Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Book review - Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

The UK paperback releases 6th August.
‘There are thirteen reasons why your friend committed suicide. You are one of them.’
They are sent from person to person. When Clay receives the package, he has no idea what’s inside. Intrigued, he finds seven cassette tapes. On each side of the tapes Hannah Baker has recorded a reason why she ended her life. The rules are simple. You listen all the way through and you pass it on to the next person in the story. Clay can’t think of anything Hannah could blame him for, but he received the tapes so he has to listen. Over the course of one long night he listens to Hannah’s story, wandering the streets of his town as he follows in her footsteps, coming to know Hannah better than he ever has before.

I’ll admit it, I was expecting a rather depressing story. A story with a big moral (anything you do could be one more reason that someone commits suicide). To be honest, I was expecting more literary highbrow-ness than entertainment, but somehow Thirteen Reasons Why delivers both.
Clay is an incredibly honest main character and can’t comprehend how he’s involved in the story. Hannah was the girl he liked from afar and never really got the chance to get to know. Through the tapes he can understand Hannah’s story and finally connect with her. Hannah herself comes across as composed and intelligent, fully aware of what she’s doing. She also has a sense of humour and perspective on the events she describes. As she says on the tapes, she blames very few of them, but she wants them to know how their actions affected her. This mature outlook is vital to the book as it means it’s not a narrative of finger-pointing and revenge so much as a story about the truth. Interestingly, several of the recipients of the tapes don’t see it the same way and judge others based on the story despite the fact that each of them received those tapes for a similar reason.

It’s a clever tale that allows the reader to see the same events from different interpretations. Everyone has preconceptions about other people. Hannah’s tapes illustrate how harming and misleading these can be, but also how they can come about. Especially in school, people can quickly be assigned a reputation and expected to stick to it. Other people see them as this characteristic – shy/funny/sweet and they may feel they have to live up to it. Thirteen Reasons Why plays up to this, challenging even the reader’s preconceptions. Clay comes across as a little dorky in his own narration, but in other people’s eyes he is cooler. Because of these two main narrators, this book is great for guys and girls, without excluding either sex. I recommend it to all.

I hate to end on a ‘this book makes you think,’ but it truly does. Not about life and death so much as image and seeing beyond the stereotypes. It’s not just meaningful though, it’s also an entertaining read. It wasn’t hard to get through, and I didn’t feel too noble reading it. I don’t want to detract from its meaning, but I also want people to understand it’s a good read! I wanted to know what happened next in Hannah’s story, I wanted to know how people fitted in, and especially how Clay fitted in. It was also interesting to see Clay wandering the streets of his town, meeting people from school and not knowing if they were on the tapes. Do they already know how he fits in? Will they be featured after him in the story? Do they have nothing to do with it at all? There’s a good element of suspense and I was intrigued to see how it would all play out.

What do you think of the new UK paperback cover? I like it more every time I see it, but I can't help feeling it will appeal more to girls than guys which is a shame.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

What NOT to do 2

I've collected a few more of these, so here for your reading pleasure is What NOT to do part deux, alternatively known as Please Authors, I beg you, don't ruin a good book by doing these things. Maybe before reading this post you should go back and read What NOT to do 1 if you haven't already.

As before, I'm leaving out general problems like poor characters or plot. Here are some specific things I've been picking up on recently. Again, I'm not trying to criticise specific books so anything in quotation marks is paraphrased by me.

Show that a Lord in a historical fiction book is a nice guy really by having him always address his servants like ‘if it isn’t too much trouble, would you be so kind as to fetch Miss Moore some tea and refreshments?’ – I don't care how nice a guy he is, it wouldn't occur to him to be so polite to his servants all the time. Plus it gets annoying very quickly. Show how nice a guy he is by making him rescue kittens or something instead.

Heroines who are absolutely gorgeous, but charmingly unaware of it. – Generally seen through the eyes of several males just so the reader realises she’s beautiful (because charmingly modest heroine has told the reader that she’s not beautiful and we can’t have the reader believing that their heroine is plain!) before moving back to her point of view. On the same note, heroines who have a childhood friend desperately in love with her, several men along the way in love with her, just about anyone who meets her, in love with her.

Quests whose success balances upon knife edges/hangs on single threads – Questers are frequently reminded of this by random wise people along the way even when they’re not in immediate danger of any kind.

Questers seek wise/knowledgeable person to shed light on their quest. Wise person falls over himself being friendly and generally wise yet doesn’t say anything useful, despite knowing stuff. Finally, he wishes questers luck on their quest, telling them that he can say little (and why is that exactly? ) but this ... proceeds to speak cryptically and in verse even though he managed normal conversation moments ago. At the end of the poem, wise/knowledgeable person can say no more (other than you have very little time, usually) and reminds questers of Knife Edge/Single Thread mentioned above – Questers and reader alike can then spend most of the book trying to figure out the cryptic poem, which adds a fun element. Hey, it’s interactive! Then they can feel stupid at the end when all is revealed. How obvious! Everyone say ‘of cooouurse!’

Have a character called Cat – I’m not being critical if you ALREADY have a character called Cat, that’s fine. I have nothing against the name, or your books. But authors take note! There are now enough Cats in YA literature to last us a while. And Kat is not a whole different name. Same applies. I know two Cats in real life. I have read about more than fifteen. Why is this?

Have a boy who turns out to be a girl in disguise at the same time as the Princess disappears – WE KNOW IT’S HER!!! Just because author has ever so casually mentioned how Princess has one colour hair and girl in disguise has a different colour hair doesn’t fool your discerning readers. Some of us have heard of wigs before.

Some cryptic verse making up a treasure hunt to treasure which an eccentric, but extremely wise old person hid centuries ago (it is generally unexplained why such crazy-but-genius old people are always in possession of priceless treasures) - said eccentric knows, of course, that the treasure must be hidden well, so only one who is worthy/really needs the treasure/is noble of heart can find it. They don’t consider how if it’s important, maybe they shouldn’t bury it/ hide it in that secret compartment in the loft/ build a house on top of it. If it’s so important, maybe someone will need it in a hurry and not have time for a treasure hunt. Invariably, it’s a close-run thing, but treasure is found in the nick of time to avert disaster.

Explain every action of a character to show how good they really are. If someone was shooting at us/chasing us/trying to kill us in some horrible way, most of us would have no qualms in retaliating. You don’t have to explain why it’s alright for character to fight back – ‘I know violence is wrong and all, but I firmly believe that in self-defence it is occasionally the only action and I’m no pushover despite being peaceful and full of goodness. So I pulled my arm back and punched him’ is unnecessary.

Decide to branch out into young adult books and create a series (*cough franchise cough*). The necessity of an actual plot is reduced and the writing doesn’t have to be as good because after all the readers are younger. We won’t even give them a satisfactory conclusion at the end because then we will have the impressionable youngsters hooked for life – I hate to break it to you, but the choice in YA lit is more diverse than ever before. There are some excellent books out there and teens are harsh critics. Just because a few teen series have been huge recently does not mean that you will win at this. You probably won’t.

Make your book seem ‘classic’ and your newly created world rich in history by sharing it all in a dry and unexciting manner – Yes, that reminds us of a history book. Yes, we believe in your world as a real place. No, we are not still reading because the dry and unexciting voice sent us to sleep.

That's it for today. What about you? Any pitfalls you find authors falling in to far too often? Any irritating little problems that stop a good book from being a great book?

Friday, 24 July 2009

Blogger appreciation week

I know posts about this have been all around the blogosphere recently, but I thought I'd do a quick post for anyone not familiar with this. My Friend Amy is hosting a Book Blogger Appreciation Week in September, you should go and check it out.

Usually I'm a bit cautious with all the events with names like 'THE young adult review blog week' as I think the community of teen book bloggers can get quite clannish and unintentionally make non-bloggers or new bloggers feel excluded, but this week Amy is hosting seems like a great idea. You don't have to be a blogger to nominate your favourite blogs, it's all just (as the title suggests) showing your appreciation for good bloggers. I've nominated my favourite blogs and suggest you go and do the same (this is honestly not a plug for myself - I know there are tons of way better blogs out there. I just think that all of the winners will really appreciate being voted for and also Amy has done a fantastic job with the new site, so the more people who vote, the better!)

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Book review - The Last Thing I Remember by Andrew Klavan

Charlie is a good guy. He works hard, he’s a black belt in karate, and he’s never been in trouble. He has his problems as every teenage guy does, like talking to the girl he likes without making a fool of himself and the best friend who seems to be in some kind of trouble. When he goes to bed these things are important. When he wakes up they’re not. That’s because he’s strapped to a chair in a prison cell covered in blood, bruises and burns. He has no idea how or why he got there, but he knows he’s in trouble – someone outside the cell has just ordered his death. Charlie West is on the run, in danger and alone, and he doesn’t even know why. Because he can’t remember the last year of his life.

The Last Thing I Remember has a good premise (though admittedly it bears a striking resemblance to the Bourne Identity series). Charlie’s search for the truth leads him to police stations, a terrorist group, and a crazy lady with many cats. It’s an interesting plot although by no means concluded at the end of the book (have I mentioned this is the first in a series?). For the first half of the book the narrative cuts between his present problems and the last day he remembers. There are important clues in the last day he remembers to why he is in trouble now. The plotting here has been careful, but the writing is less smooth – some of the transitions are very awkward.

Charlie as a character is amusing on occasion. At times he seems a bit slow to grasp what’s going on, but that is to a reader who is reading objectively, not a person who’s just woken up in a room and has no idea why, so perhaps it’s understandable. Especially in the first few chapters, he’s interesting and smart. He does have some unforgiveable traits as the book goes on. Firstly he is just too good. He calls everybody ma’am and sir (even a crazy lady who’s warning him about the mind control people), he analyses and justifies every time he defends himself. I suppose to some extent this works to show that clearly he is a good person and he’s woken up in a world that he doesn’t belong to. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but to me he’s too self-righteous. There’s also just something about Charlie that screams to me this character isn’t a really teen! He was created by an adult!

Also, the writing seems to imply that you have to be religious and patriotic to be a good person, which irritated me. His reaction to someone suggesting that he’s a terrorist is I can’t be a terrorist. I love my country! which pretty much killed my irritation, being almost hilarious in its ridiculousness. To me it implied that if he didn’t love his country... What about I can’t be a terrorist. Blowing people up and suchlike is WRONG!

Having said this there are also some good characters, most noticeably Jane, who intersperses insanity with extreme wisdom. She’s also handled surprisingly sensitively. She does keep many cats as per crazy cat lady formula, but she’s also much younger than a stereotypical ‘crazy person’ and an interesting character. The idea is a good one, the plot partially predictable but interesting nevertheless. If you can ignore the self-righteous tone, I’d say read it. There are snatches of real humour in the writing and the action scenes are especially evocative. In my opinion the good does outweigh the bad and I will be reading the sequel despite my problems with this installment.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Book review - The Agency by Y S Lee

When she was twelve, Mary was a housebreaking orphan, convicted and sentenced to the gallows. Five years later Mary is a well-educated, respectable young lady. Rescued from death by an unusual group of schoolteachers, she’s been taught to be independent and intelligent, an unusual education for Victorian girls. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy is recruiting and raising girls of special abilities. The Agency is a secret society of female detectives and Mary is about to join their numbers. Sent to a merchant’s house to uncover the truth of his missing cargo ships, Mary is to all appearances a demure young companion to his daughter. She quickly realises that the house is full of deceptions, respectability masking mystery.

I bought this because of the words ‘Victorian detective trilogy.’ I love the idea of Victorian Ladies tripping around having secret adventures while pretending to be respectable. A Spy in the House introduces the audience to this world along with Mary – she’s on her first assignment and she’s learning as she goes along. Mary’s an intelligent, active but impatient main character who, true to the book, is a lot more than meets the eye. She has a past that was buried even before she became a thief and this past of course catches up with her somewhat. Her tenuous partnership with James, a civil engineer with his own reasons to investigate the merchant, is nicely written. There are enough romantic sparks to entertain the audience while still leaving room for the relationship to develop in the next books. Specifically, there’s a great moment when they are stuck in a closet together.

A Spy in the House was fun, clever and well characterised. The investigation of missing Chinese sailors gave the book an extra depth in dealing with a culture not usually shown within Victorian London. It was (and I seem to be saying this more and more often these days) the first in a new series. However, I do think that A Spy in the House managed a good balance with some unanswered questions, but enough plot resolution to satisfy the reader. Did it live up to my expectations? I’d have liked to have seen more of the fashionable world to contrast with Mary’s illicit doings. I also felt that the investigation was over-complicated at times, but I did enjoy it. A solid good.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Book review - Selina Penaluna by Jan Page

Evacuees Jack and Ellen are twins, sent to the safety of Cornwall during the war. In the small seaside town they live with Mr and Mrs Rosewarne, a wealthy couple with a large house right beside the sea. What starts off as a holiday quickly becomes more serious. The Rosewarnes are peculiar, especially towards Jack, acting as if he was their real son. Ellen soon takes advantage of this opportunity, but Jack is uncomfortable. He turns more and more to the stunningly beautiful local girl Selina.
Selina was abandoned by her mother as a young girl, but not before Mora tells her that she’s not her daughter at all. Mora dropped her baby in a pool and she claims the baby who came out was not her daughter. Half convinced she’s a mermaid, Selina is left alone with her abusive father. She and Jack need one another, but the closer they become, the more they force Ellen out. Their passionate relationship seems destined to end in tragedy.

Selina Penaluna was more than I was expecting. I knew it was a love story for teenagers, so I expected it to be a love story about teenagers. It is, but it’s also more than that. It spans several generations and the narrative switches between the present and the past that is catching up to main character Ellen. The depth of the story is reminiscent of Michael Morpurgo but for older readers. Selina Penaluna isn’t just a straightforward story, but deals with life, regrets and mistakes, leading readers to question their own lives and how they will view them years from now. The book also feels slightly old-fashioned in essence. Jan Page has perfectly captured the differences between generations and you can feel the depth of the story.

From about halfway through I’d guessed at the plot but that didn’t really detract from its meaning. It’s quite straightforward but the jumping around in time makes the story seem more thorough. I don’t think I’m making much sense here, so I’ll just say that Jan Page hasn’t just captured the voice of the past, but also created a story that has a quality of the past in itself.

Every character is deeper than is apparent at first glance. All three of the main characters act stupidly at times, yet it’s possible to sympathise with all of them even when they come to odds with each other. Those who act suspiciously or badly usually have motivations behind this and the complex relationships are much more like real life than the linear relationships usually found in books.

Selina Penaluna is quite slow paced. It doesn’t have a particularly exciting plot, but what it does have is absolute believability. Jan Page has created a story that I can imagine a grandparent telling me. It’s an unlikely story, but it rings true because of the detail, the characters, the mistakes. It feels like it could be a completely true story. It’s somehow deeper than most teen books out there at the moment. Not in terms of complexity of characters or plot, but in the added dimension of age. Most books I read shy away from the prospect of getting old, looking back on your life, preferring to centre solely on teen protagonists. Selina Penaluna is that too, but there’s more to it, it feels like the actions the teens do have more consequences because we can see them in Ellen as an old woman.

I apologise for making very little sense. Mixed feelings on the book as it was quite slow, but kudos to the author for making it so real. I think it’s probably worth reading for that.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Book review - Academy 7 by Anne Osterlund

Only 50 pupils a year are invited to join the most prestigious school in the universe. Aerin is a wary fugitive, Dane is the son of the most powerful man in the Alliance. Both are at the top of their year, competing with one another. When Dane pulls a prank, Aerin gets caught up in it. Their punishment eventually leads to a truce and then friendship. They have more in common than they could possibly have first guessed. Both have secrets, both understand the limitations and rules of their friendship. Some things they won’t share, not even with each other. But when these secrets threaten to spill out and destroy everything they’ve made for themselves at Academy 7, they have to make a choice. Keep running from their troubles or try to fix the damage done by the previous generation. Their first year is full of danger and they need each other to survive.

Academy 7 is a sci-fi story that doesn’t feel like one. Let me explain: the Alliance is the most powerful group of planets in the universe. All the students come from different planets, a couple of which are described. BUT there are no complex explanations of how space travel began, no descriptions of the inner-workings of a space ship. There’s enough information to tell the story and no extra information to get in the way. There don’t seem to be any aliens, it’s more like colonisation of empty planets occurred years before and these separate planets developed separate cultures.

Aerin and Dane are interesting protagonists. The story is told alternating between their points of view. Both have dark pasts and both are struggling with them. As characters themselves they are smart, complex, and resourceful. Their competitive rivalry has a realistic development to friendship and eventually romance. The principal of Academy 7 was nicely written and the reader gets a lot of insight into her mind for the relatively small amount of time she appears on page.

Overall the plot was quite predictable and it was quite easy to work out what had happened between their parents. The writing was entertaining but not outstandingly beautiful. The only factor that pulled this story out of mediocrity for me was the two main characters and their relationship. I don’t want to come across as too negative about Academy 7 because I did enjoy it, but it’s one that I could stop thinking about as soon as I finished it. It’s good but I didn’t find it outstandingly memorable.

(And I also found Aerin’s name a bit distracting since it reminded me of this Aerin. I’ve never come across another Aerin before)

This is another one I don't think is publishing outside the US at the moment, but you can get it from Amazon.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Series spotlight index

Series spotlight posts listed alphabetically according to authors' surnames

Dominic Barker - Blart series
Ally Carter - Gallagher Academy series
Clare B. Dunkle - Hollow Kingdom series
Adele Geras - Edgerton Hall series
Julia Golding - Cat Royal series
Shannon Hale - Bayern series
Mary Hoffman - Stravaganza series
Jaclyn Moriarty - Ashbury/Brookfield series
Lisa Shearin - Raine Benares series
Sherwood Smith - Crown/Court Duel series
Maria V. Snyder - Study series
Scott Westerfeld - Midnighters series
Megan Whalen Turner - The Thief series

Book review index

Book reviews listed alphabetically according to authors' surnames.

Laurie Halse Anderson - Speak

Jay Asher - Thirteen Reasons Why

Bernard Beckett - Genesis

Robin Benway - Audrey, Wait

Cathy Brett - Ember Fury

Pamela Brown - The Swish of the Curtain

Gail Carson Levine - Fairest

Trudi Canavan - The Magicians' Guild

Kristin Cashore - Fire

Kristin Cashore - Graceling

Anne Cassidy - Looking for jj

Cassandra Clare - City of Ashes (book 2)

Cassandra Clare - City of Bones (book 1)

Rosemary Clement-Moore - The Splendour Falls

Suzanne Collins - The Hunger Games

Melissa de la Cruz - Lipgloss Jungle

Sarah Dessen - Lock & Key

Sarah Dessen - The Truth about Forever

Sarah Beth Durst - Ice

Jennifer Echols - Going Too Far

Simone Elkeles - Perfect Chemistry

Kat Falls - Dark Life

Gayle Forman - If I Stay

Sandra Glover - Spiked!

Michael Grant - Gone

Julia Hoban - Willow

Mary Hoffman - Stravaganza: City of Masks

Mary Hoffman - The Falconer's Knot

Mary Hogan - Perfect Girl

Mary Hooper - Newes from the Dead

Mary Hooper - Petals in the Ashes

Marie-Louise Jensen - The Lady in the Tower

Catherine Jinks - The Reformed Vampire Support Group

Danielle Joseph- Shrinking Violet

Caro King - Seven Sorcerers

Andrew Klavan - The Last Thing I Remember

Tanya Landman - The Goldsmith's Daughter

Y S Lee - The Agency

Gemma Malley - The Declaration

Sarra Manning - Let's Get Lost

Melissa Marr - Wicked Lovely

Sue Mayfield - Damage

Lisa McMann - Wake

Linda Newbery - Flightsend

Anne Osterlund - Academy 7

Jan Page - Selina Penaluna

Diana Peterfreund - Rampant

K. M. Peyton - Prove Yourself a Hero

Aprilynne Pike - Wings

Luisa Plaja - Extreme Kissing

Luisa Plaja - Split by a Kiss

Bali Rai - City of Ghosts

Liz Rettig - My Dating Disasters Diary

Meg Rosoff - The Bride's Farewell

Lisa Shearin - The Trouble with Demons

Lili St. Crow - Strange Angels

Rosy Thornton - Crossed Wires

Jenny Valentine - Broken Soup

Scott Westerfeld - Leviathan


The Dragon Book