The secrets of the past meet the shock of the present, in a page-turning exploration of human nature and divine intervention—and of the darkest corners of the human soul.

Having heard a great deal of praise from Misty over at The Book Rat regarding this debut novel, I was interested in picking it up, just to see if I found it as original and intriguing as it claimed to be.

Madapple certainly has a unique set-up, structurally. It opens with a flashback that seemingly offers little, but in fact provides many hints as to later plot points (yes, I am proud of myself for recognising them immediately) We then jump straight into the middle of a court proceeding, in which our heroine Aslaug is on trial for a double – possible triple – murder. This court case, relayed via transcripts, features in fragments throughout the narrative proper, and often provides tasty little teasers into the action to come. It’s an incredibly effective device, even if I wonder at how many times a lawyer can possibly object to the ‘relevance’ of an answer!

The central story focuses on 17 year-old Aslaug and her far from typical coming-of-age upon the death of her protective and deeply troubled mother, with whom she spent her childhood living in isolation. As a protagonist, Asluag has an incredibly definitive narrative voice, shaped largely by her unconventional education steeped in botany (each chapter title is a different native plant/flower) religion, mythology and science. The reader immediately empathises with Asluag if for no other reason than her extreme ignorance as to her own past, the wider world and to humankind, and upon her encountering the characters of The Pastor, Sanne and Rune, you know that conflict is sure to arise and revelations are to be made.

From the outset, I had already set up some parallels in my mind between this title and The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (check it out!!) and indeed, they did prove to have similar tones and a few matching themes and narrative strands. But I think because I had already experienced plenty of ‘shocking revelations’ in the latter, and in my recent readings of fairy tale retellings, then some of the more horrific elements of Madapple failed to have quite as big an impact as perhaps intended. Some reveals I predicted early on, and so when they eventually made their appearance, I was left feeling a little disheartened with how they measured up to my expectations. That said, there are most definitely aspects of this novel that might prove difficult for some to read about, so just note that there is some darker content touched upon.

Character-wise Madapple has a rare distinction in that I found every single character to be – to some extent – mentally, emotionally and morally unstable, and thus I was often questioning the reliability of Asluag’s narration and the testimonies of others. I am not dismissing this, for in having me second-guess almost everybody it certainly made for a more active association with the material! However, I will say that, despite wanting the best for Aslaug on principle, I ultimately struggled to relate to anybody or find them truly sympathetic – and it also meant that the somewhat ‘happy ending’ left me feeling uneasy, dissatisfied and a tad concerned.

Madapple is both a dense and gripping read, and undoubtedly crosses over into some very interesting territory. I would highly recommend it to anybody seeking a change from the more standard YA fare.

Madapple – Christina Meldrum

Knopf Books for Young Readers

ISBN: 0375851763

May 13th 2008

410 pagesmore details…

-          All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

A refreshing, spirited narrative style with some truly compelling characters and some family drama resulting in very tense situations. Slight futuristic/dystopian elements, but they were certainly the backdrop to a genuinely moving coming-of-age story.

–          A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

A marvellous blend of contemporary realism and high fantasy, this novel balanced dual protagonists beautifully and effectively captured some distinct emotional struggles, while at the same time incorporating a surprising amount of tongue-in-cheek humour. Was very impressed by all of the typical YA tropes that this novel avoided also!! That’s always a plus.

–          Spark by Amy Kathleen Ryan

As a huge fan of its predecessor, Glow, I was incredibly excited to see how this second instalment would measure up in terms of emotional resonance, thematic tension and so forth. It did not disappoint! This series is fast proving to be one of the most original, genuine and intelligent I have ever encountered in young adult fiction. High recommended, especially for science fiction and dystopia fans.

–          Cinder by Marissa Meyer

One of the most blatantly enjoyable fairy tale retellings I have encountered in a long time; unapologetically fun at times, while never sacrificing character and story. The Cinderella elements are all present and accounted for, but it’s still very much its own unique story, and Cinder quickly became one of my most cherished heroines in recent reads.

–          The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Somewhat defying age distinctions, this is technically an adult novel featuring a 12 year-old protagonist, but could certainly be read and enjoyed easily by young adults.  The fairy tale elements are a strong and constant presence throughout the novel, but can be seen in very different ways than most contemporary readers would be accustomed to. The level of graphic detail and dark thematic content might be a little unsettling to some, but it undeniably makes for a gripping read. The novel also features one of the most despicable, heartless villains ever put to paper.

Sixteen year-old Adelice is a Spinster. She can weave time and matter. But no one knows just how talented she is….

The Guild demands loyalty, and everyone has their secrets. But Adelice is about to unravel the deadliest one of all, a sinister truth that could destroy reality as she knows it….

Once you become a Spinster, there’s no turning back.

Months prior to it being in my hands, Crewel had the advantage of containing several of my personal literary ‘buzz words’ – namely “weave” and “spinster”. I was envisioning some sort of take on the Fates of Greek mythology, intercepted with commentary on female roles and functions in society. Needless to say, I allowed myself to build up my own idea of what this book would contain, and perhaps that was my downfall. While I certainly can appreciate the original elements and unique world-building that Albin employed, Crewel was sadly a case of having set my expectations too high.

An interesting blend of genres – at once dystopia, science-fiction and good old fashioned fantasy – Crewel essentially adheres to many of the trappings of other young adult titles in these genres, but occasionally takes some surprising, somewhat unexpected turns. The action takes place in the universe of Arras, a baffling futuristic society in which women are once again designated to the second-class citizens, serving only as wives/mothers, secretaries or in the revered position of a Spinster. A Spinster weaves time and space – the very matter of Arras – and as such has control over life and death, creation and destruction, all living and physical things. Nothing can exist in Arras without the work of a Spinster; in theory, they play God. However, as our protagonist Adelice is to learn, they are not in possession of any true power and things are a great deal more oppressive within the Coventry than they are outside of its walls.

I really wanted to empathise with Adelice; I truly did. The poor girl is not in control of her seemingly astonishing weaving abilities, and these lead inevitably to her separation from her family, the murder of loved ones, and the loss of her personal and social freedom (what little there was!) However, Adelice was nothing if not inconsistent as a character for me, leaping from being rather shallow and self-centred to more proactive and aware without much growth in-between. And in what actually proved a problem for many characters, her rather ‘modern’ attitudes and opinions were, rather than comforting and familiar, far too at-odds with the world she would have grown up in. At times, it felt as though Albin was hesitant of providing her cast of players with beliefs and ideas that might sit uncomfortably with a reader but would maintain coherence with Arras as a society. This was quite disarming, especially towards the novel’s beginning, when the world was still being gradually revealed piece-by-piece.

The romance of the novel also fell quite flat for me, as is often the case: there was a somewhat forced attempt at a love triangle, which I am never a fan of, with Adelice juggling between her more superficial attraction to the cocky Erik and her ‘deeper’ connection to the stoic, Jost. Throw in the unwanted attentions of the villainous and older Ambassador Cormac and there were simply far too many men interested in this girl for me to find it at all credible! Cormac at least, in his bad guy role, was slightly more consistent that most other characters, and despite the stereotypical attributes, I found some of his brutal honesty refreshing, as did Adelice. Side characters such the loyal Enora and the allusive mentor Loricel could have been much more than their designated functions  – and at times they almost got there, which was tantalising but ultimately frustrating.

The overall tone of the novel never felt as though it had been decided upon exactly; there were moments where I thought Albin was reaching for some social commentary and some rather sweet and considerate messages about sexual and gender equality. So many themes were possible in this particular universe that she crafted; I am just very sad that there weren’t explored as deeply as they could have been. Of course, this is only the first in a series, so perhaps I am judging too harshly, too quickly. The world-building itself was also somewhat confusing for me; depictions of the weaving in particular were fascinating yet unrelentingly vague. I wanted so badly to get a clear image of how this skill worked and formed the world of Arras, but it never came to light for me. Perhaps I am simply too restricted in my imagination to glimpse it, which I regret!

I will probably give the next instalment in this series a whirl, just out of curiosity, but I still can’t help wishing that the Crewel I had formed in my head was the Crewel that I held in my hands.

Crewel – Gennifer Albin

Faber and Faber Limited

more details…

ISBN – 0374316414

369 pages

October 16th 2012

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“The carnival pulsed in the centre of The City – a swirl of masked pleasure and violence. All around the carnival, transactions of varying degrees of legality and ethical questionability were happening. The City wasn’t a world that seemed beautiful to everyone. It was their world, though”

As an avid fan of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series, as well as her short stories, I was eager to pick up her latest YA title, Carnival of Souls, especially as it was a departure from her work with fae, instead focusing on daimons and witches (her adult novel, Graveminder, focuses on revenants/ghosts, so Marr is close to tackling all the popular supernatural creatures!) Having recently read and enjoyed Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, I was also momentarily convinced that this novel might house a similar atmosphere – especially as it seemed that masks were involved.

But where Morgenstern concerned herself with performance art in the traditional setting of a touring circus, Marr’s carnival was a decadent, dark and violent market of sorts, trading in all forms of nefarious wares, and basing itself around the bloody and brutal ‘Competition’. This where many readers might well draw comparisons to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, as two of our protagonists are contestants in this ‘Competition’, fighting fellow daimons often to the death for the chance to raise their social status and gain access to a better life.

Both Kaleb (daimon) and Ayra (part witch, part daimon) fight for very different reasons, and with contrasting methods, but ultimately their motivations are to gain wealth, social freedom and personal success. You can certainly empathise with them both to a certain extent, with Kaleb wanting better living conditions for lower-caste daimons and Ayra wanting independence and power as a female, but personality-wise both characters struggled to deliver enough likeability and warmth for me to connect to them.

The same could also be said of the novel’s third protagonist, the ‘human’ teenager Mallory. Marr initially sets up to focus more on Mallory’s narrative in the real world, which would be an understandable touchstone for the reader in between the fantastical setting of the Carnival. However, Mallory quickly fades into the background, all the while seeming to shift personality traits and attitudes, resulting in a very inconsistent portrait. The romance between Mallory and Adam was also tinged with some troubling power dynamics, which could never fully be explained away by the daimon lore that supposedly governed some of Adam’s decisions.

I have always always respected Marr for presenting readers with incredibly flawed, morally grey characters, but for the most part, almost everybody in Carnival of Souls was either insanely self-centered, astoundingly naive, or just unnecessarily cruel. I wanted to understand them and their motives but it was quite a struggle.

The overall feel of the novel was one of incompletion, which makes me wonder if perhaps many changes were made in between the proof I read, and the final published product. It just felt like I was simply looking upon the skeleton of the larger work; there was too much repetition of phrases and sentiments, too much inconsistency between the shifting points-of-view, too vague a construction of the mythology concerned, and too little control in the tone of the piece for it to be satisfying. I have no doubt, with its themes of forbidden love, struggles against tyrannical power, and a bloody battle between mythological beings, that Carnival of Souls will find fans in many readers. I just wish I could have been one of them!

Carnival of Souls – Melissa Marr

Harper Collins Australia

more details…

ISBN – 0061659282

306 pages

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September 4th 2012

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Forget everything you ever knew about unicorns…
Real unicorns are venomous, man-eating monsters with huge fangs and razor-sharp horns. Fortunately, they’ve been extinct for a hundred and fifty years.
Or not.

I had been curious to read Rampant ever since I discovered that, in addition to featuring killer unicorns and teenage huntresses, it also explores the themes of female sexuality and gender discrimination, all under the guise of an epic fantasy adventure.

17 year-old Astrid Llewelyn is dismissive for years of the warnings and ramblings of her mother, who proclaims the existence of unicorns and Astrid’s lineage of unicorn-slaying. However, a seemingly chance and violent encounter with a unicorn one evening convinces her otherwise, and suddenly Astrid finds herself being shipped off to Italy, along with several other teenage girls, to ‘fulfil her destiny’.

Despite common associations nowadays liking unicorns to cuddly, cute, sparkly little critters, Diana Peterfruend appreciates the history of the unicorn as a mythological creature, and applies this knowledge by burdening her cast of female characters with a centuries-old destiny/duty to fight mythical creatures typically associated with the idea of “purity”. The innate and understandable struggle that arises for protagonist Astrid, and her young comrades, is effectively drawn and admirable in its influence on the romantic sub-plots of the novel, which for once are refreshingly genuine and credible. Astrid’s attempts at a relationship with Giovanni, for instance, begin (very realistically) not with any notion of ‘true love’ but with sexual attraction, which eventually leads to actual affection and trust, and a difficult path for both parties to navigate, given Astrid’s new ‘profession’.

Of course, there is plenty of action and excitement to appeal to readers as well, but for me personally it was the moral and social debates contained within the novel that made Rampant such a worthwhile read. The characters are also dynamic and interesting: while it’s true that there are simply too many young huntresses to get to know them all intimately, some, such as the intense Cory and the vibrant (and tragic) Phil, are intriguing in their own right. As for villains – let’s just say that the real bad guys of the narrative are not at all who you expect, and the unicorns, despite appearances, prove to be creatures of immense fascination and even empathy, rather than mere murderous beasts.

I loved Rampant so much that I immediately followed on to its sequel, Ascendant, which proved just as addictive and emotionally engaging (many tears were shed!) While at present there is, sadly, no plans for a third instalment, I highly recommend The Killer Unicorn series to anyone who appreciates a gripping yarn, some highly personable female characters, and themes that deserve more recognition in YA fiction.

Rampant – Diana Peterfruend

Harper Teen

ISBN: 0061490008

402 pages

August, 25th 2009

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