Saturday 31 December 2011

Best Books of 2011

Seeing all the 'best of' lists doing the rounds, I couldn't resist adding my own opinion to the best books published in 2011. I'm going to disclaim that I didn't read many of the books that were raved about this year (Wither, Unearthly and Between Shades of Gray are three that come to mind) and it's very possible that if I had, they would've made my list. This list is limited to the books that were published in 2011 that I read, and I've cheated a little by including one that was published in the US previously, but only published in the UK this year.

So, without further ado, my 'best of' list is as follows:

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Invincible Summer by Hannah Moscowitz

Entangled by Cat Clarke

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Saturday 24 December 2011

Book Review: Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson

First published in the UK: 7th July 2011
By: Simon & Schuster UK

Amy Curry is having a terrible year. Her mother has decided to move all the way across the country and needs Amy to drive their car from California to the East Coast. There's just one problem: since the death of her father, Amy hasn't been able to get behind the wheel of a car. Enter Roger, the son of an old family friend, who turns out to be unexpectedly cute… and dealing with some baggage of his own.

Meeting new people and coming to terms with her father's death were not part of Amy's plans for the road trip. But then neither was driving on the Loneliest Road in America, seeing the Colorado Mountains, visiting diners, dingy motels and Graceland. But as they drive, and she grows closer to Roger, Amy finds that the people you least expected are the ones you need the most ­ - and that sometimes you have to get lost in order to find your way home.

My review:

This book wasn't quite what I was expecting. I did what you're supposed to never do and judged the book by its cover, and the design of the UK cover seemed to promise something light, with wacky hijinks and lots of humour. However, from the first couple of pages it's shown that Amy is depressed and withdrawn following her father's sudden death and this is really quite a sombre tale, about a broken girl trying to heal herself and her family. It's not heavy-handed, but there's an undercurrent of sadness for most of the narrative. I'd say the tone is similar to 13 Little Blue Envelopes.

I did like the book, though and I like it more the more I think back on it. Amy and Roger are likeable characters but quite muted - they're both quiet types and don't really jump off the page. The big personality characters, like Amy's brother and Roger's ex-girlfriend, are off-screen for most of the journey and the roadtrip is a reaction to big events, rather than the big event itself. It's easy to read the book and keep turning the pages but its enjoyment factor is the kind that grows on you over time, rather than immediately knocking you off your feet.

What is unreservedly the best thing about the novel is all the little touches the author includes to make it seem real. We're given photographs of the places the characters visit and the food they eat, copies of their bills and receipts, and playlists of the music they listen to. The author did a blog tour this summer where she talked about how she crafted these things; I found it interesting and I recommend looking at her posts if you haven't already. These details in the book are so fun to see and really bring the story to life. I discovered quite a few new songs and all the mouth-watering descriptions and pictures of food made me, a life-long vegetarian, crave those meat dishes something bad. Those crumbly burgers sound yummy.

The storyline the book follows is predictable and you know from the start where the characters will end up: that Amy will come to terms with her father's death, that Roger will get over his ex, that new love will blossom. But, as they say, it's all about the journey and this book takes you on a nice, very readable journey.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday 11 December 2011

Book Review: Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber

First published: 8th November 2011
By: Sourcebooks Fire

I was obsessed. 

It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I'd ever seen - everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable... utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike. 

There is a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury didn't commit suicide. He's alive. Trapped within his golden frame. 

I've crossed over into his world within the painting. I've seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me too. He and I are inextricably linked - bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit, cobblestone streets of Manhattan. And unless I can free him soon, things will only get darker still...

My review: 

I enjoyed this book a lot and I think if you are a fan of 19th century gothic fiction, you will, too. Leanna Renee Hieber's book deftly mimics the style and feel (and some of the plot) of these novels, to create Darker Still and the end result won me over. It's melodramatic and a little bit silly, but so are the books it's aping and Hieber employs enough knowingness and humour to make it work well.

The main character of Darker Still is Natalie and the story is told via Natalie's diary entries (book-ended by a police report claiming that, of course the contents of the diary are nonsense and we should not believe a word). Like other epistolary novels, it's sometimes absurd when and how Natalie is writing everything down, but that's a convention of the genre and Darker Still made me smile a lot by having Natalie nod to this with a suitable explanation every time.

Natalie is a charming heroine. She's a mute, which does the twin jobs of immediately engaging the reader's sympathy and serving as a metaphor for 19th century women being essentially voiceless in society. Natalie's father runs the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which leads Natalie to befriend the wealthy New York doyenne, Mrs Northe, when Mrs Northe purchases a painting of the English Lord Denbury. Lord Denbury is presumed dead, but his painting is astonishingly lifelike and it's not long before Natalie learns its secret: the real Denbury's soul is trapped inside the painting; a demon has taken over his body and is using it to commit murder on the New York streets.

So...melodramatic. But fitting for the genre and a lot of fun. Elements of great stories The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are meshed together and like many 19th century novels, underneath the plot Darker Still is really a story about the era's mistreatment of women, repressed sexuality, fear of feminine power and all that stuff I loved to gab about in my Lit classes.

Natalie and Mrs Northe team up to save Denbury and it's delightful to see Natalie become stronger over the course of the novel and to eventually find her voice. Denbury mainly serves as a vehicle for Natalie to explore all this, and her sexuality, but I did find their scenes together pretty cute, as they struggle between their feelings and keeping propriety. The character of Mrs Northe kept me guessing the entire book as to whether she's really as good as she seems or is secretly sinister and I think my interest in the sequel is pinned on finding out more about Mrs Northe.

And yes, like all YA books nowadays, this is the first in a series. Having finished Darker Still, I have no idea what plot the second book could possibly have, however, I'm sure I will enjoy revisiting Natalie, and the author, again.

Rating: 4 stars

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