Book Review: These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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I apologise for being away for so long – work’s been very busy! I’ll try to catch up with my Friday Finds this week hopefully 🙂

 

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Jo Montfort is a teenage blue-blooded New Yorker whose fate is to marry an even more blue-blooded childhood friend of hers, Bram Aldrich and be a good socialite. However, Jo’s passions lie elsewhere. She wants to be a writer – like Nellie Bly – and she wants to write about girls and hardships they endure. However, society doesn’t look too kindly upon a strong-headed, imaginative girl in 19th century New York and Jo is about ready to kiss her dreams goodbye. Her life changes drastically, however, when her father is found dead in their home. The police believe that he killed himself, but Jo, who loved her father very much, wants to get the truth. She starts to dig into her father’s past and meets a charming reporter Eddie Gallagher, who has secrets of his own. As the mystery unveils, Jo is sucked deeper and deeper into the New York that she never even knew existed, riddled with prostitutes, madmen and murderers. Would her and Eddie be able to be together and achieve their writing dreams, or will Jo’s naivete make her the killer’s next target?

 

“These Shallow Graves” was the book I’ve been anticipating for a few months now – Jennifer Donnelly is one of my favourite authors. Long-time readers of this blog would remember that I fell in love with “Revolution” and “A Gathering Light”. I was thrilled to hear that she was writing another historical fiction novel with a strong female protagonist. I was therefore over the moon when I got this copy from Netgalley.

However, I must say that my expectations were too high. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the story – I most certainly did, and thought it to be one of the better murder mysteries I’ve read this year. Perhaps my love for Donnelly’s previous books has set the bar a little too high for “These Shallow Graves”, and, while I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, I was rather underwhelmed. “Revolution” and “A Gathering Light” kept me engaged from the very first page, but “These Shallow Graves” didn’t manage to suck me in until about 30% into the book.

The main character, Jo, seemed too much like a spoiled rich kid at the start, which is understandable, given her upbringing, but it didn’t compel me to like her until quite a bit into the book. She does go through quite a bit of development and become a lot more interesting as the book progresses, though. Her romance with Eddie was a little too insta-love – either I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be sixteen and in love, or girls back then fell in love way too quickly.

The supporting cast was, however, just as good as that of Donnelly’s other novels. Oscar, Fay, the Tailor and other characters were well-rounded and interesting to read about, and added several more layers to the mystery, making it all the more compelling. They are the strong sides of “These Shallow Graves”, and so is the plot of the mystery. The writing is, while as atmospheric as her other books, just didn’t work for me. This is because I expected a lot more in terms of writing, given how much effect Jennifer Donnelly’s previous works had on me. I’d still recommend the book, though, and can’t wait for her next one!

 

Favourite quotes:

“If you’re going to bury the past, bury it deep, girl. Shallow graves always give up their dead”.

“Morality is a luxury, my darling. A very expensive one”.

 

Recommendations

You might like “These Shallow Graves” if you liked:

“The Cure for Dreaming” by Cat Winters

“Velvet Undercover” by Teri Brown

“Vengeance Road” by Erin Bowman

 

Friday Finds #5 – May 22nd

Sorry this one’s a day later guys!

Friday Finds is originally featured at Should Be Reading and showcases the books I have discovered during the week and added to my Goodreads TBR. In the week of May 16th-May 22nd I’ve discovered the  following books (descriptions and images are from Goodreads):

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King

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In this masterpiece about freedom, feminism, and destiny, Printz Honor author A.S. King tells the epic story of a girl coping with devastating loss at long last–a girl who has no idea that the future needs her, and that the present needs her even more.
Graduating from high school is a time of limitless possibilities–but not for Glory, who has no plan for what’s next. Her mother committed suicide when Glory was only four years old, and she’s never stopped wondering if she will eventually go the same way…until a transformative night when she begins to experience an astonishing new power to see a person’s infinite past and future. From ancient ancestors to many generations forward, Glory is bombarded with visions–and what she sees ahead of her is terrifying: A tyrannical new leader raises an army. Women’s rights disappear. A violent second civil war breaks out. And young girls vanish daily, sold off or interned in camps. Glory makes it her mission to record everything she sees, hoping her notes will somehow make a difference. She may not see a future for herself, but she’ll do anything to make sure this one doesn’t come to pass.

“Mortal Engines” by Philip Reeve

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The great traction city London has been skulking in the hills to avoid the bigger, faster, hungrier cities loose in the Great Hunting Ground. But now, the sinister plans of Lord Mayor Mangus Crome can finally unfold.

Thaddeus Valentine, London’s Head Historian and adored famous archaeologist, and his lovely daughter, Katherine, are down in The Gut when the young assassin with the black scarf strikes toward his heart, saved by the quick intervention of Tom, a lowly third-class apprentice. Racing after the fleeing girl, Tom suddenly glimpses her hideous face: scarred from forehead to jaw, nose a smashed stump, a single eye glaring back at him. “Look at what your Valentine did to me!” she screams. “Ask him! Ask him what he did to Hester Shaw!” And with that she jumps down the waste chute to her death. Minutes later Tom finds himself tumbling down the same chute and stranded in the Out-Country, a sea of mud scored by the huge caterpillar tracks of cities like the one now steaming off over the horizon.

In a stunning literary debut, Philip Reeve has created a painful dangerous unforgettable adventure story of surprises, set in a dark and utterly original world fueled by Municipal Darwinism — and betrayal.

“These Shallow Graves” by Jennifer Donnelly aka one of my favourite authors

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Set in gilded age New York, These Shallow Graves follows the story of Josephine Montfort, an American aristocrat. Jo lives a life of old-money ease. Not much is expected of her other than to look good and marry well. But when her father dies due to an accidental gunshot, the gilding on Jo’s world starts to tarnish. With the help of a handsome and brash reporter, and a young medical student who moonlights in the city morgue, Jo uncovers the truth behind her father’s death and learns that if you’re going to bury the past, you’d better bury it deep

What are your Friday Finds for this week? Have you read any of mine? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (Book of the Year Special)

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The plan was to publish the review of my Book of the Year on the first day of summer, i.e. three days ago, but I had to go on a work-related thing. Apologies to my readers!

I should say that “Book of the Year” may sound like the book was published in 2014, but it’s actually not the case – “Revolution” came out almost four years ago. However, it is the book that has had the most effect on me this year – hence the title.

 

Our protagonist, Andi Alpers, is grieving over the death of her younger brother Truman. She is struggling to overcome her misplaced guilt and the only thing getting her through the days is medication and music. The latter is the only one of three things she loves left in this world – her brother is gone, her mother is handling things even worse and her Nobel Prize winner of a father has left them. The deep, sorrowful tunes of old and new masters of music, as well as Andi’s own compositions, fill her iPod and her seemingly empty heart. Of course, being a “depressed artist” doesn’t fly with the authorities – Andi is almost denied her chance to graduate and her father, despite her protests, takes her to Paris with him to live with their old friends while she works on her thesis on a (fictional) French composer Amade Malherbeau and the influence of his work on modern music. Meanwhile, her father and his Parisian friend, G,  are working on a project that could change European history as known – they are carrying out a DNA analysis of what could be the heart of Louis XVII – the lost king of France. Andi’s love for history briefly distracts her from the darkness within, but it’s only a short-term relief, like a drug. She finds a better way to deal with things, however, when she finds an old diary amongst G’s historical relics, hidden in an old guitar.

The diary seemingly belongs to a young woman, Alexandrine, who lived through the French revolution and knew Louis XVII personally. Andi is quickly pulled into 18th century France and Alexandrine’s life. From the diary, she finds out that Alex was a poor girl with love of acting and big ambitions. One day, she is noticed by the French royal family and appears to be the only thing that makes young prince Louis laugh. Her family is given a place at the royal court and is beyond thrilled. Alex, however, sees it as a mere stepping stone to fulfil her dream of becoming an actor. Soon she realises that the nation is crumbling and is on the brink of Revolution, which means brutality, anger and bloodshed – if you’re rich. What she doesn’t recognise, however, is that working for some members of the family means conspiring against others, and she is soon pulled into a more dangerous play she could ever dream of being a part of. She has a new role to play, almost every day, and each of them could have fatal consequences.

Andi quickly realises that she has to know more but her thesis waits for no-one. (Un)fortunately, the life and work of Amade Malherbeau and that of Alex are entwined in more than one way (non-romantic, thankfully), as Andi finds out. But, like Alex, she may have bitten off more than she can chew.

 

I have read this book way back in February, but I was unable to find the words to sum up my emotions then. After a recent re-read (which may not have been the best idea – feeling things in the middle of exams is never good), I decided to try again. However, I am still not sure that my words would be able to do “Revolution” justice.

How can I tell you about what this book made me feel? How can I explain the way the brutal reality, beautifully intervened with French history and musical geniuses of past and present, has stirred up emotions in me which were long forgotten? Can I really successfully attempt to tell you how almost each line in this book has made me laugh, or cry, or sigh? Or how some lines have gone straight through to my heart and are now etched there for eternity?

And you know that I am an incredibly cynical individual by now, so I am not exaggerating. I genuinely cannot carry out reviewing “Revolution” the way I normally review books. The only adequate way to express myself seems to be going through particular significant quotes and tell you how much they meant to me. Warning – this will go on for a while, so if you don’t want to read further – just go pick up “Revolution”. You won’t regret it.

Can I really give this book a rating less than 10/10? The answer is – of course not.

Oh and – before you carry on reading my amateur attempts of literary analysis, watch this video.

 

Quotes

“Life’s all about the revolution, isn’t it? The one inside, I mean. You can’t change history. You can’t change the world. All you can ever change is yourself.”

The title of the book refers to several things – firstly, the French Revolution. Secondly, Donnelly arguably uses the word as a metaphor to describe character development – and I don’t mean just the literary kind. Andi goes through so much before and during the book, and she is better – not as a person because she has always been a good person – but she feels better. She has undergone a revolution within her – the triggers for the change may have been music, or history, or Alex’s story – but the change came because she wanted it to. Donnelly arguably parallels the causes of French Revolution and its consequences with the causes of Andi’s transformation; I don’t want to go into a debate about the significance of an event on the population vs. on a singular person’s mental state, but I will draw the following parallels:

– The French Royal court was known for its indifference to the crisis and the poor prior to the uprisings in Paris. From Andi’s perspective, her father has abandoned her and her mother after her brother was killed; perhaps him sticking around would have helped her get through her depression – the need for emotional support of the family during these times is something I can relate to. King Louis XVI was a very rich man but he was weak. One of the reasons Andi’s father disappeared was the fame and money brought by the Nobel Prize in genetics; but he can also be said to have left because he couldn’t cope with Andi’s mum’s fragile mental state, following Truman’s death.

– The Age of Enlightenment has produced many authors who tried to make a difference and have succeeded. This was particularly important in the relevant time period, especially for the revolutionaries who used the resources to influence the public. While the writers did not sway Alex because she was on the other side and saw first-hand the lives the Revolution has destroyed, it can be suggested that music did play the pivotal role in Andi’s development. Both classics and contemporary artists feature in her iPod, and she loves her guitar immensely. It is clear that music was the key to the Revolution within her, or at least one of the keys. The modern technology certainly helps to get instant access to music and be influenced right away doesn’t it? I shall discuss music more in the following section.

 

“I’m wishing he could see that music lives. Forever. That it’s stronger than death. Stronger than time. And that its strength holds you together when nothing else can.”

SPOILER This book features implied time-travel. It is unclear, however, whether it has actually occurred or Andi has just suffered a bad concussion. Without resorting to Albus Dumbledore’s famous quote about things being real even though they’re in one’s head, I can say that even if Andi didn’t go back in time (which, let’s face it, is unlikely), the events she “lived” through are no less significant. She has met the subject of her thesis, composer Amade Malherbeau, and he took her to be Alex, or as she was known at the time, “The Green Man”. As Andi finds out from the diary, Alex was, what one may call nowadays, a pyrotechnic fugitive. To give a bit of background, she used to be young prince Louis’ companion before the royal family got arrested and he got thrown into the dungeon. Alex knew that he loved fireworks, so she spent her nights setting them off for the whole of Paris, and most important of all, prince Louis, to see (That bit hurt, Mrs Donnelly – but in the best possible way!). After several unsuccessful attempts of smuggling the prince out, Alex died in the catacombs, and nobody knew who the Green Man was for over two hundred years – until Andi found the diary.

Back to Andi and Amade, the former has studied his life and work in detail and knew that one of his last compositions was titled “Fireworks”. After having spent time with him, she realised that it was inspired by the Green Man’s last performance. She also learnt several specific details for her thesis – Amade is said to have inspired “Radiohead” (whose vocalist is from my alma mater by the way 😀 ), but after listening to her iPod, he told her that “Radiohead” and “Led Zeppelin” inspired him to write again. That is where the quote above comes from. It is evidence of how an artistic work, be it a song, or a book, or a painting, can make a difference to someone, and even save someone’s life. It is devastating how some artists never knew how important their works are to people (one of the many reasons I love Dr Who’s Episode “Vincent and the Doctor”), such as Van Gogh. Andi seems to understand it better than anyone. Moreover, Donnelly split the books into three parts – “Hell”, “Purgatory” and “Paradise” and has given Andi a companion – a young musician named Virgil, paralleling the journey of “Inferno”‘s protagonist. Virgil was an ancient poet who is said to have influenced many. These two figures in Andi’s life, Amade and Virgil, have had a profound effect on her throughout their work and it is one of the most relatable things about “Revolution” – all of us have been influenced by works at some point in our lives and I firmly believe that authors of said works are the ones with power. Alex seems to agree – she says: “Stand on a stage and hold the hearts of men in your hands. Make them laugh with a gesture, cry with a word. Make them love you. And you will know what power is.” Alex, however, seems to disagree with Andi, to an extent, about the beautiful things like music and fireworks – she says that “beautiful things never last“. I, nonetheless, believe that Alex didn’t mean it in that context – while a song may end, a rose may wilt and a racket may extinguish in the sky, its effect lasts for a long time, if not forever. Even her own actions have inspired Amade’s composition I talked about above, which is known (in “Revolution”‘s verse) to this day. And of course, there are too many examples of artists, writers, composers, inventors, being inspired and creating things that leave a lasting impact, in turn, on others. So, no Alex – beautiful things do last, it’s just that the way they last is not always visible to the naked eye.

I would just like to quickly add that knowing first- and second-hand about the effect of creative works on people is one of the main reasons I am hoping to work in intellectual property law (not to mention it’s a really dynamic area of law). 

 

“Happiness was useless to me. It was heartache that filled my purse. What happy man has need of Shakespeare?”

Alex was, most important of all, an actress. A performer. Her art influenced people – it was one of those “beautiful things” she dismissed as short-lived. However, she was not a happy person, and neither were the people who enjoyed her art the most. This goes back to my discussion of the impact of art. What Donnelly arguably tries to do here, and with Andi’s own music, as well as with Andi’s mother’s art, is to say that inspiration is fueled by sadness. Andi says, to her mother’s doctor, the following:

It’s a good thing you and your pills weren’t around a few hundred years ago or there never would have been a Vermeer or a Caravaggio. You’d have drugged ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘The Taking of Christ’ right the hell out of them”

Andi’s mother is a French artist, and she is amazing. The tragedy of Truman’s death has had an immense impact on her art and Andi understands that it’s the only thing that gets her through the day. She is the same at the start of the book, but with music. She also understands the negative, ugly side of sadness being a driving factor for an artist, which Donnelly does not attempt to glamourise in any way.

Inspiration is a major theme in “Revolution” and, as discussed above, the author and the characters truly understand that art is the child of profound emotions – more often than not sadness or anger but sometimes, happiness. I myself, as a writer, understand it better than anyone, and I can honestly say that “Revolution”, together with Donnelly’s other work, “A Gathering Light”, has been a big source of emotions and therefore inspiration for me.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of quotes that make me laugh or weep, but I won’t try anymore – simply because I believe that no further words are necessary.

 

Dreamcast

Andi/Alex – Samantha Barks

 

Recommendations
You would love “Revolution” if you liked:

“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein

“A Northern/Gathering Light” by Jennifer Donnelly – also a fantastic work of literature by Mrs Donnelly

“Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo

And any fan of “Radiohead” or “Led Zeppelin” or other contemporary artists influenced by the classics would love this book.

Book Review: I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

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The way I acquired this book was quite amusing, I must say. I ordered it at Foyles and it arrived a few days later. When I came to collect it, I had the following conversation with the sales person:

 

Me: “Hi, I ordered a book from you last week?”

Him: “Okay?”

Me: “I am the Messenger?”

Him: “Cool, what’s the title?”

Me: “I am the Messenger”

Him: “Yes, but what’s the title of the book that you ordered?”

Me: “That is the title?”

Him: “Oh sorry! I thought you were saying that you were the Messenger!” *goes to get the book*

Me: *quietly, laughing very hard inside* “No, I’m just a Book Thief.”

Ah, the Markus Zusak jokes.

 

Anyway, some of you may remember that I reviewed “The Book Thief” a few months ago and while I loved Zusak’s writing, the book didn’t exactly seal itself onto my soul like it did with some of my friends. However, I did want to read more Zusak, so my friend Becki at awordshaker.com recommended this one. This is essentially a book about people. The most ordinary people you see on the street every day. Ed Kennedy is one of them. He’s an underage Australian cab driver in a small town who spends his free time playing cards with his even more average friends and hanging out with his dog, The Doorman. That stops, however, when a mysterious Ace of Diamonds with addresses arrives in the post.

Actually, I’m wrong. Ed’s normal life has arguably hit a roadblock when he inadvertently became involved in the most ridiculous bank robbery in history. Somehow, the town makes him out to be a hero. When he gets the Ace in the post, he goes to the addresses after a while and sees that there are people living there who need help. Of course, being your average Joe, Ed doesn’t understand how he can help them. Eventually, though, he finds a unique way to help each and every one of them. But the mysterious messages don’t stop there. More Aces arrive for Ed, and each card has a short message on it he is meant to decode and work out for himself what to do. The only question is – who is behind Ed’s mission? And why Ed, of all people?

I realise by now that you’re probably bored with the plot – be it my mediocre ability to summarise or the way this book differs from “The Book Thief” – but I urge you to pick up this book. I don’t know which book Zusak has enjoyed writing more, but “I am the Messenger” somehow seems like it was closer to his heart, and not just because it’s set in his home country. Although completely different from “The Book Thief”, I began to notice certain “Zusak-isms” about halfway through. He is clearly an author who takes pride in being a words addict and aficionado. That was actually my favourite thing about “The Book Thief” – Liesel’s love for words clearly reflected that they have a special place in Zusak’s heart. Ed Kennedy says something on page 212 of “I am the Messenger” that really got to me. He says: “I didn’t know words could be so heavy”. This sentence is only seven words long, and yet so meaningful. Ed may have used it to describe the way it feels to carry a bunch of heavy books, but all Zusak’s fans would clearly understand that it goes much deeper than that. It illustrates how far Ed has come – from a guy with no real spark in his life to a person who made a difference to the lives of so many. The author arguably uses the statement to allude to the fact that even a small thing, be it a word or a simple action like buying ice cream for a soccer mum in the park, can carry a lot of weight. Even the style of his writing – the short, snippy sentences who nevertheless say so much – is an illustration of the quote. Words are heavy, indeed. A book may be written pretentiously (which I do love) and still carry less weight than a work that doesn’t use fancy words and metaphors (and vice versa, of course). It all depends on the words and the weight behind them, as Zusak continues to show us.

I am not going to lie – after I finished the book, the theme of an ordinary human being making fundamental differences in other people’s lives made me tear up. Perhaps it was also due to the fact that I was at a Pro Bono thank you event earlier that day and my supervisor told me a story of a former homeless man whose life has been changed by the actions of our Law School Pro Bono association. He now has his own place and a stable job. His children are no longer ashamed of their father. In all fairness, we are all Ed Kennedy. Our extent of ordinaryness may be relative, but every day, we make a difference to others. Remember that cashier who told you to have a nice day? Or that little kid who stuck her tongue out at you on the commute this morning? Brightened up your day didn’t it? Some may say that Ed’s actions were in a completely different league, and I agree. However, what we must remember is that if an average nineteen-year-old cab driver can find the courage to change someone’s life, than so can you. If you don’t think you are capable of giving advice, or financial support, you don’t have to be. Be inspired by Ed, friends – a perfectly ordinary man who stood up and did what we could for the people who needed it. If he can do it – well, maybe everyone can. “I am the Messenger” gives us the opportunity to believe that everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of. I can honestly say that this book has made a small dent in my rather cynical view of life. There are many things Zusak excels at – but influencing people with his words is one thing that he has mastered perfectly.

The only thing that’s keeping me from giving “I am the Messenger” a 10/10 rating is the use of sexual assault as a plot device – it’s not something I can easily accept in literature. However, I am perfectly happy to rate it 8.5/10.

Favourite character

The book’s characters are flawed, and are not supposed to be likeable. However, they are all very funny – The Doorman has to be the funniest though. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when he didn’t die!

Character who gets the most development

Ed, obviously. The book is Ed-centric.

Favourite relationship

In my review of “The Book Thief”, I said that I couldn’t pick a favourite relationship because they were all so well-written. This trend continues here. However, the story of Ed and Audrey is so lovely in the same way it is ordinary. Besides, it is rare these days to see an emotionally unavailable woman in literature who is not shamed for being who she is.

Favourite quotes

“I didn’t know words could be so heavy.”

“People die of broken hearts. They have heart attacks. And it’s the heart that hurts most when things go wrong and fall apart.”

Dreamcast

Ed Kennedy – if Heath Ledger were alive today, he’d be perfect. Otherwise, Jacob Anderson

Audrey – Jayne Wisener

Recommendations

You might like “I am the Messenger” if you liked:

“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. Ed’s character development reminds me of Gus’s. Although Gus feared being forgotten and not making a difference in the world while Ed didn’t care, they both have come to the same conclusion by the end of their respective books – even if you only made a small difference in one person’s life, it matters.

“A Northern Light” by Jennifer Donnelly

“Paper Towns” by John Green – I haven’t read it but people keep recommending it and it seems to have similar undertones