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Thursday, April 17, 2014

'The King' Black Dagger Brotherhood #12 by J.R. Ward

From the BLURB

Long live the King . . .

After turning his back on the throne for centuries, Wrath, son of Wrath, finally assumed his father's mantle - with the help of his beloved mate. But the crown sets heavily on his head. As the war with the Lessening Society rages on, and the threat from the Band of Bastards truly hits home, he is forced to make choices that put everything - and everyone - at risk.

Beth Randall thought she knew what she was getting into when she mated the last pure blooded vampire on the planet: An easy ride was not it. But when she decides she wants a child, she's unprepared for Wrath's response - or the distance it creates between them. The question is, will true love win out . . . or tortured legacy take over?

 ‘The King’ is the 12th instalment J.R. Ward’s ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’ series.

This book goes back to Wrath and Beth, and is concentrated on them because Xcor and the Band of Bastards have got plans in motion to de-throne Wrath, while his hellren is pleading for a baby when that’s the last thing in the world he wants.

Trez and iAm are tangled up in their past, while the beautiful chosen Selena is making Trez wish for a different future.

Assail and Sola … I dunno who these two even are. I skipped over all their parts (all the parts … so many parts – why?)

Layla has a young on the way, but is continually pulled back to Xcor and their secret rendezvous, even while he’s working hard to pull her family apart.

Wh-what did I just read?

I swear – I spent about 89% of this book in a state of “WTF?” and the other 11% wondering “is this nearly over?” I think this book actually marks the end of my time with the ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’, and I honestly can’t tell if we’ve drifted apart or they changed.

First of all, the Warden’s writing felt so bloated with pop-culture references it reads dated (even though some of these references are only 8 months old … so imagine how they’ll read years from now?)

The growl that came out of that massive chest was a reminder that her man was not, in fact, a man. He was the last purebred vampire left on the planet – and when it came to her and sex, he was fully capable of going wrecking-ball to get at her. 
And not in that stupid-ass Miley Cyrus poser-sex way – and provided Beth was willing, of course.

This never used to bug me before, but I really seemed hyper-aware of it in this book and for some reason it sounded like someone imitating J.R. Ward and forcing that prose.
 Yet here she was, head over heels with a straight-up killer who had a trucker’s vocabulary, a royal bloodline as long as his arm, and enough attitude to make Kanye West look like a self-esteem reject.

Secondly, I also seemed hyper-aware of the misogyny in this book. Granted, the parts that bugged me were mentioned when Trez was confessing his sordid (trafficking) past to Selena and he was equally disturbed by his exploits … still, my discomfort also came from the female human-hating that the Warden has been writing for the last few books now. I’ve said in the past that I miss the time when humans could be hellrens – Mary is still my favourite heroine of the series – but lately the pool of female love interests have been taken exclusively from the Chosen (those hairless specimens of perfection. Urgh. Who can relate to that?) or vampire race – these are amongst my most hated heroines (Layla and Cormia verily get on my ever last loving nerve. Truly.) In this book it’s mentioned that Trez and iAm’s culture look down on humans, and the fact that Trez has slept with so many of them (we’re talking thousands here, people!) makes him unclean – makes his very soul unclean.

… hundreds of dirty human women who hadn’t brought up safe sex or STD tests or whether or not they’d already contracted AIDS from letting sluts like him into their panties. 
Well, gee. Thanks.

I admit to liking the Trez and Selena romance and the Xcor/Layla scenes. Those worked for me, and mostly because these are two couples that have a lot to overcome and the battle ahead is fraught with obstacles that should keep things interesting. I also liked mention of iAm’s romantic background. But so much of this book was fat that needed cutting – I haven’t actually read a review yet that admits to liking Assail/Sola (or even reading all of their chapters) – why are they even in this series? When fans are clamouring for a revisit to Mary and Rhage, or Zsadist and Bella (for what it’s worth, I’d also appreciate a Rehvenge/Ehlena scene) why is the Warden focusing so much on this new pairing that it seems nobody is rooting for?

Part of the appeal of the ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’ is in the feeling of family – something Beth mentions multiple times in this book – that we could revisit these characters and monitor the progression of their relationships. But we barely get a glimpse into even the more recent pairings; John Matthew and Xhex, Blay and Qhuinn or Tohr and Autumn. Why? It makes this series read disconnected from even its most recent past.

*Sigh*. I used to really enjoy these books, but now I’m feeling myself cringe while reading. This is not a good sign – I might try the 13th instalment, but it’s seeming more and more likely that I’ll just cash in my good reading memories now and leave while the going is still somewhat good.


Monday, April 14, 2014

'Daughter of the Blood' and 'Heir to the Shadows' by Anne Bishop

From the BLURB:

The Dark Kingdom is preparing itself for the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy--the arrival of a new Queen, a Witch who will wield more power than even the High Lord of Hell himself. But this new ruler is young, and very susceptible to influence and corruption; whoever controls her controls the Darkness. And now, three sworn enemies begin a ruthless game of politics and intrigue, magic and betrayal, and the destiny of an entire world is at stake.

Review of first two books ‘Daughter of the Blood’ and ‘Heir to the Shadows’ 

I don’t read much high-fantasy. About the highest I’ve ever got with my fantasy was Melina Marchetta’s masterful ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ series, which I probably owe a great deal of thanks to for broadening my reading habits enough to give Anne Bishop’s award-winning ‘Black Jewels’ trilogy a try. Of course the other reason I wanted to read Bishop’s much-raved about first series is the fact that I’m so in love with her latest serial, ‘The Others’. 

So, because I don’t read much high-fantasy (although the ‘Black Jewels’ is more dark fantasy) I want to say that I’m terrible at writing about the setting/universe in this series. I’ve tried, but I can’t quite find it in me to properly explain the mechanics, in’s and out’s – and that’s nothing against Anne Bishop as a writer – it’s just me as a reader not used to such intricate and complex world-building that’s so out of my comfort zone. So: allow me a terrible summation when I say the ‘Black Jewels’ trilogy is set in a land where Queens rule, according to the colour of their jewels (black being the most powerful). Warlord Princes freely serve these Queens, but there are some who are turned servant at the will of particularly nasty Queens – these Warlords are often given the ring of obedience, and made to submit to a Queen’s every sexual desire. 

Seven hundred years ago, a Black Widow witch called Tersa saw an ancient prophecy – a Queen and Witch who will wield more power than any who have come before her. 

When first book ‘Daughter of the Blood’ begins, Lucivar Yaslana (SaDiablo) is an enslaved male – a half-Eyrien being with bat-like wings, he serves at the court of evil Queen Dorothea. But one night he meets a small child – a girl – who speaks cryptically but who Lucivar is drawn to. He nicknames her Cat, and promises they will meet again, some day. 

The next to meet this mysterious young girl is the High Lord of Hell himself (and Lucivar’s estranged father) Saetan. When he meets the twelve-year-old girl, he feels the power within her that marks her already as Queen and Witch – as the prophecy stated. But he also feels a pull to her, a paternal instinct and he knows she is the daughter of his heart. Her name is Jaenelle – and she will change their world.

Jaenelle plopped on air, spraddle-legged. “I know it,” she muttered, crossing her arms. “I knew it was written in male.” 
Saetan vanished his glasses. “I beg your pardon?” 
“It’s gibberish. Geoffrey understands it but can’t explain it so that it makes sense, and you understand it. Therefore, it’s written in male – only comprehensible to a mind attached to a cock and balls.”  

—‘Heir to the Shadows’

The last to meet Jaenelle is Daemon Sadi (SaDiablo) – half brother to Lucivar, unknown son of Saetan and the Black Widow Tersa (who has since been lost to madness, ‘The Twisted Kingdom’, since speaking prophecy). Daemon meets Jaenelle at her country estate, where he has been banished after displeasing his Queen Dorothea with unspeakable violence. Daemon is another captive male who wears the Ring of Obedience; he is nicknamed ‘The Sadist’ for his cruel bedroom play, and because his hatred of Queens and his having to submit to them is well known. He dreams of one day finding a Queen whose bed he can share, who he truly loves and will follow anywhere. 

The first two books in the ‘Black Jewels’ trilogy introduce us to this world where Queens rule and Warlords scheme. Saetan rules Hell and finds it thrown into chaos and upheaval when the daughter of his heart enters his Kingdom. 

The central focus of the first book is on Jaenelle’s relationship with her adoptive father, Saetan and later her growing friendship with the much older Daemon, who has come to stay with her family and give Dorothea time to cool down. But while Saetan teaches his daughter how to harness her incredible power, Daemon starts to uncover the truth about Jaenelle’s blood family – and what they’ve done to her. Believing she has little to no power, and talks lies about meeting dragons and travelling to different realms, Jaenelle’s family have been sending her to a place called Briarwood since she was a little girl … 

A lot happens in the first two books: A. LOT. We first meet Jaenelle when she’s twelve-years old, and by the end of the second book she’s 19 (I think. There’s one paragraph that explains a time-leap of two years but if you blink and miss it, you’ll be wholly confused from there on in). One really curious thing about the ‘Black Jewels’ trilogy that took me a while to adjust to is that it’s told in third person, but following certain character’s journeys … except for Jaenelle’s. She is the protagonist and pivot-point of the whole series, but we never see things from her perspective – she’s always being observed by others, and that’s how readers get to know her – once removed. This is a bit disarming, and takes some time to get used to. It does work, Bishop keeps Jaenelle as a mysterious entity successfully because we are never in her head, never seeing things through her eyes. But because the books are focused on Jaenelle’s timeline, not seeing things from her worldview means I always took some time to catch-up when she did have a leap in age. 

Another reason the lack of protagonist perspective might be hard to swallow for some is in relation to the ‘romance’ – though I use this term very, very loosely when speaking of the first two books. Daemon feels he is destined to be the lover of the prophesised Queen and Witch – but he’s, understandably, shocked when he meets a twelve-year-old Jaenelle and feels she is the Queen of his destiny. Shocked, because she’s still prepubescent (around about here I had terrible flashback to Jacob and Renesmee in ‘Breaking Dawn’ – but it’s not that bad. I promise!) This is actually a real conflict for Daemon, who settles into the role as Jaenelle’s confidant and only friend while he’s staying at her estate – and I’ve got to hand it to Anne Bishop, what could have very easily become a creepy storyline (see: Stephenie Meyer) retains all its complexity, but she turns Daemon into a softer character when he decides to become young Jaenelle’s protector and companion. This is a character referred to as ‘The Sadist’ by other women in the series, so it was interesting to read how he changes for Jaenelle’s sake – part of being a Queen’s Warlord Prince is being what they need, and when he meets Jaenelle she desperately needs a friend and someone she cant trust, so that’s what Daemon becomes. 

Ladies like to seem mysterious. 
Not Lady Jaenelle Benedict. She didn’t try to be mysterious, she simply was. She walked in full sunlight shrouded in a midnight mist that swirled around her, hiding, revealing, tantalizing, frightening. Her honesty had been blunted by punishment. Perhaps that was for the best. She was good at dissembling, had some understanding about her family’s reaction if they learned some of the truths about her, and yet she couldn’t dissemble enough because she cared. 
How many people knew about her? Daemon wondered as he brushed his hair. How many people looked upon her as their secret?

— ‘Daughter of the Blood’

But I am also hesitant to attach the word ‘romance’ to the first two books because something so awful happens to Jaenelle in book one, and it’s explored at length in book two … Bishop never forgets that her protagonist is a young girl, who has been through something so horrendous. On the one hand; Bishop writes this part of the story with stark horror, but she also deals with the ramifications with the utmost tenderness for all involved, and that’s highly-commendable. 
I’m also quite surprised that while Bishop does explore this gory, awful storyline, the ‘Black Jewels’ trilogy also seems to be about gender-flipping. This is a world in which Queens rule and make erotic servants of men, and Warlord Princes want to kneel before worthy Queens.

Jaenelle opened her arms.He stepped into them and held tight. “I don’t think you’ve ever realized how strong, how necessary the bond is between Warlord Princes and Queens. We need you to stay whole. That’s why we serve. That’s why all Blood males serve.” 
“But it’s always seemed so unfair that a Queen can lay claim to a man and control every aspect of his life if she chooses to without him having any say in the matter.” 
Saetan laughed. “Who says a man has no choice? Haven’t you ever noticed how many men who are invited to serve in a court decline the privilege? No, perhaps you haven’t. You’ve had too many other things occupying your time, and that sort of thing is done very quietly.” He paused and shook his head, smiling. “Let me tell you an open secret, my darling little witch. You don’t choose us. We choose you.”  

—‘Heir to the Shadows’ 

I really enjoyed the first book, ‘Daughter of the Blood’. And a big part of that enjoyment came from the Daemo/Jaenelle partnership. Daemon was the character that most intrigued me, so when second book ‘Heir to the Shadows’ began with him wandering the Twisted Kingdom, I was seriously disappointed. Jaenelle (now aged 14, after another aforementioned confusing time-leap) spends most of ‘Heir to the Shadows’ with no memory of her friend Daemon, and he appears only sporadically and not in his right mind. The second book was a lot more boring to me, mostly because Bishop keeps this character and relationship that she dedicated a lot of the first book to, just out-of-reach and on the periphery.

I’m about to start the third and final book (side note: although ‘Black Jewels’ is a trilogy, there are six additional ‘Black Jewels’ novels, some of which can be read as stand-alones … Oh, the serial confusion of high-fantasy!) and where ‘Heir to the Shadows’ left off, I think I’ll be a lot happier going into ‘Queen of the Darkness’ – but I shall wait and see. 

I still don’t really know where I stand with high-fantasy. At times reading the first two books in the ‘Black Jewels’ trilogy was just exhausting – between the multiple character perspectives (but never the protagonists!), sudden age-leaps, the complicated jewel hierarchy system and different realms to keep track of … I think it’s a genre I need to read sparingly. But Anne Bishop made this high-fantasy very enjoyable. It’s certainly nothing like her ‘The Others’ series (stay away if you’re hoping for a same-same reading filler!) but I enjoyed her writing such a complex female protagonist who’s so strong but has been so terribly abused in her life, and how she copes with that. The beginnings of a romance are unlike anything I’ve ever read (I’m scrubbing my memory of Jacob/Renesmee, okay?) and it’s been particularly wonderful to read Daemon’s character transformation. 


Thursday, April 10, 2014

‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt

From the BLURB:

There's only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that's her uncle, the renowned painter, Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her once inseparable older sister, June can only be herself in Finn's company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies far too young of a mysterious illness that June's mother can barely bring herself to discuss, June's world is turned upside down.

At the funeral, she notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd, and a few days later, June receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn's apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet.

As the two begin to spend time together, June realises she's not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he might just be the one she needs the most.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a tender story of love lost and found, an unforgettable portrait of the way compassion can make us whole again.

“I’d like to paint a portrait,” he said. “Of you. You and Greta together.” 
“Just because. Because you’re at the right age for a portrait and I haven’t painted one in a very long time.” Finn tilted his head and squinted one eye at the statue. 
“Thirteen is the right age for a portrait?” 
“Of course it is,” he said, turning his squinted eye on me. “It’s the moment right before you slip away into the rest of your life.” 
“Then what about Greta?” 
Finn laughed. “Well, I’ll have to try and catch her before she slips away completely.”

‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ was the 2012 novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, which won the 2013 ALA Alex Award as a book written for adults that has special appeal to young adults. 

I’ve known for a while now that I would love this book. But I also knew that it would hurt me. I knew from the first line … 

My sister Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our Uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. 

… Sure enough, I was crying my eyes out by the last. 

I think I waited so long (too long) to finally read this book because I knew it would hurt. I had to wait until I was in the right reading head-space and willing to let my heart be offered up for bruising. 

Our narrator is June Elbus – fourteen in 1986 when Finn starts painting the portrait, and fifteen when she recounts this story after his death and the events that followed. June is a quiet girl who has a romantic fascination with the past. One of her favourite places in the world are the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, where Finn took her for weekly visits, and she liked to pretend they were back in medieval Europe. After a trip to the renaissance fair, June has ambitions of being a falconer and she loves nothing more than wandering around the woods behind her school and imagining herself in another time. 

June herself says she isn’t one to need many friends, and for a long time she was content to have her big sister as her best friend. But Greta is sixteen now, and secretly two years ahead in high school, in recent years she has turned against June and they’re now more like enemies living in close-quarters. Her uncle Finn was really her only friend, and after his death she feels more alone and unloved than ever … until she meets Toby, someone else who’s missing Finn and struggling in his absence. 

Described as Finn’s “special friend” and told not to talk about him by her family (who are convinced he murdered Finn, by infecting him with AIDS) in Toby, June has found someone with fresh Finn stories to tide her over and act as a tentative connection to her uncle. Someone who can maybe start quenching the questions she has about the Finn she thought she knew so well, until she realised how little she was allowed to know about him…

I watched him sitting there with cards up his sleeve. Decks and decks of surprise cards he could slide out whenever he wanted to. Stories of him and Finn I’d never heard. Not like me. My deck was thin. Worn out from shuffling over and over in my head. My Finn stories were dull and plain. Small and stupid. 

As Finn’s story unfolds for June, she begins to realise how big a part Toby played in it … that he was Finn’s partner for nine years, and the uncle she loved was made up of Toby and his love for this man; quirks and tricks and guitar-picks. June also starts to realise the reason she never met Toby before now, the reason she wasn’t allowed to know about him, was mired in family hurt and secrecy, jealousy and misplaced longing. 

I want to stress that I felt no homophobia on the part of June and Greta’s mother in keeping Toby and Finn’s relationship away from them. It’s actually much more complex than that, and beautifully mirrored through Greta and June’s own fraught sibling relationship. And though homophobia was not a driving force of this book, ignorance is certainly explored and has a lot to answer for. 

It’s set in 1987, right at the turning point for AIDS education and change. This is after Rock Hudson’s death in 1985, the first public figure to have died of the disease. 1987 was the year that a groundbreaking moment for changing public perception was seeing Princess Diana shake the hand of an AIDS patient while visiting at a hospital. Before then, people were driven by fear, urban myth and prejudicial ignorance that AIDS was relegated to the gay community and could be transmitted by even skin-to-skin contact. Carol Rifka Brunt beautifully evokes the 80’s time period in clothing and pop-culture, but it’s in people’s mindsets that the author really makes the time-period work for the story. The way people still whisper about AIDS (or call it ‘the AIDS’), at one point Greta mentions that a radio station has stopped playing George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” for fear that it was promoting promiscuity. June herself embarrassingly admits fearing a kiss from her uncle, not knowing if she can catch AIDS that way but being frustrated with herself for even thinking such things of Finn.

“I suppose I’m in that very small group of people who are not waiting for their own story to unfold. If my life was a film, I’d have walked out by now.” 

This is a book of love, above all else. It’s about finding, accepting and losing love – and acknowledging that it’s rarely easy or freely given. Brunt has filled this book with beautifully tangled relationships – those that are relatable, like Greta and June’s fractured friendship as sisters – to those that are slightly preposterous, but read beautifully, like that of June and Toby. Here is a grown man connecting with his deceased lover’s niece – it sounds absurd, but Brunt writes these two with infinite tenderness and so much to gain from one another. I also loved the relationship of Toby and Finn, fragmented as we read it second-hand from June via Toby – they were truly an epic love story. 

I also admire that Finn was such a strong presence in this book, even though he’s dead throughout. He’s already gone when June starts recounting the story, and we only get to know him through the memories she and Toby share with one another – it’s a beautiful way that Brunt offers up these small glimpses of this departed character, to make readers fall in love with him and feel his absence all the more keenly in the story just as these characters do. I would also like to recommend that you visit Carol Rifka Brunt's website and look at the artwork that inspired this book. 

Brunt is such a beautiful, tender writer – sometimes I wished I could just lie down on the page alongside these beautiful words and passages; 

Not the way they were, not clumsy and thick, but more like shadows. Like small eclipsed moons, floating over my heart.

I didn’t want to leave this story and these characters, and I miss them already now that I’m done. ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ now joins that illustrious list of books that I feel better for having read; it makes you see the world a little differently, opens you up to hurt and heavy-heart, but also feeds you beautiful words and gifts you the world as seen through the eyes of the brave and thoughtful June Elbus. This book is a gift.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The young adult books of my young adulthood

New piece up on Kill Your Darlings is a nostalgia-infused look back on 'The young adult books of my young adulthood'

Partly inspired to write this because of the beautiful new Penguin Classics edition of 
Melina Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

'Pack up the Moon' by Rachael Herron

From the BLURB:

Three years after a horrible tragedy took her son and tore her family apart, artist Kate Monroe is beginning to pick up the pieces of her life. However at a gala showcasing her triumphant return to the art world, Kate's world is rocked again, when the daughter she gave up for adoption twenty-two years ago introduces herself.

Pree is the child Kate never knew and never forgot. But Pree has questions that Kate isn't sure she's ready to answer.

For one thing, Kate never told Pree's father, her high school sweetheart and ex-husband, Nolan, that they had a daughter.

For another, Kate hasn't spoken to Nolan for three years, not since the accident which took their nine-year-old son from them.

But to keep Pree from leaving forever, Kate will have to confront the secrets that have haunted her since her son died, and discover if the love of her family is strong enough to survive even the most heartbreaking of betrayals…

Pree has just found her birth mother, 22 years after she was given up for adoption.

Discovering her mother is Kate Monroe, celebrated artist and one character in a three-year-old landmark criminal case, is both a shock and no surprise at all. Pree herself is an artist, even though she doesn’t work on canvas like Kate, but prefers street tagging and her current job for a computer games company. Pree also has synaesthesia, associating people’s voices with colour – and Kate’s is all red: for passion and anger.

Kate hasn’t allowed herself to think about the baby girl she gave up for adoption when she was 16. But now, here she is. Three years after losing her baby boy, Robin, in the worst possible way, Kate’s biggest secret has just floated back into her life … and she couldn’t be more terrified, or thankful.

Nolan Monroe spent three years in jail for killing his sick son. Three years since and now he’s working on a road crew, receiving emails from parents in similar situations to what he and Kate were in with Robin. And he thinks about her, his ex-wife, all the time.

Pack up the Moon’ is the new stand-alone novel from American author Rachael Herron.

The title comes from the W. H. Auden poem ‘Stop all the clocks.’

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

And it’s a fitting reference in this book about the aftermath of loss and tragedy, and how those two things are not always the same.

We begin the book with Pree meeting Kate for the first time. She’s 22 now, and it’s partly due to recent shocking discoveries in her own life that Pree has tried, yet again, to see if her closed adoption status had changed. It has, and that’s due to the recent tragedies in Kate’s life – the death of her sick son at the hands of his father, Kate’s childhood sweetheart, Nolan. As readers, we’re hit with a lot of emotional upheavals within the first few chapters of Herron’s book. The death of Kate’s son, Robin, Pree’s brother who she was only able to learn about because of his death… we also meet Nolan, Kate’s ex who was once a lawyer, now disbarred and working for a road crew since serving three years of a suspended sentence for killing their son. Herron has laid a tangled web indeed – but she writes these huge tragedies with such tenderness and gentle exploration that they never tumble into melodrama.

The novel begins in May 2014 with Kate and Pree meeting, which triggers Kate having to reach out to Nolan for more than just their casual email correspondence (of which, they are only allowed to share memories of Robin). But the novel also dips back to 16-year-old Kate meeting Nolan for the first time, falling deeply in love with him and being crushed by his moving away. Eventually the novel also curves back to the worst days of Robin’s illness, battling Hodgkin lymphoma and the way Kate and Nolan supported one another so much in the midst of their slowly crumbling world. Told in third person, we also following these three character’s journeys – Pree, Kate and Nolan – as they crash into one another, move each other.

But while Kate and Nolan’s journey is laid out, insofar as we can see the rocky path ahead of them in this book, Pree’s is much less clear and therefore not as compelling. By rights, Pree meeting her birth-mother and learning of the tragedy that has befallen the family that was unbeknownst to her should be interesting enough – but Herron has also heaped Pree with an unwanted pregnancy to sweet, artistic boyfriend Flynn while she’s lusting after her boss. This didn’t work for me – it was too on-the-nose as a catalyst for Pree wanting to find Kate, and I didn’t feel like she needed more than the curiosity that can nag at adopted children. Both Flynn and Pree’s boss had such fleeting appearances in the book that the stakes for her were never fleshed out enough – making her entire pregnancy/romance storyline feel half-cooked. What really worked, and all Pree needed, was the story about finding her family only to have lost half of them before she even knew it;

“I can’t help thinking that if I had a twelve-year-old brother I’d take him to the batting cage or to the arcade or something. Just to forget about it for a minute. Because I never forget about it. Not even for a minute.” She brushed an ant from the back her hand. “I wish I’d gotten to meet you, brother.” The word felt bittersweet in her mouth, round and heavy with something that could have been.

‘Pack up the Moon’ is a very different book for Rachael Herron. I’ve previously enjoyed her ‘Cypress Hollow’ romance novels, but she certainly seems well suited into this more serious story exploration. At the back of the book is a Q&A with Herron, in which she reveals part of her inspiration to write this was her job as a 911-phone operator.

The book will remind some of Jodi Picoult – for the moral conundrums at the heart of the story and this family’s life. The comparison isn’t a bad one (I’m a huge Picoult fan!) but if this had been one of her books, you can bet we’d have seen the court case unfold and subsequent media saga Kate and Nolan suffered through after Robin’s death – and there’s a part of me that wouldn’t have minded seeing that. We certainly come into this story at a seeming lull in events (though, as everyone knows, there are no dips and lulls in grief, not really). But it is interesting to read a book set in the aftermath of so much heartache, especially when Herron explores it so tenderly through these characters and their tangled lives;

“Of course not. He wasn’t perfect at all. He farted in front of my mother on purpose and he snuck lizards he caught outside and put them into the basket where I kept coffee filters just so I’d freak out. Once he told me my ass was fat in front of his first-grade teacher. And, yes, he used the word ‘ass.’ But no matter what, he was perfect.” Kate smiled. “You two have that in common.” Pree snorted, but Kate saw delight in her eyes, and something similar danced within her. 

‘Pack up the Moon’ is a wonderful stand-alone novel from Rachael Herron. I hope she writes more of the like, with moral conundrums at their heart, because I think she’s an interesting voice in women’s fiction.


Friday, April 4, 2014

'The Winner's Curse' Winner's Curse Trilogy #1 by Marie Rutkoski

From the BLURB:

Winning what you want may cost you everything you love

As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions. One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin. But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

Kestrel is General Trajan’s daughter, the Valorian general who conquered the Herran peninsula. Kestrel knows what it takes to win, to make other’s submit and to always come out on top. She knows about war. But that does not mean she fits easily into Valorian society, revered though her father may be, Kestrel feels shame for the way her people treat the Herrani – as slaves since their defeat.  This is a particularly hard concept for Kestrel to accept, since she was practically raised by her Herrani nurse after the tragic death of her mother. And, because Kestrel admires the Herrani’s musical ability – she herself is a piano-player, defiant against Valorian society who have little time for the Arts and value strength above all else.

One day, Kestrel finds herself pushed and pulled to the slaver’s market, where she is captivated by a blacksmith for sale – one, the slave auctioneer promises, who is also a singer. Against her better judgment and strong morals, Kestrel buys him – a slave of her own.

Arin enters the Trajan household as a blacksmith, and quickly makes himself invaluable to the General’s soldiers – creating weapons for them, and minding their horses. But it’s Lady Kestrel that Arin is fascinated by. She appears to have no fighting ability, though she is the General’s daughter, but she’s a keen strategist – winning every round of Bite & Sting she plays. Arin witnesses Kestrel manoeuvre the cruel and lusting Lord Inex with aplomb. And Arin watches as Kestrel fights a battle within herself – with the decision all Valorian must make – to be married, or join the army. The brother of Kestrel’s best friend, Ronan, would have her marry him – even promising that she could keep her beloved piano if she did. But Arin suspects the world has more in store for Kestrel Trajan than even she knows…

‘The Winner’s Curse’ is the first book in a new fantasy trilogy from young adult author Marie Rutkoski.

I’d been hearing quiet rumblings about this book for a while now. Wendy Darling of ‘The Midnight Garden’ awarded it 4.5/5 stars and professed “Love love love love love.”  Kirkus awarded it a starred review, declaring it "Breathtaking, tragic and true.” And now I’ve read it and all I can say is … wow.

If you listen to the hype coming out of the 2014 Bologna Children’s Book Fair; “realism reigns” once again when it comes to YA (hasn't it always?). But don’t think that means all dystopia/fantasy/paranormal YA books should be discounted as “so 2012” and passé – ‘The Winner’s Curse’ is proof of that. Marie Rutkoski takes fantasy to an entirely new level with ‘The Winner’s Curse’ – and part of its success will probably lie in its cross-genre blending. Here is a book with historical leanings, lashings of fantasy and doses of dystopia, but that is also so frightening and compelling because it also feels like realism – about a war-hungry society who find the tables turning when the people they conquered years ago start plotting an uprising.

‘The Winner’s Curse’ reads like Rutkoski used blueprints of British and Dutch colonialism, together with Napoleonic and Roman Empire historical touches. Yet, at the same time, the Herrani/Valorian history feels like something George R. R. Martin could have dreamt up.

Before the war, Valorians had admired, even envied – yes, envied – the Herrani. After, it was as if the spell had been broken or a new one had been cast. The slave never could quite believe it. Somehow, “animal” had become possible. Somehow, the word name him. This was a discovery ten years old and yet remade every day. It should have been dulled by repetition. Instead, he was sore from its constant cut of surprise. He was sour with swallowed anger.

The universe and setting is fascinating, particularly for the historical/fantasy blend. But what really makes this story stand out is the romantic heart at the centre – between the General’s daughter, Kestrel, and her slave, Arin. Here are two incredibly interesting characters in their own right, but throw them together and you have an epic love story with so many hurdles to overcome, I can hardly believe Rutkoski only has a trilogy planned!

Kestrel is certainly an admirable female protagonist – one of the few in Valorian society who has an issue with using slaves and who, despite her upbringing, has no interest in family (military or otherwise) but would rather create music. Arin is the perfect match for Kestrel on the page – his anger and bravery seem better suited to the Valorians – but he also sees much to be admired in Kestrel, in her quiet rebellions and favouring brains over brawn, creation over destruction.

But the real reason ‘The Winner’s Curse’ is a must-read book of 2014, is Marie Rutkoski’s style. She writes some truly sumptuous sentences;

She wished that Arin hadn’t chosen music for the flute, of all instruments. The beauty of the flute was in its simplicity, in its resemblance to the human voice. It always sounded clear. It sounded alone. The piano, on the other hand, was a network of parts – a ship, with its strings like rigging, its case a hull, its lifted lid a sail. Kestrel always thought that the piano didn’t sound like a single instrument but a twinned one, with its low and high halves merging together or pulling apart.

She has vividly created this universe for readers to get caught up in, and written fascinating characters I can’t wait to get back to. I was also really impressed by the plotting of the story – surprised that this felt like a complete book in itself (though with a juicy cliffhanger) because Rutkoski doesn’t meander with plot, but rather enjoys plunging readers into the thick of action.  

2015 seems a particularly long way away, now that I’m pining for book #2.