Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light by Sarah McCarry

Stephenie Meyer has a new book out. I still haven’t written one. She probably has four cars. I’m wondering if someday owning a small house with enough space for one cat to be happy is too lofty a life goal for a freelance editor. I’m glad I chose this career but I obviously didn’t do it for the money.

blue-is-a-darkness

Artwork by Jasu Hu

I’m thinking about this not because I’m feeling sorry for myself (well, not much) but because the day before I found out Meyer had churned out another manuscript I read what will probably be one of my favourite pieces of fiction this year: “Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” by Sarah McCarry, published on Tor.com. It’s a sardonic take on paranormal YA and a haunting depiction of loneliness and neglected ambition. The main character, as she no doubt knows, is a cliché who moved to a big, cold city with her “pockets full of dreams” only to find that “the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known”. She works as an assistant to a literary agent and spends all her time not writing her own novel. At the moment, she’s critiquing a draft of the fourth book in a YA paranormal romance series. It’s junk but it makes a ton of cash. In this latest installment, the hot new boy at school turns out to be a vampire.

The narrator knows an actual vampire (or at least that’s how she thinks of him), who buys her drinks every night after work and is helping her critique the manuscript. He’s a debonair, unthreatening kind of a monster and he’s not trying to kill her, turn her or even sleep with her. He really does seem to be just a friend, and you get the sense that the narrator wishes he was more of a romantic cliché, because then he could save her from poverty, obscurity and death. Like in Twilight, which the story often alludes to.

It disdains the cheap tropes of paranormal YA romance, and that, of course, is a big part of why I love it. I’ve found the genre too boring and sexist to ever be even a guilty pleasure. McCarry’s story also dips into the tedious aspects of editing – “Consider deleting second and third use of ‘lion,’ I write in the margins. To avoid repetition.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to make notes about avoiding repetition since I started editing books.

On the other hand, I also admire McCarry’s story because of the way it explores the desire that could lurk behind the scorn we have for romance, and the pitiful appeal of cliché. Erica Jong sums it up in Fear of Flying: “all the romantic nonsense you yearned for with half your heart and mocked bitterly with the other half”.

The narrator obviously doesn’t think much of paranormal YA or the book she’s critiquing, but the author has four cars and seems happy and friendly. The narrator, however, is “penniless and unhappy and not in the least a pleasant person, so perhaps Rosamunde and her authoress have made better choices after all”. Rosamunde is the protagonist of the series and she embodies the (apparently profitable) silliness of other female paranormal YA protagonists:

Rosamunde has proven a magnet for supernatural entities of all kinds. Two werewolf brothers, several half-demons, and one fallen angel have told her she is beautiful, but she doesn’t believe them. Rosamunde is certain she is only average. Her skin is soft and smells of roses. She enjoys bubble baths, the Brontës, and Frappuccinos.

The narrator, in contrast to a life of hot scented baths and overpriced drinks, spends her weekends in the library because “[t]he building has heat and you do not have to pay anything in order to sit all afternoon and cry like a teenager into your open notebook”. The self-deprecating misery is just the right pitch of wry exaggeration, while the poverty is quietly, keenly on point, running throughout the story and driving it forward with increasing force.

I share an apartment with four other girls in a part of the city that will not be cheap for much longer. Once a month a black family moves out of my building and a white couple moves in. My roommates, like me, all came here to do things other than the things they are now doing.

 

—Have you ever had foie gras? the vampire asks. —No? What about escargot? He is amused by how little I know about the world. I am bemused by how little rich people know about lack.

It’s this lack – of money, love, recognition – that lies at the core of all her desperate longings, that make her want to be Rosamunde even though she knows Rosamunde is absurd. She can pick apart the shortcomings of paranormal romance with academic precision, and yet that narrative still appeals to her because it’s so much better than the life she’s living. Notably, none of the characters have names, except for Rosamunde and the high-school vampire, Marcus.

McCarry tells the story with skilfully executed minimalism: it’s sparse and straightforward, stripped of quotation marks and sentiment. I enjoy the way this sort of style leaves an open space into which your own thoughts and feelings pour, should the story move you, and “Blue is a Darkness” certainly does. The effect is evocative and leaves a lingering sense of subtle, satisfying melancholy. I get drawn back in and find that the story has more to offer. I want to read it again and again.

 

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Beautiful Redemption: International Giveaway

OK, so I tried doing an SA blogger giveaway of my review copy of  Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, and sadly it seems that none of my fellow SA bloggers want it either 🙂 Or they already have copies. So I’m making it an international giveaway for both bloggers and non-bloggers. I’ll also extend the cut-off date to Monday 15 April. Here are the details (again).

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Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl is the fourth and final book in the Caster Chronicles, also know as the Beautiful Creatures series. The series began with Beautiful Creatures.

The blurb (may contain SPOILERS for the previous novels)

Ethan Wate always dreamed of leaving the stifling Southern town Gatlin.

But he never dreamt that finding love with Lena Duchannes would drive him away. Lena is a Caster girl whose supernatural powers unveiled a secretive and cursed side of Gatlin, so powerful it forced him to make a terrible sacrifice.

Now Ethan must find a way to return to Lena – and Gatlin – as she vows to do whatever it takes to get him back. Even if it means trusting old enemies or risking their loved ones’ lives.

Can Ethan and Lena rewrite their fate and their spellbinding love story in this stunning finale to the Beautiful Creatures series?

I received Beautiful Redemption from Penguin SA. It was published on 23 October 2012.

To win my copy, follow me via WordPress, email or Twitter and leave a comment below.

Terms and Conditions:
 – This giveaway is open internationally.
 – The giveaway will run for one week, from now until midnight GMT+2 on 15 April 2013. 
 – I will choose the winner using random.org on 16 April, and will post the book once I have the winner’s address.

Good luck!

October Roundup

Just five books for October, but there were some big reads.

Pure by Julianna Baggott caught my eye when it first became available on NetGalley, but I was very wary of the YA dystopian genre and decided not to request it. After reading a few reviews I thought I might have made the wrong choice, and then Tammy at Women24 gave me a copy as a gift. Pure turned out to be surprisingly grotesque and brutal, and I mean that in a good way. It’s got great world-building, themes, characters and writing. The downside is that the backstory is full of holes and it suffers from that annoyingly common American bias. Still, it’s worth a look.

I received Switched by Amanda Hocking from Pan Macmillan South Africa. The novel itself is a dreamlike success story; it started out as a self-published work and ended up on the bestseller lists. I’ve heard reviewers and readers praise it for being “something different”, mostly because the protagonist is a troll. She also has three love interests instead of the usual two. But in my opinion there’s nothing different about this paranormal romance. My guess is that the author is just using the word ‘troll’ (known as “Trylle” in the novel) to distinguish her novel from countless others like it. Her trolls all look like beautiful humans and are furnished with a variety of random supernatural powers. They live according to a royal hierarchy, and prance around in expensive clothes. The protagonist is beautiful but endearingly flawed (at least to those who like this stuff) and every major male character is into her. So yeah, totally mainstream. Nothing subversive or original, and it’s full of contradictions and stupidity. I was going to write a full review, then decided that doing so would be unkind, since I was bound to hate it anyway.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye was a Halloween release from Penguin, and the latest in my search for a terrifying novel. It’s a relatively creepy book about some thoroughly messed up people and overall it was a pretty good read. Review to follow, hopefully later this week.

 

My two big reads for October were the sci fi classic Contact by Carl Sagan and Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which won the 2002 Man Booker Prize.

Contact was dead boring. It had way too much hard science, relied far too heavily on infodumps, and fell painfully short on storytelling. It also had the most un-alien alien encounter I have ever read, and it’s ideas almost completely failed to arouse any interest in me. I couldn’t help but compare it to Existence by David Brin, which came out earlier this year. It’s clear that Brin was inspired by Contact, but in my opinion Existence is an infinitely superior novel, surpassing Contact in every way.

I received a review copy of Life of Pi from Canongate via NetGalley, presumably as part of a promotional campaign for the upcoming movie. I don’t normally like movie covers, but this one if quite beautiful. The novel was not what I expected and it often pissed me off, but it also led to some interesting conversations and musings. It was also an excellent example of my belief that you should finish the books you start, because they might just surprise you. While it will never be one of my favourites, I won’t be able to forget it easily either. Review to follow soon.

July/August Round-up

You may have noticed that there was no round-up last month – I was away and just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) maintain my blogging routine, so I’m way behind on pretty much everything related to Violin in a Void. In an attempt to catch up a little, I’m doing a double round-up of recent reads and reviews.

I posted my review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, a very good fusion of sci fi and Islamic mythology, with some wonderfully written characters. Unfortunately, I think I under-appreciated this novel, as some of the sf aspects were lost on me.

My first read for July was Waiting for Godalming by Robert Rankin, which I read for a reading challenge where I needed a book with a teacup on the cover. Luckily for me it was a short book because it was also a fairly shit, and the blurb was quite possibly the most misleading blurb I’ve ever read. I didn’t even bother putting the cover in my roundup picture, although admittedly that was because the file was really small and awkward to work with.

The next novel, God Save the Queen by Kate Locke, was much better but by no means great. It’s set in 2012, but in a version of England where a plague turned the British aristocracy into vampires, werewolves and goblins. Queen Victoria has been on the throne for 175 years, and Britain is a still a colonial power. It’s a decent action novel with a bit of mystery and romance, but the major downfall is that these things take precedence over worldbuilding, so it’s sloppy. Also, “lieutenant” is intentionally misspelled as “leftenant” presumably because the book is meant to cater to American audiences.

Advent by James Treadwell is an elegant, complex YA fantasy novel about magic, couched in mythology. It has some flaws in terms of plot, but one of the things I loved about it is that it’s a wonderful piece of rich, old-fashioned storytelling with the kind of fictional spaces you just want to disappear into. I had some issues with the magic system in the novel, so I posed my questions to the author on the Conversation page of his website. Scroll down to ‘Good Questions’ for my question and his thought-provoking answer. Advent might not be the easiest book to read, but I’m very pleased that minds like this are writing YA. I look forward to the sequel.

Sadly, I went from good YA to crap YA when I read Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas (pen name for Lex Hrabe and Thomas Voorhies) about a group of teenagers who are trapped in their school when it’s quarantined following an inexplicable bio catastrophe. The teenagers get infected with some weird virus that makes them all lethal to children an adults. It’s rushed, implausible, and the worldbuilding is so lazy.

Next, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I was intrigued by this when it came out, but I was eventually dissuaded with talk of romance and the fact that it became so popular. I do not have a good record with romance or popular fiction – it tends to be too conventional for me, and the hype leaves me disappointed. This time I am happy to say I was completely wrong. The Night Circus is utterly enchanting, and I even liked the romance. I considered reviewing it, but then decided I just wanted to relax and savour it. Recommended.

Finally, the excellent God’s War by Kameron Hurley. I’ve raved about this in a few posts already, so I won’t say much more. The only thing that bugged about reviewing this was that, for some reason, Night Shade Books didn’t provide a Kindle option, so I had to read a time-limited pdf on my pc and write notes and quotes in longhand. I loved the writing, so I took down a lot of quotes.

August! The last winter month, thank god. I love boots, coats, thick socks and snuggling up, but now I miss the sun and not having to wear five layers of clothing. I read another five books, for this (hopefully) last month of freezing my ass off.

First, Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth (pseudonym for Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden). Disappointing South African middle-grade/YA novel about time travel. At least it was very short.

Then, because I was on holiday and feeling very lazy and distracted, I read a YA paranormal romance. I figured it would be quick and easy to read, which it was. It was also mildly entertaining, and that is the end of the good things I have to say about Unearthly by Cynthia Hand.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn was a birthday present from a friend. I wanted it after reading Gone Girl by the same author. Sharp Objects isn’t as good, but it’s even more messed up. Gillian Flynn has some crazy stuff going on in that head of hers. I like it.

I posted my review of Railsea by China Miéville yesterday. Definitely one of his most entertaining, charming novels.

And if I’m not too lazy, then next week I will post my review of literary horror novel The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle. ‘Literary horror’ seems to mean, in part, that it’s not actually scary, at least not in the ways you expect horror to be scary. However, it is a novel about fear. You’ll see what I mean later.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Review of Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

Title: Unearthly
Series: Unearthly #1
Author: Cynthia Hand
Published: 4 January 2011; my edition published 1 May 2011
Publisher: Egmont UK
Genre: paranormal romance, YA, fantasy
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
Rating: 5/10

I didn’t expect to get a copy of this from Penguin Books SA, and I wasn’t even going to read it, since paranormal romance is not my thing and I hate these lame pretty-girl YA covers. However, I’ve been away on a holiday of sorts, and found that I was too distracted to focus on more demanding reads, so I told myself to stop being a snob about this and just give Unearthly a shot. At the very least, I would learn a little more about the current trend of YA romances featuring mythical beings.

In Unearthly, the beings are angels and angel-bloods (human/angel hybrids). Sixteen-year old Clara Gardener is a Quartarius, a ‘quarter-angel’. Her mom Maggie is a Dimidius – a half-angel. When the novel opens, Clara is shown her ‘purpose’ – a vision of her reason for existing, her destiny. The vision shows a raging forest fire and a mysterious, beautiful boy she has to save. Using clues from her vision, Clara and her mother figure out where it’s supposed to take place and, along with Clara’s younger brother Jeffrey, they pack up their things and move to Jackson Hole, a small town in the forests of Wyoming.

At Jackson Hole High School, Clara learns that the boy she’s supposed to save is Christian. Christian Prescott. Christian is so hot that Clara’s friend Wendy refers to him as a god. Maggie pushes her to get closer to Christian in order to fulfil her destiny, but he’s dating one of the hottest, most popular girls in the school and Clara is in the lower half of the social hierarchy. She might be gorgeous and athletic thanks to her angel blood, but she starts school with her hair dyed orange (I’ll explain later), leading to some unflattering nicknames. She struggles to find her place at a school where everyone has known each other since nursery school and it’s a long time before she has a real conversation with Christian. She must also overcome the physical challenge of learning to fly and becoming strong enough to carry Christian away from the forest fire. However, everything becomes more complicated when Christian leaves town for the summer, and Clara falls for another boy, whose affection and rugged good looks distract her from her purpose.

I’ve read a few other paranormal romances just to give the genre a shot – Twilight and the first two Sookie Stackhouse books. I found them to be dreadful, boring novels, so I was pleased to find that this wasn’t too bad. The romance dominates the story, which I don’t normally like, but I actually found some of it quite sweet, at least when it wasn’t overly clichéd or being taken way too seriously. I imagine that fans of YA paranormal romance will be enraptured, particularly when the second romance begins to blossom later in the novel. Personally, I have to admit that the book gave me what I wanted, which was a quick, simple read. I finished it in about a day (even at 433 pages) and thought it was a decent way of passing the time.

But, me being me, I couldn’t help but notice the flaws.

Clara, firstly, is too perfect and privileged. She’s smarter, faster, stronger and more beautiful than humans. She heals quickly, she can speak any language, and command animals. Her mom is inexplicably wealthy, so it’s no problem to pack up and move across the country, and their house in Jackson is stunning. Maggie later buys Clara a prom dress just because it’s beautiful (at that point, Clara has no intention of going to the prom) and pays for skiing lessons and an expensive all-season pass for the slopes so that Clara and Christian can share a hobby and spend more time together. Clara and Jeffrey go to a swanky school, and although some of the students are “poor” they only seem that way because everyone else is stinking rich.

Everything is so easy for Clara, that learning to fly is only a challenge because it requires some actual effort and practice. When Clara tries other things, like skiing and horse-riding, she does it perfectly on her first try. As far as her personal life in concerned, she only has a minor difficulties common to pretty much every teenager on earth – hating her hair, suffering a few embarrassments, feeling confusion about her romantic interests, fighting with her mom. Even her purpose is something that she’s mostly just waiting for, and it seems way easier than the usual problem of trying to decide what to do with your life.

The novel gives too little attention to the concept of purpose and the rest of the angel mythology, so a lot of it is very vague, contrived or just silly. The mythology is almost strictly biblical, but the novel is silent on many relevant theological questions, like the nature of God or the role of religion. On the positive side this means the novel avoids being religious and it’s easy to see the angels as just another mythology (although you can take the religious view if you’re so inclined). On the downside it’s very flat and simplistic.

But of course, this is a fluffy teen romance, so I guess I shouldn’t expect much in terms of moral-complexity or world-building, and I think a lot of information is being held back for the rest of the trilogy. I often felt it would be easy to exchange mythologies, and make Clara a vampire or fairy, or switch genres and make her a cyborg or give her genetic engineering. She just needs to be a superhuman with secrets to keep and the romance could still play out in much the same way. However, there are some important plot points that are actually based on the shaky angle mythology, leaving us with some gaping plot holes.

Clara’s hair is one of these. It’s naturally golden (*sigh*), and can shine with a bright, “unearthly” light if she’s feeling emotional. To prevent this from happening, her mother dyes her hair, but I don’t understand why this solves the problem. Also, Clara’s hair turns out orange instead of auburn, which is quite embarrassing and is presumably meant to be the reason why this hot, smart, athletic girl doesn’t become one of the popular rich kids. Instead she’s notably ‘different’ and socially cut off from Christian, which better suits the plot. However, there’s really no reason why Clara can’t dye her hair a different colour. And why choose a light colour when a dark one would be safer? The whole orange-hair problem seems completely avoidable.

Then there’s her goal of getting close to Christian. As far as her purpose is concerned, I don’t think there’s any need for this. From what I can tell, she doesn’t have to do anything except fly him away from the forest fire. She figures out when and where it will happen, and she learns what jacket she’ll be wearing at the time. This means that it can’t take her by surprise, so it’s not like she has to follow Christian around. She just has to be in the right location, during fire season, on a day when she wears her purple jacket. She could ignore Christian most of the time, so really the idea that she needs to be his close friend or his girlfriend is a poor excuse for romance and a love triangle. Why not give her a better reason for wanting to get close to him, like learning more about the guy who is part of her purpose in life? What makes him special? The book doesn’t offer any explanation because Clara doesn’t try to figure it out. Apparently blind faith is enough for her. No surprise there, I guess.

It was also no surprise to find that the romance takes the old damsel-in-distress, my-life-revolves-around-a-man route. When Clara first sees Christian, she faints and he carries her to the nurse. I was suddenly very worried that I’d be reading Twilight all over again. It’s the first of several instances of Clara literally falling into a boy’s arms, and one of many romance and YA clichés. She also activates some of her angelic powers by thinking about a boy, and of course her whole reason for existing is to save the life of a hot guy. Christian is essentially the most important thing in her life because God said so. It’s some of that good old divinely inspired misogyny.

In terms of plot though, everything revolves around Clara. The other characters exist only to serve her story, and as a result they’re terribly flat. Two of them actually accuse Clara of assuming that everything is about her, but as a reader you’ll find nothing to contradict that assumption. About halfway through the novel most of the characters are casually sent out of town so that Clara’s second romance can develop unhindered.

Reading over this review, I can’t believe I sort of enjoyed this book. It obviously helped a lot that I wanted an easy read. I think the novel is also ‘saved’ by the fact that it’s mediocre. It’s not as stupid and misogynistic as something like Twilight; it’s benign enough for me to get some enjoyment from the story while brushing aside the flaws. It could be a bit slow at times, because its focus is on the romance rather than the paranormal stuff, but I think fans of the genre will be very happy with this. The ending also adds a few intriguing elements to the story, setting a nice stage for the sequel.

Buy a copy of Unearthly at The Book Depository