December 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
2014 has been a busy year for me, and sadly that means I haven’t been able to blog as much as I would like. But in between work and study, I devote almost all of my spare time to reading, and I have encountered some wonderful books this year. Some of them, I can’t wait to write about, and I will have jumped straight online to review them. Others, I hold to myself, and try in vain to put together the words that would accurately portray how much I loved them. So here is a list of the best books I read in 2014 – some that I raved about and some that I quietly loved. All wonderful!
I don’t want to be that boring reviewer who just keeps saying how much she loves something, but…I love this book. I have pushed it onto everyone I possibly could, because I believe there’s something for everyone in Daughters of the Storm, which features my favourite character of the entire year – Bluebell. This one of the ones I wanted to rave about immediately after finishing, so you can read my review here. Also, side note – Kim Wilkins is absolutely lovely, so you can add that to the list of reasons to buy this book.
- Queen of the Tearling – Erika Johansen
Before I read Daughters of the Storm, I would have said that QoT was my favourite fantasy of the year. Now, I’d have to tie it, but it’s still brilliant. I haven’t had as much success convincing my friends and family to try this book, but it’s just as deserving as Daughters. Kelsea, the hero of this novel, is at once a mash up of Danearys Targaryen, Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger, and an entirely fresh character. Emma Watson got on board with Queen of the Tearling, so you know this is gonna be good. I will review this one in the coming months, as I plan a reread!
- Winter’s Bone – Daniel Woodrell
Winter’s Bone. It’s so hard to put into words how I felt reading this book. Maybe “emotional” would be a good starting place, but it still doesn’t even tap the surface of how it feels to be a part of the world that Ree and her brothers inhabit, if only for those 193 pages. Winter’s Bone is harsh and stark, in setting and in prose, but it is uplifting and life affirming at its close. Not only one of the best books I read this year, but one of the greatest I’ve ever read.
- The Last Policeman – Ben H. Winters
I finished The Last Policeman only recently, and am still unsure of whether I want to read its sequel. You see, The Last Policeman was so affecting, so distressing, that I don’t know if I’m ready for another installment. An asteroid is six months away from hitting the Earth and devastating all human life, and recently qualified Detective Palace is called to investigate what appears to be another pre-apocalypse suicide. Existential in philosophy, hard-boiled in nature, The Last Policeman is traumatic and an exceptional work of genre fiction.
I’m not one for chick lit, and I don’t go in for romance – so I was happy to find that Fangirl was neither. I have reviewed Fangirl (you can read it here), and I have rhapsodized about how it elevates fandom as a means of identity, so I won’t bore you with my love for the book all over again. What I will say, though, is that Rainbow Rowell recently announced that she is writing Carry On – the Harry Potter-esque novel upon which Cath’s fanfiction is based. TRUST ME WHEN I SAY THAT I HAVE A GIANT SMILE ON MY FACE AS I TYPE THIS.
- The Scorpio Races – Maggie Stiefvater
Maggie Stiefvater definitely has the capacity to become one of my favourite YA authors. I’ve read Shiver, the first in her werewolf trilogy and loved it, but sort of forgot to read the rest. For some reason, I picked up The Scorpio Races a few weeks ago, and for twenty four hours, nobody could see my face because the novel was stuck in front of it at all times. The Scorpio Races is a standalone novel about water horses, the dangerous animals that emerge from the sea every year on a Gaelic island. With sparse, melodic prose, Stiefvater paints a portrait of an insular community with its own set of values and ideals, and the two people who subvert those for the love of family, and of horses.
After reading The Scorpio Races, I immediately purchased the first in Maggie’s Raven Cycle, which is sitting patiently on my bedside table.
- The Girl Who Would Be King – Kelly Thompson
This book is brilliant. To call it a ‘feminist superhero story’ would do it no justice, but it’s probably a good start. There are few male characters in the novel, in part because the two protagonists are so very large. Bonnie, innately good and incredibly powerful, was literally born to oppose Lola. Lola really steals the show in The Girl Who Would Be King – she’s inherently evil and she doesn’t really understand why, but because she’s evil, she doesn’t care. Lola sets out to make herself the King of LA, killing anyone who stands in her path – except for Bonnie, who cannot be killed. This book also features a short epilogue with one of the best twists I’ve come across in genre fiction. Watch out for this one, it’s going to be big.
- The Fever – Megan Abbott
If you haven’t read a Megan Abbott novel yet, you’re doing yourself a
disservice. Megan writes about women in a way that no other author can. I’m a huge fan of her noir fiction, but The Fever is perhaps more accessible to non-genre fans. Like Dare Me, The Fever explores the horrors of female adolescent relationships. It’s entirely relatable and completely terrifying at the same time. An infectious disease that causes seizures grips the girls of a small high school, and nobody can work out what is causing their illness. Mass hysteria? Something in the water? You won’t be able to tell, because it’s Megan Abbott.
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor (and Days of Blood and Starlight. I’m still holding on to Dreams of Gods and Monsters for a rainy day)
I have this stupid habit of not reading the books I am most excited about. This year, I have been massively excited about and have not read: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson and Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor. I harassed my booksellers on the day they were supposed to arrive, so I would know the second they landed, and then rushed into the store to get my hands on them (for WoR, it was a two-handed ordeal!). I then put them on my shelf, and told myself I would wait for the right moment to read them. The right moment still hasn’t come for Magician’s Land and for Dreams of Gods and Monsters. Both are the conclusion to incredible trilogies, and I don’t know why I can’t read them. But I think it’s because I just love them so much, I don’t want them to be over. It’s not even because I think they’ll end badly – I know they’ll end wonderfully. I just…can’t do it. Also haven’t watched the final seasons of my favourite shows, including Gilmore Girls, Frasier, and 30 Rock. I just…can’t.
Suffice it to say, I loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone, to the extent that I cannot yet face its conclusion. Review here.
Also, I am halfway through Words of Radiance and it is so beyond excellent that I can’t yet articulate how much I love it. So maybe it will be Karou’s turn soon.
- Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi
Last but not least, Tahereh Mafi’s trilogy, beginning with Shatter Me, was my favourite YA of the year. With flowery, musical prose, Mafi tells the story of Juliette, whose burgeoning superpowers are more frightening than they are magical. In The Juliette Chronicles, we go from Juliette’s asylum prison all the way to a military compound for superheroes, all the while watching a damaged protagonist become the physical and mental champion she was destined to be. Another awesome attribute of this series is the relationship side of things; Mafi is one of the few YA authors to really, truly portray the transition from one relationship to another without simplifying or minimizing any of the emotional content involved. Such a fun, addictive trilogy, for fans of dystopian YA looking for their next obsession.
As 2014 comes to a close, I’d like to thank Pulp Fiction Booksellers for giving me the opportunity to work with them at Supanova, and for providing me with ARCs throughout the year (including Daughters of the Storm)!
Happy Christmas to you if that’s your thing, and if not, I hope 2014 ends peacefully and happily for you all.
Look out soon for my picks for books to watch in 2015! x
November 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
When Marion Seeley’s disgraced husband leaves for a position abroad, she is unbearably lonely. Although he left her with a modest amount of money, accommodation and some new clothes, Dr Seeley was the only person she ever spent time with. Marion, who works as a medical administrative assistant, knows that if she doesn’t move beyond her comfort zone, she will be condemned to a life of loneliness. When Nurse Louise Mercer invites her for a girls’ night, Marion boldly accepts – even knowing Louise’s reputation as a relentless party animal. Louise and her roommate Ginny welcome Marion to their circle with open arms and suddenly, Marion has a family. Ginny has tuberculosis, but Louise is committed to providing her with the medication and care that she needs. Marion is moved by the girls’ devotion to one another, especially throughout the wild parties and impromptu gatherings that seem to be the norm at their house.
‘I can’t know what you mean, Louise. I can’t. Elsie’s an everyday girl like we are, I am, I don’t know what you are, I don’t know it now,” Marion said, feeling suddenly dizzy, feeling suddenly the prickly junipers bursting before her eyes, making her head quaky. Who were these women? she wondered. Who were they and what was she?
Louise introduces Marion to Gent Joe Lannigan, their friend and benefactor. Gent Joe runs a chain of pharmacies, and his generosity has saved Ginny’s life on more than one occasion. Marion they are entangled in a fiery affair.
Only peripherally aware of Louise and Ginny’s resentment of her closeness with Joe, Marion is stunned when Louise confronts her. When Ginny pulls a pearl-handled pistol from her lingerie drawer, Marion has no choice but to shoot the girls who took her in so willingly.
Marion, there are things you are sure you’d never do, Louise had said to her once. Until you have.
What follows is so unexpected that I hesitate to describe it to you for fear that it would detract from the experience of reading the novel first-hand. The remainder of the book is concerned with the disposal of bodies, the covering up of two murders, the laying of blame and the path to redemption.
In BURY ME DEEP, as in DIE A LITTLE, Abbott brings the femme fatale to life. While DIE A LITTLE was concerned with which of the central women was the more powerful, BURY ME DEEP explores the concept in a little more depth. Initially, Marion is the shrinking violet to Louise and Ginny’s party-girl personas, but as the plot jack-knifes midway through the book, her psyche begins to unravel. Propped up by an unexpected source of support, Marion reconstructs herself. After the trauma of Louise and Ginny’s death and the complications of her affair with Gent Joe, there’s no way that she could remain the wallflower she was when her husband first left.
As a protagonist, I found Marion fascinating. She is aware of the fact that she is being corrupted from the inside out, but is also powerless to stop the process. Her self-awareness is the very same quality that allows her to build herself back up again and to enact elegant revenge against the person who most deserves it.
Marion also comes to appreciate and understand those who wronged her. I think it would undermine her strength to say that she simply forgives them for the danger they put her in – rather, she develops a kind of profound empathy for the people who have harmed her. One might even say she loves them.
“I look at you, Marion,” he said, “and all I see is death. I see dead girls and sorrow. It is not fair, but there it is. I can’t look at you without thinking of that night. Your beauty is blinding but behind it I see death.”
While DIE A LITTLE transported the reader to the merry indulgence of the fifties, BURY ME DEEP makes plain the stark desperation of the thirties. Reading this book in an era of relative luxury made me realise just how much of an impact the Depression would have had on the everyday life of a woman my age in the thirties.
When Marion buys herself in a tiny bar of nougat and realises that this indulgence will cost her hot meals and shampoo for a week, I think I nearly had a heart attack. I am constantly impulse-purchasing, and I buy four to five books per week. How would I have survived the Depression if a single chocolate could have destroyed my self-sufficiency for an entire week (Answer: I wouldn’t have)?
BURY ME DEEP is inspired by the case of “The Trunk Murderess”. In October of 1931, the bodies of a girl and her roommate were discovered in a pair of trunks at a train station in LA. When a young doctor’s wife comes forward and turns herself in, she is saved in much the same way that Marion is. Abbott admits to having been forced to fictionalise those aspects of the story that historical evidence neglects, but by and large, BURY ME DEEP strongly resembles the reality of the tabloid sensation that was The Trunk Murderess’ crime. The fact that this book is based on the experiences of a real-life woman makes it a much more sobering tale than DIE A LITTLE. The scene at the train station, where the contents of the infamous trunks is called into question, is actually quite sickening when you remember that there were once two bodies, two wild party girls brought to a horrific end, and transported in much the same way.
BURY ME DEEP is a much more sophisticated novel than DIE A LITTLE. This is to be expected, given that DIE A LITTLE was Abbott’s first, but the evolution of Abbott’s ability as a writer is enormously apparent. Once is a fluke. Twice is a coincidence, three times is confirmation. If there was any chance that Megan Abbott’s DIE A LITTLE was a fluke, DARE ME allayed those doubts. And now, with BURY ME DEEP, I can confirm: Megan Abbott is one hell of a writer.
October 31, 2013 § 1 Comment
You know how people ask those questions about where you were when something monumental occurred, and you can immediately recall the day, the hour, the very moment that you heard the news? I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I turned the final page of Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS. Sitting on a bus, with one of my headphones in, Placebo wailing away in the background, trying to come to terms with the fact that I had to start a shift at my retail job and carry on as usual after having just finished one of the most incredible books I’d ever read. Finishing THE MAGICIANS was, in some inexplicable way, a life-changing event for me: a new kind of reading experience, fiction with a different kind of resonance.
THE MAGICIANS is, if not my favourite book, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Oddly, this book is a kind of sacrilegious mix of Harry Potter and The Secret History, both of which are my favourites. Since I finished it about a year ago, I hadn’t come across another novel that had the same kind of impact (although THE MAGICIAN KING came pretty damn close). Today, I finished Megan Abbott’s DARE ME, and for the second time, my world has ever-so-slightly shifted.
Football players throw a ball around. We throw each other.
At first, the squad is reluctant to accept the new Coach. Regal, closed-off and hard as nails, she is everything the cheerleaders aspire to. Under her regiment, they begin to flourish: as their bodies shed excess fat in favour of hard muscle, their determination to better their routine turns to obsession. Every girl wants to be the lightest, the fastest, the lithest, so that she may be chosen as the Flyer. Before Coach, there would have been no doubt that Beth would be Top Girl, the apex of the pyramid. Captain of the squad and dictator of the group, Beth and Addy have been best friends since before they even had a choice.
But now that Coach has commanded Addy’s loyalty, Beth finds herself backed into a corner. No longer Top Girl, Captain or even Addy’s priority, she sinks into a maelstrom of destruction and betrayal. Beth invests her body, mind and soul in bringing the Coach to her knees, and never once stops to consider the cost.
The fraying rope in a tug-of-war, Addy is forced to decide who to trust, maybe with her life: her lifelong best friend, or the Coach who remade her?
The world of cheer makes Tyler Durden’s Fight Club look like a casual warm up. The physical demands of a cheerleader’s body are akin to a ballerina’s, and each and every stunt is a calculated risk. To successfully pull off the stunning moves they aspire to, Addy and her squad are dependent on their own strength and the capability of their teammates. I don’t think anyone would underestimate the athleticism involved in being a cheerleader, but before I read DARE ME, I never considered the fact that so many of the stunts we see cheerleaders do are truly a matter of life and death. If someone falls from the top of a pyramid, or lands badly from a basket toss, they could very easily break their neck. At least with Fight Club, if someone goes limp, taps out or says stop, the fight is over…
Eyes on the Flyer’s eyes, shoulders, hips, vigilant for any sign of misalignment, instability, panic.
This is how you stop falls.
This is how you keep everything from collapsing.
You never get to see the stunt at all.
Eyes on your girl.
And it’s only ever a partial vision, because that’s the only way to keep everyone up in the air.
… Standing back, it’s like you’re trying to kill each other and yourselves.
In DARE ME, Abbott brutalises female relationships. She unflinchingly portrays the co-dependency of female friendships with such honesty that I actually found it a bit uncomfortable to read. Addy and Beth’s lives are so entwined, their personalities so enmeshed that they are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. I found Collette (Coach) and Addy’s friendship a little disturbing, however; a twenty-seven year old woman should not need a seventeen year old girl to affirm her life decisions. In a lot of ways, I saw Coach as Beth, ten years after high school graduation – living a cold, empty life, with little to be happy about and much to obsess over.
I don’t think there’s a single, truly likeable character in DARE ME. Like DIE A LITTLE, I didn’t trust or fully invest in the narrator, but for entirely different reasons. DIE A LITTLE is quite clearly a mystery novel, so I was suspicious of Lora from the outset. Entering into DARE ME, however, I wasn’t entirely sure of the novel’s genre. Something about the way that Addy cowed to everyone’s agenda, and then secretly seethed about it set my teeth on edge. It just didn’t feel right, and it was very unsettling. I loved it.
Gone is the affectionately critical portrayal of female adolescence (not that it wasn’t appreciated, Tina). Here is the truth, the essence of competitive femininity. Here is female power, and its cost. Here is the cult of cheerleading. I’m still not sure if I want to join.
DARE ME is an odd mix of Fight Club, Black Swan and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It taps into a culture of vicious obsession and explores the relationship between determination and desperation. It’s the second novel I’ve read by Abbott, and I’m possibly even more impressed with it than DIE A LITTLE. Buy the book, set aside a few hours and prepare to be impressed.
I pair the books I read with the music I listen to…
Sixteen year old New Zealand singer LORDE is wise beyond her years. Her breakout record Pure Heroine is topping charts left, right and centre, so if you don’t know her name by now, you will soon. Lorde’s first single Tennis Court is the perfect musical representation of DARE ME, particularly when paired with its stark, unsettling film clip. Lorde, who writes about the “loneliness, fake friends and real friends” that are all a part the life of a sixteen year old girl, is the ideal accompaniment to Abbott’s brilliant novel. Check out the video by clicking on the photo below.
We are phalanx-spread four deep across the floor. Oh, the roaring, if only you knew.
October 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
Prior to this weekend, I had never given crime fiction more than a cursory glance. Having grown up with British parents and a gran with a penchant for murder mysteries, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Midsomer Murders (side note – why does anyone even still live in Midsomer, what with all the murders?!). I always considered crime fiction to be the result of a predictive formula: gritty murder + idyllic country town + aging detective + just the right number of red herrings = six part special on the BBC. I’ve read the obligatory Agatha Christie and even dabbled in some forensic pathology with Patricia Cornwell, but I generally thought crime fiction was all pretty much the same.
This weekend, I read a crime novel and loved it. Everything I thought I knew about my genre preferences is crumbling before my eyes. For someone who loves reading as much as me, this is just about the equivalent of an identity crisis…
Megan Abbott’s DIE A LITTLE was glorious. I devoured it in a matter of hours. I’m now left wondering, what else has passed me by in the guise of crime?
Lora is astonished when her brother Bill, an upstanding policeman, falls for Alice Steele and promptly marries her in what can only be described as a whirlwind romance. Bill, who has always been conservative and reliable, is the very opposite of Alice, whose exuberance Lora cannot get used to. For the sake of her beloved brother, Lora extends the hand of friendship to Alice, and finds herself spending a great deal of time with her. When asked about her past, Alice is flippant or determinedly elusive, and Lora begins to suspect that there’s more to her outgoing sister-in-law than meets the eye.
When Lora begins a casual relationship with a show-biz contact of Alice’s, her suspicions begin to grow. People from Alice’s dark past begin to surface, and Lora starts to put two and two together. Fearing for her brother’s safety, she takes it upon herself to uncover the truth about Alice, and to find out exactly what she wants with Bill.
I loved so much about this book. The setting is mesmerising; everything seems so glamorous, so polished, and I can easily imagine how young women like Alice could be swept up in its veneer and wind up being dumped in its underworld. The author manages to bring the fashions of the 1950s to life with what could only be meticulous research, but with such legitimacy that it never feels manufactured. Every aspect of the book is tied in with the world of the 1950s, from social expectations to material culture. The endless descriptions of Alice’s decadent parties were so detailed that I could practically hear Doris Day in the background:
Three hours of cocktails and crowded dancing in Bill and Alice’s living room, their Labour Day party just kicking up at nearly eleven o’clock, a cutthroat game of canasta in the kitchen, an impromptu dance contest on the living room’s wall-to-wall, a gang watching a boxing match on the Philco, a bawdy conversation spilling from the powder room in the hallway.
For the four hours it took me to read DIE A LITTLE, I, like Lora, was entirely in the thrall of 1950s Los Angeles society.
DIE A LITTLE is written in the first person, from Lora’s perspective. I found that I had an odd reaction to the narrator – I did not exactly like her, but I found myself becoming just as obsessed with uncovering the truth about Alice as she did. I was sympathetic to her plight, but also a little bit repulsed by her spitefulness. I believe Lora’s narration warrants reading the novel for a second time; her burgeoning obsession with Alice is born of jealousy, but whether of her closeness with her brother or of the hedonism of Alice’s past, I can’t quite tell.
Lora is considered a “bad girl” by the standards of the fifties. This makes it difficult to empathise with her, because what Lora considers outrageous would not cause me to bat an eyelid. In fact, some of Lora’s lowest moments I would expect to witness over and over again on a standard night out clubbing in Brisbane:
By the evening’s third trip to the bathroom, a face caught in the mirror, a smear of what you were a few hours ago. You totter, you catch a smudgy glimpse, you see an eyelash hanging a bit, lipstick bleeding over the lip line. Heel catches on back hem, hand slips on towel rack, grabbing tightly for shell pink guest towel.
Because of the vastly different social standards of the time, Lora is shocked and intrigued by I would consider the norm in a modern crime novel. I felt out of my depth when she began visiting the haunts of the so-called “B-girls”, because it was so very scandalous for women to be even promiscuous at the time, let alone selling themselves. On the other hand, if I were to pick up a Martina Cole novel, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit bothered by her graphic descriptions of the lives of working girls in the slums of London, because my expectations of modern society are so very different from Lora’s. Through Lora’s narration, I adopted the mentality of the fifties. I was completely transported to another time. If this is noir fiction, I have surely been depriving myself.
In DIE A LITTLE, there are not one, but two femme fatales. The mystery here is not just whodunit, but the slow unravelling of which of the women is the stronger. DIE A LITTLE reads like a Lana Del Ray song sounds – sultry, self-destructive and addictive. I am tempted to go out and purchase the author’s entire back-catalogue today, I loved it so much. As ever, thank you to Beau from Pulp Fiction who recommended that I start with Megan Abbott. If you’d like a copy, Pulp Fiction Booksellers, give them a call on (07) 3236-2750 , or add them as a friend on Faceboook.