Though Dearly, Beloved finally hit its stride at around 70%, that was altogether far too late for this rating to be salvaged.
While the final chapters...moreThough Dearly, Beloved finally hit its stride at around 70%, that was altogether far too late for this rating to be salvaged.
While the final chapters saw a dramatic acceleration in the pacing and a return to the tongue-in-cheek humour of Dearly, Departed, the truth is, I almost didn’t get that far. Up to that point, I felt not so much that I was reading, but that I was actively fighting the urge to be done with it and mark this as a DNF.
The frustrating part of this is that Dearly, Beloved is not a “bad” novel. In fact, it has all the potential of being a good one – Habel has some unique, well thought out ideas and avoids many of the all too common tropes beleaguering the genre. But put simply, for a zombie/steampunk novel, Dearly, Beloved is, well, boring.
As with its predecessor, much of the trouble lies in the sheer breadth of viewpoints. With six (at least, I think it’s six, I stopped counting) point of view characters, the novel starts to feel weirdly top-heavy, staggering drunkenly with not enough plot for ballast. Exacerbating the issue is that the POVs lack distinction –it’s easy to lose track of who’s head you’re in due to the lack of tone. Nora, Laura, Pamela, even Bram all occasionally sound like exactly the same person. Also, I’m not convinced that all of the points of view are necessary to tell the story, and that some couldn’t have been condensed in order to make the novel less cumbersome.
Dearly, Beloved is rich with detail: a zombie girl grows flowers in her body like a walking garden, a perfectly preserved 20th century Rolls Royce is armed with railguns, a throat wound is sewn closed liked a ribbon-laced corset. Habel clearly has an eye for the grotesquely beautiful, and her characters are vividly rendered. Habel’s interest in her subject matter is evident, as her attention to even the finest points of her elaborately imagined world demonstrate. Similarly, by creating a mash-up of the past and future, the dead and the living, Habel is able to eloquently explore themes of social class, inequality and prejudice. The juxtaposition of Victorian etiquette with a futuristic setting makes for solid worldbuilding, as the novel seems equally concerned with the minutiae of both.
However, this doesn’t negate the fact that plot of Dearly, Beloved is far less compelling than that of Dearly, Departed. The tension is flaccid, if not non-existent, for a large part of the story.
Following two main threads that serve to throw conflict between the living, the zombies, and even the zombies themselves – the story feel tedious, with the most interesting points left to be addressed in the next book. And while it could be argued that the clues and foreshadowing all tie together cleverly at the finale, it’s an uphill battle to stay interested.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm in general for this book – Habel has done an exceptional job of laying the groundwork for an intriguing third book. Suffice to say, I have theories about how it will play out. However, whether I’m interested enough in finding out whether I’m right or not, is another matter entirely.
* * * * *
*theatrically collapses at the finish line* (less)
As per its glowing blurb, I ll Tell You Mine contains three of Melina Marchetta’s favourite ingredients: ”boarding school, great characters a...more3.5 stars
As per its glowing blurb, I ll Tell You Mine contains three of Melina Marchetta’s favourite ingredients: ”boarding school, great characters and a lot of heart.” If that hasn’t sold you on it, Pip Harry’s debut also contains: family secrets, goth rock and sweaty farm boys from Wagga.
No, seriously. Enough with the chiselled jaws and broody eyes. What YA needs is more guys in KingGees.
As the synopsis states, Kate Elliot is harbouring a secret, one that has resulted in her being packed off to board at her Melbourne high school. The secret is alluded to through flashbacks, effectively raising the stakes as the story approaches the final reveal - yet I can’t help but feel that the real strength of this novel is in it’s characters.
That’s not to discredit the catalyst for Kate’s story – it’s a powerful premise and an effective inciting incident. But it’s Harry’s ability to craft a nuanced, complex cast that really carry this story, more so than the plot. Not just in mousy-turned-goth-girl Kate, but in her fellow boarders, Harry adroitly side-steps clichés and gives her characters depth. From popular over-achiever Harriet to the Siobhan-Sullivan-esque, (MM FTW!) incorrigible flirt Maddy, to Kate’s goth-not-emo-thank-you-very-much friends – the characters have dimension and agency beyond Kate’s internal journey.
Harry has an accessible writing style and Kate’s voice always feels authentic – angry, vulnerable, reckless. There’s an ease to the dialogue and accuracy in her depiction of teens that I think will resonate with readers – Harry is upfront about drinking, drugs and sex without making this feel like an “issues” book.
I ll Tell You Mine did take a turn I didn’t expect (a turn to Wagga Wagga to be precise (view spoiler)[ that’s pronounced ‘Wogga’ for the non-Australians (hide spoiler)],) as the focus shifts slightly from Kate’s immediate family problems to her self-image and friendship with Maddy. And polite farm boys.
A hopeful novel about identity, friendship and forgiveness, I ll Tell You Mine is a solid, heartfelt debut that earns a spot alongside Gabrielle Williams, Lili Wilkinson, Fiona Wood… Definitely one to watch.
As requested by Trin - the book manicure. I hope Kate would approve…
[Note: I went into this book with good intentions. Please note my enthusiastic hashtagging in honour of the Fuentes boys, along with my fellow readalo...more [Note: I went into this book with good intentions. Please note my enthusiastic hashtagging in honour of the Fuentes boys, along with my fellow readalongers, Flannery, Jo and Trinity. Alas, I did not like this book - as the following review states.]
Look, I’m sorry, but every once in a while I just need to get my rant on and Chain Reaction has the dubious honour of being in my ranty sights right now.
I’ve read Perfect Chemistry and Rules of Attraction, and while they weren’t precisely my cup of tea, I can’t lie – they were entertaining and fun. I expected something similar from Chain Reaction, if a slightly different take on the previous formula of bad-boy meets girl-from-the-right-side-of-the-tracks. What I didn’t expect was to read the mutant spawn of the previous two books, a Perfect Chemistry/Rules of Attraction fan-fiction-style mash-up.
In hindsight I don’t know where I got this idea from, but I thought this book would be about Luis – the intelligent, sensitive and somewhat shy youngest Fuentes brother – being brought out of his shell by a confident, challenging Nikki, replete with trademark Elkeles flirtatious tension. Haha. Those were the days..
Luis is basically a hybrid of Alex and Carlos – which makes him what? The Ultimate Fuentes? An intelligent, tough, risk-taking, wannabe-astronaut badass with perfectly ripped abs who sets fire to the underwear of all girls in a 2 mile radius without even breaking a sweat. His key differentiator appears to be his perfectly spiked hair.
Luis sets his sights on Nikki, super-hot girl-from-the-right-side-of-the-tracks-with-a-secret!, determined to break through her cool exterior and make her his mamacita while also shaming her for not being a “real” Mexican.
Throw in some gangbangers, a scabby dog, a game of panty discus, a plot that defies logic, and ridiculousness ensues. Things get straddled. (Mostly furniture, though). Characters make absurd decisions. We are told plenty of things about the characters, but not really shown anything. Terrible poetry is written. Misunderstandings are rampant. Alex and Carlos bust shit up. Luis gets busted up. Nikki (view spoiler)[totes a gun and saves the day (hide spoiler)]. Carlos cries, which apparently redeems him from acting like a total ass-hat.
Credit where credit is due – I actually liked the beginning of this book. I felt empathy for Nikki and I thought I understood her motivations. I had high hopes.
Then everyone started acting out of character and the believability I initially noted went out of the window, along with the plot, apparently.
I’m sorry. I know this is harsh, but I’m frustrated with this book. It feels like a (vanilla? trololol) regurgitation of the previous two, sans the compelling characterisation and interesting plotlines.
Anyway, the moral of the story appears to be: Don’t join a gang when you’re angry, it will end badly unless you have a sassy girlfriend who is your “forever and always” and buys you meteorites.
* * * * * * Ok, I’m done here.
I guess that’s a bit of a hollow pronouncement, since Chain Reaction is the last book in the Perfect Chemistry series, but just in case any further Fuentes books are spawned in the future: I’m staying well away.
And if I don’t, I give you all leave to throw things at me.
* * * * *
It's finally #FuentesFriday! with Flannery, Jo and Trin.
Glimpse is the third Carol Lynch Williams book I’ve read, and my first experience with her verse. I had suspected from the eloquently spare s...more3.5 stars
Glimpse is the third Carol Lynch Williams book I’ve read, and my first experience with her verse. I had suspected from the eloquently spare style of The Chosen One and Miles From Ordinary that the author would handle verse effectively, and that theory was borne out by the pared back, sharp poetry used to tell the story in Glimpse.
It’s abundantly clear that Lynch Williams isn’t afraid of tackling complex, even controversial topics, having covered polygamy, child abuse and mental illness in my previous reads. However, to her credit – and again aptly demonstrated in Glimpse - the focus is kept firmly on the characters, preventing the story from getting mired down in the difficult subject matter.
That’s not to say that Glimpse isn’t a heavy book – because it is, in a way. There were sections of this story I found extremely hard to read and a couple of times I just had to close it for a moment and take a breather. But it’s always evident that the characters are foremost, and that Lynch Williams is telling the story that’s true to them.
The blurb of Gimpse references a big secret held by Hope’s older sister, Lizzie. This secret has resulted in Lizzie’s lock down in a mental health facility. Yet it’s not the reveal of this secret that wields the power of the novel, because it’s pretty clear early on in the story what the secret is and what’s really going on. I think most will quickly read between the lines of Hope’s narration, well before the novel makes a black and white statement on the subject.
The strength of Glimpse rather lies in the fact that as the reader, we are with Hope as she becomes cognizant of what has happened to Lizzie. This dissonance between our understanding and Hope’s is extremely powerful, as we carry the burden of truth for the majority of the story and have to watch as Hope (who is 12/13) has to shoulder it for herself. The scenes in which Hope’s comprehension of events click into place are actually harrowing to read. I felt sick on her behalf. And that’s where much of Lynch William’s skill as a writer lies – using her confronting topic to depict a brutal dual loss of innocence for the sisters: for Lizzie in the events themselves, for Hope in her dawning awareness and being pushed into a position no child should be forced to occupy.
The contrast in their respective experiences of childhood/adolescence is thrown into sharp relief by Lynch Williams’ use of scenes depicting Hope’s friendship with Mari. While Hope’s home life is visibly dysfunctional, she and Mari spend their time talking about boys they like, dying their hair, idolising a male pop singer. It’s this almost halcyon view of Mari and Hope’s journey through puberty that makes the overarching story of Lizzie, Hope and their mother that much more gruelling. While Hope thinks about playing spin the bottle and kissing a boy, readers are uncomfortably aware of how this compares with Lizzie’s reality, and what has been taken from her.
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call this story chilling. The complete abuse of authority (and pretty much every other kind) is frighteningly not unrealistic. And while the characterisation of (view spoiler)[Hope and Lizzie’s mother (hide spoiler)] is less dimensional that of the other characters, I think that’s to be expected given the limitations of Hope’s viewpoint. She’s a young protagonist, who has somewhat normalised her situation. She’s occasionally shockingly nonchalant about (view spoiler)[her mother’s prostitution (hide spoiler)], though it’s clear she is beginning to develop insight into her situation, especially as it impacts herself and, most horrifyingly, Lizzie.
Given the emotional toll this novel exacts from the reader, the ending is not exactly a triumph of epically heart-warming proportions. It left me feeling bruised. But that’s okay. Because it also feels real. It left like the right place to leave Hope and Lizzie, and it offers hope in its resolution. Just a glimpse of it.
* * * * * Intense. Review to come..["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would...more”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would pass to me and, if I ever knew which way death would come, I could run hard in the other direction.”
Seventeen-year-old Friday Brown is a runner. Her whole life has revolved around escape: moving from town to town with her Mother, never staying too long in one place, abandoning the past and trying to outpace a cursed future. After befriending a strange boy called Silence, Friday falls in with a group of street kids lead by charismatic matriarchal figure, Arden. When they end up in an outback ghost town, Friday must challenge everything she believes to be true about family, and fate.
Friday Brown was easily my most anticipated release of 2012. It will also likely be my favourite. I had high expectations, and Vikki Wakefield exceeded them. As much as I loved All I Ever Wanted, in Friday Brown Wakefield’s style has developed and deepened, resulting in a novel that is thematically resonant and complex.
Something Wakefield does beautifully, with both All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown, is write perceptively about the concept of identity and its fluid state in young adulthood. Mim (of All I Ever Wanted) and Friday are both teenage girls who question and redefine themselves – Mim through the challenging of her rigid system of rules, Friday through the stripping away of everything she believes has given her life context. Without her mother, without the stories she has grown up with – who is she? When the only family she has ever known is taken away, does she know herself at all?
This idea of discovery, of identity as evolving rather than static, overarches the narrative. Friday, who eschews forming relationships due to the accompanying responsibility, is also a vulnerable character who has an inherent need to belong. Initially reluctant to forge meaningful connections with others, she is drawn to the sense of envelopment in Arden’s patchwork family. However, as the full extent of Arden’s manipulative nature is gradually exposed, Friday begins to reclaim herself and determine her own path.
There is a recurring motif of duality and comparison threaded through the Friday Brown; the novel itself is broken into two sections, ‘The City’ and ‘The Dust’, to form the whole of Friday’s journey. This tendency to contrast is repeated in various forms: the mother-figures of Vivienne and Arden, the fug of stale, recycled air in a car and the first breath taken in the outback. Vengeance and mercy, harshness and love. The truth versus a truth. And ultimately, good and evil. The entire story builds to a moment of definition for Friday, a power struggle not just between characters but also within herself, a moment of choice with irrevocable consequences.
Yet this is far from a simple novel. It’s complex and layered, unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of grief, homelessness and the abuse of power. The characters are flawed and contradictory, not always sympathetic. They are, however, compelling. It’s the relationships that fuel the tension of the novel - the shifting allegiances, fragile bonds of trust, sense of family and the undercurrent of manipulation. Wakefield crafts the relationships carefully, and it’s the authenticity of the connections, and the emotional investment in them that her writing inspires, that drives the novel to its powerful finale.
There’s an almost gothic element to Friday Brown, particularly in the second half of the story that unfolds in the ghost town of Murungal Creek. There’s a pervasive unease to the scenes that take place here, shadowed by Friday’s curse and the mounting tensions among the group, pared back both physically and emotionally. It’s also here that Wakefield’s imagery and use of the elements as symbolism come to the fore, in a tense, heart-wrenching conclusion.
Honestly, I’ve been intending to review this book for a long time, but each time I opened the document I end up just staring at a blinking cursor. I was overwhelmed by the desire to say everything, and not knowing how to express anything. I love this book that much. I still think about it. About Arden. About Silence. About Friday. About home and family and questioning everything you ever believed about yourself.
It’s beautiful and devastating, and I highly recommend it.
I don’t feel great about this rating, but I’ve got to be honest – this book left me pretty cold.
It’s possible that a large part of this was...more2.5 stars
I don’t feel great about this rating, but I’ve got to be honest – this book left me pretty cold.
It’s possible that a large part of this was going into the book already knowing what was lurking on the moon. It’s hard to be completely creeped out when you’ve identified the bogeyman, you know? So, there’s a chance I might have rated higher had I been unprepared for finale. But I’m hesitant to put my lack of enthusiasm down to just that.
I don’t disagree that third person was the right way to tell this story. But there was a wooden, simplistic tone to the writing that I found difficult to connect to. In addition, there’s a lot of foot-stamping and warming up before the real action begins and I found the first two thirds of the book, to put it bluntly, boring.
On top of the writing not really holding my attention, I found myself getting distracted by questioning the logic and the decisions made. On the basis of the information that is revealed near the end, the reasoning for sending teenagers to the moon just doesn't stand up. I wanted to let go of nit-picking the premise, and just enjoy the ride, but there was too much belief required to be suspended for me to ignore.
The final third of the novel really kicked the intensity up a notch, and the ending was deliciously chilling. Similarly the discussion and use of (view spoiler)[doppelgangers (hide spoiler)] was a great concept, and I liked that Harstad left most of the questions unanswered. Often, the reader does the best job of scaring themselves, when left to fill in blanks themselves.
I just wish I’d felt similarly engaged for the entirety of the book – but in truth I had to push myself to that point. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I’d like to be able to say that this is one for those readers seeking a solid dystopian YA with strong sci-fi elements, but in truth, this Glitch is n...moreI’d like to be able to say that this is one for those readers seeking a solid dystopian YA with strong sci-fi elements, but in truth, this Glitch is not that book. At best it’s an on-trend, marketable novel aimed at fans of Matched and the like. At worst, it’s a formulaic, cliché-riddled book I feel like I’ve read several times before.
While the premise of a community hooked up to a shared network that essentially rids them of individual emotional and thought seems promising, the inconsistencies in the writing are too glaring to overlook. Glitch is ostensibly about a teenage girl who finds herself “glitching”, that is, experiencing anomalous (good lord, but I am sick of that word) events in which she involuntarily disconnects from the Link and begins to experience emotional responses and develop telekinesis.
What’s problematic about this is that Zoe’s first person present tense narration doesn’t seem consistent with her circumstances. She is apparently able to recognise and process some emotions without a thought, while experiencing dramatic reactions to others. The Link gives her little exposure to colour, yet she is able to describe in detail in the shades of aquamarine in her love-interest’s eyes. Given that Zoe has lived her entire life tethered to the Link, I didn’t find her voice realistically rendered. Anastasiu seems to use Zoe’s lack of experience with emotion and individual thought when necessary for dramatic effect, then ignore it at other times.
Despite the potential in the concept of dawning emotional intelligence in a programmed and controlled world, Glitch rapidly resorts to tired romantic tropes and flimsy plot devices to progress the story. Very little feels organically developed, but rather, convenient or forced. Character X just happens to show up at a certain place, and just happens to have X device and X ability.
However, the most difficult to swallow of these revelations is the “love” that springs up between the characters. I don’t know about you, but when I’m removed from my home into an alien environment by a stranger, suffer a violent allergic reaction, then spend a few hours unconscious – upon waking the last thing on my mind would be gazing into said stranger’s eyes and kissing him. When I don’t know what kissing is. Or who this stranger really is. Even if he has indeed seen in a vision that I will lead The Resistance (of which I also have no prior knowledge) in uprising because I am special with super special powers (of course). But what do I know. Love conquers all, apparently.
Seriously, these kind of “Instant! Just add water for True Love” romances feel like lazy storytelling to me. Compounding the issue is the appearance of another “glitcher” and rival for Zoe’s affections. This character feels slightly more realistically rendered in terms of his reaction to physical/emotional impulses. Character discovers sex = character wants to have sex, fair enough. But while his actions are believable, there’s a slightly squicky subtext to Zoe’s responses. Realistic or not, this element of the plot felt poorly handled and lacked the nuance and considered treatment it required.
What Anastasiu does well is write graphic, tense scenes of action and violence. An event that takes places on a train, wherein the full power of Zoe’s ability manifests, is gripping and vividly depicted. What baffles me then, is that given Anastasiu’s capability to portray violent death and exploding rats, why the ridiculous cuss words? Adrien’s repeated use of expressions like “crackin’” “shuntin’” and “godlam’d” do little else but pull the reader out of the story unnecessarily and make them cringe. They are awkward snags in the flow of the dialogue and the irritation doesn’t lessen with repeated use. If the intention was to highlight the difference between those in the Community and the Resistance, I found it unsuccessful. However, I did laugh a lot whenever Adrian made an exclamation along the lines of “We’re all shuntin’ cracked!” I don’t think that was the intention.
Although there are some good ideas in Glitch’s premise, it fails to deliver on its potential. The result feels, honestly, underdeveloped and poorly executed. I can’t help but feel that a sound concept went to waste here, which is a real shame.
An ARC of Glitch was received for review from Netgalley
“..my heart is its own fierce country where nobody else is welcome.”
“Q: And who the hell do I think I am? A: I have no idea.”
The long-awaited compani...more“..my heart is its own fierce country where nobody else is welcome.”
“Q: And who the hell do I think I am? A: I have no idea.”
The long-awaited companion to Wood’s much-loved debut, Six Impossible Things, does not disappoint. Wildlife is a beautiful and bittersweet novel of heartbreak and healing, friendship and betrayal; an achingly authentic portrayal of coming of age against a backdrop of the Victorian wilderness.
Where there was a certain light-hearted buoyancy that tempered the issues explored in Six Impossible Things, Wildlife has an emotional resonance and depth that befits both the maturation of the characters and the themes of the novel. This is a story that navigates the complexities of grief, sexuality and (not) fitting-in, written with a perceptive grasp of how the teen characters internalise and process these events.
The writing is a blend of lyrical and astute, laced with the raw longing and heady desire of heartbreak and burgeoning attraction. Related through the dual perspectives of Sibylla and Lou, Wood weaves a narrative of loss and love, gradually entwining the lives of the two girls as they learn to survive in the wild.
“Greatest pain in the world: the moment after waking. Remembering again as consciousness slaps my face in the morning’s first sigh. Nips fresh the not-healed wound. Clubs its groundhog self into my brain, a new sharp bite, a new blunt instrument for every single day of the week. Grief has so many odd-value added features. You’d laugh.”
Using the setting of an outdoor education program, Wood places her characters into a heightened environment – here, life is distilled, concentrated down to its fundamental elements. In one sense, it’s survival in the physical world, stripped of outside influences and support networks. In another, it creates an incubator that intensifies and tests allegiances. This concept of habitat and isolation from external factors serves to pressurise relationships, forcing them to either evolve or disintegrate.
“Sometimes I think I see you, Sibylla, but then you get all blurry about what people think about you… The only person you should be is yourself. You can’t control perception. All you can control is how you treat someone else.”
Into this amplified reality, Wood mixes envy and manipulation, referencing the novel’s Othello motif in the dynamic of Sibylla and Holly’s friendship. The longevity of the relationship and the tenuous balance of power that both girls have grown accustomed to is challenged when the limelight suddenly falls on Sibylla. With this new attention, the roles they occupy within the school’s social order are shifted, presenting opportunity, confusion, and a catalyst for the toxicity of their friendship to emerge. It’s an insightful portrayal of the insidious creep of jealousy and cruelty, the way lines between friend and enemy can be obscured by years of shared history, and the complex nature of female friendships.
Within this framework, Wood also addresses perceptions of beauty and popularity, particularly as it relates to the hierarchy of high school. The concept of Sibylla’s beauty and how it is viewed and acknowledged by the characters is handled particularly intelligently; Wood has smart, interesting things to say about self-image and change, and the frequent dichotomy between the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us.
Wildlife is frank in its depiction of sex and desire – in both the physical acts and feelings, and in attitudes towards sexuality. Anyone who thinks YA shies away from candidly portraying teen girls’ responses to sex needs to read this book, because it’s handled openly and positively, even while it acknowledges the negative messaging and misogyny that saturate mainstream media. Wildlife is refreshingly honest, addressing the imbalance while remaining true to the characters – who are complex, fallible, three-dimensional.
But most of all, I loved the achy ambiguity of the relationships, the palpable sense of yearning that accompanies reality when it doesn’t quite match the characters’ expectations. Wood has a keen grasp of how it feels to be in this emotional limbo, and it comes across raw and compelling in her writing. It’s like being fifteen all over again – exposed, vulnerable, yet brave - tasting the world for the first time and being surprised that the sweetness can be laced with the bitter.
A novel about testing new realities, survival and nine-letter words, Wildlife is utterly gorgeous.
Life Is But A Dream is an unusual, intense book that tackles the subject of truth as perception from the angle of mental illness.
Sabrina is a schizop...moreLife Is But A Dream is an unusual, intense book that tackles the subject of truth as perception from the angle of mental illness.
Sabrina is a schizophrenic teen, checked into the Wellness Centre after events that are slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks. Using these snapshots of the recent past and Sabrina’s childhood, James sharpens the image of Sabrina-in-the-present, where she meets and becomes close to fellow patient Alec. Sabrina is convinced that there is a connection between she and Alec - that he originates from the dreams that texture her world.
…mine [dreams] aren’t like that. Mine stay around even when I’m awake. They are everywhere around me, shadows that I see out of the corner of my eyes. Sometimes they are more than shadows. […] Those dreams aren’t dreams at all but windows into other places. Those special dreams exist in the small places where two words rub up against each other.”
James’ portrayal of Sabrina’s schizophrenia is definitely one of the strongest elements of this book. He seamlessly weaves Sabrina’s delusions into her narration, creating a rich and evocative voice that effectively communicates the way her mind merges the real and the unreal.
In a similar way, James clearly conveys Sabrina’s confusion and fear at the idea of separating these worlds, of tearing out the part that makes her feel special.
-But why is it so wrong for me to just perceive what I perceive? – I ask her. – Everyone’s always said I should believe in myself. Until I stopped believing what they wanted me to…
Dr Richards is trying to take away the part of me that makes me special. That is what she wants. It’s what my parents want too. But it’s not what I want. I don’t want to see things their way. […] The thought of a world that plain frightens me.
In this respect the novel highlights the power of perception, and how Sabrina defines herself by the way she sees the world. The story is largely focused on Sabrina’s internal journey, and the potentially fatal consequences of the choices she must make.
However, despite the first person narration, there is never a real sense of closeness to Sabrina. As readers, we might see through her eyes, but we are never fully in her shoes, living her experiences as intimately as the point of view might suggest.
Life Is But A Dream also subtly touches on the theme of bullying, particularly the repercussions for Sabrina, without being heavy handed with the messaging. It’s handled in a manner that feels both relevant and respectful, while drawing attention to the very real emotional impact for victims of bullying.
While this is at times a distressing book to read, given the struggle Sabrina undergoes, its undeniably moving and thought provoking. At least, until the resolution. This was where I felt a considerable disconnect with the story and dissatisfaction with the manner in which it was concluded.
It’s worth mentioning here that certain points (and characters) in this book are highly subjective and reader interpretations of what exactly is real and what is part of Sabrina’s schizophrenia will vary. If taken on a completely literal basis, I find the way the Sabrina is compelled to confront her illness slightly problematic and unrealistic, particularly when it comes to the role Alec plays. The emotional engagement I had felt up until this point waned. While I felt happy with the note on which Sabrina’s story ends, the manner in which it arrived there rang somewhat hollow to me, and I felt it undid some of the complicated crafting that gone into the plot previously.
Still, Life Is But A Dream is a complex, beautifully written book – with a great deal of empathy for the characters and the respective challenges they face.
“In my experience, the truly evil are few and good people, with the very best intentions, often make very bad decisions and get in way over their hea...more“In my experience, the truly evil are few and good people, with the very best intentions, often make very bad decisions and get in way over their heads before they know it. People drown, quietly before our eyes, all the time.” - (Ilsa J Bick in the Acknowledgements of Drowning Instinct)
I can never resist a compelling, unreliable narrator.
There are few literary techniques I find more engaging than a strong, distinct voice – especially one I’m not sure I can trust. And in sixteen-year-old Jenna Lord, Ilsa J Bick has created a razor sharp voice in a story that is anything but clear-cut.
Drowning Instinct puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of listening in on Jenna’s (very) unsettling story, as she dictates it onto a digital recorder for the detective waiting outside the door. She is, in her own words: ”..lucky, a liar, a good girl, a princess, a thief – and a killer.” And what she has to say is not easy to hear.
As Bick herself says, this is a difficult, risky book. It does not present predators and victims in a black and white fashion. There is a great deal of ambiguity and complex content – including, but not limited to: self-harm, alcoholism, sexual and physical abuse, grief, PTSD, suicide and (view spoiler)[ a relationship between a teacher and student. (hide spoiler)] However, what prevents this book from descending into the realm of manipulative tragedy porn is that it does not ask the reader to agree with the choices the characters make. But it does demand that the reader think about them, question them, examine the reasoning and motivations of these damaged people.
From the opening, Drowning Instinct is an intense novel. While the pieces of the story fall into place gradually, with Jenna alternately withholding and revealing information, the pacing never feels slow. Rather, the slightly ominous tone, the sensation that the plot is inexorably drawing towards a shocking conclusion, and the format in which Jenna relates events, keeps the story gripping.
Jenna is an intriguing narrator: intelligent, acerbic, obviously in pain. Her voice is extremely well-executed, balancing her tendency to keep the detective (and thus the reader) at arm’s length, with her raw vulnerability. She is not entirely a sympathetic character – and yet throughout the book all I wanted was for to be able to heal, to find relief. As the layers to her story are revealed, Jenna becomes clearer as a character and her actions are given greater context, which complicates the issue of judging her choices. In this respect, Bick has crafted not only a realistic, complex character – but also developed an interesting dynamic between Jenna and the reader.
There are some plot elements that I felt weakened the believability of the story overall – the biggest example being the dramatic changes in attitude of Jenna’s parents. The abrupt turn-arounds in behaviour are almost whip-lash inducing, and the justification provided feels flimsy. That said, I think it’s worth considering that these parts of the story reflect Jenna as a narrator, and that we are hearing what Jenna herself refers to as her “version” of the truth. Early in the novel, Jenna muses on what it means to tell to the truth – and her inability to provide a black and white story, given the circumstances in which hers unfolds.
This is not a perfect novel, nor is it an easy one. Bick takes a gamble in choosing to tell this particular story in such a conflicted, ambiguous manner. Yet, while Jenna reaches a conclusion at the end of the book – readers are left to form their own. And I believe that rather than trying to convince readers of a particular stance, this book is instead simply urging them to think. To hear a different perspective. But most of all, to understand what compels such broken people to go to such extreme measures to mitigate their pain – whether we support or condemn their actions. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I adored Sepetys’ debut, Between Shades of Gray, and had been eagerly awaiting her follow up novel. I was not disappointed....more Reader, I loved this book.
I adored Sepetys’ debut, Between Shades of Gray, and had been eagerly awaiting her follow up novel. I was not disappointed. Sepetys’ commitment to impeccably researching her subject matter shows, and she brings 1950s New Orleans to life on the pages of Out of the Easy.
I really enjoyed Sepetys’ take on class and social stigma in Josie’s story. As the daughter of a prostitute, and in the employ of shrewd Madam Willie, as a cleaner, Josie is keenly aware of the limitations society would put upon her. Savvy and streetwise, Josie dreams of getting out of New Orleans and attending Smith college, while at the same time being conscious of her allegiance to her Mother. When a mysterious death occurs, Josie finds herself drawn more deeply into the underbelly of the Quarter, and her plans for escape and a future of her own making at risk.
Sepetys excels at crafting nuanced, believable characters, and this was the highlight of the novel for me. These are flawed, realistic people and they bring the story to life, make you care about what happens to them. Josie herself is relatable: a resourceful, strong teenager who also experiences self-doubt and fear. The plot necessitates Josie questioning her conscience and her choices, and the conflict feels real.
Some readers may have preferred to see a story that deals with prostitution handled through the perspective of the women involved directly. By framing the narrative through Josie’s perspective, it could be argued that it is inherently biased, and the agency of those characters is denied. I respect that opinion, although I don’t share it. What felt important to me here was that the story be true to Josie’s experience and voice; the lens through which she views the world. I think Sepetys succeeds in this. Josie’s narration and opinions are influenced by her past, and I think it’s conveyed without disrespect to the other characters. In fact, I believe the opposite is true.
So much about this book worked for me: the clear, vivid setting, the strong characterisation, the complex relationships and questions of family and loyalty. And I can’t wait to see what Ruta Sepetys writes next. (less)
The third and final volume of the Montmaray Journals lands squarely at the intersection of what I wanted this book to be, and what I think it needed t...more The third and final volume of the Montmaray Journals lands squarely at the intersection of what I wanted this book to be, and what I think it needed to be. Happily, those were not mutually exclusive outcomes, although “happily” feels like the wrong word to use. Because the ending of the trilogy was bittersweet, as most good endings are.
It’s difficult to review The FitzOsbornes at War in great detail because SPOILERS, and not just for this book but for all three, as they are very connected. However, as the title states, the third book is the account of the FitzOsborne’s (exiled royal family of the fictional island of Montmaray) experiences throughout World War II.
First of all, standing ovation for Michelle Cooper on writing an impeccably researched work of historical fiction. The attention to detail and factual accuracy is really impressive, and I say this as someone with an abiding love of historical fiction and aggressive loathing of anachronisms. The fatal flaw in some historical YA is a tendency to temper the narrative and characterisation with a contemporary outlook. But I’d argue that this isn’t necessary to create a story that’s engaging for a modern audience; history doesn’t need to be injected with a dose of Gossip Girl to make it relevant or interesting. Cooper’s plots remain firmly rooted in their respective time periods, but the themes are still compelling and her characters relatable. Granted, an interest in history / historical fiction is probably necessary to gain maximum enjoyment from the series, but I admire the integrity of the books to their setting.
Cooper has written a masterful blend of fact and fiction, weaving historical figures and events into her characters’ story seamlessly. The inclusion of real life people of note – Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, the Kennedys, Unity and Deborah Mitford to name very few – doesn’t feel awkward or didactic. Rather, they are an organic part of the story, and integral to the period of history in which Sophie and her family lived. It hurts my head to think of the amount of research and fact checking required to write these parts of the story as authentically as Cooper does, but the end result is a story rich with historical context. Cooper brings this section of history to life: the Blitz, the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Allied invasion of Normandy, and living conditions in England throughout the war are all vividly communicated through the lens of Sophie’s experiences. The human element of her personal emotions makes this novel more than merely a recounting of past events - it places the reader in the story, enables them to experience joy and grief, boredom and fear alongside her.
Sophie’s narration really carries this series for me. While I came to love all of the characters and their dynamics, it’s her voice that brings the story to life. It would be easily to draw comparisons (or rather, similarities) between Sophie FitzOsborne and Cassandra Mortmain; A Brief History of Montmaray is in part an homage to I Capture The Castle, yet Sophie retains an individuality that I find very appealing. She’s self-deprecating, though not frustratingly so, and is rather more worldly-wise than Cassandra, which is occasionally revealed through the sharp edge of humour to her voice. Sophie’s growth throughout the series is evident – fitting, considering the amount of time the books cover – but especially in the last book, where her transition into adulthood is poignantly and realistically depicted.
On the ending, which I desperately want to talk about but can’t for fear of wrecking the entire experience for others, I’ll simply say that it felt right. It’s a slightly surprising, yet brave resolution that feels like the right way to leave these characters. (For those with questions, Michelle Cooper has a Montmaray Q & A on her blog, but be aware that page is extremely spoilerific).
The FitzOsbornes at War is my favourite book of the series, perhaps because it’s the most complex, the most difficult, and the most emotional. Cooper pushes the character further in this instalment, demands a heavier toll in the plot, yet delivers a greater reward in the conclusion.
Overall, I think the Montmaray Journals are classics in the making, and their value will be enduring. (less)
While I can’t say that “DUFF” is a particularly common expression where I’m from (*see footnote), the concept is certainly familiar. Whether it’s the...moreWhile I can’t say that “DUFF” is a particularly common expression where I’m from (*see footnote), the concept is certainly familiar. Whether it’s the friend who is perceived as “lesser” in some way, used as a foil to his/her companions, or the practice of exploiting someone’s self-image in order to gain romantic footing with the actual object of desire – it’s a fact that this idea, if not the practice, is perpetuated by a culture obsessed with comparison.
For this reason, I applaud Keplinger’s choice to tackle the issue in her debut – not merely the concept of the DUFF as a pawn in a tactical flirting manoeuvre, but by extension, where this label comes from, its emotional repercussions and the destructive nature of assessing one’s worth against other people.
The novel’s greatest strength lies in its readability. Aside from a couple of slightly awkward “teen speak” expressions and some wild abandon with dialogue tags, the story is undeniably immersive and the pages turn quickly. While the writing is not technically flawless, and shows that Keplinger will further hone her craft, it does capture high school atmosphere well and makes for brisk reading. Bianca’s unrelenting cynicism – if not always accessible - lends the narrative a distinctive voice and her self-denigration is believable.
I recall that around its release, much was made of the fact that The Duff’s plot features plenty of casual sex due to the central character striking up an “enemies with benefits” relationship with the very person who dubbed her ‘the Duff’. Personally, I found Bianca’s particular method of distraction rang quite true, though I know some have taken issue with her choice to have sex with someone she otherwise finds repulsive. Granted, these scenes are uncomfortable to read, as is one when Bianca discusses with Wesley her “unattractiveness” and he does not clarify his view of her. I can’t deny I felt my skin crawl with uneasiness at these moments, not because I thought they were unrealistic, but because they were.
However, I’m not sure that all of these scenes were necessary, and to an extent I do feel that The Duff relies on its sexual content a little too much. I'm not opposed to the content at all, but I would have preferred to see some deeper character development, to further complement the scenes of Bianca and Wesley getting it on amid their verbal combat.
So while I appreciate Keplinger’s honesty in portraying how the labelling of a person might affect them, I feel that somewhere along the line, the subtext of the book sort of stumbled and fell on its face. Bianca’s realisation that everyone feels like the duff sometimes rang hollow for me. I understood what she was attempting to convey, but frankly I didn’t buy it coming out of the mouths of Casey and Jessica. That their admissions would prove a panacea to Bianca’s self-image seemed a bit of a stretch, honestly, as I think the issue is much more complex and fraught than this. Further, while Keplinger makes some thought-provoking statements about the labels like “slut” and “whore”, I don’t really feel that Bianca and Wesley’s respective labelling of each other was adequately addressed. And as for “man-whore”, “womanizer”, “playboy” – enough already. I get the idea.
If The Duff’s potency is in its relevance and very accessible handling of a topical issue, its weaknesses are in the subplots and resolution. Parental absence, alcoholism and divorce are also part of the plot but they feel unrealistically handled and poorly resolved. Keplinger’s attempt to give context to Bianca’s actions with her home life issues was understandable, but not effectively executed. Again, I found myself wishing that Keplinger had dispensed with some of the breadth of the issues she tackles, and really sharpened her focus. The various threads of sub-plot wrap up into far too neat an ending, especially with regard to Toby. All I will say on the handling of that particular element is: NO, just no. It gave this novel a saccharine note it absolutely did not need.
Despite my criticisms, I will definitely read Keplinger’s other novels. There’s certainly a place for her questioning and direct voice in YA literature. I find her ideas interesting and think her execution will only strengthen.
*I was horrified to realise, and somewhat ashamed to admit (you’ll see why), that when I first saw Kody Keplinger’s novel The Duff appear on the blogosphere quite some time ago, my brain obliging unearthed the first time I ever heard the term.
It was uttered by a contestant on a delightful reality TV program that aired back in 2003. One of the charming contestants made this remark: "You ever heard of the DUFF? The Designated Ugly Fat Friend? You gotta be in with the DUFF to be in with the girl." Apparently, my brain filed this pithy quote under:
Category: Crap I Shouldn’t Have Wasted My Time On Subcategory: TV – Reality File: Quotes by Jerks That May Later Prove Useful
Thank you, elephantine memory!
(And 10 points and a unicorn to anyone who can name said tragic reality TV program).
* * * * * So I've just been on a little "liking" spree of reviews for this book, and I find myself agreeing with both the very positive and very negative takes. Which is probably indicative of my very conflicted feelings about this book.
If Finnikin of the Rock was a story about a divided and displaced nation’s journey towards healing thei...more(Scroll down if you'd prefer the tl;dr version)
If Finnikin of the Rock was a story about a divided and displaced nation’s journey towards healing their collective psyche, Froi of the Exiles is about a people broken apart by hatred, the wound in their history left to fester, and seep suspicion and fear into the cracks between them. A faceless, malevolent presence in Finnikin of the Rock, this is Charyn’s unveiling as more than simply “the enemy” of Lumatere. It’s an insight into a land burdened by suffering and grief, and the darker side of human nature.
While Finnikin of the Rock covered more ground in one sense of the word, with a quest that lead its characters into the far corners of Skuldenore, Froi of the Exiles is a novel on a vaster scale in several ways. This story is more complex, with an intricate web of a plot, and it unfolds new dimensions to Marchetta’s fantasy world and the resident characters. Froi of the Exiles plumbs depths of the world only hinted at in Finnikin of the Rock: the detail is richer, each small element is vital and serves a larger purpose in the whole. The themes are pushed further, and by extension the characters are more nuanced, forced to develop in often unexpected, yet organic, ways.
Given the serpentine nature of the plot and the level of intrigue present, at times this is a difficult story to keep hold of. It twists sharply, resists being pinned down, turns in surprising directions. Yet it never feels loose or uncontrolled. There was always a sense, as I read, that Marchetta was driving this story exactly where it needed to go, regardless of how difficult a course she charted. The entire story is characterised by a sense of weight and momentum, that it’s being inexorably drawn to some powerful, inevitable conclusion.
This is an extraordinarily strong book, and probably one I’ll have to read again to fully appreciate the intricacies of the plot, but I believe that its greatest power lies (as with Finnikin) in the characterisation and relationships. Marchetta does not go easy on her characters, providing them with convenient justifications for their actions or plot developments that open up handy loopholes. Instead, she forces them to wrestle their inner demons, with all the brutality and desperation that hand to hand combat entails.
Which brings me to Froi. (Froi!) For those who have read Finnikin of the Rock, you’ll be aware of the fact that Froi attempts something abhorrent in the first book. So it speaks to Marchetta’s skill as a writer that she is able to develop this character - his shame, his humanity, his convictions - in such a way that makes him deeply compelling. There are plenty of easy roads Marchetta could have taken in bringing Froi back as a main character, effectively glossing over his backstory. But I think that would have taken away from the thematic power of the novel, and been disingenuous to the character himself. Instead, by exploring the darker side of Froi’s nature, she creates a character so conflicted, and so authentic, it actually makes me ache.
”Although a voice inside had chanted to stop that night, Froi would never know if he would have. And he wanted to know. He wanted to say the words, ‘I would not have gone through with it.’ But he’d never know and that was his punishment.”
That passage punches me in the gut every time, and it’s small moments of crystallised thought such as this that make Froi’s growth throughout the novel, redefining the terms on which he lives his life, so real and heartbreaking.
But it’s not only Froi that Marchetta is unafraid of putting into morally ambiguous and unsympathetic positions, flaws exposed. Almost every character in the novel has to fight for something, has some excruciating internal journey to travel. Lucian, Beatriss, Trevanion, Lirah, Gargarin, amongst others – all carry with them some kind of pain, and have been or must go through something that will alter them irrevocably. While not always (if at all) providing tidy resolutions, there’s something rewarding about accompanying these characters on their journeys. There is a redemptive nature to their growth, and an acknowledgement that people are rarely all good or all evil, and all are capable of both inflicting pain.
And then, Quintana. Oh, Quintana. I’m not sure there is a character I’ve felt so fiercely about recently. She is my spirit animal. Neither clichéd fantasy princess or “kickass heroine” in a physical sense, Quintana is an alloy of contradictions: vulnerability, humour, grief, rage, intelligence, insanity. She’s tenacious and a little bit feral. She’s passionate and cold. And though this is largely Froi’s story, the chemistry of these two characters, the way they crash together on the page, is pretty captivating.
I won’t brush off the fact that this isn’t a light book, in terms of the content. Be warned that there’s all manner of brutality in this story: rape, torture, infanticide – Marchetta takes Froi of the Exiles to some very dark places. Reader thresholds for this type of subject matter will vary, naturally, but I feel it’s worth mentioning that it didn’t read gratuitously to me. The inclusion felt purposeful, important to the story being told.
On the other hand, it would remiss of me not to note that this book worthwhile things to say on the issues of religious tolerance, racism and cultural prejudice. Just as she does not flinch from showing both the repugnant and the admirable in her characters, Marchetta also shows the cruelty humans are capable of, along with their capacity for forgiveness and absolution.
Underpinning this very involved and intense novel, however, is the very human desire to belong somewhere. To have a sense of home, of family, and connection. And that this can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places.
tl;dr: This book is a beautifully complex, emotional wrecking ball. It’s brilliant.
P.S. Thank goodness I held off from reading this until now. I think a year long wait for Quintana of Charyn might have completely cracked me.
* * * * * I can't even, people. I just finished and everything hurts.