When a book has a title like Spellbound, there's a deep temptation for reviewers to pretend they're being clever by putting some kind of spin on it. Positive reviews might say something like "The title delivers -- this certainly kept me Spellbound!" and less-than-positive reviews might try a little harder for the negative equivalent. If I cared enough, I'd fall in to the less-than-positive camp because even though this is an incredibly quick read, only the most desperate-to-relive-Twilight readers will be particularly entranced by Cara Lynn Shultz's debut novel. FYI, I won't give away the ending with this review, but this is one of those books that draws out the obvious for a long time, and I won't tip-toe around that one.

Emma is a seventeen-year-old whose life has been plagued by tragedies, roughly in this order: her father left, her twin brother died, her mother died, and then her drunken step-father nearly killed them both in a car accident. Following this final brush with death, Emma has finally decided to take up her mom's sister, Aunt Christine, on her offer for Emma to come live with her in New York City. Aunt Christine is well-off (evidenced by the fact that she has a spare bedroom in her apartment ready for Emma to move in to and the fact that paying tuition at a posh private school doesn't appear to be a big deal) but doesn't have much idea about what it takes to raise a teenager, so she trusts Emma to make good decisions and set herself a curfew in line with everyone else's. There's another aunt in the background, whose daughter Ashley is eager to show Emma the ropes -- even though she's only a freshman at Vincent Academy herself. Ashley is sweet and bouncy and obviously destined for a bad turn from the get-go. Despite her desire to lay low, Emma sticks out like a sore thumb. She immediately winds up on the bad side of the catty queen bee and the most popular self-obsessed jock in school. She makes one friend, a gothy witch named Angelique, sort of befriends another girl who has a drinking problem, and manages to hit it off with the semi-closeted gay guy (seriously, can we get any more stereotypical in our cast of high school characters?)... but unsurprisingly, everyone pales in comparison to the extremely handsome, smart, and wealthy Brendan Salinger... who alternately acts nicely to Emma and then blows her off entirely. This might be your average high school scenario, but as per current trends, we need to toss in something paranormal about everything, and for Spellbound, this involves a curse, a doomed love, and a necklace pendant. Emma wears a particular necklace, a gift from her brother, and it catches the eye of both Edward--I mean, Brendan--and Angelique, though for different reasons. Angelique is fairly sure that it has some kind of magic connotation and Brendan just seemed fixated. And then Emma starts having dreams where her dead twin brother is warning her away from Brendan. Will it spoil anything if I indicate that somehow, the necklace pendant is at the heart of everything? And it means something to Brendan that he's not too eager to share with Emma lest she get freaked out? Or that they're reincarnated doomed lovers and they need to break a curse if they're ever supposed to be together? If so, oops, but you really should have seen that coming.

It’s no new thing for a story to feature a strong male hero that needs to “save” the heroine from some threat. Heck, this is one of the oldest stories out there. It's not even new for said hero to be billed as dangerous and for this to be part of his appeal. Twilight only tapped in to a much older story and reinvigorated our own abhorrence for the fact that, despite our knowing that this isn't feminist, there is still a twisted appeal and we have no idea how to both empower young women to make their preferences heard and yet tell them that this particular preference really isn't a good idea. Still, when one normally encounters this particular bad boy device (and, let's face it, there's a lot of them out there in the wake of Stephenie's success), I generally find that there's still something compelling and I just wasn't getting that here. It really did feel that someone just wanted to re-create Twilight with a twist and I found Emma and Brendan almost unrecognizable from Bella and Edward (minus the fangs). (Though at least Brendan doesn't put the kibosh on making out the way that Edward did, which yielded a steamy scene that should satisfy those who read YA for the romance.) Maybe it was because I didn't particularly feel that anyone had any personality or that I found the atmosphere of the NYC private school to be completely unrealistic. It's one thing when you write a novel about teenagers and manage to skip around scenes that obviously would feature profanity... it's another when you barrel head-first into fight scenes between teenage guys and expect the reader not to laugh when the harshest thing that's said is akin to "you're acting like a baby." It was an interesting contrast with the scenes of New York teenagers out drinking or doing drugs and yet the words they spoke just didn't fit. That said, Shultz might shy away from naughty language, but the violence (even violence against women) was intense for a YA that isn't Hunger Games or specifically dealing with violent paranormal animals or something. I did appreciate Emma sticking up for her cousin when hurtful rumors swirl around the school, but a death wish isn't the same as backbone and I wanted Emma to be much smarter in how she dealt with the pure evil bully. I suppose, though, that I was thankful that she didn't simply simper on the sidelines.

Ultimately, I don't really mind the general idea of a doomed love, fated to play itself out again and again throughout time, but I wish the author had moved away from other inspirational material and made the characters her own just a bit more. I didn't particularly like the flashbacks to the original doomed lovers and the reincarnations that followed, but at least those were elements that were more original and different. There's some intriguing bonus material in the ebook -- a selection from Angelique's thoughts and a twisted little story of magic gone wrong as well as a playlist highlighting some of the music that Emma and Brendan listen to during the book. Unless Shultz brings more to the table in her next book, though, I think I'll pass on any future attempts at spellbinding stories.

Please note that I received an advanced egalley of this novel courtesy of NetGalley for the purpose of review.


Let the Great World Spin

On an August morning in 1974, if the New Yorkers rushing past the Twin Towers on their usual morning commute paused to look up, they would have seen a tightrope walker on a line suspended between the towers. This moment of guerrilla performance art is what ties together Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, which otherwise explores four separate stories, all of which eventually touch upon each other in strange ways. A group of mothers who lost sons in Vietnam. An Irish brother (and his own actual brother) who is kind to a group of prostitutes in the Bronx. One of those prostitutes, a grandmother and not yet forty, tries to make her life and the lives of her family better. Young artists find themselves fleeing the scene of a car accident and yet they cannot shake the horror of what they have done. This moment in time, suspended, becomes the focus of a novel that offers a fascinating view of a New York that existed not all that long ago, but has been irrevocably lost to us.

It's not that it took me a very long time to get through this novel, it's just that when I set a book aside for a time (for any number of reasons), it's very hard for me to return to it. And it might not have any bearing on the novel itself. For Let the Great World Spin, I just couldn't handle how terribly sad and depressed I felt about halfway through and I needed a bit of distance, but I picked it up again several months later when my book club selected it and I am very pleased that they did. Even in 1974, the Twin Towers were emblems of New York, symbolizing its progress and promise; to view them within the novel is to experience the heavy heart of hindsight.

This is not an easy read, nor should it be. Even if you simply focus on the characters themselves, their lives are full of the heartbreak that is inevitably a part of living. Once setting down the book, however, it is impossible to keep your thoughts from drifting to Ground Zero (particularly if you live in New York, as I do). McCann's characters are vividly real. Even though the actual tight-rope walker plays a small role in the novel, his artistic expression illuminates the tight-rope acts that everyone in this novel is doing -- balancing themselves between conflicting ideas, emotions, or actions. It's a testament to 9/11 that it is so deeply rooted in our national consciousness that McCann evoked every tragic image and moment without any specific allusion to them, until the end when he spoke of his father-in-law's dust-covered shoes. The entire book is haunted by future events, which only makes each new, unrelated pain all the sharper.

My NYC-based book club read this and we had similar reactions, with the general opinion being quite positive of McCann's writing and the book as a whole. Obviously, we shared our "where I was when I heard about the planes" stories. There was the unanimous stereotypical observation that an Irish author can write despair, tragedy, and hardship like no other kind of author in the world. In addition, we collectively appreciated that, despite all the quiet suffering, there was also the undercurrent of resilience, which seems odd for a book not specifically dealing with a tragic event, and yet by reaching in to the past, there was some element that shone through. It's not a British "keep calm and carry on" kind of attitude, but there is the knowledge that whether the tragedy be small and personal or unimaginably large as 9/11, there is the innate human need to continue on and reclaim one's life from the constant thrall of a specific and devastating catastrophe. The motivations for this might vary, but there it is, just the same.

While I wouldn't necessarily recommend that you pick up this title when you're feeling blue, save it until a sunnier day. And any New Yorker should definitely read this for a different perspective on the World Trade Center and its place in our city's history and consciousness.