Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book Review: Bite, by Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, MaryJanice Davidson, Angela Knight, and Vickie Taylor

Bite is a collection of supernatural romance stories, all featuring vampires. There is a range of writers featured, from the most famous and popular (Laurell K. Hamilton) to the virtually unknown (Vickie Taylor, who had only published mainstream romance before this).

The first story, 'The Girl Who Was Infatuated With Death', by Laurell K. Hamilton, is set in her Anita Blake universe and narrated by Anita. It takes place between Blue Moon and Obsidian Butterfly. I have read most of this series so I was already familiar with some of the characters. In this story, a woman comes to see Anita at work because her daughter is planning to become a vampire. The girl is seventeen and has bone cancer in both legs. Her mother wants Anita to find her daughter before she is turned. But this assignment means that Anita has to go pay a visit to one of the boyfriends she is avoiding, Jean-Claude, vampire Master of the City.

I enjoyed this story as I enjoyed all Laurell K. Hamilton's earlier Anita Blake novels, although the human-wanting-to-escape-mortality-by-becoming-a-vampire plot is getting a bit overdone. I did think the ending was quite rushed, and I've always found Jean-Claude to be a pretty cheesy character - French accent and silk boxers? No thanks!

'One Word Answer' is the second story. It's by Charlaine Harris and features Sookie Stackhouse and some other characters from the Southern Vampire Mysteries series. One evening, a limousine pulls up outside Sookie's home, and a Mr Cataliades gets out, to tell Sookie that her cousin Hadley is dead - and that she used to be a vampire. I hadn't read any of Charlaine Harris' writing before this, and I was intrigued by this story, but not enough to run out and buy "Dead Until Dark" immediately, although I look forward to reading it at some point in the future. It seemed to have only slight erotic undertones so I wasn't sure how it fitted in with the rest of the stories, which are more explicit, but the characters were interesting.

The third story is by MaryJanice Davidson, and is called 'Biting In Plain Sight'. Sophie Tourneau is a vampire and a vet - everyone in her small town knows she is a vampire, but they accept it and it is not discussed. Liam is 38 and has been attracted to her forever, regularly pretending his cats are sick just so he can see her. He finally decides to make his move and invites her into his home for a drink after she has overseen his cat having kittens, but whilst there a news report comes on the television. There have been several recent deaths of teenage girls, officially suicides, but their parents believe they were killed. Sophie decides to investigate, and Liam insists on coming along. I enjoyed this story the most. I thought the vampire characters were the least conventional, and although, having not read any of the novels in the Undead series, I did not understand a lot of what was going on when Sophie and Liam went to see Queen Betsy, it worked better as a short story in my opinion than anything else in this collection. The blossoming romance between Sophie and Liam was sweet and well-developed.

Fourth in this collection is 'Galahad', by Angela Knight. This story was weird. It's the King Arthur/Knights of the Round Table legend - if all the men were vampires, and all the women were witches. Caroline was an English teacher until she slept with a vampire and her witch - Majae - powers were released. Now she suffers from painful visions, but can do pretty much anything with magic. One day she has a vision which leads her to meet Sir Galahad, and together they attempt to save the world by defeating evil vampires and witches. I could have got along with the premise if it wasn't for the jarring modern tone of the story. Considering that King Arthur et al originated in ancient England, there were an awful lot of Americanisms, and there was very little historical atmosphere. The rules of magic were never explained - Caroline can do almost anything she wants whenever she wants, and the whole thing seemed a little too much to me like an excuse for sex scenes. Lots and lots of sex scenes. Cringeworthy sex scenes. There are puns. Bad lines. More puns. If I keep this book, it will be because the many cheesy lines in this story are great to read out with friends and cringe over! Some people may be into really cheesy innuendo...but I'm not!

The final story is 'Blood Lust' by Vickie Taylor. This story is a bit more original than the title suggests. Daniel has just finished his project of creating synthetic blood, when Garth, the man who sponsored his research beats him up and takes the only copy of the formula, and his home, lab, and money away. Even worse, he has turned Daniel's girlfriend, Sue Ellen, into a vampire. When Daniel recovers he decides that they only way to have his revenge is to become a vampire himself, so that he can fight Garth and kill Sue Ellen to save her living a life she would not have wanted. Daniel tracks down Déadre, a lonely female vampire, and attempts to persuade her to help him. Unfortunately, the romance was unrealistic - Daniel and Déadre fall in 'love' within a couple of hours. The twist was not that hard to anticipate, but as a short story, it was more self-contained than the others.

If you are a reader of supernatural romance and you have never read any of these authors before, reading Bite is a good way to test them out, and if you are a real fan of any of these authors you will probably consider this book a must-read. I would also recommend it to anyone who wants a good giggle at the bad puns in 'Galahad'. Regular short story readers, however, would probably be unsatisfied by these stories, which, apart from 'Blood Lust', are not standalone short stories. I would describe this book as a sampler for the writers and their fictional worlds, as most of the pieces are not true short stories but excerpts.

As most of these stories feature "adult content", I wouldn't recommend this book for younger urban fantasy/horror fans, but there are several more age-appropriate short story collections out now, for example, the "from Hell" books.

The BookDepository

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book Review: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is one of those books that everyone who wants to be well-read has to try at some point, and I had thought that point for me would be a long way off, as I have so many other books I want to read urgently. But one of my tutors for the second term of my Masters degree wanted us to read the first ten chapters for a class, and he was so passionate about the novel, I decided to give at go, and after those ten chapters I was hooked and I decided to finish it.

Anna Karenina has two main storylines, although the fortunes of several characters are interwoven. The first follows Anna Karenina, and the second the characters Kitty and Levin.

Prince Stephen Arkadyevitch Oblonsky is an appallingly awful husband and father. As well as being horrendously careless with money, leaving his wife, Darya Alexandrovna, usually called "Dolly", to struggle to pay for clothes for the children whilst he goes out gambling and drinking, he has also had several affairs. The latest was with the children's governess, and when Dolly finds out, she is devastated and wants to leave. Oblonsky doesn't really repent, he just thinks she needs to calm down, and he asks his sister, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, the wife of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, to help her do this when she visits Moscow.

Whilst the Oblonsky household is in turmoil, Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin has arrived in Moscow with the intention of proposing to Princess Katerina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya, "Kitty", who is Dolly's youngest sister. Levin has been in love with Kitty for a long time and has only just plucked up the courage to ask her to marry him. But he soon finds out that Kitty has another love interest, Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky.

When Oblonsky goes to collect his sister at the train station, he meets Vronsky, who is there to see his mother, the Countess Vronskaya. It turns out that Anna and the Countess were in the same carriage and have been talking throughout the journey. When Anna and Vronsky meet Vronsky is instantly drawn to her, and at a ball that evening, Vronsky dances with Anna, ignoring Kitty. Soon Anna and Vronsky are having an affair, and Kitty is heartbroken and regrets turning down Levin's proposal...

The characterisation in this novel is powerful, realistic and precise, and the relationships between characters and their interactions show that Tolstoy was a master at observing human life. Oblonsky is an oblivious socialite, Vronsky also enjoys parties and spends money, but he can afford it and although he cannot really relate to women he loves Anna in his own way. Kitty and Levin both have high principles but a kind of silly naïveté. Dolly is practical and wants more respect from her husband, despairing as he fails to grow up. Anna is socially confident and beautiful, but has obviously been damaged by her loveless marriage to Karenin, twenty years her senior, as she doesn't know how to trust that Vronsky does love her.

I enjoyed reading Anna Karenina, I would recommend it to everyone but it has not taken my Favourite Book of All Time crown, not by a long shot. There are lots of scenes where Levin is thinking about farming techniques or managing the peasants or discussing them with somebody, and he has seemingly made up his mind as to what he believes, but then something happens and he forgets all that, only for us to go through it all again a few chapters later. Lots of people would find all this information boring to begin with, I didn't mind it, except that it seemed not to actually have any impact on Levin's mind in the end. For a long period in the book I was also quite bored of Anna - she is trapped in the same mindset for a long time which is necessary to see how she is slowly destroying herself, but isn't interesting to read. At that point I was glad every time the narrative switched to following Levin and/or Kitty.

I am glad I read this book, but I don't think I will revisit it, whilst there are so many other books to read, although I do look forward to giving War and Peace, also by Tolstoy, a go in the distant future! I might also try his novellas, as by definition they must be shorter!

A quick note - the translation I read is the one by Aylmer and Louise Maude, which one of my university tutors said is the best. This is the one published by the Oxford University Press, Wordsworth Classics and Everyman.

The BookDepository

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review: The Artist's Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self, by Julia Cameron

Photo by Ian Sane

The Artist's Way is one of the best books I have ever purchased. I had been recommended it several times before I finally went out and got it. It is a twelve-week course, with essays, exercises and tools designed to help you unblock your creativity and become a happier, more freely creative artist. It is suitable for anyone practising any form of art, or who wishes to do so. Writers, visual artists, musicians, actors, directors, comedians - all can find something useful in this book. This book does not teach you how to be creative, exactly, but it will hopefully show you how to be creative and happy, how to be creative without drugs or other addictions. It can help you shed your creative inhibitions. The Artist's Way teaches you how to let go of negative beliefs that can hold you back from realising your creative potential.

I think anyone who wants to be a artist of any variety, professional or amateur, should read it because it will help you discover what has been holding you back. It changed my life. I completed the course for the first time in 2006, and I'm doing it again now, because there is much in it that I think I need to revisit. The Artist's Way will not make you successful. You will still need to work on your craft, and learn to market yourself - none of which is covered in this book. It's more about getting going in the first place than learning to be good at what you do.

My main criticism of this book is that it is very spiritual, although not confined to one particular religion. At the start of the book Cameron says that you don't need to believe in God to follow the path in the book - but if you don't believe in God you will probably not engage with some sections of the book so well. Cameron also talks a lot about 'synchronicity' and the universe helping those who help themselves, seemingly believing that once a person has recovered their creative ability, all they need to do is create, and then they will be successful! It's very "New Age" in this way, and if you are the type of person who enjoyed The Secret and believes in the law of attraction then you will have no problems following what Cameron teaches.

I will make one point that goes against the ideas in the book - with practice, you can type your morning pages. I nearly always do, because my handwriting is appalling and I don't have room for all the notebooks I'd need to keep. When I first started doing them I hand wrote them, but my writing hand got tired quickly and I couldn't bear the thought of using up all that paper, so I trained myself to do them on the PC. As long as you can type fast enough to keep up with your thoughts it's fine!

I didn't complete The Artist's Way within the twelve weeks. I've been on week three of my second go for about a month now. If you need to start and stop, it's easy to read through the previous chapters and remind yourself of what you've missed. The main thing is keeping up with the morning pages. I've stopped writing them at various times, and when I get myself writing them again it's like coming home, and I wonder why I ever stopped. Committing to them really works.

The BookDepository

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book Review: Geisha of Gion, by Mineko Iwasaki

Before reading Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, I read a magazine interview with Mineko Iwasaki, who was interviewed extensively by Golden as part of his research. The interview mentioned that Iwasaki was suing Golden for misrepresenting her and the geisha. The geisha in his novel are highly-paid prostitutes as well as graceful entertainers, which was not Iwasaki's reality, although it may have been for other geisha. She sounded like an interesting person, so after reading and enjoying Memoirs, I bought Geisha of Gion.

If you read both books, you will see a great similarity between the fictional life of Sayuri, and the reality of Mineko Iwasaki. Their childhoods and careers as geisha are almost identical. Ultimately, although Golden's tale is more dramatic, rich with imagery, and emotionally evoking, I preferred Iwasaki's memoirs, as I felt they provided more of a fascinating look into the real world of the geisha (or geiko, as Iwasaki explains they were called in her society), as well as an explanation for their shrinking place in the modern world.

The real woman is not so preoccupied by love as her fictional counterpart, she is more career-minded, but she is not wholly serious. One of my favourite parts of this memoir is about when she decided to move out of her geiko house, leaving her servants and adoptive family, and barely knew how to survive in her own flat.
Some readers see Mineko Iwasaki as arrogant, but I disagree. I think she is simply proud of her achievements and talks about them to show how much she gave up when retired. Iwasaki had a very high social status inside the world of the geisha, and achieved fame, but outside it meant nothing, and although she tried to change this, she was unsuccessful. She retired young, dissatisfied and disappointed.

This is an interesting and at times very funny book. I would recommend it particularly to those who read and enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha.

The BookDepository

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book Review: Janes in Love, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

 Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

This book is the second in a series, please read my review of The Plain Janes.

Janes in Love picks up where The Plain Janes left off. It's Valentine's Day and the Main Jane, Jane Buckles, wants a date for the Ides of March ball, but is torn between two boys. One of them she likes and knows, however, he doesn't seem to be attracted to her as much as the newcomer is. But then he is stuck doing community service because of her! It's a difficult situation, but she has a lot to distract her - the Janes are running out of money, Theatre Jane has fallen for an actor and Polly Jane has a boyfriend.

Things get worse when most of the Janes are caught by Officer Sanchez putting one of their public art pieces together, and after another terrorist attack, Main Jane's mother stops leaving the house. It also becomes clear that Main Jane has a secret admirer - is it one of the boys she can't decide between, or someone else? Main Jane is now sending letters to Poland for Miroslaw, and he inspires her to apply for a grant for P.L.A.I.N. to create a community art garden. Could this save the Janes?

I didn't like this book as much as I did The Plain Janes. The characters didn't really develop any more, which was disappointing, and I would have liked to see more public art and less worrying about love lives. The cover and title slightly annoyed me, they made this title very much more a 'girl' book whereas I thought the first book would appeal to boys as well. However, it was an entertaining read and because it is a short, mini-sized graphic novel, it took 40 minutes maximum for me to get through. It is definitely worth reading if you enjoyed The Plain Jane, and you need to read the first book in order to understand and appreciate this sequel. It was nice to spend time with the Janes again and it was easier to get into the plot of this one knowing the background information already. There was also a great romantic twist at the end! It is a shame that the Minx imprint was cancelled and that the sequels the writer and artist had planned are unlikely to surface.

You can see some pages from Janes In Love (without text, so no spoilers) and from the cancelled third instalment in the series, Janes Go Summer here at the readergirlz blog.

The BookDepository

Friday, June 25, 2010

Don't you just love it when

you have a book by an author you love so you know you'll love the book and then when you read the book you love it and keep stopping to say silly things like 'Oh my god I love this book!' or 'Author-name you are a genius'. I love it. You don't say? Yeah. I say.

Last time I had this experience I was reading The Boy Book by E. Lockhart, which obviously I was going to love as I adored The Boyfriend List. I am having it again with Nobody's Girl by Sarra Manning. I swear she just keeps getting better and better! Every new book is just so much more detailed and powerful than the ones before, although of course those still remain brilliant and stand up to being re-read afterwards. I'm only on chapter five, but I can recognise improvement right from the start.

I always read with my 'writing hat' on. Some writers complain that learning the craft of writing can spoil the pleasure of reading unless you make a deliberate effort not to think like a writer whilst you're reading just for fun. This has not been my experience so far. Some advocate reading each book twice, once as a 'reader', and once as a 'writer', but my critical faculties are always on and usually at maximum power when I'm reading a book. I think this at least partly comes from having studied cultural theory, I always say that beginning to learn theory was like discovering that I live in the Matrix. I look at everything through that lens I developed as an undergraduate.

Yes, it involves thinking a lot. Yes, I can no longer bring myself to watch crap films in which a beautiful woman falls in love with some stupid man after various tedious slapstick things have happened. But I get to experience a added level of pleasure when I read or watch something that has been done right. I also admire nice plot twists, detailed characterisation, great dialogue - oh, how I love dialogue! I see how they did that, and I love it! I get especially excited when one of the things I particularly love to see in teen fiction turns up at the start of a book, because there is almost no way that it can fail to be good with one of these things in it. I first made up this list when talking to one of my postgraduate tutors about why I love teen fiction, and I included it in the commentary for my MA portfolio. I've added to it since, so now along with such things as 'intelligent, critical narrators', and 'teenagers with slightly-more-glamourous-than-mine lives', I have listed 'quirky families' and 'characters with hobbies'. One day I'll have to make a post about this list.

But today I am going to type up some reviews for Body Image and Self Perception Month, and then carry on with Nobody's Girl. I am so excited! When I have read Nobody's Girl I will be well prepared for the Chicklish birthday event having read every book by Sarra Manning and Simmone Howell and one of Luisa Plaja's. Unfortunately my local library does not have Della Says: OMG! by Keris Stainton and I won't have a chance to get it before Monday, but still, this is amazing, as most of the time when I go to see authors speak I haven't actually read any of their books!

I haven't posted anything that wasn't strictly a review on this blog for ages. How did I do?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Book Review: Life on the Refrigerator Door, by Alice Kuipers

A whole story told through notes left on a refrigerator door? Sounds difficult to do right, if right is even possible, doesn't it? Before reading this I was very sceptical about the idea. I expected this book to be high on the novelty value and sentimentality, and when I picked it up in the library I did so because I thought the style would be interesting, if not the content.

It's the story of the relationship between a mother and daughter before, during, and after the mother becomes seriously ill - I won't go into more detail or I might spoil it. Surprisingly, this book doesn't come across as gimmicky. It is an honest, and ultimately very sad (I cried! My sister cried too!) story elegantly told through the notes the mother and daughter leave each other. Although they only communicate with each other and us the readers through notes, I still got a real sense of the characters. However, the ending feels a bit too abrupt, it's not as well paced as the rest of the book and I would have liked it to go on longer although the author does her best to draw it to a neat conclusion.

I did wonder if it would have been just as effective or more so if told in a more conventional style. On the one hand, you don't really need to know any more about the characters for the story to work and to have its emotional impact, but on the other, there's some stuff you just have to guess at, and sometimes the notes did seem a little unrealistic.

The biggest drawback of this book, in my opinion, not a criticism, but a drawback - is that it is very quick to read. It took me 45 minutes. It's a good book to have in libraries, and possibly to encourage reluctant readers, but I imagine the sparseness of the text, for lack of a better description, puts off some potential readers seeing it in a shop. If I'd seen it in a shop before the library, I wouldn't have considered buying it. It does a lot in those 45 minutes, I remember the story in surprising detail, but I'm sure most readers that pick up Life on the Refrigerator Door see that it will be a quick read straight away, and that must put them off 'investing' in it.

The BookDepository

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Book Review: Guitar Girl, by Sarra Manning

Picture by leochi

Molly Montgomery is being sued for 5 million pounds by her former record company, and she's suing them back, despite not being even 20 years old yet. Her lawyer, confident they will win, asks her to write down the whole story of how she went from uncool teenager to front woman of The Hormones, so that he can build a case. This account makes up the bulk of this book.

It's not the most original story - teenage fiction as a genre is filled with fantasies about ordinary teenagers who becomes celebrities - but it is unusually realistic. Molly forms the band with her best friends Jane and Tara, in the hope it would make them a little cooler, writing songs about Hello Kitty and magic markers, but it is soon hijacked by Dean and T, two boys who worm their way into the band by insulting them and promising that they could make the group sound better. Molly hates Dean at first but starts to fall for him as they are signed up by a record company and taken around the world to tour. But their manipulative manager doesn't want them to date, and soon he starts to make other demands too, and things go from bad to worse as Molly's virginity becomes hot gossip and Jane tries to live the rockstar stereotype.

I have enjoyed all of Sarra Manning's books, but Guitar Girl is not one of my favourites - my favourites being Let's Get Lost, and Diary Of A Crush 2: Kiss And Make Up, and Fashionistas: Irina. The plot of Guitar Girl was a bit predictable compared to the other stories, and I don't think Dean makes an alluring enough romantic interest. What can I say? He's not Dylan, and I'll always love Dylan the best, although Noel from the Ruby Oliver series is giving him a run for his money these days. Dylan is all mixed up with nostalgia as I read the Diary of a Crush series in J-17 as an actual teenager, and was thereby hooked on art boys for life. But I think even if I was fourteen right now Dylan would beat Dean in the Sarra Manning Toxic Boy Showdown, although the contest is kind of rigged as Dylan gets three books and is essentially nicer.

Anyway, back to Guitar Girl. I thought it was more down-to-earth, with more details about the music business, than any other book about teenagers becoming pop stars that I have read. The characterisation is strong, although I wanted to know more about the histories of the various members of the band than the book includes, and Molly makes a believable teenage narrator. I loved the fast pace and thought that it captured the feeling of being a teenager really well. Despite my criticisms, I have read and enjoyed Guitar Girl more than once.

If you read and enjoy this book, you will also want to check out two of Sarra's other books - Let's Get Lost, and Irina from the Fashionistas series, because they feature appearances from characters in Guitar Girl, and you can see what happened next...

The BookDepository

Here's my review of Pretty Things, also by Sarra Manning.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Book Review: Diving In, by Kate Cann

Photo by ajari

Every Thursday, Collette goes swimming. She loves the water, the exercise, the way it makes her feel. But most of all she loves watching a boy, whom she calls Achilles, because he has the body of a Greek god. She's too nervous to speak to him - until one week she literally runs into him in the changing rooms. Next time they get talking, and it turns out his real name is Art, short for Arthur, and he likes Coll.

They start going out on dates, and Coll is swept up into Art's world. She can't spend enough time with him. He's got looks, money and confidence, but horrible friends and a messed up family. Coll's friends don't like Art much, and neither does her proudly feminist mother. Coll manages to ignore all the negatives until Art starts to expect too much too fast. Coll has never had sex before and wants to feel completely ready for it, whereas Art has had dozens of meaningless sexual relationships...

I enjoyed reading Diving In. The characterisation is strong, especially when it comes to the main characters' family backgrounds. Coll and Art have very different families and the way their upbringing impacts on their relationship is brought into the story really well. Coll's feelings develop at just the right pace, and there are also some funny moments to lighten the tone when it starts to get issue heavy. The central issues of this novel are teenage relationships and sex, and this book has the potential to help teenage readers in relationships to know when they are ready, and to recognise when they are being pressured into going further than they want to go.
Being an old fogey in my twenties now, I'll admit, I didn't get as much out of Diving In as teenagers could and I did find myself getting a little tired in places as the plot revolves around Coll's relationship with Art so much.

Diving In is the first book in a print trilogy, the first in a quartet if you include Art History, which is partly a retelling of the books from Art's point of view as well as the conclusion to their story. Diving In doesn't really stand on its own, to get the full story you have to read - and should want to- the other books. Art History used to be available to read free on Kate Cann's website, but it's been taken down as Kate is going to add more material to it before it is published! Exciting! Kate Cann writes brilliantly from the point of view teenage boys, I absolutely loved the Hard Cash/Moving trilogy when I read them as a teen. I need to re-read those, but I'm not sure my library still stocks them and I don't like the new pinkified covers!

The BookDepository

My review of Leader of the Pack, also by Kate Cann.


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