Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book Review: Girls on Tour, by Alison James

This book is one of a fairly large series of teen romances aimed at the now defunct Just Seventeen/J-17 magazine. It was printed with two different covers, the one pictured and the one I have, which is a later re-print after Just Seventeen had been re-branded to J-17 and it features different models and the new magazine logo.

It is a short book with a simple story: three girls, Ushi, Stella and Jodie, set off together to travel around Europe for their summer holiday, and in-between seeing the sights, experiencing various adventures and mishaps, they all find romance in some form. It's not great literature, or even great teenage fiction, it is lightly entertaining, harmless fluff, with a host of stock characters and situations - annoying posh boys, putting up a tent in the rain, music festivals. All three girls attract male attention very easily and make no new female friends, it is like all the other young women in Europe have vanished for this fictional summer! It would appeal most to younger-mid teenage girls who like romance and because it is so simple and short I would recommend this book to parents who are looking for cheap books to get reluctant teenagers to read more. Avid readers and older teens will probably be bored by the uncomplicated plot.

This book is out of print but available on Amazon for 1p + shipping, these books are also quite easy to find at second hand sales and some are still available in libraries. I got my copy on Bookmooch when I mooched another from this series by Sarra Manning, an author whose more recent books I have enjoyed. I have now decided to track them all down as they make great, quick intros to different authors, so watch this space for more reviews of books from this series!

The BookDepository

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Book Review: Ten Things I Hate About Me, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Jamilah Towfeek is living a double life. She finds it hard to fit in fit in with her Lebanese Muslim family - her widowed father is strict and obsessed with their reputation, her sister Shereen is a student activist wearing hijab covered in peace signs, and her brother Bilal wants to be a car mechanic, much to their father's disappointment. She doesn't want to have the same problems at her school in Australia, so she dyes her hair blonde, wears blue contact lenses and answers to 'Jamie', making up excuses to explain why she can't go to parties.

Jamilah has kept this up for the past three years, but things are about to change. She's noticing that other teenagers don't have the same difficulties with their identities, and she feels ashamed. One of her friends has started going out with one of the popular but mean boys, and one of his friends is attracted to Jamie. The school prom is approaching, and the traditional band she plays the darabuka (drums) in has been booked to perform - if she goes, she will blow her cover. Confused, she makes a new friend online and starts to tell him everything, about Jamie and Jamilah, her family, and all the things she hates about her life.

I had mixed feelings about this book. The characterisation of Jamie was great, cultural details were interesting, the casual bullying that takes place at the school was captured wonderfully, and I think it would be a good book for teenagers to read to help them understand and get on better with people from different cultural backgrounds. However, I was a bit disappointed in the plot. I could see the "twist" coming a mile off, and I felt the ending was rushed, with too much coming together at the same time - though to be fair, I am an adult who has read hundreds of teenage books in my time, I'm hardly coming at this with fresh eyes! I would also have liked to see more of Jamilah's relationship with her religion, it was barely touched upon.

I am bemused by the cover design for this book. On the front there is the image you can see above this review, but on the back cover, the same model is wearing hijab (the headscarf/veil). Jamilah does not wear one. At no point does she consider doing so. The cover really goes against the message of the book by invoking a stereotypical image of Muslim women in this way. It would have been better if there was no second image and a longer blurb, it is only a couple of lines, which meant that I had to start reading the book to find out what it was about.

I would expect 12-15 year old girls to enjoy this book the most. Although the protagonist is older, I don't think the plot is sophisticated enough for teens of the same age and higher to be convinced by the story. I would also suggest "Ten Things I Hate About Me" as a good book for school libraries, as there are not many books about teenaged Muslims available.

The BookDepository

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Book Review: Cold Water, by Gwendoline Riley

This short book (149 pages) is not so much a story as a snapshot of the life of its protagonist, 20 year old Carmel McKisco, an ambitionless daydreamer working in a bar in Manchester. It is difficult to describe the plot as there really isn't one. Carmel wanders around meeting different people and describing those she already knows, and the most action comes when she goes on a sort of pilgrimage to find the singer from a band she loved as a teenager.

In this book style is the substance: the characters are well drawn, the atmosphere is gloomy yet beautiful, everything is tinged with poetry - but nothing much actually happens, the novel is more about capturing Carmel's life at this stage and her development as a person. If you absolutely require action in novels to enjoy them, don't bother with this one.

I did enjoy reading this book and I will probably read it again - but I liked it for the descriptions more than anything else: I found Carmel a frustrating protagonist, because she didn't seem to want to do anything will her life besides maybe go to live in Cornwall, and I felt like nothing big had really changed by the end of the book.

However, I do think it is the right length - any longer a book and it would need a plot to hold my interest, and the style would stop being so powerful on its own. It is well paced as it is.

I would recommend this book anyone looking for a short, atmospheric book to slip into for a couple of hours (if that), so readers who don't mind novels without strong plot lines, give this a try.

The BookDepository

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Review: Leader of the Pack, by Kate Cann

When the rugby team gets a new coach, captain and angry-white-young-man Jack Slade has his life changed forever. The team used to have fun, but lost games more often than not. Their new coach inspires and pushes them to success, and in return the boys have to dedicate their whole lives to the sport. The boys become the stars of their school, feared by other rugby players for their rough behaviour, and suddenly very attractive to girls seeking the glamour of relationships with these infamous lads.

Gem fancies Jack from the start. She loves watching him play - but when they start dating feels increasingly uncomfortable around his team mates and coach. It seems like he has to spend all his spare time with them, and the boys are picking up bad attitudes towards women from their manipulative coach. She wants to be with Jack, and for him to be happy, but she needs more respect.

This is a pretty quick read with an absorbing story. Some of the characterisation is a little rushed, there isn't very much background information given about the school and the characters but it fits with the pace. The relationship between Gem and Jack is realistically portrayed, from their first awkward meetings to their frank discussions as they become more serious about each other.

There really shouldn't be so much pink on the cover of this book. It is not a sickly love story, and the narrative is split between the point of view of two characters, a girl and a boy, alternating between them. Kate Cann writes male characters brilliantly, and it's a shame that the cover could put boys off reading it.

I would recommend this book to mid-teenagers, both girls and boys (if you can get the latter to look past the cover). There is a fair bit of sexual content but all the sex is safe, and I think it's important that teenagers learn not to be embarrassed about protecting themselves. Anyone over the age of 17 will probably find the storyline a bit simplistic, but if you read teen/young adult fiction regularly you should enjoy this. Like all of Kate Cann's novels it has a realistic story and I could imagine it happening all over the country for real.

The BookDepository

Saturday, August 08, 2009

How to read more

"I've read 58 books so far this year (in 7 months), which is more than I read in the whole of last year!"

How I did it: I found as many books I thought I would enjoy as I could and found ways to make time for reading almost every day. I read different lengths of book - short novels as well as longer and have been amazed at how much reading I can get done if I put my mind to it.

Lessons & tips:

  1. I carried a book everywhere so I could read whenever I was sitting still with no other tasks to do - on the train, whilst waiting to meet friends, etc.

  2. I still watched TV - but I would decide in advance what programmes I wanted to watch and record them so that I could watch them when I couldn't read, like when I was eating or painting my nails. I never sat down in front of the TV just for the sake of it.

  3. I listened to audiobooks when I couldn't physically read but could concentrate on the words - whilst walking, knitting, cleaning etc.


  1. I found books I was interested in by reading book reviews on blogs, I'm really into YA and I'd recommend Chicklish and Leaving Shangri-La. I also found new authors by using the Literature-Map.

  2. I got books from my local library, bookstores, charity shops and via online book exchange websites Bookmooch and readitswapit.

  3. I downloaded free mp3 audio books from LibriVox.

It took me 7 months.

It made me delighted!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Book Review: Fabulous Nobodies, by Lee Tulloch

Reality Nirvana Tuttle (daughter of a hippy, which she finds deeply embarrassing), a woman with 'seventy-two different fashion personalities', is the 'doorwhore' of the nightclub Less Is More in New York City. Her job involves deciding which "nobodies" are allowed in, on the basis of how "fabulous" they are. She wields great power in the club scene, her compliments and criticisms acting as law, until one night she fails to recognise Jackie O in a drab outfit and is fired for her mistake.

This is a absolute disaster for Reality (or 'Really', as her friends call her), who is replaced by her unstylish nemesis, Ricci, a woman that lets just anyone into the club. Reality also needs the money to pay for her tiny flat and so that she can collect an even wider range of clothes. She prefers frocks to people, which is not surprising as all her "friends" are as mean as she is. Reality is of course desperate for attention as well, wanting to one day become a somebody, and has met the gossip columnist for Frenzee Magazine, Hugo Falk, so all she needs to do now is something fabulous enough for him to write about. Eventually she hits upon the solution to all her problems - she and her neighbour Freddie will open their own club in their apartments!

This novel was originally published in 1989 and I would describe it as quirky, satirical proto-chick-lit. It has dated slightly - mostly in terms of language like the slang, but I doubt the fashion club scene has changed at all. The characters and their adventures are silly and superficial, but likeable and funny. Reality genuinely loves her frocks, believing that every dress she owns has a name, a personality and a voice. She can't stand the pain she can feel emanating from them when they are abused by other people, she has to buy them so she can look after them properly. The other characters also seem pretty horrible at first, but when they show how much they really love Reality, they seem a lot more sympathetic.

This novel is a fast and easy read that I would recommend this book to fans of fashion, satire, quirky stories, or Sex and the City - I remember one Amazon reviewer describing Reality as being like a young Carrie, before she got the bizarrely high-paid job as a newspaper columnist, would be. I think the only downside is that it is so short - I want to find out what happens to these characters next!

The BookDepository

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan

Bonjour Tristesse is the story of one summer in the life of Cécile, a seventeen year old girl, and her father, Raymond, a wealthy widowed womaniser, aged forty. Cécile has failed her recent university exams, but doesn't much care - she doesn't have to with her father around to support her - and all she wants to do is swim, lay around on the beach, and fall in love temporarily with Cyril, a young man she meets in the sea. She is comfortable and innocent in her hedonistic life, with no mother and a careless father who she barely knew before her return from boarding school to start university in Paris.

Raymond has brought along Elsa, his current, twenty-nine year old, mistress, so Cécile is greatly surprised when it turns out he has also invited Anne, who is forty-two and has a much more serious personality than theirs, to stay with them. Gradually Cécile notices that Anne is really much more beautiful and clever than Elsa, and she realises that her father will soon make Anne his new mistress.

She has the shock of her life when Raymond announces that he intends to marry Anne, and when Anne makes it very clear that she will change their lives forever. Cécile is torn - she admires Anne and imagines she will be moulded into a better person by her stepmother, but she loves her easy, carefree life and mindlessly following her impulses and passions. Anne wants Cécile to study for her exam retakes and to stop seeing Cyril, and Cécile rebels, pretending to study whilst really plotting and sneaking out to meet Cyril and Elsa. She plans to use them to break her father and Anne up, even though she knows it is wrong. She imagines that if she changes her mind, she can stop the plan at any moment, manipulate everything as she chooses, but she is tragically wrong.

This is an very short novel, translated from the original French, the edition I have read and am reviewing was translated by Irene Ash for Penguin books. It is told in first person from Cécile's point of view, and the detail of characterisation reflects her interests - Anne is the character that is depicted in the most detail, whereas Raymond, Cyril and Elsa are drawn quickly and are not really explored. Cécile has no interest in anyone but herself normally, but Anne is a threat to Cécile's way of life, and a woman completely different from her but equally skilled at manipulating people. This story is completely free from obvious moral or ethical criticism, Cécile and Raymond do not judge their own actions, they simply do not care about anyone or anything enough to do so, and it is left for the reader to judge the characters and their behaviour, which I feel gives the book more of an impact.

I found this book to be a quick, absorbing read, and I would recommend it to anyone with a spare couple of hours! I just got the 1958 film adaptation out of my university library and am looking forward to comparing the two.

Wikipedia entries, on the author and on the book

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book Review: Beauty, by Robin McKinley

Beauty is a retelling of the story of 'Beauty and the Beast', in first person, from the point of view of Beauty. The storyline is pretty much the same as in the traditional story but some details are changed.

Beauty is a nickname, her real name is Honour but as a child she decided that she'd rather be called Beauty, and the name stuck. She does not, however, consider herself beautiful. Beauty likes riding horses and reading, and when her father's business fails and one of her sisters marries, the whole family moves out of the town to start a new life in the countryside, and Beauty finds herself very capable at manual labour. Then news comes from town that one of the ships Beauty's father owned may have returned, and he goes out to see if this is true. On the way home he becomes lost, and finds his way to the home of the beast.

This book does an excellent job of fleshing out the characters of 'Beauty and the Beast', making them more real. Beauty's sisters are not ugly caricatures here, which I liked, and the magical castle in which the Beast lived was a fascinating place to see described.

This is probably the best-loved of Robin McKinley's books, the first of her novels to be published, I was recommended it several times before I finally picked it up in a library sale. However, I preferred her more recent novel, Spindle's End, which I read before Beauty (review coming soon). Most readers seem to think Beauty the better book, but I didn't enjoy it as much. Beauty is an interesting but pretty passive heroine, and 'Beauty and the Beast' was never one of my favourite stories - it's basically a romanticisation of Stockholm syndrome! The Beast in Beauty is just like the one in the original tale - he holds Beauty hostage in the hope that she will fall in love with him, and I just couldn't see him as a hero. I also found Beauty to be too obsessed with the way she looks, and was disappointed that in the end she does become "beautiful" (which means taller and more mature looking), I would have preferred to see her get over it!

I think anyone who loves the story of 'Beauty and the Beast' will really enjoy this, but if you always found the plot of the original to be a bit thin, you won't like it so much. This is a book aimed at children, I'd say pre-teens onwards would be best suited to it, but many adults have enjoyed it as well.

Book Review: The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman

From The British Library
The Mammoth Cheese is rather a mammoth story (sorry, I know...). It's about a small town in Virginia, called Three Chimneys, and the people who live there during the time after the town first gets a lot of media attention when one of the women gives birth to eleven babies.

Manda Frank, didn't want eleven babies, who would? She wanted one, having already had one daughter, and generally preferring her dogs to people. But she gives birth to all eleven, after the local pastor convinces her not to selectively abort any, and as a result makes the national news, and is bombarded with gifts and offers of help that she would rather not need. Her old house was too small and a new one is being built around her as she lives in it, but when some of the tiny, weak children die, the gifts and help stop coming, and she, her husband, her first daughter and her village are left to deal with everything (including a court case brought against her "on behalf" of the children who didn't survive).

Meanwhile, Margaret Prickett's cheesemaking farm is failing, and she decides to make the mammoth cheese of the title and take it to Washington to get media attention for herself and other struggling small farms and to hold the newly elected president to his promises. She is so busy with this and the electoral campaign for the man she thinks will save her, she fails to notice that the pastor's son August Vaughn is in love with her, and her daughter Polly is falling in love with her charismatic, rebellious history teacher, Mr March.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and the story moves point of view a lot which made it hard for me to empathise with all the characters and make up my mind what I thought about them and their actions. The plots don't interweave as much as I expected them to, which was disappointing, I though the characters should have had much more impact on each others lives.

It's a very American story. Its location is vitally important, a character itself. The nature of American politics is an important 'theme' in this novel, with characters discussing it in conversation as well as plotlines being based around an presidential campaign. I didn't think this was particularly well introduced, this book was intended primarily for an American audience and as a British reader I didn't get some of the references or understand how the system worked, but I do know more about Thomas Jefferson now than I did before!

I never really felt pulled into this story. At no point was I really excited to find out what happens next, I finished it because I found the descriptions of cheesemaking interesting and I don't like to leave a book unfinished. I also didn't like the Christian point of view lots of the characters had, I am not religious myself and so I felt really alienated. The particularly religious characters didn't even feel bad about encouraging Manda Frank to have all the babies despite the consequences for more than a few pages. Some details about the characters were repeated far too often, and I didn't feel that the author got Polly's characterisation right. Even when the story was focused around her, it felt like her actions were being described by an distant adult, and that her thoughts were much too simplified.

I was glad to finish this book, and still have mixed feelings about it. I didn't really enjoy the book as a whole and I thought the plots could have been stronger, but I did like learning about all the little details of rural life. I probably won't read any other books by this author or this one again. I would only recommend it to readers who regularly enjoy stories set in small-town rural America, or who find the plot description really appealing.

Book Review: Acorna's Children: Second Wave, by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

This book is the ninth book in the series begun with Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Ball's "Acorna the Unicorn Girl" and the second in the continuation series, Acorna's Children, following on from the original books centred around Acorna. The original Acorna books are a must-read if you are to completely understand the setting for these books, as very little background information is given in this novel, and events and characters from the previous stories are referred to frequently. You will also need to read the first in this series, "First Warning".

In "Second Wave" the plague is no longer killing people but will start to attack in a new way. Khorii's parents, Acorna Harakamian-Li and Aari, along with their friends Captain Jonas Becker, RK (Roadkill) the cat and Maak the android are in quarantine, still infected with the plague organisms which only Khorii can see. She sets off with her cat Khiindi, and her android brother Elviiz to try to find out how the plague works, but all does not go to plan, with interruptions from new friends, space pirates, Marl Fidd, and the arrival of Khorii's twin sister, Ariinye or for short Ariin, who was stolen from Acorna's womb before they were born.

And it all has something to do with Khiindi, who is clearly not just an ordinary Makahomian Temple Cat...

I would say that the characterisation is just as shallow in this book as in the others, and overall the characters are a bit too nice although some interesting people appear in this book - I wish they had been developed in more detail.

The plot gets more exciting yet complicated. It can be hard to keep track of what Khorii and her friends are meant to be doing as opposed to what they actually end up doing instead for a while every journey they take. This is why I give this book three stars rather than the four "First Warning" received from me.

I would recommend "Second Wave" and the rest of this series for mid-teenagers most as the principal characters are around that age themselves. The ending of this book is left open for the story to be concluded in the third and last novel in the Acorna's Children series, "Third Watch".

Monday, April 06, 2009

Book Review: Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, by Mo Yan

This is a short story collection by a writer who has been described as a Chinese Kafka, and whose magical realist style is compared to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are eight stories of varying length, written over twenty years, and a preface.

My favourite part of this book was actually the preface, which was absolutely amazing. Mo Yan talks about why he writes, explaining how hunger and loneliness were his muses, how his life growing up in China prepared him to write. It's a really fascinating glimpse into the mind and life of this writer.

The stories have a range of different themes, all relevant to contemporary life in China. Love, politics, unemployment, and the effects of the one-child-law all feature. There are some very funny but dark moments. Most of these stories lack happy endings, instead they show how people get in the way of each other's happiness and how trusting hearts are broken when people innocently believe the lies of those in power.

Although I was fascinated by the culture in these stories and found the descriptions of the Chinese landscape very beautiful, and admired Mo Yan's skill, I was never truly drawn into the stories. I suspect that this is the point, however. Readers are not supposed to escape into Mo Yan's writing, they are meant to be entertained but take away the messages and critiques of society that the writer offers. I did appreciate this, but it means I didn't get hooked on the book and was happy to finish it over several weeks, reading on train journeys mostly. Although there are parts of these stories that I will probably always remember and I may re-read the preface at some point, I can't imagine reading the whole thing again.

I would recommend this book to fans of Mo Yan's novels, short stories in general and magical realism, and those interested in contemporary Chinese life. The stories and preface are extremely well-written and you can take a lot away from this book. It is a short book, only 224 pages long and is ideal for reading on the train or whilst otherwise travelling as it will slip into a decent sized handbag or rucksack easily.

Book Review: Straight Up and Dirty, by Stephanie Klein

When I was given this book, I had never heard of the author and hadn't read any press releases. Nobody said a thing about it within my hearing. So all I had to go on was the name. "Straight Up and Dirty". I cringed. I'd never found sex memoirs appealing, and I could just imagine what lurked between the covers. I anticipated jaw-dropping detail, so elaborate I'd get bored and watch the news instead that evening.

However, I read it all the way through, and at the end I felt somewhat short-changed. This book is not dirty. Whoever came up with the title has a really low smut threshold. It's not all that straight-up either, and I don't think it says anything new about relationships.

Although it wasn't a bad read, and I did make it through to the end without getting bored, there was just nothing standout about it, nothing to really make it worth my time. It's not difficult to read, and can be enjoyable in places, but overall it's clichéd and doesn't make any sort of interesting statement. The author jumps about when telling her story, and tries to be funny (calling her ex-husband "the wasband"), but ultimately falls flat. I found the ending to be vague and inconclusive. Klein dates some men, dates some more men, is miserable on and off, finally enrols in a photography class, and then stops being miserable and starts being contented, with no real explanation as to why or how. I would have found it much more interesting if she'd charted how her self-satisfaction started to improve, and included some reflection on it. It's alright for what it is, but I saw potential in it for more.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Blog Update

If you're wondering why every review I've ever posted has popped up in your RSS feed, again, it's because I had to fix some links and had forgotten to tag a load. Hopefully I will never bother you with the same thing twice again!

Thanks for following :)

Book Review: Girl on the Platform, by Josephine Cox

The only good thing about this book is how quickly it is over.

The story focuses on best mates Mark and Pete who go to London for a night out. At the station they begin their journey at, Pete sees a sad-looking girl on the opposite platform, and quickly becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out who she is and helping her. On the way to London the men realise that they won't have enough time to visit any nightclubs after the theatre show they have tickets for if they have to catch the last train home, so they find a hostel, run by Leila, the stereotypical "feisty" landlady. The London section is well paced and funny, and gives enough background info about Mark and Pete to make them sympathetic, but once they go back home the book deteriorates so quickly it's almost beyond belief! The rest of this review will contain spoilers, but the book really isn't good enough for you to be concerned about having the ending spoiled.

The following few months are rushed through, Pete becoming more and more obsessed with the girl he saw on the platform, seeing her again and eventually coming up with a plan to meet her and get her to like him. A normal, non-creepy version of this scenario would involve Pete asking her out on a date, etc, but instead he gets manipulative and after finding out her dog has recently died he buys a puppy which he then pretends he found abandoned - I imagine the reader is supposed to be thinking "Aaaww, puppy" but I was distracted by the fact that he was building their relationship on a basis of lies! I was looking forward to seeing how they'd resolve things once he told her what he'd done to get her to date him, but then the book jumps to six weeks later, when they become engaged, and he has yet to tell her the truth. I'm sure if they were real people she would be pretty confused if not completely horrified when finding out the truth after so long and such a big commitment, even though his lies hurt no-one, they were pretty big lies, but the author doesn't deal with her reaction at all and just skips past Pete's thoughts that he must tell his fiancée the truth through to the wedding party in the next paragraph.

On the upside, it does what it says on the cover, it is a quick read - I read the whole thing on a train journey from Edinburgh to London - and is only £1.99. But I get the impression this book was intended for people who don't read very often in a patronising sort of way - the plot is so simplistic it's insulting to the intelligence of the reader. Reading this will not teach you anything, you may even find it frustrating, but at least it's not long enough to get tedious!

Book Review: Acorna's Children: First Warning, by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

This book is the first in the continuation series, Acorna's Children, following on from the original Acorna books, making it the eighth book overall featuring Acorna and the other Linyaari. The original books are a must-read if you are to understand the setting for these books, as very little background information is given in this novel, and events and characters from the previous stories are referred to frequently.

The story of First Warning centres around Khoriilya, Khorii for short, the daughter of Acorna Harakamian-Li and Aari from the original series, and her cat Khiindi. When a plague starts spreading through Federation space, Khorii and Khiindi are left for safety on Maganos Moonbase, but quickly they discover that they are the only ones who can really help. They encounter a diverse range of characters and make many good and useful friends as they battle the deadly new enemy.

I enjoyed the original Acorna series although I found it quite childish because the characterisation is very simple. This book is no better in this respect and the descriptions of the characters are often repeated. Despite this, however, I really got into the plot and devoured the whole of the Acorna's Children series within a few weeks. I would probably not re-read it, but it was fun. I would recommend this book and the whole of the Acorna series for teenagers most although it can still be enjoyed by adults.

The book is not complete in itself, the ending remains open for the sequel, Second Wave. It is currently available in both hardback and paperback.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Book Review: Missing the Midnight, by Jane Gardam

From The British Library
Missing the Midnight is a small collection of short stories by English writer Jane Gardam. I have the hardback edition, which has a few more pages than the paperback because of the formatting. It's physically smaller than most books, it's a format which suits the writing, and it would make a cute gift. There are twelve stories in this book, grouped under three themes:

1. Five Carols

These are short stories set at Christmas. The first, 'Missing the Midnight' is from the point of view of a girl who has just dropped out of university coming home on Christmas Eve. 'The Zoo At Christmas' follows a group of animals as they leave the zoo to go to midnight mass. The others are 'Old Filth', about a retired lawyer at home alone on Christmas after his wife has passed away - this character was later the focus of a novel of the same name, 'Miss Misteltoe', about a woman considered a parasite by the people who always have her to dinner at Christmas, and finally 'Christmas Island', a strange story about creatures born to humans who devour the world.

2. Five Grotesques

These are quirky, fairytale-like stories and I enjoyed this section the most. 'Grace' is about a man with a diamond in the back of his neck and 'Light' is set in the Himalayas and tells the story of a girl with no eyes in the front of her head but one in her throat. 'The Girl With The Golden Ears' follows the attempts of fashion editor Eglantine Fosche-Grille to get rid of the golden hair that has started to grow from her ears, whilst 'The Boy Who Turned Into A Bike' is about a bike fanatic called Clancy and Nancy, the woman he loves. This section concludes with 'The Pillow Goose', about two women who find themselves with a flock of geese prized for their feathers.

3. Two Hauntings

'Soul Mates' is a creepy story about a couple who meet another pair just like themselves on a retirement holiday, and 'The Green Man' is a short novella about the mythical figure. I didn't really 'get' either of these stories, the first was short enough for it not to matter but 'The Green Man' seemed to drag.

Some of these stories are quite strongly religious, and I did not enjoy that element of the collection because I am not religious myself. However, Gardam's characterisation is excellent and I enjoyed the stories because the characters were all so interesting even if I didn't like the morals some of them express. The stories I enjoyed the most are 'Miss Misteltoe', because it has a clever twist, 'Grace', 'Light' and 'The Boy Who Turned Into A Bike'. The middle section 'Five Grotesques' was definitely my favourite.

I think this book is best read at Christmas even if you are not a Christian - it can feel strange to read Christmas stories at any other time. It would make a nice Christmas gift for someone who likes books but you don't know very well - there should be something in here that most people will enjoy.

I probably won't read this again but it was a interesting and quick seasonal read.

Book Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Afterimage, by Pierce Askegren

This is a tie-in novel for the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, published after the series finished but set in early season 2 whilst Cordelia and Xander are just starting to go out.

The Sunnydale Drive-In has been closed for decades but has recently been refurbished and is going to be opened with a special all-night multiple-bill. Xander has got himself a job handing out flyers for this event, but none of his friends are interested in going. He ends up convincing Jonathan to go with him and they have a good night, but Jonathan isn't able to stay conscious long enough to get home, and Xander ends up half-carrying him to his front door. The next morning, he won't wake up and many other Sunnydale residents are similarly stricken.

Buffy and Angel are out on patrol when they start getting attacked by demons who won't stay solid enough to be hit, but who can still fight them. All this has something to do with the mysterious and charismatic new owner of the Drive-In, Mr Balsamo, and the Scoobies need to find out what before everyone ends up asleep.

The one thing that really annoyed me about this novel is that in it, Willow has high-speed optic fibre broadband in her house. This novel is set during season 2 of Buffy, which means it's supposed to be taking place in 1997. Most people don't have that kind of broadband now, over ten years later! In 1997 you got mediocre dial-up or nothing.

Technological anachronisms aside, this was an okay read, enjoyable but nothing special and although the concept was pretty original, there just weren't the twists and turns that you get in a really good plot. The final fight scene seemed too short. Giles and Buffy both kept telling Willow not to use magic when she suggested she could try using magic for something, which makes sense in season 6 and 7 but not in season 2. However, the characters were pretty well depicted, particularly Xander, he's really the focus of this book which made a nice change.

I'd recommend it to Buffy fans who want a quick read but it's not unmissable by any means, there have been better Buffy novels written and the graphic novel stories are the best non-tv material in my opinion. I probably won't read it again. The book is quite small in size so it can fit in your bag easily, which would be good for travelling.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Book Review: All My Friends Are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman

All Tom's friends are superheroes. Literally. Some of them have more typical superpowers, others are quite bizarre. Tom's wife is a superhero, The Perfectionist. Her superpower is to make anything perfect. The Perfectionist has a nasty, scheming ex who is still in love with her, Hypno. At Tom and The Perfectionist's wedding reception, Hypno hypnotised The Perfectionist so that she can no longer see, hear, or feel Tom. She thinks he's left her, and gets on a plane to Vancouver to start a new life. Tom takes the seat beside her. He only has the duration of the flight to make her realise that he's there - because when she arrives in Vancouver, The Perfectionist will use her power to make her new life perfect - and forget him.

The book is broken into chapters and each tells us about the different superheroes that Tom knows, his relationship with The Perfectionist and his previous attempts to convince her that he was there, or follows Tom on the plane beside The Perfectionist. The chapters are not in a linear order, but each chapter is well placed and the end is at the end!

I really enjoyed this story. It's the kind of book that you will want to give to everyone you know if you love it yourself. I can't see why anyone would dislike this, even if you don't like love stories, this one is completely free of cheesiness.

Kaufman's superheroes are not the comic book, costume wearing, world-saving characters we are all familiar with. There are 249 of them in Toronto. Many of their powers are comedic, others are useless, and nearly all of them you will recognise as belonging to real people as well. I finished the book convinced that some people I know are superheroes too, I may even be one!

A strange but lovely thing about this book is that the pages are really soft! They're quite thick and kind of glossy. I just couldn't stop myself stroking them.

The thing I would criticise about this book is the price. The RRP is £7.99 and it's £5.99 on Amazon. It's a really slim volume and some people will definitely be put off by the amount of book you get for your money. I'm not, because I enjoyed the story so much and the pages are so strokable!

Book Review: The Hawk Dancer, by Diana Saville

From The British Library
Claire Farley, a calm, professional writer of history articles living in Herefordshire, has tolerated her husband's many affairs, forgiving him each time, and after the most recent, believing that she was partly to blame because she stays in the countryside most of the time whilst he goes to London to work. She tries to convince herself that he is getting too old to have affairs, but her unhappiness is growing

When a son of a friend wants a pet hawk, she offers to house it and help look after it. She ends up fully participating in its training, and as she learns to train the wild bird, her confidence grows. She also meets a wildlife photographer and begins to build a relationship with him. She's never been able to tolerate the idea of having an affair herself before, but this time, things might be different.

I did enjoy this book but it didn't "grab" me and I wasn't convinced by the characters. They are all very middle-class, nobody in the novel has anything really to worry about beyond their relationships. The writing style was hard for me to get into, there was some lovely description, particularly of the hawk training around which the story of the human relationships is built, but the author just tells us how the characters felt a lot of the time and avoids showing us their thoughts and physical reactions. They are all very reserved people and this annoyed me, I just couldn't relate to them. The book stays mostly with Claire's point of view but sometimes switches around, and I felt that the characterisation of the other characters was weak, especially Claire's daughters.

I received this book through a swap at ReadItSwapIt and I probably never would have bought it myself. It's unlikely I'll re-read it or bother picking up anything else from this author, but it may be someone else's cup of tea.


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