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.

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”

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.

The Dead Travel Fast by Deanna Raybourn

The Dead Travel Fast
Deanna Raybourn

I was thrilled to get an autographed copy of this book at BEA last year and I’ve been saving this read for a few months. I finally got around to it last weekend, and it was a relatively fast, atmospheric read.

The Premise:
Theodora Lestrange is left with little prospects after the death of her scholarly grandfather, and despite her sister and her husband’s good intentions, she has no desire to live with them. Theodora longs for passion and adventure and to be able to continue writing her books.  So when an old school friend writes to Theodora asking her to come to Transylvania to celebrate her betrothal and stay for a little while, Theodora jumps at the chance to be bold and to have her creativity sparked. When she gets there she falls in love with the mysterious countryside and the man who is lord of it, despite the disturbing beliefs of it’s people.
Read an excerpt of The Dead Travel Fast here
My Thoughts: The Dead Travel Fast is a book that is separate standalone from the Lady Julia Grey series, with a very different heroine and a very different tone.  Rather than a Victorian mystery, this is a tale spun in sensational Gothic fiction tradition, starting with it’s horror setting: a crumbling castle set imposingly above a rustic village in the Carpathian mountains. This is where Theodora arrives and meets an eccentric bunch: an aging but haughty countess, a stoic group of servants, a jovial family doctor, Theodora’s school friend Cosmina, and the handsome, enigmatic Count Andrei Dragulescu. Stories of vampires and werewolves abound, and Theodora is thrilled to have so much fodder for her writing. She doesn’t believe any of it’s true at first, but as she experiences more of this place, it’s difficult to disbelieve that there are not evil creatures roaming the night. As she falls under the spell of the castle, she also falls for the seductive count.
This story felt like a tribute to the Gothic genre and thus certain “rules” of that genre were followed, which I think lent this story a simpler feel compared to Raybourn’s other books, both in plot and character. Theodora felt like your typical intrepid but still innocent Gothic romance heroine. She has a high level of imagination and a romantic heart.  She tells her sister she wants to feel passion and will settle for nothing less, and when she meets the count, despite his improprieties, she just can’t seem to help herself. Over and over she resolves to stay away, and over and over she does not.
The count on the other hand is a despoiler, and it’s very obvious that he’s seducing our heroine. He even explains to her that there are “only three types of women that matter in a man’s life –those he marries, those he seduces, and those he takes. I have only to tailor my behavior to become whatever the lady in question wants me to be and I’m assured of success.” I think this sentence explains why I found his character unlikable. While he may be genuinely attracted to Theodora, the calculated way he got her attention rubbed me the wrong way. What softened the dislike was that his character fit the Gothic tale – is he the hero, or the villain? I hoped he was the hero because Theodora (the narrator) sees him through rose-colored glasses, but I questioned her judgment severely.
The first part of The Dead Travel Fast builds up the melodrama of the story, and I wasn’t sure whether a supernatural being would appear or not or if this would be just a romance or something more. Thankfully, the typical Raybourn mystery does appear (albeit in a smaller dose than in previous books). While this was a quick read, I was relieved by the mystery because that’s where I feel Raybourn shines. Theodora may not be as sharply observant as Julia Grey, but once she does put her mind to it, she’s just as quick to see the possibilities. As a result, the book ends on a satisfying high note.
Overall: This is a story which nods it’s head towards the Gothic fiction tradition and mixes that with a romance and a mystery. In the end I liked this one, but I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I understood where the author was going, but the Gothic affectations of the characters stopped me from really connecting to them. If it wasn’t for the satisfying ending this would have fallen into my “OK” category, but if I was an English Literature major or someone interested in the Gothic genre, I think I’d probably have appreciated this more.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
See Michelle Read – mixed feelings
fashion_piranha – positive/some criticisms
The Book Harbinger – positive
Dear Author – B-