Book Review: Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

10387018Title: Ghost on Black Mountain
Author: Ann Hite
Genre: Ghost, Supernatural, Horror, Thriller, Romance, Drama
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: September 13th 2011
Rating: 4,5 stars
Review copy provided by S&S Galley Grab.
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Nellie Clay married Hobbs Pritchard without even noticing he was a spell conjured into a man, a walking, talking ghost story. But her mama knew. She saw it in her tea leaves: death. Folks told Nellie to get off the mountain while she could, to go back home before it was too late. Hobbs wasn’t nothing but trouble. He’d even killed a man. No telling what else. That mountain was haunted, and soon enough, Nellie would feel it too. One way or another, Hobbs would get what was coming to him. The ghosts would see to that. . . .
Told in the stunning voices of five women whose lives are inextricably bound when a murder takes place in rural Depression-era North Carolina, Ann Hite’s unforgettable debut spans generations and conjures the best of Southern folk-lore—mystery, spirits, hoodoo, and the incomparable beauty of the Appalachian landscape.

Ghost on Black Mountain is a powerful, eerie and haunting tale of real-life ghosts sometimes tormenting and sometimes aiding the inhabitants of Black Mountain, a gloomy and according to some, cursed place. Black Mountain got most of its rather creepy reputation from one of its most dangerous residents, Hobbs Pritchard. Who Hobbs Pritchard really is, a straight-out bad man, or a fellow struggling with himself and his own emotions, is revealed gradually through-out the story, but most of it is still up to the reader to decide. In this haunting debut novel, Ann Hite searches for what evil truly is, how different those we easily claim to be evil are to those who truly love them, and how one person’s evil acts can reflect on the lifes of others, even many years in the future.

I have to say that, several hours after finishing this book, I’m still perplexed and most of all, impressed. Ann Hite’s writing fits the voice of the narrators – five Southern women at the turn of the 20th century, all the way through the war, and beyond that – perfectly. She describes Black Mountain as an eerie, terrifying but also atmospheric and sometimes even inviting place, a beauty in daylight but a true menace in the dark. Our resident back guy, Hobbs Pritchard is a fellow with many layers, equally as many different faces and a whole lot of trouble written all over him. Although charming at first glance, he proves to be anything but. But is he really the villain we portray him to be, or is there more to him than meets the eye?

The first heroine who tells us her version of the tale is Nellie, soon-to-be Nellie Pritchard. Falling head over heels with Hobbs Pritchard, she goes against her mother’s advices and marries the man eight years her senior. Although he threats her decently enough at first, it doesn’t take long before even Nellie registers that Hobbs is a cruel, unsympathetic and mean man. He threats the people of Black Mountain like dirt, eagerly keeping them poor to gain wealth for himself. One of the families most tormented by Hobbs Pritchard is The Connors, and although Nellie at first tries to reconcile with the family, they end up warning her about Hobbs’ sadistic ways instead. Nellie, still foolish and eager to believe in her husband’s kindness, with the stubbornness of youth still following her around, ignores their pleas. But even she must one day realize who Hobbs truly is.

Nellie is by far the strongest voice that appears in the entire book. Although often scorned by Hobbs as being ‘stupid, ignorant and incapable of even cooking a decent meal’, the reader soon realizes that Nellie is neither of those things. She is headstrong and intelligent, her only flaw in the matter being her naivety when it comes to men, marriage and love. When Nellie feels herself falling for Jack, Hobbs’ half-brother instead, while Hobbs is on another unexpected, long business trip, she sees him as her possible rescuer from the terrible hold Hobbs has over her, threatening even her mother if she does not do his every bid. However, when the time is neigh and Jack fails to come to her rescue, Nellie, now reduced to an empty shell of her former self, must take matters in her own hands.

What follows is both eerie and gruesome, but haunting and compelling all the same. Aided by the ghosts of Black Mountain themselves, Nellie might just escape Hobbs’ deadly clutches. But secret sins are a hard burden to bear….

The next part of the story, is significantly less powerful than Nellie’s haunting tale. Whereas the ghosts, who we first encountered when Nellie told her story, do make some reappearance in the rest of the novel, their presence is much less threatening than they appeared at first.

We learn about Nellie’s childhood through the eyes of her mother, Josie Clay, who herself saw a ghost or two as well. Although this casts a light on why Nellie too is capable of seeing ghosts, this dropped the pace of the narrative significantly and I could have done well without. Later on, we also read the story from Shelly Parker, local pshycic and perhaps Nellie’s only true friend on those lonely mountains. Although this served as some sort of inbetween-story to glue Nellie’s and Rose’s story together, I did find it intriguing, but not necessarily to keep the story going.

Rose Gardner’s story on the other hand, is a lot more intriguing and interesting than the two previously mentioned. Rose was the other woman in Hobbs Pritchard’s life. Although she herself proclaims not to be as beautiful as Nellie nor as intelligent, she strikes the reader as being the opposite, at least at first glance. Rose is the woman Hobbs supposedly truly loved, or as truly as a man like Hobbs can love anyone. Although their relationship is mostly based upon the physical attraction between them, Rose is the only woman Hobbs ever said “I like you” to, which is as close to professing his love as he could get. Strangely, we don’t hear or know about Rose until at the very end of Nellie’s tale, but her presence in Hobbs’ life is just as notable. Rose occasionally wonders to herself is she really did love Hobbs throughout their love affair, a question she has a hard time answering.

As most murderers and mad men, Hobbs has two sides about him, which make him all the more interesting and multi-faceted. However, the question that rises is if these two parts of him are really too far apart. Did he really love Rose, as one might think when you imagine them spending days in bed or talking for hours, whereas it’s clear he would prefer it if Nellie kept her mouth shut all the time? Or is his love for Rose based solely on her hoodoo spell? I personally had trouble accepting the latter, not because I don’t believe in hoodoo – don’t know enough about the matter to form my opinion about it – but mostly because I didn’t want to. Part of me felt that this book would have been richer, more compelling, if Hobbs was capable of loving – or seemingly loving – another living being, instead of having that part of him based on some spell. I wish the author had left that out alltogether, and that Hobbs’ love for Rose could have been at least partly genuine. Instead, the author left the reader with an option, and since I chose to believe that he did care for Rose in his own, twisted way, that made me view Hobbs as more than a deranged, aggressive and violent man. Instead, I saw him as a troubled individual, with a lot of issues that made him into the monster most people believed he was.

As I already mentioned, I would have been content with the story only being told from Nellie’s and Rose’s point of view. I did not see the need for Shelly’s version of the events, or Josie Clay’s memoir, which totally messed up the chronological order as well. Nellie saw the good side of Hobbs, fell in love with him, and then met his bad side along the way. He threated her like a porcelain doll: he places her in a house, he lived with her, but he didn’t really talk to her or communicated in any other way. On his worst days, he threated her like garbage, or worse. With Rose on the other hand, we meet a rather passionate Hobbs Pritchard, a man struggling with his own feeilngs, who will never get beyond saying “I like you” no matter how hard he tries. In Rose Gardner he meets the woman he’s actually looking for, a woman more his equal, a person he can talk to. She knows he’s a bad man, and accepts it, mostly because she doesn’t know – nor wants to know – the full extent of his crimes. But he can be nice to her, and in fact, he is most of the time. He makes love to her, while he usually just has sex with Nellie (up till the point that I would call it rape). It’s another side of this multi-faced person, a side that makes him all the more intriguing. As is mentioned throughout the novel, not a lot of women can change a man’s ways, but Rose might just be the person to do that with Hobbs Pritchard.

However, what I found most notable is the way I as a reader changed my views of both Rose and Nellie as their story progressed. I first met Nellie when she was a rather shy, young and naïve child, with an innocent look upon marriage and the world in its whole. Protected from the bad stuff in life by her mother, Nellie is definately not ready for what it means to be married with a man like Hobbs Pritchard, however, blinded by love and the foolishness of youth, she decides to marry him anyway. But – and this is what I think Hobbs least expected – life on Black Mountain hardens Nellie. Seeing as both ghosts and living people warn her about her husband, faced with his erratic and compulsive behavior herself, she builds an almost impenetrable wall around her. She grows stronger, not only by chopping wood at the back of her house, but in her heart as well. Her heart turns black, as she herself indicates. Hobbs, by violating and malthreating her, is turning her into his worst possible enemy. And the thing is, he doesn’t even notice. He fails to see that the naïve, innocent young girl he took with him to Black Mountain, has become a little too much like him.

When we meet Rose, on the other hand, she is nor innocent nor naïve. With a mother who’s basically a prostitute, Rose knows a thing or two about life. Yet she too is foolish enough to fall for Hobbs Pritchard and even believing that he could care for, or love her like a proper man should. At first, she was obviously a lot stronger than Nellie, but whereas Nellie grows stronger throughout the novel, we see Rose growing weaker and more humble, until the point that she even admits that Nellie was stronger and more intelligent than she was all along. This shows a remarkable skill for characterization on Ann Hite’s behalf: turning the roles around, making us see the different kinds of strength and intelligence people can have, and making it all the more obvious how a person can change when they have no other options left or no one else to turn to.

I have to admit that, although I found the parts about Nellie Pritchard and Rosie Gardner to be superb, in both writing style, authentic narrator’s voice and fast-paced suspense, the spin-off story about Iona Harbor was something better left out, in my opinion. It just dragged the story on, taking a masterpiece and expanding it for another good fifty-pages until its status changed from “it’s a good book, but stop dragging it out”. Beware though; here are some spoilers. Iona Harbor is Annie Harbor’s daughter, and Annie is no one else but Nellie, who changed her name to escape her past. She goes through some troubles as well – I’m not going to say what, because that might spoil things for you – which, as can be expected, bring her and Annie back to Black Mountain. Cliché, much? In any case, I totally saw this coming, and I didn’t even want to wait to see how things played out. As I said, instead of dragging this book out, Ann Hite could have called it quits a hundred or so pages earlier and she would have written what I would consider a masterpiece in gothic horror and Southern literature. Now, not so much. That’s not to say that I’m not mighty impressed – I am – but still, I feel a tad bit dissapointed with the ending. Not all loose ends have to be tied up.

The ghosts were a nice addition and they added to the haunting and eerie atmosphere of Black Mountain. Although not particularly scary when read in daylight, I can imagine that this novel might be terrifying when read at night. Ann Hite has a wonderful writing style, with a lot of authenticity in her character’s voices. It’s obvious that a lot of care and thought went into creating this novel, its backstory and its characters. Whereas I would have preferred to learn more about Hobbs’ history and what caused him to become such a cruel and mean man, and I wasn’t that interested in the story of Iona Harbor, I did thoroughly enjoy reading this book. In fact, I read it in one reading session, and I didn’t even want to pause to grab myself a new cup of milk, so that’s saying something.

Dramatic, eerie and supsenseful at its best, Ghost on Black Mountain is a gripping debut novel that will make fans of Faulkner and Poe squeal from delight. With strong and authentic main characters, a multi-faceted bad guy and a haunting backstory, this book will appeal to everyone who enjoys a decent thriller or gothic horror story. Definately recommended, but beware: Once a person leaves Black Mountain, they never come back, not really. They’re lost forever.

Book Review: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

8349244Title: Forbidden
Author: Tabitha Suzuma
Genre: Drama, Young Adult, Sensitive Topic, Romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: June 28th 2011
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Rating: 5 stars
Review copy provided by S&S Galley Grab.

Seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya have always felt more like friends than siblings. Together they have stepped in for their alcoholic, wayward mother to take care of their three younger siblings. As defacto parents to the little ones, Lochan and Maya have had to grow up fast. And the stress of their lives—and the way they understand each other so completely—has also also brought them closer than two siblings would ordinarily be. So close, in fact, that they have fallen in love. Their clandestine romance quickly blooms into deep, desperate love. They know their relationship is wrong and cannot possibly continue. And yet, they cannot stop what feels so incredibly right. As the novel careens toward an explosive and shocking finale, only one thing is certain: a love this devastating has no happy ending.

Forbidden is one of the most shocking, seemingly disturbing and life-changing novels I have read in my entire life. I loved it from the beginning till the very end and I would recommend it to absolutely everyone, despite the sensitive topic. It is definately not for younger readers though. I think from age 16 and up this book is appropriate, but not for a younger audience.

The book is told from two points of view. The first narrator is Lochan, a seventeen year old boy who struggles to talk to people he doesn’t know, is brilliant in written assignments but too nervous to speak in front of a class, and hardly has any friends. His life at home isn’t all that wonderful either, with his mother always going out with her boyfriend Dave, getting home drunk and passing out on the couch or worse, not going home at all and spending entire weeks over at Dave’s, abandoning her children, and putting the oldest two – Lochan and his sister Maya – in charge of the entire household. Maya is the other narrator. She’s Lochan’s sister, only about a year younger than he is, and his best friend in the entire world. They’ve always felt more like best friends than like brother and sister, and with the added responsibilities of taking care of their younger siblings Kit, Tiffin and Willa, Lochan and Maya rely on each other more and more, practically taking the role of Mom and Dad in the household. With their positions changing, so do their feelings for each other and by the time they realise it, they have fallen in love with each other. The only problem is that their love is illegal…

The only other book I’ve ever read that dealt with a brother/sister relationship is Flowers on the Attic by Virginia Andrews. I thought that book was beautiful, and I could understand why Cathy and Christopher eventually turned to each other for the love and affection they so urgently needed. The situation in Forbidden is a bit the same like the one sketched in Virginia Andrews novel: a messed-up situation at home, two older siblings forced to take care of their younger brothers and sisters. I have to admit though, out of the two novels, I liked Forbidden the best, mainly because while I could understand the relationship in Flowers on the Attic, I did not approve of it. On the other hand, in Forbidden, I could both understand and approve of the relationship. Of course it is not something I would encourage, but in this case the loving relationship Tabitha Suzuma sketches in her novel is so heart-felt, so honest and so caring that I could do nothing else but support for them.

Lochan and Maya are two of the most interesting, heart-warming and loveable characters I have ever met. I instantly felt sorry for Lochan with his problem of talking to stranger, and their endless list of responsibilities at home made me feel sympathetic towards both of them. I also loved their interactions with their siblings Willa, Tiffin and Kit. Although the novel focuses primarily on Lochan and Maya, the other siblings are featured a lot as well, and I loved every single one of them, and instantly felt for them. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult the situation must have been for this entire family, with a missing father and a mother always drunk or spending time at her boyfriend’s house. I do think it is plausible in such situation, that two siblings might find themselves feeling more for each other than society allows. Lochan and Maya realized their feelings towards each other early on in the novel, but their first reaction was one of confusion and trying to hide what they felt, which I think was the most natural reaction possible. But as their feelings increase and it gets harder and harder not to respond to them, they eventually give in. By the time I got at that point in the novel, I could understand why, and I knew that their love, no matter how wrong or disturbing, was real nevertheless. I was actually rooting for the star-crossed lovers at that point. It was a revelation.

Now, I’m not in the perfect position to speak my mind about sibling incest, mainly because I don’t have any siblings. I don’t exactly understand how much love one can has for a brother/sister and at what point it turns out to be too much. In general, I am of course opposed against the idea of siblings falling in love with each other and worse, starting a sexual relationship. But on the other hand, I would like to keep an open mind. I would like to believe that if it’s about two adults (or almost adults, like Lochan and Maya) and it is consensual, that it then doesn’t necessarily have to be wrong. I hope no one tries to kill me now, but I can’t honestly say after reading Forbidden, that it’s wrong by default. It will probably be in a whole lot of cases, and if siblings were ever to have children, the chances of them being deformed or handicapped are very high. That’s genetics and DNA telling us that it’s wrong. Society is telling us that it’s wrong as well, as have all cultures since the beginning of time. But get rid of what genetics and society tells us, and look at the true, profound and loyal love Lochan and Maya have for each other. It might not be right, but in my opinion, it isn’t exactly wrong either.

I’ve heard about this case in France a couple of years ago, about two siblings who had been seperated at birth. They never knew each other nor did they know they had a sibling out there. About twenty years later, they meet, connect on a deep emotional level, and fall in love. They even get married. And then, they find out that they’re actually siblings. But they love each other – they’ve even married each other. I remember that we had big debates on television and all then about whether or not these people should be allowed to stay married, and in which cases sibling incest might possibly be allowed. A bunch of hypocrites, conservatives and generally stubborn-minded people spoke their mind about the relationship openly. But my opinion is, that it’s none of our business. Those people were two adults who fell in love, consented with a relationship and even marriage, and then just because they happen to be siblings, all of that is thrown out on the table, their love is reduced to something awkward and disturbing, and society decided to take the choice for them. Why? Who gave society the power to declare who we can and cannot love? I know my point may be a bit controversial, but I find it true in this case as well. If Lochan and Maya both love each other, and if they both want to have a physical relationship, then why would it be society’s business?

I sincerely hope nobody kills me for stating my opinion here. I never really thought about the subject till after reading Forbidden and deciding that I really cannot say anything else about Lochan and Maya’s relationship apart from the fact that I found it very clear that they loved each other, that Lochan treated Maya far better than boys that age usually treat their girlfriends and that I believe their love to be pure. So who am I to judge pure love? Understandably, the issue of Maya still being a minor is added in the novel as well. But minors can have sex. Sixteen-year-olds can consent to having sex with their boyfriends/girlfriends, and no one in today’s society will care. Court can argue that Maya perhaps had no idea what the consequences of her consent would be, or that she was too young to decide about such things, but if we’re all honest we all realize what the consequences of said things are, and that at sixteen we are quite capable to decide about such things. On the other hand, I do know that most of sibling incest relationships are not consentual, at least one party does not want it, and that law officers are forced to take action against that. But if they are over sixteen, in peculiar circumstances, and they both want it – then why not?

I’m pretty sure people are going to kill me by now, but anyway. Forbidden really made me think about the subject, and it’s wonderful when a book does that. I would like to applaud the author for her immense courage for writing an entire novel based on a tabboo subject, and aimed at young adults nonetheless. Also, I would like to say to everyone that you shouldn’t let the sensitive topic or the amount of pages discourage you to read this book. The writing style is fluent, beautiful and enough to pull you in from page one and not bore you till the very end. I read it in one reading session of about three hours, so you know that means it’s definately good, interesting and suspenseful. The way Tabitha Suzuma deals with the sensitive topic is careful at first, a bit timid and some basic exploring – like Lochan and Maya’s relationship in the beginning – but then she dives all the way to the care of it. Even if you’re not exactly open-minded, Forbidden is worth a try. It will certainly make you think about things twice before stating your opinion.

Book Review: The Keening by A. LaFaye

7571249Title: The Keening
Author: A. LaFaye
Genre: Paranormal, Young Adult, Drama, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication Date: April 1st 2010
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Rating: 4 stars
Review copy provided by publisher through Netgalley.

Born into a family with artistry in their fingers, Lyza laments that her only talent is carving letters into wood. That is until her life is turned upside down when her mother succumbs to the influenza pandemic of 1918, which is devastating their small coastal town in Maine. With her mother gone, Lyza must protect her eccentric father, who runs the risk of being committed, especially now that he claims he’s waiting for the return of his dead wife. Can Lyza save her father and find her own path in the process?

Lyza’s father is a peculiar man, blessed with the ability to create the most beautiful cravings in wood, and cursed with a feeble mind, often forgetting things as normal as eating, sleeping or other everyday activities. All her life, Lyza’s been used to his behavior, and although she occassionally worries about his strange habits, she isn’t overly concerned, as long as her mother is around to bring her father back to the right track. However, with the influenza pandemic tormenting numerous villages on the coast, Lyza’s family is not left unharmed either. After nearly succumbing to the illness herself, Lyza makes a miraculous recovery, which makes her all the more sensitive to the harm the sickness has caused her community. But then, without any proper warning, her mother gets ill as well. As her mother dies from the illness she survived, Lyza is the only one left to take care of her father.

It proves not to be an easy task, with her father expecting the swift return of his dead wife and insisting on waiting up for her practically every evening. But he does try: he prepares food for Lyza, he protects her as well as he can, etc. As the true nature of her father’s condition slowly reveals itself to Lyza, and old, banished memories resurface, she learns that her father might not be crazy after all.

The Keening starts with a haunting and eerie occurence, namely Lyza seeing a dark shape in her bedroom on the day a funeral march passes by her house. As the mood is set, even though the next couple of chapters deal with Lyza’s family life and her father’s peculiar illness, the book never really loses that haunting and eerie tone. Even while reading scenes from Lyza’s day-to-day life, I was always expecting for something to pop out of the closet, as to speak, or for something scary to happen. That said, the fact that these events didn’t really occur, but that I kept anticipating them, made this book read more like a thriller than anything else. I kept waiting for the bomb to drop and when it finally did, I was certainly not dissapointed. I had expected it, but I was actually quite releived when it dropped – I couldn’t have made it through another fifty pages without any secrets revealed.

The book is written in a dream-like, translucent tone of voice, which is very peculiar, but only adds to the eerie atmosphere set from chapter one. The author mentioned that this book came to her in a dream, and I think that’s very plausible, considering that it reads a bit like that as well. I enjoyed the writing style and although I must admit it might not work for every genre or every book, it certainly fit this one.

Lyza is one of the strongest, most determined and intelligent book characters I’ve ever come across. Even while looking in the face of death, she does not back down. She has the courage and determination most of us can only dream of, and she manages to be there for her father, even when she herself is nearly breaking down. On numerous occassions, the most important one being the death of Lyza’s Mother, The Keening brought tears to my eyes. Part of that was due to the gripping, truthful way the author manages to capture the character’s emotions and the situation at hand, and it was also partly due to the fact that I liked Lyza’s mother so much. I had grown to like her over the course of fifty-or-so pages, and I didn’t want her to die just yet. She made an interesting character, a mother through and through, wise, caring, thinking about everything and always being there for Lyza to rely on.

I loved the fact how The Keening mixed paranormal and supernatural occurences with historical fiction. At the beginning of the story, Lyza loved her father, but she couldn’t really understand him. I’m glad their relationship got better as Lyza, bit by bit, uncovered the secrets related to her father’s life before he met her mother, and the reasons why he is still acting so peculiar now and then. It was heart-wrecking to see her fight to not let her father get taken away from her. I have to admit that I liked the last fifty or so pages best, when Lyza discovered what exactly her father’s secret was. I can’t say that without giving away too much spoilers, but I can say that everything suddenly makes sense then, and that what I had been anticipating from page one (although by then I didn’t know what it would be yet) turned out to be even more scary than I imagined.

If you enjoy horror, not the bloody gore-type horror, but the slow, eerie atmospheric horror that struggles its way into a book, and keeps its presence there from page one till the very end, The Keening is definately a nice choice. I enjoyed reading the book, I loved the characters, and I thought it was great that, besides a scary story, this book offers so much more. It offers a family in peril, a disease slaughtering entire villages, an emotional roller-coaster, and the slight possibility that maybe the supernatural has something to do with it. A great and entertaining read.

Book Review: Possession by Elana Johnson

8337087Title: Possession
Author: Elana Johnson
Genre: Dystopian, Young Adult, Drama
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: June 7th 2011
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Rating: 4,5 stars
Review copy provided by S&S Galley Grab.

Vi knows the Rule: Girls don’t walk with boys, and they never even think about kissing them. But no one makes Vi want to break the Rules more than Zenn…and since the Thinkers have chosen him as Vi’s future match, how much trouble can one kiss cause? The Thinkers may have brainwashed the rest of the population, but Vi is determined to think for herself.

But the Thinkers are unusually persuasive, and they’re set on convincing Vi to become one of them…starting by brainwashing Zenn. Vi can’t leave Zenn in the Thinkers’ hands, but she’s wary of joining the rebellion, especially since that means teaming up with Jag. Jag is egotistical, charismatic, and dangerous–everything Zenn’s not. Vi can’t quite trust Jag and can’t quite resist him, but she also can’t give up on Zenn.

This is a game of control or be controlled. And Vi has no choice but to play.

Vi is a Goodie, which basically means that she lives on the Goodgrounds, plugs in for transmissions from The Thinkers every night (she doesn’t really, but that’s beside the point), that she follows all the rules The Thinkers come up with, and that she certainly doesn’t run off with a boy in the middle of the night, not even if he happens to be her Match. When Vi does exactly the latter, she is caught and transported to a prison. But it’s not like Vi to give up that easily. When The Thinkers tell her she’s going to be transported to the Badlands, but she’ll be tagged first, Vi isn’t about to let them get away with that. Fortunately for her, her cell mate Jag seems to have the same idea. Together, they manage to escape, and to find their own way to the freedom of the Badlands, and probably the way to each other’s heart as well. But as Vi begins to fall for Jag, she is also forced to question his trustworthiness, and that of her best friend and Match, Zenn. With two guys in her heart, each of them on opposite sides, Vi has to make a choice. Will she let herself be controlled? Or will she be the one doing the controlling?

I love the dystopian genre, although I have to admit that there’s still a long list of YA Dystopian novels I should probably read. I’ve read The Hunger Games and Wither, but that’s about it. Possession is another Dystopian novel, and I must admit that although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, it came fairly close. Possession is original, fast-paced and it focuses on the balance between Good and Bad – and the blurry line inbetween – on what it means to be controlled or to control others, and what that can do to a person. It asks the most prominent question of all: if we are controlled, day and night, by others – be it through transmissions, reading thoughts or mind manipulation, as is present in Possession, or some other way – how can we still be an actual, genuine human being then? How can we be human if we cannot think for ourselves? And how far are we willing to go for our freedom of mind? What and who will we sacrifice to be released from said control? The people we love? Would we be prepared to control others in exchange to longer being controlled ourselves?

It is a vital and important question, and the fashion in which Elana Johnson answers it, is most humbling for our kind. Vi starts off as the heroine-type we’re used to: she’s one of the few people willing to think for herself in a generation where people let others do the thinking for them, she refuses to listen to the transmissions from the Thinkers every night and she’s a rebel enough to hang out with a guy – and even kiss him! Although this behavior might not sound extremely rebellious to us, it is instantly recognised as an act of rebellion in Vi’s world. A world seperate in Goodgrounds and Badlands, where the Goodies are continuously forced to think as The Thinkers order them to, and at least the Baddies preserve some freedom. Freedom enough so guys and girls can walk in hand in hand and wear whatever clothes they want, instead of having to cover up most of their body to prevent direction sunlight – which the Thinkers swear is deadly. Vi is the rebellious hero, an outspoken and stubborn girl, with a strange affinity for techtricity, which is everywhere in the Goodgrounds. I didn’t find her personality all that original, but I liked her, and I found this kind of hero very fitting for the time of story. She had a nice sense of humor, and although she had a soft spot for long and unnecessary inner dialogue, I couldn’t help but root for her anyway.

While in prison, Vi meets Jag Barque, a fellow rebel but from the Badlands, with tanned skin and a mischievous smile to make him all the more appealing. Plus, Vi needs to share a prison cell with him. As the two of them start to get along, mainly because Vi admires Jag’s hair and he admires her, they form an alliance and manage to escape together. Jag is a likeable character, although he’s a bit stereotypical as well. He’s your typical bad-boy-with-a-good-heart character. He has the appearance and rebellious side of every YA novel’s bad boy, but he has a heart of gold and instantly falls for our main protagonist. They even have an own language: “Vi speech for… and Jag speech for,” which is probably the most annoying part of the book in my opinion. It just made the storyline drag. Anyway, apart from that, there are a couple of traits that make Jag more authentic than he might seem at first. He’s more heroic and brave than he appears, he has his own agenda, and he might not be that trustworthy after all. I enjoy characters who are not all good or all bad, and who have their own purposes and reasons. It’s fun trying to find out what drives a character, even if it isn’t clear from the beginning. That’s probably why I like Jag as a character: he’s multifacetted, I didn’t really know what exactly to think of him, and he made me laugh every now and then. I could easily understand why Vi would fall for him. He is the living image of freedom in a world where she’s only known control. He portrays everything she ever wanted to be, but was too afraid to be.

But then there’s Zenn. Vi’s Match, and a Goodie, and initially the reason why Vi ended up in prison to begin with. He’s the only person Vi really trusts, the only true friend she’s ever known, but as the story progresses, Vi cannot be sure of this anymore. It seems quite likely that Zenn had an agenda of his own as well, and that he might not always have had her best interests at heart. As she loses her faith in Zenn, Vi practically loses her faith in humanity, uncertain of who she can trust anymore now. She faces some heart-wrenching decisions, one of them being to help Zenn or not to help him, even if it turns out he may have betrayed her (I’m using vague terms not to spoil anything). But what can I say about Zenn? He might not be the most trustworthy fellow out there, and we hardly see him in this book – he gets a lot less screen time than Jag does, which is blatantly unfair in my opinion – but I’m Team Zenn all the way. Even if he may have betrayed Vi somehow, he always chose her interests above his own, and he didn’t act out of his free will, and if he did, it was to protect her. I can’t really explain why I like him more than I like Jag, especially since we don’t get to know him all that wel in this book, but somehow I do. Maybe it’s the mysteriousness. Maybe it’s the sense that I had while reading that when she needed it the most, Vi could always count on Zenn. Or maybe it’s just because I hardly knew anything about him, and I wanted to. Or maybe it’s because I instantly made the connection in my mind between Zenn and another character from an entirely different series, namely Zero from Vampire Knight. Alright, they have nothing in common but a Z in their name, and a four-syllable name. But when I imagined Zenn, I pictured Zero in my mind. I don’t care if they don’t look the same based on their description. From the moment I first read his name, I totally and completely adored Zenn, and this didn’t dissappear as I kept on reading. So, I’m Team Zenn all the way.

Possession is a rather long young adult novel, at just over 400 pages, but it doesn’t feel that long while reading it. The characters are interesting, the storyline is fast-paced and action-packed, the setting is absolutely breathtaking in its authenticity and originality. I have to admit that I loved the characters and I adored the dystopian setting, the mention of techtricity and Vi’s possible affinity with it, the notion of Goodgrounds and Badlands, Goodies, Baddies, Thinkers and Rangers. The entire world felt new, innovative and refreshing to me. Although I was a bit wary at first at the world-building, because it seemed so different from our own world and so much had to be explained, I grew to like this world, and the endless possibilities it offers in terms of potential adventures, upcoming wars, etc. But what I loved the most, was the conflict at heart of the book.

At its core, Possession is not about a dystopian world or about a girl falling in love with some ‘bad’ guy. It’s about betrayal, trust and breaking that trust. It’s constantly about being controlled or being the one in control. Control is everything. Freedom is practically non-existent. Your friends, family, your own parents could turn against you. Or they could be ripped away from your life from one day on the other, murdered or dissappeared, like Vi’s sister and father. Everything depends on having control and being in charge. The Thinkers are the ones in control: they set the rules, they decide who gets to live and who needs to die, they say what’s right and wrong. The Goodies and sometimes even the Baddies are the ones being controlled. From page one till the very end of this book, Vi is fighting for that control. She wants to be able to control herself and her own actions, and not be controlled by The Thinkers. She wants her mind to be her own, and she doesn’t need mind manipulation or some Thinker’s voice in her mind telling her what to do. But from the moment Vi struggles for that control, everyone else is struggling to take her control away from her. It’s all a game of who can be trusted, and who controls who.

The only remark I had while reading this book, was that the storyline was confusing at times. Sometimes nothing happened for several pages besides inner dialogue (unfortunatley, Vi’s inner dialogue isn’t all that interesting) and then plenty of stuff happened in only a couple of pages, leaving me confused and forcing me to reread entire paragraphs to actually understand what was going on.

Possession is so much more than a young adult Dystopian novel. It’s a suspenseful thriller, a praise for our most basic and significant human ability: our freedom of mind, and a girl’s continuous struggle to keep hers. It’s about resistance and rebellion against submission, and individual’s need for freedom against a society’s need for law, order and control. It’s about all the things we come across in our own society nowadays, but expanded, enhanced, and all the more breathtaking and suffocating. There’s a thin line between how we are nowadays controlled by the media and the government and between how Vi and her fellow citizens are treated in this book, with even their minds being controlled by others. The potential truth of this future is what is so utterly mesmerizing, shocking and confrontational. I would recommend it to all fans of dystopian novels, and to everyone who’s ever wondered what would happen if we got to the point where governments, media and other sources could somehow control our minds as well. Possession is an excellent read.

Book Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon

23503Title: The Alchemist’s Daughter
Author: Katharine McMahon
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Drama
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Publication Date: January 31st 2006
Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository
Rating: 3,5 stars
Review copy purchased by yours truly.

There are long-held secrets at the manor house in Buckinghamshire, England, where Emilie Selden has been raised in near isolation by her father. A student of Isaac Newton, John Selden believes he can turn his daughter into a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. Secluded in their ancient house, with only two servants for company, he fills Emilie with knowledge and records her progress obsessively.

In the spring of 1725, father and daughter begin their most daring alchemical experiment to date – they will attempt to breathe life into dead matter. But their work is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers: one a researcher, the other a dazzling young merchant. During the course of a sultry August, while her father is away, Emilie experiences the passion of first love. Listening to her heart rather than her head, she makes a choice.

Banished to London and plunged headlong into a society that is both glamorous and ruthless, Emilie discovers that for all her extraordinary education she has no insight into the workings of the human heart. When she tries to return to the world of books and study, she instead unravels a shocking secret that sets her on her true journey to enlightenment.

Emilie Selden is the sheltered, mysterious daughter of John Selden, natural philosopher and student of none other than the great Isaac Newton himself. Although Emilie is a girl, John decided to enlighten his daughter about the mysteries and wonders of natural philosophy, mathematics and alchemy anyway. But whereas John definately succeeded to give Emilie the necessary knowledge about the sciences to get through life, he failed to provide her with all the rest, ranging from social insight to the way relationships and love work. Her incapability to live and function in the real world makes her ill-prepared for the lies and half-truths Aislabie, the first man who ever showed her any interest and breaches the solitude of her home, told her. She marries him in a whim, and makes the gravest mistake of her life. Because Aislabie is about to take everything away from her, everything she ever loved. Her father, alchemy, and maybe even her own home.

The Alchemist’s Daughter gave me plenty of mixed feelings. The setting is wonderful, 18th century England with The Enlightenment on its way and Isaac Newton and other famous scientists changing the way everyone looked upon the world. The author describes this world most beautifully, in vivid, lifelike colors and sounds, like you just stumbled upon a portrait or even in the middle of a genuine scene from the 18th century. These descriptions happen in a most humble, natural-sounding way and made me fall in love with this book from the first few lines. They’re what really made the book, and they really made it come alive in my opinion. But it has to be said that all the rest wasn’t all that good.

Emilie started out as a very promising character. She was an intelligent young woman, practically brilliant for her era, and although she never challenged her father in terms of upbringing and personal choices, she did challenge him on an intellectual level. I genuinely thought that this was the beginning of her own rebellion, her own dive into alchemy and Emilie actually taking a stand against her father. Reverend Shales, the first man who appears in Emilie’s life, is a natural philosopher as well, and seemed like a very good companion for her. I was hoping that she would eventually build up enough courage to confront her father about her feeilngs for Shales, and then maybe even get the ol’ man’s permission to marry the reverend. Emilie and Shales would have been a good team of natural philosophers, each with their own distinct area of interest, but capable of working together as well. The premise certainly did sound promising.

In comes Aislabie. He offers nothing really to Emilie, because he is a bit of a con-artist and hardly knows anything about real natural philosophy, let alone alchemy. He’s more interested in Selden estate than he is in the Selden daughter, in my opinion. Although he fails to challenge her intellectually, or even meet her half-way, Emilie is immediately swept away by Aislabie’s appearance. He’s very good-looking and he manages to act like he’s a smart duck – which he isn’t. I have to grant him the fact that he knows his way in the world, and he knows how to persuade people how to do his bidding, but that’s it. Against all reason, Emilie falls madly in love with Aislabie. One day, in the garden, the fellow practically rapes her. Yet she still loves him! And when he asks her father for her hand, she is happy, releived and glad to marry Aislabie. How sheltered can one be to go marry a guy who just raped you? Although I felt more than enough anger towards both Aislabie – for doing it – and Emilie – for allowing it – for these actions, I felt that maybe I couldn’t really blame Emilie for anything. After all, she was pretty sheltered, so I gave her the shadow of the doubt. But it got only worse.

By the time Aislabie turns out to be a cheating bastard – sorry for the word choice, but he really is – and has destroyed half of Selden Manor, Emilie still can’t figure out the fact that he’s an absolute idiot, a joker, and that she should get rid of him as soon as possible. Now I know Emilie hardly ever rebelled against her father either, and took everything with a nod and a half-hearted smile, but that’s no longer an excuse. If my husband went to tear down my house, especially my labatory and the room my own mother died in, I would shout, scream, hit, bite, fight…in other words, do whatever I possibly could to stop him from doing it. Emilie just stands there, like a rag doll, and although she complains about it towards Aislabie, she is totally not convincing, and she doesn’t even treaten him. For god’s sake. She’s the daughter of an alchemist, a man who studies not only the natural philosophy, but also the “forbidden” science, a man whose ideas are very modern for the era, revolutionary even. And there she stands, like a statue, letting herself getting bullied by her own husband. I was constantly urging Emilie to get up and do something. And with that I don’t mind trying to kill herself and burn her own god-damned legs. I meant actually doing something against the monster that is Aislabie. Hit him, slap him, kill him for all I care. Make a poisonous drink and feed it to him while he sleeps. Lock him up in a room and make something go boom. Make him stumble down the stairs and claim that it’s an accident. Anything. But don’t let him get away with it!

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Emilie does. Her failure to react very emotionally towards anything, except than the emotion of self-destruction and self-pity, makes her distant and cold as a character. I lost every ability to relate to her. I know that women were supposed to be weak little lambs in that era, but I don’t buy it that a person as rational and intelligent as Emilie would just shrug it off if a fellow as stupid and ignorant as Aislabie were to tear down her entire home, simply because he sleeps with her at night or kisses her passionately. If my husband were to come to me after tearing half my house down, he would certainly NOT be getting any sex, and he wouldn’t get kisses either. That she disregards her own feeilngs simply because he sleeps with her, is unimaginable and sounds just plain stupid. Either Aislabie gives the most amazing sex ever – which still wouldn’t explain things – or Katharine McMahon’s characters’ credibility really takes a turn for the worst here. I’m putting my money on the latter.

Emilie starts out as a promising character, but fails to deliver. Her own history, her love for alchemy and natural philosophy and her initial ambitions make her appear interesting at first. Her interests in the young men who walk into her life, first Shales and then Aislabie, are understandable, and I would let McMahon get away with marrying Emilie off to Aislabie as well. But then, when the latter starts with Selden Manor Demolition Day, all Emilie’s credibility as a genuine person melts away. She reacts in a shallow, emotionless, and just plain stupid way. Aislabie is a more realistic character – that’s not to say I like him, I’ve probably haven’t felt as enraged towards a character as I feel towards him in a long time – with his lies, half-truths and incredibly ambitious and greedy personality. He is portrayed as a villain, and he plays that role well, because I actually hate him. Shales is the good choice, the choice Emilie should have made from the start, and I instantly liked him. I would have liked it if I had gotten to know him better, because he is so much more interesting than Aislabie could ever be.

I was really impressed with Katharine McMahon’s research in the world of natural philosophy and alchemy. She describes the experiments of John and Emilie Selden to the utmost detail, the language she uses feels genuine for the era and the profession, and the experiments sound real enough. That alone was enough to keep me reading. I would have liked it if Emilie managed some interesting, life-changing break-through in either natural philosophy or alchemy, and was deeply dissapointed that this didn’t happen. I fail to see the point of adding in any science at all if it’s not plot-altering or at least very appropriate. The way the story works now, they could have easily called it The Hermit’s Daughter and just focused on the daughter of a guy whose only particular personality traits is that he enjoys seclusion from society.

When Selden was demolished by Aislabie and his crew of airheads, I was practically crying. I felt more attachment towards the beautiful hallways of Selden Manor, the secret passageways, the laboratory, the library and the several sitting rooms, than I felt towards the characters. I felt like wringing Aislabie’s neck when he tore down what seemed like one of the most beautiful houses ever.

I know that my review is a very mixed one. On the one hand, I’ve gone on and on about why the character of Emilie lacks credibility, and why Aislabie is my new number one enemy, but on the other hand, I do enjoy the alchemy-aspect of the novel, the beautiful setting of Selden Manor and London, the descriptive and era-appropriate narrator’s voice that really sketched the scenes and era for me in a most intriguing way and the over-all storyline. The story wasn’t really unpredictable, but there were some surprises along the way. If you enjoy historical fiction, this book really is a nice choice. It offers genuine scientific research and a well-defined and realistic setting. Just don’t hit me when you are as furious with the characters as I am, or when you find yourself plotting schemes to murder Aislabie by the end of this novel. The Alchemist’s Daughter has a promising premise, but it fails to deliver completely. It is interesting and entertaining and an emotional rollercoaster, but it is neither outstanding nor brilliant.

Book Review: This Bird Flew Away by Lynda M. Martin

10386945Title: This Bird Flew Away
Author: Lynda M. Martin
Genre: Women’s Fiction, Drama
Review copy provided by the author.
Rating: 5 stars
Goodreads | Author’s Website

What is real love? The whole world wants to know. They should ask Bria Jean, because she has it all figured out. Opinionated, stubborn and full of woe, Bria would tell you real love is having one person you can always count on through thick and thin. For her, that’s Jack. And it doesn’t matter to her that she’s nine and he’s twenty-three-not one bit.

When, at the age of twelve, Bria disappears, he and his Aunt Mary search for her, and when she surfaces, injured, abused and traumatized, Jack fights to become her guardian with no idea of the trials ahead of him. By then, Bria is thirteen going on thirty, full of her own ideas on how her life should run and with some very fixed notions about who is in charge.

This Bird Flew Away is a strong, powerful book with an even more powerful message. Bria’s struggle for love and life is very confronting. Although you might think differently at first, this book is not about child abuse. It’s about overcoming abuse, about struggling to find your way in the world after, about being a survivor.

We meet Bria first at the funeral of her stepfather, an abusive man who occasionally hit her mother. Shortly after, we are introduced to Jack, a friend of the family who is at the time still studying to be a lawyer, and who proves to be Bria’s friend from the very beginning, as he questions her about her stepfather’s behavior. When shortly after, Bria’s mother vanishes off the face of the earth, the young girl and her infant sister Tara, are forced to go live with their aunt, who Bria calls “Jess the Mess”. Unfortunately, this woman proves to be the most horrible parent or foster parent in history, as she occasionally hits Bria as well as her own children, or locks them up in the basement. Overcome with terror, especially for the fate of her little sister when growing up in such home, Bria tries to contact Jack and ask him for help. When several of her attempts fail, and she stabs her aunt with a knife in a desperate attempt to save herself from yet another severe beating, Bria runs away. But unfortunately for little Bria, the worst is yet to come…

We meet Bria again when she is a recovering survivor in some sort of safehouse, and has trouble accepting the fact she could not save the girl who was kidnapped along with her, or the fact that she was raped, humiliated and hurt beyond repair. It’s Bria’s aunt Mary who eventually takes her into her house, and takes care of Bria and her little sister from that point onward. But Bria’s fight isn’t over – it’s only just begun. She must find the strength to live again, to be happy again, to love again. The road is long, difficult and sometimes even nearly impossible. And somewhere along the way, there’s Jack, the fact that she loves him and always has loved him, and the small possibility that those feelings are mutual.

Bria’s voice is very authentic, real and honest. The story she tells us is both heartwrecking and encouraging, because it makes us believe there is still light at the end of the tunnel, that there is still hope no matter how hopeless a situation seems. The story is told from two different perspectives: Bria’s and Mary’s, and although I enjoyed this, I would have liked to see another perspective as well: Jack’s. I would have liked to know his take on things, his feelings for Bria and how they developed.

The relationship between Jack and Bria from the time she is a sixteen year old girl with an interest in her older protector to when it actually turns into something more when she’s a grown woman of twenty-four, starts from being awkward and inappropriate but also understandable and turns gradually into something practically inevitable, and for some strange reason it feels right when they finally give into their feelings for each other. It seems natural for Bria, as a young, insecure and traumatised teenager, to turn her affections to the only person who’s always been there for her, no matter how much older he is. On the other hand, it’s clear from the start that Jack has very deep and affectionate feelings for the young girl he’s meant to protect, and if they start to change when she hits the final stages of puberty, it is understandable as well. He is the only one she can ever trust her heart to, and she is the only one he would give his heart to. Their relationship is bittersweet, and the way Lynda M. Martin manages to turn it from something inappropriate and wrong at the start, to something that feels so destined and right at the end, shows a great deal of writing and story-crafting skills.

I loved how Bria, strong and willful as she is, makes it her job to aid people who have been through the same thing as she went through, other survivors. She is a wonderful example of strength, courage and hope, and she is eager to pass along those qualities to others, to let them rely on her own strength and courage to find their own hope. She is one of the most inspiring characters I’ve ever come across. I loved Jack as well: he is righteous, determined and protective, a man who will never stand down for something he believes in, a man who will never give up no matter how hard things get. He is an inspiring person as well, and I’m glad to have got to know two people this wonderful and amazing in one single book.

Lynda Martin’s writing style in This Bird Flew Away is very fluent, and she manages to pull her readers in from page one. When I learnt that she took her inspiration from several cases of child abuse she’s come across over the years, I was even more amazed with the way she manages to put reality to fiction in the pages of this book. Child abuse is horrible and gruesome, but it happens every day, and we close our eyes for it all too often. Children in need of help are left to rely only on themselves, and not a week passes by that it isn’t on the news that a child died in horrible circumstances. Deaths that could have been prevented, if we took more appropriate care of all children – not just our own, or our relatives – or if the system worked better. Every day, children a lot like Bria, are kidnapped, tortured and raped for the pleasure of sick-minded individuals. But the worst thing is that we often close our eyes to the pain of children, to their despair, that we read the newspaper, shrug it off and continue having our family dinner without even feeling sad, or at least not for longer than a minute. That we see children on the street getting hit by their parents, but that we turn our backs and pretend it never happened. I would like to thank Lynda Martin for putting child abuse in the spotlight again, for trying to make her readers see how terrible it is, the events themselves and the aftermath, and how it scars a child for life.

But This Bird Flew Away isn’t really about how gruesome these things are, or about how utterly sickening and terrifying child abuse is. As I already mentioned, it’s mostly about hope. About overcoming abuse, and about growing up to be the best person you can possibly be. It’s truly an inspirational book, and I advise everyone to read it. You will not be dissapointed.