Thursday, 30 April 2015

Book review: All Fall Down by Ally Carter

The world of foreign embassies seems like it's quite a glamorous one, full of glittering balls, fancy dinners and interesting people.

Of course, it's probably not like that at all. In fact, it's probably a lot of thankless hard work, but then that wouldn't make a good YA novel now, would it?

Luckily, Ally Carter has chosen to focus on the glam side of embassy life in All Fall Down, the first book in a new series. Grace has moved in with her grandfather, the American ambassador to (the fictional) Adrian, three years after her mother died in a fire. Only Grace is sure that her mother was shot by a man with a scar on his face, and she's determined to find the culprit, even if everyone else thinks she's a troublemaker.

All Fall Down has great characters in Grace, who is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of her mother's death, while also trying to come to terms with her grief; the funny and sweet Noah, who has hidden depths; Rosie, who takes on the role of little sister, but who is so, so smart; the initially silly Megan who has the brains to more than match her beauty; and Alexei, the handsome Russian guy next door.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Opinion: Let's stop asking female actors stupid questions

I wonder how important it was for Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Paul Bettany that their characters in Avengers: Age of Ultron were intelligent as well as being sexy?

I'll be waiting a long time for the answer, since no one asked them that insulting question at the London press conference for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Someone did, however, ask Scarlett Johansson. Here's the question in full:
Your character could have easily just been written off as the sexy one in the team. How important is it for you that she's actually smart as well as hot?
I guess the journalist who posed the question thought it was ok to ask, because female actors are first about sexiness, and then everything else.

Well, screw that. I don't often get ranty on my blog, but I think this is a good enough reason to lose my temper.

What kind of a question is asking a woman if it was important for her to play a character that is intelligent as well as sexy? Of course it's important, in fact, I'd say the intelligence comes first. Because yes, Johansson's Black Widow is hot, but first and foremost she's an assassin, a warrior, a world-class interrogator, a team player, and so much more. Sexiness is about 100th on the list.

Not for the male journalist who asked the question though, who clearly couldn't see past the Black Widow costume to realise that she's a character who could make him cry with just one look.

Johansson handled herself really well in answering the question. If I'd been her I'd have told the guy to go back to 1815 where he's clearly from, using a lot of colourful language.

It is not, repeat not, okay to ask female actors whether they expect their characters to have brains as well as looks, especially if you're not asking male actors the same question. To do so implies that you think women aren't supposed to be the brains of the operation, and that you don't hold women in that high a regard.

Maybe the journalist who asked the question had a good reason for asking, and I'd like to hear it if so. In the meantime, this is 2015, let's stop asking female actors stupid questions.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Book review: Precocious by Joanna Barnard

We're all vultures of a sort, and there are few things that demonstrate our need to know everything and tear everything apart and form an opinion than news stories about teenagers having relationships with their teachers,

In Joanna Barnard's Precocious we join the teenager in the affair as an adult. Thirty years old, Fiona Palmer is married when she bumps into Henry Morgan, the man she had a relationship with when she was 14, again. Fiona still feels a pull towards Henry, even all these years later, and is willing to put everything on the line for him. But who is really in control of their relationship now? And who was in control when the pair first embarked on their affair? 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Including the excluded: diversity in publishing

When I was young, my favourite books often featured female protagonists. I related to Frances Hodgson Burnett's Sara Crowe in A Little Princess, mainly because her name was Sara (its spelt a bit different, but I like to think its pronounced the same), and to Anne of Green Gables because she was a bit clumsy (although I never accidentally fed a friend wine instead of cordial), and I loved Roald Dahl's Matilda because she was a reader, just like me. But what all of these protagonists have in common is the fact that they are a little bit different. Because, in the absence of books with people who looked like me and my family, I had to seek out differences where I could.

It wasn't until I was about 10 that I finally found a book that featured a young Muslim girl as the main character - and I still treasure that copy of Anita Desai's The Peacock Garden. But while the character shared an ethnic and religious background with me, she still wasn't like me - a young British Muslim. Plus, the book was written in 1974, so it was hardly contemporary even when I was a child, as long ago as that seems.

I explain about my childhood reading because I think we're still largely asking the questions that I unconsciously asked myself as a voracious young reader - where are the books about people like me? Why is no one writing them? Is it because no one cares? Is it because I'm not important?

Monday, 13 April 2015

Book review: In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

When I hear the traditional rhyme 'in a dark, dark wood', my thoughts automatically turn to Janet and Allan Ahlberg's children's book series Funnybones, which always used to begin with a variation of that rhyme. 

Where the Funnybones books were full of fun and weren't at all scary, Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood, which is introduced with the same traditional rhyme on its first page, is tense, full of suspense and shot through with a healthy dose of scariness.

Nora hasn't seen former best friend Clare in 10 years, so it's a surprise when she gets an invite to Clare's hen do. Reluctantly, Nora decides to go, and soon wishes she hadn't, when it's clear that the hen weekend is the woods is going to go very, very wrong.

I went into this book with a fairly strong dislike of hen dos (enforced fun, ugh) and came out of it never wanting to go to another one (sorry any friends of mine planning to get married). And that was before the actual thriller stuff happened. Ware is really good at creating a tension-filled atmosphere in which a disparate group of people come together and have to spend time getting along and being on top of their game. 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Book review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

I love a good story about privileged American teenagers as much as the next pop culture obsessed millennial (hello, Gossip Girl) but E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, a haunting tale of a young girl coming to terms with tragedy, is a different kettle of fish to tales of teenagers having expensive parties and fighting with their BFFs.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman is part of the distinguished Sinclair family. Every summer the Sinclairs, headed by Cadence's grandfather Harris, gather at their private island off the coast of Massachusets. With her cousins Mirren and Johnny, and Johnny's sort-of stepbrother Gat, Cadence leads a decadent lifestyle, running riot on the beach at Beechwood Island without a care in the world, part of the self-titled Liars. But then Cadence is involved in an accident, one that leaves her suffering physical and mental pain, and has to come to terms with what has happened to her and the effects it's had on her family.

We Were Liars doesn't quickly tell you what has happened to Cadence, instead the story unravels slowly, like a rope whose separate strands are fraying and coming apart, and it's only towards the end you realise the rope is completely broken. I enjoyed the slow reveal - it gave me time to try and work out what was going wrong, to try and figure out why certain things (events, phrases, people) unsettled me so much.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Book review: The Cousins O'Dwyer Trilogy by Nora Roberts

A battle between good and evil is always a great subject matter for a book, and in the hands of Nora Roberts, you know it's going to be a greater story than in the hands of many other writers.

The Cousins O'Dwyer Trilogy follows siblings Branna and Connor, and their cousin Iona, as they engage in a battle against the malevolent being Cabhan, a witch who has for hundreds of years clashed with the O'Dwyer family. As the three cousins move ever closer to finding a way to beat Cabhan, they also have to let love into their lives, in the form of loyal friends Fin, Meara, and Boyle.

Dark Witch, Shadow Spell and Black Magick are pure Roberts - a great story combined with realistic characters you love, and an enemy to overcome who you hate, as well as romance. The three couplings - Iona and Boyle, Connor and Meara, and Branna and Fin - are so compelling to read about because the individual characters are well drawn and likeable, as well as being complex and mysterious in just the right ways. I think everyone that reads series by Roberts always has a favourite couple, and for me it was Branna and Fin, because their path to love was the hardest, and not just because they're both stubborn.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

If you love watching this, you'll love reading these: Gossip Girl edition

Gorgeous clothing, people and settings - Gossip Girl is a feast for the eyes. The first two seasons are virtually perfect, from the development of the characters (remember how heinous Chuck was in the first episode, and how you grew to love him?) to the beautiful cinematography - I can't think of a more visually stunning scene on television than when Chuck and Blair confront each other, wearing complementary clothing, in a garden in the Hamptons at the beginning of season two, the stunning backdrop a counterpoint to their pain.

And then there are the stories. From the ridiculous (anything involving Georgina) to the sublime (everyone meeting in the Hamptons), from love triangles (Chuck, Blair and Nate being the best) to epic fights (Blair vs Serena, Blair vs Jenny, Blair vs everyone), from stupid (but at least Serena's chasing her father brought Carter Baizen back into our lives) to lovely (all the friendships), Gossip Girl is a treasure trove of amazing stories. Some of that comes from Cecily vin Zeigesar's original books, but, and it's rare I say this, the television programme is so much better.

So if love you love Gossip Girl (and you've tried the books), here are a few novels that should remind you of the drama and fun Blair, Serena and co brought into our lives. xoxo.


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