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REVIEW: Selfish is the Heart by Megan Hart

REVIEW: Selfish is the Heart by Megan Hart

Dear Ms. Hart,

Selfish is the Heart is the third book in your Order of Solace series, and I was not sure what to expect of it given how widely my responses to your two earlier works in this series differed. I gave Pleasure and Purpose an A- review, and No Greater Pleasure a DNF grade.

Selfish is the Heart by Megan HartThree things convinced me to give Selfish is the Heart a try despite my disappointment in No Greater Pleasure. The first was my love for Pleasure and Purpose, the second a comment by a reader, Joanne, stating that she'd heard that No Greater Pleasure was written years before Pleasure and Purpose, and the third the description of Selfish is the Heart which I read on Amazon and which intrigued me greatly.

The national bestselling author of No Greater Pleasure delivers a new novel featuring a reluctant student of seduction.

To escape an arranged marriage, Annalise Marony decides to become a Handmaiden of the Order of Solace. But she is thwarted at every turn by Cassian, a teacher of the faith, who must test her dedication. Older than most of the girls, Annalise knows that she will be expected to please a patron in pleasures of the flesh-and she is not shy about teasing Cassian. And as they both play out the game of master and student, the secrets in their souls will either tear them apart-or bind them together forever.

My attention was captured by this and I anticipated this book with excitement, but unfortunately the first ten chapters did not live up to the description above (more on that later), and I stopped reading at page 125 (of 307 pages).

Readers of the two earlier books in this series know that the books take place in a fantastical setting. By fantastical I don't mean there is a lot of magic or strange creatures, just that the world is a fictional one. It is somewhat reminiscent of 19th century Europe, although its religion is quite different. Here is a description of that faith, taken from my review of Pleasure and Purpose.

It is the prevailing religious belief that each time a soul finds perfect solace, even if only for a moment, an arrow appears in the god Sinder's quiver. According to legend -’ and many people's faith -’ when the quiver is full, Sinder, his wife and his son, The Holy Family, will reunite, bringing peace and harmony to mankind.

To that end, the Order of Solace was created. The women who enter the order, called handmaidens, make it their task to bring solace to the patrons who engage their services. Sometimes doing that involves sex, but there is more to it than that. To give an idea of the handmaidens' outlook, here are the five principles which comprise the tenets of the Order of Solace's philosophy:

“1. There is no greater pleasure than providing absolute solace.
2. True patience is its own reward.
3. A flower is made more beautiful by its thorns.
4. Selfish is the heart that thinks first of itself.
5. Women we begin and women we shall end.”

Most of the women who enter the Order of Solace do so out of true faith, but Annalise Marony is different. Although her mother is deeply religious, Annalise herself is not, but she is trapped in an engagement she agreed to but later changed her mind about. Annalise's fiancé, Jaquin, is a childhood friend she has a lot of affection for, but he is not attracted to her – or to any woman. Jaquin is gay.

In order to escape marriage to Jaquin in a way that won't bring dishonor to either of them, Annalise pretends to have a vision that leads her to join the order and train to become a handmaiden. She plans to stay a student without ever graduating, since she has no interest in catering to the whims of patrons.

On Annalise's arrival at a forest near the Order's motherhouse, she is given misleading directions by a man. She does not realize right away that this is a test of her dedication. When she finally arrives at the motherhouse, Annalise encounters the same man again. He is Cassian, one of the few men who live in the motherhouse, and he is a priest and instructor there.

An attraction develops between Annalise and Cassian, but Cassian refuses to acknowledge those feelings. Cassian has divorced himself from other people emotionally, and cut himself off from their affection for reasons that aren't made fully clear in the section I read. But as Annalise and Cassian encounter each other again and again, they get under one another's skin. Will Annalise thaw Cassian's heart? Will she come to respect the faith she disdains? Will the two admit their feelings and will they find solace?

I did not read far enough in this book to find out the answer to most of these questions, for the following reasons.

My feelings on Annalise were mixed; she was not instantly sympathetic to me, but not immediately unsympathetic either. Her disdain for the beliefs held by her fellow novitiates at the motherhouse did not appeal to me; even though I find the tenets of the Order of Solace's faith antifeminist, I still didn't enjoy seeing the novitiates' honest and profound devotion scorned.

Still, this unappealing aspect of Annalise's character was somewhat mitigated by her kindness to Tansy, her sweet, younger roommate, and her affection for Jaquin, her fiancé, despite the fact that he had no romantic or sexual feelings for her.

But as the novel proceeded, I found myself less and less interested in Annalise. Perhaps the problem there was that she was simply too ordinary, and lacked some of what I think of as the sheen of romantic glamour that I feel most romance protagonists (including many of your own main characters) possess.

I also felt that in the portion of the book that I read, Annalise did not face any deep internal conflict or strong external obstacle to make her compelling. Perhaps that changes later in the book, but if it does, I didn't get far enough into the story to know about it.

Cassian was more immediately interesting, especially when he was first introduced. It was evident from early on that he had walled himself off from the rest of humanity, and I was curious at first as to the reason he had closed himself so completely to warmth and affection.

Unfortunately, by the time I stopped reading, some hints had been given about that, but the answer was not yet revealed. And in the meantime, while waiting to learn the reasons for Cassian's coldness, I became frustrated with it because I wanted to see more of a relationship develop between him and Annalise.

Having read several of your works, I know better than to count on feeling instant sympathy for the main characters, and I believe I might have still enjoyed the book even so, had the story unfolded with more narrative drive. But the book's pacing was sedate and slow, and as it continued there was too little interesting new information revealed about the characters and their situation.

A third problem for me may have been one of expectations. The book description posted on Amazon states that Annalise is "thwarted at every turn by Cassian, a teacher of the faith, who must test her dedication." This conveys a strong conflict that did not materialize fully enough in the first ten chapters to entice me to keep reading.

After reading that description, I had the impression that Cassian would be testing and thwarting Annalise left and right, and given that Annalise was also described as "a reluctant student of seduction" and that most of the earlier Hart books I'd read were erotic, I also expected some of those tests to be sexual. In the first 125 pages, at least, that was not the case. The only sex scene in that portion of the novel was brief, and it was not between Annalise and Cassian.

Annalise and Cassian's scenes consisted mainly of squabbles in the religion classroom that did not seem to me to give the story much momentum. There were also many scenes of Annalise and Tansy's friendship, and while I liked Tansy's sweetness, these didn't move the story forward much either. Cassian's scenes with a young boy in need of an adult male's attention were a bit more interesting.

Admittedly, I am a reader with a short attention span and when a book is paced slowly and lacks a strong enough conflict to engage me, my reading speed, which is slow to begin with, lags to a turtle's pace. That was what happened with this book, and so, at the end of chapter ten, I stopped reading and decided that this particular book was just not for me.

I am not happy to give another of the books in this series a DNF grade, especially when I loved Pleasure and Purpose so much. I do hope that other readers enjoy the book more than I did.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

Book Link | Kindle | Amazon | nook | BN | Borders
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Dear Author

REVIEW: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Dear Ms. Marchetta,

I have a bone to pick with you. I’ve got a packed read-and-review schedule for the next month or so, and I need to be able to move from book to book. But you’ve made that impossible. Yes, I blame you. It’s your fault that your book, Jellicoe Road, left me so drained and dazed that I can’t read anything else.

I tried. I tried a sexy historical romance. I tried a contemporary erotic novel. I tried a thought-provoking science fiction story. I tried one of my very favorite books from last year. I even eyed another YA. I put them all back down after a page or two.

It’s not that they were bad. They just weren’t your book. They weren’t Jellicoe Road.

It really isn’t fair of you to write a book that’s so beautiful and powerful that everything else pales in comparison.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me explain that when I picked up this book to read for Keishon’s TBR challenge, I was cheating a bit. Yes, technically speaking Jellicoe Road was first published in 2006 (The Australian edition called On the Jellicoe Road), but the American edition came out in 2008, and it’s only been sitting in my TBR pile for a few months.

I first heard of this book here on the YA YA YAs blog. Then I heard that it won the American Library Association’s Printz Award. Then it was selected for DABWAHA. At that point I bit the bullet and bought it in hardcover, a purchase that was worth every penny and then some.

I read Jellicoe Road for the TBR challenge because this month’s theme is “Tortured hero or tortured heroine,” and I had the sense that this book had its share of tortured characters. Boy, was I right about that.

The heroine of the story, Taylor Markham, is a seventeen year old boarding school student at the Jellicoe School, which is about 600 kilometers from Sydney. Taylor was abandoned by her mother in the bathroom of a 7-Eleven when she was just eleven years old. A woman named Hannah began taking care of her at that point, and Taylor suspects Hannah knows something about her mother, but whatever it is, Hannah won’t reveal it.

Taylor enrolled in the Jellicoe School when she was thirteen. When she was fourteen, a hermit whispered something in her ear and then shot himself. But Taylor can’t remember what he told her, and she has other memory gaps as well. She also dreams about a boy in a tree who knows things about her. Sometimes her life feels like a mystery that she can’t solve.

Just after the hermit committed suicide in front of her, Taylor took off to try and find her mother. On the way to Sydney she met a boy named Jonah Griggs, who is rumored to have killed his father, and who is one of the cadets, military school students who camp near Taylor’s school for six weeks every spring and every fall.

The kids from Taylor’s school have a territorial war with the cadets and with a third group of students who live in the town, known as the townies. So Taylor’s running off with a cadet was not looked on well by her fellow students. But Taylor and Jonah made a connection. Taylor opened her heart to Jonah and trusted him, and when he called an adult to come and take them back to their schools, she felt betrayed.

Now, three years later, Taylor is unwilling to trust anyone again. She presents a hardened exterior to the world. Despite this, Taylor is chosen through some convoluted politics to be the leader of the Jellicoe School kids in the next round of wars. The leader of the townies is Chaz Santangelo, who has a history with Taylor’s friend and supporter, Raffaela. And the leader of the cadets is Jonah Griggs. So Taylor must come face to face with Jonah again, this time as two leaders of enemy factions.

And just as this is about to happen, Hannah, the one constant in Taylor’s life since her mother abandoned her, disappears from her house without a word to Taylor.

As this story unfolds, told in Taylor’s first person narration POV, it is interspersed with third person italicized fragments of another story, about a group of kids who were involved in a car accident that killed the parents of three of them. The connection between the two stories isn’t revealed until deep into the book, so I won’t say what it is.

Can Taylor lead the Jellicoe School? Where has Hannah gone to? Will Taylor be able to piece together the secrets from her past, or unearth her lost memories? What about Jonah Griggs? Is he truly the enemy, or does he care for Taylor more than he allows her to see? And how is the story of the other group of kids relevant?

The above is a summary of what the book is about, but it doesn’t do justice to how moving it is, how good the writing is, or how memorable the characters are. Taylor is indelibly so. Although she has a lot to be tortured about, she is the last person to wear her suffering on her sleeve. Instead, she has a stony demeanor.

Here, for example, is an exchange between Hannah and Taylor which takes place when Hannah informs Taylor of the transfer of some girls to the dormitory Taylor is in charge of:

“Transfers,” she says, handing me the sheet. I don’t bother even looking at it.

“My House is full. No more transfers,” I tell her.

“There are some fragile kids on that list.”

“Then why transfer them to me?”

“Because you’ll be here during the holidays.”

“What makes you think I don’t have anywhere to go these holidays?”

“I want you to take them under your wing, Taylor.”

“I don’t have wings, Hannah.”

But for all her prickliness, Taylor’s inner thoughts eventually reveal her vulnerability. Here’s a scene that comes when she is floating on water:

My body becomes a raft and there’s this part of me that wants just literally to go with the flow. To close my eyes and let it take me. But I know sooner or later I will have to get out, that I need to feel the earth beneath my feet, between my toes–the splinters, the bindi-eyes, the burning sensation of hot dirt, the sting of cuts, the twigs, the bites, the heat, the discomfort, the everything. I need desperately to feel it all, so when something wonderful happens, the contrast will be so massive that I will bottle the impact and keep it for the rest of my life.

If Taylor isn’t what she appears to be at first, neither are many of the other characters. Their layers are peeled back gradually, and involve discoveries of things neither Taylor nor the readers know, so I don’t want to reveal them. In fact, it takes a few chapters to figure out exactly what is going on, but that is part of the charm of the book, because the reader’s confusion mirrors the sense of mystery Taylor feels about her own life. Some of the puzzles take most of the book to be put together, and although I guessed at certain truths before Taylor understood these things, that did not lessen my enjoyment of the book.

In fact, “enjoyment” seems like too mild a word. After its slow start, the book gathered more and more momentum, until I was completely swept away from thoughts of my own life. I became so invested in Taylor and the other characters in the book that some sections seemed heartbreaking to read, albeit in a cathartic and healing way. I laughed and cried — or, as my husband put it, “blubbered.” When I finished this book, my tear ducts felt completely empty.

I loved the intricacy of this story, the way so many small and seemingly unimportant details turned out to be important in the end, the way the different threads connected. It’s a rare book that seems so seamless when I finish it, that takes such complete hold of me with its magic.

Despite its YA designation, Jellicoe Road deals with a lot of adult themes, and includes a romance and even a couple of brief sex scenes, so while I would not recommend it for younger kids, I do wholeheartedly recommend it to older teens and to adults.

Thank you, Ms. Marchetta, for writing such a powerful, beautiful, unforgettable book. A for Jellicoe Road.

Sincerely,

Janine

This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook although this is a HarperTeen release and HT is fairly good about ebook releases. At least you know who to contact if you want a legitimate digital copy.