September 12, 2014

FYA Photo-a-Day 12: A Powerful Quote

Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life—and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey’s boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie’s own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they’re the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can’t collide without the whole wide world exploding. (Goodreads)

The Sky Is Everywhere is a beautiful book both in terms of Jandy Nelson's gorgeous writing and visually. It is printed in lovely blue ink which and there are handwritten poems scrawled throughout its pages, photographed on paper cups, candy wrappers, bits of newspaper, bark and bathroom tiles among other things (all in full colour). I spent a good half hour just leafing through my copy when it first arrived – it was like a beautifully wrapped present. On getting over my sheer delight at getting an object d'art when all I'd been expecting was a book, my first thoughts were that the publishers must have thought it was some story if they put such a lot into the book design, as I don't imagine it was cheap to produce. Luckily for them, they were right.

This is in large part thanks to some quite spectacular writing. Breathtaking and beautiful, Jandy Nelson's prose billows out of the book in huge, overwhelming waves. It should be too much, but it's not. Lennie's grief for sister Bailey is not a quiet one and screams out of her in a vicious waterfall of loss, yearning, desire and love because Lennie is not dead – she is very, very much alive. While in the very depths of mourning, Lennie finds herself drawn towards Bailey's boyfriend Toby and a whirlwind of tears, lust and raw need ensues. This could have been distasteful, but instead it is gut-wrenchingly sad. Simultaneously, a new boy enters Lennie's life in the shape of Joe Fontaine – gentle, kind, happy and above all, able to offer Lennie solace and escape as someone who knew her only after Bailey's death. The narrative follows Lennie as she moves back and forth between light and shade, Toby and Joe. I am sure that many profound things have been said about sex and death and I'm not going to try and be clever about it. In The Sky Is Everywhere sex is portrayed as life-affirming in the most literal way. Toby and Lennie's desire makes them feel alive when nothing else does and in doing so makes them feel closer to Bailey, despite the horrendous guilt that it also brings. Lennie's desire and love for Joe is also life-affirming in the truer, more existential sense. He makes her feel healthy, strong, happy and hopeful. More than anything, while Toby makes Lennie feel real in that she feels close to Bailey, Joe allows her to be true to herself and therefore feel truly alive.

For me, everything in The Sky Is Everywhere is gloriously, vividly alive. The only thing dead in the book is Bailey and perhaps the sad shadow that is Toby – a character made two-dimensional in his grief only scraping a reprieve towards the last few pages. Creaking trees, magical roses, music, tears and magnificent smiles jump off the page and it is impossible not to rejoice in the sheer vividness of Lennie's everyday life. Be it what lifts you up or what tethers you down, Jandy Nelson reminds us that it is all life and is there to be embraced and above all, lived.

On a final and somewhat lighter note, I would personally very much like to have a set of Fontaine brothers. They could live in my closet. I would take them out whenever I felt sad and they would make me feel better and save on my electricity bills.

Bat. Bat. Bat. 


All That Glitters (Review: The Jewel by Amy Ewing)

22586252The Jewel
Amy Ewing
Walker 2014

Violet Lasting is about to become Lot 197, a child-bearing commodity for the wealthy of her city who reside in the glittering confines of the Jewel.  Previously ruled by four houses and now by an Elector and Electress, it has long been known that the Jewel is barren – or at least that children borne by the elite don’t always turn out as planned – and the ladies of the district now use surrogates from the poorer parts of the city.  Violet is such a surrogate.  Sold, by a significant amount to the Duchess of the Lake, she finds herself surrounded by beauty, wealth, cruelty and death.  Destined to carry the child of a woman who plots to bring down the very society she inhabits, Violet finds herself lost, if not entirely alone…

The world that Amy Ewing has created in her debut novel is a small yet striking one, although it brings little that seems truly unique.  The glittering castles and concerts halls, combined with the many Duchesses, Countesses and Ladies bring to mind a corrupted Wonderland (not at all dissimilar to the one created by Frank Beddor in The Looking Glass Wars) while the outer districts, inhabited as they are by scruffy children and the indentured poor bring to mind the streets of Victorian London.  It’s not a bad juxtaposition, although hardly original with the Jewel itself being of far more interest than the muddy streets of the common folk.  Still, most of the action takes place in the home of the Duchess with Violet spending only enough time outside the walls to understand that things are not as pretty as they might appear.

Violet herself is likable enough.  She is clearly uncomfortable with her lot in life and shows admirable backbone when faced with the conniving coldness of the Duchess of the Lake yet she lacks passion.  She is keen to escape the story that fate has written for her but does little bar sit around and wait to be rescued.  When she meets Ash, a young man whose lot in life is as steeped in exploitative servitude as her own, she is believably swept up by her feelings, having had nothing to do with boys previous to her arrival in the Jewel. Ash is also very readable, not to mention a bit more interesting than Violet thanks to his own back story, but their relationship develops over half a dozen short scenes into what can only be described as the dreaded instalove.

The relationship that actually keeps The Jewel alive is that between Violet and The Duchess.  The Duchess is a marvelous creation and by the end of the book has emerged as a multi-faceted villain who readers will both love to hate but occasionally find themselves pitying. The scenes between the two women spark with mutual contempt and bitterness.  It is in these scenes that Amy Ewing’s writing comes alive and they kept me reading to the last page.  Another arresting character is Lucien and I sincerely hope that the small amount of back story pertaining to his character is not all we get.

The Jewel is not an unimpressive debut, it flows well and the writing is compelling enough but it suffers a little from style over content.  The descriptions of the glorious homes, verdant gardens and beautiful music overwhelm a plot in which very little actually happens.  As in Lauren De Stefano’s Wither, the relationship that Violet finds herself in seems to be there for the sake of having a love interest and felt forced, despite the attractively troubled Ash.  Additionally, the strange powers that Violet and her fellow surrogates seem to possess are so vaguely described that they become almost an irritation.

The Jewel is the first in a trilogy and while it is certainly flawed there is a lot to encourage readers to return for book two, not least curiosity about Violet’s fate the promise of more from the Duchess of the Lake.   Amy Ewing has the start of a very good story in The Jewel , it’s just a shame that she took a whole book to outline the bare bones.  Here in The Mountains of Instead, we recommend this title to those who enjoyed Eve by Anna Carey  or De Stefano’s Chemical Garden series, The Jewel has potential to be better than both but reaches nowhere near the dizzy heights of The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), which it has been compared to and which, if you enjoyed this, you should really pick up next.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The Jewel is available now. Thank you to the publisher for providing us with a copy of this title to review.

September 11, 2014

FYA Photo-a-Day 11: Fictional Love (a special addition for Shona and the YAckers)

Sebastian Scott from the Sadler's Wells series by Lorna Hill

A long time ago, back when the Mountains of Instead were mere hillocks, I wrote a post about the attractiveness of men who play music. I listed my favourites, or at least the ones that would have had me swooning as a teen. You can find them here and they are a lovely lot, but number one was Sebastian.  And still is. This is why:

I first read the Sadler's Wells books when I was about nine. I was really into ballet, and that is what they focus on so I was happy (there are also a lot of horses featured, but you can't have everything). Sebastian doesn't appear in all of the books, just the first two where he plays antagonist and love interest to heroine Veronica. Sebastian is smart, wickedly so and is absolutely driven by his music. He cannot live without it, or Veronica, for whom he plays while she dances (usually in some swoony outdoor setting). He is hot – all dark hair, piercing blue eyes, slightly northern accent and long piano-player fingers. He is also a bit of a bad boy – in that he can be a bit cruel, his humour sarcastic and his judgements final. Importantly, he has some issues involving family and being chucked out of his ancestral home. For years he was all I looked for in a boy – it is no coincidence that my first serious boyfriend was an immensely talented, hugely sarcastic, slightly broken piano player. And just as Sebastian informed my choices in men then, I suspect he still does. If further proof be needed, read again that description and then feast your eyes:

It can be NO COINCIDENCE.  Not only is Sebastian the reason that I am no longer a ballet dancer but still a pianist, I have been casting him in ALL THE BOOKS ever since.  The first cut clearly, in this case, is absolutely the deepest.  Sebastian – you got me at an impressionable age, and my heart remains with you....