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The girl in the steel corset by Kady Cross
Harlequin Teen, 2011

It is the middle of the night in Victorian London, and Finley Jayne is fleeing from from her lecherous employer. When duke Griffin King practically runs her over with his motorized bicycle when she appears out of the darkness, he takes her to the home he shares with his close friends to ensure that she is okay. She soon proves herself to be physically fit when she flings a grown man across the room after awaking in a panic. Thus begins a tenuous friendship between Finley and Griffin, and when their special skills are revealed to each other - as well as to Griffin's friends Emily and Sam - it turns out that they are connected far more than they ever would have guessed and have a common enemy.

If The girl in the steel corset is any indication of the genre, it turns out that I really, really like steampunk. This shouldn't be a surprise given that I adore dystopian fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction. It should have been a no-brainer. Nonetheless, more please!

Kady Cross vividly describes the London of her imagination. With automatons performing household tasks and tiny portable telegraph machines that are basically the Victorian version of texting (clever!), as well as potent descriptions of odors and atmospheres, it was easy to fall into the story. And fall in I did, whipping through 477 pages in 2 days.

Cross also switches perspectives often, from Finley to Griffin to Emily to Sam, which would sometimes drive me batty but is executed here with such skill that I actually liked it. The different points of view were often refreshing and provided valuable snippets of information, and I felt more connected to all of the characters as a result. Indeed, I found all of the characters to be very well developed and interesting, even secondary characters like Cordelia and Jack Dandy: not a cookie-cutter among them. True, The Machinist was a bit one-dimensional, but vengeance can do that to a person.

I'm not saying much about the characters because I found much of the joy of reading this book was watching the characters revealing themselves to the reader as well as to one another, and the plot unfolds naturally and excitingly. My one complaint is that I got a bit sick of hearing about Emily's "ropey" hair, which is a phrase that appears more than 10 times during the book (one of the advantages/curses of electronic galleys is document searching). If that's my only issue, as far as I'm concerned it's a damn good read.

About halfway through the book, it struck me that The girl in the steel corset is basically X-Men set in the late 19th century with robots. Finley, Griffin and their cohorts are mutants. Truly. They are never referred to as such, and the causes of their powers are clearly explained, but elements of comradery and fighting a common enemy are certainly there. Also like X-Men, it looks as if this is going to be a series and I will be keeping my eyes wide open for the second book in The Steampunk Chronicles.

**Electronic galley provided by publisher via NetGalley.

 
 
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Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage Canada, 2010 (c2005)

Kathy H. grew up at Hailsham, a rural English boarding school with a twist: the students are all clones destined to be organ and tissue donors, except they don't know it yet. Kathy tells her story, as well as those of her schooltime friends Ruth and Tommy, as an adult looking back at their time at Hailsham and their lives afterward.

Just below the title on the softcover copy of this book that I borrowed from a friend, a quote from TIME announces, "the best novel of the decade." I thought I was in for a treat and I was, but best novel of the decade? That's a bit much.

I believe it was the structure of Kathy's storytelling that irked me most. She would dangle an event in front of the reader like a carrot so that the event reached almost mythic proportions. Except, when it came time for her to tell what actually happened, it didn't seem such a big deal or even terribly out-of-character for whoever was involved. Especially in Part One, it seemed as if every chapter ended with a version of, "...I found out though over the next several days" (p. 48). Sometimes it wasn't addressed until many pages later (the story flips back and forth in time quite a bit), and even when it was discussed immediately the event in question was rarely a monumental occurrence. Perhaps the relationships between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy - with all their subtleties - are what make people rave about this novel, but frankly this narrative structure annoyed me since I kept waiting for things to happen that were worthy of repeated build-up. For me, it got to the point of being an irritating gimmick.

Hands down, I found Tommy to be the most interesting and genuine character. His struggles as an adolescent and the future ramifications of those struggles were interesting to watch, and it is where I appreciated the subtleties in storytelling the most. Kathy struck me as being quite milquetoast: she put up with a lot of crap from Ruth over the years, was often afraid to ruffle any feathers despite her better judgment, and generally felt guilty when she did make waves of any sort. She was more expressive as she got older, but she was still careful. Ruth's manipulation of most of those around her for her own benefit grew tiresome, although she eventually redeems herself and realizes her folly when it's almost too late.

Perhaps due to the particular doom inevitable for the main characters, relationships they engaged in always had a certain distance to them. Kathy certainly never had what I would call a passionate relationship - friend or lover - and the relationships she describes between other characters also appeared to be reserved. I don't recall any mention of Kathy's childhood prior to Hailsham, and as a scientifically created child the existence of parental figures is highly unlikely, so the somewhat distant guardians at Hailsham were really the only adult influences in the lives of the students and even they were spooked and sometimes repulsed by their wards. The emotions one would expect from young adults were evident, but muffled in a way, which made it difficult for me to connect to the characters, emotionally demonstrative Tommy being the notable exception.

I certainly appreciate the mystery and the darkness of Never let me go. The relationships' ebbs and flows over time were poignant and realistic and its underlying question of what it means to be truly human is thoughtfully presented and never glaring. Despite my qualms with the storytelling methods (and the hyperbolic statement on the cover), Ishiguro presents a haunting visualization of the future of Western culture that provides much to contemplate.

 
 
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When you reach me by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), 2009

It's 1978 and Miranda is in sixth grade in New York City. She and her best friend Sal are drifting apart, and mysterious letters keep appearing which are addressed to her and accurately predict the future. Miranda doesn't know what to make of the notes and the events they describe, but her absolute favourite book  - A wrinkle in time by Madeleine L'Engle - may turn out to be the key to the mystery.

There is so much going on in this brief (197-page) novel that it would take another few paragraphs to write a synopsis that covers the key plot points. I do not say this disparagingly in the least, as the author handled the story's complexities extraordinarily deftly and, for the most part, linearly. It is quite a feat, as is the fact that I hadn't the slightest clue who the mysterious letter-writer was until it was revealed. In fact, it is a book I intend to re-read in order to discover what I missed the first time.

The characters are what made this book a joy for me to read. Miranda is intelligent, perceptive, and valiantly trying to make some sense of the world around her. I appreciated the little details about her inner life, such as how she balances her fears with her realism by approaching people she's afraid of to ask the time so she can see that they are, in fact, not so scary. Also, she is aware of the little moments of poetry in daily life while not noticing that a close friend eats a special diet, which is that odd mix of worldliness and obliviousness that can be found in many 11-year-olds.

When you reach me is, at its essence, about the interactions between people in Miranda's world: Miranda's relationships with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, sixth-grade friendships that form almost as mysteriously as they end, and Miranda's observations of the people within her neighbourhood. The characters are lively and real and had their own things going on outside the walls of the story, especially Marcus and Julia. There always seemed to be a lot going on for Miranda, even if big events didn't happen very often. And if that isn't an accurate depiction of real life, then I'm not sure what is.

When you reach me is the Newbery-winning novel of 2010 and rightly so.