Sunday, February 3, 2013

Review: SPLINTERED by A.G. Howard

This stunning debut captures the grotesque madness of a mystical under-land, as well as a girl’s pangs of first love and independence. Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.

When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.
I apologize for any lapses in coherency during this review. I finished Splintered less than twenty-four hours prior to reviewing, and I don't think I have ever before loved a book that has confused me so much.

Rather than waste time trying to recap the synopsis (which you all are perfectly capable of reading for yourselves), I'm going to dive straight in in an attempt to sort my own feelings. I'm leery of Alice retellings/follow-ups, so I went in with guarded expectations. The story opens with Alyssa pinning dead spiders to a small sheet of plaster. She's an artist, and she uses her art to shut up the whispering bugs. I was hooked. Over the next several pages, we learn of Alyssa's family curse, which dooms the females of the family to insanity. By eight pages in, I was thoroughly enraptured.

Usually, when I love a book, I have a whole list of things I loved and a few minor considerations that bothered me. However, Splintered, much like its protagonist, displayed a dual nature. For everything I loved, there was always an element that made me pause. Here are some examples.

I liked Alyssa. I found her spunky and exciting. Any girl who can turn dead bugs into art is a friend of mine. She's a dutiful daughter, and I thought both her loving relationship with her father and her affectionately strained interactions with her mother were refreshing. She's headstrong, opinionated, and rocks the angsty Avril-Lavigne-in-the-Wonderland-video look better than most heroines I've read.

However, despite Alyssa's flashes of independence (usually all at the wrong moments), she allows the boys in the novel too much leeway to manipulate her. Oh, she tries, or at least she makes noise like she's trying. She yells at them, pushes them, tells them to bug off, but often comes across as more flash than substance. Also, she spends a good deal of time talking about how she won't steal another girl's boyfriend (admirable), but these talks often come before and after making out with said boy.

Ah, Jeb, Alyssa's best-friend-turned-secret-crush-turned-knight-in-shining-armor. He's a keeper, that Jeb. Handsome, ambitious, kind, smart, and courageous, he's also capable of making every emo-girl's heart go pitter-patter with his swishy black hair, tortured past, gothic fairy art, and pierced lip. Outwardly, not really my type, but I'm a sucker for a guy who knows how to be a good friend and a good crush. I also like that while he does choose to date the cliched Witchy Arch-Nemesis of Alyssa, he has reasons for his choices, and he's much more committed to staying faithful than Alyssa.

Unfortunately, for all his faithfulness, Jeb had one glaring flaw. What I think was supposed to be his protectiveness instead came across as possessiveness. If he violently forced the other boy in the equation to stop touching Alyssa one more time, I was going to hurl the book. Or Jeb. Into a wall. Whether Alyssa wants to have physical contact with the other boy is her choice, not Jeb's, hidden jealousy or no. Speaking of the other boy...

Actually a shapeshifting netherling, Morpheus was by far the most interesting character of the trio. Unlike Edward Cullen, who falls into the trap of actually being a creepy old man in a teen's body, Morpheus physically, emotionally, and mentally becomes the age of whichever form he chooses to inhabit, thereby making his attraction to Alyssa far more palatable. Like Jeb, he also falls in line with emo ideals by adorning himself with inked eyes, blue hair, tight pants, and a jaunty fedora. Not that I mind. While Jeb is safety and security, Morpheus is adventure and risk. He appeals to Alyssa's "darker side" and is her less-than-trustworthy guide throughout her quest.

He's also a manipulator, a liar, and startlingly unconcerned with boundary issues. As far as characters go, I'm always more interested in the "bad boy" with good qualities to be burnished than the supposed "good boy" with elements that need to be squashed. However, past his introduction, Morpheus is such an unreliable and shifting character that I soon lost him beneath his different facades. I understand wrapping a character in mystery, I understand keeping his motivations hidden, but when I have nothing but scraps to hold onto, I as a reader soon become disenchanted. Not completely, of course, because he's Morpheus and awesome, but disenchanted enough.

The other characters
Again, we have a mixture of hit and miss. For the most part, Ms. Howard reimagines the denizens of Wonderland brilliantly, twisting the already twisted characters into such frightening characters that I vacillated between awe and horror. The flowers, for instance, were perhaps some of my favorite nightmares. Ravenous, mobile, and humanoid, I would love it if their kind appeared in other worlds and other books, as their time in Splintered was right for the story yet still too short for me. The octobenus, or Walrus as he's known in the original story, was perhaps the scariest of them all, perhaps competing only with Sisters One and Two. I'll let you discover their details for yourself, but wow, what scary freaks of nature.

About so many other characters, however, I have very little to say. Their motivations shifted as frequently as Morpheus's, making it difficult for me to connect with any of them. All of the royals, despite their varying importances, were as flimsy as their card soldiers, and dear Cheshire Cat, though talked about a lot, barely made an appearance at all.

Adventurous, imaginative, and exciting, the story kept me flipping pages long after I should have gone to bed. Splintered takes many of the familiar scenes from Alice and flips them on their head and turns them inside out in a way that would have made the March Hare (not his real name, according to this story) jealous. While most everything is familiar, Ms. Howard is breathtakingly creative in her reimaginings. I never thought that the White Rabbit could be so horrific or Mr. Caterpillar (as Morpheus) so devious.

The story kept me turning the pages, but I admit that most of the time I had little idea what was going on. The denser the twists and turns became, the more I felt like I was trapped in an Underlandian maze. I think there might have been plot holes - several of them, in fact - but I can't be sure. After a certain point, it was all madness and hijinks. It may be that everything made sense (or at least as much sense as things can in Wonderland), but it'll take a few more rereads on my part to be sure.

The writing
Sparks of brilliance here with the writing. Ms. Howard uses beautiful imagery and turns of phrase that kept me smiling. The entire book had a very cinematic quality to it that I enjoyed. I very rarely think in terms of film options and actors and such when reading a book, but Splintered would make a GREAT movie. Movie execs, get on it.

Where Ms. Howard stumbles, though, is Alyssa's voice. There were moments or even large swathes where Alyssa felt less than organic. I don't like people who complain and then don't give specific instances, but that's what I must be. I just know that I felt like the voice itself could use more polishing. Additionally, all of the ellipses needed to go. Now.

I know this all sounds dire. Most people, myself included, enjoy a balance more heavily weighted toward the pros than the cons. But don't you see? I loved this book. I loved it. I rushed through my day to get to the parts when I could get back to Alyssa's story. I stayed up far too late and then spent the night trying to get the characters out of my head so I could get some blasted sleep. That's despite all the cons, all the things that annoyed me. Just think about what that says about this book. And just think of the most fascinating fact of all: this is A.G. Howard's debut. I can't wait to see where she goes from here.

Points Added For: Morpheus being sexy and fly, those creepy flower people, Jeb (in his good moments), the crazy twists and liberties taken with the original tale.

Points Subtracted For: I'm not going through this again. Read the dang post.

Good For Fans Of: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, crazy retellings, love triangles.

Notes For Parents: I don't remember any language (Alyssa says "son of a bug" a lot), but there is a fair amount of makeout sessions. Also, people die and commit adultery.

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