So, this was good. Templeman has taken various elements and symbols from original fairytales and blended them into something intriguing and quite d...more3.5
So, this was good. Templeman has taken various elements and symbols from original fairytales and blended them into something intriguing and quite dark (though it's no Tender Morsels). While I initially found the writing slightly distancing, the worldbuilding, strong mystery, and well developed characters made the story compelling.
* * * * * A thousand WTFs at this horrible cover. (less)
Despite my (somewhat jaded) assumption that Gated would be yet another dystomance - a hooky premise masking some generic love-triangle angst – favoura...moreDespite my (somewhat jaded) assumption that Gated would be yet another dystomance - a hooky premise masking some generic love-triangle angst – favourable reviews convinced me to pick it up, and I’m glad I did. Although I’ll admit I gave an involuntary eye roll at first mention of Lyla’s “Intended” (here we go..), my expectations turned out to be quite far off the mark.
This is a solid contemporary novel about a teenage girl living in a sheltered community, separated from society and lead by the charismatic Pioneer. Following personal and global tragedy, the Hamilton family along with several others retreat to build an isolated community they name Mandrodoge Meadows: a place where they can live in peace and wait for the end to come. Under the guidance of Pioneer’s visions, the Community believe themselves the chosen few who will survive, and plan to wait out the apocalypse in their purpose-built underground bunker.
Despite the pairing off each of the teenagers with an Intended, a teenager of the opposite sex that they will eventually marry, and the sudden appearance of an outsider boy, this is not a romance. The focus of Gated is firmly on Lyla’s life as someone who knows little about the outside world except what Pioneer has told her, and how doubt begins to creep in and undermine Pioneer’s indoctrination.
Parker succeeds in creating an unsettling atmosphere: outwardly, the Lyla enjoys a lifestyle of simplicity and community. Yet lurking at the edges of this idealised existence are the hints of Pioneer’s control and manipulation. This is a settlement of people who, while emotionally vulnerable, have been taken in by Pioneer’s claims of divine guidance. Seeking refuge from a world that has hurt them, they are eager to believe in the promise of deliverance from evil, a chance to create their world anew.
Parker ably portrays both the appeal and the insidiousness of Pioneer’s teachings, how he has preyed on the human vulnerabilities of grief and fear to proselytise. (Interestingly, Parker uses epigraphs from the fictional Pioneer alongside quotes from Jim Jones and Charles Manson.) Raised in such an atmosphere, Lyla’s parents and friends unquestioningly accept Pioneer’s vision of the end, their role as the chosen, and along with that, Pioneer’s abuse and conditioning. At the same time, it’s clear to the reader that this is an unstable and dangerous person wielding too much power, and it makes Lyla’s journey of doubt and realisation a compelling one, as she races against time and Pioneer’s paranoia toward the truth.
That said, not all of the plot developments are entirely believable, particularly when it comes to the climax of the novel. It is undoubtedly tense and thrilling, yet it’s difficult not question some of the choices made by the characters and the way events unfold during the dramatic scenes of confrontation between the members of the Community and the outsiders. Further, some of Lyla’s emotional navigation of questioning doctrine she has essentially grown up believing feels somewhat truncated or rapid.
On the other hand, Parker’s portrayal of the Community’s responses – from Lyla’s mother’s denial to her Intended’s anger and disbelief – feel authentic. The door is left suitably open on the ending, with acknowledgment of mixed feelings and varying degrees of acceptance. The story closes on a note of beginning, rather than finality, and that feels right for this particular story and the extreme mental stress of the characters.
Gated is an engaging novel that lives up to its intriguing premise. Parker delivers a tight psychological thriller that explores control and abuse, while maintaining an adequate pace. For readers looking for a YA novel that’s actually about cults and not just about forbidden romance, Gated should not disappoint. (less)
Heartbeat is a novel about a teenage girl who is grieving. Hers is a complicated grief (and really, is there even such a thing as “uncomplicated” grie...moreHeartbeat is a novel about a teenage girl who is grieving. Hers is a complicated grief (and really, is there even such a thing as “uncomplicated” grief?). Her mother is brain-dead and pregnant, being kept on life support in intensive care until such time as the baby can be delivered. So she is present, and yet not present: a state for which Emma blames her step-father, believing him to be acting against what her mother would have wanted in order to preserve the life of his son.
Emma’s grief is a consuming, powerful thing. She is angry. Hurt. Afraid. Scott’s portrayal of Emma’s grief is sharp and unflinching and honest. There is nothing neat and palatable about Emma’s emotional state. It is confronting and messy.
And some readers are incredibly uncomfortable with this.
Emma’s grief doesn’t always manifest in ways that are sympathetic. Yes, sometimes she is hostile. Sometimes she is selfish. But rather than a teenage girl struggling with intense pain, some only see an unlikeable “bitch”. Emma isn’t behaving in a way that they find palatable, therefore she is punishable.
At first, I was angry; furious on Emma’s behalf that her right to her emotions would be challenged, that she wasn’t grieving “acceptably” (which is a notion that, frankly, makes me rageful). Then I just felt sad. Scott’s exploration of grief is nuanced and authentic, yet the judgement levelled at Emma for her experience suggests that some would rather not see girls like this: hurting and angry. And I can’t help but think of those readers who might see something of themselves in Emma and her story, identify with the complexity of processing grief - who also see the clamours of “stupid”, “selfish” and “dumb” that portrayal is met with.
What’s notable about Elizabeth’s Scott’s body of work is her willingness to engage with difficult subjects, often ones met with blanket disapproval. But these things happen, Scott’s novels insist. They happen every day, to people just like us. Heartbeat – as well as Scott’s other work – addresses the fact that sometimes people do terrible, irreversible things with far reaching consequences. How does blame and guilt shape that person’s life? What does healing and forgiveness look like for a person in such a situation? Is it possible? Scott explores this in the relationship between Emma and Caleb, which is born of empathy and understanding between two people isolated by their pain. Yet their romance is not presented as some kind of fix for the characters’ respective situations, nor does it minimise the repercussions of their actions.
Heartbeat is an honest book, and as such it’s not going to be met with universal acceptance. And it should be enough for me to know that it will make its way into the hands of some readers who will identify with Emma and her emotional arc. Yet part of me still bristles when I see her criticised for not conforming to a very narrow ideal of acceptable emotional expression. I’m angry for her, and for all the teenagers who feel like her, at the idea that these feelings are somehow less valid, or should be edited for others’ comfort.
If Emma’s character is divisive then I’m stating right now that I’m firmly on her side. I want to see more of this: more honesty, more difficulty, more discomfort. Sometimes teenage girls are angry, or sad, or complicated. And that’s okay. (less)
“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
On 12 January, 1830, the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland occurred when Friðrik Sigurðsson and Agnes Magnúsdóttir were executed in Vatnsdalshólar in Húnavatnssýsla, for the murder of two men.
While often painted as “monstrous”, a cold-blooded murderer, a figure of Lady Macbeth style ruthlessness - the truth is that there is a dearth of factual information about Agnes Magnusdottir. While the instrument of her execution – a broad axe – has been preserved, little is known about the life of the woman sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded. (A third person was also convicted: Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, whose sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment).
“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”
Burial Rites is the product of a ten year quest to uncover what remains of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life. Instigated by an exchange visit to Iceland after high school, Hannah Kent spent the ensuing years absorbed in intense archival research, examination of primary sources and retracing of Agnes’ steps from her birth to her final resting place. Kent called the result a “speculative biography”, a weave of fact and fiction, and her own “dark love letter to Iceland.”
While Burial Rites presents the question of whether history has misrepresented Agnes, the novel does not necessarily demand sympathy for her. It does, however, offer a more empathetic, albeit ambiguous, portrayal of a woman condemned – and an attempt to understand what circumstances might have led to her conviction in a double murder.
The result is an exquisitely beautiful novel. Kent’s prose is rich and clear, rendering the melancholic, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Icelandic winter and Agnes’ impending execution in evocative language. Agnes herself, awaiting death and exiled at the farm of a minor public servant, emerges from the pages vividly.
“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”
Kent writes with a kind of graceful maturity, a depth of emotion that befits the subject matter. This a story about a woman facing her imminent death, a woman with one final opportunity to speak her truth, and Kent captures the desperation, isolation and grief of Agnes with stunning clarity. The book is interspersed with Agnes’ inner monologues, and these sections are the most vivid; pouring forth in a steam of raw psychological pain and striking imagery.
Though she spent much of her life employed as a servant and a period of her childhood as an orphaned pauper thrown on the mercy of the parish, there is evidence to suggest that Agnes was also an intelligent and highly literate woman. And this is the version of Agnes that Kent chooses to portray; beneath the hard and icy veneer of a woman reviled and silenced, she is compelling, passionate and astute.
While living and working alongside Jón Jónsson and his family, fragments of Agnes’ story begin to emerge. As she confides in Tóti, the young assistant priest commissioned to reconcile her to her fate and to God, Agnes’ version of events takes shape as the remaining days of her life pass. Through this gradual unwinding, Tóti and the family come to confront the idea that the truth may not be all that it seems. While we already know how Agnes’ story ends, it’s this suggestion of dissonance between public opinion and her personal reality that fuel the novel’s tension. Burial Rites suggests that truth is open to interpretation, and is rarely as straightforward as commonly perceived. Fear, gossip and hatred twist the idea of Agnes into something horrifying and loathsome; an opinion no doubt perpetuated by the pervasive social, religious and sexual politics of the time.
To this end, Kent’s novel faithfully depicts life in 19th century Iceland, and is immersed in historical detail without the narrative being weighed down or bloated. It is clear that care has been taken to accurately represent the conditions of Agnes’ world, to reconstruct the framework of her life with as much integrity as possible. The gaps in historical record, which Kent has fleshed out with fiction, fit seamlessly within the broader context of time and place, resulting in a story that respects its origins.
We cannot know the entirety of Agnes Magnusdottir’s story, but Burial Rites asks us to remember her, if not reconsider how history may have buried her own truth with her body. Knutur Oskarsson, who accommodated Hannah Kent during part of the writing and research of the novel, stated: “I do believe that the execution of Agnes is still an unhealed wound in Iceland, in the history of Iceland.”
Burial Rites is a respectful and moving acknowledgment of that wound; a reminder that Agnes Magnusdottir’s voice once existed, even if it was lost to time. (less)
Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome.
It’s difficult to talk about K...more“Love doesn’t always look nice.”
Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome.
It’s difficult to talk about Kuehn’s debut in detail without revealing significant plot points; and I do feel this is a book best experienced as it is structured, that is, allowing the story to unwind from Andrew/Win gradually. His narrative is one of violence and blood and glimpses in between shadows, trauma layered deep in shame and visceral pain. His story emerges in fragments between the past and present, reality and dreams, relentlessly gaining clarity until its devastating climax.
Kuehn has written a brilliant novel. It is confronting, yet empathetic. Heartbreaking, but affirming. It’s not an easy story to tell - Kuehn delves deep into disturbing places – but it is compelling and evocative. Through the use of rich imagery, the symbolism of chemistry and Win’s distinct cognition, Kuehn has written a novel that spurns straightforward classification. It seems to be one thing, but becomes another – not because Kuehn is being purposefully evasive or coy, but because this is the story that is true to Win. We read it as he experiences it, as it emerges from the recesses of his mind and body: raw, dark, and animal.
There are various forms of conflict in the novel, but the central source is from within Win himself, and what he believes to be inevitable. The present day thread of the story deals with Win’s acceptance of his imminent change: that his Ego and Superego will be devoured by his ferocious Id, that what is at his core is monstrous. It’s this internal wrestling of what a person believes themselves to be, and what they want to be, that forms the crux of the novel. For Win, his deep-seated convictions give this battle an element of finality, that his metamorphosis is not only brewing, but inescapable.
For all its twisting decent into horror, Charm & Strange is a compassionate novel, and while it doesn’t offer all the answers, it does extend a glimpse of hope. Even more than that, it provides a voice of understanding. And for readers who can connect with Win’s experience, the importance of this can’t be overstated. Much has been made of “darkness” in YA, but (to paraphrase Patrick Ness), “not engaging with darkness in fiction is abandoning teens to face it alone.” Charm & Strange is an important book because it offers support and solace to those who may feel beyond reach.
Kuehn’s writing is strong – she has created a complex, challenging novel in beautifully rendered language that is compelling and true to Win’s voice. There is a depth of emotion and pain articulated in the story without it feeling forced or consciously manipulative.
The novel tackles serious content respectfully, while being authentic to the experience of its teenage characters, who are flawed and complicated. Although not a lengthy book, Kuehn develops her characters well, choosing to show (rather than tell) the reader who they are through powerful scenes and flashbacks. There is a lot covered here, even outside the central premise of the novel, much of which Kuehn chooses to allude to rather than explicitly state. This is particularly effective in the early stages of the novel, where the reader needs to tease out the meaning from passages that seem to take a nebulous form between contemporary and paranormal.
Charm & Strange is an intense novel, darkly psychological and unsettling. It takes the reader on a troubling journey, and arrives in a profoundly moving place.
An advance reader copy of Charm & Strange was provided by the publisher via Netgalley. (less)