Review: City of Bones (Mortal Instruments)

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Sixteen-year-old Clary Fray is an ordinary teenager, who likes hanging out in Brooklyn with her friends. But everything changes the night she witnesses a murder, committed by a group of teens armed with medieval weaponry. The murderous group are Shadowhunters, secret warriors dedicated to driving demons out of this dimension and back into their own. Drawn inexorably into a terrifying world, Clary slowly begins to learn the truth about her family – and the battle for the fate of the world.

Second half of my 2 for 1 is Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones from her Mortal Instruments quintilogy. I’d never normally have picked this up, but as I work with teenagers and they’re all into this, I figured I should give it a go. Plus, there was nothing else on the shelf. Plus it was coming out as a movie and I knew my mother would want to see it.

It’s not bad. It’s a thick book but only took a couple of days. I’m glad it was an easy read or I probably wouldn’t have actually finished it. I haven’t had the energy to read the sequels (mainly because I read something much better and when I tried to go back to this, I just couldn’t face it).

There’s enough mystery to keep you intrigued. I guessed half of it before the end, but there were still some surprises. It’s also got enough of it’s own ideas (the Shadowhunters, Angel Raziel) combined with classical concepts (vampires, werewolves, demons) to make it an interesting world to discover.

Unfortunately, there’s a love triangle. Because there isn’t enough conflict already without one clearly. And everyone became very capable very quickly. But were also very stupid. But that’s always the way.

Somehow, I still managed to have a favourite though. Simon. The geeky, sweet one who stupid things keep happening to (like getting turned into a rat) and being but who also gets to have his moment when he saves the day. I’m the one shouting at Clary to choose him, just like I was shouting at Bella to choose Jacob. It’s good to know I’m not a sucker for bad boys, even in fiction. 🙂

The film was poor, even in comparison.

Review: The Understudy

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For Josh Harper, being in show-business means everything he ever wanted – money, fame, a beautiful wife, and a lead role on the London stage. For Stephen C. McQueen, it means a disastrous career playing passers-by and dead people.

Stephen is stuck with an unfortunate name, a hopeless agent, a daughter he barely knows, and a job as understudy to Josh Harper, the 12th Sexiest Man in the World. And when Stephen falls in love with Josh’s clever, funny wife Nora, things get even more difficult.

But might there yet be a way for Stephen to get his Big Break?

My father bought me David Nicholl’s Starter for Ten when I first went to University. Being as it was about somebody else going to Uni, it was appropriate, and there was a film coming with starring James McAvoy. I try to make a habit of reading the books films are based on before seeing the film. It was funny, and cringe-worthy and bleak. And refreshing it being all that.

Then I read One Day a few years ago. A book group choice? I can’t really remember. Anyway. I loved it, mostly because it broke my heart so damn much.

I bought The Understudy because I had a five hour train journey and no knitting. 2 for 1 in WHSmith. It’s fraternal purchase was City of Bones which we’ll get to later. I read the whole book on the train journey (just as I’d read the whole of The Ocean at the End of the Lane) on the outgoing journey.

It was very similar to Starter for Ten, in it’s funny, cringe-worthy-ness. No tears with this one, but sometimes I came close out of sheer embarrassment for the characters. Nicholls has a knack for creating terribly inadequate characters who are (or at some point in the book) failing at life. It’s not the kind of romantic comedy where everyone gets what they want in the end and lives happily ever after. It’s the kind of romantic comedy that you think might actually happen to you. Except you won’t be nearly as witty as any of the characters.

This makes it really easy to identify with, but also unbearably depressing, as any reflection of life is. It’s funny, but whenever you laugh, it’s like you’ve just laughed at someone who just fell out of their wheelchair.

All that makes it sound like a terrible book. It’s not as good as the latter two, but it has style and the awkwardness is actually tremendously appealing, in a masochistic kind of way.

Review: Wonder

‘My name is August. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’

 

Auggie wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old. He does ordinary things – eating ice cream, playing on his Xbox. He feels ordinary – inside. But ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. Ordinary kids aren’t stared at wherever they go.

 

Born with a terrible facial abnormality, Auggie has been home-schooled by his parents his whole life. Now, for the first time, he’s being sent to a real school – and he’s dreading it. All he wants is to be accepted – but can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, underneath it all?

All in all, I found this book very saccharine.

I’ve said it before (and I will probably say it again) – I do not like books which feel the need to write in the first person from different characters perspectives from chapter to chapter. And this is a prime example of doing it wrong. All the voices sounded exactly the same. Without the headers, I would have been completely clueless about who was talking – until they said they were his sister, etc. And the chapter where all capital letters were dropped to lower case did not help the cause.

The only character who developed at all was Miranda – who was hardly in it. She was also the only one I warmed to – but this could be because I’ve been through a similar situation to her (except for the Auggie part).

It was neither funny nor exciting, it just plowed from one experience to another, hitting the same point over and over again until I was rolling my eyes. I’m not underestimating the ordeal that life is for kids in Auggie’s condition. I feel like this book tried so hard to illustrate those difficulties, but then became too much about people ‘doing the right thing’. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished. As a reflection of life – which I feel this book should have been – it went a bit too Disney which detached me from the message.

I did enjoy the Star Wars references though. And there were several clever moments which worked completely under the Auggie-centricity to surprise the reader – the clues to the incident with Daisy and also Miranda’s parents. These served to redeem it to some extent, but not much.

The serious message – and perhaps lesson – was undermined by the sugary results and lack of character.

Review: Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop of Dreams

Were you a sherbet lemon or chocolate lime fan? Penny chews or hard boiled sweeties (you do get more for your money that way)? The jangle of your pocket money . . . the rustle of the pink and green striped paper bag . . .

Rosie Hopkins thinks leaving her busy London life, and her boyfriend Gerard, to sort out her elderly Aunt Lilian’s sweetshop in a small country village is going to be dull. Boy, is she wrong.

Lilian Hopkins has spent her life running Lipton’s sweetshop, through wartime and family feuds. As she struggles with the idea that it might finally be time to settle up, she also wrestles with the secret history hidden behind the jars of beautifully coloured sweets…

I met Jenny Colgan when I went to the showing of Dr Who and the Daleks several months ago. She was there because she now writes Dr Who novels, but most of her work is Romantic Fiction. We shelve this in the Fiction section of the library, not the Romance section. Which I think is a good thing?

Anyway! I really, really enjoyed this book.

The characters were interesting and lovable, if not wholly realistic and it was certainly entertaining. Her representation of coming to the countryside from the city was daft but I’ve had many moments them that myself when returning home. And the plot moved comfortably and easily forward, without hefting any depth or weight of being. It was, in short, comfortingly entertaining.

And then.

Suddenly.

It was as though somebody else had taken over writing the book. A ‘love interest’ is revealed as gay – there were no clues to this , just a sudden realisation on Rosie’s part. And everyone – including the ex-boyfriend – is suddenly paired off by the end, thereby losing any connection with reality it had previously.

At least the sex scene was… oh crap… where did that come from? (And among the better scenes of that nature that I’ve read.)

The one redeeming feature of this last section was that the story of Lilian Hopkins – told in flashbacks – continued as it had started. A hope-filled but inevitably sad tale of love, loss and aging. There were no tears, but a part of my heart ached for her.

I have yet to try out the recipes. Apparently sugar is my enemy. But on a treat day, I’ll give one or two a shot. 🙂

Review: The Farm

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I started The Farm by Emily McKay nearly six months ago when my colleague and I started our teen book groups. She managed to get some pre-release copies of the book to give out at the first meeting. Neither of us had read it, but I was only a few chapters in before I realised that it probably wasn’t the best choice for our first book. Maybe a little bit too controversial in content (as was reflected in some parents comments).

However, as an adult, I enjoyed the book. In my review of Codename: Verity by Elizabeth Wein I talked about how I dislike narrative switching, and McKay is guilty of doing this as well. It was less annoying than in other examples however, as one of the voices was an autistic girl. The combination of her voice and her sister’s worked quite well, and the odd third person chapter actually fitted quite well into the flow of the narrative. And she didn’t use the technique to give away everything either – instead, they were used as clues, which was quite effective.

What I disliked the most was that the small twist near the end of the book was given away in the cover blurb. I hate hate hate this. My first experience of it was with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Reading that novel, I could see all the clues and they were very clever. I was very disappointed not to have been able to completely enjoy it because I already knew what it all meant. Don’t read the blurb on either book if you ever some to read it.

On the whole, it was a good, teen vampire-dystopia romp. The characters were realistic, even in their subborn annoyingness (but isn’t that realistic for teens?). It hit on some quite heavy topics – i.e. teens getting pregnant on purpose because ‘Ticks’ don’t like progesterone and attempted rape – but it contributed to the plot rather than distancing the reader.

The vampires were scary throughout, even the ones that were on the side of the protagonists were portrayed as animals who were incredibly dangerous and their control only a thin disguise for their animalistic insides. To be honest, it could have survived – and possibly been better – if it hadn’t had any humanoid vamps at all, but at least they were included in a way I can respect (meaning – they didn’t freaking sparkle).

It felt like it moved really slowly for something that was chronologically moving quite fast, but I will probably read the sequel, as I’m kind of interested in what happens. But not so much that I’d mind if I never got round to it.

Review: Carnegie Challenge – Codename: Verity

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My fourth Carnegie challenge installment is Codename: Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

I am in two minds about this book.

On one hand, the perspective annoyed me. One character writing as though she were another character, but herself inbetween, and then halfway through switching to that second character. This sort of stuff has always annoyed me. I understand why it’s done. At the end, when I found out it was a collection of written accounts (like how Frankenstein is the recollection of a story written into a letter, but actually a fictional book), that kind of aleviated the frustration a little bit.

I started to become annoyed with this sort of thing back at Uni when we had to read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses and Melvin Burgess’ Doing It. It feels like they’re doing it for the sole reason of letting you know the whole story, which I think would be less jarring if they just wrote it in 3rd person. If they could do it without doing it so cheaply as putting the character name at the top of each chapter to remind you who whose head your inside- if each character was so well portrayed that you didn’t have to be told who was talking, then maybe. I had an argument with my lecturer about this. I appreciate that I’m in a minority, but it’s something I feel very passionately about for some reason.

Wein created two very well voiced character though, who were so individual that you didn’t need to be told who was talking. She earnt my relucatant forgiveness by the end of the book. I would have been happy had it ended with the end of the first voice though (and there would have been less tears).

It pretty much destroyed me emotionally. I cried for hours afterwards. Probably second only to The Hunger Games in the list of literature which has made me cry. Joint with The Book Theif, I think. And I wasn’t expecting it either. There was just one sentence and suddenly I was sobbing my wee heart out like nobody’s business.

When I’m judging a book, it certainly gets bonus points for making me cry. I feel that it shows how well developed the characters and plot were that I could become so involved and dependent upon them. So I have to conclude that it was incredibly well written, which makes me feel undermined because I got so frequently annoyed at the techniques Wein used.

I would recommend it. The characters were entertaining, if a little too brave and bright to be realistic (even when they’re saying they’re not). The german interrogator was a fantastic asset to the plot, even though we only saw him through the eyes of other characters. If anything, I actually felt like he was the most real character in the whole novel.

Wein has a disclaimer at the end which, to paraphrase, says that she doesn’t intend her novels to be historically accurate, as long as they are historically plausible. Probably liked this sentence as much, if not more, than the rest of the book. This is to say, a lot!

Review: Carnegie Challenge: Maggot Moon, The Weight of Water and Midwinterblood

As I have been so terrible at reading this year, I decided to challenge myself to read all of the CILIP Carnegie Medal shortlist for 2013.  This consists of:

Maggot Moon by Sarah Gardner

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgewick

In Darkness by Nick Lake

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton

Codename: Verity by Elizabeth Wein

So I have completed three of them! I am also half way through Wonder, but a child came into the library asking for it. We didn’t have a copy so I gave her mine. I’m just that kind of  library assistant. 🙂

On the whole, I am unsure how to review the books have read so far. But here goes…

Maggot Moon

This was a special book. The style was simple but full and multi-layered at the same time. Usually I am put off when an adult author tries to imitate a child’s mind. With no specific examples to back up this statement, they predominantly come across as jarring, with no flow and annoying to read. Gardner, however, displays the thought process of Standish Treadwell, the narrator, as flowing and imaginative, entertaining and heartbreaking simultaneously. I was expecting to cry from the beginning, but didn’t until the very last page.

 

What makes this book exceptionally hard to review is that I don’t want to ruin “the twist”. Which isn’t really a twist, but a very good narrative tool, which is revealed slowly and slyly throughout the novel.

The Weight of  Water

I was surprised by this book. It’s not written in prose, but is more of a novel length poem. I find poetry a little irritating on the whole. Especially long free form ones. I’ve never quite understood why it’s not just written as prose. Line breaks and displaced formatting – the meaning just never quite gets through my skull.

However! I enjoyed this. The narrative flowed as seamlessly as the water metaphors and similes that trickle through the story. Even the line breaks suggest the broken english of the books Polish narrator (Kasienka) even as they represent the waterfalls, rivers and tidal waves that life throws her way as an immigrant in Britian. A quick read, because of the formatting, but well visualised and touching in it’s delicacy.

Midwinterblood

I have just finished this now, and been left with goosebumps. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. The story of two souls torn apart, forever searching for unification in a grotesque and violent world. A story of duty and love, destiny and blood. Seven storylines which lead into each other back in time to the first laceration. Spectacular in vision, breadth and depth.

It reminded me a lot of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – the reincarnation of souls throughout history, the formatting of their tales. It struck a much deeper note inside me though. The concept of oneDegree bringing people together in an increasing disparate world, the desperation when a connection cannot be made. This was only a tiny part of the book, but it’s so real – so palpable.

Of these three, I certainly couldn’t choose a winner. The last for it’s viscerality, the second for it’s touching honest, and the first for it’s tragic imagination. All filled with subtle genius, emotion and a knife into the soul (but in the best way possible).

Beautiful.