps it's that Alaska is so beautiful that she can get away with being vulnerable and troubled. After all, it's a persistent trope in our world. It's okay to be broken as long as it's on the inside. Beauty is compensatory.
But Alaska is also a challenge to Miles on another level. She takes his search for the "Great Beyond" and raises it a notch. Simon Bolivar's last words, she says, were: "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" So what is the labyrinth? It's a puzzle that haunts Miles, even when Alaska explains to him that: "It's not life or death, the labyrinth....[it's about] suffering...doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you....Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying." Perhaps it haunts him even more after this, in fact. After all, according to Buddhism, suffering is necessarily a part of life. It's only with enlightenment that we escape it.
But then the book takes a turn, and Miles finds himself thinking about so many things. The Great Beyond and its purpose and meaning; the labyrinth and the same; and even his own interest in people's last words, which becomes painfully relevant. "A lot of time people die how they live...Last words tell me a lot about who people were, and why they became the sort of people biographies get written about." And of course, he finds himself struggling with plenty more on a more human, individual level. Is it ever possible to really know anyone? Do we re-write the biographies of people because we want to honour their memories, or perhaps make ourselves feel better about who we are? Why do we seek to own someone else?
Looking for Alaska is more than the snarky, quirky teen angst romp fest its first half positions it to be, and this certainly explains the awards slathered all over its cover. Still, if I'm to be honest, it took me a long time to connect with any of the characters in this book, and I think a given reader's enjoyment of it will largely hinge on whether they identify with or can sympathise with the characters of Miles and Alaska--which I didn't. There are scenes that do ground these too-witty, too-quirky characters--the dinner at the Colonel's mother's trailer, for example, is heart-breaking. But though there's a lot of thematic depth here, I personally found the characters a bit too high-gloss and perfectly imperfect to identify with, and that affected my reading experience quite profoundly.
Between Miles's dead guy quoting habit, The Colonel's obsession with memorising place names, Alaska's endless empty references to the patriarchy, and Takumi's habit of breaking into rap, it all gets a bit much, and I couldn't help but feel that the characters didn't quite rise above their quirks. The book is reliant on the sudden shift between the "before" and "after" sections to undermine its characters' posturing angst, but given that the "after" section occurs more than half-way through the book, it does feel a long way coming. Of course, I'm sure that others will feel differently depending on how well they connected with Miles and the others from the book's early stages.
Though it didn't quite resonate with me as much as I'd hoped, Looking for Alaska is certainly a thought-provoking book. The changes in the characters as they grow from spending their nights smoking and drinking and being angsty to something that's far deeper and more worthy are memorable. We watch them go from living for themselves to living for other people. We see them re-evaluate their own positions in their lives and their worlds, and what it means to be part of something. And who can resist the book's closing quote, from Thomas Edison? "It's very beautiful over there." One can only hope. (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)
The theatre is a domain rife with superstition, with performers and stage crew alike navigating an array of strange norms: the wishing upon each other...moreThe theatre is a domain rife with superstition, with performers and stage crew alike navigating an array of strange norms: the wishing upon each other of bad luck before a performance, the avoidance of particular colours and props, the beliefs that particular plays such as the Shakespearian masterpiece Macbeth are cursed. In her debut novel The Jumbee Pamela Keyes marries the new superstition of the theatre with the complex belief systems of the Caribbean, creating a rich and claustrophobic setting for her modern day retelling of Gaston Leroux’s classic The Phantom of the Opera. The rest of this review can be read here(less)
Reminiscent of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Tantony is an achingly sincere and hauntingly melancholy exploration of mental illness (or o...moreReminiscent of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Tantony is an achingly sincere and hauntingly melancholy exploration of mental illness (or otherness) in the claustrophobic and judgemental environment created by superstition and fear. The setting is utterly believable, the characters true, and the prose is exquisite. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
When Manchester teen Jessie is sent off with her best friend Emma for a summer in bustling New York, it’s a dream come true. Jessie is itching to put some distance between herself and her erstwhile boyfriend, and a few months in the city she’s spent her life longing to visit sounds like the perfect salve for her emotional aches and pains. The only issue is that she’ll be staying with her mother, a playwright to whose work Jessie has always played second fiddle (or perhaps understudy is the better word choice). But Jessie finds that the harried, distant mother that she remembers is not the reality she thought it was, and amongst the skyscrapers and avenues Jessie and her mother slowly rebuild their fragile relationship–and as a bonus, Jessie heals her broken heart in the arms of the sweet and humble Finn.
The bright and sunny nature of this book is reflected in its ultra-slick cover, which sums it up quite well indeed: it’s about big buildings, rubber-necking, and touristy happy snaps. Stainton’s sophomore effort reads like a Hollywood film-inspired tour guide of New York, with all the major landmarks pointed out and made familiar via their appearance in Sex and the City, When Harry Met Sally or The Seven Year Itch. But given that this breezy novel is pitched a a tween audience–meaning that some of them may well have been born after the year 2000! goodness!–I can’t help but wonder whether these nostalgic titles might be completely unfamiliar to the target market.
But for all its Carrie-referencing, Jessie Hearts NYC plays it about as safe as it gets. The characters are all nice enough–and by that I mean all nice enough, with the possible exception of the evil ex whose horrid nature is never actually touched upon let alone explicated–and are happy to spend their days strolling about eating gigantic meals and taking happy snaps. Where there is any potential conflict–Jessie and her mother, love-interest Finn and his protective parents–Stainton pours water on the fire before we get so much as a whiff of smoke. While it’s admittedly a relief to not be reading an “issues” novel, a little bit of conflict would go a long way to ramping up the reader’s interest.
The major plot element of the novel is Jessie and Flinn’s constant crossing of paths, which although sweet isn’t especially interesting. Jessie sees Finn at breakfast. They smile. Jessie sees Finn at the Empire State Building. They smile. Jessie sees Finn at a party. They smile. And so on. Points to Finn for not being a terrifying googly-eyed stalker, but it would have been nice to see something done with the whole serendipity/fate thing. I get the feeling that this would work well on-screen, but in a novel it just feels as though the characters are being pushed around like chess pieces by an apathetic gamer.
Other than the asymptotic paths of the two main characters, the main focus of the novel is on the relationships between the main characters and their parents. Jessie’s relationship with her mother is ostensibly strained, and is positioned as being a key conflict/turning point. But neither of these characters has enough depth to make this conflict at all believable–and the same is true of Finn, who’s angsting about his future career choices, and his parents. The result is a distinct anticlimax, particularly when nothing else of note happens throughout the novel.
Jessie Hearts NYC is a light read that will appeal to the Big Apple-infatuated, but that lacks a strong driving plot or the characterisation necessary to make it anything more than a lazy travel narrative. It’s likeable and inoffensive, but there’s nothing much else to it.(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)
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)
Ever seen those stereotypical middle-aged Eastern European women on TV? The ones with the red scarves enveloping everything but the equally red tips of their noses? The ones hidden somewhere beneath a flurry of paisley and layering and scowls? The ones who can probably slug back a bottle of vodka without even the need for some zakuski to chase it back?
Well, Gobija Zaksauskas, butt-kicking exchange student-turned-assassin heroine of Joe Shreiber’s Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick doesn’t quite fit the mould. Except, perhaps, the vodka thing. Think Kiki Strike meets Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill with a bit of extra attitude and a Lithuanian accent thrown in, and you’re on the right track.
Of course, while it would help to have a bit of forewarning that you’re taking an undercover assassin to your senior prom, poor Perry Stormaire, wannabe musician and University of Columbia waitlistee, is completely clueless. For him, exchange student Gobi is all about potato dumplings, woollen hosiery and Coke bottle lenses so thick you start a fire with them: definitely pity date status. So when she suddenly whips off the disguise (along with most of her clothing), and sets off on a killing spree, Perry’s not quite sure what to do.
Except do everything in his power not to get blood on Daddy’s brand new Jaguar.
Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick is a gutsy (literally) night-time romp through New York City that’s full of greasy mafiosos being murdered in grisly ways, objectionable driving and parking practices, tomato sauce-esque blood splatters and plenty of snark, and from the minute that Gobi gets her assassin on it’s go-go-go.
Written in epistolary format as a series of interlinked college application essays, the book traces Perry’s first impressions of Gobi through to his eventual partner-in-crime status, exploring, amidst all the killing, maiming, and Jaguar-trashing, Perry’s growth from cowed Daddy’s boy into someone willing to take a stand for what he believes in–not to mention that he even gets to play guitar on stage during a shoot-out. That’s livin’ the dream, right there. (Admittedly, he never does stand up to Gobi, but, really, who’d dare?) It’s outrageously, unashamedly riotous and hilariously twee all at once: it’s sort of like swallowing an entire packet of Whiz Fizz all in one go.
What makes this book work is that it’s utterly ridiculous and utterly self-aware, and save for one slightly-too-serious moment where Gobi reveals the motivation behind her revenge spree, it gives not a whit for sense, realism, or the actual likelihood of being able to safely jump out of a window and into a waiting helicopter. It’ll take about an hour and a half out of your life–I read it walking to and from work–and it’s worth it. When you’re done, you’ll wish you were a little more creative when applying to university.(less)
We last left Percy Jackson, the young demigod hero of Rick Riordan’s inordinately popular middle grade series, celebrating his birthday whilst preparing to fight a battle whose outcome will result in either the restoration of Mount Olympus and all things god and godly or, well, the end of the world. Percy, the unlucky subject of a rather morbid Prophecy thrust upon him as a young lad, is, of course, going to play a significant role in this whole unpleasant scenario. But though many would find it difficult to chow down on a cupcake or two whilst contemplating the death and destruction to come, Percy’s quite cool about the whole thing. In fact, when we first encounter the young son of Poseidon in this, the last book in the series, he’s not spending his days lost in tactics and strategies and similarly odious things—rather, he’s out and about joyriding in his stepfather’s car. As you do.
But given that this is a Riordan book, we know that Percy’s idyllic summer is soon to come to an end, and within a few pages poor Percy finds himself flying headlong into battle in an effort to head off the approaching forces of Kronos, the titan time-lord who is intent on having his time in the sun, or in the smoke and rubble, as the case may be. Kronos, rather the more diligent student when it comes to all this battle-related, has spent the summer steadily massing his thoroughly unpleasant army ready to take down Percy, the Camp Half-Blood crew, and not a few fairly well-regarded gods. While Percy is fortunate enough to escape, the gravity of the whole shebang slowly dawns upon him, and he begins to position his own army in preparation for the invasion. Percy, though rather pleased with himself at all of this, is perhaps more than mildly chagrined to find that Kronos is only one (albeit a significant one) of his worries. Upping the stakes somewhat further again is the terrifying titan Typhon, a rather nasty beast who, according to Greek mythology, can lay claim to being the father of all monsters. Given Typhon’s rather chequered past–the odd effort to slay Zeus, and similar infelicities–and his vast, well, vastness, it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the big league gods are directing their efforts towards putting down the titan rather than stepping in for a little deus ex machina goodness with regard to the Kronos situation.
Percy and the campers soon find themselves all but overwhelmed: despite their training and preparation at the camp over the years, they lack the power and skill to be able to overcome such a significant threat. As the casualties rise, Percy realises that urgent action needs to be taken in order to defeat Kronos, and so ventures down into the Underworld to give himself over to the River Styx, an act that will make him invincible–save for one potentially crippling weakness.
While Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian has a lot to recommend it, I can’t help but feeling a little disappointed with the novel as a whole. Riordan works to bring together the various storylines and characters from the previous novels, and given the fairly disparate nature of some of these, he does a good job of integrating them fairly seamlessly into the narrative. There are occasions, however, where the character cameos feel a little forced, and it’s rather as though we’re viewing the credits at the end of an 80s teen movie, watching the actors smile and wave as the camera pans over them. While some of these walk-on characters do play a role in the novel, it’s difficult not to feel as though their insertion is purely for the point of squeezing a nostalgic tear from the reader. There are other slightly jarring moments, too–motivations that seem odd or baseless, such as Clarisse’s refusal to fight alongside the campers, and the sudden introduction of items, such as Pandora’s Box, which we’re told will play an important role, but never really does. Similarly, the identity and role of the last Olympian seems rather slight given the book’s title, and one can’t help but wonder whether things could not have been reworked to allow for a smoother narrative.
The book similarly struggles with another problem typical of those that end a series: that of the final resolution. In my experience, final books frequently stumble under the responsibility of having to tie up loose ends and provide a satisfying culmination to the overarching plot of the series, as well as those plot points raised within the more finite boundaries of the volume. While The Last Olympian does quite a good job of walking the tight-rope between the two, it does rather fall victim to the ‘winding up’ syndrome, and introduces very little in the way of new conflicts or challenges (save perhaps in the final chapter). The unfortunate result of this is that much of the novel feels inevitable–we know how it will play out, and in the end there’s very little that surprises.
The emphasis on ‘closure’ and conclusion also means that less attention is given to character building. While some of the characters do seem to develop of their own accord as a result of their actions in the battle, for the large part character growth is quite literally bestowed upon the characters by the various gods at the end of the book. Highlighting the key points of particular characters’ actions in such a way almost seems to weaken the veracity of them, and Riordan’s other characterisation/backstory trick, ie relaying information via dreams, is used to such a degree in this last book that it becomes quite frustrating–one longs for the characters to actually do something to solve a problem rather than simply dream it.
This isn’t to say that The Last Olympian is a weak novel. Riordan is a strong writer, and builds his narrative upon an equally strong framework. There are particular elements here that do stand out a little from the previous books, and Riordan has done well to elucidate them. The usually free-wheeling and giddy Percy becomes a little more introspective, and his conceptions of good and bad become more nuanced, allowing him to examine his and others’ motivations in a more subtle and interesting way than he might have previously. Similarly, Riordan opens a thread of dialogue with regard to the true instigating factor(s) of Krono’s war against the gods that challenges conceptions of power and perceptions of egalitarianism. There is the notion of oppression and exclusion, and how these issues affect others–topics that could easily be transplanted into myriad situations in today’s world. While it is difficult to explore such issues to any great depth within such a fast-paced narrative, it’s commendable that Riordan manages to integrate such themes without doing so overtly or in a didactic manner.
In all, The Last Olympian is a welcome conclusion to the Percy Jackson series, and does a fine job of tying up the various plot and character arcs that have carried through the earlier novels. Percy’s wry sense of humour and typically anecdotal manner is in evidence throughout, helping to lift and expand the narrative, in particular in the later scenes, where he turns his astute gaze to more complex and challenging manners. It’s true that the battle scenes do at times feel never-ending, slowing somewhat the breakneck pacing we’re used to, and do feel rather predictable, but there’s no denying that this final volume is a fitting farewell to Camp Half-Blood.(less)
Under my bed is the hatbox my mum gave me when I turned 21. In that hatbox is a jumble of receipts, tickets, cards, notes and tidbits–many of them from the early flushes of my relationship with my husband, whom I’d started dating not long after. When we moved in together, I found that he had his own hatbox of sorts that contained all sorts of mementos from our first dates. Since then we’ve expanded our collection of hatboxes: we have a wedding hatbox, and a hatbox for each overseas trip we’ve taken. Yes, we’re the type of people who made mixtapes in our pre-teen days, and yes, one day we’re going to make our poor children go through it all.
Our hatboxes trace our relationship from those back-in-the-olden-days until now, but we’re fortunate that we have a happy ending: a serious tiff or two, and those boxes might have landed outside one or the other’s door, a shrine to something that was, a reminder of everything that was good but that went so bad.
Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up is exactly this: its central conceit is the use of an array of hatbox-style artefacts to post-humously excavate and autopsy a brief but fiery teenaged relationship. The box is filled with all sorts of ephemera: salt shakers, rose petals, movie tickets, condom wrappers, each of which marks a moment, some small, some important, in the relationship between Min and Ed, and the written narrative is all about Min’s response to each of these items and the memories and emotions it evokes.
It’s a book that could so easily be too knowing, too pat, too condescending, but Handler’s approach is raw and honest. Min’s document is an account of an unlikely relationship, where both involved are baffled at their involvement, but nevertheless find themselves pressing on, trying to make sense of the attraction they feel towards each other. Each artefact Min muses over marks, in some what a turning point or a potential fork in the relationship, and at the end of so many of the chapters comes the refrain “and this is why we broke up”.
Because, after all, a break-up is so often a cumulative thing, the combination of all those little misgivings that point to a shaky foundation. Those differences may seem minor, but it’s when someone makes no effort to resolve them, or worse, when they do, but in a way that feels oddly insincere or resentful, that makes them gradually grow until they’re unavoidably looming, lingering there. There’s Ed’s discomfort at learning to drink coffee, for example (“try it with cream and three sugars”), and Min’s sheer boredom at the thought of watching Ed play basketball (“is it okay to do my homework or read a book?”). And then there are those faux pas that are inevitable when two separate social groups are awkwardly cobbled together into one happy friendly family, not to mention the added challenge of family politics…really, it’s astonishing that any relationship is ever successful.
Why We Broke Up will likely embarrass you, as if you’ve ever suffered through a relationship that didn’t work out, you’ll see yourself or at the very least those close to you here. This book is full of those awkward firsts, those uncomfortable times where you’ve said The Wrong Thing, those inevitable moments where your expectations about a relationship, and about your relationship in particular, are utterly divergent. (Oh, Min, why, why did you think it was a good idea to mention a two-month anniversary?)
I suspect, too, that if you’re one of those in your first relationship, well, you might hate this book a little bit: it’s everything that you don’t want to hear right now.
But it’s not a vindictive book, though it has its moments of raw pain. It’s an odd mix of lament and celebration: because even in those failed relationships there are always moments of happiness, moments that you’ve looked at that artefact that marks a turning point and decided to continue on even though the odds seem stacked against you. Why We Broke Up is a an antidote to the endless stampede of “first love is forever” young adult novels, and it’s a welcome panacea to those romantic indulgences. It’s beautifully written, achingly real, and the design is heart-breakingly perfect: the book’s an artefact of love in and of itself. (less)
When I was in year eight I had an English teacher who would have us write essays in class, and would then commend students who could hand in a piece of work free of spelling mistakes. I will never forget the time he held up an error-free essay, then looked the student in the eye and said, "but it's not as though you took any risks, is it?"
Our teacher would have preferred our work to be peppered with mistakes so long as it meant that we were striving to use new and unfamiliar words, or to challenge ourselves stylistically.
As a reader I have a special place in my heart for ambitious books, books that try to do something a little different, even if that something different isn't pulled off with quite the flair it might be. Because I would much, much rather find myself journeying with a book that is striving to grasp at something but doesn't quite make it than a book that is generally solid but that has little other to commend it than its very plodding solidity.
And in what is becoming an endless march of indistinguishable YA, it is so wonderful to be able to pick up something like Dark Dude. It's not a perfect book by any means, but it's a passionate book, and an honest book, and a risky book. It's a book that attempts to take you to places, to make you consider your own place, and to give you a fleeting moment or two of sheer beauty.
Comparisons with Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude are in my mind inevitable, so I'll get that out of the way: yes, this is definitely redolent of the Lethem. In fact, it's so much so that it's almost a response in novel form. Like The Fortress of Solitude, Dark Dude gives us a protagonist who straddles cultures, living as an outsider in a world he will never quite be able to make his own; similarly both books use art as a lens through which race and culture can be examined.
But where Lethem takes us deep into the grim depths of New York, lifting us out only with a hint or two of magic, Hijuelos takes protagonist Rico Fuentes out of New York entirely, setting him down in amongst the bucolic fantasy of rural Wisconsin. Though it sounds like a cheap tree-change ploy, it's a surprisingly effective plot choice, allowing Hijuelos to explore the same issues of identity against a setting that is effectively the reverse of the book's gritty 60s Harlem setting.
A pale-skinned Cuban American whose Spanish is functional at best, Rico has always been insecure in his identity, and he is further distanced from his Harlem peers by his bookish interests--something that is perceived as a marker of white cultural identity. And yet within the insulated, isolated context of Wisconsin, where he should in theory be freed from the cultural expectations that he has struggled with his whole life in New York, he finds himself wrestling with similar questions. Though able to pass as white, Rico is still in many ways on the cultural borderline: his speech patterns and manner immediately give him away when dealing with the locals, and he finds himself applying the same coping mechanisms and cross-cultural balms in doing so.
Though there's a heavy-handedness at times to the way that Hijuelos draws parallels between Rico's lived experiences in and expectations of New York and Wisconsin, Rico's fumbling sense of wonder and search for understanding and growth mitigates this somewhat: while he may not be an analytical character, there's a quietness in the way that he navigates the social challenges thrown at him that offers a space for the reader to reflect on the universality of prejudice and the often unfathomably cruel, animal ways in which people can act. By stripping away the tough context of New York and transposing these incidents into sweet, all-American setting, Hijuelos shows us just how much our expectations of people, and in particular certain marginalised groups, are mediated by context.
The novel works even where it shouldn't largely because of Rico's voice: and this is one of the few YA books I've read recently where the "voice" element extends beyond a colloquial middle class snideness, where the narrative voice is actually wielded by a character who is worthy of telling a story, who actually has some capability of seeing the world with something other than skin-deep diarising cynism. I can't tell you how frustrated I am by the way that the definition of a successful narrative voice in YA appears to be anything that ticks all the boxes of endlessly casual, stylistically devoid, snark-riddled reportage. Trust me: readers can tell when "voice" is being used as a short-cut for characterisation, and where it's being used to deflect readers away from the fact that a book has nothing at all to say.
For a first person book to work, our narrator not only has to have something to say, but to have the ability to express it. And Hijuelos does this admirably. Rico is a lower-class, racially ambiguous, embattled kid, and let's face it, he's hardly going to spout Shakespeare at you. But what he does do is see moments of such beauty in our world, and see these with such surprise and wonder, that you can't help but smile.
Dark Dude isn't a perfect book, and to be honest, I'm almost glad that it isn't, because I'd hate this to be the novel equivalent of the error-free essay my teacher held up in my class all those years ago. It's flawed, yes, but it reaches for those heights, and even when it doesn't hit them, you're overjoyed that it's at least tried to.(less)
"It's the fate of all creators: they fall in love with their creations."
The maker-creation binary is at the heart of Eve & Adam, the latest release from YA authors Michael Grant and Katherine Applegate. However, it's not as simple as this snappy sentence above might suggest.
The fact that these words are spoken by Terra Spiker, a woman who treats her daughter Eve with about as much care and affection as Dr Frankenstein did his monster, and who simultaneously merrily presides over a company whose secret project involves vat-grown humans, is testament to that.
Grant and Applegate are known for exploring often challenging themes and questions within what might be taken superficially as slight, action-oriented novels for young adults, and Eve and Adam is no different. It's not a subtle novel, but then, neither was Frankenstein and, hey, neither was Genesis. There's plenty of slick science, plenty of action, and plenty of fast-talking teen banter, sure. But in addition to all of this there's a thorough exploration of what it means to fill the various maker roles, what it means to be a creation, and the conflicts that spring up between the two.
We meet Eve (an abbreviation of Evening, a name that which offers a notable contrast to the meanings we take from Eve) as she hurtles through the air after a terrible accident. Although her injuries are severe, including the loss of a leg, she's taken to her billionaire mother's headquarters, where with the help of teen employee Solo, she quickly recuperates. Far too quickly, actually. Eve has her suspicions that something's not quite right about the whole thing, as does Solo, whom we learn has been adopted by Terra Spiker after being orphaned. Solo is on a mission to bring down Spiker Biopharmaceuticals, and it's a mission he becomes even more passionate about when he learns that Eve has been given a holiday project involving creating a perfectly lifelike simulation of a human. Because with Spiker's hazy ethical track record, there's every likelihood that this simulation's going to be a little too real for comfort.
The plot unfolds fairly much as you expect it will, and to be honest I was a little disappointed by the book's narrative bluntness. The various character reveals worked well enough (no one is who they seem), although there were several elements that just didn't quite sit right with me. The reasoning behind Solo's involvement at Spiker Biopharm felt a little hazy, and I couldn't quite suspend disbelief during the action scenes that took place outside the Spiker headquarters. I found the subplot involving Eve's creation quite weak as well: it didn't seem to build with any real rhythm, and simply felt as though it ebbed away at the end. This is, as far as I know, the first in a series, but even so I didn't quite feel that the resolution quite worked.
Perhaps my biggest bugbear with the whole book was the use of sexually overt misogyny to belittle the female teen characters. This was baffling to me, particularly given that the women in this book are otherwise empowered. I simply can't imagine a women of Terra Spiker's status letting loose with a constant barrage of "sluts" and "whores" when talking about her daughter's friend. "You have one friend and she's a drunken slut," she sneers at one point; this language is repeated over and over. Gratuitous misogyny is also an issue during the book's climax, where our Evil Scientist character gloatingly says to Solo: "You haven't tapped that little piece yet?" Why is it that antagonists are so often rendered as being sexually deviant, and why, in such a gratuitous manner? Honestly, if you're going about kidnapping people and generally being awful, I will quite readily conclude that you're not a nice person without being slugged with an additional cheap misogynistic blow.
These issues aside, however, I did enjoy the exploration of the different maker-creator notions--the creator, the birth mother, and the adoptive mother--and the fact that almost all of the major characters filled at least two of these. When stitched together, a fascinating web of maker-creator connections arises, and the tension around each of these is so palpable that you can almost hear it humming. Of the main characters, it's Terra and Eve who experience the most different connections, and perhaps it's this that also leads to their ever more conflicted relationship. When Eve effectively adopts her friend Aislin, for example, it's a relationship that resonates both through Eve and through Terra as well. She also adds additional depth to her relationship between herself and her "Adam" by giving him a name--something that Frankenstein fails to do to his own monster.
Eve's conflict over creating Adam is also fascinating, particularly as she's playing the God role while Aislin, playing that of the devil, hovers over her shoulder urging her to ignore her natural desire for balance and to embrace what's effectively a sort of creative hedonism. "Everyone should have flaws," thinks Eve. "Isn't that what makes us interesting?" Aislin, on the other hand, thinks that it's inevitable that Eve should seek out perfection in her creation, after all, she does as much when she's contemplating guys to date. As she continues her work, Eve begins to appreciate the challenge of creation:
"I could make him reckless and bold. He might die younger. He might be a criminal. He might be a great creative mind. This is not the simple, fun artwork of making a face and a body...this isn't as simple as it looks."
Interestingly, her creation is done beneath the shadow of Terra, who's almost frighteningly goddess-like (and I do love that the creators in this book, as alluded to by the book's title, are female). Whatever creative affordances Eve has in her little lab, they're nothing compared with those of Terra. Her name's evocative enough, but the fact that she's a billionaire who has no concept of money works as a parallel to some sort of supreme being with infinite resources at their fingertips. However, as we did in Frankenstein we learn that there are vast differences between the different types of creation, and the relationships that arise between the different types of creator-maker binaries. Is it possible to love something that has been constructed? Or to be truly loved by something you've created naturally?
When you reach the last page of Eve & Adam, it's hard not to flick back to the first page and re-read Eve's thoughts on dying:
"When you die...you should be thinking about love...you should not be thinking about an apple."(less)
“In my opinion you aren’t a total waste of time,” says the town’s visiting Bard to eleven-year-old Jack. “Don’t let that go to your head, boy. You could easily be a partial waste of time. How’d you like to be my apprentice?”
There’s nothing like a glowing appraisal from one’s teacher to set one on the path to self-study and personal development, is there?
But back-handed praise is enough for Jack, who longs for something more from his mundane, bucolic lifestyle as a farmer’s son. He’s not alone in this, either. The others in his life give the impression of being more capable than their presently quiet lives would lead us to believe. Jack’s mother is a practitioner of simple hearth magic, while his six-year-old sister Lucy is quite insistent that she’s of royal blood. For all his moaning and grumbling, too, Jack’s father also longs for something more of his life, although this is something that Jack only begins to see as he studies under the Bard:
“He’d never appreciated Giles Crookleg’s complaining meant no more than the mutterings of crows in a tree. It was a habit crows fell into when things weren’t going their way. Father, too, grumbled by way of easing the disappointment in his life. What mattered was how Father went on in spite of his unhappiness, to create this beautiful place.”
This little epiphany is one of the first suggestions we get of the growth that Jack is about to undergo, and let’s just say that there’s a tremendous amount ahead. And not just for Jack, but for those around him. For Jack’s quiet Saxon life is about to be interrupted by the invading Vikings (or Northmen, as they’re known in the book). Jack and his sister are kidnapped and whisked away by the Northman Olaf to be sold as slaves. But Jack and Lucy are passed in at auction. Lucky them. Olaf decides to take Jack on as his personal mini-bard, and hands Lucy over as a gift to King Ivar and his cranky half-troll wife Frith. Unfortunately, Jack’s efforts to woo his new captor go slightly awry when his spoken word poem strips the hair from Frith, leaving her quite the chrome dome.
She is unimpressed. Lives are threatened. Bargains are made.
And so off they all head on an adventure to restore her lovely locks and thus ensure the continued existence of bratty Lucy. An adventure that involves trolls, giant spiders, Yggdrasil, and plenty of self-discovery. Not to mention a fairly captivating mix of darkness and levity. Take the discussion over the impending quest to Jotunheim:
“It is perilous beyond belief to pass into Jotunheim,” said King Ivar. “I know. I’ve been there.” “And I as well,” said Olaf.
I love that a place that’s apparently impossible to return from alive has survivors galore reporting of its purgatorial nature. And who can resist a bunch of Vikings who exhort Jack to “just say no to pillaging”? But at the same time, the whimsy leads to the text feeling a little uneven. The Sea of Trolls seems to waver between being YA and MG at times, and the humour’s in large part to blame. Lines like Frith’s ”I wanted a fine ogre or goblin, but no. Mother insisted I marry a puny human” sit strangely and anachronistically against Farmer’s thoughtful examination of the intersection of different cultures, belief systems, and the complexity of human nature.
The book is set in 793 CE, a historically fairly unpleasant time for the English, being the beginning of more than a hundred years of Viking raids. This period is neatly alluded to by Jack’s smaller-scale contact with various groups and their ways of life. For example, Jack, himself from a religiously diverse background, finds himself arguing the value of life with monks from the Christian tradition: “Hark at him! The child presumes to lecture his elders. Listen, boy. Long life is but a chance to commit more sins. The longer you live, the more Satan whispers in your ear. Your soul grows so heavy, it gets dragged down to Hell. It’s better to die young, preferably right after baptism, and be taken into Heaven.” Similarly, he finds himself struggling to understand the desire of the Vikings to die in battle so that they might enter Valhalla. “Why does everyone want to die?” he asks. “What’s so bad about being alive?”
Another notable snippet is this one:
“When Odin wanted the lore that would make him leader of the gods, he had to pay for it with suffering. he was stabbed with a spear and hanged for nine days and nights on the tree Yggdrasil.” “That’s just plain stupid,” Jack said. “Your god was nailed to a cross. It’s the same thing.” “No, it’s not.”
Quotes like these abound; Farmer manages to fit plenty of thematic rumination and mythological references into what is a pretty rollicking adventure. Better scholars of this period than I am will pick out resonances from Beowulf as well as from the historical record; although one element I found interesting was that the “Jack and Jill” nursery rhyme apparently arose from this era.
In addition to the spiritual and historical side of things, there’s plenty more into which the reader can delve, including what appears to be a pre-Stockholm case of Stockholm Syndrome–Jack’s relationship with his captor Olaf becomes almost loving. Take this: ”For the first time he understood what drove these violent men. Their lives were short, but every moment burned with intensity. These men knew they were doomed…it was brave and crazy and supremely stupid. But it was noble, too.” And also this: ”Lesser men. That meant he, Jack, was greater. The giant didn’t think of him as a slave…they were equals.”
And yet. You knew that there was a yet, didn’t you? Somehow I didn’t quite connect with the book, as much as I dearly wanted to. It’s a book that I felt like I should have loved, and which offers so many reasons to love it, but I never felt truly engaged by it. Jack and I were grudging travel buddies, and I was disappointed by the fact that the book’s female characters were largely, well, unbearable. The exception was Thorgill, who I would have loved to have seen as the book’s protagonist, given that she’s the one that undergoes the most growth. The writing, too, never quite felt there for me, either, and I felt as though the book’s target audience was never clearly defined.
Still, I’m glad that I took the time to acquaint myself with Nancy Farmer’s work, and given the generally strong elements of this book suspect that I’ll be picking up some more of her work at another point. (less)
Faith needs no sign. Let not the creation Test the creator.
Fifteen-year-old Kezi lives a simple but fulfilled life, spending her days knotting rugs and participating in the local festivities and religious ceremonies with her families. But when Kezi’s mother falls ill, Kezi’s father pledges to sacrifice a soul to their god Admat in return for his wife’s continued health. The sacrifice is to be the first person who congratulates Kezi’s mother on her recovery. Kezi, upon seeing that her aunt is about to put herself in the sacrificial position, steps up and offers herself instead.
The sacrifice is to be made within the month, and so Kezi throws herself into living, experiencing and, increasingly, questioning. Why should she be asked to die? Why would her god want this? How does she know that her god wants this? Her belief in Admat, the god of her monotheistic quasi-Mesopotamian culture, comes into question, particularly when she meets Olus, a wind god deity, and part of a nearby pantheon heretofore unknown to Kezi.
“How can Admat be the one, the all, if Olus is a god too and there are many Akkan gods?” she wonders, her faith challenged not only by her pending death but by her new acquaintance with other ways of worshiping and believing. “Admat is angry at the people of Hyte sometimes, but he loves us. Doesn’t he? He is with us every moment. Isn’t he? He is with me every moment. Isn’t he? Is he nowhere and nothing? Am I alone?”
Olus, for his part, questions his own identity and role: as a teenager, he’s the youngest of his kind by thousands of years, and feels alienated and lonely amongst those who pooh-pooh the young and the short-lived as fleeting and irrelevant. ”Who can be interested in soap bubbles?” says his goddess mother. “You become acquainted with one and pop! it’s dead. Pottery lasts.”
But his own interactions with human-kind have been fumbling at best. His efforts to befriend a young boy called Kudiya backfire painfully, with Kudiya’s family seeing Olus’s visitation as proof of his anger. ”At dawn Kudiya wakes his parents and pulls them outside, chattering about his vision. He jumps like a puppet when he sees the brown grass. I laugh until I see his terror. His parents are terrified, too.” Fearful of similarly scaring away Kezi, he vows to tread carefully, and makes himself known to her first as a boy before a god.
Reading Kezi’s holy texts, Olus’s identity comes further into question, and he begins to reflect on what it means to be a god, and what the existence of Admat means for him and his kind. ”It astounds me. Admat is believed to be everywhere at once and to be invisible to the living…No Akkan god is invisible, and none of us can be in more than one spot at the same time. I wonder how Admat can be everywhere. Is he in my sandal? Or is he my sandal itself? Why would a god bother to be a sandal?”
Kezi and Olus grow closer together as they seek to find a way to change Kezi’s fate, and each undergoes a significant spiritual journey, questioning not only the nature of religion and worship, but also the idea of pledges, tests, and sacrifices, and the purpose and validity of these in the context of different types of worship. ”Why did we have to be tested?” asks Kezi at one point, to which Olus responds: “Why did you have to be sacrificed?” It’s probably no surprise that given the above fate and predestination are omnipresent themes as well. When Kezi pledges her own life in the place of her elderly aunt, she thinks: “Through her tunic I see the bumps of her spine. Her hair is as much grey as brown. How many more years have I given her? We may both die tomorrow, in spite of Pado’s oath. As you wish, so it will be.”
But as the book progresses, we learn that although we can’t possibly know the future, we can still seek to thwart what we think is our fate. For example, Kezi’s questioning of her own trajectory leads her (amongst other, far more major things, but I won’t spoil that for you) to become determined to learn to read and write. For these skills are associated with knowledge, which is in turn associated with power over one’s life. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to argue with the god of wisdom, but I think that a smart man or woman can easily acquire knowledge,” she says at one point, which shows how she’s developed since her initial unquestioning acceptance of her own sacrifice.
Ever is a simple and surprisingly beautiful story that, yes, is predictable, but in a way that recalls classical mythology or ancient fairytales. It’s not so much a novel about character as it is about theme, and it feels as though it could easily be part of an oral tradition. Unfortunately, this type of approach does create distance between the reader and the characters, and though I enjoyed the tale, I didn’t quite connect with Kezi and Olus as much as I’d have liked to.
Still, it’s always a pleasant change to read an historical tale set beyond the borders of Europe, and Carson Levine has managed to infuse a strong sense of place into this tale. Though it’s rendered in a broad-brush manner, it’s quite fitting for the narrative style. I enjoyed the cuneiform chapter number renderings as well, and thought they added a nice touch. It is disappointing, though, to see such a pale-skinned girl on the front cover despite the fact that we read of Kezi having bronzed skin and dark features.
In all, this is a lively, engrossing read, and one that will appeal to lovers of mythology and classical settings.(less)
Perfect Chemistry, Simone Elkeles’s young adult tale of star-crossed love, takes up the old adage that opposites attract and suggests that such attrac...morePerfect Chemistry, Simone Elkeles’s young adult tale of star-crossed love, takes up the old adage that opposites attract and suggests that such attractions, in fact, may be less to do with the differences and more to do with the similarities that lurk beneath apparently divergent exteriors.
Brittany Ellis. Alejandro Fuentes. The names themselves are suggestive enough, but Elkeles deliberately places them as far apart on the social spectrum as possible in order to emphasise the gap we know will be eventually negotiated and bridged. Brittany exemplifies middle-class perfection: blonde, popular, athletic, smart, and decked out in designer clothing. Alex, on the other hand, with his dangerous swagger and gang tattoos, is someone to be feared. The binaries continue as we bounce from one side of the social divide to the other: houses, cars, friends, future aspirations. While they do initially feel little more than archetypes, Elkeles works to bring a great deal of humanity to both characters, and the black and white contrast of their worlds starts to blur little by little until the reader is able to see how one can be transposed into the other’s reality.
Despite their vastly different backgrounds and circumstances, Brittany and Alex do share similar aspirations and values. Their fears are also similar: each, in their own way, has expertly constructed a facade, and even a life plan, designed to meet the expectations of their peers and family, and even, in a way, to protect them. Brittany’s veneer of perfection is designed to diminish the reality of her sister’s disability: her exemplary achievement, she feels, is a form of atonement. She feels that she must somehow live a life equivalent to two people’s, with all that that entails. Alex, on the other hand, affects his tough stance as a form of physical protection. His gang-member status is an insurance policy that ensures his family’s physical safety, as well as serving to shield his younger brothers from becoming involved in gang-related activity themselves.
While the two initially clash (and to dramatic effect!), it is not necessarily because they dislike each other. Rather, it’s what the other represents that poses the problem. Elkeles deals with this challenge admirably, and Brittany and Alex slowly begin to negotiate the social and cultural barriers that they’ve always taken for granted. The implications of being in the “wrong” neighbourhood or participating in the “wrong” type of activity are suddenly foregrounded—having never challenged the status quo in such a way before, these issues are new to both of them. Things that are taken for granted by Brittany, such as the expected behaviour in an art gallery, are painful unknowns for Alex, and vice versa.
Perfect Chemistry is, of course, a love story, but this element tends to be fairly understated, with the novel simultaneously addressing a number of complex teen issues. For the most part these are dealt with in a thoughtful and realistic manner, although there are times when certain scenes or interactions read a bit didactically, or are clearly inserted for plot purposes. I should note that there are some elements that I find highly problematic, such as how the female characters are perceived or treated by the males throughout the book, and the fact that this largely goes unchallenged. If this book is, as it seems to seek to be, an accurate reflection of suburban American life, the prevalence and apparent normalisation of these attitudes is highly problematic. Brittany’s ex-boyfriend Colin, for example, constantly objectifies women, but is rarely called on it. The bet Alex makes, in which Brittany is the prize, is also difficult to come to terms with as a female reader, and I find myself somewhat angry that this trope seems to appear so frequently throughout films and novels pitched at teens. Similarly, the scene were Alex and Brittany do have sex is almost painful to read given what we know of the characters’ motivations.
The novel unfortunately also suffers from some pacing issues towards the final third of the book. While Elkeles has worked admirably to build a real-time immediacy in the earlier sections of the book, giving us a day-by-day account of the characters’ lives that is almost claustrophobic in its intensity, the final third of the book suddenly skips whole months at a time, detracting significantly from the tension that has been thus far achieved. The book is further undermined by a saccharine ending that feels contrived and simplistic after such sincere effort has been made to depict teenage life in a nuanced and realistic manner.
In all, though, Perfect Chemistry is a skilfully written novel with characters it’s difficult not to identify with. Elkeles has an excellent ear for dialogue, and does a great job of differentiating her characters based using a combination of speech and the subtle idiosyncrasies she affords them. She writes with warmth and understanding about teenagers, but doesn’t patronise, or shy from dealing with controversial themes and issues–because, after all, these are the issues that teens, to varying degrees, are dealing with on a daily basis.
Anne Green has been been found guilty of infanticide and of unlawful fornication. Per her sentence, she has been hanged. Not to death, however, contrary to the judge’s orders, but to somewhere in between. So to where, exactly?
When we first meet Anne she is lying immobile, senseless, and lost in darkness. Is she dead? Has she been cast into purgatory? Or has she been somehow wrenched back from the brink of eternity? The answer, in a way, is all three.
Newes from the Dead is based on the true case of Anne Green, who in 1650 was hanged, pronounced dead, and was subsequently revived. It’s a controversial story for many reasons, and the sheer grotesquery of it is perhaps only the least of it. In Mary Hooper’s capable hands, Anne’s story and the tangle of class, gender, and ethical issues entwined around it are teased out in compelling, thoughtful manner, and one that will no doubt invite plenty of discussion.
The story is written from two parallel perspectives: that of Anne reliving the events that led up to her hanging, and that of timid medical student Robert Matthews, who is presiding over the dissection of Anne’s corpse. Often such an approach can be problematic, but it’s well utilised here, allowing Hooper to examine and critique the often morally infused perceptions of the medical community in such a situation, as well as reiterating the sheer voicelessness of women during this time period. In death, as in life, Anne is subject to the whims of a group of middle- and upper-class men.
To these men, Anne is not a person: she is simply a body. “Anne Green…would presently be sawn, dismembered, divided, cut, pared, sliced, peeled and flayed. No part of her would go untouched, unseen or unrecorded,” muses Robert as he watches over the still form of Anne. Anne, after all, is not just a woman, but she’s a woman who belongs to the lower class. As such, she’s doubly presided over by these privileged men. As servant Martha says: ”It’s always someone poor they cuts to pieces…the gentry don’t get flayed! Don’t they ever commit murder? I vow they do!” Robert, too, acknowledges that “the bodies granted for dissection were always those of the lower class.”
Of course, if Anne weren’t a lower class female, she might not even be in this situation in the first place. As Dr Wilton, who is about as egalitarian as a man of his station and time is likely to be, says: ”Infanticide is a cruel law which only applies to the lower classes…when was one of the aristocracy last hanged for such a crime?” As it turns out, Anne isn’t guilty of infanticide at all, but that’s by the by. “Whore, murderess – much the same thing….though this one here is very pretty, by all accounts,” says one of the men. Another adds, ”the new laws state that fornication may be an offence punishably by death, so the jade has got what she deserved.” To which Wilton points out: “But who was it that she fornicated with? Should he not also be culpable?”
As we slowly learn how Anne came to be where she is, we learn just how fraught it is to be a young, pretty girl in her station. Even the smallest act can be taken as something much more: ”I offered to hear his palm…but telling palms meant that I had to hold his hand, and Susan came upon me doing this…”she recounts at one point. Actions such as these lead the household staff to slowly turn upon her, and when her affair with the master of the house is found out, particularly given its circumstances, there’s no sympathy for Anne. ”I have heard of maidservants that are bold enough to slap a man – even a gentleman – for getting too familiar, but I didn’t. Instead I am ashamed to say that I stayed to hear more.”
The consequences that arise are almost unfathomable. Poor Anne is horribly prescient when she muses, “the first act in the sewing room was over very quickly, leaving me to ponder afterwards how such a small and strange act could be so very important and worth so much.” Because for everyone else around her, it truly is so. The word of a man against her, her own lowly station – these are enough to see her condemned.
But what follows is an awful, voyeuristic production. Anne is a spectacle, but a voiceless one, for her own words are worthless in the eyes of the law and in society. She’s a marionette for others’ entertainment. When on trial, she thinks: ”in this room were a great many seats and benches, and on these a number of people were seated. I’ve seen pictures of a play performed in a theatre and it reminded me something of this…” And of course, this scenario plays out after her death, too, with others speaking of her and for her while she remains mute and paralysed on the morgue bench.
Hooper beautifully teases out the irony of what follows, because it is, of course, a discussion of whether Anne should be helped back to life, or whether she should be put, as she should have been, properly to death. ”Hold, I say. That woman belongs to God, and God alone! You will not take her back from him!” says the Puritan character, when a doctor suggests that they “might intervene a little? Assist nature?” Modern day readers will marvel at a society that can hang its own for small misdemeanours and can then turn around and suggest that offering succour is meddling in the ways of God. ”I wonder if that would be ethical,” Dr Willis says. “Isn’t the Puritan correct? Wouldn’t anything we do be deemed as interfering with the will of God?”
The contradiction is bitingly humorous when the Puritan says: “Every man has a time to be born and a time to die. It is not meant to interfere with the holy scheme of things. Man should not be raised again.” Indeed. Because no one of great importance to Christianity has ever been killed and then resurrected from the dead…
But this is a society whose obsessions with death, morality, and sexuality work together in terrible, disturbing ways. It’s impossible not to mention the description of the hanging, an event that is eerily eroticised and which points to the issues of deep-rooted sexual repression. ”The hanging of Anne Green had been different, for the girl had been young and comely. Shapely, too, as the crowd had seen, for after taking off her gown and cloak and bequeathing them to her mother, Mistress Green had faced the cold and driving rain wearing just her undershift…the men in the crowd had hardly known what attitude to take, wanting to show a seriousness but having a lusty curiosity for such a well-shaped young body.”
Newes from the Dead is somehow caustic, wry and warm, and it’s testament to Hooper’s skill that she can take a story where the ending is known from its first pages and work it into something that remains fascinating and compelling throughout. There are a couple of missteps: this is a book that’s focused very much on Anne’s death and resuscitation, so what we do see of her life after that feels a little rushed and slightly out of place. The character of Robert, too, dwindles away quite surprisingly for someone who has played such a significant role in the book.
I did have a final gripe about a certain character upon whom it seems that divine justice is meted, in my mind unrealistically, and yet, from the author’s historical note, it appears that this is entirely based on fact. It’s probably a good elucidation of the themes of the entire book. Everything here is a curious case of truth being stranger than fiction. Readers are blinkered by the stories, and the boundaries of these stories, that we think are being told rather than the ones that really are being told.(less)
I was lucky enough to win a copy of Marley Gibson‘s second novel Ghost Huntress: The Guidance from a giveaway hosted recently by the wonderful The Kni...moreI was lucky enough to win a copy of Marley Gibson‘s second novel Ghost Huntress: The Guidance from a giveaway hosted recently by the wonderful The Knight Agency. I picked it up out of my to-read shelf after getting home from a girls’ night out on Friday, and needless to say had some rather dark looking bags beneath my eyes by the following day.
The Ghost Huntress series began, I believe, as a trilogy, but has been extended to at least a fifth book, and given the avenues that Gibson opens up for her expansive cast of characters, and the impressive credibility she gives them as individuals, it’s unsurprising that this has occurred.
The series follows Kendall Moorehead, a sixteen-year-old who has recently moved from big-city life in Chicago to the slightly sleepier Radisson, Georgia. While this is a fairly standard starting point for a YA, Kendall’s new-girl-in-town situation is significantly complicated by the fact that she has recently developed the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The Guidance, then, picks up with Kendall struggling to deal with her mother’s lack of acceptance of her gifts, as well the demands that they place on her due to their uncontrolled nature. These are issues that affect her both physically, and also in terms of the tentative relationships she has built with her friends and her fledgling romance with Jason.
These problems are evident almost immediately, as Kendall is abruptly put upon to track down a missing body, and must then deal with the aftermath of doing so: as she works with the Crawford family to locate the spirit of a missing elderly man, Kendall finds that there are other spirits loose in the Crawford house, and that one in particular harbours a vicious streak. However, Kendall has other issues in addition to dealing with a sinister ghost: the school alpha female, cruel cheerleader Courtney Langdon, is, to put it mildly, somewhat affronted that Kendall has unwittingly stolen her thunder. And goodness, what thunder it is.
Courtney is determined to regain her position in the social hierarchy, and does so through a series of strange imitative efforts that initially serve to humiliate Kendall, but that ultimately result in Courtney being ‘oppressed’ (cf possessed) by the sinister Crawford ghost in the wake of a seance gone horribly wrong.
This book took me a little acclimatising until I was truly comfortable with the narrative voice–it’s an extremely ‘voicy’ YA in the vein of Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Golden. It occasionally goes a little mad with the teen vernacular, and I found myself cringing here and there at the way the author marks sarcasm with ‘(not!)’ or splashes about superlative ‘sooooo cools’ with startling vigour. These strange instances are sort of like seizures, though: they burst into being for a page or so, and then recede for a few chapters. The same goes for the sudden barrage of brand name-dropping that seems to hit at random intervals before heading back into the nearby shrubs, apparently biding its time before another attack.
However, Gibson largely does do a good job of capturing the teen voice, and of getting into the head of her characters. She makes an admirable effort to draw her characters within a proper social context, rounding them out with detailed personal attributes and goals, strong networks of friends, and believable family situations. For the most part, Kendall’s place as a new girl within the tight-knit community of Radisson feels very real, and I also appreciated the careful way the relationship with Kendall and her loving-but-concerned mother is approached and addressed. Kendall’s relationships with her spiritual mentor, and with her ghost guide Emily are also sympathetically captured, and Gibson’s talent is really on show in these moments.
However, there are some places where the characterisation fell flat for me, with the first of these being, of course, Courtney (and one does have to wonder why almost every character in the book has a name beginning with C or K). Courtney is presented as a queen-bee cheerleader with all the most obnoxious traits that go with the type: she’s bossy, self-obsessed, and jealous. Although Gibson hints that there are difficulties in Courtney’s life, these are airily waved away when Kendall reads Courtney’s thoughts only to find out that the biggest fears the cheerleader has about her parents’ apparent financial woes relate to keeping up with the latest fashion trends. I also struggled with the extremely unsympathetic and flippant depiction of Courtney’s eating disorder.
Similarly, and this is one nit-pick that often arises with large ensemble casts, Kendall’s friends are differentiated so thoroughly as to make the reader wonder why they are possibly friends in the first place. We end up with the strange Babysitters Club-like situation of having a whole bunch of disparate but zany personalities jammed together, and this isn’t always convincing. Kendall’s boyfriend Jason also suffers a little in the characterisation stakes, and largely remains in the background unless he’s displaying some concerning stalker-esque warning signs a la Edward from Twilight.
However, overall, The Guidance comes together quite well, and it is largely the characters that keep the book moving. Gibson has created a mostly believable cast and has worked them into a well-drawn setting, and the ghost element allows for the clever layering of both family and social history over the day-to-day lives of the characters. The descriptions of the paranormal phenomena that occur as part of the narrative are entrancing and intriguing, and Gibson captures the atmosphere that apparently accompanies these events in a way that feels believable. The theme of self-acceptance is evident throughout the book, but in a way that is not overt or didactic.
I’m curious to see how Gibson builds upon these strengths with the third in the series–expect a review in a few weeks.(less)
“This vow was supposed to be about making things less complicated, to stop myself from doing something stupid, to show everyone how much I don’t need...more“This vow was supposed to be about making things less complicated, to stop myself from doing something stupid, to show everyone how much I don’t need them. It was about me deciding that if I can’t have their forgiveness or their respect, I won’t give them anything. All it’s done is make me an easy target.”
Chelsea Knot knows the social currency of gossip. Being able to wield an uncomfortable secret against someone is power, and its leverage is apparently infinite among her group of friends. And really, gossip is all that Chelsea has to offer when it comes to retaining her place on the totem pole of school popularity. Because she wouldn’t be there at all if her best friend, the oh-so-popular Kristen, hadn’t taken her under her charitable wing.
So when Chelsea walks in on two guys kissing at a party one night, her first thought isn’t that given the horrifically homophobic attitudes of her small town, it might better to keep things quiet. Her first thought isn’t that it’s not her place to out someone. It’s that she can use what she’s seen as a way to help cement her ever-rickety place in the social hierarchy. “Kristen is easily bored, so when I do get her full focus, it makes me feel like I’m doing something right….she’s used to people fawning all over her to get on her good side. I’ve been on her good side for almost two years now, and I intend to stay there.” But Chelsea’s gossip has unthinkable consequences.
“‘They’re fucking holding hands? Shit.’ Warren spits into his red plastic cup…before he nods at Joey and says, ‘You coming?’”
In the attack that ensues, one of the boys ends up in hospital. He’s seriously injured. Fortunately, Chelsea does make the right decision: she makes a report to the police about what’s happened, and the two culprits behind the brutal beating are arrested. But in a small town like Chelsea’s, this is only the beginning. ”It doesn’t matter if it was the right thing to do or not. Of course she hates me.” When Chelsea’s friendship group turns on her with astonishing bile, she decides that nothing good can come from her speaking out–and so she takes a vow of silence.
In disarming her weapon of choice–her voice–Chelsea finds that the power dynamics of the schoolyard shift dramatically around her. Where those who might otherwise have fallen victim to her gossiping ways tentatively reach out to her, others use her silence against her. After all, without a voice, Chelsea has no way of retaliating, of sharing her concerns, or even seeking solace in the companionship of others. As Chelsea’s silence stretches over days, then weeks, she begins to learn just how crucial it is to be able to have a voice: ”And even just sitting there, it’s like I’m somehow part of it, even though I’m not, really. I’m just an observer,” she thinks at one point.
She also slowly learns that gossip isn’t just about her own voice. It’s something that actually takes away the voices of other people by speaking for them and of them. Not to mention choosing not to speak out for others. Others who so often are people who are already effectively voiceless: ethnic minorities, queer students and so on.
“When it [homophobic comments] happened I did nothing. It barely even registered; it was like white noise,” she thinks at one point. “Sometimes I even laughed along for show. At least it wasn’t being said about me…And I thought it was okay as long as I didn’t actively participate, that it was enough for me to secretly believe in my heart of hearts that there was absolutely nothing wrong with being gay even if I never dared say it out loud.”
The rampant homophobia in Chelsea’s hometown is horrific; it’s something that’s not even acknowledged, it’s so taboo. It so clearly needs to be spoken about in the school community–and indeed, one of the students sets up a queer alliance just for this reason–as it’s something that students are so uncomfortable with that they don’t even know where to begin. Though Chelsea slowly attempts to position herself as accepting, she’s often really little more than tolerant (and given her self-obsessed comments at times, probably less than tolerant). Her response to the two guys at the party kissing is indicative of her own deep-rooted homophobia, as are comments like: ”Warren and Joey were totally drunk, but it’s one thing to joke about that stuff and another altogether to act on it.” Is it really “one thing” to joke about beating the crap out of someone because of their sexuality?
The homophobia in the book apparently goes hand-in-hand with the misogyny and slut-shaming, which is widespread and vicious–and unlike the homophobia, goes largely unquestioned. At one point Chelsea describes ”packs of preteen girls in their way too slutty outfits” at another (while drunk), she says: ”I’d be nicer to her if she dressed a little better,” adding internally, It would also help if she stayed away from Brendon and didn’t get her slutty germs all over him. Natalie is the kind of girl who can give you an STD from eye contact alone.
The treatment of females throughout the book is alarming, and I can only hope it’s pointedly exaggerated (and that the author is writing critically), because there’s a serious need for not just a queer alliance in this school, but a feminist one, too. Chelsea’s locker is regularly defaced with terms like “stupid whore” and “bitch”. At one point in the book a character says to her, ”Finally decided to keep your mouth shut, huh?” He adds afterward: “Hey, maybe at lunch you can come by our table and suck my dick. Then Derek’s. Then everyone else’s. Think you owe that much to the team after costing us our two best players, don’t you?”
This is a book that is positioned to be very powerful, and after an uneven beginning, it seems that it does have that potential. And yet, it seems to peter out, veering off into proms and formal dresses and a sweet and not-quite-believable romance (while yay for a love interest who isn’t creepy and possessive one can’t help but wonder whether a romance can truly be kindled through discussions on a whiteboard) rather than really addressing the issues or answering the questions that it seems to have set out to. I couldn’t help but feel that Chelsea isn’t quite self-aware enough as a character to be able to carry off this subject matter as well as another character might have, and often there’s a lot of awkward expositional flailing as she tries to do so, but fails. Between this and the fairly forgettable direction the plot ends up taking, I can’t quite shake the feeling that there’s a missed opportunity here. I’m a little torn over the star rating for this one, but given that it’s a book that I’m still thinking about a week after reading it, it’s hard to deny that there’s definitely something about it that resonates.(less)
The FitzOsbornes aren't your typical royal family. Impoverished and isolated, they rule over a tiny island--although perhaps rule is too strong a word given that there are as many villagers left on the island as there are FitzOsbornes in the family castle. Fortified house, that is, as pedant Veronica points out very primly that it cannot properly be called a castle.
Though it is Veronica who is the bookish, studious one of the clan, and who is purportedly writing the official family history, the reader will be relieved to know that it's not through her officious eyes that we explore the blustery, ramshackle island of Montmaray, but rather through those of her cousin Sophie. Instead of searching back through the history books to put together her account of life on the island, Sophie does so with pen and paper and a keen eye for the humour to be found in human interactions--something Veronica patently lacks.
"When I asked Veronica what she'd thought about Pride and Prejudice, she only wondered aloud how anyone could have written a novel set in the first part of the nineteenth century without once mentioning Napoleon," says Sophie. (This is perhaps why Veronica also fails to understand Sophie's allusion when she describes a homoerotic situation as "a bit like Oscar Wilde and that boy." "Oscar Wilde?" says Veronica blankly.)
Her account has been translated from its original (made-up) Kernetin ("Kernetin is based on Cornish and Latin, with some Greek letters and random meaningless squiggles thrown in to be extra-confusing. Also, it is boustrophedonic [I adore that world and try to say it as often as possible, but unfortunately it hasn't many everyday uses.]"), but readers will be pleased to know that none of its wit and whimsy has been lost. Or indeed, if it has, then to no detriment of the narrative.
A Brief History of Montmaray is a warm, quiet read that owes much of its success to Sophie's sense of humour and her wry observations of the daily lives of a handful of teens (and one child), a few adults, and one mad regent, whose experiences extend only as far as the shores of their tiny island. And the occasional shipment of newspapers or letter from Toby FitzOsborne, who is studying abroad (or more accurately, attending school abroad, as studying is not something Toby makes a habit of.)
Sophie muses on the near-insolvency of their kingdom: "As I wrote that last bit, Henry wandered through the kitchen wearing an ancient jersey of Toby's that is more holes than wool, but that's because she idolises Toby, not because she is a Dickensian beggar child"; the problems of marriage when one is a member of a royal family: "Heavens, what a snob I sound! But it's not my fault I'm a princess (albeit one from an impoverished and inconsequential island kingdom that is miles from anywhere)" and her typical response to Veronica's bookishness: "I got distracted as I tend to do, and started thinking about the herringbone pattern in which the stones were set and whether herrings really did have their bones arranged in that particular manner."
Trivia involving vicious chickens, dwindling candle stubs and maybe-ghosts might form a large part of the narrative, but its presence is twofold. Not only does it (amusingly) highlight the purposelessness of the FitzOsbornes' daily lives and the family's utter irrelevance to the wider world, but these petty concerns and interests also highlight just how myopic people can become when they're cut off from the wider world. The setting of the novel, you see, is the end of the 1930s. There are hints of the looming WWII, but with months often going by between the arrival of news from England, the FitzOsbornes are largely in the dark regarding what's going on.
Only Veronica raises concerns: "--and if even a tenth of it is true, it raises some serious questions about the British policy of...oh, I'm sorry, this must be boring you." But even then, those concerns seem unsubstantiated, because Montmaray is so apart from everything else that the idea of a war seems almost unfathomable. Over Christmas pudding, for example, Sophie says: "I said I wished for peace throughout the world, especially in Spain (I actually wished Simon could come home for Christmas)". Even when a group of SS officers arrive at the island, Sophie is clueless. "You have family in England, yes?" says one of them. "The young princess told me about your brother and aunt. It will be safe there." And to this, Sophie responds: "Safe from what?"
Though there are surely plenty of dark moments to come for the FitzOsbornes--and indeed quite a few in this book--Sophie's personable, whimsical narrative style carries the reader through relatively unscathed. It's also key to the success of the format of the novel. It's so very easy for an epistolary format to feel not quite real, but Sophie's messing up of dates, haphazard leaps across time and subsequent backtracking to fill in moments where she's got ahead of herself, make it easy to suspend disbelief. It's a wonderful read, and one that I highly recommend. (less)
13 Reasons Why opens with main character Clay receiving a box of cassette tapes. It seems innocuous enough, although it does bring to mind scenes from...more13 Reasons Why opens with main character Clay receiving a box of cassette tapes. It seems innocuous enough, although it does bring to mind scenes from German novel The Reader by XX, as well as the connotations associated with chain letters. However, Clay soon finds out that what is on the tapes is far from innocent.
The tapes have been sent through an as-yet anonymous chain of Clay’s classmates, having originated with Hannah Baker, a young girl and, as we find out, an almost-girlfriend of Clay’s, who has recently committed suicide. The tapes detail, over 13 sides, the people, and their actions, who have contributed to Hannah’s death.
It’s a chilling premise, and one that author Jay Asher says was inspired by a visit to a museum, where he was given an audio device that would tell the story of each of the exhibits. The result was, of course, a fragmented series of notes and stories that were nevertheless interrelated, and it is this mood that characterises 13 Reasons Why. In the book, Hannah has recorded a tape for each of the individuals she sees as culpable, but because they are narrated as though for that person’s ears only, the story is painfully fragmented and inchoate to begin with.
We watch as Clay feverishly plays through the tapes, desperately trying to figure out the role he has played in Hannah’s death. It’s almost frustrating to find out that Hannah holds him up in high regard, and as largely blame free. Similarly, Clay spends relatively little time reflecting on whether this is truly the case, and as he considers the instances where he could have stepped in, he puts any blame back on Hannah, thinking that he would have helped if he had known—an approach that is itself problematic.
13 Reasons Why is a challenging examination of agency and avoidance. Hannah picks out situations where others intervened or acted in ways that fundamentally affected her. Some feel far more significant than others, but the effect is one of a snowball, with the cumulative effect of these actions resulting in Hannah’s final cry for help, which goes unheeded. What is most challenging, though, as well as ultimately supremely frustrating, is that Hannah appears to be looking for a way out from the outset. She assigns the others agency, but at the same time sees herself as having no agency of her own, describing her death as the result of their actions, and therefore unavoidable. She puts herself in the hands of others, relying on them to see the signs that she is struggling, and then terrorising them with blame for her death when they do not. While I don’t want to imply that those Hannah accuses of atrocious behaviour are innocent, for in many cases they’re far from it, there are instances where she seems to be deliberately misreading a situation to enhance her own suffering, and these sections are difficult to read.
While undeniably a challenging and painful read, the book teeters on the precipice of melodrama, and unfortunately often stumbles, resulting in scenes that don’t quite ring true, particularly given that they’re meant to be the spoken diaries of a teenage girl. The book does, however, offer a thoughtful examination of the snowball effect of others’ behaviour, and how even the smallest action—or inaction—can have a profound effect on someone’s life, particularly when they have opened themselves to being influenced in such a way. It addresses issues of agency and vulnerability, of cruelly plotted revenge, and of risk avoidance achieved through passing on blame and fault to unwitting participants. It’s a gruelling read, and one that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, but certainly one that you’ll find yourself wanting to discuss and reflect upon once you’re done.(less)