Friday, 30 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: Weekly Link-up (4)

Chapters 14-16

The end! I really enjoyed Scarlet, but I didn't find the ending fully satisfying. Scarlet's personal journey was well done, but the story of Nottingham and its people couldn't really be resolved in one book, so there was a lot left unfinished and not everybody got the comeuppance they deserved. Looks like the author agrees, because Scarlet is now set to be a trilogy. I have mixed feelings about this: on the hand, more Scarlet = yay! But there are so many YA trilogies, it would've been nice to read a standalone.

I have to say, I really enjoyed taking part in this read-along. My life is crazy at the moment and I wasn't able to participate every day, but I did as much as I could and I had a really good time doing it. I'm really glad that, despite barely having a free moment this week, I was able to post today for the last day. I really want to thank Jess and Marie for putting together such a great event. I'll read-along again with you girls anytime!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: Weekly Link-up (3)

Chapters 10-13

Wow. It was almost cruel to stop reading there. I've been waiting the whole novel for Scarlet and Gisbourne to have their confrontation and they did and there were things I did not see coming. I don't want to be spoilery so I will just say two things:

1. I love the way a certain character was worked into Scarlet.

2. Scarlet and Robin MUST be together. John is fun to flirt with, but there is no contest now. Scar and Rob are epic.

I can't believe we're almost at the end. Scarlet is turning out to be one of my favourite reads of the year.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: Quote or teaser of the week (3)

This is the week where I really started to love Scarlet's relationship with Robin, so I want to select some quotes that show why:

I knew my heart weren't never too sure 'bout many things, but if I could, I wanted to be sure for Rob. That way when his heart stumbled, I could be sure for the both of us. (p. 113)

"It's not that I see through you," he told me. "It's that I see you. You don't want anyone to see you, but I do." (p. 114)

My fingers crushed tight into his skin, clawing him like if I could break the skin we'd be connected by blood, and I could comfort him and he could see into me without me having to speak out loud. (p. 130)

A hiccup jumped from my throat, and Rob twisted me somehow so I were tucked against his big chest, restrained like a dog. He held tight, painful tight, my breath rushing out over my teeth, and I wondered if it were me holding him or him holding me. (p. 131)

I love that there's tenderness, pain and hope in their every encounter and I'm really rooting for them both to find some inner peace and happiness, either together or apart.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: Who is your favourite character?

Today's task for the read-along of A. C. Gaughen's Scarlet is the easiest yet - to name our favourite character. I hate to be unoriginal, but my favourite is hands-down the leading lady herself. Scarlet is caustic and unfriendly on the outside, but inside she feels deep compassion for others and puts the safety and survival of everybody else ahead of herself. She's been damaged by her past, one we don't have quite the full details of yet, but while it affects her, it hasn't made her cruel or selfish; it's made her want to save others from whatever happened to her. 

Scarlet would not be great company on a girls' night - she's too taciturn and introverted and well, she's pretending to be a boy. But I'd love to have someone like her watching out for me and would feel safe as houses if I had her around.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: Weekly Link-Up (2)

So my Macbook died on me Tuesday night and I was unable to post for the Scarlet read-along on Wednesday. Luckily, I'm back in business, just in time for the weekly link-up (I literally just got the battery replaced a half hour ago. Hello internet, how I've missed you). 

Chapters 6-9

The chapters we read this week made me realise just how much I've come to care about Scarlet, because I was hopping mad at the way another character treated her, and was hoping all the merry men would bring a world of pain down on him. It's also making me sad how Scarlet hard is on herself and I wish she would realise how awesome she is. She's so badly scarred as a person; I really hope she learns to love and be loved by the end of the novel.

Things are looking pretty grim in Nottingham and we've seen a lot more of the Sheriff's cruelty in action. Right now, it's difficult to think how things can get much worse.

On the lighter side, though, I've discovered how fickle I am when it comes to fictional boys. Because you remember how last week I was Team John? The chapters this week have swung me right over to Team Robin. The scenes Robin and Scarlet have...there's a connection there that I'm not sure she can create with another boy. Plus, Robin loving Scarlet would do wonders for her self-esteem.

Looking forward to seeing what the others thought!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: Favourite Robin Hood

I have a feeling this is going to be a popular choice in today's Scarlet read-along task, but my favourite Robin Hood is totally the Disney one. When I was a kid, my family would rent movies every Friday night and I always asked for Robin Hood. Finally my sister put her foot down and insisted on something different, so that weekend we got Strawberry Shortcake video as well. Note I said 'as well' - actually going without Robin Hood for a weekend was out of the question; my sister was simply allowed something in addition to it.

Another Robin Hood from my childhood, which not many people outside the UK will have heard of, is Maid Marian and her Merry Men. This was a British comedy kids' show in the late 80's/early 90's where Robin Hood was depicted as a vain fool, the merry men were completely incompetent and the real hero was Marian. It was very funny, a nice slice of girl power and had a smashing theme tune:

Reading Scarlet has definitely sparked a desire in me to watch other Robin Hood portrayals. I have only vague memories of Prince of Thieves and Men in Tights, but I'm planing to revisit them as soon as possible. Any other recommendations would be much appreciated!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: Weekly Link-Up (1)

The task this week was to read chapters 2-5 of Scarlet and today we are posting our thoughts on what what we've read so far.

The best thing about these early chapters has been getting to know the character of Scarlet. We've been able to see what her strengths are in a fight, what her insecurities are among people and get hints of the secrets she's hiding. I like her friendship with Much and how she's trying to encourage him to be tougher. And as I'm putting the pieces together on what happened between Scarlet and Gisbourne, I'm really looking forward to having these two confront each other.

The romantic element isn't strong yet, but from what we can see, I'm Team John rather than Team Robin. Robin seems more of a paternal figure towards Scarlet, whereas her relationship with John is one of equals.

I have to say, I really wish A. C. Gaughen had included a map with this novel. (I know technically, seeing as these are real places, I could just Google a map of Nottinghamshire, but still.) The characters frequently move between towns and I've gotten confused a few times about how far away places are and what's between them. Also, even though I like Scarlet's distinctive speech, it does take some getting used to, as it's so unusual to read colloquial grammar in a novel. I bet an audiobook, with a narrater with the right accent, would be amazing.

This is as long as a review already, so I'm going to stop there! But overall, I like Scarlet, the main plot is starting to kick in and I'm looking forward to reading more.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: Quote or teaser of the week (1)

Today's read-along task is the simplest yet - just pick a quote from Scarlet to post. Mine is:

I did as much as I could, but it weren't like I could get everyone something every night. That seemed the cruelest part. I tried not to think 'bout the people that woke up and rushed to the door and didn't find nothing; it made my chest hurt.

The quote's from the first chapter and I think it does a great job of establishing Scarlet's humanity and compassion early on. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: What do you love about Robin Hood?

Today's assignment in the Scarlet read-along is to discuss what we love about the legend of Robin Hood:

I think that characters who do bad things (stealing) for good reasons (to feed the poor) are the best kind of heroes. Let's face it, it's much more fun to read about a band of scheming rascals than it is to read about a bunch of goody-two-shoes. However, knowing that your heroes also have hearts of gold means that you don't have to feel guilty about rooting for them to win.

There are a lot good-hearted thieves in fiction, but one reason I'm particularly drawn to Robin Hood is that, although Robin and his merry men are probably mostly fictional, the legend is set in a very real time in English history; during the Crusades, the absence of King Richard the Lionheart and the rule of his brother, King John. I've heard that Scarlet does the historical fiction side of the story as well as it does the action-adventure side, which is one of the reasons I've been so eager to read it.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Scarlet Read-Along: First Thoughts

The first assignment of the read-along for A. C. Gaughen's Scarlet is to post our thoughts on the 1st chapter: 

No one really knows 'bout me. I'm Rob's secret, I'm his informant, I'm his shadow in dark places.

Scarlet definitely interested me from its opening lines; the first chapter was easy to breeze through in minutes and it made me want to read more. Scarlet's voice is written with a Northern English accent and grammar-style, which is a nice way of making her sound distinctive and it adds to the roughness of her character. It's similar to the style of The Assassin's Curse, which I'm also reading, but I think it fits better in Scarlet, as it is how characters in Nottingham would speak.

So far, Scarlet is about as soft as my two front teeth - she's very sharp-tongued and aggressive in the first chapter, but she's also putting her life on the line helping the poor, so she gets a lot of points with me. Rob will likely turn out to be her vulnerability, as Scarlet's feelings for him are already being hinted at - as are John's feelings for her. The thread that's been introduced that interests me most, though, is the idea that Scarlet has some sort of past with Gisbourne, the thief-catcher.

Right now I'm liking the spin Gaughen has put on the Robin Hood story and I'm very happy to keep reading.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Scarlet Read-Along - November 1st

Just a quick post to say I'm joining the read-along for Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, hosted by the lovely Jessica at Thoughts at One in the Morning and Marie at Ramblings of a Daydreamer.

Starting November 1st, it's a month long event. They'll be designated chapters to read each week, discussion topics and a chance to share favourite quotes. A. C. Gaughen has even gotten involved and will be donating bookmarks as prizes!

I've always wanted to do a read-along but this is the first time I've: a) known about one before it happened, and b) had the book to hand. Also, because we're only reading chapters every week, it'll be easy for me to fit it in around my other reading. I'm very excited to take part.

Full details and sign up sheet are available here. Come join us!

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon (Check back for updates!)

I'm taking part in Dewey's Read-a-thon for the second time today. My first time was last April and I enjoyed it so much. However, I'm not going to be able to commit to the same length of time as I did then. I'm not teaching at a school Monday-Friday anymore; I'm doing private tuition sessions almost every day of the week, and I have a session tomorrow at midday. The Read-a-Thon doesn't end until 1pm tomorrow in UK time, so I have no choice but to cut it an hour short and, well, I don't think my tutee would appreciate me turning up after an all-night binge (even if it was a binge on books!), so I think I should get some sleep tonight.

I also have plans to see a film with friends this evening BUT I'm hoping this counts towards the Read-a-Thon because (hear me out!) the Read-a-Thon is not just for reading, but for doing bookish things. The movie I'm seeing is The Perks of Being a Wallflower - it's based on a book; that counts as a bookish thing to me.

I feel a little bad about not devoting as much time to reading, which is one of the reasons I've signed up to do two hours of cheerleading this year. The other reason is that I'm going to love cheering my fellow Thon-ers on, so I'm really looking forward to that.

The October Read-a-Thon has come at a busy time for me and I am sorry that I'm only going to be able to do it halfway, but I still feel like that's better than not doing it at all.

Wish me luck and great reading!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Book Review: Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

First published: 25th October 2011
By: Bloomsbury USA Childrens

Tuesdays at Castle Glower are Princess Celia's favorite days. That's because on Tuesdays the castle adds a new room, a turret, or sometimes even an entire wing to itself. No one ever knows what the castle will do next, and no one - other than Celia, that is - takes time to map out the new additions. But when King and Queen Glower are ambushed and reportedly killed, it's up to Celia with her secret knowledge of the Castle's many twists and turns, to protect their home and save their kingdom.

My review:

Note to self: If you are ever in a reading slump and feeling unenthusiastic about your TBR list, pick up a cute, cheery children's novel. Tuesdays at the Castle was just the tonic I needed right now; an adorable adventure that spread a huge smile on my face and filled me with the desire to put a copy into the hands of every little girl I meet.

Jessica Day George's middle-grade fantasy just hits the mark and succeeds at being everything it needs to be. Its writing is simple, yet in its simplicity, it still manages to give us clearly defined and likeable characters; a clever, fast-paced plot; a real threat of danger from the villains; and most importantly, that thrill of magic, action and fun that exists in all the best children's books.

Hard to believe one of the most kick-ass protagonist I've come across this year is an eleven-year-old girl, but Celie is awesome: smart, selfless and brave. I defy anyone not to cheer her on during the climax, where she starts fighting back against the antagonists hard

Tuesdays at the Castle has a strong emphasis on family, with Celie and her siblings all working together and saving each other, but Celie's strongest relationship is with the castle. I just love the idea of a castle that's always changing and Tuesdays at the Castle really delivers on all the cool possibilities of this.

It's not perfect, no. The ending is a bit rushed and wrapped up too quickly. And yes, this book is aimed at a younger audience than YA and that's obvious with some of the more childish humour and the pranks the characters pull. However, I know I would've greatly enjoyed these jokes as a kid. And for its 256 pages, Tuesdays at the Castle did make me feel like a kid again: A kid who dreamed about being a princess and having great adventures. If you know one, or you were one, then buy this book.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Saturday, 29 September 2012

It's That Time of Year Again: Dewey's Read-a-Thon!

Christmas comes but once a year, but luckily for us, Dewey's Read-a-Thon comes twice. The next event is in exactly 2 weeks time: October 13th.

I did the Read-a-Thon for the first time in April and, honestly, I had the BEST time. 24 hours of reading sounds incredibly daunting, but with so many participants from all over the world, it feels more than having a giant, worldwide slumber party over the internet. You don't just read during the Read-a-Thon, it's really about devoting a day of your life to your love of books. Doing anything bookish counts: chatting about them, writing reviews, visiting book blogs and connecting with your fellow Read-a-Thon-ers. 

And you don't have to commit to the entire 24 hours, either. I did for the April Read-a-Thon and while that was great, that Read-a-Thon fortunately fell on a free day and easy part of the year for me - October is much busier. I'm going to try for at least 12 hours, though; I'm sure I can do that. I'm experienced now and have lots of tips and inside secrets to make it through the night.

If you're interested in the Read-a-Thon, all the details can be found here. The Read-a-Thon is named after Dewey, the blogger who started it but sadly passed away in 2008.

Hope you'll join in!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Book Review: In Honor by Jessi Kirby

First published: 8th May 2012
By: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Three days after learning of her brother Finn's death, Honor receives his last letter from Iraq. Devastated, she interprets his note as a final request and spontaneously sets off to California to fulfill it. At the last minute she's joined by Rusty, Finn's former best friend.

Rusty is the last person Honor wants to be with - he's cocky and obnoxious, just like Honor remembers, and she hasn't forgiven him for turning his back on Finn when Finn enlisted. But their road trip ends up revealing more than the desert landscape. While they cover the dusty miles in Finn's beloved 1967 Chevy Impala, long-held resentments begin to fade, and Honor and Rusty struggle to come to terms with the loss they share.

As the memories of Finn merge to create a new portrait, Honor's eyes are opened to a side of her brother she never knew - a side that shows her the true meaning of love and sacrifice.

My review:

Because the premise of In Honor was so similar to Saving June, I initially wanted to read them really far apart so as not to get them confused, but that didn't really work with my reading schedule, so my new idea was to read them close together and compare. Honestly, though, while they are both about a teenage girl taking a roadtrip to do something for her dead sibling, in execution the two books are nothing alike. The emotions in Saving June were real, ugly and raw; in In Honor they are prettied up and Disney-fied and the whole novel is a more saccharine affair.

Honor is 18 and newly graduated from high school. She read as younger than that to me, probably because she's so firmly entrenched in her 'little sister' role: Honor idolises her brother, Finn, in this starry-eyed, childlike way; worshipping him as if he hung the moon. In Honor opens with Finn's funeral and after that, no matter what happens in the story, rarely does a page go by without Honor saying something about how great Finn was, how Finn always knew what to do, everybody liked Finn, Finn was perfect, etcetera. I thought for a bit that some dark secret of Finn's would be revealed to change Honor's idealistic view of him, but In Honor is not really that kind of book. When Finn's secret does come out, it proves that he's even more noble and good than Honor's been saying.

The other person Honor talks about as much as she does Finn, is Kyra Kelley, the Taylor Swift-esque singer whose concert Honor is roadtripping to. Finn bought Honor tickets to Kyra Kelley's last ever show and Honor plans to find a way to meet Kyra Kelley and tell her all about Finn. And by a series of happy coincidences, it all manages to work out. This is the kind of thing I mean when I say In Honor is Disney movie-like; everything is cleaned up and presented as much nicer than it'd be in real life.

Honor is sweet and while I typically prefer my heroines to have more of an edge to them, there's nothing to dislike about her. But I purchased this book for one reason: Tim Riggins. Rusty, Finn's lifelong best friend and Honor's roadtrip partner, is inspired by the Friday Night Lights character and he is the only thing giving In Honor some grit. Rusty's angry at Finn's death and drinks to forget and he actually challenges Honor sometimes and shakes her goody-two-shoes self up a bit. And if you imagine him looking like Tim Riggins while doing it, and speaking in that Tim Riggins drawl, then In Honor becomes exponentially better for it. His burgeoning romance with Honor is the only thing not given the Disney treatment, too - how that develops and turns out is actually pretty realistic.

Something I liked and makes In Honor different from other roadtrip novels I've read, is its focus on natural beauty. The stops that Honor and Rusty make are to see amazing things nature has created: an underground cave, vortexes, a star show. They sound really beautiful and have the effect of making the US South sound really beautiful, too. 

In Honor was a bit too pleasant and uncomplicated to really grab me - I need my contemporary novels to be layered and complex to really love them. However, it's an easy read and sometimes there's a place in your life for a sweet, simple tale like this.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Unfinished Series

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

Top Ten Series I Haven't Finished

I am terrible at finishing series. Just terrible. If I don't have access to the next book right away, I get distracted by something shiny and new and before I know it, months, even years have passed and still I haven't read the whole series. There are one or two series I've given up on by choice, but most of my list are just a victim of my poor attention span and I have the best of intentions to finish them. Soon.

10. The Hush, Hush series.
OK, I did say there were one or two I've given up by choice. This is one of them. I enjoyed Hush, Hush in an I-know-I-shouldn't-but-this-is-really-entertaining way. But I thought Crescendo was a confusing mess and the cliffhanger annoyed me. When I heard that Silence was more of the same, with another cliffhanger, I was done.

9. The Gossip Girl series.
Another deliberate drop. I started reading the books because I loved the TV series, but the TV series gave the characters a lot more depth - I couldn't stand them in the books and four books in, I gave them up.

8. The Divergent series.
This will probably shock a lot of lovers of this series, but while I liked Divergent, I wasn't "Oh my god, 5 stars!" about it. I just liked it. And when Insurgent was heavily promoted at the beginning of the year, I wasn't really feeling the hype. I do intend to read it, because I do really like Tris as a heroine, but I'm not in any particular hurry.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8.
Buffy is my favourite TV show of all time. I read the comic book continuation because I will take the characters and the universe in any way I can get them. But it's been really trying to keep up with the comics and read about much-loved characters acting completely differently or even dying. I'm undecided about continuing; I'm wondering if I'd rather just keep the memories of the TV show.

6. The Sookie Stackhouse series.
Ah, Sookie Stackhouse. To be honest, not finishing the series has nothing to do with the books themselves - I've read 5 and enjoyed them all. It's my waning love for True Blood that's done it. And knowing there's something like 21 books in this series is a bit daunting, because at my speed, it'll take years more to finish. But I'm open to visiting Bon Temps again.

5. The Stephanie Plum series.
I actually love the Stephanie Plum books, but it doesn't take long to see that they're more than a little repetitive. Read too many in a row and they become a blur of Stephanie screwing up, eating junk food, flirting with Morelli and making jokes about Joyce and dogs, Vinnie and goats and how Lula used to be a ho. So you need to take a nice long break between books and only go back when you miss all that stuff. I don't know if I'll ever finish the entire series (will it matter? The characters will still be in the same place, no matter what) but I read one about yearly and I'm happy with that.

4. The Millennium trilogy.
I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but it wasn't an easy read, in size or in subject matter. I read it because of the hype, but I'm squeamish and Adult Crime is not my genre. I've heard good things about the next two books and I want to read them despite expecting more gruesome killings, but it's hard for me to pick up a book that's 500+ pages, when I know I could read 2 or 3 shorter books in the same time.

3. The Princess Diaries.
When I picked up the first Princess Diaries book, it was honestly one of the best reading experiences I've ever had. I devoured the next few and have read up to Book 5. Of course I want to read everything that happens to Mia but The Princess Diaries fell victim to the distracted-by-the-shiny-and-new thing. It's hard to keep the excitement going over 10 books and 8 years and The Princess Diaries fell down my list of book priorities. But I do want to finish it and I will.

2. The Gemma Doyle trilogy.
I only have the last book left to read, but have put it off because a)it's a massive 700 page-er and b) I've heard about the tree and I'm dreading that story development. I will read it, though; I want to finish this series before I start The Diviners and I want to start The Diviners, like, yesterday.

1. Vampire Academy.
Look, I love VA. I do! And I'm dying to find out what happens after Shadow Kiss. VA has just...gotten away from me somehow. Let's face it, with everybody moving onto Bloodlines, VA has become old news and there have been so many new books since then. But finishing it is my top series priority. Don't worry, Rose and Dimitri, I'm coming back to you!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Book Review: Troy High by Shana Norris

First published: 1st August 2009
By: Harry N. Abrams

Homer’s Iliad, the classic tale of love and revenge, is shrewdly retold for teens in Troy High.

Narrated by Cassie, a shy outsider who fears that an epic high school rivalry is about to go up in flames, the story follows the Trojans and Spartans as they declare war on the football field. After the beautiful Elena - who used to be the captain of the Spartan cheerleaders - transfers to Troy High and falls madly in love with Cassie’s brother Perry, the Spartans vow that the annual homecoming game will never be forgotten.

The Trojans and Spartans pull wicked pranks on each other as homecoming approaches. And the Spartans’ wildcard football star, Ackley, promises to take down the Trojans’ offensive line. But the stakes are raised when Cassie is forced to choose between the boy she loves (a Spartan) and loyalty to her family and school. Troy High will seduce readers with its incendiary cast of mythic proportions.

My review:

I've got a pretty good idea of what I like, so, barring a few disappointments, I don't usually read books I hate. The only thing that trips me up is that I am irresistibly attracted to books that sound silly and cheesy - like about cheerleaders who also spy for the government or something - in the secret hope that they will be an awesome guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, Troy High was not a pleasure, but a chore and there was nothing that made it worth reading to me.

The writing is basic and flat. Sure, it's aimed at the younger end of the YA crowd, but middle grade books can have delightful prose. The paragraphs in Troy High are each about 2 sentences long - zero description, nothing to add depth to the characters. As a result, the characters are paper thin; the reader doesn't learn much more about them than their names, which school they belong to and some basic personality type that can be summed up in one word: Cassie - shy. Elena - ditz. Perry - jerk. You can't care about characters when there's nothing to them.

A high school version of The Iliad sounded fun, but this is such a dull and uninspired way of doing it. The actual war of The Iliad becomes a prank war between rival high schools - there's potential in that idea, but the pranks are just...lame. Like stuff you'd see on Saved by the Bell - and not even Saved by the Bell with Zack and Slater, but Saved by the Bell: The New Class with Scott and Weasel. To pull this kind of story off, I really feel like you have to go big or go home, you know? Make it crazy, spirited, funny fun. I think there was one prank in Troy High that maybe raised a half smile out of me, but that was it.

There was one thing I liked: how the author translated the original Homeric names to modern day ones. Agamemnon becomes Greg Memnon, Hector becomes Hunter, Menelaus becomes Lucas, etc. I thought that was cute. But it was hardly enough to save the book and I admit, I started skimming towards the end; I was so eager to be done with Troy High.

I was hoping for some nice brain candy, but alas, Troy High was a fail for me; boring and pointless and a waste of my precious reading time.

Rating: 1 star

Saturday, 22 September 2012

September Book Chat: Books for Our Younger Selves

I've only just discovered Misty at The Book Rat and her wonderful monthly meme, Book Chat and I was thrilled I could take part in this month's topic. Anyone can participate, by making a blog or video post. The video posts are great, but I'm so paranoid about being seen on the internet and then stalked (or you know, seen by one of my students and made fun of) that I'm sticking to a written blog post. Not as fun, but just as informative.

This month's topic: Books that we have read as adults and wish we could give to our younger selves.

Looking back, my childhood reading was really limited. I read all the time, but after I got to about age 10-11, what I read was The Babysitters' Club and Sweet Valley Twins/High almost exclusively. If I ever picked up anything else, it was almost always another series like Sweet Dreams, Sunset Island or Katherine Applegate's teen series. I don't think I read anything that was particular acclaimed or still regarded as a great book to pass on to the next generation. I read a much more varied choice of YA now. 

If I made a post about all the children's and YA books I've read and enjoyed since becoming an adult, this post would be a million words long, so inspired by Crystal at Vanilla Hearts, I decided to narrow it down to books I really think would have helped me in some way when I was younger; given me confidence and helped me feel better about myself.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Every young person who is a little different and doesn't quite fit in should be given Stargirl.  The character of Stargirl has an infectious personality and I think she'd make any oddball feel proud to be one, too. The whole book really celebrates marching to the beat of your own drum and not letting what other people think of you hold you back, which is a message I really needed when I was a kid.

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart         

I love Ruby Oliver as a heroine and I recognise many parts of my 15 year-old self in her, so it would have been nice to have met at the same age. Ruby goes through a lot of the problems I did: panic attacks and being ostracised from friendship groups. I think the fact that Ruby has such a good relationship with Dr. Z would have made me feel better about seeing a shrink, because I was really resistant to the idea when I was a teen.

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers       

I think this book would have helped me because I dealt with mean girls and being bullied and I think if I'd read this book as a teen, I would've been able to say: "Yikes! At least what's happening to me isn't that bad!"

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Two E. Lockhart books on the list! I guess she really speaks to Teen Me. Seriously, when I was a teenager and was just starting to think about things like feminism and why it was always the boys who lead the classroom discussions even though the girls knew as much, and why when we went out as a group, we always ended up going where the boys wanted to go (the arcades), having a role model like Frankie, who could actually articulate these things and do something to challenge it, would have been great.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Audiobook Review: Teen Idol by Meg Cabot

First released: 21st July 2004
By: Listening Library

Length: 6 hr and 1 min
Narrator: Elisabeth Moss

Ask Jenny your most complex interpersonal relationship questions. Go on, we dare you!

High school junior Jenny Greenley is good at solving other people's problems, so good that she's the school newspapers' anonymous advice columnist. But when 19-year-old screen sensation Luke Striker comes to Jen's small town to research a role, he creates havoc that even levelheaded Jenny isn't sure she can repair...especially when he asks her, and not Jenny's Luke Striker-groupie best friend, to the Clayton High Spring Fling.

Can Jen, who always manages to be there for everybody else, learn to take her own advice, and find true love at last?

My review:

Teen Idol is typical Meg Cabot and sometimes in life, what you need is Meg Cabot - that mix of teen romance, comedy and a healthy dose of wish fulfillment. Cabot's heroines are usually girls who get to live something you've only dreamt about, and after a girl who discovers she's a princess (Mia in The Princess Diaries) and another who saves the life of the president (Sam in All-American Girl), we have Jenny, a girl who gets to show America's hottest movie star around town.

Surprisingly, Luke Striker, the actor pretending to be a high school student, turns out to be only a subplot of Teen Idol. The main story is that of Jenny's character development. Jenny is the resident nice girl of Clayton High; everyone's friend, helper and shoulder to cry on. Only Jenny's so concerned with being nice to other people, that she never does what she wants. She does things to please others and never makes waves - even when it comes to the guy she likes.

Another surprise - Luke Striker is not Jenny's love interest! His role in Jenny's life is that of a fairy godmother - he shakes her up, sprinkles some fairy dust and encourages her to go for what she wants. I really enjoyed this twist and Jen and Luke's friendship is awfully sweet. The real love interest, Scott, is another of Meg Cabot's cute, geeky boys. He and Jenny talk about fantasy books and sci-fi movies and why was there never a boy like that in my school? Scott doesn't beat out Michael Moscovitz as the perfect teen boyfriend, but he comes very close.

The reason I chose Teen Idol as an audiobook is because I saw it was narrated by Elisabeth Moss, aka Peggy Olson, and I was missing my Mad Men fix. It's funny, but in many ways, Moss is technically a bad narrator. Her voice is high-pitched and often veers into squeaky, she doesn't do different voices for the other characters and sometimes she doesn't enunciate clearly. What she does do, however, and does brilliantly, is have a completely authentic teen voice for Jenny. She mumbles when she's talking about something embarrassing, because that's what teens do, she giggles her lines when they're jokes and when Jenny's upset, you can hear Moss's voice waver as if on the edge of tears. Most narrators of YA audiobooks are and sound much older than the characters they're portraying, but Moss really sounds like a teen girl is in your ear, telling you her story.

If you know Meg Cabot, you already know what Teen Idol will be like - like a romantic comedy for teenagers, but a good romantic comedy like My Best Friend's Wedding, not like something Katherine Heigl would be in. Teen Idol is good, frothy fun and the growth that Jen goes through is actually pretty interesting and has a nice message behind it. An easy read for when you want to remember your teen years as much sweeter, prettier and happier than they actually were.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Book Review: Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

First published in Great Britain: 29th September 2011
By: Quercus

'No, she thought. No, please, God, I'm not seeing this'

Seventeen-year-old Alex is hiking through the wilderness when it happens: an earth-shattering electromagnetic pulse that destroys almost everything.

Survivors are divided between those who have developed a superhuman sense and those who have acquired a taste for human flesh. These flesh-hunters stalk the land: hungry, ruthless and increasingly clever...

Alex meets Tom, a young army veteran, and Ellie, a lost girl. They will fight together and be torn apart, but Alex must face the most difficult question of all: 
In such a vastly changed world, who can you trust?

A story of high-wire tension, gut-wrenching twist, and burgeoning love, Ashes will leave you breathless.

My review:

The first book in a post-apocalyptic trilogy, Ashes wreaked havoc on my delicate sensibilities. Ilsa J. Bick's depiction of what happens when an electronic magnetic bomb detonates in North America, is graphically gross. Most of the population gush fountains of blood from their orifices and drop dead on the spot, some survive, and some become crazed cannibals, picking off what's left of the human race. Boy, does Bick's writing really make all that flesh and organ-eating come alive for the reader: Every squelch, every pop, every crunchLovers of guts and gore, step right up; this is the book you've been waiting for. Me? Being the wimp that I am, I was cringing. During some moments in Ashes - when dogs are ripped apart limb from limb to be feasted on, a human eye is popped into a mouth like a grape and a bite wound festers with pus and maggots - I wondered how Bick had managed to gain such intimate access to my worst nightmares.

Also not for the faint-hearted, are the non-stop action and the cliffhangers in the first half of the book. Our heroine, Alex, is one of the few survivors; alone in the woods but for 8 year-old, Ellie, and Tom, a soldier. Alex is exactly the person you want around when the apocalypse hits. She's an orphan, with an incurable brain tumour, so she already has experience in dealing with things that would make most of us curl into the fetal position and sob. She's strong and capable and never whines (that would be Ellie's job). She's a lifelong camper who knows a lot about basic survival and she and Tom, with his army background, make a great team. However, in Ashes, the characters can't catch a freaking break at all and at any given moment, they're either being attacked by cannibals, or wild dogs, or shot at, or robbed of all their food and weapons. The action never lets up, so as the reader you'd better get comfortable having your heart in your mouth. The chapters are super-short, too, keeping you reading just one more to find out what happens and then oh! Something else happens and you have to read the next chapter and then the next. Bick is also fond of ending the chapters with very ominous-sounding lines like "That was the last good time" or "They never saw each other again". This is an author who has perfected the art of making a book impossible to put down.

The second half of the novel is a big switch from this, though. Alex loses Tom and Ellie and  ends up in Rule, a town where a group of survivors have set up their own community and government. Everything in this part of Ashes is different from the first - the pace slows down, the characters we've gotten used to have gone and even Alex seems different. Alex's growing relationship with Tom was so well-done and the two were so well-matched, that it feels really out-of-character how quickly Alex starts to have feelings for a new boy. The stuff in Rule is also less absorbing because it's pretty obvious that Rule will have a secret sinister side and Alex will have to leave, whereas in the first half of Ashes, I couldn't have guessed what would happen. Rule does let us see how other people who are not Alex, Tom and Ellie have been handling the crisis and gives lots of hints about what could be going on in the wider world, but it's left unresolved in this book. I'm hoping Rule turns out to be a vital part of the bigger picture, to justify Alex spending so much time there.

Ashes ends on a huge, gruesome cliffhanger but this didn't bother me as it was a nice return to the style of its first half and the second book, Shadows, is out next week, so I don't have a long wait to find out what happens. (If I had read this in 2011, though and known I was in for a wait a year long? I might have thrown it against the wall.) I have two big demands: Shadows has to give me the same thrill ride as Ashes did in its first half and it has to start answering some of the questions Ashes put out there. If it doesn't, I'm gonna be frustrated and mad but if it does, I will happily proclaim this one of the best post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA series around.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, 14 September 2012

Audiobook Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

First released: 1st November 2011
By: Random House Audio

Audiobook length: 4 hr and 37 min
Narrator: Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling has lived many lives: the obedient child of immigrant professionals, a timid chubster afraid of her own bike, a Ben Affleck-impersonating Off-Broadway performer and playwright, and, finally, a comedy writer and actress prone to starting fights with her friends and coworkers with the sentence "Can I just say one last thing about this, and then I swear I'll shut up about it?"

Perhaps you want to know what Mindy thinks makes a great best friend (someone who will fill your prescription in the middle of the night), or what makes a great guy (one who is aware of all elderly people in any room at any time and acts accordingly), or what is the perfect amount of fame (so famous you can never get convicted of murder in a court of law), or how to maintain a trim figure (you will not find that information in these pages). If so, you've come to the right book, mostly!

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy invites readers on a tour of her life and her unscientific observations on romance, friendship, and Hollywood, with several conveniently placed stopping points for you to run errands and make phone calls. Mindy Kaling really is just a Girl Next Door - not so much literally anywhere in the continental United States, but definitely if you live in India or Sri Lanka.

My review:

Mindy Kaling sure knows her audience. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (yeah, I'm gonna have to abbreviate that title) starts with a FAQ where one of the questions is "Why isn't this book more like Bossypants?". I, and I'm sure many others, gave Kaling's book a try primarily because I enjoyed Bossypants so much and wanted to hear from another funny female. Kaling says upfront that her book isn't and can't be Bossypants.

And it isn't, but Is Everyone...? is still quite enjoyable in its own right. It's a short listen, and is an entertaining and diverting way to lighten up an afternoon. The best part is the first half, where Kaling talks us through her childhood and teen years, in which she was chubby, dateless and lame. It's a familiar refrain from comedians that they were geeky outsiders in high school, but that doesn't make Kaling's stories any less amusing and I chuckled many times.

It's also very interesting to hear about her road to becoming a TV writer. The behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into making a show is fascinating to me and Kaling's story about her first failed sitcom, Mindy and Brenda, really exposes a lot of the frustrating and downright offensive stuff that goes down (Kaling was essentially told she was too fat and dark-skinned to play herself).

However, once Kaling gets to the part where she's firmly ensconced in her role as a writer and recurring character on The Office, Is Everyone...? runs out of steam. Kaling's only thirty and even with keeping the book as short as it is, she doesn't have enough of her life and career behind her to fill the whole thing. The last third of Is Everyone...? is a hodgepodge of essays, in subjects as disparate as her ten favourite comedic moments in film, and her bizarre revenge fantasies for hypothetical slights. There are funny moments, but you do feel like Kaling is throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to stretch things out.

I enjoyed Kaling's narration. Comedians are the best people to read their own writing - they know what timing and emphasis they want on the jokes. Kaling's voice is famously that of a very nasally Valley Girl, which is annoying to some ears, but it fits her personality and I can't imagine her words said any other way.

Overall this audiobook is fun, but not a must-listen. It'd be a good listen while you do some necessary chores and Kaling is likeable enough that you won't mind hanging out with her.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Book Review: Saving June by Hannah Harrington

First published in Great Britain: 1st June 2012
By: MIRA Ink

'If she'd waited less than two weeks, she'd have been June who died in June. But I guess my sister didn't consider that.'

When sixteen-year-old Harper's sister June, the perfect, popular, pretty one to Harper's also-ran, commits suicide just before her high-school graduation, nothing in Harper's world makes sense anymore.

With her family falling apart, Harper has a plan - steal June's ashes and take her sister to the one place she always wanted to go: California.

Embarking on a wild road trip of impromptu gigs and stolen kisses with mysterious musician Jake, the one person who could hold answers about June, Harper's determined to find peace for her sister.

But will she find peace for herself along the way?

My review:

Grief is a common theme in contemporary YA and, while not necessarily breaking any new ground in the genre, Saving June is a solid and worthwhile addition. The book it most reminds me of is Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer, probably because of the friendship between Harper and her best friend Laney.

I struggled to comprehend the character of Harper at first, although in fairness, it's less that she was inconsistently written and more that she was different from what I assumed the character would be. I thought Harper's caustic attitude in the first few pages was a reaction to her sister's funeral, but it turns out that is her personality, dead sister or no. 

She's a lot more aggressively snarky than I expected, but I did warm up to Harper, as being a little sister myself, a lot of her thoughts and feelings struck me as realistic. On the whole, I think the strength of Saving June is that the characters feel very real and their dialogue and behaviour seems true to teens. They smoke, they swear, they drink and they're sarcastic to hide their real feelings. Even characters who annoyed me (like the student protestors) reminded me of people I've known.

Another strong point is the palpable sexual tension between Harper and Jake. The heat is coming off the page in some scenes and it would take a very steely reader not to swoon when Jake, say, sways Harper around the floor in a jazz club or sings softly into her ear as she falls asleep. I felt exactly the same way about Jake as Harper did - his deliberate evasiveness about June and his pretension about music bugged me, but I still wanted to jump his pretentious hipster bones. Ahem. Plus, I've gotta love a boy who's an ABBA fan (though, why be embarrassed about it, Jake? If loving ABBA is wrong, then I don't want to be right.).

I did have a problem with the premise of Saving June, though and I think this is where being an adult reader of YA affects my perception. I think scattering somebody's ashes, against their parents' wishes and without allowing the parents to even be there, is a really awful thing to do and it bothered me that none of the teens, or the people who they shared their plan with, seemed to see this. I was hoping the whole time that Harper would have an eleventh hour change of heart and include her parents, but at the end I just had to let it go.

Being a realistic YA novel, which deals with grief and loss, features a roadtrip and places a heavy emphasis on music, means that Saving June should appeal to readers who want more of all these things. For me it was a good read; for someone who's looking for a book which ticks all those boxes, it will be even better.

Rating: 4 stars

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

Monday, 10 September 2012

Book Review: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

Note: I really haven't felt like reviewing for a long time, but I have some NetGalley titles I must review and am hoping to get back into the swing of things.

First published: 11th September 2012
By: Random House Children's Books

Kami Glass is in love with someone she's never met—a boy she's talked to in her head since she was born. This has made her an outsider in the sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale, but she has learned ways to turn that to her advantage. Her life seems to be in order, until disturbing events begin to occur. There has been screaming in the woods and the manor overlooking the town has lit up for the first time in 10 years. . . . The Lynburn family, who ruled the town a generation ago and who all left without warning, have returned. Now Kami can see that the town she has known and loved all her life is hiding a multitude of secrets—and a murderer. The key to it all just might be the boy in her head. The boy she thought was imaginary is real, and definitely and deliciously dangerous. 

My review:

I wasn't in the mood for 'quirky', but Unspoken did end up winning me over. The style and the tone of the writing is very different from what you'd normally find in paranormal YA: Most of the characters speak in the kind of "I sound super-serious and formal, but really I'm being funny" banter you'd find in a 1950's flick. Example:

She found Rusty stretched out on the hearthrug with his arms behind his head.
"You disgraceful object," said Kami. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm buying a shotgun," Dad announced. "I live in the country. A shotgun is a reasonable thing to own."

It took me a while to get into, but the humorous dialogue comes so thick and fast that even if only about half of it lands, it still adds up to a very funny read. It wasn't long before I was sufficiently charmed.

I liked all the characters. They're all given some idiosyncrasy to their personalities to make them amusing, like Kami's dad calling his children by the wrong name or Kami's friends and their epic laziness. Kami herself follows in the grand tradition of plucky girl reporters, throwing herself into sticky situations in her eagerness for a story.

What stands out in Unspoken - other than the quirky dialogue - is the unique premise of Kami and Jared's relationship. Kami's spent her whole life talking to a voice in her head that she thought was imaginary, only to discover it belongs to a real person. Despite its whimsical nature, Unspoken treats the implications of this bond very seriously and the novel is at its most interesting when it's examining what it's like to share a mind with another person; to know someone completely but to also never have anything you can truly keep to yourself. Added to that is the fact that Jared is a pretty damaged individual, who grew up in an abusive home and I really felt for Kami with the pressure she was under, to not think anything that would upset him.

This balance of lightness and seriousness also comes with a dash of creepiness. I love the idea of a town full of secrets and the more tidbits Kami discovers about Sorry-in-the-Vale and its history with the Lynburn family, the more I was dying to know what the secrets were. You know when worried townspeople warn you off asking questions and say "You don't want to know!" and it just makes you want to know even more? Happens all the time in this book and really builds an atmosphere of eerie mystery.

I appreciate that, despite being the first in the series, Unspoken didn't leave me hanging when it comes to revealing the truth about the Lynburns. However, I did find the reveal somewhat anti-climatic after a 300 page build-up (it's not really anything new or different) and I felt the ending in general felt messy and unfinished (I can't say more without giving away spoilers). Still, there was a lot to enjoy here and a slightly disappointing ending can't make me forget how much of this novel did make me smile.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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