Friday, 25 October 2013

White Cat (Curse Workers #1) by Holly Black

 ***SBRs 7th Best Read for 2013***

Publication date: 4th May 2010
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

My synopsis:
Cassel is the youngest of 3 brothers who come from a line of curse workers (people with magical abilities that they can afflict on others by the touch of a hand).  What has always set Cassel apart from the rest of his family is that he is without magic.  This would seem to explain their focus on protecting and keeping him safe.  Curse working is illegal and most curse workers are criminals - many (like his mother) operating as grifters, identifying marks and scamming them.  At the very top is a mob that compares to the mafia and some work for the mob, acting as hired henchmen, like Cassel's older brothers do, and his grandfather did before them. 

Cassel goes to an elite boarding school, which is his refuge and a means of escape from the unsavory lives his brothers lead.  He tries to distance himself from his family as much as possible. The book starts with him on the roof of the dorm in the middle of the night.  Unable to get down, he has no choice but to call for help.  He does not remember climbing on the roof and believes it happened while he was sleepwalking.  In his dream he was led there by a white cat. The Dean of the school suspects that it may have been an attempted suicide or a stunt and temporarily suspends him from school - pending a medical examination to prove that he is not mentally unstable.  This means he has to go back home to his family.

As a child, he looked up to his oldest brother, Philip, but because of the age difference, felt dismissed by him.  He envied Barron, the middle brother, because of his bond with Philip and because, as they got older, Barron received the love of the girl (Lila) that Cassel craved.  Lila was Cassel's closest friend and he is trying to live with the guilt of having killed her at the age of 14*.  Although the events are sketchy, he relives a memory of himself standing over her lifeless body holding a knife with a wicked grin on his face. His family helped cover it up and prefer not to talk about it. Now in his late teens, Cassel no longer looks up to Philip and is suspicious of him.  He suspects that the only reason Philip's wife hasn't left him is because he has cursed her to stay.  He suspects that he is leading Barron down the wrong path and is responsible for his ever increasing inability to retain his memories but, because Cassel does not have magic, he feels powerless to do anything about any of this.  While at boarding school he had recurring dreams about a white cat.  On returning home he finds he is being stalked by a stray one and takes her in. He soon realises it is the same cat, that she has been communicating with him through his dreams and that she may be the key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding his families' secrets....

My review:
Here is yet another intelligent novel for young adults by Holly Black. This time it focuses on a (very) dysfunctional family who are heavily linked with the mob.  Cassel's mother is in jail - her life as a grifter having caught up with her - and his brothers seem to be preoccupied with some scheme that they are secretive about.  As a reader, the murder seemed completely uncharacteristic of Cassel and I instantly had my doubts about his guilt.  Needless to say, things aren't what they seem.

For me this novel is very much about feeling the outsider of one's family.  It is also about the way 'misfits' become marginalised and how (like a self-fulfilling prophecy) this can lead them to become the same social deviants that they were feared for.  "We are the minority the world does not accept", is how Paige Mahoney** puts it. Also, how vulnerable it makes them (easy pickings for unsavory characters).  Often in such situations a minority group of 'normals' (represented here by Danica and her mother) are smart enough to see what is wrong and care enough to want to do something about it. (And so they try to engage Cassel and get him to join the cause.)

White Cat is an atypical fantasy novel (which just goes to show it is a NOVEL in the true sense of the word) and that is what I liked about it.  I have become a huge fan of Holly Black as a writer and look forward to reading the entire Curse Workers series.  If this sounds like your kind of thing I cannot recommend it highly enough.

*This is not a plot spoiler as Cassel reveals this to us at the beginning of the book.

** Paige Mahoney is the protagonist in The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, a recently published sci-fi/fantasy novel that covers a similar theme.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace

Publication date: 10th May 2012
Published by: Ebury Press
Contemporary Romance & Humour

My synopsis:
Charlotte Street is the story of Jason Priestly, a former teacher who now works as a freelance journalist, writing mainly for one of those free magazines that are handed out outside tube stations.  More than likely, anyone over 35 will know he shares his name with an actor who was big in the 90s for being in the American teen drama, Beverly Hills 90210, something he constantly gets jokes and comments about.

Jase, as he is known, lost his girlfriend to a guy who makes him feel inadequate and his job as a teacher to a traumatic experience that happened in the classroom.  The details of this are sketchy but touched upon at the beginning of the novel.  Now Jase is living with his best friend from uni and his dream job has not turned out to be as great as he had hoped.  He is of a melancholy disposition and is starting to wallow in his sorrows over losing his girlfriend.

One day while standing on Charlotte Street he observes a girl trying to get her many shopping bags into the taxi she hailed.  He goes to her aid and during the brief exchange feels a connection with her.  It is only after the taxi has pulled away that he realises he is still holding something that belongs to her - a 35mm disposable camera.  As the taxi disappears, Jason has a brief fantasy about a more favourable outcome of their exchange (one that ends with them going out) and he wonders how he may find her - if only to return her camera.  The following day he is sitting in a restaurant on Charlotte Street across from where he met The Girl and sees her there again.  He realises she is retracing her steps, looking for something.  He runs to the cloakroom to get his jacket, where her camera is, intending to rush out and give it to her.  It feels like fate and an opportunity to make his fantasy a reality.  The problem is, by the time he gets outside, she is speeding off in a taxi, again....

My review:
I enjoyed Charlotte Street very much and I loved the writing, which is both witty and smart.  Jason is a guy in his early 30s* who isn't having much luck with love, friendships or work.  He is still pining for his ex and spends too much time stalking her on Facebook, only to get upset because she is 'having the time of her life' with her new man.  Dev, his best friend can see that he is in a rut and in danger of moving from melancholy to miserable.  He tries to help by encouraging him to seek out The Girl.  This is meant to keep Jason occupied and to give him hope.  What follows is a mini adventure that involves developing The Girl's pictures and using the snapshots as clues.  The pictures together tell a story and by uncovering the story they hope to find her.

The novel is described as an everyday tale, and that is a good description.  If you are looking for high drama you won't find it in this book.  Instead you get a guy's account of what is going on in his life.  This may sound uninteresting but I enjoyed it because his observations are perceptive and witty.  Jason is humble and self-deprecating and as he talks to us he becomes an open book.  Without admitting it explicitly, we get to see how damaged he has become as a result of a chain of events that started with an awful experience that occurred one day in a classroom. I could not help but empathise and wish him well.  Although flawed (he confesses his sins to us), he is a very likeable character and I could not help but forgive his misdemeanours.  (He is hard enough on himself.) 

Charlotte Street has had mixed reviews and I noticed that, for readers that did not like it, the common criticism was that they found it boring.  Most people aren't interested in hearing about other people's problems - especially the kind therapy may help them overcome.  For some people it's just not fun reading about them; it's boring (which is fair enough).  For me it showed that the writing is not just surface.  There is depth to it - and, personally, I like my novels to have some depth.  Also, there is something I find comforting about characters who wear their heart on their sleeve and admit that shit is happening to them.  After all, is there anyone out there whose life is perfect?

The novel has a cinematic feel to it.  By that I mean I could see it as a British Rom-Com similar to those by Richard Curtis (4 Weddings..., Love Actually etc.).  Danny Wallace is a well-known comedian and writer.  He is writing the screenplay to Charlotte Street so I guess the movie is in the pipeline.

I listened to the audio version, which was read by Mackenzie Crook (the actor who featured in The Office and Pirates of the Caribbean).

*I stand corrected, apparently it is not only some women who have a crisis when they get to the wrong side of 30 (which, BTW, is 31+.)

Friday, 11 October 2013

Goodnight, Beautiful by Dorothy Koomson

Publication date: 4th February 2008
Published by:  Sphere
Contemporary fiction for women

The Publisher's Synopsis:
(Because I didn't have time to write my own.)
Eight years ago, Nova Kumalisi agreed to have a baby for Mal and Stephanie Wacken. Halfway through the pregnancy, the couple changed their minds and walked away, leaving Nova pregnant, scared and alone.

Eight years ago, Stephanie was overjoyed at the thought of becoming a mother - until she found a text from Mal to Nova saying, "Goodnight, beautiful". Terrified of losing her husband to his closest friend, Stephanie asked him to cut all ties to Nova and their unborn child.

Now, Nova is anxiously waiting for her son, Leo, to wake up from a coma, while childless Stephanie is desperately trying to save her failing marriage. Although they live separate lives, both women have secrets that will bind them together for ever..

My Review:

This is the second novel I have read by the author Dorothy Koomson.  I enjoyed the first one and recall saying in that review that the intrigue made it a page-turner.  The same goes for Goodnight Sweetheart.  It also reminded me of one of my favourite novels, One Day by David Nicholls.  The story is different but I found the relationship between Mal and Nova similar to that of Dexter and Emma – so if you liked One Day you might like this one too.

Dorothy Koomson is not one to shy away from difficult subjects.  This novel touches on the kind of tragedy that affects real people in the real world.  Unfortunately, as with the previous book I read by her (The woman he loved before), at times I found myself questioning the plausibility of parts of it, which is why I was not as moved emotionally by it as may have been intended.  It's that 'suspension of disbelief' problem again.  Nevertheless, it was a really good read. 

The book is clearly about the two female characters Nova and Stephanie, and you get an in-depth account of their experiences, the way these experiences have affected them as human beings and an insight as to why they behaved the way they did.  I did find myself referring to Nova as ‘Saint Nova’ because I found her to be Mother-Teresa-like while Steph was at times painted as this evil witch.  I wanted to hate Steph and resisted only because there were hints throughout to suggest that she had a sad past that led to and (for want of a better word) justified her behaviour.  In the end I did feel sorry for her.

I do have a criticism of this book: the way male characters were portrayed.  I would say that Mal was the one I felt sorry for most of all.  It seemed as though, in childhood and beyond, his life consisted of making sacrifices and suffering for the benefit of those close to him and this never seemed to change or get better for him.  I could not (and do not) believe that (in the real world) someone in Mal’s situation would have agreed to cut off ties from his child and best friend for life and then continue to stay away for nearly 8 years, only picking up news of his son from others in the family.  This is my point about plausibility.  I just don’t believe it.  He would not have been able to stay away.  If he was a hard, detached sort of character, then maybe, but he wasn’t.  He was kind, loving and caring.  The justification that Nova was the ‘stronger woman’ just didn’t wash with me.   I also had a problem with the way Keith was portrayed.  He was made out by Nova to be quite selfish and yet he seemed to spend most of his time sitting by Leo’s bed in her absence (as if that was his purpose).  I appreciate that the novel was meant to be about the women and their pain, but it felt like the men were dismissed.

Spoiler alert:  I do think the book ended well.  Of course, I wanted the Hollywood ending for Mal and Nova but I think that would have weakened the story – made it less powerful.  I think this way, Dorothy Koomson has not only acknowledged the people in the real world who experience loss of a child, and those who have ‘loved and lost’, but also she has honoured them.  Also, I think it ended hopeful.  There was the suggestion that Nova would return from her travels and who knows what Steph would have done once she found out about the other ‘little’ surprise.  Mal and Nova may well have ended up together later on.  It has been left open.  End of spoiler alert.

Goodnight Beautiful is a bitter-sweet enjoyable read.

My appeal to readers

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Hyde by Lauren Stewart

Publication Date: 8th July 2012

Published by: Off the Hook Publishing (Independent)

Genre:  Fantasy (Adult)

My Synopsis:
The book starts with a prologue. Sixteen year old Mitchell Turner and his sister witnesses the death of his mother by a monster they know only too well.  When it turns on them Mitch manages to stop it by hitting it repeatedly with a baseball bat.  As the monster falls it slowly morphs into his father. 

Fifteen years later Mitch is an attractive and wealthy man running a successful business.  But Mitch has a dark secret.  Like his father, a monster lives in him and was awakened around the time his father died.  Fortunately, with the help of his sister, Shelly, and his loyal personal assistant, Jolie, he has learned to keep it under control.  Tragically, Shelly dies under suspicious circumstances and Mitch is experiencing both grief and guilt (as he suspects Hyde, the monster in him, is responsible.).

One morning, a young woman called Eden wakes up next to Mitch in his bed.  They are both naked so clearly their bodies have become acquainted with each other.  The problem is Eden has no recollection of it happening, she has no idea who Mitch is or how she came be be there.

Mitch knows what he is and he has learned over the years to control Hyde.  As long as he behaves like a jerk to people around him, is callous, insulting, selfish etc., Hyde is appeased.  Whenever he shows signs of softening, acts of kindness or caring to others, Hyde tries to take him over and break free.

Eden has a history of sleepwalking, so when she wakes up in Mitch's bed she is convinced that this is what has happened.  Something keeps drawing her to him and, more often than not, when she sleep walks she wakes up sitting outside his house.  She struggles to remember what happens when she is sleep walking but she finds a couple of notes telling her that Mitch can help.  Mitch arranges for steel bars and a reinforced door to be installed in her apartment to keep her inside the next time she sleep walks, so it is a bit of a shock when she still wakes up outside his door several days later.  It turns out Eden isn't a sleep walker, like Mitch a monster lives inside her, too and (ironically) she calls herself Chastity...

My Review:
Like the title suggests this book is an adaptation of the novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. What I found most interesting about it is that not only are there characters with split personalities but the book itself (the writing) also has a Jekyll and Hyde feel to it. On the one hand, it is an intriguing page-turner of a novel with a great premise and on the other hand, as well as a weak plot, it has a nasty undertone that left me uncomfortable and unsure whether it was even okay to like it.

Jekyll may have the upper hand in the story, but Hyde dominates the story-telling.

The 'Hyde' side:
(1) The central plot:  If you are looking for a story similar to the original Jekyll and Hyde, chances are this book will be a let-down.  It more resembles a love story of the 50 Shades Trilogy variety.  With all the bad that is implied about Hyde and Chastity, mostly these so-called monsters spend their time getting naked, talking dirty and trying to entice the other (in their Jekyll form) to have kinky sex with them.  Okay it's dark behaviour but hardly monstrous.
     Eden and Mitch are too busy rubbing each other the wrong way to pay attention to the crucial stuff.  Why are notes left for Eden from a third party telling her Mitch can help her?  Who wrote them?  How did Eden break through a wall to escape her apartment?  How come her room mate, Carter, didn't hear her breaking through the wall? (He is on medication is not an acceptable answer.) Who has the power to stop the police investigating Mitch's sister's murder?  Who would want to?  Is it a coincidence that both Hyde and Chastity were present on the night Shelly died?  Admittedly, some of these questions do enter Mitch's mind, but they exit it again soon after.  You can't help but come to the conclusion he's not the sharpest tool in the box.  Eden cannot be relied upon to do the thinking because clearly this is not her role (see below for clarification).

(2) The nasty undertone:  Eden's 'Hyde', Chastity, has a tendency to behave in a way that is at best embarrassing and at worst demeaning and humiliating not just to Eden but to women in general.  That said, Eden's behaviour (her determination to behave like a nun) and her back story does justify Chastity's (as uncomfortable as it may read).  But then Eden is often sexually objectified as well.  There are a few scenes where she gets wet for the sole purpose of allowing her clothes to cling and her nipples to show through or for her to have to remove them, all for Mitch's (and sometimes Carter's) benefit.  Whether she is Eden or Chastity, more often than not, by the end of the chapter, she ends up shedding her clothes.
     When she is not being a prop, the other female character in the novel, Mitch's PA Jolie, is also a sex object.  It is one thing to have Mitch regard her as one (after all this is justified by his need to be a bastard to everyone in order to keep Hyde under control).  The problem is, Jolie actually chooses to behave like one.  She does throw herself at every man she comes into contact with and she does use sex as a weapon to manipulate men to get what she wants.
It was hard to ignore the nasty aftertaste of misogyny and this left me uncomfortable. 

(3) The dodgy story-telling:  
      (a) You know that thing you get in Hollywood action movies when the leading character constantly spouts one-liners and sarcastic retorts?  Mitch does that a lot.  E.g. To Eden and Carter who turn up at his house unexpectedly while he is having a party. "Fine.  Come in.. but you can only have two hor d'oeuvres a piece, and keep your mitts off the shrimp puffs.  They're for my paying clients.
     (b) It contains the sort of prose I'm thinking any editor worth her/his salt would revise (or delete).  E.g. This is Mitch's attempt at saving Eden from the judgmental eyes of the party guests after she trips and falls in his pool "Anyone know a good mason?  I need to have that patio leveled." Ignoring their muttered replies he strode into the house, wondering what the soggy girl's next trick would be.
     (c)You know how teenagers are when they first discover sarcasm?  It's constant and annoying but we let them off the hook because it's all a part of growing up.  Eden is 23 years old and she still uses juvenile sarcasm.  E.g. On receiving a threat from Mitch:  How do you respond to a threat like that? Should I send a 'thanks for warning card? A fruit basket?  On reading Mitch's note suggesting she wasn't a reader of books: Okay, now that is just offensive.  He was messing with her and he thought she was borderline illiterate. "Gee, thanks," she said to the post-it.
All of the above is designed to amuse the reader.  But the attempt at humour fails most of the time.  An example of it working however is during that pool scene when Eden came out with her clothes clinging to her. Mitch thought She looked like a wet dog.  Like a gorgeous wet dog....  But are we laughing with or at?

I found it heavy on titillation and the plot lacking in rigour. Also, it is supposed to be an urban fantasy but there is no evidence to suggest this is the case; the writing should evoke the city it is taking place in, otherwise what's the point of calling it urban?

The 'Jekyll' side:
(1) The premise: Two people discover that they share a common secret.  They are both cursed in a way that only each other can understand.  They are both unsure of what their evil sides are capable of (murder?)  Mitch, although reluctant at first, tries to help Eden control her bad side. 

(2) The dramatic irony: There is a third party involved, known as 'The Clinic', controlling what is happening to both Mitch and Eden.  There are hints to suggest how the third party is involved but it is shrouded in mystery, which keeps you guessing and intrigued.

(3) The backstory: The reader gets to know a bit about both Mitch and Eden's histories and, especially in Eden's case, this serves as clarification as to why she and Chastity behave in the extreme way they do.

(4) "The climax:" The scene when Mitch finally lets down his guard and gives in to Eden is nicely done (if a little too long).  He is mindful of her past experiences and he turns out to be a tender and considerate lover.  It explores female virginity in a way not often looked at: focusing on the significance of the emotional rather than the physical.

It isn't boring (if a lot longer than it needs to be) and one could argue it is thought-provoking.

For an indie book, Hyde is doing very well in terms of popularity (average score 4 out of 5 on Goodreads with over 790 ratings).  It is the first of a trilogy but the first instalment was quite enough for me.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Dead Romantic by CJ Skuse

Publication date: 4th February 2013

Published by: The Chicken House

Genre: Fantasy/Romance/Dark Humour (YA)

My synopsis:
Camille has just started 6th form college and is having trouble assimilating.  She tries to become one of the cool teens by agreeing to carry out a dare at the fresher’s party that involves eating something disgusting, drinking something disgusting and then diving into a pool of something disgusting.  Under the influence of alcohol, she carries out the dare but rather than respect and admiration from her peers she is mocked and laughed at.  Even her so-called best friends, Lynx and Poppy have deserted her and she has made a fool of herself in front of Damian de Jager, the boy she fancies.  

Angry, upset and covered in cow excrement, she leaves the party and finds herself walking though the local cemetery.  She hears a noise and discovers that it is a girl about her age who appears to be digging.  She approaches her and demands to know what she is doing (mainly out of curiosity).  They strike up a conversation which leads to Camille helping the girl finish what she is doing before they go their separate ways.

Camille has always been fixated with death. When she realises that ‘digging girl’ goes to the same college as her, she finds herself drawn to her, as clearly she too is comfortable around death.  She switches subjects and opts for Human Biology so that they may be in the same class.  She finds out that the girl’s name is Zoe and that she is a young scientist with a penchant for carrying out weird experiments; the kind that can bring dead things back to life (reanimation).  

All Camille wants in life is to be accepted among her peers and have a boyfriend who will love her.  To her dismay, Lynx has started dating Damian and Poppy has been paired off with Splodge, one of Damian’s friends.  They have no time for her anymore and no one seems to be interested in dating her.  She is anxious that she will have no date for the approaching Halloween party so Zoe makes her a proposition.  She tells her she can create the perfect date for her by assembling the body parts of Camille’s ideal guy and using her experimental method to reanimate the assembled corpse.  Naturally, Camille agrees enthusiastically....

My review:
I have very mixed views about Dead Romantic.  For more than the first half I was convinced that I (mostly) did not like it, but then it got to a point where things changed.  It’s like the author got into a zone at a particular point and it read so much better thereafter.  

Here are my main problems with it.

(1) Camille's ‘ditziness’ becomes very annoying indeed.  I appreciate that this is a humorous novel and that her ditzy behaviour is for comedy effect, for example, she confuses words (dramatise instead of traumatise, that kind of thing), has to improvise with her vocabulary (‘that scopy thing’, meaning a stethoscope) and she has a habit of creating her own words by merging two together – like is often done by the media.  She is boy-crazy and spends a lot of time thinking about, talking about or just ogling them.  I think it’s meant to be an amusing take on how some teenagers really are but it gets tiresome.  I think the author would have done well to tone it down a bit.  

(2) I found it very hard to suspend my disbelief with this story because there was so much going that just wasn’t feasible.  I can overlook the question how Camille got into 6th form college in the first place (I am not being a snob; this girl continues to demonstrate the tremendous gaps in her knowledge about most things), but that she is able to switch from Sociology to Human Biology A’ level I don't buy.  Then there is the scene when Zoe brings the dissected hamsters back to life.  Several people witness this and yet no one (apart from Camille) has anything to say about it.  Zoe gets an indefinite suspension but no one looks to investigate what went on or poses the question how concrete-eating hamsters come to be running riot around the school (slowly taking it apart).   I get that it’s supposed to be funny but it makes no sense!  Then there was the putting together of the perfect boyfriend.  I know its fantasy but you can’t just take body parts from random dead people put them together and make a whole person!  Why does Zoe talk about the relevance of blood type and yet organ and tissue matching/rejection has no relevance??
(3) The plot is dodgy in places. Spoiler Alert: For example, the part when Poppy and Splodge go missing; Camille and Louis are concerned for their safety, but only for a bit.  Then as the plot unfolds they are forgotten about and don’t get a mention again until they make an appearance towards the end.  Another example, Zoe explains to Camille that reanimation is so effective you can't even see the joined up parts, thanks to the serum.  However, in order to prove that she has partially been reaminated herself, she undresses to show Camille her scars (??). End of Spoiler Alert.

Here's what I liked about it
(1) I have to give Dead Romantic full marks for originality and, as I said, about 55% in it seemed to improve.  The flaws became less conspicuous, the story came together and I found myself laughing a lot.  Camille becomes torn between the ethics of what she and Zoe are doing and the prospect of gaining a boyfriend so good-looking he could fit in quite comfortably as the 6th member of One Direction (my surmisal not the author's) .  When he is complete and she sees him for the first time she is in awe of his attractiveness.  She does have a problem with one part of his anatomy and she tries to convince Zoe that they should find a replacement – which had me in hysterics.  When CJ Skuse gets the humour right she really gets it right.  The scene in Marks & Spencer is another great example.

(2) Aside from my criticism of Camille and despite them all being caricatures, I was impressed by the portrayal of the teenagers.  The boys behave like real boys in their late teens (as opposed to the almost perfect boys in most YA fantasy fiction).  E.g. Some of the things that come out of Damian's mouth are outrageous - but I have no doubt this is a realistic (if exaggerated) portrayal of guys like Damian.  The same goes for Louis' shy and reserved behaviour which holds him back from doing what he wants to do. I found the realism refreshing. 

(3) As I approached the last few chapters of the novel I found myself hoping for a sequel.  To my delight, this one ended on a cliff-hanger, suggesting that there is more to come. I liked Dead Romantic enough to want to read more by this author and to sign up for the sequel.

I kept thinking that some of the stuff that didn’t work so well as a novel would probably work for the screen, which is why I think someone should really buy the movie rights to this novel.  With some plot tweaking it would make a great teen film of the style of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy by Wright & Pegg (Sean of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End).  

It’s not for everyone but it managed to win me over… eventually.