This is one of my favourite books of 2010.
This book, the first in Holly Black’s ‘Curse Workers’ series, is told from the perspective of 17-year-old Cassel Sharpe; schoolboy, black sheep and con artist.
Holly Black is writing about a world that is ours, but with a few differences. In this alternate reality there exist ‘workers’- individuals who can work magic. Only one in a thousand people are workers. There are any number of varying worker magicks, ranging from luck, to dreams and memory, and in the case of Cassel’s family – curse.
Cassel is the only non-worker in his family. His grandfather lost his fingers because of a blowback from a curse (blowback being the price an individual pays for dealing in magicks). And Cassel’s mother is currently in jail for working a con curse.
See, Cassel’s family aren’t just curse-workers. They’re also old-fashioned con-artists. Cassel may not have inherited the worker gene, but he certainly learnt to finesse the ‘long con’. At his boarding school Cassel is an underground bookie. He runs bets on which teachers are hooking up and how many times a year the cafeteria will serve ‘non-nut nut brownies’. He also does some forgery and fake-ID’s on the side. Cassel is one cool-cat, sort of a modern Ferris Bueller. He’s a bad-boy with a quick wit and is instantly likable. But just as quickly as you fall for him, Cassel forces you to reconsider when he confesses his greatest sin:
So begins Cassel’s twisted journey to the truth. All this we learn in the opening chapter. And it only gets better from there.
In the opening chapter Cassel finds himself on the roof of his school dormitory. He’s not particularly surprised – when he was younger he was a chronic sleepwalker (called somnambulism). And besides, Cassel is half convinced the resurgence of his somnambulism is due to his recurrent feelings of guilt – because he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago. Except Cassel can’t remember killing her. He was found with the body, a smile on his bloodied face, but everything else is a blank.
Surprisingly enough, learning the truth of Cassel’s murderous past doesn’t retract from the likability of his character. Even when Cassel himself tries hard to convince you otherwise.
I told you I’d done plenty wrong.
The above is almost Dexter-esque for its portrayal of a psychopath trying to fit in. But as the story progresses, you begin to realize that the person Cassel thinks he is, the Cassel his family know and the Cassel readers are getting to know are three very different people. Cassel has a skewed view of himself, and both his and his family’s interpretation of him and his past have completely twisted the young man he actually is.
Cassel is not a bad guy – no matter how much he implores readers to be wary of trusting him. Cassel is the black sheep of his family. He is runt to his two older brothers, Phillip and Barron and reluctant accomplice to his mother’s mad cons. He comes from bad stock, but isn’t bad himself. He loves the con, but only because it was how he fit into his family and felt close to his parents.
The story starts to get dark and twisted when Cassel’s sleepwalking episodes become linked to his brother, Barron’s, failing memory and Cassel’s belief that Lila is haunting him in the form of a white cat. Suddenly Cassel starts wondering if his memories are his own, if he really did kill Lila and who in his family could have stolen his past.
Holly Black is one-half of the writing-duo responsible for ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ (with Tony DiTerlizzi). I've never read the infamous ‘Spiderwick Chronicles’, but after ‘White Cat’ I may have to. I have completely fallen in love with Black’s writing and masterful storytelling.
Holly Black writes some truly spectacular flashbacks. So succinct and enticing are these flashbacks that they read like stand-alone short-stories. For example, the few paragraphs in which Cassel recounts his first ‘con’, opening with the words;
Black’s writing is completely lush. The storyline itself is a warped fare as Cassel’s journey takes him on a trip down memory(loss) lane. Cassel is a fantastically convoluted character – and Black really makes readers work hard to marry Cassel’s past to the young man we are reading and come to our own conclusion about the content of his character.
I loved this book. I could not put it down! I have fallen head-over-heels in love with Cassel and Holly Black’s writing. I can’t wait for ‘Curse Workers’ book #2, ‘Red Glove’, tentatively scheduled for a 2012 release (too far away!!!)
This is one of my favourite books of 2010. Add it to your TBR list – you will not be disappointed!
Claire is an ordinary girl whose world is about to be ripped to shreds. Her uncle Charlie has been in an accident, and no amount of promising from Claire’s mum will guarantee his health. While Claire waits to hear news from the hospital, she thinks about Charlie’s wife, Pia, and the baby on the way – Claire’s little cousin to-be.
In another time and place, Clara is on the wrong side of the river – a slum girl in a desolate world where zones have kings and Clara is torn between her own Andrew, and the brown-water eyed Groom, who begs her to cross the river with him.
Both girls dream of music boxes and keys, and eventually their worlds cross and interlace – Clara imprisoned in Miss Boedica’s palace cage and Claire on the verge of heartache in her bed.
But who is the dreamer and who is the dream?
‘Only Ever Always’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Penni Russon.
I’ll be honest and say that ‘Only Ever Always’ is not your typical YA novel, nor will it tickle the fancy of every young reader. But the toughness is part of the charm, as Russon explores complicated literary illusions and offers up a very different form of storytelling. ‘Only Ever Always’ will be a rewarding read for the intrepid young bibliophile who dares to try – but it’s also a novel to captivate and challenge older readers, as I found.
Normally I wouldn’t be overly interested in a novel like ‘Only Ever Always’ (much as it shames me to admit). But I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt, thanks to a film trailer I watched recently. The 2011 indie film ‘Another Earth’ from director Mike Cahill is the story of a duplicate earth – a replica planet where doppelganger’s mirror earth’s residents. Since watching the trailer for this film I have found myself fascinated with the idea of parallel worlds and parallel-selves – so much so that I thought the release of Russon’s novel happily fortuitous, since she explores similar themes in ‘Only Ever Always’.
There is Claire – living in a world much like our own, with a mother and a father and an uncle and aunt coming to visit. But when tragedy strikes she retreats into herself, awaiting news of her uncle from the comfort of her bed. She weaves in and out of fretful sleep.
Intersecting with Claire is Clara – a girl from a strange and dirty place. She is a guttersnipe, trading goods at the market and desperately searching for medicine for her sickly saviour, Andrew. Clara is pursued by gutter king, Groom, who desperately wants her as his own and wishes she would cross the river with him . . . and Clara is terrified at how badly she starts to want Groom too.
Readers will bring different understandings to Claire and Clara – you make think that one is a dream and the other the dreamer. Perhaps you wait for their real-time lives to catch up and for them to meet face to face. And that is the precise, distilled brilliance of ‘Only Ever Always’. It’s illusive and open-ended, altered by the impressions of the reader.
I am a dreamer too, and I must wake into a world of dreamers. You can feel it – can’t you? – the peeling off of me, another small loss you have to bear. We all bear it, as best we can, this infinite chain of miniature losses, a hundred thousand stories, a hundred thousand endings. A rehearsal you could call it, for the last ending that’s bound to come, eventually, somewhere in the white space between here and dreaming.
Claire and Clara’s alternate universes floating between dream and dreamer reminded me of an infamous quote from Chinese philosopher, Master Zhuang:
As I said before, ‘Only Ever Always’ is not an ‘easy’ young adult novel. If you read the author’s note at the end of the book, you’ll see that Russon conjured the idea for the novel during a conversation with her young daughter around about the time she was writing a master degree thesis about melancholy in narrative structure. Like I said; not exactly an ‘easy’ concept to grapple with – especially in young adult fiction.
But Russon strings readers along in her melancholic narrative by writing a very fascinating Clara-story. This world is very strange, at once harking back to a grimy past, but with hints of modernity. It almost reads like a steampunk mash-up of dueling atmosphere. And making Clara’s story even more interesting is her altering feelings for Groom – the boy who wants to cage her, and who she just might like being captured by.
‘Only Ever Always’ is not an easy novel, but Russon’s story is beautifully strange and lyrically intricate. It’s a different sort of YA read, and all the more fulfilling for its oddity.
After a year of active duty in Afghanistan, in which he lost eight of his fellow soldiers and most recently his best friend Charlie, Travis is back home in Florida for a month of leave. It’s his first return home since boot camp and a year of silence while on active duty.
While he has been gone his young brother, Ryan, has started dating Travis’s ex-girlfriend, Paige. Ryan is also driving his old VW and wrecking the clutch, which surprisingly annoys Travis more than his hook-up with Paige (which might have something to do with the fact that she’s is back to her old games, crawling into his bed the second Travis returns).
Meanwhile Travis’s high-school friends are still stoners and drop-outs, or in one case about to be a teenage father. He doesn’t really have anything in common with them anymore.
Travis’s family has undergone a dramatic change too. His mother has proudly taken on the role of ‘Marine Mum’ and thrown herself into charities and organizations based around being a proud, supportive (if terrified) parent of a marine. Travis’s father, however, has gotten worse over a year. Always an overbearing sonofabitch, his dad still has some wounded pride that Travis threw his football career in for deployment, and he’s resentful of how much time and energy Travis’s mum is devoting to her marine mum cause . . . so resentful, in fact, that he’s having an affair.
But perhaps the biggest change of all is in Travis himself. He’s having nightmares and constantly looking for IED’s (improvised explosive device) wherever he walks. And he’s seeing his dead friend, Charlie, wherever he looks.
After spending his first year of active duty in Afghanistan, Travis has returned to his hometown to find everything exactly as he left it, but nothing feels the same.
And then he bumps into Harper Gray.
Travis and Harper have a history, dating back to when they shared seven minutes in heaven when they were 13. Seven minutes which were followed by rumours of more than kissing and tarnished Harper’s reputation forever. Needless to say, when they bump into each other in a seedy bar, she is less than thrilled to see him. But Travis feels the same way about her now as he did when he was 13; he’s intrigued by her Charley Harper-inspired name, green eyes and bitten-lip smile. And, honestly, hanging out with her is the closest to normal he has felt in a long time . . .
‘Something Like Normal’ is the debut young adult novel from Trish Doller.
The War in Afghanistan began in 2001. The armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have been involved in operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ for a decade. Likewise, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ began in 2003 and officially concluded in December 2011 (although violence rages on, with many fatalities still reported). So it’s a little odd that there haven’t been more books, in particular young adult books, about these wars. It’s really only in very recent years that we’ve started seeing the topic explored in fictional YA novels like ‘If I Lie’ by Corrine Jackson (coming August 2012), ‘In Honour’ by Jessi Kirby (May 2012) and ‘The Things a Brother Knows’ by Dana Reinhardt (2010). And now we have ‘Something Like Normal’ by Trish Doller; about a young US marine who still has three years of active duty left, but who is starting to realize the post-traumatic affects inflicted upon him from his single year in Afghanistan.
I can’t really say why there haven’t been more YA novels exploring the subject of the Iraq invasion and war in Afghanistan. I think for a long time it was a taboo subject – particularly in the post-9/11 patriotism. I think it’s nigh impossible to write a book which explores war in a positive way, without looking at the terrible mental and physical affects it has on characters (and ultimately questions and criticizes why we even got to war). Maybe that’s why the world of young adult literature has been ‘hands-off’ with this topic, particularly when “stay the course” was the slogan du-jour of the Iraq war. But it is a little strange, because in 2008 HBO had the incredible TV show ‘Generation Kill’ which followed a group of marines in the first wave of the American-led assault on Baghdad. And this month the documentary ‘Invisible War’ has been released, which investigates the epidemic of rape of female soldiers within the US military. Not to mention the many fictional films that use the Iraq/Afghan wars as backdrop. So I’m saying it’s just odd that when film and TV have been exploring and thinking critically about the wars in a fictional context, why the young adult genre was so far behind? Particularly when many Gen Y-ers are soldiers in the war. This is the war of our generation – yet we’re not really talking about it the way I thought we would be . . . which is why I’m so grateful for Doller’s ‘Something Like Normal’.
What’s really wonderful about this book is that Doller doesn’t touch on the ideologies or reasons behind the war in Afghanistan. Travis is the first to admit that he didn’t join the marines in a burst of patriotism or 9/11-fueled anger. He pretty much just wanted to get out from under his old man’s thumb. Basically, he is the majority of young service men and women who can’t pinpoint a directly patriotic reason for their military service – making Iraq and Afghanistan more akin to the Vietnam War, where reasons were also blurry and justifications dim. Travis sees being a marine as his job – there’s nothing more star-spangled to it than that.
I really loved that Doller took the nationalism out of the book right away, if only because it doesn’t muddy the plot waters and the focus is far more on the human aspect of war. We meet Travis shortly after eight in his company were killed, including his best friend Charlie. When he returns home for a month of leave, he’s surprised and frustrated to learn the extent of his psychological damage . . . it’s not just that his trigger-finger constantly twitches, that he’s forever scanning for IED’s or feels naked without his Kevlar on. It’s that he’s seeing Charlie in crowds and sitting at the end of his bed; and not just seeing him, with throat slashed and dead eyes . . . he’s also talking to him.
I look up and Charlie is sitting beside Harper on the bench, his arms hooked around the back and his body so close to hers, I wonder why she doesn’t feel it, doesn’t see him.
“We fucked up good, didn’t we Solo?” he says.
I just stare at him as he reaches across the table and – just as if we were back at infantry school – snatches a strip of bacon from my plate. It doesn’t levitate in midair, and beside Charlie, Harper crunches a bite of toast, unaware that there are three of us at this table.
“I mean. . . “ Charlie folds the whole strip of bacon into his mouth and chews for a moment. “I’m dead and you’re seeing things that aren’t really there, and we have no one else to blame.”
“We should have told somebody about the kid,” I say, and Harper looks at me.
“What?” she asks.
Taking the patriotic ideology out of her main marine character also gives readers a chance to get to know the real Travis . . . and he’s kind of brilliant. He’s no prince and he’d cringe to be called a hero. Actually, he’s a little bit broken and messed up, to be honest. He has been in an on-off, lustful, anger-driven relationship with his high school sweet-heart, Paige, for so long that they’ve both fallen into destructive patterns. Likewise, Travis and his young brother, Ryan, haven’t evolved past their childish one-upmanship and his relationship with his father has been fractured since he quit football in high school. Travis makes plenty of mistakes, and is far from perfect, which is one of the many reasons why he feels uneasy when perfect strangers shake his hand and slap his back just because he wears a uniform. Regardless of his imperfections (trust me, there are a few) Travis is a delight to read. He’s honest and funny, scared for himself and missing Charlie is slowly eating away at him. He’s a completely compelling character and I kept turning the page because I was so drawn to him . . .
And what really endeared Travis to me was his relationship with the two women in his life – his mum, and Harper Gray.
Travis’s mum became ‘Marine Mum’ when he left for boot camp. She took up as many military-charity organizations as she could and sent him super-sized care packages and letters of love. But her terror-filled enthusiasm for her son’s career has seen her marriage fracture, and when Travis returns home he sees a side of her that he’s completely unfamiliar, and ill-equipped, to deal with. Over the course of the book Travis lends his mum strength, and finally comes to understand the love and worry she has been writing to him for the last year. I loved reading the relationship between Travis and his mum, and I thought it was so wonderful that Doller gave some insight into what the people left behind deal with when their loved ones go to war.
Then there’s Harper Gray. Travis hasn’t really thought much about Harper (named for artist Charley Harper, not Harper Lee) since they were 13 and he embellished their seven minutes in heaven. But when he bumps into her during a particularly bad night of panic attacks, he finds himself intrigued with the green-eyed girl whose life he once ruined . . . Hands down, without a doubt; Harper and Travis are one of my favourite couples of 2012! I just loved these two so much. They have one of the most thoughtful relationships that I've read between YA characters, and I especially loved that Harper Gray was an intelligent, kind and ballsy young woman to catch Travis’s eye.
The book is ultimately about Travis readjusting to life after war, and coming to terms with the fact that he will still have three years of life lived between war and relative peace. If I had any complaints, it was that Travis’s relationship and issues with Ryan and his father felt unresolved and a little one-dimensional . . . but at the same time, it wouldn’t have been realistic for Travis to even want to patch up the big problems he has with those two in his one month of down time. He’s actually just coming to grips with the fact that he’ll probably never have a solid relationship with either of them, and that being away at war has also altered his outlook with regards to them.
There were many great things about Trish Doller’s ‘Something Like Normal’, and perhaps the greatest is simply that this books exists at all . . . she’s one of very few young adult authors (and a debut author, at that!) to start exploring the two big wars that have defined an entire generation. That she does so with infinite patience and care for her fractured protagonist is fantastic. That she’s also exploring the fragile and complex relationships between those who go to war and the ones they leave behind, is even better. I can’t recommend this book enough. Superb.
Her father, action hero movie star Brick Berlin, has promised Brooke a sweet sixteen party that will make MTV viewers weep. But Brick has an even bigger surprise for his little princess… in the form of an out-of-wedlock half-sister.
This is not good news for Brooke. The only thing the media loves more than a movie star’s daughter taking to the limelight is a movie star admitting he’s had a secret love child living in the suburban backwoods of Indiana for sixteen years!
You’d think that discovering your father is a Hollywood heartthrob and red-carpet regular would be a dream come true – but not for Molly Dix. Her mother, the only family she has ever known, has just passed away and now she has to leave her home in Indiana and move to Los Angeles after learning of her real father’s celebrity-status by way of her mother’s death-bed confession.
So now Molly is moving to Beverly Hills where the girls are catty, the boys are metrosexual and her father’s high profile has put her on the paparazzi’s hit list. But that’s nothing compared to her half-sister, Brooke. Upset at being upstaged, Brooke wages a war against her yokel half-sister... it’s certainly not the welcoming Molly was expecting.
‘Spoiled’ is the young adult novel from Heather *** and Jessica Morgan – the hilarious fashion commentators behind the ‘Go Fug Yourself’ blog.
Abandoning Brooke and Arugula, Shelby signalled the ‘Hey!’ photographer, who obligingly started snapping her as she ran over to a table where one of the lesser Kardashians was autographing a pile of three-hundred-dollar tank tops from her new line, Klothes. The girls shrieked, then hugged without actually touching.
“Something about that makes me uncomfortable,” Arugula warned in a low voice.
“I know, right?” Brooke rolled her eyes. “That family needs to buy another consonant.”
Molly is a real change of pace, compared to Brooke. Not only is she dealing with the fall-out of losing her mother, moving away from her friends (and potential-maybe-boy-crush-best-friend) but she has her father’s notoriety and her half-sister’s jealousy to contend with. And the paparazzi/media obsession is a whole other ball game she is completely ill-equipped to deal with;
Brooke Berlin was the most mysterious variable in the entire scenario. Laurel had known nothing about her, and in the few short chats Molly had with Brick to discuss logistics, all he’s said was that Brooke asked for a sister for Christmas when she was eight.
“Her Wikipedia page was hilarious,” Charmaine said. “But that had to be accidental.”
“You mean, ‘Brooke Ophelia Mayflower Berlin is the regal daughter of one of Hollywood’s most cherished actor-directors, known throughout the city for her tiny ankles and tremendous talent’?” Molly recited from memory.
“You’d think any0ne who allowed the Internet to say that about her would’ve thrown in a picture,” Charmaine complained.
‘Spoiled’ is laugh-out-loud funny. If you get a chuckle (like I do) from reading the ‘Go Fug Yourself’ blog entries, then be prepared for sustained belly-aching laughs when Heather *** and Jessica Morgan turn their talents for witty observation to a 300+ pages young adult novel. This book is begging to be a CW-adaptation, and I cannot wait to read the second installment, ‘Messy’, coming June this year.
The Empyrean is one of two space ships headed for New Earth. Their mission is to repopulate the human race and begin a prosperous new planet. They have been travelling for years, and the first generation of children to be born in space are entering their late-teens, and are almost ready to start marrying and procreating.
Kieran and Waverley are just such a couple. Sixteen-year-old Kiernan is the ship’s ‘golden boy’ – the first baby born after years of infertility; he is the product of intense genetic research, and the first successful conception for the new space frontier.
Waverley knows that she and Kiernan will marry. It’s what’s expected of the oldest boy and girl aboard the Empyrean. And Waverley does love Kieran, and has ever since they were children. But when he starts talking marriage and babies, Waverley can’t help but feel decisions slipping away from her, and expectations weighing heavy on her shoulders.
And then the New Horizon looms.
The New Horizon is the sister-ship which embarked on the race to save humanity with the Empyrean all those years ago . . . but the Empyrean inhabitants have not seen sight of the New Horizon for light years, and are curious as to why their fellow voyagers are so eager to board . . .
What starts as friendly negotiations quickly deteriorates into a hostile take-over that sees New Horizon passengers forcibly board the Empyrean. But it’s not the ship they want – all they are interested in is the children – specifically, the girls.
‘Glow’ is the first book in a new sci-fi young adult series called ‘Sky Chasers’ by Amy Kathleen Ryan.
It may be a cliché, but space really is the final frontier – for the dystopian genre, at least.
The young adult genre has looked at dystopia from just about every angle – as a bloodthirsty media-driven sport in Suzanne Collins’s ‘The Hunger Games’, a World War III disaster in John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow’ series and the more traditional censored/watched society of Ally Condie’s epic ‘Matched’. So it makes sense that dystopian authors are branching out and looking up; setting their sights on mankind’s next conquest – space.
Beth Revis kicked the year off with her sci-fi thriller foray ‘Across the Universe’. And now Amy Kathleen Ryan gives us a dystopian space opera extraordinaire which I am already predicting will be a major appearance on many 2011 favourite’s lists.
‘Glow’ is immense and thrilling. The human drama kicks-off immediately as we meet Kiernan and Waverley on the day that their world changes forever. It starts with a proposal of marriage – a sweet gesture that somewhat frightens Waverley and leaves her feeling boxed-in . . . to the point that she finds herself momentarily day-dreaming about an old childhood ‘almost’ crush on the temperamental pilot’s son, Seth Ardvale. We also learn of Kieran’s revered ‘golden boy’ status as the first successful conception aboard the Empyrean – a twist of fate that sees him being groomed for the captaincy.
All of this human drama and personal chaos is woven into the very first pages. Ryan divulges a lot of subtle information about on-board power struggles and personal. Looking back, Ryan does most of her character-building very concisely in these first introductory scenes – but her writing is so seamless and happily immersive that as a reader you never feel inundated.
Ryan needed to establish characters very quickly – because the book’s plot is set at full-throttle and never lets up. Very early on in the book the real action kicks in and separates all of the characters – so we read the alternating narratives from both Kiernan and Waverley as one is kidnapped and the other left behind to mutiny. And that’s where things get interesting and dystopic. . .
Ryan has packed so much into ‘Glow’ – simply by splitting the narrators apart and writing very different versions of dystopia for both of them. Really, ‘Glow’ is two dystopias in one. An impressive accomplishment and no mean feat.
Waverley’s journey takes her on board the New Horizon, along with all of her captured female friends – teenage girls and toddlers alike. The New Horizon has no captain, only a Pastor by the name of Anne Mather. Mather is a kindly-looking, grandmotherly sort with a sinister agenda. God is on her side and the Empyrean girls are merely vessels through which to accomplish her zealous promise to bring new life to the New Horizon.
Anne Mather is, without a doubt, one of the best villains I have ever read. She is cunning and cruel – disarmingly sweet, until someone crosses her. She is made even more terrifying for her religious fervour, which borders on maniacal.
Waverley’s time on the New Horizon is really an exploration of ideals – and the danger of blind faith. It is on this vessel that Ryan explores the dystopia of religion – not in a blameful or anti-religious way . . . she is merely observing what happens when human beings who have no hope find salvation in one person’s proclamations – and the lengths those people will go to uphold their beliefs.
“Oh, I guess because I’m jealous.”
For a long time Amanda didn’t answer; she just stroked the canvas with charcoal. “I wanted to be one of the first mothers of New Earth. I thought it was my destiny.”
Waverley said nothing.
“But you’ll get to. You’ll be a progenitor of thousands, maybe millions of colonists on New Earth. You’ll be celebrated and remembered by an entire planet full of people. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden. Well, you and the rest of the girls.”
“I never thought about it that way,” Waverley said. A chill passed over the backs of her shoulders.
“When you think about it, it’s almost your duty, if you know what I mean. To be a mother.”
Meanwhile, onboard the Empyrean the boys are left behind. The girls have been taken – their friends, sisters, and girlfriends all gone. The adults are in serious danger, and it’s left to the young boys to fend for themselves and steady the ship. But power struggles quickly surface – Kieran’s control is questioned and he finds himself in a battle of sabotage against Seth Ardvale. It is onboard the male-run Empyrean that Ryan’s dystopia devolves into human power struggles – like a ‘Lord of the Flies’ outbreak, it is a look at what happens when greed and power corrupt the mind.
Both of Ryan’s dystopian explorations – on two different space ships – are disturbingly intriguing and psychological. Honestly, the boy’s Empyrean power-struggles could be likened to the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, while Waverley’s New Horizon experience is almost a struggle against Stockholm syndrome. Ryan has really distilled her dystopia into a thrillingly complex look at humanity. And I can’t wait for more ‘Sky Chasers’ books, as I think Ryan’s future explorations will be into the creation of a dystopian society . . . from the ground –up.
Of course these vast dystopian explorations are all well and good – but what made this book into a page-turner for me were the character’s individual struggles. Waverley is a brilliantly strong and steely character. Her hardships in ‘Glow’ are immeasurable, but her spirit is never easily broken and her fighting-spirit is tremendous. Likewise, Kieran started out as a cardboard cut-out hero (all dull and superior) but quickly developed into a complex and broken young man who was vastly more interesting for the challenges faced.
And because Ryan sets up Kieran and Waverley’s romance early on, it makes for a fantastic touchstone throughout the book. Both Waverley and Kiernan constantly come back to their love for one another – and their vow to keep searching for each other, and be reunited. But Ryan has also written an unfurling love triangle in the form of Seth Ardvale . . .
I must admit, early on I was more intrigued by Seth than Kieran. I always like an under-dog and unlikely love-interest . . . and there was just something about the golden boy, Kieran, versus Seth’s unpopular quick-temper that had me siding with Ardvale. For a while though, I thought that Ryan deliberately devolved Seth into a villain, rather than love interest. But Ryan’s novel is more complex than that, her characters more gray. The books ends on an intense cliff-hanger – hinting that her characters are more multi-faceted than I originally gave them credit for.
‘Glow’ is a slice of stunning dystopic space operatic brilliance. Amy Kathleen Ryan’s first ‘Sky Chasers’ book will have your blood pumping and fury surging as she writes two very different power struggles playing out onboard space ships destined for a new world order. ‘Glow’ is heart-wrenchingly brilliant, and it will most certainly be taking its rightful place on my 2011 favourite’s list.
Holly is a social worker in the toughest town of Sydney, Elizabethtown (affectionately called ‘Befftown’). She works closely with registered nurse, Nick (affectionately called ‘Nicholarse’), and together they work the town’s toughest hood, Jindarra Street.
After Holly and Nick make a gruesome discovery at the home of one of their clients, Holly starts backtracking through her life leading up to a potential crossroads that lies before her. . .
Holly’s story is sliced between ‘now’ and ‘then’, and focuses on four important men who continue to exert their influence in her life, even though some of them are dead and gone.
There’s her beloved boyfriend Tim (‘Timbo’), who Holly has just moved into an apartment with. Nick is her co-worker; a bong-addicted nurse who is 26 to Holly’s 24, he attends circus school in his days off and Holly is becoming increasingly wary of their relationship, while also enamoured of their effortless friendship. Liam was Holly’s bus-friend at school, a year above her and apart of the ‘cool’ crowd; Holly harboured a secret crush on him for years before he became an official member of her uni gang . . . but the story of Liam’s absence in Holly’s life now is a slow and painful explanation, and needs time to be told. And then there’s Holly’s dead father – an out-spoken Left-winger who used to crop up in the newspapers all the time (and incited the Liberal fury of a few of Holly’s classmates’ parents). Her father died when Holly was in Year Ten, and she never quite recovered from the loss.
Events in Holly’s life, from job dissatisfaction to inconvenient thoughts about her dreadlocked co-worker, have Holly questioning her life and the path she is on (and how she got here in the first place). As Holly backtracks through the relationships and death that helped define her, she battles losing touch with the very people in the present who once defined her past.
‘Holier Than Thou’ is the new Australian young adult novel from Laura Buzo.
Last year I read Laura Buzo’s ‘Good Oil’, and found a new favourite Australian author. In ‘Good Oil’, Buzo told a deceptively simple story of first-time-love and heartbreak, which was so brutally honest that it was simply sublime. However, I was somewhat disheartened by the wide-open ending of ‘Good Oil’, and asked Ms Buzo in a Q&A if she had plans for a sequel. At the time she replied with an infuriating ‘possibly’ – and mentioned that her next novel seemed to be taking up a ‘bigger canvas’, and was unrelated to ‘Good Oil’. Now having read ‘Holier Than Thou’ I feel I should say that ‘bigger canvas’ was an understatement. I should also say that, as someone who had my fingers crossed for a ‘Good Oil’ sequel, I feel that ‘Holier Than Thou’ is a logical sort-of extension of Buzo’s first book, and I am actually glad that I read this book before any sort of sequel to Amelia and Chris’s story.
‘Holier Than Thou’ is a prime example of why I love Aussie YA so darn much. Buzo’s book is exactly what I was talking about back in November 2011 when I tried to explain my affinity for the YA literature of my homeland; ‘It's about holding a mirror up, finding a spark and a connection, recognizing a little of yourself in the stories and setting. It's that 'aha!' moment, when you're sure the author is writing about you and yours, the possibility that this story could be set in your hometown and you recognize a character from your own friendship group.’ ‘Holier Than Thou’ is that spark, connection and ‘aha’ moment – it is, simply, an incredible book.
The plot of ‘Holier Than Thou’ sounds complex – so much so that after reading the blurb, I really didn’t have a clue what kind of book I was getting into. The nuts and bolts of the plot are tangled and complicated. We begin in the present, and then backtrack to one year earlier and follow Holly’s life leading up to the explosive opening chapter. But as Holly begins re-examining her life, and friendships, she starts reminiscing about the past – and her core group of high school/uni friends who are slowly starting to drift away (and in one case, vanish to Canberra) in the present. Complicated? Yes. But this is a book about that strange age of mid-20’s, when everything is changing and the ties that bind start loosening. This is a book that explores the very tangled webs of friendships and buried hurts – it is meant to be complicated (such is life). The tangles make this a tantalizing read – and even though the back and forth time-shifts sound confusing, Buzo executes them beautifully. She writes Holly’s recounting of the past like trains of thought that she is following in the present – she leaves bread-crumbs in her real-time narrative about her father’s death and ‘the one that got away’, and as readers we happily (and hungrily) follow the trail. Tangled? Definitely? Worth the journey? Absolutely.
We meet Holly when she’s 24 and past the point of ‘newbie’ in her social worker job. She is now at the part when she knows her job is to put bandaids on bullet wounds – to work long hours for crappy pay and still be expected to meet Government targets and sit performance reviews. She is starting to wonder what got her to this point, and if she’s strong enough to stay in a job that seems determined to slowly suck the life out of her. Holly’s job is a real focal point of the book, and particularly fascinating. Laura Buzo actually is a social worker, and she writes her true-to-life struggles through Holly beautifully. From the healthcare system that doesn’t care about the ‘crazies’, to people’s misconceptions about what social workers do and the patients they treat.
Meanwhile, Holly has just moved out of home and into an apartment with her scrumptious boyfriend, Tim. For a little while there, Holly had the trifecta – her home life, love life and career in some sort of sync. But then it all starts going pear-shaped. Holly becomes more and more enamoured of her co-worker, Nick. She becomes despondent in her thankless job, and her home life degenerates into nights spent on the couch with Tim, watching telly and spying on her neighbours in the building across the way.
Holly becomes increasingly despairing of the way her life is changing, and the myriad of ways that her past is disconnecting from her present. Holly tries to organize catch-ups with her old high school/uni friends, with little success. Lara, Abigail and Daniel were her rocks in high school, particularly when her father died. But their jobs and commitments are pulling them all further and further apart. Abigail is training to be a doctor. Dan works for a corporation that deals in lay-offs, and Lara works for a law firm with dubious big-business clientele. Holly especially doesn’t want to lose these friends, since they are already one man down. Liam started as Holly’s bus-buddy in high school. Eventually, Liam slowly and thrillingly progressed into their social group – and pretty soon they were an inseparable fivesome; Dan, Lara, Abigail, Holly and Liam. But then it all went horribly wrong when Holly started to act on her long-standing crush on Liam.
Memories of Liam start creeping back into Holly’s thoughts when her casual work friendship with Nick takes on a new rhythm and connection. In Nick, Holly has an intellectual and visceral bond – much like she once did with Liam. Nick and Holly do have an enviously syncing connection – they motivate one another with ‘Gallipoli’ quotes (“What are your legs?” / “Steel springs!”) and their banter is enviably witty and warm. He affectionately calls Holly ‘Holier-Than-Thou’, for her seeming unbending moral core. But Nick is proving to be a potentially dangerous temptation;
‘A nurse and a social worker took fifteen minutes out of their *** thankless job in the roughest corner of town, sat on a couple of milk crates drinking coffee, flopped their real selves out on the cement and both liked what they saw.’
‘Nicholarse. That’s beautiful.’ I didn’t know where to look.
‘You get me through the days, Hollier-than-thou.’
‘Likewise.’ I drained my coffee cup and our moment was shattered by the shouting of one of Nick’s clients who had spied us in the alcove.
Dissatisfaction at work has Holly thinking about what led her to becoming a social worker. One of the old-timer social workers comments that it’s past hurt which equips social workers with more capacity for caring, and that’s true of Holly. Losing her father to cancer in Year Ten left a wound that Holly is only just starting to reopen and re-examine.
‘Holier Than Thou’ is definitely going to be a 2012 favourite. It feels like I read this book at the right time – like Holly, I am 24 going on 25 and relatively settled in my first ‘real’ job. I too am dealing with drifting friendships and changing relationships. I could even relate to Holly’s touchstones and young influences;
Finishing Year Twelve had been a blessed relief. Although, having read ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ several times since Year Eight, I was disappointed that Year Twelve did not bring me a handsome, salt-of-the-earth boyfriend and ultimate emancipation from all that ailed my teenage soul.
Funny that Buzo references Melina Marchetta, because ‘Holier Than Thou’ did remind me of ‘The Piper’s Son’. Like Marchetta’s ‘Saving Francesca’ follow-up, ‘Holier Than Thou’ is about that odd time in your life when you start growing and changing, leaving friends behind and trying to hold on tight to others. Buzo reminded me of Marchetta – they both favour gritty ‘real’ stories and they don’t shy away from teaching tough life lessons. Likewise, Buzo’s characters are like Marchetta’s in that they’re enviably quick-witted individuals who banter beautifully and make the reader wish they were real people that we could be friends with. These characters are also entirely fallible, and relatable for their imperfections. Holly makes mistakes in her friendship/relationship with Nick, not because she’s a mean person or doesn’t love Tim, but because her instant connection with Nick surprises her in its intensity, totally catching her off guard. Holly has very high ideals of how she’s supposed to be (partly to live up to her dead father’s standards). Holly reminded me of that Missy Higgin’s song, ‘The Special Two’; ‘And you make boundaries you'd never dream to cross’. Over the course of the book Holly also comes to slowly accept that she might have made mistakes in her friendship with Liam. Likewise, she is starting to realize that her friends, those people she relied on so much in her youth, are not necessarily the people she needs around her in the future. That’s a hard lesson to learn, when to cut ties and accept that the past is in the past.
‘Holier Than Thou’ is a story of tangled webs and grey areas. Protagonist Holly Yarkov is not perfect, but she is brilliant. You will wish Holly was a real person, so you could count her amongst your friends. She is caring, funny, equipped with ‘steel springs’ and an enviable backbone. Holly is an entirely relatable protagonist; she’s at that mid-way point in her 20’s when relationships start dropping off and life events begin changing us for better or worse. . . What was really incredible in this book was the beautiful melding of Holly’s past and present. We follow her memories as events in the present trigger thoughts of her dead father and Liam, her ‘one that got away’. And although we know the outcome of those memories, Buzo’s writing is so seamless and addictive that even Holly’s unfolding past-heartbreak with Liam keeps you on the edge of your seat, futilely rooting for a happy outcome, even though you know it cannot be.
Buzo has written another beautiful young adult novel that doesn’t pull punches, but tells a beautifully relatable tale of lost love, missed chances, growing up and growing apart. As good as ‘Good Oil’ and further proof (not that I needed it) that Buzo is fast becoming a powerful new voice in Australian YA.
One, a child with no capacity to feel emotional pain and no ability to understand the emotions of others.
Another, the opposite, a child of such pure emotional connection that she would have known where and why you had an itch before you even knew that a mosquito bit you.
And the third, a laser beam of concentrated brilliance – pure, personified intelligence.
And there you have it. The Psychopath, the Empath and the Genius.
Together, they can create harmony. You know, heal the world. Peace, love and hummus, baby.
But the big problem was, according to the Telling, they could also be used as a weapon if the wrong person got a hold of them, schooled them up the wrong way. You see, they have to be taught about their Calling. They have to be instructed from their earliest years in how to use their powers, in how to fulfil their destiny, in how to save the rest of us. They need guidance, the right parents. They need love.
Those children were born to the witch, Morgan Moreau, who died birthing the genius. Then the children were separated – and that’s where the story really begins.
‘Disharmony’ is the first book in a new Australian YA series by Leah Giarratano.
Samantha White is a stolen Gaje-princess, living with her adoptive gypsy family in Pantelimon, Romania. She is sixteen-years-old, and loves her family dearly, even if she knows she isn’t really one of them. Lala is the closest thing to a mother that Sam has ever had, and she teaches her how to trick foolish Gaje (non-Romony) out of their money during fortune-teller sessions. Only, sometimes Sam’s gypsy witchery is real – sometimes she can tell when a person’s heart is breaking, or they’re too blind to see their own ignorance. Sam loves walking through the forest at night, hanging out with her best friend Mirela or meeting up with her pickpocket friend, Birthday Jones, in the streets of Bucharest. Sam also loves being near Tamas – a fellow gypsy boy who tends to the camp’s horses, and has held Sam’s heart since she was just a girl.
But the winds of change are coming; Sam can feel them chilling her skin. The gypsy king – an overweight ex-mobster – has his sights set on Sam and her ability to read people’s fortunes with such pin-point accuracy, beyond just a gypsy show. Sam and her friends find themselves running through the city streets, being chased by gypsy mobsters, female ninjas and other villains who belong in comic books, not real life;
The girl seemed clad in a black rubber membrane. Toe to throat, she wore a single skin-like sheath that slicked across lean limbs and muscles. She wore a high, shiny-black ponytail, a filigreed-blossom tattoo on her neck, and a smile like nuclear waste. Samantha’s first thought was to wonder whether they might be the same age; her second was to decide that she had never seen a more beautiful girl. Her third thought tore at her heart: who or what had created a creature so completely devoid of human feeling?
Meanwhile, across the seas in the Dwight Juvenile Justice Detention Centre, Sydney, Australia resides Luke Black. A childhood spent in foster care has taught Luke a thing or two – about never trusting anyone and always looking out for yourself. So he’s a little surprised when new inmate, Zac Nguyen, defends him during a scuffle with a fellow kid. And why Zac keeps saving his butt when a weird new inmate attacks him for seemingly no reason, after mistakenly calling him ‘Lucifer’.
‘Disharmony’ switches between Luke’s story and Samantha’s, as they both battle with mysterious foes and begin learning the secrets of their orphaned past … all the while we, the reader, are seemingly being led down the plotted path by ‘User: Intellicide’ – a mysterious narrator logged-in who needs us to know of The Telling, to understand what is coming.
If it sounds like a lot is going on in Giarratano’s debut YA book, you’d be right. She throws us into the deep end and then writes at a break-neck pace – sliding between Romania and Sydney, dropping hints of ‘The Telling’ and unwinding the complicated histories (and even more complicated destiny’s) of our two protagonists . . .
What makes ‘Disharmony’ even more complex is that as readers, we know more about Sam and Luke than they do. Our protagonist’s are living in ignorance of their true selves, and while readers are made privy to the history and mystery surrounding ‘The Telling’ and the murderous mother witch, Morgan Moreau, Luke and Sam only start to play catch-up when assassins and ninjas start coming out of the woodwork and conspiring to let them in on the secret of their lives. Heck, even readers know that Sam and Luke are twins – different sides to the same coin, an empath and a psychopath, two pieces to the prophetic puzzle. So ‘Disharmony’ feels like a lot of push and pull, between readers piecing the puzzle together and then reading how Luke and Sam are slowly coming to see the truth. . . it doesn’t always work, this disparity between the reader knowing more than the protagonists, but it is an interesting plot twist. What’s even more interesting is how we are all waiting, with bated breath, to know more of ‘the genius’ – the third child of the prophecy who is conspicuously missing from ‘Disharmony’s’ narration.
One thing I really loved in the book was Samantha’s story, set in a Romanian gypsy camp. I’m going to reveal a guilty pleasure and say I’m a big fan of the TV show ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ – and I was really impressed at how Giarratano wrote such a true and fascinating gypsy home for Samantha. Everything from their Gaje-cons, to the lovely family community and male-dominated households was very honest and compelling. I also loved the people in Sam’s life – like Birthday Jones (his quirky real name, courtesy of a smart-aleck night nurse) a pick-pocket living on the streets. Then there’s Tamas – Sam’s crush and a veritable horse-whisperer with killer smile and allergy to t-shirts. Giarratano wrote a really vibrant community around Sam, and I look forward to how that community will hold up in the wake of Sam’s revelations. . .
Luke’s story is much bleaker – set in a juvenile detention centre and revealing the hard-knock life he has had. Leah Giarratano is a psychologist, and I think it showed in Luke’s story, with regards to the bullying inside the government facility (from staff, as well as fellow boys), really interesting if a little disheartening. The bright spot in Luke’s story is his developing friendship with Zac – a new inmate whose rake-like vegan physique belies his whip-quick fighting skills. Luke and Zac have some fantastic moments in ‘Disharmony’, and are a great buddy-pairing. I do wish though, that the character of Luke had revealed a bit more of his psychopathic-tendencies. I don’t mean I wanted to read about him killing kittens or anything, and I’m not even sure if Giarratano intended for readers to be guessing if Luke was the genius or psychopath (once it became obvious that Sam was the empath) – I just needed a little more evidence of Luke’s nature. It might also be because ‘Disharmony’ is told in third-person, omniscient narration that we don’t get inside Luke’s head to know how unfeeling he really is, but by the time it was revealed that he was the psychopath – I wasn’t entirely convinced.
Overall, I really enjoyed ‘Disharmony’. Giarratano has written a dark and twisted new series that’s wholly unique and has the potential for great longevity. She left enough tantalizing breadcrumbs in ‘Disharmony’ to have me eager for the second instalment, to continue Luke, Sam and their mysterious sibling’s journey to prophecy. . . and the big question remains; will their coming together bring about peace, or destruction? I don’t know, but I’m going to enjoy finding out!
World, meet Gracie Faltrain. She’s in year 10, is her school’s soccer superstar and the renegade girl who plays on the boy’s team. Gracie is a phenomenal player, because when she’s on the field she grows wings and never misses a goal. But she plays for herself. She doesn’t pass or share the glory – when Gracie Faltrain plays, she plays to win, and nobody better get in her way.
But Gracie is slowly starting to learn that winning by yourself isn’t nearly as satisfying as sharing the triumph with a team. The same way her family isn’t whole when her dad is away and her mum misses him. Or how Gracie is lost when her best friend, Jane, moves to England for her dad’s work, and Gracie becomes a social outcast at school. Soccer is about teamwork, sharing the glory and commiserating the loss . . . the same can be said of friendships and relationships.
We stay with Gracie through to year eleven. She’s still a soccer superstar, but one year on and she has gained a friend – the geeky, shy and sweet Alyce Fuller is firmly under Gracie’s wing. Then there’s Andrew Flemming, Gracie’s soccer teammate who has finally become a friend, and the object of Alyce’s affections. Then there’s Martin Knight – soccer captain and Gracie’s new boyfriend. Martin’s mum left eight years ago, and her absence still stings. But Gracie Faltrain is here to save the day and fix everyone’s problems, even if she doesn’t understand them. Gracie’s about to learn though, that sometimes you’ve got to let yourself lose when there’s just no way to win.
And, finally, we’re with Grace in her final year of high school. Dan Woodbury is a player from the opposition, but that doesn’t mean Gracie can’t be intrigued by his lip-ring and flying skills. Jane is back from England and dreaming of Gracie’s teammate, Corelli, in his Superman suit. Alyce Fuller is completey and totally over Andew Flemming . . . right when he realizes how much he wants her back. Annabelle Orion is going from annoying mean-girl to Gracie’s arch-nemesis in record time, and Martin doesn’t want anything to do with Gracie anymore. But the championships are around the corner, and Gracie has to make some big decisions about where soccer fits into the great scheme of her future.
Cath Crowley’s ‘Gracie Faltrain’ series debuted in 2004 with ‘The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain’. In 2006 Crowley wrote ‘Gracie Faltrain Takes Control’, and she concluded the series in 2008 with ‘Gracie Faltrain Gets It Right (Finally)’.
Ever since falling in love with Crowley’s ‘Graffiti Moon’ I have had a voracious appetite for her written word. So it was with utter glee that I delved into the ‘Gracie Faltrain’ series . . . and, as has become her MO, Cath Crowley does not disappoint in the least.
The ‘Gracie Faltrain’ series spans three years in the high school soccer career of one Gracie Faltrain – only girl on the boy’s soccer team and catastrophic klutz. Gracie is a superb character, and even though she’s nothing like Crowley’s other beloved female leads, Charlie Duskin or Lucy, Gracie still has the feel of a Crowley creation. She’s a tomboy with a temper, often time oblivious to the thoughts and feelings of others around her (until it’s too late), loyal to a fault and fiercely competitive. She’s brilliant. Throughout the three books we read how Gracie gets it so, so wrong . . . and sometimes she learns how to save the game, but other times her lesson comes from accepting defeat and knowing when she’s beat.
Helping Gracie along the way is a cast of unforgettable secondary characters aplenty. Gracie is our main narrator, but over the course of three books each major and minor character gets their turn at narrating. Gracie’s parents take the lead a lot in the first book, explaining their side of separation and how hard it is to watch Gracie muck up from the sidelines of her life. But in the final two books the narrative voice is taken over by Gracie’s nearest and dearest friends. There’s her best friend, Alyce, the school nerd who gets her heart broken by a popular soccer jock. Andrew Flemming, said popular jock who learns his own self-worth only when the girl he hurt proves it to him. Jane, Gracie’s other best friend, relegated to England for the first two books but back in Australia for the finale and with a broken internal GPS. Martin Knight, in turns Gracie’s biggest fan and harshest commentator.
Multiple narrations are definitely Cath Crowley’s style – it’s her groove and signature move, and it works pitch-perfectly in ‘Gracie Faltrain’. When I first read the plethora of POVs in ‘The Life and Times’ I was a little overwhelmed – particularly when we get Gracie’s parents narrating too. But it works. Once Crowley gets readers into her rhythm, it becomes the most natural thing to be given a window into these people’s heads, to read the ways they bounce off each other and fall in misunderstandings and tangled webs. And Gracie’s parents offer some of the most poignant insights of the entire series;
I read somewhere that spiders can spin silk strong enough to hold the weight of a thousand trucks. I tried to imagine those lines of silver, thinner than air, stronger than steel. Sometimes I think that a hundred webs, invisible gossamers, connect Gracie and me. They coat our bodies, tie our limbs together, link our hearts. They can stretch across cities, countries – even anger. Unbreakable. I felt them that first time I watched her play soccer.
She needed to win so badly. I watched a new Gracie crack out of her cocoon that day. Grey, moth-like, she seemed covered in a dust that let her take to the air. Fly. They’re beautiful things, moths, with their dark patterned wings hooking on wind to push them forward. You have to be careful with them, though. Brush them just lightly, and they can’t fly anymore.
Also, in the multiple narrations, certain character’s voices come to echo Crowley’s other works. Martin Knight is still living in the aftermath of his mother’s abandonment, and there’s a little of the heartsick Charlie Duskin and Ed in him. Likewise, when Gracie’s enemy, Annabelle Orion, takes the narrative reigns, her insights hint at some of the same struggles that Charlie Duskin goes through. It’s the same with Alyce Fuller, the no-hope nerd who is ignored by everyone (including Gracie) in the first book – she too has echoes of Charlie. All of these characters touch on what Cath Crowley is most curious about in her writing – people on the fringe, looking in. She loves the misfits and no-hopers, the ones who kick themselves down . . . and then she writes beautifully about how they get back up. They’re all here in the ‘Gracie Faltrain’ books, and they are lovely to read. But be warned, this is a series that will cause tears. But hey, no pain no gain, and there’s a lot to gain from the ‘Gracie Faltrain’ series.
I love, love, loved all three of these books. This is a wonderful series about fighting for what you want and not being afraid to stuff up, just so long as you admit when you’re wrong and do your damndest to make amends. And this series is funny. Gracie is infectious; her klutzy catastrophes will leave you belly-aching, and the social shenanigans Gracie finds herself in will leave you vicariously red-faced.
Hands up if anyone else fells like they’re in a strange life-looping door that keeps swinging back to hit them on the butt?
Cath Crowley is truly one of Australia’s finest YA authors. ‘Gracie Faltrain’ is a series with a lot of heart; exploring the pitfalls and soars of high school through the wonderfully fumbling Gracie Faltrain. If you loved ‘Graffiti Moon’ and ‘Chasing Charlie Duskin’, then be assured that Cath Crowley has been writing on a role since way back in 2004. . .
‘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*!