Review: The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause

The Silver Kiss Book Cover The Silver Kiss
Annette Curtis Klause

Zoe is wary when, in the dead of night, the beautiful yet frightening Simon comes to her house. Simon seems to understand the pain of loneliness and death and Zoe's brooding thoughts of her dying mother.

Simon is one of the undead, a vampire, seeking revenge for the gruesome death of his mother three hundred years before. Does Simon dare ask Zoe to help free him from this lifeless chase and its insufferable loneliness?

Review:

Whatever you do, please, please, please don’t write off The Silver Kiss as a paranormal romance. The cover and synopsis make this book seem like a vampire love story, and while there’s nothing wrong with such novels – I personally am a big Twilight fan – this isn’t an accurate reflection of what The Silver Kiss is about. There is desire between Simon and Zoe, and vampires do play a huge part in this book, but this story is NOT about a vampire and human falling in love.

In a way, The Silver Kiss reminds me a lot of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls in that it uses supernatural beings as a lens to examine death, grief, and loss. Zoe, the protagonist, is a 16-year-old whose mother is dying of cancer. Zoe’s best friend doesn’t know how to deal with Zoe’s grief, and her father is forever at the hospital, leaving Zoe to provide for her own needs, both practical and emotional. On the rare occasions when Zoe is permitted to visit her mother it’s only for a short time, and she’s limited to exchanging pleasantries and small talk, unable to confide in her mother for fear of upsetting her. In short, at a time when Zoe desperately needs someone to lean on, she is left completely alone.

When walking in the park one night, Zoe stumbles upon Simon, a vampire who has spent the past several centuries lonely and adrift. Although he flees from the park before they can speak, Simon can’t help but be entranced by Zoe’s misery. Her aura of desolation and fear is like a beacon, calling to him like nothing else has for centuries. Simon is just as isolated as Zoe, albeit in a different way. Everyone he’s ever loved is dead and gone, and he’s cut off from the living, doomed to forever wander the earth alone:

“Like a shadow he could only live on the edge of people’s lives, never touched or touching except to bring a cold shiver like a cloud over the sun, like a shroud over the corpse. The only time he touched, it was death, yet that was the only thing that proved he existed at all.”

Simon is clearly not human, clearly other, and – as he himself laments – unnatural:

“‘I am at odds with nature […] and the whole natural world tries to remind me of this. The sun burns me; and when I cross running water, I can feel it trying to heave me off the face of the earth. It makes me sick to my stomach.’”

Zoe’s despair makes her the first kindred spirit Simon’s come upon in ages, and he soon becomes obsessed with her. He begins following her, watching her, and at one point even marks his territory by urinating near her house:

“He went to her helplessly, drawn by her fear. He couldn’t help but touch her to taste it.”

This sounds a little creepy…because it is. After 300 years of existence, Simon is so far from the human being he used to be that he doesn’t recognize his behavior as disturbing. He’s a provocative character, chilling while also beguiling, haunting yet poetic, savage as well as vulnerable. The fact that Simon is so unbalanced fits with the theme of this book: the inevitability of death. Simon has cheated death for centuries, but at great cost to his sanity. The irony of eternal life is that such an existence isn’t actually life at all.

Simon’s circumstance is compelling in juxtaposition with Zoe’s, who must find a way to come to terms with her mother’s illness and inevitable death. The relationship between Simon and Zoe is wonderfully allegorical, and this makes it a little easier to accept some of the strangeness of their interactions. For example, one of the things that originally bothered me for much of The Silver Kiss was how easily Zoe’s initial fear and skepticism towards Simon were overridden. Her mother’s dying, her life is falling apart, yet she starts keeping company with a deadly, unhinged 300-year-old vampire? It struck me as a little crazy. Once I reached the end of the book, though, I saw that Zoe and Simon’s situation was symbolic. Because of my appreciation for the message that was being conveyed through this symbol, I was able to overlook some of the blips in the delivery. Klause’s elegant writing style helped with this as well – I luxuriated in every word:

You could rush into your death unknowing, inviting, enjoying the ecstasy of it, burned up in bright light like a moth.”

“Motionless, yet taut with energy, he was like a dancer a breath before movement.”

Even if you’re not typically a fan of vampire novels, I strongly suggest you give The Silver Kiss a chance. It’s got so many layers of hidden meaning, gorgeous prose, and an ending that is powerful, moving, and right. I loved it, and I suspect that you will too.

Review: The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

The Kingdom of Little Wounds Book Cover The Kingdom of Little Wounds
Susann Cokal

On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the Scandinavian city of Skyggehavn prepares to fete the occasion with a sumptuous display of riches: brocade and satin and jewels, feasts of sugar fruit and sweet spiced wine. Yet beneath the veneer of celebration, a shiver of darkness creeps through the palace halls. A mysterious illness plagues the royal family, threatening the lives of the throne’s heirs, and a courtier’s wolfish hunger for the king’s favors sets a devious plot in motion.

Here in the palace at Skyggehavn, things are seldom as they seem — and when a single errant prick of a needle sets off a series of events that will alter the course of history, the fates of seamstress Ava Bingen and mute nursemaid Midi Sorte become irrevocably intertwined with that of mad Queen Isabel. As they navigate a tangled web of palace intrigue, power-lust, and deception, Ava and Midi must carve out their own survival any way they can.

Review:

When I was in college, one of the exercises in my Children’s Lit class was to write a story that incorporated two completely unrelated subjects: T-rexes and ballet, bodybuilders and allergies, etc. I have a hunch that The Kingdom of Little Wounds must have originated from a similar exercise, as Cokal’s book combines two subjects that are totally at odds: fairy tales and syphilis.

Yes, you read that correctly. This is a fairy tale about syphilis.

I checked out a lot of other reviewers’ opinions prior to starting The Kingdom of Little Wounds. Many of those reviews were negative and dwelled on how gross and horrifying and screwed up the book is. As a result, I went into this novel fully expecting to hate it. Even while reading I kept telling myself, “This is it. Enough. I’m going to stop reading and take The Kingdom of Little Wounds back to the library.”

And yet I didn’t – couldn’t – actually put it down. In fact, I read the whole thing in a single sitting. When I reached the last page I realized, to my astonishment, that I had not only finished the novel, but enjoyed it as well.

That’s not to say those other reviewers were wrong. This book IS gross and horrifying and screwed up, but in a really bizarre way that’s part of its…dare I say appeal? The whole point of the aforementioned exercise in my Children’s Lit class was to help us recognize that the most unlikely pairings can also be the most evocative; the contrast is what draws and holds a reader’s attention. By imposing disease, sex, violence, and other nastiness over the elements of a fairy tale, Cokal has made her book striking and unforgettable.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds is set in Skyggehavn, a kingdom maintaining a façade of wealth and grandeur while sinking slowly into a figurative pit of illness and rot. In this land where magic, superstition, science, and horror blur together, there are gaping holes that open in the earth; a raving queen; a royal nursery full of oozing, mewling children too weak to leave their beds; and a court in perpetual mourning. Behind closed doors, power-hungry players deal in blackmail, violence, and lust while the kingdom languishes under a shroud of lunacy and disease.

In the midst of this corruption are the three women around whom the story centers: Ava Bingen, a lovelorn yet hopeful seamstress; Midi Sorte, a mutilated black servant; and Isabel, Skyggehavn’s unhinged queen. Each of these women is in a perilous position in the court, caught up in the plotting and treachery of their male peers. The machinations of the men gradually drive the women into one another’s paths, and they must decide whether they will be rivals or allies in the fight to escape the whirlpool of the cesspit that is Skyggehavn.

The story of these women is captivating but admittedly hard to stomach at times. This book is brimming with gross and disturbing content. There’s degradation, sickness, stench, bodily functions and secretions, sliced tongues, horrific deaths characterized by seizures and bursts of blood, rape…the list goes on and on. Even the relatively happy moments, few as they are, are tempered by dirt and lowness. First love is heralded with bugs and spiders in the bed. Grand feasts with sugared delicacies and dancing are only a prelude to the horrific death of a young girl on her wedding night.

I’m not harping on these details to discourage you from reading The Kingdom of Little Wounds – on the contrary, I highly recommend this book. I’m just trying to prepare you in case you’re squeamish or bothered by very mature content. I don’t want anyone to go into this book thinking it’s a happy little fairy tale, only to be blindsided when all the craziness starts.

You’re probably asking, “Angela, WHY would I want to read this book after you’ve gone to such lengths to explain how messed up it is?” Because as dark and gruesome as this book can be, it is undeniably transfixing. When I reached the last page and closed the book for the final time it was like I was waking up from a trance.

Moreover, Cokal is a fantastic storyteller. The intelligent twists and turns will amaze you and leave you marveling at her cleverness. Towards the ending, when I began to suspect how everything would play out, I actually laughed out loud in appreciation. Everything came together ingeniously.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re a brave – and again, not squeamish – reader, I highly suggest this book.

Review: The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Gregory Galloway

The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand Book Cover The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand
Gregory Galloway

Adam Strand isn't depressed. He's just bored. Disaffected. So he kills himself—39 times. No matter the method, Adam can't seem to stay dead; he wakes after each suicide alive and physically unharmed, more determined to succeed and undeterred by others' concerns. But when his self-contained, self-absorbed path is diverted, Adam is struck by the reality that life is an ever-expanding web of impact and forged connections, and that nothing—not even death—can sever those bonds.

Review: 

Have you ever heard the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again?” Well, Adam Strand takes that message to heart: when his first attempt to end his life fails, he tries again. And again. And again. His favorite method is jumping, particularly from the bridges near his home. He’s also tried poisoning, burning, cutting, and shooting himself, but regardless of how many times he tries, he just keeps coming back to life.

The motivation behind Adam’s perpetual suicide mission is boredom, plain and simple. Existence seems pointless to him; he feels trapped and suffocated by the monotony of life, the repetition of waking up, watching the minutes tick by, going to sleep at night, and waking up again the next day to repeat the cycle. Adam’s outlook on life is summed up by this sentence: “[E]verything is moving in one meaningless mess, a merry-go-round that I never should have gotten on in the first place and every day is one turn too many.”

It’s not too difficult to see why Adam might feel this way. His parents aren’t the most fascinating people – his mother’s only occupation seems to be perpetual complaining and worrying, and his father is a loan officer who devotes himself to boring things like the most efficient way to get dressed or eat breakfast. There isn’t much to do in the Midwestern town where Adam lives, and fewer people to do it with. Many of the scenes in the book depict Adam hanging out with his so-called friends, who don’t necessarily like one another – they just put up with each other because they don’t have any other options. They spend their time drinking pilfered crème de menthe, making up silly rules and regulations, and watching dead cows decay in the river. These scenes are mind-numbingly dull to read, so I can imagine that for Adam, they’d be even duller to participate in.

Showing all of this is helpful in that it provides some explanation of why Adam might be motivated to kill himself, again and again. However, there’s a fine line between simply representing a character’s boredom and actually boring the reader as well. I became so sick of Adam, his selfishness, his dull-as-dishwater family, his asshole friends, and the whole pointless book that I felt detached and mildly annoyed.

If there had been some stimulating content thrown into the mix as well, it may have redeemed the book for me. For example, there was plenty of room to explore human emotions and relationships – a story about a suicidal boy who can’t stay dead provides ample opportunities to examine family dynamics, friendship, grief, etc. Much to my disappointment, though, Galloway never capitalizes upon this potential.

All of the emotions in the story fall flat, and I spent much of the reading experience in a state of consternation. Where was the grief? Why weren’t Adam’s friends and family angry that they didn’t mean enough to Adam to inspire him to live? And even after seeing Adam rejuvenated 39 times, how were his parents not living in constant dread that Adam might kill himself one time too many and actually stay dead?

It didn’t help that things that should have been traumatizing or shocking were treated like no big deal. There were times I wanted to stop and say, “Hold on Mr. Galloway, wait a minute. You just mentioned that Adam blew his brains out in the basement and that his dad had to clean everything up. And then you calmly moved on to a discussion about schoolwork. Don’t you think we should stop and dwell on the fact that his dad had to CLEAN UP HIS OWN CHILD’S BRAIN MATTER?”

That’s how the whole book went – stuff that should have been central to the story fell by the wayside, and the trivial, tedious stuff got page after page of description. I didn’t even get the satisfaction of having my morbid curiosity slaked, as there were practically no details about the logistics of Adam’s suicides and recoveries.

One last complaint, and then I promise to stop whining and finish this review. The blurb on the book jacket promises that eventually, “Adam is struck by the reality that life is an ever-expanding web of impact and forged connections, and that nothing—not even death—can sever those bonds.” This sentence led me to believe that there would be some sort of lesson or discovery for Adam and the reader as well, but after finishing the book I don’t feel like I really got anything from the reading experience. There was no big epiphany, no meaning or insight gained.

The overall effect of The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand was that I, as the reader, felt about as dull and jaded as Adam by the end of the novel. I thought a book about suicide, life, and death would inspire some sort of strong reaction in me, like sadness, hope, or a newfound appreciation for the sanctity of life. That wasn’t the case, and I was left disappointed.

Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls Book Cover A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster, though, is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Review:

At first glance, Conor O’Malley appears to be a mature, self-sufficient young man. Despite being only 13 years old, he accepts the hardships in his life – his father’s desertion to start a new life and a new family overseas, his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health – with a brave face. He prepares his own meals, cleans the house without being told, and patiently helps his mother through her bouts of radiation-induced vomiting. He is bullied at school but takes it stoically, without cowering or tattling. He gives every impression of being a boy who is dealing with an unfortunate situation with admirable grace and composure.

Until, one night, he hears a monster whispering his name.

The monster is a wild, fearsome thing, made of branches and thorns and night: “‘Who am I?’ the monster repeated, still roaring. ‘I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! […]’ It brought Conor up close to its eye. ‘I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.’” 

The monster claims he’s been called by Conor himself, to assist in a matter of life and death. He announces that over the next few days he will tell Conor three stories.  When he has finished these stories, Conor must tell a story as well. And not just any story – Connor must tell a true story, the one that he is most afraid of.

The stories the monster tells are marvelous, full of witches and healers, princes and farmers. There is a magic to them, and the power and importance of stories is one of the themes of the book. As the monster explains Connor, “Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase and bite and hunt.” I loved this line, as well as many others throughout A Monster Calls. It’s brimming with memorable quotes full of mind-blowing insight, especially in the monster’s tales. Here are just a couple:

“‘You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.’”

And:

“‘…[I]t does not matter what you think, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day…Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.’”

As the days go by and the monster continues to visit Conor and tell him stories, the boy’s carefully maintained composure begins to crack. He grows farther and farther away from everyone around him, until only the monster seems real. It soon becomes clear that Conor’s world is falling apart, and so is he.

Ness has written a dark, intense, powerful novel that shows how isolating and destructive loss can be, especially for a child. A Monster Calls isn’t a book, it’s a force, and it impacted me on a conceptual, intellectual level rather than a personal, emotional one. For this reason I’m not able to say, like many other bloggers have said, that I was shattered by this book, or that I was moved to tears or felt an intimate connection to it. Instead, I appreciated it as a work of art, both in terms of the gorgeous writing and the stunning, shadowy illustrations that creep along the margins of the pages.

I had a hard time assigning a rating to A Monster Calls; it’s like no other story I’ve ever read and defies all attempts at classification. In the end, though, this distinctiveness is what prompted me to grant it five stars. I appreciate any book that can show me something new or make me look at a subject in a way I never have before, and A Monster Calls does both of these things. This, combined with Ness’ exceptionally wise, beautiful prose, make for a book you don’t want to miss.

Review: This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

This is Not a Test Book Cover This is Not a Test
Courtney Summers

It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?

Review:

This is Not a Test is a book of paradoxes. It’s a survival story about a girl who doesn’t want to survive, a zombie novel that isn’t really about zombies. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Now, before I lose any of you zombie fans, let me qualify my opening statement – although zombies aren’t the true focus of this book, there are still plenty of flesh-craving monsters shambling through the pages. The very first scene involves a horde of zombies attacking their neighbors, and throughout the book there’s a constant threat that someone’s face will be eaten by the undead. Still, this novel is brilliant in that the zombie apocalypse is really just a backdrop for the true crisis of the story: the fact that our narrator Sloane Price has been betrayed by her older sister, the only person she really loves.

Sloane’s sister Lily has always been the only one who understands her, the only one to protect her from their abusive father. And yet, six months before the zombies overrun their neighborhood, Lily leaves home without warning, deserting Sloane and choosing her own freedom over her sister’s wellbeing. Sloane is destroyed by Lily’s abandonment and decides to end her life rather than live with the reality that the only person who could have rescued her from her father left her behind instead.

Before Sloane gets a chance to act on this impulse, however, a mysterious infection begins turning people around the world into flesh-eating monsters. Chaos ensues, and Sloane finds herself caught up in stampede of fleeing survivors. She gets picked up by a group of five other teens, who take shelter in their abandoned high school.

Sloane’s suicidal desires are in stark contrast to her peers’ desperate determination to survive. Being inside her head is a little like being inside a carnival fun house, a surreal experience where everything’s a little off kilter. She’s suffered so much that she has no more capacity for horror; the hurt and disbelief she feels at Lily’s betrayal are so all-encompassing that everything else pales in comparison, even zombies. She’s living in her own little world of hatred and pain and psychologically remains apart from the others in the school even as she interacts with them. Sloane’s mind is a creepy place, and her mental and emotional instability are far scarier than any of the zombies in this book.

The kids with whom Sloane shares her shelter are just as interesting as Sloane herself. Watching the interactions between them is like witnessing the results of a weird social experiment – think The Breakfast Club meets Survivor meets Lord of the Flies.  The teenagers are all incredibly different from one another and would likely not mesh well under the best of circumstances, let alone when the world has fallen apart. Survival requires them to work together, but just because they’re fighting for a common purpose doesn’t mean they automatically bond to become a caring, tight-knit family. Their alliance is an uneasy one, and the relationships are fraught with frustration, distrust, and accusations.

The characters in Summers’ book aren’t nice people; they’re self-interested, raw, and sometimes ugly. Still, this is what makes the story so fascinating. Desperation and terror are powerful emotions, and the reactions they elicit in This is Not a Test are so compelling that I couldn’t tear myself away from the book. I had to know the results of the “experiment,” no matter how tough it was to wade through all of the pain and tragedy along the way.

This is Not a Test is one of the most memorable novels I’ve come across in a very long time. I’ve already given my copy to my sister with strict orders to read it every spare minute she gets, and I recommend you do the same. It’s one of those stories you’ll still be thinking about long after you’ve closed the cover.