Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl
Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl comes out in September this year. This is an early review on an ARC I received at BEA.

The Premise: It’s fall semester of freshman year, and Cather (aka Cath, the Less Adventurous Twin), feels lost amongst the other undergraduates. Her sister Wren has basically abandoned her (“if we do this together, people will treat us like we’re the same person”); her dad is home alone and Cath worries about that; her roommate Reagan is scary, and comes with the too-friendly Levi, who is in their room all the time. All Cath wants is to be left alone to work on her massively popular and novel length Simon and Baz fan fiction, Carry On, but college is getting in the way, and college is hard.

My Thoughts: Reading Fangirl is a comforting exercise. It’s one of those books where you open it’s pages and don’t notice the words because it takes no time to be engulfed. What’s more, nothing extraordinary may be happening on the page — moving into the dorms, briefly meeting a new roommate, saying goodbye to relatives, but there is an engrossing quality to how the characters reveal themselves through their everyday interactions. Well, sort of everyday. It’s not every day you move away from home and have your support system disappear. Titular character Cath thinks that college is hard, but I think the real issue is having to do it alone. Without her twin Wren at her side, Cath is too anxious to even go to the cafeteria by herself and lives off a stash of energy bars rather than find out where it is. She sits in the bathroom stalls quietly crying while the other girls in her hall are meeting one another. She is a quintessential introvert, her mind focused on an inner world, and who doesn’t like to get out of her comfort zone. Her sister may call her 3 year (now long distance) boyfriend an “end table”, but Cath is content with things being as they are.

You know where this is going. Cath can’t have the world stay safe and easy, and it won’t pause for her. Eventually she has to interact with others and be absorbed into new people’s orbits, and no matter what she does, other people and their lives affect hers. First (and most obvious) to impact her is her sister’s desertion, a strange flip in loyalty that leaves Cath floundering, but her sister is not the only family member that can rattle Cath. In college itself, Cath can’t avoid her roommate Reagan or the ubiquitous Levi, but then there’s also people from her classes like Nick from Creative Writing and the assortment of new acquaintances Cath picks up because she doesn’t want to be rude.

What I liked though, is that Cath got to stay herself while having to accept change. This is not a story with the moral that being introverted does you no good; it’s perfectly fine to be that way. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the story is Cath’s private world and her devotion to the Simon Snow series.  Fan fiction is so popular now, it’s practically mainstream, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a story that embraces that subculture the way that Fangirl does. I don’t think of myself as part of that subculture, but even I know about ‘slash’ and ‘ships’, and there’s a certain joy in recognizing that Simon Snow is a riff on Harry Potter. Obviously (points at book blog), I get the whole fan and being into books thing, and any time Cath waxed poetic about characters she loves, or I read excerpts of Simon Snow or Cath’s fan fiction (placed like intermissions between chapters) and recognized elements, I grinned internally. I loved how this is important to Cath’s life and reflects as such in her conversations and relationshipsSimon or simply, “stories” and “storytelling” is shared ground between Cath and others and there are a lot of scenes where it is the bridge between minds.

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For all of Cath’s fangirl-ly-ness I connected with Cath while also not really connecting with her. The introverted, wanting-to-be-alone parts I could understand, but some of her more extreme coping mechanisms (like not bothering to find the cafeteria and essentially starving) I could not. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is that even if I didn’t always understand her, I always felt for Cath. It was the same for the secondary characters who didn’t always make the best choices but managed to make me care about them. This is what I want New Adult fiction to be–not a marketing term that means sex, but an extension of the coming-of-age tale into a post-adolescent bracket. Fangirl captures the awkward unsure side of tasting independence for the first time.

The last thing I want to say about Fangirl is that it is surprising. There were some things that I was expecting, but in the end, this story made it’s characters a lot more complicated than I thought they were going to be, and thus bucked all my predictions. This includes a blossoming romance that I thought was going to be smooth and sweet but defied me by being almost painfully uncertain instead (and was the better for it). If you think you know what’s going to happen after reading the first 50 pages, you’d probably be wrong. The plot is essentially about relationship growth, and every single relationship Cath began in safe little boxes and mushroomed out to be unique and nuanced and entirely different beasts from which they began.

Overall: Really, really, good. I found very little to complain about, and when I did, it was always a personal reaction to a character’s actions and no reflection on the actual writing or story — not worth going over in this review.  And it actually seems to get better the more I reflect on it after finishing it. I hadn’t read anything by Rainbow Rowell before but it hasn’t missed my attention how many fans she has in the book blogging community. I waited in line for a copy of Fangirl because of the hype, and it was a very long wait. I can tell you now: it was utterly worth it.

P.S. How about that cover? I felt proud of myself for recognizing the artwork of gingerhaze.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Not yet as far as I could tell (I searched amongst my book blog friends), but if I missed yours, let me know.

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Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer

This was a surprise gift from generous fellow blogger Chachic over the winter holidays (thanks Chachic!). Seeing Me Naked is a book I’d been eying for a while and it arrived just in time to fulfill a craving for contemporary story with a bit of romance.

Seeing Me Naked
Liza Palmer

The Premise: Elisabeth Page is the pastry chef for a fancy restaurant in L.A. Her five-year plan was to one day open her own patisserie, but after the five years come and go, and then another five, Elisabeth wonders if that will ever happen. With a father who is world renowned novelist Ben Page, and a brother who is a publishing wunderkind, Elisabeth feels the pressure of unfulfilled expectations of her intellectual family. Her romantic life is no better than her professional one. Her relationship with Will, childhood-friend turned world-traveling journalist consists of a few nights of passion when Will breezes into town, then months of separation while Will is following a story. Then Daniel Sullivan wins the basket of pastries and private baking classes that Elisabeth donated to one of her mother’s charity events, and Elisabeth’s career begins to go in an unexpected direction. Can Elisabeth let go of her own expectations and try something different?

My Thoughts: I had to think a little bit to put Seeing Me Naked into a category.  Even though this story has an obvious romantic arc, Seeing Me Naked is a lot more focused on Elisabeth and her personal growth than it is on the relationship to be a strict Romance. It does focus on a single woman and her career and relationship with her family but it isn’t quite lighthearted enough to be put into chick lit (although there is some humor in it). I think the closest term might be “women’s fiction”, but that feels like it could be too big of an umbrella term. Really, this gave off the vibe of a mix between a literary novel and chick lit.

At first Elisabeth’s life was rather bland and lonely. She lives alone in an apartment close to work, follows a set routine every day, and doesn’t really socialize. Her life revolves around her stressful job making desserts at a high end L.A. restaurant with a tyrant for a boss. When she goes home to see her parents in wealthy Montecito, the dynamics there are similarly overshadowed by her father, a literary giant with a matching ego. While her high society mother (heiress to the Foster Family Fortune) is supportive of her children, Ben Page is a tougher, more critical parent. Dinner is a battle of wits and intellect with the great Ben Page presiding.  As for her relationship with childhood friend Will, Elisabeth hardly sees him and is tired of them leading separate lives.

As we say our goodbyes in the foyer, I look around at all that defines me. The rubric for success in my family has always been about legacy–what imprint will you make on this world. I have tired to live by these standards all my life. Measuring success and love by the teaspoon, always falling short, the goal constantly out of reach. My five-year plan has become an unending road to nowhere, both professionally and personally.

Despite all this, Elisabeth wasn’t actively trying to change her life. Instead she continued on while the stress made her stomach hurt. Elisabeth struck me as a steady type of character with a quiet creativity, a love of food, and gently sarcastic voice. But I was worried about a certain amount of ingrained judgementality she had. Maybe judgementality isn’t the right word — it was just that she seemed to have a self-imposed set of restrictions on herself and was trying to adhere to what she thought were her family’s unspoken expectations. For example, it felt like there was an assumption of who she should be and who she should be with. Any relationship outside these parameters is assumed to be temporary, like all of her brother Rascal’s “giant lollipop head” girlfriends. When regular guy Daniel enters the picture, he seemed to me like the most honest person in her life, but I wasn’t sure that SHE saw that. I think that this first impression could turn some readers off. I’m thankful that the back blurb of this book hints that the story is about Elisabeth having “the guts to let others see her naked…and let them love her, warts and all” because that made me trust that this story would go to a better place. That, and the setting of the story which kept me interested by giving me fascinating glimpses into a life that’s set in L.A. and revolves around food.

Seeing Me Naked takes its sweet time, but there is satisfaction in reading Seeing Me Naked all the way to the end. It’s enjoyable to sit back while the nature of the characters is revealed organically, their dialogue and actions and Elisabeth’s own reactions to them deftly sculpting clear personalities. And then there’s Elisabeth’s own character. She doesn’t actively seek change, but Elisabeth is smart enough not to fight it when a good things fall onto her lap. And the best part is she works to keep these good things. If you can handle Elisabeth in her rut, you will be rewarded by a very cathartic last few pages.  Where things ultimately go left me quite content.

Overall: I enjoyed this one but I can understand why this is an under-the-radar book. It’s not quite literary fiction, not quite chicklit, and not just about self-discovery, but it has elements of all three, so it falls in a difficult to categorize place which can mean you’re unsure as a reader what you’re going to get. Also, the story doesn’t start in the best point of Elisabeth’s life and rolls forward quietly, without much fanfare — so the reward of reading isn’t immediate. It’s much later in the story that the big gestures happen, so you have to be OK with waiting and watching characters grow, enjoying the way the writing builds the story layer by layer, experiencing food and L.A. through Elisabeth’s eyes and trusting that things will get good. They do though.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Chachic’s Book Nook – “I didn’t expect to get emotional over Seeing Me Naked but I’m glad that it surprised me.”
Angieville – “The characters are complex and carefully rendered. There is no black and white in the intricate web of family relationships they navigate.”
The Book Harbinger – ” wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Seeing Me Naked to casual and seasoned readers who like complex, multivalent chick lit.”

Psych Major Syndrome by Alicia Thompson

A few weeks ago I went to the Greenburgh Library Book Sale and picked up several books, including this one. Isn’t the cover adorable? I think the wistful, fresh-faced look of the cover model is a perfect representation for what’s inside.

Psych Major Syndrome
Alicia Thompson

The Premise: Leigh Nolan is a freshman psychology major at Stiles College – a progressive school where students aren’t graded and are expected to take charge of their own education. In a small school like Stiles, this means quite a few over achievers, “freaking out about their entire academic career” a couple of months into their first year. It’s a trying time, but on top of trying to decide on a topic for her senior thesis, mentoring cynical middle school students, and dealing with other competitive psych majors, Leigh is also questioning her relationship with Andrew, her high school boyfriend and fellow Stiles underclassman. Lately their relationship has lost it’s luster, and Leigh is confused by how much she’s noticing Nathan, Andrew’s roommate who never seems happy to be around her.

My Thoughts: Well this was as cute a story as I was hoping for. I think it has the right amount of the expected love story, but it’s balanced by writing that gives Leigh a faceted and likable character. Her psychology major fits nicely with delving into her psyche.  Leigh is constantly self-evaluating and acknowledges her own quirks, which include (but are not limited to): refusing to buy a parking pass, waiting until the last minute with her assignments, and a fear of being stranded in the desert. To add to the theme, each chapter begins with a psychological term and its definition, which foreshadows what’s to come.

Ask her some psychology related thing, and Leigh can dredge up what she learned in AP Psychology and class. But for all her book smarts, Leigh is a bit naive. She still has NO clue that her relationship with her boyfriend is in trouble. When you forget a date, and so does he, it doesn’t really say you’re feverishly in love. Leigh’s roommate (and best friend) Ami isn’t enthusiastic about Andrew, but Leigh defends him:

“Ami doesn’t have the benefit of all these great memories, so she continues to think that he doesn’t treat me as well as I deserve. Which, in a way, is totally loyal and cool of her– but completely unfounded. Well, mostly. If anything, his main problem is just that he’s too smart.  He has so much going on in his brain at any given moment that it’s no wonder he’s a little absentminded sometimes.”

Leigh rationalizes Andrew’s non-attentiveness and the distancing that has happened between them since school started. To be honest, from Leigh’s workload, I can understand why it’s easy for her to do so. She’s quite busy with college herself.  Her day-to-day life involves going to class, meeting with her academic adviser, long talks with her roommate, and waiting till the last minute to do her work. (As an aside, Psych Major Syndrome captures the college experience really well — when Leigh stays up till 5am writing a 20-page essay, the details of falling asleep and waking up with barely enough time to hand it in, felt eerily familiar). But schoolwork only goes so far as an excuse, and eventually Leigh has to face what’s really going on between herself and Andrew.

In the meantime, all that schoolwork and the social life of college means that Leigh has a pretty full life, and it’s not all about her romantic relationships in this book. The interactions between Leigh and Ami, the other psychology students, her mentee, and Nathan are all natural extensions of her life and nothing ever feels forced about them. Even if I could predict exactly where the story was going to go, Psych Major Syndrome adds enough humor and color to make the predictability pleasant and comforting instead of dull. Also (and here I go back to the romance), Leigh’s happy ending is one of the sweetest ones I’ve read in a while. I ended up really liking the guy she is paired with, even if I thought he was a bit of a fantasy boy. I can overlook how Leigh acted before she figured out what she wanted because of how well this guy suited her – it all ended on just the right note.

Overall: A sweet and fast comfort read. It has a good balance between an expected plot and a unique approach to that plot. Leigh is an endearing narrator, and I enjoyed this reminder of college life.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
One More Page – ” a very entertaining contemporary YA read, even if there’s really nothing surprising about it”
A Room With Books – “Psych Major Syndrome was an okay read. Leigh was much too blind to everything around her for me really connect.”

Other:

Ghost Planet by Sharon Lynn Fisher

This review is based on an eARC sent to me by the publisher.

Ghost Planet
Sharon Lynn Fisher

The Premise: Elizabeth Cole was starting a new job as a psychologist on the newly discovered world of Ardagh 1, also known as “the ghost planet”. This is a place with a remarkable phenomenon – everyone who goes there starts being followed around by a manifestation of a deceased person they once knew. Why the local aliens have chosen to do this is a great mystery, but to cope, settlers have set up the Ghost Protocol. The protocol is not to acknowledge the ghosts whatsoever.  Interaction has had adverse effects and colonists find that ghosts weaken if ignored for long enough. When Elizabeth lands on the planet she is apprehensive about what will attach herself to her, and when she meets with her supervisor Dr. Grayson Murphy, her first thought is to wonder if he’s human. He is, but Elizabeth is in for a shock – she’s the one that’s the ‘ghost’! Her transport to the planet crashed, killing all aboard. Now Elizabeth is faced with the alarming prospect of knowing she’s ‘real’ but being treated as if she’s not. She has to fight for herself and against the Ghost Protocol, while being tethered to the man responsible for it.

Read an excerpt of Ghost Planet here

My Thoughts: I’m not sure how long Ghost Planet has been on my radar, but I’ve been following the author’s blog since sometime last year. Its premise just got me aflutter: a planet where everyone has ghost following them around? And the heroine is surprised to discover she’s a ghost too? And there’s chemistry with the guy she’s linked with? AND Linnea Sinclair calls it a “fresh and fascinating take on the human-alien problem”? Uh, yeah, needless to say, I had pre-ordered this long before I was contacted about a review.

The tarmac was deserted. Foggy and disoriented, I wondered how long I’d been standing there, listening to the evergreens groan in the wind and dreading my first encounter on this new world. Would it be human or alien?
I breathed in the crisp, impossibly clean air, trying to clear my head. My gaze traveled around the landing pad hemmed in by towering conifers, and came to rest on the transport terminal, oblong and silent under a slate-gray sky.
What now?
I had the unsettling feeling I was the only person on the planet—Ardagh 1, more commonly referred to as “the ghost planet” by people on Earth. Inexplicable things happened here. The planet itself was a study in the impossible.
Finally the terminal doors slid open, and a figure stepped out onto the tarmac. Half a dozen others spilled out behind him, and a transport whined into view, landing about thirty meters away.
The presence of the other passengers eased my sense of isolation. But that first man out of the building—he was headed right for me. My heart beat out a warning, and my mind snapped back to the original question: Human or alien?
“Elizabeth?” He raised his dark eyebrows, and my gaze locked on his startling eyes. Piercing, round, and the lightest shade of blue, like sky behind a veil of cloud—clean cloud, not the brown smudges that passed for clouds back on Earth. Something about him tugged at my memory, but I found this the opposite of reassuring.
“Yes?” I answered, uneasy. If he wasn’t human, I was minutes on the planet and already breaking the rules. It was dangerous to talk to them. There were institutions back on Earth devoted to caring for people who’d done so. I’d met some of those people.

I think my instinct for what I like served me well with this one. I loved the concept that promised some interesting world-building, but because this is also Romance, there’s a burgeoning relationship for me to enjoy too. I like a balance between these two things, and Ghost Planet does a good job of it. I especially liked this early on, when Elizabeth has to adjust to her new reality. What first struck me was that although she was on a new planet, far from Earth, her work as a psychologist was something relatable and not high-tech or military. She was a middle-class woman, without any special combat skills, just her degree. And because this was told from her point of view, having the ‘ghost’ tell the her side of story was a nice spin on the extra-terrestrial encounter trope: no one knows exactly what she is, but then, neither does she. Until she’s told she’s a ghost, Elizabeth doesn’t realize anything is wrong, and her shock and confusion at having her most basic identity questioned is good stuff. The irony is that the human Elizabeth was interested in the ‘ghosts’ from an academic standpoint before traveling to Ardagh 1. Now her experience with the Ghost Protocol is much more personal and her questions about her existence much more pressing.

At first it seems like Elizabeth’s unlucky to be attached to her would-be-supervisor Murphy. He’s the psychologist responsible for helping the settlers cope and he’s told them rejecting their ghosts is the best thing to do. But before he realized what she was, they were enjoying each other’s company. When Elizabeth turns out to be a ghost, it’s a surprise for both of them. So Murphy is kind to her and conflicted about his own protocol. Their relationship mirrors the people on both sides of the equation. On one side, there are the humans, wary of a phenomenon that has no explanation, on the other, there’s the ‘ghosts’, struggling to be acknowledged.

Because any interaction with Elizabeth is verboten, the relationship took some time to develop, and I enjoyed seeing how it happened despite the rules against it. Elizabeth’s persistence and Murphy’s empathy were characteristics that brought them closer, but the connection they forged from quiet proximity had it’s own power. The romance takes a natural path there that I liked, and Elizabeth and Murphy make a compatible couple. The one quibble I had, was that once they hit a turning point in their relationship, something went away. I think that that suddenly the discord came from sources external to the relationship, and these two were very harmonious.  I suppose at that point they had enough to deal with.

Anyway, this is a story with a healthy amount of romance but has a plot that doesn’t just evolve around that. There are some suspenseful, action-adventure aspects to the story and Elizabeth and Murphy have to face several threats to their lives. I can’t really go into these without spoiling the story, but I was impressed by how thoughtfully Ghost Planet explores the the ‘ghost’ concept in its storytelling. It’s a concept that’s also a mystery, and thankfully the author doesn’t leave the reader with a lot of hanging questions. It explores a lot of the questions I had and organically integrated the answers into the plot. For example, I’d wondered about other ‘ghosts’ and what they were like, what Elizabeth could do and not do as a ghost, what would happen if she was strengthened by Murphy rather than weakened, what happened if she tired to separate from him, and so on. I even felt like I got something of a satisfactory explanation for why the ‘ghosts’ were there in the first place, or at least a working theory that made sense to me, by the end of the story.

Overall: I’m excited about other people discovering this author. I thought Ghost Planet was very enjoyable science fiction romance with a heroine who is more regular girl than action hero, and a setting that feels very unique (and not just for not being on a spaceship).  I really liked the thoughtful way in which the ‘ghost’ concept was explored in this story, and I also liked how I was engaged by scenes that weren’t all about action. Fisher made relationship dynamics and the fight for dominance (or just acknowledgement) between personalities just as important as physical fights for control. I’d recommend Ghost Planet for fans of Sara Creasy and Linnea Sinclair.

P.S. As far as I can tell, this is a standalone (!)

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
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Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

As already mentioned on this blog, Unspoken was the pick of last month’s YAcker’s talk. This was something I suggested because I read it and really enjoyed it. It’s got humor, a Gothic storyline, and believable relationships. That’s a cool combination right there. Plus, it has a knock-me-flat ending, and I kind of love those.

This review is based off an eARC I received through NetGalley.

Unspoken
Sarah Rees Brennan

The Premise: Kami Glass is cheerfully odd. She has long conversations in her head with a boy named Jared way beyond the age when having an imaginary friend is deemed acceptable. Also, she’s full of crazy ideas. These are all in Pursuit of the Truth, like exposing the dark underbelly of the cricket club, which often requires that she ‘volunteer’ her best friend Angela in her madcap schemes. Her latest plan involves her quiet hometown, Sorry-in-the-Vale. Nothing really happens there. Nevertheless, she, the intrepid journalist, will discover its secrets. She’s just convinced her school to let her start a newspaper and she is just burning to find a story. The most obvious topic for news is the Lynburns. They are the family that originally founded Sorry-in-the-Vale, and own a big mansion overlooking the town that has stood empty since Kami’s been alive. Now the Lynburn family has returned, and among them are teenage cousins Ash and Jared. Since the Lynburns have returned, strange things are starting to happen around town, and Kami discovers something she may have never wanted to know: the voice in her head is definitely not imaginary and belongs to a very real Lynburn boy.

Read an excerpt of Unspoken here

My Thoughts:  This is actually my first experience reading Sarah Rees Brennan, so I came into this story without knowing what to expect. From the cover and the blurb of Unspoken, I thought I would get a Gothic mystery, but what I didn’t expect was the humor. It infuses the story with a lightheartedness that makes a serious plot into something fun. I loved the banter between characters – banter that was not just funny and highlighted the camaraderie between Kami and the other characters, but that also conveyed everyone’s individuality – like Kami’s gung-ho personality and Angela’s antisocial one:

“There are only two important things for us to discuss right now,” Kami said. “The first is that to be a success, our newspaper requires a photographer.”
“What’s the other thing?”
“He’d be excellent decoration for our headquarters,”Kami said. “You have to admit, he’s very good-looking, and I need a photographer, so can I keep him, please, oh, please?”
Angela sighed. In the cupboard, the sigh was like a gust of wind. “Kami, you know I hate guys being around all the time. They won’t stop staring and bothering me and giving me the sad, sad eyes like a puppy dog until I just want to kick them. Like a puppy dog.”
“So you have some puppy issues,” Kami observed.
The cupboard door swung suddenly open.
The new boy stood framed by the bright light of the office.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But I can hear everything you’re saying.”
“Ah,” said Kami.

Right off the bat, Kami reads a this kooky girl who just really wants to nose her way into finding things out. Like some sort of amateur sleuth, she bulldozes her way into getting her best friend to join whatever scheme she has currently cooking up and sort of exasperates Angela with her enthusiasm until she relents. Kami does get her way and signs up the new boy to be their paper’s photographer, as she does with many other things. But without this irreverent personality a lot of the story wouldn’t be. Kami is the star character; the glue that binds the story together. Without her, there wouldn’t be a newspaper, and when weird things start happening, there wouldn’t be anyone even paying attention.

With Kami, students who previously didn’t really belong to a group, suddenly do – Kami and Angela are joined by Holly and the two Lynburn boys, and soon everyone is interacting in lovely, complicated ways. Kami and Angela navigate including another girl into their circle and what this means for their current friendship, Ash and Jared prove to be cousins who just met each other for the first time, and Kami is put in the awkward position of getting attention from not just Ash but Jared as well. What I liked was that these were relationships that were nuanced and evolving and that there’s a fair amount of growing pain that comes along with the humor and banter. I liked the healthy female friendships here, and the lesson and that there’s always something to learn about people you think you know. Angela’s prickliness, but her surprising vulnerability under that, won my heart.

But particularly delicious for me was Kami’s relationship with Jared.

Kami did not feel comfortable talking about Jared’s mother, but she knew they didn’t have a good relationship.She also knew it was irrational and illogical and insane to worry about his family troubles. It was insane to care so much in the first place. He was a voice in her head, after all:she tried not to think about it too much because it made her think she really might be crazy.
Jared filled in the silence.  She wants me to stop talking to you.
Kami did not let her dread touch him. And will you stop? she asked, trying to show him nothing but support.
I told her I had to think about it, said Jared wearily.
Kami curled tighter under the covers, feeling cold. Jared said nothing else. There was silence in her head and silence beneath her window, and still she could not sleep

While Kami always feels reassured by the Jared in her mind, they’ve had to build barriers between themselves in order to appear sane. The voices scare their mothers, and Kami has stopped asking Jared about his life or talking about him with others. So when Kami meets Jared in person, he is so rude and unlike her Jared that she doesn’t make the connection until it’s blatantly obvious the two Jareds are one and the same. I liked that there was a dissonance between inner and outer personalities, because so often how people read you can be so different from what is in your head. Unfortunately it’s not just different perceptions that Kami and Jared have to contend with. The mental barriers between them adds the awkwardness of literally being in someone’s head but not really knowing them, and their lifelong link means both have a desperate need for the other. The irony is that being in each other’s head actually makes it more difficult for them to communicate their feelings for one another than less. There’s no telling if their intense feelings are real, and if one were to feel a certain way about the other that isn’t reciprocated, being stuck with them for the rest of your life is a special kind of Hell. This situation combined with teenaged angst is a recipe for relationship drama and catastrophe.

Speaking of drama, Unspoken is very Gothic. Some of the Gothic elements added a certain creepiness to the story, some of it felt tongue-in-cheek, but all of it felt very familiar to the genre. There are dark, spooky nights with strange noises, a mysterious caste, a ruin, the strange Lynburn family, dead animals, and many more. Even the interest in Kami by the two Lynburns and her hesitant response is not unfamiliar when it comes to Gothic romance. The story is very atmospheric, with a certain amount of build up: questions about what secrets Sorry-in-the-Vale holds, and hints of a dark entity in the town, but without any solid confirmation that anything is really going on until the story is well underway. I really enjoyed how these elements were pulled into the story but didn’t make Unspoken feel old-fashioned. The teen protagonists and the snappy dialogue kept everything modern.

Also keeping this story in this century: the fact that Kami was a quarter Japanese (her father is half), and so are her two younger brothers. I’m always happy to see characters with a mixed racial heritage since I am too. I particularly liked that Kami and her brother Tomo looked more like their dad, and her brother Ten looked more like their mom. I think those true-to-real-life details are important.

So about that ending. When I was updating my goodreads status, I think I called the ending a cliffhanger, but I don’t think that is technically true. No one is in dire danger and there’s no shocking revelation, but there is some drama that left me dying to find out what happens next. I expect angst and even more drama, and usually I am not a fan of these, but Unspoken is the exception: I actually LOVED how it ended. I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for where the story can go and I’m excited that we could be on an emotional rollercoaster next. So delicious!

Overall: I am a fan. I didn’t expect to be so won over by this book, but I am. The concept of young adult with Gothic overtones is done in a fresh and satisfying way, the characters are nuanced with fully-fleshed and engaging emotional lives, and the humor takes it to another level. The balance between these things guaranteed that I would thoroughly enjoy Unspoken.

For more thoughts on this book (with a bit more spoilers), check out the YAck Attack of Unspoken on the YAckers blog.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Harbinger – “it’s going to be a long wait for Unbound.”
The Mountains of Instead – “While Unspoken is an enjoyable read it is not without flaws.”
Book Nut – “[Brennan] has a way of keeping me engaged, turning pages, until her satisfying-yet-frustratingly-open conclusion.”
Fantasy Literature – 3.5 stars
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Very Good), “The most striking thing […] is its combination of the utterly familiar and the clearly distinct.”
Smexy Books – B, “a huge, enjoyable surprise”
The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia – “on my ‘Best of 2012’ list.”
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves – “between this novel and Team Human, I’m pretty much hooked on Sarah Rees Brennan’s writing”
Bunbury in the Stacks – “The struggle of a relationship that is both symbiotic and parasitic makes Unspoken shine”

Other:
Sarah Rees Brennan answers 6 questions @ Tor.com


The Spring Before I Met You
The Summer Before I Met You
– two prequel shorts set in the world of The Lynburn Legacy.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

This review is of a book sent to me by the publisher, Viking (Penguin).

Shadow of Night is the second book in the All Souls trilogy. This is a series that begins with the discovery of a lost manuscript at Oxford’s Bodleian library, by Diana Bishop, a witch and scholar. Pretty soon, the world of daemons, witches, and vampires is following Diana, and she has to ally with vampire Matthew Clairmont, with whom sparks fly. I reviewed the first book, A Discovery of Witches here: http://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttp://i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg , and it proved to be one of my more popular reviews last year. This series has a lot of fans.

**** This review will have spoilers for Book #1, A Discovery of Witches!
If you haven’t read it yet, please click the icons above to read my earlier review(I do recommend you read this series in order) ****

Shadow of Night
Deborah Harkness

The Premise: Picking up right after A Discovery of Witches left off, Shadow of Night begins with Diana and Matthew’s search for two things: the elusive manuscript Ashmole 782 (in particular three missing pages), and a witch who can teach Diana how to use her unpredictable magic. With their enemies closing in on them, their solution is to use Diana’s timewalking ability to go to Elizabethan England, thinking they will find what they need there. But when they arrive, it’s clear that Diana does not fit easily in with the locals, and her strangeness during a time when witches are persecuted does not bode well. Then there are Matthew’s friends, the School of Night, and his family — all of whom are used to a very different Matthew than he is in modern day. Accepting of his new wife and the differences in his behavior is not an easy task for everyone. And this is all before Diana and Matthew have begun to do what they set out to do.

My Thoughts:  Much like A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night is a hefty volume, weighing in at 584 pages, but it has a very different feel than the first book.In Discovery, the burgeoning romance between Matthew and Diana is a big part of the story, and then the stories focus widens into a greater conflict between supernatural creatures. In Shadow, the romance and the conflict are still there, but they are impacted by the era the hero and heroine are living in. Time’s effects are felt almost from the first page, when the couple arrive at Matthew’s Old Lodge. The year is 1590 and Diana and Matthew are immediately presented with servants (vampires) and a succession of guests — all who happen to be well-known members of the School of Night. Diana meets Christopher (Kit) Marlowe within moments of their arrival, swiftly followed by George Chapman, Thomas Harriot, Henry Percy, and Walter Raleigh. These men and the time period bring out old chauvinistic habits in Matthew that Diana does not like, but it won’t be the first time in this story that Diana sees a different side of Matthew. As the story continues, his relationships and responsibilities of the Elizabethan era come up time and again. His family, his friends, his position amongst the Congregation and in current politics, all come to bear.

While being in the past is a dream for a History aficionado like Diana, she wasn’t expecting it to be as hard as it is, and she feels sorely out of place. It all starts off badly: as much as she tries, her speech and mannerisms are immediately flagged as unusual, and she has to stay hidden to keep her from raising everyone’s suspicions. There is some consolation in being able to meet a lot of historically famous people, but she’s immediately disliked by Kit Marlowe, who is insanely jealous that she married Matthew, and wants only to cause trouble for the woman who married the love of his life. Diana’s troubles are added to when she realizes that her magic is more difficult for her in the past and she needs a witch help her control her power.

This feels like a well-researched book, written with a lot of regard for history and this time period. There were interesting tidbits and scenes between Diana and the people of the past, but I think there will be mixed responses to the amount of history that infuses the book. When it was relevant to the story and to the setting, I enjoyed it, but I struggled with trying to find the plot in the parts where Shadow of Night overindulged. I do think that someone more interested in the Elizabeth period would enjoy the history lessons, I wanted the narrative to focus on the plot and I was frustrated by the added bulk. I wondered if it was really necessary for Diana to meet so many members of The School of Night, for example. They were a window to Matthew’s character as a vampire with his thumb on the pulse of history, but this could have been done without having to meet them all. I had the same issue with other characters and scenes. I felt that they weighed the story down making it move less fluidly than the last book. Transitions felt abrupt, as if the story was written in snippets and then stuck together. This is in stark contrast to A Discovery of Witches which I thought had a better balance between the action, conspiracy, and romance.

Speaking of the romance, there is something of a change in Matthew and Diana’s relationship in Shadow of Night. There is some focus on relationship bumps caused by Matthew’s personal pain and the particular stresses in being a vampire and witch in love. I enjoyed the way being in 1509 gave Diana a unique viewpoint to who Matthew was, and how this was incorporated into the story. The book is divided into six parts, each each part set in a different location. The section that involved France and Matthew’s home was particularly interesting. But, again, I had trouble following the transitions here. It seemed that in every location there was some new revelation about Matthew’s personality which added angst to the story, but they felt out of the blue. I think this was because usually Matthew and Diana seemed happy and in love until some issue would suddenly appear. Maybe the issue is that the story was from Diana’s point of view and Matthew keeps his emotions well-hidden, but the hints that there was anything wrong were too subtle for me as a reader and it made Matthew seem very inconsistent.

As for the main plot and Diana and Matthew’s goals of finding the three missing pages of Ashmole 782 and of educating Diana on witchcraft, there is some progress here. Shadow of Night answers some questions I had at the end of A Discovery of Witches, and the book flashes forward to the future/present (in short interludes between the six parts of this book), and tell the reader how it has been affected by Matthew and Diana’s trip. I liked having some sort of update on the characters we met in A Discovery of Witches and seeing some new-to-me members of Matthew’s family, so I enjoyed those interludes (I especially liked Marcus and Phoebe). I just wish that there was more to say about the series plot from this book, because overall, I felt like while there were a lot of scenes and situations, there was little forward movement in the overarching plot.

Overall: My reaction is lukewarm. I felt like Shadow of Night was the story equivalent of hitting pause on the series while the hero and heroine go off to strengthen as a married couple and prepare to go back into the fray. There is good reason for going into the past — to find out more about Ashmole 782, and for Diana to get help with her witchcraft, but once they are there, these goals faded into the background and being in the Elizabeth era came to the forefront. There was a lot of churn in this story caused by the timeline and I think a reader’s reaction to it will determine how much they like the book. While I felt some of it was necessary, I was disappointed with how much felt like chaff. I had trouble with the focus and flow of the story, and with how little forward movement there was to the series plot, and because of this, I preferred the first book over this one. I hope I’ll fare better when Diana and Matthew return to present day.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
S. Krishna’s reviews – “Harkness sets the stage for a brilliant and explosive conclusion to the series”
The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader – 3.5/5 ” I closed the book and wondered what precisely the point of everything that the characters had gone through was.”
Books Without Any Pictures – “If you liked the first book, then by all means continue with the second.  I think that it’s the better of the two”
Devourer of Books – “Shadow of Night picks up exactly where A Discovery of Witches left off and, is perhaps even the better book.”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern was signing the new paperback edition of The Night Circus at BEA, and I picked up one for myself based on the good reviews I’ve seen online.

The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern

The Premise: (from the back blurb) “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

Read an excerpt of The Night Circus here

My Thoughts: This story is all about the magical atmosphere of the Le Cirque des Rêves (aka The Circus of Dreams), which is a circus unlike any other circus in the world. This is a circus of Wonder, swathed in black and white. One tent holds a garden made entirely of ice, another holds a vast labyrinth of rooms. The carousel animals breathe, and the food always tastes better than one remembers. Guests move from tent to tent, sampling performances and marvels, but one visit is never enough to see everything. Adding to the special atmosphere of the circus is that it appears as if from no where and is only open at night.

Of course, if the Night Circus seems impossible, that’s because it is. Unbeknownst to the regular people who visit the circus and even to the people that work in it, the Circus is actually a dueling ground for two magicians from opposing schools of thought. Their weapons are their students, Celia and Marco. Since childhood, these two were trained by their respective teachers in the art of magic. Celia’s teacher is her father, Hector Bowen, who goes by the stage name “Prospero the Enchanter”. Marco is an orphan chosen by a mysterious man in a grey suit and the initials “A. H.” Each is taught by an indifferent (and sometimes cruel) father figure, and each is told that one day they would use their knowledge against an unknown other. All they know is that they are bound to someone, and when the circus comes, the game begins.

The Night Circus is a different kind of story, mostly because this is one of those books that actually feels setting-driven. It is all about the circus. All the character’s stories revolve around or are pieces of the circus’s history. The battle between the two magicians is the propellant for its birth, but once it starts to grow, that’s when the cast of characters surrounding it grow too, and they are often as surprising as the circus. First there are the creatives that gather at midnight dinner parties at the eccentric Chandresh Christophe LeFevre’s house planning its execution — a retired prima ballerina with exquisite taste, two fashionable sisters with fine-tuned observational skills, a renowned architect/engineer, and Marco and Mr. A. H–. When the circus is opened, Celia becomes part of the endevour as the Circus’s illusionist, and she is joined by the circus folk. Some of these people seem to have a touch of magic as well, including a mysterious contortionist, a fortune teller who reads the future, and twins born on either side of midnight on opening night. Celia and Marco’s relationship grows alongside the circus itself in a complicated game of one-upman-courtship.

The sign proclaims something called the Ice Garden, and Celia smiles at the addendum below which contains an apology for any thermal inconvenience.
Despite the name, she is not prepared for what awaits her inside the tent.
It is exactly what the sign described. But it is so much more than that.
There are no stripes visible on the walls, everything is sparkling and white. She cannot tell how far it stretches, the size of the tent obscured by cascading willows and twisting vines.
The air itself is magical. Crisp and sweet in her lungs s she breathes, sending a shiver down to her toes that is caused by more than the forewarned drop in temperature.
There are no patrons in the tent as she explores, circling alone around trellises covered in pale roses and a softly bubbling, elaborately carved fountain.
And everything, save for occasional lengths of white silk ribbon strung like garlands, is made of ice.
Curious, Celia picks a frosted peony from its branch, the stem breaking easily.
But the layered petals shatter, falling from her fingers to the ground, disappearing in the blades of ivory grass below.
When she looks back at the branch, an identical bloom has already appeared.

The timeline of The Night Circus spans several years. It starts with a wager in 1873, and the bulk of the story spans a few decades after that. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, and dates and locations are provided at the beginning of each chapter. Very cheekily, there are interludes between chapters, without a date, but the point of view is secondary — “you” are in one of the tents of the circus (perhaps the date is now?) experiencing the anticipation, the pool of tears, the house of mirrors and other circus tents yourself. There is also a secondary story, beginning 11 years after the circus opens, about Bailey — a dreamer and one of many that loves with the circus. His story dovetails nicely into the main narrative as the story expands.

So remember how I said this was a setting-driven story? It’s so focused on atmosphere that The Night Circus is like a wonderful, comfortable dream. Like a dream, I was spirited off to a place where amazing things happened, but there was a buffer between me and what was going on. I was having a grand ol’ time marveling over the very visual descriptions of the circus and being charmed by the unique and likable characters, and while I did care when bad things happened, but I wasn’t gutted by them. I do not think that this is a failing of the book — it just felt to me that this book was more an imaginative treat than it was something real that I was supposed to connect to emotionally. That’s OK. Sometimes I want to read something that just takes me away to a beautiful place for a while and be told a pretty story. It was a fairytale basically.

Overall: Very lovely story where the circus is the star. Reading this book was like gorging myself on a buffet of artisan chocolates, marzipan, and Turkish Delights. It was just so lush in description, and it felt like the story had much the goal of a circus: to entertain and amaze. The Night Circus was a fairytale steeped with visual wonder, but like all fairytales, even though there was love, loss, and even impending doom, I felt removed, like I was reading it through the lens of “this couldn’t possibly be real”. It really is a circus of dreams.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers (joint review): 9 (damn near perfection), and 8 (excellent)
Books Take You Places – 5 out of 5
Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ News & Reviews – 4 out of 5 (“Whether or not one enjoys “The Night Circus” will likely have a lot to do with whether or not the reader prefers a story that enjoys a romantic dreaminess”)
Once Upon a Bookcase – “It’s not just a story, it’s an experience”
The Canary Review – 3 canaries (out of 5) (“It sounds wonderful, and dreamlike, which is the intent, but after a certain point I am jaded enough to have my doubts”)
Sophistikatied Reviews – DNF
The Hiding Spot – “If this magial place was real, I think I’d run away to join the circus.”
Babbling about Books and More – A
The Allure of Books – “I definitely recommend picking up this novel if you’re a fan of fantasy”
For Love and Books – 5 hearts (out of 5)

Extras:
The Night Circus Deleted Chapter
The Night Circus game

Fighting Gravity by Leah Petersen

Fighting Gravity is a science fiction romance that was sent to me for review from the author.

Fighting Gravity
Leah Petersen

The Premise: (blurb from publisher) “When Jacob Dawes is Selected for the Imperial Intellectual Complex as a child, he’s catapulted from the poverty-stricken slums of his birth into a world where his status as an unclass is something no one can forget, or forgive. His growing scientific renown draws the attention of the emperor, a young man Jacob’s own age, and they find themselves drawn to each other in an unlikely, and ill-advised relationship. Jacob may have won the emperor’s heart, but it’s no protection when he’s accused of treason. And fighting his own execution would mean betraying the man he loves.”

Read an excerpt of Fighting Gravity (Chapter 1) here

My Thoughts: Told from the first person POV, this had the feel of a memoir. I couldn’t tell what prompted this introspection, but I saw the story as three parts: Jacob’s early years at the IIC, his relationship with the Emperor, and the fallout from that relationship.

Jacob Dawes starts off as an unclass in Mexico City. His father, an abusive drunk, was Resettled years ago, leaving Jacob (or Jake), his mentally ill mother, and his toddler sister to fend for themselves. When he’s eight-years old, Jake’s intellect gets him selected for the Imperial Intellectual Complex (the IIC), so that he and a handful of genius children can serve the Emperor with their technological and intellectual advancements. It’s an honor to be chosen, but too poor to receive advance notice that this would happen, Jake is taken away from his family by unsympathetic servants of the Empire. At the IIC, his poverty and class keep working against him. He’s immediately singled out by the Director as a likely troublemaker and unworthy of being in the program at all. Shunned by many of the students and instructors, Jake struggles to prove himself, but he’s often the target of punishment and bullying. Eventually, he finds his niche in Physics under a kindly mentor, and after that he becomes a rising star with a series of breakthroughs under his name. By the time he’s fifteen, his advancements bring him to the attention of the young emperor, Rikhart IV, who is exactly Jake’s age. An unlikely relationship begins.

Jake and Peter (the Emperor) are on the exact opposite spectrum of the class ladder. At first Jake is in awe of Peter, but he quickly adjusts and sees Peter as another person – someone he likes. When Peter brings Jake along on a year-long tour of the Empire, the two have a chance to spend time alone. They begin a romantic relationship after an easy companionship (sex here is fade-to-black after some kissing and enthusiastic pushing). There’s not a lot of slow burn in their romance – their falling in love feels inevitable — but after they do, that’s where the drama really begins.

Class division is a big theme in this book. It’s clear from the start that although Fighting Gravity is set in a future where space travel is common, the social structure is traditional and hierarchical. While the Emperor has absolute power (so much so that the word “Emperor” is used in everyday phrases where we’d say “God”), merely being born as an unclass has made Jacob’s life a constant battle against the extreme bias of those around him.  Jake resolves to be beyond reproach, he doesn’t always succeed, and his impulsiveness often overrules his self-preservation. His non-conformist attitude about class (reacting to the individual, not their status) is welcomed by some (such as the Emperor), but makes enemies of others.

I worried for Jake. He’s the underdog in Fighting Gravity, and while he is extraordinarily gifted, he’s also flawed. His biggest weaknesses involve impulsiveness and letting his anger overrule diplomacy. Jake sees how people react to his class, is annoyed, and just reacts instead of protecting himself and to soothing egos. He knows that the aristocrats have “quiet, unpleasant ends that didn’t involve petitioning committees” if they wanted to be rid of him, but he kicks the hornet nest anyway.

“Others may say what they think, but you cannot.”
“Oh no? And why’s that?” She heard the edge of anger in my voice because her eyebrow quirked.
“You know why. Because of what you are.”
The hot rush of anger spread from my head down through my fingers and toes. My fists clenched. “I thought you were different than them, Your Grace, but I guess I was wrong. I don’t get to have an opinion because I’m unclass? I should have known. You’re like the rest of them.”
The crack of her hand against my cheek left my jaw throbbing and my ears ringing.
“Stupid man. Yes, it is because you are unclass, and you know I do not think less of you for it. If I did, would I be trying to protect you?”

This was a character and relationship-centric story. A big pull of Fighting Gravity (once we’re past his time at the IIC), is the drama that unfolds from the volatile combination of Jake and his closeness to the Emperor. With Peter, who treats him as an equal, everything is wonderful, but that’s in private. In public, time and again, Jake just makes himself an easy target for others and makes decisions without telling his powerful lover. He gets threatened and tells no one, and then of course his enemies carry out their threats. I sped through the story in a matter of hours because I wanted to know whether Jake would be alright and if he could be happy with Peter. It was really frustrating though–Jake brought a lot of trouble on himself, but the hatred against him was unjustified too.

I really liked how much Jake’s class played a role in the story, but I also felt like Jake’s problems center on himself. He’s hated for being an unclass, but he’s oblivious to others with similar situations. When he does think of others not as lucky as himself, his attentions are too little or too late. I’m hoping that enlightenment in this area is being saved for later. I’d like to see how both Jake and Peter would approach the class issues in the Empire.

Another niggle I had was over the extremity of some of what Jake goes through. Despite being caught up in what was going on, a romantic gesture and some painful punishment still felt over the top to me. I found myself asking “did they really have to do that?” at certain scenes. I’d have preferred more nuanced consequences for Jake, even if the angst and drama had me flying through the pages. I preferred the subtler moments, like those between Jake and his assigned servant, Jonathan. There was the suggestion all is not as it seems in that area, and I’m curious where it will go in the next book. Well, if there is a next book. Fighting Gravity didn’t end with a cliffhanger, but it did feel like Jake’s story wasn’t over.

Overall:  Fighting Gravity is a science fiction romance styled as a memoir about a poor unclass boy (Jake) whose genius intellect brings him out of the slums and into the path of the Emperor. They fall in love, but there are consequences because of deeply engrained beliefs about class hierarchy. Overall I thought this was a well-written, emotionally gripping type of read that went down easy. It may not have knocked my socks off because I wanted the class issues further developed, but I can see others not having that issue, and at $2.99 for the ebook, it’s worth giving it a go. Recommended for those looking for a coming-of-age type of SFR.

Buy: Amazon (kindle) | Dragon Moon Press (epub/kindle)
(paperback is also available at the above sites and B&N)

Other reviews:
My blogging buddies haven’t read this one yet.

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfeund

This review is based on a uncorrected proof won through a contest on the author’s blog.

For Darkness Shows the Stars
Diana Peterfeund

The Premise: (from the back blurb) “It’s been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong–the Reduction–decimated humanity, giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed technology.
Eighteen-year old Luddite Elliot North has always known her place in the world. Four years ago she refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, instead choosing duty to her family’s estate. Since then the wold has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists threatens Luddite control; Elliot’s estate is floundering; and she’s forced to rent land to the Cloud Fleet, a group of explorers that includes a renowned Captain Malakai Wentforth–an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot what she gave up when she abandoned him.
But Elliot soon discovers Kai carries a secret–one that could change the society in which they live…or bring it to its knees. And she’s faced with a choice: cling to what she’s been raised to believe or cast her lot with the only boy she’s ever loved, even if she’s lost him forever.”

My Thoughts: The premise of For Darkness Shows the Stars was pretty much guaranteed to make me read it. It’s a retelling of Persuasion, my favorite Jane Austen book, and a futuristic romance? Um, yeah, sold.

In the futuristic world of For Darkness Shows the Stars, the social classes have been cleverly structured to mirror that of Regency England. The Luddite lords own all the land, and lives lives of noble leisure. Almost everyone else is Reduced. They are servants, trained by the Luddites to do simple tasks, and unable to take care of themselves. Many years ago, technology was abused, leading to to generations born with developmental difficulties (the Reduced) and world war. The Luddites were spared by their own caution, and now reap the benefits. But now there is also a new class – the Posts, rare children born from the Reduced that are just like the Luddites, but without their social position. As can be expected, their appearance has begun to shake up the social structure. Some Posts have run away from their estates and made their own fortunes in exploration and enterprise, forming a new class that is wealthy, if not noble.

Within the current social structure, the Norths are high ranking nobility. Elliot’s position allows her to manage the household since her sister, Tatiana, and her father, Baron Zachariah North, have no interest, but as the younger daughter of an estate to which she’s not an heir, Elliot has little power against her father. In the years since her mother’s death, Elliot has deflected the worst of his selfishness, but as far as Baron North is concerned, he is lord and master. He reinforces his supremacy over Elliot subtly, with punishments designed to hit Elliot where it hurts the most. His latest act is to cut down a field of wheat that Elliot had secretly modified to end the food shortage on the North lands. Beneath his casual callousness, Elliot fears that her father choose her wheat field on purpose.

The loss of the genetically modified wheat leads Elliot to convince her family to rent out her grandfather’s shipyard to the Cloud Fleet, even though the Fleet is staffed entirely by free Posts. Admiral Innovation of the Cloud Fleet brings with him an interesting assortment of wealthy and adventuring Posts, among them his wife Felicia, Captains Andromeda and Donovan Phoenix, and finally, Captain Malakai Wentforth. But when Elliot lays her eyes on Captain Wentforth, she gets a shock. He’s Kai, the young Post boy she fell in love with but failed to run away with four years ago.

The set up of the book has quite a few nods at the original Persuasion, with Elliot in reduced circumstances, her frivolous family spending money while she worries about bills, and a newly wealthy lower class as a means for the Norths to survive. But For Darkness Shows the Stars really takes at most the skeleton of the original as a guide, choosing to make social commentaries in it’s own, very different way. Instead of drama playing out under the surface in drawing rooms, this story is more out in the open. Elliot has a close relationship with Posts and Reduced on her estate, relying on her Post foreman Dee and others for advice, and often visiting Ro, a pretty Reduced girl her age, for company. While Elliot works with the Posts and Reduced, others in her social class treat them no more than indentured servants or slaves. There are several examples showing the huge divide between the Luddites and others. For instance, the birthing and healing houses for the Reduced and Posts. These places are ill-staffed, and inadequate. Many Posts, in no need to be treated like the Reduced are, leave their estates but fall prey poverty and new forms of abuse.

Kai/Malakai keenly feels the unfairness of the class system and questions it — why should he be servant and answerable to the Luddites when he has skills and a mind just as sharp if not sharper than theirs? Letters between Kai and Elliot through the years break up the story and are evidence of their attachment, but also show the two questioning the Luddite beliefs. The dynamics between classes plays a more obvious role when Kai left the North Estate, and Elliot stayed, and later, Kai more openly holds a grudge over Elliot’s rejection than in the original. When Malakai shows up again with other successful Posts, what he’s done to achieve that success also becomes a plot point.

I liked these differences from the original story. I’ve read a lot of retellings, and I always end up liking the stories that take the bones of the original but infuse it with its own flavor over those stories that rigidly follow the script. Baron North is more scary than he is vain. Several characters no longer exist or are in very different forms, and of course, names have been changed, but characters are still recognizable, if different. I liked the concept of a future where events have produced a class system similar to the Regency period, and that use of technology was linked to religion. I liked that this was cleverly incorporated into the conflict between characters. More cleverness: the clues about where the story was set (not in the U.K). I enjoyed that the settings for many of the scenes were unique to this retelling.

And how did I feel about the romance? Kai and Elliot’s correspondence peppering the book showed their early friendship as children, with only a few hints of their romance later. Where the romance really resonated for me was in Elliot’s internal anguish over Kai. Her emotions now, which she takes great pains to keep hidden, tell me more than anything else. Kai is harder to read — the third person narration focuses more on Elliot — and he was surprisingly bitter at the start of the story. Later on, I felt like he showed a different emotion but you had to read between the lines to guess how he felt, until the expected letter. Like the original, Kai’s inscrutability makes Elliot’s feelings more palpable, and it was on Elliot’s behalf that I rooted for the couple.  This wasn’t a story that was about a new love, it was about already being in love and sick with it. I wanted them to be reunited. I liked the way that happened, and how some of the class issues (at least at the North estate) were resolved. Some readers may have wanted more social issues settled, but I didn’t think the scope of the story would have made that realistic. This ending was a beginning, and I was happy with that.

For Darkness Shows the Stars is out June 10th, 2012.

Overall: This is one of my favorite retellings. Readers should not go into this expecting a story that follows the Persuasion formula to the letter, but since For Darkness Shows the Stars is set in a post-apocalyptic society where new advancements are frowned upon, things are bound to go off script. And they do, in the best way. I liked this for being an homage but also for being incredibly original at the same time.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Book Harbinger – “While overall this didn’t work for me”, recommends with reservations.
Angieville – “Everything about this book soars, from its supernal setting to the dreams its characters hold in their hearts.”

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

This is the perfect example of bloggers influencing my reading — this was only on my radar because I saw a banner on Holly’s blog. Chachic, who recently reviewed it also credits a blogger for her interest in the book. And why is this debut author getting good buzz? Well, I think what she does right is her website is nice and clean and information is easy to find, she uses social media well, and she has a nice long excerpt (very crucial). All good things, but hey, most importantly – the book is a good read too!

This review is based on an eARC copy I received via Netgalley.

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
Trish Doller

The Premise: Travis Stephenson is a nineteen-year-old Marine on leave for thirty days. He’s been in Afghanistan for a year and his best friend Charlie was recently killed over there. Now that he’s home, everything that was once familiar is now strange, and Travis isn’t as okay as he pretends to be. While he’s dealing with his own messed up head, he also has to deal with his less-than-ideal family life. His parents’ marriage is strained, and his younger brother Ryan is a rival, not an ally (he stole Travis’s girlfriend and car while Travis was gone). Then he meets Harper, the girl whose reputation he ruined in middle school after a game of seven minutes in heaven led to rumors he didn’t bother to curtail.

Read an excerpt of Something Like Normal here

My Thoughts: There’s a lot in Travis’ life that he has to deal with. Non-trivial things. His best friend Charlie is dead. Travis has trouble sleeping and may be suffering from PTSD. He wants to pay Charlie’s mothers his respects, but he isn’t sure how to do that when he can’t even process Charlie’s absence himself. On leave from Afghanistan, Home has become an alien planet. He’s surrounded by a reputation-obsessed father, an anxious mother, and a brother that covets what Travis has. His parents’ relationship has deteriorated, and his ex-girlfriend Paige is with his brother Ryan now — but keeps showing up in his bedroom late at night. Every relationship Travis has is fraught with complications and unresolved issues.

Then Travis runs into Harper Gray, a girl who has every reason to hate him because he’s why the world thinks she’s a slut. After a good punch in the face, Harper is surprisingly non-judgmental, and Travis, messed up and floundering, recognizes that she’s someone that he wants to be around. Their past history and Travis being drawn to Harper now becomes another sign of changes in Travis. I’d normally question if Harper should forgive a guy who hurt her, but here, Travis is suffering already. Harper’s intuition that Travis is in pain and her decision not to hold a grudge (well, after that punch), makes her strong rather than weak. There was something quiet and right (and a little delicious) about their burgeoning relationship.

Just like Chachic says in her review, I have never been a nineteen-year-old boy, but I could see Travis fitting in with the ones I’ve known. Bonding with his friends from the unit means giving them all a hard time, and physical exertion is part of his coping mechanism. He really likes girls. And he’s realistically flawed. Actually, his younger self sounds rather immature: his treatment of Harper is one example, his rocky relationship with his ex is another (“We cheated on each other all the time. That’s the way it was with me and Paige–insane and toxic“). He STILL has growing up to do, and Something Like Normal captures how painful the process of adulthood can be. The the emotion underlying everything Travis says as he narrates underscores it. Every word seems to tell us just how cut up he is about Charlie and how difficult it is for him when he feels nothing near normal, but he’s trying hard – both to cope, and to be a better person. Thankfully this pain is balanced nicely with the thrill of finding a connection with someone who understood it.

If I had one criticism of this book it would be that there was a lot of personal drama and a short time frame. I’d have preferred more time on the romance or with his processing of Charlie’s death over some of the drama, but it’s hard to complain with all the threads so seamlessly interwoven. Travis’ thoughts of Charlie and Afghanistan, to his talks with Harper and his mom, to the friction with his dad, and the non-relationship with his brother – I was never really confused of overwhelmed by all of these, they were just so well integrated into the story.

I should also say – I really rooted for Travis. I wanted him to be happy, to find some peace over the loss of his best friend, and to get the girl. I finished the book hoping Travis would come back safely after the years he had left to serve.

Something Like Normal comes out June 19th

Overall: It doesn’t feel like I get to read many contemporary YA books told from the first person POV of a teen male, much less one in the military. Something Like Normal stands out because of its Marine protagonist, but add Travis’ painfully honest voice and this becomes a very personal, character driven story about a young man who has been changed by his experiences at war. Something Like Normal captures the mix of humility and vulnerability of his hard-earned maturity. The sweet, slow romance makes it all the better.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
Book Harbinger – positive
See Michelle Read – positive
The Crooked Shelf – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive

Other links:
Trish Doller discusses her photo inspirations for the book

[Edited to add: I realized that my description of Travis’ voice as a teenage boy was similar to Chachic’s characterization, so I’ve updated to link to her review in that sentence].