“Jonathan is the cadet colonel. You can’t be all female around him... As if being female is somehow a sickness Mom and I can get over.”
Readers! Psst, come over here. You haven't read this book yet, have you? I'm going to bet you haven't and I'm also willing to bet that I know the reason. So... maybe you saw this book floating around on the internet. You saw it was called Rites of Passage and you saw the dog tags on the cover image and, let's face it, your interest was probably already waning, right?
But you don't like to judge a book by its cover so you decided to check out the blurb. "Blah blah, girl goes to military school, blah blah" snooze. And then you remembered all those other books that promised epic fantasy, fast-paced drama and hot guys (or girls) and this book was suddenly forgotten, right? Then step right up here because you belong in the same club as me. The "I judged Rites of Passage completely wrong" club.
It was a close call. I so very nearly passed up this well-written, well-paced, completely moving contemporary in favour of some (probably terrible) paranormal and fantasy. The thing is: this book is just good. The cast of characters is large but each one is well-drawn and feels very real; the relationship dynamics are complex and realistic but no less engaging; the plot moves along at a perfect pace, telling multiple stories of family, friendship, love and loss. And, of course:
“The Corps may not think it’s ready for females, but you and your companions have the power to change that if you’ll just believe it.”
I didn't know this until I read about the author at the end of the book but apparently Hensley was a female student in military school herself... and frankly, it shows. She doesn't skimp on the details of the rough training the students must face. Nor does she serve up a watered down version of the sexism and homophobia present amongst many young males in the military.
I don't know about you, but there's just something so damn compelling about books that piss me off. As a woman, it was almost impossible to not care about and root for Sam in this book. I've never wanted to go to military school - if you know me, the idea is really quite laughable - but hell, this book made me desperate for Sam to prove everyone wrong and make it through. I raged. There was so much unfairness and misogyny balanced out by Sam's determination and badassery (but still realistically so) that I was unable to look away.
This is one of those books that doesn't get picked up unless some annoying person on the internet fangirls like crazy and tells you to give it a chance! So, fellow readers, here I am: give it a chance :)
Just in case you missed the blurb, let me remind us all what this book is supposed to be about:
In a city of walls and secrets, where only one man is...moreJust in case you missed the blurb, let me remind us all what this book is supposed to be about:
In a city of walls and secrets, where only one man is supposed to possess magic, seventeen-year-old Kai struggles to keep hidden her own secret—she can manipulate the threads of time... She will leave the only home she’s ever known and risk getting caught up in a revolution centuries in the making. But to save Reev, Kai must unravel the threads of her past and face shocking truths about her brother, her friendship with Avan, and her unique power.
Magic... check. Adventure... check. Sibling love... check. Recipe for awesomeness... sure sounds like it to me!
But, you see, here's the thing. Apparently, Kai is some badass, talented manipulator of time - that's what we're told. But I guess I missed all her hardcore magical talents somewhere between her poetic ramblings about Avan and her "oh my, Avan's sexy arm just brushed against my innocent, blushing virginal arm" nonsense. Okay no, the author didn't say her arm blushed (or was a virgin), I made it up. But I'm sure you catch my drift.
And apparently there was some adventure and apparently their lives were in danger and maybe I would have got a better sense of that if not every single one of Kai's thoughts were about Avan. The original plot line of her brother being kidnapped intrigued me, but it was quickly lost beneath the romancing and angsting. I felt like I kept waiting for the good stuff to happen in this book. It has such a great title and interesting premise that I was sure something really good was just around the corner.
So... I waited. And got:
“Without Avan in front of me, I felt unsteady. I leaned forward, resting my hands on the seat. It was warm. I drew away, flustered. Sometimes, with the shop counter between us, it was easy to look at Avan and admire him from the safe standpoint of a friend, to see him as just a boy from the Alley.”
“Being this close to Avan was a practice in contradictions. His body heat and the solid comfort of his back soothed me. I could relax against him and feel secure enough to sleep, even if only lightly. It was almost like being with Reev. But Reev didn’t also make me hyperaware of every point of contact between us. The shift of his muscles beneath my cheek. The backs of his thighs. The way our hips aligned on the seat. For the first hour, my heart pounded so hard, it was like a battering ram against my ribs.”
And: “I leaned against his side and felt his arm circle my shoulders. Even though I knew it wasn’t true, I imagined his warmth like a Sun that shone just for me.”
I thought this was going to be fantasy, not romance. And interesting, not boring. But this book was about 90% romantic angst; and boring romantic angst at that. The "heroine" was prudish to the point that even thinking about a kiss made her blush... I just lost interest so quickly that I'm amazed I managed to force myself through. I will say that the last quarter is marginally better than the rest but it wasn't enough to rescue the book, in my opinion.
"You'll find out you're a clown in a trivial circus where everyone tries to convince each other how vital it is to have a certain look one year and a...more"You'll find out you're a clown in a trivial circus where everyone tries to convince each other how vital it is to have a certain look one year and another the next. And then you'll find out that fame and the big wide world are outside of you, and that inside there's nothing, and always will be, no matter what you do."
I have been saving this book for years. It's one of those books that had enough glowing reviews and literary accolades to make me almost certain I would like it. Not only that, but it is about the subject of existential nihilism - which, frankly, fascinates me and has for a long time. I'm rather inclined to believe the world is meaningless; or at the very least has a certain abstract meaning that is defined by individual perspective and experience. So, really, Nothing had me at the premise. But it just didn't deliver for me.
I can see some of the attraction - it's a complex book that once again proves YA doesn't have to be shallow or lacking in "literary value". It demands that you step outside of your normal mode of thinking and ask yourself questions: is everything pointless? Can meaning be found anywhere? If nothing matters, is it better to just do nothing?
It all starts when Pierre Anthon stands up in the classroom one day and declares "Nothing matters. I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing. I just realized that." He then parks himself up in a plum tree outside the school, refuses to come down, and spouts constant odes to the meaninglessness of life, the universe and everything. His classmates grow increasingly uncomfortable with what Pierre says, so they decide to gather a "heap of meaning" - a pile of what is most precious to them, in order to prove that certain things do have value.
As they are required to give up more and more of what is important to them, soon they start to turn on one another and the sacrifices become ever more extreme. It is this part of the book that I personally found most effective: the gradual disappearance of morality and the way the children turn to violence. Despite the simplistic sentence structure (a possible side effect of the translation), this is a very mature piece of YA that contains many disturbing scenes.
What I didn't like began with the short, choppy sentences and continued to grow worse with the complete lack of realism in the story. Nothing feels more like a philosophical essay than a novel. I never developed a connection with any of the characters, nor any sympathy for them - not even the narrator. And there was no way I could believe that these young teens were allowed to run about digging up graves and stealing from science labs over the space of several months without some adult questioning what the hell was going on.
I understand that this novel is primarily intended to provoke philosophical thinking, but I believe it would have been far more effective if we were allowed to warm to someone in the novel and develop an emotional connection with them - something I personally feel was lacking. And there was another thing I didn't like. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but certain characters equated female virginity and innocence with the self. As in: if you lose your virginity, you also lose yourself, which is ridiculous.
And maybe we should call it irony or something, but this whole book felt a little pointless. In the end, it seems I took nothing from it. At first I actually wondered if that was the whole point - serves you right, Emily, for spending a couple of quid on Nothing! Ha-Ha, you fool. It would've been quite cool - if somewhat infuriating - if the book had delivered its promise and carried no message because there is no message because everything is meaningless... but no, I think there was something we were supposed to get here that was obviously lost on me.
Once, after his father had hit him in a rage, Yarvi's mother had found him crying. The fool strikes, she had said. The wise man smiles, and watches, and learns. Then strikes.
Half a King is the kind of book that creeps up on you gradually, painting a picture of kingdoms and slavery and backstabbing until you think this is basically another fantasy set in the comfort zone of the genre, and then it hits you hard when you least expect it. I kid you not, there were three huge "twists" in this book and I remained completely oblivious to all of them until they were upon me. It is the first twist (a few chapters in) that sucks you into this story... and I found myself unable to stop reading from then on.
I'm really picky when it comes to traditional fantasy (as opposed to urban fantasy or fairytale retellings) because I find it falls into one of two extremes - either it is too lengthy, dense and wordy for my tastes, or it is "fantasy-lite" masquerading as real fantasy whilst really being all about that boy with the tortured soul. This is neither of those. It is a gritty and fast-paced tale of survival, betrayal and friendship. I started reading this in my back garden under the hot afternoon sun and I was so addicted to Yarvi's story that I was still there when the sun began to set.
The story opens when Yarvi - the king's youngest son and the not-so-proud owner of a crippled hand - finds out his father and brother have been killed and he must take his rightful place on the throne. Everyone is skeptical as to whether a crippled "half-king" can really rule over the people of Gettland, even Yarvi himself. I won't give away spoilers, but Yarvi's life takes a rapid turn downhill from there and plunges him into one threatening situation after another. Circumstances see him being forced miles away from his home, barely able to defend himself with his crippled hand.
It's a real underdog kind of story and Yarvi is a complex character that simultaneously evokes sympathy and is allowed to make mistakes, do horrible things and screw people over to survive. He is one of those flawed but likable characters whose actions, even at his worst, feel understandable and realistic. He constantly faces threats from all sides, whilst also battling with nature's demons out in the wilderness. And I swear I could feel the icy cold coming through even in the middle of July - Abercrombie works setting and atmosphere together very well.
Despite my love for Yarvi, this book wouldn't have been the same without the varied and interesting cast of secondary characters. They all provide something important to the novel, whether it be the underlying theme of friendship and finding a place as an outcast that features heavily throughout the story, or some much-needed moments of comic relief. The character Nothing especially made me laugh:
Nothing smiled. Yarvi was starting to get nervous when Nothing smiled. "And they will come ashore, tired and wet and foolish, just as we have, and we will fall upon them." "Fall upon them?" said Yarvi. "We six?" asked Ankran. "Against their twenty?" muttered Jaud. "With a one-handed boy, a woman and a storekeeper among us?" said Rulf. "Exactly!" Nothing smiled wider. "You think just as I do!"
He saw Nothing hop a few steps from the bank and raise his sword high, point downwards. "Are you mad?" Yarvi screeched, before he realized. Of course he was.
And even though women are not often sword-wielding warriors in this world, Abercrombie's female characters were fantastic, in my opinion. They were strong but flawed, deeply complex and varied. Those considered "good" had faults and those considered villains had multiple layers to them. Though this could really be said for all characters. There are no mindless villains in this book and it makes the story all the more compelling, because the author doesn't make it easy for us to group people into "goodies" and "baddies". As Rulf says:
"If life has taught me one thing, it's that there are no villains. Only people, doing their best."
Plus - the ending was PERFECT. I wasn't sure how the author would tie it all together and still leave us with something that would make me need to get my hands on the sequel - but he did. The novel's climax is an incredible show of drama and excitement, followed by a couple of gentle, quiet - but no less effective - chapters, in which Abercrombie surprised me once again. I now need to go find everything else he has written and, if you haven't already, you need to read this book.
This book is solid proof that even New Adult chick lit can be well-written, hilarious and meaningful.
In fact, I am amazed at how good this book is. V...moreThis book is solid proof that even New Adult chick lit can be well-written, hilarious and meaningful.
In fact, I am amazed at how good this book is. Virgin should probably be the bible for teenage girls and young women everywhere... it is an honest, laugh-out-loud funny portrayal of growing up, relationships, sex and all the icky bits (and there are some real icky bits).
I cannot tell you how surprised I was. Let's be honest, I read this because of that title which was too curiosity-inducing for me to pass up. I foresaw potential DNFs and eye rolls and cliched, stereotypical characters - I got none of that. I picked this book up, got drawn into the unfortunate but completely hysterical life of Ellie, and spent most of the time snorting with laughter (sexy is my middle name) at all the situations she found herself in.
So, I've said before that humour is subjective, and maybe you won't like this because of that... but, you know why this book is so damn funny? Because it's so damn true. From the stupidly ridiculous thoughts teen girls have about sex to the waxing/shaving nightmares (should I? how much? where exactly? hope I don't cut my VJ... oh fuck). It felt so relatable and refreshing in its honest, no holds barred depiction of everything young women worry about and obsess over. It is primarily funny fiction, but I swear some parts of this book would have been really useful to me if it had been around when I was a teen.
While the main story is about a 21-year-old virgin called Ellie, the book has a very sex-positive attitude. Or perhaps it would be better to say a sex-neutral attitude. Ellie is a virgin but her friends are sexually active. There is no slut-shaming or virgin-shaming (except originally by the MC herself and the story enables her to overcome this). The "message" behind the book is that society should be more open to talking about all the nitty gritty details of sex that you don't currently get from a sex-ed lesson in school. Teen girls worry and obsess about so much (I know from experience ^_^) and this could be avoided by talking about it more.
Very funny, very enjoyable book.
Here's a little sample for you after Ellie gets her first Brazilian wax:
Oh my fucking God. The wax hadn't all come off on the strips, and it was stuck on my skin along with knicker fluff. I rubbed at it frantically until I realized it had hardened and wasn't coming off. I needed to use some water, but it was a public bathroom. I couldn't just rub my vagina next to the sink, could I? Praying to God no one would walk in, I hobbled to the sink with my knickers and jeans halfway down my legs. I quickly started rubbing away at it with water and a runny pink soap I squirted from the plastic dispenser. The wax went gloopy when it was mixed with the hot water, and it spread across my skin. I had made it worse. Feeling panicky, I rubbed as hard as I could and then tried to peel it off. The sticky wax caught under my fingernails and I tried to scrape it off with loo roll, but the paper stuck to the skin on my hands and vagina. I looked at myself in the mirror, bent down with my legs spread open and my hand on my vagina, stuck there with wax and loo roll. This was not how I'd imagined the start of my first ever grown-up date. The door swung open and a middle-aged woman wearing a brown fur coat stood in the doorway, staring at me in disgust. My mouth dropped wide open and our eyes met in the mirror. There was a squeal and I looked down and saw the child next to her. "Mummy," he asked. "Why is that girl rubbing her front bottom?" The woman put her manicured hand over the little boy's eyes and spun him around. She looked at me with something close to revulsion and shook her head slowly. "You're disgusting," she hissed under her breath as she propelled her son out of the bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror, wondering how this was my life. I could hear her hushing the boy outside: "Orlando, sweetie, are you feeling okay?" I snorted. Orlando was five years old and didn't have a vagina covered in dried wax. He was bloody fine. I, on the other hand, wanted to crawl into the loo cubicle and never leave.