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Friday, June 29, 2012

'The Golden Lily' Bloodlines #2 by Richelle Mead

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Sydney Sage is an Alchemist, one of a group of humans who dabble in magic and serve to bridge the worlds of humans and vampires. They protect vampire secrets—and human lives.

Sydney would love to go to college, but instead, she's been sent into hiding at a posh boarding school in Palm Springs, California–tasked with protecting Moroi princess Jill Dragomir from assassins who want to throw the Moroi court into civil war. Formerly in disgrace, Sydney is now praised for her loyalty and obedience, and held up as the model of an exemplary Alchemist.

But the closer she grows to Jill, Eddie, and especially Adrian, the more she finds herself questioning her age–old Alchemist beliefs, her idea of family, and the sense of what it means to truly belong. Her world becomes even more complicated when magical experiments show Sydney may hold the key to prevent becoming Strigoi—the fiercest vampires, the ones who don't die. But it's her fear of being just that—special, magical, powerful—that scares her more than anything. Equally daunting is her new romance with Brayden, a cute, brainy guy who seems to be her match in every way. Yet, as perfect as he seems, Sydney finds herself being drawn to someone else—someone forbidden to her.

When a shocking secret threatens to tear the vampire world apart, Sydney's loyalties are suddenly tested more than ever before. She wonders how she's supposed to strike a balance between the principles and dogmas she's been taught, and what her instincts are now telling her.

Should she trust the Alchemists—or her heart?

** This review contains spoilers of previous book ‘Bloodlines’ and all other ‘Vampire Academy’ novels **

‘The Golden Lily’ is the second book in Richelle Mead’s ‘Vampire Academy’ spin-off series, ‘Bloodlines’.

Full disclosure: I was decidedly unimpressed with Richelle Mead’s first book, ‘Bloodlines’. I am such a fan of ‘Vampire Academy’, and was so excited that Mead’s intricate, vampiric world would live on in a spin-off series . . . but then I read ‘Bloodlines’ and felt a resounding “meh” about the whole thing. I didn’t love the Palm Springs human-world setting, and felt that the new series was lacking that extra “oomph” by not being set in St. Vladimir’s Academy again. I was also wholly unimpressed with new narrator, Sydney Sage, having had kick-butt Rose Hathaway for the six ‘VA’ books, Sydney’s introverted, cautious and health-conscious voice was a bit of a letdown. So, all in all, it wasn’t a great first outing for me. Okay. Fine. I was more than willing though, to give Richelle Mead the benefit of a series. I know she’s a phenomenal author – having stuck with her through the completion of ‘Georgina Kincaid’ and ‘Dark Swan’ in the last year. So I went into ‘The Golden Lily’ with an open mind and heady optimism for a great second attempt. . .

Unfortunately, ‘The Golden Lily’ was more of a wilt than a win for me.

The books starts out brilliantly, I should say. In Chapter One we’re out of Palm Springs and in the Alchemist’s den, where Sydney is learning the outcome of events previous. After discovering that fellow Alchemist, Keith, was selling Moroi blood to humans she reported him to the council, and when ‘Golden Lily’ begins, Sydney sees just what sort of punishment an Alchemist receives if they’re thought to be coercing with Moroi. This was a powerful and unsettling Chapter, purely because we’re given some insight into the slightly fanatical underpinnings of the Alchemist ethos. Seeing Keith’s punishment for having a business deal with Moroi also unnerves Sydney, because deep down she knows that her increasingly affectionate and friendly relationship with Dragomir Princess-in-hiding, Jill, and her spirit-bonded Adrian Ivashkov is bordering on something the Alchemist’s wouldn’t approve of.

After that first chapter, Sydney is back in Palm Springs and dealing with the many and messy tangled webs of her group. Eddie is fighting off the unwanted affections of rough-around-the-edges fellow dhampir, Angeline, while also suppressing his crush on Jill (who is dating his human roommate, Marcus). Dimitri Belikov and Sonya Karp are in Palm Springs as the only two known dhampir-turned-strigoi-turned-back dhampir, who are testing theories on how exactly they survived the transition.

Meanwhile, troubled soul Adrian Ivashkov is now only mildly wallowing in the loss of Rose Hathaway to the Russian Dmitri. He is more concerned with his imprisoned mother and silent father, and continuing the arts course he promised Sydney he’d stick out.

Sydney, meanwhile, finds herself in the odd predicament of having a date. When her classmate, Trey, unofficially sets her up with a co-worker who knows about Shakespeare, Latin and windmills . . . thus, Sydney finds herself a social life with wet-rag Brayden.

Phew. Now, that sounds like a lot of stuff going on. But, honestly, the above plots were all very . . . mundane. For a spin-off ‘Vampire Academy’ series called ‘Bloodlines’, I really felt there wasn’t enough paranormal stuff going on in this book. Mead also threw in a few clunky chapters in which Sydney translates magic spells for her kooky teacher who knows all about the Moroi and calls Sydney ‘Miss Melbourne’, but otherwise I thought this was a very paranormal-lite book. And after I got so excited with that first chapter that really concentrated on the Alchemist world, I was doubly disappointed when this 418-page book didn’t properly revisit that aspect until the very end, and even then in a single chapter.

This is another reason why I’m still somewhat disappointed that ‘Bloodlines’ isn’t set in St. Vladimir’s. On the one hand, I do like that Sydney’s rag-tag bunch are all outsiders and on the periphery of Moroi society. But having them be undercover at a human boarding school in sunny Palm Springs does mean that they’re not so involved in the supernatural goings-on of the Moroi world. It’s boring.

I also have a complaint about the development of secondary characters in ‘Bloodlines’. Now, in ‘Vampire Academy’ the clear stars of the series were Rose and Dmitri, and their illicit, scorching love affair. But Rose’s best friend and spirit-bond connection, Lissa Dragomir, did get a very well constructed story arc too – and a love story with outsider, Christian Ozera. I didn’t necessarily like Lissa, or really rate her romance with Christian, but I can’t deny that over the six books they got a very well fleshed out story arc. Not to mention fellow dhampir’s like Mason and Eddie and Moroi, Mia also got enough side-story mentions to keep things interesting. Now considering that the first book in ‘Bloodlines’ was 421-pages, and ‘The Golden Lily’ is 418-pages long . . . it’s a bit odd that I feel no real connection or interest in any of the book’s secondary characters. Jill, Eddie, Angeline and Sonya . . . I can’t say that I know any of them any better now, than I did when reading about them in ‘Vampire Academy’. Jill is just a bit of a twit, in my opinion, seemingly content to walk runway fashion shows and have a human boyfriend who has gained her lots of human friends. Considering she only recently found out she was the illegitimate daughter of a Moroi prince (not to mention half-sister of the current Queen!), you’d think the girl would have more depth and be more interesting. She’s not. And, honestly, I don’t even notice when she’s not there – she walks into a scene and suddenly I remember there’s a character called Jill who’s meant to be important. Now, I personally think this is another reason that ‘Bloodlines’ should have been set in St. Vladimir’s – so we could read about the student body reacting to having Jill in their midst, and so there was a chance that Jill could interact with Lissa on occasion. Mead is trying to increase Jill’s interest by including a still-forming maybe-crush with her dhampir bodyguard, Edie, but honestly it’s so half-baked and underexplored in ‘Bloodlines’ that it’s more afterthought than romantic entanglement.

No, clearly the secondary characters in ‘Bloodlines’ are just props. The real stars are meant to be Sydney and Adrian – but they are a weak imitation of the Rose and Dmitri that made ‘Vampire Academy’ such a hit.

In theory, Sydney and Adrian should be interesting. They’re opposites attracting, for a start, Sydney with her perfectly compact, sugar-free life and whose Alchemist upbringing has her wary of Moroi. Paired with wild-child, tortured soul and ‘Vampire Academy’ romantic underdog, Adrian, it should be a star-crossed slam-dunk. But it’s just not. After reading ‘Bloodlines’ I said I was delighted/half-hearted about the clearly intended Adrian/Sydney romance – but I did predict that it would take a long time to get there. As it turns out, I was wrong. We’ve seemingly jumped from a few questioning glances and stray thoughts in ‘Bloodlines’ to barely-restrained-adoration in ‘The Golden Lily’. Adrian just suddenly really likes Sydney. He devises paper-thin excuses to hang out with her, and he asks in very round-about ways if her feelings towards Moroi have improved. He’s barely civil towards Brayden (a secondary character red-herring who doesn’t really deserve a mention for the amount of unnecessary page-time he took up!) and Adrian takes up arms with any who cause Sydney discomfort. Sydney, of course, is none the wiser. But I just wasn’t buying it. . . especially not when Adrian reveals that his and Rose’s romance has only been over for approximately three months since she chose Dmitri over him. Three months!? And now he’s smitten with Sydney?! I just wasn’t buying it.

Speaking of Adrian Ivashkov. Yes, I am a fan. A big fan. But I’m just not digging him so much in ‘Bloodlines’. I feel like he has lost a lot of his snarky, anti-hero, anti-social appeal that made him such a delicious bad temptation in ‘Vampire Academy’. In ‘Bloodlines’ he seems watered down, and it reads like Mead is forcing this chivalrous, romantic persona on him when he is much better suited to the sarcastic, tortured soul schtick. Some of that still shines through in ‘The Golden Lily’, but not nearly at the level Adrian was when he first stepped onto the scene in ‘Frostbite’:

“It is terrifying,” said Adrian. “And weird, for lack of a better word. And part of you knows. . . well, part of you knows something’s not right. That your thinking’s not right. But what do you do about that? All we can go on is what we think, how we see the world. If you can’t trust your own mind, what can you trust? What other people tell you?”
“I don’t know,” I said, for lack of a better answer. His words struck me as I thought how much of my life had been guided by the edicts of others.
“Rose once told me about this poem she’d read. There was this line, ‘If your eyes weren’t open, you wouldn’t know the difference between dreaming and waking.’ You know what I’m afraid of? That someday, even with my eyes open, I still won’t know.”

*Sigh*. Speaking of ‘Frostbite’ – there really is no comparison between the second ‘VA’ book and second in the ‘Bloodlines’ series. Although ‘The Golden Lily’ is a hefty 418-pages, ‘Frostbite’ did it figuratively bigger and definitely better at just 327-pages.

I didn’t love ‘The Golden Lily’, and I am rapidly losing steam with the entire ‘Bloodlines’ spin-off series. I want more paranormal, vampires and fighting. I want to delve deeper into the slightly psychotic Alchemist organization. And I want to like the secondary characters, but that will only happen if Richelle Mead gives them meatier secondary roles and more page-time. I guess I’m stuck with sugar-free Sydney Sage as protagonist, and sunny human-centric Palm Springs instead of vamp-focused St. Vladimir’s. But above all else I want the snarky, witty, damaged but beautiful Adrian Ivashkov of yesterseries. Basically I just want ‘Bloodlines’ to be *better*!

2.5/5



Wednesday, June 27, 2012

'Thief of Shadows' Maiden Lane #4 by Elizabeth Hoyt

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

A MASKED MAN . . .
Winter Makepeace lives a double life. By day he's the stoic headmaster of a home for foundling children. But the night brings out a darker side of Winter. As the moon rises, so does the Ghost of St. Giles-protector, judge, fugitive. When the Ghost, beaten and wounded, is rescued by a beautiful aristocrat, Winter has no idea that his two worlds are about to collide.

A DANGEROUS WOMAN . . .
Lady Isabel Beckinhall enjoys nothing more than a challenge. Yet when she's asked to tutor the Home's dour manager in the ways of society-flirtation, double-entendres, and scandalous liaisons-Isabel can't help wondering why his eyes seem so familiar-and his lips so tempting.

A PASSION NEITHER COULD DENY
During the day Isabel and Winter engage in a battle of wills. At night their passions are revealed . . . But when little girls start disappearing from St. Giles, Winter must avenge them. For that he might have to sacrifice everything-the Home, Isabel . . . and his life.

Winter Makepeace has taken it upon himself to be the saviour of St. Giles, by donning a mask and becoming its Ghost.

By day Winter Makepeace is the humble austere manager of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children, situated in the squalid section of London; St. Giles. But at night Winter dons a Harlequin mask, arms himself with swords and sweeps the streets for criminals and crooks, thieves and murderers.


St. Giles was a weeping wound of humanity. Those too poor to live elsewhere came here. the prostitutes, the thieves, the ones enslaved to gin. All the dregs of London. And with them came their problems: rape and thievery, starvation and want, abandonment and despair. He’d long ago learned that there weren’t enough hours in the daytime to help the destitute of St. Giles, so he’d taken to the night. Some wrongs needed more than good intentions and prayed to correct.
Some could only be helped with the point of a sword.


He was taught to be the Ghost from a young age, by a family friend who saw how difficult it was to protect orphaned St. Giles children from predatory whoremongers and the like. Winter has done a fine job of keeping his ghostly identity a secret, but after rescuing the infamous Mickey O’Connor from the hang man’s noose; the occupants of St. Giles are out for the Ghost’s blood, or if the law can get to him first, they’ll take him to the hangman directly. On one such night when the Ghost is set upon by angry St. Giles residents, he narrowly escapes the mob with his life when Lady Isabel Beckinhall whisks him into her carriage and takes him to her townhouse – to mend his wounds. She never sees his face, but Lady Beckinhall becomes fascinated and somewhat enamoured of the mysterious, steely Ghost, and vows to find out more about him.

Widowed Lady Isabel Beckinhall is a member of the The Ladies’ Syndicate for the Benefit of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children. Isabel believes the home to be a good cause, even if its manager is a cold-shouldering stick-in-the-mud. No matter how much she dislikes Winter Makepeace, Isabel can admit that he does an honourable job as the home’s manager. That’s why she’s somewhat dismayed to learn that the Ladies’ Syndicate is considering deposing Mr. Makepeace as the home’s manager, and inducting one Lord d’Arque to make the orphanage his pet charity project. Even more dismaying than this news though, is the suggestions that Isabel be in charge of bringing Winter Makepeace up to scratch – to turn him into a refined gentleman whom the Ladies’ Syndicate can be proud to trot around ballrooms and associate with their pet cause.

Winter Makepeace and Lady Beckinhall have a rocky start. He thinks her frivolous and loose, while she finds him to be barely hospitable and cantankerous for one so young. But when orphaned children start disappearing off the streets, suspected kidnapped, both Isabel and Winter are united in their attempts to save the stolen orphans. And when Isabel continues to cross paths with the infamous Ghost of St. Giles, she creeps ever closer to the truth behind the mask. . .

‘Thief of Shadows’ is the fourth book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s deliciously decadent historical romance series, ‘Maiden Lane.’

Confession: I had written Winter Makepeace off as a bit of a wet rag. From reading him in previous books – the older brother to Silence Hollingbrook and Temperance Dews – I really didn’t think much of him beyond his standing as orphanage manager. By contrast, I had been utterly riveted by the consistent side-story of the Ghost of St. Giles which appeared in all other ‘Maiden Lane’ books. So I was, to be perfectly honest, quite shocked to learn that Winter Makepeace was our dastardly Ghost – shocked, but also delighted. And after reading ‘Thief of Shadows’, my ideas of Winter Makepeace are forever, wonderfully, altered – he is a man to be reckoned with, and a romance hero to remember.

Elizabeth Hoyt does a wonderful job of writing Winter’s duel-personalities. As the rather dour orphanage manager (often described through Isabel’s eyes), Winter is given to Bible lessons and chastising Lady Beckinhall’s frivolities – versus his rather primal alter-ego when he dons a Harlequin mask and leaps between St. Giles buildings. I loved the fact that Hoyt toyed with reader’s (and Isabel’s) past assumptions of Winter as the most boring of the Makepeace siblings – because when his masked Ghost is revealed; it’s an incredible transformation.

Winter is, in fact, a rather dashing hero. He’s lethal and calculated, a veritable 17th century Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark – when he straps his swords on and wears the Harlequin mask, he becomes someone deadly and barely restrained. And he had my heart racing.

And as thrilling as it was for Winter to pique my interest, it was even better to read Isabel’s turn-around from loathing the man to lusting after him. I didn’t think that Elizabeth Hoyt could write a hotter coupling than the mourning widower Silence Hollingbrook and her river pirate ‘Charming’ Mickey O’Connor. . .  but she has done it with Winter and Isabel.

Winter and Isabel are, without a doubt, one of the best romantic pairings I have ever read. What I really loved was that Hoyt changed up a lot of historical romance clichés in pairing these two. Isabel is slightly older than Winter (early thirties, compared to his mid-twenties?). Isabel is a widower, who has had three lovers since her husband’s death and is not ashamed to admit she likes sex. Winter, on the other hand, has sworn to abstain from pleasure and is a virgin. I loved the change-up with these two; it was so refreshing to read a historical romance in which the man is inexperienced and the lady his tutor. It made for some incredibly lush scenes, with much blushing while reading.


“I think you sometimes like to hide behind a facade of gaiety, my lady.” He cleared his throat. “I also think that when you enter a room, all eyes turn to you. You blaze like a torch, lighting the darkest corners, brightening even those who thought they were already well lit. You bring joy and mirth and leave behind a glow that gives hope to those you’ve left.”
“And you, Mr. Makepeace? Are you one of those who thought themselves well lit?”
“I am as dark as a pit.” Now he was glad her back was turned. “Even your torch will have difficulty lighting my depths.”


As with all ‘Maiden Lane’ books, there is a short sneak-peek at the next instalment. I won’t say anything about who the next hero and heroine will be, but I will say I have my reservations (although they are probably entirely unfounded; I don’t think Elizabeth Hoyt is physically capable of writing a bad romance). But I will say that I still have my fingers-crossed for a book about Asa Makepeace, the black-sheep brother we met in ‘Scandalous Desires’. I was also intrigued by a comment Winter made in ‘Thief’, that oldest orphan, Mary Whitsun, is turning into a beautiful young woman – I would really love a story about her too!

Elizabeth Hoyt’s ‘Maiden Lane’ series is one of the best in the historical romance genre. It is utterly, deliciously splendid – with intriguing heroes and heroines, blazing romances and an ever-intriguing setting of the infamous St. Giles. Winter Makepeace delightfully surprised me with his turn as masked hero in ‘Thief of Shadows’, and his romance with Isabel Beckinhall is one to rival even my previous favourite pairing of Silence and ‘Charming’ Mickey. I loved it, and I can’t wait for book five, ‘Lord of Darkness’, coming February 2013.

5/5


Sunday, June 24, 2012

'The Age of Miracles' by Karen Thompson Walker

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:
'It is never what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different - unimagined, unprepared for, unknown…'

What if our 24-hour day grew longer, first in minutes, then in hours, until day becomes night and night becomes day? What effect would this slowing have on the world? On the birds in the sky, the whales in the sea, the astronauts in space, and on an eleven-year-old girl, grappling with emotional changes in her own life..?

One morning, Julia and her parents wake up in their suburban home in California to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth is noticeably slowing. The enormity of this is almost beyond comprehension. And yet, even if the world is, in fact, coming to an end, as some assert, day-to-day life must go on. Julia, facing the loneliness and despair of an awkward adolescence, witnesses the impact of this phenomenon on the world, on the community, on her family and on herself.



It starts with an hour. One simple hour gained, and the world irrevocably altered.


In her sleepy California cul-de-sac, Julia and her family tune in with the rest of the world as a scientist explains that the earth’s rotation has slowed, and we have gained an hour.


The change is really, barely perceptible. There are several more minutes of sunlight and darkness each day. Maybe balls fall a little harder when dropped? But otherwise, there are more catastrophes in people’s reactions than the change itself.


And then our 25-hour day increases to a 26-hour day. We have gained more time, and they call it ‘the slowing’.


Eleven-year-old Julia watches the changes around her. Her mother, a failed actress, takes the news with her marked outlandishness, immediately stock-piling for doomsday. Her father meanwhile, a doctor, is the calming force in their family and he continues with his routine. But Julia’s Mormon best friend, Hanna, escapes to Utah with the rest of her family and congregation, to wait out what’s to come. Many other students stop attending school – families scatter, preparing for the worst. And, ever so rapidly, the worst comes.


First, the birds die. They fall from the sky and no one knows why. Insects thrive without their natural predators. The world steadily slows and gains more hours. Crops start dying. There are 50-hours of sunlight. Magnetic fields are off-kilter, changing tides and beaching whales en masse. Sunlight radiation becomes a very real threat.


Government’s around the world implement the 24-hour day, in a bid to stabilize the economy. Those, like Julia’s family, who wish to follow the old, antiquated clock are called ‘clock-timers’ and find themselves waking in the night and sleeping during the day.  The rare ‘real-timers’ try to adapt their human circadian rhythms; sleeping for twenty-four hours in the night and barrelling through the day – they are shunned by society for not following governmental norms.


All the while Julia watches the town and people around her as they change. The boy she has liked for so long, Seth Moreno, already touched by tragedy since losing his mother to cancer, becomes a mysterious obsession for Julia. She observes the ‘real-timer’ across the street from her, Sylvia who used to teach her piano. And Julia observes her parents – her mother’s increased paranoia, her father’s stoic acceptance . . .  and she watches how they grow further and further apart. Meanwhile, Julia too separates herself from everyone around her – finding herself a social loner cast adrift in these times of change, this age of miracles.


‘The Age of Miracles’ is the much-anticipated debut novel from Karen Thompson Walker.


I have had my eye on this book since reading the rumblings of a huge bidding-war for the manuscript. It seems that Thompson Walker is a bit of a literary Nostradamus, her book predicting (in a very small way) the shortening of our day by the fraction of a second after the Japanese earthquake and consequent tsunami. The earthquake knocked the world off its axis, but this was a very small, true happening compared to the disastrous going’s on in ‘The Age of Miracles’. Regardless, in a time when earthquakes, tsunamis, bushfires and general climate change fears are running rampant – Karen Thompson Walker wondrously taps into our deep fears and expounds on the possibility of “what if?”


The book is narrated by eleven-year-old Julia, looking back on the events that defined her childhood, and changed the world.

There was no footage to show on television, no burning buildings or broken bridges, no twisted metal or scorched earth, no houses sliding off slabs. No one was wounded. No one was dead. It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe.


We follow Julia’s recollections from the moment of announcement, to the birds dying and whales beaching, all the while she remembers the reactions and fall-outs from those around her with the meticulous detail of someone who cannot forget the events that defined her, and continue to impact on the world.

We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway. In the weeks that followed, as the days continued to expand, I would find it harder and harder to kick a soccer ball across a field. Quarterbacks found that footballs didn’t fly as far as they used to. Home-run hitters slipped into slumps. Pilots would have to retrain themselves to fly. Every falling thing fell faster to the ground.


Suddenly Julia’s childhood becomes history sooner than she ever thought it would. L. P. Hartley wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"– for Julia and her generation, this rings alarmingly, brutally true. Birdsong becomes a distant memory. Julia presses flowers in dictionaries with the thought to preserve a little something of now. What once was commonplace becomes archaic and irrelevant, and we read as Julia and those around her struggle to follow this new world order;

How quaint the old twenty-four-hour clock began to look to our eyes, how impossibly clean-cut, with its twin sets of twelve, as neat as walnut shells. How had we believed, we wondered, in such simplistic things?


Karen Thompson Walker has most certainly written a horrifying disaster novel, made all the more frightening for the way that she makes it so very, very plausible. Her succession of events following the fall-out of gained hours has clearly been well-researched, and throughout my reading I was amazed at the little changes that I'd never even considered when first presented with the idea of more hours in the day. A little thing like birds dying (nobody knows why, but theories abound from altered eating habits causing starvation, to warped migrations) creates a domino-effect in the world. No birds means more insects. More insects affect already-failing crops. Crops failing mean greenhouses being built and growing by artificial light. More greenhouses and artificial light sources put a strain on electrical grids. And so on and so forth; a tumbling effect of one minor disaster after another. All caused by a slowing earth, gaining hours. Incredible.


The triggering disaster in ‘The Age of Miracles’ is, to be sure, a terrifying one when written with  Thompson Walker’s entirely convincing pen. But what’s equally fascinating about this book is the observations of human interaction in the wake of the disaster. Julia has a keen eye that she trains on those around her, and she notes their habits and foibles, especially her parents and her own. A grown Julia, recollecting these events from some distant future, wonders about cause and effect – would her parents have drifted apart, even without the slowing and what followed in the grown days? They are maddening but fascinating questions that  Thompson Walker nuts out – and in a book that so beautifully focuses on an earthly disaster, it’s incredible that the ripples of Julia’s daily life are just as intriguing as the large-scale catastrophes going on in the world around her.


This novel is, simply, stunning. Karen Thompson Walker writes this disaster with a menacing lyricism – deconstructing the domino-effect of the world’s slowed turning through the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl, whose world is thrown off-kilter in more ways than one. No wonder ‘The Age of Miracles’ triggered a bidding war – this is one of the must-read books of 2012, equal parts exquisite and terrifying.


5/5

Friday, June 22, 2012

'The Hard Pan Trilogy' by Susan Patron


From the BLURB: 

Lucky, age ten, can't wait another day. The meanness gland in her heart and the crevices full of questions in her brain make running away from Hard Pan, California (population 43), the rock-bottom only choice she has.  

It's all Brigitte's fault -- for wanting to go back to France. Guardians are supposed to stay put and look after girls in their care! Instead Lucky is sure that she'll be abandoned to some orphanage in Los Angeles where her beloved dog, HMS Beagle, won't be allowed. She'll have to lose her friends Miles, who lives on cookies, and Lincoln, future U.S. president (maybe) and member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. Just as bad, she'll have to give up eavesdropping on twelve-step anonymous programs where the interesting talk is all about Higher Powers. Lucky needs her own -- and quick. 
  
But she hadn't planned on a dust storm.  

Or needing to lug the world's heaviest survival-kit backpack into the desert. 

Lucky Trimble lives in Hard Pan, California, in a canned-ham bedroom attached to a trailer. She lives with Brigitte, who is not her mother but her biological father's French ex-wife. Brigitte came to Hard Pan all the way from France because Lucky's father asked her to, after Lucky's mother went out into the desert after a storm and was struck dead by lightening.  

So for now Lucky lives with Brigitte, who calls her 'petite puce' which sounds lovely in French, but really means 'little flea' in English. Lucky loves Brigitte, but does not dare hope that she will want to be Lucky's mother for good.  

So in between trying not to hope that Brigitte will become Lucky's mother, and avoiding looking at her real dead mother's ashes in an urn, Lucky decides to find her higher power to get her through. It's what everyone talks about at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting held at Hard Pan's Found Object Wind Chime Museum. Higher power. Short Sammy talks about it a lot, when he recounts the story of the day his beloved dog got bit by a snake and his wife left him, and how he ended up finding his higher power that got him through the worst time in his life. 

'The Higher Power of Lucky' was Susan Patron's 2007 Newberry award-winning middle-grade book. In 2010 Patron went on to continue Lucky's story with 'Lucky Breaks', and ending with 'Lucky For Good' in 2011, when Lucky is twelve-years-old, rounding the books out to the 'Hard Pan Trilogy'.

Susan Patron's series is a complete delight; for both its charismatically flawed heroine and her delightfully quirky hometown of Hard Pan. The first book, 'Higher Power of Lucky' begins when Lucky is ten-years-old, and her mother has just recently passed away, 'replacing' her with her father's ex-wife, the French Brigitte. We are introduced to this very unconventional family unit, which encompasses the wider town of Hard Pan, populated with quirky characters. There's Lucky's best friend, Lincoln, a knot-tying protégé with hopes of becoming the future President of the United States. Litle boy Miles who has a perfectly-timed cookie-retrieval system for visiting all the Hard Pan residents. There's also Short Sammy who lives in a water tank, and mourns the loss of his best dog friend not to mention an archeological team who breeze through Hard Pan to stop at Brigitte's renowned French-bistro café. 

The books are all about Lucky; a glorious ragamuffin of a girl who is navigating the changing landscape of her life after losing her mother. The books begin when she is ten and follow her to age twelve, but Patron's brilliance lies in not restricting Lucky to her young age - she has moments, particularly in 'Lucky Breaks' and especially 'Lucky For Good' when she's starting to notice the opposite sex, beginning to appreciate (and resent) the flaws in her character and truly come to realize the impacting world beyond Hard Pan. 'Lucky For Good' is a particularly interesting book for Lucky's evolution, because she starts to think on the feelings of resentment and anger she has towards her absent father - who abandoned Lucky and her mother shortly after she was conceived.  Patron doesn't inundate the books with all of these life-changing, big marker moments - and it's partly thanks to the third-person narration that as readers we can see Lucky's forming character, but don't get bogged down in the life-changing momentousness of it all.  Patron is such a masterful storyteller, particularly in her middle-grade revelations, that she gives the readers just enough incite to have that spark of recognition regarding big changes within Lucky. And some of Patron's emotive descriptions and similes are just so pitch-perfect and brilliant;  

Lucky had the same jolting feeling as when you're in a big hurry to pee and you pull down your pants fast and back up to the toilet without looking - but some man or boy before you has forgotten to put the seat down. So your bottom, which is expecting the usual nicely shaped plastic toilet seat, instead lands shocked on the thin rim of the toilet bowl, which is quite a lot colder and lower. Your bottom gets a panic of bad surprise. That was the same thump-on-the-heart shock Lucky got finding out that Miles's mother was in jail.  

—   'The Higher Power of Lucky'.  

These books are very much focused on family, but not the conventional, nuclear one of other middle-grade books. Patron, in her 'Lucky' series really embraces the notion that it takes a village to raise a child, and lacking blood-ties doesn't mean lacking in love. Lucky's interactions with her stepmother, Brigitte, are heartfelt and lovely;  

Brigitte laughed. "I tell you a little story about why I love to live here. When I first arrive in California, I see the sign on the highway; 'Soft Shoulder.' I think this is a very beautiful thing for a road sign to say: 'soft shoulder.'" 
Mrs. Wellborne laughed and nodded. 
"We do not have any like it in France, and I am curious. Later I learn it means the side of the road is too sandy and your car can get stuck. So 'soft shoulder' is a practical warning, but sweet. Like a small poem. It is a romantic way to see the world, just like to believe anything is possible." She shrugged. "Before, when I live in France, I believe not everything is possible. Never do I imagine that one day I will go to a little town in the middle of this big California desert or that, even working very hard, I can start my own business." 
Lucky listened with some amazement. Usually Brigitte didn't share those kinds of private thoughts with someone she'd just met. The two moms must have really bonded because of those phone calls. 
"And," Brigitte continued, "certainly never do I dream that the girl waiting inside a water tank house will later be my daughter. So now that I am almost American, I see out of my almost-American eyes that it is true: Anything can be possible. And if Lincoln does become president, he will be a very great one."  

—  'Lucky Breaks'  

I really enjoyed reading Susan Patron's Newberry-winning series, focused on Hard Pan native, little girl Lucky and the cast of quirky characters in her desert hometown.
  
5/5  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

'Eleanor and Park' by Rainbow Rowell

 From the BLURB:

“Bono met his wife in high school,” Park says.
“So did Jerry Lee Lewis,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be,” she says, “we’re 16.”
“What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Shallow, confused, then dead.”
“I love you,” Park says.
“Wherefore art thou,” Eleanor answers.
“I’m not kidding,” he says.
“You should be.”

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

Eleanor is returning to her family; her mum, three younger brothers and little sister. She has been away for a year, after her step-dad, Richie, kicked her out and her mum dumped her off with well-meaning friends who didn’t know “a little while” would turn into a whole year. Now she’s home, because Richie wants to ‘make peace’ and be a ‘real family’. But that will never happen. Not when Richie drinks and shouts, leaves bruises on her beautiful mother and has Eleanor’s siblings waking up scared in the middle of the night. But at least she’s home . . .  sort of. She’s in Omaha, about to start a new school year that goes disastrously wrong the moment she steps on the bus.

Park can’t believe his eyes when she gets on his bus. A big girl, all stout curves, and giant red hair made worse by her army-surplus clothes, random ribbons on her wrists and in her hair and the giant men’s shirts she sports. The insults start almost instantaneously; Big Red being the most popular. Park keeps his head down – he’s lucky that the school bully and his girlfriend, Steve and Tina, are Park’s next-door-neighbour and sixth-grade girlfriend, respectively – being the only half-Korean kid in his school sticks him out enough, the last thing he needs is this ‘Big Red’ attracting attention to him. Except she does. She sits next to him on the bus and now they’re stuck together. . .

At first they enjoy a mutually-agreed-upon truce of cold-shouldering. Then Park notices that Big Red (actually called Eleanor) is reading his comic books over his shoulder. When he starts slowing down his reading of ‘Watchmen’ and ‘X-men’, he gains a friend. So Park starts bringing his old comics for Eleanor to take home and read. Then he makes a point of asking her about ‘The Smiths’ lyrics on her binder – then decides to make her mix-tapes of the bands and artists she has never heard before.

What starts as begrudging seat-acceptance turns into a mutual love of comics, blossoms into friendship and then turns into the most important thing in both their lives.

‘Eleanor and Park’ is the young adult novel from Rainbow Rowell.

I have been desperate to read this book ever since I discovered Rainbow Rowell’s debut novel, ‘Attachments’ and gained a favourite. I was over-the-moon thrilled to learn that Rowell’s second literary outing would be a YA romance. And then I tried to buy the book, and I hit the first of many hurdles with ‘Eleanor and Park’. . .

Rowell sold the rights to ‘Eleanor and Park’ to her UK publishers – so the book would be released there before America. Okay, fine. No worries. I went onto the UK Amazon site and purchased a copy of the book (would have bought an ebook copy for my Kindle, but Amazon UK doesn’t sell ebooks to my territory?!). I patiently waited for my ‘Eleanor and Park’ book to be shipped off and land in my hot little hands. Except it didn’t. The ‘shipping estimate’ kept being pushed back because, according to Amazon UK, they didn’t technically have any copies to send (even though they were listed as having book available?!). I tried buying through an Amazon private seller, which was also fine . . . until a week went by and they contacted me to cancel my purchase because they didn’t, technically, have a book to send me. Grr. I went onto the Amazon US site, and even though the book was listed and being sold through private sellers, there was no technical release date for the book to be released in the US. Again, I tried purchasing through a private seller who, again, contacted me and said although they were listing the book for sale, they didn’t ‘technically’ have any copies to send me. My Amazon UK purchase, by this time, had its shipping estimate pushed back to two months. So I bit the bullet and bought the Kindle from the Amazon US site . . .  for $17.36. I know! Crazy! Insane! But a testament to how much I loved ‘Attachments’ and how eager I was to read Rowell’s second literary foray.

Sadly, ‘Eleanor and Park’ did not meet my expectations . . . after all that hubbub to actually read the darn thing!

The story is told through third-person omniscient narration, from the alternating viewpoints of Eleanor and Park. Set in Omaha in 1986, Eleanor is returning to a horrible family life after being kicked out for a year by her drunken stepfather. Her welcome home is dampened when she sees how her little brothers and sister, once allied against Richie, have started calling him ‘dad’ in Eleanor’s absence and have begrudgingly accepted his late-night fights with their mother and her bruises the next morning. To make matters worse, Eleanor faces a firing squad of school bullies when she starts the new semester. Her looks don’t exactly help, she knows; a big girl with flaming red hair and freckles, she dresses to hide the many rips and holes in her second-hand clothing, and needing to shut herself in her room to avoid her stepfather limits her social schedule a tad.

Park is the first person to offer Eleanor a small kindness, albeit begrudgingly, when he offers her a seat next to him on the bus. Park is half-Korean; his dad was a veteran who met his mum during the war; they married in Seoul and are still madly in love to this day. Park has a younger brother called Josh who takes after their father in all-American looks and just about everything else – from being able to drive stick to picking up their taekwondo lessons more easily. For this reason, but especially because of his obvious Asian exoticness, Park feels that his father favours Josh over him, and always will.

When Park starts sharing his comic book readings with Eleanor, the two strike up an unusual bond – they start discussing and debating everything from bland Batman to the perfection of Joy Division. And pretty soon, increment by small increment, Eleanor and Park start crossing boundaries with one another . . . holding hands, sneaking kisses . . .  nobody understands what Park sees in his awkward big girl (least of all Eleanor). But what they have is special and verging on forever. Until Eleanor’s home-life gets so bad that Park has to step in.

Credit where credit’s due; some things in ‘Eleanor and Park’ worked really well. Like Rowell showing the evolution of young romance – from first encounter to heart-thumping end. What’s especially brilliant in reading the building of Eleanor and Park’s love is their duel-perspectives. It’s great fun to read how every brush of legs and sideways glance is taken and differently deconstructed by the two of them. The simple act of holding hands for the first time turns into an explosively epic encounter for them both. Reading Eleanor and Park’s individual freak-outs and inner-earthquakes was brilliant, and will no doubt take you back to your own first romance and the little moments that meant so much;

Eleanor
All through first and second and third hour, Eleanor rubbed her palm.
Nothing happened.
How could it be possible that there were that many nerve endings all in one place?
And were they always there, or did they just flip on whenever they felt like it? Because, if they were always there, how did she manage to turn doorknobs without fainting?
Maybe this was why so many people said it felt better to drive a stick shift.
Park
Jesus. Was it possible to rape somebody’s hand?
Eleanor wouldn’t look at Park during English and history. He went to her locker after school, but she wasn’t there.
When he got on the bus, she was already sitting in their seat – but sitting in his spot, against the wall. He was too embarrassed to say anything. He sat down next to her and let his hands hang between his knees. . .
Which meant she really had to reach for his wrist, to pull his hand into hers. She wrapped her fingers around his and touched his palm with her thumb.
Her fingers were trembling.
Park shifted in his seat and turned his back to the aisle.
‘Okay?’ she whispered.
He nodded, taking a deep breath. They both stared down at their hands.
Jesus.

I feel like I should warn readers who are coming to ‘Eleanor and Park’ fresh from ‘Attachments’ – don’t expect the chuckle-fest of that first book. ‘Eleanor and Park’ may squeeze a smile and smirk out of you in the reading, but there’s too much heavy subject matter in here to allow much room for laughing-out-loud. Overall, I have to say that I didn’t love that this was a young adult book, for a few reasons.

First, throughout the book there was this constant feeling that all of the young characters were plagued by powerlessness. Eleanor is stuck in her terrible home life because her mother thinks to make the best of a bad situation – even when that bad situation is drunk, scares her kids half to death and beats her regularly. But Eleanor doesn’t want to leave her family again; she can’t imagine what will happen to the little kids and her mother if she isn’t there to keep an eye on Richie. Park feels powerless in his relationship with his father – knowing that he’ll never act or look the way he wants, to truly accept Park for who he is. Now, this feeling of powerlessness is fine – it’s part of Eleanor and Park’s story. And Eleanor’s story, for all that it’s frustratingly heart-in-your-throat to read the abuse her and her family suffers, it is powerful and realistic. But I never felt like either Eleanor or Park rose above their power-struggles. I feel like in a certain kind of YA novel, the protagonist’s should be empowered – they should become their own hero’s and have the opportunity to save themselves, or each other. I don’t feel like that happened in ‘Eleanor and Park’.

I was waiting for that moment – for a dénouement in which Eleanor confronted her mother and Park his father – even if their talks with those parents were fruitless and came to nothing, I feel like there would have been power in at least speaking the words. I don’t know, it was just very hard to read a book, lovely romance aside, in which these downtrodden teen characters never really get the opportunity to level the playing field a little bit. I especially felt this with Eleanor and her mum. I’m not saying I wanted a scene in which Eleanor whacked Richie out cold with a saucepan (delicious as that would have been) – I just wanted her to sit her mum down and tell it like it is, lay the truth on the line and make her wake up to herself – to even try.

I think it was partly this foreboding feeling of powerlessness in the characters that had me hoping that the book would skip ahead to an adult Eleanor and Park. Now, I don’t normally love the ‘fast forward’ technique – but I thought that what Rowell lacked in her teen characters could be made up if she fast-forwarded them to adulthood. I know Rowell writes brilliant and complex adult romances (have I mentioned that ‘Attachments’ is superb?) and I felt it would be nice to read a grown Eleanor and Park, when they’d be old enough to leave home and save themselves. Not to mention it would have been great to see if Park’s prediction of young romance held true (or if Eleanor’s more cynical, “Romeo and Juliet were idiots” approach won out). Sadly, this did not happen. We remain in 1986, with sixteen-year-old Eleanor and Park; more the pity.

I also had an issue with a few of the secondary characters in the book. A girl called Tina takes it upon herself to be Eleanor’s worst nightmare – an awful bullying girl who kicks Eleanor when she’s down. I think Rowell did a good job at touching on the awfulness of bullying – but the Tina character got away from her towards the end, when she decided to write a last minute ‘sorta’ explanation for Tina’s awfulness. It didn’t work. It was rushed and random, and would have done better to be teased and touched on throughout the book rather than tacked on at the end. Then there was Park’s best friend, Cal. We get very few scenes between Cal and Park, but they were some of the funniest as Park tries to convince him not to ask out the most beautiful girl in school. These scenes were so sporadic and scarce that they did more to highlight how strange it was that Cal wasn’t a bigger part of Park’s life. In general, secondary characters were, sadly, few and far between in the book.

Finally, my last problem with this novel was the ending. Now, I love me an open-ended finale. Unlike some people I don’t read them as being a cop-out or indecisive. I read open-endings as the characters leaving us with infinite possibility for their futures. However, the open-ended ending of ‘Eleanor and Park’ is just downright frustrating and unfulfilling . . .  and seemed to shift the powerlessness of the characters onto the reader. For one thing, the last few chapters had a lot of harsh blows coming in quick succession – and when there was that much misery jam-packed, I would have liked a slightly tidier end to make up for it.

All in all, ‘Eleanor and Park’ was a bit of a letdown – and trust me when I say that no one is more surprised at my disappointment than me. I had high hopes since reading (and loving!) Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Attachments’ – I thought she would be perfectly suited to a teen romance. And while the book had some lovely quirky, heartfelt romantic moments, sadly overall I felt that the YA genre is not for Rowell. Her teen protagonists were frustratingly powerless; Eleanor in her rotten home life, Park in his relationship with his father. Too many secondary characters were left to fall by the wayside and revert to one-dimensional caricatures, and the ending was exasperatingly vague and unfulfilling after reading so much bleakness. I also feel like the book’s tagline of ‘You never forget your first love. . . ’ hints that it will look at whether or not young romance stands the test of time – and for that reason I would have liked a skip-ahead in the timeline, to see if finding ‘the one’ at sixteen is possible?

3/5

Sunday, June 17, 2012

'The Shadow Reader' McKenzie Lewis #1 by Sandy Williams

 From the BLURB:

There can only be one allegiance.
It’s her time to choose.

Some humans can see the fae. McKenzie Lewis can track them, reading the shadows they leave behind. But some shadows lead to danger. Others lead to lies.

A Houston college student trying to finish her degree, McKenzie has been working for the fae king for years, tracking vicious rebels who would claim the Realm. Her job isn’t her only secret. For just as long, she’s been in love with Kyol, the king’s sword-master—and relationships between humans and fae are forbidden.

But any hope for a normal life is shattered when she’s captured by Aren, the fierce and uncompromising rebel leader. He teaches her the forbidden fae language and tells her dark truths about the Court, all to persuade her to turn against the king. Time is running out, and as the fight starts to claim human lives, McKenzie has no choice but to decide once and for all whom to trust and where she ultimately stands in the face of a cataclysmic civil war.


The shadows changed McKenzie Lewis’s life forever when she was just sixteen-years-old. She started seeing people that nobody else seemed to notice. Beautiful people with lightning under their skin, walking around attracting no attention whatsoever, except from McKenzie. Those people were fae, and in seeing them she discovered something about herself – that she can read their shadows.

The shadows are like road maps that the fae leave behind when they travel between worlds – and McKenzie is one of the few people who can ‘read’ those shadows to track them down. When McKenzie’s talent was discovered, the fae King thought to use her in a civil war that has been raging between the fae – a war against the Kingdom, instigated by a false-blood pretender to the throne.

The fae have been good to McKenzie. They made sense of her ‘madness’, even after her family turned on her and broke off communications. And, best of all, her association with the fae introduced her to Kyol – the King’s sword-master, charged with ferrying McKenzie between worlds and keeping her safe from the rebellion, who would use her shadow-reading talents for their cause.

For ten years McKenzie has been helping the fae King in his war, and working closely with Kyol. She has loved him since she was sixteen and though secret and forbidden, their love means everything to McKenzie . . .  and then one day the rebellion break through. They discover McKenzie’s location and kidnap her, killing Kyol’s guards and possibly him in the process.

McKenzie’s kidnapper is none other than Aren, the Butcher of Brykeld; a renowned fae fighter, almost as good with a sword as Kyol. Aren is the half-blood rebel trying to claim the throne. Or is he?

McKenzie spends the first half of her imprisonment fighting to escape and bargaining for her life. But as the weeks go by, the rebellion start talking to her – asking questions. They ask why the King forbids humans to learn the fae language, and in the meantime they start teaching McKenzie. They ask her why the King has forbid fae/human relations – when so many humans, McKenzie included, work for him in fighting a war that is not theirs. Aren and the rebellion fae also ask McKenzie to question the brutality of this war, and if all the deaths thus far lay entirely at their feet.

But even while imprisoned, McKenzie pines for Kyol; his stoic bravery and the moments when he lets his guard down and reveals how very much he wants her. McKenzie misses him, even as she slowly falls for Aren’s impulsive, cocky charm.

But what happens when McKenzie is rescued and returns for the Kingdom with questions – about this civil war and her place in it, about Kyol’s true intentions and where humans stand in this fae war. And, the biggest question of all, which side is she on?

‘The Shadow Reader’ is the first book in urban fantasy series called ‘McKenzie Lewis’, which was released last year by Sandy Williams.

I am so torn about this book. I really liked it, and look forward to second book ‘The Shattered Dark’ coming October this year. But I must admit that I did struggle through quite a bit of the world-building, which is never a good sign in an urban fantasy book.

Williams jumps into the action from the get-go. Within the first chapter Kyol has come to whisk McKenzie away from her university exams (her fourth attempt to graduate) only to be ambushed by rebellion fae who kidnap her and jump between worlds to take her to their compound. There is a lot to absorb in a very small amount of introduction time – and normally I love that ‘sink or swim’ mentality in my urban fantasy books; it sort of defines the very genre that is often action-packed and full-throttle. But I don’t know that it is done so well in ‘Shadow Reader’, and because I was inundated with a lot of universe-related information early on (but didn’t really absorb or understand it) I found myself lagging behind later on in the book, when that universe was further explained.

So basically fae exist, but in a different universe to ours (let me quote the Doctor and put this ‘world leaping’ down to “a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff” because that’s the only way I could understand it). When fae travel between worlds, or destinations within a world, they leave behind some sort of residue that only shadow-readers like McKenzie can decipher to pinpoint their exact location. Naturally, this is a useful talent to have in a time of war, and when we meet her McKenzie has been working for the fae King for ten years. Now, this is all very interesting, but amidst the helter-skelter opening chapter I kind of lost all the information about the Kingdom, rebellion and exactly what it is that McKenzie does with the shadows. Obviously Williams revisits all these points later on, teasing them out to more thoroughness, but initially I was quite thrown because on top of all this information and McKenzie being abducted, I did lose my footing with the plot’s rather intricate back-story.

But it wasn’t just the universe-building that’s important history; Williams also drops plot points about McKenzie’s secret ten-year relationship with sword-master Kyol very early on. Though unconsummated, Kyol and McKenzie have been playing out a forbidden romance for a decade – secret because it is against the King’s law for fae and humans to have relations (heck, it’s even illegal for humans to learn the fae language). Very quickly it becomes apparent to readers that McKenzie’s kidnapping is tragic for more than just her safety – it has also torn her and Kyol apart.

I had a few small hiccups with the Kyol/McKenzie relationship, and I’m still not 100% sure where I stand with them. First off, I think Williams wrote a hard task for herself by letting readers know all about McKenzie’s ten-year relationship with Kyol only through her thinking about it internally. It’s a lot of telling not showing with regards to their feelings; with McKenzie musing on how they started with long looks and lingering touches, progressing to kisses and Kyol proclaiming that they can never officially be together because he won’t betray the kingdom (but McKenzie lives in hope). McKenzie and Kyol’s relationship is also partly explained when rebellion fighter and kidnapper, Aren, guesses at their romance and starts poking and prodding the point. Honestly, I don’t know that as readers we were meant to ever be invested in Kyol and the possibility of him and McKenzie – but I just wasn’t sure. I actually hope that they are teased out a lot more in the second book, because the triangle that’s established is a complicating one with lots of potential, if only we get to know Kyol (and his feelings for McKenzie) a little better with more *showing*.

Now, Aren is an entirely different story. I loved him and his instant sparking interactions with McKenzie. Obviously as kidnapped/kidnapper they have a very unusual dynamic, but McKenzie quickly comes to learn that the rebellion is not what she has been taught to be wary of, and Aren is not the same ‘Butcher of Brykeld’ whispered throughout the fae Kingdom. He’s roguish and charming, challenging McKenzie and her role in this civil war as innocent, human bystander. That was what worked for me most of all – that he challenges McKenzie, gets under her skin and makes her see beyond everything she has been told. These two were great together, but I really felt like the book’s crescendo came when McKenzie had choices to make and two men vying for her affections;

The hand on my shoulder sinks lower. It slides down my breast before resting on my hip. Only my thin, satin dress separates us, but if I close my eyes, if I let myself forget everything that matters in both our worlds, I can imagine it disappearing, imagine being skin to skin with him.
My eyes shoot open when Kyol grabs my arm. Aren holds on a moment more, his lips and hands lingering as if this is hit last breath. As if this is the only breath in his life that has ever mattered. Then he locks eyes with the sword-master.
“You have competition now.”

Just to highlight how very ‘on-the-fence’ I was about this book; I’m not even sure how I felt about McKenzie not being your typical urban fantasy kick-butt heroine. Contrary to the cover image, which shows a powerful McKenzie (with a super-model figure!?) sword in hand, the McKenzie of the book is far less fearsome. She’s actually decidedly, refreshingly human. She is no fighter, and knows her limitations against the far more powerful fae (their aversion to human ‘tech’ aside). She is definitely not the archetypal heroine of other urban fantasy books (a far cry from super-women like Kate Daniels and Mercedes Thompson, that’s for sure). She’s not a wimp, exactly, but she’s not above begging and bargaining for her life and she doesn’t mind relying on bigger, stronger fae men to do the protecting for her. On the one hand, it makes sense that a human in a fae world wouldn’t be cockily kick-butt; she’s far more relatable for flying under the radar. But on the other hand, I do like reading about strong heroines – and while McKenzie by the end of ‘Shadow Reader’ showed a lot of promise and steely determination, a lot of her decisions and actions throughout the book were frustrating to read.

I cannot deny that by the end of ‘The Shadow Reader’ I was eager for the second book. The world-building left me somewhat befuddled, Kyol’s romance left me cold and McKenzie’s decidedly human heroine is not what I have come to expect from the urban fantasy genre . . .  but by the end of the book I was invested in the tricky love triangle, and a little bit smitten with Aren. Not a perfect book, sure, but a pretty darn good one that had me racing to read the end and eager for the second.

3/5

Friday, June 15, 2012

'When You Were Mine' by Rebecca Serle

Received from the Publisher


From the BLURB:


Rosaline has been best friends with Rob since they were little kids. Recently, something deeper and more electric has entered their friendship, and when Rob returns after the summer break and asks Rosaline on a sort-of date, it seems they are destined to become a couple, just as Rosaline always knew they would be. The next day at school, a mysterious, beautiful girl arrives: Rosaline's long-lost cousin, Juliet. And suddenly it looks as if Rosaline might be about to lose her best friend AND her new boyfriend…


Rosaline ‘Rose’ Caplet is looking forward to the start of senior year, for more than just the obvious perks. Her best friend, next-door-neighbour and long-term crush, Rob Monteg, is returning home after being away all summer. He left Rose with memories of an ‘almost’ moment between the two of them, and a head filled with questions about where they stand and what happens next.


Rose’s best friends, Olivia and Charlie, are thrilled at the prospect of Rose and Rob dating – swearing that the two of them are meant to be together. And it looks as though they might be right . . .  Rob returns and things between him and Rose pick up where they left off. Knee-bumping, long looks and a confirmed date, and a kiss that confirms it all – that Rob feels the same way about Rose as she does him.


And then Rose’s cousin, Juliet, returns home.


Juliet and her family moved to LA when the girls were very young. Juliet’s father went on to become a powerful senator, but Rose and Juliet’s young friendship evaporated and they never spoke again. Until Juliet reappears in her life, and sweeps Rob off his feet right out from under Rosaline’s nose.


‘When You Were Mine’ is the debut young adult novel from Rebecca Serle.


Of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is among the most misunderstood and overrated. No beef with the Bard or anything, but it’s probably his most over-quoted and underwhelming play (I’m a ‘Macbeth’ girl myself - what can I say? I’m bloodthirsty!). Don’t get me wrong, ‘R&J’ has its good points – I personally love Mercutio and Tybalt (best put-down line ever? “What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee”). But people do tend to forget that it’s a tragedy, not a love story. Juliet was thirteen years old (creepy, huh?) and Romeo was as clingy as he was flighty, beginning the play with professions of his love for a girl called Rosaline. Never mind that Friar Laurence was a total cowardly villain who never gets his comeuppance. With all that in mind, I really liked the idea of a modern retelling of the story from the oft overlooked Rosaline, Romeo’s thrown-over ‘love’. Unfortunately, Serle’s attempt to give some page-time to poor Rosaline left me cold.


I do think that ‘When You Were Mine’ had a good idea behind it. Shakespeare provided a really interesting loose end with regards to Rosaline. Romeo starts the play by declaring:

One fairer than my love! the all-seeing sun
Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun.


Yet by scene five he proclaims of Juliet;
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night!


Ouch. Burn. But plenty of room for interesting ‘what if?’ that Serle runs with . . .  it’s just a shame she dropped the ball.


In this modern retelling, Rose and Rob are next-door-neighbours and best friends since childhood. When Juliet lived in town, all three were good friends until Juliet moved away when she was seven-years-old. When the book begins, Rob has returned home after a summer away and Rose is thrilled to learn that he has feelings for her. The two go on a tentative date, and share a heartfelt kiss, and Rose is certain all her crush dreams are coming true. And then Juliet returns home. Rose’s father and Juliet’s father stopped talking after he moved his family to LA – some mysterious family falling out that Rose is too young to remember, but which comes to the fore once again when Juliet returns. Rob and Rose’s parents, friends since the two were children, are having whispered conversations about the Senator and his family. Juliet is frosty towards her dear cousin . . . and she quickly sets her sights on Rob, who pretty quickly forgets all about Rose.


Now suffering the indignity of having to watch Juliet and Rob fall further and further in lust and obsession, Rose also gets paired with the class jerk in biology. Len Stephens is handsome, sure, but he’s also cocky and constantly smirking – and for some reason, always giving Rose a hard time, especially about Rob.


When rumours start circulating about Juliet’s self-destructive behaviour and Rob’s entanglement, Rose wants to step in but doesn’t know if she can overcome the hurt and pain that Rob and Juliet’s love inflicted on her. . .


I think the biggest problem with Serle’s ‘When You Were Mine’ is that it’s pitched too young. Narrated by Rosaline, the story feels like it’s more ‘tween’ than ‘teen’ because Rose’s voice is so young and naive. I can kind of see why Serle may have done this. Going off of the Bard’s framework, in the play a bit is made of Rosaline’s chaste sensibilities, as Romeo muses; “Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit with Cupid's arrow” (in other words; she’s saving herself). Serle plays with this for Rose, and her concerns with still being a virgin while one of her best friend’s already has experience, and the other is contemplating taking the next big step with her boyfriend. But what this translates to are a lot of over-blown scenes in which Rose muses on the message behind Rob’s knee touching hers in assembly. It’s not exactly earth-shattering, sparks-flying stuff.


I also think that by writing the novel for a younger audience, Serle missed out on writing meatier, more complex characters. I didn’t believe that Rob and Rose were ‘in love’ or even ‘in lust’ because all they came down to was a couple of kisses and hand-holding. I also wasn’t too convinced that Rob and Juliet had much in the way of chemistry – even though I think we’re meant to presume a lot when she rocks up to a party wearing his sweatshirt. Or we're meant to believe that the two are hot and heavy because Rose's friends, Charlie and Olivia, are constantly spouting 'slut shaming' vitriol about Juliet. I had a big problem with this too - bandying the word 'slut' around like it's okay to put girls down that way. It's not, and Serle having her characters constantly spit it out about a fellow student had me seeing red. But, ultimately, because I didn’t believe the relationships, the stakes were missing for me and I did belittle the romances in the book to ‘puppy love’ . . . more melodrama than actual drama. I think that would have been different if Serle had written this for a slightly older YA audience, including some PG13 scenes of connection and romantic interaction; really illustrating the love triangle. I also think Serle wrote a bit of a cop-out by alluding that Rob is blown away by Juliet’s looks, and that’s mostly why he chooses her over Rose. That may be inferred in the play, but it’s a hollow reason in this modern retelling (especially with the back-story of Rob and Rose’s long-standing friendship). It just adds to the idea of Rob’s childishness (and makes you wonder what Rose sees in him!) – not to mention it’s an insult to Juliet that the only reason the guy likes her is because she’s good looking enough to have appeared in a TV commercial or two.


Speaking of meatier, more complex characters . . .  they’re entirely missing from ‘When You Were Mine’. Juliet gets such little page-time considering her reappearance throws Rosaline’s entire life off-course. I know this is Rosaline’s book, and Serle wanted to write the antithesis to Juliet hogging the spotlight . . .  but Juliet had so few scenes and was such a one-dimensional, unfulfilled character that it just added to the feeling that Rose was making a mountain out of a molehill when, as readers, we couldn’t see how bad Juliet was. Because she was so one-dimensional, readers are never given the opportunity to decide for ourselves whether or not she’s manipulating Rob as a personal attack against Rose, or if it’s genuine affection.


This book also has one of my biggest YA pet-peeves. The adult characters are really just props, conveniently written in for grandiose pep-talks after spending the rest of the book in the shadows. The parents in ‘When You Were Mine’ are really just talking heads – there to (oh so conveniently!) provide words of wisdom when Rose needs them most.


Alas, most of the page-time that should have been devoted to Rob/Juliet/Rose was given to a character called Len Stephens – the school jerk and mysterious loner who Rose is paired with for a biology project. In him too, it felt as though Serle was writing a sickly-sweet and tidy romance for a much younger and more naive audience, when I think what would have been more interesting for Rosaline’s story is a build-up of her romance with Rob and the tragedy of losing it to Juliet.

Len sighs, like he’s already frustrated. “Look, I don’t really know how else to put this. You don’t need to worry about some dumb guy falling in love with you. You’re you.”
“Exactly,” I say. I’m me. Rose Caplet. Plain brown hair and brown eyes and the daughter of a history professor, not a senator. I’m not on magazine covers, and I don’t do allergy commercials. I don’t even drive.
Len turns to me, and he’s looking at me so intensely, I think he might have just sucked the air out of my lungs. All of a sudden I feel like I can’t breathe. “Sometimes,” he starts, “the hardest part about letting someone go is realizing you were never meant to have them.”


I also wasn’t a big fan of Serle’s writing style, in general. She has a propensity to write somewhat faltering sentences that read a bit clunky. Like this one, in which she needs to communicate how old Rose is in a flashback she’s remembering;

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m sitting in the backseat of our station wagon with my arms crossed, beads of sweat rolling down my seven-year-old forehead.


Seven-year-old forehead’ was a really bizarre not-so-subtle way for her to tell me Rose’s age, and it was just one of the many oddly-worded sentences that took me out of the story on occasion.


All in all, I think ‘When You Were Mine’ had good story bones. Rosaline is an interesting loose-end in the Bard’s most popular play. Unfortunately, I think Rebecca Serle’s debut would have worked better with a more mature romance explored between the triangle of Rose, Rob and Juliet. As it is, the characters in ‘When You Were Mine’ come across childish and naive for their age, and a tidily convenient and romantic side-story relationship for Rose had me rolling my eyes. Not for me, sorry.


I am really surprised to learn that the movie rights to Serle’s book have been sold and there is a film tentatively in-development called ‘Rosaline’. The film seems to be in the very early stages, with no release date mentioned but Deborah Ann Woll (‘True Blood’) and Lily Collins (‘Mirror, Mirror’) signed on for unspecified roles. Because there is so little known about the film, I clearly can’t comment on how closely it will stick to the book – but I was intrigued by the one-line synopsis available on IMDB; “A young girl is dumped by a guy who immediately falls for another girl with whom he forms a suicide pact.” Now, that really doesn’t sound like ‘When You Were Mine’, purely for the reference to a ‘suicide pact’. Nothing so dark is in this book, and that’s another of its failings – there are unfounded rumours about Juliet taking sleeping pills but they’re crassly dismissed as sensationalism by most of the student body. And, considering this is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with perhaps the most famous ending of any play, the way Juliet and Rob die (not a spoiler – it was written in the stars, after all) was really quite anticlimactic. Again, it was Serle shying away from darker, more adult themes to leave their death so up in the air. From its one-line synopsis, I actually think the film adaptation sounds better and darker than ‘When You Were Mine’.


2/5