Friday, 24 February 2012

Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

First published in the UK: 19th October 2011
By: Scholastic Ltd

Every year, the Scorpio Races are run on the beaches of Skarmouth. Every year, the sea washes blood from the sand. To race the savage water horses can mean death, but the danger is irresistible. 

When Puck enters the races to save her family, she is drawn to the mysterious Sean, the only person on the island capable of taming the beasts. 

Even if they stay together, can they stay alive?

A breathtaking ride that will make your heart race.

My review:

Maggie Stiefvater's prose just does it for me; it affects me and pulls on my heart-strings enough that I forgive the slow pace and the frustrating moments. During The Scorpio Races, Stiefvater had my eyes tearing up at the sad bits, my pulse racing at the exciting bits and my heart swooning at the romantic bits and I was so emotionally satisfied that I can't call this anything but a great read.

Unequivocally the best thing about this book is how well Stiefvater creates the setting and atmosphere. The island of Thisby is so detailed that you feel like you've been there: You've stood on the cliffs, you've breathed the sea air, you've eaten the delicious-sounding cakes  - and you've trembled at the sight of the cappaill uisce, the huge, carnivorous water-horses that rise out of the sea every year.

The men of the island attempt to tame these wild beasts and ride them in a dangerous race that not many survive. A boy named Sean enters every year and a girl named Puck is racing for the first time. The Scorpio Races is the story of how they train and prepare and try to hold their lives together through it all, while developing feelings for each other. A comparison that came to my mind is The Hunger Games, if Katniss never went to the Games and instead, the part at the beginning where she and Gale hunt and look after their families in District 12? Is the whole book. Of course, Puck and Sean do have their race, but 90% of The Scorpio Races is on the journey to; the race itself is brief.

I loved the two main characters. I love that Puck isn't some larger-than-life Amazon, storming into the races and showing everybody what's what. She's quiet and steady and just keeps persevering to get what she wants - that felt very real to me. The only issue I had is that her initial motivation for entering the races is kind of weak. Later on, she realises she needs to win to save her home, but I thought it would have worked better to establish that right off.

The novel switches back and forth between Puck's narration and Sean's and, while I've seen some reviewers say that there wasn't much difference between the two, I thought that most of Stiefvater's pretty prose is written in Puck's parts and the way she describes things in such detail conveys the sense of a young girl, making new discoveries about the world around her. There's also a surprising amount of dry humour from Puck, which further endeared her to me. Sean is the classic moody loner boy, but he has this calm strength that commands everybody's respect and, well, you can't help but adore a guy who loves his horse that much. You know what they say about men who treat animals well.

Puck's younger brother, Finn, is seven shades of adorable but her older brother, Gabe, is a problematic character - I wasn't sure if I was supposed to hate him or not. His decision to leave the island, essentially abandoning his teen-aged siblings to fend for themselves, is so, so crummy and selfish that there can be no justification for it. By the end of the book, though, I just let it go: Gabe's life, where he's twentysomething and de facto parent and breadwinner and stuck doing menial jobs to make ends meet, is my idea of hell. (There doesn't appear to be any young women on the island, either, so I hope Gabe is gay and was having hot sex with Tommy Falk, because that's the only thing that could have made his life remotely bearable). So while, I didn't like him or believe his decision was right, I had some empathy for him.

OK, so it does take 450 pages to get to the race. And after all that, the race is only around 12 pages long. BUT, those are about the most thrilling 12 pages I've read in a good long while. Having the race be so tightly condensed helps make it so tense and exhilarating (and you've been waiting for it a long time, so you're pumped it's finally happening). Add to that the final, moving scenes between Sean and his horse and you have exactly how Stiefvater gets me again and again with her novels. I get swept away by the emotions and the atmosphere and the prose and while I may feel manipulated, I'm too busy wiping away the tears to care.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Waiting on Wednesday #11

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

I haven't made a WoW post in months, but I had to for the following book that I am literally panting in anticipation for. I keep going to Amazon to look at that pretty, pretty cover and dream about the day it will be mine:

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Generations ago, a genetic experiment gone wrong — the Reduction — decimated humanity, giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Eighteen-year-old Luddite Elliot North has always known her place in this caste system. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family’s estate over love. But now the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress and threatening Luddite control; Elliot’s estate is floundering; and she’s forced to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth — an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliott wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she abandoned him.

But Elliot soon discovers her childhood friend carries a secret — one that could change the society in which they live…or bring it to its knees. And again, she’s faced with a choice: cling to what she’s been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she’s ever loved, even if she has lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen’s PERSUASION, FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.

Published: 12th June 2012

WoW because: Diana Peterfreund is one of my favourite YA writers. I know any book of hers will have wonderful female characters, great writing and be cool, interesting and smart. Combining Jane Eyre with sci-fi? Indicates to me that I'm right in my assumption. I follow Diana's blog and she's been discussing writing this book for 2 years or so, so it's been a long time since my appetite for this was first whet. I can't wait to finally read it.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Book Review: Firelight by Kristen Callihan

First published: 31st January 2012
By: Forever

London, 1881
Once the flames are ignited . . .
Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family's fortune decimated and forced her to wed London's most nefarious nobleman.

They will burn for eternity . . .
Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it's selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can't help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn't felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.

My review:

I should say right away that I don't normally read adult romance and was not really the target audience for this. I just wanted to give something new a try but, while there were some things I liked about Firelight, it wasn't the book to win me around to the genre.

Miranda is a strong heroine and I enjoyed her interactions with almost all the other characters. She has wit and intelligence and it's fun to see her banter with everyone from society ladies to London pickpockets. Her backstory is really interesting: how she discovered her powers, how she inadvertently ruined her family and was forced into a life of crime - now that sounds like my kind of book. But this is a romance, so the romance was the central plot (duh!). Unfortunately, I found Archer, the love interest, to be more one-note as a character: "I love Miranda, but I can't be with her, but I want to be with her, because I love Miranda" ad infinitum. I think Miranda deserves better, really.

The book has very readable prose and the plot chugs along at a good pace, with the subplot of the strange serial murders turning up at the right moments to prevent things from becoming dull (and the killings are delightfully gruesome for those who get a kick out of the macabre), but ultimately, I just didn't feel much of a connection with any of it. I think a problem was that I was looking for something different when I tried this novel, and apart from featuring adults and sex scenes (which were admittedly hot), I didn't find much here that was all that different from the YA paranormal romances I've read. I almost DNF-ed it at one point, when it was heavily telegraphed that a character was a werewolf - I was like, "Werewolves? Again?"

I didn't mind reading Firelight and it's the kind of novel that would probably serve you well on a long, dreary aeroplane flight, but there was nothing there to make it any more than that for me.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Audiobook Review: Bossypants by Tina Fey

First released in the UK: 18th April 2011
By: Hachette Audio UK

Once in a generation a woman comes along who changes everything. Tina Fey is not that woman, but she met that woman once and acted weird around her. 

Before 30 Rock, Mean Girls, and 'Sarah Palin', Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV. She has seen both these dreams come true. 

At last, Tina Fey's story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon - from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence. 

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've all suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy.

My review:

I haven’t listened to an audiobook since I was a kid but I want to try new things this year. Inspired by this list from April @ Good Books and Good Wine, I decided to start with Tina Fey’s Bossypants. So glad I did – I loved this. I found myself not wanting to stop listening and trying to fit it into as much of my day as possible.

Bossypants isn’t some groundbreaking text – it’s a fairly typical humorous biography – but what it is, is straight-up enjoyable from start to finish. Fey describes her life, from her childhood and early career, to 30 Rock and the birth of her first daughter and she never forgets to be hilarious while she’s doing it. I laughed out loud multiple times and kept rewinding my favourite bits over and over.

Although Bossypants is mostly fun and light, I think what tips it over from like into love for me is how feminist it is. Fey doesn’t preach at all, but she’s a smart cookie and makes a lot of observations about society’s attitude towards women, that are as seriously on point as they are witty.

The only part of the book I wasn’t that into was the section on Fey’s famous Sarah Palin impression. Fey devotes so much time to discussing this, way more than she spends on any of her other creative pursuits and, maybe because I’m not American, the importance of those Palin skits is just lost on me. I wish there was an option where you could swap out hearing about the work that went into the Palin impression, for hearing about the work that went into writing the Mean Girls script – much more interesting to me!

I’m convinced that if you want to read this, the audiobook version is the way to go. Fey’s narration is awesome – it doesn’t even feel like narration; it feels like Fey is personally keeping you company and chatting to you. You get to hear her comic timing on the jokes and I especially liked hearing Fey mimic the voices of the people in her life – so much funnier.

I’m sure anybody who already loves audiobooks would have had the sense to grab this one already. But if there’s anybody currently ‘meh’ on audiobooks, like I was, grab it now. It will change your mind.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Book Review: Raising Demons by Rachel Hawkins

First published in Great Britain: 3rd March 2011
By: Simon & Schuster UK

Sophie Mercer's first term at Hex Hall was quite eventful. First, her evil grandmother's ghost haunted her every move, then her best friend was accused of murder and, finally, Archer Cross (aka The Boy Of Her Dreams) turned out to be an undercover demon hunter; which would have been fine, if Sophie hadn't been the demon he was hunting…

Sophie is hoping for a quieter summer, but as she's spending it with her dad - who just happens to be Head of The Council of Prodigium - at the headquarters of all-things-magical, that's not going to happen. And, as she struggles with her new demon powers, Sophie finds herself surrounded by dark magic and conspiracies. The only way things could get more complicated would be if Archer Cross appeared again. But he wouldn't...would he?

My review:

These books. Each time I read one, I just gobble it up like candy. A huuuyuge part of it is the humour - not many YA heroines can make me burst out laughing like Sophie can. This is a girl, whose comment on entering an opulent mansion, is: "The black-and-white marble floor underneath my feet was shiny enough to make me glad I hadn't worn a skirt".

Called Demonglass in the US, the title was changed for the UK and this is one case where I think the change works better. 'Demonglass' doesn't really have much to do with the plot here, but 'Raising Demons' pretty much describes what's going on. The action jumps ahead to the end of Sophie's first year at Hecate Hall and her father arrives to take her to England for the summer. Having the sequel take place away from the school is a bold move, but the right one, I think. Life at Hex Hall could have easily become very repetitive; now, Raising Demons feels fresh.

This book gives considerably less attention to most of the supporting characters established in the first one and instead focuses on two specific relationships of Sophie's: her formerly absentee father and her crush, Archer. I was at first perplexed at how strong Sophie's feelings for Archer were portrayed as being - I hadn't thought she was that into him - but Raising Demons totally sold me on those two as star-crossed lovers. It is an extremely ill-advised pairing but it's impossible to read this and not get caught up in it. However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss some of the Hex Hall characters. There wasn't enough Jenna (there can never be enough Jenna) and I particularly wish we could have seen more of Mrs Casnoff. It might have shed more light on the choices she makes at the end of the book.

I think for most of its narrative, Raising Demons is an even better read than Hex Hall. The world is established now, we get to learn more about its intricacies and the stakes are higher. My only problem with it, is that it fell victim to the cliffhanger ending. On the one hand, the ending is shocking and hugely emotional but on the other hand, it kind of isn't, because we don't know if those things really happened or not - it was all left up in the air. I can't help but think the potential character deaths will have lost their impact by the time the third book comes out. But then Rachel Hawkins has surprised me many times now.

Speaking of the third book, I realised just how much I like this series from my reaction when I found out the next book is the final one: I'm so disappointed! It seems like these books could go on much longer, for as long, in fact, as I need them to make me smile.

Rating: 4 stars