Saturday, 31 January 2009

Book review - Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Aza lives in the kingdom of Ayortha, where beauty is valued above almost anything. Unfortunately, Aza is definitely not the fairest of them all, however she does have the most beautiful voice. Singing is seen as more important than looks, but her looks have given Aza a shyness and insecurity. She has lived all of her life with her adopted family, who run an Inn, but when an esteemed guest, the duchess, finds that her companion is too ill to accompany her to court to witness the King’s wedding, she takes Aza instead. The new Queen hears her voice and demands that Aza should sing for her while she mimes. The King is injured and the new Queen must rule in his stead, but she makes disastrous decisions, which Aza and the Prince have to try to talk her out of. Aza finds herself in more and more danger as she catches the attention of the Queen, the court, and even the Prince himself.
This is a companion to Ella Enchanted – set in the same world and starring Areida’s family. It is also a retelling of Snow White, which intrigued me. A retelling of Snow White where the heroine is not beautiful is an interesting idea and I was curious enough to know how it would turn out that I wanted to read this book. The cover also played a big part, isn't it gorgeous! It also hides part of the girl's face without just cutting her head off, which seems to be the trend at the moment.
I have a confession – I’m one of what seems to be very few people who thought that Ella Enchanted was only ok, not great. The problem I have with both books is the world in which they are set. It is light-hearted and sweet, too serious to be a parody, yet everything is just too easy for it to feel real. I feel like it’s caught halfway between the two. I don’t mean that I hated Ella Enchanted, just that it felt unsatisfying. I did enjoy Fairest far more, but I have heard reports from Ella Enchanted fans who believe that that one was better.
I loved the way that the Snow White element was worked into the tale, not as the main storyline, but still a supporting plot factor. Some characters, the duchess and zhamM the gnome, were so delightfully eccentric and others were well-developed. The characterisation of Queen Ivi as immature and dependant rather than completely evil was especially refreshing. The romance felt a little forced and I have to say that if a guy thought I was maybe part-troll, I wouldn’t forgive him so easily.

Overall, this book was fun, had some interesting characters and original plot developments. It was an enjoyable read and I think miles better than Ella Enchanted. However, it was still a bit too fluffy, like eating candyfloss instead of a Sunday roast. Candyfloss is fun too though, and as long as you are aware that this is what you are getting, you should enjoy this book. It was well-written and quite clever, I just don’t think that it reached its potential.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Series spotlight - Jaclyn Moriarty

There are so many good books that have been out in the market for ages. Series Spotlight will be featured every week and is to introduce readers to series they may not have heard of before. Usually, these series will be ongoing, like today’s spotlight – Jaclyn Moriarty’s Brookfield-Ashbury series.

This series is focused on two schools; private school Ashbury, and the nearby Brookfield, where all the students are rumoured to be ‘bunny-killers.’ Unlike most series, this does not follow the same main characters, it is mainly only the setting which remains the same. Characters from the other books do feature as minor characters, but for all intents and purposes, each book stands alone. This being so, you don’t have to read them in order, though it gives slightly more understanding if you do.

Feeling sorry for Celia:
Mainly told through post-it notes from her mother, letters from invented organisations, and letters to and from her new pen-pal Christina, this novel follows Elizabeth Clarry and her struggles between friends, school and family. Elizabeth is dealing with an irresponsible best friend who is always running away, a developing friendship between the pen-pal her English teacher makes her write to, and a posh father who has suddenly reappeared in her life and keeps taking her out to restaurants in the hope that they will bond. A mysterious stranger on the bus is slipping her anonymous love notes, her father is behaving decidedly shiftily about the step-brother she’s never met, her friend, Celia, has just run away to join the circus, and she
keeps getting letters from the ‘Association of Teenagers’ telling her to crawl into a fridge.
This book perfectly captures teenage quirkiness, the importance of things like school and friends and yet is very amusing. It also addresses more serious issues that teens face, parent’s divorce, unrequited love, the importance of new friendships and old friendships and self-confidence. It takes some getting into because of the format of the prose, but Jaclyn Moriarty manages to address these issues in a non-condescending way, while still making you smile from Elizabeth’s wry voice and the refreshingly honest take on such problems. It wasn’t amazing, but it was fun, entertaining and thought-provoking.

Finding Cassie Crazy (aka the Year of secret assignments):
Best friends Lydia, Emily and Cassie are forced to enter the Brookfield-Ashbury pen-pal project that Elizabeth met Christina in the year previously in ‘Feeling sorry for Celia.’ Through this they meet Seb, Charlie and Matthew, three very different boys from Brookfield. Much hilarity ensues, including misunderstandings, secret missions, prank phone calls, dating lessons, and the need for a whole lot of revenge. In her second novel, Jaclyn Moriarty brings such a realistic teen voice while being hysterically funny. However, like its predecessor, Finding Cassie Crazy is also surprisingly deep. When quiet, vulnerable Cassie is hurt by a Brookfielder, the girls leap to her defence. The attempted revenge includes perfumed letters, a small drama studio and a declaration of all-out-war. All about friendship, love, families and learning to follow dreams, this is by far the best of the books so far. Highly recommended for some adults, as well as most teens, it is both humorous and heart-warming.
Em - ‘Well, first you have to be very, very funny. I have realized that it is essential for a boy to be funny. Otherwise, what is the point in a boy?’
Charlie – ‘What do I do if I’m a boy and I’m not funny?’
Em - ‘If a boy is not able to be funny, then the boy should not talk at all. The boy should be completely silent.’

Becoming Bindy MacKenzie (aka the Murder of Bindy Mackenzie):
A year on from ‘Finding Cassie Crazy,’ sees Ashbury student Bindy in a Friendship-And-Development class. Bindy is the smartest girl in the year, and believes she is kind and popular, always offering to show people her exam results so that they can learn from her. However, in the first ‘FAD’ class, she discovers that all her efforts are wasted; she’s the most unpopular girl in the year. She is determined to take her revenge on each of the other classmates in her ‘FAD’ group. This story is engaging and fans of the other two books will be pleased to hear that Liz Clarry and Emily Thompson both have main parts. There is a mystery element in this one, but it is also about learning to make new friendships, depending on others, and just enjoying life.
Jaclyn Moriarty does a surprising job considering that Bindy is so dislikeable.
However, through the book as I learned more about the main character I found myself supporting her more and more, especially as she became more friendly and likeable as the book progressed. Once again the supporting cast are wonderfully characterised and I could easily believe that Moriarty had just gone into a school and recorded teens talking for hours on end. While the plot itself is slightly unbelievable, the writing allows you to suspend your disbelief. I would suggest that people read ‘Finding Cassie Crazy’ before this one as one of the reasons it is so fun is getting to see the characters from the other books, especially Em. ‘Finding Cassie Crazy’ is still my favourite by far, but this is a good addition to the series.

A fourth book is currently in the works, at the moment called ‘Shadowgirl.’ It features new main characters Amelia and Riley and apparently is also a ghost story. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Book review - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Well. Someone somewhere has decided that this is going to be a BIG BOOK of the year. Every book shop I go in, I’m confronted by stacks upon stacks of the Hunger Games on the three-for-two tables, on displays, everywhere I look really. Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King have quotes on the cover supporting it. Yesterday, I found it in Asda. All this and it only came out in the UK two or three weeks ago, though it’s been extremely successful in the US. Does it deserve all this hype? ABSOLUTELY YES.
Since reading this book, I’ve tried to describe it to friends who I’m recommending it to, and every time I find that I can’t do it justice. So I’ll just give you the blurb.

'In a dark vision of the near future, a terrifying reality TV show is taking place. Twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live event called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed. When sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place in the games, she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.'

I think that this might be one of the best books I’ve ever read. Really, it has everything; action, suspense, love, great characters and is so well written! I stayed up (unintentionally, I might add) until twenty to five reading this book. And then didn’t sleep until about six just thinking about it. Ironically enough, one of the quotes on the cover mentions how you can’t stop thinking about this book. The idea is original and interesting, but I think it’s the characters that make this book. From page one I was completely in the story. The other thing that Suzanne Collins manages superbly in this book is incorporating the past to tell the present story better. The only other author I’ve read who has achieved this is Maria Snyder with the Poison Study series. This is the only reason that I am apprehensive of the sequel scheduled for next year. I’m not sure if Collins has used up all of her back-story and the next instalment will lose some of its wonderful writing as a result. But that’s not going to stop me from buying it. Something else that I’ve got to respect the author for is that this is the first of a trilogy, yet the story ended! It had a satisfactory conclusion, while still leaving me with small questions I need to know the answer to.
Probably one of the reasons that this book is being so promoted is that it is pretty readable for everyone. Girls, boys, adults and teens. Some kids too, but be aware that the book
is quite violent at points. Deaths are described, and though I wouldn’t say it’s particularly graphic, the concept may be disturbing to younger readers. So for almost anyone really, if you’re looking for a thought-provoking, entertaining-yet-completely-gripping, well written story, look no further. Just be warned – don’t start this late at night. Because you will not want to stop.

Oh, and the cover? Very cool. I couldn’t decide whether it suited the book for a while, but I can’t help but like it. Swapable front cover! Here is the American one on the right, which is very different. I’m not sure which captures the essence of the book more. Still, it’s fun to compare.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Book review - Stravaganza: City of Masks by Mary Hoffman

Lucien is seriously ill with cancer, able only to lie in bed all day, but he has discovered a secret. By using a mysterious notebook he can be transported to a different world whenever he sleeps. He soon realises that this is no dream, that the other world really exists. He is quickly caught up in the political intrigue and danger surrounding the city. With help from various new friends including the rebellious Arianna he must help to protect the city he has come to love.

A wonderful premise – a parallel world similar to a sixteenth century Venice where magic exists. Add to that masks, court intrigue, hidden identities and time travel all rolled into one novel. Mary Hoffman certainly knows how to weave a tale full of exciting different elements. The city of Bellezza was particularly well detailed, with a rich culture and beautiful descriptions. Many of the characters were very well written, especially Arianna, Sylvia and Lucien’s parents. The depiction of a family struggling with cancer felt very truthful. Interestingly, I felt that Lucien himself lacked depth, especially regarding his personal struggle with his illness. Some characters also seemed a little 2D compared to others, and many of their actions are never fully explained. The Duchessa refuses to reveal an important piece of information for a long time with no apparent reason other than to increase the tension towards the end of the book.

Having read the second and third books in this series but missed this one, I hoped that it would provide more originality than the other two. And it does, sort of. This book has a lot going for it, but somehow the whole book felt familiar. Despite the original setting and some good characters, I felt like it had been done before. Mary Hoffman has combined clever plot elements with a wonderful setting, resulting in a fun, entertaining book. This is a good book to pass the time, but not if you are searching for something truly original.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Book review - The Lady in the Tower by Marie-Louise Jensen

Eleanor Hungerford’s mother has been imprisoned under a false accusation for four years. Even in this prison, her life is in danger as her food has been poisoned. Her only chance is Eleanor, who smuggles food to her, keeping her alive. But Eleanor’s father has arrived back to the castle, bringing with him almost the entire court, including the King, for a grand tournament. This makes Eleanor’s job much harder. However, once she discovers that she is to be married and move away, preventing her from sending food to her mother, and also stumbles upon another plot to poison Lady Hungerford, she decides that their only chance is to run away before the wedding.

This book is set at the time of Henry VIII and is apparently based on a true story. I love the setting because the society that they live in, as well as their particular situation, makes it so difficult for Eleanor and her mother to escape. Jensen has clearly done her research well, only a couple of minor details felt wrong. The two main characters were well written and their interactions were lively and amusing. However, occasionally she uses characters to dump information for the reader. The little brother often announces random info and the mother’s first letter went along the lines of, ‘I watched you out of the window. I have been here, locked away in this tower, for four years. It is horrible.’ Which was annoying, but mostly in the first few pages to set the scene, so if you carry on reading, it stops quite quickly.

Despite these problems, I really, really enjoyed this book. As I think about it analytically, I can see small faults, but somehow these don’t really matter. The writing had a perfect balance of tension, romance and action, and I cared enough about the characters to overlook the problems. For me, this is very rare. Normally I’d be pulled right out of the action, but the writing had me so hooked that I noticed these things, but didn’t even really care about them. It’s only fair to point out that I only noticed these things because I have studied Tudor history extensively and I can honestly also say that this was one of the best representations of Tudor society that I have ever read. Jensen’s writing is captivating and the story is engaging. Definitely worth getting, and I hope to read a lot more from this author.

Friday, 16 January 2009

First post!

I'm new to the blogging world, but having read a good many blogs while browsing the internet for good books, I've found them very useful and decided to contribute my own reading experiences. About Books will be a good way to give a shout out about any books I love. At the moment, my goal has always been to record my thoughts about every book that I read, but having left my notebook somewhere, I've realised that a blog is probably the best way to do this and keep all my reviews together, while hopefully actually being useful to other people as well. Mostly, I read teenage books, but a few kids and adults ones will get thrown in too. So expect reviews fairly frequently, and once I find my notebook, I'll probably type up some old notes as well.
I've read a lot of good books recently and want to share. So expect reviews forthcoming, probably beginning tomorrow.