Archive for the ‘ Supernatural ’ Category

REVIEW: “What Happened to Lani Garver” by Carol Plum-Ucci

What Happened to Lani Garver

Carol Plum-Ucci
Harcourt Inc., 2002


Finished 10 June 2010

What Happened to Lani Garver is a very complicated novel, so I suppose it’s only fitting that my response to it was equally complicated. The story revolves around the internal and external struggles of Claire, a cancer survivor in her last year of High School. Claire feels distanced from her friends by her illness, and is doing her best to pick up where she left off, but she can’t escape the fact that she is different — that there’s a darkness simmering under her pretty-cheerleader surface, struggling to come out. When newcomer Lani Garver comes to town, Claire’s reality starts breaking open. Lani is either a very feminine boy or a very masculine girl, nobody is sure which, and this ambiguity becomes the focus for so much anger and resentment in the people around him that Lani is ultimately swallowed up by it. But not before befriending Claire and helping her to find her own middle ground. And not before giving her – and the reader – the impression that he (as Lani is referred throughout the novel) might just be something more than a too-smart street kid of uncertain gender. He might just be a floating angel in disguise.

The main thing I took away from this book was a sense of deep disquiet at the extent to which people will go to keep their realities “convenient.” This is a recurring theme throughout the novel, and while at times I think it is a little too overdone – too bluntly stated – it certainly raises some very interesting points. Lani is the catalyst for Claire’s awakening, not only to parts of herself that she has been denying but also to the fact that she and the people around her have been looking at life through, if not rose-coloured glasses, then at the very least glasses which reduce things to problems they can deal with, rather than things they can’t explain. Lani, for example, becomes a perverted, drag-wearing gay kid who needs to be taught how to fit in, and by the climax of the novel they are so blinded by this conviction that they are driven to attempt to drown him. Only Claire looks beyond the convenient assumptions and prejudices to see who (or what) Lani really is.

The main thrust of the novel is therefore about tolerance, but it goes beyond merely “accepting” people for their differences and asks the reader to question the very basis of the assumptions they make about others and the world on a daily basis. We are presented with both sides of the story: Lani as Claire’s friend, innocent to the point of stupidity on some significant points, but blunt enough and crazy enough to see through a lot of human bullshit at the same time. On the other hand, we also see him as the others must have seen him; not quite normal, a little strange, not enough of one thing or another to decide what he is, let alone how to treat him — an unknown quantity and potential threat. Plum-Ucci plays on innate human fears of the unknown and unclassifiable, showing us what can happen when we are pushed out of our comfortable, known world and into a reality which is infinitely less convenient.

Coincidentally, I was recently talking to a friend of mine about boxes and labels, and how neither of us can understand why everyone is so intent on fitting everyone into them. This novel is pretty much my own objections writ large, and I enjoyed seeing things play out. I will say that the writing left something to be desired; there was a lot of repetition (especially of the word “spew” which was annoying) and some things felt a little flat, or a little too confusing. However, I found myself caring about the characters and became fully engaged in their struggles, to the point where I wanted to punch one of the characters (Macy) in the face a few times. Plum-Ucci has a gift for vivid characterisation and insight, which I very much enjoyed.

A very thought-provoking book, well worth a read for teens and adults alike.



REVIEW: “The Angel’s Cut” by Elizabeth Knox

The Angel’s Cut

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 30 May 2010

It took me some time to finish this one, largely because I got sidetracked in the middle and didn’t really get back to it until yesterday. Fortunately, I took some notes as I was reading in the beginning, so I am able to put my thoughts on the novel into a more or less coherent order.

You probably already know that I consider the prequel to this book, The Vintner’s Luck, to be one of my favouritest books ever. It’s kind of hard to explain why I love it so very much, exactly, but I was aware from the beginning that it’s the sort of magic that can seldom be repeated. And I will say that, much as I love Elizabeth Knox’s writing, Angel didn’t grab me quite as much as Luck did. It involved different characters and a different, more modern world, not as magical, not as closely woven (though that may be the fault of the format; curse unnecessarily large print and childlike covers). However. While I may occasionally have felt as if I didn’t quite understand, couldn’t quite follow, didn’t quite love it as much as I wanted to – it always managed to pull me back in.

From the front flap:

Boomtown Los Angeles, 1929: Into a world of movie lots and speakeasies comes Xas, stunt flier and wingless angel, still nursing his broken heart, and determined only to go on living in the air. But there are forces that will keep him on the ground. Forces like Conrad Cole, movie director and aircraft designer, a glory-seeking king of the grand splash who is also a man sinking into his own sovereign darkness. And Fiona McLeod, film editor and maimed former actress, who sees something in Xas that no one has ever seen before, not even God, who made him, or Lucifer, the general he once followed – Lucifer, who has lost Xas once, but won’t let that be the end of it.

With Knox’s fiction, I find myself having to stop and think about the weight of things. She will introduce characters, words, symbols, and twine them all together so subtly that I frequently find myself asking, what is the import of this? What does it mean? I have to be in literary analysis mode as well as readership mode, because things often have more than one meaning, and will usually contribute to an overall picture that is grander than you originally expect. This is something I’ve been trying to do with my own writing, so it’s wonderful to sink into her mind and try to follow the trails of inspiration; it gives me some sense of how to go about it myself.

At the same time, there were parts I found difficult – specifically, I kept confusing the two different characters named Conrad. One was Conrad Cole and the other was Conrad Crow, and I kept mistaking one for the other. I am guessing – since Knox is not the type of author to do something like this without reason – that this was perhaps an extension of the ideas that are entangled throughout the plot: that of imitations, echoes, originals and whether Heaven is such a wonderful place if it means leaving what makes us human behind. If that is the case, then it’s really quite brilliant, but I’m afraid the overall effect was one of confusion and irritation rather than a deeper insight into the novel’s themes.

Confusion aside, however, by the time I reached the end of the book I found I had folded down the corners of nearly as many pages as with Luck to mark passages I particularly loved. Every so often I would come across a piece of description or dialogue that hit me right in the heart and made me go, “Oh” in that way that you do when something stirs you deeply. One favourite passage:

Lucifer said, “Listen,” then was quiet as though they were both supposed to be listening to God.

No,” Xas said, refusing again.

“No,” Lucifer mimicked, and moved the angel back and forth above him as fathers fly their babies. Xas had always liked the look of that. He knew that parents only did it to make their babies laugh and-instinctively-to rock their infants’ senses of space, motion and position into health and capability. But to him it had always looked as if those parents were saying to Heaven: I hold this happiness between me and You, and, if they were, then that was instinct too, the instinct humans must have, despite all their ideas about a just and loving God, to preserve themselves from that God’s unloving love of perfection, His exacting beneficence.

— p.179

And its echo at the end of the novel:

She ran into his arms, giggling, still hot from sleep. Xas straightened and raised his daughter up into the air, over his head. She shrieked with happiness. Xas spun, flying her about, holding her up between himself and Heaven.

— p. 433

As well as the writing, I enjoyed the complexity of the new characters, particularly Flora, whose pain I could almost feel through the pages, and Captain Hintersee. Knox has a real gift for creating vibrant, living people out of words. Ultimately, however, I have mixed feelings about the novel. Vintner’s Luck was a book I could happily inhabit for the rest of my life; that I want to snuggle to my chest like a baby or a soft toy and love. I am still waiting for my opinion of Angel’s Cut to resolve itself. Perhaps it can best be summarised with a quote from the novel itself:

And then Xas thought, ‘I did love him, after all.’ Sure, he’d made a mistake with Cole, and had given his heart where he stood to lose it. But that was good, it was right, it was what should happen, it was the way faith worked, it was the proper use of love.

— p.444

Not easy, and perhaps not what I originally expected, but nevertheless a highly recommended read.



REVIEW: “Beating Heart” by A. M. Jenkins

Beating Heart

A. M. Jenkins
HarperTeen 2005

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 28 Feb 2010

I picked up this book from a library display because it looked deliciously creepy. I love that cover, and I love ghost stories, particularly romantic ones.  From the blurb, it looked like this would be right up my alley:

She is a ghost: a figure glimpsed from the corner of your eye, a momentary chill, and a memory of secret kisses and hidden passion. He is 17 years old: Evan Calhoun, warm and alive, and ever since moving to this big abandoned house, he has dreamt of her. Ghost and boy fascinate each other–until her memories and his desire collide in a moment that changes them both.

Combining verse fragments with chiseled prose, A. M. Jenkins captures the compelling voice of a long–dead ghost and the perspective of a modern teen, twining mystery and romance in this evocative, sensual, and unrelentingly engrossing novel.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

In the first place, this is not about a ghost-human romance. He doesn’t even realize there is a ghost, he’s just fascinated by (a) the hot dreams he’s been having about her and (b) old news stories/photographs about her death. There’s pretty much no interaction beyond that.

Secondly, the poetry was, um…unique, and it did to some extent give the sense of a disconnected, ethereal narrator, but to be honest it came across as rather pretentious as well. I don’t mind small verses at the beginning of chapters and such, but in general I find verse to be rather off-putting in novels. It also made it feel rather insubstantial – I read the whole thing in an hour or two because there was a lot of wasted space so that the verses could be “formatted” in bizarre ways, so that sometimes there were only two to three words to a page. Minus points for wasting precious resources.

And finally, I was left feeling a little confused about the message of the book. Other reviewers seem to have felt bludgeoned by the anti-teen-sex message, while I felt the complete opposite; it seemed to me that the book treated sex and teenage relationships with respect and honesty. There never seemed to be any judgement about whether or not they should be physically intimate at that age (I think the protagonist was about seventeen). However, I can see how you might come to the opposite conclusion; the ghost girl dies because her illicit boyfriend smothers her accidentally while trying to keep her quiet and avoid discovery. A similar scenario is almost enacted by the modern protagonist and his girlfriend as well.

In all honesty, this seems very implausible to me and smacks of being contrived to fit the author’s agenda. I can only wonder why I didn’t spot it when I was reading the book. I guess I was simply not looking for it (and I got distracted by the irritating poetry). However, I’m not entirely sure whether I’m meant to get the idea that “all premarital sex is bad!” or “relationships based solely on sex end badly.” Hence the confusion.

It wasn’t altogether bad; the characters felt authentic, if unsympathetic, and as I said, I felt the treatment of teenage sexuality was refreshingly direct. A quick read, but an intellectual lightweight. Two stars from me.


REVIEW: “The Vintner’s Luck” by Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner’s Luck

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 1998

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 2 Feb 2010

Judging by the polarity of the reviews on this novel, either you love it or you hate it. Fortunately for me, I was in the “love” camp. More than love – I adore this book. I’ve never read another quite like it.

I want to start out by saying that it is possibly best to come to it with no expectations (so if you think the premise sounds interesting, I recommend you go and read it before reading any reviews). I got a copy from the library with no synopsis whatsoever, so I went into it almost completely blind: all I knew was that it was about this guy and an angel who fall in love.

But Luck is so, so much more than that. So much more.

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