SPLIT by Swati Avasthi

SplitSixteen-year-old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother, Christian, with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father), $3.84, and a secret.

He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind–his mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret.

At least so far.

Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. Award-winning novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you’ve said enough, after you’ve run, after you’ve made the split–how do you begin to live again? Readers won’t be able to put this intense page-turner down.   (Add to Goodreads)

Review

First confession: It took me a ridiculously long time to notice the silhouettes of faces on the cover. I thought they were just cool, whittled-down keys. Also, I think I like the keys better than the faces.

Also, I’m not sure why I’m admitting this.

Second confession: I expected to like this book for the voice–based off of that first paragraph in the blurb–and not much else.

I was incredibly wrong.

Yeah, it’s a book that deals really heavily with abuse. But that’s not all it’s about. At its heart, Split is my favourite kind of story–a story about two brothers. It’s about who they’ve both become in the six years that’ve passed since they last saw each other, knew each other. In the six years since Jace’s big brother, Christian, ran away to escape their dad.

It’s about who they are now, on the other side of those six long years. Christian’s made a new life from himself, gotten a new start. But when he ran away, there was nothing left to distract their dad–he started in on Jace.

It’s also about who they want to become, now that they’ve gotten away from their dad and found each other again.

But obviously, it’s not going to be that easy.

Jace comes to find Christian when his dad kicks him out for standing up to him. It’s late at night and Jace has nowhere to go, but Jace’s mom–slips out behind him to give him his car keys, a small handful of ones and fives she’s squirreled away over the years, and an envelope with Christian’s address.

Jace isn’t so sure about that–he hasn’t heard from his big brother since Christian disappeared from their lives, and he’s hurt that Christian kept in touch with their mom but not him. Not only that, but going after Christian is risky–there’s a chance Jace could lead their dad right back to his brother, bring Christian’s life crashing back down.

And when Jace arrives, Christian’s well aware of that possibility. At first, he’s closed off, unwilling to try to connect too much with Jace. He’s mild-mannered, emotionally distant, and above all, cautious–those are his defense mechanisms. That’s what keeps him safe.

And for a younger brother who kind of idolises him, even at seventeen years old, it’s incredibly frustrating.

But Jace really can’t blame Christian for not trusting him. When Jace ended up at his brother’s door, he came with a lot of baggage–and secrets.

He wants a fresh start, a new life. But he wasn’t able to leave behind the old part of his life he hates–and fears–most.

Himself.

Basically, Jace Witherspoon shares a lot of demons with Dean Winchester–but instead of idolising and wanting to be like his dad, Jace is trying desperately to avoid following in his footsteps.

What thenBut when Jace’s secrets catch up with him, he’s going to have to suck it up and face the past if he wants to move forward.

Like I said before, I initially wasn’t sure if I would like this book beyond Jace’s narrative style. But it delivered on more than that front. I loved watching that complicated relationship between the brothers evolve, and Avasthi does a great job of weaving in seamless subplots so the plot works on multiple levels.

She’s also really great at portraying a Big Issue in all its complexity, on a personalised level, without getting preachy, reducing the situation to stereotypes, or coming down heavy-handed. According to her bio on the dust jacket, Avasthi coordinated at a legal clinic victims of domestic violence, and her experiences there really give Split a sense of authenticity.

Basically, it’s brilliant. 4/5 stars.

THE HOLLOW KINGDOM by Clare B. Dunkle

The Hollow Kingdom

Hallow Hill has a strange and tragic history. For thousands of years, young women have been vanishing from the estate, never to be seen again. Now Kate and Emily have come to live at Hallow Hill. Brought up in a civilized age, they have no idea of the land’s dreadful heritage. Until, that is, Marak decides to tell them himself.

Intelligent, pleasant, and completely pitiless, Marak is a powerful magician who claims to be a King–and he has very specific plans for the two new girls who have trespassed into his kingdom.  (Add to Goodreads)

Review

 I didn’t realize it till after I’d finished it–that’s how different it is from other retellings and even its source material–but The Hollow Kingdom is basically a unique twist on the old Beauty and the Beast tale. And by “unique,” I don’t mean that it’s got a clever twist on the trope that makes it stand out from the crowd.

I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything like this one, and that’s probably what I appreciate about it most.

When their dad dies, Kate and Emily Winslow are left without a legal guardian. Finally, an obnoxious relative steps up and agrees to be their legal guardian–his motives aren’t exactly selfless, but that’s beside the point. He lives at the family estate on Hallow Hill, which Kate will inherit from her late mother once she officially comes of age.

There are lots of old, weird folktales about Hallow Hill–ones about goblins kidnapping human girls and dragging them underground to marry them. The sisters shrug this off as neighbors clinging to old-fashioned tales designed to scare girls from going out too late. But when Kate and Emily stay outside stargazing one night, Kate swears she feels someone watching them.

As it turns out, she’s right. All the old stories about Hallow Hill are true–it’s located roughly around where elf territory used to be, and right above the goblin kingdom. Kate, bless her English soul, has attracted the attention of the goblin king, Marak: he wants her as his bride.

This leads to a huge game of cat versus mouse, which a large chunk of the book focuses on. Mouse, thanks to Kate’s intelligence and resourcefulness, usually manages to outsmart cat at the last second. Cat, thanks to Marak’s self-assurance and flippancy, is pretty hilarious.

Eventually, though, Emily goes missing. Faced with losing the last real family she has left, Kate decides to take matters into her own hands. She marches into the goblin kingdom and offers her own hand in marriage to the goblin king–if he helps her get her sister back.

This leads into my favourite part of the book: Kate’s life in the goblin kingdom. The worldbuilding here is incredibly rich, and there’s nothing out there quite like Dunkle’s goblin society. And when the roughly 19th-century Kate first arrives there, it horrifies her. Goblins are hideous (and Dunkle did a dang good job making them hideous, for the record) and harsh, valuing strength over beauty and truth over manners. Marak takes real joy in teasing Kate, and as king, he’s sometimes ruthless in the name of protecting his kingdom.

But the more Kate sees, the more she comes to appreciate the goblins. They may not be as refined as she’s used to, and some of them may be traumatizing to look at–but like their king, they really do care about her, and they’re kind. They shower her with jewellry and pick flowers for her when they go aboveground to patrol their lands. More than that, they’re loyal to the end, and their hearts really are in the right places. They’re just good.

In the end, that’s more than Kate can say for the human race. Over a year after she’s signed herself over to goblin life, the kingdom comes under threat–from a human sorcerer. He wants the goblins’ magic for himself, and to get it, he’s willing to bring the whole race toppling down. When Kate’s the only one left with any real knowledge of the human world, it’s up to her to venture back to her old life and find the sorcerer–then bring him down to save her new kingdom.

To be fair, the resolution to that particular issue came about a little too easily for me. But Kate made up for it afterwards–you’ll see what I mean if you read it–and in doing so, she showed not only some character growth, but some real guts.

My other quibble would be that we spent more time in the cat-and-mouse portion of the story than in the actual goblin kingdom. Compared to something so vibrant and bizarre, hanging out in the human realm is boring by comparison.

Ultimately, though, The Hollow Kingdom is a quick, really enjoyable read. Besides the worldbuilding, Marak made this book for me, and the supporting characters–especially Seylin, the goblin boy who’s an outcast because he’s pretty, and Charm, a magical entity that protects all Kings’ Wives–were equally brilliant. I give this one 4/5 stars, and look forward to reading the next book in the series.

HEIR APPARENT by Vivian Vande Velde

Heir ApparentIn the virtual reality game Heir Apparent, there are way too many ways to get killed–and Giannine seems to be finding them all. Which is a darn shame, because unless she can get the magic ring, locate the stolen treasure, answer the dwarf’s dumb riddles, impress the head-chopping statue, charm the army of ghosts, fend off the barbarians, and defeat the man-eating dragon, she’ll never win.

And she has to, because losing means she’ll die–for real this time. (Add to Goodreads)

Review

First off, I’d like to take a moment of silence for the sheer awesomeness that is this author’s name. The best part is, according to her website, that’s actually her real name.

Okay. Moment over.

I was in middle school the first time I read this book. In fact, I ended up reading it a few times during middle school, because my library was small and the book was hilarious, so why the heck not.

I stumbled across it again recently, and I decided to give it another shot–see if it had stood the test of time. As it happens, I’m happy to report that this one held up just fine.

When Giannine’s estranged father sends her a gift card for her birthday–through his secretary, no less–Giannine isn’t expecting much. She ends up getting credit for a round of gameplay at the Rasmussem Corporation Gaming Center, which is basically a virtual reality arcade.

Unfortunately, a group of protesters break into the center and attack the equipment inside while she’s hooked up to it–effectively trapping her in the game. Now the only way out is to beat the game, and quickly: her brain will fry if she spends too long hooked up to the virtual reality machines.

She happens to have chosen the game Heir Apparent, in which she plays a peasant who finds out she’s the king’s illegitimate daughter–and the child he’s named, on his deathbed, as the heir to his throne.

Of course, he’s also left behind three legitimate sons and a real shrew of a wife, and none of them are exactly thrilled about old King Cynric’s (God rest his soul) choice of successor.

None of them are above sabotage, either, which makes things interesting for Giannine. Each time she’s killed in the game, she’s booted back to the starting point–which is one thing when you’re playing Pac-Man, but a whole nother issue when you’re on a life-or-crispy-death deadline. And if there’s one thing Giannine seems good at, it’s making the wrong choices that ultimately get her axed.

That’s the great thing about this book, though. Even though certain aspects of the plot repeat themselves again and again each time Giannine starts over, things never feel annoying or even stale.

This is mostly because of Giannine–she’s hilarious in pretty much everything she does, whether it’s action, dialogue, or her interior monologue. Between her wit, the sarcasm of her half-family and her advisor, and the broken English of the barbarian king threatening her kingdom, I laughed out loud more than once.

Really, that’s all I can ask for in a book–but Heir Apparent delivers more than that. It’s got an engaging plot with just enough twists to defy the formulaic nature of the repeated gameplay, and between the virtual reality premise and the fact that she’s in a medieval-fantasy game, it should appeal to sci-fi and fantasy fans alike.

This is one of those books you wish had a sequel–not because it doesn’t wrap up nicely, but because you want to spend more time with the narrator, more time getting to know the secondary characters. I give it 5/5 stars, and look forward to rereading it again in the future.

Fools Rush In

Yesterday, I finished the last round of micro edits for my YA superhero novel before I start querying. Now I’ve just got to rewrite my first couple of chapters and spiff up my query letter, which is still a rough draft at this point. The goal is to start submitting to agents by late October or early November.

It’s crazy to think that four years ago, I was just feeling out the querying process for a much different version of the same book.

I went through a few different versions of my query letter and a list of agents, but none of it panned out. For a long time, I kept pushing through, kept pushing more submissions out–Winston Churchill, never surrender, you know?

WC FieldsBut eventually, I realized there was a difference between greeting the proverbial drawing board like an old friend and just plain quitting. Sometimes, yeah, you need to be hard-headed and thick-skinned and plow through the let-downs.

Other times, you need to sit down, shut up, and admit when something isn’t working.

Realizing that didn’t make scrapping that draft of my book any more pleasant. But looking back, I’m weirdly grateful for it. I feel like I’m a stronger writer now, and while the general spine is the same, my story and series have evolved a heck of a lot since then.

Really, it’s just a matter of knowing what battles are worth picking–and when. If you find yourself needing to take some time, step back, and approach your story from a new angle, consider Maggie Stiefvater and Eric Kripke.

Maggie Stiefvater is the bestselling author of the Shiver series and The Scorpio Races, among other things. She also wrote The Raven Boys–my favorite book in the history of the universe, and the first book in a planned quartet.

The interesting thing is, she wrote the first draft of The Raven Boys when she was nineteen years old–at least twelve years ago. She’s mentioned before that she realized she didn’t yet have the writing tools necessary to tell that story and juggle multiple POV characters, so she moved on. She still loved the story and carried it around inside her, but she wasn’t ready to tell it yet. It was a matter of timing.

So she waited, worked on some other projects, and came back to it when she was ready. And I have to say, the result is pretty amazing.

If that success story doesn’t sell you, there’s also Eric Kripke, creator and longtime showrunner of Supernatural. Before he came up with the Winchester brothers and the Impala, he set the creatures and cases against an anthology backdrop. After that, he planned to tell the stories through a tabloid reporter investigating it all. Then it was the story of Sam and Dean Harrison, raised by their aunt and uncle after their mother died and their father left.

The story went through loads of different versions–it was pitched and rejected and reworked for ten years. And it ended up being a wizard show that’s still going strong in its tenth season. If the story about the tabloid reporter had been greenlit, the Winchesters would never have been born.

So by all means–if you’ve really examined what you’re doing and feel like it’s the best it can be, go for it. But if the timing seems to be wrong, maybe there’s a reason for that.

A time and a season, and all that good stuff.

THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS by E. Lockhart

Frankie Landau-BanksFrankie Landau-Banks at age 14:

Debate Club.

Her father’s “bunny rabbit.”

A mildly geeky girl attending a highly competitive boarding school.

Frankie Landau-Banks at age 15:

A knockout figure.

A sharp tongue.

A chip on her shoulder.

And a gorgeous new senior boyfriend: the supremely goofy, word-obsessed Matthew Livingston.

Frankie Landau-Banks.

No longer the kind of girl to take “no” for an answer.

Especially when “no” means she’s excluded from her boyfriend’s all-male secret society.

Not when her ex-boyfriend shows up in the strangest of places.

Not when she knows she’s smarter than any of them.

When she knows Matthew’s lying to her.

And when there are so many, many pranks to be done.

Frankie Landau-Banks, at age 16:

Possibly a criminal mastermind.

This is the story of how she got that way.  (Add it on Goodreads)

Review

The thing with this book is, your opinion of it is going to hinge entirely on what you interpreted as the theme. Because the book focuses on Frankie’s frustration with being left out of her boyfriend’s strictly male secret society, and Frankie’s subsequent attempts to bust through the barriers into the club, a lot of people either love or hate The Disreputable History based on its take on feminism.

Fair enough. It does play around with the concept–Frankie wants into the Old Boys world, and her sister and roommate both have feminist streaks going on. But honestly, I think this story was more about Frankie as an individualist instead of Frankie as a feminist, and I think the whole book is much more interesting if you stick with that approach.

Frankie’s starting her sophomore year at Alabaster, a fancy prep school for rich kids who’re going places. Namely, the Ivy League schools. She’s always been intelligent and well-liked in her Debate Club circles, and she knew where she stood in that world. But over the summer, she’s metamorphosed from plain to stunning, and that changes how–and which–people view her.

When she catches a popular senior’s eye, she’s accepted into his circle of friends. But it’s not long before she realizes something’s up with them, and when Matthew cancels on her for evasive reasons for the millionth time, she decides to follow him.

That’s when she discovers Alabaster’s old, all-male secret society–the one she’s heard her father reminisce about–is still alive and lamely trying to kick.

When she tries to indirectly ask Matthew about it, he makes it pretty obvious he’s not going to let her in on it. I mean, it is a secret society. But Frankie takes this as a personal affront against her intelligence and her gender, and she decides to impress the society members so much, they’ll be begging her to join.

Basically, she does this by setting up a Gmail account impersonating the group’s leader. She uses it to contact the other members and orchestrate a prank on the school, which ends up being hugely controversial–and by extension, hugely successful. The group leader can’t exactly explain that the person sending out the orders is an impostor, because then he loses all the credit he’s received within the group for supposedly coming up with the prank.

So Frankie reigns on as puppet master, and the pranks keep coming. Granted, she doesn’t tell the secret society she’s the one behind the curtain, expecting them to somehow guess this, so maybe she’s not the expert planner she thinks she is.

The thing is, she didn’t decide to take over the club until about 75% into the book–before that, not much happened. Mostly, Frankie went to school, hung out with Matthew, and got frustrated when she felt like his friends only accepted her out of politeness to Matthew. Her life hobby seems to be obsessively analyzing and second-guessing everything anyone says–her Debate Club roots rearing their head, I guess–so there was plenty of that.

Even once she got to the pranks, she wasn’t actually the one carrying them out. She planned them and emailed her orders to the society boys, and the reader sees the aftermath the next morning along with the rest of the Alabaster population. But rampant gossip about the school’s beloved mascot statue being taken isn’t quite as exciting as actually sneaking around in the middle of the night and hauling the thing off, you know?

On the plus side, the dialogue was strong and had a witty, bantering feel to it. Frankie also has a thing for neglected positives of the English language–she has a love of The Muppets’ Animal that she will “parage” to the end, rather than disparage–and that was a fun concept that was woven well throughout the rest of the novel.

Sadly, though, I felt like the narrative was more of a social commentary than an actual story. It’s about Frankie going against the grain and using the pranks to send activist messages and trying to be an individual instead of a girl or student or girlfriend.

If you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll probably like this–it’s clever, and it knows it. But if you’re like me and the blurb’s “criminal mastermind” promise has you expecting an Allie Carter protagonist with a little Artemis Fowl flair tossed in, I think you’ll be disappointed.