Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Forever Fifteen (audio book) by Kimberly Steele

(This audio book is available for free from Podiobooks.com.)

I only listen to audio books at work, and I don't listen every day, so this took me longer to finish than it should have.

I was a bit confused as I listened to this book. From the title, the set-up, and the story up to maybe the point where Lucy loses her baby, I thought that this book was intended for young adults. Then come the bits that are dark, horribly gory, and/or descriptively sexual, and I'm suddenly wondering who this book's intended audience is supposed to be. I started listening to it because the description of it made me think of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books and Annette Curtis Klause's Blood and Chocolate - I was thinking, yay, paranormal YA romance! Yeah... not really.

I feel kind of bad - this post is pretty harsh. I suppose, if you read this and want to hate what I wrote, you can say, "Well, she just doesn't understand because she wanted this to be a YA book." You might be right about that. I still feel that, with some heavy-duty editing, this would've made a decent YA book. The description in Podiobooks reminded me of so many supernatural YA books I enjoyed - when I picked this to listen to, I really did want to like it.

Synopsis:

Lucy Albert lives with a decent foster family and tries her best to stay relatively unnoticed at school. What no one around her knows is that she's a 600 year old vampire (give or take a few decades) who, physically, will be forever 15. She somehow manages to attract the attention of John Diedermayer, who's the kind of guy all the girls at school would fall over themselves for - he's handsome, rich, incredibly smart, and nice (except for that one time when he's a bit drunk and things don't go quite the way he'd like them to, but I don't think readers are supposed to remember that). The two of them eventually go on a date, and Lucy agrees to go to the prom with him.

Through flashbacks, the reader is told about Lucy's past. As a human, Lucy (Lucia, at that time) lived in Italy, married a Florentine diplomat, and was fairly happy until the Bubonic Plague arrived. She survived the plague, but the baby she carried did not. Even more tragically, the plague destroyed her ability to have children (for me, this was the first truly, horribly disgusting scene in the book) - the prospect of children was the main reason for her happiness in marriage. Her husband no longer cared for her after she was rendered barren, and eventually she was kidnapped by Sebastian, a man she thought she could trust. Sebastian forcibly turned her into a vampire and declared her his wife, which understandably upset her. However, he was kind to her, and the sex was good, so she soon fell in love with him.

Unfortunately, as charming as Sebastian happened to be at first, forever is a long time, and he and Lucy eventually began to tire of each other. He cheated on her, but she didn't care too much as long as she got to play with the children of the whores he brought home. One of the mothers became upset after she noticed how attached her children had become to Lucy and angrily left, dragging her wailing children behind her. Lucy was heartbroken, but she was even more upset when Sebastian presented her with the savaged bodies of the children and their mother - his justification for this was that the children were old enough that they would have remembered her as they grew older. To my mind, it's a pretty weak justification, and he just did this to be horrible, but Lucy/Lucia still didn't leave him. I think it might be at this point that she tried to starve herself to death, with horrible results (temporary insanity, lots of dead people).

The last straw for Lucy was when she met Sebastian's ex-wife Rhea and learned about the things he hid from her. It turns out that Lucy's baby did not die due to the plague, and the plague is not what caused her barrenness - no, Sebastian did all that in order to turn Lucy into an oracle. Rhea, Sebastian's armless, legless ex-wife, tells Lucy all of this and begs her to fetch her someone to eat (sorry for the tense-switching, but this flashback stuff has been amazingly hard to write about using entirely past or present tense). Lucy does, and within maybe a few hours Rhea has gotten pregnant (or maybe she already was pregnant?), given birth to a horrible vampire child, borrowed the limbs of her victim, and run off to go kill lots more people. Sebastian kills the vampire baby, and Lucy kills Rhea. Lucy confronts Sebastian about his part in her barrenness, and he confirms everything. He's not particularly sorry, either. For the first time in ages, he's gentle and loving with Lucy again, and the two have sex (I don't gather than Lucy took part much, but Sebastian didn't seem to notice/mind). After Sebastian falls asleep, Lucy leaves for America, and the two don't see each other again (until nearly the end of this book).

All of this flashback stuff happens in chunks, alternating with parts about Lucy in high school and Lucy a couple decades or so earlier. Lucy is in danger of getting her identity as a vampire revealed - she has to kill someone once a month, and the police know that someone who looks like her, who they assume is her mother, probably killed a couple people a few years earlier. Lucy and John break up after John gets upset about all the things Lucy won't tell him - plus, she won't sleep with him, because she doesn't want to "ruin him" (it suddenly occurs to her that he's a virgin teenage boy, and she's a centuries old vampire). Lucy, now a pariah at school, pines for John, as her "friend" Michelle gleefully gives her updates about him.

Eventually, John begs for Lucy's forgiveness, and the two soon begin dating again - this time around, they have sex, and Lucy doesn't worry about ruining him. Lucy finally tells John that she's a vampire and does what she needs to do in order to convince him. Even though she tells him that vampires must kill people, John still wants her to turn him into a vampire, but she refuses. It's tempting to have a companion, but she doesn't want him to become a monster like her, and she doesn't want to have the burden of trying to take care of another eternal teenager besides herself.

Things are rapidly falling apart, though. Lucy's skills with the violin have gotten her into the school orchestra, where she has attracted the obsessive attention of the attractive and creepy Martin Chen. Then, Lucy spots Sebastian in the audience at a concert. At a party after the concert, Lucy's friend Michelle announces that Lucy is vampire - everyone thinks there's either something wrong with her or that she's high on something, but Lucy senses terrible personal danger. Stupid Michelle happily follows along when Lucy promises to turn her into a vampire and doesn't even see it coming when Lucy bashes her over the head. It's not long before Lucy, with Sebastian's amused help, has killed Michelle and her parents and hidden the bodies. Because of the blood and strands of hair she left behind, everyone but John thinks Lucy was killed along with Michelle and her parents.

Years later, John is a successful criminal defense lawyer. He knows Lucy killed three people in order to cover up her secret, but he's not scared when Lucy shows up in his home. He has no wife, no kids, and, really, no family any more - he wants Lucy to turn him into a vampire and doesn't mind that he'll have to give up his current life, because there isn't much to give up. She turns him, and the happy couple is now together forever. Or at least until they get tired of each other.

Commentary:

Once again I ask, for what audience was this book written? On the FAQ section of her website, Kimberly Steele says she doesn't mind that her book gets compared to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight but, unlike Twilight, its content makes it "not recommended for children." As I said at the beginning of this post, so many things make this book seem like an angsty, young adult vampire romance (or at least vampire fiction), suitable for the same audience that loved Twilight and other supernatural YA stories. Anyone who approaches this book with that mindset (like, um, me) is in for a shock.

Ok, moving beyond that now. Kimberly Steele did the reading for her audio book herself and did a passable job of it. Actually, this was the second Podiobook I tried - I disliked the reader for the first one so much that I had to look for something else, and Steele's voice is much more listenable. She has a nice voice, but she also has a tendency to pause at odd moments, which messes with the flow of some sentences. Also, some (but definitely not all) of the accents she tried to adopt were terrible.

Now for the content. I'm sorry, I have to get back to the "who's the audience?" thing. There are several graphic sex scenes, which I probably would've been fine with if either all of the characters had been adults or Steele hadn't written them like something out of a bodice ripper. There is sex between Lucy, a vampire, and John, a virgin teenage boy - mentally, Lucy is sometimes a 15 year-old girl and sometimes a bit more mature, so I wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation. Plus, reading about vigorous sex between two teens is not my cup of tea. As for my bodice ripper comparison, well, "pert nipples" were mentioned, among other things. Besides all of that, there is sex involving Lucy and an adult male (either Sebastian or her first husband) - other than the fact that I thought Sebastian should be stabbed to death in his sleep, this didn't bother me as much as the sex between Lucy and John, I think because of the time period. Lucy also has sex with a 20-something guy whose name I can't remember - because of Lucy's physical age, the words "statutory rape" kept popping up in my head during that part of the book, although I'm not sure how long statutory rape laws have been around. Finally, there is sex between Lucy, who is still physically 15, and a 30-something John - aside from one comment, his ardor doesn't seem to be at all affected by their physical age difference. Pretty much every sex scene involving John made me feel uncomfortable and dirty in some way.

Now that I've covered the sex (which I suppose doesn't take up a huge portion of the book - but, as I said, what there is didn't sit well with me), it's time for the other stuff - I almost feel like I should make it a bulleted list.

There's Lucy's dialogue, which is meant to be old fashioned and yet just comes across as awful. Lucy has somehow managed to blend in with humans in their own time periods for hundreds of years, and yet she still says things that cause her friends and classmates to compare her to their grandmothers. Then she uses a phrase like, "he's got it bad." It's horrible, and yet I had a similar problem with the way Bella would think and speak in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books, so I think I could've forgiven this problem, if it hadn't been for all the other problems.

There's the uneven characters, Lucy being a prime example. Lucy is a vampire who hates what she is, but she kills Michelle and Michelle's parents, something even Sebastian might not have thought was necessary. Also, at the beginning of the book, Lucy comes across as a wordly, jaded vampire who's stunned that this silly boy likes her, but then she pines for him like a lovesick little girl after they break up. She's 600 years old, why is she pining for a teenage boy?

There's the useless characters. Sebastian, for instance, pops up for a bit at the end and then disappears from the story without explanation. All he does is help Lucy dispose of all the bodies - awfully convenient. I bet Steele hit on that idea when she started wondering how Lucy was going to get rid of three bodies so quickly all by herself, with no car. Martin Chen was also a useless character, there for no reason other than, what, to make John jealous? Martin only popped into the story after Lucy started doing more with her violin-playing skills, another thing I think the story could have done without.

Finally, there's Rhea. Oh goodness, Rhea. She was so over-the-top I couldn't help but laugh. I know she and her baby were supposed to be horrific, but it was like a B movie or something. Which reminds me - that oracle stuff. I believe Sebastian says that an oracle is a beautiful woman with special powers or something like that. So, how was Lucy an oracle? She was beautiful (when it was convenient for her to be), but she had no special powers beyond what she gained from becoming a vampire. My theory is that all this oracle talk was just Sebastian's most favorite lame pick up line.

The book lost me for a long while near the end. However, when Michelle starting indicating that she knew Lucy's secret, I was caught again for a bit - I wondered what Michelle wanted from her, and what Lucy would do. Unfortunately, Michelle was an idiot who just didn't realize that there was any kind of problem with announcing Lucy's nature, and, also unfortunately, Lucy took the easy way out by killing everyone. I thought she was going to have to think things through and solve them in a way that didn't betray her desire not to be like a monster. Then Sebastian started questioning her about her reasoning, and I thought there'd be a "I've really become a monster" moment of personal agony and horror, but that didn't happen either.

Overall... there were parts I found interesting, but the need to mark up the story with my mental editor's pen was so strong and frequent that it was hard to stay hooked on the story.

Before I move on to the rest, one thing I didn't mention was Steele's overwhelmingly negative presentation of foster families. I'm sure there are plenty of unpleasant ones, and the stereotype in the media is pretty bad - Steele doesn't try to challenge that stereotype. True, Lucy's current foster family is nice enough, but every other one readers are told about is awful, featuring physical and sexual abuse. According to Lucy, in her experience most foster families are like that. Right, I'm sure there are lots of foster mothers and fathers who would just love to hear that opinion.

Extras:

Yes, the book has extras. Starting with, I think, track/file 11, several tracks/files end with songs by Queenie, a snippet of whose music is used in this audio book. I liked some of them better than others - the songs at the end of tracks 11 and 22 were my favorites.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Twilight (book) by Stephenie Meyer - Bella doesn't expect her move to the small town of Forks to be at all exciting, until she meets Edward Cullen. At first, Edward seems repulsed by her, but eventually the two of them can't seem to stay away from each other. The more time Bella spends with him, however, the more odd things she notices about him, leading her to the impossible conclusion that this boy she is so drawn to is actually a vampire. If you liked the vampire romance aspects of Steele's book, you might want to try this.
  • Blood and Chocolate (book) by Annette Curtis Klause - Vivian is a werewolf, part of a small community of werewolves living in secret among humans. Vivian's father, the pack leader, was killed when the pack was driven out of its previous home, and all that remains is for a new leader to be chosen before the pack can move to a more permanent home. In the meantime, Vivian doesn't really feel at home with anyone in the pack. She begins dating a human, but how long will their relationship last if she tells him what she is? Even worse, people have been getting killed and Vivian can't be certain she wasn't responsible. If you'd like another book featuring a relationship between a supernatural girl and a human guy, you might want to try this.
  • Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception (book) by Maggie Stiefvater - Deirdre is a gifted young harpist who unfortunately manages to capture the attention of the Faerie Queen, who wants to kill her. Deirdre meets and gets to know a handsome, mysterious young man named Luke Dillon, who turns out to have been sent by the Queen. Will Luke defy the Queen for her or will he kill her, and why does the Faerie Queen want Deirdre dead? Those who'd like another angsty story with supernatural beings, danger, darkness, and a bit of romance might want to try this.
  • Touch the Dark (book) by Karen Chance - This is the first book in Chance's Cassandra Palmer series. Cassie is a gifted clairvoyant whose entire life since she was a little girl has been controlled by vampires. Three years ago, she managed to run away from the vampires who both raised her and had a part in her parents' deaths, and she's been in hiding ever since. Now the vampires are closing in, and Cassie learns that the mages are after her as well. Cassie has to figure out who she can trust, stay alive, and figure out why so many people want to kill her. Those who'd like another book featuring betrayal and a female character with vampire problems. Unlike all my other suggestions so far, this is not a YA book.
  • The Queen's Bastard (book) by C. E. Murphy - In this fantasy set in something like Elizabethan Europe, Belinda is the illegitimate child of Queen Lorraine. When she is older, she becomes a spy and assassin for the Queen and secretly learns how to use her magical abilities, which allow her to make herself invisible and affect others' minds. During the most recent mission she's been sent on, she finds herself falling in love with the man she's supposed to be gathering information from. In the end, Belinda must decide whether she will act according to her duty or according to her heart. Those who'd like another dark (at times very dark - rape, assassination, etc.) fantasy story might want to try this.

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