Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Sunday Post (#1)

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It's a chance to share news, a post to recap the past week on your blog, showcase books and things we received and share news about what is coming up on our blog for the week ahead.

It's been freezing here lately, so when it's cold outside there's nothing better I like to do than curl up with a good book.

Reviews this past week on Girl!Reporter
Shiverton Hall by Emerald Fennell
Anthem for Jackson Dawes by Celia Bryce
Hostage Three by Nick Lake

Things to look for in the coming week on Girl!Reporter
Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas (review)

Stacking the Shelves (#1)

Stacking The Shelves is a meme hosted by Tynga's Reviews, and it's all about sharing the books you've added to your shelves, be they physical or virtual, sent to you for review, bought, or borrowed from the library.

For review

The entire Penguin Tube 150 series by various authors
Cold Killing by Luke Delaney

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

What did you add to your shelves this week?

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Book review: Shiverton Hall by Emerald Fennell

Ghost stories, phantoms and a spooky school with a horrid head teacher - the stuff of nightmares that are at the centre of Emerald Fennell's creepy Shiverton Hall.

A young adult novel, Shiverton Hall successfully managed to half scare me out of my wits. The fact that I read it at night, tucked in my bed with the wind and rain howling outside, only accounts for a very small part of why this novel gave me the heebie jeebies.

Arthur Bannister is unexpectedly offered a place at Shiverton Hall, a boarding school somewhere north of his home in London. A quiet, intelligent boy, he has a secret from his new friends Penny, George and Jake.

But his own worries are forgotten when creepy forces start wreaking havoc at the school, putting the lives of his friends in danger.

Shiverton Hall is partially so successful as a scary novel because at its core is something we all had as children (I'll keep it vague so as to not spoil it for you).

And Fennell, an actress who had parts in Any Human Heart and Anna Karenina, is also adept at crafting scary tales within the world of Shiverton Hall. Things you can't see, fears about your own safety, and childhood hopes turning on you all contribute to making you feel apprehensive about what's coming next, but also make you want to push forward and find out more.

The characters are well-rounded, and Arthur especially is multi-layered. Hints at his story are dropped throughout the novel, but what really happened is far more interesting and nuanced than you could guess at.

Fennell touches on the issue of bullying throughout Shiverton Hall, but if there's one down side to the novel, it's that all the bullies in the novel seem to largely get away with what they're doing. One form of justice is meted out on Arthur's former bullies, but it's not the right type of justice - done by adults through appropriate legal systems. However, that is a sign of the reality we live in, so perhaps Fennell decides to be purposefully vague.

Shiverton Hall is that rare thing - a story for both boys and girls. A bit like the Harry Potter series, there is something for both sexes to enjoy.  

The novel ends as though there's a sequel to come - I'm not sure if this is the case or not, but it's a good enough book to warrant one. If Fennell can keep up the scare factor, I'll definitely be reading again - though this time with the lights on and the sun shining outside.

Friday, 29 March 2013

The Great Harry Potter Rewatch: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and (yes, I'm a geek) I've probably read them hundreds of times. Having purchased the box set of films, I've decided to have a Harry Potter rewatch (until we get to the last two films, which will just be a watch as I've not seen them), to see if I can learn to love the films as much as the books (doubtful, but I'll try).

I started this rewatch ages and ages ago, and then other stuff got in the way and I abandoned the project.

I decided to pick it back up today after news of the death of Richard Griffiths broke. Griffiths was a really talented actor - Pie in the Sky was one of my favourite detective programmes when I was younger, and I loved him in the film version of The History Boys, and only wished I'd been able to see it on stage.

His role in the Harry Potter films as Vernon Dursley means he's never on screen for very long, but he makes the most of every minute. In Order of the Phoenix, like the previous films, Griffiths completely erases any trace of his kind personality and replaces it with Uncle Vernon's despicable nature. He makes us believe he is Vernon.

Order of the Phoenix is a huge long book, much of it filled with Harry's angsting, and this film does well to cut most of that out. It's much tighter than the book, although some aspects may have been cut back too much - I'd have liked to have seen more of the fight between the Order and the Death Eaters at the end, and more of Ballatrix Lestrange.

Characterisation is really good in Order of the Phoenix, and no one is brought to life better than Dolores Umbridge, played by Imelda Staunton. Wonderfully creepy, she sends shivers down my spine every time she appears on screen, and it's as much of a relief to see her carted off in the film as it is in the book.

Order of the Phoenix is a great adaptation of the book, and shows just how much the Harry Potter films have improved since The Philosopher's Stone.  

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Book review: Anthem for Jackson Dawes by Celia Bryce

"Two teenagers fight the biggest battle of all" says the tagline for Anthem for Jackson Dawes.

And it's not untrue. Fourteen-year-old Megan Bright is admitted to hospital for chemotherapy, where she meets the enigmatic, rebellious, funny Jackson Dawes, a fellow cancer patient. The two quickly fall for each other.

Does this story sound slightly familiar? If John Green's The Fault in Our Stars came to mind when you read the above description, then you're not the only one. The paralells between the two novels are obvious, even though the settings might be different.

Much of Megan's story is told while she's in hospital, where just five days stretch out for almost half the book. Time stretches and contracts strangely in Anthem for Jackson Dawes, perhaps a reflection of the way time can slow down or rush past when your whole life changes.

We meet Jackson pretty quickly, and he is enigmatic and rebellious and funny. Unfortunately, the reader doesn't get to spend too much time with him, and I'm unsure what, besides their shared age, makes Megan fall for him so hard, so fast.

Megan herself is an interesting character. I found her whiny, immature, old beyond her years and sensible all at the same time, among a host of other things. Then I remembered that she is 13 for most of this novel, and that time in a young girl's life can be confusing, manifesting itself through ups and downs in personality. Add in that Megan has cancer, and it's not surprising that Megan is all over the place. 

Anthem for Jackson Dawes is an alright book, but having recently read The Fault in Our Stars, I really couldn't see it as anything but a poor relation to Green's novel. Megan and Jackson are poor imitations of Hazel and Gus, and the magic in The Fault in Our Stars is missing from Bryce's novel. In another world, Anthem for Jackson Dawes might have been a wonderful novel (and it is truly heartbreaking), but it's just unlucky that The Fault in Our Stars is around to shine much brighter.

Book review: Hostage Three by Nick Lake

Somewhere in between telling a friend I didn't understand the hype around Nick Lake's writing and sighing in exasperation over the romance in his latest novel, Hostage Three, I realised I'd actually managed to get three quarters of the way through the book in two days (two days I'd spent doing a lot of other things).

I've not read In Darkness by Lake, but the reviews inside my copy of Hostage Three assured me that Lake's first novel was "serious, nuanced, challenging" and "remarkable".

Hostage Three didn't live up to those generous compliments at first, despite an adrenaline-filled first few pages. Amy, a whiny teenager who lost her mum and lives with her rich banker dad and his wife, has just crashed spectacularly out of her A-levels and is now being forced to spend the summer on a luxury yacht with aforementioned dad and step-mum.

Spending days lazing around, flirting with the captain and doing much of nothing, her life changes when pirates take the yacht hostage in the waters off the coast of Somalia.

What follows is more of Amy whining, but also a story about a girl finally seeing the world from different eyes - that of young, handsome pirate Farouz.

Yes, this was the point at which I went: "Seriously?" Because there's handsome men, and then there's handsome men who come on board your ship with a bunch of strangers, all with guns and knives, take you and your family hostage and want millions of pounds in exchange for your freedom. Stockholm syndrome crossed my mind, but Amy fell for Farouz far too quickly for this to be the case - her attraction to him was virtually instant.

Still, putting the weird romance to one side, Farouz was able to show Amy a different side to the world with his stories of a hard life in Somalia. Lake doesn't glamourise pirates in any way, but he does delve into the reasons behind why they do what they do. Some of the pirates in the novel are just cruel men, others see it as nothing more than a job like being a banker, and others, like Farouz, are doing it to help get something they really want.

Lake's novel is very much of a certain time - the time when piracy and bankers were hitting the headlines every day. The comparison between bankers and pirates is hardly subtle ("oh look, they both take our money"), and although bankers are still hitting headlines, piracy has taken a bit of a back seat, and so the commentary in this novel feels slightly dated. This is probably more the fault of the media than of Lake, since piracy is hardly dead, we're probably just choosing to ignore it.

Hostage Three became, in the end, an interesting read. I found myself growing to like Amy, who was definitely a better character at the book's conclusion, and I found the unravelling of her life well done. Her father and step mum were sympathetic characters, although minor characters in the book weren't drawn in great detail.

Hostage Three's ending really helped salvage it in my mind - the last 50 pages were unputdownable. I found it layered with meaning and thought-provoking, and by the end I understood what those reviews in the front of the book were all about.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Glee recap/review: Guilty Pleasures

This week's episode of Glee had an apt title, since the show could be classed as one of my guilty pleasures, particularly when it's bad.

Luckily for me, this week's episode was very, very good. Why did I love it so? Because, and I've said this before, I love when Glee focuses on friendships, and that's exactly what it did in Guilty Pleasures.

Yes, the episode may have been about revealing that you like the Spice Girls or Barry Manilow or have a boyfriend pillow, but what it was really about was how you can be vulnerable and truthful in true friendships.

At McKinley, with Mr Schue ill (nice one Glee for getting Sam to tease Tina about the whole Vaporub incident), Blaine and Sam decided to make this week's theme guilty pleasures. Cue Wham's Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (the band was Blaine's guilty pleasure) complete with tiny shorts, day-glo colours and a whole lot of fun and bouncing around.

In the men's changing room at McKinley Sam pulled Blaine to one side to tell him about a long-held secret that was life-changing. Blaine, holding out hope like people with crushes do, asked Sam if he was attracted to him. Negative. Instead, Sam's guilty pleasure was Barry Manilow, and Blaine encouraged him to "come out". And come out he did, with a ruffled jacket and a rendition of Copacabana that had New Directions on their feet and playing all the parts. And Sam was made more comfortable in his love for Manilow when the other glee clubbers revealed they too were Fanilows.

Sam decided to return the favour, telling Blaine he knew he hadn't been truthful about Wham being his guilty pleasure. And so Blaine sat at a piano in the auditorium singing Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now), a song on the surface about Kurt, but really about Blaine's crush on Sam - something some of the glee club seemed to clock on to (Artie, Tina, Kitty). This is one of those times when Glee picks a song that isn't really lyrically appropriate, since the lyrics and meaning of Against All Odds are a little heavy for a crush, but I enjoyed the rest of the episode so much that I'll forgive this blip.

Sam confronted Blaine, revealing he'd known about Blaine's crush for ages, and then became one of my favourite people in the world by saying it didn't matter, it changed nothing between them, it didn't freak him out, and that he was flattered. This is a friendship for the ages people, and I loved that Glee continues to show that a straight guy and a gay guy can be friends. It all ended perfectly, with a great joke, and I think Glee should be applauded for showing a crush in a positive light, and not the freaky Tina/Blaine light.

Fondue for Two was back, with Brittany calling in Kitty after telling the latter she was a complete bitch. Kitty revealed her guilty pleasure was the Spice Girls (well, Brittany revealed it for her), which led to Tina, Kitty, Brittany, Marley and Unique performing Wannabe, which is a song about friendship. Hate it all you like, but its message is a good one. And the performance saw Artie start to develop a crush on Kitty. I might like where that's going.

Finally at McKinley, Jake decided his guilty pleasure performance was going to be a song by Chris Brown. This drew horror from the ladies of New Directions, who objected immediately, telling Jake that Brown is a mysogynistic, woman beating son of a gun. I agree. Glee can be heavy handed in its messaging, and it might have been in this case, but it gave Jake a few decent arguments with which to fight back - namely that liking someone's music doesn't mean you like them, and that the glee club has sung plenty of songs before that are from artists who can't exactly be called role models. Still, I was on the side of the girls here, and while it's not for Glee to be preaching about Chris Brown and his behaviour, I'm behind them on this. This little album review here sums up perfectly my feelings about Chris Brown. (And then we got to see Jake dance, and he's good and I liked that.)

Meanwhile in New York Santana had moved back in with Kurt and Rachel, who was single after Brody broke up with her and moved out. Only Rachel was blissfully unaware that Brody was a gigolo, something Kurt had told Santana to keep quiet about, at least until Rachel had her audition for Funny Girl. Santana, though, couldn't keep her mouth shut when Rachel started talking about how she and Brody would get back together, and spilled the beans.

Thus Rachel confronted Brody at NYADA, and it all got a bit messy, and Rachel confessed she sort of used Brody to try and get over Finn, and then they sang Creep by Radiohead. It's a great song, but it just didn't fit in this episode of Glee, or maybe in Glee at all. Still, Rachel is now free of Brody and went back to the loft, where she, Kurt and Santana danced around to Mamma Mia while the New Directions guys did the same thing (only they were dressed in white and gold and had platforms and everything) and it was all fun and great and I loved it.

Best moments
Kurt has a boyfriend arm. This was both funny and heartwrenching. Kurt's voiceover told us that his life would be over if anyone found out, but when Santana and Rachel did, Kurt's explanation that it felt good and made him feel less lonely was enough to win them over, and there was a surprising, but welcome, lack of mocking.

Oh, and Sam's macaroni art was great too.

DVD review: Pan Am series one

There was a lot of hype around Pan Am just before it came out - hype that quickly fizzled when it hit screens.

I was little apprehensive therefore when I got the complete series one box set (there is no series two), despite the fact that the producer (Thomas Schlamme) of my favourite programme ever, The West Wing, was involved.

But by the time I'd finished watching the 14 episodes that make up Pan Am, I actually found that I really liked the series.

Yes, it was full of flaws, primarily that it couldn't make up its mind what type of a programme it was meant to be. One minute it was all about the glamourous lives of air stewardesses, the next it was a spy drama. One episode would be a lighthearted love story, the next would be a comment on the political situation in Haiti. It was more soap, less drama.

Pan Am never quite got into its rhythm, too desperate trying to be everything at once. It was at its best when it focused on its characters and their work, and skipped the big messages - and the spy angle.

That doesn't mean Pan Am wasn't good when it focused on what a changing time the 1960s were in America. Among the good plot lines was one where Laura (Margot Robbie), and a young black sailor found themselves fighting (literally) against racists and bigots when they appeared in public together. The plot was a good insight into race relations, yet at the same time showed us Laura's depth - up until then she'd largely been the sweet, pretty one. And Maggie (Christina Ricci) was at her best when she found herself stuck between her attraction to a Republican senator and her hippie views. The rest of the time she was just annoying in her "rebelliousness".

The spy element was a huge part of much of Pan Am, but I never felt it quite fit in with whatever else was going on. We never quite found out why Kate (Kelli Garner) decided to work for the government on the sly in addition to being a stewardess, and when things started getting heated (a lover from Yugoslavia, a colleague turned rogue), I never quite found myself believing in any of it. It seemed this aspect of Pan Am was a whole separate programme.

My favourite characters were young pilot Dean (Mike Vogel), who stood for the first generation of Americans and American pilots who had nothing to do with the Second World War, and Colette (Karine Vanasse), the French stewardess whose past was filled was pain. Both characters had depth, and felt more well-rounded than anyone else, even though they too weren't always well written (particularly in regards to Dean's romantic liaisons).

Unsurprisingly, because it was cut short Pan Am ends very suddenly, and there are plenty of loose ends that you just have to tie up in your own imagination.

Pan Am will never win awards, it will never be a cult hit, it will never be talked about in the same breath as Mad Men unless it's to say how it's a much, much poorer relation, but there was something fun and frivolous about it which means I'll be watching it again. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Glee recap/review: Feud

Girls (and Boys) On Film recap/review

Well, after a solid couple of episodes, Glee descended into madness again with Feud. And not only that, the episode also contained what I think is the worst mash-up the show has done, from the songs of two bands I absolutely loved in the 1990s.

But we'll get to that in a bit.

At McKinley, Will is feuding with Finn after the revelation that Finn kissed Emma. I'm not sure how Will is acting towards Emma, but it seems in this not quite love triangle, the relationship between Will and Finn is the most important.

So after a couple of funny scenes where Finn is made to get coffee by Will, and where Artie (true leader), Blaine and Tina confront Will and Finn, we get this week's challenge - sing songs by artists who had famous feuds.

Will and Finn decide to pick N Sync, with Will doing Bye Bye Bye, and Backstreet Boys, with Finn doing I Want It That Way. Now, I loved Backstreet Boys when I was younger, and then I loved N Sync too. For me, there wasn't any competition, but it's a great feud to pick.   

The mash up started out well with Will doing Bye Bye Bye, Blaine and Jake backing him up looking all sexy like, with all three on strings, recreating the N Sync cover for the single. And then I Want It That Way cut in and the whole thing just went to pot. If you're going to do a song battle, why pick a ballad? Couldn't Finn have done Everybody (Backstreet's Back) or Larger Than Life? Something with a bit of oomph (even if it wasn't contextually perfect - but when has that stopped Glee?). Instead Finn and his back up of Artie, Sam and Ryder floated around the stage like they had no clue what they were doing, their lackustre boyband moves making me hang my head in frustration.

And after the misery of having to sit through that mash-up, Will and Finn didn't even make up. I get why, Will can't find it in him yet to forgive, but goodness, what a waste of time and rubbish music that was. Still, Finn finally decided to become a teacher after the encounter, although it took Marley to tell him so.

Elsewhere at McKinley Jake and Unique were both feuding with Ryder - Jake because Ryder kissed Marley, and Unique because Ryder wasn't acknowledging Unique is a woman. Let's take the boring one first - blah blah, Jake loves Marley, Marley loves Jake, Marley persuades Jake to forgive Ryder, Jake forgives Ryder. Anyway.

The feud between Unique and Ryder was much more interesting. We've previously seen Wade/Unique's gender identity discussed in the context of Grease, and the idea that people may not have wanted Wade/Unique to play Rizzo. But up until now, we've not really seen how other students respond to Wade's decision to spend most of the time as Unique.

Ryder, while insensitive, probably articulated some of the confusion around gender quite well, saying he didn't know what to think when Unique came in as a girl one day, and as a boy on other days. And Unique articulated it well when she explained that she was a woman, and that was her choice. Ryder finally understood when his mystery chat companion told him that Unique's truth was that she was female, and it wasn't down to Ryder to judge that, Ryder just had to believe it because Unique did.

It was also interesting to get an insight into how others at McKinley treat Unique - Kurt may have made inroads into getting people to accept his sexuality, but McKinley is still a pretty intolerant place. Hopefully we'll get to see more of Unique tackling her issues head on, and triumphing.

Oh, also, Ryder is chatting to some girl online, but we don't know who she is. And when he asked to meet her, she logged off.

McKinley's final feud was between Sue and Blaine. I love both characters, particularly the latter, but this feud wasn't exactly believable. Also, adults bullying pupils? Really, really, really horrible.

Sue, annoyed that Blaine has quit the Cheerios, basically bullies him into rejoining. Blaine, meanwhile, has been running a game of his own, pretending to be reluctant, but really wanting to be a Cheerio so he can bring Sue down from the inside. It's some plan he's concocted, and while it's with Sam (Blam!), we don't know much more and it's all slightly (read: terribly) ridiculous at the moment.

In New York things were much more interesting. Brody finally revealed himself to definitely be a gigolo - he doesn't want to be doing it but he's poor so he's hanging around a plush hotel and sleeping with older women for money. Meanwhile, not pregnant Rachel is mooning at home for him. We find all this out as the two of them sing How to be a Heartbreaker by Marina and the Diamonds, in what I thought was a not too shabby number.

Of course, Rachel doesn't know Brody's a gigolo, and despite Santana throwing her hints she's still not breaking up with him. So Santana takes matters into her own hands and confronts Brody on his turf - NYADA - where she sings Paula Abdul's Cold Hearted.

Remember when Rachel sang Oops! I Did It Again at NYADA, writhing on tables, trying to be sexy? Well, Rachel should watch Santana's rendition of Cold Hearted on repeat, because, Rachel Berry, that is how you do sexy. It might have been a Paula Abdul song, but Santana rocked in what I thought was the best number of the night.

For all her trouble, Santana got chucked out of the apartment by Kurt and Rachel, in a scene which ended hilariously ("Bitch took my pillow"). But we all know Snix won't stop, and so she calls in the big guns - Finn - who beats Brody up and threatens him, telling him Rachel is Finn's "future wife". While I appreciate that Finn loves Rachel and has flown to New York to defend her, he really needs to get his anger issues under control.

And that was the hot mess that was Glee feuding.

Best bits
Continuing from last week, I loved Santana. She may not show it in the best way, but she is a great friend. And hilarious.

But the absolute best bit this week was Blaine and Sue's song battle (despite the confusing feud they had going). Blaine started off sweetly with Mariah's I Still Believe, but let's face it, cute as he is we all forgot who Blaine was when Sue started rapping Nicki Minaj's Superbass in her glow-in-the-dark outfit with her Cheerio dancers.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Book review: Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Young adult fiction is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the popularity of series like Twilight and The Hunger Games, but just because they're the big names doesn't mean there isn't other quality fiction out there.

I stumbled across Sarah Crossan's Breathe thanks to a publisher friend, and read the book in just a couple of sittings.

A dystopian novel, Breathe is set in a world where all trees and plant life has disappeared, and the lucky few live in Pods. Everyone else slowly suffocated to death. When the fundamental right to breathe has disappeared, where does that leave society?

In this world, like any other where society is split into haves and have-nots, there grows a rebel group. Among them is 16-year-old Alina, who is forced to escape the Pod when a friend of hers is seemingly killed by officials.

Alina manages to get out of the Pod with Quinn, a Premium who is infatuated with her, and Bea, his auxillary friend, who are going on a camping trip into the outside world. Armed with just a couple of days worth of oxygen each, Quinn and Bea soon find themselves introduced to a world they never knew existed.

Chapters alternate between Quinn, Bea and Alina's points of view, so we get to know all three characters quite well. The character I most liked was Bea, who was compassionate and kind, as well as being tough.

Alina and Quinn are both slightly selfish, and slightly clueless, and occasionally I found myself wanting to shake some sense into them both.

The world outside the Pod is well crafted, although we barely get to see the rebel stronghold, and secondary characters including Alina's cousin Silas, Quinn's father, and drifter Maude are rounded individuals. Rebel leader Petra is scary, although not quite as terrifying as her nine-year-old protege and surrogate daughter Jazz.

On the down side, I found the central love story of Breathe a little clumsily handled, and it was resolved far too quickly, and not in a very satisfactory manner. 

Comparisons to The Hunger Games will be inevitable, although it's difficult to say whether Alina or Quinn is Katniss, but Bea is definitely Peter. Breathe, bravely, doesn't have a happy ending, leaving readers fully prepped for its sequel, whereas The Hunger Games could be read as an isolated book. If I was going to pick a book to compare Breathe to, it would be Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden, a dystopian novel I read years and years ago. It was the first in a series, and I never got round to reading the others to find out what happened - I won't be making the same mistake with Breathe.

Reading challenge 2013: The Sweetness of Life by Francoise Heritier

The third book in my challenge to ready 12 non-fiction books in 2013 is The Sweetness of Life by Francoise Heritier.

In just 72 pages, this book has become one of my favourites of all time.

A best-seller in its original French, The Sweetness of Life has been translated into English for the first time. Its author is an anthropologist and a professor who has previously written books including Masculin/feminin.

The Sweetness of Life started as a response to a doctor who wrote to Heritier to say he was on a "stolen" week's holiday. And so Heritier decided to put together a list of all the things that make up the sweetness of life, from "wild laughter, phone calls made for no reason, handwritten letters" to "rediscovering the macaroon smell of gorse every summer".

In addition to being a gathering of generic moments that make up life, The Sweetness of Life is also part biography, revealing little tidbits about Heritier herself. Her list includes "living sparingly at the time of the Suez Crisis on a thin baguette and a cup of coffee a day", "surviving the attack of a swarm of wild bees in the African bush" and "melting over the devastating restraint of Robert Redford in Out of Africa and the equally devastating insolence of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind".

The Sweetness of Life is inspiring, and is a book to cherish. It made me stop and think about all the things that make life worth living, and that I should cherish each day.


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