Thursday, 28 May 2015

Book review: Remix by Non Pratt

It's always difficult to follow up a critically acclaimed, pretty much universally loved first novel, but Non Pratt has risen to the challenge with her second book, Remix.

Kaz and Ruby are heading off to Remix, a three-day music festival that is sure to be populated by cool bands (including the hot, hot, hot Adam Wexler of Goldentone), friends galore, and plenty of sunshine (hopefully). Kaz is still not over her ex-boyfriend Tom, and is hoping Remix will give them the chance to rekindle their romance, while Ruby is definitely over her ex-boyfriend Stuart, and is looking to have the time of her life. But with the sun shining down and everyone camping in close quarters, the drama is sure to be top of the bill.

Pratt's first novel Trouble tackled teenage pregnancy and what it means to be a family, and in some ways Remix also looks at the latter. And just like in trouble, things get complicated when it comes to family. Kaz and Ruby have been friends for so long that they're practically sisters, which becomes a problem when Kaz makes a new friend while at Remix. Ruby's jealousy is a bit like that of a sister who is being suddenly ignored after years of being worshipped. And Kaz feels Ruby is holding her back, and not wanting her to have fun and become her own person. The stuff between Kaz and Ruby is excellent. Of course the situation, taking place over three days, is slightly accelerated but the emotions and reactions are realistic.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Book review: The Sin Eater's Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

There is such a lot of young adult fiction out there that sometimes it all becomes much of a muchness, and you lose heart.

So I was relieved to discover Melinda Salibury's The Sin Eater's Daughter, which has a unique concept and which I could not put down once I started reading.

Twylla lives a life of luxury in the Queen's palace, but she can't touch anyone - for her touch carries death. The Queen uses Twylla as a demonstration of her power and her right to the throne, and Twylla reluctantly does the Queen's bidding - killing those guilty of treason - in order that her family remains fed and protected. When Twylla's betrothed - the Queen's son Prince Merek - returns to the castle, and Twylla gets a new guard, the young woman discovers that she may be at the centre of a power play and her life in more danger than she ever realised.

The Sin Eater's Daughter is a complex story, with Salibsury creating a world that takes its influences (and punishments and beliefs) from medieval times, but with a twist of fantasy added in. I enjoyed the way Salisbury put us right in the middle of Twylla's life, with explanations about what she is appearing slowly, and sometimes even leaving the reader to work out what is going on, which I liked.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird (Re)Read

In case you've been living under a rock somewhere, you'll have heard the news that a new novel by Harper Lee, author of the bestselling classic To Killa Mockingbird, will be released this summer.

Go Set a Watchman catches up with Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird 20 years later, as she returns home to the town of Maycomb.

Starting today I'm taking part in the To Kill a Mockingbird (Re)read, being run by Lee's publisher. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird before, in my early teens, but here's the sum total of what I remember:

-it features a child called Scout and her dad, a lawyer called Atticus
-it's set in Alabama
-it deals with race relations
-someone called Boo Radley is in it
-I loved this book.

And I'm betting I'm not the only one who remembers next to nothing about To Kill a Mockingbird, yet professes it to be a great book. So, the schedule for the (re)read is below, and I'm hoping by the end I'll be able totals eloquently and honestly about why this is a great novel. Join in if you like, using the hashtag #TKAM on all platforms.

Happy (re)reading!

Book review: Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman

I've learnt a lot of lessons from 1980s films.

From The Breakfast Club I learnt that detention could be cool. From The Princess Bride I learnt that fairytale princesses can be tough AND feminine. From The Goonies I learnt that with a good group of friends you can do anything. From Dirty Dancing I learnt that you never put Baby in a corner (of course).

In her new book, Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don't Learn Them From Movies Any More), journalist Hadley Freeman sets out the lessons she learnt from eighties' films (obviously), in much greater detail and with a lot more thought than I ever could. Split into 10 chapters, Freeman focuses on a different film in each, from Dirty Dancing and what it said about abortion, sex and women, to Pretty in Pink's lessons on makeovers to how Back to the Future is really about the importance of parents.

This is, hands down, one of my favourite non-fiction books ever. It reads like a collection of scholarly essays injected with a massive dose of fun. Freeman's analysis is smart, insightful and considered, as well as being witty, funny and gossipy. There are plenty of footnotes in each chapter, like on an essay you wrote for university. But don't ignore the footnotes, they're full of absolute gems, like the fact that the guy who played Robbie in Dirty Dancing went on to be a journalist and got addicted to drugs while trying to do a story on a cannibalistic cult, and then died. Seriously.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Book review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

I don't think legend is too big a word to use when it comes to Judy Blume. The author is responsible for many of the books teenage girls (and probably some boys) grew up with, from my personal favourites Deenie and Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, through to Forever, much whispered about in school hallways.

Blume taught generations of teenage girls about growing up, but she has also turned her brand of insight to adult novels, of which In the Unlikely Event is her newest. It's not untrue to say that news of In the Unlikely Event's release was greeted with excitement by Blume's fans.

When Miri Ammerman was a 15-year-old living in Elizabeth, New Jersey, three planes fell from the sky within three months, leaving the town reeling. (It's worth saying here that three planes really did crash in Blume's hometown when she was growing up.) The crashes bring friends, families and strangers closer together, all trying to find a way to come to terms with the death that has come to their doorsteps.

In the Unlikely Event is classic Judy Blume - an intuitive look at the inner workings of teenage girls. Miri is in that period of her life where she's no longer a child and not yet an adult. But being confronted by so much death and danger means she has to grow up fast, and her family situation often sees her acting as the parent - Miri calls her mum Rusty and not mum, and Rusty is very much the antithesis of all the other mothers Miri knows.

The trauma of the multiple plane crashes looms large over the town of Elizabeth and they affect some residents more than others - Miri's best friend Natalie thinks a dead dancer from the first plane crash is speaking to her, Natalie's brother Steve finds himself unexpectedly grieving, while Miri's uncle Henry makes his name as a journalist on his coverage of the crashes, and Miri's boyfriend Mason becomes a hero to the town. Blume explores post traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and more, which seem to be linked to the crashes in some ways, but in others are not. 

Because while this is a story about three plane crashes, it is just as much a novel about the day to day lives of the town's habitants. In between the crashes life goes on as normal, with affairs and secret relationships, squabbling families and schoolchildren who want to feel like they matter. There are teenagers trying to grow up, adults navigating life, and everyday problems rearing their ugly heads.

With so much death at the centre of the novel, In the Unlikely Event could easily leave you feeling despondent. But while it is a serious novel, it's also a novel about life, and the very thing that keeps us feeling alive - love. There is familial love, with Miri's unusual (for 1970s small-town New Jersey) family working together as a unit, and working as a contrast to Natalie's rather more conventional yet also more fractured family. And there is romantic love, with characters like Christina trying to find a way to balance her love life and her family life. And of course there is sex - Blume's characters use sex (with and without love involved) in a number of ways, but mainly to feel alive (even before the plane crash).

In the Unlikely Event is filled with tension and drama, and is a wonderful look at love, at how we respond to trauma, at becoming a grown up, and at living life to the fullest.

*In the Unlikely Event is out in the UK on June 4, 2015.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Picador. This did not affect my review.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Book review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Sometimes you pick up a book that is so well written and so beautiful, reading it warms your heart. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler is definitely one of those books.

Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronny grew up together in small-town Wisconsin. They now lead very different lives, but their shared childhood keeps them bonded. The group all come together for a wedding, and rivalries surface, truths are told and friendships are put at risk.

Butler creates four layered characters, all of whom I absolutely loved for very different reasons. Together and apart, Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronny are sympathetic, likeable, full of depth and complicated in a way that male characters in books and television and film often aren't (at least in my experience).

Of course, while I loved all four characters, I definitely had a favourite - Lee. I think it was his vulnerability that really spoke to me, because even though he's a famous singer, travelling the world and revered by everyone, Lee, out of all of his friends, is the one who needs the most. He needs that connection to his hometown, he needs his friends, he needs love.

Shotgun Lovesongs is a wonderful love story between four friends. It's a great look at male friendship, and at the bonds that bind people together across years and many miles. It's tinged with nostalgia, of moments from a lifetime together. Reading Shotgun Lovesongs is a bit like sitting in a field on a warm summer evening - there's a slightly hazy edge to everything, and while there's a threat of a storm on the horizon, you feel welcomed and loved and safe. It might be a book just about friendship, but it's as addictive and all-consuming as any thriller or action film, and the stakes are much higher.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Picador. This did not affect my review.

Friday, 15 May 2015

If you love watching this, you'll love reading these: The 100 edition

Who would have thought when it started that The 100, a series originating on The CW about an attractive group of young people who have no parental supervision, was going to be about politics, love, survival, war crimes and more? Certainly not me, but The 100 has proved it's a TV show that is constantly underestimated.

It regularly explores difficult ideas - whether there is ever a right time for torture, if it's okay to sacrifice a few for the survival of the many, what rules matter in a new society and what rules can fall by the wayside, and plenty more.

And of course, The 100 is one of the most feminist programmes on television, something I spoke at length about at the end of season one (here and here). It is chock full of female characters with agency, and its male characters exist on a level playing field with its female characters. In having to recreate society, The 100 as a show has decided to go for all out equality.

The 100 is based on a series of books by Kass Morgan, but if you've read those (and warning, they're very different from the TV show) here are a few books that I think are perfect for fans of the programme.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Book review: The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood

There are some books you read that you could just talk about endlessly, or write essays about. Benjamin Wood's The Ecliptic is one of those books.

Celebrated painter Elspeth 'Knell' Conroy is on Portmantle, an artists' colony off the coast of Istanbul, where she spend her time trying to create the art that once came so naturally to her. The retreat is rocked by the arrival of Fullerton, a teenage boy who is damaged and in danger, and whose presence on Portmantle affects all its residents, who pour over the mystery of why he is there, and what the link is between him and the lives the residents of Portmantle left behind in England.

This book is just utterly, utterly brilliant. I could, as I said right at the beginning, write essays about The Ecliptic, but I won't, since the best way to experience the full effects of this book is to just read it without knowing too much. 

What I will say is that The Ecliptic is one of my favourite books of the year. It is wonderfully put together, deftly weaving between Portmantle and England, and a few other settings. It's a story about creativity, sacrifice, truth, love and obsession, and it is addictive reading. Full of depth, the story builds like layers of paint on canvas, with the end result a stunning image you suspected was coming, but were never sure of until you stood back and saw all the colours and brushstrokes together.

In short, it's pretty much a masterpiece.

•The Ecliptic is released in the UK on July 2, 2015.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Simon & Schuster. This did not affect my review.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Book review: Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess by Meg Cabot

C'mon, you can admit it, you wanted to wake up one day and discover you were royalty. This would lead to you getting whisked away in a fancy car, to a gorgeous palace full of cool clothes, hundreds of rooms, and a library full of books with secret nooks to read in.

Just me? I don't believe that for a moment. And luckily Meg Cabot will back me up on this. Her Princess Diaries series has already been phenomenally successful, and now she's turned to a slightly younger audience with a new series, starting with Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess.

Olivia Grace is completely normal, living with her aunt's family, going to school everyday, and hanging out with friends. Until one day, she discovers her half-sister is Princess Mia Thermopolis (yes, from The Princess Diaries). Olivia is thrust into life as a princess, but that doesn't mean her old life is behind her, as she soon discovers.

Cabot has created a really likeable, relatable character in Grace, who is smart, funny and talented - she loves to draw, and Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess is full of illustrations, drawn by Cabot, that add an amusing and casual edge to the book, as well as letting us know a bit more about Grace. Cabot presents Grace as a normal teenager, one who is confused when someone she thinks is a friend turns on her, and one who gets excited by every new experience.

Just like The Princess Diaries, Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess is appealing because of the friendly tone, and the fun at the centre of it. That doesn't mean the book doesn't have a serious side. Cabot touches on death and grief, on crime, betrayal, race, and on what it means to be a family, but the way she does this isn't heavy handed, and I think is appropriate to the age group this book is for. Young teenagers won't feel patronised or talked down to, because this book is honest and forthright, without being an issue book, and, to use the word again a number of times, it's fun, fun, fun.

Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess is out in the UK on May 21, 2015.

How I got this book: From the room of books at work.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Book review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

It's rare that I see a film adaptation of a book before reading the original text, and rarer still that I think the film is as good as the book, but in the case of Kathryn Stockett's The Help, both things are true.

In Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, it seems like nothing is going to change anytime soon. Black maids Aibileen and Minny run the households they work in, bringing up their employers' children, cooking the food that feeds their employers' husbands, and getting absolutely no respect, love or kindness for what they do. Meanwhile, home from college, Skeeter wants to know why her favourite maid has disappeared, and wants to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist. When Skeeter comes up with an idea for a book, she needs to get Aibileen and Minny on board, and together the three of them reveal truths that have stayed behind the doors of Southern houses for a long time.

The Help is a story that touches on two huge issues - race and feminism. While the major milestones of the battle for civil rights are well known, Stockett chooses to focus on the everyday battles black people, particularly women, faced in a segregated society. We get a glimpse, albeit fictionalised, into the very real divide that existed in every aspect of life in Mississsippi in 1962. While Aibileen and Minny carry out the roles of mother, guardian and servant, they hold no power, constantly in fear of being sacked for the slightest perceived infringement.

Avengers: Age of Ultron - a collection of thoughts

Bringing together a host of characters from different films, and doing it coherently, is not easy, but Joss Whedon managed it beautifully in Avengers Assemble.

Now, three years later, the director is back with Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Captain America/Steve Rogers, Iron Man/Tony Stark, Thor, Black Widow/Natasha Romanov, Hulk/Bruce Banner and Hawkeye/Clint Barton battle against Ultron, an AI - created accidentally by Tony Stark - who becomes sentient and determined to gain peace in our time, via murder. Joining the cast of characters are brother and sister Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, better known as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who find that life is not as black and white as they thought.

Ultron clocks in at a whopping two hours and 21 minutes, and while it's entertaining and enjoyable (it would take a lot for me to hate a Marvel film), it's also bloated, a bit of a mess, and frustrating to watch. Rather than a conventional review, here are a bunch of thoughts about what I loved and what I hated about Ultron, in no particular order. Warning, lots of spoilers ahead.

Book review: Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Is talent, a gregarious personality and a way with words enough to make someone who is completely self-obsessed and occasionally violent attractive? I would say no, but Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary - the four wives of Ernest Hemingway - might have had a slightly different answer.

In Mrs Hemingway, Naomi Wood paints a portrait of the four women who Hemingway married during his lifetime, although they were far from the only four women he had relationships with. Taking in Chicago in 1920, through a hazy, hot summer in the south of France in 1926, and visiting a number of locations and times before heading to autumn in Idaho in 1961, we meet fictionalised (although very well researched and based on reality) versions of Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary before they know Hemingway, as they turn from lovers to wives, and as Ernest leaves them.

Wood's magic in Mrs Hemingway involves turning Fife, Martha and Mary - all of whom have affairs with Hemingway while he is married - into likeable characters. And Wood casts a further spell by making all four women sympathetic instead of pitiable. As a reader, I could so easily have spent the entire time I was reading wanting to shake all the women for being utterly stupid. Instead, thanks to Wood, I didn't think any of them were silly - they all deeply love Hemingway, in spite of clearly being able to see his faults. Each of them knows what they're getting when they get involved with him. Even Hadley, the first Mrs Hemingway, can see how her husband dazzles people.


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