Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: Good Bones, by Margaret Atwood

Photo by Just Chaos

Good Bones is a collection of (very) short stories by Margaret Atwood, probably best-known and loved for her novel The Handmaid's Tale. I picked this up in hardback at a university book sale I organised a couple of years ago, having previously read The Handmaid's Tale and Negotiating With The Dead, a collection of essays about writing. I was already part way through a book of short stories at the time so it went to the bottom of my TBR, until I pulled it out to read on the train in March. I don't read short story collections very often but this year I've already read three. I think they're a great way to have a break from teen/YA books that isn't too long! I also think they're fantastic for commuting, because if you know your reading speed and choose wisely, you can read a whole story or more during one journey. If I'm part way through a really good novel I find it really annoying when I then have to go do something else for seven or eight hours before I can pick it up again, but with short stories, I can finish one a couple of minutes before I get off the train. Perfect.

The first short story collection I read this year was Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, and Good Bones was quite similar in that there were often feminist messages behind the stories that I had to try to puzzle out. Again, this was a nice change from YA, which is usually quite straightforward. Not that YA novels don't make me think, but it's a different kind of contemplation. Usually I don't have to wonder what a YA book is about, though I may ponder the issues raised in the story at length.

Good Bones is also quite a witty collection - some stories made me laugh, or at least had me smiling at their cleverness. I enjoy it when books make me smile whilst I'm on the train because other commuters always notice and I reckon it makes me seem mysterious but also happy!

My favourite stories were 'The Little Red Hen Tells All', which is a retelling of the children's story about the little red hen who planted a grain of wheat, and ' Gertrude Talks Back', which is from the point of view of Hamlet's mother, but I liked all of the stories. Most of them are only three or four pages long, even in my little hardback edition, so they're very quick to read. Unfortunately this makes some of them quite easy to forget, but on the other hand it seems to amplify the power of others.

I would recommend Good Bones to anyone who has enjoyed any of Margaret Atwood's other works, anyone who likes short stories, and most especially to anyone who wants to try reading more short stories.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson

Photo by Mark Dumont.

It's 1910 and young Maia Fielding lives at a boarding school in London until her guardian announces that some relatives of hers have been found. She and her new governess, Miss Minton, travel all the way to the Amazon to live with her unpleasant new family, the Carters, who appear to detest everything about Brazil. Maia, on the other hand, is utterly enchanted by her new home and is keen to make new friends and explore. Soon she finds herself caught up in the mystery of Bernard Taverner's missing son...

This is the first book by Eva Ibbotson that I have read. I picked it up on a whim, loved it completely, and now I want to read them all. Seriously. I am considering tracking down a copy of every one of her books, building a fort, and hiding out there to read and read and read until I have devoured Eva Ibbotson's entire ouvre.I want to hand out copies of Journey to the River Sea to every child I meet! And probably a few adults too. I loved it that much. And so quickly! I even included a quote from the first chapter in my Top Ten Favourite Book Quotes post.

The narrative voice is funny and charming and snarky. The characters were colourful and varied. I loved Maia's innocence and ingenuity, Miss Minton's sneakiness and dignity, Clovis' nervousness and the greediness of the twins. The main plot and all the subplots were just fabulous.

I'm no historical expert but I spotted a couple of anachronistic details in the story. Nothing really jarring, just a couple of things I noticed, and I know some people are fussy about accuracy, so I wanted to include a warning!

Being a children's novel Journey to the River Sea was quite a quick read, but it was just what I needed to make the time I spent commuting speed by! I would recommend it to EVERYBODY.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review: Under the Never Sky, by Veronica Rossi

Photo by Frankzed
Most of the falcons in the photos I found in my FlickrCreative Commons search looked quite scary but this one looks cute and happy, which made me laugh!

I haven't read any other books from the recent crop of YA dystopias, so I started Under The Never Sky without any preconcieved ideas in my head. I expected that there would be a romance and it would be quite a prominent part of the story, but other than that I wasn't sure of what I would find.

The plot takes the form of a quest - Aria is searching for the truth about her mother, and Perry is searching for a way to get his nephew back. At first they form an uneasy alliance, but eventually the perils they face and the discoveries they make about each other and their worlds bring them closer together and trust starts to develop.

What I liked the most about Under the Never Sky is the relationships between the characters. None of them are straightforward and simple. Even the relationships between close friends and family members have a lot of tension under the surface, because of the heirarchies and power relations in the societies that live in the world of the novel. As the characters develop, we see them gain a more nuanced view of these power relations and their relationships develop too as a result.

Aria and Perry both come across as being practical and sensible people foremost, which is appropriate for the world they have to survive in, and makes them good role models! Aria was a little naive at first and Perry seemed really arrogant, but after a while these traits, which I would have found annoying eventually, broke down and they developed into more well-rounded characters.

I especially liked the romance. I don't think that talking about this is really a spoiler, as the cover makes it pretty clear that there will be a romance, but if you want to avoid knowing any of the details, skip the next paragraph. [As an aside, although the cover is pretty, I think I would have preferred one that didn't imply the romance quite so heavily and that promoted the sci-fi elements a bit more. But I expect that making it romantic attracted quite a few readers!]

There is no instalove, instead there's instarevulsion, but that peters out after a while, and that's when their friendship develops and turns to lust. The book finishes without the 'l' word being said, which I found quite refreshing and realistic. Although Aria and Perry do get quite attached to each other, they are realistic about their futures. Under the Never Sky has an open ended romance - almost anything could happen next in terms of Aria and Perry's relationship and I'd be happy with the realism. I'm not absolutely clamouring for them to end up together, but I wouldn't find it unrealistic either.

I also really liked Marron's character and his little enclave broke up the dictotomy of dome-dwellers vs outsider, and introduced even more sci-fi elements to the story. I also liked the action scenes and the set-up for the next book in the series, and will be looking forward to reading it!

Few books are perfect, however, and there were a couple of things that bothered me although I enjoyed it overall. Firstly, the 'aether'. Why was it never explained? There's enough description of what it looks like, what it sounds like, and what it does, so I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been too much of an infodump to quickly explain what it is, or what the characters think it is. The absence of explanation makes it seem like the author hadn't decided exactly what it was. 

Secondly, the Outsider characters' abilities are awfully convenient. I know that they live in a tough world and their abilities serve to even up the odds a bit, but sometimes things are a bit too easy, and the way they've been assigned to each character gave me suspicions about which way the story will go eventually. I really hope that what I suspected doesn't happen as it would be so cheesy and such a typical sci-fi/fantasy trope! Under the Never Sky was pretty devoid of cheese though, so I hold out hope that the rest of the series will continue on the same path!

I'm happy to say that I really enjoyed Under the Never Sky and I'm looking forward to the sequel. If my description appeals to you, I'd definitely give it a go!

Final note, Re: genre: after I read Under the Never Sky, I wasn't sure that I would categorise it as a dystopia. If most of the action took place inside Reverie, then yes, but it doesn't, and the outside world isn't an organised, tightly-controlled society. However, maybe 'dystopia' works as shorthand - it does seem quite wordy to describe it as 'post-apocalyptic soft SF with some elements of dystopia, though it doesn't get bogged down in all the rules and restrictions'. What do you think makes a story a dystopia?

Thank you to Atom Books for providing me with a review copy.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite Book Quotes

This is my eighth Top Ten Tuesday post. Top Ten Tuesday was created and is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.I love finding my favourite quotes on Goodreads and liking them, and I often remind myself of my favourite quotes whilst going about my life, so this is a fantastic one for me! Great quotes can remind me of great books, and inspire me or remind me of basic facts about life and other people.

Top Ten Favourite Book Quotes

1. “It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can't see who you are. It is better to lead than to follow. It is better to speak up than stay silent. It is better to open doors than to shut them on people. She will not be simple and sweet. She will not be what people tell her to be. That Bunny Rabbit is dead.”
      ― E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

Sometimes I pick up my copy, or I should say, one of my copies, of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and read this section and it makes me feel better about everything.

2.  “A woman knows very well that, though a wit sends her his poems, praises her judgment, solicits her criticism, and drinks her tea, this by no means signifies that he respects her opinions, admires her understanding, or will refuse, though the rapier is denied him, to run through the body with his pen.”
      ― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

In other words, people can want your attention even when they don't respect you or really care about you at all.

3. “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
      ― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

This is such a perfect description.

4.  “Believe it or not, Dimple–and I would believe it–I am just a regular person who has decided to be who I am in life. That's all. That's how you make your life magical–you take yourself into your own hands and rub a little. You activate your identity. And that's the only way to make, as they say, the world a better place; after all, what good are you to anyone without yourself?”
      ― Tanuja Desai Hidier, Born Confused

I actually added this one to Goodreads myself, because I loved it so much.

5. Meghan: Get over it, Roo. If you have friends who actually like you, you’re popular enough.
      ― E. Lockhart, Real Live Boyfriends

I love how Meghan is the voice of loving reality and reason in Real Live Boyfriends and this is so true. As long as you have a few people who actually genuinely like you, I think you're doing okay. You don't need hundreds of Facebook friends or to get invited to cool parties.

6.  Noel: Maybe a friend is someone who wants your updates. Even if they're boring. Or sad. Or annoyingly cutesy. A friend says "Sign me up for your boring crap, yes indeed"--because he likes you anyway. He'll tolerate your junk.
      ― E. Lockhart, Real Live Boyfriends

Oh, Noel *sigh*. Real Live Boyfriends is full of such wisdom. Review in seven books time.

7. 14th September
What kind of stupid name is Veronique anyway? No one's called Veronique! No one except Dylan's new girlfriend! Yeah, that's how much he was missing me! He was so busy pining over me that he managed to cop off with some stupid posh girl from Cheshire. I mean, whatever.
      And she so dyes her hair.”
       ― Sarra Manning, Kiss and Make Up

Odd, but I love this bit! The first time I read it I burst out laughing at Edie's reaction to meeting Veronique, and every time I re-read it I remember my initial laughter and laugh again. The whole Veronique/Carter thing is so ridiculously over the top and yet real in its drama. 

8. “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don't, or someone with a hideous new hat that it's lovely. Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
       ― Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

From Ole Golly's letter.

9. “Her room felt wonderful to her, as usual. She looked around with satisfaction… She imagined to herself that she would always live this way, even after she had grown up and moved away from her family. She planned to have exactly the same room wherever she was, because this room was her. No matter what happened out there in the rest of the world, she felt totally comfortable once she got into this room and closed the door.”
       ― Louise Fitzhugh, Nobody's Family Is Going to Change

This is why I love Louise Fitzhugh's writing. It just feels so true. The children in her stories think about things the way I remember thinking about things. And I love Emma so much, probably as much as I love Harriet.

10. “They were steaming out of the station before Maia asked, 'Was it books in the trunk?'
      'It was books,' admitted Miss Minton.
      And Maia said, 'Good.'
      ― Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea

Maia's new governess is intimidatingly tall and gruff until Maia correctly guesses that Miss Minton is as obsessed with books as she, and after that they are bonded for life. I fell in love with Journey to the River Sea as soon as I read those lines! Review in two books time!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Book Review: Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, edited by Angela Carter

I've been really busy since the start of February and the result is that I've gotten ten books behind in my reviewing. But today, this seems like serendipity rather than poor time management as I'm reviewing Wayward Girls and Wicked Women on its editor's birthday (she would have been 72!).

It's an anthology of short stories, all about women and girls who don't behave in the way that they're supposed to. Some of them just bend the rules of femininity, tiptoeing around scandal, others wander down morally grey paths, a few are borderline evil, but most of them show the irony of the title - the behaviour of their characters may be regarded as wayward or wicked, but they are just trying to live their lives. I can honestly say that I enjoyed every story in this collection, and all of them made me think. Some of them are still regularly popping into my mind two months later.

Wayward Girls and Wicked Women features tales of varied lengths and a couple of the longest, Colette's 'The Rainy Moon' and Vernon Lee's 'Oke of Okehurst' did drag a bit, though they are also two of the most memorable and interesting stories.

I also really liked 'Violet' by Frances Towers, 'The Long Trial' by Andrée Chedid, and 'The Earth' by Djuna Barnes. I'd read Angela Carter's own contribution, 'The Loves of Lady Purple' before, as it also appears in one of her own collections, Fireworks, and of course in the collected short stories volume Burning Your Boats (I own both), but it's a story with wonderful atmosphere and I really liked the way that the author summarised it when giving an overview of the stories in her introduction to the anthology.

My copy is one of the old green covered editions which is cool in a retro way, but I really like the design of the reissue, both in hardback and paperback.

A much better review than mine


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