Sunday, November 27, 2011

that awkward moment...

...when you have ten new books (courtesy of the Atom Bloggers Party) and no shelf space whatsoever as your books are already multi storey and double parked. You already have books in shoe boxes in your wardrobe. What are you going to do?

a) pile them up on your bedside chest of drawers, under the other books already on it, creating a teetering tower of 14

b) leave them in the bag you brought them home in and just move them around your room when necessary to, er, move


c) ??????

I don't know what c is but it'll have to be that.

Book Review: grl2grl, by Julie Anne Peters

Photo by ilouque

grl2grl is a collection of short stories about LGBT characters, mostly girls, hence the title, grl2grl. There are ten stories in the collection, and each is very different from the next, dealing with a range of issues, from coming out to being dumped, abuse to abstinence-only education. I often describe short stories as being either complete stories or snapshots from a character's life, and there are both kinds here. Julie Anne Peters tries to give each character a distinct personality, and I think that she succeeded, although the narrative styles are quite similar in some of the stories.

My favourites were 'Can't Stop The Feeling', which is about a girl who is trying to pluck up the courage to go to a meeting of the Gay/Straight Alliance group at her school, 'TIAD', about a girl who has just been dumped and goes online to a chatroom for advice and companionship, a story I really liked as I thought it was quite original - and 'Two-Part Invention', about a violinist who's in love with the cellist she plays with at summer music camp. I just love musician stories.

I don't think that every story should have had a dramatic impact - the presence of happy endings and sad endings and ambiguous endings makes the collection more interesting - but some of the stories I liked less were a bit too much like a tiny snippet from a life, with nothing really happening in them. Overall, however, the insight into the minds of the characters was compelling and sometimes really affecting.

It's a very American book, a lot of the things referred to don't really exist this side of the pond - I have only heard of a couple of schools with Gay/Straight Alliance groups here, and there are only a couple of summer camp organisations. But if you've watched American teen movies then this shouldn't cause much of a problem.

I think that in a perfect world, every library would have a copy of grl2grl. I think it's one of those books with the power to make troubled teenagers feel as if they're not alone, and as the stories are indeed short, it would be great for reluctant readers. My only complaint would be that it's such a skinny little volume, and it left me wanting to read more from the author. But that's fine, as she's already written novels!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: Valiant, by Holly Black

Photo by cosmicautumn

This book is the second in a trilogy and therefore this review may contain spoilers for the first book, Tithe.

Val has a quick temper and a tendency to respond to insults violently, but when she walks in on the worst of all insults, and sees her boyfriend and her mother kissing and getting undressed, all she can think to do is get away. She goes to the hockey game that was supposed to be a date, and then she doesn't go back. Homeless in New York City, she meets friendly, strange Lolli, and Dave, her infatuated friend. Lolli is immediately welcoming, Dave is more reluctant, and his brother, Luis, is against Val's presence from the start. Luis is guarding a secret, one it turns out Lolli is all too happy to blab - Luis can see faeries, and works running errands for one, a troll. Lolli is addicted to a mysterious faerie drug, and also all too happy to lead Val into the troll's lair...

The troll, Ravus, is an exile from the Seelie court, which is how Valiant ties in with Tithe, and it does so beautifully, introducing a vivid new cast of characters, and including brief appearances from Kaye, Roiben and Silarial. The story is tightly focused around Val and her development, which is realistic and appropriately paced, but it also firmly advances the plot of the trilogy. 

Like Tithe, Valiant is laden with atmosphere. Yet in terms of build up, Valiant is the opposite of Tithe. I felt it was almost too slow to get going into the plot, although I could appreciate the proper introduction that we got to Val's character, after the rush that was Tithe and my discomfort with Kaye's characterisation. I think that the pacing and characterisation in general were much better than in Tithe. The motivations of the characters were definitely clearer.

Another way in which Valiant is dramatically different to Tithe is that whereas Kaye and Roiben's romance had a bit of a whiff of the ol' insta-love about it, the romance that develops in Valiant is more like slowly burning lust that turns into love. I also liked that the romance wasn't the whole of the plot, in fact most of the time there wasn't any romance, as Val was focused on trying to avoid her previous life. I'm trying not to spoil the plot but Valiant is billed as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and it's the only retelling of Beauty and the Beast I have liked thus far, being devoid of Stockholm Syndrome, which I can't stand. Give me insta-love any day of the week over Stockholm Syndrome. Or better yet, give me Valiant, which has neither. Hurrah.

On the subject of plot - it was totally gripping, I loved it! Valiant had me doing something I hadn't done in a long time - staying up late to finish the book! I just could not bear to consider sleep until it was done. All in all, I thought Valiant was a brilliant second book, it left me desperate to read Ironside and find out what happened to our motley heroes in the end.

Valiant is definitely a book for older teens - it's got swearing, sex, and the consumption of fairy drugs. Plus plenty of other stuff some parents may disapprove of, like teenagers with dyed hair and piercings. To me, all this stuff makes a book a must-read, but your mileage may vary...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Now It All Makes Sense, or, Book Review: Harriet the Spy

edenpictures at flickr went around taking photographs of places from Harriet the Spy - I am quite jealous. This is the corner on which the Dei Santi Grocery Store, part of Harriet's spy route, is supposed to be.

One book that I should have included in this post, but forgot to, even though I was reminded to reread it by seeing the author’s birthday written in my diary, is Harriet the Spy.

Harriet the Spy was one of my absolute most favourite books as a child. My copy has been so well-loved that both corners of the front cover have big creases through them, and the cover actually reads “har___t the spy” as a big piece of the glossy top layer has peeled off. The spine has a great big crease, and several little ones.

I was totally in awe of Harriet, every time I read the book. I thought it was amazing that Harriet spied on people, and wanted to be a spy and a writer when she grew up. My previous obsession – magic tricks – was almost completely eclipsed by an interest in spying. After being disappointed by the film, I proceeded to hold a grudge against Michelle Trachtenberg all the way through her time in Buffy. I was not put off obtaining a few items of tie-in merchandise, such as a spying pack that included a folder and a notebook made to look like Harriet’s in the film. I got a few books about codes out of the library. I bought another at a school book fair. Filofax were bringing out a couple of different versions of FunFax, the Filofax for kids, each year, and of course I had to have the spy one. I was too timid and sensible to start up a spy route of my own, but I used to open my bedroom window and sit on my bed for half an hour at a time, making notes about what I saw in the back gardens and on the little bit of road that I could glimpse.

I remembered all these things before re-reading Harriet the Spy. I didn’t expect to discover that it had influenced me even more than I could remember.

Harriet the Spy is the story of Harriet M. Welsch, an eleven year old girl who has been encouraged by her nanny, Ole Golly, in her dreams of becoming a writer when she grows up. Ole Golly told her that she needs to find out as much as she can about everything, and Harriet takes this to mean everyone. Harriet is almost constantly making notes on everything she sees, hears, and thinks, at home, at school, and even when she goes out for egg creams. She even has a spy route scheduled into her daily routine, so that she can spy on several of her neighbours. Her comfortable life is severely disrupted when firstly, Ole Golly leaves, and secondly, her classmates get hold of her notebook.

At the time I didn’t really care much about the moral of the book because I knew I would never let anyone know I was writing about them. I’m sure that I learnt some things from it, however, as I religiously avoided gossip until adulthood. Rereading Harriet the Spy, it seemed like a startlingly strong message for a children’s book to have, it’s not sugar-coated in any way, but demonstrated starkly, just like the message in Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change. I think that this is what is so great about Louise Fitzhugh’s writing – it’s entertaining, but she doesn’t hold back, she warns the reader about the world, and offers them hope for surviving it.

I gasped when I read the description of Ole Golly’s yellow room – yellow used to be my favourite colour. Maybe The Boy With The Purple Socks is behind my switch to a love of purple? When I read the words ‘egg cream’ I remembered imagining an egg yolk floating in cream. Later I thought maybe it was an old term for ice cream. I had totally forgotten all this. It’s neither (via Purple Socks). And like Harriet, I have practically always seen writing as my WORK. I used to tell my parents that I was WORKING without any recollection of Harriet doing the same thing.

Basically, I am a bit Harriet, and Harriet is a bit me, in a chicken and egg kind of way. I had a fantastic time discovering this, and you should all go read Harriet the Spy, now. Me? I'm going to read the sequels - I had no idea they existed until recently. A new treat.

Harriet-related links:
'Unapologetically Harriet, the Misfit Spy' at NPR - radio show discussing the novel and how unusual it was at the time it was published.
'Confessions of a Starvingartist: Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet The Spy”' at Canonball - a much better post than mine about the way the writer has been influenced by the book.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Unread Books on My Bookshelf

/pile on the floor/shelf/bedside chest of drawers...

This is my fourth 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 Unread Books on My Bookshelf

This is the easiest Top Ten Tuesday so far. I have many amazing books on my TBR, and it's nice to get to write about them and remind myself that they are there and I should get on and read them! I tried to avoid writing about books I've mentioned in other Top Ten Tuesday lists. Links will go to Amazon until I actually read and review the books and can link to my own reviews.

1. Out, by Natsuo Kirino
(length of time on TBR - at least three years)
I first read about this on a book forum, lots of people were raving about it. It's crime fiction and apparently quite gruesome so it's not exactly waving for my attention from the shelf (plus there are other books in front of it so I can't actually see it anymore - haha).
2. Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, ed. by Angela Carter
(length of time on TBR - at least three years)
I've owned this for ages but like all short story collections, it's doomed to linger on my TBR, despite Angela Carter being one of my favourite authors.
(length of time on TBR - at least three years)
4. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
(length of time on TBR - too shameful to mention)
There are people I'm actually kind of avoiding out of shame at not having read this yet. I loved David Mitchell's first two books, they propelled him into my favourite author category but this is a giant hardback and thus a committment that requires about two weeks with not much else to do. Okay, maybe just one week, it's not Ash: A Secret History (which has over 1000 pages and did take me two weeks of rushing home after school and reading as much as possible until bedtime to complete).
(length of time on TBR - at least three years)
My sister actually really wanted to read this and she borrowed it from me so it's actually technically on her bookshelf at the moment, but I haven't read it.
(length of time on TBR - over two and a half years)
I read Dead Witch Walking, the first in The Hollows series, last August. At least I reviewed it so I won't have to read it again before I read book two.
7. The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones
(length of time on TBR - over two and a half years)
My MA tutor recommended this to me. I finished my MA in 2009. Le Sigh.
(length of time on TBR - just under two years)
I read this review and desperately wanted to read it. I got it for Xmas...2009. I hang my head in shame.
9. The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy
(length of time on TBR - over one year)
I got this because Sarra Manning recommended it in the back pages of Nobody's Girl and I am a big fan of Sarra Manning. I haven't read it yet. It just doesn't fit into any of my current reading challenges. It doesn't even fit into the one I am planning to run next year.
10. A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray
(length of time on TBR - about one year)
I've heard many good things about this but still it lingers on my TBR. Not for long though, as I have to read it to complete the Book Blogger Recommendation Challenge! Whoo! Finally a book on this list that I'm actually going to read soon! Wayhey!

Book Review: Tithe, by Holly Black

Photo by a.pitch

When Kaye and her mother move back into her grandmother's house, Kaye takes the opportunity to call on some old friends. There's Janet, and her brother Corny...but there are also three faeries she hopes to find. But the faeries don't come when she calls them, and even leaving out milk for them doesn't bring them to her window. She starts to doubt that they were real, but then, whilst out with Janet and her friends, she sits on an old carousel horse. Kaye imagines it coming to life, imagines what it would be like to ride it, were it alive, and then, for just long enough for Janet's boyfriend to see, it does start to move. Kaye runs away from the group, and it's whilst she's on the way home that she hears strange sounds coming from the woods. She goes to investigate, and that's where she meets Roiben, a faerie knight. He's wounded, and she helps him, relieved to know that the fey are real. With his silver hair and strange presence, she can't get him out of her mind.

Soon after, Kaye finally meets two of her old friends again and finds herself entangled in a plot to ensure the freedom of the solitary fey, who will be bound to the service of the Unseelie Court for seven years if the planned Tithe - the sacrifice of a human - goes ahead. Kaye's friends explain that they intend to trick the Unseelie Queen, Nicnevin, by having Kaye taken to be used as the Tithe, Kaye, who is actually a faerie, but has been disguised as a human all her life. At the last minute, Kaye's real self will be revealed, ruining the Tithe, but Kaye doesn't want to wait. Kaye wants to discover what being a faerie means now.

This is actually the second time I've read Tithe, here are my initial thoughts on it, as included in a Goodreads review. I gave it four out of five stars:

I would have loved this had there just been a bit more to it. It seemed more like a snapshot than like I was pulled into the world of the story. I liked all the details that were there, there was just too much missing, like it was pared down to the bare minimum to make a good story. I felt like there should have been some flashbacks or some other device to show us what Kaye's life was like up to the point where Tithe begins. The characterisation was good, the story worked, but I wanted to become absorbed, and sometimes, you just need more pages for that, to be in the world longer. People with a shorter attention span or tendencies to imagine that they are the protagonist (something I grew out of) will probably adore Tithe.

The pacing was also uneven, what we get of the story feels right as we read it, description balanced nicely with action, but it jumps too often, and there was little time given to showing us what the protagonists actually thought about all that was going on. The action takes place over a couple of days, but it slows down often enough that I felt more reflection from the point of view characters would have fit in nicely.

Despite my initial misgivings I liked it enough to want to read the second in the trilogy, Valiant. I reread Tithe this year before continuing with the series. I enjoyed it more this time around, possibly because I expected the concise storytelling, and could just let the lovely descriptions wash over me without wishing there were more actual scenes to the story. I do still think that there could have been a bit more to it, and I still didn't entirely empathise with Kaye's character - she's too much of a drifter. She gets curious and asks questions, but doesn't demand that they are answered, and she typically goes along with what other characters want without thinking about it much. Maybe that's the effect of a survival mechanism developed to help her cope with life following her mother around from nightclub to bar to nightclub. This improves towards the end, when she works something out before anyone else.

The level of description in Holly Black's writing is perfect. The descriptive sections are fairly brief, but every scene has atmosphere and the details about the faerie courts are great, I could easily visualise them in my mind. The moral questions raised in the story fit very well within their context. Like humans, the faeries vary in terms of personality and regard for ethics, but all of them have dark aspects. The fairies are not benevolent spirits - many of them see humans as lesser beings, toys. It's very much a book for older teens because of this - there's plenty of death and pain.

I've finished reading both sequels and I loved them, so I would happily recommend Tithe to fans of dark fantasy, fans of dark faeries, older teenagers, and people who, like me, prefer to read books for older teens. My review of Valiant, the second in the Modern Faerie Tale series, will follow shortly.


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