Georgie McCool is a television writer, working with her partner, Seth, on a popular sitcom that they both detest. When they successfully pitch a new TGeorgie McCool is a television writer, working with her partner, Seth, on a popular sitcom that they both detest. When they successfully pitch a new TV show to a producer - their own show, that they will have creative control over - they're over the moon, but suddenly they have just nine days to write four episodes before their next meeting. Georgie is beyond excited: it's what she and Seth have been working towards since they first teamed up after uni. But now she has to break the news to her husband, Neal. It's not the possibility of a new show that will upset him, but what the deadline means: missing Christmas with his family in Omaha.
While Georgie's sure they still love each other, a part of her is reluctant to share this news with her husband of fourteen years, because deep down she knows there are cracks in their marriage that could become fissures. With her mobile phone out of action, and the emptiness of their house too much to bear, Georgie stays at her mother's place where she finds her old rotary phone in her childhood bedroom, plugs it in and calls Neal. Only the Neal she talks to at night is not the Neal who packed their two girls, Alice and Noomi, into a taxi for the airport. It's not the same Neal at all: it's the Neal she first fell in love with, nineteen years ago, who almost broke up with her when he went to Omaha for a week but instead came back with an engagement ring.
What is she makes everything worse by talking to this younger Neal? What if she should use this opportunity to free him of a marriage she's almost convinced herself he doesn't want, is in fact smothered by? But what would happen to their two little girls then? What would happen to her? Suddenly these nightly phone calls into the past are all she can think about, as Georgie begins to reassess her life, her ambitions, her priorities and her family.
If I wasn't as in love with Fangirl as I'd have liked, Landline delivered that Rowell magic I so crave. Landline has the sharp, realistic banter of Attachments and the gentle, honest insights of Eleanor & Park (which I read - and still think of - as an adult novel). Plus that magical realism twist, which I wasn't actually expecting, mostly because I got a copy of this as soon as it came out simply because it's a Rainbow Rowell book and I love Rainbow Rowell books; I didn't read the synopsis.
The story is straight-forward, the premise deceptively simple. This isn't a story over-crowded with plot or bereft of character development. It's primarily a character-driven story, in which the heroine - Georgie - gets a second chance at the classic coming-of-age moment. That's what I love about this story: it gets right into the realities of being a parent, a woman with a career, a wife approaching forty with touching and often witty honesty. I also found it to be nicely subtle. When we first meet Neal, we don't know much about him except that he never locks the front door and that there's some weird tension between him and Georgie. Certain early descriptions, of how he isn't usually in a good mood, the messy house and young Alice asleep on the couch - coupled with the unlocked door led me develop an initial picture of him as something of a grumpy flake. Not sure if you can even put those words together, but I was picturing someone who begrudged easily, who was sloppy and unreliable around the house, who was maybe lazy - a stereotype, in other words, that would have been all too easy. The puzzle that is Neal is something that unravels slowly and with care, something that is shown rather than decided early on.
And it matters, it matters a lot, because Georgie is in a position to undo her life, or so it seems. As the reader, you naturally wonder, Is Neal worth it? Is he someone you could love? Should they stay together? You very slowly learn all that Neal has sacrificed for Georgie, all that he's done - and no he's not perfect, he's got edges and flaws too and that makes him all the more human and real and relatable. By the end of the book, I was more than a little bit in love with Neal myself.
Landline has poignancy, nostalgia and humour, especially around Georgie's mother, ridiculously young step-father and half-sister (plus the dogs), not to mention Seth, who first enters the plot as something of a possible love interest or second option for Georgie. But he never feels right, and in fact he reminded me all too vividly of extroverted, charismatic people I've known over the years. Descriptions from Georgie's youth, when she first met Seth and Neal while working on the student paper, are a mix of that classic late 80s/early 90s show, Press Gang, and vague recollections of my own student days (not that I worked on the student paper at uni). With so much dialogue in the story, it reads with a quick pace and lots of energy, making the slower, more whimsical recollections of the past that much more bittersweet.
At its heart, this is a story about that unavoidable shift from adulthood to, well, adulthood - from the fun stuff to the repetitive drudgery, the realities of making a living and supporting a family, the truth that every marriage gets comfortable, and then can become tired and stale or, sadly, broken. It's a story about growing apart as much as growing closer together, about miscommunication and that struggle we so often have between the demands of our families and the demands of our souls to be more fulfilled. As thirty-nine year old Georgie tells young Neal in her head:
You like our house. You picked it out. You said it reminded you of home - something about hills and high ceilings and only one bathroom. And we're close to the ocean - close enough - and you don't hate it, not like you used to. Sometimes I think you like it. You love me by the ocean. And the girls. You say it sweetens us. Pinks our cheeks and curls our hair. And Neal, if you don't come back to me, you'll never see what a good dad you are. And it won't be the same if you have kids with some other, better girl, because they won't be Alice and Noomi, and even if I'm not your perfect match, they are. God, the three of you. The three of you. When I wake up on Sunday mornings - late, you always let me sleep in - I come looking for you, and you're in the backyard with dirt on your knees and two little girls spinning around you in perfect orbit. And you put their hair in pigtails, and you let them wear whatever madness they want, and Alice planted a fruit cocktail tree, and Noomi ate a butterfly, and they look like me because they're round and golden, but they glow for you. And you built us a picnic table. And you learned to bake bread. And you've painted a mural on every west-facing wall. And it isn't all bad, I promise. I swear to you. You might not be actively, thoughtfully happy 70 to 80 percent of the time, but maybe you wouldn't be anyway. And even when you're sad, Neal - even when you're falling asleep at the other side of the bed - I think you're happy, too. About some things. About a few things. I promise it's not all bad.
I wouldn't want to mislead you into thinking this is some sappy, unbearably sweet story about love and finding what's important - it might be about those things, but in a wise, fresh way. At least, I found it to be wise and fresh, perhaps because I don't read too many books that get easily dismissed as 'women's fiction' (there's something inherently patronising in that label, like it's saying: Don't worry about those silly books, men, the real fiction is over here), but really I think it's because Rowell has a real talent for realism, for snappy prose, and for capturing individuals who I can relate to and feel for. There are writers like that for everyone, and when you find one, you hold them close (which is why you want print books over e-books, right, because snuggling an e-reader to your chest in pure glee just isn't the same thing)....more
There is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. IThere is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. It is of immense importance to keep the past alive through personal, human stories, in the hopes that we will be better prepared, better able to spot such atrocities today and in the future. Sadly we've seen that this is a nice theory that doesn't play out; however it's important to keep trying.
One area of WWII that is less explored but equally important are stories from the non-Jewish perspective, stories about Nazi soldiers or ordinary German civilians, stories about others who also experienced the war but in different ways. The Paris Architect adds to this meagre slice of historical fiction pie with its story of a French gentile and architect, Lucien Bernard, who has no particular feelings either way about the Jews - though when pressed, he's no "Jew-lover" - but seeks to get by under German occupation.
In a strained and childless marriage to Celeste, and a social-climber mistress, Adele, on the side, Lucien's big ambition in life is to have one of his designs built in Paris for all to see. The occupation has made much of life and work in the city stall, but there are also surprising opportunities as well. The Germans are building infrastructure - factories to make the weapons used against the Allies - on French soil, working with well-established French businessmen and unpaid forced labour to get their projects built fast. Lucien is approached by one such businessman, an old man called Manet, who has a frightening proposal. Flattering Lucien's skills and vanity and appealing to a sense of moral rightness that Lucien doesn't feel he possesses, Manet dangles the promise of hiring Lucien to build a big munitions factory if he will also design an ingenious hiding place for a wealthy Jew being hunted by the Gestapo.
It isn't a sense of empathy for the Jews that leads Lucien to take on the task, one that could see him tortured and killed. It's the challenge, the vanity, of besting others that leads Lucien to agree to Manet's terms despite his incredible fear. Lucien isn't interested in dying for a cause. He wants to live, survive the war, and prosper too. Architecture is more important to him than anything else in his life.
But as Manet continues to ask Lucien to design more hiding places for terrified Jews, and Lucien even meets one of the men he's helping, something in him begins to change. The Jews become human beings, and the matter of hiding them, helping them survive and escape, becomes deeply personal. But as the Gestapo cotton on to the hiding places and begin torturing builders and craftsmen for information, the net starts to tighten around Lucien and Manet. How much longer before connections are made, and their time is up?
The Paris Architect is a wonderful story, a fresh take on the story of German occupation in France, the plight of Jews and life for non-Jews under the occupation. Lucien is one of those flawed characters who is undeniably, realistically human - the kind of person you can relate to because his concerns, his fears, his sense of morality are, lets be honest, the norm. Whether it's World War II or today, most of us would be just like Lucien, regardless of how much we'd like to think we'd do better, be better. Human nature trumps in survival cases. If we already ignore people who are suffering in times of peace, why would we think we'd be any better in times of war and terror?
Yet Lucien also shows that you can make choices and change. You can decide what you want to stand for, what's worth fighting for - and dying for. The tension in this novel is palpable, aided by gruesome scenes of torture by the Gestapo on French civilians. From a craftsmanship angle, a more subtle technique ("less is more") would have been just as affective, if not more so. The problem with Belfoure's scenes of torture is that it's hard to write such scenes, especially in a readable novel like this (as opposed to a more "literary" style, as much as I hate using that term), without sliding into cheese. I'm not sure that Belfoure was quite successful in getting into the minds of Gestapo officers - can't really fault him for that - but in the absence of true insight or understanding, the tension and genuine fear can be created in other, more convincing ways. The Gestapo officers began to sound like clichéd film villains in silly action movies - a Stallone cheesefest from the 80s, that kind of thing.
Belfoure was clearly more comfortable with the civilian characters, and developed Lucien into a believable, sympathetic character even when he's not all that likeable. The fact that he matures and becomes, for want of a less corny expression, a "better person", absolves him of his earlier vanity and ego. Not to mention that he's quite honest with himself about his vanity and ego.
There's a lot to learn from The Paris Architect - about daily life under occupation, about architecture and, especially, about human nature. Not always predictable, the tension and drama propels the story forwards to a fitting climax. At its heart, The Paris Architect is about the small deeds of courage and conscience that people are capable of in times of oppression and fear. While the self-policing conducted by French citizens on each other - spying on their neighbours, reporting people to the police to protect themselves - is unflattering, it serves to make those smaller, sometimes barely visible deeds all the more important. If I can bastardise a quote from Othello for a moment here, I would say that people like Lucien and Bette lived "not wisely, but too well." The point being, they lived, and they lived a life they could be proud of by making choices that weren't wise in the circumstances, but were worth it.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
'I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinct'I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinction, or at least any meaningful existence, and thereby ought to be afforded certain protections based on their classification as such.'
Roger Whitford, an attorney for the Centre for the Protection of Human Rights, has a plan to put a stop to the prejudiced treatment of black men in the United States, men - and boys - who make up a third of prison inmates. When Janae Williams' fifteen-year-old son Malik is arrested for the murder of his friend Troy - the twenty-ninth murder in Philadelphia in the twenty days since the start of the year - Roger decides to take on the case, not just to free Malik, but to launch his big campaign to get black males in America extra support and protection.
Janae is a classic statistic: pregnant as a teen, she put her education on hold to have the baby and raise it on her own. Now she works as a cashier in a hospital cafeteria, striving to make ends meet and give Malik a chance to make something of his life. But now, he's not just been accused of murder, the prosecution wants to try him as an adult - the standard response to murder cases. Keeping him in the juvenile court is just the first step in Roger's plan, but first he needs to get Janae on side - not an easy task when you're comparing her son to an animal.
Roger plans to use the Endangered Animals Act and have it extended to include African-American males, but it's a hard pill to swallow for the community and Janae in particular. Even more so for young, ambitious Calvin Moore, a hotshot lawyer at a big firm with grand plans who studied his way out of the community Janae is stuck in. Roger wants Calvin on the case, but it's a tough sell. Not until Calvin stops seeing his origins as something to turn his back on and instead as something he should try and use his skills and position to help, do the pieces start to fall into place.
But will Roger sacrifice Malik for the sake of the bigger picture? Can Janae truly trust an old white man to keep her son out of jail?
Cush's debut novel has a clear aim and agenda, and tackles it well. With a tight focus, a neatly delivered storyline and believable characters, she brings the human angle to a serious issue of race, discrimination, prejudice and poverty. It's a fairly short book that makes the wise decision to keep the spotlight on Janae and her son, rather than a long, drawn-out legal and political battlefield that could end who knows where. As much as you can't help but want to follow through and see where Roger's plan ends up, it would detract from the story without adding anything - especially considering that the situation Malik finds himself in is pretty much unchanged today. The point, I would think, is to get people thinking in a different way about the issues, to open a debate (or contribute to an already-existing one), not to launch into an actual, fictional campaign.
While the writing does, at times, carry the whiff of a beginner novelist - especially in some of the descriptions and language - there's no denying that Endangered has the necessary ingredients for a great story, is highly readable and shows the author's great potential. At times a bit simplistic, I nevertheless appreciated the human angle to the story. If the characters seemed a bit stereotypical, part of that would be because there's some truth in stereotypes, and part of it would be because the author hasn't yet reached her full range and stereotypes are unavoidable. Perhaps more time could have been spent on fleshing the main characters out, to make them feel and sound less like stock characters, but the writing was nicely, smoothly consistent throughout and the simple touch was actually refreshing.
Cush stretches her legal chops in the legal-drama side of the story; an attorney for many years, she has a focus on domestic abuse, urban violence, and inner-city education. The descriptions and dialogue between the lawyers and the judge, for instance, were accessible to a layman like me while still sounding authentic and believable.
Throughout the story, I couldn't help but feel a chill at the thought of children - children - being tried as adults and sent to adult prison. This is, according to the story, a law in Pennsylvania, and is just one of several laws that I, as a non-American, hear about and shudder at. As Endangered shows, it casts the wrong emphasis on crime, and neglects - and downright ignores - the issues behind crime. I'm naturally leery whenever I hear the words "zero tolerance" because it's so black-and-white and encourages black-and-white thinking, prejudice and a "hard-ass" attitude based on the idea that everyone's equal and there are no excuses. There aren't excuses, but there are reasons, and if you don't stop and consider those reasons and what's really going on - if you don't get at the crux of the matter - then you're never going to really, truly stop it from happening. Because clearly the threat of jail time doesn't do much at all, and as this novel pointed out, prisons create hardened criminals out of people who made mistakes or did something dumb, for various reasons. It's a big, complex mess of issues that throws open the debate of nature versus nurture - whether you're a criminal, or whether your environment and various social factors contributed to you going down a particular path that, if the factors had been different, you might not have gone down.
Endangered doesn't try to please those "hard-asses": it clearly posits the understanding that these boys slip into crime because of poverty, peer pressure and other social factors. The lack of good male role models is also a contributing factor - not just in black American communities but everywhere - but again, Cush manages to blend the two sides: that you do have a say in how your life turns out, and you can change it; and that the world you come from does mean that we don't all start out equal.
An enlightening and thought-provoking novel, Endangered blends readable entertainment with prevalent social issues to position Jean Love Cush as a writer to watch.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. ...more
Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists - writers, painters, comedians, actors - mostly because of his office hours. UnlMarc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists - writers, painters, comedians, actors - mostly because of his office hours. Unlike other GPs, he prides himself on the generous twenty minutes he gives each patient, even though he's mentally diagnosed them within the first five. People just like to be able to talk it over and feel that their doctor is listening to them.
One of his patients is celebrity actor Ralph Meier. A large, charismatic man and a good actor, Ralph turned up suddenly in his office one day, needing pills - and having heard through the grapevine that Marc prescribes things without much fuss. Much later, he turns up again, this time with a lump on his thigh. Only months later, Ralph is dead and Marc is due to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners who will decide whether it was a tragic case of mismanagement or something more deliberate.
Between the time of first meeting the actor and his death the following year - which Ralph's wife, Judith, is holding him personally accountable for - something happened. When Marc, his beautiful wife Caroline and their two young daughters, thirteen year old Julia and eleven year old Lisa, took their summer holiday on the Mediterranean, they ended up spending a week at the Meier's summer house. How could the lazy days of barbecuing, swimming in the pool, playing table tennis with Ralph and Judith's two boys, Alex and Thomas, and enjoying the beaches lead to an error that cost a man his life? And if it was deliberate, why would Marc do such a thing?
I haven't yet read Koch's previous book, The Dinner - it's on my shelf, along with many other unread books that I'm just as enthusiastic about - so I can't compare this or say, "If you liked that, you'll like this." But I'm thinking that's probably the case anyway. This is one of those deliciously confronting, uncomfortable novels, the kind of story that manages to sound so reasonable and ordinary and yet flirts with all those human flaws we like to think we've risen above. Touching on issues around sexual attraction, morality, instincts and what it means to be a father, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a black comedy - at once funny and disturbing - featuring a protagonist whom you're never entirely sure is sympathetic or even likeable. Similar things have been said about The Dinner, so that should tell you if you'd like this one or not.
From the moment I sat down in the bookshop and started reading the first chapter, I was drawn in by the incredible honesty and discomfiting observations of the narrator, Marc. This is one of those stories that reminds us of why we should be so grateful we can't read other people's minds: you just don't want to know what other people are really thinking. But if you stop and listen to your own thoughts about others, and about certain topics, you'll get an idea: our own thoughts are often best kept to ourselves. Hearing exactly what Marc thinks about things - often contradictory, complex and insightful - makes it hard to decide whether you, the reader, like him or not.
When we read we tend to look for patterns, signs, clues or motifs that tells us how we're meant to read something - genre first, then a host of literary techniques and stylistic devices that influence how we understand things and connect to characters. Koch toys with such conventions, with the result that Marc Schlosser reminded me of a David Cronenberg film: a bit surreal, certainly disturbing, uncomfortably confronting, absolutely fascinating, definitely mesmerising. For as much as we might go "ewwww" at things, privately or publicly, deep down we love being exposed to what's normally hidden. Freak shows may be a thing of the past, but between celebrity gossip magazines (our own version of the freak show, the way they write about people) and the internet (showing us pictures of deformity, excess etc.), we're still drawn to it all.
We're inside Marc's head, but it's easy to see that on the outside, he's very normal. That's perhaps the most disturbing part, because he reminds us that all the ordinary people in our society still think things or perceive things in ways we pretend to be oblivious to. He's so frank, to us readers, and there's no real duplicity or manipulation or cunning to him, he simply obeys the rules of our society, our culture. As he says in regards to pedophilia and being attracted to young girls, everyone experiences that attraction, but the difference is that most people don't act on it. Marc is in control, yet because of that sense of being in his head in "real time", we don't know what he's going to do next. That makes him unpredictable, which is where you get the sense that there's something off about him, something almost sinister. The whole way through this book, you're not sure just what kind of man he is or what he'll do, but because you hear his thoughts, you realise he's capable. As is everyone, really.
What's exhilarating about Summer House and its narrator is how realistic it is. Never straight-forward, Marc is just like you and me: full of contradictions, a mix of morally good and reprehensibly, potentially bad. He's the image in the mirror we'd rather not see, but Koch thrusts us into his head with no mercy. Marc is fiercely protective and loving towards his girls, yet freely admits he'd rather have had sons. As would everyone, he tells us - and its this propensity to dictate and lecture us readers that makes him unlikeable (that and, for me, his often negative and stereotypical views on women, including his wife). Marc is still heavily influenced by his professor of medical biology, Aaron Herzl, whose lectures he repeats for us, lectures on reproduction, homosexuality, women. Marc's own feelings about women are often less than complimentary, and his behaviour makes him less than sympathetic, especially, I'm sure, to female readers. What it boils down to - what he never, ever, lets himself think - is that everything that happened that week at the summer house could be blamed entirely on him. But as the book shows, nothing is ever that simple.
It's the psychological aspect to this novel that I really liked. Set in the Netherlands and somewhere around the Mediterranean, there's little sense of place: this is a story that could have been set anywhere, really. The characters are familiar in the way Western white people are always familiar to Western, white readers. Koch provides no answers, nor does he overtly judge; through Marc's eyes and thoughts we get Marc's ideas, perceptions and values. The story reveals itself slowly, with well-placed foreshadowing, much like a lazy summer day. Its disturbing qualities are captured neatly in Marc's penchant for dwelling on disgusting details, details about the human body - its appearance as well as what goes on beneath the skin - as well as a sharp, if biased and judgemental, insight into other people's characters and personalities.
That's how I looked at Ralph when he dived into the pool. Every time, I considered the possibility that he might not surface again. Or that he would bash his drunken skull against the bottom and be paralysed from head to toe. But each time he surfaced again, coughing and sneezing and hawking, and dragged himself up the ladder. Then he would spread a towel over a deckchair and lie down in the sun to dry. He never covered himself. He lay with his legs spread, his body too large for the deckchair, his feet hanging over the end: all loose and lazy, tanning in the sun. 'Is this a holiday or is this a holiday?' he said, burping and closing his eyes. A minute later his mouth had dropped open and he was snoring loudly. I looked at his stomach and legs. At his dick, hanging to one side and resting on his thigh. And then I looked at my two daughters. At Julia and Lisa. They didn't seem offended at all. [...] I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier's naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy. [pp.159-160]
That should give you a taste, as well as a pretty good idea of what direction the story goes in. But I won't say more than that.
Summer House with Swimming Pool is well crafted and deliberately confronting - in the best possible way. And being inside Marc's head, you start to feel almost culpable, guilty of the same thoughts he has, which leaves you feeling even more repulsed. And indecisive. As it should be. We're all flawed, complex and contradictory. We all have unpleasant thoughts, or thoughts that others would find unpleasant. At the heart of this story is the distinction between private and public, between what we must keep to ourselves and what we can share. You can't really blame Marc for the way he thinks, for the hint of misogyny that taints his perception of women, because it's the private sphere, a sphere we wouldn't normally get to experience (nor would we want to); at the end of it all, there's a part of you - the part that stops feeling so superior - that respects him for knowing the difference. ...more
My son is a big fan of Peppa Pig, a five-minute cartoon featuring a family of pigs and their various animal friends. British, and featuring lots of joMy son is a big fan of Peppa Pig, a five-minute cartoon featuring a family of pigs and their various animal friends. British, and featuring lots of jokes and irony for an older audience to enjoy (watch out especially for Mr Wolf with his deep and slightly creepy voice and all the innuendos), the show is very good fun. My three-year-old often laughs himself silly while watching it - between Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa Pig and Bob the Builder, there's always something age-appropriate, 'accessible' and non-scary for him to watch.
Peppa is four, I think, but as is the way with cartoon characters, she never ages. This spin-off book is about her fourth birthday and the party she has with her friends, including magic tricks from "Magic Daddy" (who wanted to be called The Amazing Mysterio). It reads very much like one of the television episodes, and kids familiar with the show will delight in this picture book. Just remember to make the noise every time you see the word "snort!"...more
It is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that thIt is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that there was anything wrong. Her father, a bee keeper and general handyman, is non-committal - first he tells his daughter that her mother has gone to another war rally and won't be back for a few days, but after a while he simply says nothing. Instead he takes Lissy out of school for the last couple of weeks of the school year so he can take her with him on his annual rounds, distributing his bees at three different privately-owned orchards.
There is Earl Caulkins and his apple trees; an aloof and mildly eccentric author, Chance Curtis; and irascible farmer Les van den Hoven whose busy, loud and cheerful wife, Opal, is everything Lissy's mother is not. Opal takes Lissy under her wing for the week they stay at the farm, introducing her to painted nails and gossip. It doesn't quite make up for her mother's absence, but it helps. Later, over the summer holidays, she goes again with her dad and the bees, this time to wild blueberry crops and other out-of-the-way places.
It isn't until she starts a new school year at her small town's middle school that she realises something is definitely off. The mothers of girls she goes to school with are avoiding her as if she has something contagious. Her best friend Katie doesn't want to walk with her to school anymore, and arranges for her brother to switch lockers so hers isn't beside Melissa's anymore. Kids whisper around her and then suddenly stop, ostracise her or treat her meanly in the hallway. And she has no idea why, because no one will tell her. Nothing touches on her idolatry view of her absent mother, whom, she thinks, went away because she's sick - cancer, Lissy thinks, after reading about it in the library.
Whether her mother was present in the house or far away and silent, she manages to deeply affect Lissy's life. As Melissa grows up, spending summers with her dad and the bees and her school days writing stories and poems, her mother takes on a larger-than-life, demigod-like aspect. Such is how she copes with her feelings of abandonment and rejection. Nothing and no one can replace her, so it's a shock when her father moves on with his life - and expects her to move with him.
Bee Summers is a fairly short coming-of-age novel told with childlike confusion and puzzlement by its protagonist, Melissa. Set somewhere in east United States (there are references to Boston), the late 60s and early 70s provide a vague backdrop of upheaval and public protest, while the fashions, decorating styles and cars give nice period details. In the early parts of the story, there is plenty of evidence that Lissy's mother isn't someone you or I would like all that much, but Melissa is a strongly sympathetic character who misses her mother deeply. It's clear to us that her mother has walked out for her own reasons, and that Melissa is too young to understand without being explicitly told. It's hard to agree with her father not to tell her the truth, and the idea that he's both protecting Lissy and preserving her idea of her mother falls apart later when it becomes clear he just didn't want to talk about it (he was, like many men of his time, a war veteran from the Korean war, and also like many men of his time, found it hard to open up about anything). Because no one tells her otherwise, naturally Melissa creates an image of her mother as this loving, wonderful woman.
Yet Melissa also grows up increasingly lonely and closed-off, and perhaps because she does come from what is essentially a "broken home" with no motherly support or guidance, she matures slowly. I found it hard to empathise with her over her father's decisions to remarry and move. Certainly, if nothing else, Bee Summers shows how much damage can ensue when people don't talk to each other openly and honestly. Misunderstandings and a lack of communication result in what was, to me, a truly tragic ending. What's interesting about Melissa as a carefully-constructed character is how realistically flawed she is, and how clearly you can detect her mother and father's genetic inheritance in her. Her personality is her own but she has inherited characteristics from her parents; if both parents are uncommunicative, and at least one is inherently selfish, it's not surprisingly that you see it in Melissa as well. She doesn't make great choices all the time. She does live in fear, later, that because she didn't have a mother for so long, she doesn't know how to be one herself. Dugan has achieved a careful and honest balance between Melissa's vulnerable flaws and tender fragility. It's hard to dislike Lissy because so much of her character is a result of her circumstances. That said, had her mother stayed around, she probably would have grown up much like her - since she listened to her so much - and might have ended up even less likeable. It's an interesting aspect to the novel, and makes this a story that you can't read aimlessly or passively.
Where the novel disappointed me somewhat was in the development of Lissy's voice - she narrates in first-person past tense, which is a strong choice (you all know by now how much I'm coming to detest the latest fad for using present tense). However, her voice is a child's voice, rather than an adult's voice reliving a child's perspective, and I found this a bit weird and confusing. Almost as if you're reading about someone who's development has stunted. It bleeds into the later parts of the story, too, so that Melissa always sounds desperately immature.
Secrets abound in this story about silence and selfishness. (How's that for a bit of alliteration?) For me, the stars of the story were the bees themselves - I have a deep love for these precious little creatures who are so instrumental to the survival of life on earth. I can't resist any story with "bees" in the title or on the cover, whether they figure as part of the story or not. While the bee summers of Melissa's youth fade into her childhood with the blush of nostalgia - as these things do - I was left bereft and saddened that the bees had left the story. I liked hearing about them, and wanted more. But they had served their purpose, plot-device-wise, and everything must change and move on. That's always a strong theme of coming-of-age novels, that things end and we must grow up and lose our innocence. The sense of that is strong in Bee Summers, and perhaps it's that quality of honest realism that makes it hard to tease out my response. The past of our childhood always has an element of pain, humiliation, gaucheness to it, that makes us shy away from it while at the same time missing it. I'm always impressed by writers who can capture something that ephemeral, that ambiguous, and Dugan has captured it so well I'm left feeling off-footed and mildly uncomfortable. Not an easy book to review but I do recommend it for those readers who like coming-of-age stories.
1974, Bittercreek, Alberta. Eight-year-old Egg Murakami is the youngest of three children born to Japanese-Canadian parents who have an ostrich farm i1974, Bittercreek, Alberta. Eight-year-old Egg Murakami is the youngest of three children born to Japanese-Canadian parents who have an ostrich farm in outside this small prairie town. Her older sister, seventeen-year-old Kathy, is a star basketball player and often impatient with Egg, but she is also Egg's de facto mother figure now that their older brother, Albert, is dead. Their mother remains gentle and kind, but loses herself in poorly-hidden alcohol, while their taciturn father never leaves the barn where the ostrich's live. He eats there, and sleeps on a camp bed, while their mother sends food over.
Egg doesn't know why or how Albert died. She understands that it was a tragedy, but she doesn't really understand why it seems shrouded in shame. It's September, and a new school year is starting. Kathy is itching to get out of the town, but is torn by her responsibilities to her family, especially Egg. Egg is full of curiosity, bursting with interesting facts about ostriches, and excited about her new Six Million Dollar Man lunch tin. But living in a small country town, and looking the way she does, with onigiri in her lunch tin, Egg is bullied at school, especially by Martin Fisken. She finds peace and a measure of safety in the school library, where Miss Evangeline Granger offers some welcome kindness.
Full of curiosity, wonder and loneliness, Egg struggles to make sense of her small but complicated world. As certain pivotal details come to light, Egg tries to make things right in the only way she can think of.
Prairie Ostrich is easily one of the best books I've read this year. Kobayashi has deftly captured Egg's unique, eight-year-old voice and brought the girl to life with a mother's tender touch. There is both a sense of Egg as a heart-breakingly isolated, fragile and lonely child, emotionally neglected by her parents and essentially left to fend for herself, and also one of a resilient, curious, thoughtful being full of wonder for the world. In the year after Albert's death, Egg's parents have lost themselves to their sorrow, and the resulting neglect - there and yet not there - is heartbreaking and tragic, and also horrible.
Mama cries, Mama cries but Egg cannot go to her. Egg is frozen, like the Vast Open Plains of the Northern Tundra. First day of school and Albert was not with them. Albert will never be with them. He has been dead for three months, two weeks, and five days - such a long, long time. Now they are all broken apart and Mama's lost and drifting and all the king's horses and all the king's men will never be able to put them back together again.
Egg runs back to her room, to her bed. She pulls the covers over her head. She does not want to see, she does not want to hear. She feels her heart shrivel up in her chest, a small, hard thing, not like the blue whale at all. The blue whale will not help her; not even the speed of light will bring Albert back. She curls and tucks her knees up to her chin and thinks of the stolen mints from the drawer, the matches from her Papa's tool box. She cannot be good. And if she is not good, then she is damned.
Egg knows that Mama wants Albert. But Egg is alive and Albert isn't. [pp.40-1]
Prairie Ostrich deals with the Murakami family's sorrow in the same subtle, wrenching way it deals with all the other serious issues in the book: homophobia, xenophobia, love, friendship, bullying, fear. Egg has Kathy to look out for her, but Kathy has her own life to lead too, and can't always be there. Nor does Egg want Kathy to sacrifice her dreams for Egg's sake. Egg is such a self-contained little soul, full of interesting facts and perceptive insights into the people around her. The reader understands what's going on better than Egg, yet there is plenty that is obscured from the reader as well, so that you are on a journey of discovery along with her.
In the Greek myths, sometimes the monster was once a mortal who became horrible through a punishment. But that didn't solve the evil. It just made it huge. Maybe that's where all the bad comes from, Egg things, a bad so big that it bursts out of nowhere. And then she thinks of Papa, his exile in the ostrich barn. What bad did he do? [p.132]
I was left gutted by this beautiful novel, the prose poetic and so precise. Full of imagery and quiet, tender moments punctuated by tension, the threat of discovery, the fear of being hurt. So subtle, yet so vivid.
Egg looks back at her sister, at Stacey, who waits on the sidelines. The late autumn light blazes behind them, two silhouettes made smaller by the crush of the sky. Kathy holds the ball in her hands, standing in the free throw circle. Egg watches, waits for her sister to take that shot. But the shot never comes. Why, Egg wonders, why is Kathy just standing here? Egg feels a sudden sense of things beyond her grasp. She wants to call out to her sister, to shout some warning, for Kathy seems so lost and alone. But Kathy is not alone. Stacey slowly walks onto the court. It seems to Egg that it takes Stacey a long time to reach her sister. Kathy, head down, stares at the ground, her body small, as if she has folded something precious, tucked it up inside herself and hidden it away. She stands so still. But Stacey just walks out to Kathy and places her hands on Kathy's face, brings her chin up. Egg sees the ball fall away, bump bump bump bump bump. It rolls unevenly across the court.
The afternoon light, the shift and flare. Egg can't tell exactly what she has seen. [pp.46-7]
Egg questions, philosophises, observes, tries to make logic out of human nature. She's in a harsh world, a small and small-minded world, set in a vast, open landscape. It is not hard to see how small these characters are, against such a backdrop. Full of pop culture references that draw upon the things that interest Egg, she tries to make sense of her world in the only way she can, and in the process I saw some things in a new and interesting light.
Superman works alone. He has a cape and everything. His only weakness is kryptonite, from his home planet of Krypton. Superman, exiled, saved from his dying world by his mother and father, who loved him, loved him more than anything, loved him and sacrificed themselves so that he could be saved. Egg puzzles this over. What does it mean when your greatest vulnerability comes from those you love the best? His fortress is called Solitude. The strongest man alive and he is still lonely.
Egg thinks Rumpelstiltskin wanted to be found. It must be lonely sometimes, spinning straw into gold, in the middle of a dark forest. He didn't want to hide anymore. She thinks he just wanted a family and maybe if someone knew him by his true name, they would love him. It's like hide-and-seek and you wait and wait and if no one comes, that is sad. If someone comes, your stomach squishes, and then - ta-da! - what a relief! But if you hide and hide and then finally someone sees you as you really are and they don't love you, that is the worst thing. That is the worst. [p.179]
This short novel is, in a way, a coming-of-age story for the whole Murakami family - what a shame you can't say the same thing about the townspeople. Recapturing the 70s with wonderful detail, Kobayashi writes with skill and perception, so much so that the story feels faintly autobiographical - I can certainly imagine the author drawing heavily on her own experiences, but I don't know much about her so I could just be reading into it. Egg certainly feels like one of the most alive characters I've read in a long time, and it's that quality of realism that makes her story punch so hard. It feels so true, you can touch the sharp jagged edges of her life, hear the whisper of air on the prairie, see the ostrich feathers ruffle, and feel the ostracism Egg experiences. It's hard to get my head around how people could treat a child so dismissively, or harshly, simply based on how she looks. Yet it happens all the time, and with ease. In this, Kobayashi's novel is a timeless portrait of small-town fear, the confusion of childhood, the pain of discovering your sexuality can be used against you, as a teenager.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
I've read a scant handful of English-translated French novels, especially French-Canadian novels, and they have all had a distinctly, how can I descriI've read a scant handful of English-translated French novels, especially French-Canadian novels, and they have all had a distinctly, how can I describe it, dreamlike? quality to them. They're less anchored by daily minutiae, somehow. It's a quality, a tone or atmosphere, that I can't quite put my Anglo finger on yet. Suffice it to say that, The Douglas Notebooks seems to me like a novel only a French person could write. Which is a compliment, trust me.
This is a fable, but in a loosely-defined sense. It seems to float, not tethered to any particular time or place, in order to tell a tale that is both strange and at the same time, perfectly ordinary. The writing itself is what gives it its fable-like quality, the sensation that you're reading something ancient yet contemporary. With a story such as this, in which the writing itself it like a living organism, both the writing and the story are impossible to separate, much like classical music and the piano.
In an undisclosed place in the world (but most likely Quebec) at an undisclosed time (but most likely post WWII and onwards), a rich and powerful businessman, Antoine Brady, and his wife Alexina, have a daughter, and then a son - Romain. Romain will inherit an empire, but he is different from his family, and made to feel constantly at fault.
...their younger son, though perfectly normal, never knew exactly how to behave with his nouveau riche family who kept up relations only if they were public. To the questions Romain asked - naively, timidly like all children his age - they made no reply, or replied too quickly and off the point. Not now. How can you think such a thing? Will you please keep quiet! The little boy wandered the gleaming corridors of the manor house with its fake turrets; he hid in the folds of the curtains, hands stroking the heavy velvet; he curled up on the landing of the imitation marble stairs that was wide enough to hold two family trees. In the end, he did indeed keep quiet. [p.13]
Romain couldn't stand up straight. Romain waddled like a duck. Romain put his elbows on the table and, more often than not, started fights. Romain was too much this and not enough that. When a word dared to exit his mouth, it disconcerted. It wearied his mother, irritated his father. Awkwardness, foolishness, absent-mindedness. All was Romain's fault. Even the rain that rotted the crops. [p.15]
At his eighteenth birthday, Romain announces that he is "leaving to live in the country for a while." No one believes him, and no one thinks he can look after himself. Mostly, no one knows anything about Romain or what he can or can't do. Even after he packs a simple bag and leaves, no one really understands that he's gone; they're still deciding what private university to send him too.
Meanwhile, Romain makes a home for himself in some woods, near a river, some seventy-six-days' walk from his parents' home. He builds himself a cabin, plants the seeds he's brought with him in a clearing, and catches fish in the river. With the money he saved up over the years, he makes small purchases in nearby villages, each trip an adventure. In one such village he encounters Éléna, the apothecary's assistant.
Éléna Tavernier came to the village of Rivière-aux-Oies by way of a convent, the Little Sisters of Saint Carmel, where she had fled to after her abusive father dies when their house catches fire. Éléna first encounters Romain's music - he took his clarinet with him, and plays it in the woods - when out gathering herbs and plants for making medicine. The pair fall in love, and soon Éléna is spending more time with Romain - who they rename Douglas, after the tree - than with Mercedes, the apothecary. And then comes the baby, and everything changes.
In simple terms, a fable is a very short story featuring anthropomorphised animals, plants or other natural phenomena, and a moral or message. The Douglas Notebooks doesn't fit that definition in a conventional sense, though it does feature a tamarack tree (Larix laricina), a deciduous conifer, which Douglas comes to believe is - well, I can't tell you who without spoiling things. But the tree is a recurring motif, certainly, and in some ways, Douglas himself is almost uncivilised to the point of being closer to nature than to anything human. As for a moral or message, it isn't readily apparent but is possibly to do with time, progress, love, change - themes like that. It's anti-development, pro-preservation of the forests seems pretty evident, as is the understanding that you can't stop it.
The sense of time being flexible, or not quite realistic, is best captured in medieval-like nature of Rivière-aux-Oies - before Antoine Brady comes and makes a deal to develop the land and build a big shopping centre; after that there's no turning back the tide. The novel is like a time-lapse video of modernity and progress, with several centuries collapsed into just a few short decades. It adds to the surreal, hazy, fable-like quality of the novel, and comes back to this idea that the writing and the story are inseparable.
It's quite a sad story, in some ways, yet certain characters have the chance at happiness and the outcome of tragedy leads to contentment. It's told in short segments, divided into parts named after cinematography directions: Location; Close-Up (and fade to white); Wide Shot; High-Angle Shot; Dissolves; Fast Motion; Music; and The End (followed by "Credits (in order of appearance)", which is like those brief summaries at the end of a movie telling you what happened to certain characters later). The headings work literally, but their cinematic meanings lend a grand scope to the story, a way of making it both an intimate, small tale and also a broader, global story with universal themes.
While I can't discuss it too much without giving away plot details (and in a short novel light on plot, I already feel like I've given too much away), it's a story that speaks to the heart and contains enough recognisable tropes within a less familiar style, to appeal to many readers. Fischman, an award-winning Canadian translator, has done a fine job of retaining the style and voice of Eddie's original, I'm sure - I feel it's safe to say this even without having read the original French novel, because the English version feels and sounds so very French. The Douglas Notebooks is a hauntingly beautiful story, poignant and steeped in layers of meaning, old-fashioned in style yet speckled with timely, modern images and messages. A quick read, it no doubt ripens upon re-reading, though like any fable or fairy tale, it's an enjoyable read on the surface, too.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
Oh Laini Taylor, who do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
1. Unbelievably fantastic fantasy world-building (not to mention a globe-trotting Earth-bOh Laini Taylor, who do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
1. Unbelievably fantastic fantasy world-building (not to mention a globe-trotting Earth-bound setting! Can I get a shout of "Exotic locales" anyone?) 2. Wonderful, flawed, loveable, resilient, tortured, enigmatic, honourable, loyal, loving heroine and hero (Karou and Akiva) 3. Vivid, charismatic, believable supporting characters, no matter the species 4. A plot that feels fresh and unique, so much so that I can't think what influences have gone into developing it (specific stories, myths etc. that is - aside from the Bible of course; that book influences everything whether we will it or not!) 5. A fresh take on the classic angels vs. demons story 6. Thought-provoking in its approach to making people question their own assumptions and judgements, especially around concepts of colonialism and race - pertinent as ever to a homegrown American audience but just as valued elsewhere 7. Revenant magic (not sure I've spelled that right!) 8. Surprise! An unpredictable plot and the introduction of fresh elements hitherto unforeseen
I'm pretty sure I could go on and list ad nauseum all the fine details I love and admire in this trilogy, and this book. Dreams of Gods & Monsters is the final book in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy (you can read my review of the first book here, and my review of Days of Blood & Starlight also), and it more than delivers on the exceptional first two books. Really you aren't going to hear any complaints from me. This trilogy has skyrocketed its way almost to the top of my favourite YA fantasy book list (nothing can ever knock the Obernewtyn series from the list, not even this, but it comes damn close). I was more than relieved that Taylor's final installment was just over six hundred pages long - it was not a story I wanted to end any time soon.
Whenever you get a successful YA series like this, the last book - or indeed any of the books after the first one, to which people get so attached to - can deeply polarise. Readers build their own wishes and expectations over where they want the story to go, and how they want the characters to develop, and it's rare that that coincides with the author's intentions - how could it? Personally, I love going on the ride the author wants to take me on. I very rarely bring my own expectations to a reading, simply because I very rarely ever build any. This doesn't make me a passive reader - quite the opposite in fact, and it's a disappointing book that forces me to be one, as I've complained about in other reviews. I like to see how the story unfolds; I want to experience a story, not dictate to it.
I'm reminded of those people who care so much about celebrities. There's a similarity here, to how attached people get to certain stories, and how today's readers turn fictional characters into celebrities - with "Team xxx" badges and online discussions, often quite heated, about the characters (especially sexy male ones) - as if they really were celebrities. I must just be more old-fashioned or traditional in how I read. Yes I like to daydream about characters sometimes, or think about their motives or deeds or where they're headed, but mostly just in my own head. I mean, I'm not a fangirl, in the modern sense of the word. I keep it all nice and private and personal, between me and the book. So I keep my mind open to where the author is taking me, and yes I do judge the success of a story based on plot and character development, and how successful it was, but not against any pre-conceived ideas of where I think the story should have gone, for instance.
For me, I loved the fact that Taylor brought in whole new plotlines and developments and built new layers into her world-building. I also have a long love-love relationship with fantasy fiction, of which I read so much of while a teenager and uni student, but which I hardly read much of anymore, sadly. All the things I love about fantasy are here: the fascinating worlds, the endearing and original characters, a bit of magic and mystery, a grand, sweeping and complex plot, fine details and realism, and thought-provoking social critiques. Other reviewers are perfectly right in saying that Dreams doesn't have a tight structure and the conclusion to the plot that began in the second book (the angels using Earth to acquire weapons) ended almost anti-climatically, yet none of these things disappointed me. They could have, easily, if I didn't love Taylor's writing so much, or the way her mind works, or the characters, the world and the story so much. I loved that it went in new directions and introduced new plotlines, because it meant I got to know the world and its characters even more. This place has become so real to me, like the best kind of fantasy does. I snuggle down within its pages and immerse myself. All my senses are engaged, my emotions especially (these books make me cry, make me feel what the characters feel and more), and my brain too.
If the writing itself isn't always perfect, the storytelling is. It is a fitting conclusion to a fantastic, sweeping fantasy story, and makes me want to crawl inside Laini Taylor's imagination and make myself a nest there. I am in awe of that woman's creative ability, her imagination and her way with words. Yes I got a bit tired of the climatic, revelatory stand-alone sentences (the very same kind of sentence that turned me off Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Avatar, the third book in the series, mostly because I read them all too close together). Just not enough to kill my love.
Ah, I will miss Karou and Akiva and all the other characters, and this wonderful, scary, sad, tortured yet ultimately hopeful world. It's all explained and cohesive now - all the questions I didn't know I had have been answered, and while the future is uncertain it's still a lot better than what's come before. I don't want a happily-ever-after ending, it's just not realistic; this one suited the story well. All in all, a mesmerising, emotionally-intense and brilliantly-creative ending to a stellar fantasy story. Extremely highly recommended. ...more
When Kelsea Raleigh turns nineteen, nine hardened soldiers turn up at the door to the isolated cottage where she's grown up under the care of her now-When Kelsea Raleigh turns nineteen, nine hardened soldiers turn up at the door to the isolated cottage where she's grown up under the care of her now-elderly foster parents, Carlin and Barty. She knew the day would come, she's always known who she is and what she's been prepared for - and why she was hidden. Until now. At nineteen Kelsea has inherited the throne from her long-dead mother, Queen Elyssa, a woman she's never known but has built up in her head as wonderful, good. The Peacemaker Queen, they call her mother, because of the treaty she signed with the Red Queen of Mortmesne twenty-five years ago that ended the Mort invasion just as it reached the walls of the Queen's Keep - but not before the Mort army marched across Tear, sowing destruction and fear, raping and plundering as they went. The survivors of that invasion still have fresh memories, and everyone is afraid of Mortmesne and its long-lived queen.
Kelsea leaves the only home she's ever known to travel across the Tear to the capital, knowing that her life is in danger every day. Her uncle, the Regent, has hired assassins to kill her before she can reach the Keep, but it's the infamous thief known only as the Fetch who holds her life in his hands. Fulfilling her destiny to be crowned as queen of the Tearling is only the first step in Kelsea's dangerous new life. When she discovers the realities of the treaty her mother signed, she makes a decision that will forever mark her as a very different queen from her vain, unintelligent mother - and set her country on the brink of war.
I decided not to go into the plot too much in this review because this was a Fantasy I started reading with little knowledge or pre-conceived ideas, and partly as a result of that I absolutely loved this book. Even the ARC's proud proclamation that, months before the book has even been released, it's already in the works to be turned into a movie starring Emma Watson, didn't really affect me or my expectations. (And I always ignore the comparisons publicists make between this book and that one; I recommend others do the same.) The only thing I thought I understood, going into it, was that it was a YA fantasy - mostly because (and this probably sounds silly but blame successful marketing) my ARC is trade paperback-sized - and only YA prints in trade paperback size for genre fiction. (I've no idea what the actual book will look like, as it's not out yet.)
So, I went into this story not quite knowing what to expect, but hoping for a good story that I could sink my teeth into. That's precisely what I got, and more.
This one goes under my "magic and mystery" sub-category, because it's got plenty of both. I am, like other readers, leery of magically-endowed artefacts - in fact, they generally put me off from even picking up a book. It's always either a sword (popular phallic symbol used by male authors) or jewellery (used by both male and female authors - is it meant to symbolise the womb?). In this case, it's jewellery, a magical sapphire necklace that Kelsea has worn since she was born. There's an identical twin to the necklace that her mother had worn, which Carlin gives Kelsea after she turns nineteen. The sapphire has a life of its own and soon starts to enable Kelsea to see through the eyes of others; it can give her superhuman strength and even kill without a mark. We don't know where these necklaces came from or where any of the magic came from - in fact, the history of this world, such an intrinsic part of the world-building, remains a bit of a puzzle.
From early on, there's talk of "the Crossing" and life "pre-Crossing". We then learn a few more details that lead us to think that in our own future, we abandoned Earth, took to the stars, and colonised another planet. That interpretation, based on fairly vague facts, holds up until near the end, when what I took to be figurative references to "sea" or "ocean" suddenly become literal. Our descendants have abandoned the world as we know it, but for what or where exactly? Was the incredibly dangerous ocean they Crossed - an ocean that sank the all-important medical ship and drowned all the doctors and nurses on board - some kind of portal between worlds? A portal full of water? The possibilities are mind-bending, and I hope Johansen is going somewhere with this or I'll be extremely pissed off. In general, the details we're given about the establishment of the new colonies - headed up by different countries (apparently America and Britain teamed up to create the Tearling, but we're also told it was also founded by a man called William Tear who had a utopian vision; not sure how the two work together, and I can't quite imagine the US and UK becoming besties for such a huge thing) - are teetering on the edge of believability. They could easily fall one way or the other, depending on Johansen. Poorly executed world-building can sink a story in a second; on the other hand, if all the pieces come together and coalesce into something strong, vivid and plausible, then you've got a winner. We'll just have to see, on that score.
Where the story really excels is in the creation of the heroine, Kelsea, who feels very modern (contemporary to us) and personable; she's smart, compassionate, brave and honourable. She's succeeding two rather rotten rulers, her own mother and uncle, and her kingdom is on the brink of utter ruin. If you're not lucky enough to be born into the nobility, who own all the land and control everything, you're a peasant slaving away on their land for next to nothing, or some other menial labourer in the city. Attitudes towards women have markedly declined, there's no education, no books except those hoarded by a few people like Carlin - and no appreciation for them, either. The dominating religion, the Church, is a bastardised mix of Catholicism and Protestantism that uses the Bible mostly as a prop; it's rotten to its core. The people of the Tearling have known hardship like you can barely comprehend - far worse than in our own Medieval period upon which traditional fantasy is so commonly based. Despite being descendants of us, they've lost not only a great deal of modern technology and learning in the Crossing, but also the humanity we continue to strive for. A sense of what's "right", an end to the exploitation of children, women, indigenous groups etc., the valuation of literacy and education, of workers' rights. All gone, it seems, in this new world.
The odds are stacked up high against Kelsea. Now queen of a nearly bankrupted country with few resources, a weakened and illiterate population, rotten and corrupt from the inside by a few powerful people who seek only to protect their own interests (sounds familiar) and a powerful, strong and aggressive country looming over them, it's part of what makes this story compelling, seeing Kelsea - someone we can relate to so easily - come in and try to make changes. We know from the beginning that she survives her crowning and becomes a legendary queen - the Glynn Queen - so there's no uncertainty on that score. The tension comes, instead, from how it all happens. How does she defeat her enemies? How can she repair such a damaged and festering kingdom? It also comes from the so-far unanswered questions and mysteries surrounding other characters and history: who is the Fetch, and is he even human? How has the Red Queen stayed young for over a hundred years, and what is she doing to herself to achieve it? What is the dark thing she summons, and what are its goals? What is the Mace's story? (The Mace, as he's nicknamed, is Kelsea's "right hand man" and leader of the Queen's guard: fearsome, terrifying, knowledgeable.) What's the deal with the sapphires, and where exactly is this new world?
With a fast-paced plot and a comfortable, smooth writing style, Johansen has written a compelling and engaging fantasy novel taut with adult themes and gut-punching realities. She's started me on a journey into the heart and blackened soul of a corrupt world - a world inhabited for only a couple of centuries yet already suffering from human occupation. The machinations, treachery, bloodshed and grief are all too real, and it even had me crying till I couldn't read the words on the page at the end. Yes, it snared me. It will make a good movie, too. I'm indecisive over how original it is - certain key elements reminded me straight away of the YA fantasy series, Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (which I also loved). It follows a familiar fantasy formula yet because of its futuristic setting, it's history based in our world, and the resulting mix of attitudes and adopted customs, it does tread on some fresh ground. Ultimately, it's well-written fantasy that you can curl up with and sink into. I don't even want to know how long I'll have to wait till the next book; I want to read it now, I'm not ready to put aside these characters and all those puzzles.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
In 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A lonIn 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A long-time theatre appreciator who's never seen a play, it takes a chance encounter with two people about his own age, Paul Driscoll and Leigh Radley, to motivate him into quitting his clerk job and leaving his parents behind to embark on his own life. His mother has been locked up in the mental asylum in Seston since Luke was five; he visits her often and resents his father, a Polish migrant who once flew fighter planes in World War II, for never seeing her or talking to her. He takes the train to London and calls the one person he knows there: Paul.
Paul is not much past twenty but doesn't want to be the engineer his father pushed him to be. He wants to be a producer. Now with Luke on side, a plan begins to take shape and a fledgling theatre company arises. With several others, they form Graft, a small, artsy theatre above a pub. When handsome, charming Luke sleeps with the stage manager and then doesn't talk to her again, she leaves and they hire Leigh. The same spark of familiarity, connection and desire that was there when they first met is still alive, but Luke is taking the admonishment of not sleeping with the stage manager to heart, and steps back. Paul fills the gap, and after a while of dating him Leigh moves in to their flat and the three settle into a comfortable rhythm.
Also in London is Nina, a young actress trying to break in. Raised mostly by her absent (and unknown) father's sister, her mother has been the dominant presence in her life. An actress who didn't want the burden of raising a child she didn't want, Marianne is selfish and egotistical. All Nina has ever wanted is her mother's love and approval; she'll do anything and become anything to make her mother happy. That's how she finds herself going to drama school, even though she's so shy, and how she became a shell of a person easily sculpted by anyone dominant and confident enough to take on the task. Which is what happens when she meets Tony Moore, a producer and one of her mother's young ex-lovers. Tony arranges her, dresses her and trains her like something between a doll and a pet. Nina hides so deeply behind a blank - appeasing and pleasing - mask that it's not long before any vestige of an individual person able to break free and create a life for herself is gone.
It's at the performance of In Custody, a heavy play in which Nina stars, that Luke first really sees her. Barefoot, blind-folded and gagged, she comes onto the stage after an intense, dark opening in which the sounds of heavy doors opening and slamming shut can be heard. The experienced is terrifying for Luke, whose mother has been locked up for so long; when he sees vulnerable Nina, when her face is bared to him, he sees a frightened young woman who needs to be freed.
It is Luke's all-consuming love for Nina, and the affair they embark upon, that ruins old friendships and nearly scuttles his just-blooming career as a playwright. Fallout is a coming-of-age novel for both Luke and Nina, a vividly-real, intimate look into what drives us, what shapes us and what love can cost us.
This might very well be my favourite Sadie Jones novel to date, although I can't really say that because I really do like all her novels quite a lot and the ones I've read so far have all been quite different (I haven't yet read Small Wars; really must!). There is something holding me back from full-out loving her books, but for the first half-ish of Fallout I was definitely in the "love" zone. My copy is an uncorrected proof (an ARC), which meant it had lots of typos, nothing major, but it did also have a slightly unpolished feel to it. The prose was, at times, a bit awkward or unclear, the punctuation so technically incorrect that the emphasis or meaning of a sentence was distorted or lost, rendering some parts unnecessarily clumsy, like you've stumbled on an uneven floor. Again, hard to know if the punctuation was going to be fixed or whether this is the style she's developed, but the control over commas versus semicolons or even periods was sloppy. The comma isn't the "new" semicolon; they affect a sentence quite differently. Misuse either one and you ruin the rhythm of your words and disrupt the flow. You can be "experimental" with punctuation, but you can also create an annoyingly disjointed mess if you don't do it well.
This is a story about people, about Luke and Nina, Paul and Leigh, about relationships, love, the battle scars in our relationships and the mistakes we make - and sometimes learn from. The characters are real, believable, familiar. The most interesting and confronting of them all was Nina, someone you pity and feel infinitely sorry for, but whom you can't respect. She lacks will, she lacks grit, she lacks perspective. She is a product of her mother's critique and Tony's homoerotic desires (for instance, her mother keeps her skinny because chunky girls don't get hired; Tony keeps her skinny because he likes her to look like a boy). The arrival of Luke in her life, someone she feels instantly drawn and attracted to in the same way he does with her, presents an opportunity: a chance to take control of her life, figure out who she is and what she wants, and be fulfilled and happy.
But Nina has a diseased soul. Theirs is a love affair that begins with such hope and promise - you truly, truly want them both to be happy, and free, and together - that soon becomes something poisonous and even destructive. I sometimes hear, in movies maybe, people say that they're with the right person for the wrong reasons, or the wrong person for the right reasons, or some variation on that theme. There was a touch of that here. What I loved about it was how truthful, honest and messy it all was. Jones has a real knack for capturing ordinary, middle-class people in all their glorious strengths and flaws, and letting events play out naturally. While I did find that there was a slight sense of an author-creator (god-figure) manoeuvring pieces into place (it's the way she writes), once there the characters took over, their personalities guiding events and their ultimate fallout.
The star of the story was the setting and era itself: the backdrop for the fallout of relationships. London in the late 60s and early 70s is a place on the cusp, a place discovering love and life and excitement. A place still being held back by the tight grip of tradition and society but increasingly stretching its wings. Theatre is prominent, and popular. New bands and music rock the airwaves - which people actually listen to. It incorporates women's lib but nothing overtly political or radical. This is a story set in the hearts of its characters, rather than their heads. While there, I felt like I was there. I could picture things quite well thanks to all the British telly I've watched over my lifetime, and the flavour of their speech really helps catapult you there. Eminently readable but not exactly pleasurable, Fallout had me wrapped up in the characters so that I was going to bed thinking about them, however disquieting and somehow off the story and the writing was at times.
The thirteenth and final book in the Sookie Stackhouse series (originally called the Southern Vampire series) is rThis review contains minor spoilers.
The thirteenth and final book in the Sookie Stackhouse series (originally called the Southern Vampire series) is really about tying up loose ends and finalising Sookie's love life. For the last several books, she's been in a mostly-intense relationship with Eric, a very old vampire and sheriff of Area 5, a designation among the powerful vampire political structure in which the United States, along with the rest of the world, is divided into small kingdoms ruled by vampire kings and queens. The vampires aren't the only paranormal beings in this alternate world: there are also weres, shapeshifters, demons and various kinds of Fae (including fairies), as well as human witches. Over the course of the series, Sookie has discovered them all, not least the fact that she has a bit of fairy blood in her, that the ruler of the fae is her great-grandfather, and that here telepathic ability was actually a gift from her half-demon godfather (also a lawyer - oh the irony!).
The first half of the series was really very good, each book a sort-of standalone mystery that adds to a bigger kaleidoscopic picture in which Sookie is a sometimes key piece. Sookie went through quite a spread of supernatural lovers, but never seemed to settle on any one man until Eric. Yet the last few books, Harris has very clearly been driving a wedge between them, and making it clear that their relationship just can't work. The romance died in the 12th book, so it was no surprise that their relationship finally, clearly ended here. I'm more surprised that so many fans (who come across as a bit obsessive, frankly) declared feelings of disappointment and betrayal (Harris even received death threats). I always thought Sam would be the one she ended up with in the end - there was just something quietly solid and human-enough about him, waiting in the background. Plus, perhaps because he's essentially as human as Sookie is, he's of her 'kind', doesn't come with a host of archaic rules or (to Sookie) bizarre cultural expectations, like all her other lovers did. He's very much the 'boy next door' type, steadfast, loyal and clearly in love with Sookie. It just took Sookie a long time to work through the dazzle and excitement of vampires to realise that love doesn't need danger to be real. Works for me.
I've always enjoyed the steady pacing, quiet, almost matter-of-fact tone and Sookie's practical approach. The stories are well grounded in a fictional reality because of the time Harris spends creating Sookie's days - the uneventful ones, where she cleans and gardens and goes shopping. Such details help balance the supernatural stuff, and make Sookie a relateable narrator. Harris has maintained that tone and pacing throughout, though some books are more exciting and plot-driven than others. Perhaps Dead Ever After lacked a central plot to anchor it, perhaps it was a bit scattered - and forgettable. I initially rated this 4/5, but coming to write this review, I've realised I can't remember very much at all of what happens, only a few details here and there. There is, of course, a plot against Sookie's life - much more personal than before, and coming from two fronts. The revelation of who is behind it is both a surprise and a bit of a disappointment. But it makes enough sense that it works.
Dead Ever After is a merry-go-round of previous characters: almost everyone from past books makes an appearance here, if they're still alive. Her brother gets married. She renews her friendship with Tara. Quinn, the weretiger, comes onto the scene, as does Alcide. Good guys and the less-good. It's like a "This is Your Life" episode. By the end, we're left feeling good that Sookie's life will be much less chaotic or scary (or exciting) from now on, that she's financially stable and has a boyfriend who won't (or can't) change her very nature. All's good in Sookie-land. Isn't that what you want at the end of a series?
It's been a fun ride, with its ups-and-downs, its exciting books and its filler books, machinations, big plots and small, home-grown ones. Sookie's come a long way but she's still, at heart, the same woman she was at the beginning, just more confident, more knowledgeable, more at peace with who she is. They're good, fun reads that dabble with big themes of family, love, trust, racism, belonging etc., giving them plenty of meat to chew on. I'll miss Sookie, but I know I can always start again and enjoy the stories all over again. That, surely, is the sign of a good, long-lasting fantasy series....more
Visit my blog to enter to win a copy of both The Publicist and Shelf Life (2-book giveaway), open internationally from now until 22nd April 2014.
ShelfVisit my blog to enter to win a copy of both The Publicist and Shelf Life (2-book giveaway), open internationally from now until 22nd April 2014.
Shelf Life continues the story of New York publicist, Kate Mitchell, picking up not long after the end of book one. More unhinged authors, more terrible titles, and more time with the sexiest editor in the country, MacDermott Ellis. Mac isn't happily married to his wife of twenty years, Carolyn, but he's always been clear he'll never leave her either. Kate knows this as well as any other woman he's been with, but the thought of breaking the affair off with him just isn't something she feels capable of doing. Both Kate and Mac are putting off facing the hard decisions and emotional heartbreak that, deep down, they know must come one day.
That day arrives in the summer, the day they launch the biggest book on Morris and Dean's portfolio for the year: The Continued Promise, the follow-up to a previous bestseller, The Promise. The CEO of MD, Edward - a dictatorial man in his seventies who's been running things for as long as anyone can remember and who thinks its his right to feel up the female employees - unexpectedly moved up the release date without a clear reason, and the alarm bells are ringing louder than ever in Kate's head. Her gut instinct was always that the author, Michael Singer, was suspect, and when the FBI arrest him on the same day the book launches, it's not just MD that suffers, or Kate's career. When Kate learns that Mac knew about the police investigation but didn't tell her so she could prepare damage control, she's devastated. Her career might not be salvageable, and now she knows that her relationship with Mac isn't either.
Rather than face her situation square on, Kate runs - she escapes New York for the sun and surf of California where her friend Nick gives her valuable time and space to recover. It's time to sort our her life, her head and her heart, but that's easier said than done. As much as she keeps telling herself she's over Mac, there's a part of her that's still running from the truth.
Having just read the first book, The Publicist, I knew exactly what to expect from Shelf Life in terms of character and style. However, compared to the first book, there's a lot more plot in book 2. Having established her characters and the dynamics between them as well as the publishing industry, George moves on to Kate's personal story. The breakup we always knew was going to come, came, and Shelf Life is very much Kate's story of self-discovery and overcoming obstacles. With the same humour and entertaining insider stories as The Publicist, this was just as fun and engaging to read - perhaps more so, as there were some real nail-biting scenes and I loved learning how Kate was going to get herself out of some tight spots. She's certainly very good at her job, though as we all know, being good at your job doesn't protect you from the sharks.
There is an element to George's style that, while it makes for a quick, consistent pace, also makes events seem a bit too pat. A bit too easy, which can make it feel less realistic. Part of the problem is that, despite Kate being for the large part a worthy protagonist, for large chunks of this story things just happened to her, so that even when she was actively making a decision, it still felt like she was a passive recipient of good luck. It's hard to pin-point, because she's an extremely hard worker who rose up out of the ashes of her career to forge a new path, and she forged it well. It was just a bit too, well, convenient, that Allan Lavigne's book would be an instant bestseller and so beloved by everyone - when does that ever happen? There isn't a single book that doesn't have its critics - and everything worked out so well for her. I was happy for her, but it started to lose its sense of realism because the story became a kind of list telling us all the good things to happen one after another.
Granted, Kate's love life is still a big mess, but I confess I started to lose patience with her after a while. There were aspects of Kate's character that were largely missing, and she wasn't flawed enough to seem human. Her world is surprisingly small and her new boyfriend, Nick, is way too perfect. You never really get to know him, beyond that he's very attractive and very successful. He's depicted as a fantasy, which Kate never picked up on - fantasies do not make for solid, long-term relationships. I liked Nick, thanks to a few moments when we get to see him vulnerable, but he's representative of a certain manly ideal women supposedly have - a cliché or a stereotype of what women want in a man that I've come across so many times before, in romantic comedies and other formats - so for me he was a vacuous, unappealing romantic character who served as a plot device rather than as a human being in his own right.
I could say the same about many characters in many books, who get side-lined by the "main event" - in this case, Kate and Mac's messy relationship. Mac was the real star of the story, even though he, too, fulfils the role of another stereotypical male love interest. It was his flaws, and the fact that he's a philanderer, that gave him an edge as a character over all the others. Kate's flaws are distantly irritating ones, the kind of flaws that women latch onto because she seems so bloody perfect and all these attractive men keep falling in love with her. Too good, you know? You just want to see them fall, and not in the sense of bad things happening to them: no, you just want a sign that they're human, that they're loved not because their perfect (for what mortal woman can compete with, or hope to achieve, that?) but because they're human and imperfect and its our imperfections that make us endearing to the right person.
But like I said, it's a very engaging, entertaining read, and this one in particular - because of it's well-rounded conclusion - had me gripped. In a way it's reminiscent of Hollywood movies, in that it follows a fairly predictable path, but as with the movies, it doesn't stop you from enjoying the ride. Part of the enjoyment, I think, is in knowing the formula and the glee you get from seeing how things unfold. Plus, despite the truly atrocious titles these publishers put so much weight behind (self-help? bad tell-alls by convicted murderers?), or perhaps because of them, it's so much fun to get that peek inside the industry. If Kate's path to rescuing her career and finding love was a bit smooth and convenient, the shady, political dealings inside publishing more than make up for it.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iReads Book Tours...more
Kate Mitchell has worked as a publicist at Morris & Dean Publishing (MD) in New York City for seven years now; she's nowhere near the bottom rungKate Mitchell has worked as a publicist at Morris & Dean Publishing (MD) in New York City for seven years now; she's nowhere near the bottom rung of the ladder in her department, but she's not getting the "big books" either. Yet, to her authors, she's a hero: saving them from jumping off a building after a bad review in the New York Times, arranging for a celebrity to turn up at their book signing before MD cancels their book contract because sales aren't good enough, and generally doing her job with professionalism and creativity.
She's still young, and after a few messy relationships with the "wrong" men, decidedly single. But there's always MacDermott Ellis. Mac, a much older but still very attractive and charming man, is a known philanderer - a discreet one, but it's a well-established fact that he's been married for over thirty years, has two kids, and absolutely no intention of ever leaving his wife, Carolyn. Knowing that, it doesn't stop women from embarking on an affair with him, falling in love and having their hearts broken. Mac's never made a move on Katie - before now. His warm, friendly interactions kick up a notch when he invites her to dinner to discuss an upcoming "big book" that he wants her to work with him on; it could be her big break.
Mac is smooth, but genuine all the same. He stays in his marriage for several reasons, though he slowly comes to admit that now, it's because he doesn't have the guts to make such a big change in his life. Not to mention devastate his two boys. Kate has always considered herself too smart to get involved with him, too - not only is he married, and not only is he a colleague, but she knows she could fall for him.
Through the sometimes hilarious ups-and-downs of publishing publicity and in-house politics, Kate forges a path for her career and balances the increasing workload with her increasingly flirtatious outings with Mac. She must figure out a way to listen to both her heart and her gut instinct, and trust herself to make the right decisions for her own happiness. But does that mean loving Mac, or distancing herself from him?
'Christina George' is the pseudonym for a publishing industry insider, a publicist who has used her experience and true-to-life anecdotes to bring colour to this chick-lit romance story - though not all of them are true. If I didn't know George worked in the biz and was using a pen name so she could share these often outlandish scenarios, I would have said they were too outrageous to be believable. It's amazing, human behaviour, and what people who work "behind the scenes" get to see: the 'warts and all'. These authors are a mixed bunch, but many of them are entitled, arrogant, demanding, neurotic, obsessive, and have no personal skills whatsoever. Though to be fair, most of the books Kate had to publicise sounded like utter trash, too. Nothing I'd be interested in reading, that's for sure.
It was definitely the strength of the novel, though, this insight into the mainstream publishing industry. I've worked for a small independent publisher in the past, and seen that even at that level there're plenty of colourful characters and eye-rolling stories of authorial entitlement. It makes for an entertaining read, even if it didn't always flow through the story with a natural feel. That's down to George's writing, which hasn't yet matured but shows plenty of potential.
The romance also had a decent 'true-to-life' feel to it, which gives the whole story a kind of TV-show realism (an oxymoron I know, but the way I can think of to capture The Publicist's flavour). Mac is charismatic and a nice shade of grey, reminding us that not everyone who embarks on an extra-marital affair (or two or two dozen) is an automatic sleaze-ball. You can see quite clearly how stuck he is, how he's internalised the problems with his marriage and, rather than deal with them in a productive manner, hides from them. He keeps the status quo, a little boy pretending to be an adult, trying to protect his wife while also trying to find a slice of happiness for himself. You might not approve of his methods, but he still conjures up sympathy, making Kate's decision less simple.
I would have liked a bit more pre-sex tension and chemistry, more of a build-up; to establish their mutual attraction a bit more - not necessarily in terms of time but in terms of their interactions, the depth of them. It becomes a bit too descriptive, with too much "tell" and not enough "show". It's hard to feel what they're feeling when you're only told.
Supporting characters help to flesh out the story and Kate's world: her best friend Grace, an artist; her friend Allan Lavigne, an elderly man who once, in 1969, published a bestseller called The Fall and was in an iron-clad contract with MD to publish his second book, which he'd never written; and Nick, Allan's nephew from California who reminds Kate of Matthew McConaughey - now she's got two men to choose from, and an even bigger decision to make.
It's a relatively short novel, with a swift pace and near-constant movement, plenty of dialogue and even a scene that brought tears to my eyes. It was entertaining but really, the story has only just started, and ends on something akin to a cliffhanger. The story continues in Shelf Life, which I'll be reviewing next.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iRead Book Tours....more