Friday, 26 November 2010

Book Blogger Hop and Coming Soon, 26/11/10

Book Blogger Hop

Hello and happy Friday. For many of you I suspect that the weekend is already here, as yesterday was Thanksgiving in the USA, so I hope those who celebrated had an enjoyable and relaxing day. Over here it's business as usual, but I've taken the week off work to recharge my batteries before plunging back into the madness that is retail at Christmastime. But now it's time for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Jennifer at Crazy For  Books.

Book Blogger Hop

"What is your favorite book cover?"
Regular readers of this blog will probably have noticed that I am a notorious cover-judger. There are so many books that call to me with beautiful designs, but the absolute favourite (at the moment, anyway) is the hardback of Cecelia Ahern's The Book of Tomorrow. Isn't it beautiful?


Coming Soon

Believe it or not, I've got near the bottom of my immediate to-read pile, with only three books left from my extravagant splurges at the beginning of the month. I do have other unread books, however, and aim to work a few of them into December's reading. I also get paid shortly, and then I'll allow myself to shop once more. I've promised myself a copy of Sarah Ockler's latest, Fixing Delilah and as it'll be December next week there are some books that just have to be re-read before Christmas, including A Christmas Carol, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Winter Holiday, as well as sundry other classic children's books with wintery settings. I intend to reread L.M. Montgomery's books and the Harry Potter series soon, and 2011 will bring the Back to the Classics challenge hosted at Sarah Reads Too Much.

What books do other bloggers consider required Christmas reading?

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

What kind of girl wants to kiss every boy at a funeral, wants to maul a guy in a tree after making out with her (dead) sister's boyfriend the previous night? Speaking of which, what kind of girl makes out with her sister's boyfriend, at all?
It wasn't the brief book blurb that caused The Sky is Everywhere to leap off the bookshop shelves, onto the counter and beckon to my purse, but the unique style and format of the book itself. About the size of a small paperback, but squarer with a cover that is not-hardback, not-paperback but a kind of stiff, rough-textured card. The text inside is blue - like ink, perhaps, or the sky of the title - and the book held shut by a strip of elastic, like a decent notebook, or a journal. This book promised secrets.

I resisted this book's charms for a while, as I had read other books dealing with the subject of grief, (Hold Still, Twenty Boy Summer,) and I didn't think that I would like the main character, Lennie. What kind of girl does want to kiss boys at her sister's funeral? But in the first sentences I couldn't help warming to Lennie. Her elder sister, Bailey, who Lennie adored, died suddenly at the age of nineteen, leaving Lennie devastated. But in the wake of her sister's death, Lennie has started to come alive and discover who she is without Bailey's shadow to hide in. And it just so happens that at the exact same time, she starts to notice boys.

Despite its sad themes, The Sky is Everywhere is full of humour in Lennie's narration and a quirky cast of characters who are much more vivid than most young adult books. Lennie is the protagonist, seventeen years old and clarinettist in the school band. She seems to be drifting apart from her best friend Sarah, an outgoing, outrageous girl who changes her style every day, and the two girls really long for their friendship to be what it was before Bailey's death changed everything. Lennie lives with her Gram, an extraordinary flower gardener, and her Uncle Big - "arborist, resident pothead and mad scientist," wannabe Casanova - he's been married five times and trying for a tidy half dozen. The narration is full of quirky little observations - music teacher known as Yoda, for example or a fit of hysterical laughter compared with "a crazy relative who shows up at the door with pink hair, a suitcase full of balloons, and no intention of leaving."

Music, flowers and romantic novels, especially Wuthering Heights, are recurring motifs in this novel, and it presents a different picture of California and American high schools to what I'm used to seeing in books and film. Instead of the usual cheerleaders, cliques, locker-lined halls, cafeterias and the occasional biology lab, for Lennie the heart of school is the band, and somehow this felt more like high school as I knew it. We didn't have cheerleaders or lockers in the corridors (too narrow!) and the school canteen was best avoided. We did have music though, a jazz band (and was there an orchestra? Must have been!) a choir and various dramatic productions going on.

As well as the music, Lennie writes poetry, scribbles it down on any surface handy - at one point the narrative describes her attempting to write a poem on the sole of her shoe. She jots down her thoughts, memories of Bailey and remembered conversations, putting her thoughts onto paper (or shoe, or bathroom wall...) to try to straighten them out and make sense of the world. This is something I do myself - I carry a notebook in my handbag at all times, even post-its and a mini Sharpie if I don't have room for anything else - so it made me warm to Lennie further. Unlike me, though, Lennie lets her writing go, hides it all around the town, and between the chapters are included photographs of her poetry and a note where each piece was found.

Lennie's two romantic interests are Toby, Bailey's bereaved boyfriend, who gravitate towards each other to try to fill the Bailey-less hole, and Joe, new boy in the school band, who gets to see Lennie without the spectre of Bailey hanging over her. This was a love triangle that didn't feel forced, didn't seem to be put in to liven up a dull romance, or just because Love Triangles Are The In Thing. Although it was clear that Lennie was in too deep and heading for trouble, you could understand what got her tangled up in the situation she found herself in. An accessibly arty novel, with vibrant characters and rich, poetic language.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Crying Tree, Naseem Rakha

Nineteen years ago, Daniel Robbin was found guilty of murdering fifteen-year-old Shep Stanley, and sentenced to death. Now, the execution date is set. The Crying Tree is written in two strands of the same plot: following Shep's bereaved family over the agonising years as they try to find closure to their grief and get on with their lives, and prison Superintendent Tab Mason, the man in charge of carrying out the sentence.

I was expecting this book to fit firmly into the category of Crime Novel, and reading the synopsis on the back of the book I found myself thinking of a John Grisham novel. I bought this book in a two-for-one offer on Richard and Judy's Book Club, but to be honest, I expected it to be a little bit dry, with lots of legalese and moral philosophising. In fact, this book reminded me more of a Jodi Picoult novel, exploring serious issues but with characters one can really feel for, and a plot full of surprises and twists.

The bulk of the book is from the perspective of Irene, Shep's bereaved mother, and to a lesser degree her husband Nate and daughter Bliss, as the family tries to put the past behind them and get on with life. A major theme of the work is the lines that should not be crossed, and yet how easy it can be to step over: the line between wanting justice and wanting revenge, between offender and victim, prisoner and guard. Rakha explores how hatred and forgiveness affect both giver and receiver, and leads us to question whether in fact some lines should be crossed. I would find myself supporting one character in an argument, but at the same time understanding exactly where their opponent was coming from.

Interestingly I found the condemned Daniel Robbin to be the most intriguing character, about whom I wanted to find out more. This could stem from a conversation I recently had with a friend whose mother works in a prison, about how "When a felon's not engaged in his employment, (his employment)" he can seem quite ordinary, like anyone else. Throughout the book, Robbin is a rather enigmatic figure, and I found myself wondering, could he really be guilty? He seemed so placid and sane that I thought it impossible that he could shoot dead a teenager in cold blood. Yet, if he was innocent, why did he not appeal the case? Maybe his outer calmness was the mask of a disturbed mind. I sensed early on that there must be more to Daniel than met the eye, and that, more than anything else, is what kept me turning the pages, in a way that would no doubt appal the Stanley family. After all, this man killed their son. Surely we shouldn't be trying to understand what makes him tick?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Book of Tomorrow, Cecelia Ahern

Cecelia Ahern is best-known for her romantic tear-jerker, P.S. I Love You, which was made into a film starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler. I enjoyed the book, well enough, and also the film, but they were what I classed as Chick Lit, a genre I tend to investigate about once a year. The pastel covers of her other books did nothing to rid me of this impression, and although some of them were pretty, I didn't bother with them.

Then The Book of Tomorrow appeared on the shelves, and what a beautiful book! I am an incurable cover-judger, and this elegant purple volume with its glorious golden shinies could not keep me away. But enough of the swooning, onto the story.

When spoilt Tamara Goodwin's father dies, leaving her and her mother bankrupt, she has to leave her Dublin mansion and move to the middle of nowhere, to live under the watchful eye of her aunt Rosaleen and uncle Arthur. Tamara's mother, catatonic with grief, is confined to her room, and Rosaleen is twitchy and constantly checking up on Tamara. But is she being overprotective of Tamara, Mrs Goodwin, or of her own secrets? With nothing else to do, Tamara explores the ruins of the nearby castle, befriends a bee-keeping nun, and discovers a mysterious journal, whose entries are written in her handwriting, dated the following day, and describing events which have not yet happened.

On my second reading of The Book of Tomorrow, I felt that it would be a good companion novel to Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall. Like the latter, it shows two alternative versions of a day, depending on the choices made by the individual. Tamara feels full of guilt that the last time she saw her father they had fought bitterly, and she wishes she could recall her final words to him. The diary's offering of a glimpse into the future offers her insight into the consequences of her actions, and turns her from a thoroughly unpleasant little madam into the more thoughtful and considerate young lady who narrates the story. The Book of Tomorrow is filed in adult fiction in the bookshops, perhaps containing stronger language than you'd find in most teenage novels, but with a sixteen-year-old protagonist, I don't think it holds anything new to readers of the same generation. The setting, tone and mystery of the novel took me back to my own teens, reminding me of some of the best children's and young adult novels, compulsive, with a sense of adventure and a setting I really wanted to explore. I particularly loved the character of Sister Ignatius, the wise old nun with a sense of humour, who refused to get offended by Tamara, despite her best efforts. My favourite scene depicts Sister Ignatius and her fellow nuns avidly discussing a Mills and Boon novel as if it were great, or at least good, literature.

I have since read one or two more of Ahern's novels, but this is, for me, easily her best so far. One of my great discoveries of last year.

Challenge: Back to the Classics

This week I have signed up for the Back To The Classics challenge, hosted by Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much. The Challenge runs from January to June next year, during which time participants will aim to read a book in eight different categories of "Classic." These categories are as follows:

  • A Banned Book
  • A Book with a Wartime Setting (can be any war)
  • A Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) Winner or Runner Up: a list can be found here
  • A Children's/Young Adult Classic
  • 19th Century Classic
  • 20th Century Classic
  • A Book you think should be considered a 21st Century Classic
  • Re-Read a book from your High School/College Classes

 I have a few ideas kicking around about which books to choose, but these are subject to change, so I shan't list them here just at the moment.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Book Blogger Hop 19/11/10

Book Blogger Hop

Hosted by Jennifer at Crazy for Books
"Since Thanksgiving is coming up next week, let's use this week's Hop to share what we are most thankful for and what our holiday traditions are!"
Being English and living in England I can’t answer the second part of the question as we don’t do Thanksgiving over here. That makes us sound miserable and ungrateful, doesn’t it? We don’t have a Thanksgiving holiday here, although in my first year at university some of the American students put on a Thanksgiving evening, which I seem to remember involved eating some kind of pumpkin and marshmallow concoction and watching a Peanuts cartoon.

I am thankful for some very good friends and a family who love me just the way I am without expecting me to be something else. For storytelling in all its forms, written or visual, which offers escape and exploration, as well as a way to understand the world and life.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Of all the novels I've read over my lifetime, there are several which I recommend to friends, a fair few that I am surprised if someone hasn't read, and just a handful that I think everybody must read! To Kill A Mockingbird is in the last category.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird for one of my GCSE English modules. Correction: I read a playscript adaptation, which captured the gist of the novel while omitting a lot that didn't directly affect the main plot. Even at fourteen or so I resented the truncated version, just as I was grateful for being in the only class in the year group to actually study a novel (Lord of the Flies) instead of a few odd short stories in The Anthology: novels were harder work but the alternative felt like cheating. I wanted something I could really get my teeth into. (Looking back, it's clear I was destined to study English Literature.) Thinking about it now, though, it seems that by setting us To Kill a Mockingbird for the obligatory drama module, the exam board were slipping us another classic novel in disguise, and a couple of years later I read the book properly for the first time.

When Scout and Jem are given air rifles, their father, renowned lawyer Atticus Finch tells them:
"'I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'"
Scout recalls:
"That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
"'Your father's right,' she said. 'Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'"
But what has this to do with the main story, and why does the title come from this small conversation? The image comes up later on in a newspaper editorial on the main plot: the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of the rape of a white girl, Mayella Ewell. Atticus is given the job of defending Tom, and much to the townspeople's displeasure, is intent on defending him as well as he possibly can. It is obvious that Tom is innocent, but this is the Deep South in the 1930s, and there is simply no way a jury would favour a black man over a white.

The novel is told by Scout, or Jean Louise Finch as she is named on her birth certificate, who is six at the start and about nine when the story ends. To her innocent mind, it is painfully obvious how things should be, and we feel her bafflement at discovering the ignorance and hypocrisy of the adults involved in the case. Everyone despise the Ewell family, especially father Bob Ewell, a drunken, violent, cowardly layabout. The Ewells are seen as the lowest of the low, and Tom Robinson is a kind, church-going family man, whose only crime was to feel sorry for Mayella Ewell. It is so obvious. And yet. And still. They are white.

Throwing books across the room is usually reserved only for bad writing, but I was sorely tempted on this reading of To Kill a Mockingbird out of sheer emotion. I wanted to shake some sense into the people, all the people.

My sister was reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett at the same time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and when discussing the books we both found ourselves wondering, in her words, "whether I would be so stupid and brainwashed if I'd lived back then. It seems like another world." Would we just accept the prejudices and injustices because That's Just The Way Things Are. In Atticus Finch we see someone who does not, who fights for justice and equality. In 2003, Atticus was voted as the greatest hero by the American Film Institute, against all the more "obvious," action characters out there. His heroism is summed up by his quote at the end of Part One:
"'[Courage is] when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what."
Atticus doesn't change Maycomb County overnight, but towards the end we start to see a few people acknowedging the injustices in the system and in their own nature, start to question the things they have previously accepted. Unexpected people show support for Atticus, when previously they criticised him, and speak out against the racism that infests the town. If only baby-steps, there is a little movement. People are starting to think.

I've never seen the film of the book, but by all accounts it lives up to the book and is worth watching. I intend to find myself a copy soon.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Crescendo, Becca Fitzpatrick

After all the hype about Hush, Hush, I judged it to be a very average teenage novel, with a compelling but not compulsive storyline, decent overall, but nothing that really stood out. I made sure to read Crescendo fairly soon after its predecessor, so that the story-so-far was fresh in my memory, and I could pick up where I left off.

I found Crescendo to be less average than Hush, Hush, but I'm sorry to say that I don't mean that in a positive way. Firstly, there were the inevitable comparisons with New Moon, book two of the Twilight series. In Crescendo, Nora feels insecure about her relationship with Patch, who seems to be keeping things from her, and before we are far into the story, she breaks up with him. Unfortunately, despite Nora being the first-person narrator of the series, I was not seeing the story through her eyes, but rather through the eyes of an outsider, moreover a reader who knows all too well how these stories go. It was far too obvious that Patch's secrets were nothing to do with him not really loving Nora any more, and that he had his reasons for keeping his distance. Nora spent a lot of time feeling angry with Patch for breaking her heart - when it was she who did the leaving in the first place. (Think Sandy in Grease.) She also seemed to have left her common sense (never particularly bright) in Patch's pocket, and I (metaphorically) read from behind my hands as Nora made stupid decision after decision and hoppity-skipped right into danger's pathway. Again, though, I observe this as a genre-savvy reader rather than from the character's point of view.

I thought that the story itself took a very long time to get started. Early on Nora discovers a hint about her father's murderer, but aside from a couple of scenes, that plotline is suspended for about a hundred and fifty pages while she tries to get over Patch, stalk Patch, get to know her returned childhood friend Scott (who is TROUBLE with a capital T and a capital ROUBLE) and work out if Patch really is dating Nora's worst enemy forever Marcie Millar. Once the father story is picked up once more, in the last quarter of the book, the pace picked up and I was able to lose my irritation enough to stop snarking and start caring once more. I was turning the pages quickly, wanting to know what had really happened to Nora's father, and just where Marcie Millar came into it all. After three hundred pages of teenage angst and sneaking about, the narrative returned to the action thriller of the previous volume. Just as it looked as if everything was going to be back to normal, Crescendo ended on a cliffhanger, because after all, you can't have less than three books in a teenage series.

I'm very sorry to Ms Fitzpatrick and all her fans, I want to award more, but Crescendo earns two stars from me.

Friday, 12 November 2010

A Tiny Bit Marvellous, Dawn French

As a general rule I stay away from celebrity-penned books, whether they be fiction or non-fiction, and always look at the inside pages to see if I can deduce who really did the writing. Actress and comedienne Dawn French was an exception: I was well aware that she is a. literate and b. absolutely hilarious, so when her second book and first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous unexpectedly turned up in my shop, I decided I would have a nosy.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous is told from the points of view of various members of the Battle family: mother Mo, daughter Dora and son Peter Oscar. It was clear right from the start who the author was of this book, and it took me a long time to shake Ms French's voice out of my head, at least in Dora's and Mo's chapters. Oscar was another entity entirely: a teenage boy who is convinced that he is Oscar Wilde. He is not. His voice is not believably that of Wilde, but is heavily influenced by the playwright, and gives the sense of someone who is trying too hard. Interestingly I found myself reminded more of Wilde's modern-day counterpart, Stephen Fry, but the teenage Fry as captured somewhat self-denigratingly between the pages of his first memoir, Moab is my Washpot, and then caricatured as much as possible.

My early expectations of Marvellous were that it would be a bit of light-hearted, rather brainless and amusing fluff. The characters all live in their own little bubbles, and there is humour in the irony of two family members completely misunderstanding each other. Yet very quickly I came to recognise deeper levels in the narrative. First impressions of Dora, who turns eighteen very soon, are of a loud, obnoxious and bratty chav girl, reminiscent of Catherine Tate's character Lauren "Bovvered?!" Cooper. Underneath her rage and attitude is a pile of insecurity, even self-hatred - bringing to mind another Catherine Tate character, Doctor Who's Donna Noble. Mum Mo spends most of the book in bafflement about every aspect of her daughter, then shows some surprising insight. The irony and misunderstandings become more heartbreaking as they show the characters' loneliness and I found myself wanting to sit everyone down and make them talk about what they really think and feel.

There isn't a lot of plot, it has to be said. French does an excellent job at capturing family life where everyone feels isolated and confused, but are held together by thin but sturdy ties of love. After a slow start, the story kicks off in about the last third of the book, with a bit of suspense, danger and a shock twist. At the climax, it becomes clear who is really the sane person who holds the family together when it seems it should have fallen to pieces long ago.

An enjoyable, easy read with a big heart.

Book Blogger Hop, 12/11/10

Book Blogger Hop

Last week, in addition to setting the Hop question, Jen challenged us to really follow the blogs we "follow," to visit at least one new blog regularly and comment on their posts. I also took the opportunity to put a bit more commitment into some of the blogs I already read, rather than just adding a huge list of sites that I will only skim-read. I was surprised to discover that following bloggers on Twitter helped me to follow the sites themselves, by getting to know another side to the reviewers and also highlighting when a new review was up.

It would have been impossible to read and comment on every post of every blog on my "follow" list, but below are just a few that are deserving of the extra attention. Please check them out if you haven't already.

New (to me)
Blogs I already followed

This week's question:
"If you find a book that looks interesting but is part of a series, do you always start with the first title?"
Yes, at least, usually. Crime novels are an exception, as because of their shape they are usually stand-alone novels connected by a set of characters. There may be continuing subplots with their personal lives, but you don't feel left out if you haven't read the previous books. Other series tend to be made up of volumes of the same story, rather than completely individual books. When I was younger I used to read books out of order, such as my Enid Blytons and Chalet School series. I found that the school stories would make reference to the events of a previous book, that when I got around to reading first-hand, I had imagined for myself how things had happened. I wasn't always satisfied with the author's account after that.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

Contains spoilers

Since I first heard of the book, one question bothered me: What is a mockingjay? In case I'm not alone in be plagued by little details, I will answer this now. I guessed that it was a bird, a hybrid species. In fact it is the offspring of a female mockingbird and a male jabberjay - a genetically altered species developed by the Capitol with the ability to repeat speech, used for spying purposes. By the time of The Hunger Games, the jabberjay has more or less died out, but the mockingjay lives on, unable to imitate speech but with a skill for repeating song. When she volunteered for the Games, Katniss was given a brooch in the shape of the mockingjay, and it came to be a secret symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol. Katniss is rescued from the second round of the Hunger Games by rebels and taken to District 13, hitherto believed to have been utterly destroyed in the last uprising. She is elected as their mockingjay personified: a mascot, a spokesperson for those fighting against President Snow and the Capitol, the face of the revolution.

For the second time, Katniss Everdeen has survived the death trap set by the Gamemakers to silence the dissentors against the Capitol's regime. But her freedom has come at a terrible cost. Now Panem is openly at war, and Peeta is held captive by President Snow.

When I read The Hunger Games I was fascinated by the history of Panem, and wondered to myself how the world evolved into this nightmare. In Mockingjay, I came to think early on that we were being shown. Katniss opens by being furious at the District 13 rebels, hating them, and my first thoughts were, "these are the good guys. These are the Capitol's enemy. And they've rescued you." But Katniss has moved from being the Capitol's pawn to that of the District 13 rebels. Her hometown has been destroyed and she is heartsick, feeling helpless. She is not leading the rebellion, she is simply being used. This is not the simple but decent lifestyle of the Smoke in Uglies, but a ruthless army who will do whatever it takes to overthrow the government. Collins does not shy away from the messiness of war, and the fact that whatever side you are on, you will get your hands dirty. This is not a clean fantasy war with insignificant casualies (and maybe the odd tragedy of a fallen brother or friend thrown in for good measure.) This is brutal, calculated, and horrible. The deaths are relentless, with beloved characters mentioned in a sentence as having died off the page. Yet the magnitude of the slaughter does not desensitise you, but overwhelms you with the senseless waste of life. We are left under the impression that Panem (once North America) is all that is left of humanity. (Whatever happened to the rest of the world? We are not told.) The war becomes a massacre. District 12 has been - not decimated, because only about 10% of the population has been left alive. This war could truly be the end of the human race.

The fantasy genre is full of uneven battles that you just know the good guys will win, eventually. Usually, overthrowing an evil government is portrayed as part of the hero's day's work. But in Mockingjay there are no heroes, and though you know that the Capitol must be defeated, the odds are not in our protagonists' favour and we really feel the near-impossibility of their task and what it will cost them.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins.

Okay, okay, I admit it. I'm hooked. I've come to The Hunger Games series late - as usual - but now I've started I can barely stand to take a breather to write down my review of book two, Catching Fire, before picking up Mockingjay.

The Hunger Games are over for another year, and Katniss and Peeta are home. Yet though the Games have finished, the acting has not. After their triumph in the arena, they have become celebrities, and the Capitol is uneasy. Katniss and Peeta's small acts of defiance have inspired the viewers, and revolution is in the air. Katniss and Peeta have made a dangerous enemy, and it is only time before they are thrust into the limelight and the action once more.

In my review of The Hunger Games, I stated that I was disappointed that Katniss did not take more of a stand against the Capitol and the regime that enforces the barbaric scheme. I stand corrected. In such a repressive society, even "token" acts of rebellion are enough. Katniss's defiance of the regime was subtle but insidious and people all over the country of Panem are saying, "enough is enough." The Capitol is worried. Like a chip in a car's windscreen (as I am reminded by the Autoglass ads on the radio) where the Capitol's authority is not absolute, there it is endangered. If people can express discontent with tyranny, sooner or later they will, and another uprising is inevitable.
A spark could be enough to set them ablaze.
In the second chapter of Catching Fire we are introduced to the president of Panem. President Snow, who smells of roses and blood. A fitting name, Snow, for this man makes me feel cold just to read about. In just one chapter, I can see him clearly: cold and ruthless with a thin veneer of charm that just accentuates his cruelty.

Spoilers ahead

In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta find themselves once more in the arena for a second round of the Hunger Games, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the last uprising and the Capitol's victory. To commemorate, and also to have a legitimate chance to kill off these troublemakers once and for all, the Capitol decrees that the contestants should be chosen from previous victors - a "best of" show, if you like. I had thought that this would make dull, or at least a little repetitive reading, but I should have known better. Things are different this time. We get to know the rival contestants better as individuals, and it is even more upsetting to remember that they are not meant to survive, that even as Katniss grows fond of her companions, she means for them to die in the end.

 Katniss chooses different tactics this time, and we get to see the Games from a different angle - similar scenes up close where last time they were from a distance, teaming up with some other contestants rather than going it for the most part alone. The challenges they face are markedly different too. Like the Gamemakers, Suzanne Collins knows how to keep the idea fresh. But if I was a little disappointed with the ending of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire makes up for it, fulfilling the criteria I had regretted not being there in the first book, and keeping me glued to the pages. And what an ending! A cliffhanger that ensures I will be picking up Mockingjay as soon as this review is finished (so please excuse any typos.)

A note on the love triangle: before reading this book, I read enough about "Team Gale" and "Team Peeta" to know that Katniss was conflicted about which she loves. I was surprised to discover that Gale doesn't actually appear that much in the story, and although is a good character, I don't yet feel I know him very well. Unlike many love-triangle stories, though, I have genuinely no idea which - if either - Katniss will end up with in the long run.

I can't deny it any more. The Hunger Games does live up to the hype, or very nearly. I don't know why, or how - I can't put my finger on the secret, but it does. It is just very good, gripping and well-written, causing the reader to truly emphasise with the characters and feel hatred against the tyrannical regime. And, unusual in teenage books, especially those with love triangles, none of the characters annoy me.

Tv: Single Father

There are a lot of small-series BBC dramas that come and go with very little fanfare. Usually I think to myself, "Ooh, that sounds good," and forget all about it when it comes along. Single Father would no doubt be one of these, but is helped along by the casting of David Tennant as the titular dad. Dave Tiler finds himself solely responsible for four children when his wife* Rita (Laura Fraser) is killed suddenly in a bike accident. Struggling to cope with his own grief and that of his children, he finds support in Rita's best friend Sarah (Suranne Jones) which starts to turn to something more...

I was a bit tickled when I identified Rita, one of those actresses who once you've identified from two places, pops up everywhere. Laura Fraser was Door in Neverwhere, Kate in A Knight's Tale and Henriette in the BBC's Casanova. (So Casanova and Henriette were reunited at last. And... cruelly separated once more!)

I would probably not have watched this programme if I had realised that Sarah was already in a relationship - adultery stories usually ruin a book/film/tv show for me, and in this case I really didn't feel it was necessary. There were enough conflicts and complications to Dave and Sarah's relationship as it was - Dave had only just been widowed, it was too soon, there were the kids to think of and an ex-wife and another daughter hanging around. That being said, the story and characters draw you in and really make you care, events ripping up your insides until you think you can't bear to watch any more. The cast is superb, acting so well that you forget they are acting at all. Dave's breakdown at the end of the first episode is devastating and I forgot this was an actor, forgot this was the tenth Doctor Who and just broke my heart seeing a man so overwhelmed by his loss and fear for the future. In later episodes I found myself actually shouting at the screen when I foresaw disaster or realised something the characters overlooked.

The kids are excellent, from stroppy teenager Lucy to little cutie Evie, who I just wanted to adopt. They add some humorous relief to the drama, but also have some serious storylines of their own as they come to terms with the loss of their mother in different ways. Lucy is not Dave's biological daughter, and despite his best efforts, feels all alone in the world after her mother's  death. Watching the programme after reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I realised that the girl playing Lucy is just how I imagined Katniss (but Scottish.)

Shown on Sunday nights, I watched the first episode before going to bed, but I think it is better to watch on bbc iplayer (or videoed) than live, as it is not light viewing. I found it quite stressful just to watch it as the story sucked me right in to empathise with Dave. Sleep does not come easily after this.

*It later emerges that Dave and Rita weren't actually legally married but we're led to believe they are until halfway through. I gather that he considered her his wife, but she was a free spirit type who didn't want to be tied down in that way. The writers seem to have changed their minds about this part-way through the story, as I'm pretty sure Rita is called Mrs Tiler at the beginning of episode one, and Miss Morris later on.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games almost completely passed me by until all of a sudden the internet buzzed with news of the final installment, Mockingjay. I read of the cover design being leaked, the embargo apparently being as strict as a new Harry Potter or Dan Brown title, at least in the USA. Although the book was also embargoed over in the UK, no doubt with severe disciplinary action being taken against any bookseller who let it free to roam the shelves early, it wasn't until a few copies trickled into my bookshop that I realised it was part of an existing series: a dystopia, recommended on the cover blurb by Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King, that I had been staring at for maybe a year without ever really noticing.

The story is set many years into the future, after some vaguely specified apocalypse has virtually destroyed the USA. The country has been rebuilt as Panem, split into Districts, and ruled over by the tyrannical Capitol. Poverty exists everywhere else, stealing punishable by death which may be preferable to the slower death by starvation one otherwise faces. The highlight of the year is called The Hunger Games. Once a year, twenty four teenagers - a boy and a girl from each District - are entered into a reality TV show - a survival show. Literally. The show is a fight to the death, the winner being the last survivor. Contestants may opt-in, but not out. If you are chosen, there is nothing you can do but go through with the horrific ordeal. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the contest to save her beloved little sister from having to take part and no doubt be horribly slaughtered.

I did not expect to like The Hunger Games. The very thought of it repulses me and I wasn't sure I could handle a story that would be, essentially, a series of different death scenes, and of kids! Yet, over and over again, on blog after blog, I read rave reviews, and cannot recall a single negative one. Some people wrote that they were disappointed after the hype of Mockingjay, or maybe that the middle book was the weakest of the three, but the series as a whole received unanimous thumbs-up, so I decided I would try it and see what the fuss was all about.

I found The Hunger Games to be a very powerful book, with a terrifyingly well-realised world, some strong characters and a lot of action. Yet I'm not quite sure what the secret is. There are a lot of aspects of this book that usually turn me off a story - even if you leave out the evil that is the Hunger Games contest itself. I often don't like hardened, tough, cynical protagonists, and Katniss has aged before her time. She has had to. Her father is dead, her mother went to pieces with grief, and she was left as the head of the family in a brutal world. She has to be strong to survive, and she is presented as a realistic product of her upbringing. More than that, she is a real character, three-dimensional, understandable if not always sympathetic. Peeta, her companion from District 12, is quieter, at first glance weaker, a bit of a drip - or at least, that is how Katniss sees him. Yet as the story progresses and Katniss gets to know Peeta better, Peeta reveals an inner strength that was previously hidden.

The idea of the The Hunger Games came about when Suzanne Collins was channel-hopping between a reality TV show and news footage of child soldiers, and the juxtaposition between these two facets of the Hunger Games is jarring. On the one hand, Katniss is glamorised-up by airhead celebrity stylists, trained in interview skills, and on the other hand there is the gritty brutality of a war story. After all their training, all the build-up to the battle, some of her rivals die in the first minutes with only a sentence, not even named. It seems so anticlimactic, and yet this is war. And then, while the kids are fighting to survive, alone or together, Collins throws in a reminder that everything is live on television, that through all the carnage and chaos and terror, Katniss has to put on an act to show the Capitol what they want to see.

The Hunger Games themselves take up the majority of the book, mostly showing Katniss hiding, trying to find food and water out in the wilderness and just to stay alive. There is not a lot of human interaction or dialogue, as any other humans she meets are out to kill her. Again, I feel I ought to have got bored at times through these extended scenes, but Collins keeps you caring enough to want to know what happens next.

This next part contains some spoilers:

I was a little disappointed with the ending, or rather, I would have been if I hadn't known that the story continues. Firstly, the Gamemakers move the goalposts partway through the Games, which struck me as cheating on behalf of Collins, as it eliminates one of the hardest challenges Katniss and Peeta, if they were the last two survivors, would have to face - or would, if they didn't move them back at the last minute. Cunning, though, as it gives Katniss, Peeta and the reader a sense of relief before knocking them down back again, so maybe it wasn't quite the cheat I initially thought. I was sorry, however, that the pair seemed so resigned to the Capitol's regime and apart from a couple of token acts of rebellion, do little to change the world in which they live. I had thought that Katniss would defy the Capitol more strongly than she did, and even in the last pages I was waiting for her protest that this is not right. I'm still waiting.

I'm not sure that The Hunger Games is as amazing as the hype had led me to believe, but it is a very good book, and it was a lot better than the book blurb and my reading taste came together to expect.

Coming Soon and the Book Blogger Hop, 5/11/10

The Book Blogger Hop

Hosted by Jennifer at Crazy For Books

Book Blogger Hop

"What are your feelings on losing followers? Have you ever stopped following a blog?"
I don't actually like the word "followers" as it makes me think of a cult; I prefer "readers."

I'll start with answering part two of the question. I follow a lot of blogs, and enjoy coming home from work and reading what people have to say about the latest books and their own favourites. With such a lot, though, it's inevitable that I will visit some more than others, and every so often I will prune the list so it doesn't get out of hand.

I don't like to see the number of followers go down, but it doesn't bother me, as I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way. It's flattering to see the number go up, but if they don't actually read the blog it's nothing but vanity. If everyone stopped following at once, though, I would wonder what I was doing wrong.

Coming Soon

Oops, as a certain Miss B. Spears sang a few years ago, I did it again.
I had to, though. I couldn't not.
You see, to start with, in the store where I work, ALL kids' books are on a 3-for-2 offer at the moment. And that includes teen/young adult books, which I am currently devouring and of which I have read many first books of trilogies.
And then, The Company decided to give us their annual token of appreciation and bump up the staff discount for two weeks.
And I had a coupon where I could save £5 if I spent £20 or more in one transaction.
Now, three books wouldn't cost so much, but six would.
In the end, I saved more than I spent and got six lovely books for just under £20, when the full price would be over £45. A job well done, I feel.

So, added to my collection are
Torment by Lauren Kate, sequel to Fallen.
Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick, sequel to Hush, Hush.
Catching Fire and Mockingjay, books two and three in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, and
Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, who I have concluded is the same Cassandra Claire responsible for the Very Secret Diaries, an amusing piece of Lord of the Rings fanfiction which kept my friends and me entertained in my sixth form years. (Killed by Orcs. Stupid Orcs.)

Left over from last week I still have Dawn French's A Tiny Bit Marvellous,
Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray and the classic,
To Kill A Mockingbird.

I ought to impose a ban on myself now: no new books until the end of the month or until I've paid my credit card bill off in full. Money is running out fast and Christmas is coming. (Let's see how long I can last.)

Hush, Hush, Becca Fitzpatrick

It would be impossible for me to review Hush, Hush, without comparing it at all to the other big angel story, Fallen. Both books were published around the same time, as were their sequels. Since Twilight, the bookshops' teenage sections became overdosed with vampire romances, and as this has (she says, tentatively) started to slow down a little, Fallen Angel books seem to be taking their place. It's not a sub-sub-genre that I expect to get drawn into on the whole. I would have preferred to read just one, but Fallen and Hush, Hush appear to be so evenly matched in first place that I simply couldn't choose between them.

I read Fallen first, on the strength of the cover. My review was mixed: the good (setting and atmosphere) was very good indeed, while the bad (characterisation, romance and most of the plot) caused me to want to throw the book across the room on numerous occasions. Wanting to simultaneously award the book one star and four stars, I averaged on the generous side with a three.

In Hush, Hush, Nora Grey is paired up with a mysterious classmate in biology, who is handsome but obnoxious, a bit creepy and knows too much about her. She does not like him at all, and wants to find out something about him in return. He is not forthcoming, and any research comes up blank. Nora's dislike gradually turns to curiosity and attraction. Not long after meeting Patch, Nora finds herself caught up in a series of seemingly unrelated frightening encounters and lucky escapes, and Patch seems to be involved in some way too.

I enjoyed Hush, Hush, well enough, and liked Patch, although if you ask me, his name should belong to a puppy, not an angel or even a human! That aside, unlike many idealised romantic interests, he had a sense of humour, and like Nanny Ogg of Discworld, there is nothing he can't make sound grubby (or if there is something, he hasn't found it yet.) The romance, although fairly predictable, at least follows the Pride and Prejudice model (Girl Dislikes Jerk Guy But Also Fancies Him, Girl Gets To Know Jerk Guy And Fall In Love,) rather than the Twilight model (Girl Sees Jerk Guy And Falls Instantly In Love, Completely Ignoring Any Jerkish Qualities, As Does The Narrator.) They even get to speak to each other before Nora feels the inevitable "connection." Nora's best friend Vee, too, was a fresh and outrageous character, boy-mad, full of mad plans to bring the quieter Nora out of her shell. Despite her being the narrator, I was left only with a vague idea of Nora's character: she's a high-achieving schoolgirl, responsible enough for her mother to leave her home alone a lot and maybe a tiny bit of a snob. Other than that, she came across a bit generic, perhaps a deliberate ploy to get the empathy of teen readers. Although the plot shares some ideas with Fallen, the tone is very different: a fast-paced thriller with some fantastical and mythical elements, as compared to the brooding Southern Gothic of Fallen.

I found Hush, Hush to be an enjoyable, yet somewhat forgettable teen novel. Like Fallen, it scores three stars out of five, but without the wide gulf between good and bad. It was consistently okay.

There was, however, one thing that bothered me a little bit: Patch's goal of getting his wings [back] made me think of nothing so much as a funny little chap named Clarence.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Boys Don't Cry, Malorie Blackman

It must be fourteen or fifteen years ago I first read a Malorie Blackman book. Operation Gadgetman was the first, and Hacker and Thief. One contained all sorts of computing references (almost certainly Hacker) and "modems," which I had no idea what they were. This was a few years before the Internet could be routinely found in homes; our computer was the old Atari with a dot-matrix printer. We didn't even have the Internet in school.

A few years later, when I had moved into the young adult age group, I discovered Noughts and Crosses, a dystopia which was heartbreaking and brilliant, probably the first book I read which ends in a particular way for a main character - to say more would be spoilers galore. Noughts and Crosses found its way onto the shortlist for my A-Level English coursework for comparison with Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I didn't think teen fiction, no matter how good it was, would be considered by teachers. (I now suspect I might have been wrong.)

After three sequels in the world of Noughts and Crosses, Blackman returns to the recogniseable world to tell a powerful story about teenage single parenthood, and is unique in taking the viewpoint of a seventeen-year-old father whose ex-girlfriend shows up with a baby, informs him he is the father, pops out to the shops - and runs. I've read quite a few books about teenage single mums: Mary Hooper's Megan books and Dyan Sheldon's And Baby Makes Two are the ones that stick in my mind from my teen years. Blackman wrote Boys Don't Cry realising that the issue has been covered entirely one-sidedly, and that teenage fathers are just expected to do a runner. Blackman shows another side to the story. When Dante gets up one morning, he's expecting his A-Level results and an acceptance into university. Instead he finds himself the father of little Emma, and in just a few moments he has to rethink his entire life plan.

Boys Don't Cry is also about what it means to be a man, and we see this through Dante, his younger brother Adam and his father. Dante's mother died several years before and the family don't like to talk about their feelings. Adam is openly gay, but that is Not Something They Talk About. Dante feels enormous frustration that no matter what he does, it never seems to be enough for his father to show pride or love. Something terrible has to happen before the three will open up to each other.

In previous works by Blackman, there are a mixture of male and female narrators, and it is interesting to see a female writing from an exclusively male perspective: mostly Dante but with some chapters from Adam's point of view. She captures the boys' voices well, and reading Dante's story I found myself transported back to high school - he could quite easily have been one of my classmates. Adam is a slightly arrogant, obnoxious yet likeable younger brother, and the dynamics between them were of an entirely believable sibling relationship. In the later scenes, when the family start talking to each other about what's on their hearts, I did find myself wondering whether this was really how a family of men would interact or if it was a female writer shaping the world to how she thinks it ought to be.

Boys Don't Cry did not take me very long to read, but I know it will take a long time to forget. There seems to be quite a high teenage pregnancy rate on the Isle of Wight, where I live, and Blackman challenged my thoughts and prejudices about teen parents, and evoked sympathy and compassion. Boys might not cry, but this girl certainly did.

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