Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: Bunheads, by Sophie Flack

Photo by Ollie Crafoord

Nineteen year old Hannah has devoted almost her entire life so far to dancing. Now a member of the corps de ballet at the Manhattan Ballet, she spends her nights onstage and her days exercising and practicing in the hopes of becoming an ever better dancer. She dreams of being selected for a solo role - the first step on the path to promotion.

But then she meets Jacob, a cute boy and a 'pedestrian' - a non-dancer. As Hannah spends time with him, outside the theatre, she starts to wonder if she is really cut out to be as dedicated a dancer as she planned.

I was really excited about reading Bunheads for three reasons. Firstly, I was fascinated by ballet when I was a child - mostly because of the costumes. Secondly, the protagonist is nineteen, which is unusually old for teen/young adult fiction. Finally, the blurb mentions that Jacob plays guitar and I just can't resist cute fictional musicians.

I wasn't disappointed by Bunheads, though it wasn't quite what I expected. The ballet scenes definitely lived up to my expectations, especially the dressing room scenes. I loved reading about the rivalries and tension between the dancers at different levels. The dancers have to deal with jealousy and the need to be competitive, even against their friends and other dancers they admire. I think that Sophie Flack chose a good range of personalities to include in Hannah's dressing room cohort. I was really intrigued by wealthy Zoe and excitable, easily-panicked Daisy.

I learned several things about ballet that I didn't know before, for instance, how dancers break in their pointe shoes, and that was very cool.

I also really liked the way that Hannah developed as a character and progression toward the decision she makes in the end. I had been a little bit afraid, before I started reading Bunheads, that it would be a story about a woman who gives up her career for romance (there are far too many of those going around), but my fears were not realised. In fact - and this is where my expectations divulged from what the novel delivered - the romance wasn't that big of a factor in Hannah's mind or in the plot. Jacob is the one that gives Hannah the idea that maybe she's missing out on something, but she doesn't do what she does for him, she does it for herself. I was pleased with that.

The only thing I found a little out of place was that although supposedly Hannah has little time for activities outside of ballet, she does a fair bit of designer-name-dropping and says that she found particular outfits in a thrift store. She doesn't mention fashion as being one of her interests, yet the inclusion of these details suggests that it is. This is only a minor niggle though and I probably only noticed it because I'm into clothes myself and know how time consuming 'thrifting' (as they call it in the US of A) can be.

I would recommend Bunheads to anyone who's ever had an interest in dance. It's not a novel that revolves around romance but I'm sure plenty of readers would really like Jacob. I'm really intrigued to find out what Sophie Flack writes about next, especially as it seems like Bunheads was at least partly autobiographical!

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: Real Live Boyfriends, by E. Lockhart

This book is the fourth in a series and therefore this review will inevitably contain spoilers for the first book, The Boyfriend List, the second, The Boy Book, and the third, The Treasure Map of Boys.

Ruby Oliver is nearly out of the Tate universe! Just one more year to go, and it would be a breeze, if she could control her panic attacks. She knows what she wants to study at university, and she knows what boy she's in love with. Noel is now her real live boyfriend.

Until he becomes a pod-robot.

Real Live Boyfriends was a lot sadder and a lot more serious than any of its predecessors in the Ruby Oliver series, however, it was also much more funny. I actually laughed out loud several times and if you'd like a preview of the hilariousness (and also, the sadness), check out this video of E. Lockhart reading from one of the early chapters:

Real Life Boyfriends is about the reality of romantic relationships and the nature of love. But it's also about pygmy goats, financial woes, dramatic parental reactions, movies, lists (mostly of movies), and above all, friendship.

I especially liked the way that Ruby's views on the last item on that list, friendship, develop. Ruby has been, up until now, a girl obsessed with her own social status. Even before she became a 'social leper and famous slut', she was very aware of where she fitted in. Her group with Kim, Nora and Cricket was not really popular, not really cool, but not on the fringes either. Since the debacle of junior year she's had to decide a) where she fits in, and b) whether she actually cares about the opinions of most of the other students at Tate Prep.

Towards the end of The Treasure Map of Boys, Ruby got over Jackson for once and for all, delivering a putdown that you know I loved if you highlighted the text at the bottom of my review, and that helps set her free. In Real Live Boyfriends Ruby interviews her friends to find out how they would define love and/or friendship for her film project, and the answers she gets clearly influence her decisions and self-esteem.

I loved the way all the characters developed in this novel, with the except of Ruby's mum, Elaine, she just goes scarily off the rails. But Noel, Hutch, Nora, and especially Meghan develop into ever more rounded and grown-up people. In the previous books, we've mostly known Meghan only from Ruby's impression of her and what Ruby says everyone else thinks about her, but in this one, she really comes into her own. I think Meghan becomes a GODDESS in Real Live Boyfriends, I really do.

Meghan and Ruby's scenes are my favourites, along with the really cute scene with Noel and Ruby at the start of chapter three. Oh, Noel. As I say in a slightly different way in every Ruby Oliver book review, be real and eight years older and my real live boyfriend, please.

If I said anything about the ending of Real Live Boyfriends I'd spoil it but I thought it was appropriate for Ruby's character and I was mostly just sad that the Ruby Oliver Quartet had come to an end. I really have loved reading this series and the lessons Ruby learns throughout have made a real difference to the way I see the world. The Ruby Oliver books will probably remain one of my favourite series for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Book Review: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, edited by Nancy Hawker

Telegram Books is an independent publisher of international fiction and a few years ago they published several themed collections featuring women writers from different countries. Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women is the first of these collections that I have tried. I really enjoyed it and will definitely try to read more of the collections from this series.

The writers are from a wide range of backgrounds and thus the stories in the collection are very varied - some more overtly political and others more personal. Some are snippets of memoir, others are fictional fables. A list of all the writers, with titles and synopses for the stories, can be found on the Telegram website here.

My favourite story in the collection has to be 'A Day in the Half-Life of Class 4D' by Kateřina Sidonová, which follows a group of teenage girls as they battle with teachers, smoke in the boys' toilets, joke and tease each other, and try to avoid humiliation, all during one day at school. I enjoyed it so much that this story alone would make the book a keeper.

I was also amused by 'The Path of Medium Sinfulness', by Viola Fischerová, about a little boy who struggles with the idea that animals don't go to heaven, after the death of his pet dog, and the imaginative bargain he makes in the end. 'How I Went to School', by Tera Fabiánová, is a memoir about going to school as a Roma girl, which was shocking and sad but is written with enough comedy to make it easy to read.

I would recommend Povídky to readers that enjoy short fiction and that would like to broaden their horizons.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I first heard of The Hunger Games trilogy in 2009, when I worked at a bookshop. Many of my colleagues told me that I must read it, some even suggesting that a good time to read it would be soon. We didn't have the first book in the shop for almost the whole time I worked there - as soon as it came in, someone would buy it - though there were plenty of copies of Catching Fire (they were on special offer).

Naturally, my TBR being what it has been since I rediscovered the joys of teen lit, I proceeded to not read it anywhere near immediately. I decided to move it higher up the list when I heard that a film was being made. Then I saw the trailer and thought 'this looks like such a good book. Must get it next year'. Despite the excitement generated by the trailer, I was still a bit nervous about whether I'd like the book. Yes, everyone raved about it. But plenty of people raved about Twilight and I resented every excruciating page. But The Hunger Games had one thing going for it that Twilight didn't: there were people who hated Twilight that said The Hunger Games was good.

So I kept it on the to-read list, and now, after determinedly ignoring forum posts and blog discussions and everything else laden with spoilers for the last two and a bit years, I have actually read The Hunger Games. I read it the week before the film came out. Just before it became The Book everyone was reading on the train. In before the hordes. Oh yeah!

I'm not going to write a synopsis. You know what this book is about. If you don't, here's the film trailer, I hope it gets you excited to read it too!

As I said above, I wasn't completely expecting to like it. But I was hooked from, I don't know, page two? 'This is much better than Twilight,' I said. Probably aloud. The plot is gripping and it only gets better as the story progresses and the consequences of everyone's actions are fully revealed.

Katniss actually does stuff, and thinks about the consequences for her and her family, at least most of the time. I found her an interesting and appropriate heroine for the story. A more silly, flighty, romantic sort of heroine would not have worked with The Hunger Games' plot, in my opinion. I also liked the way her family background was a source of both comfort and anxiety for her, it all helped to shape her character. She's guarded and doesn't trust easily but she has reasons for that.

I had mixed feelings about Peeta, her male counterpart . Yes, he's a romantic idealist, and I can understand why. He works as a great foil for Katniss - but there were a few intriguing elements to his character that I wanted to know more about. I also wanted to know more about Haymitch and Madge, which made me think that it would be likely that the rest of the trilogy would hold my interest easily.

I did get a bit confused about the geography of District 12, but I found the level of description of the arena to be just right. I could picture it easily in my head but there wasn't so much detail that it got boring (I will freely admit to skipping the eight pages devoted to description of a church in Swann's Way).

I wasn't entirely convinced by the way the Games ended, but it wasn't enough to stop me from eagerly reserving Catching Fire at the library!

Reviews that helped convince me that I needed to read this book:

Addicted to Heroines


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