Since reading and loving Wicked Burn a few years ago, I've become a big fan of Beth Kery and eagerly read everything Kery has published, and her newes...moreSince reading and loving Wicked Burn a few years ago, I've become a big fan of Beth Kery and eagerly read everything Kery has published, and her newest book, Explosive, is right up there with Wicked Burn and Daring Time as one of her best.
Sophie is a psychologist with a secret crush on the brother of one of her partner's clients. Thomas Nicasio is sexy and charismatic, but lately his family has been in trouble. Adopted into the powerful and wealthy Carlisle family at a young age after being left an orphan, Thomas used to be an explosives expert in the Navy. His adoptive brother, Rick, is a journalist investigating the Chicago mafia - his investigations turned up the name of the mob boss, who also happens to be his father: Joseph Carlisle. Not long after that, Rick and his son are killed in a boat explosion.
On vacation at her lakeside cottage, Sophie is taken by surprise when Thomas, a man she barely knows except through his brother Rick, turns up on her dock. Clearly in a state of shock, she lets him stay with her. The chemistry between them is electrifying, and after a passionate night Sophie wakes up the next morning to find Thomas gone. When she encounters him in her office building later, she discovers he has no recollection of the time at the cottage. But he's clearly in trouble, and after they escape an explosion and the FBI, the cottage is the only safe place left - a place where Thomas can heal, and they can explore their explosive chemistry.
Nothing sizzles hotter than Beth Kery sex; it's intense and hot and wild and naughty and passionate. Thomas was instantly likeable, especially as his vulnerable side is what we first see - after that, we like Sophie know him better than he realises. The plot is simple enough but with an edge that adds tension and suspense; still, the truth about Thomas's adoptive father and the death of his brother, while interesting, is not the point of the story. I like it when plot doesn't get in the way of character development and growing chemistry - these two explode off the page right from the beginning, but their emotional chemistry builds slower and is more satisfying for it.(less)
In the 1960s Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton wrote the song "Puff, the Magic Dragon", and it has become embedded in white western culture ever since. I...moreIn the 1960s Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton wrote the song "Puff, the Magic Dragon", and it has become embedded in white western culture ever since. I can still remember sitting on the carpet in kindergarten, singing the lyrics while someone played it on the piano. Not until 2007 was this book version created, though, which surprises me. I guess I had always assumed it was a book first.
It's a sad tale, though there's hope in it too. Puff and his friend, a human boy called Jackie Paper, sail the world, have adventures and meet distant kings and pirates. But then one day Jackie leaves and doesn't come back - he's grown up and moved on. Puff is sad, and lonely ... until a new child arrives, and the adventures continue.
I'm not a huge fan of the illustrations here, even though they're well done and fitting. They're a bit too clean for my liking, a bit too "pretty". But there's some nice touches in them - little details for eager eyes to discover - and they certainly do capture the story and what's going on between the lines.
This edition also comes with a CD of the recording by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary, who first recorded the song in 1963), but I'm not likely to ever listen to it. It's the book I'm interested in! (less)
One of my favourite new books of 2010! This is an absolutely wonderful book that you'll just love. It's about, as you can tell, giraffe and bird. They...moreOne of my favourite new books of 2010! This is an absolutely wonderful book that you'll just love. It's about, as you can tell, giraffe and bird. They hate each other, and the annoying things the other does all the time - things that seem designed to annoy them. But when they finally have had enough of each other and go off to better pastures, they find that they miss the other, and value each other's differences.
It's no surprise that the author and illustrator lives in Toronto: it's one of those big cities with a hugely diverse population of people crammed in together, who don't always understand each other or even try, with racism simmering beneath the tension - especially when you get in the subway. Giraffe and Bird is about acknowledging differences in culture, lifestyle, habits, even looks and appreciating others regardless, seeing the value in others and learning to live alongside them.
Accompanied by beautiful painted illustrations, the engaging and slightly cheeky prose will also teach some new words, like "abide".
I like the historical romances where the hero and heroine are already - or soon enough - married, often for the wrong reasons or convenience or whatev...moreI like the historical romances where the hero and heroine are already - or soon enough - married, often for the wrong reasons or convenience or whatever, and fall in love from there. I don't know, there's just something really kinky about it.
In this one, Madelene Colgate is the subject of a high-stakes bet her brother, Sir Matthew, has concocted in order to raise funds: she must marry in three days. Famous for her temper, and having broken two engagements in the past already, the bet is eagerly taken up amongst the men of the ton, and Matthew, orchestrating it from behind the scenes, already has a man for the job. Assuring his sister that because his friend, Mr Brelford, prefers men, she'll get an annulment without trouble, and because she loves her brother despite everything he's put them through, Madelene begrudgingly agrees.
But Matthew isn't the only one keen to take advantage of this bet: Gabriel Westcott sees it as the perfect opportunity to exact revenge on Matthew for seducing his sister and then refusing to do the honourable thing. His sister died in childbirth, and in Gabriel's mind marrying Matthew's sister without her knowledge is the perfect revenge. Disguised as Mr Brelford, he marries Madelene in secret and takes her to his country estate, revealing himself along the way. Madelene remembers him well from the duel he fought with her brother over Gabriel's sister - the duel that left Matthew with a lame arm.
Yet, they both enter their newly married state in civilised form, and Gabriel is far from the angry tyrant Madelene was expecting. In fact, she warms to him even as he hides his desire for her, determined to make her want him in turn. But an attempt is made on Madelene's life, and her brother is in trouble yet again - this time with an Italian "count" insisting on having a dagger returned to him on pain of death - makes married life far from dull.
There were definitely some things I really enjoyed about this - namely, Gabriel, who reminded me somewhat of a Georgette Heyer hero - and when it was just Gabriel and Madelene, it was good. But when it's Madelene and Matthew, you want to wring both their necks. Madelene goes from sensible and smart to a complete blind idiot who must be rescued by Gabriel all the time, and who trusts her brother over her new husband (okay, so he did marry her under false pretences, but how can she trust and value Gabriel one moment and then do such stupid things the next?); and Matthew needed a good slapping.
There were also some plot holes, and I don't know how much of it were just slips or weak editing, and how much of it sloppy writing. I also thought it would have been better without the action and stolen-dagger plot line, which just got in the way of what was growing nicely between the main characters. Though it did give Gabriel the chance to completely redeem himself. It's almost hard to reconcile the man acting on revenge at the beginning of the novel, with the man we come to know throughout the rest of it. But it was decently plausible, plus it's revealed he didn't just have revenge on mind: he wanted Madelene for her own sake.(less)
A few years ago I read Blush by the same author, and it was quite good; this is her newest book and I thought, why not. Well, I'll tell you why not: i...moreA few years ago I read Blush by the same author, and it was quite good; this is her newest book and I thought, why not. Well, I'll tell you why not: it's bad. Really bad. Hard to believe it's her 8th novel. It reads like diarrhea all over the page. Not sexy, and very amateurish.
It begins with Marie having sex with a complete stranger by the lake on her weekend retreat, a man called Zeke who has tattoos, rides a motorbike and screams "bad boy" at her - just the type of man she's looking for, after her failure with the "Mr nice guy" types (she's all into typecasting, is Marie). The sex is so good (apparently) that they continue their relationship back in the city - only it gets complicated, because the Mr nice guy who lives in the apartment next to her, Ty, knows Zeke. And Ty wants Marie to himself.
There's more, but I'll spare you. Between the increasingly badly written characters, dialogue and sex scenes, there's very little on offer here except some cringing. It was like reading tacky 80s porn (I know, I'm hard on the 80s, but face it, it was an incredibly daggy decade!) I read it with something of a stunned look on my face, I'm sure. It was laughable, the set-up, the "hot bad boy guys", the sex, the plays at dominance and submission - even their feelings were corny and infantile. Save yourself some wasted time, and give this one a miss.(less)
I recently picked up this jacket-less hardcover for a dollar at a book sale held at my office to raise money for charity - I quite enjoy Kinsella's Sh...moreI recently picked up this jacket-less hardcover for a dollar at a book sale held at my office to raise money for charity - I quite enjoy Kinsella's Shopaholic books but I absolutely loathed The Undomestic Goddess, so I've been wary about trying another of her standalones. Still, for a dollar I didn't feel like I had much to lose. And maybe it was due to my low expectations, but I did enjoy this one.
Lexi is out with her three best friends, who are celebrating the bonus they got at work (a carpet company) - a bonus Lexi didn't get because she hasn't been working there for a full year yet. She has a loser boyfriend whose nickname is actually Loser Dave, a crappy job in the Flooring department, and it looks like her life is going nowhere fast. Now she's stuck in the rain, trying to hail a taxi, the night before her dad's funeral. Falling down the steps is the last thing she remembers until she wakes up in hospital and discovers that three whole years have gone by, a lot has changed - including the fact that she's acquired a rich and handsome husband - and she doesn't remember a single thing about any of it.
There's nothing original about the premise - there are lots of stories based on the idea of someone waking from an accident with amnesia, and finding everything different from how they remember it. With Kinsella, you just have to go with it. She's not the most versatile writer out there - if Lexi had an addiction to shopping her personality would have been identical to Rebecca Bloomwood - but despite that I found myself feeling highly sympathetic towards Lexi. The person she became three years ago in order to improve her life and save her family from ruin is completely alien to her - it would be like waking up and finding out an alien had taken possession of your body for three years. Lexi had become a career-driven bitch and lost her friends in order to become director of the flooring department; then she marries a real estate developer who wears loafers with tassels (I mean, if anything is designed to make me run away screaming, it would be shoes with tassels) and is anal about everything - and while it sounds at first that everything Lexi ever wanted she managed to achieve (including losing weight and getting her teeth fixed), it soon becomes apparent that the Lexi she became was also deeply miserable. It's sad, actually, and I can't call this "uplifting" or even very happy.
This won't take you more than an afternoon to read, and if you're in the mood for something completely distracting and engaging, I'd recommend it.(less)
There are apparently two editions for this book: one published with children in mind, and one with adults in mind. This is a children's edition, which...moreThere are apparently two editions for this book: one published with children in mind, and one with adults in mind. This is a children's edition, which means that there aren't any notes and the chapters are titled instead of numbered, with very obvious titles like "We Reach Iceland" and "Inside the Crater". You could read the list of chapters and get the whole story, really. It's also kept the original names of the characters - the narrator is Axel, not what was it, Henry? (Both are German names, but I guess Henry sounds more English!) This isn't an abridged edition, but there is an additional scene in the non-children's edition that I hear isn't authentic to Verne. Honestly, I was just happy to have this end.
In her introduction, Diana Wynne-Jones talks of reading and loving this book at the age of 10. As I was reading it, I kept thinking, ten? TEN?!? On the one hand, the loopy science and fantastical inner world would certainly appeal to children, though if I had read it at the age of ten I certainly would have questioned the science just as much as now; on the other hand, the descriptions are so hard to follow (because the writing is poor) and the story so often dull and slow, that I don't know that I would have ever finished it.
A great portion of the story is concerned with discovering the secret map in code, assembling a ridiculous list of supplies (that makes no logical sense, in terms of food and water - sorry, rum), getting to Iceland, and then traversing rock corridors within the volcano. And they never do reach the centre of the earth. Where they arrive at is a vast inner world, with its own sky and sea and cliffs and giant humans, giant sea monsters and weird colourless plants. And then suddenly they're on the surface again.
There's not much too it, and while Axel provides the foil to his eccentric scientist uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, he's one very annoying young man. The constant complaining (although he's often right - he says what we're thinking, much of the time) and whinging make him sound like a petulant little boy, and not much fun to be around either. I didn't like the Professor much at all either - he's completely lacking in charisma and can't listen to others. The real hero of the story is Hans, their Icelandic guide, who saves them time and time again, and without whom they would have perished before even making it inside the volcano. But don't worry, he got his pay! Dear me.
Overall, not one I'd recommend, though I hear Verne's other two famous books are better written.(less)
This book became one of my favourites of 2010, and if there's one book I would recommend to you right now, it would be this one. Quirky, clever, hilar...moreThis book became one of my favourites of 2010, and if there's one book I would recommend to you right now, it would be this one. Quirky, clever, hilarious, original, poignant, touching, flat-out brilliant all comes to mind in describing Come, Thou Tortoise. It was a random purchase for me, bought on a whim - I didn't know anything about it but I've always loved tortoises and it sounded interesting. Only goes to show how spontaneous book buying, with no research, can reap great rewards!
Such a brilliant book only makes me feel impossibly inarticulate; I don't feel like I have any ability with words in writing this. How to capture the essence, or the eccentricity, or the sheer brilliance of the writing? I can only stumble through what I want to say.
Audrey Flowers has been living in Portland, Oregon with her tortoise, Winnifred (who came with the apartment) when she gets a call from Uncle Thoby, telling her that her father, Walter, a university professor and researcher, is in a coma. Leaving Winnifred with friends, Linda and her aspiring Shakespearian actor boyfriend, Chuck, Audrey flies back to Newfoundland but is too late to see her father: he's already dead. Now it's just her and Uncle Thoby, the black sheep of the family with one arm longer than the other, each dealing with grief in their own strange way, while Winnifred learns Shakespeare from Audrey's friends and reminisces about the time they drove across the country, Winnifred riding the dashboard (she loves the heat vents).
This novel is pretty impossible to summarise, but that's the basic set-up. Both Audrey and Winnifred narrate in first person, in their own distinct and unusual style. Both are wonderful and engaging characters that you'll absolutely love. Audrey - Uncle Thoby nicknamed her "Oddly", which fits her perfectly, is endearingly sweet and captures their love of puns - is both sharp and quick of mind, and also slow to catch on, not always bright and definitely odd. She's not at all stupid, she just thinks in a different way. This comes across vividly in the stories from her childhood, but even as an adult this odd mix of smarts and slowness is striking and balanced, making Oddly a wonderfully rich and realistic character. It's hard to describe her any better than that.
Winnifred will undoubtedly be a favourite with anyone reading this, too. She's a most observant tortoise, and like Audrey, has that mix of childlike innocence and adult world-weariness. Also like Audrey, Winnifred enjoys puns. It actually makes a lot of sense that these two think alike - Audrey has a unique perspective on the world, and Winnifred is quietly eccentric too. Perhaps they rubbed off on each other.
What's clever about how Grant wrote her debut novel, is how she's used the simple technique of not using dialogue punctuation. Normally, I don't much like it when authors leave out quotation marks. It can make a story almost unreadable, or at the very least, often confusing. Here, though, Grant shows how a stylistic device like this can complement and boost a story, as well as strengthen the narrator's voice. Writing is an artform, and deciding how to write something is just as important as character development or plot. Not using quotations actually makes the story flow seamlessly between dialogue and thought, or Winnifred's voiceless conversation. It makes scenes funnier, and grants greater insight. The other thing to note about how the book is written, is that there are no question marks. This troubled me a bit at first, because I wasn't sure whether I should read lines that were clearly questions, as questions (with inflection) or flatly, as statements. After a while, though, I just went with it.
Will Audrey come back. That is the question. Or is an allegiance switch in order. And is an allegiance switch even possible, considering my options. Linda the Unkempt or Chuck Stanch. Stanch is Chuck's last name. This I learned last night when a Red Cross representative came to the door and referred to him as Mr. Stanch.
Which Linda found for some reason very amusing. Would you like to donate some blood, Mr Stanch.
Shut up. You're going to be Mrs. Stanch soon.
Over my dead body. (p.64)
That was Winnifred. It doesn't capture her personality but it's a good sample of what I mean by the ommitted dialogue punctuation and question marks. It's a device that's so cleverly used, and works so well with the characters and the plot and the scenarios and the humour, that it was worth expounding. Even more, it reflects both Audrey's childlike, insightful questions and her blindness and inability to ask the right questions. She'll focus on some inane point while around her something more significant is going on.
There's also a subtle mystery, or puzzle, at play here. A family concern. The truth of Audrey's family (I won't describe it in any other way because talking about it openly will spoil it, and reduce it) is raw and touching and beautiful, and sad. And makes perfect sense. I didn't see it coming, though I never try to puzzle out such things. The blurb mentioned "her father's mysterious past" so I was looking in a different direction, or a bit off-kilter. That's the best way, though. I don't like second-guessing novels.
While the humour made me smile and made me laugh, at heart this is a serious story about darker themes than is at first apparent. In a way, it's a black comedy - making light of the things that are painful and sad in life. There isn't a single character in this novel that won't touch you in some way, and many of them slip in under your skin without you even realising it, like Toff, a lawyer and friend of the family (so Audrey thinks), or her neighbours in Newfoundland. Even Chuck, the aspiring actor who complains about always having to play Antonio, shows a vulnerable side that speaks to you. It's all between the lines, or slipped into the sentences in subtle ways. What's not shown or explained is sometimes more vivid than what is, in Come, Thou Tortoise.
I don't know how Grant will top this one, but whatever she writes next, I'll be there to read it.(less)
This is one of those books that make me wonder at myself. As in, "Why Shannon, why?" I've read more than a few of Banks' erotic romance novels, and th...moreThis is one of those books that make me wonder at myself. As in, "Why Shannon, why?" I've read more than a few of Banks' erotic romance novels, and there's been at least one that I absolutely loved, but this was one of her early e-books and the writing is pretty bad.
The premise is simple: a trio of brothers who are fated (!) to share one woman between them - just like their fathers did, and grandfathers before them - one morning find a woman unconscious in the snow outside their home in the foothills of the Rockies, and lo! she's the one. And even though Holly is fleeing her husband on their wedding night (turns out he's a criminal and a murderer - and she's just naive and silly), she has no problem responding to these three big men.
Holly is such a bloody twit. Worse than a twit - she's an idiot. How could someone grow up so completely naive? (And it galls me when these romance authors - Christine Feehan also does this (and the characters here seem practically stolen out of Feehan novels) - calls them "sweet and gentle" and "feminine" ugh ick) All the characters here are laughable, but they do have great four-way sex. I probably wouldn't have a problem with polygamy if it meant women could have multiple male partners - fair's fair. Though, after reading this, the women in both situations appear taken advantage of. It's a fantasy, having three men dote on you, but in reality one man is more than enough work! How stifling would it be to have three?
I think it's a favourite theme of Maya Banks', because this is, ah, the third book of hers that features more than two men and one woman. While the writing was bad and the characters laughable, would you believe me if I said that while I was reading it I actually enjoyed it? It wasn't until after I'd finished it that I had to blink and shake myself. I guess I was happy to go with the flow on this one, however silly it is.(less)
This re-imagining of one of my all-time favourite books, Jane Eyre, was brought to my attention by Chelle in her review, and I knew I had to read it!
H...moreThis re-imagining of one of my all-time favourite books, Jane Eyre, was brought to my attention by Chelle in her review, and I knew I had to read it!
Here, Jane is also an orphan but with two older siblings, both of whom are horrible people (much like Jane's cousins in the original). Forced to drop out of her studies to find a job to support herself, she applies to a temp agency and, mostly through her complete lack of interest in celebrity gossip, lands a job as live-in nanny for the little girl of a famous rock star, Nico Rathburn, who's on the verge of a major come-back.
While the plot-line faithfully follows the original, more or less, this doesn't detract from the fun of this story. Most of the things I love about the original are still here, though it is rather like reading a Pride & Prejudice sequel - nothing can ever really compare to the original. I did like Jane though, and Nico, and in a way Nico made Mr Rochester's perplexing behaviour toward Jane - his rather heavy-handed tactics at making her jealous - make more sense and feel more sympathetic. The thing I kept wondering about as I was reading, though, was how Lindner was going to handle the crazy-wife-in-the-attic side of things. Going with a celebrity - and a rock star to boot - enabled it to work.
It's a simple, straight-forward, light read that might encourage teens to read the original, but is easily enjoyable for its own sake. It can never compare to the original, but when you don't feel like reading the original and its at times heavy prose, this would be the quicker read.(less)
his is another book that's taken me over two months to review, but while certain plot points are a bit fuzzy and some themes have slipped my mind, my...morehis is another book that's taken me over two months to review, but while certain plot points are a bit fuzzy and some themes have slipped my mind, my overall impression of the book is still clear in my head.
Astrid Llewelyn lives with her somewhat crazy mother in a garage apartment at her uncle's house. All her life she's listened to her mother Lilith's stories of killer unicorns and how she - they - are descendants of a long line of female unicorn hunters, but she's never really taken Lilith seriously. Not until a unicorn attacks her boyfriend, nearly killing him, and Lilith connects with the resurrected Cloisters in Rome: the ancient training school for unicorn hunters.
Astrid can acknowledge that unicorns are dangerous, blood-thirsty creatures, but that doesn't mean she wants to be a unicorn hunter and stay a virgin forever: as soon as a unicorn hunter loses her virginity, she loses her special abilities like fast healing and immunity to unicorn venom and horn poison, and becomes prey just like everyone else. Resentful that her mother is forcing her into this "career" - one that could see her dead in no time at all - Astrid still becomes one of the more promising unicorn hunters among the eclectic mix of girls at the Cloisters. But she knows that all she has to do to get out of it is lose her virginity, and she's just met the perfect candidate: a handsome art student, also from the States, called Giovanni.
This is quite a bloody and violent book, full of guts and gore and young girls - children - being mauled by slathering beasts. There's nothing cute or sane about these unicorns, and the utter danger of the job of unicorn hunting couldn't be clearer. I had to agree with Astrid about her mother: she seemed to have a screw loose, pushing her daughter into near-suicide, all for the glory of the family name. It was a relief when she snapped out of it. Lilith wasn't the only character obsessed with something, though: Astrid was annoyingly obsessed with losing her virginity, to the point that I got sick of hearing her thoughts on the topic and wanted to give her a kick up the bum. She was a more satisfying character when she stopped thinking about herself and started working with other hunters to protect people from killer unicorns. Also, the whole "a hunter must be a virgin" thing bothered me so drawing attention to it like that didn't help.
While Rampant had some great elements and breathed fresh life into unicorns - honestly, the idea of them as scary, dangerous, poisonous, man-eating monsters makes a lot more sense to me than the cutesy version ever did - I still found myself struggling to keep reading. It couldn't hold my interest for very long at any time, and seemed to drag on without really going anywhere. This was more of a personal-growth story for Astrid than an adventure one: more character development than plot, and yet I didn't feel that Astrid grew all that much as a person, not as much as I would have expected considering all she goes through. There's drama, but it failed to grab me. The other characters, the other unicorn hunters, blurred together into a faceless mass and some of them seemed to be forgotten as quickly as they were introduced, which didn't seem right since it was such a small group living in close quarters.
The unicorns were interesting but I could never really get a grip on their size or scale - the largest is described as being as big as an elephant, which I had trouble picturing. I guess draft horses are as big as my imagination can really go, which is disappointing for me but hardly the author's fault. I certainly wanted to know more about them, and by the end there are hints that the unicorns aren't the mindless evil the hunters have been led to believe - there's something sinister going on, a bigger picture they're not yet aware of.
The plot of human conspiracy and evil scientists was a bit sketchy for me, and in general the plotting seemed haphazardly put together, with glaring details overlooked, obvious questions not asked, and a lack of pacing that made the ending flop about without much direction. That's what struck me, anyway.
Overall, the points I liked about the story about equal those I didn't, and I don't mind that I got the second book, Ascendant, before even starting this one - I have hope that the story will pick up and get more involved, and Astrid will become a more interesting heroine. (less)
Gwyn Cready has quickly become one of my favourite Romance authors - she combines fun plots and engaging characters, laughter and tragedy, intelligent...moreGwyn Cready has quickly become one of my favourite Romance authors - she combines fun plots and engaging characters, laughter and tragedy, intelligent dialogue and charismatic villains, providing unputdownable adventures and sizzling chemistry. I've read three so far of the four books published, and loved them all. They're not part of a series, but they all have one thing in common: time travel.
Josephine (commonly called "Joss") is doing everything she can to keep her mother's mapmaking business afloat since her father nearly ruined the company that it falls under. Now he's been dead three months and sexy entrepreneur Rogan Reynolds has stepped in to save the business - which includes her maps. Not only that, but Joss has agreed to marry him and already lives with him in his penthouse apartment. Everything's going as smoothly as it can with her wedding coming up soon, until one night she sees something very strange indeed and becomes very curious in the three strange occupants of a disused tailor shop - especially in the tall, dark and handsome Hugh.
In what seems like a convoluted plot but which you won't have any trouble following if you just stick with the first somewhat confusing chapters, Hugh and his companions have used a time portal to come to the present to find a map that Joss's father had stolen from the past - a map that made him a rich man and provided Joss with her luxurious childhood. By stealing it, he made sure a land change didn't go ahead that would have made a different family rich - instead they were beggared and forced to work in the mines.
And it turns out that Joss's mother, a skilled mapmaker herself, was from Hugh's time, and made three maps that provide clues as to the whereabouts of a hidden treasure - just not the one they're all hunting for. Joss is torn: she knows her father did a bad thing, she knows he wasn't a great man, but he was her father, and by changing the past (again), her own past would drastically alter, and not for the better. Then there's Rogan - Hugh suspects he's looking for the map as well, and has nefarious reasons for wanting to keep Joss close. Soon only a trip back to the past can possibly resolve the problems facing them.
Cready's books are so much more intelligent and lively than most Romance novels - I rather feel like rescuing them from the Romance section, simply because the genre gives us such low standards of what can be achieved. With Cready, I know I'm always in good hands. I find that I smile constantly while reading her books, and laugh out loud too. Not many books can make me laugh. I find them hard to put down, and this one was no exception. They're light on the sex side of things, being more concerned with plot development, character development and chemistry, but when there is sex it's tasteful and electrically charged (all that sexual tension, y'know).
So really, if there were one Romance author I'd recommend above all others, it'd be Gwyn Cready. I just love her books, and I'm always eagerly on the lookout for more.(less)
For the last year, Caleb Becker has been in juvenile detention after pleading guilty to a drunken hit-and-run. The victim, Maggie Armstrong, has spent...moreFor the last year, Caleb Becker has been in juvenile detention after pleading guilty to a drunken hit-and-run. The victim, Maggie Armstrong, has spent the last year learning how to walk again. After months of physical therapy, she's slowly coming to terms with the fact that she'll always have a limp and her tennis playing is over. Her friends have deserted her and her mother, a single mother who works in a diner to make ends meet, is desperate to see Maggie have fun and be young again.
When Caleb is released and he and Maggie come face to face again, everything Maggie has been trying to forget rises to the surface. At the back of her mind is the fear that Caleb may have deliberately hit her with his car because of the fight they had had at the party earlier that evening. They had been neighbours all their lives and, through Caleb's sister Leah, friends as well.
As part of his parol, Caleb is assigned community service and turns up at the home of old Mrs Reynolds where Maggie works, keeping her company so she can save for her trip to Spain. While she helps plant Mrs Reynolds' daffodil bulbs, Caleb builds a gazebo. Shunned at school, it takes Maggie by surprise to discover that Caleb is the only person she trusts. And as she gets to know him all over again, she becomes more and more certain that he didn't hit her that night. That there's more to the story - and more to Caleb.
I read this in just a few hours, which was perfect because it was my first read for the 24-hour read-a-thon in October. Elkeles creates a balanced story, at once light but with a steel core. Her characters may feel a bit too similar from book to book, but since I like her characters I don't mind too much. Caleb is white and middle class but his personality is quite like the Mexican brothers from the Perfect Chemistry books. He's loyal, generous, stubborn, tough, and hiding the usual vulnerabilities and gentleness. And his home life is crappy. His mother, a socialite who likes her two children to put in staged appearances, is addicted to prescription drugs, while his father, a dentist, is a mouse.
Maggie is also a lonely soul. Her father left them to shack up with a younger woman and barely calls, and doesn't have time for the daughter who loves and misses him. I found her to be a strong character at heart, who really just needed the right kind of support and encouragement. I can't really imagine a school where the other students shun and even bully someone who's been injured in an accident - I'm not sure I find that very realistic.
The story is simple but very pleasing, and sad at times. I'm trying not to say "heart-warming" cause it's such a sappy cliché. Maggie and Caleb take turns narrating in their own voice - a device Elkeles still uses, and uses well. Because I liked and cared for the characters, their story engrossed me, and the blossoming romance was sweet. The ending isn't necessarily happy, this being the first half of a longer story, so don't expect confessions of undying love or anything silly like that. It's more a story of growth and truth and learning to trust again.
I had actually got a copy of the next book, Return to Paradise, without realising it was the continuation of this story, so I quickly ordered this so I could read it first. Because of the abrupt ending, you want to have book 2 handy - though if you get tired of Elkeles writing you won't want to read it too soon!
It's been a few weeks now since I read this, and it bothers me that I can't remember more clearly the things I loved about it so much. But I do remember loving it, and not being bothered in the slightest by the ending, and just relishing the story and the characters. It's a romance with grit and heart, maturity, tragedy and hope. As soon as I finished it I started reading the second book to find out where the story goes, because I absolutely needed resolution to this story.(less)
These dragon series of MacAlister's are becoming pretty complicated in the way they intertwine, and the plots aren't the straight-forward excursions t...moreThese dragon series of MacAlister's are becoming pretty complicated in the way they intertwine, and the plots aren't the straight-forward excursions the first dragon series was, so I might just have to provide a bit of context here rather than a summary of just this one book.
All sorts of other-worldly creatures exist alongside us in MacAlister's world, everything from witches to sprites to demons to dragons. Many look perfectly human when they wish, and all are temperamental to some degree. Some are human with gifts, but most are not.
The dragons are one such group. They have their own culture and ways of doing things, but mingle with humans in the business world and for the most part seem human. But they are drawn to gold, breathe fire even in human form, and get very possessive over their mates when they discover them - especially the wyverns, the male leaders of each wyvern. The wyverns are the groups of dragons, divided by colour and a particular trait. The first series, the Aisling Grey Guardian books, were about the Green Dragons. The second focused on the Silver Dragons, and that's where the overarching plot got more complex.
Long ago, the Black Dragons were at war with the Blue over a woman, Ysolde, who was claimed by the wyverns of both sects, Baltic and Constantine. The Black Dragons were decimated, Ysolde was murdered and the survivors formed the Silver Dragons. Members of the wyverns still argue over who caused the war, and who Ysolde rightly belonged to.
Now, we get her story, and with her, Baltic's. Baltic appears as a minor character in the Silver Dragons books, and not a nice one either. He seems, to all intents and purposes, a real enemy, able to use a mage sword that, as a dragon, he shouldn't be able to do, as well as enter the shadow world.
Ysolde turns up in the form of a woman called Tully Sullivan, who is married and has a boy, Brom. Except, she can't remember marrying Gareth, or anything. Perhaps it's due to the comas she falls into each year, during which she spins gold from straw - which Gareth makes sure she has a plentiful supply of. She ended up in the home of the wyvern to the Silver Dragons rather by accident, and is there confronted with a truth she has a hard time believing: that she is Ysolde, a dragon, once mate to Baltic (and once a mate, always a mate). Yet, she's also human. Still, her new dragon friends are convinced.
In her dreams and when she blacks out, Tully lives through her past life as Ysolde, and so we get the two parallel stories and learn the truth behind the old war, and whether she was true to Baltic or Constantine, and what happened. Yet this is just the beginning, for the First Dragon has plans for Ysolde, and she's already disappointed him once before. If only she knew what she was meant to do!
MacAlister writes with fun, flair and flippant humour, balancing darker themes with lighter scenes. I find her books - I can really only speak for the dragon books, because I haven't read any of her others - to be just the kind of frivolous fun and romance that I need at times. I don't like having to wait so long between books, though, because I tend to forget a lot of the details and flounder for a while, trying to dredge up memories that will help me understand a scene or a conversation - she doesn't do much recapping, which is actually great but I'd advise waiting till they're all out before starting, as I did with the Aisling Grey series.
Tully/Ysolde (I like the second name much better!) was an engaging narrater and heroine, and her innate love and loyalty for Baltic shows itself organically as the two meet again after hundreds of years. Baltic, that most misunderstood dragon (the classic boogey-monster used to frighten little dragon children into behaving), was very endearing. It's true that there's almost a mocking quality to the way MacAlister writes the male dragons, but then they do take themselves SO seriously, they set themselves up for looking slightly ridiculous. And childish - my they carry on like 2 year olds sometimes!
The parallel story lines worked very effectively, and it was interesting watching the personality of Tully mature into Ysolde until she really was Ysolde and began to think of herself that way again - except this time with a human son in tow! Previous central characters from the earlier books make their requisite reappearance, as does Jim, Aisling's minor demon (in the shape of a Newfoundland dog), who has a real potty mouth and makes inappropriate comments all the time.
I'm still waiting for the fourth and final book of the Silver Dragons, because as far as I remember the story of Mae was far from finished, and I really liked her.(less)
I love puzzles, and Escher, and mazes, and optical illusions .... so it figures that I'd be drawn to this, even as an adult. It's one of those picture...moreI love puzzles, and Escher, and mazes, and optical illusions .... so it figures that I'd be drawn to this, even as an adult. It's one of those picture books that doesn't tell a story but instead looks to engage with children's imaginations and inspire them.
Each page features an "imagine a day..." and a matching illustration.
"Imagine a day ... ... when you can dive down through branches or swim up to the sun."
I find myself drawn more to the pictures - like I would be as a child - than to the words. Without the illustrations, the words would be quite empty I think.
"Imagine a day ... ... when autumn is a yellow canopy above you, a burnt orange carpet underneath, a road you have never ridden on before."
I like that one, perhaps because I can relate to it more - it's a lovely description of, well, this very season. Just yesterday I was walking home from the subway, I take the back streets that go up and down; it's an old neighbourhood from the 30s, with big maple trees lining the streets. They're turning yellow and orange, just like in this picture, though there's still plenty of green around, and filling the gutters where the wind has tossed them. I was walking home and it was that lovely blue dusky twilight, the air was fresh and cool and it had been raining, and I just felt so at peace with myself and the world. It was a moment I wanted to hold in my palms for longer than it lasted in reality.
I do have a quibble, though: all the kids in these illustrations are white. Very white, and slightly androgynous, and their homes are all upper class homes in posh neighbourhoods... I don't know if young kids would notice or care, and as a child I know I would have been more fascinated with seeing images of another part of the world (it's very Toronto, most of the time), but it jumped out at me the first time I was reading it. It's especially odd, considering the illustrator is Ontarian (the author, Thomson, lives in Maine - I've never been, but I'm guessing it's fairly white and affluent?), as well as standard racial diversity these days.
I also find the style of the illustrations to be strangely flat - it's the style, it's too perfect or something. Everything is so meticulously drawn. Although, it reminds me a lot of the Anthony Browne picture books we loved so much as kids - Piggybook I think was one - which also had very neat drawings but with so much detail, where you could go hunting for little details like a puzzle or a treasure hunt. (Though perhaps my memory is at fault and I'm thinking of a different book - either that or we had a different edition than what's around now, because I looked it up and it just doesn't look the same.) So I guess the end note is that, as an adult, I'm no judge as to what children will like, because my own tastes seem to have changed markedly as I've matured. Despite not being wholly drawn to the pictures, I still think they're great and convey wonderful imagery.
This book won the Governor General's Literary Awards, in the children's category. The author and illustrator have also teamed up and produced two others: Imagine a Night and Imagine a Place.(less)
Stella works as an assistant to a famous - and bitchy - writer; is having an affair with a married man, Louis; and takes care of her ailing grandmothe...moreStella works as an assistant to a famous - and bitchy - writer; is having an affair with a married man, Louis; and takes care of her ailing grandmother, Lucy, whose decline in utter frailty shocks her. When her grandmother starts talking for the first time about a second daughter, Matilda, and vaguely hints at some tragedy or scandal, Stella is curious. But when Lucy dies and Stella finds out the family intends nothing more than to send Matilda - Tilly - a note from the lawyer, Stella decides to drive to Nevada with her brother Tom and meet the aunt she never knew she had, and tell her the news in person.
What she discovers isn't pretty. Tilly is an old drunk and an ex-prostitute, who is less than welcoming. But Stella persists, and learns about Tilly's son, Abe, whose father was one of her regular clients, back in the day - a successful man who took the child and raised him well. Abe sends Tilly money regularly, but if she can quit drinking there's a place for her in his home. Stella takes on the challenge, and together they arrive on Abe's doorstep, both hoping to start afresh.
This is Jamison's debut novel, and it's a very well crafted one. Both Tilly and Stella alternately narrate in first person voice, giving us not just different perspectives of situations, but of themselves and each other too. It's not overdone, but subtle; their individual voices come across distinctly without being over-powering or a cheesy effect. I sometimes take issue with writers who use some kind of fancy gimmick (or what to me is a fancy gimmick) in their work, especially in debut novels - it was my main problem with The Rehearsal, which I wanted to like but it just felt like the author was trying too hard, and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which was so pretentious (read: wanky) I felt contempt for it. The Gin Closet, on the other hand, was written in a steady, quietly confident hand. Deceptively simple, there is some truly lovely prose here, unpretentious and dignified, which worked wonderfully with the subject matter.
I don't know about you, but I sometimes wonder, How many books do we need about people whose lives have wasted away to drink or drugs (or both), who are now pitiful, depressing aged versions of their younger selves, once so full of potential? How many of us really want to read such depressing stories, that don't even have happy endings? I know I don't tend to seek them out. We like our fluff, our fantasy, our romance with happy endings. We don't want to have to think about the life of the panhandler on the street, for instance, wrapped in a blanket against the cold, asking for change and, when you walk past without acknowledging them, wish you a good day regardless. (See, the homeless have better manners than most people in this city!)
And yet... and yet we do. We do want to know their stories. We do want to understand not just other people, but what ticks in the heart of us. Because every single one of us in one poor decision away from becoming a Tilly, for example. It's scary to realise how easily it can happen. We work so hard not to be homeless, destitute, an addict. We work so hard to keep hope alive in ourselves. It's not gross fascination that makes these stories appeal to us - it's our humanity. Our empathy.
I don't want to imply that the characters in The Gin Closet and similar stories are our charity cases: they're not. Though, for Stella, Tilly is. What they are is human, and flawed, and lost, and these are things we can easily identify with. Stella has issues; own life seems scattered and lost, and so she directs her energy at Tilly, helping her to sober up. She lives with Tilly and Abe, trying to help her aunt get a job, and support her through it all. For all her own weaknesses, Stella is at times impatient with Tilly's inability to function normally. The novel doesn't judge, doesn't try to explain Stella's motives beyond what other people think, and this allows us to see the greys in the situation.
Yet Tilly really is a pitiful woman. You can't help but feel sorry for her, in a kind of it's-too-late-now way. What angered me the most was a scene that showed all too clearly that what happened to Tilly was in a large part Lucy's fault. After Tilly makes her first teenaged-sized mistake and leaves home with a man, her mother refuses to welcome her back. As an old woman with a wandering mind, Lucy remembers it differently, and perhaps she's convinced herself that Matilda abandoned her instead, because what kind of mother shuns her child for making a mistake? Yet even that situation is far from black-and-white.
The Gin Closet did remind me of another book, one I read for a book club a few years ago: Belle Falls by Sherri Vanderveen. Another somewhat depressing bildungsroman, going back in time to show how this young, spunky woman ended up crazy and living in a caravan, accused of molesting a small boy. While I don't seek out these kinds of books, I do like them when I read them, generally. Perhaps it's the frankness, the bald honesty, of the prose. The condensed life, the feeling of knowing how it ends and not being able to look away - of owing it to the character to stand by, like a witness. To somehow honour their life, if that makes sense.
Because we walk past people every day, all day, without acknowledging their very existence, or wondering anything about them. I often think this is rather unnatural for us humans. We're innately curious. We love seeing inside other people's lives, learning their secrets. It's why gossip magazines and "reality" TV shows are so popular. I came across a new one the other day, about single teenaged mums. It's drama after drama, and tacky at that. Bogan, very bogan. But those single teen mums are now popping up on the cover of the equally tacky gossip magazines. Are we being manipulated into caring about them in order to increase ratings for the network? Or do people really care?
I digress - nay, ramble, as usual. But I do enjoy a book that makes me think about the world I live in, and The Gin Closet certainly does that. It never tries to manipulate you, to force you to feel something. It doesn't judge. While at times I wanted to get closer to the characters, push past the enforced sense of distance, the tinge of aloofness, that slight feeling of distance enables you to keep reading without becoming too blue. The focus of the novel is Matilda; it's her story, really. Her closet that she crawls into to drink gin and forget, numb herself to the world, to stop thinking. It's a confronting story without being melodramatic, and well worth reading.
My thanks to the author for the copy of this book.(less)
This is the second half of a story that began in Leaving Paradise; you absolutely have to read it first and I recommend having this one ready at hand,...moreThis is the second half of a story that began in Leaving Paradise; you absolutely have to read it first and I recommend having this one ready at hand, since the first book ends rather abruptly and Caleb and Maggie's story is left somewhat hanging.
I don't see how I can avoid spoilers for how book 1 ended, so if you haven't read it and don't want the story spoiled, I'd skip this summary.
While Maggie realised that going to Spain was merely running away from things, Caleb got out of Paradise when things came to a head with his family. Eight months later, Caleb gets arrested for fleeing from a drug bust - not that he dealt drugs, but his flatmates were dealers. He has no one to call but his transition counsellor from his first offence Damon Manning, a big black man who takes no shit. He offers Caleb one chance to have the charges put aside: join him and a small group of kids who are touring schools and camps to share stories of how drinking and driving ruined their lives. When Caleb turns up at the rendezvous, he shocked to find Maggie there.
Maggie too is surprised. Things didn't end so well for their relationship eight months ago, when Maggie figured out the truth of the accident that left her with a permanent limp, while Caleb refused to trust her with the truth. Now, spending weeks on the road together, their remembered closeness returns but so does an antagonistic Caleb, who seems determined to make Maggie hate him. They push each other to their limits, until the truth can stand the pressure no longer.
It was interesting finding how much both Caleb and Maggie had changed over the months, Maggie growing stronger, Caleb more distant and with a tetchy attitude he didn't have in the first book. His motivations aren't as sound but it's like he doesn't know how to keep things from getting worse. Maggie often gives as good as she gets, and tries not to let Caleb manipulate her or bully her. Really, Caleb needed a good smack here - living in a drug den didn't help his temperament much, and he's prickly, wanting Maggie but stubbornly refusing to talk to her like he used to or let himself get involved. It's been a few weeks since I finished this, and I honestly can't remember what his silly argument was for keeping Maggie at a distance (while getting as physically close as he can), except for the old one of not wanting to share his secret.
I've always found this a tiresome device in romance fiction: there has to be some big obstacle preventing a happy relationship between the main characters, and it tends to be a rather ridiculous one. Well, sure, it makes sense to the character/s, but it comes across as pretty flimsy. Still, it gives momentum. While I can't imagine losing a year of my life for a crime I didn't commit, Caleb never regrets what he did, and you can't help but admire him for that. Maggie might have the more obvious injuries and sacrifices, but really, they're both scarred by the same thing and have a shared story - their bond is both natural and unbreakable, though it's up to them to make of it a friendship or something even more.
The group of oddball people they're thrown in with are entertaining - like Lenny, who is disgusting but oblivious to how little anyone likes him. The plot is straight-forward and it's interesting to hear the different stories the kids have, the mistakes they made. Elkeles never comes across as patronising or lecturing. I like the way she handles teen issues, and teenaged characters.
There's a good balance of light, comedic moments and more intense, tightly-strung clashes that provide both entertainment and an engrossing story. While reading this straight after finishing the previous book (and reading them both in one day) made it a tad harder at times, because I've got to the point where I need more variety and don't like to read the same author twice in a row, and the angst was more than I care for, it was a satisfying and realistic conclusion to Leaving Paradise. (less)
I think the gloss is falling off this series for me. I had fun with the first one, and I do still enjoy the stories and the characters, but they are b...moreI think the gloss is falling off this series for me. I had fun with the first one, and I do still enjoy the stories and the characters, but they are becoming more annoying and I'm finding myself less and less patient with Carriger's style and tone here. It's so exuberant and so determined to be silly. She rather belabours the point, especially in her trying "Britishness".
This third outing follows on from the dramatic ending of book 2, Changeless - which I won't spoil, not to worry! But it does see Alexia on her own, back living with her odious mother and half-sisters, dismissed from her job on the Shadow Council, and with the cause of all her troubles unescapable. (That's vague, but if you read them you'll know what I mean.) With her friend, the inventor Madame Lefoux, and Floote, her butler (and everything else), she leaves the now unfriendly England for Italy and the Templars, who have a long history of association with Paranormals like Alexia. Hoping to find answers, she's also trying to escape threats on her life from the vampires, who seem determined to off her now that the unthinkable has happened.
It's rather impossible to give a decent summary without giving things away (I can't understand why I try except it's a habit), but considering this book took me a sporadic month to read - I just couldn't get into it for any length of time - it's a wonder that I can even give a summary. It was overall quite disappointing, one hurried flight after another, one attempt on Alexia's life after another, that I got quite tired of it all. Alexia is separated from her husband, Alpha werewolf and leader of BUR, Lord Conall Maccon, so there's no fun to be had there, and Alexia on her own can begin to get pretty tiring.
Still, knowing me I'll probably read the fourth one, Heartless, due out in July 2011. 'Cause there's some pretty cool stuff going on here and let's face it - they have great covers.(less)
Nanase has always been able to hear people's thoughts, and has learnt how to keep it a secret. Because of her telepathy, she takes jobs as a house mai...moreNanase has always been able to hear people's thoughts, and has learnt how to keep it a secret. Because of her telepathy, she takes jobs as a house maid, the kind of work that she can easily leave if she needs to, and not be bombarded with the thoughts of the same people every day as she would in an office.
But the people she works for are their own trial for Nanase. Lecherous, or vain, or stupid, or selfish - they all have their flaws, and Nanase is a witness to their family dramas, their squabbles, their emotional blackmailing and their vindictiveness. When she tries to subtly improve things using her ability, it doesn't always work out the way she intended.
This is a dark, twisted story - or rather, the characters are dark and twisted, since we get that look into their psyches. They are perfectly ordinary Japanese people, but in their hearts and minds their harbour such relentless anger, greed and hatred as to make you wonder at humanity. The scary thing is, it's all plausible. It certainly doesn't paint a pretty portrait of Japanese society (even if it was written in the early 70s), but that doesn't make it any less believable. On the one hand, you've got that amazing, vivid and somewhat crazy imagination that I feel only the Japanese can possibly possess (perhaps due to the repressive, restrained society and culture in other respects), and on the other because I have lived there and known hundreds of Japanese people through the work I did, I think I may even have met some Japanese who could be like these characters in some way or other.
It's a short book, and a quick read, and my first time reading Tsutsui - I've since got a copy of Paprika since I enjoyed this one so much. And that's the thing: it's no pleasant story, made up of unpleasant vignettes and ends somewhat horribly, but rather like a train derailing, or a multi-car pile-up, or a plane crash: you can't look away. Within disaster and destruction seem to fall humans stripped bare, to be made or broken. It's grotesque, but it's human, and stories like this one make you feel like you're closer than ever to understanding humanity.(less)
This has to be one of the weirdest books I've read in a while, in this genre at least. Cecil Pendergast is a young man who meets Muriel Harcourt, a yo...moreThis has to be one of the weirdest books I've read in a while, in this genre at least. Cecil Pendergast is a young man who meets Muriel Harcourt, a young and pretty widow, at a ball and is easily drawn into her relationship with her maid and childhood friend, Juliette. He discovers quickly that Muriel likes to take a cane to her lovers and be the dominant one, but he's having none of it and turns the table on her, taking over the relationship with both women.
When Muriel takes on her two young nieces for a summer, Gladys and Ethel, whose father - Muriel's brother George - warns that they are wilful and need discipline and that he gives Muriel carte blanche to "correct" them, Cecil thinks it a wonderful idea to rent a seaside cottage on the Dorset coast for the summer. There is much spanking, old English boarding-school style, and fondling, kissing, fellatio and so on, and I guess it's a small mercy (but the only one we get) that Cecil doesn't deflower them - though he does take liberties with Ethel in another way, at the very end. Oh, and the discipline does wonders for the girls, of course.
Perhaps you have to be English to understand this preoccupation with disciplinary spanking, because I don't really get it. It's not very sexual at all, and at times, here, it's downright cruel. Corporal punishment was widely and freely used in England at the time this book was written (and not only then), and the undercurrent of sexual thrill that seems to have preoccupied the nation's youngsters is vividly described here. Muriel and Juliette tell the story of how they met at boarding school, and how all the older girls have younger slaves who they would get to pleasure them at night, and who they would punish with a beating for wrongdoing. You learn more in school than subject matter; you also learn human relations, and that is never more clearly spelt out than in Sadopaideia.
There is method to this corporal punishment frenzy, and at times even restraint, but like the previous Forbidden Classic novel I read, The Way of a Man With a Maid, it was all too much and rather bewildering and definitely from a different time, not least in the way it was written and the way people talk in the books. It's almost like a farce. But from a purely disaffected, curious standpoint, it's certainly quite interesting. Just not at all sexy. (less)
100% spoiler-free review (this book and the trilogy).
Just to position myself from the outset on the Hunger Games fan scale, such as it is, I will tell...more100% spoiler-free review (this book and the trilogy).
Just to position myself from the outset on the Hunger Games fan scale, such as it is, I will tell you that I like the trilogy, but I'm not as gung-ho for it as some readers. The first book was great, though I had some issues then; the second book I'd say my enjoyment and my issues were on par; but with book 3 I think my issues have outweighed my enjoyment somewhat. I've enjoyed reading the trilogy, but it will never make any Top Ten lists of mine. So this isn't going to be a gushing review, but neither is it a wholly negative one. (I have to add, that it's been about two weeks or more since I read it so I've probably forgotten some salient points I wanted to include. My bad for not being on top of my reviews.)
The story, for those who haven't read the books, is set in the future on the North American continent, a century or more after a series of disasters re-shaped the surviving population into the isolated and rigidly-controlled world of Panem. Panem is made up of 12 districts, each responsible for providing something - such as fruit and vegetables, or coal, or seafood. The people of the districts are downtrodden to varying degrees, with district 12 - the coal-mining district - being one of the poorest. Most of the goods produced go to the affluent Capitol, the capital city where President Snow lives, where the people's main concern is decorating their bodies in ever more outlandish ways, people who have never known hardship or want and who enjoy being entertained.
Nearly a century ago there was a thirteenth district, where Panem's nuclear power and technology came from - until the district's population revolted, and the district was destroyed. To ensure that the people of the other districts never try to rebel against the Capitol, the Hunger Games were introduced: every year, two children - a boy and a girl aged anywhere between 12 and 18 - from each district are selected by lottery, thrown into a trap-riddled arena and made to kill each other until there is only one survivor. Watched by the entire country and beloved by the Capitol, the Hunger Games is inescapable.
The heroine of the trilogy is Katniss, from district 12, who volunteers to enter the Hunger Games when her younger and gentle-hearted sister Prim is picked. Alongside Peeta, the baker's son, and mentored by the district's one previous winner Haymitch - who uses alcoholism to escape his nightmares - Katniss tries everything she can to avoid playing President Snow's game, to avoid having to kill. But the biggest lesson she has to learn is that the Hunger Games don't end in the arena: they keep going, and as Katniss becomes a symbol of hope and resistance to the beleaguered population of the Districts, she is drawn deeper and deeper into a blood-thirsty game played by both sides.
There, that was my spoiler-free summary of the premise, that gives nothing away and tells you very little about book 3. Suffice it to say, that the layers to the game continue in each book, the stakes get exponentially higher, and the nightmares more hellish. These are gory books, nothing as bad as Koushun Takami's Battle Royale - an older book with a similar premise that I absolutely loved and highly recommend - but still quite murderous and bloody. One of the reasons why the books are a bit disappointing for me relates to this: I didn't get sucked in enough to really feel it or to even care as much as I would like to, or feel I should.
Part of this is Katniss' fault. Maybe all. Katniss narrates the story, and in present tense. I complained in my reviews of the previous books that this tense doesn't work as it should, perhaps because Collins doesn't have as firm a grip on the tense as she needs to really make it work. Present tense is designed to give a story a sense of immediacy, of tension, of unpredictability - which would make it the perfect tense for this story. However, I never get a sense of immediacy or tension or unpredictability. It feels more like a story being related a long time later, a "Let me tell you the story of the time I was in the Hunger Games..." story. The lack of tension directly effected the atmosphere, rendering it mute at times, muffled, dull even.
The other side of the Katniss problem is that she isn't the most likeable of heroines. She's believable, yes, but the wall she puts up between herself and everyone she knows is one that she also puts up between herself and us, the readers. She's a tough cookie for sure, but not necessarily a good role model, a good friend, or even a good ally. I love a flawed character, but you can't separate the success of a flawed character from the writing. What I mean is, if a flawed character, an unlikeable character, alienates you and makes you want to slap them, that doesn't mean the character was successfully drawn. Katniss might work with some readers; with others, not. I find her hard to tolerate at times. I feel mean saying so, because she certainly has plenty of reasons for being a mess. She's a fully-formed character, consistently written and portrayed, but she really does wallow at times. Katniss seemed tired - understandably so - and in shock - also understandable. But she didn't grow and develop and mature as I had hoped she would - she seems stuck in a perpetual state of conflicted-sixteen-year-old. She can get pretty self-indulgent, selfish, even petulant. Makes it hard to cheer her on. Makes you wonder what Gale and Peeta see in her.
Speaking of which, I have a hard time buying the romance triangle - we become so submerged in Katniss' narrow view of the world, her companions and herself that we're given no reasons to understand what's loveable about her. Honestly I don't get it. I actually liked Peeta a lot more in this book - he changes, is all I will say, and becomes infinitely more interesting a character - but I got rather tired of the idea that either of these two young men could love Katniss. I'm not saying it's not possible to love Katniss, just that I didn't feel it, was never convinced - not after the first book anyway.
It was good to finish the trilogy, but it does feel like, after coming up with a great premise, Collins didn't have any other equally great ideas for keeping the momentum going or making it exciting. And when you don't have main characters who draw you along, it becomes hard to give them your time.
The themes are interesting, but I still find that other authors of YA dystopian fiction have tackled them better. I know, I said this wasn't going to be a negative review but it's certainly slipping in that direction isn't it. I do enjoy the Games themselves, that adrenalin-pumping fight to the life/death. There have been moments in the books that have made me shed tears, moments when I feel like Katniss lets herself feel vulnerable, briefly, and therefore visible. And when beloved characters die horrible deaths - I warn you, there's plenty of that too. I was grateful the alternative to Snow and the Capitol wasn't some naive utopia with everyone smiling and holding hands - it becomes an almost unbearable nightmare in the sense that even if the rebels win against Snow, things might not actually be better. And I was so pleased at the end, at what Katniss did when she had the opportunity to kill an ailing President Snow.
As a story on the lengths humans will go to keep others oppressed, to maintain the master-slave balance that has never left us - just been reformed, renamed, the people pacified and made to believe it's their fault they earn minimum wage and have only a basic education - it's a chilling story. As an action-packed adventure that feels like a Hollywood big-budget movie, yes it can be very exciting. As a story of a teenaged girl forced to become a murderer of children and nameless, faceless enemies en masse, it's a bit pedestrian. But worth reading all the same.(less)
Just look at this cover, isn't it GORGEOUS?! I absolutely love it. It's so rich, with such sumptuous detail, wonderful design and use of colour and al...moreJust look at this cover, isn't it GORGEOUS?! I absolutely love it. It's so rich, with such sumptuous detail, wonderful design and use of colour and all the elements of the story and its genres. It's simply RIPPING!! It feels nice too, with embossed bits, shiny bits, matte bits, texture in places so that if you run your fingers over it they get all excited and tingly! The one and only thing that bothers me is the cardstock used - the cover never lies flat but is constantly (even brand new and sitting on the bookshop display table) lifting up into the air almost vertically. Hey, it's a keen book, but covers get damaged this way.
This is one of those books where the gorgeous cover completely matches - and does credit to - the absolutely wonderful story inside. I'm loving this - two YA novels in a row that I can utterly GUSH over! (Count how many times I capitalise my words as a cheap way of conveying enthusiasm - actually don't count, it'll get embarrassing!) Not only is Westerfeld an utter GENIUS here, but Keith Thompson's sketches are simply STUNNING! I found myself gazing and gazing at them. They match the scenes perfectly, and really make the world come alive. Oh, and would you just look at the stunning map:
Here you can see Europe, at the time of the Great War, separated along ideological lines of a new kind: the "Darwinists" depicted with impressive beasts, and the "Clankers" bristling with steam-powered machinery and weapons. The Darwinist countries, like Great Britain, have embraced not just natural selection but gene splicing, cross-breeding animals and creating incredible beasts called "fabrications" - including the Leviathan itself, an immense hydrogen ship that's not just one living organism - mostly whale - but a whole colony of organisms and beasts that each have a role to play. It's absolutely fascinating.
The Clankers, on the other hand - the Germans and Hungarians etc. - have the kind of machines that are clearly inspired by Star Wars, like this giant war machine. They come in smaller two-legged varieties as well.
But I best stop long enough to give you a summary, eh:
Prince Aleksandar, son to Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, grandson to the emperor, is secretly bundled out of the palace on the night his parents are assassinated in Serbia. His fencing master, Count Volger, and his master of mechaniks, Otto Klopp, get fifteen year old Alek away in a Cyklop Stormwalker (a two-legged machine), but it takes Alek a while to understand the seriousness of his position. Even though his grandfather made it so Alek could never inherit the empire (because he disapproved of the woman Ferdinand decided to marry), his father and Count Volger understood that with the continent bristling for war, Alek could prove a very useful hostage, or pawn.
Meanwhile, in England, sixteen year old Deryn is ready to take her middy's test and join the Air Service like her older brother Jaspert - as long as she can convince them she's really a boy. The test consists of being strapped into the seat below one of the earliest types of air ship - a Huxley. In essence a giant jelly fish filled with hydrogen that panics at the slightest thing, the Huxley goes mostly up or down and can't really be steered. But as Deryn is aloft, a storm comes and the Huxley panics - to save being smashed against a wall in its descent, she's forced to cut the rope that tethers it.
Deryn keeps a calm head, and while she is drifting out to the Channel, is picked up by the Leviathan, one of the earliest and still the best air ship in the Service. Determined to be kept on board, she learns the way of the ship fast. When they make an unprecedented stop at Hyde Park in London to pick up a scientist and a very precious cargo, it is the first step in an adventure that will see Deryn and Alek meet in surprising circumstances - and form an even more unusual friendship.
So, how about some more gushing? Westerfeld has created a superb world, an alternate world of steampunk technology and inventive science, with a wealth of detail and imagination. But it would be a hollow world if the characters and the story weren't equally as entrancing. Oh, and Westerfeld gets extra points for including a THYLACINE!! (Well he is somewhat Australian, after all.) I love this animal, and it was great to see it in a story, finally.
Deryn is the kind of protagonist I instantly love - a tomboy in the best possible way, with a mouth full of slang and stable talk (often invented for the world), a quick mind and passion - in this case, a passion to be in the air service and serve on board the Leviathan. She has her flaws, but she's got so much spunk and bravery - and she doesn't fret or panic. True to her more humble upbringing, she provides the perfect counter-point to the palace-bred Alek, though he too rises to the occasion, learns from his mistakes and shows courage in a time of peril. He sometimes comes across as a tad sullen and spoilt, but he's also willing to admit his mistakes, apologise for them, or do what's right despite the dangers. And then when you get the two of them together, they're just great. Their personalities are vibrant but the details are subtle and come across in dialogue and action. There's not so much of that reflective instrospection (did I just make up a word there?) that's so prevalent in YA and which drives me nuts.
Aside from being a wonderful adventure novel in a highly creative world, Leviathan also presents some interesting themes on the nature of science, technology, ethics and attitudes and so on. The best stories for examining interesting themes like this are the ones that don't deal with them head-on. The ones that let them play out, that let the reader notice them, think about them, question their own thoughts and reactions. Books like, say, Fahrenheit 451 are great for what they do but are also deliberately obvious and in-your-face, which doesn't always leave much room for gaining perspective.
I could ramble on but I better not - I think you get how much I enjoyed this, yeah? I'm looking forward to the next book, Behemoth, with great anticipation! (less)
Don't you love it when people throw out books by leaving them in a box on the side of the footpath? While this isn't in the immaculate condition I lik...moreDon't you love it when people throw out books by leaving them in a box on the side of the footpath? While this isn't in the immaculate condition I like my books to be in, it's not too shabby either. Until selecting it from the books being given away, I had never read it.
Olivia is the delightful tale of a precocious girl, Olivia, who is "good at lots of things". She has an annoying younger brother, Ian, and a cat called Edwin. Since the characters appear to be based on the author/illustrator's two children, Olivia and Ian, it's not surprising that this book has a tone or inflection of a wryly smiling parent, sharing his child's antics with parents who've experienced similar - or anyone really. The story details Olivia's routine, her approach to daily tasks, the things that make her stop and think, and show Falconer's observant nature. This is the first Olivia book - I'm not sure how many there are but there's quite a series of them now. (less)
Being a HUGE fan of Cole's Immortals After Dark series, I wanted to try something else by her and this trilogy seemed like the best place to start. Se...moreBeing a HUGE fan of Cole's Immortals After Dark series, I wanted to try something else by her and this trilogy seemed like the best place to start. Set in the 1850s, each follows a different MacCarrick brother in their escapades and love adventures. To create hardened men of them, Cole introduced that old trope, the family curse.
The curse states that the three brothers - Ethan, Hugh and Courtland - cannot marry or have children, and the death of the eldest brother's fiancée seems to have proven it (as did the death of their father directly after the brothers reading the curse for the first time, which it also predicted).
Now the youngest brother, Courtland, is a mercenary fighting for General Renaldo Pascal, an exile from Spain sequestered high in the Pyrenees, plotting his victorious return with his army or deserters. When Court decides he's had enough of the slick, charismatic but double-crossing and devious Pascal, the General tries to have him killed. Escaping by jumping into the river, the current carries his bruised and broken body to the land of Lady Annalia Llorente, who against her better judgement nurses him back to health. There's plenty of chemistry between them, but as long as Annalia sees Courtland as barbaric, dirty, and a thug who kills for money, they turn their energy into confrontations - which are worsened when Courtland's band of Scottish mercenaries descends on her home and takes it over.
With her brother a prisoner of Pascal, Annalia does the only thing she knows to do: give herself up to Pascal. A descendent of the Spanish royal line, Pascal intends to marry Annalia to cement his claim - but is thwarted when Courtland steals her away. With trained assassins hot on their heels - and Annalia's life now in danger - Court decides to take her back to England where he can better protect her, and he knows her brother will follow her there. The journey is not without its dangers but perhaps the worst to Court's peace of mind is when Annalia decides to seduce him.
While I didn't enjoy this as much as Cole's other series, this certainly had her sense of humour and care for historical accuracy stamped all over it, as well as her light romantic touch and her quest for originality within the genre. There is a bit too much arguing and stoic stubbornness for my liking, but it does have logic behind it rather than being just a formulaic device to keep tension high and to bring about a climactic declaration of eternal love. (I can't help it if the genre makes me cynical towards the formula - it's hard not to get tired of something that doesn't even work that well to begin with!)
The setting was certainly different from anything I've read before, and the historical context - Spanish civil war - is also unusual, but definitely welcome. It created a situation of danger and adventure, but there were points where I found my mind wandering. The characters didn't grab me as well as they should have, and the story was so much more straight-forward than what I've come to expect from Cole; there were no twists and layered subplots, so the pace is actually quite slow considering the length of the novel.
It began very strongly but once it was just Courtland and Annalia, my interest waned a bit - I was surprised to find myself wanting more action rather than less, since it can often get in the way of character growth. Annalia had spirit and wasn't above braining an assassin with a rock (that was meant for Court) when the need requires. She was spoilt and classist to begin with, and also troubled with an idea of her deceased mother that she felt she had inherited (namely, that her mother slept with stable boys and that's why she got sent away to Andorra to marry a mean old man, Annalia's father, and later sent away again when caught sleeping with a servant once more) and which she believed gave her a passionate nature that she should try to repress. I always feel rather angry at characters who repress their sensuality and believe it's bad - not their fault, no, but it still makes me mad.
I have less to say about Courtland, who didn't have much of a personality beyond grunting, and that was a big disappointment. His thoughts were fairly repetitive and not terribly interesting, and I had a struggle with his name; it gives me the willies and it's hard to say why. I did like him well enough, and I especially sympathised with his dream of paying off the mortgage on the land he'd bought in Scotland; mercenary work was a means of paying the bills. His brothers, which you get to meet towards the end, seem more interesting. Certainly more intense.
I would still recommend it to fans of historical romance, though - especially if you're more than tired of the Regency period! There's not a lot of sex either, if that's not your cup of tea (unless my idea of "not a lot" is WAY of kilter! ;) ), and there's the kind of detailed description and character development that I love and wish genre fiction had more of. (less)
It's taken four books for me to see the pattern going on here: books 1 and 3 were relatively sweet and tame in their depictions of desire and passion,...moreIt's taken four books for me to see the pattern going on here: books 1 and 3 were relatively sweet and tame in their depictions of desire and passion, while books 2 and 4 are hedonistic and intense and not for the sexually timid. So that should give you some idea of what to expect here.
Micah Hudson used to be a cop in Florida but for the last few years has worked for a family-run security company in Texas - becoming one of the family in the process. That's about all his friends know about him, that and that he likes women, likes to share them and enjoy them to the fullest, as long as that doesn't involve a real relationship or revealing anything of his past.
Until the day the past finally arrives in Micah's town in the form of Angelina, the younger sister of his best friend David with whom he lived in a blissful, happy ménage à trois with Micah's wife Hannah, a domestic and pleasurable arrangement that ended abruptly when David and Hannah were killed in a car accident. Despite promising David to look out for Angelina should anything happen to him, Micah's grief is such that he desires nothing more than to escape the memories of what he had, and what he lost. When Angelina turns up in his life again, he sees her as David's little sister - and that's the last thing Angelina wants him to see her as.
Angelina has always loved Micah, since she was sixteen and living with him and Hannah and David. And she knows him better than anyone: she knows his past, and she knows how he's been dealing with his grief. Feeling responsible for her, and strangely possessive, Micah takes Angelina in and learns in no uncertain terms that she hopes for something more intimate. Micah's tastes in bed sport run to the extreme, but Angelina is more than Micah's match: she can take anything he cares to give.
When Micah learns that one of the reasons Angelina left her home was to escape an increasingly threatening stalker, he realises he'll do anything to protect her - and not just because she was David's sister.
I enjoy Banks' stories, but I have to leave a great chunk of my own personality at the door when I delve into one. The good news is that I don't mind. It took me four books to really appreciate their Southern American flavour, that they really couldn't be set anywhere else and be plausible. It's not that they're full of Southern "culture", whatever that may be (well, they have their own style of food and way of talking etc., don't they); it's in the characters: the men are big, muscular, domineering, over-protective, gentlemanly but also "manly" - masculine in the cliched sense of beer-swigging, footy-watching, ute-driving machismo. The women are a mix of sassy and sweet, brazen and genteel, "well-bred" and classy or slightly trashy but "good at heart". Ugh I'm degenerating into pathetic stereotype as I write this - such is what happens when you start talking about something, let's face it, inherently cheesy.
I am quite impressed, actually, in how Banks manages to avoid ruffling my feminist sensibilities: which is quite the achievement when you think about it. From the first book, actually, she's had that "agenda" of creating female characters who are confident enough to own up to their sexuality, and own up to their needs in having a Big Strong Man take care of them. I am a feminist myself, but that means I can understand that there's nothing really wrong in this. I wouldn't want it for myself, it's not in my nature or in the way I was raised, but that doesn't mean it's wrong for other women to need what balances themselves. What's "empowering" (and I shudder to use the word, as grossly co-opted by management-speak and the self-esteem movement as it is) is having these very different women (different in personality, but very similar because of their nationality, culture, upbringing etc.) embrace their own sexuality. And I'm all for that.
Angelina is a case in point. She comes into the story fully in charge of her own needs and desires - it's Micah who can't handle the thought of his best friend's little sister enjoying the kind of BDSM he does. (For the uninitiated, "BDSM" simply stands for "bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, Sadism, Masochism" rather like how GBLT stands for gay-bi-lesbian-transgendered: a handy list to capture variance.) Angelina and Micah both enjoy the kind of pleasure it's possible to get from pain, but that's only part of it. There's a rather beautiful and surprisingly gentle exploration of their sexuality, something that could just as easily be taudry, grotesque and obscene.
I didn't find Angelina to be as confused and like a doormat at some other readers - she did not strike me as desperate, not in the derogatory sense they meant. Perhaps it helped having read Sweet Persuasion, the story of Serena and Damon, in which Serena hesitantly faces her needs and desires and Damon teaches her how a woman comfortable in being submissive is stronger than the man who dominates her. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but when you're reading it it makes sense. It becomes romantic. (And you're wondering how I could call myself a feminist, I bet! You'd have to be inside my head, or wait patiently till I can articulate myself better. :) )
For sure the plot can make me roll my eyes - it seems convenient that there would be something putting Angelina's life in danger, because we all know it's not until they think they're going to lose a woman that they realise how much they love her - it's a time-honoured cliche and still highly effective. But that and other cliches aside, Micah and Angelina are believable and plausible because these books are all about character development; plot is just a structure, a frame, on which to bring them together and get them to work through their issues. Because they will certainly have issues - in this case, Micah is privately, emotionally repressed.
There's definitely some sweetness here too, alongside the hero's angst, but the story wasn't as intense as book 2, which dealt with a similar intensity. It's predictable - there weren't even any red herrings regarding the identity of Angelina's stalker - but her resilience and strength gives it fresh life. There's plenty more goodness to come, too. Following the pattern I mentioned at the start, I can say with confidence that the next book will be a sweet one dealing with Connor, while book 6 will be another wicked instalment detailing Cole's story. Yeah I got it all figured out. ;)
You know how, during Victorian times, there was a great wealth of vaudeville and doctors using vibrators on female patients and such naughty stuff, as...moreYou know how, during Victorian times, there was a great wealth of vaudeville and doctors using vibrators on female patients and such naughty stuff, as if the very emphasis on hiding coffee table legs because they supposedly made men think of women's ankles produced, in direct contrast, a great thirst for porn. If you had thought that maybe, a hundred years and more ago, people's imaginations were much tamer than they are today, you'd be very very wrong (in fact, the history of sex is literally as old as time! It'd have to be, when you think about it, but what I mean is that "porn" is just as ancient!).
I wanted to preface this review with that paragraph in order to give it a bit of context, and so you won't be surprised when I tell you that this book, originally published in Parisian journals around the turn of the 19th century (the original publication date is unknown but considered to be about 1908), would make modern erotic novels (of which I've read several) blush.
It begins with the narrator, Jack, the "quintessential Edwardian gentleman", plotting his revenge on Alice, a pretty young lady in his social circle who rejected his suit. His vague plans clarify when he rents an apartment in what was once a mental asylum: it includes a windowless inner room with just a skylight above, completely soundproof and even still has metal rings embedded in the walls and pillars! He dubs it his "snuggery" and buys some specially designed furniture for it, chairs and couches with cleverly hidden straps and cuffs and winches. Then he sets to work making Alice comfortable in his presence, inviting her and her sister over for tea, until the day comes when Alice takes refuge from a storm and he traps her in the snuggery! Now he can enact his revenge on Alice's sweet body at his leisure.
He not only succeeds in his original plan, he also manages to "convert" Alice to his sexual nature. Jack encourages her in this, and helps her trap first her pert maid, Fanny, and then a lovely young widow, Connie. Jack ends up with a veritable harem of three women who help him entrap a lady and her marriageable daughter, who have been pestering Jack with broad hints at marriage.
On the one hand, the prose makes the story rather hilarious, and on the other the wealth of detail becomes rather too much. I had to read it in bits so as not to feel overwhelmed with it all. Jack, who narrates with glee, is very excitable and litters his sentences with exclamation points - his enthusiasm and excitement is tantamount. It also made him seem rather immature, and I have to wonder at the level of experience of the author because some of the scenarios are highly unlikely (I don't mean the scenarios themselves so much as the effect on the women victims).
Most of the time, the novel was so over-the-top and silly that it was quite funny. Towards the end, especially the part where Jack and his harem set to work corrupting Lady Betty and her daughter Molly, it was rather repulsive. But that's erotica for you - it's not necessarily "sexy". It's more a detailed exploration of repressed sexuality and coming to terms with your desires, "needs" and so forth. It's psychological. I'm not sure just how much I would read into The Way of a Man With a Maid, though. For the most part it seems to be meant simply as wicked titillation. And highly gratuitous at that. I chose to read it as smut.
I want to share the writing style with you, and I'd love to show you the kind of language used which is decidedly erotic but not at all romantic; I couldn't do so without being distasteful so I've randomly chosen a paragraph that's fairly innocent:
Confused, shamefaced and in horrible dread, Alice stood trembling in front of me, her eyes tightly closed as if to avoid the sign of my naked self, her bosom agitatedly palpitating till her breasts seemed almost to be dancing! I leant back in my chair luxuriously as I gloated over the voluptuously charming spectacle, allowing her a little time in which to recover herself somewhat before I set to work to feel her again. (p.43)
Exuberant, isn't it?
I've acquired a few other books in this Forbidden Classics series and I'm very curious about them. It's so fascinating to get this insight into the sexual escapades, perceptions, attitudes and so on, of earlier periods. Because like I said, porn is ancient in all cultures. The blurb from the publisher describes this book as "a foray into pleasure, pain, lesbianism and etiquette", and there is definitely "that" between the lines, in the depths of Alice's eyes, that make this a perfect "up yours" to Freud.(less)
This is without doubt one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. Let’s say, ever. If I were to re-do my Top Ten YA Novels list, this would be...moreThis is without doubt one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. Let’s say, ever. If I were to re-do my Top Ten YA Novels list, this would be on it. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to start it all over again (and now, trying to write the review about three weeks after finishing it, I definitely feel the need to re-read it – not because it’s forgettable, but because I’d like to do it justice.) The funny thing is, though, that like other favourite YA novels (such as The Book Thief), I’m not entirely convinced this is a YA novel. I mean, if it was originally written as a YA novel back in the early 80s, wow have the calibre of YA novels gone downhill since! But more on that later.
Anna Grazinsky grew up in a wealthy and luxurious palace in St. Petersburg, well educated, multi-lingual, generous of spirit, joyous of heart. With the First World War came also the Russian Revolution, and families like Anna’s – part of the enormous and ultra-rich royal family – found themselves forced to flee. The young countess is only about eighteen when she finally leaves the city with her mother, her younger brother and her governess, the English Miss Pinfold. Their nanny, Niannka, an ancient crone from the mountain tribes of Georgia, went ahead with all the family’s precious stones – including an emerald that could buy a county – hidden in her luggage; when Niannka doesn’t turn up at the agreed-upon rendezvous, they wearily acknowledge they will never see her or their fortune again, and travel on to England, where Miss Pinfold puts them up in her little spinster house.
A contact of Anna’s father the Count – who died in the war – pays for her brother Peter to go to school, but the family feels their want of money keenly. Through one of many temp agencies set up after the war, Anna finds a job as a house maid at a country estate called Mersham. Her new employers – the butler Proom, the housekeeper Mrs Bassenthwaite, and the lady of the house, the Dowager Countess of Westerholme – can all see that the new maid has been gently bred and well educated, but such is the dearth of help in the country because of those lost in the war, and since Anna works so hard, they can’t afford to lose her.
Anna finds she’s been hired to help get Mersham, once largely shut-up, ready in preparation for the return of the new young Earl of Westerholme, Rupert. A pilot in the war, he’s spent the last several months in hospital with injuries where he faced the fact that his older brother George is dead and he is the new Earl, and where he let a beautiful blonde heiress (of “new money” – her father made a fortune from a chain of groceries) agree to marry him.
Muriel Hardwicke, with her vast wealth, means that Rupert can keep his promise to his brother and not sell Mersham, as many aristocrats are having to do these days. But now that Muriel is installed in Mersham, and the wedding plans are gathering speed, he’s learning more about her attitude, her belief in Eugenics – that people with excellent genes should breed to make perfect children, and hence a race of perfect people – and their complete lack of mutual interests. It’s the little Russian maid with the “devastating curtsey” who he feels more in tune with, but even as learns about who she really is, his sense of honour means he could never jilt a woman.
When I read that the premise was about a Russian countess having to work as a maid in an English manor house, and falling in love with the Earl, I had my doubts. It sounded cheesy and implausible. But it is far from it, and that’s partly why I’ve given such a lengthy and detailed summary instead of saying that it’s about a Russian countess working as a maid and falling in love with the head of the house. Which even now sounds awfully tacky.
I had to double-check the copyright page to see that, yes, this was written decades later – the style of prose matches the period and made me wonder if it weren’t actually older (though if it were it might not have been written the way it was – funny how that works isn’t it?). One of the reasons I doubted whether it was in fact a YA novel is the sophisticated language – which speaks to how unintellectual YA has been lately. Ibbotson doesn’t dumb-down her story but opts for long words and a more old-fashioned sentence structure – I was taken by surprise at how many words there were here that I didn’t know! I didn’t write them down, by the way – I was so caught up in the story that I couldn’t have looked away for a pen and paper, let alone put the book down!
When she was compelled to do with lesser ingredients, Mrs Park never sulked, but she nevertheless suffered and her suffering was reflected in Win’s uncomprehending and adenoidal melancholy and a general “atmosphere”, which prevented Sid from whistling and James from giving his biceps their usual evening canter down his forearm. (p.84)
Mrs Park is the cook, and Win is her helper, a possibly mentally retarded girl who can barely speak but who works with Mrs Park like she’s that lady’s third arm.
There’s also a great deal of humour here, even in the simplest descriptions:
Muriel had chosen her bridesmaids with the care and concentration which characterized everything she did. Cynthia Smythe, the only friend Muriel had made at school, had earned the honor [sic] of following Muriel down the aisle by a kind of servility and obsequiousness which made Uriah Heap [sic] look like the all-in wrestler, Hackenschmidt. She was a pale girl, long-necked and goitrous, with crimped, light hair over a low forehead and an insipid mouth. Untroubled by either intelligence or will, Cynthia had though it “spiffing” to be asked to be a bridesmaid, “super” to be invited to lunch with Tom Byrne, and could generally be relied upon not to trouble Muriel with a single original remark or independent action. (pp.145-6)
(For the record, “obsequiousness” is not one of the words that I didn’t know – but I can’t say I’ve come across “goitrous” before!)
You can also see that Ibbotson used period examples as well – Uriah Heep and Hackenschmidt are clearly not contemporary references (Uriah Heep, a "yes man", is a character from Dickens and Georg Hackenschmidt was a professional wrester from Estonia) but regardless we get the gist from the context.
Another thing to absolutely love is the characters, all of them. You think they’ll be clichés and stereotypes (it’s hard to avoid stereotypes since groups like the British aristocracy are a stereotype without even trying), but the care and understanding Ibbotson writes with – even the despicable characters, the horrible ones like Miriam and Dr Lightbody whom we just love to hate – renders them utterly human. There is a strong sense of the ridiculous about the characters, an irony that’s almost bittersweet, and a great sense of comic timing. A Countess Below Stairs is one of a long tradition of ironic British stories, and reminded me delightfully of Cold Comfort Farm and others.
There is a hint of sadness in the story, or maybe that was just me. It captures very much the end of a golden age, the end of the Russian aristocracy who are reduced to working as chauffers and taxi drivers in London, as well as an end to the lazy British aristocracy, who no longer could afford their enormous homes or lifestyle of doing nothing. It’s fascinating, and rather nostalgic, as the “end” of anything tends to be. It’s wonderful to read a story set in this period of change, to see how profoundly the Great War affected all manner of things, even – especially – after it ended. The book becomes quite educational in that regard. How many of us ever wonder, “I wonder what happened to the Russian princesses when the Revolution came?” or “What was life like in England after the First World War?” – and by default, what is LIFE like after a war? The little details are fascinating to me.
I would have loved this book as a child, without a doubt, but no magic is lost reading it as an adult. It’s the kind of novel that would make me excited about reading all over again, if I had lost interest. As it is, it gives me hope that there can still be room for intelligent, non-dumbed-down YA fiction.(less)
This review isn't going to be what the book deserves, because it's been well over two months since I finished the book and it's always hard to remembe...moreThis review isn't going to be what the book deserves, because it's been well over two months since I finished the book and it's always hard to remember the things that you wanted to say at the time. Which is a shame, because I really enjoyed it and want to give it the review it deserves.
Rolencia is a relatively young kingdom, once an area of warring chieftains united several generations ago by warlord Rolence. The spars that make up the kingdom are still led by warlords though, and some of them chafe at having to swear loyalty to a king, but there is strength in numbers and the neighbouring kingdom of Merofynia, as well as the Utland raiders, are a greater threat.
Byren was born only seven minutes after his twin brother, Lence, and he's always been happy to be the younger brother, to hunt Affinity beasts - creatures of untamed magic - and offer sound advice when needed. With a younger brother, Fyn, promised to the elite warrior monks, and a sister, Piro, nearly old enough to be married off to a warlord in exchange for greater loyalty, the succession seems secure. But when a bastard cousin, Illien, arrives with tales of tragedy and becomes a close advisor to the king, Byren starts to realise that all is not as it seems with his cousin. Lence begins to resent and distrust Byren, the more popular son, and King Rolen himself begins to listen to worrying advice. Byren himself is spooked by the prophecy of an old woman who tells him he will turn on his brother, and the once-happy family starts to turn on each other.
Years ago I read and loved Daniells' The Last T'En, a Fantasy-Romance novel that begins a trilogy, so when I came across a new book by the same author, I was eager to read it. It's more straight Fantasy this time, more epic, and just as enjoyable. The pacing is fast and tight, the plot well thought out and never dull, the characters nicely developed and the writing smooth. I haven't been reading as much Fantasy these days as I used to, but this book got me excited about the genre all over again.
While Byren is the main protagonist in this trilogy, both Fyn and Piro take turns to lead their own sections and we get their perspectives on unfolding events and the people around them. Each is a distinct character, a strong protagonist and both interesting and sympathetic, so that we end up with three heroes. Byren is a people-person, an athletic, active, good-natured lad, skilled, trustworthy - all good things, yet somehow he never came across as too good, too annoyingly perfect. He was an easy character to like, but Fyn and Piro were perhaps more interesting.
The supporting cast were equally as engaging, from the subtle villain of Illien, Lord Cobalt; to Byren's gay best friend, Orrade, who is in love with Byren (unreciprocated); and the girl, Elina, who didn't stay true. This may be lighter Fantasy fare than some other authors in the genre, but Daniells writes so well there are some lovely subtly to the characters that make them all that more alive and believable to me.
The world, too, was fascinating. Magic plays a part but is not the central theme; there's no faceless evil force to battle - that trope always makes me laugh. It does, though, immerse itself pretty deeply in the genre: political intrigue, which has long been a staple of the genre (and if anyone says "Oh like A Song of Ice and Fire" I'll smack 'em); untamed magic; aristocratic bastards; betrayal and corruption; war - both between humans and between humans and magical foe; and a generally uncertain, unstable climate. It's not because the story's original that I so enjoyed it - it's not at all original - but because it resurrects an older style of Fantasy that had become so old and tired and boring, and given it new life. As I mentioned before, I haven't been reading as much Fantasy lately, but I had such fun reading this that it renewed my appreciation for the genre an taken me right back to the golden days of when I first started reading it. In a sense, it's retro, and the more Urban Fantasy that gets published, the wider the glaring hole becomes in the Fantasy shelves: there's just not much in the Epic Fantasy sub-group being published these days.
Because of the huge delay in writing this review, I can't effectively bring up any particular scenes or more detailed themes to discuss, but at the very least I wanted to share with you how fun this book is, how imminently readable and enjoyable. It probably helped that I knew what to expect from Daniells, having read an earlier trilogy, and was expecting something fun and dramatic. I'm keen to read the next two, which are already waiting on my shelves. (less)
Like so many of my book blogging friends, I first heard about this book thanks to the Man Booker Prize Longlist (it has since made the Shortlist), and...moreLike so many of my book blogging friends, I first heard about this book thanks to the Man Booker Prize Longlist (it has since made the Shortlist), and eagerly awaited my copy in the mail (it didn't come out here in Canada until very recently, and in hardcover). I have to say, straight up, that this isn't a book to leave lingering on your shelf. It's a book to sit down with on a free afternoon and dedicate your time and attention to, because it's fantastic.
When I read the tiny blurb on the Booker website, I misread it - it said: "Jack and Ma live in a locked room that measures eleven foot by eleven. When he turns five, he starts to ask questions, and his mother reveals to him that there is a world outside." I read something like "Jack and Mia...", and somehow my brain inserted "Jack's younger sister Mia" - mostly because I read it in a hurry - and so when I started the book I thought two small children were kept locked up in a room by a somewhat demented mother. Isn't that stupid? I'm annoyed with myself but it doesn't even matter, except that at first I was confused because this previous understanding had somehow got fixed in my brain. (Such a little thing to bug me so much!)
So let me rephrase that minuscule summary, because I think I can do a better job and not let anyone else get confused (though I'm sure it was just me!).
Jack is a five year old boy who lives with his mother in a single room, about eleven feet by eleven, with no windows but a skylight, and a single door that is kept locked with a security pad. The room is Jack's entire world, as his mother is his entire world - except for "Old Nick", as they call him, who comes almost every night at the same time, who brings groceries and takes away the rubbish - his visits mean Jack has to sleep in the wardrobe and stay quiet, because Ma doesn't want Old Nick to see him or talk to him.
Jack's days are full of routines and games. His Ma has days of never leaving the bed, of sleeping all day or staring at nothing, but most days she plans out a schedule to keep Jack busy, engaged and active. They have a small old TV that picks up a couple of channels, a stove and a sink for a kitchen, a toilet and a bath in another corner, and a table and two chairs as well as the bed, a wardrobe and a rug. On some nights, Ma turns the lamp on and off while staring at the skylight. Other times, they get up on the table, face the skylight, and scream for all their worth.
Now that Jack's five, and Ma grows ever more desperate, she starts trying to tell him about the real world outside the room. Jack's concept of "real" extends no further than Room - anything else is TV. But Ma has a plan to escape Room, a desperate, crazy plan that only Jack can help her with.
The first half of the book takes place inside Room - Jack gives every major thing in his small world a proper noun - and it creates a highly detailed, vivid world entirely in Jack's voice, an immensely believable voice at once childlike and, thanks to his mother (who was attending university when she was abducted), more sophisticated than most children his age. Told in present tense, it's like Jack is whispering in your ear, as children do when they want to relay something they consider important and secretive. His world is tiny and cramped and primitive, by our standards, but to Jack it's everything, and he has invested all his faculties into learning every centimetre of his world, and giving it extra depth with his imagination.
There's a great deal of dialogue in most of it, between Jack and Ma, that further fleshes out his world and allows us to see and understand what's really happening, in a way a child - especially Jack - never could. I didn't mark any quotes, as usual, so here's a couple of samples:
Friday means Mattress time. We flip her over front to back and sideways as well so she doesn't get bumpy, she's so heavy I have to use all my muscles and when she flomps down she knocks me onto Rug. I see the brown mark on Mattress from when I came out of Ma's tummy the first time. Next we have a dusting race, dust is tiny invisible pieces of our skins that we don't need anymore because we grow new ones like snakes. Ma sneezes really high like an opera star we heard one time in TV. (p.65)
We're not sleepy but there's not much to do without seeing. We sit on Bed and do our own rhymes. "Our friend Wickles has the tickles."
"Our friends the Backyardians have to try hard again."
"Good one," I tell Ma. "Our friend Grace winned the race."
I haven't read many books that use a child narrator - I still have The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to read, and even children's books don't tend to use the device, so it's not so common - but Jack's voice never grew old. Part of it is that he's presenting to us not only a child's perspective, but a child's perspective of an alien world (alien to us, that is). It would be flat, scarier and not as interesting if it were in Ma's voice - what is it like, being a child in this environment - that's what we want to know and experience.
Things get especially interesting in the second half, which I'm reluctant to talk about only because I want to leave the book as unspoiled as possible for you if you haven't read it. But the second half - because it was built on such a solid foundation as the first half proved to be - was fascinating and powerful to read. The entire book carries such a hypnotic power to it, it's hard to look away - and like freak shows, bloody car crashes and other things that are "wrong" and disturbing, we are doubly fascinated by this highly plausible look inside the world of girls who are abducted and kept locked up for sex, who have babies and continue to live in cramped, primitive circumstances, prisoners and, literally (and not at all erotically), sex slaves.
I heard the author speaking on CBC radio a few weeks ago, talking about her inspiration, if you can call something so horrible such a pretty name: all those cases of young women who are discovered and rescued and the often oldish men who have kept them prisoner for sometimes a decade or more (even scarier: the ones whose wives have helped them). And what we are often left wondering is, what happens to the poor children, who were born in captivity, after they've been rescued? What happens to the victims, the women who've suffered for so long they are forever changed? Such is the impetus behind Room, and the second half delves into that.
When I finished the book, I had to just sit and stare at nothing while I tried to process it and make room for it all inside me. It was a while before I could pick up another book, and longer still till I stopped thinking about it.
If you get this edition, either in hardcover or paperback, take a moment to admire the cover. It's deceptively simple, but if you take a closer look you'll notice that it's actually toilet paper, with the flower embossed print. The title is ridged, and fun to run your fingers over. The little kid's block with the skylight drawn in is so perfect, in it's tininess, it's child's prison - the effect is superb.(less)