Monday, February 27, 2017

Book review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber


Two sisters are caught up in a legendary and magical game where the stakes are high, nothing is as it seems and elaborate performances have hidden motives and intentions.


Review originally appeared on W24. You can also purchase a copy of Caraval from Raru.co.za.

UK edition first published in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton; US edition published by Flatiron Books

This book has been getting a lot of comparisons to Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. It’s not a bad thing at all, especially considering that The Night Circus is one of my all-time favourites.

However, Caraval is one of those magical reads that shouldn’t just be compared to a book as it makes a strong impression all on its own. It’s a beautifully written novel that effortlessly blends elements of fantasy and magical realism to portray a world that’s almost phantasmagorical in nature.

It’s not merely a book that features elaborate acts of illusion, but it’s a novel that explores the strength of the bond between two sisters who are desperate to escape their cruel and abusive father.

Meet Scarlet and Tella – two sisters who couldn’t be more different. Tella is headstrong, impetuous and jumps headlong into situations before thinking about it. Scarlet, on the other hand is cautious and restrained, choosing to weigh all her options before jumping into any situation.

The two of them have never left the island on which they live, both for fear of their father’s reaction and because opportunities to escape have been far and few between.

Both Scarlet and Tella (Scarlet in particular), have dreamed of attending Caraval – a legendary game that takes place once a year, lasts 5 days and nights and offers the winner a chance to win a magical prize,  the likes of which they’ve never seen.
 
 When they finally get the opportunity to go to the island where the Caraval revelry takes place, Tella uses the moment to whisk Scarlet away from an arranged marriage that could do more harm than good.

When Scarlet arrives and Tella goes missing, Scarlet soon finds herself reluctantly teaming up with the sailor who brought her to the island in order to find Tella.

When the game begins, it soon becomes clear that the elaborate performances within the game are far more than they seem and that the game itself, is a lot more dangerous than Scarlet could have imagined.

Using both wit and cunning, Scarlet has to navigate trails filled with mystery and illusion, while trying not to lose herself to the magic of the game.

From bottled dreams, and sand made of snow, to gingerbread-shaped houses and fortune tellers whose tattoos predict the future, Stephanie Garber’s Caraval will launch you into a world filled with enchantments both charming and dangerous.

This beautifully written novel is such a feast for the senses, you’ll find yourself wishing that the things you encounter in this book, could be real. The synesthesia element attached to Scarlet’s emotions is an added dynamic that makes this book even more magical.

Caraval is a cleverly plotted book that is full of twists and turns and I must confess that everything I could have predicted about how the game plays out, was completely off base.

This unpredictable gem is a novel filled with hidden legacies, the cruelty of unrequited love and lushly descriptive scenarios that will seduce and draw you in.

Each person in this novel has a role to play in the game and the beauty of this novel lies in the fact that you’re never quite sure who is helper or who is villain.  Stephanie Garber is a gifted scribe whose turn of phrase is exquisitely lush.

The characters she’s created are wonderful to behold and I absolutely adored the genuine sense of camaraderie between the sisters, despite how very different they are.  I had my doubts about the younger sister’s affection at times, but Garber once again surprised me with another twist in the book that threw all of my doubts out of the window.

The ending of the book is nicely set up for a sequel and I’d be very curious to see how the girls fare following the feat that they pulled off.

All in all, if you’re looking for a book filled with magic, romance and danger at every possible corner, you definitely can’t go wrong with this book. It’s already one of my favourites of 2017.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book review: The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

What would you do if you only had 3 minutes and 4 seconds to save your own life?

The Call by Peadar O’Guilin (first published in 2016 by David Fickling Books; review first appeared on W24.c0.za)

Peadar O’Guilin’s book is a novel I’ve been hearing about a lot over the last couple of months.

And with good reason because it features a strong-willed heroine, disabled by polio, in a battle to survive and prepare for The Call – an event that forces all those eligible to participate in a fight for their lives in the space of three minutes and four seconds.

Sounds, intriguing, yes?

Well, it’s certainly that and more.

For one,  disabled heroines in fiction are pretty rare. Disabled protagonists in dystopian horror novels? Practically unheard of, and something that immensely appealed to me.

Here we have a heroine who has everything going against her. She’s been crippled by polio and attends a survival training college where she endures being mocked by her peers and where almost everyone, including her own parents, bet against her chances for survival.

Blending a combination of Irish folklore and mythology, Peadar O’ Guilin’s The Call is a novel that is both a dystopian fantasy and a work of horror.

Training for the fight against the Sidhe (faeries who occupy the Grey Land), Nessa and her friends have to endure rigorous tests; from hunting obstacles to outwitting their classmates in a series of tests, all in preparation for the day they’re called by the Sidhe to fight.

The story takes place in post-modern Ireland in an area known as the Grey Land – a space occupied by trapped fairies, hostile plants and other deadly creatures. Nessa and her classmates’ training takes place in what’s left of Ireland, while the actual call transports them to the dangerous wasteland that is the Grey Land.

When the call happens, all that the individuals are left with are 3 minutes and four seconds to navigate their way through the land without being caught in the hunt that commences the very moment they arrive.

Those who are lucky to survive and get back to Ireland, are often changed in grotesque and unimaginable ways.

Peadar O’ Guilin’s The Call is quite a brilliant read. It’s a testimony to the perseverance of human nature and takes a look at what happens when the will to survive is stronger than the insurmountable obstacles before you.

It’s also a book that lulls you into a false sense of complacency.

It’s written in a way that at first seems targeted towards a very young audience, but it quickly becomes clear that it’s anything but that. It’s a book that’s brutal, intense and often gory in places, but that only highlights the strength of Nessa as a protagonist.

She’s resilient in the face of bullying, training and her take-no-prisoners attitude is both balsy and admirable. She refuses to be pitied because of her disability, and often uses her so-called weaknesses to blindside people who underestimate her.

She’s honestly one of the best heroines I’ve come across in fiction this year.

While the story mainly focuses on Nessa, we are given glimpses into the points of view of others who find themselves in The Call. It’s a grim and dark look at what happens when survival instinct kicks in and fight or flight takes hold.

Another aspect that I loved about this book is that the villains aren’t quite as black and white as you’d think they’d be. There are nuances that make this read more in-depth than it initially appears and the twists, turns and betrayals will make your jaw drop.

All in all, The Call had me glued to its pages and has me salivating over the potential for a sequel. I’d love to see where Nessa’s story goes next. 

Also, a huge shout out to the author for not using the protagonist’s disability as a mere prop to invoke sympathy and see her as “other”.

Read this book. It will give you goosebumps.

Purchase a copy from Raru.co.za

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Blog tour: Freeks by Amanda Hocking (review & excerpt)


Thanks to the lovely folk from St. Martin’s Press, I’m excited to be kicking off my book blogging year by being part of the blog tour for Amanda Hocking’s new book, Freeks.

I’ve read Amanda’s previous books, Switch (part of the Trylle trilogy) and Wake (part of the Watersong series), so I was really excited to try her new standalone paranormal fantasy considering that I’ve enjoyed her last books.

In today’s post, I share my thoughts on the book as well as an excerpt from the book. 

About Freeks 
Summary: Goodreads

First published in 2017 by St. Martin’s Griffin

Welcome to Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Sideshow, where necromancy, magical visions, and pyrokinesis are more than just part of the act…

Mara has always longed for a normal life in a normal town where no one has the ability to levitate or predict the future. Instead, she roams from place to place, cleaning the tiger cage while her friends perform supernatural feats every night.

When the struggling sideshow is miraculously offered the money they need if they set up camp in Caudry, Louisiana, Mara meets local-boy Gabe…and a normal life has never been more appealing.

But before long, performers begin disappearing and bodes are found mauled by an invisible beast. 

Mara realizes that there’s a sinister presence lurking in the town with its sights set on getting rid of the sideshow freeks. In order to unravel the truth before the attacker kills everyone Mara holds dear, she has seven days to take control of a power she didn’t know she was capable of—one that could change her future forever.

Add it to your Goodreads TBR pile.

Review:

I’ve always been fascinated with books that employed a carnival setting as a backdrop, which is one of the biggest reasons that Amanda Hocking’s Freeks appealed to me. Featuring a mish-mash of characters with different abilities, Amanda has created an intriguing world that will appeal to fans of paranormal fiction.

The one thing I’ve always felt comes across strongly in Amanda’s books is her writing style. While I generally prefer authors who prefer showing, as opposed to telling, I find it rather easy to overlook this in Amanda’s books because her ideas and stories are just so engaging and fun.

Make no mistake, Amanda knows how to tell a good story. And in Freeks, it’s no different.

While the story focuses on Mara, a seemingly normal girl who is part of a travelling carnival and sideshow, Amanda, through Mara’s perspective gives us hints and glimpses into the lives of the folk who form part of the show. 

From characters who are gifted with telekinesis to those with the ability to heal unusually quickly, we’re immersed into the lives of characters who, together, celebrate each other’s unique abilities and differences, while being aware that to outsiders, they’ll always be considered “freaks.”

What I particularly enjoyed about this book is that it deals with a topic that so many of us can relate to – being mocked or consider other because of something that makes you different.

In Freeks, we’re at once privy to people who will show up to the carnival to be entertained by the very people they consider subhuman, only  for them to turn around and spray paint nasty graffiti on the travelling homes of the folk who are working hard to make ends meet.

 Because they’re often met with ridicule and scorn, Mara and the rest of the performers are cautious and distrustful of the local townsfolk. On top of this, Mara struggles with feelings of fitting in and finding a place where she belongs – as much as the performers treat her like one of their own, she longs for a place where she can find some roots.

When she meets Gabe, local town boy from a wealthy home, she thinks she just might have an opportunity to experience something normal again. But, then people start getting hurt and disappearing, and soon, the entire carnival is unsettled by the unearthly energy and sinister presence they feel in the air.

I really actually loved how this story came together. In a small and Southern town where everything is more than it seems, Amanda Hocking’s story world really comes to life.

The description of carnival life is something I particularly enjoyed and something I would have loved to have seen being elaborated a little more on, especially when it came to the types of shows that were being performed by the different artists.

I’m also a big fan of the fact that this book is set in the 80s. Amanda’s love for this decade is clearly punctuated throughout the novel with nods to books, movies and records that will definitely be known to many of you.

The supernatural elements in this novel will also be quite familiar, but the twist Amanda spins on it and how it relates to the characters involved is another thing that really impressed me. Think magic and curses, inherited legacies and traps and you’ll have the gist of what this novel is all about. In fact, the last few chapters definitely make the novel worth reading all the more.

I do wish more attention could have been given to Mara’s developing powers, but perhaps that might be something Amanda intends to explore at a later stage perhaps?

Of course, this book wouldn’t be complete without a bit of romance, but personally, I wouldn’t have minded if there wasn’t a romantic angle. For one, this book does fall prey to the insta-love trope we see so often in YA fiction, but the chemistry between Mara and Gabe are at least tons of fun to read about.

Still, despite my minor issues with the book, Freeks is a fun-filled read filled with all manner of supernatural shenanigans that will delight folk who enjoy their books with an extra zest of magical paraphernalia and curious oddities.

Personally, I think it’s Amanda’s best book to date.

Buy links:

Buy your copy from
Raru.co.za
Macmillan
Amazon

Here’s a sneak peak from Chapter 5: Carnival

Unlike many of the other members of the sideshow, I didn’t have a specific job. My mom was a fortune- teller, Gideon did a magic show, Zeke had his tigers, Brendon and his family did acrobatics, Seth was a strongman. My best friend Roxie Smith was in two acts— she helped out Zeke, and did a peepshow revue with two other girls.

I had no talent. No special ability, making me essentially a roadie. I did what was needed of me, which usually involved helping set up and take down, and various menial tasks. I cleaned the tiger cages and emptied out latrines when I had to. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it was crucial to our way of life.

Since Roxie worked with the tigers, Mahilā actually tolerated her. Roxie was helping me clean out the tiger cage they traveled in. The cage was open to a fenced-in enclosure Seth had built, so the tigers could roam as they pleased.

Safēda lounged in the grass, the sun shining brightly on her white fur. Whenever we stopped, Safēda seemed content to just lay in the sun, sleeping the entire time, but as the older tiger, it made sense.

Mahilā paced along the fence, occasionally emitting an irritated guttural noise in between casting furtive glances back toward Roxie and me. Her golden fur was mottled with scars from her past life in the abusive circus, including a nasty one that ran across her nose.

“So where did you go last night?” Roxie asked, her voice lilting in a sing song playful way. She was out in the run, using a hose to fill up a blue plastic kiddie pool so the tigers could play in it, while I was on my hands and knees scrubbing dung off the cage floor.

Her bleached blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and the sleeves of her white T- shirt were rolled up, revealing her well-toned arms. The cut- off jean shorts she wore barely covered her bum, and her old cowboy boots went up to her knees— her chosen footwear anytime she was at risk of stepping in tiger poop.

With fair skin, full lips, large blue eyes, and a dainty nose, Roxie was pretty and deceptively tough. Being a beautiful carnie was not an easy job, and dancing in the revue under the stage name “Foxy Roxie” didn’t help that. But she made decent money doing it, and Roxie never put up with anybody’s crap. I’d seen her deck guys much bigger than her and lay them out flat on their backs.

“I was just at a party,” I said as I rinsed the brush off in a bucket of bleach and warm water.
“A party?” Roxie looked over at me with a hand on her hip.

“How’d you get invited to a party so fast?”

I shrugged. “I was just exploring town, and I saw some people hanging outside of this big house party, and they invited me in.”
The UK edition of Freeks

“So what are the people like here? Are they nice?”

Safēda had gotten up and climbed into the pool, and then she flopped down in it, splashing Roxie as she did. Roxie took a step back, but kept looking at me.

“I don’t know. The people I met last night seemed nice, and they were superrich, so that bodes well for the town, I guess.”

“Like how rich?” Roxie asked.

“Like their house is practically a mansion.” I dropped the brush in the water and sat back on my knees, taking a break to talk to her. “It was the nicest house I’ve ever been in, hands down.”

“Is that why you spent the night there?”

Roxie understood my fascination with houses. Well, “understood” wasn’t the right word. It was more like she knew of it, but didn’t understand it all. She’d grown up in an upper- middleclass family, in nice houses with basements, and thought they were about as boring and lame as she could imagine.

“Partly.” I nodded. “It was a really amazing house. There were pillars out front, and the front hall was bigger than my trailer.”

“It’s just a house, Mara.” Roxie shook her head.

“I know but . . .” I trailed off, trying to think of how to explain it to her. “You know how you felt when you first joined the sideshow two years ago? How everything seemed so exciting and fun, and I was like, ‘We live in cramped trailers. It kinda sucks.’”

Roxie nodded. “Yeah. But I still think this life is a million times better than my old life. I get to see everything. I get to decide things for myself. I can leave whenever I want. There’s nothing to hold me back or tie me down.”

She’d finished filling up the pool, so she twisted the nozzle on the hose to shut it off. Stepping carefully over an old tire and a large branch that the tigers used as toys, she went to the edge of the run and tossed the hose over the fence, before Mahilā decided to play with it and tore it up.

She walked over to the cage and scraped her boots on the edge, to be sure she didn’t track any poop inside, before climbing up inside it.

“So what was the other reason?” Roxie asked.

I kept scrubbing for a moment and didn’t look up at her when I said, “Gabe.”

“Gabe?” Roxie asked. “That sounds like a boy’s name.”

“That’s because it is.”

“Did you have sex with him?”

“No.” I shot her a look. “We just made out a little.”

“What what what?” Luka Zajiček happened to be walking by just in time to hear that, and he changed his course to walk over to the tiger cage. “Is that what you were up to last night?”
“That’s what sucks about living in a community so small. Whenever anything happens, everybody knows about it right away,” I muttered.

Luka put his arms through the cage bars and leaned against it, in the area I’d cleaned already. Since he was rather short, the floor came up to his chest, and his black hair fell into his eyes.

His eyes were the same shade of gray as mine, but his olive skin was slightly lighter than mine. We first met him when he joined the carnival four years ago, and the first thing my mom said was that she was certain that we were related somehow.

Unfortunately, Mom knew next to nothing about our family tree to be able to prove it. All she could really tell me was that we were a mixture of Egyptian, Turkish, and Filipino, with a bit of German thrown in for good measure.

Luka had been born in Czechoslovakia, but he’d moved here with his family when he was young, so he’d lost his accent.

He had recently roped me into helping him with a trick. He’d stand with his back against a wall, while I fi red a crossbow around him. Originally, Blossom had been the one to help him, but she kept missing and shooting him in the leg or arm, so he’d asked me to do it because I had a steadier hand.

“So you made out with some local guy last night?” Luka asked, smirking at me. “Are you gonna see him again?”

“He’s a local guy. What do you think?” I asked, and gave him a hard look.

Luka shrugged. “Sometimes you bump into them again.”
“And that goes so well when they find out that I work and live with a traveling sideshow,” I said.

The floor was spotless, or at least as spotless as tiger cages can get, and I tossed my brush in the bucket and took off my yellow rubber gloves.

“We can’t all meet our boyfriends in the sideshow,” I reminded Luka as I stood up, and it only made him grin wider. He’d been dating Tim— one of the Flying Phoenixes— for the past three months.

“But you didn’t see Blossom anywhere in town last night?” Roxie asked, and Luka’s smile instantly fell away.

A sour feeling stirred in my stomach, and I looked out around camp through the bars of the cage, as if Blossom would suddenly appear standing beside a trailer. As I’d been doing my chores all morning, I kept scanning the campsite for her, expecting her to return at any moment with a funny story about how she’d gotten lost in town.

But so far, she hadn’t. And the longer she went without coming back, the worse the feeling in my stomach got. I shook my head. “No. I didn’t see her at all last night.”

“She’s gotta turn up, though, right?” Luka asked. “I mean, it’s not like there are really that many places she could’ve gone considering she has no money or car and she’s in a small town.”

The tigers were still down in the run, so I opened the side gate and hopped down out of the cage. Roxie got out behind me, then we closed the door.

“I should talk to Gideon,” I decided as Roxie locked the cage up behind me. “It’s not like Blossom to do this.”
“It’s not totally unlike her, though,” Roxie pointed out.

“When we were in Toledo six months ago, she dis appeared for a few days with that weird commune, and came back just before we were leaving, totally baked out of her mind.”

Blossom had grown up with parents who pretended to be hippies but were really just a couple of drug addicts. That— along with her unexplainable telekinesis— led to her dabbling with drugs and alcohol at a young age, before the state intervened and shipped her off to a group home.

My mom tried to keep her clean of her bad habits, but sometimes Blossom just liked to run off and do her own thing. That wasn’t that unusual for people who lived in the carnival.

“But if you’re worried, you should talk to Gideon,” Roxie suggested. “Luka’s right in that Blossom really couldn’t have gone far. Maybe you can scope out Caudry.”

“Since that sounds like a mission that may take a bit of time, can you help me and Hutch with the museum before you talk to Gideon?” Luka asked. “The exit door is jammed, and we can’t get it open, and Seth is busy helping set up the tents.”

“Sure. Between me and Mara, I’m sure the two of us can get the door unstuck,” Roxie said.

I dropped off the bucket with the other tiger supplies, and then followed Roxie and Luka away from our campsite to the fairgrounds on the other side of a chain- link fence.

We always stayed close to the rides, the midway, and the circus tent, but we didn’t actually sleep there. It was much better for every one if we kept our private lives separate from the crowds.

Copyright © 2017 by Amanda Hocking and reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Griffin.