Sunday, 30 December 2012

Reading challenge book 24: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book 24, and the final book (yes, I'm down two), in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I didn't do this on purpose, but it seems like I saved the best for last - Never Let Me Go is my favourite book I've read this year.

Narrated by Kathy, Never Let Me Go is a collection of memories from her childhood, teen years and up to the present day - although we're never quite sure when or where the present day is. This review will be a little vague, since I don't want to spoil anything for future readers.

A large part of Kathy's memories include her best friend Ruth, and Tommy, who went to school alongside the two of them and morphs from someone they mock to someone who comes to mean a great deal to both of them.

At the centre of Kathy's story is Hailsham School, the boarding school where Kathy grew up with Ruth and Tommy. The school is there in every memory of Kathy's, even when the stories she is telling are not set there.

Never Let Me Go does not have a conventional linear narrative. The Kathy we meet in the present is not moving from one point at the beginning of the novel to another at the end. Rather, the narrative we read is the beginning and middle of Kathy's life, and it is up to us to figure out the end from what we are told.

Kathy's stories unfold often because she has remembered something while driving from one job to the next, and she often talks to the reader while she is driving, or her stories involve driving from one place to another. She is constantly on a road to nowhere - a fitting metaphor for her life, and one that makes perfect sense once the secret at the centre of Never Let Me Go is unveiled.

Never Let Me Go is a haunting book, one that had me gripped from start to finish even though there was a sadness permeating every word and every tale Kathy told. Kathy's fate, as Ruth and Tommy's, is inevitable, yet I still found myself desperately hoping for some mad twist that would mean her life played out as I wanted to. That Ishiguro didn't give me that respite was the reason that Never Let Me Go has haunted me and stayed with me, much like Kathy's memories haunt her.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Reading challenge book 23: Dads, Geeks & Blue Haired Freaks by Ellie Phillips

Book 23 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Dads, Geeks & Blue Haired Freaks by Ellie Phillips.

This book is billed as "one girl's search to find her father, using the internet, some boys and quite a lot of hairspray". 

It's a bit Mamma Mia, without the music and the impending wedding and a Greek island and with teenagers. Okay, it's not really like Mamma Mia, but the lead character, Sadie, is trying to find her dad just like Sophie (see, even their names are similar), and there are multiple candidates, blah blah blah.

Dads, Geeks & Blue Haired Freaks is typical teenage fare - there's a cute guy, although he's not really a central part of the story (his role is clearly going to get bigger in the upcoming sequel), a ditzy mum and a whole lot of thinking your hair is the key to being fabulous (sometimes it is, sometimes it's not).

Phillips has written a fairly bog-standard teenage novel. It's an easy read and enjoyable enough, but nowhere near as good as the stuff I read as a teenager which I would still recommend to youngsters today (Judy Blume, anyone?). My teenage cousins would enjoy Dads, Geeks & Blue Haired Freaks, but I doubt they'd be recommending it to anyone in 15 years.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Reading challenge book 22: How to be a Explorer of the World by Keri Smith

Book 22 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is How to be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith.

Categorising this book is difficult. It's not fiction, since there is nothing made up in it, and it's not strictly what I would class as non-fiction, since it's full of few facts.

Instead, How to be an Explorer of the World is a little of both. It does exactly what its name suggests - teaches you how to explore the world around you. And by doing so it invites you to explore your imagination, making up stories in some cases and just looking at the world in more detail in others.

Smith's book is full of suggestions about everything from people watching to writing down 10 things about the place you are sitting to making collages with found objects. The book's primary aim is to stop everyone wandering through life ignoring everything around us, and start really appreciating life by noticing the tiny things that make up our surroundings.

Alongside the suggestions are quotes from everyone from Carl Jung ("The creative mind plays with the objects it loves") to Brenda Veland ("The imagination need moodling - long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering") to Walt Whitman ("Now I will do nothing but listen. I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused, or following, sounds of the city, and sounds out of the city - sounds of the day and night..."). These quotes make you stop and think, and for me were the most interesting words in the book.

How to be an Explorer of the World is a very visual book, full of drawings, photographs and diagrams, all alongside block capital handwriting. And at the back of the book there are a series of pages you can rip out or stick things on or fill out as you explore the world. 

I'm not sure whether I'll be taking on some of Smith's suggestions, including wearing a costume or disguise, but How to be an Explorer of the World does succeed in its mission to make me want to pay more attention to the world around me.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Reading challenge book review masterpost

All book reviews from my reading challenge for 2012 (26 books I haven't read before - yes, I'm two books down) in one place.

Book one - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Book two - A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
Book three - Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Book four - Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Book five - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Book six - Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Book seven - The Search by Nora Roberts
Book eight - Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Book nine - Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich
Book 10 - Play to Kill by P.J. Tracy
Book 11 - Forever by Maggie Stiefvater
Book 12 - The Land of Stories - The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer
Book 13 - Sam Silver Undercover Pirate: Kidnapped by Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler
Book 14 - Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Book 15 - Dancing with Mr Darcy by Various
Book 16 - The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Book 17 - Beauty by Robin McKinley
Book 18 - Virals by Kathy Reichs
Book 19 - Sweetly by Jackson Pearce
Book 20 - Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
Book 21 - The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
Book 22 - How to be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith 
Book 23 - Dads, Geeks and Blue Haired Freaks by Ellie Phillips
Book 24 - Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Reading challenge book 21: The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

Book 21 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman.

The only work by Pullman I've previously read is the His Dark Materials series, which I loved. The Ruby in the Smoke though, while still great storytelling, is something completely different.

Sally Lockhart's father has drowned at sea, and she receives an anonymous letter mentioning the Seven Blessings. Setting out to find out what the Seven Blessings are, Sally is thrust into a mystery, where her enemy is more dangerous than she can ever imagine.

A mystery set in the Victorian era, The Ruby in the Smoke is a fast paced tale with a twist round every corner - literally. Much of the tale takes place in London, where the streets are narrow and those who succeed know where every alley leads. Vivid descriptions of places including Wapping and other communities along the Thames make you feel as though you are right in the heart of the city.

Sally is a great heroine - clever, tough, imaginative - and could easily be transported to 2012 as a sassy girl detective. Alongside her detecting identity, she's still a young woman trying to make her way in the world by making new friends, and discovering the first feelings of attraction towards handsome photographer Frederick.

Villainous Mrs Holland may be an old woman, downtrodden and poor as a church mouse, but she's terrifying all the same, and a great villain for Sally to do battle against.

The Ruby in the Smoke is an intriguing story, and one that will keep you guessing with its intricate plot, characters full of depth and the picture it creates of Victorian London.  

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Reading challenge book 20: Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Book 20 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce.

This is the second book I've read by Pearce - the first being Sweetly.

Like Sweetly, this is a retelling of a classic fairytale, in this case Little Red Riding Hood. Only in Sisters Red, there are two Red Riding Hoods.

We meet Scarlett and Rosie March as young girls, in a prologue that sees a creature breaking in to their house and killing their grandmother.

Seven years on Scarlett, who was scarred fighting the creature - a Fenris - and Rosie are Fenris fighters. Basically they're both something out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - but Scarlett is more Faith while Rosie is a very, very reluctant Buffy.

During an encounter with a Fenris the two find out that groups of Fenris are gathering in the nearby city of Ellison, because the phase is about to begin. The pair, along with childhood friend Silas (who is starting to see Rosie in a new light) move from their quiet cottage where they've been living since their grandmother died (how no one noticed two children were living alone, I don't know), to Ellison at the behest of Scarlett, whose mission in life is to kill Fenris above all else.

In Ellison they try to solve the puzzle of the phase, while Silas and Rosie's relationship blossoms into romance.

Sisters Red, for me, was a much better book than Sweetly, perhaps because the narrative switched between Scarlett and Rosie, giving an insight into both characters' minds. The relationships are all well developed (although they are in Sweetly too), whether they are between siblings, friends or (potential) lovers.

Scarlett's single-minded determination to destroy the creatures who left her scarred, lonely and with the weight of the world on her is compelling, even though sometimes I just wanted to reach into the book, shake her and tell her it was okay to have some fun occasionally.

Silas and Rosie are also fascinating to watch, and their relationship with each other is interlinked with their relationships with Scarlett.

The mystery of the phase isn't exactly a mystery (I guessed as soon as the phase was defined what it was leading to), but it's interesting to watch the trio try to figure out what is going on, unaware that it will affect them all deeply.

The ending is more sweet than bittersweet, and left me with hope for all the characters.

Sisters Red is an interesting take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale, with Pearce only borrowing slight elements from the original story, and really adding her own twist.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Reading challenge book 19: Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

Book 19 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Sweetly by Jackson Pearce.

This is the first of two books I've read by Pearce, both reimaginings of classic fairytales. (Told you I was on a fairytale kick recently.)

Sweetly is a reworking of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. Ansel and his twin sisters find themselves in the forest as young children, and are chased by a strange monster. Ansel and his sister Gretchen survive, their other sibling does not.

Fast forward 12 years and the pair are thrown out of their home by their stepmother, and decide to make their way to South Carolina. When their car breaks down they are drawn in to a little town called Live Oak, and find a home with a young sweetmaker called Sophia Kelly - standing in for the witch in the tale, but far more complex and not the true villain of the tale, or is she?

Hidden away in her little cottage at the edge of a forest, Ansel and Gretel find love, friendship and acceptance. But the forest bordering the house threatens Gretel, reminding her constantly of the twin she lost.

On a trip into the forest to conquer her demons she is chased by a monster, and rescued by the stoic Samuel. Determined not to be a victim any longer, Gretel persuades Samuel to teach her to fight the monsters.

Sweetly is a classic of the child story genre - bad things lurk in dark places to scare - with an adult twist. The relationships within, including Sophia Kelly slowly becoming a replacement for the sister Gretel lost, Ansel and Sophia Kelly's budding romance, and Ansel and Gretel's sibling bond, are well crafted and very real, full of hope and uncertainty and fear.

Pearce builds the tension to finding out what the monsters in the forest are slowly. Unfortunately, in this case, the tension is far scarier than the actual reveal, and I found myself going "that's it?" when the monsters came out of hiding. Plus, the cover of the book was scarier than the actual monsters.

What was really interesting and quite scary was Sophia Kelly, who I didn't like from the moment I met her, but who was an utterly fascinating character. Pearce shows Ansel and Gretel growing ever closer to Sophia Kelly, but always presents her with a dark edge that made me feel slightly uneasy.

Sweetly is an interesting take on the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, and while an easy read, in this case the original story of the siblings who run into a witch in a gingerbread house is far superior.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Reading challenge book 18: Virals by Kathy Reichs

Book 18 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Virals by Kathy Reichs.

Reichs is the author of a series of popular novels featuring forensic expert Dr Tempe Brennan, and her work also inspired the television show Bones. I've read neither those novels nor watched Bones, so Virals, the first in a series of books aimed at young adults, was my first foray into the world of forensic science as told by Reichs.

Living on a secluded island off Charleston in South Carolina, Tory Brennan (niece to Tempe) and her friends Ben, Shelton and Hi spend their time feeling like outcasts at school and being way too clever for their own good at home. 

The group all have parents who work in or around a research facility on a neighbouring island, and on one fateful trip there, after yet another hostile encounter with lead scientist Dr Karsten, the group discover an abandoned dog tag, which leads them to human remains in a grave and the rescue of a wolfdog puppy with a serious illness, both of which will change their lives forever.

The group are thrust into the midst of trying to solve a decades-old murder, and find they can get no help from any adults. Forced to figure it out on their own, all while displaying symptoms of a mysterious illness, the group get ever deeper into danger.

Virals is a great read, fast paced enough to keep you interested and detailed enough to give you an insight into what the teenagers are doing but not enough so that you get lost in the science of it all.

The illness affecting the four main characters is believable enough, as it builds slowly over the course of the book, but the way the mystery the group are solving ends is ridiculous, with its teenage femme fatale-like villain who springs out of nowhere.

To me, Virals is a modern-day Famous Five mystery. Reichs replaces Enid Blyton two girls, two boys and a dog with one girl and four boys, and she keeps the dog. And just like in the Famous Five books, there are some handy islands around for the group to get in trouble and stumble upon a crime.

Virals is an easy read and a good introduction to the work of Reichs. I'll be checking her adult novels out in the future.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Reading challenge book 17: Beauty by Robin McKinley

Book 17 in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is Beauty by Robin McKinley.

I've been on a bit of a fairytale kick recently, and this is one of a number of retellings of fairytales I've read.

As you might have guessed from the name, Beauty is a retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast. The usual elements are here - Beauty, the Beast, Beauty's dad, servants that talk.

But this retelling is full of so much more. Its basic storyline is not significantly different to any other Beauty and the Beast telling, not even the Disney version (although there's no Gaston), but it does have masses of detail and depth that make you feel like you know the characters really, really well, and it creates a fantasy world that sits alongside the real world depicted with ease.

Beauty lives with her two sisters and her father, a shipping merchant. She enjoys her life and her books, until her father's business collapses, and forces the family to move hundreds of miles away to a small village to make their living there. 

One day Beauty's father hears some of his sailors have returned, and he leaves to find out what has happened. On his way back he gets lost, ends up taking shelter in a great home owned by the Beast, and promises his daughter in return for safe passage home.

And so Beauty goes to the Beast. The world she encounters is completely different to her own, and we feel all the trepidation and amazement she feels at hearing strange voices in the house, meeting and getting to know the Beast and learning to live without her family.

McKinley weaves a magic world that leaves us wanting to find out immediately what curse has befallen the Beast and his home. However, she keeps the reader waiting and it's worth it. This is such a well-known fairytale, but McKinley manages to give it a new angle during the big reveal.

In addition, there is so much more going on in the book than just Beauty and the Beast. We empathise with Beauty's sister, Grace, who lives with a broken heart because her fiance was on one of the ships owned by Beauty's father which never returned from its last voyage. Similarly, Beauty's other sister Hope also captures our hearts, as does her steady husband Ger.

Beauty manages to capture the fantasy of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale while grounding the book in reality with detailed prose and well-fleshed out characters.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Glee recap/review: Glee, Actually

Swan Song recap/review

Glee, Actually was a combination of completely bonkers moments alongside stunningly touching ones, and it totally worked for me.

Five different narratives (all with the thread of love running through them) took us around the characters, before coming together on Christmas Eve. 

First up was Artie, and it was good to see him as the centre of attention for once. Watching him wheel himself down the hallway at McKinley with a massive graze on his face and bruised knuckles broke my heart, and for a moment I thought we were back in season one and some bullies had chucked him in a dumpster. Instead, Artie had injured himself falling out of his chair on the ice, leading to bitter feelings about being in a wheelchair.

Falling asleep, he went into an alternate universe where he was never in a wheelchair and Rory (hey, where have you been?) acted as his guide. With Artie no longer in a wheelchair the whole of McKinley had changed. There was no glee club, Kurt hadn't graduated because he spent so much time off school because of bullying, Finn, Puck, Mike et al were all doing the bullying, Tina still had a stutter and so on. The highlights were Will Schuester, who was a drunk and still married to Terri, who was parading around a plastic doll and pretending it was a baby (welcome back Terri, I missed your brand of crazy); and Kurt's "Who's Blaine?" when Artie asked him where Blaine was. The crash of music after that question showed us that everyone's a fan of Kurt and Blaine.

In a bid to bring everyone together Artie sang Feliz Navidad, which didn't work (no big surprise there). Heading back into the hallway at McKinley Artie spotted an empty wheelchair, which Rory told him belonged to Quinn, who died of a broken heart. While I don't quite understand this, it was enough for Artie to get back in the chair in his dream world, and wake up in the real world realising life is not so bad.

Kurt's storyline was easily the most touching and compelling, and full of so many different emotions. In New York for Christmas, he was surprised by his dad, who seemingly came to just spend time with him, but also to say he had prostate cancer. Burt having cancer came out of nowhere for me, but I thought it was perfectly handled. The telling, the reactions, the underlying expression on Kurt's face during the rest of the scenes we saw him in were all very realistic.

Burt continues to prove himself the perfect father. Turning up in New York he first brought the thing to help make Kurt's Christmas Christmassy - a real tree. And then he brought the things that make a Hummel Christmas - Kurt's mother's decorations, the traditions that father and son share like drinking hot chocolate and exchanging one present on Christmas Eve. And then, after telling Kurt that he had cancer, Burt brought out the one thing he knows will help Kurt through this time - Blaine. Is there a father on television who knows his son better that Burt knows Kurt?

Kurt and Blaine's interactions were perfectly nuanced, and it's a tribute to Chris Colfer and Darren Criss that they can say so much with their facial expressions. 

Both showed that uncertainty at seeing each other for the first time since they reconnected. On Kurt's side there was the fact that he still hasn't completely forgiven Blaine, although he is well on his way. However, Kurt is still caught in that dilemma of loving Blaine and being incredibly hurt by Blaine, and he doesn't know what to do with it. We could see it in every interaction the two had - the guilt Kurt feels for being happy to see Blaine when he's still not forgiven him, the move towards a kissing position during White Christmas (the whole song was super cute and full of feels), the cautiousness with which Kurt treated Blaine, the mix of happiness and something else that Kurt greeted Blaine's announcement about NYADA. Kurt is still working out where he and Blaine go from here.

On the other hand, Blaine knows exactly what he wants, even though he's nervous about how Kurt will treat him ("You are happy to see me, right?"). Every look he threw Kurt's way was full of love (all the awards for Best Puppydog expression go to Criss), but also the knowledge that he and Kurt will never go back to how they were before. Even if they get back together, it won't be the same (Blaine may not know this yet but it will be better since they'll both have grown up and be more self-aware). For the moment, Blaine's plan is to just be there for Kurt, and it's a good plan. He's determined to make himself a part of Kurt's life, although he won't force himself into the role, evidenced when he asked for Kurt's permission to apply to NYADA. I believe that Blaine just wants to be there so he can be in Kurt's life in any way he can, even if it is just friends. Still, Blaine continues to look at Kurt like he's the best thing he's ever seen, and Kurt just has to decide what to do with those looks.

While Blaine, Kurt and Burt were negotiating their own little New York Christmas, Puck was back at McKinley to persuade brother Jake to go on a road trip to LA with him to see his fabulous life. After trekking it all the way out there and singing Oh Hannukah (at least Puck remembers he's Jewish even if Rachel never does) around the Paramount lot, Jake discovered Puck wasn't living the life and persuaded him to come back to Ohio. There, the two took their mums to Breadstix and after some initial sniping the two women, thanks to their sons, realised it was the boys' father who was to blame for their woes. Cue happy extended family coming together.

In the most bonkers storyline of all, Sam and Brittany decided to get married because the Mayan calendar said the world was ending. Bieste carried out the ceremony, and Sam and Brittany decided to tell everyone what they really thought of them before they died. After December 21 passed with the world still existing, the pair discovered they weren't really married (Bieste is so cunning), but felt bereft because now they had nothing to aim for. In a great moment in a wacky storyline, Bieste made a buzzing sound and told Brittany and Sam she'd had a Google alert about the world ending in 2014, giving them two more years to continue being honest with everyone. Here's a challenge for Glee's continuity department - if the show is still going in 2014, will the writers revisit this plot?

And finally, we saw Marley and her mum, who were facing a minimalist Christmas because all their money would be going on getting Marley a therapist to help with her eating disorder (even though it was Marley's mum who put her on a diet a few episodes ago). Cue Sue, who having got Marley's mum in the staff secret Santa, decides to do something good by breaking into their house and leaving a tree and presents and cash.

As a thank you, Marley and the glee club sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to Sue, intercut with scenes of Jake and Puck, Sam and Brittany, and Kurt and Blaine all singing the song in their little corners of Ohio/New York.

And so, it was a very, very, merry, merry Christmas for all.

Best moments
Burt for dad of the year - enough said.


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