Sunday 31 October 2010

Make Lemonade and True Believer, Virginia Euwer Wolff

These two books
make up a story about LaVaughn
LaVaughn is fourteen at the start of Make Lemonade
and turns sixteen at the end of True Believer.
There is a third book out now,
but I haven't read it yet.

She lives with her Mom,
no Dad,
he was killed when she was a little girl.
LaVaughn and her mom live in a rough neighborhood.
The kids have to go through metal detectors to get into school
and six of her classmates have died since she was in fourth grade.
LaVaughn wants to get out of this place.
She's going to college,
which no one else in her apartment ever did before.

It's not easy for LaVaughn.
She has to earn her way through babysitting for Jolly's two kids.
Jolly is even worse off than LaVaughn,
seventeen, two kids and no husband,
no education and now no job.

While she's working hard, LaVaughn can't let her grades slip
or there's no point in getting the college money
if she can't get herself into college.
She needs to save up her money,
she can't afford to work for free,
but she thinks how unfair it is that she's working
for Jolly so she doesn't end up like Jolly.

And Jolly can't afford to pay LaVaughn
she can't manage on her own.
LaVaughn tries to help Jolly to get herself out of this rut,
get herself back to school so she can get a decent job,
and provide for her family
and learn first aid
which saves her littlest baby's life.

Meanwhile LaVaughn's best friends are growing away from her,
and her childhood friend Jody
whose mom moved him away to give him a better life,
is back and beautiful, and he's going to college too, 
and LaVaughn thinks,
wouldn't it be good if Jody likes her like she likes Jody?

I first read True Believer when it was brand new,
several years after its predecessor,
and Make Lemonade wasn't in the shops any more.
It worked on its own and I didn't really need to have read Make Lemonade.

LaVaughn is a bright girl defying her circumstances
trying to understand about life and love, friendship and faith,
a likeable teenager with whom it is easy to identify.
She tells her story in free verse,
with simplicity and at the same time enough colour
that I realise I have a much fuller picture of her world and her life
than the story states in just the words.
The hints in True Believer of her back story,
are not expanded any more, or much
in Make Lemonade, (which came first.)

I like a book that tells you so much more than it seems to,
where a few words make up an entire world,
and the story seems to exist outside and beyond the pages.

True Believer was one of my favourite books
when I was a teenager.
Perhaps I even wrote my name in it.

I'm waiting for the third book,
This Full House
to be published in paperback so it matches the others in the collection.
I have been waiting for this book for nine years,
since I was sixteen.
Back then it said, "coming soon," but it never was published
and I started to think it would never be finished.
I moved on to other books

and sadly I donated True Believer a couple of years later
to a friend or a charity shop.

I regretted it, and got a second copy
and Make Lemonade at last,
(Thank you to Amazon UK, the books cost me a penny each
plus postage and packaging,)
and the books are every bit as good as I can remember.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Pink, Lili Wilkinson

When Ava Simpson transfers to private school, she takes the chance to make a new start, change her image and try to be "normal." She is quickly befriended by popular girl Alexis who persuades her to try out for the school musical. After a disastrous audition, Ava decides to help out behind the scenes and join the stage crew. However, her teammates are a group of quirky misfits who do nothing for her image as one of the popular girls. Who in turn are not the people Chloe, Ava's intellectual and stylish girlfriend, would approve of. Ava finds herself trying to fit in to three different worlds and be three different people, but she can't keep these three lives separate forever.

The title refers, first, to the jumper Ava wears to school, a pink cashmere sweater after years of nothing but black. For Ava, this jumper, and the colour pink represents being an "ordinary" girl, feminine, dressy, interested in gossip and proms and magazines - and boys. Despite her relationship with Chloe, Ava finds herself drawn to one of the boys in the play, Ethan, and as she befriends the stage crew it becomes clear to the experienced YA reader that her friendship with another boy - named Sam, of course! - is something a bit special too.

The plotline was fairly standard modern school-story, and one subplot involving Alexis's former friendship with science fiction nerd Jen was taken straight out of Mean Girls. Just for once, I would like to read a modern school story where the popular kids aren't the evil, manipulative, two-faced queen bee that is so prevalent in the genre! But Alexis has another, secret side to her personality that adds a little characterisation to the stereotype. Certainly, the best-realised characters are the stage crew misfits: Jules, Jacob, Sam, Kobe and Jen, and the book shows the other side of the high school musical. The author shows that she knows her subjects, and I was tickled by some of the references to science fiction geekery - in particular Alexis' use of Battlestar Galactica expletives and Doctor Who's timey-wimey detector. (It goes ding when there's stuff.) I would have loved to have seen the characters go to see Rocky Horror, though.

There are a lot of stories out there that explore the ideas of popularity, identity and being true to yourself in a high school setting, but this one is a bit different in that its overall message is that being you doesn't have to mean categorising yourself and putting yourself in a neat little box.*

*After all, you'll end up in a box given enough time.

Book Blogger Hop and Coming Soon 30/10/10

The Book Blogger Hop
Hosted by Jennifer of Crazy for Books

Book Blogger Hop

This week I have come late to the Book Blogger Hop, as I spent all of yesterday taking a day out from everyday life and the world of the internet, and made a day trip up to London. Luckily the Hop lasts all weekend, and so here I am, fashionably late, glamorous and gorgeous, with a contribution of wine and nibbles.

This week's question:

"What is the one bookish thing you would love to have, no matter the cost?"
That's not an easy question to answer, because other than books themselves, what else do I need? More shelves would be great, but I live in a smallish and rather cluttered house, so where would I put them? Anything else would be superfluous, really. But what I could do with is more time.

If only I could have two parallel existences at once: one in which I was living: working, travelling, doing my hobbies, spending time with friends, watching TV, etc. And one in which I need do nothing but read.

What I need is a time machine.

That way I can live each week twice, once for living, once for reading. Maybe that way I'd get through enough books to satisfy me.

What I really need is the TARDIS.

Not only does it travel in time, but it is bigger on the inside than the outside - so there would be plenty of space to store my books. And we know it has a library, because that is where the swimming pool is.

Coming Soon

After being very well-behaved last week, I overcompensated this week and splashed out on lots of lovely new books. I ordered a favourite book from my teens, True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff and its prequel, Make Lemonade, which I never actually read. And on my trip to London, I found myself in the amazing Foyle's bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I came home with Pink by Lili Wilkinson, Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray and Malorie Blackman's newest: Boys Don't Cry. Finally, I have bought a copy of Dawn French's first novel: A Tiny Bit Marvellous, which I expect to have me crying with laughter.

I finished reading Hush, Hush on the train up to London, and read Pink on the train down, so expect reviews of these later.

Thursday 28 October 2010

I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel is the fourth and final installment in the Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle subseries. The Wee Free Men, A Hatful of Sky, Wintersmith and now I Shall Wear Midnight make up a quartet of books specifically aimed at the Young Adult market and also enjoyed by adults (as opposed to the others which are adult novels also appreciated by teenagers.) The subseries follows child witch Tiffany as she trains for her career, which includes fighting the Queen of the Elves with a frying pan, kissing the spirit of Winter, and is watched over by the Nac Mac Feegle, a chaotic clan of fairy warriors who were probably thrown out of fairyland for being drunk and disorderly. By the beginning of I Shall Wear Midnight, Tiffany is fifteen years old and is established in her role as the witch of the Chalk.

The book's title refers to a comment by Tiffany in one of the earlier stories: "When I am old, I shall wear midnight." (It also evokes the wonderful poem by Jenny Joseph that begins, "When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple.") As you might expect, this is very much a coming-of-age story, and explores more mature themes than its predecessors. Very early on we are plunged into a chapter that is comparable with the previous darkest scene of the Discworld, (The Cable Street Cells And What Vimes Found There in Night Watch,) and this in a kids' book! The scariest moments are those where there is nothing fantastical about the monsters at all - because the monsters are entirely human.

Not that Pratchett's other monster isn't scary as well. The big baddy is the Cunning Man, the ghost of an evil witch-finder of long ago, who stirs up people's suspicion of the witches, and their headology, first sight and second thoughts.*
"Poison goes where poison's welcome."
The Cunning Man seems to have evolved from something human into the personification of an idea, something that appears again and again, that a witch may be able to defeat for now, but not for ever. He seems more than a mere monster, like a vampire or even a malevolent ghost. To me it seemed that the Cunning man represents the darkness of the human heart and a warning that it can grow independent and out of control.

But I Shall Wear Midnight is not all darkness, doom and gloom. For one thing, we meet the Nac Mac Feegle again, who persisted in making me cackle insanely with their banter and their twisted logic, their sly trickery and sheer stupidity! It's not possible to tell you enough about the Feegles to give you an accurate picture, so I'll show you instead:

The Nac Mac Feegle

"Why is it, Rob Anybody, that you persist in lying when you are caught red-handed?" [asked Tiffany]
"Ah, weel, that's an easy one, miss," said Rob Anybody, who was technically the head an of the Nac Mac Feegles. "After all, ye ken, what would be the point of lyin' when you had nae done anything wrong? Anyway, now I am mortally wounded to my giblets on account of me good name being slandered," he said, grinning. "How many times have I lied to you, miss?"
"Seven hundred and fifty-three times," said Tiffany. "Every time you promise not to interfere in my business."
This is the final book of the Tiffany Aching series, and it rounds off nicely, leaving Tiffany at sixteen, with a comfortable career and a bit of romance. This book contains cameos from other subseries, such as the original three witches, (Nanny Ogg is on top form!) and various members of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. And fans of Pratchett from the earliest books get to meet an old friend.

*Headology should not be confused with psychology. Headology relies on the idea that people's understanding and beliefs shape their reality. When Granny Weatherwax is attacked by vampires in another book, they find themselves desperately craving a cup of tea. First sight is seeing what is really there. Second thoughts are when you think about what it is that you're thinking.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher

I'll be honest, I didn't want to read this book, but there was something about it that pulled me in against my will. I couldn't tell you what that "something" was. Not the cover in all its greyness, and I felt very uncomfortable about the story premise: a suicide note recorded on thirteen sides of cassette tapes and posted to the people indirectly responsible for the girl's death. It seemed unspeakably cruel. And yet part of me, a morbidly curious twinge in my mind wanted to know. It must have been the cassette idea, the thirteen different sides to the story, that struck me as original and intriguing, but I recoiled somewhat from the subject matter and resisted reading this book.

Obviously, I didn't resist forever, as proven by the existance of this blog post. I was encouraged to read Thirteen Reasons Why after seeing several other reviewers reassuring their readers that this book was worthwhile.

After Hold Still, Thirteen Reasons Why was the second book I read this month that contained a teenage suicide and its effect on those left behind, but this time the book concentrated on the events that drove Hannah to take her life. The events seem small enough at first: a few words, a rumour, and some of the people involved protest, "Surely she didn't do this because of that!" But through her tapes, Hannah demonstrates how small events trigger reactions the instigators couldn't forsee, and how they chip away at her: her trust in people, her sense of security, her self-worth and even her innermost thoughts. By the end of the book, I dare anyone to say that Hannah's reasons are petty and insignificant!

There are two narrators of this book, by necessity: Hannah, in her recorded messages, and her classmate Clay, who hears them and responds to them. At first I found this a little distracting and found it difficult to follow the rapid switching between voices, and for a while I wished that we could just hear Hannah's side of the story (while simultaneously feeling disgusted with myself for being so nosy about such a dark subject. But through Clay, the reader is given someone else to identify with, and we feel an extra layer of suspense, wondering what is coming next and where he fits into this story. As Clay listens to the tapes on a stolen borrowed Walkman, he visits the locations of some of Hannah's traumatic experiences. Seeing the places through two different sets of eyes gives an extra layer of realism to the story. And Hannah's story challenges Clay to think of how he relates to others around him, and how he can learn from his mistakes regarding Hannah.

My first impression of the story was that it was cruel, and at first I could not shake this off. Hannah's voice in the first few tapes has a thin veneer of cheerfulness over a lot of anger and bitterness. The chirpy tones at the beginning are all the harsher due to the knowledge of her intentions at the time of recording. It really feels like this is her revenge: to make her tormentors live forever with the knowledge of what they've done. As the book progresses, and the incidents become not just one-offs but part of a bigger snowball effect, you sense her despair and it seems more like a warning: we can't know how our actions will affect others, what is going on beneath the surface.

Despite in one respect being an easy read, Thirteen Reasons Why is an uncomfortable book, and it took me a while to shake off the feelings of guilt as if I was a voyeur into someone's - even a fictional character' - misery. However, it is extremely thought-provoking and informative. The book demonstrates through an incident in a Peer Communications class that depression and suicide are still taboo subjects, and where a subject is not spoken about, then it cannot be acted upon. Thirteen Reasons Why gives information on the signs to look out for, which tragically went unobserved in Hannah's case.

One of those Really Important Books.

Now for a BBC moment:
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this book, you can contact the Samaritans (UK and Republic of Ireland) details here.
If you live outside the UK and Ireland, you can find details of helplines for your country through the Befrienders' website here.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Uglies, Scott Westerfeld

In a world of extreme beauty, anyone normal is ugly.
Tally Youngblood is nearly sixteen, and is counting down the days to her birthday, when she will undergo a series of operations to make her pretty. In this world, it is standard procedure. From the ages of twelve to fifteen, teenagers are classed as "Uglies," live in dormitories and play endless tricks to try to escape the surveillance around them. Once they hit sixteen they are transformed into "Pretties," move across to new Pretty Town and live carefree lives of non-stop partying. Tally's best friend is three months older and is already pretty, and Tally can't wait for her turn. But with just a few weeks to go, she meets Shay, who would rather stay as she is, ugly or not. When Shay runs away to the Smoke, a community of like-minded, grown-up uglies, Tally is sent after her, and discovers some disturbing truths about the pretty life.

The first few chapters of Uglies came across as a light-hearted, rather wacky version of science fiction, where everything is taken to extremes and nothing is impossible. An example of this is on the second page:

"Sweet dreams, Tally," said the room.
 Very Back to the Future, part II, I thought. ("Welcome home, Mrs McFly.") And there are hoverboards,  better known from the same film, whose makers, knowing that they weren't going to predict a realistic 2015, just had a lot of fun instead. At first it seems that Uglies is set in the same sort of world, though much later than 2015. The talking room and bridges are not just friendly messages, but Big Brother style surveillance. Uglies takes a child's dreams of being grown up, ("Mummy, when I'm a grown up I'll stay up all night. I'm going to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I'm going to look just like Liv Tyler/Julia Roberts/Keira Knightley") and explores the consequences of such a lifestyle. The pretties seem to be happy, but it is a superficial happiness and it comes at a cost.

Although a lot of world-building is necessary, Scott Westerfeld wastes no time but expertly weaves the details in with the action, to create a fast-paced, action-packed narrative. He describes ordinary, day-to-day objects, such as magazines, railway lines and helicoptors as if brand-new, seen through the eyes of Tally, centuries after they have fallen out of general use. He explores themes such as personal identity, body image, growing up and the dangers of blindly accepting what one is told, and creates a dystopia to rival those of Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Handmaid's Tale. Except for the first couple of chapters, I read this book in a single afternoon and am looking forward to reading the rest in the series. I also discovered that a film is due out next year.

I borrowed this book from the library, in the turquoise edition shown at the top of the page. I don't like this cover much: it looks a bit cheap and tacky - which I found there was a reason for: it is a stock photograph which has been used (though flipped) on another book cover. I also didn't feel it was a fair presentation of the book, except in an abstract, artsy way, and based on the picture for a long time I had the idea that the book was about a high school clique. The red-covered edition, which we sell in the shop where I work, is much more accurate depiction of the story and much better graphics, but my favourite is the US cover, shown  here.

Friday 22 October 2010

Book Blogger Hop and Coming Soon, 22/10/10

The Book Blogger Hop
Hosted by Jennifer at CRAZY FOR BOOKS.

Book Blogger Hop

It's Friday again. Time to take a short break from reviewing to answer a little question about my reading, writing and blogging habits and to pass the question on to anyone else who is inclined to share their own thoughts on the subject.
"Where is your favourite place to read? Curled up on the sofa, in bed, in the garden?"
It seems simple enough, but this is not an easy question to answer as I will read at any given opportunity, wherever there is a book to be read. On the train, over coffee after a busy day shopping in Southampton or London, in the bath, up a tree... the list goes on. It doesn't really matter, as I cease to be there once the book has pulled me in. If we go by my most frequent reading location, I suppose I would have to choose my bed, which makes me sound horribly lazy.

Coming Soon

I am down to my final library book from the pile I rented out at the beginning of the month: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, although I haven't started it yet. Mostly my to-read list is a shorter version of last week's: Hush, Hush, The Hunger Games, I Shall Wear Midnight (when my sister has finished with it) and a re-read of To Kill a Mockingbird. I have been mostly good (read: skint) this week and resisted both 3-for-2 on all kids' books at work, and BOGOF at the rival bookstore down the road, but after reading yet more reviews about it, I ordered a copy of Thirteen Reasons Why from Amazon. I expect my pile to grow if the 3-for-2 continues until pay day, though.

New This Week

I have started a Twitter account for this blog, for up-to-the-minute thoughts on my current read. My profile is called KatieWhoCanRead, which was how I was known by my future teachers before I started primary school. I started to read at the age of three, and haven't stopped since.

Thursday 21 October 2010

The Other Alice, Julia Clarke

Ally is like a bad fairy who arrived at the party and cast an evil spell over the world. Everything in my life is fracturing and changing and going wrong, wrong, wrong.
Alice is fed up. It is the night of her elder twin brother and sister's birthday party, and she doesn't want to be there. Sister Nell is shouting, Mum is tired from a stressful week at work and Alice's two best friends have stood her up in favour of a double date. When a strange girl gatecrashes the party, all it takes is one small lie about knowing her. Like a vampire, that small invitation is enough for the other Alice, Ally, to creep into the family's affections. Only Alice (our Alice) feels uncomfortable and doesn't trust the newcomer.

The Other Alice is a simply-written story exploring the issues of family, identity and young romance, with a claustrophobic layer of mystery. Although I borrowed this book from the teenage section of the library, it seems to be aimed at the lower end of the age group, maybe for ten to thirteen-year-olds*, due to its straightforward narrative style which has Alice immediately state the thoughts that other novels might take chapters of hinting and suspicion. This is not a criticism, as I wasn't in the mood for a twisty narrative taking a long time to arrive at an inevitable conclusion. The uncomplicated narrative style, middle-of-nowhere Yorkshire setting and realistic characters made The Other Alice a cosy read that took me back to the books I used to check out of the library ten years ago.

I found it interesting that Julia Clarke decided to give two main characters the same name. There was no confusion as one Alice narrated the story and the other used the short form Ally, but it was interesting to think of the two girls as two sides of the same coin. Alice is a good girl, sensitive and rather idealistic with a vivid imagination, while Ally is unpredictable, wild and rather dangerous. Alice senses that Ally wants something from her family, and while Ally makes herself at home and invites herself into family occasions, Alice feels slowly squeezed out.

It was interesting to read The Other Alice immediately after writing my review of
Fallen, as there is a similar love scenario to the former. Alice has a crush on her sister's boyfriend Spence, and her feelings for him, while rather vague and unlikely, cause her to turn down the more obvious candidate in her friend Sam who loves her. (Yes, another love interest called Sam! Good name. My first crush was on a Sam. But that is beside the point.) It was refreshing after all the star-crossed-lover, eternal romances that are out there, to read one that is based on liking, hormones and being flattered by someone paying attention. It may be small-scale, but I could relate so much better than in most teenage romances. My only slight criticism was that, lovely though Sam was - and he was! - he seemed a bit too good to be true among a cast of complex characters.

A quick, satisfying read and an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

*I realised after writing this review that The Other Alice contained a bit of language which would take it to a 12A/PG-13 rating if it were a film.

Fallen, Lauren Kate

As soon as Fallen arrived on the bookshelves of my workplace in all its gothic glory, it was inevitable that I would not be able to resist its call forever. Long I protested that I wasn't interested in teen romances with non-human love interests, but the book won out in the end.*

Fallen opens with a prologue set about 150 years before the main events of the story, well-written with a good sense of time and character, an artist and his mistress in 19th century England. A short scene, seemingly unrelated, but it hooked me immediately and kept me wondering how it was relevant.

Chapter one, and the scene changes to Luce arriving at her new boarding school. Great! (Have I mentioned that I am partial to boarding school stories?) Sword and Cross is no ordinary boarding school, but a reform school for juvenile delinquents and headcases, where Luce has been sent after an unfortunate incident where a boy died. Sword and Cross has a creepy, zombie atmosphere to it, everything described in shades of black and grey, mould and mildew. To add to the bleakness, although there is no school uniform, the dress code is black, black and more black. Black jeans or skirts, black sweatshirts or jackets, black Converse boots... you get the picture. The students are watched 24/7 by surveillance cameras (although they show great resourcefulness in disabling them!) one third are tagged by electronic wristbands, and detention involves clearing the neighbouring graveyard at the crack of dawn.

Somehow I found myself seeing superficial similarities between Sword and Cross and my university hall of residence: not only did the back buildings overlook Surbiton Cemetary, but it was rumoured to have formerly been a prison - although the truth of that rumour never was established. Being a reform school, the characters were not the same archetypes of the average high school story. Everybody had a Past. Still, Luce manages to make some friends, Arriane and Penn (short for Pennyweather! Probably the only sane person at Sword and Cross, who is only there because her late father was on the staff.) As this is young adult literature, she also meets two boys: the friendly and flirtatious Cam. And Daniel.

From here I felt the story go downhill. Daniel is gorgeous and expresses an instant dislike to Luce, but she "feels a connection" with him, a sense of deja vu and persuades herself that actually they were meant to be together. Daniel gives little to no encouragement to Luce, and all we have to go on are vague descriptions of "feelings," which was a problem as their "connection" proved to be central to the plot. I found Luce's obsession over someone who treated her badly unconvincing from the start, and their relationship to have as much substance as that of Bella and Edward in Twilight, if that.

Meanwhile, Luce seems to be getting on pretty well with Cam, who is instantly smitten. Unfortunately, he just doesn't compare to Daniel. It is as if Cam is the boy Luce would like, if she was simply what she appears to be. But there is something strange about Luce, something that she doesn't understand but that Daniel seems to - if he would only talk to her for two minutes at a time without vanishing on her. Aside from the deja vu, Luce is haunted by "shadows" that no one else can see, but from which she senses threat and hostility. Since arriving at Sword and Cross, these shadows have appeared to her more frequently and they are gaining substance, bringing disaster with them.

As the book comes to a close, and Luce agonises over her two romances, some truths are revealed about Daniel's true nature and his history - and hers. As a battle begins between good and evil manifest, friends, classmates and staff are forced to take sides and some of their true loyaties are surprising. The finale in the graveyard and around the school is a dramatic and terrifying affair, and I was left with the knowledge that this is just the beginning. Only some of the questions raised in the book were answered, and I wanted to know more. Why does the fate of the world revolve around Luce (and Daniel?) What really happened the night Luce's first crush died? And how on earth will they keep their world appearing to be the same as the one we know?

I found it difficult to rate this novel, because there was so much good about it, and yet so much that really annoyed me. In the end I settled on an average of three stars, although that feels stingy to the story as a whole and over-generous to Luce and Daniel, who are the largest part of it. I shall certainly be reading the sequel, Torment, although I haven't decided whether to wait for it to be released in the smaller-format paperback or take advantage of the excellent multi-buys that the bookshops are currently offering on children's books.

*Having looked at the cover for about a year before reading it, I was rather disconcerted to discover Luce does not look like the girl in the picture, having had her long hair cut short just before the book opens.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Twenty Boy Summer, Sarah Ockler

I probably would not have heard about Twenty Boy Summer if it had not been brought to my attention a couple of weeks ago during the Speak Loudly internet campaign against book censorship in schools, so I have Wesley Scroggins to thank for this recommendation.

Twenty Boy Summer is a thoughtful and original novel about grief, friendship, love and being a teenager. A year after Frankie's brother Matt dies suddenly, she, her family and her best friend Anna take a holiday in California. Trying to put aside all the memories the place holds for them both - although Anna has never been there before she knows all about it from Frankie and Matt - Frankie decides to use the time in order to set Anna up with a boy. Anna is less willing but goes along with Frankie's plan, but she has a secret. Just before Matt died, she had just discovered that her years-old crush on him was reciprocated, and they were just working up to making their relationship official. She had promised not to tell Frankie before he did, but he never had the chance. A year later, Anna is still holding on to that promise, trying to reconcile her loyalties to Frankie and Matt.

The novel is told from Anna's point of view, and superficially she reminded me a little of some of Jacqueline Wilson's narrators: a shy girl who follows her more glamorous best friend into situations that she doesn't really feel comfortable with. The two girls' friendship is more balanced than it seems at first glance, however. Anna is no broken reed, but shows remarkable strength in supporting Frankie in her seemingly superior claim to grief - losing a brother rather than just a "friend" - without betraying her own emotional turmoil. Although we don't see it in the novel, Anna tells how Frankie went to pieces after Matt's death, and a friendship between two very different individuals, which in some books seems unlikely, is given life as Anna expresses relief that Frankie is out of despair, even if she has changed drastically. If the Twenty Boy challenge makes Frankie happy, then Anna will go along with it.

Despite the book's title, which no doubt to Scroggins screamed, "PROMISCUITY!" Frankie and Anna only meet a few boys, and only two are given character. Frankie immediately strikes up a flirtation with Jake, while Anna becomes drawn towards Sam. At first she struggles against her feelings for Sam out of loyalty to Matt:
If I kiss someone else, the spell will be broken, and my memories of Matt and everything I wrapped up in them will be erased. No, thank you.
The novel explores the complexities of moving on from a love cut short unnaturally, and allowing the past, present and future to co-exist, neither one invalidating the other.

But is this book suitable for the teenage market, or should we go to all the high schools and remove every copy from the libraries and classrooms? My answer is of course it is suitable. Yes, sometimes the girls are irresponsible and make wrong decisions, but no more so than in every other young adult book out there. Who would want to read about good little boys and girls who always do the right thing, anyway? Not only would it be deadly dull, but you would learn nothing from it. Even the March girls of Little Women mess up sometimes.

Friday 15 October 2010

Book Blogger Hop and Coming Soon, 15/10/10

The Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

It's that time of the week again when book reviewers hop around each other's blogs like crazy frogs. I have to confess to being very greedy when it comes to following book blogs, I just can't read enough reviews by kindred spirits across the world. Alas, this means that my to-read list just keeps getting longer than I can hope to get through, thanks to all the recommendations.
"When you read a book that you just can't get into, do you stick it out and keep reading or move to your next title?"
I don't like to give up on a book, and nine times out of ten I will see it through to the end. If the book that I'm reading isn't enticing me, I'm more likely to put it aside in favour of something lighter or an old favourite - or many - but I try to get at least three chapters read between one more enjoyable book and the next. I can think of two books in the last couple of years that found themselves in a charity shop without my having read to the end, and one that went back to the library unfinished.

Coming Soon

I haven't had as much reading time in the last week as I would have liked, due to various inconveniences such as work and making up for lost sleep, but I have three days off which I intend to make the most of. Alas, my to-read list just gets longer and longer. I still have two library books, (which have now been renewed until 2nd November) a handful of bought books and an ever-growing wish list.

Twenty Boy Summer and The Hunger Games arrived on the doorstep on Tuesday, two books I've heard a lot about in the last month or two.

Today I'm reading Twenty Boy Summer, and aside from any thoughts on the story, I observed with interest that some paperback books imported from the USA have a different texture to UK editions. The cover feels either slightly fuzzy or smoother than smooth, bringing to mind the surface of a chalkboard, compared with the UK's matt or cheap shiny paper covers. Also, the book is slightly floppier. Perhaps American printers use lighter paper?

I bought Fallen by Lauren Kate and Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, which appear to have similar subject matter, were published around the same time, (as were their sequels,) and which have gorgeous covers. I finally bought my own copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great classics and must-reads in the history of literature. Last on the list is my sister's copy of the latest Terry Pratchett book, I Shall Wear Midnight, about which she gave a couple of little hints that caused it to scream out, "READ ME!"

Film: Mirrormask

I knew something about Mirrormask a long time before the film was available to watch. I saw its illustrated screenplay when I was at university, in the fantasy/graphic novels/gifty section of Borders bookshop. (Oh, Borders, I still miss you!) Written by Neil Gaiman, who I then knew solely from his collaboration with Terry Pratchett on their novel Good Omens, Mirrormask was promoted, and indeed made, to appeal to fans of cult classic Labyrinth. Unfortunately I could not find the film itself, which was not released for another year or so afterwards, and which I seemed to miss the opportunities of watching until now.

The plot is a fairly standard fairy-tale, of a teenage girl at odds with her parents. Helena's family own a circus, but Helena is tired of the lifestyle .When, shortly after a bitter argument, her mother collapses and needs a kill-or-cure operation, Helena finds herself full of regret for the things she had said, and the things she hadn't said. On the night of the operation, she wakes to find herself drawn into a surreal world dreamed up by the Queen of Light, who is now ill. Her illness affects the whole country and allows her evil counterpart, the Queen of Shadows, to take over and poison the land. Helena and her new friend Valentine (He's a very important man, you know. He's got a tower) are recruited on a quest to find a "charm" and bring the Queen back to life.

From the very beginning, you can see the comic-book roots of Mirrormask's creators, Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. Helena is an artistic girl herself, and her drawings are pinned all over her circus trailer, all in black and white, with sharp, jagged lines and fantastical images. The circus world is bright, loud, but slightly jarring with wobbly camera angles and clanging, relentless circus music, whereas "real life" consists of drab, rundown flats on the Brighton seafront, overlooking the burnt-out pier. The other world is weird in the extreme, coloured with a goldish light and an appearance that I can't just call special effects but art. As well as the strange and wonderful characters created by the Jim Henson company, including a cameo from the wonderful Stephen Fry Stephen Fry's mouth, the whole set has an impossible, dreamlike appearence. The picture is blurred and there is mist that looks like pencil shading. There seems to be drawing or writing in the sky that you just can't make out, as if the whole scene is being viewed through a golden window with engravings on the glass. And that is before we get to the wobbly houses and the fish flying through the air.

The story takes an interesting turn when Helena discovers the existence of the dark queen's daughter, who looks like her, and who has taken her place in the real world. When the Queen finds Helena, she believes her to be her daughter and Helena receives a nightmaresque makeover to the soundtrack of a jangling, discordant version of "close to you." Gaiman seems to enjoy writing about possessive mother counterparts and the importance of letting a child grow up and be their own person - the Shadow Queen has a similar persona to the Other Mother of Coraline.

It is difficult to know who the audience is for Mirrormask. Although created for the Labyrinth market, I would not recommend it to children, because although mostly harmless, the film's whole appearance is the sort of surreal that would easily give a small person nightmares. On the other hand, the quest plot isn't really satisfactory for an adult, a rather elementary McGuffin-hunt, and Helena's logic in working out the clues doesn't really make a lot of sense. All the same, the film is worth watching for the spectacle, and no doubt analytical, critical types would be able to debate about it to their hearts' content.

Linger, Maggie Stiefvater

Linger is part two of a trilogy about werewolves living in Minnesota. In book one, Shiver, Grace is an ordinary high school girl with a less ordinary obsession: the wolves who live in the woods around her town. As a child, she was attacked by a pack of wolves, but one saved her, a distinctive-looking wolf with golden eyes. At seventeen she met Sam, a boy working in a bookshop whose unusual eyes looked awfully familiar. It turned out that he was a werewolf: human in the summer and wolf in winter. Only, with each passing year, his time as a wolf grew longer and when winter approached he feared that this time he would stay a wolf forever. Shiver ended when, after a risky experiment, Grace and a classmate manage to find what seems to be a cure...

While Shiver was alternately narrated by Grace and Sam, Linger introduces two new voices. One is Isabel, Grace's classmate, whose brother went missing after being attacked by wolves. Through most of Shiver, Isabel and Grace do not get on, but by Linger, they have become friends, brought together by their shared knowledge of the existence of werewolves. Isabel is a spiky, irritable character, but being portrayed in the first person, a gentler side to her character is shown. All the same, I felt that her narration, at least in the beginning, was a little shaky, her voice not quite as authentic as the other three.

Also introduced is a new character, Cole, a former rock star and drug addict, and a new werewolf. Bitter, full of hatred for both himself and the world, I was surprised to find myself liking him. Cole is a well-realised character with the most distinctive voice of the four narrators, but I was surprised to discover that he is only about nineteen. He is full of the world-weariness of a much older character and until it was revealed that he was little older than Sam, I had pictured him in his late twenties or earlier thirties. With Cole, Stiefvater explores a different theme to those usually found in werewolf stories: the question of why someone would choose to become a werewolf. Instead of longing to hold onto his human self, Cole is frustrated that it is difficult to keep in his wolf form - harder for him than for those who would rather be human.
Sam is now 100% human, but still he feels that affinity with the wolves. He has been left in charge of the pack, and both he who used to be a werewolf, and Grace who was bitten but never changed, find themselves wondering where they belong. Both are, physically, human all the time, but feel as though they should be werewolves, and now, ten years after her attack, Grace is getting ill.

I didn't need to reread Shiver to be drawn back into the world of Grace and Sam. Although the characters are the same age as the protagonists of Twilight, I found myself more inclined to take their side than dismiss them as immature, and I felt Grace's anger and frustration at her parents. After leaving her from her early teens to bring herself up, when they find out how serious her relationship with Sam is, they ground her, forbid her from seeing him and tell her she's only a kid and it won't last, and when she turns eighteen she can do what she likes. I found this attitude somewhat baffling. (Do parents really ground their seventeen-year-olds? My parents never used this punishment but it seems ridiculous for someone who's nearly an adult.) Yet at the same time, it felt entirely realistic: After years of ignoring her, Mom and Dad suddenly find out that Grace isn't a little girl any more and try too late to make her what they want her to be by threats and force. I found myself getting angry at them and rather irritated that they blow ordinary teenage behaviour out of proportion while being completely oblivious to the more sinister forces at work under their very noses.

Linger certainly matches Shiver for quality, and I await part three with impatience.

Sunday 10 October 2010

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Since I (finally) got around to reading Neverwhere earlier in the year, nearly five years after it was first recommended to me, I have become rather a Neil Gaiman fangirl. I haven't been able to get enough of his gorgeously dark and twistedly imaginative world, and have been steadily working my way through his books and films. (I have not yet ventured into his graphic novels, not being one of "my" genres. Maybe a 2011 challenge is beginning to take shape?) Reading a Neil Gaiman book is something to be read slowly and savoured, really appreciated, not bolted down in the desperation of a chocoholic with nothing but a bar of Sainsbury's Basics chocolate. This is the real thing.

For a little while I told myself I was taking my time over The Graveyard Book for the same reason: to savour it and because it was the last main prose work left unread. After a couple of days off work, fidgetting and not reading The Graveyard Book I had to admit to myself that it wasn't grabbing me in the same way as Neverwhere and American Gods. I think the reason is that it takes a long time to get going. Gaiman conjures up a wonderful premise, setting and characters, but 100 pages in I still wasn't sure what the plot was. All I knew was a little boy's family had been murdered and he was being brought up by ghosts, occasionally wondering off and mixing with the wrong company - ghouls, and the ghosts of those buried in unconsecrated ground. I enjoyed the description - Gaiman is master of world-building, and whichever character the hero Bod is talking to makes you believe the book is set in the era of their life. The graveyard has always been there, and its mixture of inhabitants bring a mixture of specific eras (the Roman Empire, Medieval, Victorian...) and timelessness. Even the world outside the graveyard feels as though it is from another time. Avaricious junk-shop owner Abanazer Bolger comes straight out of Dickens' London, from his speech patterns, to his caricaturised greed and villainy, even his name.

The moment that I felt myself succumbing to Gaiman's spell was in chapter five: "Danse Macabre," where the living and the dead of the town come together in a dance of ancient tradition, a scene that is hypnotic and dreamlike. From that moment on I forgot my "savour it slowly" rule and could not get enough. I had to have more of this gorgeous storytelling. The relevance of the rather anecdotal first chapters became clear as the threads of plot, setting and character came together in a poignant and satisfying conclusion.

Friday 8 October 2010

Book Blogger Hop and Coming Soon

The Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

As I understand it, the Book Blogger Hop is an excuse to read lots of new blogs and book reviews. Suits me! The Hop is the brainchild of Jennifer at Crazy For Books, who has a lovely long list of sites to go and visit, and together we bloggers mingle and debate the great questions that have haunted writers and readers since time began. This week's question is:

What's your favorite beverage while reading or blogging, if any? Is it tea, coffee, water, a glass of wine, or something else?

Coffee, every time. Proper coffee, made in a cafetiere or french press, preferably from Whittard's of Chelsea, or some other place that will grind your coffee beans for your personal requirements. I use my blue Whittard's cappuccino cup and saucer that was a present from an ex-boyfriend, and team my coffee up with a couple of biscuits, my favourite being milk chocolate HobNobs.

Coming Soon

I am steadily working my way through my pile of teenage/YA library books, and have three more to go:

The Other Alice
Linger (sequel to Shiver)

I'm currently reading Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book which was a birthday present from my sister Jenny - thanks Jen! I have also got onto Amazon and ordered a few titles which I have seen all over blogs lately.

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Twenty Boy Summer - Sarah Ockler
This was another book targetted by the Scroggins for removal from Missouri high schools, in the article which caused outrage, launched the Speak Loudly campaign against censorship, and prompted me to start my Teen Fiction October challenge to myself.

Mistress Pat by L. M. Montgomery. I haven't reread the Anne of Green Gables series this year, and intend to call November L.M. Montgomery month.

I also have my eye on Cross Stitch (Outlander in the US) by Diana Gabaldon, of which I have seen many mentions recently, and which has piqued my curiosity.

The Infinite Wisdom of Harriet Rose, Diana Janney

While reading The Infinite Wisdom of Harriet Rose, I realised that I have two different versions of my teenage years in my memory. The first set of memories are those of my everyday experiences: trying to get through school, keep my friends and shake off the attention of the bullies. The second is the world in my head: my daydreams and stories, of romance and popularity and stardom. In Harriet Rose I found myself taken back to that second, kinder world, with the understanding of an adult who sees beneath the glittering surface.

For her fourteenth birthday, Harriet's mother and grandmother self-publish her book of musings, or "Philosophical Meditations" and thanks to their efforts as her publicity team, she becomes a sensation and is voted as the Face of London. But along with admiration, Harriet finds misunderstanding and hostility from those around her, and finds herself more of an outsider than ever.

For all her faults, I liked Harriet immediately. She is different from so many largely interchangeable teen protagonist archetypes: intelligent, confident to the point of arrogance, but good-hearted. She has been indulged by her mother and especially her grandmother - as evident by their birthday present of publishing her book! Yet for all her intellect, Harriet is also naive when it comes to people, and Janney skillfully puts two layers of understanding in her narration: Harriet's interpretation of events and people's meanings, with their real intentions clear underneath. This leads to several hilarious but rather cringy moments, as you wait for Harriet to realise when she's mistaken.

As the story progressed, I found myself getting a little impatient with Harriet. She was a little too confident, and I felt embarrassment on her behalf when she genuinely didn't realise she was being rude. Yet I found myself recognising aspects of myself at fourteen in her - and indeed myself at twenty four! I felt that maybe she wasn't as sure of herself as she would have us believe. Maybe she's even deluding herself, as Harriet Rose is narrated in the first person. I wondered whether she is after all insecure, as the narrative shows that she does not know how to relate to her classmates, teachers and boys. In asserting her superiority, Harriet comes across as arrogant and pretentious, her dialogue stilted and formal, and in setting herself above the "airheads" of her school, she inevitably sets herself apart and betrays her vulnerability.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Hold Still, Nina LaCour

Mom says Ingrid's name and I start to hum, not the melody to a song, just one drawn-out note. I know it makes me seem crazy, I know it won't make anything change, but it's better than crying, it's better than screaming, it's better than listening to what they're telling me.
When Ingrid commits suicide, high school junior Caitlin is left lonely, grief-stricken and agonising about whether she could have saved her best friend. When the new term starts up, Caitlin tries to carry on as usual, reminded with every step of her absent friend. Her classmates, teachers and even her own parents don't know how to act around her while she tries to carry on: a girl she hasn't spoken to for years makes a well-meant but not-quite-heartfelt offer of support, one of the cool boys shows too much of a morbid interest. Caitlin and Ingrid's favourite teacher Ms Delani can't even acknowledge Caitlin's existence. Then Caitlin finds Ingrid's journal under her bed. What she reads within is painful: an honest account of Ingrid's losing battle with depression, left as an attempt to explain her decision to end her life.

With its first-person, stream-of-consciousness narrative style and the main character struggling to cope after a horrific, life-changing event, I found myself reminded of Speak. Although Caitlin is not as alone as Melinda - everyone knows what has happened - she too suffers in silence, unable to express herself. Like Melinda in Speak, Caitlin finds solace in art, in this case her photography (at least when she and Ms Delani have acknowledged their mutual grief) and also in her carpentry project: building a treehouse. (Trees, art - I wonder if Nina LaCour read Speak!) I found her parents quite difficult to sympathise with as they show little patience with her, despite not having the Sordinos' (of Speak) excuse of ignorance. I understand they would feel helpless as their daughter goes to pieces but they don't seem to acknowledge her reasons at all. The rest of the characters, however, are very well-written, especially new girl Dylan, who gravitates towards Caitlin as if she knows this is someone in need of a friend. Ingrid, as seen through her journal and Caitlin's memories is a very vivid character, and "not the sort of person you'd expect to kill herself," which is no doubt the point of the book: you can't tell what someone is going through beneath the surface.

I found Hold Still to be a fascinating, very sensitive but rather painful book. It does not romanticise the subjects of suicide and depression, but shows frankly the ugly effect of the unanswered questions and the ragged wounds felt by friends and family left behind. At the same time, the book never judges Ingrid, and through her journal I found myself drawn into dark places that, to be honest, I'd rather not go, in the mind of someone who can see no way out of her unhappiness. But Hold Still also shows how, although the grief will not go away, Caitlin is able to cope and carry on with her life, remembering her friend but not letting the past overwhelm her.
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