Oh Laini Taylor, who do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
1. Unbelievably fantastic fantasy world-building (not to mention a globe-trotting Earth-b...moreOh Laini Taylor, who do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
1. Unbelievably fantastic fantasy world-building (not to mention a globe-trotting Earth-bound setting! Can I get a shout of "Exotic locales" anyone?) 2. Wonderful, flawed, loveable, resilient, tortured, enigmatic, honourable, loyal, loving heroine and hero (Karou and Akiva) 3. Vivid, charismatic, believable supporting characters, no matter the species 4. A plot that feels fresh and unique, so much so that I can't think what influences have gone into developing it (specific stories, myths etc. that is - aside from the Bible of course; that book influences everything whether we will it or not!) 5. A fresh take on the classic angels vs. demons story 6. Thought-provoking in its approach to making people question their own assumptions and judgements, especially around concepts of colonialism and race - pertinent as ever to a homegrown American audience but just as valued elsewhere 7. Revenant magic (not sure I've spelled that right!) 8. Surprise! An unpredictable plot and the introduction of fresh elements hitherto unforeseen
I'm pretty sure I could go on and list ad nauseum all the fine details I love and admire in this trilogy, and this book. Dreams of Gods & Monsters is the final book in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy (you can read my review of the first book here, and my review of Days of Blood & Starlight also), and it more than delivers on the exceptional first two books. Really you aren't going to hear any complaints from me. This trilogy has skyrocketed its way almost to the top of my favourite YA fantasy book list (nothing can ever knock the Obernewtyn series from the list, not even this, but it comes damn close). I was more than relieved that Taylor's final installment was just over six hundred pages long - it was not a story I wanted to end any time soon.
Whenever you get a successful YA series like this, the last book - or indeed any of the books after the first one, to which people get so attached to - can deeply polarise. Readers build their own wishes and expectations over where they want the story to go, and how they want the characters to develop, and it's rare that that coincides with the author's intentions - how could it? Personally, I love going on the ride the author wants to take me on. I very rarely bring my own expectations to a reading, simply because I very rarely ever build any. This doesn't make me a passive reader - quite the opposite in fact, and it's a disappointing book that forces me to be one, as I've complained about in other reviews. I like to see how the story unfolds; I want to experience a story, not dictate to it.
I'm reminded of those people who care so much about celebrities. There's a similarity here, to how attached people get to certain stories, and how today's readers turn fictional characters into celebrities - with "Team xxx" badges and online discussions, often quite heated, about the characters (especially sexy male ones) - as if they really were celebrities. I must just be more old-fashioned or traditional in how I read. Yes I like to daydream about characters sometimes, or think about their motives or deeds or where they're headed, but mostly just in my own head. I mean, I'm not a fangirl, in the modern sense of the word. I keep it all nice and private and personal, between me and the book. So I keep my mind open to where the author is taking me, and yes I do judge the success of a story based on plot and character development, and how successful it was, but not against any pre-conceived ideas of where I think the story should have gone, for instance.
For me, I loved the fact that Taylor brought in whole new plotlines and developments and built new layers into her world-building. I also have a long love-love relationship with fantasy fiction, of which I read so much of while a teenager and uni student, but which I hardly read much of anymore, sadly. All the things I love about fantasy are here: the fascinating worlds, the endearing and original characters, a bit of magic and mystery, a grand, sweeping and complex plot, fine details and realism, and thought-provoking social critiques. Other reviewers are perfectly right in saying that Dreams doesn't have a tight structure and the conclusion to the plot that began in the second book (the angels using Earth to acquire weapons) ended almost anti-climatically, yet none of these things disappointed me. They could have, easily, if I didn't love Taylor's writing so much, or the way her mind works, or the characters, the world and the story so much. I loved that it went in new directions and introduced new plotlines, because it meant I got to know the world and its characters even more. This place has become so real to me, like the best kind of fantasy does. I snuggle down within its pages and immerse myself. All my senses are engaged, my emotions especially (these books make me cry, make me feel what the characters feel and more), and my brain too.
If the writing itself isn't always perfect, the storytelling is. It is a fitting conclusion to a fantastic, sweeping fantasy story, and makes me want to crawl inside Laini Taylor's imagination and make myself a nest there. I am in awe of that woman's creative ability, her imagination and her way with words. Yes I got a bit tired of the climatic, revelatory stand-alone sentences (the very same kind of sentence that turned me off Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Avatar, the third book in the series, mostly because I read them all too close together). Just not enough to kill my love.
Ah, I will miss Karou and Akiva and all the other characters, and this wonderful, scary, sad, tortured yet ultimately hopeful world. It's all explained and cohesive now - all the questions I didn't know I had have been answered, and while the future is uncertain it's still a lot better than what's come before. I don't want a happily-ever-after ending, it's just not realistic; this one suited the story well. All in all, a mesmerising, emotionally-intense and brilliantly-creative ending to a stellar fantasy story. Extremely highly recommended. (less)
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)
Cara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpe...moreCara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpected - and not entirely welcome - assignment. As part of the fledgling treaty with an alien race two years after the L'eihrs first made contact, three top students from across the world have been picked by the aliens to host three of theirs, ambassadors on an exchange program of good will and mutual education. After which, the human hosts will travel to the L'eihr homeworld, a much smaller and tightly controlled planet, on exchange for the same reasons.
The student ambassador who Cara and her family will play host to is an eighteen year old boy called Aelyx. The other two ambassadors will stay with host families in China and France. Cara's parents are overjoyed - ever since her mother's life was saved when the L'eihrs gifted humans with the cure for cancer, they've been pro-alien (and on their humble income, the stipend for hosting helps, too). Not so many others in Cara's town and across America. Anti-alien sentiment continues to grow as the school year starts, and unbeknownst to Cara, it's mutual.
Aelyx and his friends, Syrine and Eron, have their own reasons and plans for destroying the alliance and severing the newly-forged ties between their people and the puny, barely civilised humans. Over the weeks, though, Aelyx finds himself drawn to his friendly host, and even appreciative of her efforts to cook him something he can actually eat. He's not concerned by the growing group calling itself HALO: Humans Against L'eihr Occupation - if anything, it plays perfectly into their plans of sabotage.
With her older brother, Troy, a Marine, on the L'eihr home planet, her boyfriend, Eric, joining HALO, and her best friend, Tori, caving under pressure and ditching her, Cara finds that soon her only friend in the whole town is Aelyx himself. Being in each other's company so much, they're learning more from and about each other than they could have dreamed - and discovering that there's more to their friendship, and more to the treaty, than they had expected or understood. But is it too late to fix things, repair the damage - and stay together?
I'll admit that, going into this, I didn't expect a whole lot. Another American teen drama featuring young love, obstacles and misunderstandings, nothing fancy but hopefully entertaining. I wasn't sure I should expect realism or believability as well. But actually, or maybe because of those expectations, Alienated proved itself to be more than just entertainment and teen drama - though it has plenty of that. Grounded in familiar sci-fi tropes, Landers has nevertheless managed to make it feel and sound fresh and not all that predictable. Cara is a strong, likeable heroine for whom it's not surprising that Aelyx would develop deeper feelings for - or that her ex-boyfriend and her best friend would remain loyal to her, albeit secretly.
By keeping the sci-fi elements simple and relatively straight-forward, Landers avoided many common pitfalls and plot-holes. You might find a few minor ones, but nothing that's going to aggravate you and distract you from the story. You learn enough about the aliens for it all to make sense, which provides a well-grounded context. And of course the human side and its varied reactions rings true as well, with the xenophobia, suspicion of (literally, in this case) the "alien Other" and fear-mongering: you can clearly see that a group like HALO would form and build steam, paranoid about alien weaponry and ulterior motives, and would quickly lose control. Threaded through the story is a pleasing sense of humour that adds the right - and realistic - edge to the novel's tone; humour both lightens and darkens a scene, all in one go.
Dad hooked his thumb toward the back door. "You two go for a walk or something." In other words, he didn't want their guest to witness the fury he was about to unleash. Cara grabbed Aelyx's sleeve and tugged him into the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered. "You don't wanna be here when he explodes, trust me." As they hurried outside, she heard Ron's hysterical voice calling, "He has a weapon! I saw him hide it in his sweater!" What a lunatic. No wonder [his son] Marcus was so screwed up. Her dad's voice boomed from inside the house. "I've got a Glock, a shovel, and five acres of woods, Johnson!"
Naturally, a story about aliens allows us to take a closer look at ourselves, from another's perspective. Aelyx's views and perspective are a consistent blend of alien and familiar, and his judgements of human behaviour and how we've treated our planet ring true, to our deep sense of shame. But even more than that, it is watching Aelyx grow, develop and mature as a character that really helps flesh out this story. He begins as a stiff, rather uptight kind of person, hard to figure out without understanding his culture and history, but intriguing. His people, the L'eihr, have spent centuries creating a harmonious society, breeding out unwanted genes and breeding in the best ones, creating an intelligent, strong and attractive race. But they've lost a lot in the process, and their wise elders understand what an alliance with untempered humans can give them, aside with strengthening their weakened gene pool. Humans might seem like children indulging in one selfish tantrum after another, but the L'eihrs - for all their sophistication and mind speech - are yet another kind of child, a sheltered, arrogant, inexperienced kind that has sacrificed the headier, impassioned emotions without realising - or appreciating - all the things they have lost alongside them.
Aelyx had once heard [Cara's father] Bill Sweeney say, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As he sat beside Cara on the sofa, watching her face tipped toward the makeup artist, her full lips parted to receive a coat of lipstick, he began to understand why. Ever since his research into kissing and other human mating rituals, his mind had relentlessly fixated on Cara, flashing manufactured sensations of how her soft, wet mouth might feel against his own. He could almost taste her on his tongue, and when his traitorous body responded to the fantasy, he had to pull an accent pillow onto his lap and force himself to recite Earth's periodic table of elements. Gods, what had he unleashed? How would he survive the remainder of the exchange like this?
As much as both Cara and Aelyx grow and change, by the end they still remain true to themselves, their culture and their people. Landers successfully and realistically matured them, making them much more interesting characters, strengthened by their exposure to each other. Not only that, but they actually have chemistry! Yes I know, you'd think that would be a necessary given in a sci-fi romance wouldn't you? But it's not always there. Another reviewer described the romance as a "beautiful mixture of sweetness and steamy", and I find this a very apt description. It's not overdone, it develops nicely, and there's a real depth of feeling to it.
The supporting characters are never much more than simply that, supporting. You never really get to know any of them very well, which was a bit of a shame. Of them all, though, it was Tina, Cara's best friend, who was the most disappointing. She's a short, petite Latina (I'm never sure what that means, specifically - of Mexican heritage? South American? Spanish-speaking, anyway) with the same characteristics that I've come across in other American YA novels. I can't remember which books, but I know I've come across Tina before, pretty much exactly. (The House of Night books come to mind, and another that's eluding me.) The cultural, or racial, stereotyping is lazy and disappointing.
Overall, though, this was an interesting story featuring two strong main characters who I really came to like and enjoy. I didn't find the ending predictable - it seemed like the story could go in various directions, and I was happy to go along and stay in the moment - but it has certainly added a whole new layer of tension and intrigue to the overall story arc. The first book may have ended, but the story as a whole has a whole universe to explore - and I'm definitely interested in seeing where it takes us. Cara and Aelyx's story has really only just begun in this well-written debut novel, and I think it's only going to get better from here.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that quotes in this review come from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the finished book.(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)
Victoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and...moreVictoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and sees a monster. The scars from the fire cover her neck, and her red hair is falling out. She can barely walk, reduced to a clumsy shuffle because of scar tissue joining her thighs together. Her aunts, Daisy and Lilac, whisked her away not long after the fire to this house in the country, where they feed her detestable liver custard and tapioca. Her only company is the young Chinese servant girl, Mah, who rescued her from the fire at her parents' house.
Orphaned after her parents and baby brother, Willy, die when their ship sinks en route back from South Africa, Blue is kept in ignorance of the state of her family's affairs. Her father was the manager for her grandfather's shoe factory, Laurence Shoes, and she assumes their house burned down in the fire, but no one actually talks to her, not even her Uncle Herbert, who sends her chocolates and some money for her birthday.
With the ten pounds from her uncle, Blue sneaks out at night to see the circus that just arrived in town. The Magnifico Family Circus is a one-night-only event, and Blue enjoys seeing through the trickery in the sideshow tents and trying to guess how things were done. But it's in the Big Top that she really enjoys herself, watching the acrobatic displays and the elephant, called the Queen of Sheba. Led by the indomitable and very talented Madame - of no known name or age - the Magnifico Family Circus is a small group of skilled performers who take on several roles to make the circus feel bigger and more glamorous. Aside from Madame, the fortune-teller, there's Mrs Olsen, her daughter Gertrude and her young son Ginger, who are trapeze artists, and handsome young Fred who plays the bearded lady and many other roles. And there's the middle-aged brothers, Ebenezer and Ephraim, who play the Ring Master and the clown, respectively, among other things, and manage the heavy work.
Her aunts arrive to take her home during the intermission, and lock her in her bedroom for the rest of the night. It is when the house is quiet and everyone asleep - everyone but Blue, who tries not to panic at the thought of being trapped in the room - that there's a tap at her window. The circus has come to break her free, rescue her and hide her in plain sight. Madame, in her inscrutable way, has knowledge that Blue is being poisoned with arsenic - the hair loss is a sure sign. She wagers Blue has barely weeks left to live, and even though Blue resists the idea that her aunts could be trying to kill her, it starts to make a strange sort of sense. Especially when, from the very next day, she stops vomiting and starts feeling better.
It is a long road to full recovery for Blue, though, and in the meantime she's a runaway with the police looking for her. The circus is skilled at hiding people in plain sight, though, and soon Blue is masquerading as a boy when she's not performing as a harem dancer or a mermaid called Belle. Over the next few years Blue finds a new home in the circus, and a new family among the eclectic Magnifico family. Her only guiding thought is to wait till she's of age and can be financially and legally independent; until then, she plans to stay with the circus.
But Blue has no control over the way of the world, or the effect the Depression will indirectly have on the circus and the fate of her new family. It is at the small rural town of Gibber's Creek in 1935 that their luck runs out and Blue's carefree days of performing in a circus come to an end. It is there they meet Miss Matilda, owner of Drinkwater Station, and her husband who runs the nearby wireless factory. It is at Drinkwater that the circus's real secrets come to light and Blue realises just how clever they all are at multiple duplicity. And it is at Drinkwater that a murder and a murderer catches up with the circus.
While The Road to Gundagai is the third book in the Matilda Saga, it - and all the others (there are more to come too) - can each be read as a stand-alone book. The first book, A Waltz for Matilda, introduces readers to Miss Matilda as a child in 1894 and ends in 1915; the second, The Girl From Snowy River, is about Flinty McAlpine in 1919 till 1926; her brothers appear in Gundagai, as does Matilda from the first book. The next book will be set in 1942, during World War II, and the fifth in 1969.
But this is Blue's story, and I have to say right here, right now, that it's an excellent, wonderful, exciting, perfectly-written story that's easily one of the best teen novels I've ever read, and one of the best books I've ever read, too. I can't recommend this book highly enough, I am utterly in love with it and I know I would have loved it as a teenager as well.
Jackie French was previously known to me as a picture book author - her Diary of a Wombat is a modern-day Australian classic. But I had no idea until recently that she also wrote fiction, primarily for Young Adults and older children. I sought out her books one day and found a whole section in Petrarch's in Launceston, a bit tucked away sadly but completely devoted to Jackie French novels. They didn't have A Waltz for Matilda or The Girl From Snowy River, but I had already planned on reading this and was thrilled to find they had a few copies. I mean, who doesn't love circus stories? Stories about orphan girls being poisoned by wicked aunts? Stories about elephants who love to steal jewellery and have their own teddy bear? Stories about adventure and young love, mystery and treachery and family secrets? The Road to Gundagai has it all, and what's even better is that the writing is so ... flawless.
It's extremely rare for me - in my jaded, too-often-cynical 30s - to find a book, especially a YA novel, that doesn't annoy me in some small way, or feel a bit simplistic or unpolished or with weak world-building or characterisation or plotting. There's almost always something that stops me from really, truly loving a YA novel. One of the reasons why French's writing reads with such confidence and vitality and realism, is that she's practiced and experienced enough to know her own writing style and be comfortable in it: there's no pretensions here, no awkward turns-of-phrase in an attempt to be original, and no present tense! French is skilled at bringing her characters to life with just the right amount of detail, and the pacing is swift and sure so that you never get bored nor feel rushed. Like many of the characters, the story itself is full of charisma. It's completely absorbing and engaging, and just beautiful to read.
The story is also rich in period details, and setting. There is a handy appendix at the back for younger readers that gives concise and interesting explanations and insight into many of the things in the book, but if you already have the context and a general understanding of the Depression you can really revel in the fine details of life in a circus in Australia during the 1930s. Throughout the story, there's the running theme of what a circus - or any kind of theatrical performance - can bring people living in poverty, who spend what they can for a bit of glitter, a gasp and a laugh.
'And tomorrow, Gertrude will ride Sheba with Belle through the shanties before Ebenezer takes her down to the sea for her swim.' Gertrude's face appeared at the caravan door. She gave them all a swift angry look. 'I practise in the mornings.' 'One practice cut short will do no harm. You will be Gloria and Belle will be a dancer.' Madame shook her head. 'The mermaid would please them more, but a mermaid on an elephant is not believable. Best they keep the image from tonight. But wear the jewels. They deserve another sight of jewels. The children will tell their children.' Madame stared into the darkness. Her voice was soft. 'When they talk about these years they will not say, "We shivered in the wind with sacking walls, we ate stale bread and drank buttermilk," but, "One night I saw a fairy fly across a tent. I saw a mermaid swim, and wave her tail at me."' [p.158]
Balancing the dark tones is light and laughter, warmth and friendship. Blue finds love, too, and so does the reader: if you don't fall in love with Sheba the elephant, I shall be very much surprised. It should come as no surprise, of course, that French can write an elephant character so damn well.
Enriched with themes of economics and politics, class divides and gender imbalance, the story of Blue growing, maturing and really coming into her own is an absolute delight. She becomes a confident young woman with skills only the circus could have taught her - along with the nurturing of her circus family. There are moments of sadness and tears, and moments of bravery and resilience. Through it all, Blue is a strong heroine and protagonist you will come to love, along with all the other characters, so diverse and full of surprises. If I haven't won you over yet and made you eager to pick up this wonderful, wonderful book and read it today, then that's a lack in me and not in Jackie French's skill as a storyteller. For myself, I plan to read her entire backlist of novels and discover more gems.(less)
It's been a year since seventeen-year-old Miranda Sun's parents were killed in a terrible car accident, but she's still harbouring a secret guilt that...moreIt's been a year since seventeen-year-old Miranda Sun's parents were killed in a terrible car accident, but she's still harbouring a secret guilt that has damaged her relationship with her older, beautiful sister Lauren. That January, when their grandparents take them to the family shack by the beach at Bob's Bay for two weeks of summer holiday, Miranda is finally preparing herself to open up to Lauren when her situation drastically changes, and she disappears while taking a midnight swim.
Miranda is caught by a stranger, dragged underwater and kidnapped. She wakes, days later and still groggy from the drugs that helped transport her, in a very strange place. Completely alone and scared, Miranda is slowly introduced to the mysterious underwater city of Marin, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Lit by glowing crystals, oxygenated by hidden air shafts, Marin's origins are unknown but the founder of the current civilisation, Frano Tollin, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and explorer, speculated about an ancient civilisation that built it but died out. Now Tollin's descendents rule in his place: Marko, a young and temperamental nineteen-year-old king, and his older sister, Sylvia. But things aren't as glowing and utopian in Marin as they might seem.
Marko's older brother and Sylvia's twin, Damir, is in hiding somewhere in the city. A dark and twisted mind, Damir wants to follow in Frano Tollin's footsteps and experiment on young women in the insane attempt to create a real mermaid. Tollin's nightmarish experiments focussed on cutting women's legs open and sewing them together to form a tail, among other things, and if Damir ruled Marin the nightmares would continue. Marko has been made king in his place, but his rule is tenuous if he cannot secure an heir.
This is Marin's other problem: there are no children. No babies are born. The women who live here are infertile. Barren. And thus Sylvia's selfish plan: to capture a girl from the surface and bring her to the city to marry Marko and have his children. She sends Marko's personal guard, Robbie, to find a girl, and its Miranda who is caught - not Lauren, her beautiful, popular older sister. When Marko learns that Miranda is not even of legal age yet, he's furious, but with the threat of being fed to the sharks, the wedding is still going ahead.
Miranda's fear turns to curiosity, but she never stops planning to escape. When she learns that the one way to the surface is accessed via Marko's suite, she decides that convincing Robbie to let her go is the only means available. But even as she befriends the young guardsman, she begins to get to know Marko and the city of Marin, and fall under its spell.
Captivate combines the old and the new in creating a romantic fantasy story that touches on gothic horror. The premise is interesting, and even though it employs many tropes that aren't original, the character of Miranda and the Garden's writing made it feel fresh. And while it looked like it was going to have a romantic triangle like so many other YA stories ("yawn"), it actually doesn't, which was very pleasing. In fact, the way the characters evolve and grow was one of the things I liked best about Captivate - especially Marko. He's a complex, interesting character who seems at first too obvious and one-dimensional, but who gradually becomes much more interesting and charismatic as the story progresses.
But I should talk about the book's weak points, because it is a bit of a biggie. Stories like this one hinge on the world-building, and if the world-building is shaky then everything that follows feels a bit flimsy. The problem with Captivate is the premise, the point of abducting Miranda in the first place and bringing her to Marin - though Marin itself was a little under-developed for me, especially in regards to how they get air, food and water, not to mention building materials, clothing etc.
The glitch is the infertility premise. A fairly common trope in speculative fiction, it can be a great motivator for action. Unfortunately, it didn't really make sense here. The entire population of Marin consists of two kinds of people: those that were born there (though no one has been born there in eighteen years), and those who are brought there. The cause of the infertility problem, they speculate, is related to being removed from the sun and moon and life cycles in general, though they don't know for sure. Only, if people are continuously - not often, but continuously over time - brought to Marin (rescued from near-drownings, or suicide attempts, mostly), then does it not follow that their population will be refreshed with fertile women? Like Miranda? Miranda was captured and brought against her will, but why not simply invite or rescue a woman instead? They'd done it before. If Miranda was brought to Marin to have babies, then infertility does not happen straight away; therefore plenty of other women in Marin should also be able to have children. It didn't make sense, and so the whole plot was shaky because of it. If it had made more sense, with no holes in it, then it would have been quite powerful because the notion of dying civilisations and places bereft of children will always resonate with us.
The story was strongest in the development of the characters, and the novel's sense of atmosphere. There was a tantalising, uncomfortable tinge of fear to the whole story and setting that I particularly enjoyed; I wouldn't have minded a bit more of it though that might have been too much. It's that shade of menace and dark forbidden things to what is otherwise something of a utopia that really makes the concept work, and adds tension to the plot. You don't know who to trust, or what's really going, and the taint of Frano Tollin's plans and experiments linger. It nicely balances the fantasy and romance elements of the story, giving it maturity and extra layers.
Another strength was Miranda herself. She narrates (and not, thankfully, in present tense, might I add!) and her voice is solid. She's convincing and undergoes a gradual change influenced by her new surroundings and situation. There was chemistry between her and Marko, though it was shadowed by that sense of suspicion, distrust and uncertainty that pervades the story in general, making their relationship that bit more interesting than it might otherwise have been. She has tenacity, and balances adolescent insecurities and selfishness with a growing sense of compassion, empathy and understanding. By the end, I had grown very fond and proud of her and wanted very much to find out what happened next.
Speaking of, the ending was spot-on. In terms of: no cliffhanger, not forgetting the overall abduction plot or the people she'd left behind, and in setting the stage for a real, legitimate relationship with an abductor. In that sense, it was very satisfying, as was seeing just how much Miranda had matured by the end. I wish the world of this underwater city had been more tightly formed and explained, because if the nuts-and-bolts of the story were stronger this would have been excellent all round. As it is, I'm caught up enough in Miranda's story, and curious about what's going on in Marin, to want to read more of this new series.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
Fifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn't know how to...moreFifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn't know how to fish. His mum is worn out raising seven kids and doing the laundry; she's got no teeth left and her one pleasure is reading Mills & Boon novels and smoking. The second oldest, Blacky's only talent seems to be coming up with nicknames, including his own. He's the second ruckman in the Port's under-18 football team and almost never touches the ball, which is alright by him. But in the lead-up to the much-anticipated yearly Premiership, it's discovered that the first ruckman, an Aborigine called Carol, is really Carol's older brother Colin and is thus disqualified from playing. Their coach, Mr Robinson - whom Blacky calls "Arks" because that's how he says "asks" and it gives Blacky a thrill to hear it - has no choice but to make Blacky the lead ruckman.
The effect this has on Blacky is immediate. He feels like a sinking ship. The whole town wants the footy team to win and it all comes down to the ruckman - to Blacky. He can only watch with admiration the true stars of the team, the Aboriginal kids from the Nunga reserve at the Point. The Aborigine players are the best on the field, only they don't really play by the rules - they don't play to win so much as play for the sheer joy of it. Blacky watches one player in particular: Dumby Red. A handsome kid with perfect white teeth, Dumby is vain but immensely talented. Despite the fact that playing on the footy team is the only thing they have in common, the two become friends.
But Blacky is at a crossroads. He's old enough to notice and recognise the inherent racism and bigotry he sees and hears all around him, but he's not yet old enough or educated enough to really understand it. He still has a childlike innocence to his worldview, one that both shelters him from the worst of it and makes him a vulnerable target. When Dumby makes a deadly choice and the repercussions resonate throughout the Port, Blacky comes face-to-face with the blasé racism Australia is notorious for, and has to decide for himself whether he'll accept the status quo, or follow his heart.
Phillip Gwynne's 1998 novel, which was made into the 2002 movie Australian Rules (a nice play-on-words there), pops up on school reading lists across the country - and for good reason. The book is not only a classic coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in a small town experiencing financial downturn and trying to make sense of the world and his place in it; it also gently explores Australia's inherent racism towards the first inhabitants, the Aborigines. It doesn't explicitly pass judgement, though it certainly takes a side; and it doesn't exactly explain anything, only provokes emotion and thought in readers - which is ideal.
For a people as "relaxed" and "down-to-earth" and "fun-loving" and "carefree" as Australians are portrayed and known as across the globe, it is frightening to witness and experience the kind of blasé racism - notably that towards the Aborigines - that exists here. You will hear people make derogatory, stereotypical comments and statements that are highly offensive, but they are made with a kind of "you know what I mean" offhandedness, a matter-of-fact "everyone understands this" evenness that appals. It is the dismissive casual attitude with which the comments are made that truly offend and dismay because it makes it clear just how inherent and thoughtless such attitudes are. Non-Aboriginal Australians (can't say "white Australians" anymore because the irony is that it's a country of immigrants and it's only in outlying rural areas that you see a majority race - white - in effect) have inherited an attitude of complete contempt towards the Aborigines, a ridiculous "I wash my hands of them" dismissiveness that implies that we tried in the first place.
The inhabitants of Gary Black's small town on the coast of South Australia are very typical of Australians at large. At times it's subtle; other times, blatant; but always casual. No one wastes much energy in doing anything about it. Everyone seems to think the same way, and anyone who disagrees - like possibly Blacky's mum - keeps their opinions to themselves. The idea that someone would speak up and denounce a person for making a racist comment is laughable. And of course, the kinds of things said about the Aborigines are things that white Australians are just as guilty of: alcoholism, laziness, theft etc. When the white kids - Blacky and his friends - hear that a group of young Nungas are heading into town, they get all tense and antagonistic - a kind of inherited rivalry exists between them, something they've picked up on from their parents and other adults in the community, and imitate without really understanding just what they're perpetuating.
"There's some Nungas heading this way," he said. "A big mob of 'em." Everybody looked up. Usually the Nungas came into town, got their supplies and left again. But sometimes a mob would walk all the way from the Point. I'd heard them talking in the front bar about the good old days, about huge brawls down the jetty, Nungas against Goonyas. But I'd never been in one. I wouldn't want to, either. Those Nungas were tough, much tougher than us. "Where are they?" "They're coming down the main street." "How many?" "Dunno. Fifteen, twenty, a lot." "What is it?" said Cathy, sitting up. "Boongs," said Pickles. "Abos," said one of the Maccas. "Coming up here. A tribe of 'em." "Are they allowed up here?" said Cathy. "Yeah, of course they are," I said. "They shouldn't be, said Pickles. "It's our jetty, not theirs." "Bloody oath," said Deano. I could see them now, at the start of the jetty. They were mucking around with the ropes that went out to the dinghies. "If they touch our dinghy," said Pickles, "I'm gunna go get the old man." [pp.190-191]
Of course, the Nungas just muck about, go swimming, have a laugh and leave. Perhaps part of the fun for them was putting the white kids on edge. What's noticeable is the vast disconnect between them. Not only are the two groups on opposing sides, not only are the locals distrustful of the Nungas, but no one ever makes any attempt to actually learn if any of it's true or not. No one wants to befriend an Aboriginal, to learn about them, understand them, see another perspective. That's what makes Blacky unusual, and that's what makes his position in the town somewhat precarious. As anyone who's ever been caught up in schoolyard bullying knows, it's pretty difficult to go against the status quo without making yourself a really vulnerable target. Easier - and often safer - to go with the flow, keep your head down and your mouth shut at best, or join in.
When Blacky takes the unprecedented step of walking all the way to the Point, his first impression is one of confusion.
The Point was not a big chance in the Tidy Towns competition, I can assure you of that. Not even in Section B. The streets weren't sealed and there were hardly any trees. Most of the houses were fibro, but there were a few brick ones as well. I kept thinking. But that's not right, something's wrong. Then I realised what it was. The houses all had doors and windows. And according to the front bar the first thing Nungas do when they move into a new house is rip the doors off their hinges and smash all the windows. So that was the image I had in my head. No doors. No windows. Well, not any more. [p.222]
It's such a crappy equation, though: either the Aborigines do things they're way and the way they're comfortable with, which earns them everyone else's disapprobation and scorn and contempt, or they assimilate and do things in ways that are familiar to us, which make us feel safe, and abandon their own culture in the process. Because here's the thing: Australians won't respect the Aborigines unless they make an effort to look and behave like us, but in actuality it doesn't matter what they do, we will always look down on them. They can't win, in this equation. And the second thing is: they don't want to. They don't want to assimilate, and become "Australian" according to our (white) definition. Why should they have to? The problem lies in the sad fact that colonial Australia not only degraded them, but made sure there would be no place for them, regardless. They're stuck in a kind of racist Catch-22, and honestly, I can't blame them for being royally pissed about it.
The title Deadly Unna? refers to an expression Dumby Red often uses. "Deadly" meaning "cool" or something similar, and "unna?" akin to "isn't it?" or "right?" or, in Canadian, "eh?" (It doesn't say so in the book, but you can get the gist from the context.) The story is a quiet, fairly understated kind of tale, carried by Blacky's endearing and humorous narration. It has just the right amount of plot balanced by just the right amount of characterisation and character development to please me and keep me engaged. Truly I found it to be very well written and beautifully told. Blacky's voice is convincing for his age, his demographic and his environment. I found the publisher's blurb to be rather misleading, in that it implies much more drama than actually happens and much more interplay between Blacky and Dumby. It does make your expectations go off in rather the wrong direction, sadly. As long as you take the story as it's told, you will get a lot out of it.
There's a lot of subtlety and depth to this novel, tucked away within and without Blacky's observations. Much of it is sad and poignant, like Blacky's mum's life and marriage to his rather horrible father; the town's poverty; Mr Robinson's dead-end career; the way the "blacks" are ignored and treated like second-class citizens (or barely citizens); the poor state of the town library; the sense that this town and its people are largely forgotten - noticeable in the state of its community buildings, like the footy oval, and the local member's grandiose speech cataloguing his own achievements, none of which have any relevance to these people. Yet Blacky's voice remains largely upbeat and optimistic, in an adolescent way, and his observations of other people and his world overall are both insightful and humorous, epitomising that other stereotypical quality Australians are known for: the ability to avoid self-indulgence. No one wants to be a "bloody whinger", right?
With its understated approach to a sensitive, contentious issue nicely balanced with a humorous yet intense coming-of-age story, Deadly Unna? is unforgettable and thought-provoking. It's a story that takes its young and generous-hearted hero on a tentative journey exploring the grey areas between black and white, boyhood and manhood, love and hate, to discover the price of not just standing up for your values, but the price of formulating said values in the first place.
Blacky's story continues in the sequel, Nukkin Ya.(less)