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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Movie Review: 'Vampire Academy'

So, I finally watched the movie adaptation of ‘Vampire Academy’. And in a year of so many YA books coming to the big screen (The Fault in Our Stars, Maze Runner, The Giver, Mockingjay … the list goes on) the adaptation of Richelle Mead’s hugely popular urban fantasy series will probably be quickly forgotten … which is probably for the best.

Issues for me started with the sickly pink/green movie poster. It proudly proclaimed the movie was; “from the director of Mean Girls, and the writer of Heathers” (no mention of Richelle Mead, oddly enough?) Both are really, really good teen movies … but my hesitation was proven right because the overall tone of the film was one of humour. This is a real shame, because Mead did such a great job of mixing horror, comedy, romance and action in the book series. The movie probably hits two of those four notes – and it’s no wonder, because that’s also true of ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Heathers’. It was like the director and writer couldn’t fathom a multi-dimensional teen movie, when that is the very strength of the book series.

In the first few minutes of ‘Vampire Academy’ Lissa (Lucy Fry) and Rose (Zoey Deutch) feed each other lines to quickly and sloppily catch viewers up on what’s happening; “I’m still adjusting, Rose. It has been less than a year since we ran away from the academy. Two years since the crash. Do you really think the academy is still trying to track us down?” These awkward conversations run throughout the film; you could probably play a pretty decent drinking game for every supremely awkward line – although once you get to “You were fornicating, weren’t you?” it’s time to chug, chug, chug! and then you’re down for the count.

The next major disappointment comes with Dimitri Belikov – who probably has more fan-girls than Edward Cullen and a mighty expectation placed on him for that very reason. And, look, the casting director clearly tried because the actor Danila Kozlovsky is actually Russian – so they’ve ticked the authenticity box (although, I don’t think they ever gave Danila a chance to actually speak in Russian? So, what was the point?) But they had a seriously hard task before them, because nearly every single fan-made trailer cast Ben Barnes in the role. You guys; Danila Kozlovsky is no Ben Barnes, I’m just sayin’. He seemed a little too old (like, creepy old) for Zoey Deutch’s Rose, and he did not rock the male-ponytail at all. The main issue though is that Danila Kozlovsky and Zoey Deutch had none of the chemistry that Rose and Dimitri have in the books – which practically smoulders the page.

While we’re on the topic of casting – Lucy Fry as Lissa Dragomir was another serious miss. I will say this was another problematic casting because (as I’ve mentioned in every ‘Vampire Academy’ book review) I feel like Lissa is a very hard character to like, mostly because I thought she had too much power in her and Rose’s friendship. Lucy Fry is fine, just a little too bland for a character who is already pretty boring in the books. And what was up with her mouth? Did the director make her wear false vampire-teeth the whole time, because her lips looked painfully stung and sometimes it was like she struggled to talk. Not to mention the fact that Lissa and Rose’s being shadow-kissed translated horribly in the movie, when it’s pretty much the only thing that connected them in the book. It didn’t help that the director chose to use a fish-eye lens sporadically to convey when Rose was in Lissa’s head – and then change to the camera as a voyeur looking on. It was just sloppy, and confusing when the fish-eye technique was also used when Lissa was hypnotising people.

The one bright spot in the whole movie is Zoey Deutch. I know when she was cast people grumbled about her not being voluptuous enough to play Rose Hathaway – but, trust me, in a whole movie of pretty awful, she is an absolute marvel. I 100% agree with the Huff Post entertainment reviewer Mike Ryan, who said; ‘This movie would have been better if it was just Zoey Deutch, sitting on a stool, reading the book to the audience. I’m being serious." At one point she throws her arms wide and asks, “Are you not entertained?” and, gosh darnit, I was! She’s fabulous, and I hope she’s in more (better) things.

The movie has a 104-minute run-time. They tried to cram all 332-pages into those 104 minutes, and it just didn’t work. If anything, it highlighted for me how much ‘Vampire Academy’ would make a better TV series than movie – because all the subplots and flashbacks, foreshadowing and Lissa and Rose’s love lives do not work in a single movie. It’s a real shame, because Richelle Mead’s ‘Vampire Academy’ is ripe for adaptation – just not by the director of 'Mean Girls' and writer of 'Heathers', and not necessarily in a movie. Though Zoey Deutch tried damn hard with what she was given, and has a new fan in me.

Monday, April 21, 2014

'All Our Pretty Songs' by Sarah McCarry

From the BLURB:

The first book in an exciting YA trilogy, this is the story of two best friends on the verge of a terrifying divide when they begin to encounter a cast of strange and mythical characters.

Set against the lush, magical backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, two inseparable best friends who have grown up like sisters—the charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora and the devoted, soulful, watchful narrator—find their bond challenged for the first time ever when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them. Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They’re not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all. The real and the mystical; the romantic and the heartbreaking all begin to swirl together, carrying the two on journey that is both enthralling and terrifying.

And it’s up to the narrator to protect the people she loves—if she can.

‘Aurora and I live in a world without fathers,’ – so begins this tale by an unnamed narrator, about her and Aurora living on the edge until one of them falls in.

Aurora is the daughter of a famous and deceased rockstar; a Cobain-esque legend who left behind a wild daughter and her junkie mother, Maia, in a too big house with plenty of cash but no moorings. Our anonymous narrator is the daughter of Cass, once Maia’s best friend who was there in the rockstar hey-days and saw her best friend decay into grief and addiction, until deciding to take herself and her daughter away from that world and into a cramped studio apartment.

Cass is a macrobiotic witch, narrator tells us, and knowing the powerful connection she and Aurora have, Cass let the girls run rampant but always offers them safe harbour.

Our narrator and Aurora are the best of friends – one is the super-ego saviour the other her reckless id. Until the day our narrator meets Jack, a handsome and talented struggling musician who burns her up inside and threatens Aurora’s hold on her.

And then Aurora meets Minos, and everything threatens to come crashing down.

‘All Our Pretty Songs’ was the 2013 young adult novel by Sarah McCarry.

I remember being really excited for this book last year; I salivated over the cover and blurb, pre-ordered my copy and then … nothing. I expected to read rumblings of praise and recommendation, but instead I got radio-silence on the review front. I didn’t really get it, until I read for myself.

‘All Our Pretty Songs’ is a really good example of how story is King, and all the pretty words in the world can’t make up for a book that’s lacking story momentum. It’s sort of like a magic trick: at first you’re dazzled, but then the wire strings start glinting and you can’t help but notice all the deliberate distractions intended to make you believe in something that’s just not there.

Sarah McCarry is a beautiful, lyrical writer. Truly, I wanted to breathe her words in and roll around in their sumptuousness. For the first 20 or so pages I was absolutely captivated – I’m talking jaw-on-the-floor, tingles down my back in awe of her writing;

Guitar so loud we can feel it in our chests. Someone else’s hair in our faces and someone else’s knuckle in our teeth and sometimes, when it’s really good, a current charges from body to body and everyone around us is part of it, part of us, part of the drumbeat thundering through so hard our breathing shifts to follow its pulse. Music turns us inside out with hunger, the need to hurt ourselves, get drunk, fuck, punch strangers, the need to take off all our clothes and run around in the grass screaming, the need to get in a car and drive off in the middle of the night with a pack of strangers. We let the music shake us loose from the moorings of our bodies and hearts and brains, until we are nothing but sex and sweat and fists and hot hot light.

And I loved the set-up of Aurora as this Frances Bean Cobain daughter of a dead legend, with a junkie mother in a mansion house and her poor best friend, our unknown narrator, constantly keeping her from going too far into the abyss. I was interested, and I was invested. Here are two girls with lives destined to break, and I wanted to be there when it happened.

Things get interesting when our narrator (whom I should say, while reading, I didn’t even notice was nameless because McCarry’s writing is so distractingly beautiful) meets Jack – a real deal, talented musician. Here, I thought, was interesting conflict when Aurora is the one everyone falls for, but the narrator is the girl Jack wants. Jealousy creeps in, green-eyed and lurking and I thought, surely, things are going to get interesting.

No. Instead, things get paranormal-mystical and it just doesn’t work.

With Jack comes Minos, a frightening man with an even scarier boss who is interested in Aurora’s charisma and beauty, and craves Jack’s talent. Then the story of ‘All Our Pretty Songs’ veers into mythology territory and a retelling of ‘The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus’ about selling one’s soul to the devil. There’s also a head-nod to the Orpheus myth, about crossing the threshold to the underworld with a song.

Look, I knew the paranormal twist was coming because it’s in the blurb, but I didn’t bank on it being so jarring and feeling so disconnected from what this story start out as (namely, a contemporary tale of friendship and love, jealousy and grief).

Where McCarry’s writing so beautifully suits the contemporary tale, when I felt so connected to our narrator as she observes her life with Aurora and the past that plagues them both, I didn’t want to leave their world and enter into the underworld of paranormal mythology.

McCarry has a real gift for contemporary. It was in our narrator observing her mother’s love life;

Cass has a guillotine heart, severing ties as neatly as a whistle-sharp blade cutting the head from the body. Like any good revolutionary, she pretends that the casualties mean nothing.

And viewing herself as an outsider looking in, comparing herself to Aurora while still loving her;

I am to Aurora what a gift-store postcard print is to a Klimt hanging on the museum wall. I do not love her any less for it; I think it is best to know what you are and make peace with it.

This sort of writing suits contemporary YA, and I wish it was what McCarry had stuck to. Unfortunately her style is less suited to flights-of-fancy and fantasy, to the point where she had to actually start name-checking Greek myths because the second-half of the story had gotten so convoluted and lost.

To be sure, Sarah McCarry has echoes of Francesca Lia Block and her ‘Weetzie Bat’ series (which McCarry name-checks, so she must be a fan) but where Lia Block can pull off the magical realism, McCarry and ‘All Our Pretty Songs’ is far less successful. I think it comes from the disconnection between the contemporary-feel first-half, which suddenly changes gears to include mythology and devils in the second.

I see that a second book is due for release in July this year. Called ‘Dirty Wings’, it’s touted as a sort of prequel and tells the story of young Cass and Maia in a “gorgeous retelling of the Persephone myth”. I’m not sure about this book mostly because, we know how Cass and Maia’s story end sup – it’s pretty damn sad when ‘All Our Pretty Songs’ begins with Maia a full-blown junkie and Cass not having seen her best friend for years. Do I really want to read the story of how they got to that point? It’s not exactly hopeful, is it?

I would definitely read another Sarah McCarry book, for her gorgeous prose alone … but I will hope that in the future she either sticks to contemporary or fantasy, not this awkward mashing of both. ‘All Our Pretty Songs’ starts out (contemporary) and strong, but a muddled second-half loses the story entirely and all the pretty writing in the world can’t quite make up for it.


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.


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