Ah, February, the weakest month for me in terms of reading and reviewing – at least, this is the second year in a row where I have little to show for February. I do have good reasons, though; it’s not laziness! But let’s see the stats for the month:
Books Read This Year (by End of Month): 21
Books Read in February: 6 — including:
Adult Novels: 4
Children’s/YA Novels: 1
Picture Books (new): 0 (but loads of them from the library, as always!)
Total Books Added to My Library in February: 23 — including:
Review Copies Received (print): 3
Books Won: 2
Kindle E-books Bought: 0
E-books From Netgalley: 1
Favourite Book Read in February: The Chocolate Thief
Most Disappointing Book: Scent of Butterflies – but also, a little bit, Fangirl, because I love Rowell’s books but this one wasn’t as good as the previous two
# Books by Female Authors: 4
# Books by Male Authors: 2
Currently Reading: The Silversmith’s Wife
Books Read for TLC Book Tours: 1 (The Kept)
Books Read for France Book Tours: 0
Books Read for Challenges:
Around the World in 12 Books Challenge – 0
Canadian Book Challenge – 0
Australian Women Writers Challenge – 0
Read-alongs – 0
Books Read in February
16. The Kept by James Scott
17. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
18. The Fever by Megan Abbott
19. The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand
20. Scent of Butterflies by Dora Levy Mossanen
21. Othello by William Shakespeare
As you can see, I slipped behind in reviews this month – still have a couple owing from January, too!
I published only 11 posts in the month of February, which is rather pathetic. Aside from the It’s Monday! posts, I published:
Around the World in 12 Books Challenge – January Round-up
My Top Ten … Tear-Jerker Books
The Shelves are Groaning – VI/02
Scent of Butterflies by Dora Levy Mossanen
Sourcebooks Landmark 2014
I’m on Air France, destined for Los Angeles. Fleeing Aziz, my husband of twenty years, the man I married when I was fifteen. The only lover I’ve ever known. He believes that I will return to him. I will not. Why? Because I can’t resist his drunken eyes, velvet words, and persuasive hands that know where to press softly and where to stroke hard, where to linger and where to slither away, where to cup and hold and warm.
And I won’t return because I can’t free myself from Parvaneh. [pp.1-2]
So begins Soraya’s story, in 1999, as she leaves Iran for America. Her husband, Aziz, believes she’s been invited by the magazine she freelances for to start a new photographic project in the States; he believes it’s only temporary. Soraya – a wealthy Jewish Iranian, blond, green-eyed and nearly six feet tall – has other plans. She has no intention of returning to Iran, to Aziz, to her marriage. Instead she buys a lavish mansion in Bel Air with a wild, huge garden in the back that she sees great potential for; an impressive library full of books on plants and insects (the owner is an amateur lepidopterist); and an unusual interior courtyard housing an atrium within which is a very rare plant indeed: Amorphophallus titanum. The Corpse Flower. A giant plant that blooms once every fifteen years, and produces a rank stench of rotting meat when it does. It is also, as Soraya knows, highly toxic.
There in the seclusion of her new home, with two Iranian immigrants to cook, clean and drive her around, Soraya’s plan for revenge takes shape. Her deep love for her husband has become an obsession, and having witnessed him making love to her best friend, Parvaneh – a name that means “butterfly” – she can think only of revenge, and punishment. She becomes freshly obsessed with the butterflies she attracts to her new garden, and in getting the Corpse Flower to bloom. The only thing left to do is lure her friend to America.
But Soraya is blinded by her own self-centeredness as much as her obsession and jealousy, and the secrets that will emerge have the power to undo her utterly.
Mossanen’s newest novel is a story of one woman’s slide into obsession, delusion and mental illness. Even before she catches her husband and her best friend in bed – something they have no idea she witnessed – the signs of instability are there. Soraya is one of those people who are always on the edge. She doesn’t do things by half-measures. She’s prone to extremes. Throughout twenty years of happy marriage to Aziz, and numerous trips to specialist fertility doctors across the world, she never reveals to Aziz that she is in fact taking birth control pills. All so that she doesn’t have to share Aziz with another – with a baby he would dote on. (She also doesn’t seem to be the motherly type.)
Soraya isn’t a particularly likeable character, nor one we are meant to like. Unlikeable – and by extension, untrustworthy – characters are often the most captivating, fascinating, and charismatic; at least to read about. Characters who aren’t just good but more complex are ultimately more satisfying, and their stories become stories about the complexities and contradictions of human nature, the human condition – something we are quietly obsessed about.
In contrast, Soraya threatens to completely alienate the reader. Mossanen just manages to hold us by carefully revealing scenes from her past that expand and explain her character. The danger is having Soraya slip into a caricature of herself, become ridiculous in her obsession and murder-revenge plot. The truth is, I’m not entirely convinced that didn’t happen, regardless. I didn’t like Soraya – not in the sense of, I wouldn’t want to have a cup of tea with her (which I certainly wouldn’t want to do), but in the sense of: I struggled to sympathise, empathise or stay patient with her. She was like an overgrown child, used to having her way, spoiled and an attention seeker who never learnt to share (by which I’m not excusing Aziz’s infidelity; I don’t mean “to share” in that way!).
The flashbacks and memories reveal much about Soraya’s deeply flawed character, but certainly don’t excuse her. What’s interesting is the ambiguity this story provoked in me. Did I want her plan to succeed? Did I want her to have a happy ending? Did she deserve it? Is she a real victim, or just a spoiled rich woman who doesn’t know how to cope when something doesn’t go her way?
The sad fact is, I felt betrayed by Soraya – betrayed as a woman. This feeling rose up in me without any conscious effort and it took me a while to realise what it was. I had trouble respecting Soraya, because of her upbringing, because of her arrogance, because of her insufferable self-aggrandisement, and because her thoughts, feelings, actions and decisions were the kind that supported a patriarchal society. This reveals just as much about my own upbringing and place in the world as it does Soraya’s.
Soraya still vividly remembers life in Tehran, pre-Islamic Revolution. The fall of the Shah, in 1979, changed everything in Iran. Women were no longer allowed to go outside without a male family member, or without being fully covered. “Morality police” peered in through people’s windows or accosted them on the street, checking on behaviour and appearance. Among the elite, many fled, their homes and wealth parcelled off to the people. Some, like Soraya’s father, stayed – mostly so that others wouldn’t get their hands on his house and money. The Jews, a wealthy enclave, became ever more alienated from the rest of society. But even before the revolution, this was a deeply patriarchal society, among the Jews just as much as the Iranians.
It is inherent in Soraya’s attitude towards men, her sense of herself as a kind of sexual predator who uses her looks to lure men (all part of her revenge; it was satisfying how it didn’t affect Aziz at all – he knew her too well to fall for appearances). And it is inherent in her reaction to the Mullah on the plane: an Islamic priest, wearing expensive shoes and perfume under his robe, who she tries to discomfit by revealing her legs and brushing her arm against. When he follows through by offering to make her his wife for a night – a legal practice enabling muslim men to sleep around without committing adultery (very handy) – she’s barely put off. She notes the hypocrisy but it doesn’t faze her. This even though she seems angered (or has inherited her grandmother’s anger) that the widows of Iranian soldiers receive no support and so must turn to prostitution to provide for their families, for which they are persecuted and even arrested.
It is always interesting, enlightening and enjoyable to read stories about other places, people and cultures, and the clash of cultures evident in Scent of Butterflies is handled well. But I did struggle with Soraya. There just wasn’t much of a positive nature to balance her flaws, and flaws she had many. Her obsession was strong and believable, but failed to really capture my interest. There wasn’t a lot of depth to the character, or the story. And I’m still not sure how I feel about the very ending, on a personal level; however, it did suit.
Overall, I am full of ambiguity about this novel, which isn’t a bad thing. It never hurts to have a book make you uncomfortable, or displeased: a character like Soraya really draws your attention to your own, personal code of ethics, morality and expectations of yourself and others, as well as life and society in general. Because of that, that parallel of story-and-exposé, it was quite a successful book, and it also succeeded in bringing to life a side of Iranian society I hadn’t known much about. But as a character portrait taken on its own merit, I’m not so sure. Like I said, this book left me full of ambiguity and even now, a couple of weeks after reading it, my thoughts are unresolved.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.
“This book is a lot heavier and more heart-clenching than I was expecting at first. The language is very heavy and the writing is very eloquent. … My only complaint with this book is that sometimes I found myself having strong feelings of dislike towards Soraya.” Charming Chelsey’s
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Alienated by Melissa Landers
Disney Hyperion 2014
YA Science Fiction/Romance
Cara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpected – and not entirely welcome – assignment. As part of the fledgling treaty with an alien race two years after the L’eihrs first made contact, three top students from across the world have been picked by the aliens to host three of theirs, ambassadors on an exchange program of good will and mutual education. After which, the human hosts will travel to the L’eihr homeworld, a much smaller and tightly controlled planet, on exchange for the same reasons.
The student ambassador who Cara and her family will play host to is an eighteen year old boy called Aelyx. The other two ambassadors will stay with host families in China and France. Cara’s parents are overjoyed – ever since her mother’s life was saved when the L’eihrs gifted humans with the cure for cancer, they’ve been pro-alien (and on their humble income, the stipend for hosting helps, too). Not so many others in Cara’s town and across America. Anti-alien sentiment continues to grow as the school year starts, and unbeknownst to Cara, it’s mutual.
Aelyx and his friends, Syrine and Eron, have their own reasons and plans for destroying the alliance and severing the newly-forged ties between their people and the puny, barely civilised humans. Over the weeks, though, Aelyx finds himself drawn to his friendly host, and even appreciative of her efforts to cook him something he can actually eat. He’s not concerned by the growing group calling itself HALO: Humans Against L’eihr Occupation – if anything, it plays perfectly into their plans of sabotage.
With her older brother, Troy, a Marine, on the L’eihr home planet, her boyfriend, Eric, joining HALO, and her best friend, Tori, caving under pressure and ditching her, Cara finds that soon her only friend in the whole town is Aelyx himself. Being in each other’s company so much, they’re learning more from and about each other than they could have dreamed – and discovering that there’s more to their friendship, and more to the treaty, than they had expected or understood. But is it too late to fix things, repair the damage – and stay together?
I’ll admit that, going into this, I didn’t expect a whole lot. Another American teen drama featuring young love, obstacles and misunderstandings, nothing fancy but hopefully entertaining. I wasn’t sure I should expect realism or believability as well. But actually, or maybe because of those expectations, Alienated proved itself to be more than just entertainment and teen drama – though it has plenty of that. Grounded in familiar sci-fi tropes, Landers has nevertheless managed to make it feel and sound fresh and not all that predictable. Cara is a strong, likeable heroine for whom it’s not surprising that Aelyx would develop deeper feelings for – or that her ex-boyfriend and her best friend would remain loyal to her, albeit secretly.
By keeping the sci-fi elements simple and relatively straight-forward, Landers avoided many common pitfalls and plot-holes. You might find a few minor ones, but nothing that’s going to aggravate you and distract you from the story. You learn enough about the aliens for it all to make sense, which provides a well-grounded context. And of course the human side and its varied reactions rings true as well, with the xenophobia, suspicion of (literally, in this case) the “alien Other” and fear-mongering: you can clearly see that a group like HALO would form and build steam, paranoid about alien weaponry and ulterior motives, and would quickly lose control. Threaded through the story is a pleasing sense of humour that adds the right – and realistic – edge to the novel’s tone; humour both lightens and darkens a scene, all in one go.
Dad hooked his thumb toward the back door. “You two go for a walk or something.”
In other words, he didn’t want their guest to witness the fury he was about to unleash.
Cara grabbed Aelyx’s sleeve and tugged him into the kitchen. “Hurry,” she whispered. “You don’t wanna be here when he explodes, trust me.”
As they hurried outside, she heard Ron’s hysterical voice calling, “He has a weapon! I saw him hide it in his sweater!”
What a lunatic. No wonder [his son] Marcus was so screwed up. Her dad’s voice boomed from inside the house. “I’ve got a Glock, a shovel, and five acres of woods, Johnson!”
Naturally, a story about aliens allows us to take a closer look at ourselves, from another’s perspective. Aelyx’s views and perspective are a consistent blend of alien and familiar, and his judgements of human behaviour and how we’ve treated our planet ring true, to our deep sense of shame. But even more than that, it is watching Aelyx grow, develop and mature as a character that really helps flesh out this story. He begins as a stiff, rather uptight kind of person, hard to figure out without understanding his culture and history, but intriguing. His people, the L’eihr, have spent centuries creating a harmonious society, breeding out unwanted genes and breeding in the best ones, creating an intelligent, strong and attractive race. But they’ve lost a lot in the process, and their wise elders understand what an alliance with untempered humans can give them, aside with strengthening their weakened gene pool. Humans might seem like children indulging in one selfish tantrum after another, but the L’eihrs – for all their sophistication and mind speech – are yet another kind of child, a sheltered, arrogant, inexperienced kind that has sacrificed the headier, impassioned emotions without realising – or appreciating – all the things they have lost alongside them.
Aelyx had once heard [Cara's father] Bill Sweeney say, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As he sat beside Cara on the sofa, watching her face tipped toward the makeup artist, her full lips parted to receive a coat of lipstick, he began to understand why. Ever since his research into kissing and other human mating rituals, his mind had relentlessly fixated on Cara, flashing manufactured sensations of how her soft, wet mouth might feel against his own. He could almost taste her on his tongue, and when his traitorous body responded to the fantasy, he had to pull an accent pillow onto his lap and force himself to recite Earth’s periodic table of elements. Gods, what had he unleashed? How would he survive the remainder of the exchange like this?
As much as both Cara and Aelyx grow and change, by the end they still remain true to themselves, their culture and their people. Landers successfully and realistically matured them, making them much more interesting characters, strengthened by their exposure to each other. Not only that, but they actually have chemistry! Yes I know, you’d think that would be a necessary given in a sci-fi romance wouldn’t you? But it’s not always there. Another reviewer described the romance as a “beautiful mixture of sweetness and steamy”, and I find this a very apt description. It’s not overdone, it develops nicely, and there’s a real depth of feeling to it.
The supporting characters are never much more than simply that, supporting. You never really get to know any of them very well, which was a bit of a shame. Of them all, though, it was Tina, Cara’s best friend, who was the most disappointing. She’s a short, petite Latina (I’m never sure what that means, specifically – of Mexican heritage? South American? Spanish-speaking, anyway) with the same characteristics that I’ve come across in other American YA novels. I can’t remember which books, but I know I’ve come across Tina before, pretty much exactly. (The House of Night books come to mind, and another that’s eluding me.) The cultural, or racial, stereotyping is lazy and disappointing.
Overall, though, this was an interesting story featuring two strong main characters who I really came to like and enjoy. I didn’t find the ending predictable – it seemed like the story could go in various directions, and I was happy to go along and stay in the moment – but it has certainly added a whole new layer of tension and intrigue to the overall story arc. The first book may have ended, but the story as a whole has a whole universe to explore – and I’m definitely interested in seeing where it takes us. Cara and Aelyx’s story has really only just begun in this well-written debut novel, and I think it’s only going to get better from here.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that quotes in this review come from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the finished book.
“On top of the swoon-worthy romance, both characters can stand on their own as amazingly well developed people. … Alienated didn’t turn out as I expected it. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I liked it until the second half. But I stuck through it, and I’m so glad I did, because this book ended up grabbing me and I hated it when it ended.” The Thousand Lives
“Alienated brings us a good mix of humor and romance. It’s easy to read, and touches on serious themes including discrimination and tolerance. … It did have a touch of originality in terms of the alien vs human culture clashes and dark themes the book takes on, but it still easily compares to many other YA Alien books I have read.” Expresso Reads
“Alienated is a great read for fans of aliens and other worlds, and I’ll certainly be reading the sequels. It’s something different, cleverly telling a cautionary tale of acceptance and tolerance.” Wondrous Reads
“I enjoyed the story though it was kind of predictable. I didn’t have an issue with that really because it was still well told. I laughed and read through this pretty quickly…” Great Imaginations
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The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey
Large Format Paperback
Speculative Fiction; Apocalyptic Fiction; Horror; Science Fiction
Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows. In the morning, they come into her cell and strap her into a wheelchair while aiming guns at her; they even strap her head in place. Then she is wheeled into a windowless classroom along with over twenty other children, all strapped into wheelchairs. They have several teachers, but Melanie’s favourite is Miss Justineau, who tells them stories from Greek mythology. The only difference is on Sundays, when they are wheeled into the shower room and given a chemical bath, and then a plate of grubs to eat.
Melanie, like all the other children in the underground military base, is special. She’s a fully cognisant zombie – or “hungry”, as they’re called. Infected with the fungas just as much as any other hungry, she has retained her intellect – and her emotions, not that the lead scientist on base, Dr Caldwell, believes she possesses any. Melanie is special: she’s brighter than any of the other children, and as she discovers, she’s able to control her hunger.
While Helen Justineau humanises the children and reports her observations, Sergeant Parks collects them from the hungry-infested deserted urban centres, and Dr Caroline Caldwell dissects them, hoping to understand the fungus and find a way to beat it. Twenty years is all it’s been since the Breakdown – there are men on Parks’ team who are too young to know about life before then. Now there are those living in the city of Beacon, south of London, and those who take their chances in hungry territory: Junkers.
When an attack on the base catches them all by surprise and forces them to flee, Melanie finds herself with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks, the dreaded Dr Caldwell, and a young private, Gallagher, as they try to make their way back to Beacon. Along the way trust and loyalty will be sorely tested, and motivations questioned. Above all, though, little Melanie must re-learn her understanding of the world and her place in it, and what it means to be human in this new world.
The Girl with all the Gifts began as a short story called “Iphigenia in Aulis” which he wrote for an anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner, and is already in the works as a screenplay (it has a very clear and definite movie feel to it – you can really see it as a film). MR Carey – who usually writes as Mike Carey – writes for DC and Marvel (he’s the current writer of X-Men and the Ultimate Fantastic Four, and wrote Hellblazer and Lucifer, as well as a comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Speculative Fiction of various genres is clearly something he’s good at, and in his new novel those strengths – of being able to paint a scene quickly and succinctly, of being able to create tension and develop characters without losing (or giving in to) genre tropes – really shines through. Granted, the use of present tense doesn’t add anything to the narrative, but it wasn’t too distracting.
On the back cover, author Jenny Colgan drew a connection between this book and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and – especially in the first part – that parallel is very apt (and one of the reasons that prompted me to get this). As in Ishiguro’s creepy and intense novel, Melanie and her unusual peers are considered less than human, with the adults refusing to notice any signs that might undermine their belief – their need to believe – that they have anything in common. To believe in an inherent humanity in these children would mean they couldn’t do what they do to them – not without feeling guilty or less than human, themselves. This is akin to the colonising attitudes of Europeans in the Americas, Australia and Africa, but we certainly do it already towards, say, the disabled or mentally ill, and homeless people, to name a few.
I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of zombie stories; I’ve read a few and seen a few movies and two things always put me off or make me feel downright depressed: that zombies are inherently uninteresting because they are mindless and have only one goal; and that you can’t win against zombies. If you survive, it’s only temporary. Bleak, very bleak stuff. Even the comedies are bleak, at heart. MR Carey has created a distinctly fresh zombie story, and in the process animated some interest in them for me. He has skilfully retained the elements of gory horror and apocalyptic survival, created some interesting and diverse characters to traverse the landscape, and provided a very satisfying yet chilling ending to this standalone novel. More importantly, though, is that you quickly get the sense this isn’t your run-of-the-mill zombie story. Zombies are a way of telling a more important story, one that delves deep into human nature in all its variants, and looks sharply at the things we hold dear and what we’re willing to do to avoid change, destruction or ultimate death.
We get to know Melanie well in The Girl with all the Gifts, and quickly come to sympathise with her and feel a need to love and protect her – things she yearns for without really understanding it. Miss Justineau feels it too, though she’s also repulsed by it; at least at first. It isn’t hard to see where the genius of Carey’s creation lies: I can’t think of any other zombie story where zombie children play such a huge part. Certainly, I don’t think we could bear to watch a zombie movie where a rotting child gets their head smashed in. Zombie or not, that’s just too repellent. At first I thought this might bear a few too many similarities with Justin Cronin’s The Passage (I’ve read that Carey hadn’t read Cronin’s books until after The Girl was published), but thankfully the only things they have in common is a little girl being a central character in an apocalyptic world.
The atmosphere is just right, neither overdone nor lacking in tension. Twenty years isn’t a very long time, but it’s long enough for desolation to set in, long enough for the people who knew what it was like before to be turning philosophical, and short enough that they’re still letting themselves belief they can change it, fix it, get back the way of life they once took for granted. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. There’s a nice tone of bleakness, especially from Sergeant Parks, while Dr Caldwell is so driven and single-minded that she’s become the Mad Scientist character.
So that old stuff is literally priceless. Parks gets that. They’re trying to find a way to remake the world twenty years after it fell apart, and the goodies that the grab-bag patrols bring home are … well, they’re a rope bridge over a bottomless canyon. They’re the only way of getting from this besieged here to a there where everything is back in good order.
But he feels like they lost their way somewhere. When they found the first of the weird kids, and some grunt who’d obviously never heard about curiosity and the cat called in a fucking observation report.
Nice going, soldier. Because you couldn’t keep from observing, the grab-baggers suddenly got a whole slew of new orders. Bring us one of those kids. Let’s take a good long look at him/her/it.
And the techies looked, and then the scientists looked, and they got the itch to kill a few cats, too. Hungries with human reactions? Human behaviours? Human-level brain functions? Hungries who can do something besides run and feed? And they’re running naked and feral through the streets of the inner cities, right alongside the regular variety? What’s the deal? [pp.70-71]
Visually, it’s very arresting, especially with that element of nature taking over running through it. It’s not quite Day of the Triffids, but when you see fungal trees growing out of hungries’ (dead-dead) bodies, it definitely feels very alien and wrong. And horrific. That after everything, and despite our insistence in our own superiority, humans – and only humans – have been felled by a fungus. It almost makes you want to giggle. One thing that does always bother me, about this and other zombie stories, but especially this one (because of the ending), is what zombies are supposed to live on, long-term. Without the surviving population of non-zombie humans, they’ve got no food source. It goes against all we know of life, nature, survival, the food chain, etc. It’s just something that bugs me while I’m reading zombie stories, like having some lump digging into your thigh when you sit on the ground.
I found The Girl with all the Gifts to be riveting, disturbing and, overall, entertaining while still being provocative and insightful.
“…Carey’s apocalypse scenario is one of the best I’ve ever read. He takes our traditional understanding of the zombie myth, turns it upside down, cuts it all up and reassembles it. It is stunningly cool, highly original and quite frightening. In The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey shows us that the end of the world as we know it does not mean that it is the end of the world as a whole – and maybe we should just accept it.” The Novelettes
“I can’t help but applaud Mike Carey for adding a spark to a topic that I was becoming bored of. And it isn’t just his ideas that I applaud, but also his skill with characters, as each of them feels solid and believable. I began to fear for their safety, even Melanie who shows that she is safest in this apocalyptic world. If you have even a passing interest in the idea of reanimated corpses, this is a must read.” Utter Biblio
“What a book to kick off 2014! This book totally blew me away from the first page.” Bite the Book
“If you’re a little wary of genre fiction, and don’t really like to touch sci-fi/fantasy, I urge you to give The Girl With All the Gifts a go. You’ll soon forget it’s about zombies (that word isn’t used) and instead you’ll just find yourself caught up in a brilliant story.” Girl!Reporter
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New books!! Very excited about these. I know, I always say that, but it’s always true!
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina – YA Speculative Fiction.
Book 1 in The Tribe series. “In a post-apocalyptic world, Ashala Wolf must lead her Tribe in their fight for freedom and justice. But first she must survive an interrogation at the hands of the authorities who are determined to destroy her and everything she stands for. The world has ended, and the society which emerged from the ruins of environmental catastrophe is obsessed with maintaining ‘the Balance’: preserving harmony between humans and nature. But there is one problem. Anyone born with an ability is deemed an Illegal, a threat to the Balance. They are feared, controlled and detained. Ashala Wolf has run away to escape this fate, and lives in the Firstwood with her pack of Illegals, named the Tribe. But when she is captured by Chief Administrator Neville Rose, she must use all her resilience to protect the Tribe. Injured and vulnerable, with her Sleepwalker ability blocked, Ashala is forced to succumb to a machine that will pull secrets from her mind. And beside her is Justin Connor, her betrayer, watching her every move. Will the Tribe survive the interrogation of Ashala Wolf? This is a compelling debut novel, the first in a four-book series, perfect for fans of sci-fi and dystopian fiction. Ashala Wolf is a strong female character with a passionate, driven personality. The Tribe delivers equal parts psychological thriller, thought-provoking ecotopia and a star-crossed love story pinned together with an Indigenous edge.”
A Waltz for Matilda by Jackie French – YA Historical Fiction.
The first book in the Matilda Saga – I’ve read book 3, The Road to Gundagai, and loved it, so I wanted to go back to the beginning. “‘Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong Under the shade of a Coolibah tree And he sang as he watched and waited till his Billy boiled You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me…’ In 1894, twelve-year-old Matilda flees the city slums to find her unknown father and his farm. But drought grips the land, and the shearers are on strike. Her father has turned swaggie and he’s wanted by the troopers. In front of his terrified daughter, he makes a stand against them, defiant to the last. ‘You’ll never catch me alive, said he…’ Set against a backdrop of bushfire, flood, war and jubilation, this is the story of one girl’s journey towards independence. It is also the story of others who had no vote and very little but their dreams. Drawing on the well-known poem by A.B. Paterson and from events rooted in actual history, this is the untold story behind Australia’s early years as an emerging nation.”
The Girl From Snowy River by Jackie French – YA Historical Fiction.
The second book in the Matilda Saga. “The year is 1919. Thirty years have passed since the man from Snowy River made his famous ride. But World War I still casts its shadow across a valley in the heart of Australia, particularly for orphaned sixteen-year-old Flinty McAlpine, who lost a brother when the Snowy River men marched away to war. Why has the man Flinty loves returned from the war so changed and distant? Why has her brother Andy ‘gone with cattle’, leaving Flinty in charge of their younger brother and sister and with the threat of eviction from the farm she loves so dearly? A brumby muster held under the watchful eye of the legendary Clancy of the Overflow offers hope. Now Flinty must ride to save her farm, her family and the valley she loves. Set among the landscapes of the great poems of Australia, this book is a love song to the Snowy Mountains and a tribute to Australia’s poets who immortalised so much of our land. The Girl from Snowy River combines passion, heartbreak, history and an enduring love and rich understanding of our land.”
The Yearning by Kate Belle – Fiction.
“It’s 1978 in a country town and a dreamy fifteen year old girl’s world is turned upside down by the arrival of the substitute English teacher. Solomon Andrews is beautiful, inspiring and she wants him like nothing else she’s wanted in her short life. Charismatic and unconventional, Solomon easily wins the hearts and minds of his third form English class. He notices the attention of one girl, his new neighbour, who has taken to watching him from her upstairs window. He assumes it a harmless teenage crush, until erotic love notes begin to arrive in his letterbox. Solomon knows he must resist, but her sensual words stir him. He has longings of his own, although they have nothing to do with love, or so he believes. One afternoon, as he stands reading her latest offering in his driveway, she turns up unannounced. Each must make a choice, the consequences of which will haunt them until they meet again twenty years later.”
Dark Horse by Honey Brown – Fiction; Psychological Thriller.
“It’s Christmas morning on the edge of the rugged Mortimer Ranges. Sarah Barnard saddles Tansy, her black mare. She is heading for the bush, escaping the reality of her broken marriage and her bankrupted trail-riding business. Sarah seeks solace in the ranges. When a flash flood traps her on Devil Mountain, she heads to higher ground, taking shelter in Hangman’s Hut. She settles in to wait out Christmas. A man, a lone bushwalker, arrives. Heath is charming, capable, handsome. But his story doesn’t ring true. Why is he deep in the wilderness without any gear? Where is his vehicle? What’s driving his resistance towards rescue? The closer they become the more her suspicions grow. But to get off Devil Mountain alive, Sarah must engage in this secretive stranger’s dangerous game of intimacy.”
The Comfort of Lies by Randy Susan Meyers – Fiction.
“Five years ago, Tia fell into obsessive love with a man she could never have. Married, and the father of two boys, Nathan was unavailable in every way. When she became pregnant, he disappeared, and she gave up her baby for adoption. Five years ago, Caroline, a dedicated pathologist, reluctantly adopted a baby to please her husband. She prayed her misgivings would disappear; instead, she’s questioning whether she’s cut out for the role of wife and mother. Five years ago, Juliette considered her life ideal: she had a solid marriage, two beautiful young sons, and a thriving business. Then she discovered Nathan’s affair. He promised he’d never stray again, and she trusted him. But when Juliette intercepts a letter to her husband from Tia that contains pictures of a child with a deep resemblance to her husband, her world crumbles once more. How could Nathan deny his daughter? And if he’s kept this a secret from her, what else is he hiding? Desperate for the truth, Juliette goes in search of the little girl. And before long, the three women and Nathan are on a collision course with consequences that none of them could have predicted. Riveting and arresting, The Comfort of Lies explores the collateral damage of infidelity and the dark, private struggles many of us experience but rarely reveal.”
The Dark Road by Ma Jian – Fiction.
“Meili, a young peasant woman born in the remote heart of China, is married to Kongzi, a village school teacher, and a distant descendant of Confucius. They have a daughter, but desperate for a son to carry on his illustrious family line, Kongzi gets Meili pregnant again without waiting for official permission. When family planning officers storm the village to arrest violators of the population control policy, mother, father and daughter escape to the Yangtze River and begin a fugitive life. For years they drift south through the poisoned waterways and ruined landscapes of China, picking up work as they go along, scavenging for necessities and flying from police detection. As Meili’s body continues to be invaded by her husband and assaulted by the state, she fights to regain control of her fate and that of her unborn child.”
The Scent of Butterflies by Dora Levy Mossanen – Fiction.
Received for review from the publisher. “‘I am a rich woman from a backward country. A Jewish woman from Iran.’ So begins the story of Soraya, who flees to America to exact revenge on her husband, Aziz, who has betrayed her. Soraya’s intricate plot begins on the plane, as she liberates herself by slowly peeling off the many restricting cultural, familial, and personal layers surrounding her. In Bel Air, Soraya transforms her garden into a haven for the butterflies she obsessively studies, alters, and displays in frames. Soraya’s best friend, whom Soraya discovered in bed with her husband is named Parvenah – which means butterfly in Farsi. When Soraya lures Parvenah to visit her in Los Angeles, Parvenah unexpectedly brings Aziz, setting in motion a sinister dance of entrapment and deception. Soraya confronts them both, demanding to know the truth, but the unexpected secret that Soraya doesn’t know is far more devastating than anything Soraya had imagined, threatening to further unhinge her.”
The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh – Fiction.
E-book from Netgalley. “The town of Henbane sits deep in the Ozark Mountains. Folks there still whisper about Lucy Dane’s mother, a bewitching stranger who appeared long enough to marry Carl Dane and then vanished when Lucy was just a child. Now on the brink of adulthood, Lucy experiences another loss when her friend Cheri disappears and is then found murdered, her body placed on display for all to see. Lucy’s family has deep roots in the Ozarks, part of a community that is fiercely protective of its own. Yet despite her close ties to the land, and despite her family’s influence, Lucy – darkly beautiful as her mother was – is always thought of by those around her as her mother’s daughter. When Cheri disappears, Lucy is haunted by the two lost girls – the mother she never knew and the friend she couldn’t save – and sets out with the help of a local boy, Daniel, to uncover the mystery behind Cheri’s death. What Lucy discovers is a secret that pervades the secluded Missouri hills, and beyond that horrific revelation is a more personal one concerning what happened to her mother more than a decade earlier. The Weight of Blood is an urgent look at the dark side of a bucolic landscape beyond the arm of the law, where a person can easily disappear without a trace.”
The Kept by James Scott
ARC (Trade Paperback with Flaps)
Elspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is Jorah, her native American husband, and their children: Mary, Amos, Jesse, Caleb, Emma. Home is a small farm in the middle of nowhere, secluded, isolated, handmade. A small wooden house and two barns for the animals. The children all schooled at home, taught Bible stories by Jorah, but largely ignorant of the real world.
Winter, New York State, 1897. Elspeth returns with gifts for the children, but finds instead carnage. Her children dead, shot. Jorah, killed in their bed. The place cold, frozen over, the barn door blocked by drifts of snow. Only Caleb’s body she can’t find, but then the boy always slept in the hayloft in the barn. When Elspeth, too, is shot, she doesn’t have time to think that the killers have returned before she sinks into unconsciousness, and she doesn’t see that it is Caleb, hiding in the pantry with his shotgun, who shot her, thinking that the killers had returned.
Caleb, twelve years old, saw the three men with their red scarves. He spent days alongside his dead brothers and sisters, traumatised and terrified. Now his mother is peppered with shot and he does what he can to help her. When she’s recovered enough to move, the two set out on a journey over the harsh winter landscape to the town of Watersbridge to find the three men and exact revenge.
The town is an equally harsh place, where Caleb is suddenly thrust into an adult world of violence and depravity, and Elspeth must face up to her failings as a mother – and her sins as a midwife. Now is the time to decide who they each are, boy and mother, who they are loyal to, and whether they can forgive – and earn forgiveness.
I came very close to loving this book. There were a few times when I did love it, but then the feeling slipped away from me and I was left enjoying it a great deal, but not quite in love. For a debut novel, it’s a fine achievement, bold and strong and brave, and also subtle and humane. I wasn’t quite enamoured of the prose, which often felt like a hand pressed against my chest, exerting slight pressure to make me keep my distance. As much as I wanted to really connect with the characters and immerse myself in their story, that invisible pressure ensured an element of detachment that I didn’t want.
Granted, the sensation did fit in very nicely with the story, the tone and the atmosphere. This is a cold story. Look at the cover; now feel that in your bones. Scott does an excellent job of capturing that winter chill, the ice and snow and freezing winds, and lets it permeate the characters, their emotions, their decisions. This is not a story that could have taken place in warmer, sunnier months. (Or rather, it would have been a completely different, less captivating story.) Winter itself becomes a third wheel to Elspeth and Caleb’s journey, a constant presence – and a constant threat.
The dangers that the weather pose, that unpredictable natural element, compounds the dangers in Watersbridge. Elspeth, disguised as a man, gets a job on the river, cutting and hauling large blocks of ice which are then stacked in a tower in the icehouse. It’s a very dangerous job, as she witnesses. Caleb finds himself at the disreputable Elm Inn, a brothel, bar and gaming hell, and ends up with a job sweeping the floors and washing sheets – expecting at any moment for the three killers to walk in, as it’s their kind of place. Whenever a fight breaks out and there are gunshots, or Ethan the doorman forcibly ejects a man from a woman’s room, they use the phrase, “Better get the doctor.” Code for: dump the body in the snow outside, it’ll be taken care of.
The Elm Inn is run by London White, a fastidious man who relates to young Caleb how he took what he wanted through murder and theft. A dangerous, possessive man who’d like to raise Caleb in his world. But it is at the Elm Inn that Caleb encounters Martin Shane, who seems shocked to see Caleb – as if he knows him, or recognises him.
It is clear from early on that there is something odd about Elspeth’s children. Something that doesn’t add up. Elspeth herself isn’t the motherly figure you expect her to be when you start reading. She’s only maternal up to a point, as if her motherly instincts have a use-by date. There’s little depth of connection between her and Caleb, and neither of them is at all sure that the other won’t just leave them. As much as this story is a coming-of-age story for Caleb, it’s even more of one for Elspeth.
Thematically, and regardless of the weather or location, this is a “Wild West” story. A classic Western, in the American sense. Murder, revenge, a lawless town run by a few powerful men, brawls and violence and homophobia abound. Just remove the typical dry desert-like setting, and replace it with an equally cruel, ice-cold one. The ending fits in nicely with this, and overall it’s a delight – a fascinating delight – to read a Western so perfectly removed from it’s namesake, the American West, and instead woven so neatly into the wild, cold winter of the north-east. It makes it less your typical “historical fiction” novel and more of a wild-card. It doesn’t follow the usual historical fiction trajectory: it’s all Western. This sense seeps into you fairly quickly, and really adds to the tension of reading about a vulnerable woman and a small boy on such a perilous mission in this harsh man’s world.
Like I said, there was much to love here. As harsh and uncompromising as the landscape, yet like the land, there are slim veins of more positive elements visible: love, forgiveness, family, the bond between mother and child, redemption, hope. The Western tropes and the winter cold add to the disconnect from the main characters – I couldn’t always understand Elspeth or her motivations, because you never get a chance to – but as a whole, the story is rather brilliant.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.
More Stops on the Tour:
Tuesday, January 7th: Drey’s Library
Wednesday, January 8th: A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, January 9th: Bibliophilia, Please
Monday, January 13th: Books in the Burbs
Thursday, January 16th: Broken Teepee
Monday, January 20th: Tina’s Book Reviews
Tuesday, January 21st: The Reader’s Hollow
Wednesday, January 22nd: Man of La Book
Thursday, January 23rd: Bibliophiliac
Tuesday, January 28th: she treads softly
Thursday, January 30th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, February 3rd: A Bookworm’s World
Tuesday, February 4th: Giraffe Days
Wednesday, February 5th: Ace and Hoser Blook
Thursday, February 6th: Ageless Pages Reviews