I'm on Air France, destined for Los Angeles. Fleeing Aziz, my husband of twenty years, the man I married when I was fifteen. The only lover I've ever...moreI'm on Air France, destined for Los Angeles. Fleeing Aziz, my husband of twenty years, the man I married when I was fifteen. The only lover I've ever known. He believes that I will return to him. I will not. Why? Because I can't resist his drunken eyes, velvet words, and persuasive hands that know where to press softly and where to stroke hard, where to linger and where to slither away, where to cup and hold and warm.
And I won't return because I can't free myself from Parvaneh. [pp.1-2]
So begins Soraya's story, in 1999, as she leaves Iran for America. Her husband, Aziz, believes she's been invited by the magazine she freelances for to start a new photographic project in the States; he believes it's only temporary. Soraya - a wealthy Jewish Iranian, blond, green-eyed and nearly six feet tall - has other plans. She has no intention of returning to Iran, to Aziz, to her marriage. Instead she buys a lavish mansion in Bel Air with a wild, huge garden in the back that she sees great potential for; an impressive library full of books on plants and insects (the owner is an amateur lepidopterist); and an unusual interior courtyard housing an atrium within which is a very rare plant indeed: Amorphophallus titanum. The Corpse Flower. A giant plant that blooms once every fifteen years, and produces a rank stench of rotting meat when it does. It is also, as Soraya knows, highly toxic.
There in the seclusion of her new home, with two Iranian immigrants to cook, clean and drive her around, Soraya's plan for revenge takes shape. Her deep love for her husband has become an obsession, and having witnessed him making love to her best friend, Parvaneh - a name that means "butterfly" - she can think only of revenge, and punishment. She becomes freshly obsessed with the butterflies she attracts to her new garden, and in getting the Corpse Flower to bloom. The only thing left to do is lure her friend to America.
But Soraya is blinded by her own self-centeredness as much as her obsession and jealousy, and the secrets that will emerge have the power to undo her utterly.
Mossanen's newest novel is a story of one woman's slide into obsession, delusion and mental illness. Even before she catches her husband and her best friend in bed - something they have no idea she witnessed - the signs of instability are there. Soraya is one of those people who are always on the edge. She doesn't do things by half-measures. She's prone to extremes. Throughout twenty years of happy marriage to Aziz, and numerous trips to specialist fertility doctors across the world, she never reveals to Aziz that she is in fact taking birth control pills. All so that she doesn't have to share Aziz with another - with a baby he would dote on. (She also doesn't seem to be the motherly type.)
Soraya isn't a particularly likeable character, nor one we are meant to like. Unlikeable - and by extension, untrustworthy - characters are often the most captivating, fascinating, and charismatic; at least to read about. Characters who aren't just good but more complex are ultimately more satisfying, and their stories become stories about the complexities and contradictions of human nature, the human condition - something we are quietly obsessed about.
In contrast, Soraya threatens to completely alienate the reader. Mossanen just manages to hold us by carefully revealing scenes from her past that expand and explain her character. The danger is having Soraya slip into a caricature of herself, become ridiculous in her obsession and murder-revenge plot. The truth is, I'm not entirely convinced that didn't happen, regardless. I didn't like Soraya - not in the sense of, I wouldn't want to have a cup of tea with her (which I certainly wouldn't want to do), but in the sense of: I struggled to sympathise, empathise or stay patient with her. She was like an overgrown child, used to having her way, spoiled and an attention seeker who never learnt to share (by which I'm not excusing Aziz's infidelity; I don't mean "to share" in that way!).
The flashbacks and memories reveal much about Soraya's deeply flawed character, but certainly don't excuse her. What's interesting is the ambiguity this story provoked in me. Did I want her plan to succeed? Did I want her to have a happy ending? Did she deserve it? Is she a real victim, or just a spoiled rich woman who doesn't know how to cope when something doesn't go her way?
The sad fact is, I felt betrayed by Soraya - betrayed as a woman. This feeling rose up in me without any conscious effort and it took me a while to realise what it was. I had trouble respecting Soraya, because of her upbringing, because of her arrogance, because of her insufferable self-aggrandisement, and because her thoughts, feelings, actions and decisions were the kind that supported a patriarchal society. This reveals just as much about my own upbringing and place in the world as it does Soraya's.
Soraya still vividly remembers life in Tehran, pre-Islamic Revolution. The fall of the Shah, in 1979, changed everything in Iran. Women were no longer allowed to go outside without a male family member, or without being fully covered. "Morality police" peered in through people's windows or accosted them on the street, checking on behaviour and appearance. Among the elite, many fled, their homes and wealth parcelled off to the people. Some, like Soraya's father, stayed - mostly so that others wouldn't get their hands on his house and money. The Jews, a wealthy enclave, became ever more alienated from the rest of society. But even before the revolution, this was a deeply patriarchal society, among the Jews just as much as the Iranians.
It is inherent in Soraya's attitude towards men, her sense of herself as a kind of sexual predator who uses her looks to lure men (all part of her revenge; it was satisfying how it didn't affect Aziz at all - he knew her too well to fall for appearances). And it is inherent in her reaction to the Mullah on the plane: an Islamic priest, wearing expensive shoes and perfume under his robe, who she tries to discomfit by revealing her legs and brushing her arm against. When he follows through by offering to make her his wife for a night - a legal practice enabling muslim men to sleep around without committing adultery (very handy) - she's barely put off. She notes the hypocrisy but it doesn't faze her. This even though she seems angered (or has inherited her grandmother's anger) that the widows of Iranian soldiers receive no support and so must turn to prostitution to provide for their families, for which they are persecuted and even arrested.
It is always interesting, enlightening and enjoyable to read stories about other places, people and cultures, and the clash of cultures evident in Scent of Butterflies is handled well. But I did struggle with Soraya. There just wasn't much of a positive nature to balance her flaws, and flaws she had many. Her obsession was strong and believable, but failed to really capture my interest. There wasn't a lot of depth to the character, or the story. And I'm still not sure how I feel about the very ending, on a personal level; however, it did suit.
Overall, I am full of ambiguity about this novel, which isn't a bad thing. It never hurts to have a book make you uncomfortable, or displeased: a character like Soraya really draws your attention to your own, personal code of ethics, morality and expectations of yourself and others, as well as life and society in general. Because of that, that parallel of story-and-exposé, it was quite a successful book, and it also succeeded in bringing to life a side of Iranian society I hadn't known much about. But as a character portrait taken on its own merit, I'm not so sure. Like I said, this book left me full of ambiguity and even now, a couple of weeks after reading it, my thoughts are unresolved.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Cara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpe...moreCara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpected - and not entirely welcome - assignment. As part of the fledgling treaty with an alien race two years after the L'eihrs first made contact, three top students from across the world have been picked by the aliens to host three of theirs, ambassadors on an exchange program of good will and mutual education. After which, the human hosts will travel to the L'eihr homeworld, a much smaller and tightly controlled planet, on exchange for the same reasons.
The student ambassador who Cara and her family will play host to is an eighteen year old boy called Aelyx. The other two ambassadors will stay with host families in China and France. Cara's parents are overjoyed - ever since her mother's life was saved when the L'eihrs gifted humans with the cure for cancer, they've been pro-alien (and on their humble income, the stipend for hosting helps, too). Not so many others in Cara's town and across America. Anti-alien sentiment continues to grow as the school year starts, and unbeknownst to Cara, it's mutual.
Aelyx and his friends, Syrine and Eron, have their own reasons and plans for destroying the alliance and severing the newly-forged ties between their people and the puny, barely civilised humans. Over the weeks, though, Aelyx finds himself drawn to his friendly host, and even appreciative of her efforts to cook him something he can actually eat. He's not concerned by the growing group calling itself HALO: Humans Against L'eihr Occupation - if anything, it plays perfectly into their plans of sabotage.
With her older brother, Troy, a Marine, on the L'eihr home planet, her boyfriend, Eric, joining HALO, and her best friend, Tori, caving under pressure and ditching her, Cara finds that soon her only friend in the whole town is Aelyx himself. Being in each other's company so much, they're learning more from and about each other than they could have dreamed - and discovering that there's more to their friendship, and more to the treaty, than they had expected or understood. But is it too late to fix things, repair the damage - and stay together?
I'll admit that, going into this, I didn't expect a whole lot. Another American teen drama featuring young love, obstacles and misunderstandings, nothing fancy but hopefully entertaining. I wasn't sure I should expect realism or believability as well. But actually, or maybe because of those expectations, Alienated proved itself to be more than just entertainment and teen drama - though it has plenty of that. Grounded in familiar sci-fi tropes, Landers has nevertheless managed to make it feel and sound fresh and not all that predictable. Cara is a strong, likeable heroine for whom it's not surprising that Aelyx would develop deeper feelings for - or that her ex-boyfriend and her best friend would remain loyal to her, albeit secretly.
By keeping the sci-fi elements simple and relatively straight-forward, Landers avoided many common pitfalls and plot-holes. You might find a few minor ones, but nothing that's going to aggravate you and distract you from the story. You learn enough about the aliens for it all to make sense, which provides a well-grounded context. And of course the human side and its varied reactions rings true as well, with the xenophobia, suspicion of (literally, in this case) the "alien Other" and fear-mongering: you can clearly see that a group like HALO would form and build steam, paranoid about alien weaponry and ulterior motives, and would quickly lose control. Threaded through the story is a pleasing sense of humour that adds the right - and realistic - edge to the novel's tone; humour both lightens and darkens a scene, all in one go.
Dad hooked his thumb toward the back door. "You two go for a walk or something." In other words, he didn't want their guest to witness the fury he was about to unleash. Cara grabbed Aelyx's sleeve and tugged him into the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered. "You don't wanna be here when he explodes, trust me." As they hurried outside, she heard Ron's hysterical voice calling, "He has a weapon! I saw him hide it in his sweater!" What a lunatic. No wonder [his son] Marcus was so screwed up. Her dad's voice boomed from inside the house. "I've got a Glock, a shovel, and five acres of woods, Johnson!"
Naturally, a story about aliens allows us to take a closer look at ourselves, from another's perspective. Aelyx's views and perspective are a consistent blend of alien and familiar, and his judgements of human behaviour and how we've treated our planet ring true, to our deep sense of shame. But even more than that, it is watching Aelyx grow, develop and mature as a character that really helps flesh out this story. He begins as a stiff, rather uptight kind of person, hard to figure out without understanding his culture and history, but intriguing. His people, the L'eihr, have spent centuries creating a harmonious society, breeding out unwanted genes and breeding in the best ones, creating an intelligent, strong and attractive race. But they've lost a lot in the process, and their wise elders understand what an alliance with untempered humans can give them, aside with strengthening their weakened gene pool. Humans might seem like children indulging in one selfish tantrum after another, but the L'eihrs - for all their sophistication and mind speech - are yet another kind of child, a sheltered, arrogant, inexperienced kind that has sacrificed the headier, impassioned emotions without realising - or appreciating - all the things they have lost alongside them.
Aelyx had once heard [Cara's father] Bill Sweeney say, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As he sat beside Cara on the sofa, watching her face tipped toward the makeup artist, her full lips parted to receive a coat of lipstick, he began to understand why. Ever since his research into kissing and other human mating rituals, his mind had relentlessly fixated on Cara, flashing manufactured sensations of how her soft, wet mouth might feel against his own. He could almost taste her on his tongue, and when his traitorous body responded to the fantasy, he had to pull an accent pillow onto his lap and force himself to recite Earth's periodic table of elements. Gods, what had he unleashed? How would he survive the remainder of the exchange like this?
As much as both Cara and Aelyx grow and change, by the end they still remain true to themselves, their culture and their people. Landers successfully and realistically matured them, making them much more interesting characters, strengthened by their exposure to each other. Not only that, but they actually have chemistry! Yes I know, you'd think that would be a necessary given in a sci-fi romance wouldn't you? But it's not always there. Another reviewer described the romance as a "beautiful mixture of sweetness and steamy", and I find this a very apt description. It's not overdone, it develops nicely, and there's a real depth of feeling to it.
The supporting characters are never much more than simply that, supporting. You never really get to know any of them very well, which was a bit of a shame. Of them all, though, it was Tina, Cara's best friend, who was the most disappointing. She's a short, petite Latina (I'm never sure what that means, specifically - of Mexican heritage? South American? Spanish-speaking, anyway) with the same characteristics that I've come across in other American YA novels. I can't remember which books, but I know I've come across Tina before, pretty much exactly. (The House of Night books come to mind, and another that's eluding me.) The cultural, or racial, stereotyping is lazy and disappointing.
Overall, though, this was an interesting story featuring two strong main characters who I really came to like and enjoy. I didn't find the ending predictable - it seemed like the story could go in various directions, and I was happy to go along and stay in the moment - but it has certainly added a whole new layer of tension and intrigue to the overall story arc. The first book may have ended, but the story as a whole has a whole universe to explore - and I'm definitely interested in seeing where it takes us. Cara and Aelyx's story has really only just begun in this well-written debut novel, and I think it's only going to get better from here.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that quotes in this review come from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the finished book.(less)
Elspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is...moreElspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is Jorah, her native American husband, and their children: Mary, Amos, Jesse, Caleb, Emma. Home is a small farm in the middle of nowhere, secluded, isolated, handmade. A small wooden house and two barns for the animals. The children all schooled at home, taught Bible stories by Jorah, but largely ignorant of the real world.
Winter, New York State, 1897. Elspeth returns with gifts for the children, but finds instead carnage. Her children dead, shot. Jorah, killed in their bed. The place cold, frozen over, the barn door blocked by drifts of snow. Only Caleb's body she can't find, but then the boy always slept in the hayloft in the barn. When Elspeth, too, is shot, she doesn't have time to think that the killers have returned before she sinks into unconsciousness, and she doesn't see that it is Caleb, hiding in the pantry with his shotgun, who shot her, thinking that the killers had returned.
Caleb, twelve years old, saw the three men with their red scarves. He spent days alongside his dead brothers and sisters, traumatised and terrified. Now his mother is peppered with shot and he does what he can to help her. When she's recovered enough to move, the two set out on a journey over the harsh winter landscape to the town of Watersbridge to find the three men and exact revenge.
The town is an equally harsh place, where Caleb is suddenly thrust into an adult world of violence and depravity, and Elspeth must face up to her failings as a mother - and her sins as a midwife. Now is the time to decide who they each are, boy and mother, who they are loyal to, and whether they can forgive - and earn forgiveness.
I came very close to loving this book. There were a few times when I did love it, but then the feeling slipped away from me and I was left enjoying it a great deal, but not quite in love. For a debut novel, it's a fine achievement, bold and strong and brave, and also subtle and humane. I wasn't quite enamoured of the prose, which often felt like a hand pressed against my chest, exerting slight pressure to make me keep my distance. As much as I wanted to really connect with the characters and immerse myself in their story, that invisible pressure ensured an element of detachment that I didn't want.
Granted, the sensation did fit in very nicely with the story, the tone and the atmosphere. This is a cold story. Look at the cover; now feel that in your bones. Scott does an excellent job of capturing that winter chill, the ice and snow and freezing winds, and lets it permeate the characters, their emotions, their decisions. This is not a story that could have taken place in warmer, sunnier months. (Or rather, it would have been a completely different, less captivating story.) Winter itself becomes a third wheel to Elspeth and Caleb's journey, a constant presence - and a constant threat.
The dangers that the weather pose, that unpredictable natural element, compounds the dangers in Watersbridge. Elspeth, disguised as a man, gets a job on the river, cutting and hauling large blocks of ice which are then stacked in a tower in the icehouse. It's a very dangerous job, as she witnesses. Caleb finds himself at the disreputable Elm Inn, a brothel, bar and gaming hell, and ends up with a job sweeping the floors and washing sheets - expecting at any moment for the three killers to walk in, as it's their kind of place. Whenever a fight breaks out and there are gunshots, or Ethan the doorman forcibly ejects a man from a woman's room, they use the phrase, "Better get the doctor." Code for: dump the body in the snow outside, it'll be taken care of.
The Elm Inn is run by London White, a fastidious man who relates to young Caleb how he took what he wanted through murder and theft. A dangerous, possessive man who'd like to raise Caleb in his world. But it is at the Elm Inn that Caleb encounters Martin Shane, who seems shocked to see Caleb - as if he knows him, or recognises him.
It is clear from early on that there is something odd about Elspeth's children. Something that doesn't add up. Elspeth herself isn't the motherly figure you expect her to be when you start reading. She's only maternal up to a point, as if her motherly instincts have a use-by date. There's little depth of connection between her and Caleb, and neither of them is at all sure that the other won't just leave them. As much as this story is a coming-of-age story for Caleb, it's even more of one for Elspeth.
Thematically, and regardless of the weather or location, this is a "Wild West" story. A classic Western, in the American sense. Murder, revenge, a lawless town run by a few powerful men, brawls and violence and homophobia abound. Just remove the typical dry desert-like setting, and replace it with an equally cruel, ice-cold one. The ending fits in nicely with this, and overall it's a delight - a fascinating delight - to read a Western so perfectly removed from it's namesake, the American West, and instead woven so neatly into the wild, cold winter of the north-east. It makes it less your typical "historical fiction" novel and more of a wild-card. It doesn't follow the usual historical fiction trajectory: it's all Western. This sense seeps into you fairly quickly, and really adds to the tension of reading about a vulnerable woman and a small boy on such a perilous mission in this harsh man's world.
Like I said, there was much to love here. As harsh and uncompromising as the landscape, yet like the land, there are slim veins of more positive elements visible: love, forgiveness, family, the bond between mother and child, redemption, hope. The Western tropes and the winter cold add to the disconnect from the main characters - I couldn't always understand Elspeth or her motivations, because you never get a chance to - but as a whole, the story is rather brilliant.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
Forty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nell...moreForty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nella and Rose. But appearances can be deceiving. At fifteen, Nella is at a difficult age and Jessica is finding it hard to keep the lines of communication open between them. And she's still trying to recover from learning that Bob had a one-night stand with a much younger woman while on a business trip in Europe a month ago.
On the day Jess's story starts, she meets a potential new client on his first appointment. Gwydion Morgan is a young and extremely handsome local actor, whose best known for his on-going role in a popular Welsh TV soap. His father is the renowned stage director, Evan Morgan, who is equally famous for his numerous affairs and dalliances with other women, while his wife, Arianrhod, once a beautiful actress, wastes away at the family home, a forbidding stone mansion on the rocky Welsh coast. Gwydion has no love for his father but is close to his mother, and no other siblings.
Gwydion comes to Jessica with a fairly typical button phobia, which is a concern now that he's been picked to star in a new costume-drama (the costume he'll have to wear will have numerous buttons). Then he opens up to her about a recurring nightmare he's been having, in which he's a terrified little boy trapped in a dark box. Each time he returns to her office, he recounts the dream as it progresses, and each time, Jessica is sure she thinks she knows where it is going.
As much as she tries, she can't quite keep her own, very human, sense of curiosity out of Gwydion's case. Her friend, an actress called Mari, once had an affair with Evan and imparts some random bits of gossip about the family. And when Jess agrees, against her own rules, to visit the Morgan home in person when Gwydion falls into a deep depression, she is taken on a tour of the cliff-top garden by Arianrhod. At the edge of the cliff, at the top of a steep flight of stairs cut into the rockface, she sees a plaque, written in Swedish, memorialising the death of a young, pretty Swedish backpacker who drowned there.
As the Morgan family's secrets come bubbling to the surface, Jess gets more and more deeply involved in uncovering the truth in the hope of helping Gwydion recover and move on. But all is not as it seems with the Morgans, and Jess is not as in-control of the case as she believes.
I'm a bit torn over this one. While it had many qualities of good writing: swift, smooth, consistent pacing, a well-developed protagonist, some atmosphere and enough details to keep me interested, it was a bit predictable and a bit thin, plot-wise.
The setting - the Welsh coast, in particular - was a good one, and lively for the imagination. There was some atmosphere, but not as much as I would have liked; not as much as would have added tension and real suspense to the story.
Jessica was an interesting character, intelligent and honourable but flawed in the sense that she's a bit over-confident in her own analytical abilities and her own sense of righteousness, and she makes mistakes. She can be a bit unlikeable at times, which actually made me like her more because it made her feel more human. She could be surprisingly slow on the uptake at times, despite being intelligent overall, and she came across as rather cold and unfriendly. The reasons why Bob had a brief affair are hinted at, and as much as it doesn't excuse it, Jess has something to do with it. Her analysis of her own marital difficulties is patchy, and no wonder: it's all very well to look deep into someone else's problems while they sit on your couch, and discreetly guide them to the answers buried in their own minds, but quite another thing to accurately and honestly reflect on yourself. It takes Jess quite a while to realise that, and in the meantime - I can hardly believe it - I actually felt slightly sorry for Bob. Sorry for him in that he's a bit of a pathetic figure (anytime a 50+ year old man shags a 20-something woman, it's a bit sad, really. Mid-life crisis and all that), but also sorry for him because he could use a therapist himself, no doubt.
I am always very fascinated by the descriptions of therapy. Never having attended any kind of therapy session myself, I feel like a real voyeur, peeping in on someone else's. And it speaks to our all-too-human curiosity as to what's going on in other people's lives, partly to see what we can learn about coping techniques for ourselves. I studied some Freud at uni, in a couple of English courses, and was not impressed, but while his ideas were a bit ludicrous at times, I can see the merit in the principals of psychotherapy for some people, at least in the way Jessica works with her clients. As in Liane Moriarty's excellent novel, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, I love getting that intimate access to a therapist's room, and hearing about the processes behind it.
But the plot, oh dear the plot. It really was rather predictable, and Jessica's family drama with Nella was more interesting to me than the murder mystery. It just felt a bit too contrived, a bit too convenient, and a bit too flawed. The concept for the set-up - which I don't want to explain as it would spoil the story, and I don't like giving spoilers if I can help it - seemed flimsy to me, and too obvious. After all, Jessica's dealing with a whole family of actors here, which she notes in the beginning and then forgets, so dazzled is she by Gwydion's beautiful face. (Was it just me or was the flirtation between them just plain creepy?)
As far as a quick mystery read goes, this was certainly quick. As far as a satisfying, suspenseful thriller goes, it was decidedly lacking. I didn't wholly dislike it, for the reasons mentioned above, but by the time I got to the ending I had rather lost interest in the whole family-secret-murder-mystery plot, and just wanted to hear more about human nature and Jessica's internal analysis.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. (less)
Playing St Barbara takes us right into the struggles, desires and secrets of the Sweeney family in a harsh landscape: the coal mines of Pennsylvania f...morePlaying St Barbara takes us right into the struggles, desires and secrets of the Sweeney family in a harsh landscape: the coal mines of Pennsylvania from 1929 to 1941. Finbar Sweeney is an Irish coal miner with a foul tongue, a talent for baseball and a mean streak that manifests into physical violence against his wife, Clare, and sometimes even his daughters. Norah, Deidre and Katie. Clare has buried three infant sons already and lives in dread of bearing a healthy, thriving boy; or rather, she lives in dread of having a son who will one day turn into a man just like his father. She buries her German heritage, even though she's more American than Fin is, having been born there, but secretly teaches her daughters the language.
Clare wants nothing so much as to see her girls go on to a better place than the Hive, the dirty, impoverished cottages in the coal mining town, kept separate from their betters, the "Upperhillers", the wives and families of the men who run and supervise the mines. But breaking out of the cycle of poverty is one thing; breaking away from the domineering presence of their father is something else altogether. While Clare wants the best for her daughters, they in turn want to protect their mother and see her happy and free, for perhaps the first time in her life. But can Clare break the habits that have been beaten into her, and forge her own way?
Szczepanski brings life on the edge of a dangerous and filthy coal mine to life in Playing St Barbara, a tense, often harrowing account of life - for women especially - in a harsh and unforgiving world. It's a world that Szczepanski has brought vividly to life through her descriptions and characters. I felt the coal dust in my pores and the stifling repression of poverty, classism, racism and sexism. The fear and uncertainty, but also the love and grieving, the perseverance and stoicism and quiet burning strength of these women.
Each of them - Deidre first, then Katie and lastly Norah, when she's twenty-nine - play the lead role of St. Barbara in the annual St Barbara festivities play. Saint Barbara was a young woman living centuries ago in Turkey, whose father, Dioscorus, was a "wealthy pagan" and "very protective of his daughter. He built her a tall tower, so the world's evils would not harm her." While he was away travelling, a priest converted Barbara to Christianity and she "ordered the builders to add a third window to her bathhouse, symbolizing the Holy Trinity." Her father, returning, was furious, and when she refused to recant her new religion before the provincial ruler, she was sentenced to death by beheading. Her father requested "permission to carry out the execution himself." But after he beheaded her in the forest, an angel appeared, lifting her body and taking it away.
Barbara is honored as the patron saint of miners because she experienced an untimely end and was buried by an angel deep inside the earth. It is customary to place a picture or statue of St Barbara, holding a sword and standing beside a tower, at the entrance to a mine. Pit workers who escape after explosions and roof falls often tell stories of a bright light leading them to safety. [from Katie's prize-winning essay]
Against the menacing backdrop of terrorising Ku Klux Klan, who burn crosses and destroy people's vegetable gardens at the merest hint of union organising (which Fin is always at the forefront of), the symbolism of these girls, sacrificed for their father's narrow, iron view of the world and their place in it, carries a stale taste of fear through the entire novel. It's no sure thing, that any of them will get a happy ending, and that makes it all the more nail-biting.
All the girls and women are different. Deidre is the fiery one, the one who, at seventeen, wins the role of playing St Barbara even though she's from The Hive, and a Sweeney to boot. The play is being organised and directed by a woman they call The Queen - Beatrice Finch, the wife of the mine superintendent. But then she meets Billy McKenna, a young, red-haired cossack (a policeman), who is, in Fin's eyes, enemy number 1. She gets a belting from her father just for looking at him in church, but she's not easily repressed, and she's the first of the three girls to seek her own path, with the help of her mother and her mother's cousin Trudy, a single woman living in Pittsburgh where she works in the Heinz test kitchen and provides a willing escape route - and much-needed funds to get there.
Katie is the youngest sister and the scholarly, smart one who was moved up in school. She wants to be a teacher, and is contemplating going to a convent to become one. It costs two hundred dollars, which they don't have, and a friend who went but left after just a few months tells her how horrible it is. While cousin Trudy and her church's congregation work to raise the money for her admission, Katie lets herself be seduced by her handsome boyfriend, Jack. But when Jack gets caught up in Fin's new union plans, things go from bad to worse and Katie, like Deidre, needs an escape from The Hive and Uniontown.
Katie studied the garish face in the mirror. The girl beneath the pancake was no longer the Katie who nearly fainted with delight when the cast list was posted. Who calmly delivered the high school valedictory speech. Who sat for an hour in Fr. Kovacs' tiny parlor, patiently answering questions about her vocation. Without warning, Tina had vanished, taking that Katie with her.
Who, then, was this painted-up person left behind? This brazen stranger eager to shed her clothes in a coke oven? The pageant's audience surely would see through the pancake and satin. How could a girl of questionable virtue and dubious vocation convincingly play a saint? [p.175]
Norah, the eldest, was "going steady" with Paul, a lovely young man with a gift for mechanics. But the years kept passing and still they never married, until finally she sent him on his way. Clare is upset and believes Norah won't marry because she feels protective of her mother, and needs to look out for her and help her around the house. She believes that if she tells Norah the secret of her dead baby brothers and the sin she committed to ensure she'd have no more babies, Norah will finally leave her. But nothing is that simple, and it takes more than the airing of old grief to dislocate Norah from her childhood home. Instead, she finds herself a new job and a new title: a "career girl", with a taste for fine clothes and accessories. When there's a collapse in the coal mine and it looks, for a moment, like Fin hasn't survived, everything shifts for Clare and Norah, and in a way, they each wake up to the sad truths of their lives and what they've endured, and what they're wasting.
Clare is the one who carries the novel, and the common thread through all the stories. She is the broken woman, a shadow of who she might have been had circumstances been different. But I didn't find her pitiable. She carries with her a quiet, stoic dignity that has, perhaps, been forged in the fire of Fin's abuse. And it's easy to sympathise - and empathise - with her feelings towards her dead sons, babies that she loved and yet feared - and feared for. She is the character you most want to rescue, who frustrates with her inability to change the course of her life. If you want to understand why women put up with domestic abuse, Clare will give great insight. Szczepanski handles it with tenderness and subtlety; the reasons come through without any heavy-handed telling, and that makes it all the more heart-breaking.
I never did quite understand the Ku Klux Klan - I don't know much about them except the general, cross burning and the lynching of black people, for example. I've never read much about them or seen a documentary about them, and Playing St Barbara didn't fill in any gaps in my knowledge on that front. The many attempts to form miners' unions, the strikes and the backdrop of war (the Depression is skipped over between the Katie and Norah stories) adds context and is relevant to the story, but I didn't come away from it with a better understanding. This doesn't really detract from the story, overall, but I do like to learn as I read.
It is a bit slow to get going, and there's a long cast of characters to keep track of (though the author has helpfully provided a list on her website, including nicknames, which I recommend you print and keep handy!), but it rewards perseverance. This is a historical period and setting that you don't read about all that much, and Szczepanski has done an admirable job of bringing it to life in rich detail and investing it with the full range of human experience and emotion. You can easily relate to these people, despite never having experienced what they have: empathy comes easily.
There are beautiful, positive and even happy moments, to balance the sad in this book. The writing and pacing is strong and steady, and it carries the weight of the period. I could easily picture it as a TV series, especially with all the drama (I think because there have been series that are equally dramatic and heavy, from a similar period - mostly British of course). I hated the format of the book, though - this is one of my peculiarities, in that the typeface (font), line spacing, ink and all the rest of the appearance on the pages themselves, have a huge impact on how I read a story, how I connect with it and what I get from it. If this had been printed by Harper, for example, it would have been a more beautiful, poignant reading experience, because they know how to package a book. The cover is great, but the story deserves better treatment, nicer paper, a finer font, to reflect the inner beauty of the Sweeney women in their blackened, grimy world.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
It has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror wri...moreIt has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror writer who died young, and Ophelia, her older sister Alice and their father, Malcolm Whittard, are still grieving.
In an effort to help them recover and give them a chance of scenery, Ophelia's father accepts a last-minute posting to a museum in another country to finish setting up the greatest-ever exhibition of swords. Malcolm Whittard is, according to his business card, the "leading international expert on swords", but with only three days to go before the opening of the exhibition on Christmas Eve, it's a demanding job that takes up all his time.
Alice seems content to sit and brood, but Ophelia spends the time exploring the museum. It is a cold place, in a city caught up in a perpetual winter, and the museum is a weird and wonderful place. The guards in each room are old ladies with black handbags who spend most of their time knitting or sleeping, so Ophelia is free to wander into parts of the museum she isn't allowed to be in. It is during her exploration that she encounters a peculiar room, with a little door and a big keyhole through which is the eye of a boy, staring back at her.
The boy, who was dubbed "the marvellous boy", has been alive for over three hundred years. He was sent here on a mission by the wizards of east, west and middle, who took his name to keep him safe. He no longer remembers it. They gave him a sword, a relatively plain and heavy sword with a carving of a closed eye near the hilt, and certain instructions. He was to find the "One Other" and give them the sword, with which they would defeat the evil Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen was unable to kill him because of the protective spell on him which also prevents him from ageing and dying, and so she had him locked up here in the museum, and the sword taken away. She need only wait out the time of his protection spell, then she can kill him and be free to take over more of the world, as she did to his homeland and this place, where she has reigned ever since.
Ophelia, unlike her mother, is not prone to fantastical flights of the imagination. She is a member of the Children's Science Society of Greater London and believes in logic and reason and science. But little by little, she finds herself on small but dangerous missions to find the key to his room, to set him free and find his sword before the Wintertide Clock strikes on Christmas Eve and the Snow Queen's plan comes to fruition. But Ophelia is only eleven, she's not courageous and relies heavily on her asthma inhaler. She's a little girl up against a frightening woman, with only the whispered words of comfort from her mother for encouragement.
In her search for the hidden key and the missing sword, Ophelia might just find her hidden courage, and save her sister, her father and the world.
I don't read enough of stories like this one; or rather, I don't make enough time to read stories like this one, which is a sad mistake. Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy was utterly wonderful, a delightful story of adventure, danger, loss, grief, wizards who think a lot, deception, sibling love, resilience, courage and the classic fight between good and evil. It is fantasy in the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia and similar works, a children's story that will engage and entertain readers of all ages, an old-fashioned tale given new life.
Ophelia is a timid and sensible girl, and the request made of her by the Marvellous Boy requires her to not just be brave, but to put aside all things rational, suspend disbelief and trust the word of a strange boy who claims to be several centuries old. The more involved she becomes, the more danger she is placed in, and the more her old certainties come crumbling down. She doesn't become a new person, or a vastly different person, she simply becomes her full potential as Ophelia. She's a great protagonist, suffering through the classic coming-of-age trial-by-fire that fantasy stories are best known for.
Wizards, [Ophelia] thought, when she gained her composure. What good were they if they couldn't tell you how to do stuff, if they were always talking in riddles and saying they knew everything before it even happened? It wasn't very helpful.
If she were a wizard, she'd write reports for people. She'd make sure everything was very clear. She'd write, Looking for a magical sword? No problem. Go to the fifth floor, turn left, open a large wooden chest, et cetera, et cetera. She'd have check boxes. Found your magical sword? Place X here.
The Marvellous Boy himself remains something of an enigma, and a sad one at that. He tells Ophelia his story in segments, and the vivid rendering of his life before being locked in the little room really brings him to life. He is quite clearly something of a sacrificial lamb, a boy hand-picked by the wizards who must sacrifice everything with little say in the matter. As such, he is an infinitely sympathetic character, a little boy lost who stays calm and friendly and positive in the wake of dire circumstances. I felt so sad for him, but also proud. Foxlee deftly captures the characters and their motivations within the confines of the fantasy formula, a fantasy that is none too clear about place and time. Any apparent plot holes - a never-ending winter somehow sustaining a human population, never mind the trees, is hardly believable - simply don't get in the way of the story. Such is the strength of Foxlee's writing, that it all comes together and works, much like a fairy tale still carries the strength of its own conviction despite the fact that the details don't really make sense.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy oozes atmosphere and tension, suspense and the thrilling bite of danger. Among it lies the fragile workings of family dynamics and confused love, vulnerable to the atmosphere, which makes it all the more precious. While Ophelia is off exploring and adventuring, fifteen-year-old Alice is being lured in by the museum curator, Miss Kaminski, who gives her princess dresses and flattery and helps drive a wedge between the two sisters while also flirting with their father. Miss Kaminski - and it's no spoiler to say this - is the true enemy. Beautiful and elegant but infinitely cold, Ophelia sees glimpses of the woman's true self but is too young to understand it.
While the overall plot is as predictable as any fairy tale-fantasy story - whether or not you have ever read "The Snow Queen" fairy tale (which I have not, strange to say, though I don't think there are all that many similarities really), this story does follow a fairly standard fantasy formula - the story is brimming with imagination and you never really know what's going to happen next, or how things will play out. The writing is strong and near-perfect, the pacing fluid and smooth and not too fast, and the characters fleshed-out nicely. I grew quite attached to Ophelia, and the Marvellous Boy, and welcomed the satisfying conclusion. With such rich detail and atmosphere and action, the story played out like a movie in my head, and I can easily see this being adapted to film one day. It would be a costume- and set-designer's dream come true, to bring this magical story visually to life. As it was, my humble imagination did a pretty good job of it!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that passages quoted here may appear differently in the finished book. (less)
Natalie Porter is a Ph.d student of history who has been working two restaurant jobs to help pay for private investigators in Russia, searching for he...moreNatalie Porter is a Ph.d student of history who has been working two restaurant jobs to help pay for private investigators in Russia, searching for her father, whom she's never met. She's lost contact with the latest investigator, Zironoff, but hasn't given up hope of tracking down her dad.
While out one night at a bar with her friends, Nat sees a man who steals her breath. Everything about him screams "danger", from his dark looks, brooding glare and tattoos. But he's far more interesting than all the jocks in the place, with that sexy Russian accent, so she makes an approach only to be shut-down swiftly. It's a shock, then, to find him in her apartment later that night.
Aleksandr Sevastyan - nicknamed "The Siberian" - is in America to guard Natalie from her father's enemies; only now does he make his presence known because his orders are to get her on a plane to Russia immediately. Her father, Pavel Kovalev - known as the Clockmaker in his own circle - is high up in the Mafia and his enemies, having discovered the existence of a daughter through Nat's last PI, are closing in on her. Sevastyan is Pavel's right-hand man, an orphan he took in when just a boy and raised like his own. Pavel's excited to learn that he has a daughter, and trusts no one but The Siberian to bring her "home".
I'm a major fan of Kresley Cole, but I have to admit I wasn't sure about this one when I first heard about it - or even when I started reading it. It's all so ... outlandish. But then I remembered: it's romance. It's almost always outlandish, especially the good ones. Unless there are really noticeable flaws and plotholes and stupid decisions in the story, it's easy to go with it and enjoy. And I need not have worried in this case: this is Kresley Cole, after all. She writes so well, she can overcome even the most outlandish of premises (I mean, since when did the Russian Mafia become sexy?!).
I'll put aside my real thoughts on learning that Pavel, Natalie's father, is a lovely man who became a crime boss in order to protect people from the other crime bosses - he's a little bit too good to be true. He lives in a real palace, centuries old, one rescued and renovated, on a vast estate outside Moscow. His nephew and Nat's cousin, the incredibly handsome Filip Liukin, is living there as well - he seems to have a gambling problem as well as a flirtatious eye for Nat. There's also the slight implausibility of Nat being okay with her father being a crime lord, though granted she didn't have much choice in relocating. But she's certainly putting aside any ethics (or morals, for that matter) and getting on board with the whole thing.
But like I said, I put all that aside and just went with it, and as a result got a highly enjoyable story full of steamy scenes and fraught with sexual tension (and I'll admit, the Russian Mob angle is very exciting and a nice change for me). Cole's skill at writing stories you can really immerse yourself in, and characters who don't drive you nuts, comes to the fore. Her trademark humour is present, though not quite so much as in her excellent Immortals After Dark series. There's enough detail for realism but the pace is tight, smooth and fast ("that's what she said" - sorry, couldn't resist!). There's a hint of danger and tension - not from without, as we haven't seen it yet, but from within; I'm much more alert than Nat, clearly, and am picking up on something suspicious in the air. I'm expecting betrayal any moment, though not from Sevastyan.
Mmm and isn't he a dish? Certain descriptors may sound a bit cliched - the tats, the leather clothes, the dark brooding glare - but somehow Cole makes it all feel fresh and exciting. Nat, despite being a virgin, is sexually experienced in every other way and doesn't resist her attraction to him. This is erotic romance (not erotica, that's a different kettle of fish entirely and not half so fun as erotic romance), so the sex scenes are steamy and edgy; Sevastyan likes it a bit rough and intense, and Nat's learning that how much it turns her on, as well. Another trait of erotic romance (as opposed to other forms of romance) is the proclivity of sex scenes, or steamy scenes - even within this novella, there are plenty to keep you satisfied. And it's only just getting going.
Where the story will go from here I don't know, but I can't wait to find out with Part 2. I'm not a big fan of serialising romance stories, but it does seem to be the new "thing" for e-books, and I can understand the appeal to publishers. It's hard for readers, though, to get so far in a story only to have to wait to keep reading the same story. But once all the e-book parts are out, the complete novel should be printed. That's how it worked with Beth Kery, another erotic romance writer I love reading, so I hope that's how it will go here as well.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
Layla is fourteen and living with her mother, Margot, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Her dad, Geoff, is gay and a professional chef living...moreLayla is fourteen and living with her mother, Margot, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Her dad, Geoff, is gay and a professional chef living in Queensland. Using the alias, just_a_girl, Layla cruises online chatrooms meeting grown men and arranging hookups. She has a boyfriend, Davo, until she discovers he's been seeing her best friend, Sarah, behind her back. She picks up a job at the local supermarket where one of the owners, a butcher, molests the female staff. But his son, Marco, catches her eye.
At home, Margot suffers from depression and is deep in her evangelical church, run by a charismatic pastor, Bevan, and his wife, Chelsea. She struggles with the perceived knowledge that she turned her husband gay, and she struggles with her memories of the past: of her alcoholic mother especially, and the family's long history of abuse and hate. She watches Dr Phil and prays and is trying to wean herself off her medication. She worries about Layla but the two don't talk. They operate in cocoons of silence or antagonism or pre-judgement.
On the train, Lalya likes to sit opposite men and unwrap a Chupa Chup, then slowly, erotically, lick and suck on it. Just to see them squirm. One passenger she notices is different from the others: he always sits with a suitcase and reads Haruki Murakami. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. He is Tadashi. He's been alone since his mother died and his search for love and companionship has led him to order an Asian-looking Love Doll from America. For six thousand dollars, he has the perfect woman, whom he names Mika. He dresses her and talks to her, feeds her and makes love to her. Takes her on trips up the mountain by carefully placing her inside his suitcase. And she looks almost exactly like Layla.
As the year rolls by and Layla turns fifteen, she finds herself deep in an affair with a married man while juggling her other relationships - with parents, friends and boys. Always searching, looking, yearning, but too young to really understand what she's doing, Layla is a modern-day Lolita, internet-savvy and precocious, wise to the world but also dangerously naïve and vulnerable.
Kirsten Krauth's debut novel is an excellent book. Both powerful and subtle, it hits you hard then softly, tenderly rubs the blow. It's this heady mix of violence and tenderness that permeates the novel and your own reading experience, but never tips it over into melodrama. Part of the magic is Layla's voice. Krauth has nailed Layla, with her acerbic humour, her intelligence and her inexperience - I didn't have much in common with Layla, as a teenager, but I could still relate, could still see elements of people I knew, peers, who did have a lot in common with her. She's realistic and believable and all too human.
This isn't a predictable story. I was never sure where it was going or how it would end, and it has one of those lovely open endings where certain things come to a head but aren't neatly tied off. Just like real life. This is, of course, a story about several things all at once. One of the most prominent themes is that of the precocious young girl discovering her sexuality and the power her sexuality has over men. Layla never really comes out and says why she pursues older men, but then, she doesn't really understand it herself. She's not especially self-reflective, any more than most teens are - she has moments of great insight and raw perception, but without experience (which comes with age and living), she can't really analyse her own actions. She rather dismissively refers to a psychologist's take that she's looking for a male role model, since her dad left when she was five. She's cynical enough to find that too simplistic.
I remember that time, that age, though unlike Layla I didn't take advantage of it - but I do remember what it was like, becoming sexually aware and not really knowing what to do with it. Being on the cusp of womanhood and wanting something, wanting more. Wanting to feel. Unlike Layla, though, I was all too aware that I would just be taken advantage of, abused even, that indulging in the feelings would lead to the kind of mistakes that you would always regret. I've always had super-effective impulse control - too much so, at times, makes me less adventurous than I might otherwise be. I also remember the girls I went to school with, who were exploring their newfound sexual power, and often revelling in it. (If nothing else, their experiences taught me that I didn't need to copy them.) They lacked the sophistication of Layla, and in the mid-90s we didn't have the internet either, but the thought-processes were much the same.
Layla gives voice to the compulsions and feelings experience by many teen girls, and while this is written for adults, it's a book that gives great insight into what's going on in their heads, without trying to supply the answers - since the issue is so complex, so individualistic, and a symptom of many varying causes. Layla's story is just one of many.
And yet it's not just Layla's story. It's also Margot's, and Tadashi's. Their stories take a back seat to Layla's, but not because they're unimportant. All three are voices of loneliness, and this comes across strongly in the style of writing itself. Each character has their own distinct voice, even Tadashi whose chapters are told in third-person. Margot is captured so well. Here is a woman caught up in herself and her own flawed nature, who recognises her problems but doesn't know how to solve them or deal with them. And so she turns to self-help, from Dr Phil to the church. It's clear to the reader that these things aren't really helping, certainly not in any practical way. It's easy to sympathise with, or feel sympathetic for, Margot, whose loneliness sinks its teeth into you. Even Layla, eventually, comes to realise the truth about her mother.
As we look out into the food court the fluorescent light settles on her. And I see her wrinkles. Just the beginnings of them. Dancing at her eyes. And the way she hesitates before asking for the bill.
And it hits me for the first time. She's not just my mother. She's a woman living alone. She's uncertain of the future. She's waiting for something to happen. She doesn't have any friends. She's shy. She's beyond lonely.
I let her have the last mouthful of cake. [p.171]
This is a story where you're constantly re-jigging your own perceptions and understanding, ditching those judgements and assumptions we all tend to make in a blink as we get to know these characters further. I absolutely love that kind of connection with fiction: the sense of being an active reader, not a passive receptacle for information someone else has decided you should have. It's not that Krauth isn't guiding things in her artful way, or creating a very specific story that she wants you to hear and learn from. It's that the way she's crafted this story, you're not being constantly told what to think. You're shown things, and from these things you actively participate, as a reader, in creating your own understanding. When the subject matter is like this, only a weak novel would try to give the reader all the answers, and this is no weak novel.
In some ways, this book reminded me of another I read this year: Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon. It's not that the stories are similar, but that they both tackle what it is to grow up young and without guidance in today's world - and it's a truism to say that this isn't the same world as our grandparents'. It's gritty realism at its best, laced with the kind of humour that comes from living on the edge: on the edge of understanding, the edge of adulthood, the edge of innocence. Interestingly, Layla is - if we are to believe her - a virgin. She thinks having sex before she's sixteen would be too "skanky". But it's clear she's doing everything bar actual penetration, and so she's very much a sexually active teenager - especially so because she actually, actively, searches for sexual encounters, encourages them, pursues them.
The question of who seduced who in her relationship with a much older married man (I won't name him, it would spoil things, though that is one detail that you will be able to predict) is an interesting one. Of course, it's illegal - and with good reason. While certainly many adults make poor decisions all the time, I think we'd all agree that underage teenagers are just too young for certain things. Somehow, it bothers me less to think of teenage girls "experimenting" sexually with boys their own age, than with older males. This is quite simply because "they know better." It's an over-simplification, perhaps, but oh so true: men, as opposed to adolescent boys, know that they're taking advantage of teenaged girls. Girls think they have all the power, and in some ways they do.
But it reminds me of this newspaper article I read a few backs, I can't remember which country or area it was from but it was about some orthodox Jewish men upset that a woman sat in front of them on the bus. Another article - and this one I do remember was from Montreal - was about a Jewish boys' school situated opposite a women's gym, complaining to the gym and insisting they blacken their windows because the sight of women in workout clothes was too tempting for their students. In both cases, the one thing that came to mind was the shifting of responsibility for men's sexual urges, appetites, whatever you want to call them, onto women, who are simply going about their business. It's the same thing with that ridiculous argument (that some women repeat, too) that women are to blame for being raped if they wear skimpy clothing, short skirts, high heels. There is the onus of responsibility at play here. Whether teenaged girls are acting the temptress or not, we need to shake the idea that men can take what's offered (or what's in front of them) from our society. Because it's one thing to take advantage of a young girl who's learning about sexual power, and another not-very-different thing to simply abuse a girl or woman. The two start to blur in your head.
just_a_girl skilfully walks the fine line between childhood and adulthood, loneliness and unhealthy ways of finding companionship - without being judgemental or censorious. Layla won me over with her distinctive voice, her vulnerability tucked away beneath her modern sophistication. She's misguided, certainly, but not the bad girl she might appear to be, hiding behind her fringe and black eyeliner and provocative manners. There is a gentle blossoming of her relationship with her mother, the possibility of a reconnecting between them that shows all too clearly that it requires both parent and child to mend a damaged bond. At its heart, there are all the signs of love and a sense of belonging, if only the characters realise it's there and acknowledge the active effort it takes to grasp it.
There is so much to explore in this well-crafted novel; I've barely scratched the surface. It's been a couple of weeks since I read it and it still lives strong in my mind. This was one of those beautifully gritty novels, a real peon for the modern age. It gives girls like Layla a realistic voice, raises some very painful and ugly issues that are, no matter what we'd like, prevalent in our society, and it does so with compassion, empathy and intelligence. I absolutely loved just_a_girl, and hold it up for all to see as an excellent example of stellar writing, characterisation and overall story-telling.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
Cricket Whittier works for a short little gargoyle of a man called Oscar, who runs his own ad agency in San Francisco. She got the job after the agenc...moreCricket Whittier works for a short little gargoyle of a man called Oscar, who runs his own ad agency in San Francisco. She got the job after the agency she worked for went under and her wealthy and influential Uncle Jonathan, who had given Oscar the seed money to start his business years ago, asked Oscar to hire her. Which might be why he hates her and constantly tries to provoke her into resigning.
To soothe her rattled nerves, Cricket resorts to making up new and interesting ice cream flavours in her kitchen, and then inviting her best friends, Lindsay and Nora, over to try them. For years they've talked about Cricket's dream of opening her own ice cream shop and turning her passion into an actual business, but Cricket is overwhelmed by all that's involved in starting a small business and is focused instead on saving what she can towards her own start-up costs - because no way is she asking Uncle Jonathan for help. If she's going to do this, she's going to do it without his help.
Nora, once a high-powered lawyer who left her job when she married a filthy-rich investor, and Lindsay, a teacher, encourage Cricket to look into it anyway, to make the "one day" become "today". Nora finds a shop front in an ideal area and invests some of her own money into making Cricket's dream come true - as an equal partner. Next Lindsay jumps on board with a small inheritance; it's the summer and she's not working, and if it works out she might just quit teaching altogether. Soon, the plans for opening Cricket's gourmet ice cream shop are in full swing.
But her parents, true hippies who eschew business, are not encouraging - not that she expected them to be. Her two brothers, Dusk (who changed his name to Daniel) and Sage, are like her: they've ditched the hippie lifestyle they grew up in for the bigger world and money. Sage works in LA as an actor, but he comes to help with the renovations on the shop with his background in construction. His friend from years back, Bax, arrives to help as well - and offer advice from his own experience opening his own cafe.
Bringing her dream to life is as exciting as it is scary, and it's not without its hiccups. But Cricket is determined, and giving her boss her resignation is one of the most satisfying moments of her life - along with the sheer pleasure of tasting her ice cream and making her dreams come true.
There's something about Anna Garner's books that I really enjoy, something non-formulaic and un-generic, even within the genre formula that she works with (in this case, chick-lit). Perhaps the focus on starting a small business wouldn't be enough for some readers, without some big drama or more emphasis on romance - to be honest, I don't read much chick-lit at all, so I don't have a lot to compare this to, and I couldn't say what combination of elements actually works for me. I can only tell you the elements of Sugar Spun Sister and why they worked.
This book has the lightness, the fast pace and entertaining characters and scenes that you would expect of chick-lit. There's humour, great friendships, some drama (but never melodrama!), a little side dish of romance, and the right balance of ups and downs. Moreover, it has, in Cricket, a strong, realistic and very human heroine. She is easily relatable, but not so familiar that you'd be bored reading about her (I have read the occasional story, sad to say, where I had to wonder why the main character was worth writing about in the first place).
Cricket is someone I could certainly relate to. There are things I'd love to do in my life, but I have all the same reasons as Cricket for putting off doing them. She's seeing a man called Jimmy - or rather, sleeping with him - in a mutual arrangement whereby no one at his record company knows they're anything other than friends, while her friends tease her about "Jiminy Cricket" and urge her to break up with him, as they all know - including Cricket - that it isn't going anywhere. Cricket likes Jimmy a lot, and enjoys spending time with him, be it dinner, sex or making ice cream together. But there's no future with him, she knows that. She's no idiot, though she does put off making changes in her life out of a kind of fear - again, something I could relate to (I'm sure many people could: it's a very human thing).
Likewise, the process of starting a small business was realistic and informative, without being dull. I felt like I learned a lot - maybe I'm a nerd, but I always want to know things and hear about people's experiences actually achieving things like this, so this really satisfied in that regard. There were no easy short-cuts for Cricket and her friends. I really like the way Anna Garner can write such a nice balance of realism and entertainment. It can't be easy to achieve the right kind of balance, but the writing was strong, humorous and smooth.
In response to certain things in her life or, later, catering jobs in the prelude to opening the shop, Cricket devises ice cream recipes to either meet a request or as therapy. The first one, which headlines Chapter One, she calls "Anaphylactic Surprise" (AKA the ice cream that would kill my boss). It's full of pretty much everything her hyper-allergenic boss, Oscar, is allergic to. Chapter Two's ice cream concoction is called "Edible Rage" (the ideal choice when you're at your wit's end) and includes Red Hot candies, beetroot and as much organic red food colouring "as you need to achieve a blood red hue". I loved seeing what she'd come up with next, and trying to imagine what the ice cream would taste like (which is hard for me: I'm not particularly adventurous and I'm not a natural cook, I need a recipe).
There is a part of me - there's always a part of me - that would have liked a bit more romance, or rather, a bit more of a lead-up to the nice little romantic ending. It's not that it was a big surprise, or felt like it came out of nowhere, and there were hints leading up to it, but it did feel a little too tidy. Nice way to end things, though! For this book at least; the next two will focus on Nora and Lindsay, and I'm keen to read their stories - and continue to follow the ups and downs of their ice cream shop, Sweet Dreams.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.(less)
Ernest B Spinosaurus isn't wasting any time telling Santasaurus what he wants for Christmas: he writes his first letter to Santasaurus on the first of...moreErnest B Spinosaurus isn't wasting any time telling Santasaurus what he wants for Christmas: he writes his first letter to Santasaurus on the first of January and continues to write throughout the year. And he's determined to stay on Santasaurus' Nice List! Through Ernest's letters, at once hopeful and cheeky, we get to know this young dinosaur, about his friend Ty, his little sister Amber, and his desire for a Jurassic Turbo Scooter X9. He wants to stay on Santasaurus' "nice" list, and keeps up a steady stream of letters partly to explain away his naughtiness.
Ernest may be a dinosaur, but really he's a typical young boy that children (and their parents) will be able to relate to easily. Coupled with Jef Kaminsky's cartoon-like illustrations, this book reminded me a lot of children's television shows. Granted, the ones I've started letting my two-year-old watch (yes, it's come to that, there's only so long you can hold out!) are predominately British and a mix of fancy 3D CGI and old-style animation a la Peppa Pig, but they all tend to have one thing in common: using animals (like pigs or bees) or mythological creatures (like fairies or elves) or fictional characters (like robots or aliens) to make everyday stories more interesting, as well as to show a universality to human stories. Children's books are, likewise, often used to help dispel the classic "us vs. them" dichotomy that seems to rise in children instinctually, and I do find the books to be less obvious than the TV shows (and I have zero guilt in letting my child read books!).
Dear Santasaurus is a sweet, funny and very entertaining book, a picture book for older children. It was too long and too advanced for my boy, who doesn't really remember his first two Christmas' and is only just getting his head around the typical Christmas symbols: Santa etc. The concept of naughty and nice, or of writing to Santa, these are a bit too abstract for him yet. The story itself has lovely context jokes where the illustrations play off the text - and vice versa - in really fun ways, but likewise my boy is too young yet to get any of the humour, or even really understand the situations or what Ernest is really saying in his letters. It's one I will have to wait a couple more years before getting out again to read to him, which isn't a bad thing. If your child is five or older, they will get a lot out of this.
Here's a taste:
April 1 Dear Santasaurus, For Christmas, I want rainbow underwear with white polka dots. Seven hundred pairs of underwear. And Ty wants a thousand pairs of socks. That's it. No toys. No scooter. Your friend, Ernest B Spinosaurus PS: Just kidding. APRIL FOOL'S DAY!! Ha ha ha.
April 2 Dear Santasaurus, Yesterday's letter was a joke. You knew that, right? I do NOT want seven hundred pairs of underwear for Christmas. I don't want any underwear. I want the Jurassic Turbo Scooter X(. Please, please, please do not bring me any underwear. Your friend, Ernest B Spinosaurus PS: Ty doesn't want socks, either.
May 13 Dear Santasaurus, Today, I scored two soccer goals (one for my team, one for the other team). I ate all my dinner (except for what dropped on the floor). I even helped Amber take her first steps. So let's forget about yesterday's mess with the glitter glue, paint, and Dad's toothbrush. Besides, Mom sure did like the Mother's Day card I made with my own claws. I've been thinking about my Christmas list. I want the Sea Serpent Blue Jurassic Turbo Scooter X9. I also want a Raging Raptor action figure. Please. Your friend, Ernest B Spinosaurus
The illustrations are bold, colourful and lively, and don't simply echo the text but rather show another side to the story, a kind of "what really happened" side to it. They're fresh and fun and really help with the whole book's festive, exciting, cheerful vibe. And what was really nice, especially for a Christmas picture book, was the fact that there was no in-your-face, saccharine moral at the end. Ernest got the Christmas present he wanted, and was really really happy. The point of the story isn't about good deeds and impressing on kids any kind of pressure to be something they're not; it's about kids being kids, and enjoying their childhood, and striving and trying without weighty repercussions or negative consequences. You could read this as "Santasaurus" standing in for God, but not being religious I didn't read it that way (but you could). Children reading this will be able to enjoy it for the entertaining story it is, while also seeing a bigger picture. It's a story that makes an impression, but isn't heavy-handed or lecturing or do-goody. Know what I mean? Kids don't respond well to that anyway.
Children will connect well with Ernest, who is proud of himself for taking a bath without being told, and who does harmless pranks. They will enjoy reading about a year in Ernest's life, and getting to know him. And if anything, it will teach kids that it's okay to play, that you should try to be good and helpful and considerate, but if you mess up nothing bad's going to happen. Your life won't be - shouldn't be, if you have decent parents - ruined. (Sadly, not every child has the freedom to be a child that Ernest does.) Being a child is about learning, in more ways than one, and I've never thought that placing adult responsibilities - with adult repercussions and punishments - on children is at all useful, or teaches them anything but to be scared and anxious or that they're bad and that's that. At first glance, Dear Santasaurus is pure silly fun, but at its heart it's good, solid storytelling that, if nothing else, will secretly reassure kids that there's nothing wrong with being a kid.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.
Visit my blog to see Stacy McAnulty's guest post as she shares her "12 days of Christmas in picture books" and a cookie recipe!(less)
It's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in spa...moreIt's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in space. Her ship has been captured, she's separated from almost all of her fellow space-settlers, and the future looks dire. Locked up in a bare cell with a number of other females from different species on the planet of Olman, Fran can only keep young Margaret company as they listen to the sounds of alien warriors being tortured in a nearby cell.
Fran isn't one for sitting down and taking it, though, and she riles up the others to think of escape and freedom. One of her cellmates has an idea, but it requires Fran's willing participation. The warriors are Darkons, and while at the moment they're barely surviving, if they are awakened, sexually, then they become almost invincible. They would certainly be their best bet at escape.
There aren't many options available, and as one of the only human females there, it's up to Fran to awaken the warriors. At the time, she's thinking mostly of escaping this hell-hole, but all too soon the reality of what she's unwittingly committed herself to becomes clear.
I have to be clear: I haven't read Legend Beyond the Stars, the full-length story that begins this series and establishes the whole premise, and I think my reading of this novella suffered for it. The problem was that this was too short a story - too short to explain things, establish anything, create a clear context or even develop the characters. I feel a bit unfair, but all I can do is speak of my experience reading this novella.
While Fran's situation is explained, albeit in short detail, the broader context is missing. There's no explanation for why her ship was captured and all the colonisers imprisoned, or why any of the other females were locked up either. I don't think this would be explained in the first book. There're hints that there is a major inter-galactic war going on, when one of the aliens mentions that the Darkons are resisting and the Elite Guards of Olman are planning a major strike against the Darkon home world. But nothing is explained, and without the right context the scenario of Awakening the Warriors didn't quite hold up. I would hope that the first book fills in these gaps.
But let's take this as the erotic space-opera novella it is. It has a conventional, simple plot structure divided into three short sections: the prison, where Fran sexually awakens the warriors, and from which they flee amid much gunfire; on board the ship they escape on; and the last stage on the space station where Fran and Margaret are nearly captured again. There's not a whole lot to it, which made me think that I prefer longer stories to novellas. But mostly I was disappointed by how formulaic it was. I've read quite a few stories generally classified as Paranormal Romance, and this shared many of the same tropes. The Darkon Warriors could have been alpha vampires, or werewolves. The two Darkon who survive and are awakened by Fran are called Jarrell and Quain. Jarrell is younger, sweeter; Quain is older and very alpha - macho, even.
Since this is a novella, there isn't all that much sex in it - two scenes only, though with two men involved it feels like more. Again, the condensed nature of the novella format made the lusty writing come across as a wee bit silly. I often had to stop myself from rolling my eyes and work at going along with it. Again, the problem with a novella is how squished it feels, how rushed the sexual attraction and progression becomes, and how dependent the story is on romance conventions and familiar language. If you had enjoyed the first book and got into the world-building and set-up, it would be easier to enjoy this for its own sake and not worry about any of these quibbles. I didn't realise it was a sequel or a novella until I started reading it, but for all my criticisms, there were enjoyable elements to this story.
Fran is likeable, she rises to the occasion and becomes a strong heroine. She's got a sense of humour, and she doesn't over-think things or get self-indulgent in her thoughts and reflections. The writing is capable and flows well, and regardless of how corny you might find some of the lines, they are fun and Gilchrist made an effort to add a dash of originality. I found myself more curious about the world and its politics then this short story allowed, and rather wish there was a more serious, lengthy story available that really developed it. It makes me both interested in reading Legend Beyond the Stars but also wary, afraid that my questions won't be explained and I'll come out of it even more confused and frustrated.
Aside from anything else, this is a snappy and exciting story. The fast pace and novella format don't allow for dull moments, and the sex is quite steamy. Unfortunately, the Darkon warriors are under-developed as characters, and come across as mere muscle-men-with-demanding-cocks. Like any other intelligent woman, I find that sexy men are only sexy when they have personality and some brains, too. So overall, this was a frustrating mix of good and unsatisfying, exciting and disappointing.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)