This is a tricky book to review, for a very simple reason: I did not know what this book was about, or what kind of book it was, when I started readin...moreThis is a tricky book to review, for a very simple reason: I did not know what this book was about, or what kind of book it was, when I started reading it, and the slow reveal made for a pleasurable, interactive reading experience. So, I'm torn. On the one hand, I want others to have the same experience, which would mean I would have to keep mum about the plot etc. On the other hand, I really really want to talk about what actually happens. See? Torn.
I admit, unashamedly, that I bought this book for its cover (please, click on the image to get a better view, it's worth it). 2009 has been a very, very good year for YA covers, and this is easily in the top 5 (don't ask me what other books are in the top 5, because it's like the Tardis: bigger on the inside). It's gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. Composition, typeface, colour, atmosphere - it has it all.
Since I got it for the cover, and on the vague assumption that it would be some kind of paranormal romance book (they usually are, with covers like this), I came to it with virtually no expectations. This turned out to be a great advantage for the novel, because the prose isn't its strong suit. "But what is it actually about?" I hear you asking. Let's not rush into these things. I'm still gawking at the cover ...
Lucinda Price hasn't had the easiest of childhoods. Since she began seeing shadows at a young age, her worried parents have dragged her around to psychiatrist after psychologist, hoping for answers. Only by lying has Luce managed to get off the hated medication and have a semblance of a normal life - until, one night at a beach party, the boy Luce was with dies and everyone, including Luce herself, wonders what she had to do with it.
She is packed off to a reform school called Sword & Cross in Georgia by a judge and her parents, a place dating back to the Civil War, complete with its own cemetery and church-turned-gym. The students are strange or crazy, many with tracking bracelets on their wrists; there are security cameras everywhere and a fence to keep them in. Within her first hour there, she is befriended by Arriane, and her eye is drawn to a gorgeous boy called Daniel. She feels like she knows him somehow, but after a friendly grin he gives her the finger. It's just the start of an immediate animosity on Daniel's part that Luce can't understand, or reciprocate.
She also befriends Penn, a ward of the school since her father, the groundskeeper, left her an orphan; and Cam, a green-eyed, handsome boy, makes it clear he's interested. But Luce can only think of Daniel, who wants nothing to do with her. As the appearance of the shadows increases, and her strange dreams of being held in Daniel's arms high in the sky persist, Luce is drawn deeper into a world of timeless love and a timeless battle between good and evil.
So that's my spoiler-free review - except that I've left a few hints you can choose to ignore or dissect, as you please. If you're really wondering what kind of paranormal this is, [spoiler!:] the title gives it away [/spoiler:]. If you're like me, you won't even notice. It meant nothing to me until I started putting the clues together - and it was fun doing it that way, figuring it out as I went. You WILL figure it out a LONG time before Luce does. Considering that hers is the only perspective we get (and the only reason we don't get her first-person narration is so that Kate can include a prologue and epilogue from Daniel's perspective) and that we start out with the same clues she does, this is somewhat surprising. She is a bit slow on the uptake.
Now, since I can't talk about the heavy symbolism or [blank:] undertones, or any of the fun stuff, because just not enough people have read it yet, let's talk about something else that's become indicative in YA fiction over the last few years. How many YA books have you read that are about a girl, often a lonely or isolated or virtually friendless girl, starting a new school year (either at their regular school or a new one), and encountering a hot new guy who for some reason or other pretends to hate her?
I can tell you how many I've read - in fact, I'll list them for you: Twilight Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side Deadly Little Secrets Evermore Evernight Perfect Chemistry The Vampire Diaries (kind of)
I bet you can think of lots more, and this list would be longer but I'm trying to limit how many of "these" I read. Possibly Marked should be on the list too, but I just can't remember. I've been told by trustworthy friends that Hush Hush is the worst culprit of all. And now we have Fallen.
To be fair, Daniel has a pretty good excuse, but when Luce flares up at his patronising "you don't understand" attitude and lets him have it, I had to say "Good on you Luce!" For much of the book, it's a puzzle-piecing read (and again, I really wish I could discuss the whole premise, but I made the decision not to give any spoilers and I'll stand by that), which makes it fun, but it's also hugely uneventful. That you only notice it in a vague sort of way is a good thing, but the prose still isn't strong enough to make this a really great book. It relies heavily on the formula mentioned above, plus symbolism and mythology, without questioning anything or being at all original.
One of things I really liked about Twilight (that others hated), was the original, or different, take on vampires. I'm not impressed by authors who utilise what's already out there - it's no challenge, and means they haven't really thought about it and lack imagination. Its a harsh criticism I know, but I've been reading adult Fantasy for years and years and originality is the big Sticking Point between good and bad Fantasy. I haven't put this book down as Fantasy, but the criticism still applies.
Another criticism I have brings us back to the prose: the descriptions were poorly drawn and sometimes conflicting. I had a hard time picturing the place - maybe because I've never been to that part of the world, but mostly because the descriptions were rather weak. I was also confused by the explanation of Sword & Cross, that it used to be a military outpost during the Civil War - and yet the only descriptions we get are of cinder-block dorms and a church that was built much later than the war. At one point she mentions had decrepit the place is, how it looks like it's decomposing, but mostly I couldn't visualise it at all. Even the church, with its vine-covered exterior, was a confusing site for me - especially considering it houses a large pool and other rooms. There just wasn't enough detail. Kate had the perfect opportunity for some beautiful atmosphere-building to match the lovely cover, but ultimately failed to deliver. I sometimes feel that YA authors are getting lazy. It's not enough to have all the elements there, to follow the formula. This book stands at 452 pages not because there are lots of words, but because the font is so damn big.
I will be reading the next book, Torment, though. The ending was just enticing enough, and Daniel said some lovely things that I've read before, and there's still plenty of things to be revealed that they're all being very secretive about. But I'll be hoping for more magic (of the reading variety), more passion, more originality. (less)
Now here's a novel that is perfect reading for autumn, and added a delicious tremor to the chill air and overcast sky, leaf-littered ground and rottin...moreNow here's a novel that is perfect reading for autumn, and added a delicious tremor to the chill air and overcast sky, leaf-littered ground and rotting plants. Which is interesting, considering it's largely set over a long summer.
The story begins with Jonathan Harker, a young lawyer, travelling to Transylvania at the request of his company's client, Count Dracula. The previous lawyer, Renfield, had some kind of breakdown and retired from the business (otherwise known as, being locked up in an insane asylum). Jonathan is to conclude land deeds and titles, as the count has bought property in England through his lawyers there. But as soon as Jonathan arrives, he notes certain oddities about his host and his home. As he spends more time with the count, his wariness only increases, until he discovers through his explorations of the half ruined castle that Dracula is no man at all.
Finding himself a prisoner while the count leaves for England, Jonathan finds himself in a desperate position and determined to escape his castle gaol and return to his fiancee, Mina Murray. Mina is staying with her best friend, Lucy Westenra, at her large family home in Whitby, Yorkshire. Lucy is beautiful and lively and has attracted three eligible men: Dr John Seward, who runs the nearby mental institute (where Renfield is a patient); the Honourable Arthur Holmwood, who becomes Lord Godalming when his father dies; and an American from Texas, Quincey Morris. Both girls are ignorant of the arrival of Count Dracula in their area, but the count loses no time in making Lucy his object.
Through the help of the men so loyal to her, Dr Van Helsing arrives, and quickly understands the truth behind the ailing Lucy. Fighting to save her while Mina leaves to be with Jonathan, recuperating in a nunnery in Europe, Van Helsing reveals to Dr Seward, and then Arthur and Quincey, the true nature of Lucy's illness, and the four of them promise to do everything in their power to free Lucy, and the world, of Count Dracula.
I've watched Bram Stoker's Dracula, the delightful film adaptation with Gary Oldman as the count, many times since a teenager. One thing it led me to expect, which was totally wrong, was a romantic storyline between Dracula and Mina. The film built up a tragic love story, a dead wife reincarnated in Mina, because, I guess, "sex sells". It certainly does add a seductive angle to the story. But it is completely absent from the book. Dracula is never a seductive man/creature, has no romantic interest in any woman least of all Mina, and is a pure villain at heart. While I'm not a fan of "evil" characters - far too black-and-white for my taste and convictions; when I watch the movie now and see the build-up of romantic desire in the count, it looks all wrong. Dracula didn't need the excuse of Mina-as-love-interest to go to England: he was already planning on moving there, mostly because he wanted new blood and to exert his superiority further. But hey, it's Gary Oldman mourning his long-dead wife. Guaranteed to keep us watching. Otherwise, the adaptation follows the book very closely.
The short of it is, while I kept expecting this romantic chemistry to appear, I wasn't actually disappointed that it didn't. This is a fabulous book, wonderfully written, very modern for a classic over a hundred years old, and rich with detail and atmosphere. It is a traditional vampire tale, in that there is nothing redeeming in Dracula, nothing to admire, but he is inherently fascinating all the same. Stoker introduces a vampire who can walk about during the day, in human form, but who has more power at night. Professor Van Helsing paints a violent image:
The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once. He is only stronger; and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil. This vampire which is amongst us is of himself so strong in person as twenty men; he is of cunning more than mortal, for his cunning be the growth of ages; he have still the aids of necromancy, which is, as his etymology imply, the divination by the dead, and all the dead that he can come night to are for him at command; he is brute, and more than brute: he is devil in callous, and the heart of him is not; he can, within limitations, appear at will when, and where, and in any of the forms that are to him; he can, within his range, direct the elements: the storm, the fog, the thunder; he can command all the meaner things: the rat, and the owl, and the bat - the moth, and the fox, and the wolf; he can grow and become small; and he can at times vanish and come unknown. (pp 268-9)
Van Helsing has a distinctive way of speaking, English not being his first language, and his personality - at once jolly, kindly, serious, generous, caring and wise - comes across vividly in this epistolary story. Told through diary entries, letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles, we mostly get the perspectives of Jonathan, Mina, Dr Seward and Van Helsing. It begins with just Jonathan's adventure in Transylvania; later it moves between characters.
The Transylvanian section at the beginning is my favourite: it's so vivid, the atmosphere so intense you can practically smell it, see it, touch it. There is such a profound contrast between the beautiful, lush landscape and the evil inside Dracula's castle - it's amazingly effective to place horrors in a peaceful scenery that's full of life. The contradiction, the sense of something rotten in a place so otherwise pristine and primitive, flames our senses. (In her introduction to this edition, Elizabeth Kostova notes how perfectly Stoker describes a landscape he had never personally visited, only studied in the public library.) As Jonathan describes his journey by carriage to the count's castle:
Before us lay a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road. There was everywhere a bewildering mass of fruit blossoms - apple, plum, pear, cherry; and as we drove by I could see the green grass under the trees spangled with the fallen petals. In and out amongst these green hills of what they call here the "Mittel Land" ran the road, losing itself as it swept round the grassy curve, or was shut out by the straggling ends of pine woods, which here and there ran down the hillside like tongues of flame. (p.15)
When he leaves the public carriage and rides in the one sent by the count (which Jonathan later suspects the count himself of driving, since he has no servants), and night falls, his description changes, becoming darker and more ominous with presentiment:
Soon we were hemmed in with trees, which in places arched right over the roadway till we passed as through a tunnel; and again great frowning rocks guarded us boldly on either side. Through we were in shelter, we could hear the rising wind, for it moaned and whistled through the rocks, and the branches of the trees crashed together as we swept along. It grew colder and colder still, and fine, powdery snow began to fall, so that soon we and all around us were crowned with a white blanket. The keen wind still carried the howling of the dogs, though this grew fainter as we went on our way. The baying of the wolves sounded nearer and nearer, as though they were closing round on us from every side. I grew dreadfully afraid, and the horses shared my fear; but the driver was not in the least disturbed. He kept turning his head to left and right, but I could not see anything through the darkness. (p. 21)
There are so many wonderful passages like that, and that in part is the success of the novel. You need a great deal of anger, and slowly rising tension and danger, in a vampire story like this. There is also death, and towards the end a race-against-time that was, admittedly, a bit slow: it followed the same pace as the rest of the book, maybe even slower, almost like Stoker was reluctant to end it all. Which wouldn't surprise me, as it's the kind of book you'll be reluctant to finish reading.
To end, I just have to include the quote that they put on the back of the book, because it's so ... words defy me.
I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited - waited with beating heart. (p 50)
If that doesn't make you want to read this book, and revel in Stoker's wonderful use of words, I don't know what will!
Regarding this particular edition by Black Bay Books (Dracula being in a state of expired copyright, there are hundreds of editions out there), I picked it ostensibly for its beautiful cover, which matches the cover of my Black Bay Books edition of The Historian. This edition does not contain any notes or biography of the author, only Elizabeth Kostova's foreward, which provides some interesting information. Now that I've read Dracula, I feel free to finally read The Historian and Dracula, My Love, both of which I already have (I am especially curious about the latter, considering how there's no romance in this book).(less)
Elizabeth Bennet couldn't be happier on the morning of her double wedding with her sister Jane: she's very much in love with Mr Darcy and excited abou...moreElizabeth Bennet couldn't be happier on the morning of her double wedding with her sister Jane: she's very much in love with Mr Darcy and excited about the life to come. Yet from the moment the ceremony is concluded she detects something troubling Darcy - a brief look of torment on his face, a hint of pensive abstraction, and a sudden change of plans with their honeymoon. But she also sees the look of love on his face, and if he isn't coming to her at night she's sure it must be due to some consideration for her.
Instead of travelling through the Lake District as they had originally planned, Darcy takes Lizzy to Paris, where the social gulf between them seems impossibly wide and yet not there at all. Darcy is kind and caring but still aloof, still keeping his distance. Comments dropped or overheard lead Lizzy to dwell on the idea that his family think she is beneath him, socially, but every time she asks Darcy if he regrets marrying her his reassurances put her at ease.
His wide circle of European friends are entertaining but something continues to disturb Darcy; looking for advice on this problem that he won't tell Lizzy about, he takes her to visit his uncle, a count who lives in a castle in the Alps. Things there are stranger still - the servants seem afraid of Lizzy, there are no mirrors anywhere, and beasts with glowing red eyes lurk in the forest. During a night of danger Darcy and Lizzy make their escape into Italy, where days of happiness cannot quell the glimpses of anguish she catches on Darcy's face, or mask the fact that he is still keeping his distance.
Lizzy fears they have made a mistake in marrying, but the truth is much bigger and darker and Darcy will do anything to protect Lizzy from it - until the truth is taken out of his hands by one far older and more dangerous than he, who has his sights set on Elizabeth Darcy.
I know, I didn't mention the word "vampire" once in that summery, even though the title spells it out for you. It's an unnecessary word, funnily enough. This is horror like Frankenstein is horror - all atmosphere and suspense and shifting shadows and a sense of wrongness, rather than nasty frights and terror in the night. And it works very well. In fact, there were times during the story where I forgot that really, really, it wasn't "true" and started thinking back over scenes in Pride and Prejudice and how everything made sense now. Strange isn't it?
One of the things I'm grateful for is that Grange didn't try to imitate Austen's style - that never, or rarely, works, and just makes the whole thing contrived and embarrassing. Yes I'm thinking of Janet Aylmer's Darcy's Story here, in particular. The prose in Mr Darcy, Vampyre isn't particularly "old fashioned" in style, but neither is it jarringly contemporary. It's smooth and swift and light. I wished for more lengthy passages rather than shorter scenes linked together by short descriptions and brief dialogue - easy to read, but something more detailed and more involved would have increased the atmosphere and suspense even more and made it a slower but ultimately satisfying read. There was too much telling and not enough showing.
I did greatly enjoy this, though, and I found it hard to put down - especially as vampire clichés were sparse and I was curious as to what form the truth would take, as well as how Lizzy would find out - but it made me want more. That's the whole point, isn't it, of all these P&P spin-offs - whenever something, especially a romantic couple, is this captivating we want to read more of them. There's a lot of chemistry between Lizzy and Darcy here, which is particularly gripping and adds a dark and hungry (unsated) edge to the story, but I wanted more. They just weren't together enough, you don't get enough interaction. Well, you get quite a lot I'm sure but it never feels enough.
There were a few things never properly explained, like why the count's servants were fearful of Lizzy and why the mob would not tolerate her, when she's the human one. References are made to P&P that anchor the story, and it was cute watching Lizzy and Darcy reminisce over the mean things they once said to each other. Lizzy was captured perfectly, and while she doesn't change much over the course of this story her character is one that can always hold a reader's attention. Darcy is just as complex as ever, and certainly sympathetic - you can really grow to love him here, and care for him in a way that he never really let you do in the original. Thankfully, unlike some other sequels, it never sinks into melodrama.
Because the story takes place in Europe and far removed from Elizabeth's family, it has the advantage of embracing a whole new story without the feel of Austen glaring disapprovingly over your shoulder - if you've never read Pride and Prejudice you can easily pick this book up and enjoy it (it might even make you want to read the classic). This is one sequel that stands out from all the rest in more ways than one, delivering an original premise (compared to the other sequels) that actually, surprisingly works, and a very solid grasp of the familiar and beloved characters.(less)
Seattle, 1879. Fifteen years ago a clever and talented inventor created a machine dubbed the Boneshaker, designed to mine for gold in the Yukon. Inste...moreSeattle, 1879. Fifteen years ago a clever and talented inventor created a machine dubbed the Boneshaker, designed to mine for gold in the Yukon. Instead, he tunnelled under the city right into the banking district, causing whole sections of the city to cave in. After looting the banks he drove the machine back through the tunnels and into the basement of his fancy home, and was never seen again, leaving his pregnant wife with the stigma of Leviticus Blue's escapade.
Not only did the boneshaker destroy parts of the city, but from the underground tunnel came a gas, a gas that killed people or turned them into the walking dead, driven to attack and consume the living. In an effort to stop the gas from spreading further inland, the city built a giant wall around the contamination site, while the survivors stayed on in the outlying suburbs.
Now fifteen, the son of Leviticus and Briar Blue (now using her maiden name, Wilkes), Zeke, wants to turn his father into a hero instead of a widely-hated mad scientist. Zeke makes his way into the walled city, determined to find his parents' old house on the hill and discover something that will redeem Levi Blue in the eyes and minds of the population of Seattle. When she learns what he has done, Briar - a hardened, taciturn woman who slaves away at the water mains and endures endless "blue" taunts - follows him in, determined to rescue him. But finding Zeke in a city of zombies and other perils isn't easy, and when she encounters the folks who live in sealed tunnels under the city she learns of the mysterious inventor, Dr Minnericht, whose clever inventions have helped the people survive, even though they all think he's really Levi Blue, returned to the city he helped destroy.
This book came highly recommended by friends, and I want to say that I hope my review doesn't put you off reading it if you were so inclined before, but the sad truth is that I didn't really enjoy this book. I can't recommend it, but neither will I not recommend it. If that makes sense.
I love the premise. Colonial city beset by noxious gas, zombies and zeppelins. Sort of. Priest apparently took liberties with the city and with American history - I wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't pointed it out, somewhat defensively, in her Note at the back, and I don't care that she did - and added to the historical period a more inventive mechanical technology and nifty airships. The steampunk aspect is grimy, dirty, sooty, fiddly, weird and wonderful - all the things you would want from steampunk.
Then there's the horror blend - the zombies. They make the old city into a danger zone, a place of risk and death that the gas alone can't manage so spectacularly. The zombies are more visible, and definitely more audible. The trouble is, zombies have always bored me. I don't even find them very scary. They're mindless, and have only one goal; therefore they are predictable, and it's unpredictability that makes a character truly terrifying. Sure, one scratch and you lose your mind and become a walking corpse bent on eating human flesh, but that just somehow doesn't give me chills. I'm not saying I wouldn't be terrified if chased down a street by zombies, but I used to get scared in any game that involved being chased. Zombies just aren't clever. They might be hard to kill, but they're not hard to outsmart.
That's not what I had trouble with in this book, though. The trouble - or part of it - is Priest's writing style. There's nothing wrong with it, per se, she doesn't have bad grammar or use awkward sentences. It's more that it's the kind of style I expect - and get - when I read paranormal romance and even some fantasy - a simplistic style that wears on me and makes my eyes glaze over. It's not what I want when reading science fiction or speculative fiction. It was disappointing. Simplistic. The characters fell flat for me, their dialogue bored me (and there's lots of dialogue). Zeke was a realistically annoying and petulant fifteen year old who did mature somewhat by the end of the book; it still made me tired of hearing him whine and always try to have the last word - and really, how stupid is he to go off into the blighted walled city in the first place? Briar should have been the ideal protagonist, being a tough woman in a hard world who's come a long way from the pretty, young trophy wife of Leviticus Blue. But she has no personality.
The bond between mother and son was a brittle, thin thing, but it was realistic for the characters and their history and the adventure of the novel definitely made them closer. Briar thawed too, but I still found her empty. Both Briar and Zeke take turns offering perspective in their individual chapters, and both have the kind of inner introspective, wondering voices that bugs me in pulp fiction. The characters of Briar and Zeke are just so self-indulgent and into analysing every little thing, that I struggled to keep reading.
First of all, [Zeke] had little patience for being told what to do by anyone, much less a stranger who appeared to be inebriated and looking to become further inebriated at the nearest opportunity. Second, he had deep-seated doubts as to why this man who'd initially greeted him with threats of bodily harm might be moved to help. Zeke didn't trust Rudy, and he didn't believe much of what Rudy had told him.
And furthermore, he didn't like him. (p.94)
(Ah, the ubiquitous, standalone climactic sentence. When overused, as the trend is in genre fiction these days, it quickly becomes aggravating and one of my big pet peeves.)
Someone behind Briar gave her back a friendly pat. It startled her, but there was nothing salacious about the gesture so she didn't flinch away from it. Besides, this was more friendly human contact than she'd had in years, and the pleasantness of it smoothed the keen, guilty edge of her sorrow. (p.190)
See what I mean? There's nothing actually wrong with the writing (except for the too-free use of climactic standalone sentences); it just is too much like the mindless, formulaic writing that pervades genre fiction and makes me more and more jaded. I've become quite snobby about this because of some truly terrible books that I've read, and any similarity just makes my lip curl.
Then there's the plot, and the narrative. It's slow, and painstaking. A single scene can take pages while the protagonist overthinks everything, and everyone's every arm movement and eyebrow twitch are noted. I love detail in books and generally prefer it to books with not enough detail (though the writing style plays a big part - sometimes less is definitely more) - but somehow the detail here was not the kind that engages me. I can't tell if it's the details themselves or the way they're shared. Many of the descriptions I had a hard time following, and picturing: the words used or the way things were described, I'm not sure but either way I was often confused. There were some details that weren't explained - or they were but I didn't notice. Like, where does the inner city get the coal that they need to keep the furnaces going constantly? As far as the rest of the city goes, no one knows that anyone still lives inside the wall. And why? Why are the "Chinamen" there, and why do they take the responsibility of keeping the bellows going? Why did Rudy kill one of them? Did anyone else notice that Briar and Zeke go for what amounts to two or three days without eating or drinking anything beyond a bit of water and a fig (or was it a date?)? Or sleeping? Or toilet breaks for that matter? These questions are some of the ones that bothered me, and the map didn't actually helped because it seemed like the characters were going all over the place for no real reason.
On the other, more positive hand, the Seattle of Boneshaker is pretty fleshed out, solid and tangible (the walled-off part, anyway). The writing is clear, clean, and the plot is headed is a firm direction, even if it does take forever to get there. The truth of Leviticus Blue is a tad predictable, but Minnericht was the scariest thing about the story. The typeface is a lovely dirty brown colour on off-white paper that ties in perfectly, and there are some really nice details. I liked some of the minor characters better than the two main protagonists. And it was refreshing reading a steampunk novel not set in Victorian London.
By the end, though, I was just relieved to have finished it. The sequels are already out, Clementine and Dreadnought, but I'm not planning on reading it. The characters, the city, the problem of the gas and the zombies, just didn't engage me enough to care about them and want to hear how the larger story is resolved. I'm probably the only person who didn't love this book, and no doubt my complaints don't make sense or seem ludicrous; the truth is, I haven't been looking forward to writing this review and it's been weeks since I finished it, but this is what stands out for me. It might be more enjoyable for people who haven't read a lot of pulp fiction, or those who love that style. (less)
Georgina Kincaid is a succubus. Has been for, well, quite a long time. There are a few perks to giving up her mortality: immortality, of course, and t...moreGeorgina Kincaid is a succubus. Has been for, well, quite a long time. There are a few perks to giving up her mortality: immortality, of course, and the ability to shape shift her physical appearance and her clothes - always handy. Her boss, Jeremy, is an upper level demon who likes John Cusack movies so much he's opted to look like the actor too. Since she absorbs energy from any men she gets intimate with, she can't have an ordinary relationship with a human - ah yes, she may be a lower level demon but she has a conscience and a good heart.
Living in Seattle and working in a bookshop gives her the opportunity to meet her favourite author, Seth Mortensen, at a book signing there. Only it turns out she's already met him - and said some things she really wished she hadn't. Her embarrassment's not going to go away any time soon: he's decided to move to Seattle, where his brother lives, and her boss decides Georgina would be the perfect person to show Seth the city.
If only that were the worst thing happening in her life. Someone or something is killing and attacking her fellow demons, and since the victims are so close to Georgina, she ignores Jeremy's directive to keep her head down and stay out of it and starts piecing the truth together - a truth that turns out to be a lot closer to home than she ever could have wanted.
This is I think a great example of a "comfort read": fun, funny, pretty engrossing, engaging characters, easy on the brain, makes you want to read the next book. Okay that last one doesn't really have anything to do with comfort reads but I ran out of adjectives. Friends on Goodreads seemed to always be talking about it in glowing terms, but it took me a while to finally get hold of it - in the horror section. I'm not sure exactly what genre it belongs to. It's a bit of everything, it seems. There is some romance, but not a lot. I don't read much horror so I'm not sure if it has many of those qualities. Urban Fantasy seems the best fit, sort of like the Dresden Files and The Night Watch.
Mead is probably better known for her YA series, Vampire Academy, but this is a good adult read: sexy and mature, there's a good balance between Georgina's sense of humour, the silly chick-lit-like situations she finds herself in, and the darker tones of the novel, the seedier truth underlying her life and her world. She's a strong female character who knows her limitations - relies on her brain rather than brawn, she's the first to admit she's not violent and has little in the way of defences. She's also quite sophisticated, and sharp, and even though she narrates in first-person, a lot of her character comes through: you can tell she's a bit too noisy, a bit impatient, a bit sarcastic even. The flaws in her personality come through especially well in her dealings with the sweet and quiet Seth. Actually, she reminded me of some of my online friends, people I could easily see living Georgina's story, and that made her especially endearing to me. Yes she's a demon, a succubus - an immortal who drains the energy from mortal men, who can even kill them through intimate physical touch, especially if they're "good" men. But she's no killer. There's nothing black-or-white or too simplistic about any of the supernatural characters in Succubus Blues, and I really appreciated that.
The plot was well constructed, if a tad predictable. She misses a few obvious clues or is slow to hit upon a particular meaning in a clue, but she does get there. And keep you entertained while you wait. She doesn't always make the best decisions, but again, her flaws make her more endearing. I also can't deny that her job at the bookshop, and her relationship with such a nerdy, sweet, strangely charismatic and sexy author, doesn't appeal to me, as a bibliophile. The non-demon-world scenes and storyline were perhaps more interesting to me than the who's-killing-demons storyline, but probably only because it was such a successful parallel. There were a few points where my interest waned, but overall it was thoroughly engaging. (less)
I've always loved Regency stories; and Austen, while not my favourite classics author, is definitely up there for her skill in constructing time-honou...moreI've always loved Regency stories; and Austen, while not my favourite classics author, is definitely up there for her skill in constructing time-honoured stories. Like Shakespeare, they're always relevant - which is why it's so easy to do modern adaptations like Bridget Jones' Diary and Clueless. Yeah, remember that one?
I have to set out my other bias: I'm not a fan of zombie stories. Something about zombies: brainless, with one motivation, unable to talk etc., bores me. Could also be that there can never be anything remotely sexual or sensual or erotic about them.
That said, I approached this book with very few expectations, and complete willingness to read it. I was curious, mostly. They're just mindless, well, zombies. It's generally how the non-zombies fare that appeals to us, I expect, but the added terror value doesn't work for me either.
This is the story of Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen wrote it - hence she gets first dibs at the credit. Seth Grahame-Smith has inserted new scenes and sentences to incorporate a new and entirely unusual angle: zombies.
In case you haven't read the original book or seen any of the adaptations, the heroine is Lizzy Bennet, second daughter of five and the only one with any real sense. Her family is embarrassing except for her older sister Jane, who is very beautiful and sweet. When Mr Bingley moves into the neighbourhood of Hertfordshire, bringing with him his two sisters and his friend Mr Darcy, everyone is all excited - especially Mrs Bennet, who wants desperately to see her daughters married off.
Mr Bingley and Jane are instantly taken with each other, while Mr Darcy offends everyone with his pride - especially Lizzy, whom he slights in a very rude way. Yet circumstances throw them together and he becomes more and more intrigued by her, while at the same time he's determined to separate his friend and her sister Jane. I won't bother going into more of the plot here, especially since you're no doubt familiar with it, but needless to say it's all there, for the large part intact.
Now, the zombies. Fifty-five years ago a strange plague broke over England, and bodies began rising from their graves to feast on the brains of the living. Lizzy and her sisters have been intensely trained in the warrior arts and are lethal Maidens of Death. Mr Darcy, likewise, is famous for his skill at dispatching zombies - though none can quite compare to the famous zombie-killer, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
With some truly entertaining new scenes and lively illustrations, the zombies are an interesting diversion from the main tale. But that's all they are. They do not affect the actual story except for the outcome of two other characters, Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins, who meet an untimely end. Trust me, that's not much of a spoiler. Because of the added violence to the novel, and the harder, colder outlook of characters like Lizzy, some scenes and situations take a more aggressive turn - but nothing is actually changed, nothing that affects the outcome of the original story.
Actually, it's quite impressive how well Grahame-Smith has incorporated these new scenes etc., while keep characters in-character and retaining the flow and style of the prose. I've read only a few P&P spin-offs, and I have to say not one of them came close to Grahame-Smith's ability to mimic Austen's voice. Granted, it's probably easier to do this when you're already immersed in her novel, rather than writing a whole new one about the same people, but still. Except for one slip on American spelling ("favor") and one Americanism ("off of" - I've never heard or read anyone but Americans use that), it was very well done.
My problem with the novel was that, once the novelty wore off about halfway through, I was left with the original book plus some weird additions and I'm not sold on its success. I couldn't quite get comfortable with it. The zombie bits kept throwing me off, and actually made it harder to read the original. Also, I didn't really care for the blood-thirstiness of Lizzy and her sisters, which seemed to warp their characters in strange directions. And what Darcy does to Wickham at the end was revolting - and why on earth would he agree to it?
According to the blurb, this book "transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read" - which is quite ironic really. I love the originality of this book, the gall of Grahame-Smith to attempt it, and it's rather hilarious at times. But I found it much harder to read than the original, and completely detracted from the point of the original story, the vividness of its characters and the sharpness of its social message. Only by keeping to Austen's style and seamlessly inserting the zombie bits did it keep from falling entirely into the world of silliness - which is a shame, as it may have worked a lot better if it had been completely ridiculous, rather than holding onto the semblance of seriousness. (less)
Alexis leads a rebellious life. With her pink-dyed hair and habit of getting in people's faces when they taunt her, she's constantly in detention for...moreAlexis leads a rebellious life. With her pink-dyed hair and habit of getting in people's faces when they taunt her, she's constantly in detention for skipping classes or displays of activism - like putting bumper stickers on the teacher's 4XDs saying "gas guzzlers". Her little sister Kasey is needy and lonely but for her impressive and creepy collection of dolls, her mother is always working in the hopes of finally getting that promotion, and her dad is a non-entity. Her only joy is her photography.
She doesn't even have any real friends. She hangs out with the Goth kids but has a low opinion of them, and her arch nemesis is Megan Wiley, the golden girl and poster child for Perfect. A surprising friendship begins with the student council VP, Carter Blume, but trouble at home and her own insecurities prevent her from pursuing it.
Her home is a spooky old house that seems to have a life of its own. Doors open and close of their own accord, the stove switches on and the air conditioner won't turn off. That's not all: her sister Kasey starts displaying all the signs of multiple personality disorder - but would a schizophrenic change eye colour from blue to green in a single second?
Alexis is worried about Kasey. Worried about the way she's been behaving, the burn marks she left on Alexis' arm, the possibility that she tampered with the brakes on their mother's car, resulting in their father crashing it and ending up in hospital. Something's going on, and help comes from an unexpected quarter. Megan is sure Kasey is possessed, and as the weird evidence mounts, Alexis can no longer deny it.
This book had just the right amount of creepy horror and YA fun. Alexis is a great protagonist and narrator, mature in her political activism and independence yet insecure and hesitant in her personal life. She was familiar but new and different enough to engage me - I could relate to her a whole lot more than I can to those more immature, nice girls like in Elizabeth Scott's Bloom. Her school life seemed quite clichéd to me: it's what you commonly get in American books about high school, with the cliques and cheerleaders etc., and not entirely something I can relate to. The cliché is so typical it just seems surreal.
The mystery of the house and its past, and the scary parts were beautifully paced and nicely written. Kasey's unpredictability adds a lot to the scariness of the story, and the layers to the mystery gave it depth and allure. Horror can never engross me like other stories can, but it came close. There's humour here, in the dialogue and the antics, which gives great balance to the scary bits.
I would never have guessed that this was a first novel. The control over prose and plot that Alender has is superb - though she does have extensive experience writing screenplays, so it's not like she's never written before. Thankfully, it doesn't read as a hopeful script for a movie.(less)
With the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve, coming out in October this year, I thought it was about time I dusted this off and finished it, since...moreWith the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve, coming out in October this year, I thought it was about time I dusted this off and finished it, since the reason why I got so far and then put it down for so long had really nothing to do with how well I was enjoying it. I was, quite simply, pregnant when I started reading this sometime around late 2010. It seemed like every book I started reading while pregnant (and at one time I counted about 36 books I was "currently reading") was heavy and depressing or sad and tragic - mostly because of my extreme fatigue and all the hormones, I'm sure. I got up to Part VII: The Darklands - or page 495 - before putting the great big heavy thing down and losing the willpower to pick it back up again. Starting it again now, I found I had little trouble remembering most of it, though of course small details and who was who amongst the minor characters were forgotten. The one-and-a-half year gap didn't do any damage to my enjoyment of the story, though.
It begins in the present day - or year 1 as it becomes known as - with a group of scientists working on a top-secret project for the U.S. military (or aided by them, in arms and money). Led by Dr. Jonas Lear, they travel to the jungles of Bolivia on the hunt for a gravesite to exhume in the search for a mystical cure for death. But when the team of scientists and soldiers get close to the site, they are attacked by hundreds of bats and several people are killed, their equipment mostly ruined. The survivors, many of them chewed up and feverish, press on and discover... something.
They bring back a virus, Project NOAH, one they barely even understand, and experiment on twelve death row inmates, convicted murderers, that they have collected from around the country, starting with Giles Babcock. If Dr Lear was looking for an answer to disease, the army is looking to create some superhuman soldiers using these criminals as guinea pigs. Injected with the virus, the men ... change. Mutate. Become distinctly Other, and extremely dangerous. Babcock just hangs in his cell, like a bat. They no longer look human. But there is a thirteenth, a little six-year-old girl called Amy whose mother dropped her off at a nunnery in the care of Sister Lacey and didn't come back. Picked up by the man responsible for "recruiting" the death row inmates, Special Agent Brad Wolgast, she's taken to the hidden facility in the mountains of Oregon and given the virus. In Amy, Dr Lear has his first real success, in terms of his own agenda. Amy does not become like the other twelve. Her appearance doesn't change. She doesn't have a thirst for blood. She's sensitive to light, and doesn't really need to eat.
Meanwhile, the Twelve are no longer content with being kept in cages. With their superhuman strength and speed and their ability to leap so high and far they almost fly, they easily break out. Chaos erupts. The highly contagious virus quickly spreads amongst those that they bite, and within days the entire country is under siege. Part vampire, part zombie, the risen dead have an undying thirst for the living. Agent Wolgast, having developed a fatherly love and protectiveness of Amy, escapes with her. But nowhere is safe. There's nowhere to run to.
Fast forward a hundred years, and we find ourselves in a very changed America. A community of survivors descended from children who had been rescued by the army and brought here to this place in California, goes about its business, with no expectation of change. Surrounded by high walls, floodlit at night, they are perpetual survivors, fending off the "flyers" from all sides. But two things happen to forever upset the tight-knit community: there's a problem with the generators that supply power to the lights that keep the undead away, meaning that soon, they will go out and that will be the end; and one of the men trained to man the wall, Peter, meets a silent girl in the abandoned old shopping mall, a girl called Amy who appears to be about fifteen years old. A hundred year old girl.
I'll leave the summary at that, it's enough to get you started. It's a long and involved story, with a huge cast of characters, but Cronin takes the time to set everything up and really develop the characters - because as with any work of fiction, but especially with the horror/thriller type, you have to care about the characters or you won't care for their struggle to survive.
I loved the originality of the "flyers", as Peter's people call them. They are a kind of vampire-zombie hybrid, with the original twelve something more extreme and monstrous even than that. The origins of the virus is a little vague - it hasn't been revealed what exactly they found and brought back to America. Good horror is often in the details left out and subsequently filled in by your imagination, so using emails from Dr Lear to a peer called Paul for the Bolivia sequence worked really well, even if I was frustrated by the details left out.
Then we have Amy, who's compelling in her quiet, calm presence, her ethereal nature, her Otherness. She holds the key for freeing the undead, but it's knowledge and understanding she has to figure out over time. Perhaps because she's still just a girl, in appearance at least, but it's easy to feel sympathy for her, and compassion, no matter how alien she comes across as. Perhaps, also, it is because she was abandoned by her mother, ostensibly to help her, but still, that's tragic.
The first part, the "present day" part, was incredibly gripping and very exciting. It was a finely choreographed set-up with a deliciously slow-burning suspense, and then it stops. It stops at just the right place, of course, but you get so invested in the story that when you turn to Part IV and discover yourself in a totally different place and time, you feel a bit cheated. This middle section of the book, set in First Colony about 92 years later (the escape of the twelve marked that year as "year zero"), settles into a slower, more gently burning tension: threat is present but like anything that is there every day, it loses its edge. Here we feel Cronin settle into his seat and take the time to establish this new place and its occupants, their new way of living, what they understand and what they're ignorant of. Because from here onwards, they carry the story.
We have Peter, arguably the main character if there is one, who takes on Amy's mission. There's Alisha, another guard and the woman Peter secretly-not-so-secretly loves. Michael, the engineer and technical expert who controls the power and the lights, and Sara, his sister, who works as a nurse - or doctor, if they have such. Young Caleb, taken under Alisha's wing, and Hollis. Pregnant Mausami of the Watch, married to Galen but in love with Peter's older brother Theo, who was recently "taken up": caught by the flyers and given up for dead, or as good as. No longer human, anyway. These are the characters you need to keep track of, because they are the ones who will go with Peter and Amy in search of ... I'll leave that detail for you to discover.
Once this group leaves the now deteriorating safety of the community, the action picks up again and it switches from Fantasy-Horror to a Hollywood-esque adventure playground with many zombie story tropes. That isn't to say it isn't exciting and interesting. Cronin hasn't previously written horror but he writes it well, very well indeed. It reads like an exciting Hollywood movie, but with more meat to its bones. Where I felt that the writing was not as strong as it could have been, was in establishing the characters. Maybe this was because it had such a huge cast, but Cronin tended to fall back on simplistic character markers. Peter's the leader. Alisha's the soldier. Michael's the nerd. Sara's the womanly compassionate one. Maus is the difficult one. Theo's the traumatised one. And so on. Nothing really wrong with it, but because the story is focused on the present, and on surviving, even when you get slower scenes where the characters talk and grow flesh in your mind, they still remain confined by these parameters and don't really go beyond that.
But the story has weight, and moments of sheer fear as well as tears. Yes, a horror book made me cry! Power to you, Cronin, I love that. I would have really appreciated a map of the States, or the relevant portion of it - I'm not familiar with the geography, either natural or manmade, so it was hard to visualise their journeys. I kept feeling surprised at how much was still intact after a hundred years - thinking, surely the trees and plants would have taken over it by now? - only to remember that it's the desert. There were some fabulous realistic details, like the methane from the sewers brewing under Las Vegas, and when they saw abandoned vehicles, or something that catches their eye, they speculate as to what had happened all those years ago. That really bridges the gap in time and almost condenses it, creating even more tension because the threat doubles in size and tangibility.
He was so wrapped up in his thoughts he didn't realize where he was, that he'd reached the top of the ramp. He paused to take a drink. The turbines were out there, somewhere, spinning in the wind that was pushing into his face. All he wanted was to get to the station and lie down in the dark and close his eyes. The dancing specks were worse now, descending through his narrowed field of sight like a glowing snowfall. Something was really wrong. He didn't see how he would be able to continue; someone else would have to take the point. He turned to Tale, who had moved up behind him, saying, "Listen, do you think--"
The space beside him was empty.
He swiveled in his saddle. No one was behind him. Not one rider. Like a giant hand had plucked them, mounts and all, right off the face of the earth.
A wave of bile rose in his throat. "Guys?"
That was when he heard the sound, coming from beneath the overpass. A soft, wet ripping, like sheets of damp paper being torn in half, or the skin being pried off an orange fat with juice. [p.502]
Overall, a superb read, truly scary at times without boring me to tears with zombies all the time. (Am I really the only one who finds zombies really boring?) The horror elements are nicely balanced with the kind of human survival story that draws us in and gets us every time (hence the tears). This is a horror story with the kind of length and depth of detail typically found in epic fantasy, which is probably why it was a win for me. With this one ending on a cliffhanger, I'm definitely reading the next book.(less)
Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows. In the morning, t...moreTen year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows. In the morning, they come into her cell and strap her into a wheelchair while aiming guns at her; they even strap her head in place. Then she is wheeled into a windowless classroom along with over twenty other children, all strapped into wheelchairs. They have several teachers, but Melanie's favourite is Miss Justineau, who tells them stories from Greek mythology. The only difference is on Sundays, when they are wheeled into the shower room and given a chemical bath, and then a plate of grubs to eat.
Melanie, like all the other children in the underground military base, is special. She's a fully cognisant zombie - or "hungry", as they're called. Infected with the fungas just as much as any other hungry, she has retained her intellect - and her emotions, not that the lead scientist on base, Dr Caldwell, believes she possesses any. Melanie is special: she's brighter than any of the other children, and as she discovers, she's able to control her hunger.
While Helen Justineau humanises the children and reports her observations, Sergeant Parks collects them from the hungry-infested deserted urban centres, and Dr Caroline Caldwell dissects them, hoping to understand the fungus and find a way to beat it. Twenty years is all it's been since the Breakdown - there are men on Parks' team who are too young to know about life before then. Now there are those living in the city of Beacon, south of London, and those who take their chances in hungry territory: Junkers.
When an attack on the base catches them all by surprise and forces them to flee, Melanie finds herself with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks, the dreaded Dr Caldwell, and a young private, Gallagher, as they try to make their way back to Beacon. Along the way trust and loyalty will be sorely tested, and motivations questioned. Above all, though, little Melanie must re-learn her understanding of the world and her place in it, and what it means to be human in this new world.
The Girl with all the Gifts began as a short story called "Iphigenia in Aulis" which he wrote for an anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner, and is already in the works as a screenplay (it has a very clear and definite movie feel to it - you can really see it as a film). MR Carey - who usually writes as Mike Carey - writes for DC and Marvel (he's the current writer of X-Men and the Ultimate Fantastic Four, and wrote Hellblazer and Lucifer, as well as a comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Speculative Fiction of various genres is clearly something he's good at, and in his new novel those strengths - of being able to paint a scene quickly and succinctly, of being able to create tension and develop characters without losing (or giving in to) genre tropes - really shines through. Granted, the use of present tense doesn't add anything to the narrative, but it wasn't too distracting.
On the back cover, author Jenny Colgan drew a connection between this book and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and - especially in the first part - that parallel is very apt (and one of the reasons that prompted me to get this). As in Ishiguro's creepy and intense novel, Melanie and her unusual peers are considered less than human, with the adults refusing to notice any signs that might undermine their belief - their need to believe - that they have anything in common. To believe in an inherent humanity in these children would mean they couldn't do what they do to them - not without feeling guilty or less than human, themselves. This is akin to the colonising attitudes of Europeans in the Americas, Australia and Africa, but we certainly do it already towards, say, the disabled or mentally ill, and homeless people, to name a few.
I've said before that I'm not a fan of zombie stories; I've read a few and seen a few movies and two things always put me off or make me feel downright depressed: that zombies are inherently uninteresting because they are mindless and have only one goal; and that you can't win against zombies. If you survive, it's only temporary. Bleak, very bleak stuff. Even the comedies are bleak, at heart. MR Carey has created a distinctly fresh zombie story, and in the process animated some interest in them for me. He has skilfully retained the elements of gory horror and apocalyptic survival, created some interesting and diverse characters to traverse the landscape, and provided a very satisfying yet chilling ending to this standalone novel. More importantly, though, is that you quickly get the sense this isn't your run-of-the-mill zombie story. Zombies are a way of telling a more important story, one that delves deep into human nature in all its variants, and looks sharply at the things we hold dear and what we're willing to do to avoid change, destruction or ultimate death.
We get to know Melanie well in The Girl with all the Gifts, and quickly come to sympathise with her and feel a need to love and protect her - things she yearns for without really understanding it. Miss Justineau feels it too, though she's also repulsed by it; at least at first. It isn't hard to see where the genius of Carey's creation lies: I can't think of any other zombie story where zombie children play such a huge part. Certainly, I don't think we could bare to watch a zombie movie where a rotting child gets their head smashed in. Zombie or not, that's just too repellent. At first I thought this might bear a few too many similarities with Justin Cronin's The Passage (I've read that Carey hadn't read Cronin's books until after The Girl was published), but thankfully the only things they have in common is a little girl being a central character in an apocalyptic world.
The atmosphere is just right, neither overdone nor lacking in tension. Twenty years isn't a very long time, but it's long enough for desolation to set in, long enough for the people who knew what it was like before to be turning philosophical, and short enough that they're still letting themselves belief they can change it, fix it, get back the way of life they once took for granted. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. There's a nice tone of bleakness, especially from Sergeant Parks, while Dr Caldwell is so driven and single-minded that she's become the Mad Scientist character.
So that old stuff is literally priceless. Parks gets that. They're trying to find a way to remake the world twenty years after it fell apart, and the goodies that the grab-bag patrols bring home are ... well, they're a rope bridge over a bottomless canyon. They're the only way of getting from this besieged here to a there where everything is back in good order.
But he feels like they lost their way somewhere. When they found the first of the weird kids, and some grunt who'd obviously never heard about curiosity and the cat called in a fucking observation report.
Nice going, soldier. Because you couldn't keep from observing, the grab-baggers suddenly got a whole slew of new orders. Bring us one of those kids. Let's take a good long look at him/her/it.
And the techies looked, and then the scientists looked, and they got the itch to kill a few cats, too. Hungries with human reactions? Human behaviours? Human-level brain functions? Hungries who can do something besides run and feed? And they're running naked and feral through the streets of the inner cities, right alongside the regular variety? What's the deal? [pp.70-71]
Visually, it's very arresting, especially with that element of nature taking over running through it. It's not quite Day of the Triffids, but when you see fungal trees growing out of hungries' (dead-dead) bodies, it definitely feels very alien and wrong. And horrific. That after everything, and despite our insistence in our own superiority, humans - and only humans - have been felled by a fungus. It almost makes you want to giggle. One thing that does always bother me, about this and other zombie stories, but especially this one (because of the ending), is what zombies are supposed to live on, long-term. Without the surviving population of non-zombie humans, they've got no food source. It goes against all we know of life, nature, survival, the food chain, etc. It's just something that bugs me while I'm reading zombie stories, like having some lump digging into your thigh when you sit on the ground.
I found The Girl with all the Gifts to be riveting, disturbing and, overall, entertaining while still being provocative and insightful.(less)
Chloe Saunders lives alone in her dad's condo with just the latest in a string of housekeepers for company. A small, shy girl only five feet tall with...moreChloe Saunders lives alone in her dad's condo with just the latest in a string of housekeepers for company. A small, shy girl only five feet tall with boring blonde hair, the day Chloe turns fifteen is a day of many changes. First, she finally gets her period, then she decides to dye red streaks in her hair in the girl's bathroom at school, skipping class for the first time to do it. But as she's leaving the bathroom, a horribly burned man comes after her, wanting to talk to her. Needless to say, her reaction sees her tranquillised, strapped to a gurney and sent to hospital for tests.
As part of the school's zero tolerance policy, they require her to spend time at a home before she can return. Her aunt Lauren, a doctor, finds her one: Lyle House. There are six other teenagers there: Peter, Simon, Derek, Rae, Tori and Liz. Between all the rules, chores and study time, Chloe sees Dr Gill, the shrink, who tells her she has schizophrenia. Chloe doesn't want to believe she sees ghosts, but she doesn't want to be "schizo" either. No one else seems to be crazy here, though Derek disturbs her, Tori's a moody bitch, Liz believes she's haunted by a poltergeist and Rae is a pyromaniac.
The other kids find out Chloe sees ghosts and some of them believe her. But what do the ghosts want with her, and what's the deal with the other kids? Everyone's keeping secrets, but Chloe just wants to get better and go home. By the end of the week, though, home might not be an option for her. Ever.
Set in the same contemporary world of supernaturals as Armstrong's hugely popular Women of the Otherworld series for adults, The Summoning shows Armstrong's gift for storytelling as she easily shifts gears to the YA style.
Armstrong is a Canadian author, but the book is set in Buffalo - close, but no Canada. It reminds me of how movies are often filmed in Canada, but never set here, and it's the same with books. Why? Would it really alienate an American audience? I can't honestly believe that my American friends would be put off by a book or movie set in Canada. You couldn't even call it a foreign country, they two are so similar, comparatively. It happens to Australian books as well, which get stripped of anything remotely Australian for the US edition, a la Does My Head Look Big in This? and others. It's just such a shame.
Even though this is a horror book, and has some really scary scenes, it's easily enjoyable for non-horror fans like myself, and appropriate for a younger audience. Chloe is a great character, who stammers when she gets nervous, is kind but not sickeningly so, and with her fascination for movies and her ambition to be a scriptwriter and director, she teases herself when she starts falling for classic horror clichés, which helps prevent her from following the same old formulaic path - though the formula's still there.
All the characters are interesting in their own way, and well established and developed. People who were enemies become friends, friends become enemies and nothing's straight-forward or obvious. There are plots and secrets and plots under plots, slowly unravelling to reveal the truth.
You don't need to have read the Women of the Otherworld series to be able to get into this one, or vice versa. It's classic YA and reminds me of all my favourite YA books, the way they're written - different from "adult" books, smoother in a way and often more exciting with characters you can relate to no matter what your age is. (less)
Mia's ordinary life as a teenager doing her homework takes an unexpected turn one night when she is suddenly possessed by a demon. After four days of...moreMia's ordinary life as a teenager doing her homework takes an unexpected turn one night when she is suddenly possessed by a demon. After four days of violently harrasing her family and the various priests who try to perform exorcisms, two men arrive from Italy and successfully drive the demon away - for now, anyway. Few people survive such possessions, but Mia happens to come from a long line of demon catchers: her grandfather left Italy for America to leave it all behind. The demon that had possessed her is one they've been battling for generations, and it will return for Mia. She can't even go outside without the demon catchers by her side.
After much debate, it is agreed that Mia will go back to Milan with her distant cousins, Guiliano Della Torre and the much younger, handsome Emilio. There they can protect her, teach her and, hopefully, one day, defeat the demon. For weeks, Mia stays in her room inside Guiliano's apartment, studying Italian and Italian history, listening to two disembodied voices in her room argue and criticise her clothes, and learning only small things here and there about her new Italian family and their demon catching side job. Aside from the apartment, she's also allowed in Guiliano's candle shop on the ground floor, where she studies in-between helping infrequent customers.
Slowly she pieces things together, and learns that the reason why Guiliano is keeping her in ignorance is because her knowledge becomes the demon's knowledge, should it possess her again - which is almost certain. But Mia doesn't want to sit in the wings, unable to leave the building except with a guard of cousins. The more she learns about their demon catching work, the more she realises she has a knack for it: it's in her blood, too. How can she get them to trust her, and train her to catch demons?
I don't generally read books featuring demons or possession - it's all too Catholic for me, in general - but this was something different, something more, and not particularly Catholic at all. The main thing that drew me into this story was that it wasn't like all the YA novels I've been reading lately. The tone was more ... mature. Intelligent, respectful, knowledgeable, yes, but also the focus wasn't on romance - in fact, Emilio has a girlfriend (who feels threatened by other women) and Mia has little more than a crush on him, though there's great potential for something more to develop. Because the story wasn't about romance, it was interesting on so many different levels.
Beyer captured the life and atmosphere of Milan well, even if Mia rarely gets the chance to go outside: it's in the little details, the emphasis on family and food (and sharing food), and how the people think differently from Americans. Sometimes Mia comments on the difference, but not enough to get annoying. It's not a surface image of Milan, either: it's the grit of Milan, rather than a visual. How the people live, what they eat. Their attitudes and opinions on things. Sometimes it would even get political. That's the kind of intelligent maturity I like to see in YA.
It can be found throughout the novel, as Mia learns and matures and starts thinking for herself more. It's in the conversations that she has, with her relatives practically forcing her to grow up and think.
"What else do the candle do? And the - that guy?" I asked. "Think about it some, and tell me what you think, and I will tell you whether you are right," he said. "Why can't you just tell me?" My words stopped Emilio dead in the street. "When your government tells you your city is safe, do you believe them? When your mother tells you a boy is bad, do you believe her?" "No, yes, sometimes, but--" "But should you?" "I don't think so, but--" "Your government can't see everything, and your mother judges boys by the standards of her youth. This doesn't mean your government is wrong or that your mother is not wise, though, does it?" "No." "Yet it does mean that you don't just take their word for everything. So why should we just tell you things? Would you be wise to take our word for it? Why should you trust us more than your own senses?"
The story also touches on history, the sorrow of WWII and the internment of Italian Jews. At its heart, though, The Demon Catchers of Milan is about the individual, how we deal with grief and loss and rage and bitterness - and how it requires the support of others, of family and loved ones, to help us. The demon that possessed Mia is, so far, a testament to evil - but we don't know anything about it yet and I can see Beyer playing a much less black-and-white hand in the following books. Not all the souls they banish from the living are evil; some are just lost. It seems that there is something personal in Mia's demon, something that made it determined to possess a Della Torre - I sense that it was a Della Torre once, in the past, and its manner of dying will provide answers. But I'm not sure, because Guiliano seems certain that Mia's demon isn't a lost soul or anything remotely ex-human, but a true demon from hell. It got me thinking, anyway.
I liked that the story focused on Mia learning her way in Milan and the demon-catching world, with a distinct lack of big action, melodrama or romance. It's a quieter story, and in that quietness we're able to really believe in demon-catching and possession, undisguised by sparks and whistles, a more organic, less showy artistry. By anchoring it in a bit of medieval history and method, it gains a core of familiarity from which Beyer extends the imagination, adding flourishes in small increments. Because truth is, we don't know much about demon-catching yet, or how the candles and bells and chanting works, or why they do that, or why the Vatican is so against it (especially considering it works). We don't know much about demons or possession. This is the first book in a trilogy, and it's a tantalising introduction into a fascinating new world.
Mia held her own in this new world, a believable mix of moody teenager, quiet listener and observer, a girl on the cusp of adulthood who makes mistakes but learns from them, who discovers a strength inside her that's brought out in the face of this horrifying discovery: demon possession. For someone who suffered personally at the hands of a demon, and whose whole life has changed forever because of it, she handled it admirably well. The characters that flesh out her new life in Milan consist of mostly distant relatives, and we gradually learn about some of them and their personal stake in the family business of demon catching. They felt very real to me, and I want very much to get to know them better. The lack of sensationalism in the novel really helped ground it and bring these characters to life, even when we're first introduced to them and barely know them.
There are some frightening scenes, some gory moments, that remind you how high the stakes are. And how lucky Mia was to survive her own possession. Awakening to this new world, I am filled with questions and anticipation, but Beyer writes with such calm confidence and ease that I can patiently wait for the next book to find out more. It's a tease, but a very entertaining, well-written one.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
Claire Danvers is something of a child genius. At just sixteen, she's moved a short distance from her parents' home to attend Texas Prairie University...moreClaire Danvers is something of a child genius. At just sixteen, she's moved a short distance from her parents' home to attend Texas Prairie University, and she knew she'd have a bit of a rough time of it. But the nastiness and violence of the girls, led by the popular, bitchy Monica, whom she shares a dorm with surpasses her expectations, and it's not long before her life is actually in danger.
Moving out of the dorm and into a sharehouse called the Glass House, Claire discovers that there's more to the sleepy town of Morganville than first meets the eye. Her new flatmates - Michael, Shane and Eve - are rebellious teens in a repressive town ruled by vampires, and have their own secrets to keep. Without the protection of a vampire, they're all fair game and have certainly attracted the notice of more than one hungry, powerful vamp.
With the threat to her life ever-present, Claire tries to continue her studies but is distracted by the need to help her new friends, especially Shane, who in an attempt to protect her from Monica's gang has made a deal with the vampire who rules Monica. Claire's now on a mission to find a book, one the vampires have been searching for for a long time, in order to make a deal and save Shane's life, but time's running out and night is closing in.
It took me a while to get into this, but by the end I was really enjoying it. Claire is a good girl and effectively bridges the gap between "our" world and Morganville's dark side, but it takes a while to even like her. She lacks. It's not until she starts after the mysterious book and gets interested in Shane that she develops any spunk. She's a sweetie, and a classic horror-story innocent who mocks herself with cynical amusement, and I kept wishing she would just leave this hideous town before it was too late.
I loved Shane and Michael - Eve you don't really get a chance to know, only glimpses of as she hides behind goth clothes, makeup and a rebellious attitude (she'd be the one on the cover). The small group of friends felt very real, like they really existed, and every threat against them tripled my tension because of it.
The pacing is generally steady, with fast moments that makes it feel like you're watching a horror movie instead of reading a book. It would make a great movie or telly show. The vampires are deadly, with that detached derisiveness that comes of viewing humans as a food source. They're unpredictable, dangerous and, as such, terrifying. They weren't the comical, crazed, insane things of Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures (the only Anita Blake book I've read, and which effectively killed any desire I might have had to read more, even if the later books do promise a lot of pointless sex), but coldly rational - in their own way - like immortals "should" be.
I didn't really understand the town, or how they could get away with so many missing students over the years. But it's a good thing that, considering this is a series, not everything is crammed into one book. Horror's far from my genre of choice, as well, but this had enough character development, a touch of romance, and some strung-out tension to keep me reading.(less)
For a long time I had no interest in reading this book, not until the paperback came out (making it look like a new book with its different cover) and...moreFor a long time I had no interest in reading this book, not until the paperback came out (making it look like a new book with its different cover) and I finally read the blurb - maybe it was a new blurb, but it sounded so interesting I promptly changed my mind. Frankly, it sounded like the movie The Village, which I adore - a bit too much really; I wondered whether it was a copy-cat or not. Isolated, self-sufficient village in the middle of a forest, in this case surrounded by fences and horror stories to keep the villagers from straying.
I wouldn't call it a rip-off, though the similarities in the setup are definitely there. From the very beginning we understand that there is a very real danger in the Forest of Hands and Teeth: zombies. They're called "unconsecrated" and they beat at the wire fences, hungering for the villagers who believe they're the only ones left.
Mary sits with her mother by the fence each afternoon, watching the Unconsecrated. Her mother is looking for her husband - where he went and why is never explained, but the day Mary is late to attend her mother is the day her mother is bitten. Mary and her older brother Jed are orphaned; Jed has his young pregnant wife and turns Mary away, leaving her with no other choice but to join the Sisterhood in the old church.
It is soon clear that the Sisterhood harbours secrets, especially when Mary discovers that someone has arrived at their village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth - someone the Sisters have locked away and kept hidden. But Mary learns of her anyway: Gabrielle, her name is. But she disappears before Mary can find out more, and then turns up outside the fence as an Unconsecrated.
If I give any more of a summary I'll end up telling the entire plot, so I'll stop there. It began promisingly, and even though I felt no connection, sympathy or even interest in Mary, I was still interested in the story to keep going. That interest waned about halfway through when it became apparent there was nothing very deep going on here. Secrets are implied, then revealed to be only what you'd figured out already - a bare surface scratching. There are no deeper plots here. It wouldn't need them, if instead it were a character story. But it isn't, though it tries to be.
I am becoming increasingly dissatisfied with this book as I write this. It reminds me of the fail of Meg Rosoff's much-touted How I Live Now. Mary is the narrator, and she's a fairly accurate description of a teenager I suppose - but definitely one who's more in keeping with today's teens. There's just something about her that's off. It could be her selfishness, but that's a classic teen trait isn't it. I don't begrudge her that, though even after she realises and acknowledges how selfish she is, nothing changes.
It could be that she's simply too flimsy a character to hold any weight. Who is Mary? What does she look like? Why does she love Travis so much? Why does she want so desperately to reach the ocean? That is sort of explained but it was a bit thin. I didn't feel any real chemistry between her and Travis - it felt fake, and I didn't trust Travis because of it (turns out, he's the better of the two). Why does Travis's older brother Harry love Mary so much? What's so bloody appealing about Mary? I couldn't sympathise with her at all, and the entire story required me to care. Are we meant to understand that they're sleeping together - with, I'm sure, no protection - or that they're sweetly chaste? Neither makes me comfortable.
There were what could be plotholes, or simply an absence of an explanation that would explain some little details that otherwise jar or are implausible or make no sense. A sense of reality - and hence believability - is lost when you skip details. Like, getting the dog, Argos, out of the attic and into the treehouse was difficult, but getting him out of the treehouse, along the rope and over the fence while the tree was on fire must have been a sinch since the dog was conveniently forgotten in this scene. What disappointed me the most perhaps was how the village and its occupants weren't fleshed out at all. Aside from Mary, we meet Travis, Harry and their sister Beth who married Mary's brother Jed; Mary's best friend Cass; Sister Tabitha and Mary's mother (briefly). There's also Gabrielle, and a little boy called Jacob. Since Mary is narrating, we get only what she thinks is important enough to tell us - which isn't much. We get no real understanding of her village, what it looks like, how it operates, how it sustains itself, the roles people have, who else lives there. And the characters we do meet, we never get to really know - they're all cardboard cutouts of basic characters, which makes it near impossible to care about any of them.
I found it hard to believe in a character who lived in such a small, community-focused place, where she would have had a practical role to play for the survival of the village just like everyone else, but who didn't spare a thought for anyone or anything beyond herself and her own meagre interests. How did she contribute? She wasn't helping to grow food, she didn't make things, she didn't help with children. I have no idea what she did with her time apart from one reference to washing. Well they all have to do washing. That hardly counts. The setting lacked conviction. It lacked reality. Any good writer of Fantasy knows that the key is to make the world believable; with such a firm foundation you can introduce all manner of alien concepts etc. Spend some time in the beginning to establish the setting and the people, really flesh it out, and then we can really care. With zombies pressing on the fences every day, with loved ones lost to the undead, these people can expect sympathy, but they got none from me.
It's told in present tense, which should be the perfect tense for this story, but I honestly found it to be too obvious, too under-utilised. Like other stories improperly using present tense, it reads like past tense and strips the story of the very sense of immediacy it was meant to bestow. Present tense isn't an easy tense to use well. It should transport you to the heart of things, to the very moment, but here it doesn't. In fact, it distanced me.
Overall, it was hugely disappointing. I began it thinking "oh yay, a good one finally!" only to change my mind after several chapters of not much. I've thought of another one it reminds me of: Life As We Knew It. They have similar disappointing characteristics. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is annoying me more the more I think about it so now's probably a good time to stop talking about it. I worry though. Is YA fiction becoming a bit ... lame? I will have to reread some that I enjoyed as a teen, and see if there's really that much difference in writing style and skill. (less)
R is a zombie. The only thing he remembers from his pre-zombie life is that his name starts with "R". Looking at his clothes - a white shirt and a red...moreR is a zombie. The only thing he remembers from his pre-zombie life is that his name starts with "R". Looking at his clothes - a white shirt and a red tie - he guesses he was some young professional, early twenties, with an office job. And he has plenty of time to think about things, even if he can't articulate them. He lives with hundreds, maybe thousands of other zombies at the airport, and made his own home in a 747 at gate 12. It's crammed full of piles of things he's collected from hunting trips into the city, including an impressive collection of vinyl that he plays on a turntable. The city itself is in ruins, with the last of humanity holed up inside the big stadiums which have been converted into rickety towns. While there are still some humans holed up in abandoned houses and other buildings here and there, the only other people out and about are survivors from the stadium on stockpiling missions.
It's on one of the zombie's hunting trips into the city for food that R meets a girl and everything changes. The zombies smell a group of humans inside a building on one of these stockpiling trips, and attack. R rips into one young man and eating his brain takes him deep into his victim's life and memories, most of which are taken up with a pretty young girl, Julie. And Julie is here, she's hiding under the table, and to save her life R pretends he's converted her. In shock, Julie goes with R and the other zombies back to the airport and into his 747, where she slowly learns that R is different from the mindless zombies that fill the airport, and that he has no intention, no interest, in eating her.
But a 747 amidst a horde of zombies is no place for a human. Yet Julie's presence - and R's defence of her - sends shockwaves throughout the zombies. R isn't the only one who starts to feel new things, and the ripples of change upset the skeletal "Boneys", the zombies who no longer resemble humans, who seem to have their own agenda. It will take a drastic change in thinking among both humans and zombies to save the world from impending - and very final - doom.
Marion's debut novel is a real gem. Unique, amusing, thought-provoking and engaging, Warm Bodies is far from your typical zombie novel. It adheres to standard zombie tropes: these are inhuman, dead-looking things, jerky, awkward, slow but deadly, who love to eat brains (it gives them a kind of high and they can absorb their victim's memories when the brain is fresh) and whose bite means not just death but resurrection of the worst kind. But from this traditional foundation, the story takes off in a fresh new direction.
The main distinction, from the beginning, is R himself, our narrator. He is thoughtful, questioning, philosophical, and you get a real sense of a live human trapped inside a zombie, numb but cognisant. He is one of the most sympathetic characters I've read in a long time, especially considering he's basically an alien. Marion does a superb job of capturing both his lingering flicker of humanity - a flicker that catches when he sees Julie for the first time - and his zombie-ness, with no apologies.
I don't know why we have to kill people. I don't know what chewing through a man's neck accomplishes. I steal what he has to replace what I lack. He disappears, and I stay. It's simple but senseless, arbitrary laws from some lunatic legislator in the sky. But following those laws keeps me walking, so I follow them to the letter. I eat until I stop eating, then I eat again.
How did it start? How did we become what we are? Was it some mysterious virus? Gamma rays? An ancient curse? Or something even more absurd? No one talks about it much. We are here and this is the way it is. We don't complain. We don't ask questions. We go about our business.
There is a chasm between me and the world outside of me. A gap so wide my feelings can't cross it. By the time my screams reach the other side, they have dwindled into groans. [p.8]
Seventeen-year-old Julie, only child of a general, is also a strong character. Rebellious and spirited with a penchant for swearing, she's the perfect person to join forces with R. Brave and intelligent, her initial fear fades in light of new evidence; she has a zest for life that she recognises within R. But she's also had a shitty life to date, and has treated her body poorly with incidents of money for sex and attempted suicide. No one else could have seen past R's zombie condition to the inner, um, zombie, but Julie.
There are some great lines in here that I really loved, descriptions and ideas that were free of the usual cliches. The writing is smooth and polished, and there were some really clever or beautiful lines slipped in that take you pleasantly by surprise.
One of [the Boneys] steps forward and stops in front of me, inches from my face. No breath wafts from its hollow mouth, but I can feel a faint, low hum emanating from its bones. This hum is not found in me, nor in M, nor in any of the other fleshclad Dead, and I begin to wonder what exactly these dried-up creatures really are. I can no longer believe in any voodoo spell or laboratory virus. This is something deeper, darker. This comes from the cosmos, from the stars, or the unknown blackness behind them. The shadows in God's boarded-up basement. [p.67]
In terms of world-building, this is a fantastic apocalyptic setting, with enough details given to really flesh it out without over-doing it. The world was going to shit even before the zombies started cropping up, which ties into the theory behind the zombie curse. There was something, and maybe I misread it, that implied people were turning into zombies without being actually bitten by one. This world is in ruins, crumbling and being reclaimed by nature. The interior of the stadium was a little tricky for me to picture, but I still had a good idea of the makeshift community built tall and skinny and held up by cables. I felt almost claustrophobic when the story shifted to this world-within-a-world. One of the interesting parallels that Marion plays with is the contrast between the humans in charge, and the skeletons, the Boneys, neither of which really wants anything to change and whose minds are closed to anything but their own basic survival.
Regarding the plot, I have to say two things: one, I loved the set-up and meeting R (the blurb describes him as having an existential no-life crisis, which I love) and then meeting Julie, but once the plot moved on to inside the stadium and so on, it rather lacked lustre for me; and two, the ending didn't quite live up to the promise of the beginning. That is to say, it did in terms of where the plot goes and the resolution, but how it comes about was a tad disappointing. I think what happens is that, once the mystery and the wonder of learning about a new world has worn off, it all becomes a bit mundane. It was a fairly exciting ending, but as another reviewer put it, it lacked "oomph", especially considering the build-up.
That said, I did love the speculative side of this novel, the idea R develops as to where the zombie curse comes from - it's surprisingly simple and tidy, and works perfectly because of it. This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much even though I don't like zombie stories. I find zombies incredibly boring because they are mindless, you can't hold a conversation with them, and their very existence is not only terrifying, it's extraordinarily depressing. You can't win against zombies, so the zombie movies I've watched and the rare book I've read always carry this fatalistic tone, because you can never escape, your fate is sealed, humanity is doomed. That is the traditional storyline for zombies, and many people love it. Even though I love stories that deal with humans struggling to survive against extreme circumstances, for example, the fatalistic, depressing, pessimistic nature of zombie stories always turns me off. They're just plain boring.
Warm Bodies is the perfect story for the reader who doesn't like zombies or zombie stories. It offers a fresh perspective and a sense of wonder, a new discovery of life, and yes, hope. R is a fantastic hero and a strong narrator and the story is deeply compelling, especially because of its examination of the human condition and the idea of a sickness inside us caused by the world we've created but which is like a poison to us. Love it. The romantic love story isn't in the forefront - it drives the plot and the shiver of change in this world, but it's no sappy, cloying romance, and since R is Dead, he feels no real emotions, only something that's more like a compulsion that he just has to follow. Warm Bodies crosses genres as easily as it crosses its readership's gender lines, though make no mistake: this is adult fiction. While I read this as a standalone novel, Marion is working on a sequel and there are prequel novellas you can read as well if you want more of this unique world.(less)
Finally, a Neil Gaiman book I like! If I'd read this when I was, say, ten (not that it had been written when I was ten), I would have loved it. Or you...moreFinally, a Neil Gaiman book I like! If I'd read this when I was, say, ten (not that it had been written when I was ten), I would have loved it. Or younger. Or older. I think Gaiman should write more fiction for children, and less of this adult stuff he keeps doing. I didn't like Stardust at all, really, and Neverwhere not much better, mainly because of the self-conscious, mocking tone he uses, like he's embarrased. Here, he's writing for children, younger than Young Adult, and the embarrasment's gone. Writing for an older audience, Gaiman seems to expect ridicule and derision, and so tries to fob it off with a "hey, I'm just joking, I'm a mature man too" kind of tone. He lacks what Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett manage to pull off: wit, silliness and playful antics with complete confidence.
That's my basic impression of those two books, anyway.
With Coraline, though, there's humour but it's dark and, at times, obvious at a child's level. The story is about a little girl, Coraline, who moves into a flat in an old sub-divided house with her parents, who work from home. School hasn't started yet and she's bored. There's a door in one of the rooms that opens onto a wall of bricks - until one day it opens onto a dark passage. Going through, she finds herself back inside her flat, only it's not quite the same: her other mother and her other father have black button eyes, and the haughty neighbourhood cat talks, and the crazy old man upstairs has trained rats instead of mice, and the two old ladies who used to be stage actresses, perform to an audience of dogs who eat nothing but chocolate.
It gets scary when Coraline's other mother wants her to stay and sew black buttons into her eyes. She manages to escape, only to find that her real parents are missing, trapped in the mirror it seems. Coraline must return to the other side and free not just her own real parents but the souls of three trapped children.
Suitably dark and scary, even I, at 28, was all tense and scared by the other mother. The atmosphere is excellent, the tone just right: a blend of dark humour and suspense. The illustrations are good too, especially those of the other mother - certainly aided in raising the scare factor a notch or two. There were a couple of inconsistencies in the plot, namely the locked door - Coraline's mother, after unlocking it and showing Coraline the wall of bricks, doesn't lock it again and says there's no need, since it doesn't go anywhere. But when Coraline decides to open it again she first gets her mother's keys and then unlocks the door. Maybe a kid wouldn't notice (I would've), but things like that stick out pretty obviously to me and speaks of haphazard editing.
All in all, though, it's a great story, one I can see kids loving and re-reading, but it can also be enjoyed by adults, like Ella Enchanted (I would judge the target audience of Coraline to be a bit younger, but there are no rules in the world of reading). I had high hopes at first that it hadn't been Americanised - it's set in London, and while "flat", "railway" and "jam", for instance, are all there, there's also "pajamas", "theater", "color" and so on - okay, so that's mostly spelling, and he does live in the US now, but still. It was disappointing. It's always disappointing.(less)
I've done my best to keep spoilers for the previous book to a minimum, but if you haven't read The Summoning, you should start there.
The Awakening pic...moreI've done my best to keep spoilers for the previous book to a minimum, but if you haven't read The Summoning, you should start there.
The Awakening picks up pretty much where the last book left off, with Chloe and Rae prisoners of the people who were running Lyle House, only now they're in what looks like a bunker. Simon and Derek are still on the loose but Tori has also been moved. Chloe learns that her aunt Lauren, Dr Gill, Dr Davidoff and others are part of a group called the Edison Group, most of them supernaturals themselves who experimented on their own offspring and that of others, genetically mutating them in an effort to help them "fit into" society better. They kept them ignorant and those that couldn't be "rehabilitated" were killed - like Liz.
Escaping from the Edison Group, Chloe and Tori are reunited with Derek and Simon. Simon has had no luck finding his dad, Kit, with the spell, and so they decide to try Kit's old friend and emergency contact, Andrew, who lives outside New York. Getting there is far from simple though, with the Edison Group on the hunt for them and Chloe's dad putting her picture and a reward in the paper. Not only that, but Chloe inadvertently raises the dead and Derek's werewolf side poses problems.
I was really slow, while reading the first book just before picking up this one, in realising that this series is set in the same contemporary world as Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series. This is essentially the YA version, with new and younger characters and a new angle. The first book established some highly engaging characters in Chloe, Derek, Simon, Tori and the others, who continue to develop in the sequel. There are more chilling moments when Chloe accidentally raises zombies and sees a girl having her throat slit over and over again, but as someone who's no fan of horror, the scenes were terrifying without being off-putting or too gruesome.
The story is never boring, which is worth mentioning because as with a lot of YA novels, we get a lot of details about relatively mundane things. A lot is cramped into a short space of time - the first book covered a week, though it felt longer, and this one covers about the same, only because they never get any real sleep time stretches out and is hard to keep track of. But for realism, you need those details. With Chloe's engaging narration, every detail is fascinating because her world, her situation is fascinating. It's a survival story, and the details matter.
Chloe's an interesting choice for narrator - a quiet girl, tiny in stature and only just fifteen. Tori makes some acidic comments about her that help us get perspective, even if they make us more sympathetic towards Chloe. She has fire when she needs it, stands up for herself despite the occasional stammer when she gets nervous, but hasn't suddenly developed amazing fighting skills or worldly wisdom. She's a sheltered girl suddenly living on the streets, and it's true that the boys are over-protective of her. But you can't help liking Chloe, sympathising with her, empathising and understanding her.
Derek's another engaging character, complex and independent of the author. He's one of those characters whom you just know wrote himself - no one else would be able to do a good enough job! It's apparent that something pretty special is slowly building between him and Chloe, but Armstrong isn't rushing it, and it's a long process to understand Derek and his abrupt, pushy, arrogant attitude. And it's nice to see them gradually grow closer and trust each other.
Armstrong's prose is as strong and smooth as ever, even clipped to YA style as it is. There are still some unexplained things, such as the pendant necklace that Chloe's mother gave her and why it's changed colour, and I confess I don't really understand the motives behind the Edison Group's experiment because they don't make sense to me. I felt that this book could have been longer and covered more ground, though it ended at a good spot. It's just that the overall story doesn't make a great deal of progress here. What I did get was lots of character development, which I love. So no real complaints.(less)
Mara Dyer isn't her real name. In a letter at the beginning of the story, Mara explains that it's a pseudonym, and that without her, "no one would kno...moreMara Dyer isn't her real name. In a letter at the beginning of the story, Mara explains that it's a pseudonym, and that without her, "no one would know that a seventeen-year-old who likes Death Cab for Cutie was responsible for the murders. No one would know that somewhere out there is a B student with a body count. And it's important that you know, so you're not next." It all begins with her best friend, Rachel: at her birthday, Rachel's new friend Claire brings out the Ouija board, and one macabre question - "How does Rachel die?" - brings the answer: "Mara". Ominous? The girls just think the board wants Mara to ask a question, so they think nothing of it. But not long after, the three girls and Claire's brother Jude, who is also Mara's boyfriend of two months, sneak out in the middle of the night to do a tour of the abandoned mental asylum. A few days later, Mara wakes up in the hospital, her friends and boyfriend dead, and no memory of what happened.
To help her deal with the loss of Rachel, Mara and her family move from Rhode Island to Florida for a fresh start. Mara's mother enrols her and her older brother Daniel into a private school some distance away, and it's there that Mara meets Noah. Noah is the school's ultimate hottie and bad boy, with a reputation of sleeping around and breaking girls' hearts, and he seems to have fixated on Mara. But Mara isn't dealing so well: she's hallucinating, seeing her dead friends in mirrors and injuring herself when she imagines a force holding her arm in a scalding hot bath. Days later when she gets the bandages changed, the second-degree burns have vanished.
There's definitely something strange going on in Mara's life, and that's just the beginning. When people start turning up dead after she's imagined their death, in the exact same manner of death that she had imagined, she starts to realise she's far from innocent. And as the memories of what happened in the asylum slowly resurface, she learns a scary truth. Only Noah can understand what's going on, and help her. But there's someone else out there, abducting children and teens and leaving their bodies for the alligators, and the culprit may be closer to home than Mara ever expected.
This is quite a confusing book, in some ways, and painfully simple and cliched in others. The plot is very busy, and for the first, say, half, I had it figured in my head that this was a horror novel. The mysterious deaths of her friends in an asylum, the hallucinations - that were really quite scary - and the general sense that Mara was going crazy. Also, unlike many readers, I always assumed, from the very beginning, that the murderer Mara refers to in her letter at the start is her ex-boyfriend Jude, not herself. We learn early on that they never recovered his body, and Mara keeps seeing things, seeing him. This attempt to be tricky and twisty with the plot just annoyed me, because it was a bit clumsy. The Death Cab for Cutie (a band) is something of a red herring, because practically everyone in the book seems to like the band. Anyway, we'll have to wait and see with the next book, The Evolution of Mara Dyer.
Anyway, so at some point it turns into a romance, and then into a kind of paranormal, urban fantasy-romance thing, throwing new shit at the page as if the story were slipping down a cliff and Hodkin was hoping something would help halt its fall. I was quite enjoying it at first, even though there are too many YA stories about girls with amnesia and some secret or traumatic past. And then she arrives at the new school. First of all, why is she lost? I mean, before you start a new school you do a tour, right? New kids at my schools always came through with their entire families days before they started. Mara and Daniel, though, just suddenly start, and Mara spends a great deal of time being lost, as do all YA heroines these days. But worse than that was this shining light into the American secondary school system, that I hope to God is not as indicative as it comes across, considering it's represented this way in all the books and TV shows and movies I've come across - this condensed scene from Mara's English class, taught by a Ms Leib:
"[...] I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you've read the Three Theban Plays at your previous school?"
"Yep," I said, fighting self-consciousness.
[...] Then she continued on with her lecture, most of which I'd heard before. [pp.58-9]
(I did say "condensed", yes?) Two things here leap out at me, as a high school English teacher (even if I'm not teaching these days): 1. it's implied - not just here - that all schools read the same books, throughout the country. Unlikely, and also somewhat disturbing. But that's just something that makes me frown. What really bothered me about this scene was the line: Then she continued on with her lecture, most of which I'd read before. First of all, all teachers ever seem to do in American high schools - and primary schools!! - is lecture. Really, really bad. I hope this isn't true-to-life. And secondly, the idea that the teachers all have the same lecture - as if one person wrote them all and handed them out to all the English teachers at the beginning of the year - is just so, so wrong. As if, there is only one interpretation of a book etc., only one answer to a question, only one way to think, and question, and analyse. Sorry to go off on a tangent - no, I'm not sorry, this really makes me mad, because even if these are just fictional characters, I still want to know that they're getting a good education, and being taught NOT the right answer to a question, but HOW TO ANALYSE AND QUESTION things! The one thing I've always stressed to students, the real genius of the subject of English, is that you can argue anything, as long as you can back it up. There is no right or wrong answer, only poorly articulated, weakly thought-out arguments lacking substantive evidence. The idea that these kids are expected to memorise one interpretation, that there's only one angle, one perspective, one interpretation - that's so awful I can't even comprehend it. I just had to get that off my chest.
Back to Mara. She comes afoul of the bitchy popular girl in school, Anna Greenly, and her giant gay sidekick, Aiden Davis. She makes friends with a boy called Jamie Roth who is, get this, black AND Jewish AND gay - no, bisexual. Because gay would be too straight-forward. These supporting characters are weakly fleshed out, pumped up with tired old stereotypes that keep them afloat, barely. Mara half-heartedly befriends Jamie - she isn't even all that friendly towards him, considering he's her only friend, but he's a good tutor - and he seems to function mostly as a mouthpiece for all the bad gossip about Noah.
Jamie crouched with me. "You're unraveling the very fabric of Croyden [High] society."
"What are you talking about?" I shoved my things into my messenger bag with unnecessary force.
"Noah drove you to school."
"Noah doesn't drive anyone to school."
"So what?" I asked, growing frustrated.
"He's acting like your boyfriend. Which makes the girls he treated like condoms a trifle jealous."
"Condoms?" I asked, confused.
"Used once and then discarded."
"He is." [p.255]
If Mara is a hard character to get to know, Noah is someone who filled me with ambivalence. On the one hand, he was quite clearly a mortal version of Edward Cullen, if Edward had an English accent (a completely unnecessary English accent, as is much about Noah). His family is filthy rich - again, why? - he's sexy and gorgeous, he's a "bad boy": wearing a dishevelled version of the private school uniform, with messy "bed hair", and a reputation as a slut - one all the girls chase and make eyes at. (It's a tough ask of readers, to establish a character this disreputable and then to turn around and say, But he's really very sweet and trustworthy!) I could handle all that, if I stopped thinking about it for long. I didn't find him "stalkerish" like a lot of other readers did, or overbearing. Actually, after their secrets are out in the open, I thought he was sort-of sweet. Certainly a lot less complicated than Mara. And it seemed that he had generated, or encouraged, the gossip that he sleeps around and breaks girls' hearts, but that it wasn't really true. That's what Noah seemed to say to Mara, though I notice he never actually refuted any of it, except Anna. So it was hard to know whether you could trust him.
And am I the only one who found the whole Joseph-kidnapping-midnight-rescue thing upsetting, disturbing, weird and creepy?
The novel is long, but a lot of its length is made up of dialogue, especially between Mara and Noah. It was sometimes fun, this dialogue, but other times it was just frustrating. This escalated in time with the changes in the plot, in general, so maybe it was all one and the same. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this first volume - a lot of answers too, but for every answer there seem to be two new questions. I kept expecting a twist (based on reviews I'd read last year, when it first came out - it took me nearly a year to decide to read this!) but never got one. I would have liked this a lot more if it had stuck with the horror genre, which says a lot considering I don't really read horror.
In many ways, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer plays it incredibly safe. The characters are ones you've read before, and most of them serve as plot devices (like to help with red herrings, or to propel Mara in a certain direction), while the plot is so busy being original and surprising that it may leave readers bewildered. By the end it had become The X-Men, and I love the X-Men, but this new theme started to sink almost immediately under the next new genre, murder mystery. It's amazing I didn't get dizzy and nauseous.
However, for a novel that tries too hard to be many things, including a by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser, it certainly is pretty readable. A hunger for answers will keep people reading, if nothing else. Or you could read it for the romance, since that takes up a good portion of the story - a very virginal romance, of course; as I said, this is a crowd-pleaser, and to sell well you need to please the Bible Belt mothers. (Murder is okay, as long as the heroine doesn't have pre-marital sex. Oh see how books like this bring out my snarky side?!) I liked it well enough, despite all my criticisms, but it's not one I want to spend too much time thinking about, lest I grow more and more annoyed with things that didn't bother me too much as I was reading it.(less)
The sequel to Carriger’s debut, Soulless, Changeless picks up three months into Alexia Tarabotti’s marriage to Lord Conall Maccon. Alexia is “soulles...moreThe sequel to Carriger’s debut, Soulless, Changeless picks up three months into Alexia Tarabotti’s marriage to Lord Conall Maccon. Alexia is “soulless”, otherwise known as a preternatural – in an alternate Victorian England where vampires and werewolves are out in the open and more-or-less accepted into polite society, Alexia can revert a vampire or werewolf back to mortal human with just her touch. Since the cause of vampirism etc. is understood to be due to an excess of soul, the newly minted Lady Maccon is their direct opposite. Still, that didn’t stop her from marrying a werewolf - the Alpha of the London pack, no less.
Armed with her trusty parasol, Alexia is also Mujah to Queen Victoria – completing a triad council of vampire, werewolf and preternatural. When a large area of London is suddenly afflicted with a state of mortality, several eyes look to Alexia as the cause. But the afflicted area is on the move, heading north to Scotland – where her husband is headed to deal with his old pack’s alpha-less state.
Alexia decides to travel – by dirigible – to Scotland herself and discover what’s causing the problem. Intending to travel alone, she is finds herself suddenly burdened with not just her insufferable younger sister Felicity, but her best friend Miss Ivy Hisslepenny as well – not to mention Ivy’s hideous hat collection. Her entourage grows even larger when she finds that a cross-dressing Frenchwoman and inventor, Madame Lefoux, is on the dirigible, where it becomes clear something is going on between her and Alexia’s maid. Mystery abounds.
The Kingair pack in Scotland is hostile to their presence, to say the least, but Alexia is sure they’ve brought something with them back from Africa that is causing the vampires’ and werewolves’ reversion to mortality. But someone is trying to kill her, maybe more than one person, and the vampires are up to something that Alexia is determined to foil. Thank God she has a new, reinforced parasol with some deadly secrets hidden in it!
There’s lots to enjoy with this series – it has a wonderful flippant sense of humour, lively characters and some neatly paced action. It also makes for a nice blend of steampunk and the supernatural, in an alternate-history Victorian England. As a result, it has some very funky inventions! It’s marketed as Fantasy/Horror, but it’s very light on horror. It’s more like … Historical Fantasy.
As fun as the dialogue and narration is, it does tend to belabour the quaint Englishness a bit. Carriger is, as far as I can make out, English by default (one parent being an ex-Pom), but it sometimes reads as trying too hard to sound English, and overdoing the expressions. She also uses “bollix” as alternate spelling for “bollocks” – I hadn’t seen that spelling before so I looked it up, and found that the change was “to make it appear less vulgar”. Spelling it that way also alters the meaning, to refer to something being messed up. In the book, “bollix” was used as “bollocks”, as in, “damn!” I know, I get hung up on these details – mostly I just find it interesting, but I do find that historical romance authors don’t research very well and even though this isn’t technically historical romance, I do find myself looking out for mistakes. (Dialogue is always a toughie, since so many expressions – the way we say things, our word choices and speech patterns – are fairly modern, including, don't get me started, the word “gotten”.)
I did love the ending though. I have to question the intelligence of most of the characters in their reaction to the news, since they all know that Alexia’s touch turns a supernatural being mortal - with that comes hair growth, slow healing and bodily fluids. Sorry, am trying not to spoil the ending for you but I still wanted to say that. It made the titles of books 2 and 3 suddenly make sense – well, 2 should have been obvious from early on except I wasn’t thinking about it, but 3 - Blameless - became clear. I’m quite looking forward to it, even if it is a bit of a cliché!
Ivy Hisslepenny provides quite the foil, being completely blind to what's going on around her, but Felicity was a largely forgotten character altogether - which wasn't a bad thing, as she was drawn to be as snide and selfish as could be. There wasn't much of Conall Maccon in this one, and when he did appear he alternated between single-minded forgot-I-was-married to very sweet and attentive. If you don't mind your characters a bit cardboard from time to time, you shouldn't have any problems here. I guess it goes hand-in-hand with the tone of the novel, which conjures up the word "buffoon". It made it hard to start, but if you can sit down with it for any length of time you can get back into the swing of things. A bit less re-capping would have been fine by me though. And a bit less pointing-out-the-obvious-irony too.
I'm still enjoying these, complaints aside. Alexia is a loud, strong-minded, decisive heroine who doesn't beat about the bush, which is refreshing, and I do find her sympathetic. Especially now. Looking forward to Blameless, perhaps because of the personal angle that's been set up for it. (less)