Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray

Gemma Doyle is bored of living in India with her parents, wanting desperately to go to London, to school and to parties. It's after yet another argument with her mother that she runs off, only to collapse, pulled into a vision of her mother, killing herself to escape a monster from the shadows. A vision that it turns out, showed her the truth. Her father is devastated, drowning his sorrows in laudanum, and they move back to England, where Gemma is sent to boarding school, to be trained, like most of the other girls there, as a proper society wife.

At Spence, the school, she has to share a room with scholarship student Ann, who is endlessly teased by Admiral's daughter Felicity, and her best friend Pippa. They turn against Gemma too, until she discovers a secret Felicity has been keeping. But can she keep her visions secret from her new friends? Does she want to? And should she be paying attention to the dire warnings from Kartik, a young man she met in India, who has followed her to tell her that she should ignore the visions, and certainly never try to bring one on?

I really liked the atmosphere in A Great and Terrible Beauty - it's a mixture of so many things. There's gossip, bullying, vying to be in the in-crowd, and all that typical teenage stuff. But there's also magic, concern for one's reputation, prudery, lust, and rebellion. I found some of the descriptions a bit annoying, verging on purple prose in places. This didn't detract too much from my enjoyment of the book though, as I liked the characters and the Victorian-girls-vs-the-patriarchy plot line so much, and I can appreciate that it's a hard thing to try to recreate the narrative voice of a girl from 1895, whilst trying to make her and her friends relevant to modern teenagers. The whole book is written in present tense, and I just have to say, props to Libba Bray for pulling that off, as I usually drop into past tense after a couple of paragraphs of writing and have to convert the earlier sections to fit.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes reading about girls with magical powers who want to use them and take charge of their own lives, boarding-school stories, and or the Victorian era.

PS. I'm afraid my reviews are getting shorter and not going through so many drafts because I'm running out of time to fit them all in before the end of the year. Apologies to all.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: Valencia, by Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea gives some background to her memoirs and talks about her move into writing fiction.

Valencia is a memoir by Michelle Tea, about her time living in San Francisco, falling in and out of love with a succession of girls, going to various nightclubs, parties and gay pride marches, and losing several jobs. It's split into chapters but is told in quite a stream-of-consciousness style - she'll start out telling one story but will diverge into telling us umpteen other people's stories in between. I wouldn't read this if you require a plot to get along with a book, because the narrative here isn't going anywhere, it's just a continuous description of things that happen and people the author knows.

I wasn't expecting to laugh a lot whilst reading Valencia, but although some parts were sad and some of the people described were troubled, other parts were hilarious. There are so many strange but still very real characters, and the author tells us what she was thinking at these times in her life in a really deadpan way. For example, at one point, she has a job at a courier company, and she wants to lose it, but they won't fire her. The way she talks about why she won't just quit, rationalising what doesn't make sense at all, is so ridiculous I couldn't help but laugh out loud.

I thought the introduction to this edition was particularly interesting (I studied life writing - nerd alert), because Michelle Tea writes about how writing about her own life has frozen it in time. With time and distance, we view things that happened to us differently, and she says this process has happened slowly for her, because when she performs extracts from the book, she has to inhabit the way she felt at the time, and cling onto it.

Valencia was easy to read but not absolutely compelling - it would probably be more interesting for people who are involved in similar 'scenes', and who have more in common with the ambitionless, hedonistic characters. I'm not sure whether I'll read it again,  but it has reminded me of how interesting the everyday can be when described with intelligence and humour.

Book Review: Candy, by Kevin Brooks

Photo by __Wichid__

Joe's whole world changes when he meets Candy outside King's Cross station. She's so beautiful and charismatic, and he becomes happily obsessed straight away. Even when he meets the terrifying Iggy, who easily intimidates them both, he doesn't want to believe that there's something strange going on. He doesn't care that she could be dangerous, that dangerous things could be happening to her. All he wants is to spend more time with her, but she's already made a big commitment to something else: heroin.

I found Candy to be extremely easy to read. That's the thing that struck me the most about it. Sometimes, when I'm reading a book, I feel the urge to take a break from it, to get my entertainment in other forms - listen to music or watch a film. Not so with Candy. The writing just flows. I don't think the book would work if it didn't have this quality, making it compulsively readable - Joe knows his relationship with Candy is doomed, we know it's doomed, but we still want to know how it all comes to an end.

The characters are vivid, if not especially original - Joe lives a pretty quiet life in the suburbs with his father and older sister, Gina. He plays in a band, The Katies, although he lacks the passion of the other band members. Candy ran away from the same town, making a few naive and sad mistakes that lead to her downfall.

The story is quite simplistic, there aren't many twists and turns, and I think it's Joe's style of thinking that drives the story. He acts impulsively, going against good judgement, but we can understand why he does it, although I don't think Joe loves Candy as much as he loves the idea of her - they barely get to know each other.

I enjoyed reading Candy, though I don't think I'll read it again. I would recommend it, and I would like to read more books by Kevin Brooks in the future, but the world of Candy isn't a place I can see myself wanting to return to.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favourites

This is my fifth Top Ten Tuesday post. Top Ten Tuesday was created and is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is...

Top Ten Childhood Favourites

I've tried to put this list in chronological order, but I don't actually remember what age I was when I read them! Here's my best shot. Links go to my reviews or to Amazon.

1. The Wishing Chair, by Enid Blyton
I ended up liking this series more than the more famous The Faraway Tree series, even though it's really similar. I think there was a bit more drama with people trying to steal the wishing chair, and I remember liking the characters better. They visit some of the same lands that the children from The Faraway Tree visited, and I thought that was cool.
2. The Secret Island, by Enid Blyton
Four kids run away to live on an island. It's the first in the Secret series, and I don't really remember them that well but I read them over and over.
3. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
I read this over and over and over and over, and you can find out why if you read my review!
4. The Diddakoi, by Rumer Godden
This is about a orphaned half-Romani girl (Diddakoi) called Kizzy who lives with her grandmother in an orchard. When her grandmother dies, Kizzy is fostered and, as you'd expect, has trouble fitting in with her new family, and at school, where most of the other children are horrible to her. If you read just one of the books on this list, make it this one.
5. Double Act, by Jacqueline Wilson
I've actually only read this once. I couldn't bring myself to read it again because it made me cry so much. It's about twins called Ruby and Garnet, who are completely inseparable, and how they stop being that way.
6. The Illustrated Mum, by Jacqueline Wilson
This is about a girl called Dolphin, her sister, Star, and their mother, Marigold, who has a not insubstantial number of tattoos (hence 'Illustrated Mum'). Other people think Marigold is weird but Dolphin adores her, despite her strange moods, tendency to go out all night, and obsession with Star's father, Micky. Things start to get more and more difficult when Marigold is reunited with Micky, and Star gets a boyfriend. Dolphin makes friends with this boy called Oliver who spends his school break times in the library to avoid getting bullied which I so would have done if I'd had the choice.
7. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
As I wrote in my second Top Ten Tuesday post, this is probably the book I've reread the most.
8. Matilda, by Roald Dahl
Another book that is in 'well-loved' condition. I read Matilda over and over and thought it was completely unfair that I had to put up with other kids being mean to me at school without developing any magical powers. I thought the film adaptation was really good, but it was pretty close to the novel, no Harriet the Spy.
9. What Katy Did At School, by Susan Coolidge
I never read any of the other Katy books, this was the only one in my house. Basically, this girl called Katy (which always really annoyed me as a child, I was fixated on the idea that the prettiest spelling was Katie) goes to boarding school with her sister, Clover. There's a bit of drama over washstands, and a Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct - a club against flirting! That would never fly in a YA novel these days! My favourite parts were the descriptions of Katy and Clover's going-away presents and Christmas boxes, Sometimes I would try to find things I owned that were similar to the things they got in their boxes and put them all together and pretend I was at boarding school and had just got them in the post.
10. Little Women, by Louisa May Allcott
Or rather, half of Little Women. I only found out a year or so ago that the first half of it was published first, under the same title, and I must have read one of those copies, handed down from my mum's childhood library. D'oh. But I read that half innumerable times, loving Jo and hating Amy. I would have been so furious if anyone had dared to destroy anything I'd written.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Book Review: Ironside, by Holly Black

Photo by Jon Mountjoy

This book is the third in a trilogy and therefore this review will inevitably contain spoilers for the first book, Tithe, and the second, Valiant.

On the darkest day of winter, Roiben will be crowned King of the Unseelie Court, and as terrible and terrifying as the Unseelie Court can be, Kaye can't resist going down to celebrate. Kaye's known that she is a faerie for a few months now, but the ways of the fey, especially the court customs, are mostly a mystery to her.

Just as they are to Cornelius Stone, who is still recovering from his sister's death and the time he spent in the Unseelie Court as the human pet of the former queen's knight, and later king, Nephamael. He's desperate to find out how to protect himself from the fey, so that they can never hurt him or his family again.

But whilst Corny is nervous and prepared, Kaye is rash and wild, and her official declaration of love to Roiben ends with her being given an impossible quest - to find a faerie that can lie. No such creature exists, and so Kaye is forbidden from even speaking to Roiben - a task that proves increasingly difficult as Silarial, Queen of the Seelie Court, is still determined to win the war and rule over Unseelie.

My favourite sequels are those that make me feel like I'm slipping comfortably into a familiar world, and I definitely felt that when I read the first few pages of Ironside. It's difficult to comment on the characterisation and world-building, because most of the characters and many of the locations were introduced in Tithe and Valiant, and Ironside provides more of the same atmosphere. I liked Kaye better, but I still didn't feel that I understood her as much as I understood Corny and Val. However, the plot was fantastic. It was a fun and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy of Modern Faerie Tales, and I was gripped the whole way through.

Although this series had a shaky start, the engrossing world, dark elements, and plot drew me in and kept me interested. I can see why these books, particularly the first one, have had mixed reviews, but if you like dark fantasy, and don't mind teenagers doing things that many adults would disapprove of, I would recommend the Modern Faerie Tales. I'm really looking forward to reading more from Holly Black in the future.


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