'I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinct...more'I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinction, or at least any meaningful existence, and thereby ought to be afforded certain protections based on their classification as such.'
Roger Whitford, an attorney for the Centre for the Protection of Human Rights, has a plan to put a stop to the prejudiced treatment of black men in the United States, men - and boys - who make up a third of prison inmates. When Janae Williams' fifteen-year-old son Malik is arrested for the murder of his friend Troy - the twenty-ninth murder in Philadelphia in the twenty days since the start of the year - Roger decides to take on the case, not just to free Malik, but to launch his big campaign to get black males in America extra support and protection.
Janae is a classic statistic: pregnant as a teen, she put her education on hold to have the baby and raise it on her own. Now she works as a cashier in a hospital cafeteria, striving to make ends meet and give Malik a chance to make something of his life. But now, he's not just been accused of murder, the prosecution wants to try him as an adult - the standard response to murder cases. Keeping him in the juvenile court is just the first step in Roger's plan, but first he needs to get Janae on side - not an easy task when you're comparing her son to an animal.
Roger plans to use the Endangered Animals Act and have it extended to include African-American males, but it's a hard pill to swallow for the community and Janae in particular. Even more so for young, ambitious Calvin Moore, a hotshot lawyer at a big firm with grand plans who studied his way out of the community Janae is stuck in. Roger wants Calvin on the case, but it's a tough sell. Not until Calvin stops seeing his origins as something to turn his back on and instead as something he should try and use his skills and position to help, do the pieces start to fall into place.
But will Roger sacrifice Malik for the sake of the bigger picture? Can Janae truly trust an old white man to keep her son out of jail?
Cush's debut novel has a clear aim and agenda, and tackles it well. With a tight focus, a neatly delivered storyline and believable characters, she brings the human angle to a serious issue of race, discrimination, prejudice and poverty. It's a fairly short book that makes the wise decision to keep the spotlight on Janae and her son, rather than a long, drawn-out legal and political battlefield that could end who knows where. As much as you can't help but want to follow through and see where Roger's plan ends up, it would detract from the story without adding anything - especially considering that the situation Malik finds himself in is pretty much unchanged today. The point, I would think, is to get people thinking in a different way about the issues, to open a debate (or contribute to an already-existing one), not to launch into an actual, fictional campaign.
While the writing does, at times, carry the whiff of a beginner novelist - especially in some of the descriptions and language - there's no denying that Endangered has the necessary ingredients for a great story, is highly readable and shows the author's great potential. At times a bit simplistic, I nevertheless appreciated the human angle to the story. If the characters seemed a bit stereotypical, part of that would be because there's some truth in stereotypes, and part of it would be because the author hasn't yet reached her full range and stereotypes are unavoidable. Perhaps more time could have been spent on fleshing the main characters out, to make them feel and sound less like stock characters, but the writing was nicely, smoothly consistent throughout and the simple touch was actually refreshing.
Cush stretches her legal chops in the legal-drama side of the story; an attorney for many years, she has a focus on domestic abuse, urban violence, and inner-city education. The descriptions and dialogue between the lawyers and the judge, for instance, were accessible to a layman like me while still sounding authentic and believable.
Throughout the story, I couldn't help but feel a chill at the thought of children - children - being tried as adults and sent to adult prison. This is, according to the story, a law in Pennsylvania, and is just one of several laws that I, as a non-American, hear about and shudder at. As Endangered shows, it casts the wrong emphasis on crime, and neglects - and downright ignores - the issues behind crime. I'm naturally leery whenever I hear the words "zero tolerance" because it's so black-and-white and encourages black-and-white thinking, prejudice and a "hard-ass" attitude based on the idea that everyone's equal and there are no excuses. There aren't excuses, but there are reasons, and if you don't stop and consider those reasons and what's really going on - if you don't get at the crux of the matter - then you're never going to really, truly stop it from happening. Because clearly the threat of jail time doesn't do much at all, and as this novel pointed out, prisons create hardened criminals out of people who made mistakes or did something dumb, for various reasons. It's a big, complex mess of issues that throws open the debate of nature versus nurture - whether you're a criminal, or whether your environment and various social factors contributed to you going down a particular path that, if the factors had been different, you might not have gone down.
Endangered doesn't try to please those "hard-asses": it clearly posits the understanding that these boys slip into crime because of poverty, peer pressure and other social factors. The lack of good male role models is also a contributing factor - not just in black American communities but everywhere - but again, Cush manages to blend the two sides: that you do have a say in how your life turns out, and you can change it; and that the world you come from does mean that we don't all start out equal.
An enlightening and thought-provoking novel, Endangered blends readable entertainment with prevalent social issues to position Jean Love Cush as a writer to watch.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. (less)
Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists - writers, painters, comedians, actors - mostly because of his office hours. Unl...moreMarc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists - writers, painters, comedians, actors - mostly because of his office hours. Unlike other GPs, he prides himself on the generous twenty minutes he gives each patient, even though he's mentally diagnosed them within the first five. People just like to be able to talk it over and feel that their doctor is listening to them.
One of his patients is celebrity actor Ralph Meier. A large, charismatic man and a good actor, Ralph turned up suddenly in his office one day, needing pills - and having heard through the grapevine that Marc prescribes things without much fuss. Much later, he turns up again, this time with a lump on his thigh. Only months later, Ralph is dead and Marc is due to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners who will decide whether it was a tragic case of mismanagement or something more deliberate.
Between the time of first meeting the actor and his death the following year - which Ralph's wife, Judith, is holding him personally accountable for - something happened. When Marc, his beautiful wife Caroline and their two young daughters, thirteen year old Julia and eleven year old Lisa, took their summer holiday on the Mediterranean, they ended up spending a week at the Meier's summer house. How could the lazy days of barbecuing, swimming in the pool, playing table tennis with Ralph and Judith's two boys, Alex and Thomas, and enjoying the beaches lead to an error that cost a man his life? And if it was deliberate, why would Marc do such a thing?
I haven't yet read Koch's previous book, The Dinner - it's on my shelf, along with many other unread books that I'm just as enthusiastic about - so I can't compare this or say, "If you liked that, you'll like this." But I'm thinking that's probably the case anyway. This is one of those deliciously confronting, uncomfortable novels, the kind of story that manages to sound so reasonable and ordinary and yet flirts with all those human flaws we like to think we've risen above. Touching on issues around sexual attraction, morality, instincts and what it means to be a father, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a black comedy - at once funny and disturbing - featuring a protagonist whom you're never entirely sure is sympathetic or even likeable. Similar things have been said about The Dinner, so that should tell you if you'd like this one or not.
From the moment I sat down in the bookshop and started reading the first chapter, I was drawn in by the incredible honesty and discomfiting observations of the narrator, Marc. This is one of those stories that reminds us of why we should be so grateful we can't read other people's minds: you just don't want to know what other people are really thinking. But if you stop and listen to your own thoughts about others, and about certain topics, you'll get an idea: our own thoughts are often best kept to ourselves. Hearing exactly what Marc thinks about things - often contradictory, complex and insightful - makes it hard to decide whether you, the reader, like him or not.
When we read we tend to look for patterns, signs, clues or motifs that tells us how we're meant to read something - genre first, then a host of literary techniques and stylistic devices that influence how we understand things and connect to characters. Koch toys with such conventions, with the result that Marc Schlosser reminded me of a David Cronenberg film: a bit surreal, certainly disturbing, uncomfortably confronting, absolutely fascinating, definitely mesmerising. For as much as we might go "ewwww" at things, privately or publicly, deep down we love being exposed to what's normally hidden. Freak shows may be a thing of the past, but between celebrity gossip magazines (our own version of the freak show, the way they write about people) and the internet (showing us pictures of deformity, excess etc.), we're still drawn to it all.
We're inside Marc's head, but it's easy to see that on the outside, he's very normal. That's perhaps the most disturbing part, because he reminds us that all the ordinary people in our society still think things or perceive things in ways we pretend to be oblivious to. He's so frank, to us readers, and there's no real duplicity or manipulation or cunning to him, he simply obeys the rules of our society, our culture. As he says in regards to pedophilia and being attracted to young girls, everyone experiences that attraction, but the difference is that most people don't act on it. Marc is in control, yet because of that sense of being in his head in "real time", we don't know what he's going to do next. That makes him unpredictable, which is where you get the sense that there's something off about him, something almost sinister. The whole way through this book, you're not sure just what kind of man he is or what he'll do, but because you hear his thoughts, you realise he's capable. As is everyone, really.
What's exhilarating about Summer House and its narrator is how realistic it is. Never straight-forward, Marc is just like you and me: full of contradictions, a mix of morally good and reprehensibly, potentially bad. He's the image in the mirror we'd rather not see, but Koch thrusts us into his head with no mercy. Marc is fiercely protective and loving towards his girls, yet freely admits he'd rather have had sons. As would everyone, he tells us - and its this propensity to dictate and lecture us readers that makes him unlikeable (that and, for me, his often negative and stereotypical views on women, including his wife). Marc is still heavily influenced by his professor of medical biology, Aaron Herzl, whose lectures he repeats for us, lectures on reproduction, homosexuality, women. Marc's own feelings about women are often less than complimentary, and his behaviour makes him less than sympathetic, especially, I'm sure, to female readers. What it boils down to - what he never, ever, lets himself think - is that everything that happened that week at the summer house could be blamed entirely on him. But as the book shows, nothing is ever that simple.
It's the psychological aspect to this novel that I really liked. Set in the Netherlands and somewhere around the Mediterranean, there's little sense of place: this is a story that could have been set anywhere, really. The characters are familiar in the way Western white people are always familiar to Western, white readers. Koch provides no answers, nor does he overtly judge; through Marc's eyes and thoughts we get Marc's ideas, perceptions and values. The story reveals itself slowly, with well-placed foreshadowing, much like a lazy summer day. Its disturbing qualities are captured neatly in Marc's penchant for dwelling on disgusting details, details about the human body - its appearance as well as what goes on beneath the skin - as well as a sharp, if biased and judgemental, insight into other people's characters and personalities.
That's how I looked at Ralph when he dived into the pool. Every time, I considered the possibility that he might not surface again. Or that he would bash his drunken skull against the bottom and be paralysed from head to toe. But each time he surfaced again, coughing and sneezing and hawking, and dragged himself up the ladder. Then he would spread a towel over a deckchair and lie down in the sun to dry. He never covered himself. He lay with his legs spread, his body too large for the deckchair, his feet hanging over the end: all loose and lazy, tanning in the sun. 'Is this a holiday or is this a holiday?' he said, burping and closing his eyes. A minute later his mouth had dropped open and he was snoring loudly. I looked at his stomach and legs. At his dick, hanging to one side and resting on his thigh. And then I looked at my two daughters. At Julia and Lisa. They didn't seem offended at all. [...] I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier's naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy. [pp.159-160]
That should give you a taste, as well as a pretty good idea of what direction the story goes in. But I won't say more than that.
Summer House with Swimming Pool is well crafted and deliberately confronting - in the best possible way. And being inside Marc's head, you start to feel almost culpable, guilty of the same thoughts he has, which leaves you feeling even more repulsed. And indecisive. As it should be. We're all flawed, complex and contradictory. We all have unpleasant thoughts, or thoughts that others would find unpleasant. At the heart of this story is the distinction between private and public, between what we must keep to ourselves and what we can share. You can't really blame Marc for the way he thinks, for the hint of misogyny that taints his perception of women, because it's the private sphere, a sphere we wouldn't normally get to experience (nor would we want to); at the end of it all, there's a part of you - the part that stops feeling so superior - that respects him for knowing the difference. (less)
It is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that th...moreIt is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that there was anything wrong. Her father, a bee keeper and general handyman, is non-committal - first he tells his daughter that her mother has gone to another war rally and won't be back for a few days, but after a while he simply says nothing. Instead he takes Lissy out of school for the last couple of weeks of the school year so he can take her with him on his annual rounds, distributing his bees at three different privately-owned orchards.
There is Earl Caulkins and his apple trees; an aloof and mildly eccentric author, Chance Curtis; and irascible farmer Les van den Hoven whose busy, loud and cheerful wife, Opal, is everything Lissy's mother is not. Opal takes Lissy under her wing for the week they stay at the farm, introducing her to painted nails and gossip. It doesn't quite make up for her mother's absence, but it helps. Later, over the summer holidays, she goes again with her dad and the bees, this time to wild blueberry crops and other out-of-the-way places.
It isn't until she starts a new school year at her small town's middle school that she realises something is definitely off. The mothers of girls she goes to school with are avoiding her as if she has something contagious. Her best friend Katie doesn't want to walk with her to school anymore, and arranges for her brother to switch lockers so hers isn't beside Melissa's anymore. Kids whisper around her and then suddenly stop, ostracise her or treat her meanly in the hallway. And she has no idea why, because no one will tell her. Nothing touches on her idolatry view of her absent mother, whom, she thinks, went away because she's sick - cancer, Lissy thinks, after reading about it in the library.
Whether her mother was present in the house or far away and silent, she manages to deeply affect Lissy's life. As Melissa grows up, spending summers with her dad and the bees and her school days writing stories and poems, her mother takes on a larger-than-life, demigod-like aspect. Such is how she copes with her feelings of abandonment and rejection. Nothing and no one can replace her, so it's a shock when her father moves on with his life - and expects her to move with him.
Bee Summers is a fairly short coming-of-age novel told with childlike confusion and puzzlement by its protagonist, Melissa. Set somewhere in east United States (there are references to Boston), the late 60s and early 70s provide a vague backdrop of upheaval and public protest, while the fashions, decorating styles and cars give nice period details. In the early parts of the story, there is plenty of evidence that Lissy's mother isn't someone you or I would like all that much, but Melissa is a strongly sympathetic character who misses her mother deeply. It's clear to us that her mother has walked out for her own reasons, and that Melissa is too young to understand without being explicitly told. It's hard to agree with her father not to tell her the truth, and the idea that he's both protecting Lissy and preserving her idea of her mother falls apart later when it becomes clear he just didn't want to talk about it (he was, like many men of his time, a war veteran from the Korean war, and also like many men of his time, found it hard to open up about anything). Because no one tells her otherwise, naturally Melissa creates an image of her mother as this loving, wonderful woman.
Yet Melissa also grows up increasingly lonely and closed-off, and perhaps because she does come from what is essentially a "broken home" with no motherly support or guidance, she matures slowly. I found it hard to empathise with her over her father's decisions to remarry and move. Certainly, if nothing else, Bee Summers shows how much damage can ensue when people don't talk to each other openly and honestly. Misunderstandings and a lack of communication result in what was, to me, a truly tragic ending. What's interesting about Melissa as a carefully-constructed character is how realistically flawed she is, and how clearly you can detect her mother and father's genetic inheritance in her. Her personality is her own but she has inherited characteristics from her parents; if both parents are uncommunicative, and at least one is inherently selfish, it's not surprisingly that you see it in Melissa as well. She doesn't make great choices all the time. She does live in fear, later, that because she didn't have a mother for so long, she doesn't know how to be one herself. Dugan has achieved a careful and honest balance between Melissa's vulnerable flaws and tender fragility. It's hard to dislike Lissy because so much of her character is a result of her circumstances. That said, had her mother stayed around, she probably would have grown up much like her - since she listened to her so much - and might have ended up even less likeable. It's an interesting aspect to the novel, and makes this a story that you can't read aimlessly or passively.
Where the novel disappointed me somewhat was in the development of Lissy's voice - she narrates in first-person past tense, which is a strong choice (you all know by now how much I'm coming to detest the latest fad for using present tense). However, her voice is a child's voice, rather than an adult's voice reliving a child's perspective, and I found this a bit weird and confusing. Almost as if you're reading about someone who's development has stunted. It bleeds into the later parts of the story, too, so that Melissa always sounds desperately immature.
Secrets abound in this story about silence and selfishness. (How's that for a bit of alliteration?) For me, the stars of the story were the bees themselves - I have a deep love for these precious little creatures who are so instrumental to the survival of life on earth. I can't resist any story with "bees" in the title or on the cover, whether they figure as part of the story or not. While the bee summers of Melissa's youth fade into her childhood with the blush of nostalgia - as these things do - I was left bereft and saddened that the bees had left the story. I liked hearing about them, and wanted more. But they had served their purpose, plot-device-wise, and everything must change and move on. That's always a strong theme of coming-of-age novels, that things end and we must grow up and lose our innocence. The sense of that is strong in Bee Summers, and perhaps it's that quality of honest realism that makes it hard to tease out my response. The past of our childhood always has an element of pain, humiliation, gaucheness to it, that makes us shy away from it while at the same time missing it. I'm always impressed by writers who can capture something that ephemeral, that ambiguous, and Dugan has captured it so well I'm left feeling off-footed and mildly uncomfortable. Not an easy book to review but I do recommend it for those readers who like coming-of-age stories.
Oh Laini Taylor, who do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
1. Unbelievably fantastic fantasy world-building (not to mention a globe-trotting Earth-b...moreOh Laini Taylor, who do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
1. Unbelievably fantastic fantasy world-building (not to mention a globe-trotting Earth-bound setting! Can I get a shout of "Exotic locales" anyone?) 2. Wonderful, flawed, loveable, resilient, tortured, enigmatic, honourable, loyal, loving heroine and hero (Karou and Akiva) 3. Vivid, charismatic, believable supporting characters, no matter the species 4. A plot that feels fresh and unique, so much so that I can't think what influences have gone into developing it (specific stories, myths etc. that is - aside from the Bible of course; that book influences everything whether we will it or not!) 5. A fresh take on the classic angels vs. demons story 6. Thought-provoking in its approach to making people question their own assumptions and judgements, especially around concepts of colonialism and race - pertinent as ever to a homegrown American audience but just as valued elsewhere 7. Revenant magic (not sure I've spelled that right!) 8. Surprise! An unpredictable plot and the introduction of fresh elements hitherto unforeseen
I'm pretty sure I could go on and list ad nauseum all the fine details I love and admire in this trilogy, and this book. Dreams of Gods & Monsters is the final book in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy (you can read my review of the first book here, and my review of Days of Blood & Starlight also), and it more than delivers on the exceptional first two books. Really you aren't going to hear any complaints from me. This trilogy has skyrocketed its way almost to the top of my favourite YA fantasy book list (nothing can ever knock the Obernewtyn series from the list, not even this, but it comes damn close). I was more than relieved that Taylor's final installment was just over six hundred pages long - it was not a story I wanted to end any time soon.
Whenever you get a successful YA series like this, the last book - or indeed any of the books after the first one, to which people get so attached to - can deeply polarise. Readers build their own wishes and expectations over where they want the story to go, and how they want the characters to develop, and it's rare that that coincides with the author's intentions - how could it? Personally, I love going on the ride the author wants to take me on. I very rarely bring my own expectations to a reading, simply because I very rarely ever build any. This doesn't make me a passive reader - quite the opposite in fact, and it's a disappointing book that forces me to be one, as I've complained about in other reviews. I like to see how the story unfolds; I want to experience a story, not dictate to it.
I'm reminded of those people who care so much about celebrities. There's a similarity here, to how attached people get to certain stories, and how today's readers turn fictional characters into celebrities - with "Team xxx" badges and online discussions, often quite heated, about the characters (especially sexy male ones) - as if they really were celebrities. I must just be more old-fashioned or traditional in how I read. Yes I like to daydream about characters sometimes, or think about their motives or deeds or where they're headed, but mostly just in my own head. I mean, I'm not a fangirl, in the modern sense of the word. I keep it all nice and private and personal, between me and the book. So I keep my mind open to where the author is taking me, and yes I do judge the success of a story based on plot and character development, and how successful it was, but not against any pre-conceived ideas of where I think the story should have gone, for instance.
For me, I loved the fact that Taylor brought in whole new plotlines and developments and built new layers into her world-building. I also have a long love-love relationship with fantasy fiction, of which I read so much of while a teenager and uni student, but which I hardly read much of anymore, sadly. All the things I love about fantasy are here: the fascinating worlds, the endearing and original characters, a bit of magic and mystery, a grand, sweeping and complex plot, fine details and realism, and thought-provoking social critiques. Other reviewers are perfectly right in saying that Dreams doesn't have a tight structure and the conclusion to the plot that began in the second book (the angels using Earth to acquire weapons) ended almost anti-climatically, yet none of these things disappointed me. They could have, easily, if I didn't love Taylor's writing so much, or the way her mind works, or the characters, the world and the story so much. I loved that it went in new directions and introduced new plotlines, because it meant I got to know the world and its characters even more. This place has become so real to me, like the best kind of fantasy does. I snuggle down within its pages and immerse myself. All my senses are engaged, my emotions especially (these books make me cry, make me feel what the characters feel and more), and my brain too.
If the writing itself isn't always perfect, the storytelling is. It is a fitting conclusion to a fantastic, sweeping fantasy story, and makes me want to crawl inside Laini Taylor's imagination and make myself a nest there. I am in awe of that woman's creative ability, her imagination and her way with words. Yes I got a bit tired of the climatic, revelatory stand-alone sentences (the very same kind of sentence that turned me off Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Avatar, the third book in the series, mostly because I read them all too close together). Just not enough to kill my love.
Ah, I will miss Karou and Akiva and all the other characters, and this wonderful, scary, sad, tortured yet ultimately hopeful world. It's all explained and cohesive now - all the questions I didn't know I had have been answered, and while the future is uncertain it's still a lot better than what's come before. I don't want a happily-ever-after ending, it's just not realistic; this one suited the story well. All in all, a mesmerising, emotionally-intense and brilliantly-creative ending to a stellar fantasy story. Extremely highly recommended. (less)
When Kelsea Raleigh turns nineteen, nine hardened soldiers turn up at the door to the isolated cottage where she's grown up under the care of her now-...moreWhen Kelsea Raleigh turns nineteen, nine hardened soldiers turn up at the door to the isolated cottage where she's grown up under the care of her now-elderly foster parents, Carlin and Barty. She knew the day would come, she's always known who she is and what she's been prepared for - and why she was hidden. Until now. At nineteen Kelsea has inherited the throne from her long-dead mother, Queen Elyssa, a woman she's never known but has built up in her head as wonderful, good. The Peacemaker Queen, they call her mother, because of the treaty she signed with the Red Queen of Mortmesne twenty-five years ago that ended the Mort invasion just as it reached the walls of the Queen's Keep - but not before the Mort army marched across Tear, sowing destruction and fear, raping and plundering as they went. The survivors of that invasion still have fresh memories, and everyone is afraid of Mortmesne and its long-lived queen.
Kelsea leaves the only home she's ever known to travel across the Tear to the capital, knowing that her life is in danger every day. Her uncle, the Regent, has hired assassins to kill her before she can reach the Keep, but it's the infamous thief known only as the Fetch who holds her life in his hands. Fulfilling her destiny to be crowned as queen of the Tearling is only the first step in Kelsea's dangerous new life. When she discovers the realities of the treaty her mother signed, she makes a decision that will forever mark her as a very different queen from her vain, unintelligent mother - and set her country on the brink of war.
I decided not to go into the plot too much in this review because this was a Fantasy I started reading with little knowledge or pre-conceived ideas, and partly as a result of that I absolutely loved this book. Even the ARC's proud proclamation that, months before the book has even been released, it's already in the works to be turned into a movie starring Emma Watson, didn't really affect me or my expectations. (And I always ignore the comparisons publicists make between this book and that one; I recommend others do the same.) The only thing I thought I understood, going into it, was that it was a YA fantasy - mostly because (and this probably sounds silly but blame successful marketing) my ARC is trade paperback-sized - and only YA prints in trade paperback size for genre fiction. (I've no idea what the actual book will look like, as it's not out yet.)
So, I went into this story not quite knowing what to expect, but hoping for a good story that I could sink my teeth into. That's precisely what I got, and more.
This one goes under my "magic and mystery" sub-category, because it's got plenty of both. I am, like other readers, leery of magically-endowed artefacts - in fact, they generally put me off from even picking up a book. It's always either a sword (popular phallic symbol used by male authors) or jewellery (used by both male and female authors - is it meant to symbolise the womb?). In this case, it's jewellery, a magical sapphire necklace that Kelsea has worn since she was born. There's an identical twin to the necklace that her mother had worn, which Carlin gives Kelsea after she turns nineteen. The sapphire has a life of its own and soon starts to enable Kelsea to see through the eyes of others; it can give her superhuman strength and even kill without a mark. We don't know where these necklaces came from or where any of the magic came from - in fact, the history of this world, such an intrinsic part of the world-building, remains a bit of a puzzle.
From early on, there's talk of "the Crossing" and life "pre-Crossing". We then learn a few more details that lead us to think that in our own future, we abandoned Earth, took to the stars, and colonised another planet. That interpretation, based on fairly vague facts, holds up until near the end, when what I took to be figurative references to "sea" or "ocean" suddenly become literal. Our descendants have abandoned the world as we know it, but for what or where exactly? Was the incredibly dangerous ocean they Crossed - an ocean that sank the all-important medical ship and drowned all the doctors and nurses on board - some kind of portal between worlds? A portal full of water? The possibilities are mind-bending, and I hope Johansen is going somewhere with this or I'll be extremely pissed off. In general, the details we're given about the establishment of the new colonies - headed up by different countries (apparently America and Britain teamed up to create the Tearling, but we're also told it was also founded by a man called William Tear who had a utopian vision; not sure how the two work together, and I can't quite imagine the US and UK becoming besties for such a huge thing) - are teetering on the edge of believability. They could easily fall one way or the other, depending on Johansen. Poorly executed world-building can sink a story in a second; on the other hand, if all the pieces come together and coalesce into something strong, vivid and plausible, then you've got a winner. We'll just have to see, on that score.
Where the story really excels is in the creation of the heroine, Kelsea, who feels very modern (contemporary to us) and personable; she's smart, compassionate, brave and honourable. She's succeeding two rather rotten rulers, her own mother and uncle, and her kingdom is on the brink of utter ruin. If you're not lucky enough to be born into the nobility, who own all the land and control everything, you're a peasant slaving away on their land for next to nothing, or some other menial labourer in the city. Attitudes towards women have markedly declined, there's no education, no books except those hoarded by a few people like Carlin - and no appreciation for them, either. The dominating religion, the Church, is a bastardised mix of Catholicism and Protestantism that uses the Bible mostly as a prop; it's rotten to its core. The people of the Tearling have known hardship like you can barely comprehend - far worse than in our own Medieval period upon which traditional fantasy is so commonly based. Despite being descendants of us, they've lost not only a great deal of modern technology and learning in the Crossing, but also the humanity we continue to strive for. A sense of what's "right", an end to the exploitation of children, women, indigenous groups etc., the valuation of literacy and education, of workers' rights. All gone, it seems, in this new world.
The odds are stacked up high against Kelsea. Now queen of a nearly bankrupted country with few resources, a weakened and illiterate population, rotten and corrupt from the inside by a few powerful people who seek only to protect their own interests (sounds familiar) and a powerful, strong and aggressive country looming over them, it's part of what makes this story compelling, seeing Kelsea - someone we can relate to so easily - come in and try to make changes. We know from the beginning that she survives her crowning and becomes a legendary queen - the Glynn Queen - so there's no uncertainty on that score. The tension comes, instead, from how it all happens. How does she defeat her enemies? How can she repair such a damaged and festering kingdom? It also comes from the so-far unanswered questions and mysteries surrounding other characters and history: who is the Fetch, and is he even human? How has the Red Queen stayed young for over a hundred years, and what is she doing to herself to achieve it? What is the dark thing she summons, and what are its goals? What is the Mace's story? (The Mace, as he's nicknamed, is Kelsea's "right hand man" and leader of the Queen's guard: fearsome, terrifying, knowledgeable.) What's the deal with the sapphires, and where exactly is this new world?
With a fast-paced plot and a comfortable, smooth writing style, Johansen has written a compelling and engaging fantasy novel taut with adult themes and gut-punching realities. She's started me on a journey into the heart and blackened soul of a corrupt world - a world inhabited for only a couple of centuries yet already suffering from human occupation. The machinations, treachery, bloodshed and grief are all too real, and it even had me crying till I couldn't read the words on the page at the end. Yes, it snared me. It will make a good movie, too. I'm indecisive over how original it is - certain key elements reminded me straight away of the YA fantasy series, Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (which I also loved). It follows a familiar fantasy formula yet because of its futuristic setting, it's history based in our world, and the resulting mix of attitudes and adopted customs, it does tread on some fresh ground. Ultimately, it's well-written fantasy that you can curl up with and sink into. I don't even want to know how long I'll have to wait till the next book; I want to read it now, I'm not ready to put aside these characters and all those puzzles.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
In 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A lon...moreIn 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A long-time theatre appreciator who's never seen a play, it takes a chance encounter with two people about his own age, Paul Driscoll and Leigh Radley, to motivate him into quitting his clerk job and leaving his parents behind to embark on his own life. His mother has been locked up in the mental asylum in Seston since Luke was five; he visits her often and resents his father, a Polish migrant who once flew fighter planes in World War II, for never seeing her or talking to her. He takes the train to London and calls the one person he knows there: Paul.
Paul is not much past twenty but doesn't want to be the engineer his father pushed him to be. He wants to be a producer. Now with Luke on side, a plan begins to take shape and a fledgling theatre company arises. With several others, they form Graft, a small, artsy theatre above a pub. When handsome, charming Luke sleeps with the stage manager and then doesn't talk to her again, she leaves and they hire Leigh. The same spark of familiarity, connection and desire that was there when they first met is still alive, but Luke is taking the admonishment of not sleeping with the stage manager to heart, and steps back. Paul fills the gap, and after a while of dating him Leigh moves in to their flat and the three settle into a comfortable rhythm.
Also in London is Nina, a young actress trying to break in. Raised mostly by her absent (and unknown) father's sister, her mother has been the dominant presence in her life. An actress who didn't want the burden of raising a child she didn't want, Marianne is selfish and egotistical. All Nina has ever wanted is her mother's love and approval; she'll do anything and become anything to make her mother happy. That's how she finds herself going to drama school, even though she's so shy, and how she became a shell of a person easily sculpted by anyone dominant and confident enough to take on the task. Which is what happens when she meets Tony Moore, a producer and one of her mother's young ex-lovers. Tony arranges her, dresses her and trains her like something between a doll and a pet. Nina hides so deeply behind a blank - appeasing and pleasing - mask that it's not long before any vestige of an individual person able to break free and create a life for herself is gone.
It's at the performance of In Custody, a heavy play in which Nina stars, that Luke first really sees her. Barefoot, blind-folded and gagged, she comes onto the stage after an intense, dark opening in which the sounds of heavy doors opening and slamming shut can be heard. The experienced is terrifying for Luke, whose mother has been locked up for so long; when he sees vulnerable Nina, when her face is bared to him, he sees a frightened young woman who needs to be freed.
It is Luke's all-consuming love for Nina, and the affair they embark upon, that ruins old friendships and nearly scuttles his just-blooming career as a playwright. Fallout is a coming-of-age novel for both Luke and Nina, a vividly-real, intimate look into what drives us, what shapes us and what love can cost us.
This might very well be my favourite Sadie Jones novel to date, although I can't really say that because I really do like all her novels quite a lot and the ones I've read so far have all been quite different (I haven't yet read Small Wars; really must!). There is something holding me back from full-out loving her books, but for the first half-ish of Fallout I was definitely in the "love" zone. My copy is an uncorrected proof (an ARC), which meant it had lots of typos, nothing major, but it did also have a slightly unpolished feel to it. The prose was, at times, a bit awkward or unclear, the punctuation so technically incorrect that the emphasis or meaning of a sentence was distorted or lost, rendering some parts unnecessarily clumsy, like you've stumbled on an uneven floor. Again, hard to know if the punctuation was going to be fixed or whether this is the style she's developed, but the control over commas versus semicolons or even periods was sloppy. The comma isn't the "new" semicolon; they affect a sentence quite differently. Misuse either one and you ruin the rhythm of your words and disrupt the flow. You can be "experimental" with punctuation, but you can also create an annoyingly disjointed mess if you don't do it well.
This is a story about people, about Luke and Nina, Paul and Leigh, about relationships, love, the battle scars in our relationships and the mistakes we make - and sometimes learn from. The characters are real, believable, familiar. The most interesting and confronting of them all was Nina, someone you pity and feel infinitely sorry for, but whom you can't respect. She lacks will, she lacks grit, she lacks perspective. She is a product of her mother's critique and Tony's homoerotic desires (for instance, her mother keeps her skinny because chunky girls don't get hired; Tony keeps her skinny because he likes her to look like a boy). The arrival of Luke in her life, someone she feels instantly drawn and attracted to in the same way he does with her, presents an opportunity: a chance to take control of her life, figure out who she is and what she wants, and be fulfilled and happy.
But Nina has a diseased soul. Theirs is a love affair that begins with such hope and promise - you truly, truly want them both to be happy, and free, and together - that soon becomes something poisonous and even destructive. I sometimes hear, in movies maybe, people say that they're with the right person for the wrong reasons, or the wrong person for the right reasons, or some variation on that theme. There was a touch of that here. What I loved about it was how truthful, honest and messy it all was. Jones has a real knack for capturing ordinary, middle-class people in all their glorious strengths and flaws, and letting events play out naturally. While I did find that there was a slight sense of an author-creator (god-figure) manoeuvring pieces into place (it's the way she writes), once there the characters took over, their personalities guiding events and their ultimate fallout.
The star of the story was the setting and era itself: the backdrop for the fallout of relationships. London in the late 60s and early 70s is a place on the cusp, a place discovering love and life and excitement. A place still being held back by the tight grip of tradition and society but increasingly stretching its wings. Theatre is prominent, and popular. New bands and music rock the airwaves - which people actually listen to. It incorporates women's lib but nothing overtly political or radical. This is a story set in the hearts of its characters, rather than their heads. While there, I felt like I was there. I could picture things quite well thanks to all the British telly I've watched over my lifetime, and the flavour of their speech really helps catapult you there. Eminently readable but not exactly pleasurable, Fallout had me wrapped up in the characters so that I was going to bed thinking about them, however disquieting and somehow off the story and the writing was at times.
Visit my blog to enter to win a copy of both The Publicist and Shelf Life (2-book giveaway), open internationally from now until 22nd April 2014.
Shelf...moreVisit my blog to enter to win a copy of both The Publicist and Shelf Life (2-book giveaway), open internationally from now until 22nd April 2014.
Shelf Life continues the story of New York publicist, Kate Mitchell, picking up not long after the end of book one. More unhinged authors, more terrible titles, and more time with the sexiest editor in the country, MacDermott Ellis. Mac isn't happily married to his wife of twenty years, Carolyn, but he's always been clear he'll never leave her either. Kate knows this as well as any other woman he's been with, but the thought of breaking the affair off with him just isn't something she feels capable of doing. Both Kate and Mac are putting off facing the hard decisions and emotional heartbreak that, deep down, they know must come one day.
That day arrives in the summer, the day they launch the biggest book on Morris and Dean's portfolio for the year: The Continued Promise, the follow-up to a previous bestseller, The Promise. The CEO of MD, Edward - a dictatorial man in his seventies who's been running things for as long as anyone can remember and who thinks its his right to feel up the female employees - unexpectedly moved up the release date without a clear reason, and the alarm bells are ringing louder than ever in Kate's head. Her gut instinct was always that the author, Michael Singer, was suspect, and when the FBI arrest him on the same day the book launches, it's not just MD that suffers, or Kate's career. When Kate learns that Mac knew about the police investigation but didn't tell her so she could prepare damage control, she's devastated. Her career might not be salvageable, and now she knows that her relationship with Mac isn't either.
Rather than face her situation square on, Kate runs - she escapes New York for the sun and surf of California where her friend Nick gives her valuable time and space to recover. It's time to sort our her life, her head and her heart, but that's easier said than done. As much as she keeps telling herself she's over Mac, there's a part of her that's still running from the truth.
Having just read the first book, The Publicist, I knew exactly what to expect from Shelf Life in terms of character and style. However, compared to the first book, there's a lot more plot in book 2. Having established her characters and the dynamics between them as well as the publishing industry, George moves on to Kate's personal story. The breakup we always knew was going to come, came, and Shelf Life is very much Kate's story of self-discovery and overcoming obstacles. With the same humour and entertaining insider stories as The Publicist, this was just as fun and engaging to read - perhaps more so, as there were some real nail-biting scenes and I loved learning how Kate was going to get herself out of some tight spots. She's certainly very good at her job, though as we all know, being good at your job doesn't protect you from the sharks.
There is an element to George's style that, while it makes for a quick, consistent pace, also makes events seem a bit too pat. A bit too easy, which can make it feel less realistic. Part of the problem is that, despite Kate being for the large part a worthy protagonist, for large chunks of this story things just happened to her, so that even when she was actively making a decision, it still felt like she was a passive recipient of good luck. It's hard to pin-point, because she's an extremely hard worker who rose up out of the ashes of her career to forge a new path, and she forged it well. It was just a bit too, well, convenient, that Allan Lavigne's book would be an instant bestseller and so beloved by everyone - when does that ever happen? There isn't a single book that doesn't have its critics - and everything worked out so well for her. I was happy for her, but it started to lose its sense of realism because the story became a kind of list telling us all the good things to happen one after another.
Granted, Kate's love life is still a big mess, but I confess I started to lose patience with her after a while. There were aspects of Kate's character that were largely missing, and she wasn't flawed enough to seem human. Her world is surprisingly small and her new boyfriend, Nick, is way too perfect. You never really get to know him, beyond that he's very attractive and very successful. He's depicted as a fantasy, which Kate never picked up on - fantasies do not make for solid, long-term relationships. I liked Nick, thanks to a few moments when we get to see him vulnerable, but he's representative of a certain manly ideal women supposedly have - a cliché or a stereotype of what women want in a man that I've come across so many times before, in romantic comedies and other formats - so for me he was a vacuous, unappealing romantic character who served as a plot device rather than as a human being in his own right.
I could say the same about many characters in many books, who get side-lined by the "main event" - in this case, Kate and Mac's messy relationship. Mac was the real star of the story, even though he, too, fulfils the role of another stereotypical male love interest. It was his flaws, and the fact that he's a philanderer, that gave him an edge as a character over all the others. Kate's flaws are distantly irritating ones, the kind of flaws that women latch onto because she seems so bloody perfect and all these attractive men keep falling in love with her. Too good, you know? You just want to see them fall, and not in the sense of bad things happening to them: no, you just want a sign that they're human, that they're loved not because their perfect (for what mortal woman can compete with, or hope to achieve, that?) but because they're human and imperfect and its our imperfections that make us endearing to the right person.
But like I said, it's a very engaging, entertaining read, and this one in particular - because of it's well-rounded conclusion - had me gripped. In a way it's reminiscent of Hollywood movies, in that it follows a fairly predictable path, but as with the movies, it doesn't stop you from enjoying the ride. Part of the enjoyment, I think, is in knowing the formula and the glee you get from seeing how things unfold. Plus, despite the truly atrocious titles these publishers put so much weight behind (self-help? bad tell-alls by convicted murderers?), or perhaps because of them, it's so much fun to get that peek inside the industry. If Kate's path to rescuing her career and finding love was a bit smooth and convenient, the shady, political dealings inside publishing more than make up for it.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iReads Book Tours(less)
Kate Mitchell has worked as a publicist at Morris & Dean Publishing (MD) in New York City for seven years now; she's nowhere near the bottom rung...moreKate Mitchell has worked as a publicist at Morris & Dean Publishing (MD) in New York City for seven years now; she's nowhere near the bottom rung of the ladder in her department, but she's not getting the "big books" either. Yet, to her authors, she's a hero: saving them from jumping off a building after a bad review in the New York Times, arranging for a celebrity to turn up at their book signing before MD cancels their book contract because sales aren't good enough, and generally doing her job with professionalism and creativity.
She's still young, and after a few messy relationships with the "wrong" men, decidedly single. But there's always MacDermott Ellis. Mac, a much older but still very attractive and charming man, is a known philanderer - a discreet one, but it's a well-established fact that he's been married for over thirty years, has two kids, and absolutely no intention of ever leaving his wife, Carolyn. Knowing that, it doesn't stop women from embarking on an affair with him, falling in love and having their hearts broken. Mac's never made a move on Katie - before now. His warm, friendly interactions kick up a notch when he invites her to dinner to discuss an upcoming "big book" that he wants her to work with him on; it could be her big break.
Mac is smooth, but genuine all the same. He stays in his marriage for several reasons, though he slowly comes to admit that now, it's because he doesn't have the guts to make such a big change in his life. Not to mention devastate his two boys. Kate has always considered herself too smart to get involved with him, too - not only is he married, and not only is he a colleague, but she knows she could fall for him.
Through the sometimes hilarious ups-and-downs of publishing publicity and in-house politics, Kate forges a path for her career and balances the increasing workload with her increasingly flirtatious outings with Mac. She must figure out a way to listen to both her heart and her gut instinct, and trust herself to make the right decisions for her own happiness. But does that mean loving Mac, or distancing herself from him?
'Christina George' is the pseudonym for a publishing industry insider, a publicist who has used her experience and true-to-life anecdotes to bring colour to this chick-lit romance story - though not all of them are true. If I didn't know George worked in the biz and was using a pen name so she could share these often outlandish scenarios, I would have said they were too outrageous to be believable. It's amazing, human behaviour, and what people who work "behind the scenes" get to see: the 'warts and all'. These authors are a mixed bunch, but many of them are entitled, arrogant, demanding, neurotic, obsessive, and have no personal skills whatsoever. Though to be fair, most of the books Kate had to publicise sounded like utter trash, too. Nothing I'd be interested in reading, that's for sure.
It was definitely the strength of the novel, though, this insight into the mainstream publishing industry. I've worked for a small independent publisher in the past, and seen that even at that level there're plenty of colourful characters and eye-rolling stories of authorial entitlement. It makes for an entertaining read, even if it didn't always flow through the story with a natural feel. That's down to George's writing, which hasn't yet matured but shows plenty of potential.
The romance also had a decent 'true-to-life' feel to it, which gives the whole story a kind of TV-show realism (an oxymoron I know, but the way I can think of to capture The Publicist's flavour). Mac is charismatic and a nice shade of grey, reminding us that not everyone who embarks on an extra-marital affair (or two or two dozen) is an automatic sleaze-ball. You can see quite clearly how stuck he is, how he's internalised the problems with his marriage and, rather than deal with them in a productive manner, hides from them. He keeps the status quo, a little boy pretending to be an adult, trying to protect his wife while also trying to find a slice of happiness for himself. You might not approve of his methods, but he still conjures up sympathy, making Kate's decision less simple.
I would have liked a bit more pre-sex tension and chemistry, more of a build-up; to establish their mutual attraction a bit more - not necessarily in terms of time but in terms of their interactions, the depth of them. It becomes a bit too descriptive, with too much "tell" and not enough "show". It's hard to feel what they're feeling when you're only told.
Supporting characters help to flesh out the story and Kate's world: her best friend Grace, an artist; her friend Allan Lavigne, an elderly man who once, in 1969, published a bestseller called The Fall and was in an iron-clad contract with MD to publish his second book, which he'd never written; and Nick, Allan's nephew from California who reminds Kate of Matthew McConaughey - now she's got two men to choose from, and an even bigger decision to make.
It's a relatively short novel, with a swift pace and near-constant movement, plenty of dialogue and even a scene that brought tears to my eyes. It was entertaining but really, the story has only just started, and ends on something akin to a cliffhanger. The story continues in Shelf Life, which I'll be reviewing next.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iRead Book Tours.(less)
Emily Oliphant is finally on a fulfilling path. She's left her abusive husband, John; she's living in a lovely old house and just been given an amazin...moreEmily Oliphant is finally on a fulfilling path. She's left her abusive husband, John; she's living in a lovely old house and just been given an amazing offer to buy it from the owners, two old farming brothers, Trevor and Donald Baker; she's enjoying the supportive and honest company of her friend Barbara; and she's taking small but increasingly certain steps in standing up to her overly-critical, judgemental, guilt-tripping mother. So she has hardly any money because she signed-off so quickly on a settlement with John rather than fight for her fair share. So she has no job and doesn't know what she's going to do with herself. She's free of her miserable marriage and living independently for the first time in her life, with her dog, Grace.
In the days before Christmas, which she's hosting at her house, she has an unexpected visitor: Nathan, the new, young assistant bank manager who her mother has been trying to set her up with. He's moved back to the area and doesn't want to live with his parents. He asks if she'd like a lodger, and while the money would be extremely helpful, Emily is learning to put herself first and think things through, and declines. She doesn't want to give up what she's so recently gained, and have to share her home. Yet when she gets a call from architect Jake, her cousin's friend, asking her if he can stay the weekend while he's in her area on a business trip, she eagerly agrees.
When Jake arrives, Emily's in the midst of organising her grandmother's button jar, something she gave Emily before her death several years earlier. Emily finds the job therapeutic, but when Jake joins in he discovers something with potentially huge repercussions: uncut diamonds from India. Suddenly it seems like Emily's sitting on the answers to all her problems: money, and lots of it too. But almost immediately Emily starts thinking about all the problems that could arise if she tries to cash the diamonds in, and even more importantly to her, that there's something slightly sacrilegious about selling things her gran had held onto for so long, and kept secret. So the buttons and the diamonds go back into the jar, and Jake agrees not to tell anyone about the find.
After Christmas - blessedly mother-free - Emily receives a new shock, and then another. It seems like just when she was on the road to sorting out her life, figuring out what to do with herself and looking forward to the future, fate intervenes in more ways than one. Now she must draw upon her new-found strength and resilience to work her way through these new circumstances, but Emily is still a novice at being an independent, strong, resourceful woman, and she doesn't always make the best decisions.
When I expressed my interest in reading this book, I didn't realise it was the sequel to Saving Grace, or part of a series. The premise interested me: I was drawn to the idea of a woman finding her feet, putting her love into home and land, and "turning a new leaf". That certainly is what the story is about, only not in a way that I enjoyed all that much.
The trouble is, mostly, Emily herself. She's a tricky character to pin an entire story on, someone who lacks courage, inner strength, experience or, sometimes, a sane head on her shoulders. She did try my patience more than once, and it was hard to feel sympathetic for her when she seems like such a drip. I guess I don't have all that much patience for someone so gauche, so insipid, so uncertain and, at times, childish. I haven't read Saving Grace - and I don't feel a strong need to, since Time Will Tell covers the pertinent details well - so I haven't seen the character's growth arc from the beginning (having read a few other reviews, I gather she's come a long way, so it's just as well I started with book 2). Emily does make progress - I find I have to tell myself that sternly, because it's easy to forget - and she does learn to stand up for herself a bit more, but honestly she could be pretty infuriating at times.
My struggle with Emily was compounded by the fact that I could empathise, sympathise and understand her problems and what she was going through. McCallum did a good job in bridging the gap between me and my personality, and Emily. It almost made me angry, at times, sympathising and empathising while at the same time wanting to throw up my hands and leave her to it. She does go on a bit! It's a slow-paced novel, and while some plot points felt horribly contrived (what happens to John, especially), others seemed to evolve naturally. There were things that I wasn't really sure about - such as whether the townsfolks' censure of Emily was all in her own head - and some things that seemed ominous and sinister - like Nathan's pushy self-invitations and phone calls (does she know she has diamonds and wants to steal them? Nah, he couldn't, but then what's with his behaviour??). I couldn't quite get a grip on this story, and that bothered me more than anything. The cosy relationship between Emily and Jake was both too easy and too formulaic, and I didn't really feel much chemistry between them - exacerbated by the fact that if I was annoyed by Emily, how could I understand what someone lovely like Jake saw in her? That's the trouble with being so firmly inside the head of someone like Emily (told in third person but strictly from her point-of-view): we see her in much the same negative light as she sees herself.
Overall, it's not a bad story, and I had no trouble reading to the end, it's just not a character I could really love. I appreciated her struggles, her personal growth, but she's just not the kind of person I could be friends with in real life. I'd have better luck with Barbara (though who calls their kids "Barbara" anymore? It made me picture her as a fifty-year-old woman, at least, and I think she's meant to be Emily's age). Not sure why Barbara doesn't lose patience with Emily, though. The woman is more patient and kind-hearted than I am, it seems. Oh which reminds me, there was something of the "kicked dog" to Emily - apt, considering she is the victim of domestic violence and worse at the hands of her ex-husband. Not having lived through that with her (in Saving Grace), I could only sympathise in the abstract. Perhaps that, ultimately, is the problem with reading the sequel to a book you've never read: you don't "get" the protagonist in the way you should. But I don't think so. There are plenty of stories that leave people's back story in the past, and don't relive it. I treated this like that, and found that the references to the past were enough. It's really just Emily, and to a slightly lesser degree, the writing style, that just didn't click with me.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
This was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what a...moreThis was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what and it's really bugging me. I don't mean that it's derivative, only that I think it might be inspired by an older tale, if only I could what it is! Oh wait, am I thinking of the film Brazil maybe? Dreams within dreams? I feel like I'm getting warmer.
The characters are a bunch of misfits, except perhaps for the main character and John. The mystery, then, was why they were there and what their connection was. The story follows a pattern that you think is going to get repetitive and boring but isn't because the "real" world, the dream space (the white room) gets incorporated into the scenarios. Though the characters are surprisingly slow at realising this.
It moves swiftly and keeps the momentum up, but to do so Celine had to sacrifice some much-needed character development. The characters are fairly thin sketches, a bit stereotypical, though they hint at greater depths. This is the first book in a series and while I'm not sure where the story goes from here (same characters??), it makes for fun, interesting reading.
Read in May 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. (less)
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted t...moreThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey.(less)
In 1808, when Alexandra Broughton is fourteen, her mother returns from court to the family home with a new husband, a bun in the oven, and new step-si...moreIn 1808, when Alexandra Broughton is fourteen, her mother returns from court to the family home with a new husband, a bun in the oven, and new step-siblings for her children, Simon, Alex and Annie. None of them are used to having their snobby, social-climbing mother at home, but her affair with Gerrard Washburn, Earl of Thorncliffe, has caused King George III - a well-known prude and quite different from his son, Prince George - to expel her from court with the decree that they marry.
The upset to the Broughton children's daily life is soon forgotten - it's hard not to like Lord Thorncliffe, and when baby Meg arrives they're all smitten (except her mother, who lacks motherly love). It's the arrival of Gerrard's two children from his previous marriage, Patrick and Maeve, that change everything for Alex. Maeve is a happy, enthusiastic, loving girl of the same age as Annie - who shares her mother's sense of vanity and ambition - but Patrick is Alex's beloved brother Simon's age, and the two quickly become friends. Stuck in the middle, Alex puts her efforts into being childishly petulant and difficult, resentful that Patrick has come between her and handsome, popular Simon.
Yet she's also drawn to Patrick in ways she barely understands. As Alex matures she puts aside her dislike and resentment towards Patrick and the two become friends, but the friendship is strained by Alex's unrequited feelings for Patrick. Once both Simon and Patrick are of age, they both decide to sign up for the war against Napoleon, despite their family's protestations. Simon uses his medical pre-training from university to help the wounded, while Patrick buys an officer's rank and sees real battle. With the two men she loves most in such danger zones, Alex struggles to sit quietly at home and wait.
Meanwhile, her mother has arranged a marriage for her with a young Scottish lord, Hamish, a preening, vain man who, it readily becomes apparent to the reader, has more of an eye towards pretty young men than he does his affianced bride. Alex was resigning herself to marrying Hamish - a contract that doesn't seem breakable - when Patrick returns from war and everything changes.
Torn was a refreshing change from either your typical "Regency Romance" or the many historical fiction novels set in the era that strive to mimic Pride and Prejudice. Turner has focusses on the historical period by going to historical sources rather than fictional ones, which gives a fresh perspective on the early 19th century (pre-Regency). She also turned the lens of the story onto the Napoleonic War, which I appreciated - Austen never focussed on that, her characters just bought a shiny red uniform and everything was tickety-boo. The descriptions of the hell's of war will resonate with readers because they sound just like the descriptions of the World Wars that we've absorbed, because despite the changes in weaponry, tactics or political context, war is war and what soldiers endure doesn't change all that much.
This is a coming-of-age novel set over the course of several years while Alex is a teenager. While Turner has made efforts to use diction and syntax appropriate to the period, Alex's first-person voice is often a bit contemporary, a bit too modern. It's not that people didn't swear or speak in more relaxed ways, just that some of Alex's phrasing sounded a bit too late-20th-century, and jarred. That aside, it's clear that while certain expectations of young women have changed drastically, the struggles and inner turmoils of adolescence and young love remain unchanged over the centuries. We can change our costumes, our expectations and perspectives as much as we like, but at heart we're no different from people living in any other age.
The novel was a bit slow and uneventful, which I wouldn't have minded except that for much of the book it lacked the tension it needed to propel the narrative - and the reader - forward. The story doesn't pick up until after Simon and Patrick join the war. Much of the first half is made up with establishing Alex's rude behaviour towards Patrick, and their prickly understanding. It's just hard, following the exploits of a not-very-likeable girl going through the pains of adolescence. Perhaps it's that fact, that in the first half of the book, Alex isn't a very sympathetic character - you can sympathise with her resentment and understand her behaviour all too well, but it goes on for too long. Patrick has the charisma to carry the story and keep you reading - there's just something about him, from his moments of casual cruelty to his raw sex appeal, his sense of humour and moments of loving tenderness. He keeps you on your toes, that's for sure, though it's one of my personal hang-ups that I don't like hearing men calling women "bitch", especially when they're in love with them.
This isn't a standalone novel but the start of a series, and the ending, while no cliffhanger, is a prelude to the second book, Inviolate. In fact, I would say that the entire novel (Torn) is a bit of a prelude. It establishes the characters, who drive the story forward, and their dramas, as set-up for where the story will go from here. There is a definite feeling that the second book will have more of a dramatic punch than this one, as the stakes are all out on the table and the way things ended in Torn definitely leave you reeling a bit. (I think we'd all agree by the end that Annie is despicable, shallow and lacking in character.) Alex does make me want to shake her though, especially at the end where she lets Patrick's past mistakes and reputation over-rule everything she knows about him, and instead takes the side of the sister she never respected. What's with that? I could understand Alex's emotions but after the initial shock, where's her head? She's an intelligent girl who shows, time and again, a lack of maturity and understanding of others. I guess she's inherited a bit of her mother's superficial outlook, but it was disappointing and slightly contrived for the sake of drama and tension. I'm on the fence a bit over the ending, and I'm not sure where the prologue and epilogue, told by an elderly Meg who has something important she needs to commit to paper, is going. She's not telling the story, that's for sure, so she must know some painful secret.
Overall, a solid first novel that will appeal to those readers who like a slowly evolving historical fiction story set pre-Regency, populated by familiar characters and narrated by a young, torn heroine who feels all-too human.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.(less)
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Jocelyne Guerbette is a plump, middle-aged woman of forty-seven living in Arras, Franc...moreVisit my blog for your chance to win a copy! Open until 25-03-14
Jocelyne Guerbette is a plump, middle-aged woman of forty-seven living in Arras, France. She runs a haberdashery shop and a blog, tengoldfingers, that gets over a thousand hits a day. Jo doesn't consider herself to be successful, or interesting, or beautiful. She fears her ordinariness, and her middle class life - she fears her own happiness, contentment, with her life. Or rather, she fears her husband of twenty-one years, Jocelyn, will leave her for a younger, prettier woman. He has a well-worn list of wants, does Jo. A Porsche (red), the complete set of James Bond movies, a big flat-screen TV. An expensive watch and a fireplace for the lounge room. He works at the Häagan-Dazs factory and doesn't earn enough for any of those things.
When Jo succumbs to her friends' pushing to buy a lottery ticket one day, it's nearly a week before she realises that she's won over eighteen million euros. It's a lot of money. Too much, perhaps. The possibilities are suddenly overwhelming. Jo doesn't tell anyone about her win: not her husband, Jo, not her friends, the twins Danièle and Françoise, nor her two adult children, Romain and Nadine. She hides the cheque beneath the inner sole of a shoe in her wardrobe while she writes lists, a list of needs, a list of wants, a list of fantastic desires. She's happy with her life, with Jo who's been so attentive and loving - so different from all those years ago when she lost the third baby and he took out his misery and rage on her.
But just as she's realising that money won't bring additional happiness or make things better - that her life really is just the way she likes it, already - an unexpected, shocking betrayal changes everything.
The List of My Desires - or My Wish List as it's called in North America - is both quietly, gently wonderful and also hugely disappointing. Jo - the wife - narrates most of the short novel and Delacourt's style suits her perfectly. Her sense of insecurity, contentment, a hint of timidity curled around a resolute, brave will - it all comes across clearly, in the simple descriptive style and syntax as much as through Jo's story. It's also a distinctly - or what I think of as distinctly - French style, and this can work for me or it can't.
Written in first person present tense without dialogue punctuation, one of the glitches of the novel is the fore-shadowing - either implicitly or through a sense of ominous presentiment. I really, really don't like present tense anymore - it's so hideously overused now, and incorrectly used - and I especially don't like it when the story is essentially written in past tense; makes the verbs all look like typos. I don't think it did the story any service to use present tense, though I will say that the foreshadowing (which I'm also not a fan of) gave the story tension and lent it an air of foreboding - which you can technically have when writing in present tense, if you're skilled and careful and keep your narrator's feet firmly planted in the present. That wasn't the case here. (Foreshadowing can often spoil a story, like with The Age of Miracles, no matter what tense you use.) In fact, in classic French style, it was hard to know the when, while reading. The tense was a bit all over the place, as was the narration. I enjoy experimentation, but not every experiment works.
It gets messier when the plot changes gears and Jo's life likewise changes. This is where I felt the novel got lost. It broke into two strands - Jo the wife and Jo the husband - and while Jo the husband's story remained strong, albeit a bit obvious, Jo the wife's story lacked cohesion, contradicted itself and, I felt, lost the plot - or the point - of the story. A few weird references made me think, rather bizarrely, of the Jason Bourne movies, and wonder what the F was even going on.
All that after such a strong start. The premise is simple and, while not original, appeals to us. It's an age-old question, Can money buy you happiness? The psychological process Jocelyne goes through after winning the money is realistic, genuine, and so very human. Winning the lottery throws her life into perspective - or a new perspective, anyway. She rationally, calmly considers the dreams she'd had for her life as a girl, before her mother died suddenly when she was seventeen, before her father slipped into dementia after a stroke a year later. Before she married Jo.
I think of myself, of all that will now be possible for me, and I don't want any of it. I don't want what all the money in the world can buy. But does everyone feel like that? [p.61]
One of the insights I loved was Jo's reflection on just how important it is to us to have those little things we need to get, how it propels us forwards, and how, if you were to win the lottery and simply buy everything on your list in one fell swoop, your sense of purpose and routine would vanish.
At home, I reread the list of what I need, and it strikes me that wealth means being able to buy everything on it all at once, from the potato peeler to the flat-screen TV, by way of the coat from Caroll's and the non-slip mat for the bath. Go home with everything on the list, destroy the list and tell myself: Right, there we are, there's nothing else I need. All I have left from now on are wishes. Only wishes.
But that never happens.
Because our needs are our little daily dreams. The little things to be done that project us into tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the future; trivial things that we plan to buy next week, allowing us to think that next week we'll still be alive.
It's the need for a non-slip bath mat that keeps us going. Or for a couscous steamer. A potato peeler. So we stagger our purchases. We programme the places where we'll go for them. Sometimes we draw comparisons. A Calor iron versus a Rowenta iron. We fill our cupboards slowly, our drawers one by one. You can spend your life filling a house, and when it's full you break things so that you can replace them and have something to do the next day. You can even go so far as to break up a relationship in order to project yourself into another story, another future, another house.
Another life to fill. [pp.132-3]
It was moments of insightful reflection and philosophical thought on the discourse of human happiness and life in general that I really appreciated in this book, and Jo's movements through her life. I did find her naïve, and I couldn't help but think that, in some way, what happened could have been avoided. The issue was her relationship with her husband. She loves him, she tells us. She's forgiven him, I guess, for how badly he treated her after the death of their baby. She seems to buy into a lot of stereotypes - that he must surely want a younger, prettier, slimmer (firmer) woman, that he would so easily leave her or put the acquisition of material possessions before her. I find it hard to believe that she loved him, that she had a deep and meaningful relationship with him. I can't imagine living with someone for so long and not trusting them enough to tell them I've won the lottery. I wouldn't want to be with someone who I couldn't talk to about important things, couldn't share things with. So I did find it hard to relate to Jo, and I found it disappointing that her husband fulfilled her lowest expectations (to be honest, it's all a bit predictable, too). And I found it a bit confusing what happened next.
This is a coming-of-age novel for Jocelyne, but it's her husband's story too. In a way, she never gave him a chance. She set him up to fail. And after creating such an unequal relationship, she didn't give him the opportunity to make mistakes, learn from them, grow and grow up. She feared what would happen if she told him about the winnings - how it would change things, ruin them - and that I can understand. But her fear was a selfish one, and she made selfish decisions for Jo as well. She decided that the life she liked should be good enough for him, as well. What came across clearly was Jo-the-husband as Jo-the-child, and nowhere in the story, in any of the memories she relates or the present-day details, could I find evidence of a real, loving, trusting relationship. Which was very sad. Beneath it al, beneath everything Jocelyne tells you, there lies this deeply-buried need for revenge, to set Jo up and watch him fall, see him pay, take out all the insecurities and disappointments and hurt on this weak and immature man.
As you can see, there's quite a lot going on here, much more than there seems at first. And in the end, both Jo and Jo (a once in a million chance that she would marry someone with the same name as her - a nice ironic touch, that, but also a kind of foreshadowing in and of itself) pay dearly for that one winning lottery ticket. For a story about human values and our relationships not just with each other but with money - its ability to corrode and destroy and poison juxtaposed with its ability to make dreams come true - it succeeds admirably. As a story, I found it a bit hit-and-miss. But thought-provoking, definitely thought-provoking, and full of a realistically conflicted, touching sense of humanity.
I received an e-galley of this book to review courtesy of the publisher; however, I read and reviewed my own bought copy (UK edition) from my personal collection.(less)