"Infandous": Too odious to be expressed or mentioned.
There are those books that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. Infandous is one such book. T"Infandous": Too odious to be expressed or mentioned.
There are those books that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. Infandous is one such book. This is a short review of a short novel that is perfectly concise in its telling, beautiful in its writing, featuring a narrator with a strong voice and a story that is moving, discomfiting and ultimately healing.
Following young narrator Sephora Golding, we follow her through the summer before senior year. The story, taut and precise, follows the tentative steps of a young girl in the journey to womanhood: from her relationship with a beloved mother, their fraught livelihood in a one bedroom apartment, Seph’s creative pursuits and friendships, to her sexual awakening and experimentations moving toward a sense of self-determination. The latter I feel, is very important here and is expertly dealt by the author in the way that Sephora, in spite of things outside her control and the complicated choices she makes, is shown with sympathy, care and undeniable agency.
Seph’s world is populated with hardships and poverty, casual sexism and misogyny. Interspersed throughout are Seph’s musings on fairytales and mythology from Sleeping Beauty to Demeter and Persephone, Procne and Philomela. All stories centred on young women and agency.
A myth is not in the telling but in the endless retelling
From the opening pages, we know something is not quite well with Sephora. There is a feeling that runs through her musings as a narrator, that hint at trauma and unease which she is trying – her hardest – to work through.
Thus, one of the best – and most affecting – aspects of Infandous is exactly this: in the telling of the stories, in the creating of her art, lies the cathartic process of working through something infandous as a storyteller and artist in an attempt to come out on the other side. To be able to breathe.
Infandous is a superb contemporary YA novel. It reminded me a lot of the way that Stephanie Kuehn builds her stories like in Charm and Strange. It is also in the tradition of other recent feminist works by Courtney Summers, Rhiannon Thomas, Sarah McCarry and Laura Ruby....more
**NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS FOR BOOKS 1-4 IN THE SEVEN REALMS SERIES. If you have not yOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
**NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS FOR BOOKS 1-4 IN THE SEVEN REALMS SERIES. If you have not yet read the first four books and want to remain unspoiled, look away!**
Newly coronated as Queen of the Fells, Raisa ana' Marianna has inherited a Queendom on the verge of collapse and civil war. The Demonai Clans, led by her father Averill, pressure Raisa to marry one of their warriors; meanwhile the Wizards, led by the Bayar family, also have their plans to increase their power and legitimacy by intermingling their bloodline with that of the Gray Wolf Throne, pressuring a marriage between Micah Bayar and Raisa. This environment is made even more volatile as Clan children are kidnapped by opportunistic wizards, while in turn wizards are being hunted and killed in the queendom's slums. To add insult to injury, while the Demonai and Wizards at each others' throats, tensions mount from outside the Fells as neighboring kingdoms make their own proposals and prepare attacks in the hope of capitalizing on the unrest and internal strife.
As Raisa grapples with these impossible pressures to marry for political alliances, she also faces one of the most difficult predicaments of her young life: the desire of her own heart, an impossible love for Han "Hunts Alone" Allister. A street thief-cum-powerful wizard, Han is the only descendent of the great Demon King who broke the world, Alger Waterlow, a secret that makes him a much feared by Demonai and Wizard alike. As Han learns the truth of his lineage, of the Naeming, the Demon King and of Alger's beloved Hanalea, he begins to hope that he can break the cycle of death, squabbling and fear, bring peace to the Seven Realms, and win Raisa's heart.
The fourth and final book in Cinda Williams Chima's Seven Realms series, The Crimson Crown has a whole lotta gravity and expectation attached to it - I have read and loved each of the books in this series, and Chima has somehow topped herself with each new entry. While this is an amazing feat, it also means that The Crimson Crown had a lot to live up to - but I'm happy to say that this ultimate book is a beautiful, brilliant sendoff to a truly fantastic series. In short, The Crimson Crown delivers, big time, and I freaking loved every second of it.
From a pure storytelling and series-ending perspective, The Crimson Crown finally answers the big, series-spanning questions at the heart of the Seven Realms books. Will Han and Raisa find a way to be together, despite the myriad obstacles in their path? Will Raisa be able to find a way to unite the clans and wizards (or "copperheads" and "jinxflingers"), without tearing her queendom apart? What is the real truth of Hanalea and the Demon King, and what is their true legacy? Not only does this final volume address these questions - it answers them with deft skill and care, making this a satisfying and rewarding read. To put it plainly, these answers are worth the wait. I especially love the truth about Hanalea, so loved and cherished as a saint by the people of the realms, and the villainous Demon King, who is so universally reviled. History is written by the victors, and after a thousand years the revisionists have done a hell of a job hiding the truth of the star-crossed love between Hanalea and Alger. The way this particular past doomed love plays out in the future, with Han and Raisa fighting against incredible prejudice, is beautifully done.
On a character front, the thing that impresses me so much about this series is how much the characters have grown and changed over the course of five books, in particular Raisa and Han. Raisa has gone from a slightly spoiled, slightly superficial princess who is easily duped by a pretty face, to a cunning, wise, and fair-handed queen. Han, too, has grown from a brazen young street lord to a wizard and powerful ally - albeit with a street lord's sensibilities and determination. If The Gray Wolf Throne was Raisa's book (and it really was Raisa's), The Crimson Crown is more Han's, as he understands just what he wants and sets his mind to getting it. I love that his trust issues - very true given his past and how everyone treats him - come to roost here, and he has to learn the hard way that he cannot keep secrets from those he loves.
Beyond Han and Raisa, the secondary characters are similarly wonderfully developed - from Raisa's father Averill to Han's former gang-mate and Raisa's lady in waiting/bodyguard Cat. But the real standout to me in this book is, surprisingly, Micah Bayar. I love that Micah isn't truly a bad guy - he's kind of the Jamie Lannister, the Draco Malfoy of this world. That is, he starts out terrible but is revealed to be a nuanced guy with hidden depths. And, at the core of his actions, despite all of the questionable and self-serving acts he undertakes, he truly cares for Raisa. That is cool.
There's a betrayal and a secret villain (whose identity is nicely hidden and executed), a buried legacy, and traitorous doings. There are answers, action and romance aplenty. Basically, The Crimson Crown has it all, and ends the series on a pitch-perfect note. I loved this book, and I now face the heartbreaking task of kicking a book off of my top 10 of 2012, because The Crimson Crown absolutely MUST be on the list.
Wholeheartedly recommended - if you love fantasy, strong characters, and truly awe-inspiring long-lead storylines, read this series....more
"The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea."
It’s funny how just the other day I was talking about writing craft, the combination o "The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea."
It’s funny how just the other day I was talking about writing craft, the combination of skill and care that is so important when putting together a story and how certain books unfortunately fail in every conceivable way.
It is possible that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the antithesis to every single terrible book I’ve read lately. In fact, Aristotle and Dante is the kind of book that gives me hope that the universe might be still be an ok place to live, that publishing is not only a heartless business but also a place where craft still survives and good stories live on. You just need to be able to find them.
And what a find Aristotle and Dante turned out to be.
It’s the story of two friends, Ari and Dante, who meet when they are fifteen, during a summer of utter boredom. Their friendship is a balancing act: sweet and tender, playful and serious, full of intellectual interactions and questioning about life, the universe and everything. It is a beautiful story of friendship – although their friendship does eventually develop into an AWESOME romantic relationship that comes from falling in love with a person you already love so much. I like just-friends story and they are so important but Ari and Dante’s friends-to-lovers story felt so right there is no resentment from this reader.
I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about the things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.”
The story is narrated by Ari and it’s his point of view that colours the narrative. Ari is a loner who likes to wallow in its loneliness and who is in a state of constant anger: at the secrets his family keeps from him, at his father for not being open and talkative. Dante is in a way, his opposite: quick to laugh and play, an artist and philosopher as well as a crier. Except as it turns out, they are not so different after all – and soon Ari learns to love poetry and philosophy and words whilst still being the same questioning, angry Ari (it takes him some time to learn that boys can cry too). The letting go of this anger (for a myriad of reasons) is one of the driving points of the novel and one that comes with a series of moments of self-discovery and life-discovery. It’s very interesting too the way that Ari’s narrative is somewhat unreliable although not on purpose because it is very clear that Ari represses his feelings and don’t tell us how he truly feels about certain things because he doesn’t know them either – but his actions speak more than a thousand words.
Aristotle and Dante is a smart, intelligent, engaging coming-of-age story and a deep, thoughtful exploration of identity and sexuality. It turns out that both Ari and Dante are gay although it takes Ari the whole book to come to terms with it, whereas Dante is much more conformable in his own skin when it comes to his sexual identity. But there are other sides of who they are that are also thoughtfully examined here: both are Mexican-Americans and both ask themselves what does that even mean.
“Maybe I’ll just mown lawns.” “That’s imaginative” “Too Mexican for you, mom?” “No. Just too unreliable.” “Flipping burgers. That’s reliable. Not very imaginative, but reliable. Come to think of it, it’s the perfect job for me. I’m reliable and imaginative.” She shook her head. “ Are you going to spend your life beating up on yourself?” “You’re right. Maybe I will take the summer off.” “You’re in high school, Ari. You’re not looking for a profession. You’re just looking for a way to earn some money. You’re in transition.” “In transition? What kind of a Mexican mother are you?” “I am an educated woman. That doesn’t un-Mexicanize me, Ari.” She sounded a little angry. I loved her anger and wished I had more of it. Her anger was different than mine or my father’s. Her anger didn’t paralize her.
Both Ari and Dante are on the threshold of adulthood and the book is sublimely competent in evidencing those moments when you are trying to define who you are as well as who you want to be and how teenagers feel the need to be treated like people. There is family history and influencing, social restrictions and expectations of what a man should be, violence and bigotry as well as love and acceptance and thematically speaking, this is a book that hits all the right spots. Every character is fantastically portrayed and I just loved how this is also a book about families, about relating to them and especially how finding out who you are does not stop when you become an adult, it is an ever evolving narrative of your own life. There is a lot of care given here to Ari and Dante’s parents as well.
All of that put forth in a way that blew my mind away. Here is where I go back to the issue of writing craft. Because this book? It’s beautifully, impeccably written. The writing is very straightforward, simple and concise. BUT never ever simplistic and one gets the feeling that every word is chosen very precisely, very carefully to create a profoundly affecting story with an intricate narrative. It is a book that trusts its readers too – no pandering here – and there are pages and pages of pure dialogue where the reader must fill the gaps.
This amazing writing skill is also present in terms of “voice”. The story follows the two boys for two years, and the narrative voice matures just as much as the two do – Ari and Dante start very young-sounding and immature then as the story progresses they both sound older.
I think the best thing I can say about the book is how I can see Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe as a book that can be picked for a lit class to be dissected for its craft and examined for its themes BUT only after the reader is able to recover from becoming a blubbering mess of FEELINGS and ensuing powerlessness to form coherent thoughts all because they identify so much with the story.
Aristotle and Dante discovered more than the secrets of the universe – they also discovered the secrets to my reading heart. ...more
I was forewarned by friends and readers. I have read – and loved – a couple of other books by the author. So it’s not like I didnA THOUSAND STARS!
I was forewarned by friends and readers. I have read – and loved – a couple of other books by the author. So it’s not like I didn’t know the odds this would be good but this book? It blew my mind away. In its epilogue, Terry Pratchett says:
Thinking. This book contains some.
And that’s true: this is one of the most think-y books I have ever read. I loved it with every fibre of my being.
Nation is a book of ideas. Its main theme, that of construction and creation: the construction of a home, of a family, of rules, tradition and religion. It is about those building blocks of civilisation itself and of individuals, in a way that is both extremely rational and enormously emotional. Writing that line just now makes me realise how weird that might sound to those who haven’t read the book. Above all it makes me think about how hard it is to pull something like this off and to keep a balance between what drives a story and the story itself without making a book about ideas, a book that is solely about ideas. If that makes any sense at all – I am finding it extremely hard to write this review because how do you describe perfection? Especially when it’s so affecting?
Nation is a book about creation.
It starts with the destruction of everything one of its main characters knows.
There is a small island in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean in a world very much like ours (but not quite) where young boys go through a ceremony where they shed their boy-souls to gain their man-souls. Mau is on the Boy’s Island and is about to cross over to the main island to become a man when the big wave comes. He survives it but when he goes ashore to his home, to the Nation, he discovers everything he knows and everyone he loves has been washed away. His first action is to build a spear: “Without fire and a spear, you could never hope to be a man, wasn’t that right?”. But soulless Mau is all alone and nobody answers him.
All alone that is, but for Daphne, a young girl who was aboard the Sweet Judy ship, whose wrecked remains are now part of the Nation. They are different because their background, their language, their traditions are dissimilar. They are equals because they share this tragedy and because they are both thinkers. Together, they work to survive and to create a home for those who slowly start to come to the Nation in search of a haven after unspeakable tragedy.
First comes an old man, a priest who wants things to be kept as they always were and whose unquestioned belief in their Gods remains unshaken. With him, a young sickly woman with a newborn baby who is barely moving and can hardly feed. Everybody’s immediate response is to fall back into the roles they have always known: if the mother cannot feed her baby, the only one who can help is of course, the other female, Daphne. Except Daphne – a young girl raised by a grandmother who believes young ladies should be Proper – doesn’t even know how babies are made. Mau does what must be done in order to keep the baby alive. Hilarity ensues when he milks a wild pig but also: enlightenment for both Daphne and Mau. Women are not born knowing how to care for babies. Things that appear deep seated gender-led knowledge are not. A man’s soul is not created magically because one crosses from one island to another.
So, first comes destruction. Then, deconstruction: little by little, both characters observe this new world and question the old one in search of answers. It is a kind of stripping down to one’s very core in order to understand. But it is a stripping down without letting go of the past completely because the rules are there. So Mau is walking around the island and he hears the Grandfathers’ voices telling him what to do, to follow their traditions, not question their religion, otherwise there is no order. As much as Daphne abhors her grandmother’s voice inside her head telling her to be Quiet and Proper, she keeps listening to it non-stop. Motivation counts too and Mau is angry. He is angry at the Gods and that leads him to question their very existence. Daphne is not moved by religion at all but by Science. There is sympathy and compassion toward other characters and those find their own balance and their own way of surviving.
In a way, a wave came but they are not completely marooned because they have Tradition. But does Tradition serve them at this time of need or is that now an impediment? How important is it to keep going as it “has always been”? Or is this yet another misconception about the world? Slowly: the understanding that those are internalised voices and that questioning is good. To understand the HOW is all the more important: history becomes religion becomes tradition becomes internal rules living inside one’s head.
Then, forging and building. Mau and Daphne build themselves up and their thoughts are the roots on which they build a new Nation. And they do that by means of Scientific Method.
And that is accomplished in a story that is moving, sad, hopeful and funny. Mau and Daphne have hilarious misunderstandings before they lean to communicate. Their community is built and deep connections are formed between people. A new Nation is born out of the old and people still have parties, drink beer, laugh, love, pray and look at the sky.
Also: parallel universes.
I don’t know how my reading of this particular book has been affected by the fact that I am new to Terry Pratchett’s main oeuvre but this to me, was simply wonderful. Interestingly enough, limited as my Terry Pratchett experience might be, I found Nation to be slightly different in tone (not as funny) to the other books I have read from the author but exactly the same in how smart it is.
Nation is a rich and intricate novel. Yes ,it does have an obvious message about the power and importance of thinking, but this never overwhelms the characters or the story. I understood this very well when I started crying when the book was over. Plus, the epilogue is a wonderful gift from an author who truly understands his readers.
This book spoke to me in a deeply personal level and I can’t recommend it enough....more
Words like "gritty" and "powerful" are thrown around so frequently, especially iOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Trigger Warning: Rape
Words like "gritty" and "powerful" are thrown around so frequently, especially in describing the new wave of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fare, that they've lost their significance. But, at the risk of sounding cliche, I will say it because if ever a title deserved these words, it is this book: Orleans is gritty. It is real. And it is powerful.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, killing 971 people. Over the next fifteen years, hurricanes continue to batter the Mississippi River delta, culminating with Hurricane Jesus on October 20, 2019. Jesus is a system of unprecedented size and intensity, and kills an estimated 8,000 people after making landfall, leaving fewer than 10,000 survivors in its wake. Those that do survive face other horrors - deadly debris, a lack of basic necessities (like clean water and food), and subsequent violent crime.
And then, the Delta Fever.
A powerful bloodborne virus, Delta Fever infects and spreads without discrimination. Refugees that are evacuated from Nola and the surrounding regions bring the fever with them, causing an epidemic the likes of which haven't been seen since the Spanish Flu a century earlier. In response, the government walls off the waterlogged, infected states of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas. A permanent quarantine is put into effect (until such time as a cure is found), and these states are no longer a part of the country. And in this new, wild, world of infection and death, Orleans is born.
Fen de la Guerre is one of Orleans' children - fierce and hardened, Fen has grown up in the Delta and knows its rules and lessons all too well. An OP (that is, O-positive blood type), like the rest of her tribe and others of the O-phenotype, Fen is a carrier of the Fever but isn't affected by the disease. And, like her fellow O-types, this means that she faces incredible danger - the other As, Bs, and ABs contract the Fever and deteriorate quickly unless they receive fresh infusions of blood from universal donors - and they hunt, farm, and bleed Os in their desperation. It is this desperation that wipes out Fen's tribe of OPs, leaving Fen on the run with her beloved friend's newborn child. Fen knows too well the horrors that could befall an orphan in Orleans, and vows to keep the child alive and get her to the Outer States beyond the quarantine wall before the baby becomes infected with Delta Fever. On this mission, Fen's path crosses with an outsider - an idealist and doctor, whose research could mean the Delta Fever's cure, or its weaponization.
I admit that I was drawn to this book in part because it sounded reminiscent of one of my favorite films of last year: the resonant indie hit, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Beyond similarities in premise and setting, this book is also reminiscent of that film in terms of scope and raw emotional power. Like Beasts, Orleans has the same intensity and heartbreak; the same type of fierce, courageous heroine. But Orleans is undoubtedly a darker animal than that film.
The newest novel from Sherri L. Smith, Orleans is (as I've said before) a powerful book. It's a frightening look at what might happen to a world ravaged by climate change and a devastating epidemic - one that fractures a society into tribes of violence and even cannibalistic (exsanguinistic?) extremes. This might not be a book for everyone - it is dark, people. This is a world rife with abuse, rape, blood farming, and violence - but its also a book about the desperate struggle and right to survive. A story with hope at its heart, in the midst of so much blood and death. And this, this juxtaposition of hope in such unflinching brutality, is what makes Orleans such a resonant and important book.
In other words: I loved Orleans. I loved it deeply, painfully, and wholeheartedly.
From a pure plotting and worldbuilding perspective, Orleans is nuanced and utterly believable. This future world, hit by hurricane after hurricane, then rising water levels, then plague and isolation, might be a hyperbolic one - but it feels frighteningly plausible. The deadly Delta Fever and its dividing lines by blood type is also a unique and particularly horrific epidemic - even if this is the stuff of medical horror-fantasy, the rules of this particular fever make sense (and thus, allow for suspension of disbelief). Suffice it to say, Orleans is a grim tale and one that, to me, felt very, very real.
Heroine Fen de la Guerre - a beautiful and fitting name for our whip-sharp protagonist - is one for the ages. Fiercely loyal, Fen has grown up in the most nightmarish of dystopias. After losing her parents, she is taken in by some very bad people and has fought her way free from abuse, finding a new home, a new tribe, and a new family. Fen is a fighter, and her will to survive is the driving force of this book. I love that in spite of everything she has been through and every fresh horror she faces, she never lets go of that powerful flame of hope. I love that Fen is wholly capable, that she figures out her own way to save her friend's child - unlike other dystopian heroes, Fen cares first and foremost about survival. Not how she looks. Not about a dreamy teenage boy that swoops in to help her out in the nick of time. Fen's priority is the life of her best friend's baby girl.
Of course, Fen is not the only character in this story - her cutting narrative is joined by that of Doctor Daniel Weaver, an idealistic outlander who crosses the wall into Orleans in hopes of completing his research and finding a cure for Delta Fever. In contrast to Fen's hyperalertness and competence, Daniel is completely out of his element and wholly unprepared for the grim reality of Orleans. I love that when he and Fen do team up, it is out of necessity and again that desperate need to survive. Together, they form a new kind of tribe.
And then there's that important theme of hope - because as dark as Orleans gets, there are these embers of hope throughout. You see it in Daniel's first glimpse of the Superdome, with the countless hours of work the Ursuline sisters have put into preserving the bones of the tens of thousands dead. It's there when Fen chooses to hold on to her friend's baby girl and not abandon her to the blood-hungry dogs and men chasing them. And you better believe it's there when Fen makes a desperate last gamble to get the child over the wall, damn the cost to herself.
I say again: I loved this book. It is dark and gritty, and it might not be for everyone, but for me? Orleans is damn near perfect, and in the running for one of my top 10 reads of the year. ...more
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a rOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
All Our Pretty Songs: an unnamed (and unreliable) narrator, a love story (but not like you expect) and a retelling of the Orpheus myth (but not like you know it).
All Our Pretty Songs: almost too good to be true. How is this a debut work? With this level of awesome prose? And gutsy storytelling? And by gutsy I really mean: simply writing a story that follows young characters who experience life – sex, drugs and rock & roll – in a way that is as real as any of all the other possible portrayals of teen life in YA.
So, unnamed narrator narrates: about her life and the life of her best-friend-almost-sister Aurora; and the way that she is always taking care of beautiful, volatile Aurora. There’s always been the two of them and their love and dedication and loyalty to each other. And there is a passion for music here that seeps from the narrative and that passion becomes almost tangible when they meet a musician named Jack. His gift is amazing and when he plays, everybody listens. And our unnamed narrator falls in lust and in love with Jack almost immediately (and definitely completely).
And even though the world we all inhabit is very much one of real things as it just so happens – as our narrator finds out – it is also one where things are real. So…when we say that everybody listens to Jack and that everybody pays attention to Aurora, we mean that literally. There is myth come to life here (and why the Pacific Northwest? Because “they” are everywhere) and the unnamed narrator – who is not beautiful or talented – sits in the margins, looking from the outside, unable to follow where they eventually go.
And the narrative is kind of dream-like and there are parts where there is a bit of stream of consciousness (kinda like this review) and as the story progress it becomes both more focused and more meandering if that makes any sense at all. What strikes me the most about the story is how even though the plot deals with life and death and danger and terror, the narrative is still extremely insulated because as worldly as the narrator seems to be with the parties and the sex and the drugs and the freedom, she is still a 17-year-old girl who makes snap judgements about people and whose narrow view of those she loves and about herself is still informed by her inexperience.
And I love her for all of that. I love that the narrator and the story is about complex relationships with close family, close friends, and sisterhood. Also with lovers and how love shapes her view of the world. So inasmuch as the narrator falls irrevocably in love with Jack, she is still involved in other stuff and with other people – I loved her relationship with her mother and with her friend Raoul. Plus there is a lot of negotiating that happens between how freely she has given her body and her heart and the fact that sometimes this is not enough to the other person. So this is definitely Coming-of-Age as much as it is Quest (when are those not the same?) . And central to this is also this self-awareness and this slow learning curve about what it means to be talented and beautiful which includes astute observations about our world and how we choose to look at people and allocate them “worth”. Because this is also a mythology retelling it all comes together:
"Once upon a time, girls who were too beautiful or too skilled were changed into other things by angry gods and their wives. A cow, a flower, a spider, a fog. Maybe you boasted too loudly of sleeping with a goddess’s husband. Maybe you talked too much about your own talents. Maybe you were born dumb and pretty, and the wrong people fell in love with you, chased you across fields and mountains and oceans until you cried mercy and a god took pity on you, switched your body to a heaving sea of clouds. Maybe you stayed in one place for too long, pining for someone who wasn’t yours, and your toes grew roots into the earth and your skin toughened into bark. Maybe you told the world how beautiful your children were, and the gods cut them down in front of you to punish you for your loose tongue, and you were so overcome with grief your body turned to stone."
Which just goes to show how these mythological beings (also EVERYBODY on the planet) are complete assholes who randomly and arbitrarily assign value to people.
Because here is the thing: as much as the narrator constantly tells us that she is unworthy because she is not typically beautiful or talented like her friends the fact remains that she is equally AWESOME. Even though she is flawed (who isn’t?), there is loyalty, and dedication, and determination and talent here in spades. Probably my favourite quote:
"I will not let the terror of the dark get hold of me. If this is a test, I will fucking pass it. I will pass any test this creepy skeleton in a crappy suit can give me. Let them turn me into stone or water or flowers. I came here for my lover and the girl who is my sister, and they were mine before anyone else tried to take them from me, before this bony motherfucker showed up on my stoop and let loose all the old things better left at rest. Jack I will let go; Jack is on his own, now. But I will die before I leave Aurora down here."
Dear narrator, you are so awesome and I don’t even know your name.
To sum up: great book. Really reminded me of Imaginary Girls and September Girls in terms of tone, narrative and themes.
All Our Pretty Songs can be read as a self-contained, standalone book but I understand it is the beginning of a series. I don’t know where this is going but I will follow and I will not even look back. ...more
Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to the absolutely fabulous, heart-breaking, thOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Rose Under Fire is a companion novel to the absolutely fabulous, heart-breaking, the-best-book-of-2012 Code Name Verity. I will come back to this later.
The plot summary of Rose Under Fire is rather straightforward: a young and naïve American girl named Rose Justice joins the allied forces in England flying planes for the War Effort. While on a short mission to Paris, she is captured by Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. There, she forms strong, deep connections to a group of young political Polish prisoners known as the Rabbits. The Rabbits were the victims of horrifying medical experiments and were protected by the rest of the Camp because of their attempt to bear witness to these atrocities by telling the world.
I don’t know how to write this review. It’s hard to concentrate on what happens in the book not only because it is a difficult topic (I’ve had nightmares two nights in a row now after reading it) but also because I think that I’d rather talk about the themes that arise from it. There are so many.
Just like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is an epistolary novel. Rose keeps a notebook before going to Ravensbrück where she writes about her experiences as a pilot until she is taken. The narrative resumes after Ravensbrück when Rose decides to write down her experiences – at least what she can remember of the six months she spent there. The final two “books” are written about one year later at the time the war trials begin.
It’s interesting: throughout the book there are four different Roses. But it’s always, always the same person. Because her voice is the same but the level of maturity is not – there is a question of superb writing skills here. Rose’s naivety and eagerness to start with are so painful because you just know they will not survive the war.
And I loved this because in these stories the Young and Naïve and Eager soldier is almost invariably a man. This is a book that is about a very specific group of women and how they experienced the war and those are varied even within the limited scope of this novel which concentrates in the Polish/French group of prisoners, especially on the small group formed by the Rabbits. I say “varied” because this is truly I think the core of the novel.
Because even within a similar group there are different experiences of this War and above all, different ways of coping. There are those that don’t, there are those who defy, there are those who cave, there are those who betray, there are those who subvert, those who fight, those who cry, those who laugh, those who do nothing at all, those who do all of this and more.
Actually, one of the things I think the most when reading stories like this is the topic of “defiance”. Ravensbrück was a camp that held political prisoners and some of them were resistance fighters. And as much as I admire resistance fighters, I am always more interested in the small, quiet, daily defiance which is so important too. The defiance that is quiet, incisive, patient, that whispers, that shares a piece of bread, that subverts orders the best way possible.
But there are those who, just like with coping, don’t fight at all. And who can begrudge or judge? No one and especially not this book. There is absolutely no sense of value or judgement in the different ways that each person deals with these atrocities, no right or wrong way. This is all the more important when it comes to the final part of the novel when it comes to the time of bearing witness at the trials. There are those who want to and can talk about their experiences. There are those who simply can’t: who can’t talk about it, who can’t bear to think of standing in front of people and talk about the unspeakable things that happened to them.
There is a huge focus on this because Rose Under Fire is a survivor story. This is important because there were so many that didn’t survive – there are so many that went into the fold nameless and voiceless. To the survivors then there is an extra layer of guilt, of why me and I don’t even dare to imagine what it must feel like. And all of that without being exploitative or simplifying everything by the false dichotomy of good vs evil although the Rose pre-Ravensbrück does think it is as simple as that which makes her friendship with a German guard all the more impacting.
And it is also “varied” because even though Rose is the main character and narrator, I don’t think she is the heroine. Her personal story is important but Ravensbrück’s is more, the Rabbit’s is more. Rose is almost unimportant. Because she is witness.
I think this is where novel completely diverges from Code Name Verity. Because that first book felt like a deeply personal story of two friends whereas this one is more about the whole. So, going back to Code Name Verity: if you have read it, you are probably thinking: is Rose Under Fire as good? I know because I wondered the same thing.
I have been deeply affected by both books in different ways. Because they are different books even if they have the same setting, and the same themes of loyalty and friendship between ladies. But Code Name Verity as heart-wrenching as it was, also had room for fun gotchas and twists because that was a spy book. The narrative here is drier and more straightforward – as it should be. They are both good books. ____
And then in the middle of it all, the details.
The fact that before the war ended and the Concentration Camps were liberated, the majority of the world thought that the news of what was really happening in those camps that were slowly slipping to the world sounded like anti-Nazi propaganda because who WHO could believe such things?
The shared horror of a forced haircut or ripped nylon tights as a naïve prelude to worse to come; saying grace before eating meagre meals; hysterical laughter; faux school exams; propping up the dead and hiding under planks; Vive La France!; flying around the Eiffel Tower; picnics and stitched gifts; red toenails and whispered poems. Maddie (Maddie!) and any mentions of Julie that brought it all back.
And all the heartache in the world.
The simplest way to finish this review is to go back and to say: MY EMOTIONS.
Let me preface this review by getting the big points out of the way: I loved this book. I loved it deeply. For its characters, its message, its grim and terrible beauty, I loved it.
And, I’ll preface this review by saying that it is a very different book than Code Name Verity – epistolary style aside – but for those differences, it’s actually a more powerful, and more important, book.
I have to echo two sentiments that Ana puts forward: first, I think Ana hits on a very important part of the success of this Rose Under Fire – there is no (or ok, there’s some, but it’s not much) passing of judgement. I recently read a nonfictional account of the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in The Nazi Hunters, which emphatically, repeatedly uses the labels of GOOD and EVIL; of absolute moral right, and absolute moral depravity. I appreciate the layers in Rose Under Fire; there are terrible, unspeakable things that happen and are inflicted by terrible people, but how there are others that are neither good, nor evil, but somewhere in between (prison guard Anna, for example).
Second, as Ana has pointed out in her part of the review, the theme of defiance and its many faces throughout the book is truly remarkable. I loved the heartbreaking depiction of the different levels of resistance and strength, from taking too long to do different tasks, to chasing after and nudging pilotless planes to their demise, to turning out the lights in a concentration camp and throwing handfuls of dirt while screaming to cause chaos. My goodness, how brave and strong and amazing these people all are and were.
These things said, I think what I appreciated the most about this book are the underlying themes of truth, and truth in storytelling. The truth will be heard. This is the single sentiment that we see Rose and her fellow prisoners in Ravensbrück fight for and rally behind, over and over again. Because the truth is what matters; the reality of the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück and the medical experiments they endured, the cold and starvation and hard labor they faced before being murdered. The truth.
It is perhaps unfair to compare this book to Code Name Verity, which is, as Ana says, an internal novel about two best friends, spies, and brilliant, unexpected lies. Rose Under Fire is a very different creature, without the huge walloping twists of the former novel, and more of a straightforward retrospective record of Rose’s life before and after Ravensbrück. It’s an important story, and one that is written with Elizabeth Wein’s beautifully skilled hand – I have to agree with Ana, the iterations of Rose before she tips that doodlebug and is captured by the Nazis is an entirely different Rose that is imprisoned and beaten in Ravensbrück. And that Rose is a different one than the terrified survivor, who fears her newfound space and freedom (to the point where any loud noises, like a telephone ringing, terrify her). The Rose that ends the book – the one that is reunited with her fellow friends and survivors, who goes to medical school following the war and after she has survived surviving – this is the strongest, most powerful Rose of them all. And I deeply appreciated and loved this character, so very much – moreso, I think, than the heroines of Code Name Verity.
Praises all said, the one key area where I felt that Rose Under Fire faltered, however, is in its epistolary narrative. (This perhaps is my own stylistic preference and nitpick, more than anything else.) Rose narrates the story through her journal before Ravensbrück as a daily diary, but after she escapes and survives the concentration camp, the narrative switches to a long, very detailed account of daily life and her encounters over that missing year. To me, this feels more than a little contrived (to be fair, I had the same issue with Code Name Verity and the plausibility gap of a hardened Gestapo officer allowing a young captured spy to write so much in a journal day after day of being imprisoned and divulging nothing of importance). I also was not a huge fan of Rose’s poetry, although I appreciate the importance of lyricism and poetry to the character. Personally, it wasn’t to my taste, but this is completely a matter of personal taste and not a failing of the writing at all.
The only other thing I will say about this book actually has very little to do with the book – and perhaps this is more of a personal reflection, or fodder for a ponderings post, than it is a fair commentary on the actual story itself. (This is code for me saying, please feel free to tune out now!) Still, I feel very strongly that something must be said: Rose Under Fire is one hell of a book. It’s a powerful, emotionally resonant historical novel about remembering and about surviving, and I truly appreciate and value that. That said, it’s also a story about a war that ended nearly 70 years ago. It’s also the story narrated by a beautiful, young, privileged, white girl who literally falls into a terrible situation. Please understand that I am not disparaging or arguing against the value of the rich canon of literature about the Holocaust, or the set of circumstances facing heroine Rose. I am simply saying this: there are so many wars, atrocities, even genocides that have happened in the last 70 years, and that are still happening now. Those truths and those stories are hardly represented today – much less in YA literature. And perhaps this doesn’t belong here in this review, but it’s something I am acutely conscious of, and I vow to do as much as I can to change this and draw awareness to the titles that do exist in these more contemporary, non-WWII centric eras. Because I am inspired by Rose’s story and by this book, because I think it’s important to talk, to remember, and to experience that truth through storytelling, I vow to read and review books from other, more contemporary wars, from viewpoints other than that of the white, the privileged, and the western European. (I think I’ll start with Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah – if anyone has any other suggestions, please, please let me know.) And that is all. ...more
**WARNING: This review contains slight, but unavoidable, spoilers for Ultraviolet. You do not have to have reOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
**WARNING: This review contains slight, but unavoidable, spoilers for Ultraviolet. You do not have to have read Ultraviolet to read Quicksilver, but if you want to be unspoiled for the first book, you should probably start there.**
Three months ago, perfect, popular seventeen year-old Tori Beaugrand disappeared into thin air. And then, just as inexplicably, Tori returns home, bloodied and beaten, but alive and whole.
Tori's disappearance is a mystery to the police and her friends, and she claims that she cannot remember anything of her abduction, or the weeks she was gone. More than anything, Tori wants everyone to forget, and to move on with her life as though nothing has happened.
Of course, the truth isn't so simple. Tori's disappearance is one that spans time and space, her secret one that no one - save for friend Alison and scientist Sebastian Faraday - can ever know. You see, Tori isn't like anyone else on Earth. And now she's being hunted by scientists who want to study her unique DNA, by a rogue cop that can't give up without knowing Tori's story, and by one of her own kind who will stop at nothing to continue his grand experiment.
Tori and her parents uproot themselves, changing their names and their appearances, in the hopes that they can stay safe. Now, Tori is Nikki - a brunette with a pixie cut and dark gray-blue eyes, who is homeschooled and works a part-time job at the local supermarket, trying to keep under the radar. All that goes to hell when Sebastian Faraday shows up in Tori/Nikki's life again, enlisting her help to build a device that could end their trouble once and for all. But to be successful, it will take every ounce of Nikki's unique skills - but more importantly, it means she will have to place her trust in others.
The companion book to 2011's Ultraviolet, Quicksilver is a fantastic science fiction novel from R.J. Anderson. Featuring yet another awesome heroine and a surprisingly high-stakes, unflinching plot, Quicksilver, to put it plainly, rocks. In other words: I loved this book.
As I've noted before, you don't necessarily have had to read Ultraviolet to dive into this book, but I strongly suggest you read that novel first in order to have a fuller understanding of the events and key players in Quicksilver. While Ultraviolet was synesthesiac Alison's book, about her false confession of murder and her institutionalization, Quicksilver tells the story of the girl who Alison supposedly killed - the perfect, beautiful girl who has it all, Tori. Except, Tori doesn't really have it all; in fact, her life is a carefully constructed façade. Adopted as a small child by her loving parents, Tori has always been a bit different - she's got unparalleled skill when it comes to assembling, visualizing and modifying technology, and a knack for memorizing numbers and easily solving complex mathematical problems. But more than her mechanical skills, Tori guards a much deeper secret - she's from a place far, far away, sent to Earth as a baby as a kind of twisted experiment.
Yep, that's right. Just like Ultraviolet before it, Quicksilver is a psychological thriller but it's also firmly a science fiction novel, complete with transporter devices, wormholes, and, yes, that eponymous element of quicksilver. And I'm happy to say that both the science fictional elements and technology elements are executed beautifully. Similarly, from a plotting perspective, Quicksilver rocks. Equal parts fugitive thriller and scifi blockbuster, you could say that this novel is kind of a page-turner. That's not to say that depth is sacrificed for action - quite the contrary. There are betrayals and hidden motives and resonant emotional connections. And the stakes are HIGH, people! The book kicks into high gear and the last quarter of Quicksilver is crazy intense. (In particular, Tori makes a gutsy, terrifying choice in the late chapters of the book and my goodness is it dramatic.)
And then there are the characters. I loved, loved, loved heroine Tori. And now, this COULD be considered a mild spoiler, but I'm divulging anyway because I think it is a vitally important part of (and draw to) the book. That is: main character Tori is an asexual protagonist.
“Milo,” I said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve only ever told one other person. And when I do, I . . . I hope you’ll understand.” Passionately hoped, in fact. Because if he said any of the things Lara had said to me when I told her, it would be hard to forgive him for it.
“I know,” he said. “You’re gay, right?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not sexually attracted to anyone. At all. Ever.”
Tori's not celibate (which is a choice); she's asexual (a type of sexual orientation).[1. If you want to read more about asexuality, check out www.asexuality.org.] It's rare to come across an asexual protagonist in fiction - especially in YA fiction! - but Anderson does a phenomenal job of carefully portraying Tori's asexuality, without making this Tori's Sole Defining Characteristic, or worse, portraying her asexuality in a superficial or offhand way. I love the careful distinction that shows Tori is a young woman who feels love, and rage, and loneliness - she's not sexually attracted to anyone, but she feels and yearns for emotional connection (I should also note that Tori is asexual but not - to my reading - aromantic). And finally, I love that Tori's asexuality is NOT misunderstood or treated as a part of her unique DNA, or as the result of some childhood trauma, or some other such humbug. I love that author R.J. Anderson directly addresses and refutes this in the book. That is awesome.[2. On that note, R.J. Anderson wrote a great post about Tori's asexuality HERE. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety!]
And you know what else is awesome? Tori's new friend, Milo, is a Korean Canadian, and the book skillfully deals with questions of interracial relationships and pressures, once again without feeling false or superficial. The relationship that unfolds between Tori and Milo is complicated, to say the least, but its one of my favorite YA relationships in a very, very long time. Heck, I'll just come out and say it - Tori and Milo are one of my favorite pairs of characters...ever.
With its skillful genre-busting, plotting and standout characters, Quicksilver is every bit as wonderful as Ultraviolet. Heck, I think I may even love it more than that first book. Absolutely recommended, and in the running for one of my favorite books of 2013. ...more
And I am SO glad I did. My own take? I love it. I agree with those who say this is a feminist book. I think September Girls is not only NOT sexist, but also quite the opposite: I think it challenges sexism directly in a myriad of ways but also does so metaphorically. It questions patriarchy, the idea of “manhood” very explicitly and it does so in a beautifully written, languid, thought-provoking story. It’s absolutely one of my favourite reads this year.
Allow me to expound on why. Please note: I am hoping it is clear that I am not attacking different readings of September Girls but I feel I need to interact directly with some of the sexism claims because to me it is important to offer a different take. So here is my deconstruction of the novel and most importantly, of the claims of sexism levelled at it.
WARNING: ALL THE SPOILERS.
The story is mostly narrated by Sam, a young 17-year-old boy who is spending his summer with his father and brother Jeff at a remote beach house in a sleepy location full of strange, beautiful Girls. Sam addresses them with the capital G because they are so other: all equally blond, all equally weird, all beautiful, extremely sexy and – unexpectedly – coming on to him. When he meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, they start to fall for each other. Then he learns what the Girls really are.
September Girls is a dark, twisted, fucked-up fairytale in which mermaids (or beings that are very similar to mermaids) have been cursed by their Father . Sam shares the narrative with one of the Girls who is telling him – us – everything about them in this eerie, amazing tale. It’s almost like a siren song.
We are told that: their father curses them because he hated their Mother, who is called a Whore:
“We have been told that she was a whore, although we can’t remember who told us that, and we often find ourselves arguing over the true definition of whore.”
We are told that: the curse entails being sent away from home abruptly and with very vague memories of why and how. They show up at the shore one day, naked and barely formed. They can’t swim. Their feet hurt with every step. They don’t know how to speak, what to think and they don’t even remember their names:
“We come here without names. There are the names they call us. But those aren’t our names. The names they call us are not hard to guess. Comehere, Wheresmyfood, Trysmilingsometime, and Suckonthis are four common ones, but the list goes predictably on from there and only gets uglier. Those are the names they call us. Those are not our names. We choose our own names.”
We are told that: they have no identity or memory but they know that to break the curse they need to find a good, virgin boy to have sex with and so they must forge their identify in the way that will work best for them in attracting those boys. They forge it by the most immediate things they see in front of them: fashion magazines and TV shows and thus they realise that becoming sexy, blond girls will give them the best chance to break the curse:
“We crawl onto land naked. We learn which clothes to wear. We learn how to do our makeup, how to style our hair. How to toss it with sexiness that appears unconsidered. The women think we’re tacky, but we’re not interested in the opinions of women anymore. We learned long ago how unimportant the opinions of women are. We are here because our mother could not protect us. We are here because our father had an ‘opinion’ “.
We are told that: when they finally find a Virgin boy, their curse does not allow them to act – they must always wait for the guy to notice them. Only when the curse is broken can they return to their elusive home. They are all sisters but sisterhood is dangerous.
And it’s all horrible and unfair and just like Sam says at one point: these Girls’ parents are real fucking assholes.
A possible reading is to take those quotes and the curse itself at face value – they do sound incredibly misogynistic. That’s because they are. That is in fact, the point. If that curse and those quotes I chose are not a brilliant, REALLY OBVIOUS metaphor for how girls experience sexism in our society as well as an example of the weight of unfair expectations bearing on them, I don’t know anything anymore.
In a way I think the best criticism that could be levelled at the book is that at the end of the day, this could still be construed as a book that shows female suffering as a means to talk about feminism. And given that the way to break a curse is to have sex with a virgin boy, this could still be construed as a book that puts a lot of power on the hands of the male. That said, with regards to the former, ours is a world in which women do experience sexism every single day and even though I love to see diverse stories where those are not perpetuated, I also want to see stories that do acknowledge that, that do acknowledge the wtfuckery of fairytales and of ridiculous curses and above all, I want to read stories like this one which does exactly that in the way that it so cleverly addresses sexism and patriarchy.
My reading is that this curse is a mirror. It is a mirror reflecting our world – but in many ways it is also a broken mirror because the questioning is always there. It’s in the way that the Girls DO form friendships with each other. In the way that the Girls DO try to break the curse in a myriad of ways by attempting to leave the beach and the town: Girls have almost died trying. There are those who challenge the rules and those who simply accept their deaths without breaking the curse. And it’s not even a heteronormative story either: girls have fallen in love with other girls as well. This book would be a bad, sexist idea if the sexism wasn’t challenged at every step of the way, if their Father wasn’t presented as a raging misogynist who is worthy of contempt.
Reading is such an awesome thing and as I said, my aim is not to discredit other people’s readings of the book. I truly find fascinating the ways that readers have interacted with September Girls. There is for example, a passage that has been quoted in several reviews and used to support the claims of misogyny and sexism and slut shaming. I wanted to quote it here to as support exactly the opposite. In it DeeDee and Sam are chatting after her reading of the Bible:
“I like the parts about hos, even if they always come to a bad end. Eat a fucking apple, you’re a ho. Open a box, you’re a ho. Some guy looks at you: turn to stone, ho. See you later, ho. It’s always the same. The best one is Lilith–also a ho, but a different kind of ho. She went and got her own little thing going, and for that she gets to be an eternal demon queen, lucky her. No one likes a ho. Except when they do, which, obviously, is most of the time. Doesn’t make a difference; she always gets hers eventually.”
To me this passage is incredibly subversive and sarcastic. It shows that DeeDee is fully aware. To support my claim of awareness, she even says a bit later on: “I actually like hos myself. Maybe I am one – I barely know what counts anymore”. She has read feminist tracts and understands how society works: “I love how when boys have a completely unacceptable habit like peeing in the sink, science actually goes to all the trouble to come up with a justification for it.” Or when Sam “congratulates” her for having opinions, she says: “Oh, thank you, I’m so glad you approve of me having a thought in my brain.”
So to me? DeeDee = fucking awesome.
BUT even if taken at face value, even if we want to believe that DeeDee IS slut shaming in the Bible quote, it would also be ok in the context of this novel. Because there are Girls who do not question. There are Girls who simply go about doing what they are supposed to do. And that is also a significant way to portray internalized, unquestioned sexism – we are all part of this world after all and are all subject to sexist messages all the time. This is all the more clear in the book with regards to the Girls.
So I have written all of that and so far haven’t even touched on the subject of Sam and his dick or Sam and his raging sexism and how those connect to some of the criticism I have seen with regards to the book: the language used, the continuous swearing as well as references to sex and to private parts. To wit: I understand that each reader has different thresholds for what they like to read and how much cursing they can take and September Girls can be seen as extremely crass in parts.
But to me, it was not really crass as much as it is straightforward and bullshit-less. To me, Sam has a healthy relationship with his dick – he calls it a dick, he likes to masturbate and gets boners. There is this one time, he thinks to himself that all he wanted to do was to go home, relax and masturbate and go to sleep and – this is probably Too Much Information but at this point, I don’t really care anymore – I TOTALLY GET THIS, BRO.
There is also this one scene in particular that a lot of readers see problems with in which he is staring at this beautiful beach, he is feeling the sun on his back, it’s the first day of his summer holidays and he says something like “I felt a heaviness in my dick”. I totally get how sensual moments like these are, you know? But also, this is not all that moment entails: the heaviness in his dick is because:
“I felt strong and solid, more myself – the best version of myself, I mean – than I had in a while.”
The contextual meanings of all of this is that Sam is learning who he is, he is searching for an identity and to an understanding of what it means to be a “man”. This is a recurrent theme in the novel. This is the main point of the novel. As early as page ONE Sam talks about his father and brother thusly:
“The most obnoxious thing about them was their tendency to land on the topic of my supposedly impeding manhood: that it was time to be a man, or man up, or act like a man, et cetera, et cetera. The whole subject was creepy – which vague implications of unmentionable things involving body hair – but the most embarrassing part was basically just how meaningless it all was. As if one day you’re just a normal person, and then the next – ta-da! – a man, as if someone would even notice the difference.”
So for the entire book Sam is struggling with the idea of “manhood”. He is directly and explicitly struggling to understand what is it that makes a boy a man. His brother Jeff and his best friend Sebastian constantly sprout deeply offensive and sexist language when talking about girls. They use gendered insults all the time: “don’t be a pussy Sam”. And Sam – even though he feels uncomfortable hearing those messages – to start with, also uses that language, also refers to girls in a demeaning way. But the more his arc progresses, the more he changes.
He is not completely clueless because the questioning is there from the start as evidenced by the quote above but he is not quite there yet so throughout the book he says horrible things, he thinks sexist thoughts. And this just brings me back to how the narrative does not condone this, because it constantly puts Sam’s – and Jeff’s – ideas in check. And I like how the narrative does allow for sympathy for Sam (as well as for douchebag Jeff) as another boy struggling to break free of internalized sexism. But the point is: he grows out of it. He grows out of it beautifully by learning to respect and love the women in his life. And we are not talking about simply romantic love either although there is some of it. He learns to understand and sympathise with his mother, he forges friendships with other Girls and he falls in love with DeeDee. And love is a HUGE catalyst for change in this book but I really appreciated the way that love is not the end-all/be-all that will solve everybody’s problems. Quite the opposite in fact.
Speaking of Sam’s mom: this is another brilliant aspect of the book for me. Her arc to me, reads as an incredibly feminist arc. To begin with, Sam is the one to describe what happened to his mother and he does so by being completely oblivious: he talks about how his mom one day started going online, becoming addicted to Facebook, then reading the SCUM Manifesto and deciding to take off to Women’s Land to find herself. HE doesn’t understand anything about it. HE thinks his mom is crazy and has destroyed his family. THEN his mother comes back and that’s when his understanding of her takes place and it is beautiful: then we learn that his mother was struggling to understand her own life choices:
“I thought of what my father had said: about the choices she had made and the ones she was still making. She had decided to take action. Even if it had been pointless, even if it had been the wrong thing, even if it had just only led her back to us eventually, it was still action and that counted for something.”
And here is the gist of this book: it’s about choices and identity in a world that often tries to take those away from both women and men. I loved DeeDee and Sam because both are trying so hard to understand themselves and the world they live in. September Girls offers a deeper understanding of love, identity and a constant, non-stop challenge of ideas regarding “masculinity” and “femininity”.
The ending of September Girls is fucking brilliant. It’s bittersweet and fantastic as it brings the curse to its head with a twist about choices and moving on and love. The curse does not work in the way one expects it to work and the ending is so satisfying in the way that it doesn’t play into romantic expectations: love does not save anyone. This is a fairytale but not of the Disney variety (if there was any doubt). The plot itself is a languid, slow-moving summer-like story and I loved it. And now I also want to read everything Bennett Madison has ever written.
It’s a 9 from me and it will definitely be on my top 10 books of 2013.
Nearly 800 years in the future, Earth and the rest of the universe is a very different place. Thanks to scienOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Nearly 800 years in the future, Earth and the rest of the universe is a very different place. Thanks to scientist Thaddeus Wallam-Crane, humanity is no longer limited by accelerated particle engines, or the restrictive harness of speed-of-light travel - Wallam-Crane's invention of "portals" mean that humanity can conquer the most distant stars, unrestrained by space and time.
Well, that's true for 99.9% of humanity. That remaining fraction, that niggling 0.1%, is Handicapped. Landlocked. Earth-bound. While the rest of humankind has taken to distant star systems and split into different subcultures with different beliefs and taboos and mores, only the Handicapped remain on Earth. Mocked and ostracized by the rest of society, these Earthers are labeled "Apes" and mercilessly portrayed as unevolved, unintelligent, and undeserving.
Jarra is one of the 0.1%. After her birth on some distant star system, Jarra's immune system immediately failed. Portaled to Earth and made a ward of the state (her parents, naturally, gave Jarra up as they had no desire to raise an ape child), Jarra's life hasn't been bad - she has close friends, a great ProMum, and a passion for knowledge. And she has a plan. At the age of 18, all humans become adults, and can choose a field of study. For Jarra, studying ancient Earth history is a no-brainer - but unlike the rest of her friends, Jarra is not content to go to an Earth university. Instead, she concocts an elaborate, brilliant scheme to attend University Asgard - a prestigious off-world college, with a first-year program excavating ruins on Earth. Masquerading as a Military child, Jarra's plan to fool her classmates - "norms" or "exos" - into thinking she's one of them. Then, when the time is right, Jarra will reveal that - HA! - she is an APE, and she plans on savoring the dumbfounded looks on those exo faces. But, as Jarra continues with her program she gradually learns that not all exos are horrible bigots - and she begins to want to WANT to stay in the Asgard program, to continue her career as a historian, and to befriend the norms in her class.
The debut novel from Janet Edwards, Earth Girl is an impressive, richly detailed work of science fiction. I mean, wow. Not only is the premise of the story, especially society's bifurcation between "exos" and "apes," masterfully executed, but there's a level of amazing nuance and refinement with regard to the history of this future human race and its reach across the universe. Make no mistake - slightly kitschy US cover or no, this is an honest-to-goodness work of science fiction, with different sectors, complex social strata, laws, and principles.[1. Ok, on the cover, I like the idea, but the girl wistfully cradling the Earth with the symbolic CHAIN! is a bit much. And the Jarra in my mind from reading this book? I don't think she'd be so artfully delicate and nostalgic. Not at all.] To me, this worldbuilding respect is Earth Girl's greatest strength - we learn about the history of Earth and humanity's journey to the stars in very clever, non-info-dumpy ways. Namely, this information is relayed through Jarra's voice, through classmates in her university course, through vids and assignments - all in ways that feel organic and genuinely interesting.
But more than a science fiction text, Earth Girl is also - wait for it - an archeology book. That's right. Archaeology. Similar to Indiana Jones, cowboying it up in his death-defying quest for the Ark of the Covenant, Sankara stones and the Holy Grail, Jarra is a member of an elite group of science fictional historical excavators who venture out into Earth's dangerous and crumbling infrastructure to find sealed relics of the past for research and posterity. And like Indy, Jarra's job is freaking awesome. We learn a lot about this future brand of archeology, the different techniques and teams involved in a dig, and it is all fascinating, wonderfully detailed stuff.[2. Seriously. I never thought I'd be so captivated by excavation technology, policies and procedures, but Earth Girl makes it at once believable and fun.]
The other huge standout for Earth Girl is its heroine, the defiant, know-it-all, unapologetic Jarra. I loved Jarra. Her wry sense of humor, her pride and strength of conviction - heck, I even loved her ridiculously complex false backstory and web of lies. If there's one thing Jarra is, she's thorough, and I can respect that. It's Jarra's voice that narrates and propels the novel, it is her struggle of identity and her own personal crisis of belief that sits at the novel's heart.
Of course, there are a few things that pointedly didn't work in Earth Girl. Most notedly, those were Jarra's exceptional skills, the plot twists (especially regarding Jarra's parentage, and particularly towards the end of the book), and the surprisingly fuzzy and unfulfilled theme of minority rights or equality. Most disappointing, to me, is the last - because it would seem that Earth Girl should be a cutting explication of a future society that heavily discriminates against a minority population. But, surprisingly, Earth Girl is much more content to tell the story of the exceptional Jarra - a heroine that time and time again, proves that she is brilliant. Not only is Jarra leagues smarter and more capable than her exo classmates, but she's also exceptionally talented compared to full-fledged adult historians. She has countless hours logged on dig sites. She can put on her cumbersome impact suit faster than the standard 2-minute military time. She is a brilliant tag leader, with a deep, unprecedented understanding and passion for history. She can nail targets with a single shot, fly a plane, and save lives. This is exacerbated by later plot twists, in which Jarra's family history is revealed, and at the end of the book when she is miraculously absolved of her deceptions (without even having to break the news to those she's been lying to for months!).
I was not a big fan of the way the book concluded - too rushed, and Jarra doesn't really come to a reckoning for the lies she's told. That's kind of a big deal. There's also the uncomfortably quick turnaround from Jarra's PTSD break back to reality - this also feels rushed and inauthentic.
But, while the conclusion of the novel feels too pat, the fact that there are future books in the series gives me hope. Plus, the parts of Earth Girl that are good are really good. Even with its shortcomings, this is an utterly engaging, memorable, wonderful book. Definitely recommended, and I cannot wait for more from Janet Edwards....more
Kami Glass is a regular teenager with close friends, a loving family and a good life in the sleepy town of SorrOriginally posted on The Book Smugglers
Kami Glass is a regular teenager with close friends, a loving family and a good life in the sleepy town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Well, not quite regular: there is a distinctive characteristic about Kami that sets her apart – she has an imaginary friend called Jared, a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she can remember. Jared has been her constant companion, her closest confidant and the one person who knows everything about her. Kami knows she has made him up and most people have grown used to the odd moment when she gets caught apparently talking to herself. Although some people might think she is crazy.
Beyond that, Kami wants to be an investigative journalist and is in the process of setting up a school newspaper as the book opens. Her first stories are about Sorry-in-the-Vale, the town in the Cotswolds (England) where she lives. Most importantly, she is set to investigate the mysterious Lynburn family, owners of the manor that has overlooked the town for centuries as well as the sinister deeds happening in the woods around the town.
The impetus for investigating the Lynburns comes from the fact that everybody in town talks about them and their connection to Sorry-in-the-Vale. They are part of the town’s folklore and inspire both awe and fear. Kami, with her inquisitive mind wants to know why and how this connection has come to be, especially now that the Lynburns are finally back in town. And who could be more approachable than the two teenage Lynburns, the cousins Ash and… Jared.
Who turns out to be her very not-at-all imaginary friend Jared – he is real: a young man, with a difficult family life, abused by his mother, amongst the mysterious Lynburns , someone who has also always thought he had made up his imaginary friend Kami – whom he sees as a blessing.
Now that the two have finally come to meet, how can they address this awkwardness? And what does that have to do with the mysterious happenings around Sorry-in-the-Vale?
A new Sarah Rees Brennan is always reason for celebration here at Casa de Smugglers. Unspoken is her new book, the first in a promising new Gothic/PNR YA series. It has all the elements I have come to expect from a SRB book: strong female characters, interesting paranormal elements, diversity in terms of race and sexual identity in the presentation of its characters (Kami is half-Japanese for example; one of her friends is LGBT) and a sense of humour and wit that makes almost every page extremely funny. This book is kind of like the child of her Demon’s Lexicon trilogy and Team Human and it has great potential to be even better than the previous ones. I loved its strong gothic elements (the mysterious manor house with the mysterious family that runs it) as well as its Paranormal Romance elements.
The most striking thing about Unspoken though is its combination of the utterly familiar and the clearly distinct. In many ways Unspoken is just like most Paranormal YA out there. There is a familiarity in the way that the story progresses; in the inclusion of a Love Triangle of Doom; and in the deep, unexplained connection between its two main characters Kami and Jared.
But Unspoken is also unlike most of the usual PNR YA fare in the way that it breaks certain moulds, expands on them and explores the idea of love and connection in different ways. In a sub-genre obsessed with insta-love and deeply disturbing connections between young lovers, this book is a breath of fresh air that turns the idea of “deep-seated bond” on its head. Jared and Kami have known and loved each other all their lives but each really thought the other to be imaginary. When they meet in real life, they realise that this is surprising, awkward, scary, exhilarating as well as unpleasant. There is a great exploration of how utterly, completely creepy and problematic this type of connection is at the same time that it acknowledges the sense of comfort and the bond that it can inevitably engender. It is a difficult situation for all of the involved especially when Kami starts to consider that her emotions might not be her own, that being so deeply connected to Jared can never possibly be healthy – even if they are just friends (for now). They were unable to even touch each other without getting the creeps. In a sense, this is the most unromantic romance ever – and it is meant to be that way.
Whilst this is probably the biggest emotional pull of Unspoken, it is not one that overwhelms or compromises the rest of plot in any way. Kami deals with Jared at the same time that she is generally awesome with her family and friends and progresses with the investigation of the Lynburns and the secrets surrounding their lives. I loved the relationship between Kami and her best friend Angela and how it developed to include and welcome a third girl, Holly, in the group – the three are very different girls and each has a defined strong personality and I adored every single one of them.
On a more personal note: I read a few reviews on Goodreads and noticed the strong reactions about the ending (and many reviewers/readers call it a cliff-hanger). This is really interesting to me as I did not see the ending as a cliff-hanger at all. It was not even surprising to me: it was not only perfectly foreshadowed but also, expected. It was the natural development of this story, without which there could be absolutely no hope for a healthy emotional life for Kami – and I am ALL for a healthy, emotional life for Kami.
I am really interested to see how this story will progress over the course of this series – I am totally onboard for that. ...more
"I thought about Mum’s vintage shop. How she believed that if she found something broken and lovingly putOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
"I thought about Mum’s vintage shop. How she believed that if she found something broken and lovingly put it back together, that someone would come along and love it again."
16-year-old Chinese-Australian Amy Lee walks into her own story dressed up as The Princess Bride’ Buttercup and I love her already. It’s Eighties Theme Day at her school and as she makes her way there with her BFF Rebecca dressed as Kylie Minogue (and trying to avoid three Jason Donovans chasing Rebecca-Kylie), she stumbles into a vintage 80s locket with a picture of a boy inside. Even though she has grown up listening to her mother’s traditional sayings about Ghosts, she is not prepared for when Locket-boy shows up in his full ghostly glory. Logan is adrift: he has no memory of his last name or of what has happened to him (he obviously died very young) but he does remember his girlfriend Stacey who looks uncannily like Rebecca. Amy is certain that the locket was meant to be found by Rebecca but she becomes increasingly attached to Logan and they start to investigate his past in order to find out what happened to him. He might be the boy of her dreams. He might come from her past life. He might not be real.
The more I think about Preloved the more I find things to love about it. It does have a certain slapstick, lightly humorous tone to it that at first makes it seem fun yet superficial. BUT as the story progresses it becomes clear that this is a tale with hidden depths – just there waiting to be discovered by the reader. The investigation about Logan and how he might be connected with Amy and Rebecca is what might overtly drive the narrative but what makes it work and shine is Amy’s arc.
Is this the story of a Bad Romance because after all, Amy is irrevocably falling in love with a dead boy? Or is this Amy’s own ghostly story through and through? Is she haunted by Logan or is she haunted by her own past?
Amy is kind of a lost girl: literally and figuratively. She has been living on the shadow of her best friend Rebecca, trying to recover from her parent’s divorce, not very sure how to behave or how to assert her individuality. There is also a very interesting element of cultural dissonance as her extremely traditional Chinese mother teaches her lessons and keeps a distance that hurts Amy. At the same time, the mother is someone who dared break up with Amy’s father and start anew with a Vintage shop –their life is hard and sometimes they don’t even have money for dinner. The emotionally fraught yet loving relationship between the two is possibly my favourite thing about Preloved and its development is very touching.
At one point Logan begs Amy: “help me become whole again”. If one interprets Logan to be a construct of Amy’s subconscious mind (which is a very possible interpretation), then this request makes perfect sense. Especially since there is also a second thread that incorporates the idea of reincarnation that fits brilliantly with the overall theme (“preloved”) of the book. This, and not Logan’s ghost, is places the book firmly into supernatural territory although the supernatural thread is not one that overwhelms or overtakes the story.
Further to that, there are loads of small details that serve to enrich the story. Like Amy’s mom’s attachment to a stuffed owl. Or Amy’s relationship with her childhood friend Nancy. Or all the small snippets about ghosts, and of course, the 80s. The latter is in fact, an intrinsic part of the narrative. Not only on how Amy and her mother have a shared love for 80s movies and clothes and how Logan’s ghost is trapped in that decade but also in the very way that the story is written. Preloved is very cinematic: at times it feels like an Indie movie but most of all it reads like one of those 80s comedies ( I kept thinking of Mannequin for some reason).
That said, I did feel slightly put off at times by Amy’s thoughts about Rebecca, who was supposed to be her best friend. I thought Rebecca was unjustly demonised for her beauty but this is addressed by the narrative at least twice. Once when Nancy point-blank calls Amy on that. And then in the ending as Amy is taking toll of her life.
Another thing I loved about Preloved is how Amy is definitely a good person but one who also feels anger and petty jealousy. I tend to really love characters that are allowed to feel righteous anger – who are not asked to calm down, shut the fuck up or bottle it all up i.e. to play nice. Amy has reasons to be angry especially toward her dad – who disappeared from her life, leaving her and her mother all but penniless whilst he lives a rich life. I love this sentence:
"I shook it off and kept walking, indignant, hoarding up all my black feelings and enjoying them one by one, like individually wrapped dark chocolates"
I picked up Preloved because I loved this author’s previous book Fury. I was completely surprised by how the two stories are so completely different in terms of tone and narrative construction whilst still sharing similar themes (identity, friendship, loyalty).
And I really, really love how, just like Fury, Preloved has an open ending. I find that I appreciate this author’s ideas and stories although I don’t think they will suit everybody equally – especially Preloved with its zany feel (inconceivable as it is). But that’s the beauty of reading: you find an author whose work speaks to you and that’s it. Twue wuv ensues. ...more
As usual, when it comes to a Jaclyn Moriarty book, I find myself not knowing if I have the right words toOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
As usual, when it comes to a Jaclyn Moriarty book, I find myself not knowing if I have the right words to express the awesomeness.
BUT I WILL TRY, dear readers, just for you.
I just don’t know where exactly do I begin as there is so much to unpack in terms of characterisation, narrative, world-building, setting, themes.
Maybe literally with: “where”.
The World: our world, more specifically Cambridge, England. This is where Madeleine Tully lives with her mother, who seems to be losing her mind. They have run away from a rich, privileged life, away from Madeleine’s father and now are trying to make ends meet living in a dingy flat where they eat baked beans every day. Madeleine is homeschooled together with her two new friends Jack and Belle. Jack is kind of in love with Madeleine but Belle is suspicious of Madeleine’s stories. Madeleine wears all the colours of the world because she sees no colours in the world around her. She wants to go back home so maybe her father will come and rescue them if she apologies for running away.
The Kingdom of Cello: more specifically Bonfire, the Farms. A world where seasons change randomly, where crops are failing and everybody is waiting for the Butterfly Child to come and save them and where Colours are monsters. This is where Elliot Baranski lives with his mother after his father disappeared a few months before and after his uncle was killed in a Purple attack. Everybody thinks his father – a known womaniser – ran away with the school teacher who also disappeared that night, but Elliot knows different and is adamant a Purple has taken his father. He plans on rescuing him and proving everybody wrong.
Through time, The World has forgotten everything about the Kingdom of Cello but Cello’s citizens still study The World in their history lessons.
And now, there is a crack between these worlds and a mysterious random (at first) note slips through. Madeleine finds it and writes back…her letter is found by Elliot who knows Madeleine is in the World even though Madeleine doesn’t believe a world Elliot is saying about Cello. Nonetheless, the two strike up a correspondence and through these letters develop a strangely compelling relationship, helping each other along the way.
A Corner of White is an interesting hybrid of Fantasy and Contemporary YA. The latter comes through in the way that explores certain themes like self-identity, growing up, relating to others. Although those are obviously not exclusive themes to Contemporary YA, there are still typical of the subgenre and deftly explored here.
The Kingdom of Cello is a fantastical place with Fantasy elements that appear outlandish and random at first (colours as monsters! seasons that roam! a fantastical fairy-child that appears out of nowhere inside a glass jar!) but one which has a very specific set of rules. Although these rules have little to do with Science – which is what holds The World together.
Or so it seems. Science plays a huge role here because in The World Madeleine is studying Isaac Newton for her history class, and becomes more and more interested in the science of colours which she shares in her letters to Elliot. This appears random at first, like ramblings of a kid that doesn’t have a real footing in the world and who seeks reasons and roots through history and learning.
I don’t know physics enough to be able to tell if Newton’s concepts of Optics and colours have been used correctly but it seems to me that this is beyond the point: to see these kids engaging with these concepts is more interesting to me than anything else. Similarly, Madeleine’s friends Jack and Belle also become wholly interested in the two people they are studying, Byron and Ada Lovelace respectively. Random at first, these historical characters become intrinsically meshed into the narrative and into these three kids’ arcs in a way that is intriguing and thoughtful.
A Corner of White is also a hybrid in how it combines two narrative formats. Most of the novel is narrated by a kind of omniscient narrator who informs the story from different characters’ viewpoints. As such, Elliot and Madeleine might be the focus of the narrative but there are those parts from Jack and Belle’s point of view in the World and from Sheriff Hector’s in Cello. Hector’s narrative appears random at first as do Jack and Belle’s in the way these seems to be related to nothing at all of import.
But part of the book is also told in epistolary format and interspersed in the narrative are the letters between Elliot and Madeleine, newspapers clippings following the Royal Princesses travels around Cello in a journey that is random (at first) as well as bits from a travel book about Cello. If you know anything at all about Jaclyn Moriarty, you will probably know she is a genius when it comes to crafting epistolary narratives, specially the way that those relates to the plot and the characters. It’s no different here.
“Random at first”.
How many times have I used these words in this review so far? Just like the topics I addressed in this way, my choice of using these words is not random at all. Because in fact, in this book? Everything is important. Every single thing that at first appears random, is not.
A Corner of White is a book that expects a certain level of commitment and patience from its readers. And maybe not everybody might be invested in the type of story it tells or have the patience to see it unfold slowly. Slowly is the key word here because the stories, or rather the story it tells (because it’s just one, really, at the end of the day) is developed carefully and insidiously.
This is a book that is built on appearances and assumptions .
Nothing is like what it seems. The narrative is unreliable because everybody in this book is an unreliable narrator. Not because they mean to be but because nobody truly knows each other or in a way, themselves. Relationships are built based on misperceptions, a character appears silly and wacky when observed by another character but completely different when the viewpoint changes.
Above all, I absolutely loved how this was played into the story, which is full of moments of ambiguity. You might think you are reading about a random tea party in Grantchester but that can be interpreted as people developing roots and connections. That random sound that a character describes and it appears as an inconsequential piece of information, is not.
Similarly, the way characters perceive each other and the way external expectations are played here? Brilliant.
Take Elliot, for example, who is the golden boy of Bonfire. People expect great things from him; he is the best at everything (is he?). His friends, his mother all conflate his appearance as well as his physical resemblance to his father with who he is and as such everybody tells him that he is going to break his girlfriend’s heart because he is bound to be a womaniser. This obviously plays into a historical narrative that often gives power to the man as though he is the only one with the power in the dynamics of his relationships. But the narrative here turns this into its head, as Elliot is someone who actually truly loves his girlfriend and the one who ends up with a broken heart after his girlfriend makes the decision to go to university far away. And even though he eventually walks into that role he is expected to play, it is not for the reasons people ascribe to him or results in the expected way.
Those external expectations and interpretations are also at play here when it comes to reading the book. Is that character truly superficial or you think they are because of the way said character plays with the stereotype of superficiality?
What strikes me the most about A Corner of White is how very human a story this is. Populated with characters that make mistakes, change their minds, who learn that it takes time to grow up, and who often don’t see people for who they are but for what they hope them to be.
It also helps that as the story progresses, it becomes evident that there is something much larger at play between the worlds and that the limits of monarchy as a government form, the principles of freedom fighting, the consequences of privilege, the reality of poverty are very much part of this story as well.
On the downside, I missed the wonderful ways that Moriarty has developed friendships and relationships between girlfriends in her previous books. Perhaps this will be further developed in the next book. I also wished that her worlds were more diverse and not so uniformly white.
If you like Hilary Mckay, Megan Whalen Turner, Jennifer Nielsen and the way their books play with narrative in clever ways? You must read this.
Colour me (sorry, inevitable pun) completely in love with this. A Corner of White is definitely a Notable Read of 2013 and don’t be surprised if it makes its way into my top 10. ...more
And now for something completely different as I try to write my first review of a memoir.
Oksana was 15 when her parents decided to leave Russia (just before the USSR was dissolved) for America in search of a better life. Although they were rather affluent people, they were treated like second class citizens back home due to their part-Gypsy ancestry. Oksana’s parents were part of a touring band: the father a gifted Roma musician and the mother an accomplished band manager from Armenia. When the family moves to the US, they hope to leave all problems behind and start anew in the land of opportunity. Unfortunately things are not that easy and theirs plans don’t go as smoothly as they hope. There is the language barrier to start with not to mention all the cultural baggage they brought along.
Conflicts follow them to America: her mother’s alcoholism, her father’s propensity to cheat, their different nationalities and backgrounds still a source of problem. And Oksana stands in the middle: the only one who speaks a little of English, a child of different cultures, a supposed soviet in the middle of capitalist America and a girl trying to find her own identity in the middle of all this chaos.
If qualifications are necessary at all, I would call this a Young Adult memoir as it is framed and limited by Oksana’s high school years. The memoir starts when she is fifteen and stops as she is about to go to college – it often goes back in time to early childhood but rarely if ever do we get to see a glimpse of Oksana’s older years.
I chose to read American Gypsy for a number of reasons: I liked the idea of venturing into memoir territory, a new thing for me. I feel like it is impossible to write this review of a very personal story without making it personal too – it is as though after having received what I consider to be a gift from the author, I just have to return it by speaking a bit about myself. I chose to read this memoir in particular because 1) it was offered to me and 2) it sounded interesting. The former only made it easy. The latter because just like the author, I am too an immigrant (from Brazil to England) and wanted to hear about her experience. And as it just so happens, I have always been fascinated by not only Russia (and especially how so many different cultures and peoples were brought together under one rule) but also by Gypsies. In Brazil, we have this fascination for Gypsies: I remember when my mother used to take me to a “Gypsy” store and buy me flowery “Gypsy” clothes.“Gypsy” is also a very common Carnaval costume and I dressed up with long skirt, huge earrings and dangling bracelets more than once.
Of course now I know, this is all embarrassingly stereotypical bulshit and tremendously offensive: we obviously knew absolutely nothing about the Romani people and more often than not, most people don’t either. Which is a point that comes brilliantly across when reading American Gypsy as Oksana navigates the assumptions and prejudices that her people suffer. To the point where, to start with, she doesn’t even admit that she is Gypsy.
That said, this book is much more than the exploration of the macro-cosmos of a culture backdrop – as a memoir, it is more about Oksana and how her life progresses as she moves to America. As a teenager, she is often trapped by her parents’ wants and desires for her. She had to navigate the waters of a traditional Romani father who has certain expectations about what a girl, a daughter should or rather; could accomplish. It is heartbreaking to read about how Oksana felt the need to earn her father’s admiration for what she could do as an accomplished musician herself. The conflict between learned tradition and obvious desire for change and progress is not an easy one to solve and this memoir was great at showing that. This story follows Oksana as she tries to find a place for herself fighting a cultural assimilation that clashes with her family’s past (whose outlandish stories she is proud to share) and trying to find a measure of individualisation in the midst of such strong traditions.
American Gypsy actually reads like a novel and at times I forgot I was reading about real people – and it is weird and a bit funny for me to be saying this because of how many times I’ve said the opposite about a novel (“it was so good I felt the characters were real people”). There is a lot of dialogue, and outlandish, funny adventures as well as some heartbreak and serious moments.
At the risk of sounding trite: I loved reading American Gypsy. It is extremely well-written, gripping and I couldn’t put it down. I loved reading about Oksana’s story: her path to individualism and independence; her troubled relationship with her parents, a relationship of love but one with charged expectations about her gender – in that sense, this book is also a great feminist read.
More than that, from a very personal and self-centred strand-point, I loved this from a ContempYA perspective. I have gotten used to reading these fictional stories about identity and fitting in and it is really interesting to read a real story of a teenager who has the same problems I usually read about in YA. In that sense, reading this book helps me reading ContempYA – from a reviewer point of view. But above all, I loved her voice, I loved the cultural differences explored in the book, I loved Oksana’s strive for independence and I am so glad I gave the book a shot. ...more
Urban Fantasy is a genre defined by setting and the very excellent The City’s Son is a prime example of it: in it, London comes to life and is a charaUrban Fantasy is a genre defined by setting and the very excellent The City’s Son is a prime example of it: in it, London comes to life and is a character as much as its protagonists. The City has its own arc and its tale interconnects with those of the other characters in both obvious and subtle ways.
The great City of London is at the brink of destruction as an old threat surfaces from the ashes and is building itself up. Reach, the King of Cranes is a God of demolition: be gone old masonry buildings, give way to the growth of new, shiny monsters of glass. Aided by the unstoppable, manic, Mistress of the Wire, there seems to be nothing that can stop Reach. Your prayers for help will not be answered either: not when Mater Viae , the old Lady of the Streets, the Goddess of London has been gone for such a long time.
Filius Viae, her only son, the cocksure Crown Prince whose sweat and blood are as grey as the City itself and whose strength comes from its pavements is all that stands now between Reach and the City. Reach is coming for you and your City, Filius: are you ready for it?
No, he would tell you. He wants to run as fast as he can away from Reach. He would tell you that his own death lies at the end of this dangerous path.
Enter Beth Bradley, teenage graffiti artist, a regular human, oblivious to this hidden London. She stumbles one night into a lonely escapee ghost train and is introduced to a world she never thought possible. Beth stands at a very vulnerable crossroads in her life: her best friend Pen just betrayed her horribly and she has been expelled from school as a direct result; her father ignores her completely, retreated into a world of his own since her mother’s death a few years ago.
This vulnerability and loneliness coupled with her usual recklessness and impulsivity lead her to join forces with Filius – perhaps too soon, perhaps too suddenly. It is of course, a bit jarring this immediate, abrupt connection to Filius and his cause. But Beth loves this city. She might not know it the same way Fil does, but she has explored its nooks and crannies. She has marked them with her art – London is as much hers and it is Fil’s. And so is the responsibility to save it. So yes, she steps up: for there is real motivation here – both in terms of the real threat to her city but also the dismantlement of her emotional connection to the London she knows. She has nothing to lose and much to gain. There is no going back though, Beth, are you SURE you are prepared for it?
They share the narrative, these two characters – one has known this City all his life. The other is only but starting to get to know it and she is the perfect guide for the reader’s own discovery of this London. There is awe but very little shock when she encounters these marvels (people made of glass and light; an entire army of entombed priests with their real flesh horribly trapped inside stone and marble).
A quick aside. This is probably my only real criticism here: that Beth takes the discovery of this hidden world so easily and with a low amount of “wtf” – this didn’t come across as completely realistic in terms of character reaction.
That said, it is through her eyes that we connect the dots – and it is through her viewpoint (which doesn’t come with the heavy history that Fil’s does) , that any questioning is possible. Because there is questioning to be done: is this dichotomy between the old and the new, between the Lady of the Streets and Reach a real dichotomy at all? Is there such a thing as a good guy and a bad guy in this story?
As such, there is a strong element of unreliability here as well. Neither Fil nor Beth are completely aware of what is going here in reality – Fil might think he knows what’s happening but does he really? Consider how he is Beth’s guide through this story: does she have all the information she needs? The extent of it all is only made plain at the end of the novel when the whole thing comes together beautifully, full circle.
In the midst of it all: relationships. There is romance, as bittersweet as they come. There are all sorts of parental-filial relationships and one of them is especially awesome: a father who looks for his daughter and in the process finally gets to truly know her.
Central stage though – at least for me – is the relationship between Beth and her best friend Pen. I left this to the very end because it is absolutely the best thing about The City’s Son. Beth and Fil might be the main characters and Pen might get a secondary spotlight but her arc is the most gut-wrenching, the most engaging of them all. From the unspoken secret of sexual abuse (dealt with by the author with care) to the courage that she shows when defending her best friend as well as her own city – there is so much loyalty here between the two girls and it’s just a beautiful thing to behold. Pen’s storyline really put my heart through the wringer and I loved the resolution of her arc.
There is a lot to digest here – and I have been less than systematic in my appreciation for this brilliant UF story. There are so many different threads to follow: the City’s arc, with its rich, vivid history. Fil’s arc and the build up of tension as he accepts the role as the City’s Son. There are battles in a war and an army that needs to be put together. And all the awesome characters with their bravery, their loyalty, they willingness to sacrifice. I suspect subsequent re-reads will unveil much more.
If it’s not clear: I loved the The City’s Son and it’s a favourite read of 2012. ...more
For all seventeen years of her young life, Tess has been certain of just a few things: that her father is a bOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
For all seventeen years of her young life, Tess has been certain of just a few things: that her father is a brute that takes out his rage on his wife and daughter with his fists, that she would rather grow old alone or run away to the confines of the forbidden Dragonswood rather than be married off to any man, and that she must never ever reveal her secret ability to see the future in fire. Beyond the beatings, fear and hate Tess has for her father, the blacksmith, her family has also been torn by tragedy - her six baby sisters and brother have all died, consumed by inexplicable illness. Then, when the beautiful and fierce Lady Adela rides into Tess's small village on a crusade to expose, torture, and punish witches, Tess's small, unhappy life will be plunged into greater darkness. Tess is accused of being a witch, guilty of killing her family and hexing others, as well as consorting in the Dragonswood with Satan. Though Tess vehemently opposes these charges, she is taken away for terrifying questioning. Under Lady Adela's cruel torture, Tess betrays the names of her two best friends, Poppy and Meg, confessing that the three of them had gone into the forbidden Dragonswood.
Escaping her own trial by wit and luck, Tess and her friends must now flee their village, before the witch hunter can find them. Under the guise of lepers, the three girls leave their homes and search for help. Then, the women stumble across Garth, a woodward charged with guarding the Dragonswood for the King - and a man that Tess has seen with her firesight. Garth offers sanctuary, but Tess finds it hard to trust in his aid. She knows that Garth is hiding something - what she doesn't know, however, is that his secret, and her own secrets, will change the course of destiny for the entirety of the Wilde Island Kingdom - human, fay, and dragon alike.
Well...wow. Dragonswood is an amazingly potent novel, with rich imagery, vivid characters, and a refreshing tendency against the obvious. This is a book that could so easily have been a formulaic regurgitation of any number of pale romantic YA fey/fantasy novels on the market - but instead we get a careful, atmospheric novel that has its own happy ever after, but that comes at a price. In many ways Dragonswood is reminiscent of one of my favorite fantasy authors, Juliet Marillier. The Wilde Island kingdom - a subset of Britain (I'm assuming?) - feels very much like the isolated and magical Sevenwaters, where the fey are meddling, fickle with their favor, and utterly dangerous with their own plans and machinations. Like Sevenwaters, Wilde Island has its own potent prophecy that will change everything, though the cost of that prophecy, and the truth of its form, is deceptive. It is this prophecy that is the impetus for the story (though our protagonists hardly realize it); it is this outlawed tale that changes the destined paths of our heroes in Dragonswood.
And truly, what would a tale called Dragonswood be without those eponymous beasts? Fear not, dear readers - here be dragons. And they are wonderful. There is an intricate balance of power between the dragons, the fey, and the humans in this kingdom, and I love how the royal line (the Pendragons, naturally) is descended from dragons and takes on their appearance with scales on some part of their bodies.[2. Though, I'll admit that I wasn't aware that this actually was book 2 in a series until after reading Dragonswood - and then I found out that book 1 deals with this dragon-human heritage and that backstory. Needless to say, I've purchased that book, Dragon's Keep, and I'll be diving in very soon.] For all that these iconic creatures are very traditional in their appearance and portrayal in this novel, Ms. Carey's imaginative story and gorgeous writing make these mythologies feel fresh and exciting. In addition to featuring these different characters, there's also a loose bond to the Arthurian legend, as Merlin, the Pendragon clan, and they fey of lake and wood, all are woven into this book.
As for the characters, I both love and am skeptical regarding protagonist Tess. Something that bothers me intensely in many historical novels is the imposition of very contemporary and learned attitudes. In Tess's case, she begins the novel with the mindset of someone born a millennia later - she's fiercely independent, will bow to no man, and yearns to make her own money and way in the world. While of course this is admirable and doubtless there may have been women with these same ambitions in the twelfth century, Tess's singular defiance of convention feels false. This criticism said, as a heroine I did love that Tess is not infallible - from the opening chapters, she betrays her friends! But her actions are human and understandable, and I loved the genuine passion behind her actions, even when she makes her missteps. As for Garth, he's also somewhat contemporary and forward thinking for his time, but to a much lesser degree than Tess, and I had no trouble believing in him as a character. Like Tess, Garth is not a perfect person and guilty of any number of understandable faults - his attention to beguiling beauty, his judgmental behavior when he learns of Tess's betrayal. I love that these two characters are flawed, but ultimately with their hearts in the right place, and I love the way their stories intertwine.
What else can I say about Dragonswood? It is a beautiful, historical fantasy novel that delivers happiness without being saccharine, and introduces a haunting world where myths and legends cling desperately to their slipping power. I loved this book, and it is a shoo-in for my Notable Reads of the year - even possibly a top 10 pick. ...more
Young Jaron - Sage that was - has ascended to the throne and accepted his rightful place as the ruler of CartOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Young Jaron - Sage that was - has ascended to the throne and accepted his rightful place as the ruler of Carthya. On the day of his family's funeral, Jaron, sick of his preening and power-hungry regents, decides to skip the services and instead takes to his gardens for time to reflect, alone. Unfortunately for Jaron, he is ambushed by an assassination attempt from none other than Roden, the former friend alongside whom Jaron trained as one of nobleman Bevin Conner's candidates for the role of false prince. Poisoned by ambition and hate, Roden has thrown in with the pirates (incidentally, the same pirates that Jaron had escaped years earlier) and leaves Jaron with a warning - the Pirate King will not stop until Jaron is dead. Confronted with an impending attack from the buccaneers to the west and the neighboring Avenian King to the south, for the first time in decades Carthya faces the very real and imminent threat of war. Jaron turns to his guard and council of regents for support. Alas, Jaron has yet to win the support of his father's court and the opportunistic captain of his guard neatly outmaneuvers the young King, forcing him to leave the capital and hide from other would-be assassins (while instituting himself as the Steward of the kingdom, of course).
Jaron hasn't come so far and fought so hard just to roll over and give up his throne and his people, though, and takes matters into his own hands. In order to stop the Pirates from bleeding Carthya dry and clearing the path for an easy Avenian conquering, Jaron sheds his crown and leaves his country to stop the pirates at their source, once again assuming the raggedy mantle of street thief Sage.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that The Runaway King was one of - if not THE - most highly anticipated books of 2013 for me. I loved The False Prince with the force of a thousand thunderstorms, for its clever politics, it's wonderful plot, and most of all, its star: the wise-cracking, too-clever-for-his-own-good Sage. The problem with books that you love so much is the niggling worry that the next book might not live up to expectations. Thankfully, The Runaway King is a wonderfully entertaining book that holds its own against the very high standard set by The False Prince. While it isn't quite as good as its predecessor, this middle novel in the trilogy is more than just mere filler, and advances the overall story - and Jaron's arc - in a meaningful and worthwhile way. AND there are pirates. And duels. And daring escapes and late night liaisons. In other words, I really, really liked The Runaway King.
Middle book syndrome can be a terrible and frustrating thing, but thankfully The Runaway King succeeds by virtue of its strong characterizations and purposeful plot. As with the first book, the true standout of this novel is our King and erstwhile thief, Jaron/Sage, however he's grown since the first book and at first, is in a bad way. He's prickly and defensive, he won't accept help from people, and infuriatingly he makes decisions for others before giving them the chance to explain their motivations or positions. This is incredibly frustrating when it comes to Jaron's actions towards his friend Imogene, and towards his betrothed, Princess Amarinda. In the case of the former, he cares so much for Imogene that he decides - all on his own without asking or consulting the girl in question - that he is too dangerous a friend and so he sends her away with cruel words for her own good. In the case of the latter, Jaron judges Amarinda incredibly harshly, thinking her a traitor for befriending the Captain of his guard and the imprisoned Connor. Insert copious eye-rolling here. What is awesome about The Runaway King, however, is that this idiotic, macho attitude is called out by the characters in the text - Imogene talks over Jaron's boorish behavior with Amarinda, and they figure out his motivations, and naturally they find a way to subvert his plans (ya know, by helping him in spite of his stubborn "I have to do this on my OWN" idiocy) and ultimately tell him what an ass he is being. Friends trust each other, and trust isn't Jaron's strong suit - but he learns this lesson by the end of the book (thanks in large part to the awesome, strong, confident characters of Amarinda and Imogene, of course).
I also love that for all the ridiculous shenanigans that Jaron pulls off - including scaling a cliff wall with a broken leg, challenging and 'beating' the Pirate King twice, he actually has to rely on people and friends. I think this message, more than any other, is what I liked the most about The Runaway King. It's all well and good to be a cowboy and blaze the trail alone, but any true leader knows they are only as strong as their team - a fact that Jaron learns the hard way after pushing everyone away, isolating himself to the point where he is so weak that he may lose his kingdom. Of course, Jaron happens to have some really great friends, and makes some new ones besides in this book - in particular, I loved Fink and Erick. There's also a nice, if slightly too-good-to-be-true arc that happens with Roden, Jaron's would-be assassin.
On the plotting side, I actually enjoyed the over-the-top craziness of the nobles, thieves, pirates, and traitors Jaron meets on his journey. As I jokingly told Ana in an email, this book reminded me a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean in that there's a strict Code to which the Pirates must adhere (and Jaron's understanding of that code helps him gain parlance with the scallywags), as well as a Pirate King and a Tortuga-esque lair, amongst other things. AND it's not just pirates! The Runaway King also features dastardly acts of treason alongside kind-hearted nobles (and not-so-kind-hearted-but-mostly-good thieves). A LOT happens in this book, ultimately leading to an inevitable war between the land-locked Carthya and its aggressive neighbors - but thankfully, Carthya has a King (and future Queen) that can step up to the challenge.
While not without its faults - including Jaron's bizarre blend of pigheadedness and an inability to do anything wrong (I repeat: he scales a cliff with a broken leg and then fights in a duel on that same broken leg) - The Runaway King is a solid, rousing read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and eagerly await the dramatic finish to the Ascendance trilogy!...more
Thea: Wow. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Ship of Souls, given its slender nature at under 200 pages (not that I have aFirst Impressions:
Thea: Wow. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Ship of Souls, given its slender nature at under 200 pages (not that I have anything against slender packages, given that some of the most potent and effective stories I’ve ever read come with deceptively low page counts). I wasn’t expecting the power and poignancy of Ship of Souls, that’s for sure. This is a story that gets under your skin, that makes you feel and ache and love. If I had to sum up this novel in one word, again: wow.
Ana: Word. This is going to be one of those reviews where I fully agree with Thea. Ship of Souls is a seamless combination of Contemporary and Historical with a side of Urban Fantasy that works well on all of its fronts. It is basically a full measure of awesome in a small package and I just loved it wholeheartedly.
On the Plot:
Thea: Dmitri is an eleven-year-old boy that has never questioned how much his mother loves him. His father has never been around, but he’s always known that his mother’s love has been more than enough – together the two of them face the world. When his mom is diagnosed with breast cancer, and dies shortly after, D is left utterly alone in the world and sent into foster care. Desperate to get out of the group home system, D invents a perfect version of himself to impress anyone looking to foster a new child, and finds a home with the elderly Mrs. Martin. Determined to be the most perfect incarnation of himself, D is always on his best behavior with Mrs. Martin, careful to be polite, to help out around the house, and to take school seriously. It is here, at his new school that D meets and forms an unlikely bond with Keem, the popular basketball jock, as his math tutor. It is also here that he meets Nyla, the most beautiful girl in school, who takes D under her wing.
Despite these new, tenuous friendships, D still feels utterly alone, but he takes solace in his trips to Prospect Park and in his favorite hobby of watching birds. One fateful day, he spies an unusual bird – a bird that speaks to D and knows his thoughts, fears, and deepest hopes. The bird is no ordinary bird, but a creature from another realm, named Nuru. Because D has no ties to bind his heart, Nuru has chosen him as her own host to aid her in her quest to free the souls of the dead. But soon, D discovers that his heart might not be so free – and he learns the power of true friendship, trust, and love.
I repeat: WOW. D’s journey in Ship of Souls is breathtaking in its gravity and heartache. While, from a plotting perspective, the actual story proper is a rather small, contained thing, it is not without its taste of the fantastic, drawing a portal between the current world and the ghosts of the past through the magic of a very special park and its historical significance. Do you know what I love the most about Zetta Elliott’s work? In both A Wish After Midnight and in Ship of Souls, Elliott effortlessly weaves history – a painful, grim, but true history – with fantasy. In this novel, she explores one of the first major battles of the British-American Revolutionary war. In 1776, Prospect Park (along Flatbush Ave) was the battleground for British and Hessian soldiers as they fought the Continental Army (led by George Washington) – and this iconic battle serves as a key point for the story. To do this, to add on top of the historical commentary also one that explores the issues of race, gender, and religion in contemporary Brooklyn, this is no small feat. But Zetta Elliott does it all without making the story didactic or dry, by making these threads more than just a Message or underlying theme – each of these facets of identity are a part of our main characters (D, Keem and Nyla).
Most of all, though, Ship of Souls is a story about a young boy as he grapples with the issues of grief, of isolation and neglect, and of love and friendship. But more on that in a bit.
Ana: Yes, exactly! I loved how the story perfectly combines elements of Contemporary YA, UF and History without being excessive or without losing sight that at its core, this is the story of a young boy. Just like Thea, I was awed by how historical commentary (not only about the British-American War but also about African American Slavery) connects with current social commentary on issues of gender, race, religion. In that sense, I think the most impressive accomplishment of Ship of Souls is indeed how it is both self-contained but also part of something much bigger – it is a perfect example of how individual lives are affected by history which in turn affect current cultural and social arenas. And even when the story takes its turn into fully Fantasy territory it is the characters’ backgrounds and personal histories that move them. Another thing worth mentioning is how this story is imbued with a really strong sense of location – be it the Brooklyn of now or then, be it above ground or underground.
And yes, all of it is expertly handled but like Thea mentions, it is not a dry, dull, didactic story – this was a very emotional read for me and I found myself in tears as the book came to a close with its beautiful and heart-warming ending.
On the Characters:
Thea: On the character front, Ship of Souls soars. Dmitri’s narration drives the story, and it is through the connection to the precocious young boy that the novel depends. D’s story is so heart-renderingly open, so painfully honest that you can’t help but fall in love with the character who so needs love in his life. From his mother’s life and death, to his time in the foster home, to his new life with Mrs. Martin, D’s story is one of heartbreaking young loss. Instead of falling into anger, though D compensates by trying to become the Perfect-D, the boy that will always strive to please, to keep his head down, to stay away from others to make sure he isn’t hurt or sent away again. When Nuru tells D that she has picked him precisely because his heart isn’t complicated with any other ties, I felt my own heart break for the young boy. And when D DOES make other connections, to Keem and Nyla, I wanted to pump my fist in the air with joy. THAT is how powerful Zetta Elliott’s characterizations are, especially for her young protagonist.
The other two main characters are also beautifully drawn too, if they get a little less time than D in the spotlight. Hakeem is so much more than his label as a brainless jock – occasionally ostracized himself because he is Muslim, Keem gradually, begrudgingly befriends D through their tutoring sessions. And then, there is Nyla – beautiful and confident, Nyla has more piercings than D can count and doesn’t seem to have any problem changing and challenging people’s expectations or views of her. She also is a loyal friend, that cares for those that others call “freaks” – including D. These three characters form an unlikely friendship, and as things start to turn bad for D, both Nyla and Keem are there to help him, to fight for him, with him. This is awesome.
I am not going to lie, dear readers. I teared up when I reached those last pages, when D finally realizes that Nyla and Keem aren’t just glad to be rid of him, and that they are truly his friends. Elliott’s writing is powerful, and her characters are what make the story so poignant.
Ana: In one of the most heartbreaking moments of this story, D says:
Problem is, most days I just feel numb. When I’m not numb, I’m miserable. And even when I’m not miserable, I’m still alone.
This is an incredibly poignant moment that shows how extremely self-aware this young boy is – D has gone through a lot and prompted by the grief for his mother’s death he tries to detach himself from any deep connections with friends or with his foster mother in order to avoid more suffering. That frame of mind is what puts him in the path of Nuru and that’s how he becomes a hero for the trapped souls. I loved the subtle exploration about heroism, what makes a person become a hero (or not) and how heroes need not act by themselves. It explores the powerful effect of friendships, of opening up to people and of accepting (and offering) help in time of need.
D’s developing friendship with Nyla and Hakeem is deftly handled and even though that friendship does happen quite fast, I didn’t think it was to the detriment of the story. Rather the contrary: I felt the fast, deep connection formed between the three to be believable and I loved all three characters and how well developed they were.
That the author also manages to give strong voices to the long-dead ghosts of the soldiers and of the slaves is a thing of beauty, really.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: Ship of Souls is the second book I’ve read by Zetta Elliott, and I think it exceeds its predecessor. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and powerful, Ship of Souls is a book that I want to give to every middle grade and young adult reader. Absolutely recommended.
Ana: Ship of Souls is that type of story that can be quickly devoured in one sitting, but it’s not a fleeting story – it stays, it matters, it has a long-lasting effect. I loved it and it’s definitely a Notable Read of 2012. ...more
On a small tropical island in the middle of the ocean, Veronika lives with three other girls and two caretakeOriginally Reviewed on The Book Smugglers
On a small tropical island in the middle of the ocean, Veronika lives with three other girls and two caretakers. The four girls are the exact same size and weight and age, distinguished by their different hair - Isobel with her lemon yellow hair, Caroline with her coconut brown hair, Eleanor with her black hair the color of wet tar, and Veronika with her rust red locks. Every day, Veronika and the other girls go on walks to observe and report back their findings to Irene and Robbert - two adults who look after the girls after their parents died in a plane crash - asking questions about what they've seen and learned. Every day follows the same pattern: wake up, go to class and ask questions, prepare dinner, sing, and sleep.
One day during her assigned walk, Veronika discovers something different - a girl lying in the sand that looks nothing like Veronica and the others. This mysterious girl has dark freckled skin and tangled long hair. As she wakes up, Veronika learns that this girl is the victim of a shipwreck and her name is May - and May is like Irene and Robbert with her soft skin and flesh and blood. May is different in other ways, too - she acts without thinking and considering, and she lashes out at Veronika and the others in fear and anger at times.
May's arrival means more for Veronika, the other girls, and their caretakers - others have discovered their island home and are coming for them all.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I started reading The Different Girl - the description makes the book sound like a familiar dystopian YA setup. Jaded as I am, I half expected this book to be about a group of (beautiful and innocent, of course) cloned girls, brainwashed and jolted into awareness of their prison by the arrival of an outsider (with a tepid insta-love romance thrown in there at some point). Thankfully, this is decidedly NOT the case.
Narrated in the stunning and perceptive first person point of view of Veronika, The Different Girl is, well...different. In a very, very good way. This is a true science fiction novel, about what it means to be alive - to be a "girl" - and the world in which these particular girls live. It's a challenging and refreshingly subtle read, filtered through Veronika's own focused and distinct observations. And because of this, it's the kind of book in which information is revealed very slowly, only gradually revealing the full picture. I'm trying my very best not to spoil, because this is the kind of read that depends on the reader making these observations and discoveries throughout - suffice it to say that when you start this book, it's best NOT to know too much about Veronika and her sisters.
From a stylistic and character perspective, I love Gordon Dahlquist's decision to tell this particular story from Veronika's point of view. The obvious narrative choice would be the newcomer May's viewpoint, and through her perspective we'd probably learn so much more (e.g. exactly WHAT Veronika and the girls are, the state of this post-apocalyptic world, etc) in point-blank fashion. In contrast, Veronika has only ever known the island and the routine she and the other girls undergo each day, the questions and tests she runs through each day, and the incomplete information about the past that she has been given by Irene and Robbert. May's arrival sparks something new and different within Veronika, and we see her thoughts and actions subtly change as she accommodates the new information brought in May's wake. I love the camaraderie that exists between Veronika and the other girls, the layered relationship between Veronika and her caretakers (Irene with her warmth, and in contrast Robbert with his frustrations and his demanding questions), and most of, the tension between Veronika and May.
While Veronika's narrative is stilted and focused on strange minutia, it's also wonderfully written and believable - I loved every second of Veronika's thoughts, we we readers glean little nuggets of information about her and her world as she learns. I love the tone of the writing, too, with its strange and stilted voice and Veronika's inherent unreliablility - she's not unreliable because she's lying to herself or to others, but because she is a very different kind of girl, and focuses only the information that she needs for the task or question at hand. I should also note that while we do get answers to some of the questions posed by the text and gradually see more of the larger picture, there are plenty of questions that are left unanswered - in my opinion, this is a good thing and I like the intentional vagueness and open-ended nature of The Different Girl (that said, your mileage may vary).
In short, I loved this book. The more I think about it, the more I love it. I love that this is a quieter novel about thoughts and characters, without much of a driving forward plot but plenty of food for thought. In many ways, The Different Girl reminds me of Genesis by Bernard Beckett (one of my favorite SF dystopian novels, ever) - both are shorter novels, but packed with ideas and challenging questions and complex relationships. The Different Girl is both a frustrating and rewarding read, and one that is refreshingly unique compared to the sea of bland softball sci-fi dystopia novels on the YA market today. Absolutely recommended - and in the running for one of my notable reads of 2013....more
Eve doesn’t recognise the face when she looks in the mirror, she has no true memory of her past and can baOriginal review posted on The Book Smugglers
Eve doesn’t recognise the face when she looks in the mirror, she has no true memory of her past and can barely function in the present. Everything – from walking and talking to understanding how the world works is all new to her. She’s been told she has lost her memory. She’s been told she is in a witness protection program for paranormal creatures, hiding from a creepy serial killer who is out to get her. She’s been told she is the key to find him and to stop his killing spree. She’s been told she needs to remember before it is too late and more young kids disappear. She’s been told she can trust the people who are helping her even if they look at her with distaste and mistrust.
She’s been told.
There are certain things she knows though. She knows she has undergone several reconstructive surgeries. She knows she can do magic – she looks at the mirror one day and decides that her eyes were actually green before and just like that, they are changed. She knows that every time she uses her magic, she passes out and has horrifying dreams (or are they visions?) always featuring a carnival tent, a magician, a storyteller and creepy dolls. When she wakes up after those black-outs she realises that days or sometimes even weeks have passed and she has no short-term memory of those moments.
Conjured is a beautifully constructed novel that goes from utterly disorienting to exceptionally horrific as its story progresses. It features an ubber-creepy carnival, a supernatural serial killer and an amnesic narrator. But its true core is a story about agency and identity and what it is like to forge both when there is no memory, no past, no sense of true self to start with.
It is more or less divided in two parts: the first is a progressive build-up to the revelations that appear in the second part. The former, a disorienting advance toward the truth about Eve, the latter an affecting horror story unlike anything I have read of late.
What impresses me the most about the novel is Eve as a character and the writing of her narrative. Since everything is from her point of view, we only ever know what Eve knows and she knows very, very little. When she wakes up with no memory, we are as lost as she is, not knowing who to trust, what happened in the past days or weeks. It is not only disorienting but also claustrophobic.
More to the point though, I loved how the author took such a gamble with Eve because she is essentially a blank slate narrator. To start with, she has little personality and no agency. And it is very interesting to see the way that the character progresses, not knowing who she is, what she can do, and what happened to her. Which is awesome because I sometimes feel that “strong female character” is often compared to kickass and immediately assertive so it is kind of a breath of fresh air to have a character like Eve who is developing her sense of self slowly and who is a quiet, timid character without being any less strong for that. When the second part comes and the deeply cruel, creepy and dark nature of her story is finally revealed, we come to have not only a deep understanding of why Eve is like she is and how important it really is when she finally voices her choice and forges her own sense of self.
All of this was superb: from the puzzling narrative to the development of Eve as a character, from her visions and fear to the creepily awesome horror in the latter part.
My only real misgiving about the novel comes with its romantic storyline and I confess to be on two minds about it. On the one hand, there is an element of insta-love as Eve has an almost immediate connection to a boy named Zach whom she meets at the library where she is sent to work. I was immediately put off by Zach when as soon as he met Eve she told her point-blank that they could never be friends because he wanted to kiss her. Okay, then.
On the other hand, Zach turn out to be a nice boy, who never lies (there are Reasons) and who is completely loyal to Eve. It is yet another breath of fresh air to have the guy be so besotted and awed to the point of being ready to drop everything for the girl – as abrupt as that turns out to be. The ending though is kind of perfect for them and for this story in the way that it is flawed and even perhaps, questionable.
Ultimately, this book is All About Eve and I really loved it, just as it is. ...more
Since the events of The Ruby in the Smoke - the devastating loss of Sally's father, the dramatic mystery of aOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Since the events of The Ruby in the Smoke - the devastating loss of Sally's father, the dramatic mystery of a cursed Ruby and an old woman who would stop at nothing to seize its power - quite a lot has happened in Sally's life. She has gone to Cambridge and procured a higher education (even if she, a woman, could not receive a degree), she has organized her dear friends' photography business and saved it from financial ruin, and she has fittingly gone into business as a financial consultant. Everything is going swimmingly, until one of her recent clients loses their life savings on an investment in a shipping company - an investment that Sally personally endorsed, no less. Flabbergasted and determined to get to the bottom of the unprecedented liquidation of the shipping firm, Sally delves into the company's mysterious demise and discovers a sprawling, tangled web of murder, espionage, and machinery. At the heart of the mystery, in the middle of the web waits a tycoon named Bellman, plotting, manipulating everyone, slowly and steadily building power at the highest levels of industry and government.
Well, it's official: I am addicted to Sally Lockhart. I am enthralled, enamored, and utterly heartbroken by this novel. I am thrilled and infuriated. I will continue to read this series to the bitter end because I am incredibly hooked (I am still heartbroken though - DAMN YOU, PHILIP PULLMAN).
A LOT has happened in the time between this second mystery and the first book - so much so that I was concerned that I picked up the wrong book to read. But that is simply the nature of the novel, and once you get over the initial shock of the gap in time, it's easy to slip back into the world of Sally Lockhart. Since The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally has started an entirely new business and has grown into a wise - if prickly - young woman, running a business on her own and determined to keep her money and property and independence no matter the cost. This also means, however, that her relationship with Frederick - the young, vivacious photographer whom she met in on a desperate sea-side scramble in Ruby in the Smoke - is also strained. Fred is in love with Sally, you see, and wants to marry her; but Sally, uncertain of her feelings and needing to maintain her independence, refuses to answer him. And so, for months, the two have interacted, clearing caring for each other but also slipping easily into intense arguments about the same subject. It makes for a very interesting dynamic - the Sally of this second book is less naive than the Sally of a few years earlier. She's just as fierce and brave, but her need to be so strong and independent also means she's pushing people away from her. In particular there's one scene between Sally and Fred that broke my heart - he tells her that at her best she is brilliant, but at her worst she is a cold, abrasive terror, and as a third party observer you can see this is true. That's not to say that Sally is a cruel character or unrelateable - quite the opposite, actually. It hurts because it's true and we want Sally to open up and trust the people who so clearly love her, and whose affection she so clearly reciprocates (even if she refuses to admit it to herself). And there is MORE to this relationship, but I refuse to talk about it because there are SPOILERS. Suffice it to say, it broke my heart.
Of course, beyond this one central relationships, The Shadow in the North is a proper Mystery novel - complete with industrial espionage, secret companies and bad investments, guns, graphite and steam. The identity of the villain isn't a mystery, but the way everything fits together and the seemingly disparate plot threads, is a wonderful payoff. And the secret behind all of Bellman's machinations is also wonderfully, impressively unveiled. All around, this is a much more sophisticated book than The Ruby in the Smoke - it incorporates elements of spiritualism, secret marriages, and murder in the ice no less. But right alongside these more sensationalist elements, there's also some wonderful economic thriller aspects to the book, which might not sound particularly sexy but an angle that I absolutely LOVED. Sally's brand of detection takes her to research financial statements and patent histories, corporate entities and ghost companies. I'm saying it again: this is so freaking awesome. I love that this is a heroine that loves facts and figures, that loves math and history and finance and wields this intelligence like the honed blade that it is. AWESOME.
In addition to all of this, we get to see familiar faces (not just Sally and Fred, but Jim who is now a young man) and new faces, the most memorable of the new being Sally's loyal dog, Chaka.
And, everyone, there is HEARTBREAK. The only thing I was not crazy about with this book was the very, very end - not so much because of the terrible thing that Philip Pullman does to you as a reader, but because of the trite last sentence twist (which you can predict coming from miles away).
All that said - I still loved the book. I will be back for more, very soon....more
He is in the ocean and he feels the waves and the cold. He feels the rock when it smashes his skull.
He wakes up andHere is the boy, drowning.
He is in the ocean and he feels the waves and the cold. He feels the rock when it smashes his skull.
He wakes up and he is naked, tired, thirsty and – unbelievably – alive. He is also back to the house where he lived as a child before the tragedy that hit his family. Before they moved to America.
He is all alone. The town is empty. Everything is covered under a layer of dust that alludes to the passage of time.
Every time he falls sleep he has vivid, agonisingly real dreams that make him feel like he is being tortured. He dreams of his family and the walls built between them. He dreams of the boy he loves. He dreams of the bad times. He dreams of the good times. Sometimes the good dreams are worse than the bad dreams.
He wonders if this is hell.
And he wonders if there is more than this.
Here is the woman, writing.
She is staring at her screen because she doesn’t know how she is going to write this review. Any further elaboration on what happens next is one step too close to spoiler territory.
She does knows that what happens next is plot and plot is like a tiny island in an ocean of feels when it comes to More Than This.
More Than This is divided in four parts. The first part is the one where the main character wakes up in a (new?) world and he is all alone and doesn’t know anything, not even his own name – Seth – to start with. This is one of the most terrifying, claustrophobic, sad, bewildering and impressive bits of narrative that I have ever read.
The second and third parts attempt to shed some light on what the hell is going on and it’s when things get simultaneously simpler and more complicated when Seth meets two other characters, Regine and Tomasz, in this hitherto empty world. Are they real? Is Seth making them up because his mind is fragile and needs reassurance that he is in fact, alive? Are the answers they come to find, true at all?
The fourth part not only questions everything you thought you knew but wraps it all up in shiny golden Words of Emotion. I can’t stress enough how beautiful and hopeful the last two pages of this book are.
A conceptual book with heart.
A heart-warming, hopeful story swimming in stylish structure.
It is inescapable, I am always coming back to these two main points: the narrative and the emotional core of More Than This. I think they are what make this book such a success.
Is this a dystopian post-apocalyptic setting or a contemporary novel or even a third option in all of its meta-glory (metafictional, metaphorical)? It doesn’t matter – it doesn’t matter at all in the end (or at least it didn’t for me) that there are no concrete answers apart from those YOU choose to have. More Than This: choose your own adventure.
(Oh gods, what am I writing, I am making a right mess out of this.)
It’s also interesting the way that Seth is aware of how stories are told, and how they can be constructed. So in a way this is also about narratives and stories and how to make sense of your own story and about things you tell yourself.
In the end, Seth does make his own choice, one that I thought was brilliant because it was so hopeful after so much despair. And it feels like what I am saying is that this book is all doom and gloom but it’s not. There is so much beauty in Seth’s memories – especially those romantic ones with the boy he loves. And in the end it is a hopeful book because it has a clear point of departure from Seth’s sense of isolation and his terrifying suspension on the right now to arrive at a place where different stories, different perspectives and the future have meaning and matter. The “more than this” in the title appear multiple times and in a variety of ways.
It is also a revelation the way that my reactions to the book emulate perfectly those of the main character as I felt what he felt in his journey: confusion, terror, acceptance, back to confusion and finally revelation.
And if the middle parts sag a little bit and if the story at times, felt overlong and protracted with a lot of “let’s talk about this later” when “later” is a luxury the characters obviously really didn’t have, these were not enough to detract from the powerful thematic core of the novel. I did have a big “Oh-No- NO moment” when it comes to Tomasz’s – a Polish mother tongue speaker – speech pattern. I am in completely agreement with what Things Mean a Lot’s Ana has to say about it:
“The last point I want to make is about the one aspect of More Than This that didn’t quite work for me. I’ll start by saying that I loved Tomasz and Regine — I loved them for who they were, I loved their friendship, and I loved the fact their being allowed to exist as more than lessons for the protagonist is so crucial to the story. However, my belief in Tomasz as a character was undermined by the fact that the way he spoke didn’t quite ring true for me. I don’t mean the Polish, which I’m not qualified to talk about, but rather the kind of mistakes he made when he spoke English. I say this not only as a fellow non-native speaker who learned English at around the same age as him, but as someone with a bit of a background in linguistics. I spent a year as a research assistant working on a project about non-native speakers learning English, and although speech patterns will be different depending on what your first language is, Tomasz’ came across as very caricatured to me, and unfortunately this kept pulling me out of the story.”
Here is the woman, writing.
She doesn’t know what else to say apart from: more, like this. ...more
Sally Lockhart is sixteen years old when she loses her father. The only child of a successful merchant with aOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Sally Lockhart is sixteen years old when she loses her father. The only child of a successful merchant with a business of importing goods from far-off destinations, Sally is devastated when she learns that her father's boat has capsized somewhere off the coast of Singapore, killing him and every other soul onboard. To make matters worse, her only living relation is a distant, scornful Aunt, and her inheritance is far less than what it should be, thanks to a complication in her father's will. But what has Sally truly flummoxed is a mysterious, misspelled anonymous note she receives in the post, with the message: "Sali beware of the seven blessings. Marchbanks will help chattum. Bware darling."
Little does Sally know that her quest to understand this message, to figure out what the mysterious Seven Blessings are, who Marchbanks is, will lead to devastating revelations about her past. Her quest for answers will also lead to a mysterious ruby, and a single-minded old woman who will stop at nothing to get her hands on this prize.
Dear readers, I am incredibly remiss - I cannot believe that it took me so long to first discover that this book existed, and second, to actually read and review it. The Ruby in the Smoke is admittedly no His Dark Materials, but it is a wonderfully written and executed Victorian Mystery. And it's one I enjoyed very, very much. From the onset of the book (really, from the first paragraph introducing Sally Lockhart), I fell in love with the characters and the writing, with its universal omniscient - aka, the "Little Did She Know" foreshadowing/opinion - style. Instead of forced or affected, this writing choice feels very much like a Victorian novel, and imbues a sly character to the narration and some effective foreshadowing for twists to come as Sally and her friends unravel the mystery of the Maharajah's (cursed) missing ruby. On that note, the plot and true mystery angle of the novel is solid and executed perfectly. There are dual mysteries here, really, whose answers lie in Sally's past: the mystery of Sally's father's death (and the "seven blessings"), the mystery of the missing ruby (and the reasons why people desire it). Sally's first adventure is a story filled with secrets and reveals, with sojourns to isolated run down mansions, secret journals and hidden letters, opium dens and even pirates. Needless to say, there is a lot going on in The Ruby in the Smoke, but it never feels over-much or over-wrought - no small feat.
On a character front, this book also excels. I adore Sally Lockhart, who is a no-nonsense heroine, who has no knowledge of French or literature but knows how to balance accounts, invest in stocks and bonds, and manage a business. (On that note, can I please interject - A HEROINE THAT LOVES MATH AND ECONOMICS! YES! THIS! I freaking love it!) In addition to the smart, steady-handed and sympathetic heroine we have in Sally, we also meet a swath of different characters, villains and friends alike, over the course of this book. Mrs. Holland, the book's villain, is a terrifying figure, with her cruelty (and the frightening image of her over-large, vicious dentures) and her singular desire to seize the ruby at any cost. We never really know what drives Mrs. Holland until the end of the book, when we learn a little more about her past and her character - she's no sympathetic villain, but she has a believable backstory that fuels her misery and obsession.
The best characters, in my opinion, are the new friends that Sally makes - Jim, an apprentice clerk at Sally's shipping company with his keen insights (fueled by his love for penny dreadfuls); Frederick, the photographer who is terrible with numbers but passionate about his art (and who is quite taken with young Sally); Rosa, the vivacious, beautiful actress who has defied her family and spurned her inheritance for freedom and passion; and Adelaide, the urchin forced to do Mrs. Holland's bidding, but who finally finds friends and a brighter future. In sum, Sally has made a crew of friends with the perfect set of skills for a new investigation agency. I'm keen to see what happens in their next adventure together.
Finally, I cannot end this review without saying something about that ending! I admit to tearing up just a little bit with that emotional final discovery, and I cannot wait to read the next book in this wonderful series. Absolutely recommended.
(And clearly I must check out the 2006 BBC television adaptation - starring Billie Piper and Matt Smith in a strange out-of-sequence Doctor Who confluence of awesomeness?)
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1, the best introduction to a character, EVER:
On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October, 1872, a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby, Shipping Agents, in the financial heart of London, and a young girl got out and paid the driver.
She was a person of sixteen or so--alone, and uncommonly pretty. She was slender and pale, and dressed in mourning, with a black bonnet under which she tucked back a straying twist of blond hair that the wind had teased loose. She had unusually dark brown eyes for one so fair. Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.
Since the age of eleven, all Aerin has known is pain and brutality. After their ship crashes on the x-factorOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
Since the age of eleven, all Aerin has known is pain and brutality. After their ship crashes on the x-factor planet of Vizhan, Aerin's father - the only family and other person she knows in the entire universe - dies, and Aerin is sold into slavery. Six years have passed since that terrible day, and Aerin has learned to fight, to fend for herself, and, most importantly, how to break free. Making a desperate last gambit for her freedom, Aerin is able to salvage her father's crashed spaceship and escape Vizhan. But escape is only the beginning - and Academy 7 is not about Aerin's daring escape. It is the story of what happens after she is intercepted by an Alliance ship, and she tests into the most prestigious school in the civilized universe.
Like Aerin, Dane Madousin is brilliant and resourceful; unlike Aerin, Dane has grown up with privilege and power (albeit with a controlling, hateful, and abusive family). The son of a powerful Alliance General and Council Member, the roguish Dane has also made the tough academic cut to get into Academy 7 - and it is here Dane and Aerin will meet, where the unlikely pair will become friends, and where they will learn that their pasts intersect in unexpected and tangled ways.
Academy 7 is the first book I've had the pleasure of reading from Anne Osterlund, and holy freaking crap, Han Solo, I loved it. The first thing that needs to be said - and I know every review has pointed this out, but it NEEDS to be emphasized - Academy 7 is a science fiction book. I know, the cover makes it look like a YA boarding school paranormal romance, possibly set in the past (not that there's anything wrong with historical or PNR!), and I get that the publisher wanted to capitalize on Osterlund's brand and made this book look very much like Aurelia and Exile. However, this packaging is incredibly misleading, because (I repeat): this is a science fiction novel. It's not a half-hearted science fiction novel, it's not a fantasy novel with loose SF elements, it is an honest to goodness science fiction novel. With spaceships. And different planets. And souped up technology (ok, mostly science fantasy technology, but don't let that put you off).
Now that we've got genre classification out of the way, on to the good stuff - the story proper, and the wonderful dual protagonists. I love the actual writing style and plot of Academy 7 - yes, this is a book set in a boarding school (think more Hogwarts than Vampire Academy), but it is an incredibly competitive and selective academy that has nothing to do with one's birthright or money and everything to do with one's scholastic aptitude. And, as luck would have it, the two top students in the school are our main characters, Aerin and Dane, who vie for the top marks in all of their classes. I love that the two are not thrown into insta-love/super-magnetic-attraction mode when they first lay eyes on each other, and they become gradual confidants and friends - with romance only coming much, much later as a slow-simmering build up. Even better than that, Aerin and Dane are separate people, that exist and breathe and come to life outside of a relationship with each other - I love the fire of Aerin's convictions and her opinions about intergalactic politics and her need to make the most of the chance she's fought so hard for, just as I love Dane's warring desires to do well and defy his family, tempered with timidity of actually breaking away from his family once and for all. We sympathize with Aerin as she grapples with the trauma of her past, the lessons she has taken to heart to survive and finally live as a free woman; we ache with Dane as we learn the truth of his family, and the cruelty of his father and brother. And we are so, so happy when Aerin and Dane find and confide in each other, two lonely souls that are able to find some peace together.
And then there's the actual story and world, too. The plot is surprisingly insular, more about two students trying to find their place in the world than about big action or explosions or conflict (which suits me just fine). The underlying mystery and driving force of the book is Aerin and Dane's relationship, and the secrets that lie in their pasts (and their uniquely intertwined family heritages). From a worldbuilding perspective, there is plenty going on to satiate the keen SFF fan. The universe of the Alliance is one fraught with internal tensions and political complications. The Alliance relies on an idyllic Manifesto that is great in spirit but often conveniently ignored when it comes to tricky situations or economic motivations - turning a blind eye to x-planets like Vizhan and its validation of slavery. There's a cutthroat Trade Union that is amassing power and opposing the Alliance at every turn, and much at stake for the future of intergalactic peace and travel. In the middle of all this turmoil, Aerin, Dane and their fellow cohorts at Academy 7 are being challenged and educated to grapple with these incredible challenges, which is really, really cool.
In terms of shortcomings, I only have a few, very small nitpicks when it comes to Academy 7. Aerin's father's story and the reason for his exile from the Alliance feels a little underdeveloped, and the answers all come very conveniently (via magical hologram/simulator technology, no less). The writing leans a little towards the overwrought end of the spectrum. Finally, so much of the action happens off screen, related in class lessons or simulations - and that's all fine and good, I do wish that there was more going on in realtime with Aerin and Dane.
All things said, I truly loved this book. Academy 7 is a great choice for readers who might be a little tentative to dip their toes into the science fiction genre - but it's also a great book for longstanding fans of SF, too. All in all, I loved this book and absolutely recommend it as a notable read of 2013.
(So...I'm guessing Aurelia is worth the time and money? I'm excited to read more of Anne Osterlund's work - if you've read her books, please let me know!)...more
In a small fishing village on the coast of the wide, stormy sea, a bright-eyed young woman named Periwinkle mOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
In a small fishing village on the coast of the wide, stormy sea, a bright-eyed young woman named Periwinkle makes her home. After her father, a fisherman, rows out his ship and never returns, Peri's mother lapses into quiet despair, forgetting to talk and always staring out at the roiling sea and fantasizing about the people that live in its depths. Without her parents to watch over her or remind her to do things like brush her hair or hem her clothes, Peri grows from a quiet child to a wild and somewhat neglected young woman - her hair always a tangle, her dresses bleached of all color, too tight in some places, too loose in others. Even the old wise woman who used to brush Peri's hair in her small cottage disappears one day, leaving Peri without anyone to care for her at all. During the day, she works at the local inn, scrubbing floors and cleaning rooms; by night, she returns to the old woman's cottage and makes her own isolated home where she plots her revenge against the sea. Hateful of the ocean that has taken both of her parents away, Peri crafts three crude hexes to curse the sea - it is here that she meets Prince Kir, who also knew the wise woman and years for her counsel. Kir has deep troubles of his own, also connected to the watery depths, and hopes that Peri can help him make his peace with the ocean that haunts his every waking moment. When Peri finishes her hexes and throws them deep into the great water, she also includes an offering from Kir - and to Peri's great astonishment, her hexes start to work.
A great sea dragon starts to appear amongst the fishermen's boats on the sea, with an impossibly large gold chain around its neck. Then, a magician comes to town, promising that he will be able to remove the chain and give the gold to the villagers - for a price. And most importantly, Kir's dreams of the sea grow more fevered and frantic, as his own unknown, hidden past catches up to him. And it is all up to Periwinkle to set everything back to rights.
To date, I've only read a handful of books and short stories from Patricia McKillip, mostly her recent releases. The Changeling Sea, however, is one of McKillip's earlier works, originally published in the 1980s and instantly endeared itself to me - a changeling fable that takes place by the stormy sea? What better place to jump into McKillip's rich and extensive backlist? And you know what? I absolutely loved this book. Shortly put: The Changeling Sea is another gorgeous, wonderful book from the incredibly talented McKillip.
I'm going to say something that sounds incredibly cheesy, but it is so very true: Patricia McKillip has a way with words that is simply magical. Like The Bell at Sealey Head or The Bards of Bone Plain, The Changeling Sea is a slender book, but one written with lush and evocative prose that is as beautiful as it is simple. For example:
A sigh, smelling of shrimp and seaweed, wafted over the water... In the deep waters beyond the stones, a great flaming sea-thing gazed back at her, big as a house or two, its mouth a strainer like the mouth of a baleen whale, its translucent fiery streamers coiling and uncoiling languorously in the warm waters. The brow fins over its wide eyes gave it a surprised expression. Around its neck, like a dog collar, was a massive chain of pure gold.
Beautiful, no? Such is McKillip's writing, littered throughout with these gleaming gems of description and story.
Love and anger are like land and sea: They meet at many different places.
As the title suggests, The Changeling Sea is a fable about a changeling, and a story whose heart is inextricably tied to the sea. It's a book about love - no, scratch that. It's actually a book about yearning for what once was, and what can never be again. It's the book of a King that yearns for the beauty of the sea queen in all her splendor, the story of two brothers crossed at birth that yearn for their true homes on sea and on land. It's the story of a wild haired, barefooted fisherman's daughter that dares hex the spiteful sea, and yearns for the love of one that can never return it. Aren't these some of the best of all? These stories of want and hate and love, all jumbled up into one powerful package of emotion?
And then there are the characters! Periwinkle, our heroine, is a pinched and angry character at first, who scowls at the ocean but refuses to leave its shores despite her hate. She's bold and wild, who cares little about the conventions that bind others - she doesn't have secret dreams of catching the prince's eye like the other girls who work at the inn, and she doesn't pay attention to her clothes or her hair. She's smart but rough around the edges, passionate but obstinate - and for all that, a character you cannot help but love, flaws and all. There is the tortured Kir, who is...well, defined by his yearning for the ocean and his feeling that he does not belong on dry land. There's also the sea dragon himself, who is not at all what he seems, and a king that has made mistakes in his past but loves his children and lovers dearly. But for all that, my other favorite character in this beautiful little book is Lyo - the canny magician, with his smiling face and his penchant for twisting magic in delightful, unexpected ways.
All in all, I loved The Changeling Sea, and absolutely recommend it. I cannot wait to try more of Patricia McKillip's work - now, any suggestions on where to go next? ...more
"I walked into adventure and adventure has given me blisters."
On the last day of high school, Cassandra Devlin walks away from her exams and just like that, stumbles into another world. She is only sure of two things: this is not Earth and that she must do everything to survive. She eventually finds an abandoned city where she plans to settle down for the time being.
Then one day she wakes up to find herself staring at two people who definitely look human but who don’t speak any recognisable language. They whisk her away to a world technologically advanced, where nanotechnology abounds and computers are inserted inside people’s heads. Now with an inbuilt dictionary that allows her to at least understand those around her, Cass comes to know that she has crossed one of the many gates between worlds and is branded one of the many “strays” lost between worlds.
As she spends more time with the Setari – the equivalent to an army that defend this world from attacks – and learns more about not only their special gifts but her own surprising effect on them, she understands that finding a way home might be within her grasp. If only she can make sure that 1) they will let her go and 2) going home doesn’t mean putting Earth in danger.
Stray , the first book in the Touchstone trilogy, is a Science Fiction story of a displaced teenager. Written in epistolary format, it chronicles Cassandra’s adventures as she writer in the notebook she had been carrying in her backpack when she crosses over. Writing is I believe, what keeps her going, giving her footing, allowing her to express her thoughts and feelings in her own language- this is fundamental to the story and to her mental health once she discovers that having a computer implanted in her brain means that anybody can assess her at any time.
The first few entries essentially tell a survivalist story: following Cass as she get to grips with where she is, attempting to understand what could have happened to her and trying to find food, water and shelter. It’s a really clever narrative too, effectively depicting both the sense of wonder and fear that Cass feels as well as her impressive surviving skills which stem from very clever decisions based on common sense.
The latter entries chronicle her days with the Setari, the attempts to understand one another including the necessity to learn their language and the intense physical training she undergoes. It’s awesome that her internal dictionary doesn’t automatically mean that she can speak the language which means she spends most of the story going back to basic schooling – frustrating as it is since back home, she had just graduated.
All of this punctuated by the fact that Cassandra is in reality a lab rat for these people – despite the fact that she does indeed creates several bonds among them (and when she does, so does the reader).
The question is: are any of those, real bonds at all or born out necessity from both sides? Because one of the more interesting aspects of Stray is the question of narrative reliability: Cassandra’s loneliness, her sense of displacement leap from the pages and even when she does not say these things outright those are very real in the manner that she connects with characters. She sees one of the main female characters almost like a mother figure, for example, which is speaks to how much she misses her family. But her usefulness to the Setari is very real as well and the fact that there is such a high level of control over people’s lives does put forth the question of how much of the decisions she makes are real decisions at all?
Those are incredibly engaging, thought-provoking aspects of the story and even the inevitable lull in the narrative when things settle down in the middle of the story offers some interesting observations about Cass and the new life she is living.
Finally, I believe that the success of Stray depends entirely on how much a reader will connect (or not) with Cass’ voice and character because so much of the story depends on that. I loved Cass: her no frills attitude, her self-reliance at the same time that she acknowledges the importance of help from others and her extremely observant – and often funny – viewpoint.
This is yet another incredibly strong story from Andrea K. Höst, and I can’t wait to pick up the next entries in the trilogy. ...more
The year is 1910, the place the grand estate of Somerton. Lady Ada, her younger sister Georgina and her fatheOriginally reviewed on The Book Smugglers
The year is 1910, the place the grand estate of Somerton. Lady Ada, her younger sister Georgina and her father, Lord Westlake, have left India amidst whispers of scandal and disgrace - Lord Westlake has resigned from his post without explanation, inciting the worst possible rumor-mongering - and return to Britain for the first time in many years. Despite the hints of scandal that follow them to Somerton, it is a happy return for the Averleys as Ada's father prepares to marry the glamorous, beautiful and well-connected widow, Mrs. Fiona Templeton. With the marriage comes an expansion of the family, with Mrs. Templeton's three children: Matthew (the devil may care younger son), Sebastian (the rakishly handsome eldest son, with a secret that threatens to ruin him), and Charlotte (the polished and conniving daughter determined to make the most of her station). As the families converge, much drama ensues - Lady Ada struggles to find ground with her new relatives, to prepare for her first Season out in society, and all the while grapples with the demands of her heart as she yearns for Ravi, a young Indian man on scholarship at Oxford (and someone she will never be allowed to marry).
Meanwhile, below stairs, the return of the Averleys and arrival of Mrs. Templeton also threatens to upset the careful balance of order at Somerton. Rose Cliffe - beautiful, quiet, but ambitious for her love of music and composing - is given a chance to advance herself and promoted overnight to become lady's maid to Ada and Georgina. Of course, such a leap does not go unnoticed, and Stella, Mrs. Templeton's lady's maid, begins her own manipulations for power.
These many lives intersect and tangle, as secrets are revealed, proposals are made, and machinations put into motion, with the future of the Averley family and Somerton itself at stake.
Well. If I had to condense my experience with Cinders and Sapphires into a single word it would be: FUN. Because, truly, this is the perfect guilty pleasure read, chock full of scandal and excess (in a good way). Cinders and Sapphires is very clearly, obviously influenced by and riding on the coattails of Downton Abbey, and that is not a bad thing. On a superficial level, there's the fact that the Averleys are without a direct male heir and the estate will pass to a male cousin, there's a Lady Edith, a pair of scheming servants downstairs that plot the demise of their enemies, and so on. That said, there is so much more that is unique to Cinders and Sapphires - for example, take the thoughtful, considered examination of British colonization of India from the Indian perspective. Lady Ada hears the arguments about Indian independence for the very first time - for even though she lived many years in India, she has a very sheltered and colonist-minded view of the country - and she begins to question and challenge her belief system for the first time.
Somehow the At Somerton series manages to pack in crazy, melodramatically entertaining twists on par with its BBC counterpart, too - there's a homosexual young man and a bribery case against him, a murder (but of course), numerous illicit/forbidden romances, a secret half-sibling working on the estate as a servant, a scheming stepmother and horrible Caroline Bingley type character of a daughter...
Which brings me back to my thesis, if you will. In sum, Cinders and Sapphires is wonderfully melodramatic, over-the-top soap-opera fun.
Yes, it has some utterly implausible aspects, and there is NO freakin' way certain things would ever logically happen (especially the father's actions at the end of the book!), but I found myself thoroughly, completely entertained and loving every second of it.
On the con side, however, the characters are perhaps not the most developed - Ada is predictably kind, intelligent, and beautiful, as is her counterpoint Rose. Neither heroine buckles in the face of ruin or danger, and they are both excessively sweet and good. And that's all fine and dandy, but to me, the more interesting characters are the ones who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty - I want to know what happened with Charlotte to make her so venomous, I want to understand how Stella's conscience hardened and what she has done to come as far as she has. I want more of Sebastian and valet Oliver, I want more of Priya and why she has left India for England to work as a governess. There is plenty of room to explore these many different characters at length, and I am eagerly awaiting the next adventure at Somerton to see just where the drama goes next.
**WARNING: this review contains inevitable spoilers for book 1 –The Name of the Star. DO NOT READ if you don’t wish to be spoiled. You have been warne**WARNING: this review contains inevitable spoilers for book 1 –The Name of the Star. DO NOT READ if you don’t wish to be spoiled. You have been warned!**
The Madness Underneath picks off a few weeks after the events at the end of The Name of the Star. After being attacked by the Jack the Ripper copycat, Rory has been recovering in Bristol, away from her school and her friends. The worst part of being away from London though is her isolation and inability to share with anyone the true nature of the events that took place then. Worst of all, she has been cut off from communicating with the Shades – the city’s secret ghost-fighting police – and hasn’t shared how her encounter with the Ripper has changed her forever: she is now the only ever (as far as she knows) human terminus, with the ability to vanquish ghosts on contact.
As such, when presented with the chance to go back to school she takes it. But when she arrives in London she realises that things can never be the same again and that there is something mad and evil underneath the streets of London.
The most striking aspect of The Madness Underneath is its overall seriousness. And it shouldn’t have been any different really, considering how the main character had a close encounter with death, and how that has altered her life forever. As such, Rory’s narrative is one that comes from a place of deep trauma – even if she does not want to admit it. I am really appreciative of the way that Maureen Johnson infused the story, the narrative and Rory’s arc in this book from a PTSD perspective. Because of that, Rory does not sound, read or behave exactly like the same person from book 1 – how could she? But anything that happens here, any change in behaviour, any outrageous action, are thoroughly understandable because they come from a place of trauma, a place of coping.
Similarly, Rory’s need to not be considered a victim and to be able to regain control are deftly handled especially when combined with her newly discovered power. The way that she reacts to it, and how she feels powerful for how she can control death is both empowering but also a bit scary. It will be interesting to see how this will be developed in the next book.
One of the biggest, shiniest elements of book 1 was its mixture of humour, wit and snark with a side of outrageously fun ghost-hunting Ghostbusters-style. Although there is still wit and snark here, those fun elements were almost gone. Rory’s arc as a survivor is the most important one in this book and the one takes centre stage here. This I feel, instead of being a part of the book, was so separate from anything else that it was almost to the detriment of all other storylines in the novel – which appeared to be scattered and unfocused. From the new attacks and murders that appear connected to the Ripper’s death as well as a new set of villains and dangers, those were almost underdeveloped and randomly deployed in the story. However, everything that happened here COULD be potentially connected to the very same storyline but that is left still to be seen.
At the end of the day, The Madness Underneath is a Proper Middle of Trilogy Book – it is deeper, more thoughtful, darker than its predecessor and with a twisted ending where SHIT hits the fan bit time (also: kissing) but it is not as tight a book as it could have been. It is maybe too short and brief, too scattered for that. I still really enjoyed it and am definitely on board for book 3.
I have to agree with Ana on all counts – The Madness Underneath is a good book and a darker text than its predecessor (as it should be, given the traumatic events of book 1), but it suffers from a disconnected plot and Middle Book Syndrome.
On the positive side, I loved the careful detail that Marueen Johnson pays to heroine Rory as she grapples with the enormity of everything that has happened to her over the past few months. An American teenager that has moved from public school in Louisiana to a private, competitive boarding school (Wexford) in London for her senior year, Rory faced some pretty hardcore culture shock – add to that the Jack the Ripper copycat murders around her school, and you’ve got a pretty stressful situation. Did I mention the part where Rory nearly dies choking on a piece of food early in her Wexford career and develops the ability to see and talk to dead people? And the fact that the Jack the Ripper killer is also a ghost who has it out for Rory, thanks to her ability to see him? Yeah, that happened. At the end of The Name of the Star, Rory has been brutally attacked by the Ripper killer (who, in life, was a ghost-hunting cop like Rory’s new friends) but lives through the ordeal and in the process has become a real-life terminus – that is, she can make ghosts disappear forever with a single touch.
Naturally, this type of trauma leaves a mark, physically and emotionally, and the Rory of The Madness Underneath is a different young woman than the one we got to know in The Name of the Star. She’s still loveable, quirky, talks-when-she’s-nervous Rory, but she’s also lived through an incredibly harrowing ordeal and has been changed by the experience. As Ana says, Rory’s struggles with post-traumatic stress are beautifully, painfully detailed in this book, and I think her characterization and arc through this second novel is the strongest thing about the book.
On the negative side, however, the actual plot of this novel is scattered and far less powerful than that of the prior book. While The Name of the Star was a honed, tightly plotted paranormal thriller with a clear murder mystery underlying the text (in addition to and working alongside Rory’s personal journey as a character), The Madness Underneath treats the paranormal elements and mystery as more of a backburner/throwaway feature. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that the book goes into crazy-what-is-happening mode and crams in a ton of action and plot twists in the last 30-40 pages (which is completely out of sync with the rest of the book). The connections made between Rory’s abilities and a new couple of murders, the history of Wexford, and a cult (yes there’s a cult) are tenuous at best. And there’s a huge WTF moment at the end of the book that also comes out of nowhere and feels…well, gratuitous, and in there purely for twisty cliffhanger shock-value.
I still enjoyed The Madness Underneath, but felt that it lacked the polish of the first book, and definitely suffered from intense middle-book syndrome. I’ll be back for book 3, though, most definitely....more
The time is the future, and the world is perfect. Ridiculously perfect. Stupid perfect.
In this future world, teens must enroll in a mandatory class called "Scarcity" in which they must participate in a unique class project - they must endure an experience that their ancient human ancestors would have had, for a whole two week long period. Some students choose to have the common cold. Some choose to relinquish their teleportation privileges. After discarding a number of terrifying sounding experiences, the usually slackerish Kieran Black chooses a final project experience that will change him forever: he chooses Sleep. (Oh yeah, in the future there is no need for sleep, thanks to the miracles of modern medicine.) Kieran immediately stops his metabolic nanobots from regulating his cell regeneration, and must achieve REM sleep each night for the duration of the project.
Maria Borsotti is also in Scarcity class and has always thought of Kieran as kinda cute, but mostly just a shallow guy with as much complexity as a layer of industrial paint - so, when she hears Kieran's choice of project, she's actually impressed. Maria's own final involves her decision to suspend her hormonal balancers - that is, her hormones will run free, just like teenagers of old.
All seems well and good, until Maria and Kieran begin to realize just how much their Scarcity projects are changing them and their vision of the world around them. Kieran not only sleeps, but starts to dream. And Maria starts to understand the "madness" of the heroines of her favorite ancient books, as her emotions and urges become manifest.
A great short story can be a beautiful thing when it's done right - Stupid Perfect World gets the job done pretty well (albeit with a few reservations). I will confess upfront that I am not the biggest fan of short fiction, especially in collection or anthology format. I tend to get invested in characters and want so much more - more in terms of character, of background and world and complexity and depth (particularly in short SFF works). Such is the case with Stupid Perfect World; I love the premise of the book, the dual narrators, and the trademark Westerfeld zip and charm. I love the idea of this future world, where humans want for nothing, where war and famine and pestilence are distant intangibles from the ancient past, and the closest that students ever get to understanding our own modern woes is through a two week mandatory pass/fail course. We get just enough information about how this stupidily perfect world works, how huge distances are transversible at the speed of thought.
What we don't get, however, is that more factor - even if humans could go for periods without sleep, is that something we should do? If humans can no longer dream, is that desirable? Should hormones and passions be regulated? Stupid Perfect World poses these tantalizing questions, but offers no further insight or answers, which is kind of ridiculously infuriating. There's plenty of room here for meaty exploration (if I'm being honest, it sounds like a dystopian trilogy setup, doesn't it?), but none is given.
But enough wishing for things that did not happen - because the things that do occur in the story are pretty solid. The characters of Kieran and Maria are well drawn, and their eye-opening experiences separately and together are alternately hilarious and genuine (in particular, I love Maria's melodramatic reactions and analytical responses following her mood swings). The only execution niggle, for me, was that the alternating narrator technique - as the short starts with Kieran as narrator and switches to Maria in the next chapter, alternating for the rest of the story - was not quite a seamless transition. Both Kieran and Maria sound very similar, making the reading experience a little uneven and confusing, especially when Maria follows Kieran's opening (I had no idea who was talking and was thrown until I figure out it was Maria narrating).
Also, on one major edit/consistency fail that I must mention: the second and third sentences of the story state:
It wasn't a real course with grades and everything, so only the most pathetic meekers worked hard at it. The rest of us just showed up and tried not to fall asleep.
The line about "trying not to fall asleep" of course is pretty funny, considering the point of the story and Kieran's project.
These niggles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Stupid Perfect World - and I kinda hope that more short stories, or full-length books, in this world are coming. ...more