Tag Archives: love triangles

Book Review Saturday – ‘Level 2’

Hello!

So, it’s Saturday. Ain’t life grand?

Because this is *totally* my reading nook. A hammock. In my sunny, warm, Irish garden.  Image: thewomancondition.blogspot.com

Because this is *totally* my reading nook. A hammock. In my sunny, warm, Irish garden.
Image: thewomancondition.blogspot.com

Time, I think, to do my bit to promote reading by delving right into another book review post. Today, it’s the turn of ‘Level 2’, by Lenore Appelhans. Here it is:

Image: midnightbloomreads.blogspot.com

Image: midnightbloomreads.blogspot.com

I’m sure you’ll agree that this book has a brilliant cover. In fact, the cover design was one of the things that made me want to read it; I saw it on Twitter, and other social media sites, before it ever hit the shelves. I learned that the author was a well-known blogger (check her out over at Presenting Lenore), which also piqued my interest. So, I was looking forward to reading this book long before I ever got my grubby little paws on it.

Was my enthusiasm rewarded? Well. Let’s see.

The story outline is pretty intriguing. The book is about a teenager named Felicia Ward, who dies just before her eighteenth birthday. As it opens, we don’t know what happened to cause her death, but it hardly matters – the book throws us right into a radical reimagining of the afterlife so different from anything I’d ever read or heard of before that it was immediately arresting.The Level 2 of the title is a ‘between-world’, one through which we must pass after death, and before we enter heaven, or Level 3.

Felicia, and the other deceased young women (or ‘drones’, as they’re called) who occupy her ‘hive’, exist in sterile-seeming chambers where they spend their time accessing memories of their lives. They can, as well as watching their own memories, rent and watch the memories of others; there is, of course, a cost for this. To access the memories of other people, they must first build up a level of credit, earned from other drones renting their memories and watching them. The memories can be given ratings up to and including ‘5 stars’, depending on their content, so popular memories soon rack up huge viewing rates. It’s a vision of the afterlife which may sound very strange to someone who has no familiarity with YouTube, for instance, but to the teenage audience at whom this book is aimed, the concept behind Appelhans’ idea is second nature.

I did wonder a bit at first what the purpose of Level 2, as a place, was. The norm, for an afterlife, is to move on, to come to terms with your death and reach a place of peace. But spending your time reliving your memories, particularly your most cherished ones, seems a strange way to accept your own death and allow yourself to pass on to the next level. However, Appelhans makes interesting use of this as her book unfolds – the souls in Level 2 are being held there for a purpose, and they are being encouraged to live and relive their cherished memories for a reason, too.

So. ‘Life’ (or, afterlife) continues normally for Felicia until the day the girl in the next hive (Beckah) disappears. Beckah is one of the only friends Felicia has in Level 2, and so her disappearance causes her a huge amount of upset – this is compounded when it emerges that Felicia is the only person in the hive who remembers Beckah at all, and the fact that she vanishes upsets nobody but Felicia. She begins to wonder whether someone has removed Beckah from the ‘net’ of interconnected memories shared by the hive, and why – in that case – Felicia’s memories have not been affected. Just as she is attempting to come to terms with this, a breach appears in the wall of the hive, and a figure steps through – a figure from Felicia’s past, who tells her she must come with him. He is in possession of information which he knows Felicia desperately wants, and leaves her little choice but to leave the hive.

This is a book of two halves. I really enjoyed one half, and I was ambivalent about the other. The sections where Felicia accesses her memories, and the picture she gradually paints of her life, her experiences, her fractious interaction with her family, her relationship with her deeply loved boyfriend, are fascinating. She was romantically involved with a boy named Neil, a deeply religious and honourable person, while she was alive. Neil is painted as a little too perfect, but this is probably as a consequence of our only knowledge of him coming from Felicia’s memories. Through her memories, we also come face to face with Julian, a boy about whom Felicia has complicated feelings – he evokes a sense of dread and fear in her, but her best friend Autumn falls for him in a serious way. Autumn’s fate at the end of the book, and Felicia’s actions in the weeks leading up to it, are genuinely gripping – even shocking – and it is this story, the story of her life, rather than her afterlife, which I found wonderfully well-written and engrossing to read.

It’s the sections in the hive, and the uncovering of the larger plan involving the girls in Level 2, and the role of the figure who unexpectedly turns up in Felicia’s life just as her friend Beckah disappears, which I found ill-conceived, hard to imagine, and – frankly – a little bland. The book devolves into a toothless chase around the afterlife, where people with the skills to manipulate the architecture of Level 2 with their minds find they can open doorways, access convenient memory chambers, and keep track of other people by mapping their brainwaves, which takes away any sense of urgency or drama surrounding the whole thing. I found this section of the book difficult to keep in my mind’s eye, because it is, to my taste, under-described and underdeveloped. I found the ending of the book frustrating, and the reason for the importance of Felicia’s role in the book was, in my opinion, irritating. I found the writing in the scenes drawn from Felicia’s life much stronger than that in the scenes describing the battle for Level 2. In other words, the scenes which should be gripping – the science-fiction aspects, the fantastical aspects, the ones which ought to appeal to me most – are the ones which left me cold.

In short, I would recommend ‘Level 2’. It’s a good book, with original concepts and a take on the afterlife which started off extremely well, no matter what way it ended up. I really liked the character of Felicia, and her relationship with the men in her life, and her friend Autumn. I also found Felicia’s parents, their careers, and their relationship with their daughter, interesting and different. Having said that, so much about the book made me want to just give up reading that I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly.

But – if you read it – I hope you enjoy. Particularly if you’re reading it in a hammock.

A Milestone Note, and a Book Review

Good morning!

So, this morning I awoke to find that my blog had ticked over the 10,000 hit mark while I slept. Also, I’d gained a few new followers on Twitter, bringing me to over 600.

Image: last.fm

Image: last.fm

Of course, I am aware that Twitter is a nebulous and quicksilver thing, wherein you lose followers as quickly as you gain them (more quickly, in some cases); I’m pleased to have reached another milestone, all the same. I’m happier, though, to know that my blog has had north of 10,000 hits since it first came online last August, and for that I have nobody but you guys – my lovely readers – to thank.

Image: gulfshoressteven.wordpress.com

Image: gulfshoressteven.wordpress.com

It’s amazing to think how frightened I was of beginning this blog. I was excited and happy about it, too, but mainly I was terrified. I could never have imagined how much happiness it has brought me, and how useful it has been, in so many ways. Thank you to everyone who’s helped it, and me, to go from strength to strength.

And now, as I am wont to do on Saturdays, shall we have a little book review? Let’s.

I’ve been wondering whether or not to do a review of the following book. I wondered if I was brave enough. Then, of course, I woke up and saw all the wonderful milestone-y stuff I mentioned above, and realised: Yes. I can do this. For this book, friends, is the one I mentioned a few posts ago, the one which took as its core concept an idea which I had also had, many years ago, and hadn’t been clever enough to put out into the world.

That book is ‘Crewel’, by Gennifer Albin.

Image: wordchasing.com

Image: wordchasing.com

I’ll say at the outset that I liked this book, but there were some problems with it. The idea at its heart – that the whole world (Arras) can be ‘woven’, the threads of its matter and time manipulated as though they were fabric being woven on a loom – is the idea I also had, many years ago, and had started writing a story about. The world I’d imagined differed vastly from the one Albin imagines here, and it was fascinating for me to see where she took the idea. Her world is one in which the sexes are segregated until the late teens, at which time most people are expected to marry (without any real ‘courtship’ or any sort of gentle introduction to adult life), where there are particular jobs for men and women (I don’t need to tell you which gender gets short shrift!), where women have to conform to both purity and aesthetic standards, and life in general is very circumscribed.

Then, there are women like Adelice Lewys, Albin’s protagonist. Adelice is a girl who is gifted with the ability to see the weave, and to manipulate it. She has been coached all her life by her parents to hide this ability, because they do not want her to be taken away and trained as a Spinster (the name given to a girl or woman with this ability to see the weave), never to come home to them again. The life of a Spinster is painted as a good one, full of comfort, luxury and freedom – most girls strive for it – but, of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. Adelice messes up her test, passes it by mistake, and gets abducted in the middle of the night. She gets taken to the Coventry, the training ground for future Spinsters, and thrust straight into the intrigue at the heart of her world.

There’s lots to like about this book. I loved the title, for a start – a play on the word ‘cruel’, and a reference to a type of weaving technique (crewelling). I liked Adelice, I liked her family – especially her bubble-headed, lovable, cutely childish sister Amie – and I liked the idea of the Coventry (or ‘Coventries’, as there are four of them), a cross between a convent, as Spinsters are expected to be (officially) celibate, and a quasi-military command centre. I (obviously) love the central idea of the matter of a world being woven, and the weaver having ultimate control over the ‘threads’ of life, able to rip people out of the pattern if they misbehave, or weave in new life wherever they wish. I enjoyed the way Albin uses this idea to examine notions of power, freedom and cruelty, and how easy it can be for those in power to misuse that power.

I liked, also, that she explored ideas of ‘otherness’ – there are a pair of instructors in Adelice’s Coventry who have an unconventional and (in this world) illegal relationship. One of them is ‘remapped’, or has her memory and personality wiped, in order to quell her feelings for her partner, which leads to heartache and horror. The relationships between the girls in the Coventry is interesting; we see bullying and cliques forming, and we notice how easy it is for people who are disenfranchised to start turning on one another, exerting whatever control they can within the straitened reality of their lives. One of these characters, Pryana, is a little too simplistic for my liking; some of her actions and thought processes seem completely irrational and silly, and that annoyed me. But, perhaps there are women like her in institutions like the Coventry, with minds driven mad by fear and a desire to please, and the need to survive.

Now, for the things I didn’t enjoy so much. Firstly, the idea of Adelice’s kidnapping in the middle of the night, and the damage done to her family in the attempt to extract her. If being a Spinster is such a prestigious thing, and every family in the world wants their daughter to have this life of privilege, why do they come in the middle of the night to abduct the girls and bring them to the Coventries? I thought that was strange. I also found Albin’s descriptions of the weave, and the ways in which the Spinsters can manipulate it, very hard to imagine – and I’m speaking as a person who spent years visualising a very similar world! I understand the concept she’s using, and I get the idea of people and buildings and places and lives being akin to threads, vulnerable and prone to damage or ‘ripping’ by a Spinster, and totally under the control of the one who weaves; but in that case, how do Adelice’s parents harbour rebellious thoughts? How does anyone, if they’re all being ‘woven’, including their thought processes and minds? Perhaps this will be explained in a future book. I also found the end of the book confusing and hard to visualise; it also felt ‘rushed’ and a little too convenient.

I’m not even going to start on the love triangle between Adelice, Jost and Erik, and the relationship between the two boys (which I saw coming a mile off); that whole thing really irritated me. I felt it was unnecessary – unless, of course, it’s going to become a vital plot thread (no pun intended) in a future book in the series. Please, YA authors – enough with the love triangles, the instant attraction, the floppy fringes and the lopsided grins. Please?

So, overall, I’d recommend ‘Crewel’ as a good read. It’s quick and enjoyable and interesting, and sets itself up well for its sequel. It’s not perfect, but then what book is?

That’s a good question, actually. Is there such a thing as a perfect book?

Tune in next week to find out… Happy weekend, everyone!

Les Formidables

I’ve taken it a little bit easy this weekend with regard to writing, which was nice. Having said that, though, my brain has continued ticking over and I’ve been bombarded with flashes of panic about all the things I need to change and tweak and fix in The Novel. I’ve taken careful note of them all, and am poised and ready to dive into the work today after a couple of days away from the keyboard. But before I get there – some thoughts on What I Did for the Weekend. (Just a note: if you don’t know the story of Les Misérables, and you don’t want to spoil it for yourself, you may want to give this blog post a miss!)

As part of our celebratory/relaxation weekend, my beloved brought me to see ‘Les Misérables’ yesterday, and I really enjoyed it. We’ve been humming the themes ever since, and singing things like ‘Would you like a cup of teeeeeeaa?’ at one another. As you do.

Image: huffingtonpost.com

Image: huffingtonpost.com

Before I share my thoughts on the movie, I have to admit that I had no prior experience of ‘Les Mis’. I’ve never seen it on stage, and I only had a vague familiarity with some of the big show-stopping tunes. I knew the bare outline of the story, and I was aware of certain things (like the eventual fate of Fantine and Gavroche, and the tension between Jean Valjean and Javert), but going into the movie, I had no real idea what to expect. I was glad of that ignorance, in a way, because it helped me to enjoy the story for what it is; I wasn’t comparing it in my head to x-stage version or y-stage version, or whatever.

I loved it.

From the very first shots of the prisoners working to pull in the giant galleon, to the emotionally draining ending, I loved it. Visually, it’s stunning – particularly the shots of the galleon, but also the barricades and Fantine’s experiences among the ‘lovely ladies’ – and emotionally, it almost wrung me out completely. From ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (which nearly killed me, I cried so much) to the final number on the barricade, I don’t think I had more than five minutes of dry-eyedness. (If that’s a word.) It touched me so much, thanks in huge part to the performances of the actors. I would challenge anyone not to weep at Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine, for instance. She put so much emotion into her role, and despite the inevitable fact that the character and the story are so melodramatic, she made it seem believable. When she’s weeping as she sings about her dreams for her life going wrong, and how she can’t bear where her life has led her, you believe every syllable of it. Plus, of course, she’s a wonderful singer, so that helps!

I was delighted with every aspect of the story, in fact, except for one – that of the grown-up Cosette. This has nothing to do with the performance of the actress (Amanda Seyfried, who I normally can’t stand, purely because she’s everywhere), but all to do with the character. She’s portrayed perfectly well here, the actress does a fine job of acting and singing the role, and she gives it her all. But I just really didn’t like the character. I’m sure that’s not the impression you’re supposed to get from Cosette – I’m sure you’re supposed to love her purity, her virtue, her gentleness, her loving heart, her loyalty to her father and her barricade-lover, Marius. Heck, you’re probably supposed to love her just because you loved her mother, Fantine. But instead I found myself thinking: ‘What a sap. What is Marius thinking? He should totally go for Éponine instead.’

I wonder if this is because of all the YA novels I’ve read, or if it’s just the way my mind works. Maybe it’s because I always root for the underdog, so I’m always going to be in favour of the girl who loves in vain, the one who realises the man she adores will never love her back and who – in the end, admittedly, and almost too late – does the right thing and helps him find his true love. Éponine (at least, in the way she’s depicted in this movie) is a brave, resourceful, intelligent character. Despite the fact that she’s grown up with two immoral, thieving parents who can’t have given her a good background, she shows herself to have a kind and generous heart and a courageous spirit. She loves Marius, and has the power in her hand to keep him apart from her rival, Cosette – but she chooses to do the right thing in the end, and enable them to be together.

Cosette, on the other hand, is a much narrower character. She’s treated like a slave as a young child and dreams of escape. Rescued and cared for by Jean Valjean, she spends the rest of the story being cossetted (which makes me wonder if there’s a connection between that word and her name!) and looked after like she was a precious jewel, guarded both physically and in terms of her reputation. Her ‘father’ (Valjean) goes through a horrendous experience in order to ensure her beloved Marius survives the barricades, and Marius himself falls in love with her as soon as he sees her. The question in my mind as I watched the movie was ‘why?’ What was lovable about her? Why did everyone who met her feel the need to go to Hell and back for her?

I’m aware, of course, that the source novel was written at a time when a woman such as Cosette would have been prized as the highest and most admirable sort of woman – the quiet, sweet, virtuous, even-tempered, pure sort of woman. Éponine, the survivor on the streets, the woman who takes a bullet for the man she loves, the woman who joins the fight on the barricades, would not have been an admirable character at a time when women were prized for their gentility and loveliness. A woman like Éponine – ‘fallen’, sullied by life, stained by experience – could never be the symbol of hope and renewal that the pure, angelic Cosette was. It shows how times have changed, then, that Éponine’s the character who made the biggest impression on me – and, I’m sure, on most modern readers/audience members. It seems so unfair that the story ended up the way it did!

Have you seen the movie? Any thoughts?

I hope you had a great weekend, too. I’m still on a high after Friday’s good news, but also on tenterhooks waiting for the shortlist to be announced this Friday. Fingers crossed!

 

The Power of Love

I should just have stayed in bed this morning. I’ve been sitting staring at a blank screen for nearly two hours, trying to find a way to start this post – which, in a way, is sort of fitting, because today I want to write a little bit about my protagonist’s love life, and about love relationships in YA fiction generally. My character’s sixteen, so it makes sense, of sorts, that I can’t find a proper foothold on my words regarding her romantic life – because, when I was sixteen, I had as much knowledge of boy-girl relationships as I had about nuclear physics.

Picture of Nerdy Girl

I knew a lot about unrequited love, sure, and doomed, pointless, overblown, tearful dramatics; it was a painful time for me, in so many ways. I spent years convinced I’d never be loved, and I spent years wondering what was so wrong with me that nobody would even ask me to dance at a disco, let alone ask me out on a date (Not that we really ‘date’ in Ireland – it’s more like drink-fuelled combat). It would never, of course, have occurred to me to ask someone out on a date myself – when I was sixteen, the only tones permitted for use when speaking to a boy were utter disdain or raging sarcasm.* I could never quite manage to work out how other people managed to arrange to see each other romantically, when all they were able to do was hurl abuse at one another. At least I had the benefit of attending a mixed school, so boys were a part of my daily life from the age of thirteen or so. Well, they were a part of my daily life the same way that watching nature programmes on TV makes gorillas a part of your daily life; they were there, but untouchable – and, sometimes, a bit terrifying. Despite this, I’m glad I had the opportunity to get to know how to deal with male people on an everyday basis, as it proved useful in college and life. Somewhat useful, at least – I did manage to ask someone on a date when I was in college, as a postgraduate, actually, and it was a total disaster. At least I had the guts to try by then, though.

But there you have it – a potted history of my early love life. Not a lot to go on, really.

From my perspective now, as a (very) happily married (approaching) middle-aged person, the pain of my teenage rejections has largely faded, though of course I’ll never forget it. I can see now how much it shaped my character, and how not being seen as ‘dateable’ in school meant I learned to make friends with boys and appreciate them as people. In a strange way, I’m almost glad of it; I think the person I am now owes a lot to my teenage travails. My protagonist is quite different, insofar as she’s had a somewhat sheltered upbringing and hasn’t had a lot of contact with boys, besides her immediate family. She has no idea, at first, how to react when she meets a boy she’s not related to – due to the nature of their meeting, there’s a bit of fear there, but once her shock wears off she soon starts treating him just as another person. There’s no coquette about my protagonist, which I admire. Nothing gets my goat more when reading YA literature than encountering a previously strong, intelligent heroine who goes all giggly when a boy turns up, or who suddenly starts fretting about how she looks.  My character takes this strange boy at face value, and doesn’t even notice when he starts to warm towards her.

I’ve read a bit of criticism of YA books, and how love relationships are generally treated (just to make sure I wasn’t falling into any cliche-traps), and I learned lots about ‘insta-love’ and how much love triangles are abhorred by readers. Well, I don’t have any love triangles in my WiP, because they annoy me too, and I’m doing my best to avoid the ‘insta-love’ trap, where an author decides that two characters will fall in love without any real reason. I’ve read reviews of books which have decried the author’s decision to have the male lead fall in love with the female lead, just because it serves the story and not because there are any really lovable or admirable traits about the female character, nor any real attraction or chemistry between the pair, or any logical reason why they would fall for one another. It’s just love for the sake of it, which is something I want to avoid. I hope I’ve created a character in my protagonist who displays strength, courage, intelligence and self-confidence, who has bravery and integrity in spades, and who is easy to admire and love. It’s difficult, though, when you’re writing a story in the first person, because obviously we see everything from the character’s point of view. Her feelings about the male character are clouded and confused at first, because she doesn’t know what to make of them, and she ignores her thoughts in relation to him because they don’t make sense to her. Writing a love relationship like this is difficult, but all I have to do is remember my own confusion about love at that age, and it becomes a bit easier. I just wish I’d had my protagonist’s self-possession!

I’d be interested to know if anyone else has encountered similar issues in their characterisation – how do you deal with ‘awkward’ things like sexuality, romance, family issues and so on with your characters? Do you base their reactions on your own life history, or is it more a case of using your imagination? And does your choice of narrative voice help or hinder you?

 

 

*Not really. You were also allowed to talk to boys about music, cars and football, if you knew your stuff. For this, you could adopt a normal voice. I guess the dating stuff got mixed up in the football and music talk, but it will forever be a mystery to me!