Wednesday 31 August 2011

Read of the Month - August 2011

...or What I Read and What I Thought was best.

I've been posting a lot more this month, because I was at home but still away from work. I hope I can keep it up now that school is back in session. Now, let's see if I actually read more in August.

In August 2011, I read:

1. Divergent by Veronica Roth

2. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

3. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

4. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

5. The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

6. Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Bah! I barely read anything. I should have read at least 3 more, but got swamped with back-to-school work. Well, I know hands-down what my favourite thing I read this month was:

Across the Universe

My favourite 2011 debut that I've read so far; a sci-fi dystopia that depicts a terrifying world, but with characters that really touch your heart.

So, what about the rest of you? What did you read this month and what was your favourite?

Waiting on Wednesday #6

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

My WoW pick for this week is:

A Million Suns by Beth Revis

When Elder learns harrowing news about the space ship Godspeed, he and Amy must work together to unlock a puzzle that was set in motion hundreds of years earlier, all the while dealing with the romance that’s growing between them and the chaos that threatens to tear them apart. It all boils down to one mind-bending conclusion: They have to get off this ship.

Released in: January 2012

WoW because: I just read Across the Universe and am still squeeing about how much I loved it: It's a totally compelling sci-fi dystopia with wonderful characters. This book is the second in the trilogy and if it's as good as the first, then the story of Amy and Elder aboard the Godspeed will be one of my favourite YA series of all time. 

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Top of My TBR List

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

Top Ten Books That Are On the Top of My TBR List for Autumn

These are all books that I have in my possession and really want to read, but still haven't. Some I need to read for challenges before the year is out, so I really do have to focus on them and stop getting distracted by other books.

10. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I remember eagerly awaiting the release of this Newbery Medal-winning book in the UK, which it finally was this year. Months later, it's still waiting to be read and it's very slim and looks like it can be read in a day, so I have no excuse.

9. Lament by Maggie Stiefvater

I bought this right at the beginning of the year, then decided that I wanted to wait for the release of Forever and finish one Maggie Stiefvater series before starting a new one. Now, I still have to read Forever and squeeze Lament and its sequel Ballad in before The Scorpio Races. Damn you, Maggie, for being prolific.

8. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

This has been so well-reviewed; I'm sure it's excellent, I'm sure it'll make me weep and I'm sure I'll find a moment to read it soon.

7. Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

I'm really excited to read this; I love fantasy and Asian-inspired fantasy in particular. And I will read it.

6. Wood Angel by Erin Bow

This book was published as Plain Kate in the States, but I think we got the prettier cover here in the UK. Anyway, this was a 2011 debut, so it's one I need to read for the challenge.

5. The Iron King by Julia Kagawa

I got this in a swap from ReadItSwapIt and at the time I didn't realise what a popular series it was. The more I've heard about it, the more I want to read it; I just haven't yet.

4. Raising Demons by Rachel Hawkins

I really enjoyed Hex Hall and bought the sequel straight away (yes, this is the UK version of Demonglass - another title change and one I don't approve of). I've still gotta read this.

3. Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

This is another book I received in a swap and the difference is that I set out to snag this one because I was desperate to read it. And I think I'm just 2 books away from it now - I see a reading in sight!

2. Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

I bought this as soon as it was released in UK paperback and I've heard so many wonderful things about the story; it's a mystery to me why I haven't read it yet.

1. Wither by Lauren DeStefano

I pre-ordered this one so I could have it on the day of release and I still haven't read it! I'm dying to; it's been the most raved about book of the year, I'm sure. Aaargh, there are just so many books and too little time!

Monday 29 August 2011

Review: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

First published in Great Britain in: 2011
By: Razorbill

Amy has left the life she loves for a world 300 years away.

Trapped in space and frozen in time, Amy is bound for a new planet. But fifty years before she's due to arrive, she is violently woken, the victim of an attempted murder. Now Amy's lost on board and nothing makes sense - she's never felt so alone.

Yet someone is waiting for her. He wants to protect her; and more if she'll let him. 

But who can she trust amidst the secrets and lies? A killer is out there - and Amy has nowhere to hide . . .

My review:

I've been waiting for months to truly fall in love with a 2011 YA book. Now, I've liked many of the debuts this year, but when I finished reading Across the Universe, I wanted to flip back to the first page and read it all over again. Out of all the new series this year, this is the one for me; the one I'm going to obsess and fangirl over.

I should admit right away that I love sci-fi, so any story that contained space ships travelling to the future was going to be a win for me. But Across the Universe has something for everyone - it mixes sci-fi, dystopia, murder mystery, with a dash of teen drama and romance.

Amy is cryogenically frozen alongside her parents and sent on a spaceship bound for a new planet, on a journey that is due to take 300 years. 250 years into the future, Elder is one of the new generations of people born aboard the ship, who know no other world beyond the ship's walls. Elder has a special role in this society; he will one day take over from the current leader, Eldest and be the one to lead the people.

The story is told in alternating POVs from Amy and Elder, like Sam and Grace in Shiver. Amy's POV is a wonder to read at the start of the novel, as the experience of being frozen is detailed and it sounds - how can I put this? Horrific. The actual process is immensely painful and Beth Revis' writing makes you feel everything alongside Amy as she watches both her parents endure this, knowing that she is next. Then, it seems like once Amy is frozen and boxed away, she is actually conscious. Conscious, while trapped in a box, for hundreds of years. To say she immediately won my sympathy as a character is an understatement.

But who I really loved was Elder. Elder is a real boy, not an impossibly perfect YA dreamboat. He's clueless sometimes, he screws up, he can be immature...He does fall in insta-love with Amy, but it's totally understandable as she is the only girl his own age he's ever met and she is completely different to all the people he knows. And the feeling's not mutual; when Amy is woken prematurely, she is shocked and scared and he has to work to make her trust him.

Amy has good reason to be scared. Someone unplugged her and left her to drown in the melted ice. She is saved, but it keeps happening to the other 'frozens' and she has to work out who is trying to kill them and why. She also has to adjust to life on the ship and it is - how can I put this? Horrifying.

What impressed me most about Across the Universe is that it was a true dystopia. Many YA dystopian stories are war stories - in that, it's obvious from the beginning that the world doesn't work and we're supposed to root for the main character to overthrow it. What's great about Across the Universe is that Amy discovers things bit-by-bit, so at first we're presented with a successful community and then we slowly see through Amy's eyes what is needed to keep this community running smoothly - and every new discovery is more sickening than the last. However, also having Elder's POV (someone for whom life on the ship is completely natural) allows us to debate the ethics of it all. Life on the ship really is a utopia, but it comes at a terrible price. Across the Universe does what dystopia is supposed to do, IMO, which is make us question whether a 'perfect' world is worth it.

I could say more, I could talk about this book all day, but really, I just want to encourage everybody to read it. I think Across the Universe is a perfect series opener: It works as a standalone, as it tells a complete story and I don't mind some things being left unanswered and to the imagination. However, there are some things I really want to see happen (Amy and Elder making it off the ship, for one!) so I am keen to read the second and third books and follow this story wherever it goes.

Rating: 5 stars

Saturday 27 August 2011

Review: The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

First published in Great Britain in: 2010
By: Puffin Books

Every year Isabel spends a perfect summer at her family friends’ house. There’s the swimming pool at night, the private stretch of sandy beach - and the two boys.

Conrad – unavailable, aloof - who she’s been in love with forever. Jeremiah – friendly, relaxed - the only one who’s ever really paid her any attention.

But this year something is different. They seem to have noticed her for the first time. It’s going to be an amazing summer...and one she’ll never forget.

My review:

Confession: I'm a sucker for YA novels that are set in summer beach houses. Talk about a teenage dream - a house right on the sand, hanging out on the boardwalk, a cute boy winning you a stuffed animal, swimming, beach bonfire parties (I've always wanted to go to one of those!). I love reading about this stuff and imagining that I too, am having this idyllic experience. The Summer I Turned Pretty is one of these novels and sets its story in exactly that summer/beach wonderland.

Isabel (who everyone calls Belly) and her family spend every summer in the beach house of her mother's best friend, Susannah, and her two sons, Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly has crushed on Conrad all her life, but as the youngest and the only girl, the boys have always treated her dismissively and left her out. This summer, however, is the summer right before Belly turns sixteen and she has grown up and filled out and suddenly, the boys are paying a lot more attention to her.

In Belly, Jenny Han has created an exceptionally realistic 15 year-old girl and by that I mean, she is often whiny, over-emotional and self-absorbed. Her narrative voice is full of teenage angst with a capital A; every word, every look, every touch, is obsessed over. I have to point this out because I know it might irritate some adult readers of YA. But for my part, I found Han's writing to be so charming and so true-to-life, that I found myself completely sucked in and reliving my teenage feelings. I think Han really captures how aware you are of yourself at that age and and how self-conscious you feel. This novel totally takes you back to your teen self and you will want to shake Belly sometimes, just as you wish you could go back in time and shake yourself then. But if you're like me, you'll take her to your heart.

I found Belly's relationships with Conrad and Jeremiah to also ring true. They're used to teasing her, but now everything between them has a heavier meaning. Conrad is that guy; the one who ignores you and is mean to you, but then turns around and does something sweet, stoking your crush all over again. I wanted Belly to forget about him and go for a boy who didn't mess with her mind so much - and yet, I knew I would be exactly the same in her position: swooning hard for the wrong guy. 

As well as the current summer, the novel flashbacks to previous summers, giving more detail and depth to Belly's life. This is done in random order (Belly at 14, then 11, then 14 again), so it's sometimes confusing keeping track of where you are in the space/time continuum, but it's not too big of a problem. It's not all about boys, either - Belly also deals with her distance from her mother, her preference for Susannah and friction with her best frenemy, Taylor. Again, these issues and relationships all felt very authentic. I think the only thing in this novel that I didn't buy was that a girl with a lovely name like Isabel, allows everyone to call her Belly! I think a real-life Belly really would have insisted on a prettier and more mature nickname by now. It is discussed in the book that Belly doesn't like other shortened versions of her name, but I still think she can come up with something better than 'Belly'.

So. If you get frustrated by angsty teenage drama, then this might not be the book for you. However, if you want a book that takes you back and makes you feel fifteen again, then you should pick up The Summer I Turned Pretty right now and relive it all  - all the stuff that made you smile, made you pout, made you cringe, made you melt - but this time, with a bonus summer beach house.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday 26 August 2011

Follow My Book Blog Friday #10

Follow Friday is hosted by Parajunkee's View and Alison Can Read.

Q. In some books like the Sookie Stackhouse series the paranormal creature in question "comes out of the closet" and makes itself known to the world. Which mythical creature do you wish this would happen with in real life?

I really want to say vampires, too, but I'll try to be more original and say: Genies. I know you should be careful what you wish for, but I would keep it simple. My wishes would be 1) To look the way I've always wanted to, 2) To remove my tendency towards procrastination and 3) To live until I decided to die. I don't see how much could go wrong with that.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

First published in Great Britain in: 2009
By: Fig Tree
This edition published in: 2010
By: Penguin Books

Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver...

There's Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son's tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from college, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they'd be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell...

My review:

I've been wanting to read The Help for a long time and luckily, it lived up to my expectations. It is a very easy book to get engrossed by and I found myself reading it for hours at a stretch. It's obviously set in a very difficult period in American history, but it uses events in the Civil Rights movement as a background to tell an intimate and personal story of 2 black maids and a young white woman who writes a tell-all book with them.

The narrative switches between the viewpoints of Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny, staying with them for a few chapters each, then back again. I found all 3 to be fully-fleshed out and likable. Aibileen is a great character; intelligent, kind and dignified and you feel it every time she is treated as inferior due to her race, because you know how much better she is than the people who look down on her. Aibileen's friendship with Minny is another strong attribute to both women and the loyalty they display for each other - in fact, that all the black maids in the novel display for each other - is seriously moving. Minny was my favourite, although her part in the story is probably the least realistic: her relationship with her employer, Celia and especially, the pie story (when you think about the logistics of that, it does seem unbelievable that Minny would get her special ingredient and take the time to whip it up in her own kitchen, using her own bowls and spoons and stuff). But Minny's dealings with Celia and Two-Slice Hilly do bring moments of levity and humour to the 'vanished world' that is frustrating and depressing in its injustice. Skeeter, a young girl coming-of-age, is more of a stock character than the other 2, but I appreciated that she isn't some Great White Saviour, but is largely motivated by self-interest; trying to escape her own stultifying life. Don't get me wrong, she's a sympathetic character but she isn't unrealistically good and modern-thinking - she's still a product of her time in some ways.

I think the novel does do a good job of conveying some of the horrific things that were happening to black people in the South, through the community Aibileen and Minny are a part of. The stories of a young man called Robert and another maid called Yule May broke my heart. The book also successfully builds up an atmosphere of terror at what could happen to the maids if their roles in writing the tell-all are discovered. However, I found that The Help ended in a weird place, without things being fully resolved. It was almost as if the author couldn't bring herself to write about those awful things happening to Aibileen and Minny. It's a strange feeling to close the book, knowing that anything from prison to a violent death could be awaiting the characters, but we're just leaving them there, at that moment.

I hope I haven't made this book sound like a huge downer or something, because it's really not. Aibileen and Minny are largely positive characters, doing the best they can with their lots in life. The Help has happy moments, sad moments, funny incidents and tragic incidents. It has a lot to say about women and the way we treat each other, when really, we're not so different from each other. It's a great read, one that I happily recommend.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Waiting on Wednesday #5

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

My WoW pick for this week is:

Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz

Craig has yet to get over his first boyfriend, an enigmatic and overwhelming personality named Cody who had to be sent to a mental institution after his father was killed in the Pentagon on September 11th. Unable to come to terms with the fact that he couldn't "fix" the person he loved most, Craig begins collecting stray animals to care for, bringing them home by the dozen.

Lio is short for Liam is short for William, and is short for his age. It's because of the chemo, he says. Lio and his twin brother both got leukemia, but only Lio survived it. The tragedy has torn apart his family, and with his mom gone, his dad moved him and his many sisters away from New York, and brought them to Maryland, where Lio meets Craig.

Now, the random killings in the DC area and dredging up the losses both boys experienced during September 11th. Between Craig's inability to not try to "fix" those around him, and Lio's inability to talk about what happened, or really to talk at all, they have a potent, potentially explosive, combo that will either bring them together for life, or destroy what's left of them.

Released in: April 2012

WoW because: I will partly remember 2011 as the year I discovered Hannah Moskowitz and Invincible Summer will be sitting near the top of my 'best of the year' listI hope I feel the same way about Gone, Gone, Gone. I've read excellent early reviews and in a sea of paranormal YA, I'm looking forward to some good contemporary lit, too.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Never Wrote a Review For

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

Top Ten Books I Loved But Never Wrote a Review For

This is an easy list for me*. Since I started blogging, I've reviewed everything I've read, so this list consists of the books I read and loved before I started this blog.

10. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

One of the most emotionally affecting books I've ever read; I cried buckets of tears.

9. Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier

I love this book and it's one of the few where I actually love the movie, too.

8. Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

I don't think of myself as a romance fan, but the writing was so lovely that I got completely swept up in the story of Grace and Sam.

7. Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughan

I'm so glad I gave this series a try. It mixes comedy and action and drama together effortlessly and has one of my favourite fictional couples ever in Yorick and Agent 355.

6. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce

I love the wish-fulfillment premise of this - what if you were a kid and you found millions in cash? The story is funny and touching in equal measure.

5. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I liked the movie well enough, but then I read the book and it was something else - something special. A very well-written coming-of-age tale set in a fantasy world.

4. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

I was obsessed with this book a couple of years ago and it's what spawned my love of historical fiction. The intrigue! The gossip! The clothes! After reading this, I wanted to jump into a time machine and head straight to the Tudor era.

3. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Every so often a YA book comes along that makes me wish it was published years ago and I could have read it when I was a teenager. I love Stargirl so much now; I can only imagine what it would have meant to me then.

2. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

This book is so strange, I think it either works for you or it doesn't. It's got war in the UK, children with mind-reading abilities and a romance between first cousins, but I read it in one straight sitting and thought it was beautiful.

1. Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty

I think even if I had been blogging when I finished this book, it would have been very difficult to articulate exactly why it blew me away. I can't quite put into words why it's not just another teen novel; there's just something magic about it.

*I wrote too soon! It was incredibly hard narrowing my choices down to 10. I decided to leave off obvious choices like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but that doesn't mean my love for them is any less strong.

Monday 22 August 2011

Series formats: Which do you prefer?

YA has a lot of series. Some say too many, but it's always been this way and I don't think it's likely to change soon. When I look over my wishlist of upcoming books, almost all are part of a series; so instead of debating series vs. standalones, I've been thinking about the different formats a series can take.

Type 1:
In all the series I read when I was a teen, the individual books were basically standalones. The info you needed to know about Sweet Valley High was given in a expository paragraph and then it was straight into a single story, which was wrapped up in one book and had little to do with what came before or after. It didn't matter if you read one SVH or a 100, or if you read them out of order - you got a complete story in one book. And the series could continue indefinitely, as the characters would always end up back where they started, ready for the next adventure.

I may be wrong, but I think this is the rarest kind of YA or Adult series today. This format may still be popular in Middle Grade (and some argue that the SVH books were MG but I don't agree with that. Remember all the attempted date rape, people!), but the only series I've encountered like this in recent years are the Stephanie Plum books and The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency. If the books are good stories and well-written then I can enjoy this kind of series, but I find it difficult to get fully invested in them. Because it doesn't matter if I read every book, I tend not to. There's no urgency to find out what happens in the end (because there is no end), so it's more likely I'll let my commitment to the series slide and let years go by before I pick up the next book - if I pick it up at all.

Type 2:
The most popular series of the last few years have been the kind which do contain individual plots, but there is a long-running main plot that stretches across the series, and builds with each instalment. If a new reader were to pick up Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, they could, perhaps, just enjoy a story where a boy wizard finds a mysterious book by the Prince and learns new spells from it, before discovering to his horror that the Prince is his enemy. But, for those of us who followed the series from book one, there are subplots to do with Voldemort and the preparation for the final battle we know is coming. And most importantly for me, every scene in the book has more emotional weight if you know the history between the characters.

Series like Harry Potter, Vampire Academy and Twilight appeal to me more because there is emotional continuity between books. A newbie could follow the plot of Shadow Kiss or New Moon as well, but you get more out of it by knowing the history of Rose/Dimitri and Bella/Edward. Series that follow this format are my favourites - I'm usually invested in the characters and want to see their story develop and know each book will give me a new development. However, as each book also tells a complete story, I feel satisfied after reading each one and it's my choice whether I want to finish my journey with the characters there or carry on. A great example of this is The Hunger Games: In the first book, you get the story of Katniss' first Games. There are threads you can choose to follow to the 2nd and 3rd books, but you can read only book one if you wish.

Type 3:
My least favourite type of series is the kind I seem to be encountering more and more in YA. In many reviews, I find myself reading/writing "Maybe this will be explained in the second book" or "We'll have to wait for the next book to find out what happens". The Demon Trappers and XVI were 2 series I started this year, where not much happened in the first instalment and it seems we'll have to wait for further instalments if we want to see the story take off. I understand some authors are telling stories that are too big for one book. And the continuity across books should make me happy. But if I don't get a complete experience in one novel (a beginning, a climax, a resolution), I can't help it - I feel cheated. Like I've been given a meal that consists only of starters, with no main and no dessert - I have to go back to the restaurant in a year's time if I want those. Some series that start out as Type 2, end up becoming a Type 3 later on. The Hunger Games can be read on its own, but there was no point to reading Catching Fire if you weren't going to read Mockingjay. I found Hush, Hush to be an enjoyable dark Paranormal Romance, but Crescendo made little sense and probably won't until I read Silence.

It's true that I'm likely to finish these series through to the end because I hate being left hanging. So in that sense, it's a win for the authors/publishers. But it also runs the risk that I'll stop enjoying the books and thinking of them fondly - if the series stretches on too long, it can become more like a burden, having to read so many books just to find out what happens.

So ideally, I'd like to read mostly Type 2s, with a few Type 1s and only very, very, rarely take on a Type 3. What about the rest of you? Do you agree that Harry Potter and Vampire Academy can work as standalones? Does that make them stronger or weaker for you? Do you prefer series that are episodic or can you not wait to dive into a long, complex story stretching over 7 books?

Sunday 21 August 2011

In My Mailbox #13

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme hosted by Kristi @The Story Siren. All links go to Amazon UK.

3 books this week: 1 did arrive in my mailbox, the other 2 I picked up at the library.

Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
I swapped my copy of Beauty Queens for this one at ReadItSwapIt. It went on my wishlist a while ago, after reading some good reviews.

My Soul to Take by Rachel Vincent
A 2011 debut in the UK and therefore eligible for the challenge.

The Lying Game by Sara Shepard
I'm aware of the TV series but I was unaware it was based on a book. I saw this in the library and the premise interested me, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Looking forward to seeing all of your IMMs this week! That's it for me.

Friday 19 August 2011

Follow My Book Blog Friday #9

Follow Friday is hosted by Parajunkee's View and Alison Can Read.

If you could write yourself a part in a book, what book would it be and what role would you play in that book?

This is a bit of a fan fiction question, isn't it? Well, if I could self-insert myself into any book, I think it would be the Gemma Doyle series, as one of her friends - I could take Pippa's place in the foursome. I have no interest in actually being friends with Gemma but I would love to be able to enter the Realms and command magic there. I would also whisk the lovely Kartik away for myself before anything bad happened to him.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

First published in: 2011
By: Scholastic Press

The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner. 

What's a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program - or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan - or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show op? 

Welcome to the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Your tour guide? None other than Libba Bray, the hilarious, sensational, Printz Award-winning author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Going Bovine. The result is a novel that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you never look at beauty the same way again.

My review:

This is a very difficult book for me to review as my feelings about it are so contradictory. On the one hand, Beauty Queens contains some of my favourite things that I've read all year. On the other hand, there were things that didn't work for me at all.

Trying to describe the plot is nigh on impossible and probably sounds like I'm joking. Yes, there are several Miss Teen Dream contestants trying to survive on a remote island, but there is so much more going on - and all of it is insane. Unbeknownst to the girls, there is a secret compound on the island, where rogue agents are making weapons disguised as beauty products. This is being overseen by Ladybird Hope, a former beauty pageant contestant turned politician with designs on the White House. She's making backhanded deals with the, uh, eccentric dictator, MoMo B. ChaCha, a man who enjoys Elvis, killing people and discussing policy with his right-hand, a stuffed lemur called General Good Times.

As you can probably tell from all that, this novel is a parody, a spoof, a send-up. Libba Bray is lampooning everything from capitalism to sexism to politics to the purity movement to reality television to the beauty industry to...too many things to name.

And I'll start with what I liked about it. Well, what I loved was the writing. The POV alternates between 8 of the girls on the island and each of them is given a backstory to shed light on their character. I adored these parts of the book; some are amusing, some are heart-breakingly sad and all are beautifully written. My favourite was the passage on Mary Lou (Miss Nebraska) who grew up being told by her mother that she was a 'cursed, wild girl' and feels that she needs to stamp on her sexuality. It reads like a fairytale.

Of the 8 main characters, I honestly liked them all and felt they were fully fleshed out; each with their own strengths and flaws. How the girls become friends, work together and use their unique feminine skills to help each other survive was one of the strongest feminist messages I've read in a good long while and I defy any female reader not to nod along in recognition at the conversations and heart-to-hearts they share.

So that was the good. The not-quite-for-me element of Beauty Queens was the satire - a lot of it was too obvious and too broad. The text is constantly interrupted with footnotes and advertisements that parody familiar ones from our world and while some of these are funny, there's far too much of them. Sometimes it felt like there just had to be one at regular intervals, whether it fit organically into the story or not. I understand that this could also be mocking the way advertising is stuffed into our modern lives, but it is just as annoying in a book as it is in life and always took me out of the story.

It feels silly to complain about things that were over-the-top in a novel where clearly, the whole point was to be over-the-top. But a lot of it was too silly for me; it just comes down to personal taste. To me, the humour was hit-and-miss, but then the jokes are so constant that it means I was chuckling at least half the time. I think a reader who enjoys crazy, out there humour would get everything they ever wanted in Beauty Queens. And then some.

I'd recommend this book strongly to, shock of all shocks, young teenage girls. You know, the people YA is actually written for? I think that the messages in this book would give great food-for-thought to a teen just starting to question the world and the wacky humour makes it fun instead of preachy. I'll happily make a present of it to my younger relatives - and re-read those wonderfully-written passages again when I do.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Review: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)

First published in Great Britain in: 1996
By: Voyager
This edition published in: 2003
By: HarperVoyager

In the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must... and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty. The old gods have no power in the south, Stark's family is split, and there is treachery at court. Worse, a vengeance-mad boy has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities beyond the sea. Heir of the mad Dragon King deposed by Robert, he claims the Iron Throne.

My review:

I debated on whether or not to post this review. Like many people, I became fanatic about HBO's Game of Thrones this year and, suffering withdrawal pains as I wait for Season 2, I decided to head to the source material to get my fix of Westeros. Because of this, it's difficult to give my impressions of the book - I already knew the whole story and knew it was a brilliant one. All my thoughts on it are about how it compared to the TV series and whether the book is a necessary read for fans of the show and so this review, I'm sure, can only be understood by people who already are. Apologies for that!

If George R. R. Martin's novel had been made into a movie, it would have had, at most, 3 hours to tell the complex, sprawling story and much of it would have had to be excised. Luckily for us, it was made into a television series and so got 10 hours instead. From my perspective, there isn't very much in this book that didn't make it onto the screen in Season 1 - many scenes were adapted word for word and even though some were left out, I feel that the show still managed to convey everything that the book conveyed. I actually think that some scenes that the TV writers added (the scene where Robert and Cersei discuss their marriage, for example), were stronger than the ones that were omitted - I know this might be heresy to Martin fans!

But of course, all the best moments from Season 1 came from the book and they are no less thrilling to read about than they were to watch. Martin's dialogue is what I like best; those lines just crackle and every conversation between characters is sharp, clever, often funny and leaden with meaning. In the novel, each chapter is told in the POV of a different character; rotating between Ned, Catelyn, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Jon, Tyrion and Daenerys. It is nice to get the internal monologue from these characters and to know exactly what they're thinking at certain times. When characters like Catelyn and Dany act strong and invincible, it's interesting to see that in some ways it is an act and that inside, they feel much less sure of themselves.

One thing there is a lot more of in the novel is the history and geography and culture of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Normally, I'd expect to be bored by this but I do find the way that Martin has created this entire world - down to the tiniest detail - to be fascinating. I think because I was already familiar with what was going to happen plot-wise, I was able to enjoy these details and not get impatient for the story to move along.

All in all, I'm glad I read the book, if only because rumour has it that the story gets even denser in the following books and it's likely that HBO will have to cut out more for Seasons 2 and above than they did for Season 1. If that's the case, then I would prefer to read all the books alongside the TV series, so I don't miss anything. My only regret is that I think I should have waited until right before Season 2 airs to read A Game of Thrones. Season 1 was a near-perfect adaptation and is still fresh in my mind. If I'd waited, then by next year I'd probably have forgotten a lot of stuff and reading the book would have been the best way to revisit it.

My advice to everyone is to know the story: Read the book or watch the TV series or both, it doesn't matter, but you must experience this story, because it really is one of the greatest ever told.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Discovered Authors

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

This week is officially a Top Ten Tuesday 'Freebie' week - we can write about ANYTHING in literature. Now, I've often said that the best thing about the blogging community is that I've been introduced to so many books and authors that I might otherwise never have discovered, so I've decided to use the freebie week to highlight that. So, my Top Ten list this week is...

Top Ten Authors I Found Through Blogs

10. Jackson Pearce
Sisters Red was one of the most buzzed about books of last year and to me, the hype was completely justified. Of all the fairy tale retellings, Pearce stands out for the way she combines a gritty modern realism with old-fashioned folk tale sensibilities. I'm now eager to read Sweetly and anything else she should write.

9. E. Lockhart
With Ruby Oliver, E. Lockhart has created one of the most lovable heroines ever. I first heard her name when I stumbled across this awesome post and I figured that any MC that inspired such passion and devotion was one I had to meet. After about 2 pages of The Boyfriend List, I fell head over heels for Ruby myself.

8. Courtney Summers
The subject matter + good reviews made me read Some Girls Are and I was amazed at what an emotionally powerful book it was. I'm in awe of Summers' writing; how much she can make me feel through words, everything from anger to revulsion to love to pity. I am currently collecting every single one of her books so I can experience that again.

7. Libba Bray
I've only just finished Beauty Queens and it's made me realise how thankful I am again that I was encouraged to read Libba Bray. Sometimes in YA, you feel like you every get great prose or a great plot, but Bray manages to give you both. Beauty Queens had some of the most beautiful paragraphs I've read all year as well as the craziest plot I've read, ever.

6. Jenny O'Connell
I found Jenny through Pub Rants, where Agent Kristin blogs about many things, including her favourite clients. I bought Jenny's first YA novel, Plan B expecting a fun 'fluff' read, based on the premise (girl discovers a famous teen star is her half-brother). But it was actually a really smart, well-written book with strong characters and real emotions. I knew an author that could take a sorta silly idea and put that much depth into it, was one to keep reading.

5. Ally Carter
I also found Ally through Pub Rants. As soon as I heard 'spy school', I was in. The adorable UK covers for the Gallagher Girls series only sweetened the deal. (Although I recently heard a school librarian worry that the skirts were too short!)

4. Richelle Mead
Post-Twilight, there were so many vampire series out there, it was hard to judge which was the most worthwhile. Lucky for me, bloggers spoke with one voice and named Vampire Academy the most enjoyably addictive of them all - and they were right. I have to admit, I probably would never have picked up this series based on the title and the covers, so it was one of those cases where blog word-of-mouth really mattered.

3. Maggie Stiefvater
Shiver was one of the first books I heard about from bloggers and I'm so glad about that, because I thought it was such a beautiful book and it meant that I went back and back for more recommendations. I think Maggie's one of the best prose writers in YA today. After Shiver, I bought all her published works.

2. Justine Larbelestier
I love Justine so much that I pledge to one day learn to spell her last name correctly, without having to double-check it. Her blog is one of the best there is and although she hasn't posted much this year due to injury, a favourite activity of mine when I have free time, is to pick a tag and go through the great stuff she has posted in the past. Justine is very opinionated (while always being fair) and she's not afraid to post about  controversial topics. Her writing is sublime; she expresses her ideas so well through words. I love that she champions having people of colour as MCs and draws attention to minority authors. In fact, she's introduced me to even more authors: M.T. Anderson, Varian Johnson, Coe Booth and of course, Scott Westerfeld, her hubby.

1. Diana Peterfreund
Diana would come top of any list on current authors I could make: Most Versatile Author, Author with the Best Female Characters, Funniest Author and especially, Most Underrated Author, because I just don't see her mentioned enough on reviewer blogs. I found her through her own blog, which I would advise anyone to visit and there you will find an absolute gold mine of insightful and enjoyable posts on everything from her writing process to her thoughts on Veronica Mars. I fell in love with her writing and knew I had to read her books and no surprises, I loved them, too. Amy from the Secret Society Girl series is one of the best female protagonists around and I can't wait to jump into the world of killer unicorns in Rampant and Ascendant.

Monday 15 August 2011

100 Followers Giveaway!

Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but it looks like I'm on the road to hitting 100 followers. So to reward my loyal followers and maybe attract some new ones, I am hosting my first giveaway!

One lucky person will receive a copy of:

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin


Fury by Elizabeth Miles


Liebster Blog Award

I was extremely touched and honoured to discover that Midnight Reads had chosen me as one of 5 blogs they wanted to highlight. It's the first recognition I've had a blogger and it means a lot to me. So of course,  as well as giving my sincere thanks, I must carry on the award and allow someone else to feel that way, too.

The Goal of the award is to spotlight up and coming bloggers who currently have less than 200 followers. The rules of the award are:

1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.

2. Reveal your top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.

3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.

4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.

5. And most of all - have bloggity-blog fun!

The 5 blogs I want to award are:

Thoughts at One in the Morning: I had to pick this blog as it's so close to being ineligible! And I did not want to miss the opportunity to say that it is one of my go-to blogs; I love chatting with Jessica in the comments and I hope to one day read her published works.

Ninja Girl Reads: I was sure Ninja Girl had to have received this award before, but I checked her posts and although she's received others, not this one. I love everything about her blog: just the fact that she calls herself Ninja Girl makes me smile and she is so enthusiastic about books, her blog as a whole can cheer me up on the worst day.

Book Crook Liza: A gorgeous-looking blog. I've also found that Liza reads a lot of the same books as me, at similar times, so I'm always able to comment on her reviews. Partly because she's lived all over the world, she offers an unique perspective on books.

Baggins's Book Blabber: Everyone should see the design on this blog; it is so pretty and cute. Baggins has also been very generous with giveaways; having at least one a month and sometimes more.

Browsing Bookshelves: I love that she reviews a mix of YA and adult books, as I need the variety. Her reviews are smart and it's clear she knows a lot about books.

Those are my choices: I hope anyone who stops by this blog will visit them, too and that they will continue on with this award, spreading the love to other blogs!