Deadroads, by Robin Riopelle

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Publication date – March 17, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Lutie always wanted a pet ghost—but the devil’s in the details.

The Sarrazins have always stood apart from the rest of their Bayou-born neighbors. Almost as far as they prefer to stand from each other. Blessed—or cursed—with the uncanny ability to see beyond the spectral plane, Aurie has raised his children, Sol, Baz, and Lutie, in the tradition of the traiteur, finding wayward spirits and using his special gift to release them along Deadroads into the afterworld. The family, however, fractured by their clashing egos, drifted apart, scattered high and low across the continent.

But tragedy serves to bring them together. When Aurie, while investigating a series of ghastly (and ghostly) murders, is himself killed by a devil, Sol, EMT by day and traiteur by night, Baz, a traveling musician with a truly spiritual voice, and Lutie, combating her eerie visions with antipsychotics, are thrown headlong into a world of gory sprites, brilliant angels, and nefarious demons—small potatoes compared to reconciling their familial differences.

From the Louisiana swamps to the snowfields of the north and everywhere in between, Deadroads summons you onto a mysterious trail of paranormal proportions.

Thoughts:A complex and broken family. Ghosts, and different ways of dealing with them. Attempts to live a normal life despite being anything but normal. Combine this with a dark and nuanced writing style that reads very much like classic narrative mixed with a healthy dose of stream-of-consciousness, and what you come out with is a novel that is unique and stands out from a lot of urban fantasy and paranormal plots currently seen on the bookshelves today. It’s an understated novel, one that works its subtleties on you and pulls you in slowly, quietly, until you’re too entangled in the story and the brilliantly real characters to even want to pull yourself away.

It’s the characters that make the book come alive most of all. You’ve got Sol, trying to balance his EMT job with his ability and duty to banish ghosts, hard and bitter but still the epitome of the protective big brother. Baz, carefree and an amazing singer, the only one in his family who is incapable of seeing ghosts but instead has a connection to something even more incredible. And Lutie, separated from the male members of her family from a young age, adopted into another family after her mother’s death, able to bind spirits rather than banish them. The siblings haven’t been a family in years, have lived very different lives, and when the circumstances of their father’s death draw them to have to work together, it’s understandably tense and awkward. The narrative from the perspectives of each of the characters is unique, and the aspect of stream-of-consciousness observation that comes into it fits perfectly.

I’ll say this for nothing: Deadroads certainly gave my language skills a workout!  I’m pleased to know that my French skills haven’t slipped as far as I suspected, because while all the French used in this book is appropriate, given the characters and places featured, a lot of the time the only clue to meaning was context. The context was clear the vast majority of the time, however, and  even those without a working (or even semi-working) knowledge of French will still be able to enjoy the story and understand the subtleties of what’s going on, which is exactly the way secondary languages ought to be used in writing. Riopelle walked that fine line quite well.

(There was also some personal amusement at seeing mixed French and English in the same sentence, since here in New Brunswick, that’s not exactly uncommon to hear. The early line, “C’est trop chaud for singing,” made me grin, and the mix reminded me of a phrase an old French teacher mentioned to her class in high school once, overheard on the street; “J’aime ton skirt but je n’aime pas le way qu’il hang.” Parse that if you dare!)

The plot starts off fairly simple, a supernatural murder mystery that slowly draws the family back together. But the combination of all of their talents, Baz’s included, all works to turn things from, “We must destroy the ghost that killed our father” into “We need to stop getting between devils and angels!” Gradually the complexities get piled on, both mundane and supernatural, and we get to see Riopelle’s skill at subtle foreshadowing, too. None of the developments are particularly surprising, didn’t seem to come out of nowhere, but there were things that I didn’t figure out until the characters themselves did. The effect was much more impressive than forcing the reader’s perspective with first-person writing, as so many novels do; the fact that it was all written third-person but still close enough to make me feel like I was right in the thick of it myself was a real testament to the author’s abilities!

Robin Riopelle has been added to my personal list of authors to keep an eye on, because between her writing style and her ability to weave a good, dark, subtle story, I’m pretty much guaranteed some creepy entertainment. If you’re in the mood for a good horror/urban fantasy blend, then Deadroads is the novel you should be reaching for.

(Received for review from the author.)

Unwept, by Tracy and Laura Hickman

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Publication date – July 1, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Gamin, Maine, is a remote seaside town where everyone seems to know Ellis Harkington better than she knows herself—but she doesn’t remember any of them.

Unknown events have robbed Ellis of her memory. Concerned individuals, who purport to be her friends and loved ones, insist that she simply needs to recuperate, that her memories may return in time, but refuse to divulge what has brought her to this state. For her own sake, so they say.

Ellis finds herself adrift in a town of ominous mysteries, cryptic hints, and disturbingly familiar strangers. The Nightbirds, a clique of fashionable young men and women, claim her as one of their own, but who among them can she truly trust? And what of the phantom suitor who visits her in her dreams? Is he a memory, a figment of her imagination, or a living nightmare beyond rational explanation?

Only her lost past hold the answers she seeks—if she can uncover its secrets before she fall prey to an unearthly killer.

Thoughts: For some reason, I lingered on the first few pages on this book for days before pushing on ward, in a bit of an apathetic mood when it came to reading, and not wanting to ruin what I was certain would be a good book by reading it when I just wasn’t in a receptive mood. After all, the back-of-the-book blurb had certainly caught my attention and had led me to believe that this was going to be a good one; no reason to sully it by my own bad timing. But when I did push past it and read more, I was kicking myself for putting it off. I was hooked by page 5, demanding more by page 10, and annoyed when I had to stop reading for a short time by having to board a plane (they couldn’t have waited another 20 minutes for me to finish?!).

The plot is so much more complex than it first appears. Hints are dropped all over the place that so many things are not what they seem, but unlike many novels that do that, it’s actually a challenge for the reader to put all of those hints together and arrive at the correct conclusion until the big reveal is actually made, as the book draws to a cliffhanger close. I had my suspicions about a great deal as the story advanced, and was proven right about many of them, but even when that happened I learned that my suspicions only brushed the surface of what was really happening. Tracy and Laura Hickman deserve a lot of praise for being able to pull off that kind of nuanced development.

As such, it’s actually quite difficult to discuss this novel without giving spoilers. Some things that were clear to me might not be to clear to another reader, and I don’t want to ruin somebody else’s enjoyment of having the plot unfold piece by tantalizing piece. Unwept is most certainly the kind of novel that will keep you reading; it has a huge dose of “what happens next” syndrome that compels readers to keep turning pages and discovering more. The ending and the sheer number of things left unresolved didn’t do anything to diminish that. If you’re not a fan of cliffhangers at the end of your novels, then this will probably annoy you a lot, since it practically ends in the middle of a tense scene, with the teaser that it’s going to continue in the next novel. I don’t mind unresolved issues in a series, but book endings that feel like chapter endings do bother me, since they’re often used as cheap hooks to encourage continuing. I always say that if you can’t make someone want to continue the series by the strength of the plot and writing alone, then ending a book with an obvious cliffhanger isn’t going to help you. It was very much as though an episode of a TV show had ended, not part of a novel series. It ramped up, then stopped.

My only other complaint  is nitpicky, and that is the fact that while my city of Saint John was mentioned, it was spelled incorrectly. The Saint is not ever abbreviated to St., as it was here, and is something that irritates so many SJers. This is something that could have been caught by Googling “St. John, New Brunswick” and watching all the results spelling out the full word instead of abbreviating it. In an objective sense, this is something that I likely wouldn’t have caught as an error without actually living here as I do, so it’s going to go over the heads of just about every other reader and nobody will think twice about it when all in said and done. But around here, it’s as big an oversight as spelling Chicago as Shicargo.

If you’re in the mood for a supernatural historical mystery with an interesting take on religion and spirituality, then do yourself a favour and get a copy of Unwept. Aside from the way the ending is written, it’s a fantastic novel, beautifully and perfectly paced, with a story that will keep you pushing onward to uncover the next piece of the puzzle, to peel back another layer so you can see what lies beneath the surface. The hints are deliciously frustrating, the mystery complex and impressive, the setting compelling and nicely self-contained. I’m already looking forward to the next installment of the series, and I can say for certainty that this one’s a keeper for my shelves. The Hickmans have sucked me in and I don’t want to be released.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Copper Magic, by Julia Mary Gibson

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Publication date – July 1, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Can an unearthed talisman found on the shores of Lake Michigan save 12-year-old Violet’s fractured family? Exploring themes of Native American culture, ecology, and conservation, this historical fiction novel comes brilliantly to life.

The year is 1906, and twelve-year-old Violet Blake unearths an ancient talisman—a copper hand—beside the stream where her mother used to harvest medicine. Violet’s touch warms the copper hand and it begins to reveal glimpses of another time. Violet is certain that the copper hand is magic—and if anyone is in need of its powers, it’s Violet. Her mother and adored baby brother are gone, perhaps never to return. Her heartbroken father can’t seem to sustain the failing farm on the outskirts of Pigeon Harbor, on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Surely the magic of the copper hand can make things right for Violet and restore her fractured family. Violet makes a wish. But her ignorant carelessness unleashes formidable powers—and her attempts to control them jeopardizes not only herself, but the entire town of Pigeon Harbor.

In Copper Magic, land and waters are alive with memories, intentions, and impulses. Magic alters Violet and brings her gifts—but not always the kind she thinks she needs. First-time author Julia Mary Gibson brings Violet and her community to life in this impressive and assured debut.

Thoughts: I think it says a lot when you read a book and you can’t tell that the one who write is was making their debut with said novel. Not that every author’s early attempts are obvious, of course, but there’s often the feeling that as much as a novel is good, the author still hasn’t come to their full potential yet.

If this isn’t the best that Gibson will achieve in her writing career, then I can’t wait to see what she’s going to amaze me with in the future!

The combination of morality tale and history lesson don’t always work, but here Gibson has worked her own magic to keep readers interested right from the beginning. In 1906, a girl named Violet finds a copper hand, one that is magic and can make her wishes come true. Impressively, she doesn’t go nuts with wishing for everything and only then discovers the consequences, but from the beginning she’s rather careful, making a small wish to test it out, trying to make wishes that she thinks are worthy of actually using magic to make them happen, because she understands, on the instinctive level that children tend to have, that magic isn’t something you just play around with. Her mother has left and taken Violet’s young brother with her, and more than anything she wants her family to be reunited, but she doesn’t just wish for her mother back because she has forethought that sets her ahead of her years and can see potential complications to that method. In the meantime, Violet is working as an assistant to Nadia Zalzman, a photographer hired to take promotional pictures of a nearby hotel, and through Nadia’s influence, Violet’s world expands and she becomes much more aware of things going on around her that she wouldn’t have discovered had she just stayed at home with her father.

Violet’s attitude is remarkably mature for someone her age, likely born from her living in a less-than-great situation, but reading from her perspective makes a wonderful and refreshing change from most YA protagonists, regardless of genre or subgenre, many of whom live in the moment and don’t have much skill at planning when it comes to preparing for possibilities other than the desired one. There is no romance in this book, save for the lingering depression Violet’s father feels over his absent wife. This is a book that tells a different story from YA standards. This is Violet’s story of discovery, of learning the value of truth and lies, of consequences and prejudice and her place in the world that was built on the backs of others.

I suspect, though, that many readers will roll their eyes a little at the obvious negative consequences of Violet’s wishes. It says right on the cover, “be careful what you wish for,” and no wish is entirely benign. Violet may be shocked when tragedy follows her wish, but the reader certainly won’t be. They will, however, most likely be able to relate to Violet’s panic over the issue, blaming herself for the wish she directed the copper hand’s magic to, believing she was the cause and knowing that she can’t tell anyone because they won’t believe her and so telling won’t relieve any of her anxiety.

There’s much of great value in this novel, and for all that it’s intended for teens, it was very easy to forget that while reading. You expect some simplifications of issues when you’re reading from the perspective of a 12 year old, but it wasn’t until writing this review that I was reminded that oh yeah, this book was written for younger audiences and not with adults specifically in mind. This is a book than can easily transcend genre and age categories. You get to see racism in a more historical context, the treatment of blacks and Native Americans and erased history and white superiority, and a dozen and one little issues that paint a disturbing big picture of American social history. With the exception of the obvious “be careful what you wish for” lesson, this book was damn near flawless, and I know it’s going to be one that I read again in the future. Gibson is an author to keep an eye on, and I highly recommend Copper Magic to those who are looking for an uncommonly mature YA novel that breaks away from current standards.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)