Voices from the ‘grave

Godsgrave (The Nevernight Chronicle, #2)Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second installment in the Nevernight Chronicle is breathtaking. Hot, bloody and raw, this is Jay Kristoff at his best. Mia Covere is back, on a secret mission for the Red Church, but she soon learns that things are not always what they seem. New betrayals, new allies and new love for Mia force her to examine all she believes and the purpose of her life (to avenge the death of her family) starts to become less sure. Godsgrave itself is a shady and underhanded character and those who inhabit it are its equal. Mia uncovers conspiracy on top on conspiracy and she must choose ultimately between her path of revenge and her loyalties, such as they are.
If you like your fantasy sweaty, sexy and fast-paced; this is for you!
Ages 15 and up.

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Surviving the dark

After the Lights Go OutAfter the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Doomsday preppers…riiiight….I was not sure if I would enjoy this as much as Lili’s other novels. Sure, I knew it would be well-researched, and the writing would be impeccable, but preppers? I shouldn’t have worried. From the first page I was drawn in and couldn’t wait to know more. Pru and her sisters, twins Grace and Blythe, live with their Dad in the remote town of Jubilee. In the first pages of the book we see the girls dodging intruders and threats, but eventually learn it’s a drill their father makes them do on a regular basis. Already the reader is made to feel uneasy because Pru is a doomsday prepper, or at least the child of one, and they are not necessarily known for their rational view of the world. Having a possibly unreliable narrator just serves to make the story more interesting. Then, the unthinkable (except for preppers) happens. There is a massive disastrous event and all of a sudden nothing that relies on electricity, or that has circuitry, works. No cars, no phones, no radio, no TV. No electric cooking, etc. To make matters worse, there’s been an explosion at the mine where Rick, the girls’ Dad, works and only a few have survived. The girls are on their own, in their bunker, with only each other to rely on. “Family comes first” their father has drilled into them since their mother left, and the girls are determined to survive, even if it means denying the other people in town much-needed assistance. When someone tells the other townsfolk of the girls’ secret, things take a turn. I will not spoil the rest of the story, but this book is an absolute page-turner. Survival, romance, betrayal, violence, death, redemption – it’s all there and Wilkinson writes her narrative with admirable restraint. There would be a tendancy for someone less experienced to pump up the hyperbole and drama, but Lili Wilkinson allows the drama to develop from small things- things that become huge in remarkable and terrifying circumstances. If you like gritty and realist fiction with a dytopian edge, this is for you.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.

A Wilder ride

Wilder Country (Winter, #2)Wilder Country by Mark Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sequel to The Road to Winter, Wilder Country is a satisfying read. We continue following the fortunes of Finn and his companions, Kas and Willow, after their battles against the Wilders, led by the repugnant Ramage. It is about six months later and the three have survived the winter using their wits and developing survival skills, avoiding Wilders at every opportunity. As spring arrives, Finn’s attention turns to the promise he made to Rose – to find her baby, Hope. This installment centres on the search for Rose, and the blossoming relationship between Finn, Kas and Willow into a family of sorts.
I found this novel to be grittier and harsher than the first, but I think that is because things are getting tougher all over by this point in the book. Food is scarcer, weapons are used to kill in order to survive; the desperation is palpable now. Despite this, Finn remains a sensitive and caring young man – sometimes to his detriment. Kas is more pragmatic and ruthless and Willow has become an adept hunter, but still very much a little girl at heart.
I am looking forward to the third book in this series because I can see that all the threads will be deftly drawn together for what promises to be an explosive and affecting conclusion. I find all the characters, even the adults, highly believable and sympathetic (except, obviously, the evil and morally bankrupt Wilders) and I can’t wait to see how this all plays out. No more for fear of spoilers, but Mark Smith is doing a great job with these novels. More please!
Recommended for ages 14 and up.

The Darkest Night

Nevernight (The Nevernight Chronicle, #1)Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this after reading Jay Kristoff, Amie Kaufman‘s Illuminae and Gemina and I was not sure what to expect. I had heard this was very different, but I did not realise HOW different until I read the first chapter. This book, centred around the complex Mia Corvere and her quest to become an assassin, is full of bloody action, shady characters, and a pace that never lets up. If you like your fantasy full of swords and sweat, this is for you! Couple that with fantastic character development and shadowy powers over darkness and you have an amazing read. I can’t wait to read Godsgrave because this certainly left me wanting more. Won’t write more for fear of spoilers, but I highly recommend this first book in the Nevernight Chronicles.
Due to some language and mature content I would suggest ages 15 and above.

Unnaturally affecting

The Natural Way of ThingsThe Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to begin? Do I start by confessing that I wept openly for a full five minutes after finishing this novel? Do I add that I am still weepy thinking about it as I write this review? Do I step back from the subject matter (misogyny, gender politics, the nature of violence, self, nature, landscape) and look at it analytically? Or do I leap in with emotions raging and expunge everything this book made me think and feel?
This book is a landmark in Australian literature for me. It is a book that I think every Australian woman should read and clasp to her breast as her own. It is raw, powerful, brutal stuff. But it is also lyrical, dreamy and lush with descriptive language and imagery.
Yolanda and Verla are the last two women to arrive at a facility in the middle of a desert, somewhere in Australia. Women who have been judged unworthy of living in society – because of perceived sexual transgressions – have been extracted and dumped in a dry and baked landscape, surrounded by an electric fence and kept there by two brutal and inept male gaolers, Teddy and Boncer, and their “nurse” – a woman named Nancy. Stripped of their clothes, and other possessions, forced to wear old fashioned tunics and bonnets and shoes, these women work by day clearing boulders and rocks from a road and spend their nights in dogboxes, in filth and degradation. Some cling to each other, some stand up to their captors and are brutalised, and others fall silent and slowly plot their escape or suicide. When the power is switched off and the food begins to run out, the women realise their captors are now jailed along with them. While some battle on as best they can others, like Verla and Yolanda, realise the only way out is to rescue themselves.
Verla, bonded in an unspoken way to Yolanda because they arrived together, starts to hoard toadstools and mushrooms, hoping beyond hope that one of them is a death cap. Plotting in her mind to feed it to Boncer and Teddy and escape this prison. In denial about her fate for about half the book, Verla is a character who slowly toughens up mentally, if not physically. Once she realises she is not going be released she becomes resolute about solving her situation, possibly with Yolanda’s help. Either way, she knows she is either going to kill the men or save the death cap, for herself.
Yolanda is a wonderful character. Feisty, arrogant, she was the only inmate who did not go to the prison willingly. And it is Yolanda who also proves to be the most adaptable of the women. When the Boncer announces that Hardings, the company who run the facility, are “not coming” it is Yolanda who offers to use the rusting rabbit traps on the property to secure a food source for the inmates. A sense of purpose emerges in Yolanda and it becomes her life. Once she successfully traps the rabbits, she feels powerful, and works well in her surroundings to make sure nothing gets in the way of her new-found purpose. When Boncer tries to assault her, she realises he is afraid of her and stands her ground. After all the road-clearing and other physical labour, Yolanda is a ball of muscle and Boncer knows he is no match for a woman with nothing to lose. He backs down and Yolanda’s ascension is complete. Teddy tries to tell Yolanda that rabbit traps are cruel – Yolanda and Verla just “snigger up at him, showing their small grey teeth.” (p.150)
The other interesting character is Nancy – at first the prisoners view her as someone who is privileged, who enjoys the perks of good food and the good graces of Boncer and Teddy, but it soon becomes apparent, especially when Hardings turn off the power supply, that Nancy is as much a prisoner as the rest of them. As Nancy descends into a drug-addled existence, the women realise how weak she is, how reliant on the two men she is, and they see their former selves. When Nancy dies of a drug overdose late in the novel (not a spoiler, there was no doubt for me this was her fate), the women are the ones who take care of her body, washing her and laying her on a stained sheet. They hold a vigil as her body burns, “they see she is only one of them, just skinny bone and sunken flesh, and for the first time they wonder if she has a mother too, somewhere in that little town she came from once.” (p. 271)
“Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a women was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls, somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” (p. 176)
I cannot stress enough that this is not a pleasant book to read, but it is urgent, and compelling, and speaks volumes about the struggle to be female in a world of men in a way I have not read before in Australian contemporary literature. The only novel I can find some common ground with is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood, and that was hard going too. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. Women will feel empowered by this book, men might feel disgusted and afraid for the women they know. These are not bad things. Novels such as this are written to make us question the “natural way of things” and this book does just that.

Recommended for mature readers over the age of 16.

Panic – don’t.

PanicPanic by Sharon M. Draper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I expected big things from this novel as Sharon Draper is a popular writer in our library. Out of My Mind has been a big middle school favourite this year and I was interested to see how Draper would tackle the meaty subject matter of this book.
I was, in the end, disappointed by both the writing and how the abduction, rape and rescue of central character, Diamond, was handled. This book started out okay – with a group of friends at a dance school preparing for a showcase performance. Two of the girls, Mercedes and Diamond go to the mall to buy new tights and only one of them makes it home. Diamond is enticed away by a smooth talking stranger (Thane English) and finds herself in a terrifying and perilous situation. The reader sees her drugged, tied up and abused by numerous men in the name of video “entertainment”. It is a hard read. Her friends don’t seem too worried by her disappearance at first – perhaps this is an American phenomenon – if this happened here it would be all over social media in a matter of hours.
As well as the abduction of Diamond, the other issue in this book is partner abuse. Layla, a talented dancer, is verbally and physically abused by her boyfriend Donny. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be enough concern from her friends about this. They all talk about what is happening, but no-one seems brave enough to talk to HER about it. Donny is controlling and leaves bruises on her regularly and I found it difficult to believe that even the dance teacher (who must have seen Layla in leotards and dance gear regularly) failed to notice anything.
I got very impatient with this book. Mercedes, Layla,and Diamond speak in what I assume is supposed to be some sort of “street” talk, which sounds forced and ridiculous. Justin, the only male teen (other than the abusive Donny) felt like the only “real” character to me. He is caring, concerned, sensitive, but also struggles to make sense of what is going on both with Diamond’s disappearance and Layla’s abusive relationship. It is interesting to me as I have written about this book as an example of “YA realism” for a Uni essay because it hits a lot of markers present in other realist novels, but overall the effect is more of hyper-realism.
I also found an undercurrent of victim blaming in this novel. It is covert, but it is there, lurking in the background, particularly in relation to Diamond and her conduct and what it has led to.
I was actually asked to remove this book from the library by another library staffer because she had a complaint from a student about the “disturbing” content. I refused, because even an average book about these topics is better than none at all, and there are lessons to be learned from reading this novel. Draper, while not being graphic, does not pull punches in describing Diamond’s ordeal and that is a good thing. There is nothing pretty about rape, nothing attractive about being robbed of all control over what happens to you. In this, the novel excels. The resolution of the Layla/Donny situation is a satisfying one, but the rest of the novel’s conclusion left me shaking my head.
I would not recommend this book if you can find a better, preferably Australian, alternative. Try Stolen: A Letter to My Captor or Hostage as other options.

I would not give this book to anyone under 14 to read, unless you were confident they could handle the subject matter.