This was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what a...moreThis was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story - a book or a film - but I can't think what and it's really bugging me. I don't mean that it's derivative, only that I think it might be inspired by an older tale, if only I could what it is! Oh wait, am I thinking of the film Brazil maybe? Dreams within dreams? I feel like I'm getting warmer.
The characters are a bunch of misfits, except perhaps for the main character and John. The mystery, then, was why they were there and what their connection was. The story follows a pattern that you think is going to get repetitive and boring but isn't because the "real" world, the dream space (the white room) gets incorporated into the scenarios. Though the characters are surprisingly slow at realising this.
It moves swiftly and keeps the momentum up, but to do so Celine had to sacrifice some much-needed character development. The characters are fairly thin sketches, a bit stereotypical, though they hint at greater depths. This is the first book in a series and while I'm not sure where the story goes from here (same characters??), it makes for fun, interesting reading.
Read in May 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. (less)
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted t...moreThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey.(less)
**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....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. 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)