Monday, 26 March 2012

Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart--he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.

This book was utterly gorgeous, from the cover, to the story. The UK hardback is the sort of book that I will sit and stroke and admire for hours – the snowflakes! So the book was off to a good start already, and I’d heard some fabulous things already that had me very excited when I picked up a copy. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Ivey’s writing is absolutely perfect for a fairy tale retelling such as this. Bleak, lyrical, and utterly gorgeous she captures the isolation and desperation of Alaska, and the characters perfectly. Every character leapt off the page fully formed as I read, and I found myself savouring every moment, every paragraph and lyrical sentence.

Cut down into short segments, moments and events, conversations that thread together to pull the story along at a quiet pace meant that it was the perfect book to read at night. I drew it out, never wanting it to end, and read a few pages each night, disappearing back into Jack and Mabel’s world as much as possible.

For a first novel it was absolutely stunning. A beautiful blend of compelling and well-constructed characters, lyrical writing, and incredible technique. Ivey walks a fine line between fiction and reality, using different techniques to make Faina seem both very real and entirely magical. I was particularly taken with the dialogue with Faina – if you’ve read it go back and have another look. Not once are speech marks used when Faina is around, which gives every encounter a very personal, almost in the mind approach to the conversations. It was fascinating and I loved not actually knowing who or what she was. 

That not knowing just adds to the magic of the story and whereas normally I like to have all of my questions answered, this was one of the few times where I liked being left in the dark to make up my own mind.

I loved watching so much of the characters lives – of Jack and Mabel as they grew older together and learned to love each other all over again in the harsh and wild beauty of the self imposed isolation. There is such a rift between them at the start of the book that watching them heal that and try to find each other again was actually one of my favourite aspects of the story. It isn’t just a fairy tale with a beautiful dusting of magic, it’s a tale of real people in almost impossible situations and how they find each other, and rebuild their love and try to find some joy in the world again – and that was what really got me. I loved watched as Faina grew from a child into a young woman, and Garrett who started out as a surly young man and grows into such an intriguing man. And Esther who pretty much barrelled straight out of the page at me. It’s such a wide variety of characters and each of them is so incredibly crafted and rounded, they fairly leap off the page and flesh out the story, which is an incredible skill, particularly in a debut novel.

A beautiful sprawling tale, this is a book that I will come back to again and again. Beautiful, heart breaking, and utterly engrossing I found myself completely captivated by it and it’s now places firmly on my list of favourites. For fans of Erin Morgenstern or Ali Shaw, this is a definite must read, and for anyone else who wants a little bit of magic mixed into their day.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Review: Bunheads by Sophie Flack

As a dancer with the ultra-prestigious Manhattan Ballet Company, nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward juggles intense rehearsals, dazzling performances and complicated backstage relationships. Up until now, Hannah has happily devoted her entire life to ballet. 
But when she meets a handsome musician named Jacob, Hannah's universe begins to change, and she must decide if she wants to compete against the other "bunheads" in the company for a star soloist spot or strike out on her own in the real world. Does she dare give up the gilded confines of the ballet for the freedoms of everyday life?

Reviews like this are the hardest for me to write. I wanted to love this book – the premise, the blurb, everything about it screamed that it was going to be a book that I would enjoy, and yet I was left severely disappointed.

I think that the first step, the key into the world, Hannah, was my first problem with the book. If I had identified with her, or felt with her then I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more. As it was she came across as completely self-absorbed, to the point that even the reader would struggle to identify with her, never mind any love interests. I get that she is conflicted about her life, and her choices, and maybe it is simply a reflection of what I personally was expecting about this book, but to have almost three hundred pages of a dancer who effectively whinges and gripes about her life as a ballet dancer wasn’t really what I signed up for. I wanted to see some of her love for ballet and for dance come through, and yes there are moments of that but they are so few and far between that it didn’t really count for anything.

None of the characters were fully developed. The girls in her dressing room were all just names and faces, no real thought given into fleshing them out and giving them human arcs. They changed to suit the story, one moment being friends, the next back stabbing and competitive. Again I know this is meant to show the competitive nature of the world of ballet, but it was so under developed that it really didn’t show it.

And then we have the love interests (plural) and why there were two of them I’m not really sure, except maybe to act as a plot device… There was no relationship built up with either of the boys, no characters, no romance. The scenes with them were few and far between which meant that we got no real sense of the relationship building up, which was a shame.

And my biggest and final gripe with this book? The complete lack of plot development or story arc. That combined with the stop start style of writing was enough to make me want to put the book down long before it was over. Flack insists on patronising the reader and explaining basic elements of the theatre in great detail – thus breaking the narrative and making the whole thing seem disjointed. But as soon as we get into the dancing, where I imagine most readers, myself included would like to know a little more about the movements she’s dancing other than their names, and are a little lost with that little information, Flack goes completely silent and offers nothing to help the reader along.

There are some lovely moments when Hannah remembers she loves dancing and actually enjoys it, but these are so few and far between that it hardly lifted the book at all.
The book does offer an interesting insight into the gruelling world of a ballet dancer, but again, without a protagonist that I cared about, it was all a little bit lost.

It felt as though the book was a cathartic experience for someone who has gone through and lived this story, but it was too underdeveloped to be a great book with this story at its heart. Frustrating and hard to engage with this was a book that I wanted to love but left me feeling cold after reading.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Review: Timeless by Gail Carriger

Alexia Tarabotti, Lady Maccon, has settled into domestic bliss. Of course, being Alexia, such bliss involves integrating werewolves into London High society, living in a vampire's second best closet, and coping with a precocious toddler who is prone to turning supernatural willy-nilly. Even Ivy Tunstell's acting troupe's latest play, disastrous to say the least, cannot put a damper on Alexia's enjoyment of her new London lifestyle. 
Until, that is, she receives a summons from Alexandria that cannot be ignored. With husband, child, and Tunstells in tow, Alexia boards a steamer to cross the Mediterranean. But Egypt may hold more mysteries than even the indomitable Lady Maccon can handle. What does the vampire Queen of the Alexandria Hive really want from her? Why is the God-Breaker Plague suddenly expanding? And how has Ivy Tunstell suddenly become the most popular actress in all the British Empire?

Ah me, if someone were to ask me what my favourite steampunk series in the world is, I would have to answer ‘The Parasol Protectorate’ Series by Gail Carriger. This series is by far one of the most imaginative, wittiest and fantastically written that I have ever had the pleasure to read, so it was with equal parts excitement and sadness that I approached this, the final book in the series.

And it was fantastic. Completely and utterly fabulous. It had all of the elements that I have come to love in Carriger’s series, and more besides. Her writing remains fantastic, equal parts witty splendour and elegant prose. The characters we have come to know and love were all back in abundance, and I particularly liked getting to know Biffy better. He has been one of the most intriguing characters from the start, and I have loved watching his arc, so to see him come all the way round to this was fantastic. I was sad not to see more of Lord Akeldama, but la, we cannot have everything, and what parts he was in he was his usual fabulous self.

It was a novel of tying up all the loose ends, of bringing all the intrigue and mystery to a head and finding out just what her terrible Italian father had been up to. The novel skips on a few years from the birth of the Infant Inconvenience, and we get to see Prudence as a toddler, just learning the word ‘No’ and how Lord Akeldama is taking to fatherhood. With aplomb, it has to be said. It was fantastic after the last two books build up to finally see Prudence in action, and it was fabulous to get some answers to some very intriguing questions after all this time. This is most definitely a series that I will go back to and read again to make all the little pieces slot into place – and then again just for the fun of it.

All in all this was a brilliant finale to an utterly fabulous series. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of ruining it for those of you who haven’t yet read it. But I assure you, this is a truly fantastic series and this book is the perfect end to it. We get answers and questions, character development and dirigible rides. Supernatural creatures, beautiful romance, and above all Ivy Tunstall and her husband’s new play, which was truly epic… But the most fantastic of all? We get to see Alexia and her ever doting husband as they grow together, fight together, and have a fantastic final escapade together. 

Carriger’s writing is fantastic, her imagination even more so, and this series will be going into the immortal ‘all time favourites’ shelf in my room.

You can read an interview with the lovely lady herself here!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Review: Putting Alice Back Together by Carol Marinelli

Huge thanks to Mira books for sending me a copy to review.
There's only so much sex, valium and red wine you can take to paper over the cracks... 

Alice Lydia Jameson is the friend you wish you had. The girl who makes a party more fun, pulls a funny face to make you feel better, drinks wine out of a mug and makes you laugh while you're crying over an ex. Alice is totally happy, everything is amazing, and there is nothing at all to worry about... except, well: Her job was really great 10 years ago; The sexiest guy alive doesn't want her...because he's gay; Her credit card bills are mounting up... But maybe the biggest problem for Alice is that she has a secret. A secret so big she can't tell anyone...but how do you keep a secret like that when everything is starting to fall apart? And once it's out there, how do you ever begin to put yourself back together again?

This one was a bit mixed for me – for starters it isn’t my usual book fare but I was curious by the blurb so I wanted to give it a go. However the blurb really doesn’t seem to match the books in some areas at all.

For starters Alice really isn’t the friend I wish I had, at no point does she ever come across as the life of the party or a fun person to be around- we never get to see that side of her except for one brief scene at the beginning. We see the drinking and the valium, but none of the exuberant outgoing person I was expecting from the blurb.

In fact the first two thirds were a bit like watching a car crash as Alice slowly self-destructs. It wasn’t pleasant or particularly enjoyable, but it was necessary to reach the point where we meet the real Alice.

However, once we start to get to the real Alice, not the one she hides behind, it’s a fascinating and compelling story. I was just frustrated that it took so long to reach that point. I think that once we do reach this though it almost all becomes worth-while because all the puzzle pieces start to slot together and make sense and we see her become a real whole person again, which I loved. I just wish that it hadn’t taken so long for her to self-destruct and we could have seen more of the recovery process as opposed to more of the car crash.

It was a very interesting style to pick, with both the present day Alice and the younger Alice’s stories being told at the same time. It was a touch confusing at the start as there is no real indication of whose chapter it is going in, but as a pattern and rhythm emerged I found it to be a really engaging way of storytelling to have both stories unravelling and merging together as I progressed. There were a few problems with tenses at some moments, but on the whole the writing is strong, the characters clear and as I said, once we reach the emerging Alice it became a truly engaging and beautiful story.

As a début novel it’s strong, but not entirely my cup of tea, however the strength of the last third of the novel was enough to swing my perspective round and make me curious to read what Ms Marinelli writes next. I would recommend it as a very definite page turner for anyone who likes to escape into another’s life without any fantasy elements. An interesting début that’s well worth a read.

To celebrate the release Ms Marinelli was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and her writing!
“You speak in the acknowledgements about how long Alice took you to write and you came back to her on several occasions, what was the hardest part of writing her story for you?”

I kept leaving it because I didn’t think I should invest the time in it and it just seemed too mad and too hard, but my friends and my editor would keep telling me to keep going.

“It's been said that the first novel often has the most pieces of the author in it, was that true for you when writing Alice, and did you find the experience cathartic?”

I don’t really find writing cathartic, I find it stressful but necessary – as in, I can’t go more than a couple of days without writing something. I have written a lot of shorter novels so I guess there are pieces of me everywhere.

“What has been the most exciting part of the writing and publishing process?

The thing I find most exciting is when I go to add another layer to the story and find out that I have set up for it already. As if my brain knew before I did, what I was going to do - I just hadn’t worked it out. I love typing “the end”. I change font and really take a moment.

“Do you have any habits or rituals that stimulate you to write?” 

 It depends - I can write with the TV on, I can write on a train but when I have most of the story down and try to pull it together it’s silence and candles and crystals and reading inspiring books. Though I am having to revise the candles as my cat’s tail caught fire the day before the other day J (he’s okay, just hair, not skin)

“And finally what are you working on at the moment?

NOTHING!!  I sent the follow up to Alice into my editor yesterday – so I should be biting my nails but I am going to tidy my office and catch up with life but I’ll probably be back to it by Monday.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Review: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

With thanks to Random House Children’s Books for sending me a copy to review.

I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse. 
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances? 
R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.

I had heard amazing things about ‘Wonder’ before I started reading it, and they truly didn’t exaggerate.

I was very wary going into the book, after all, you never know with a subject that sometimes requires delicate handling whether the author will handle it or drop it on the floor… hard…

Fortunately R J Palacio tackles it beautifully. The book offers several different viewpoints so that we get to see not only Auggie’s view of himself and the world, but how other people view him to. It also offers us an insight so we see situations from various different angles so what from one person seemed a terribly mean thing to do, would suddenly be seen from a whole new angle.

The different view varied from seeing how Auggie’s sister copes with constantly being pushed to the side in favour of her brother, to how his new friends at school felt about him, to his sister’s boyfriend. It was fascinating and offered a whole new perspective which kept the novel fresh throughout.

Of course the largest sections were from Auggie’s point of view and he was a fascinating narrator. He truly was extraordinary, with his view of the world, of himself, his strength, his kindness and his determination, particularly in the face of some truly horrible taunts, fights and unkindness from those around him.

It was a thought provoking story handled very delicately and I found myself totally enthralled with Auggie’s story. How it feels to be on the inside of a perfectly normal boy who just drew the short straw of the gene pool. He’s not pampered or spoilt, nor is he frustrating, he is an incredibly fresh narrator and I loved sharing his story with him.

It was heart breaking at points to see the cruelty of those around him – not just kids, but adults. There are a series of emails part way through the book that quite literally made my blood boil, and some of the awful things the kids said made me want to reach in and wrap Auggie up in a hug.

My only complaints were that there wasn’t a vast amount of difference between the voices. They all read very much the same, and if I hadn’t been told at the start of each section who was speaking it wouldn’t have been particularly obvious.

It was also, I have to admit a decidedly cheesy ending, but actually, I like happy endings to it didn’t really both me – I know that some people might find it a little too sweet after the trials of the book though.

It does come across as one very decided, white middles class view point of the world, which may be frustrating to some, but because that is the only view point Auggie really has, I didn’t find it too grating.

This truly is a wonderful book – thought provoking, funny, incredibly hard to read at some points, and joyful at others. I would recommend reading it with a box of tissues though…

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Release Day Extravaganza!

So normally I do a post to celebrate the release day for each book I'm squeeing about, but today marks the release of several awesome books, so get your party hats on, and ready to buy books!

First up we have 'Timeless' by Gail Carriger
Alexia Tarabotti, Lady Maccon, has settled into domestic bliss. Of course, being Alexia, such bliss involves integrating werewolves into London High society, living in a vampire's second best closet, and coping with a precocious toddler who is prone to turning supernatural willy-nilly. Even Ivy Tunstell's acting troupe's latest play, disastrous to say the least, cannot put a damper on Alexia's enjoyment of her new London lifestyle. 
Until, that is, she receives a summons from Alexandria that cannot be ignored. With husband, child, and Tunstells in tow, Alexia boards a steamer to cross the Mediterranean. But Egypt may hold more mysteries than even the indomitable Lady Maccon can handle. What does the vampire Queen of the Alexandria Hive really want from her? Why is the God-Breaker Plague suddenly expanding? And how has Ivy Tunstell suddenly become the most popular actress in all the British Empire?

This series has been one of the very best random finds in a a bookstore EVER. Gail is a fantastic writer, with an incredibly witty sense of humour. This series has been an absolute ball to read, and I'm so sad that this is the final book in the series. But on the plus side it is guaranteed to be awesome, and now we can look forward to new projects from Gail in the future!

'The Flappers Book One: Vixen' by Jillian Larkin
Every girl wants what she can’t have. Seventeen-year-old Gloria Carmody wants the flapper lifestyle—and the bobbed hair, cigarettes, and music-filled nights that go with it. Now that she’s engaged to Sebastian Grey, scion of one of Chicago’s most powerful families, Gloria’s party days are over before they’ve even begun . . . or are they?
 Clara Knowles, Gloria’s goody-two-shoes cousin, has arrived to make sure the high-society wedding comes off without a hitch—but Clara isn’t as lily-white as she appears. Seems she has some dirty little secrets of her own that she’ll do anything to keep hidden. . . . 
 Lorraine Dyer, Gloria’s social-climbing best friend, is tired of living in Gloria’s shadow. When Lorraine’s envy spills over into desperate spite, no one is safe. And someone’s going to be very sorry. 

This book is fantastic, a fresh début author with a fantastic new trilogy set in the roaring twenties - I cannot recommend this book enough!

Itch by Simon Mayo
Meet Itch - an accidental, accident-prone hero. Science is his weapon. Elements are his gadgets. This is Alex Rider with Geek-Power! Itchingham Lofte - known as Itch - is fourteen, and loves science - especially chemistry. He's also an element-hunter: he's decided to collect all the elements in the periodic table. Which has some interesting and rather destructive results in his bedroom . . .Then, Itch makes a discovery. A new element, never seen before. At first no one believes him - but soon, someone hears about the strange new rock and wants it for himself. And Itch is in serious danger . . .

Another awesome début! We're being spoiled! Simon Mayo has created a fantastic character in Itch, a true science geek who gets embroiled in a fantastic adventure. Not just a book for boys, I absolutely loved this book, and my review will be up soon! In the mean time, go and check it out for yourself!

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
I’m pushing aside the memory of my nightmare, 
pushing aside thoughts of Alex, 
pushing aside thoughts of Hana and my old school, 
like Raven taught me to do.
The old life is dead.
But the old Lena is dead too.
I buried her.
I left her beyond a fence,
behind a wall of smoke and flame.

The follow up to last years stunning Delirium, I cannot wait to get my mitts on this second book by Lauren Oliver. Her first one blew me away and I cannot wait to get swept up in her world of forbidden love again.

So there you have it! Happy release day to Gail Carriger, Jillian Larkin, Simon Mayo and Lauren Oliver! Some fantastic books to get the month off to a great start - they're certainly going to keep me busy at any rate!