Maria Lewis's debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crimMaria Lewis's debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crime-mystery sleuthing prevalent in the genre. The story introduces blue-haired, fun-loving, smart-mouthed Tommi Grayson, born in Scotland after her pregnant mother left her native New Zealand in a hurry. Eight months after her mother's accidental death, Tommi is finally ready to head off to her mother's homeland to try and find her father - not to meet him, just to see. After all, her mother had once confessed that her pregnancy was the product of a rape, so she hardly wanted to sit down to a cup of tea with the man.
Armed with a possible name, Tommi's search leads her to a large house on a quiet street at the end of town, where she learns a lot more about her father and his family than she ever wished for - and about herself.
The strength of this story is without a doubt Tommi herself, who narrates with humour, intelligence, compassion and strength. Due to her werewolf heritage, she has a temper and so was directed into martial arts, and her post-New Zealand training builds on that. But the other key character whom you can't help but love is Lorcan, the ex-Praetorian Guard turned Custodian for the Trieze, the 'rulers', if you will, of this new paranormal world Tommi finds herself well and truly caught up in. Lorcan reminded me of Joscelin from the Phèdre series by Jacqueline Carey - a bit of a romantic dream, to be honest, but such a good one! If you're not familiar with the series, think beautiful, noble (and rather sweet) man who is also a fierce and highly skilled warrior and, to top it off, devoted and protective but not domineering (that's it, right there, the romantic dream!). Lorcan is in that vein, and Tommi's relationship with him builds slowly and believably, adding that extra layer of tension that keeps you invested.
That isn't to say, though, that this is a romance, only that it is romantic with guts - the ideal kind for an Urban Fantasy. Speaking of, I was so relieved that Who's Afraid? didn't follow the usual pattern of Urban Fantasy novels: that of the mystery, detective kind. While dead bodies do turn up, it's always clear who is behind it, and Tommi is on no quest beyond mastering her werewolf self and training before the next full moon. Tension and suspense is maintained because you know something's going to happen, and it's also maintained by showing Tommi's normal days - normalcy always raises the stakes.
While the plot has its formulaic moments, especially in regards to the showdown climax with her insane young relative, Steven, it also surprises. Lewis takes the time to develop Tommi's character, to let you experience what 'normal' looked like for her, to meet her friends and come to love them too, so that your emotional investment is well and truly secured. And with Tommi narrating, I flew through my reading of this, easily glued to the page, and made a nice pile of soggy tissues at the end (really, Lewis holds no punches). Things have been set up for a clean sequel with a fresh new story, and Tommi is the kind of character you want to accompany for the long haul.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
Charlotte Wood's fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia's good-natureCharlotte Wood's fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia's good-natured, laid-back, egalitarian image. It is inspired, in part, by the Hay Institution for Girls, "an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and '70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men's prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence." (Susan Wyndham, SMH) It is also inspired, or influenced, by the reaction to sex scandals over the years - far from being seen as victims, or equally responsible, the women in these scandals are vilified and denigrated - and hated.
In such ways do incredible true stories and a confronting dystopian fiction come together. In Wood's alternate present day setting, ten girls are drugged and taken to a remote sheep station, long abandoned and falling into ruin, in outback Australia (the state isn't clear but it would be either Victoria or NSW, most likely). They wake groggy and fearful, without their clothes or possessions, wearing old-fashioned clothes to which a leash can be attached and locked. Their heads are shaved, they're served small portions of the least nutritious food you can think of - Kraft-style Mac and Cheese, two-minute noodles, no fruit or veg - and bullied and beaten by the two men hired to guard them. Boncer and Teddy - and a young woman of dubious background herself, Nancy, who dresses up as a nurse with paper costume pieces and plastic toy stethoscope - are their guards. Surrounded by a high electrified fence, they are all locked in, trapped, but for the ten young women their lesson is to learn what they are, not who; and for the men, it is to teach them this.
This nightmare situation (as a female reader, I couldn't help but feel vulnerable, even threatened) is vividly rendered in Wood's delicate, descriptive prose and made all the more frightening by the idea, lurking beneath the surreal every-day existence depicted, that this plan wasn't even thought through all that well; or that, if it was carefully planned, it was planned by a truly cruel, evil fuck who has no regard for human life, health or sanity. It is the not-knowing, the ambiguity, the lack of information and facts that add to the tension and terror for the reader. Trying to imagine adults sitting down and planning this, justifying it, and then seeing it through makes my brain want to shut down. And yet, as evidenced by the real-life inspiration from the Hay Institution for Girls, it is entirely possible, today as well. It comes down to attitudes, to ideological mind-sets, to what a collective group of people believe is true and right. That's how we justify all manner of things, from bombing foreign towns to imprisoning Aboriginal peoples for minor infractions. Wood's ultimate triumph, in terms of ideas, is to remind us mutable our ideologies really are, and how, for as much as we like to think we are advanced, civilised, better than before, we actually have an awful long way to go. The reason, the ultimate reason why The Natural Way of Things is so disturbing and terrifying, is that there is a part of me that gets it, that understands that there is only a thin membrane of love, compassion and strength keeping women safe in this and many other Western countries.
I hear accounts of people claiming that feminism is no longer needed, isn't necessary, isn't important - that plenty of women not only don't consider themselves feminists, but have come to believe some strange version of reality in which feminism is a negative thing, a repressive or virulent, angry and hateful thing. What could be more successful to the largely-unconscious patriarchal agenda than this re-writing of feminism? Whoever owns the definition of a word, owns the word, and sadly, these days, women no longer own their own word. "Women are their own worst enemy" is a common enough saying - I say it myself - and I believe it is often, sadly, true. We constantly sabotage our own efforts at being - not just taken seriously, but treated equally.
This is captured in rather pessimistic ways by Wood's characters, from the two main female narrators - Verla, in first-person present-tense, and Yolanda, in third-person past tense - to the other eight girls unjustly imprisoned with them. Verla was involved in an affair with a politician and still, naively, believes that Andrew will come and rescue her, that she's different from the others, whom she judges almost as harshly as everyone else has done. Yolanda is the most clued-in, but she is also the only one who wasn't tricked into signing her rights away. She knew something was up, and she fought. They overwhelmed her and drugged her anyway, and she knows no one is coming for them because even her beloved brother was in on it. The other young women, all involved in various different kinds of scandals for which they took all the hate, represent different kinds of women, but none of them are particularly flattering. Barbs, the swimmer, is a big girl who suffers such a violent beating on their first day for speaking out that her jaw is permanently crooked, is obviously the butch one. Three of the girls become obsessed with their body hair, tweezing them out of each other's bodies, trying to maintain a look that they have long been trained to want. Hetty, "the cardinal's girl" (and doesn't that just make you cringe?) is depicted as small-minded and somewhat malicious. The list goes on, none of it flattering.
Yet such is the way Woods has crafted this novel that you come away with a clearer understanding: we're all flawed, none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes, and while you might not want someone like Hetty as a friend, or even value her as you would Verla, does she deserve this? Hopefully, the answer for all readers is a resounding NO! And as much as I'd like to think, "Oh this could never happen", a part of me doesn't really believe that.
I read this - in a day - just as the Briggs scandal broke, and the cricket player Chris Gayle got in trouble for his comments to a female sports reporter. An Age article brought attention to how the woman at the receiving end of Briggs' unwanted attention was being turned into the scapegoat rather than the victim, while following the Gayle story showed how quickly most of the country went from "His comments to a professional journalist were a swift means of reducing her from a serious journalist to an object for the male gaze" to "this is a complete over-reaction, lighten up, his comments were meant innocently, the political correctness police are going too far". That reporter understands her male-dominated world and distanced herself from it all, saving her job and her reputation, while the public servant in the Briggs' case was close to experiencing complete demolition because she made a complaint. It's telling. There is also the on-going discussions of the high rate of domestic violence in Australia, which is a huge problem and caused by, among other things, this over-arching lack of respect for women.
But none of this would be as memorable and hard-hitting if it weren't for Wood's writing. While I thought her control wasn't consistent and I found the use of present tense annoying and pointless for Verla's narration, overall it is beautifully and poetically written. Something incredible is done to violence when written in such simple yet beautiful language as this:
One big girl, fair-skinned with fleshy cheeks and wide, swimmer's shoulders, said irritably, 'What? We can't hear you,' and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn't see the man's swift, balletic leap - impossibly pretty and light across the gravel - and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw. They all cried out with her as she fell, shrieking in pain. Some of their arms came out to try to catch her. They cowered. More than one began crying as they hurried then, into a line. [p.24]
The contrast of Boncer's 'swift, balletic leap - impossibly pretty' with the violent beating of Barb increases the shock value, the sense of wrongness and the realisation of powerlessness. Violence against women (such as domestic violence) has long proved an effective tool in the hands of misogynistic men.
At other times, especially after the power goes out (except for the electric fence) and they run out of food, and begin going crazy in their own separate ways, Wood's prose captures a primordial truth as well as day-to-day reality:
Yolanda hugged the squishy mint-green and baby-pink packages to her chest, squatting in the grief and shame of how reduced she was by such ordinary things. It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat. [p.122]
It is a theme I've been interested in for some time now, this idea of shame and women's bodies, of the successful rewriting and control of women's bodies by, really, the Catholic Church and then, really, everyone. I'm very much of the mind that women need to reclaim their bodies, their right to their bodies but also how they value them and their needs and desires. I'm resistant to Yolanda's view, but I can understand it. And in many cultures around the world, past and present, women are controlled through the social traditions dictating behaviour and menstruation. As if, by teaching girls and women to see themselves in this low way, they remove the power that females rightfully possess, out of the age-old fear of woman's ability to create life. And as is often the way in literature, where this discourse of womanhood and power appear, so too does a representation of the landscape, the natural world:
When she wakes, her face printed with grass blades, she finds her way to a hillside of scrub. She walks in it like a dream, climbing the slope in the noisy silence. Silty leaves cling to the soles of her feet. There is the patter of wet droplets falling from the gently moving leaves far above. High squeaks and tin musical turnings of tiny birds. Sometimes a hard rapid whirr, a sprung diving board, and a large dove explodes from a vine and vanishes. A motorised insect drones by her ear. She looks upwards, upwards, and sees long shreds of bark, or abandoned human skins, hanging in the branches. The bush breathes her in. It inhales her. She is mesmerised by pairs of seed pods nestled at the base of a grass tree: hot orange, bevelled, testicular. [p.135]
A dichotomy of human-made vs. nature is a common-enough theme, but here rendered all the more turbulent and visceral by the circumstances, the very premise of the story. Even the title, The Natural Way of Things, speaks of this idea. It can refer to our determination to claim, possess and control - through language more than anything else - the natural world, which is also representative of womanhood (Mother Earth etc.), and also to a primordial, primitive and thus 'natural' way of life, an absence of so-called civilisation - relevant to Yolanda's increasing strangeness as she becomes one with the land, and Verla's ultimate decision. It speaks to the sadness I was left with at the end, which presents a kind of either/or scenario: either you live in the 'civilised' world and let it dictate who and what you are, or you shun it entirely, abandon it and become 'primitive'. Again, this is how we often grasp the world, and attempt to tame it: through words, and the positive or negative connotations of words. The ambiguous ending, with its taint of further horror balanced by a thin brush of hope, makes it clear who has really won in this world, which is really our world in disguise.
Make sure, when you start this book, that you have nothing planned for the day, because you'll want to read it all the way through in one sitting - and should. This is a book I will enjoy re-reading, and pondering anew. It has so far been nominated and longlisted for a couple of awards, and I hope to see it appear on more lists this year. It is a deserving book, working on multiple levels and one of those lovely rare treasures that can be interpreted and experienced in different ways by different readers, making it rich and unique. Comparisons have been made (in the blurb) to The Handmaid's Tale and Lord of the Flies, but 'comparison' is the wrong word for it: it is more that The Natural Way of Things has joined an on-going exploration into human behaviour, the powerful dominance of ideologies and their effect on both individuals and culture, and violence....more
The best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the linThe best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the lines of discrimination, prejudice and, beyond that, cloning, robotics - all things that ultimately lead to that unanswerable question: what does it mean to be human?
In 2012, a young medical student was travelling on a bus with a male friend in Delhi, India, when the five men and one teenaged boy on board beat her friend and dragged her to the back of the bus, to endure forty-five minutes of rape and assault. She died. The incident isn't isolated, but it's very blatant cruelty sparked protests and women-driven calls for change all across India. India may have a more obvious patriarchal ideology than Western countries like Australia, but when the bus driver in this particular case said in an interview that women are to blame for being raped, well that's not an Indian attitude at all. You here people - not only men, sadly - say the same thing in Western countries. Around the same time, a young Melbourne woman was raped and killed while walking home. We have a long way to go yet, in gender equality and respecting women.
Out of tragedy often comes something good, though, and one such example is Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, an anthology of shorts stories, graphic novel shorts, and one script written in collaboration between Australian and Indian women writers and illustrators. The title, according to the editors,
"suggested impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone. ... This collection of stories embraces the idea of not just eating pie but of taking big, hungry mouthfuls of life and embracing the world. It's about the desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren't meant to do. We asked our contributors to re-imagine the world, to mess with the boundaries of the possible and the probable. ... Ultimately, this is a book about connections - between Australia and India, between men and women, between the past, the present, the future and the planet that we all share. If we had to name one thing we learnt in the process of making this anthology, it's the fact that when you eat the sky and drink the ocean, you are part of the earth: everything's connected." (Introduction, pages vii-ix)
Some of the contributors will be familiar to you; for me, an Aussie, the fact that my favourite author - Isobelle Carmody - was a contributor meant that I had to move this right to the top of my to-read list (I started reading it as soon as I got it, and actually finished it three days later - quite a feat for me at present!). Other names I recognised included Justine Larbalestier (I loved Liar) and Margo Lanagan (ditto for Tender Morsels). But I was blown away by so many of these authors and illustrators, unknown to me; I was truly inspired.
The anthology starts off strongly with the graphic short story, "Swallow the Moon", written by Kate Constable and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. It is an uplifting, mystical sort of story, a story of hope and renewal around a deep core of tragedy. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, everything we know - all our 'stuff' - is gone; all that remains is the rubbish that drifts onto the beaches. The story was articulately told and beautifully illustrated.
It is from this story that the stunning cover illustration comes, too. It sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the anthology, which shows an impressive diversity of ideas and imagination, all linked by this common thread of a girl's place - and often, a boy's too - in society. Some of the other stories that stood out to me include "Memory Lace" by Payal Dhar - I am so a product of my society that I didn't see the 'twist' in that story! - "Anarkali" by Annie Zaidi and Mandy Orr, a graphic short story about a farming girl who is entombed alive for falling in love with the prince. She discovers she has the strength to escape, if she becomes one with her surroundings. In "Cast Out" by Samhita Arni, the familiar trope of exile into certain death for girls who exhibit sorcery - simply because it is not allowed - is given a strong, encouraging and hopeful ending when Karthini discovers a world in which she can be herself. In fact, that idea of finding your place, accepting yourself and being accepted by others, recurs in a number of these stories.
Several flip the gender imbalance on its head, like "The Runners" by Isobelle Carmody and Prabha Mallya, which also explores the idea of what it means to be human. As in some of the other stories, the central message is that how we perceive ourselves affects how we are perceived by others, and vice versa. If you are seen as human (meaning you are treated as one), you will be human.
Larbalestier's short story, "Little Red Suit" is a post-apocalyptic retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood"; it's not the only story to play around with well-known storylines and tropes. Environmentalism is also a running theme throughout this anthology, and it ties in well with the editors' comment about being connected to the planet. It made me think, what would this anthology look like if, keeping the same purpose and ideas and focus on girls, it was written by male authors? Because sometimes I wonder at that gender gap, that difference in perception that seems so hard to shift. What insights would we get? How do they see us, really?
Two of the stories - "Weft" and "Mirror Perfect" - deal with our contemporary society's obsession with appearance, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it. "Cooking Time", which I loved, questioned the point of survival for the sake of it, if there's nothing to enjoy. "Back-stage Pass", by Nicki Greenberg, is a short graphic story about Ophelia, and why she threw herself into the water, and the power of self that we gain when we take control of how we're 'written': how others perceive us, and the direction our lives take.
Each story offers something different to the conversation, in different styles and from different perspectives and genres. Some I loved, a couple I didn't quite click with, but overall, they showed how diverse we all are, women and men, girls and boys. We all have something worthwhile to offer the world. We can find safety and harmony and joy in working together and loving each other. And, ultimately, change is possible. ...more
I only learnt of this book this year, and I’m so glad I did! Set on a juggernaut called Worldshaker, in an alternate present in which the reign of QueI only learnt of this book this year, and I’m so glad I did! Set on a juggernaut called Worldshaker, in an alternate present in which the reign of Queen Victoria continues indefinitely, alongside the Victorian mentality. Col is the son of one of the elite families on the mobile city; his grandfather is the Supreme Commander and he is next in line. Everything in his neat, ordered world is right and good. But then one night a Filthy escapes from Below and hides in his cabin, a girl called Riff. The Filthies are barely human, he’s been taught, but this one challenges his understanding. His only other exposure to them are through the Menials, silent, tongueless and lobotomised servants ‘rescued’ from Below to serve the upper classes. Col’s encounter with Riff is the beginning of something new, dark and terrifying, as everything he believed in begins to fray.
This is a wonderful adventure story containing familiar elements and tropes but still a unique, standalone novel. While you will have a greater and more cynical understanding of the workings of this world than Col does, his path to understanding is rendered so vivid and nail-bitingly tense that it won’t matter. While it utilises the Victorian steampunk tradition, the story acts as an indictment on how we still treat others, even today, not only through class systems but through words and names alone.
At the back of the book are some great maps of the juggernaut, which I wish I’d known about sooner than I did, as they’re very helpful!...more
The first book in the Maze Runner series begins with the main character and narrator, Thomas, waking up in a metal cage as it rises up out of the grouThe first book in the Maze Runner series begins with the main character and narrator, Thomas, waking up in a metal cage as it rises up out of the ground and into a glade. He’s greeted by a large group of boys, all fairly young, who have been trapped here for a few years, surrounded by a maze of towering stone walls that shift in the night, patrolled by fearsome creatures they call Grievers. While each boy has a duty and a job to perform, a select few ‘run’ the maze every day, mapping it, trying to find the way out. Thomas soon proves himself as a runner, and joins them. Time, though, is against them when the routine is disrupted by the arrival of another new kid – a girl.
Despite Thomas’s quickly annoying narrative voice, I did find the premise and early chapters quite promising – this is the kind of story I’m drawn to, but I find all too often that a clever or interesting idea can quickly fizzle out. Such is the case with The Maze Runner, which soon felt like all the other American YA spec fic out there. The answers you get at the end are a bit eye-rollingly predictable and anticlimactic. That said, I did watch the movie after finishing the book, and the book is better. There’s just more in it, more substance and character development, which the film was sorely lacking....more
The word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (argThe word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (arguably) metaphorical circus of the media, or politics. Coupled with the concept of a circus as a performance for the sake of entertainment, is entangled the concept of a feeding frenzy, a loud, seemingly chaotic ambush of a multitude of gazes. The freak shows of the 19th century may have officially ended, but our rapt attention to 'reality TV' shows - featuring people at their worst as well as their best - is testament to our ongoing love, obsession and fascination with the strange, the flawed, the bizarre or simply anyone who makes us feel better about ourselves. Paddy O'Reilly's latest book, The Wonders, does a superb job of shining a light on the blurred lines between what is normal and what is not, as well as our own rabid interest in creating the 'Other' as a way to position and understand who we are, collectively and individually.
I absolutely loved O'Reilly's previous novel, The Fine Colour of Rust; while The Wonders is written with the same light touch, and there are some moments of humour, these are two very different books. The Wonders is a more serious, more issues-based examination of society and its foibles, as well as our insecurities, fears and obsessive natures.
The story centres around Leon, whose heart began to give out when he was twenty-six; a year after his first (of many) heart attacks, he's given a new heart, but his body begins to reject the transplant. Living with his mother again while he waits to die, at the bottom of the heart transplant list because it would be his second transplant, Leon is contacted by a surgeon offering a possible chance at life - a highly illegal, unauthorised chance. The doctor, Susan Nowinski, and her husband, Howard, an engineer, have a radical plan to install a mechanical heart in Leon's chest. An excruciating procedure over the course of a year is followed by a recovery in isolation, until a local GP spills the beans after a routine check-up. Leon is contacted by many in the media (the expression 'media circus' comes to mind early on in the book, in the sense of a noisy, persistent menagerie), offering him money in exchange for his story, or from scientists and doctors wanting to study him, but it is a call from an American woman that draws him down to Melbourne to hear a more unique offer.
Rhona is a wealthy entrepreneur behind many successful shows, and her new idea is a winner - if she convince Leon to sign up for it. Not a conventional circus, to be sure, but it would require him to be on display, to be looked at. Rhona already has two others in the show: Kathryn Damon, an Irish woman "whose gene therapy for Huntington's had cured the Huntington's but left her covered in wool" [p.15]; and Christos Petridis, a performance artist from Greece who had special implants put into his back that enable him to bear - and flex - metal wings. After a few months of training and working out at Rhona's large home, called Overington, which is also home to rescued and ex-circus animals, they are introduced to the world as 'the Wonders', appearing at private dinners for exorbitant prices.
But fame always comes at a cost, not least for these three who are so different. They are both highly visible figures, and hidden, secluded ones, enveloped in a façade of disguise and illusion. Yet, that, too, is an illusion. Just as they cannot take off the very identities which have made their names - Lady Lamb, Seraphiel (which later changed to the more simple Angel), and Clockwork Man (later, Valentino) - neither can they be protected from the craziness in humanity that responds to difference.
Where The Wonders really delivers is on the themes and issues at its heart. The novel is deceptively light and easy to read: much like what we see on TV, on the surface at least it doesn't require effort to 'watch' what unfolds. But unlike with TV, O'Reilly constantly (and gently) encourages us to think, and question, and wonder. The wondrousness of life, the sparkling beauty of an individual and an appreciation of our differences is present, but juxtaposed against an encroaching darkness, a manic edge of fear, insecurity, greed and fetishistic obsessiveness. There are a few places where humanity's complex nature is explored overtly, such as when a group of disabled people - veterans, victims, unfortunates - ambush the Wonders after a show and declare their anger at what they see as shameless exploitation, calling the Wonders 'whores in a peep show' [p.136] and not contributing to society in a meaningful way. Kathryn, never one to back down or keep her own thoughts quiet, responds just as aggressively, but being faced with 'real' disability makes Leon feel empathetic.
Rhona tugged at Leon's sleeve and pulled him further into the passage. The gesture made Leon think about how no one would dare touch the empty sleeve or the hard gnarly stub of the man who waited below. If the man was not married, he probably felt the same loneliness Leon had been experiencing since he was implanted with his brass heart. It was more than sexual frustration. It was a deep ache of physical loneliness. A hunger. Wanting to be gripped by the wrist when a friend was making a point, or to have a hand pressed against his back as he was guided through a doorway. Leon was nervous of being touched and yet he craved it. And he knew from experience how disfigurement caused such discomfit and, at the same time, such fascination in most people that they were afraid to touch you even though it was the one thing they longed to do. [pp.136-7]
[caption id="attachment_20618" align="alignleft" width="193"] I love the North American cover! (The Wonders is due out in February 2015.)[/caption]Lingering at the periphery of such scenes - encouraged by the circus parallels - is the constant question of what is real and what is fake, what is illusion, disguise, and what is the 'real deal'. Christos, a self-absorbed artiste, changed his body for art - willingly, and with intent. Leon allowed others to experiment on his body on the slim chance of a second life. Kathryn, though, has become a true freak through no fault of her own, and has a truly horrible pre-Wonders past: her husband took advantage of her, taking demeaning photos of her, subjecting her to scrutiny in an attempt to make money, and even now that they're divorced, continues to harass her and Rhona, demanding a share of her income from the Wonders. What they each show, individually, and together, collectively, is just how complex humans are, how complex our lives are: the more we try to define, categorise and label in an attempt to understand and, ultimately, judge, the more difficult it becomes to do just that without distorting perception.
The characters are tangible, memorable and interesting, helping to propel the story forward. There is only minimal foreshadowing, and some backtracking into Leon's ground-breaking surgery, to break up the chronological flow. It is a coming-of-age story for Leon, who must grow as a person, let fame get to his head and then become grounded once more, but he must also learn how to let himself feel. For the man without a beating heart (it really would be freaky, not having a pulse!), Leon realises he can still feel, but more than that: that it is necessary to let others know that you feel, especially if they're to accept you as human.
While the idea of what it means to be human - or who is human - is at the heart of The Wonders and is brilliantly handled, I found that the style and structure of the novel itself was where I was slightly, ever-so-slightly, disappointed. Perhaps it is testament to O'Reilly's ability in crafting generous, fascinating and believable characters, but I felt cheated at the story's narrative style: it skims along the surface, dipping down into a scene and then coasting along the surface again, covering weeks and months in the space of a breath. It was partly because of this that I felt confused and not very convinced by Leon's relationship with Minh (and perhaps because of the context in which she's introduced into the story, I was suspicious of her too, which didn't help). I never really got to know Kathryn and Christos to an extent that would have satisfied - they remained displays, figures made up of their personas, people you couldn't touch. Maybe that's the point, and maybe it's a point too far, if it is.
Quite likely it will improve for me with further readings; I've learned from previous experience that those novels written in a deceptively simple way hold onto their secrets and their wonders - pun intended - for longer than those written in fancier language. Despite the unevenness of my initial reading experience, this is a subtle, layered tale, combining classic circus stories of showmanship, subterfuge and illusion (I couldn't help but be reminded of Angela Carter's excellent, and mind-bending, Nights at the Circus), as well as family, loyalty and generosity of spirit, with a perceptive social commentary on 21st-century attitudes, obsessions and prejudice. I heartily recommend The Wonders, which is a book that will satisfy in many ways, even if it didn't quite satisfy me, personally, in all of them. ...more
This was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what aThis was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what and it's really bugging me. I don't mean that it's derivative, only that I think it might be inspired by an older tale, if only I could what it is! Oh wait, am I thinking of the film Brazil maybe? Dreams within dreams? I feel like I'm getting warmer.
The characters are a bunch of misfits, except perhaps for the main character and John. The mystery, then, was why they were there and what their connection was. The story follows a pattern that you think is going to get repetitive and boring but isn't because the "real" world, the dream space (the white room) gets incorporated into the scenarios. Though the characters are surprisingly slow at realising this.
It moves swiftly and keeps the momentum up, but to do so Celine had to sacrifice some much-needed character development. The characters are fairly thin sketches, a bit stereotypical, though they hint at greater depths. This is the first book in a series and while I'm not sure where the story goes from here (same characters??), it makes for fun, interesting reading.
Read in May 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. ...more
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted tThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey....more
If, like me, you have a childhood steeped in fantasy and folklore; a love of the natural world and a soul-deep recognition of its greater importance iIf, like me, you have a childhood steeped in fantasy and folklore; a love of the natural world and a soul-deep recognition of its greater importance in the scheme of things; a deep fascination with 'misfit abilities' (as in The Obernewtyn Chronicles and The X-Men); and a love for adventure stories involving youngsters outwitting malicious adults, you will, hopefully, love The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf as much as I did. This didn't just hit all my storytelling 'wants', to borrow the analogy; it barrelled into them, knocked them flat, then pulled them up and charged off into the next exciting chapter with me grinning inanely the whole time (except for the times when the tension and anticipation got to me, of course).
Not so very far in our future, the apocalypse wipes out pretty much everything we know. Driven by climate change, what emerges in its aftermath is not only a drastically changed world, but a new mindset too. The new world's ideology follows the doctrine of the revered yet mysterious Alexander Hoffman, a historical figure who guided civilisation back onto the path of survival. The ideology bestowed on this new world revolves around a Balance in nature rather than Gods: the idea that harmony must be maintained or another disaster will occur, and next time it might really be the end of everything. To prevent this, the surviving society implemented the Accords, a set of laws that everyone lives by. One of these Accords, the Citizenship Accords, has in turn created an underclass of exiled Illegals: mostly children and teenagers who fled before they could be detained due to their mutant abilities, which are seen as a threat to this new world order.
One of those Illegals is Ashala Wolf, who fled Gull City with her friend Georgie, also an Illegal, four years ago. Making their way through the grasslands - inhabited by man-eating giant Saurs, the first new creature of this new world - to the Firstwood, a forest of towering Tuart trees, Ashala makes a pact with the land and its creatures. In exchange for making a home in the Firstwood, they vow not to eat any meat. Living a sustainable existence amongst the trees and within the extensive cave networks, Ashala and Georgie are soon joined by other Illegals escaping detention, and the families that would betray them. Together they form the Tribe, of which Ashala is the leader, but they never stop watching and listening to what's happening in any of the eight remaining cities in the land.
Now, everything that Ashala has built seems about to be destroyed. A prisoner at Detention Centre 3 in Gull City, Ashala knows the man in charge, Neville Rose, will use everything he has to get information from her concerning the Tribe, and their rebellious movements. And by 'everything', Ashala knows it means facing the machine. It's just a ghastly rumour, but Ashala, Georgie and Ember know that Neville Rose and Miriam Grey have built an interrogation device that goes against the Benign Technology Accords - an accord designed to prevent the kind of technology-driven disaster that befell the world before.
Betrayed by someone she had welcomed into the Tribe, Ashala is now her betrayer's captive. Justin Connor is an Enforcer, and a Citizen. With this enemy by her side, she now faces the next: an elderly, kindly man, the Chief Administrator of Detention Centre 3, who seems incredibly insane but who is no less dangerous to the Tribe for that - or anyone else for that matter. Determined to extract information from her, can Ashala Wolf beat the machine and survive the interrogation? Or will Neville Rose get his way and arrest them all simply for having abilities that some believe could be a threat?
Ambelin Kwaymullina's debut novel is a powerhouse fantasy-adventure story that has invigorated my enthusiasm - previously waning at a dreadful rate - in Young Adult speculative fiction. This is the kind of story I want to read, and want more of. Thankfully, it's the start of a series (and because I'm late getting this review up, I've already read the sequel, which I loved just as much, if not more). Kwaymullina has created a strong heroine in Ashala Wolf, who provides a new and engaging voice in the post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy sub-genre, and an exciting new world.
Ashala is the leader of the Tribe, and her ability is Sleepwalking: when she sleepwalks, she can do pretty much anything. To make her ability do her bidding, she gives herself three very simple instructions in the half-asleep stage, because once she's Sleepwalking she can only hold onto three things. When she Sleepwalks, she can travel vast distances in a single bound, move through objects, fight with superhuman strength and so on. But it has its limits, and Ashala doesn't always feel that it's an ability she can control. Other Illegals can run so fast they're almost invisible, or control the clouds, or control fire, and so on. Some of the abilities really do have the potential to be dangerous, but so far the only Illegals Ashala has ever met have been frightened children, fleeing persecution and a lifetime of detention (something that really resonates in our world today, with our 'detention centres' for 'boat people, many of whom are frightened children - and adults - fleeing persecution in their own lands).
Georgie's ability is to see the possible futures, while Ember - a girl with different coloured eyes and a Citizenship tattoo whom they find in the Firstwood not long after they first arrive - has an ability to do with memories. While these two central characters are mostly on the periphery in this first volume, they come into their own in subsequent books.
One of the pivotal characters in the story is, and must be, the land itself, especially the Firstwood, which has its own tangible presence and almost a personality. The Saurs, too, prove to be more than they seem at first, and a love and appreciation of the natural world is a strongly embedded current throughout the story and this world. It is one of the things I love about it, along with the Australian Indigenous Dreaming mythology woven in (Ashala's grandfather is the rainbow serpent, a spirit being that even I have come across in my readings). It is this lovely balance between an exciting and fresh-sounding take on the classic misfit-fantasy-post-apocalyptic storyline (I hark back again to The Obernewtyn Chronicles - so glad there is another series out now to satisfy Carmody's hungry fans!), and a story with a conscience.
It is this element that really connected with me, and I think would with many readers: after all, it seems to me that we are constantly searching for a spiritual connection with the world, and while I'm not religious nor into chakras and crystals, I strongly believe that it is a disconnect with the natural world - privileging a life lived in boxes, amongst concrete, in cars, in front of computers and screens - that has contributed to the high levels of stress and anxiety (not to mention obesity and other health problems) that we see today. Sounds simplistic perhaps but why should it be complicated? I know I always feel more at peace/less stressed after an afternoon in the garden, getting my hands dirty, growing my own food. Adults tend to rigidly adhere to - and expect - the lifestyle with which they're most familiar, but children are less moulded and in many ways, more adaptable. Children's and Young Adult stories are great vehicles for exploring new worlds and new ways of being, as well as engaging with classic and mythological storylines, the kind of age-old stories with which we continue to explore our understanding of the world around us.
Kwaymullina's style is smooth and flowing, engaging and gripping and full of surprises. The romance aspect of the storyline is touching and genuine, to the point that I was biting my knuckles at the end. Race is irrelevant in this new, 300-year-old world, which is also refreshing. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf reads like a standalone novel, and having finished the second book, I can say that that's a continuing pattern. But there is an over-arching storyline at work here, and some Big Picture issues at play: not least of which revolves around discrimination, persecution and dehumanisation of the 'Other'. Beautifully written and absorbing, The Tribe is one series that I whole-heartedly recommend to as wide an audience as I can. ...more
**spoiler alert** 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.**spoiler alert** 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, 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....more
In April I finally read a Honey Brown novel, which I'd been trying to find the time for ever since I got back to Australia in late 2013 and was able tIn April I finally read a Honey Brown novel, which I'd been trying to find the time for ever since I got back to Australia in late 2013 and was able to get copies of her books (they weren't available in Canada). This Australian psychological thriller writer came highly recommended by other bloggers, and in many ways Red Queen did not disappoint. It had the additional intrigue of an apocalyptic setting, which I love. In this case, it's a global breakdown of society following a contagious, plague-like disease. Brothers Rohan and Shannon Scott have isolated themselves at the family cabin in the bush, which their father - one of those types who expected the world to end and wanted to prepare for it - had fully stocked, complete with hidden containers full of everything you could possibly need to survive the apocalypse. Rohan is the older, highly controlling and charismatic brother, Shannon his less reliable dependent. They take turns with the gun, keeping watch all night, knowing that should anyone find them not only do they risk catching the disease, but their stores could be stolen. So it is Shannon's fault - for putting down the gun and picking up his guitar - when they discover that a stranger has got into the house, touched everything, even left a note to taunt them. The stranger is Denny Cassidy, a beautiful woman desperate to join them. Rohan doesn't trust her, but both brothers are drawn to her. Is it a trap, is everything just a cold-blooded strategy to lull them into dropping their guard - is someone else out there, waiting for a signal?
Red Queen has the tension and suspense, the intrigue and mystery, and the complicated characters that good fiction like this needs. I think, though, that the ending took me by surprise. After all the edginess and the near-constant pendulum swing between Denny is a manipulator to Denny is a victim and Rohan's the bastard, the ending was both pleasing and somehow a let-down. It was just too nice. Maybe it's the adrenaline comedown. I can imagine it is supremely difficult to write in this genre without the ending turning into a cliche, because there just aren't many options available and audience expectations are high. This book also highlighted for me my trouble with genre fiction in general, as I look for those unanswerable questions about life, existence, being human, relationships - questions that make me see things in new ways without ever trying to answer them (god forbid), that isn't the role of art. Unfortunately, for as much as I enjoyed this novel and found it as engrossing as I wanted it to be, it didn't really seem to take on any big ideas, or issues. Monogamy, maybe, and trust. Compassion as the root of being humane. The idea that selfishness and isolation are the prerequisites for survival is challenged; more predictably, the need men have for the comfort of women in order to be more balanced and human is emphasised. Still, with this debut novel Honey Brown proves herself to be a very promising writer, and I'm glad I have a few more of her books to read....more
This companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, whichThis companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which follows from book one, Shatter Me, was told from Warner's perspective and was extremely intense and absorbing, and perfectly set up my high expectations for Unravel Me, which weren't just met, they were exceeded. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Fracture Me.
Told from Adam's perspective, it doesn't add a whole lot to the story and didn't flesh out Adam's character in the way that Destroy Me did for Warner. As if all Mafi's creative power went into creating Warner and there was nothing left for Adam. I liked Adam in Shatter Me, I liked him a lot, and things got a tad messy in Unravel Me which really upped the ante, but in Fracture Me, Adam backs off entirely as he puts his brother first, and seems to lose all interest in Juliette.
Is this Mafi neatly getting rid of the love triangle that dogged the first two books? If so, it works, and I'm all for tying up that loose thread. But what really disappointed me was that Fracture Me felt inorganic, constrained by its need to fill in a bit of background that Juliette's unable to witness, and overall, a bit pat.
Where were the feelings that had seemed so strong, before? Where was his passion (other than that for his brother)? Where were his ideals, even? This novella not only failed to flesh out Adam, it added nothing to my understanding of this post-apocalyptic, dystopian world, either. If Warner was able to give us a bit of insight into the Reestablishment, Adam should have been able to give us insight into either the rebel organisation, or what life was like for regular people. I've been getting increasingly absorbed by this world and the players in it, but reading Fracture Me was decidedly anti-climactic. (It didn't help that I got my memory of the ending of Unravel Me mixed up - now I'm not sure what I was remembering, exactly, and I don't have the books on hand to check, but I kept expecting Adam and Kenji to break into the house and rescue Juliette; it wasn't until I started reading the teaser chapter one for Ignite Me that I remembered what had happened.)
I also find it disturbing that, in the machinations of the plot, so many people are killed and then forgotten. If you've read this far in the series, you know what I'm referring to. I should hope that they had an evacuation plan, an escape route, since Castle's so smart, but considering how he fell apart, it doesn't look like it. Juliette, in her self-absorbed, self-indulgent way, would probably care more than the more "human" Adam, whose only thought was for his brother. Understandable, but what about after finding him safe? Adam always struck me, before, as a young man of integrity, feeling, compassion, morals, generosity of spirit - all good things. Such is my disappointment with this novella, that not only did I not get to know Adam better than before, but that my impression and understanding of him was so greatly diminished. (Likewise, he didn't offer much of a perspective on Juliette.) Though I did like this bit:
A shot rings out. [...] A guy on the far left falls to the ground and I'm shaking with anger. These people need our help. We can't just hang back and watch thirty unarmed, innocent people get killed when we could find a way to save them. We're supposed to be doing something, but we're standing here for some bullshit reason I can't understand because Juliette is scared or Kenji is sick and I guess the truth is we're just a bunch of crappy teenagers, two of who can barely stand up straight or fire a weapon, and it's unacceptable.
Still, despite all these complaints, I am still just as enthused for Ignite Me as before. With a series like this one, it's clear that Mafi can achieve great heights, and great lows. I will shelve my expectations, then, and try not to hope too much for a book to match Unravel Me. If you're reading the series - and, again, despite my complaints - it is worth reading the novellas, including this one, as they do help flesh out the plot and fill in some gaps between books, things Juliette's not privy to.
And in the meantime, I am rolling my eyes at any and all projected hypotheses regarding Kenji. If Mafi turns him into a new love interest for Juliette, I will be utterly disgusted and will lose all respect. I'm certainly not convinced Juliette's got that much going for her that she attracts so many, very different, men, but more than that, doesn't Kenji deserve his own story? His own love life? It's the way everything revolves around Juliette that starts to annoy me. Can't she just be friends with him and leave it at that?...more
The day begins like any other day for seventeen-year-old Findlay. Breakfast with his younger brother, Max, and stepmother Kara; catching the bus to scThe day begins like any other day for seventeen-year-old Findlay. Breakfast with his younger brother, Max, and stepmother Kara; catching the bus to school with Lucy Tenningworth; a lecture on social responsibility from his English teacher, Mr Effrez, who encourages the class to skip school the next day to attend a protest against nuclear tests; and studying with Lucy in the library after school.
But the day ends anything but normally. His mother, who works for the government consulting on disaster response management, calls and tells him to go to the supermarket and get as much non-perishable food and bottled water as he can carry and get home. The nuclear tests in Asia have gone ahead and all they know is that the north and Gobi Desert have been hit. Entire countries have been wiped out. There's no video feed from the area, no survivors to say what's happened, but it won't be long before the fallout covers the globe.
At home, Fin's uptight, alpha father is unconvinced of any real danger, and conversation quickly degenerates into an argument which sees Kara leaving for her mother's place and their father following without a thought for his kids. They never return. Fin and Max are on their own as dirty grey snow begins to fall, the power is off and the roads are icy. The phones aren't working, there's no communication from the government, but Fin isn't taking any chances and warns his neighbour not to let her kids play in the snow.
Fin's only idea is to find his mum. After months of living on canned beans and rice and sleeping in front of the fire, the food is running out, they're burning the furniture and then books to stay warm, and it's clear they've been abandoned by the government. If he's going to go out into that now-dangerous, unknown world, it has to be now, before things get worse. With his brother and two friends, Fin embarks on a trip from the Blue Mountains to Sydney in the hope of finding his mother at the heart of whatever command is left, helping to plan the country's response to this disaster.
Leaving town opens their eyes to the full reality of what has happened, and what is being done - or not. Getting into the heart of Sydney is no easy feat, but Fin is determined, if not for himself than for his little brother. Nothing about his world is the same, new rules apply, and death is always just a step around the corner.
I love Apocalyptic stories like this and have read a fair few. This is easily one of my favourites. It's not that it's terribly original - apocalyptic novels usually follow one of a bare few plot structures, since you need to stick to a realistic scenario to make it work. And it's not that it's free of clichés, either: there are plenty of those. But the writing just flows so naturally; Fin is a great character and carries the narration and the story so well; the story has excitement and danger and unpredictability while maintaining realism, making the tension far stronger because of it; and it doesn't become bogged down in trite teenage drama or romance. There's a romantic angle, between Fin and Lucy, but it doesn't take over the story like to many YA novels these days.
In fact, this was easily one of the best YA Speculative Fiction-Apocalyptic novels I've read, right up there with Tomorrow When the War Began, for instance. It's miles above and beyond the interminably dull Life as We Knew It, and spoke to me much more strongly even than some adult apocalyptic novels, like The Age of Miracles. It's not comparable to McCormac's The Road in terms of writing or story, it doesn't have that quality of utter bleakness, but as far as great apocalyptic stories go, it's the details that make both The Road and The Sky So Heavy work - the details and the grittiness. The Sky So Heavy has such a strong sense of realism and tension and Zorn's writing brings Fin's story so vividly to life, that while reading it I had to look out the window from time to time to remind - and reassure - myself that it hadn't actually happened. It was confronting, even nail-bitingly tense at times, and while you know Fin survives, you don't know what he'll lose in the process - or whether he'll survive in the long run.
This is more than just an end-of-the-world Young Adult novel, though. It also raises some interesting and highly relevant political themes. The nuclear testing scenario seems, at first, almost old-fashioned - the Cold War has ended, after all. But thanks to North Korea, it's been very much in the spotlight again in recent years. Zorn doesn't say what country in Asia set off bombs, but it's implied that it's North Korea. Closer to home, the disaster raises an ugly truth: an internal Us versus Them prejudice - not along race lines, as you might imagine with Australia's high Asian population, but along class lines. Who is dispensable, who is worth saving? Not only the country and rural towns are left for dead, but the outer suburbs of the major cities as well. There is only so much food, and anyone considered valuable is brought to the city centre by the army. Everyone else is left to slowly die.
Fin comes face-to-face with this new, heartless reality, and how people justify it to themselves. Fin himself has to face his decision to steal food from another person, and putting the hero of the story into that position adds depth to the realism of the story. The good guy isn't perfect, he's just human. It makes it harder to condemn the people in the city centres who are still receiving handouts of food from the army, who turn on people from outside the fence for stealing their food. Living and surviving is far from black-and-white, and Zorn's strength lies in her ability to present different perspectives and no clear answer with understated clarity.
I did mention that this isn't an original story or plot: an end-of-the-world situation, a survivor who bands together with other survivors, embarking on a journey in the hope of a positive outcome, having to make life-or-death decisions of the kind that affect others, and, of course, there's no real end in sight. An apocalyptic disaster doesn't just resolve itself or go away in a few weeks, like Fin's dad arrogantly declares it will. As for the clichés, the main one is the character of Noll, or Arnold Wang, the lone Asian misfit at school who is taunted but almost never reacts, who turns out to be a solid companion as well as a prosaic, thoughtful young man who makes them face their own consciences. It is the school-outcast-turned-friend that will be familiar to readers, but I love what Zorn did with Noll's character. She doesn't change him, but gives Fin a chance to realise how petty and mean they'd been at school. It's a nice subtle way of reminding teens that bullying others is, well, stupid. The person you bully today may be in the position to save your life tomorrow, and are you worth saving? (We're not talking apocalypses here, but any situation in which you'd need help.)
In a way, the genre itself will always shape the general plot of an apocalyptic story, because it will always have to follow a certain pattern. It's what you do with that structure, those clichés, that make each story different from the others. Zorn's debut novel is an excellent addition to the canon, a great, exciting and nicely thought-provoking story for teens and equally engaging to adult readers. I read this as a stand-alone novel, and I hope it remains so: while there's room for a sequel, I love the open-endedness of the ending, and letting a sense of hope linger in the air like the echo of a dying song. My interest in apocalyptic stories tends to wane if they're drawn out too long, because it just becomes about death and more death, and it's hard to make room for growth and hope in that. I'm happy with this as a standalone novel - I'm not even going to complain about the use of present tense - and I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy survival adventure stories, stories about the heart of humanity and the lengths we are willing to go to preserve human life on this planet. Truly an excellent achievement in the genre. ...more