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)
This companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which f...moreThis 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?(less)
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 sc...moreThe 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. (less)
Gwendolyn Golden lives with her mum and her much younger siblings, twins Christopher and Christine - or as she...moreThis morning I wake up on the ceiling.
Gwendolyn Golden lives with her mum and her much younger siblings, twins Christopher and Christine - or as she calls them, "the Chrissies" - and her fat beagle, Cassie. Gwendolyn is already going through a rough patch: now in grade eight, she's experienced changes brought on by puberty and is still dealing with the ongoing anger management problem that she's had since her dad disappeared during a storm before the twins were born. And now, on this fateful morning, she wakes up floating on the ceiling. Several mornings in a row, Gwen wakes up bumping gently against the ceiling and then against the screen window in her bedroom.
At first, Gwen has no control over it and her body threatens to float away during class - she worries about what might happen if she floated off into the sky while walking down the street. But soon, oblique comments made to her by two unlikely adults in her small town make her realise that she's not alone; and that, in fact, her ability to fly is something she inherited. Gwendolyn's coming-of-age journey will bring her up close to the truth of her new-found skill, and the decision of a lifetime.
It's a rough age, being thirteen, fourteen years old and in the thick of all the changes that come with adolescence. Gwen has the added issue of losing her father years ago under mysterious circumstances. This detail is initially provided more as insight into understanding her anger issues, than a plot point, but as you can guess it does turn out to be very pertinent to the plot. Yet despite Gwen's habit of blowing up at small provocations at school, she narrates her story with intelligent wit and more than a dash of irony. Like many teens, the character of Gwen is a precarious and sometimes volatile balance of childlike immaturity and wisdom, naïveté and insight, adolescent foolishness and glib artfulness. Gwen is on the cusp, and this is her coming-of-age story.
What I really admired, alongside the writing itself, was Dowding's ability to maintain this fine balance. She put Gwendolyn in situations that forced her to confront her issues, thus putting her on the path to maturity, without making her grow up too fast. Gwen was able to keep hold of her childhood; it just became richer. I'm reminded of one of my favourite characters who similarly embodies this fine line between childhood and maturity: Danny from Roald Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World.
There are times when Gwen's obstinateness and suspicious nature hold her back, but that too is something she must learn: trusting her instincts, but also how to turn to others and let herself be a child in the protection of adults. Another tricky line to straddle, in life as well as fiction. And it's not helped, in Gwen's case, by the fact that her body has taken on a life of her own. In the beginning I read Gwen's sense of alienation with her body as a figurative representation of puberty; later, I came to read it as fantasy enriched with that layer of organic human matter that makes fantasy, as a genre, so appealing to us.
As soon as my body is free, it floats lazily toward the ceiling, where it bounces around for a few minutes, then settles gently, bumping up and down against the ceiling tiles.
I realize that I'm now talking about my body like an "it," like it's no longer connected to the rest of me. But that's what it feels like. As if my body is totally in charge, and I'm just going along for the ride.
Which I guess I am.
This is very much Gwen's story, and while there are sub-plots and supporting characters who are relevant and interesting, they're not as vividly rendered as Gwen. Rather, because we see Gwen's world through her eyes, her understanding, her adolescent perspective, we get a true-to-type view of the people in her life. Gwen is fairly self-absorbed, at times judgemental, quick to react and not very curious about other people or how they're feeling. Not every teen is like that, or like that in the same way as Gwen, but it is part of Gwen's coming-of-age narration that her world view enlarges and she becomes more sympathetic and even empathetic of others. She still has a way to go, but it's a process that takes people years if not decades to learn.
I read this as a standalone novel, and while I'm not sure if it is one or not (I have since read that it's the first in a series but I don't know if that's true or not; I should just ask the author eh?), I loved it as a standalone book. It's kind of old-school, in that way, and maybe I'm traditional, but I loved the open-endedness to this story, and how Dowding created a fascinating layer to our world without removing the mystery and magic of it by explaining too much, thereby leaving plenty up to your own imagination. Dowding successfully balances humour and a touch of silliness with a dark menace that adds a macabre atmosphere to the story.
The decision that Gwen ultimately has to make can again be read metaphorically: in this pivotal time in a person's life, many decisions we make are there to stay with us the rest of our lives. To some extent, we are shaped during our adolescence. Gwen's decision is not merely about flying, but about how she will live her life. The ending can be viewed in several lights. It touches on genetics, and how these affect our lives, especially our future health and well-being. And it touches on the self: self-esteem, the creation of a personal identity, the need to be true to yourself, and the understanding that while the way others see you can deeply hurt you, you shouldn't let it shape you.
The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden is the kind of coming-of-age story that resonates. Combining teen angst with magic and a dash of mystery creates a richly layered story, and Dowding presents a heroine that readers of all ages will surely be able to relate to. Humorous and touching, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden is like a finely-tuned musical instrument that, when thrummed, you feel in your very bones.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. (less)
Stephen Swinton has always been invisible. He was born that way, and while his father couldn't handle it and left, his mother loved him and kept him a...moreStephen Swinton has always been invisible. He was born that way, and while his father couldn't handle it and left, his mother loved him and kept him and taught him how to give himself weight and presence. It doesn't matter if Stephen puts on clothes - no one can see him. No one has ever seen him. It's a family curse but his mother died of an aneurysm several years ago without ever telling him the truth of his invisibility. His father, who lives in California, pays for the apartment in New York where Stephen lives, the food and clothes he orders online and has left at his door, and rarely calls to check on him. Stephen doesn't mind. He's used to it. He watches people, but they can't see him. Until one day when, to his utter shock, a girl does see him.
Elizabeth has just moved in to the apartment down the hall with her mother and her brother Laurie after he was severely beaten by some homophobic kids at school. While Laurie is in summer school, catching up for the months he spent in hospital, and their mother works extra shifts at the hospital where she's an administrator, Elizabeth has been relegated the task of unpacking, buying supplies and getting to know their new home. Her first impression of Stephen isn't a very good one, as he just stands there staring at her, but he soon proves to be someone fun to hang out with, as he shows her his favourite places in Central Park.
For several weeks Stephen is able to pretend he's normal with Elizabeth, that he's visible - because to her, he is. Until finally, one day, the spell is ruined and Elizabeth finds out no one else can see her new boyfriend. With the upbeat help of Laurie, Stephen and Elizabeth confront his father and demand the truth: why is he invisible, and what can they do about it?
The truth is far worse than they could have imagined, and seemingly an impossible thing to solve. But with unexpected help they learn more about the family curse Stephen's grandfather laid on him and his mother, and Elizabeth discovers that she has a big role to play, not just in helping Stephen but many other people as well. But to do so means going up against someone far stronger and more powerful than they, a man who lives to curse people and who has no qualms about killing others for the sake of his own twisted logic.
I find myself drawn to these stories about people who are made invisible or turned into insects etc., though I also find that the stories never quite excite me the way I'd hoped. In a way, that's what happened with Invisibility as well, as it went in a very specific direction that I hadn't really expected (though I should have), which made it a more conventional story in the end. When I started reading this, Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen came naturally to mind: another YA story, this one about a boy who wakes up one day to find himself invisible, though when he puts clothes on you can see the shape of his body and where he is. The two novels don't have much in come other than an invisible teenaged boy, and they take the premise in very different directions. I should add that I haven't read anything by Andrea Cremer before, though I have read Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist which David Levithan co-wrote with Rachel Cohn - considering the way the characters talk in that book, I kept confusing Cremer and Levithan and thinking she wrote Nick and Norah. Perhaps, instead, she wrote Stephen's chapters and Levithan wrote Elizabeth's, as she was really more in his style. Or perhaps they wrote both characters together. I'm always curious about how these collaborations work, which seems to be a different process each time. I mention this because for many other readers, it was having these two authors collaborate that got them excited about reading this book: for me, it was the premise only.
Invisibility leaves the dazzling possibilities of Speculative and Magical Realism and instead goes straight down Urban Fantasy lane and turns left at "Magic & Mystery". Or "Magic & Mayhem" - or "Magic & Murder". We meet spellcasters, spellseekers and cursemakers, and there's nothing safe and cute and Disney about any of it. I did like that it became - not dark, but serious. People die, and are severely hurt. There are moments when it reads almost like horror. And here I was thinking it was just going to be a (possibly lame) cutesy romance like the cover implies. It might not have been the story I wanted to read, but at least it was much more than that. It just wasn't the thought-provoking or insightful book I had hoped to read.
Each chapter is told in turns by Stephen and Elizabeth, in first person present tense. It's one of the few times this actually works, and one of the few times when you could actually include their names as chapter headings - I really don't like it when books told in the third person from more than one perspective include names as chapter headings, like it isn't perfectly obvious as you read - Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series does it, as does Veronica Rossi's Under the Never Sky which I just reviewed. When using the first person, though, that's when it makes sense to include a name for the chapter, because you're just getting the personal pronoun ("I"). Still, not doing it isn't a big problem, and the great thing about Invisibility - no doubt thanks to having two authors of different genders collaborating - is how distinct the characters' voices are.
Elizabeth is smart and a bit moody and has an entertaining internal monologue going. She's close to her brother - though I couldn't work out how old Laurie is, or whether he was her twin or just a little younger? Stephen is quieter, introspective, and very alone and isolated. He is deeply caring in a sad, yearning kind of way. You have to feel sorry for Stephen: his own parents don't even know what he looks like, and with his mother gone, he hasn't felt human affection - like a hug - in years. Finding Elizabeth is an incredible experience for him. Their relationship progresses fairly slowly - no instant love here - but I never quite felt any real chemistry between them. They seemed like really close friends to me, not boyfriend and girlfriend. In fact, considering that the ending sets up a sequel (or several), I would have found this to be a much more engrossing story with a higher dose of anticipation if they had just been friends for the whole book, with some tension between them but that's it. It would have made me want to keep reading - as it is, I didn't quite connect with the characters enough to care about what happens next. I mean, there's only so long you can read about an invisible person, as their life really doesn't change. The forward momentum for the overall plot rests with Elizabeth; in contrast, Stephen is rendered passive and almost useless, and after everything he's been through already (just by existing), I felt he really was getting shafted in all this.
The pacing is great, the writing is strong, the characters are nicely developed and feel real and believable; I would have loved this I'm sure but for two sticking points that really merge into one: the direction this story takes. It's often the case that once the mystery behind something strange is revealed, a feeling of anti-climax sets in and everything feels a bit blah afterwards. Considering that we learn the truth of Stephen's invisibility about halfway through the book, there's still plenty of story and plot in which to either lose the reader or reinvest the reader. I dithered between the two. I think the way the story goes would have worked a lot better for me - been a lot stronger - had the ending been different. I would have loved to see things change for Stephen so that in the next book we could watch him grow more, develop into himself and experience the world in a way he never has before, and in turn see his relationship with Elizabeth change, develop, mature.
Sadly, the way the book ends almost renders everything that happened irrelevant and useless. I see no point in reading on if the authors are just going to keep Stephen invisible - his condition being a very useful obstacle in the romance (Romance stories always require an obstacle to keep the hero and heroine apart for as long as possible). For while we learned a lot about this world and its rules and Elizabeth's place in it, plot-wise the ending may as well have been the beginning for all anything really changed for Stephen. And that's where the story lost me, right there on the rooftop for the big finale. (Also, I wished one of the characters had suggested my idea: that Stephen take the deal - and the power - and throw it back, thus gaining visibility and preventing the person who caused it from ever using their power again. Quite possibly there are more rules as to why that wouldn't have worked, but it seemed like such an obvious solution, I would have liked to know why it couldn't have worked, at least.)
Invisibility gets big points for the main characters and their voices, which I really enjoyed. It gets points for the premise and set-up, though I'm not sure that an invisible baby is at all realistic, when you think about it. And I did enjoy the magic side of the story, I was just disappointed by how it didn't go anywhere, and neither did the characters, not really. Maybe if it had been even darker and grittier, the ending would have worked better. As it is, this was an entertaining story and a successful collaboration that maybe suffered from the prospect of too many plot possibilities and so went with the path of least resistance. (less)
When seventeen-year-old Evelyn Roe digs an unformed, featureless human right out of the red clay of her family's farm in North Carolina during a torre...moreWhen seventeen-year-old Evelyn Roe digs an unformed, featureless human right out of the red clay of her family's farm in North Carolina during a torrential winter rainstorm, she had little idea just how much her narrow existence, or her ideas of life, would change. Rhonda Riley's story of Evelyn's life, her great love for this Other being the existence of which she cannot explain but which will confront all her traditional, accepted ideas - and those of her small-town community in the aftermath of World War II - has all the quiet, everyday normality of a real woman's life, complemented by the bizarre, the extraordinary, the unexpected.
The war has not yet ended when Evelyn, the oldest of four siblings and the only one with any experience, is told by her parents that she will run her Aunt Eva's farm now that her aunt has died and her sons aren't coming back from the war. Evelyn is quite happy to work on the farm and live in Aunt Eva's old farmhouse, even if it has no electricity or indoor plumbing; she has a deep love for the land that nurtures them all and enjoys the hard work.
It is while she is out checking the property during a rainstorm that is turning into a flood that her dog, Hobo, finds something in the clay mud. Investigating, Evelyn discovers what she takes for a man's arm, then a body, and in a panic digs him out. His skin is rough-textured: she imagines that he was horribly burned in the war, but where has he come from and how did he get there? Taking him inside, wrapped in quilts, she lays him by the stove fire in the kitchen and snuggles close to keep him warm. Each glimpse of his face tells her that this is no ordinary man caught out in a storm with no clothes on. His features slowly take on shape and form, a face gradually appearing where there was barely one before. But it is days before Evelyn realises that not only is it a she, but she is identical to Evelyn. She has copied Evelyn's form.
Evelyn calls her Addie, and tells her family and the townspeople that Addie is her cousin on her father's side (her aunt being the run to run off and get pregnant - the scandal!). Belatedly she remembers that her father's side is dark, while she and Addie have the red hair and green eyes of her mother's Irish family, the McMurrough's. Still, nobody questions it, and when Addie displays an unusual skill with horses she becomes much sought-after as a trainer and "sweetener".
From almost the time when Addie's formation was complete, she and Evelyn had been lovers. As several years pass and Evelyn begins to yearn for children, Addie figures out a way to make it happen, and for the two of them to stay together: she leaves for two weeks and when she returns, she has the body of a man, a man called Roy Hope who stopped by their farm for refreshment - and to steal their money. A tall, dark-haired and handsome young man, Addie becomes Adam Hope, and the deception continues, only this time he and Evelyn can marry and have children of their own.
Throughout Evelyn's life with Adam, she is confronted by the ease of her own lies, her cowardice in never telling her children who - or what - their father really is, and the small-mindedness of the people she's grown up with, both family and townspeople. It is a long and fruitful life for Evelyn, but as she ages and Adam remains a smooth-skinned twenty-five, thirty at most, having never seen an older Roy Hope to model off, new questions emerge, and Evelyn must face a new fear - and Adam a new decision.
The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope has many strengths, especially it's fascinating premise, upon which the whole novel rests. With deep Biblical roots - the flood, the man made of clay taking the form of Evelyn, Adam-and-Eve, and the strange but beautiful bell tones Adam/Addie makes from his/her chest - the story takes the more interesting, organic angle by stripping these tropes of their religious trappings and taking them back, back to their clay-like beginnings. There is something so beautifully organic about Addie/Adam, so life-affirming. Like by removing religion from her/his beginnings, it reverts to an older form of mythology, an origin story that's about Life, not God.
Without becoming too heavy-handed, Evelyn likewise begins to question the religious upbringing of her youth (her family attend the Baptist church), which can no longer explain or speak to her new understanding of life, or the tragedies that occur. The advent of Adam in her life also makes her see the people she's always known in a new light, especially when they become small-minded and judgemental, ostracising Adam for something they don't understand: he becomes a metaphor for this in all its forms, across all of America and beyond. It was nicely done.
One of the things I loved about the story was the vivid descriptions of the land and the tangible sense of Evelyn's - and Adam's - love for it. It carries with it a strong feeling of nostalgia, too, as Evelyn's farm becomes surrounded by new highways over the years, and developers start offering pots of money for parts of their farm. Being an audience to Evelyn's life over so many decades, you really get a sense for how much has changed, some for the better, some not so desirable. The simple, peaceful life of Evelyn's youth, those early years when she lived with Addie, become rather sad because they are completely gone. Watching Evelyn go through the old farmhouse after they've moved to Florida, and feeling how empty it is, how bereft - with echoes of her and her family's lives like the height measurements on the doorframe, or the twins' treehouse - made me feel so sad, especially as I've felt such moments myself, though nothing so strong as this.
In a way, the novel struck me as less of a romance between Evelyn and Adam, and more of a romance between Evelyn and the land - which Adam came from, and represents. But while I never quite managed to connect with Adam - Evelyn keeps him at a distance from the reader; more on that in a bit - the land itself is a much stronger "character" in the novel. A "character" I could believe in and understand. These are the strengths of the novel; where Riley's debut novel struggles a bit is in knowing where to take the story, from that riveting premise to a satisfying and meaningful conclusion, and in creating characters who manage to resonate in your heart.
While I did find the story to be believable - it's written in such a way, with just enough focus on details and the everyday - I did find that the characters struggled to live off the page. Evelyn is writing this as something to leave her daughters, as she never managed to tell them the truth of their father or how her youngest, Sarah, now looks Asian after several years of living with her husband in China - but it's just the proof she needs. And it does have that cadence to it, a kind of storytelling rhythm, that I liked. It feels like Evelyn really is speaking/writing/retelling the story of her life; she is an ordinary woman, with no special gifts or talents of her own, and no remarkable life-changing moments - except for those concerning Adam, which she's always kept secret. So it is easy to relate to her. She feels incredibly familiar. But I never really connected with her, emotionally.
I had a similar problem with Adam, and all the secondary characters. I felt like I was watching a movie, a film play out before me, something that I could visualise clearly in my imagination but which never quite made it to my heart. The telling point was the terrible tragedy that strikes the family: it was exactly the kind of thing that would normally make me cry, a lot, and yet it barely made my eyes wet.
There are moments of tension, scenes of danger even - as when Evelyn races to "abduct" Adam from the hospital where the doctors, having X-rayed him and discovered some strange and, they believe, life-threatening abnormalities about him, are getting ready to cut him open - but by and large the story is more like a gently rolling hill. It was often quite soothing, to go with the flow, see where it took you, and watch this family grow and age and change and so on. But it also has a kind of aimlessness that I wasn't really expecting, and I can't decide whether the ending was the only ending it could have had (my gut says "yes") or a bit of a cop-out (that's my cynical, critical side having its say). Whichever it is, it wasn't totally satisfying, perhaps because it just lacked the kind of oomph you would want in this kind of story, about someone as incredible as Adam.
As an abstract concept, I loved Adam. Having him change from female to male (I don't feel qualified to comment on Evelyn taking a lover who looked exactly like herself) was a pivotal moment and, theoretically, opens up a whole range of questions on gender identity and the norm (in fact, Adam as an Otherwordly being opens up those questions regardless), but the novel shied away from going down that speculative route and instead stayed on the well-trodden path of a Woman's Story. Nothing wrong with that, but it was disappointing for me, as I love those books that delve into such topics and really make me think in new and confronting ways. That, I fear, is at the heart of my umming-and-ahhing: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope carries with it the promise of a confronting novel and instead tries to force the Unusual and Unknown into the mould of the Everday, the Normal.
While this is, I believe, partly the point of the novel - it is Evelyn's decision to put limits on Adam's Otherness, to try and make him fit in, and this fear of being ousted or found out is at the heart of Evelyn's inner conflict: she loves the things that make Adam unique but is too scared of people's reactions to allow him to reveal them to anyone else - it made of Adam's uniqueness a tool or literary convention, rather than a puzzling, speculative and thought-provoking question in its own right.
To be fair, that does make the novel successful in its aims: this is a story about an ordinary person trying to make the extraordinary into the everyday out of fear and cowardice, never quite able to unite the two sides of herself and make peace with the unanswerable questions. But to me it remained merely observational. Evelyn, with her minimal educational background, was not someone able to look too deeply into the unknown: she had questions but never once came close to thinking through them to find answers for herself, she wanted someone else to hand them to her, and Adam had no idea where he was from or what he was anymore than she did (but he, at least, was content with who he was and was focused on living and loving life to its fullest). Certainly, this leaves the reader to form their own speculations, but it doesn't change the fact that the novel remains sadly shallow in that regard.
As you can tell from all that, I feel very conflicted about this book. It is a fairly slow read, the prose being a bit stiff especially up until Evelyn has her first child (I loved that Riley portrays childbirth so realistically; too many writers don't and it's become a bit of a pet peeve of mine), but there is a great deal of potential here and Riley is, at the end of the day, a strong writer with interesting ideas and a deft touch for making the ordinary seem extraordinary. Regardless of how I felt about the ending and so on, this isn't a forgettable story and the lingering questions strengthen rather than weaken it: the unexplained mystery is more compulsive, fascinating and beguiling than the answers ever could be.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)