Monday, 14 May 2012

Audiobook Review: Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

First released: 28th December 2010
By: Brilliance Audio

Audiobook length: 9 hrs and 28 mins
Narrator: Nancy Wu

Frances, a Chinese-American student at an academically competitive school in San Francisco, has always had it drilled into her to be obedient to her mother and to be a straight-A student so that she can go to Med school. But is being a doctor what she wants? It has never even occurred to Frances to question her own feelings and desires until she accidentally winds up in speech class and finds herself with a hidden talent. Does she dare to challenge the mother who has sacrificed everything for her? 

My review:

I loved this so much. Before anything else, I have to praise to the skies Nancy Wu's narration. She gave each of the characters voices that were distinct and real and full of emotion. The voice she gives to Frances' mother is amazing and pitch perfect - not just with her Cantonese accent, but with the bitterness and scorn and manipulation and spite that is dripping from every word she says. While listening to Bitter Melon, I felt very emotionally connected to what Frances was going through and a large part of that was because of Wu's skill at bringing the characters to vivid life. Wu is on my list of favourite narrators now.

Bitter Melon is set in 1989 and tells the story of Frances' final year at high school. Frances lives with her single mother, in a small, cramped apartment in San Francisco. Her mother works long hours and sacrifices much so that Frances can have a good education - but she expects something in return: Frances is supposed to devote her life to her mother's wishes by becoming a doctor, and the idea that Frances might have dreams of her own is something her mother never even considers. All this might be bearable if Frances and her mother had a close, supportive relationship. But instead her mother criticises Frances relentlessly, denies her any freedom and even beats her.

The mother-daughter relationship is the crux of the novel and it is fascinating. Her mother's main ambition for Frances (that she be hard-working and successful) is not problematic, but the way she goes about it definitely is. The conversations between the two, where the mother is doing everything she can to erode Frances' confidence are full of "Did she really just say that?!" moments and I was so gripped. Even though Bitter Melon is a coming of age tale, it took me through as many different emotions as an action-adventure novel: fear, excitement, hope, crushing disappointment, then hope again. When Frances starts lying to her mother about what she's really doing, I was so tense, just so afraid of what would happen if she got caught. And when she is caught...oh my God. The ending is particularly nail-biting stuff, as the new life Frances has started to make for herself begins to unravel - nothing could have made me put down Bitter Melon at that moment.

I've already given love to the narration, but I also wouldn't have been so emotionally connected to the characters if Cara Chow had not made them three-dimensional and relatable. You feel for Frances, but she's not perfect and she's partly to blame for her own downfall. The mother is awful, but I did feel some pity for her, knowing her past - and her future if she drives Frances away. The relationship between the two of them is contrasted with another mother-daughter pair, Frances' best friend, Theresa and her mother, Nelly. These two are awesome and while it's sad for Frances to see what she will never have, Nelly and Theresa gave me something to smile about in Bitter Melon.

The only character who feels unrealistic is Frances' love interest, Derek. She meets him at a speech competition and he is rich, intelligent, popular and gorgeous as well. And unfortunately, I don't believe rich, popular guys are passing over pretty cheerleaders for chubby, plain girls in dated clothes, whose mothers hang up the phone when they try to call. Derek's scenes with Frances are sweet, but they feel more like a fantasy wish fulfillment for the character, than anything that would really happen to a girl like Frances. 

All in all, I was a huge fan of Bitter Melon. So much so, that I went looking for more from the author and was disappointed that she hasn't written another novel yet. Bitter Melon is largely autobiographical, so I hope Chow has more stories in her - I definitely want to read them.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Waiting on Wednesday #14

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill @ Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Pizza, Love, and Other Stuff That Made Me Famous by Kathryn Williams

Sixteen-year-old Sophie Nicolaides was practically raised in the kitchen of her family’s Italian-Greek restaurant, Taverna Ristorante. When her best friend, Alex, tries to persuade her to audition for a new reality show, Teen Test Kitchen, Sophie is reluctant. But the prize includes a full scholarship to one of America’s finest culinary schools and a summer in Napa, California, not to mention fame.

Once on set, Sophie immediately finds herself in the thick of the drama—including a secret burn book, cutthroat celebrity judges, and a very cute French chef. Sophie must figure out a way to survive all the heat and still stay true to herself. A terrific YA offering—fresh, fun, and sprinkled with romance.

Published: 21st August 2012

WoW because: I fell in love with this book as soon as I saw the cover and read the title. What can I say, I'm a sucker for all things quirky and cute and Pizza... looks like both. I mean, come on: How adorable is that cover? How lovable does Sophie sound? And the premise is a reality TV cooking competition (aka one of the best inventions known to man). Pizza... sounds like so many of my guilty pleasures rolled into one delicious-looking dough.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Book Review: Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis

First published: 8th May 2012
By: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Teenage twins Ysabel and Justin Nicholas are lucky. Ysabel's jewelry designs have already caught the eyes of the art world and Justin's intelligence and drive are sure to gain him entrance into the most prestigious of colleges. They even like their parents. But their father has a secret—one that threatens to destroy the twins' happy family and life as they know it. 

Over the course of spring break, Ysabel and Justin will be forced to come to terms with their dad's new life, but can they overcome their fears to piece together their happy family again?

My review:

Happy Families is undoubtedly an 'issue' book. I say this because, at 240 pages in length, there isn't much time for the author to delve into anything besides the issue at hand, and it feels designed to help young adults through a similar experience, rather than to offer a thrilling read. However, the former goal is an admirable one and Happy Families did make me understand the issue of transgender people much better than I did before.

Happy Families is narrated by twins Ysabel and Justin, switching back and forth between them. A common criticism about double narratives is that they aren't distinct enough from each other and although that's usually not a problem for me, I admit, in Happy Families, I forgot whether it was Justin or Ysabel narrating more than once. I don't mind that the twins are alike and react to their father in similar ways - I think that's normal and realistic. I just don't think 2 PoVs are necessary for this story and a better choice would have been to leave it as one.

At the beginning of the story, Justin and Ysabel have the kind of sitcom-perfect, aspirational dream life not seen since The Cosby Show. They're both popular, church-going over-achievers, with an extended family who dote on them. The novel then jumps to a year later and things have changed for them drastically: They're now struggling with the news that their father, Chris, wants to be Christine.

Happy Families is about the twins spending a week with their dad, as he tries to get them to accept who he is. They go to therapy sessions, meet with other transgender people on day trips, talk about their feelings. The insight into life with a transgender parent is interesting and I appreciated the window into that. But while Happy Families is an informative read, it isn't a particularly touching one. It's difficult to get emotionally invested; the lack of subplots means we don't get to know the characters beyond their reaction to the central issue. Justin and Ysabel are given a hobby each (she makes jewellery, he's a master debater), but they still didn't feel like fully fleshed out characters to me; they felt defined by their father's reveal. Making their lives before this so picture-perfect didn't help. If Happy Families had portrayed the twins with other everyday problems with school/friends/girlfriends it would have made them more relatable. Instead, it felt like coming to terms with their father's gender identity was the only problem the twins had and I'm sure that's not the case for most teens with a transgender parent. 

Still, I do think Happy Families is worth reading, especially because the list of YA books featuring transgender people is very short. The list of YA books featuring transgender people, who happen to be African-American, is even shorter. It's a quick read and many of the conversations between the characters gave me food for thought. The book treats the issue of transgender people with dignity and sensitivity. 

While I didn't feel much of a connection with the twins, I dug their parents' relationship and found the way they loved each other unconditionally, very romantic and sweet. It's also likely that the connection I didn't feel with the main characters, would be very present for a reader in the twins' position and I can see Happy Families being a great source of support to a teen in a similar situation.  

Rating: 3 stars

This book was provided to me by the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Compare the Covers: Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier

Ruby Red, a popular German YA novel, has been part of something I hope we see continue: YA books from non-English speaking parts of the world, translated into English, so that more people can read them and be introduced to storytelling from different cultures. I really want to see more international YA on my bookshelves. I'm also interested in how these books will be marketed. Well, for starters, let's look at this:

Hardback cover                                           Paperback cover

I really like the hardback cover on the left. The shade of red is so vibrant and attractive to me and I love how the image at the top is designed to look like a photograph inside an old-fashioned locket or pendant. Combined with the classic watch in the six o'clock position, it tells us this is a story in which time and the past are important factors.

The new international paperback edition on the right, will be released this month. And...ugh. I can see why they've gone with this cover; a blind man could see why they've gone with this cover. This is what sells in YA, right? Thin, pretty white girl. Gorgeous ballgown. Simpering expression. It's supposed to look like every other cover out there, so in that case, it's a job well done. But in trying to appeal to the US YA market, everything timeless and interesting about the original cover has been thrown out and what we're left with is something completely uninspired. Maybe this is fitting - I haven't read Ruby Red, so it may not be any different from all the other YA books flooding the market; being originally written in German wouldn't preclude it from that. But even if that were the truth, would you really want your potential readers to think so? "Buy this; it's exactly the same as everything else you've read recently!" I know that translated works are a hard sell, but I just don't think aiming to be generic is the best answer for that.

The only positive thing I can say about the new paperback is that it shows the London skyline. Setting a story in London is a big plus for me, so I'm glad the cover lets me know about it. I wish it had gone for a more interesting visual than a badly Photoshopped postcard image (it looks so cheap!), but mostly, I wish for a different cover entirely. One that takes an opportunity to challenge the status quo, instead of unimaginatively conforming to it.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Audiobook Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

First released: 30th October 2008
By: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Audiobook length: 7 hr and 48 min
Narrator: Neil Gaiman

Here's a fantastic ghost adventure story, laced with menace and humour.

When a baby escapes a murderer intent on killing the entire family, who would have thought it would find safety and security in the local graveyard?

Brought up by the resident ghosts, ghouls and spectres, Bod has an eccentric childhood learning about life from the dead. But for Bod there is also the danger of the murderer still looking for him - after all, he is the last remaining member of the family.

A stunningly original novel deftly constructed over eight chapters, featuring every second year of Bod's life, from babyhood to adolescence. Will Bod survive to be a man?

My review: 

I'm very sad to say this, but I'm starting to think I'm not going to love Neil Gaiman as an author. I already love him as a person; I read his blog, his interviews, follow him on Twitter...and on paper,  he seems like he should be one of my favourite authors. Every fantasy fan loves Gaiman, but the books of his I've read so far (Stardust, Good Omens) haven't really reached above 'OK' for me - the only exception being some of the volumes of The Sandman series. I think my expectations are too high, because The Graveyard Book was another one that I assumed I would fall in love with, only to feel underwhelmed.

 The Graveyard Book has a totally brilliant opening that hooked me immediately. A mysterious figure, known only as 'the man Jack' has just murdered an entire family - except for the baby boy. The man Jack has no scruples against infanticide, it's just that the baby has escaped from the house and Jack must chase him down to the nearby graveyard. However, he is thwarted in his plan to kill the baby, as the ghosts of the graveyard rise up to protect the boy. They hide him from Jack's sight and once Jack is gone, they all agree to raise the boy themselves in the graveyard. They call him 'Nobody', 'Bod' for short.

I was at the edge of my seat listening to this first chapter, practically shaking from the tension. I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. Only, what happened next was a series of unconnected adventures as Bod grows up in the graveyard. Each chapter deals with some new escapade and the story thread that the book began with is only brought up again once in an interlude chapter and then at the end. 

These kinds of stories are just never going to be my favourite - I prefer a narrative arc that's at the forefront, not the backburner. Some of these little adventures in The Graveyard Book are imaginative and interesting - the danse macabre, for instance, or the chapter where Bod goes to school - but there was nothing to really keep me hooked. Stardust was a very similar experience for me, which is why I'm starting to think Gaiman isn't my kind of storyteller. I'm trying American Gods, but if that doesn't work for me, I give up.

The Graveyard Book may not have lit my fire as a book, but I have to say, as a listening experience, the audiobook is truly spectacular. Gaiman narrates it himself and not only is his natural voice rich and deep and lovely to listen to, but the variety of voices and accents he's able to do for all the characters, made me feel like I was listening to a full cast radio play. Music plays at the start and end of every chapter that's really atmospheric and fitting and puts you in the right mood. I'm convinced that all the enjoyment I did get from The Graveyard Book was down to the audio, so if you're interested in the story, that's the way I recommend reading it.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Should Be Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish.

Top Ten Books I'd Like to See Made into a Movie

There are books that I love that I don't necessarily think will be good movies. This is usually because they'll either require serious CGI that'll probably be too costly (men turning into wolves in Sisters Red) or the book's strength is in the language, something that can't be reproduced on film (Daughter of Smoke and Bone). However, there are some books that I read and while doing so, I can actually see the movie playing in my head and I totally think it will work. These are those books:

10. Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart

This could totally be a Disney or Nickelodeon TV movie. It's cute, it's got a nice "follow your dreams!" message and Olivia could easily be an Alex Mack-style heroine for young girls.

9. Something from Tiffany's by Melissa Hill

I actually didn't like this book very much, probably because it was so obviously a movie and not a book. It's a romantic comedy set in New York and London at Christmas. It involves two couples and a Tiffany's engagement ring ending up with the wrong one. As a book, it wasn't really my thing, but cast some funny and likeable actors in the movie, show me lots of scenic shots of two cities that are particular wonderful at Christmastime and give me a lazy afternoon to enjoy it, and I think you have a guilty pleasure rom-com on your hands.

8. Valiant by Holly Black

This is a gritty contemp novel crossed with a fantasy one and I think the contrast between the bleak, dirty world of the teenager runaways and the fairy world would be very striking to depict on screen. Although there is magic in the novel, it's not the kind that would need the budget of the Harry Potter movies; there are only a few moments and I think they could be done inexpensively.

7. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

The main reason I think this should be a movie is because Amandla Stenburg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games, would be a fantastic choice to play Julia and the filmmakers need to get on this now, before she's too old (Julia's not the main character, but she is my favourite one and must be cast right). This movie actually has a number of great roles for young actresses and could seriously launch the stars of tomorrow.

6. The Outcast by Sadie Jones

I've actually heard this is going to be a movie, but no news since then and many of these books get optioned, but nothing comes of it. This has to be a movie because, um, Lewis. It's so wrong to find that messed up kid sexy, yet I do. I needed to fan myself with the pages after his love scenes with several inappropriate woman, including his step-mother. I hope they cast a young actor who looks mature enough that I don't feel too dirty.

5. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

One of the original YA dystopias and I think the plot and the world are simple enough (at least in the first book) to transfer to film without lots of heavy exposition scenes. Probably the biggest challenge will be finding Hollywood actors that can convincingly be the 'Uglies'.

4. Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers 


Mean Girls: Now Even More Hardcore seems like an easy sell to me. Seriously, while I think a movie would inevitably be made lighter than the novel, I think that could be done and still get the central message, of the bully become the bullied, across. Maybe pitched somewhere around the level of The Craft (but without magic).

3. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I'd love it if this became a movie. Stiefvater did such a wonderful job describing the island of Thisby, I could really see it in my mind. I think there are a lot of images from the book that would  look beautiful on screen and don't films about horses always do well?
2. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Are there bad zombie movies? I've never seen one. And it would be great to have a zombie movie with a teen girl leading the beheading. There are a lot of 'made you jump!' moments from the book that I think would be even scarier visually.

1. Fire by Kristin Cashore

The world of Monsters is one that I would love to see with my own eyes - humans and animals of bright, vibrant colours will be stunning. OK, so medieval fantasy is an expensive genre to produce on film, which contradicts my original stance on what kind of books should be adapted. But I make an exception for this one, because I want to see the Seven Kingdoms come to life so badly.