Sunday, 30 January 2011

In My Mailbox 19 or The One With My Birthday

Dear Blog,
IMM again, hosted by Kristi over at The Story Siren.
Well, after a couple of weeks where I got no books at all, I suddenly ended up obtaining a load of novels.  However, today's my birthday, which probably explains a part of the amount of books I got this week (and sorry for the lame photograph).  I officially have too many books now,  but what the heck.

Alas, I was unable to attend the Random House Blogger Brunch, but this week I did get sent through:
Long Lankin  by Lindsey Barraclough (not pictured because it was too huge)
The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
The Kissing Game by Aidan Chambers
In The Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti
Whisper My Name by Jane Eagland
Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtis

Keeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters
Hinadori Girl volume 2 by Mari Matsuzawa

Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen (just about to start this)
Fruits Basket volume 5 by Natsuki Takaya
Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (Now I can re-read it to pieces)
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

So that pretty much sums up my bookish week.  I'd better be off now.  Monday to Friday I'll be on holiday, so don't expect any more reviews and such from me for the next week. 

Friday, 28 January 2011

Foreign Language Friday: Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Dear Blog,
I know I haven't done a Foreign Language Friday post in a while.   I haven't really done any kind of post in a while, I suppose, seeing as I've read so little recently.

Name: Jezebel (original title the same)
Written by: Irène Némirovsky
First published in: French
Translated by: Sandra Smith
Summary (from Goodreads): In a French courtroom, the trial of a woman is taking place. Gladys Eysenach is no longer young, but she is still beautiful, elegant, cold. She is accused of shooting dead her much-younger lover. As the witnesses take the stand and the case unfolds, Gladys relives fragments of her past: her childhood, her absent father, her marriage, her turbulent relationship with her daughter, her decline, and then the final irrevocable act.
With the depth of insight and pitiless compassion we have come to expect from the author of Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky shows us the soul of a desperate woman obsessed with her lost youth.

Review: Do not be deceived by this the UK cover, which would lead you to believe this is yet another historical-romance novel of no real worth. That, dear blog, is not so. Jezebel is deep, dark and moving stuff about obsession, possession, mothers, daughters, love and most importantly, youth.

It's very cleverly written. The story opens with something vaguely resembling a prologue, at about forty pages, in which the witness describe the evening Gladys killed her lover and her motives. That part of the story draws to a close with Gladys being sentenced to a mere 5 years in prison, at which point you're about 40 pages in and like, "wait, what are the other 160-odd pages for?" then? Well, the rest of the book chronicles her life from young womanhood leading up to the night where she committed her crime.

The thing I love most about this genius little novel is by far the characterisation. Not one character falls flat; each one is as human and individual as the next. It's narrated in the third person, which can more often than not make the characters seem more distant and hard to relate to. But the way that Gladys in particular is written, I think it works for the best because it means that the reader doesn't feel what Gladys feels, or think what she thinks, so much as observe it and then try and make your own judgement on her actions and her obsession with remaining young. She's like a character out of a fantasy novel or a fairy tale or something; a creepy old (yes, yes, Gladys is old) hag who wants eternal life and is willing to mess up everyone elses' lives in order to get it. She's cold and controlled, yet passionate at the same time, sophisticated yet shallow. The nature of the book is quite similar to Gladys herself in that respect: like an old black-and-white film with rich characters who have affairs and will do anything to keep their social standing, even though they're crumbling and they don't realise it. There's a lot of gossip and paranoia, and paranoia about gossip.

Némirovsky is totally ruthless in the way that she portrays age and women and what happens when one meets the other, with no sympathy for Gladys' actions. With reason I guess. As an example of the way, one of my favourite quotes from the book; "She had reached that age when women no longer change: they simply decompose." As I read that I was like, "Yes! Irène, you've done it."

There was a lot of talk going round when Jezebel was first published about how much influence and/or inspiration came from Irène's mother, who I suppose must have treated her the way that Gladys did for Marie-Thèrése. In which case, I can see why it was written.
The scenes between Gladys and her daughter were both my favourites and the ones that I loathed most in the book; they were I suppose more than they were infuriating or darkly fascinating into such a world, they were saddening.  In the dialogues between mother and daughter were the moments when I hated Gladys the most.  But it was ultimately, I suppose, the kind of loathing that comes from pity.  Of course I felt sorry for her; not because she was getting old and falling from grace, but because she was so selfish and caught in such a trap. 

Some stories that strip the human soul so bare can just result in being bleak and depressing without anything else to it.  But Irène Némirovsky pulls it off so well, and makes it more of a why-dunnit than a who-dunnit, I can safely say that Jezebel is one of my favourite books reviewed for Foreign Language Friday so far.

In Three Words: dark, sophisticated, fascinating.
Recommended for: women.
Rating: 5.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Review: The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney

Dear Blog,
I know I've been terrible at reviewing on a regular basis lately.  Sorry.  I've just been so very busy, and still trying to get over my can't-be-within-several-metres-of-intelligent-fiction phase.  Thankfully I think that The Iron Witch is what's pulled me out of it. 

Summary (from Goodreads):  Freak. That's what her classmates call seventeen-year-old Donna Underwood. When she was seven, a horrific fey attack killed her father and drove her mother mad. Donna's own nearly fatal injuries from the assault were fixed by magic—the iron tattoos branding her hands and arms. The child of alchemists, Donna feels cursed by the magical heritage that destroyed her parents and any chance she had for a normal life. The only thing that keeps her sane and grounded is her relationship with her best friend, Navin Sharma.
When the darkest outcasts of Faerie—the vicious wood elves—abduct Navin, Donna finally has to accept her role in the centuries old war between the humans and the fey. Assisted by Xan, a gorgeous half-fey dropout with secrets of his own, Donna races to save her friend—even if it means betraying everything her parents and the alchemist community fought to the death to protect.

Review: Before I say anything else- the cover. Look at it. Observe the pretty patterns on Donna's arms and the matching spirals around her and the beautiful font.
*eats cover*
Ahem.  Moving on.
 This is the first book I've read as part of the 2011 Debut Author Challenge, and I was pretty excited to read it after seeing many other good things going round about it. And it certainly doesn't disappoint. 

My favourite thing about the book is, undoubtedly, Donna herself.  From the opening I was like "She's home-educated!  Score!  But, wait- she wears mysterious gloves, and has a dark past, resulting in her being home-educated. She's at a party, yet everyone thinks that she's a freak.  Why is this?  And did I mention that she's home-educated?"  
Relatively normal people probably don't find the whole home-education thing incredibly exciting, but as I've mentioned a few times I've only read novels about home-educated teenagers [re-]entering formal education, not the other way round. 
Not once did I think there was anything vaguely Mary-Sue-ish about Donna.  She is the ideal female protagonist; she's capable and utterly kick-ass, but at the same time she's not afraid to admit she needs help. I mean, at times she needs it.  She's incredibly well-written.

And while I'm on the subject of the writing style.  The third person intimate can often end up being, well, not very intimate, and actually sounding kind of boring.  However, Karen Mahoney executes it perfectly, as if the only thing stopping the narration being directly from Donna's point of view was the fact that the words Donna/her/she  replaced I/me. 

I suppose one thing that I'm not sure I was so keen on was the way that Karen Mahoney opens the story. Donna knows about her life, natch, and the Orders and alchemy and her past; but the reader doesn't. We- id est, the reader- seems almost thrown into the deep end, then having things revealed little by little as Donna explains the mysterious marks on her arms and her past to Navin and Xan; it's clearly explaining things for the readers' sake, and for the most part I frown on that because it tells instead of shows.
That said- and I know I'm totally about to contradict myself here- it made a nice change from the worn-out plot line where the girl meets the mysterious brooding amorous material who reveals to her all her magical powers/past lives/insert other plot line here. Instead she was telling the mysterious brooding amorous material and her best friend about her past and her family.

Speaking of the two boys in the book, Navin and Xan. I both thought they were great, for various reasons.  I've heard a bit of debate about who is ultimately better, à la Peeta/Gale, Ash/Puck, etc. To which my response is How could you compare the two?
Navin is her best friend, and indeed suitable sidekick material, with a lot of jokes to hand for comic relief and amusing banter. And, of course, he's always there for Donna.   Oh, and yay for Asian/Indian characters, too.  Kudos to Karen Mahoney for including diversity (diversity other than elves and faeries, obviously, which is certainly, um...diverse ).  No no, I mean actual human diversity. In general there was something so very refreshing about Navin, and that was that he wasn't in love with her. That role fell to Xan.
Xan was also a breath of fresh air.  It seems like YA novels these days is incomplete without aforementioned brooding love interest.  I had my reservations about him at first, but his generally friendly characteristics became more and more obvious as the novel went on.  He made Donna happy- I suppose then that that made me happy for her, too. 

As for the plot and pacing, there's really nothing bad I could say about it, once Donna got a couple of things straight with the reader. You get the impression that even though at the conclusion everything seems  (sort of) resolved, it's definitely  not over.  And for that I'll definitely be reading the next two books, The Wood Queen and the Stone Demon.

Oh, and one thing; I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that Karen Mahoney's actually English, despite the fact that The Iron Witch is set in the States. I totally didn't realise this.  Transatlantic surprise.  In a good way.
In three words: refreshing, intriguing, page-turning.
Recommended for: girls who like urban fantasy.
Rating: 5

Big thank you to Random House UK for sending me a copy for review.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Review: The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting

Dear Blog,
I know it's been ages since I've done a review,  I've been in something of a reading slump and have been totally incapable of reading books that aren't silly slice-of-life shojo manga.

Summary (from Amazon, because the Goodreads summary was too long): Violet Ambrose is grappling with two major issues: Jay Heaton and her morbid secret ability. While the sixteen-year-old is confused by her new feelings for her best friend, she is more disturbed by her "power" to sense dead bodies – or at least those that have been murdered. Since she was a little girl, she has felt the echoes the dead leave behind in the world...and the imprints that attach to their killers.
Violet has never considered her strange talent to be a gift, but now that a serial killer is terrorizing her small town Violet realizes she might be the only person who can stop him.
Despite his fierce protectiveness over her, Jay reluctantly agrees to help Violet find the murderer – and Violet is unnerved by her hope that Jay's intentions are much more than friendly. But even as she's falling in love, Violet is getting closer to discovering a killer...and becoming his prey herself.

Review: So. The Body Finder is one of those books that I obtained in December to try and complete the 2010 Debut Author Challenge (epic fail). I didn't actually get round to reading it until recently.
The Body Finder is one of the multitude of books that falls into either a) supernatural b) paranormal or c) urban fantasy novels that are slightly drowning the rest of YA at the moment. However, I loved the idea- a girl who could sense the spirits of those who've been killed. Intriguing, and a lot more refreshing than anything else. There was no love triangle (!) to boot- though I'll get to the romance in a bit.

Violet, the heroine, seemed a nice enough character. She had a backbone of her own, though aforementioned backbone did have a tendency to lean on Jay a lot of the time, especially later on the book.  Still, she was one of those characters I would mind getting to know if she wasn't fictional (the downfall of most of the people I'd like to be friends with...they don't exist), and I tried to overlook that as much as I could.
Now then; the romance. *rubs hands evilly*
For a lot of readers, this seems to be the thing that drives the book. And it was nice enough, well written, that is- but it just seemed so easy and predictable.
Perhaps I just wasn't expecting so much of it, and by the end I was getting slightly irritated by the amount of intense kissing scenes. They were well-written, admittedly, but they weren't why I bought it. Kind of like the irritating salad that gets put on the side of your plate when you order food at a restaurant (I also compared the flashbacks in If I Stay to salad. However, that was some of the most delicious salad I've ever eaten)- it's a nice idea, but that's not really what you're there for. Anyway, various scenes of "Violet, I don't think we're friends anymore" and "take me right now" and various other elements of sexual tension were just getting in the way of the core plot by the end.

The plot. Hmmm. This is another area that was kind of, well, lacking. It's a brilliant idea for a book; but the plot didn't really live up to its full potential. I suppose my main (and I guess only) problem with it was how easy it was. It didn't take them very long to find the antagonist at all, and it seemed certain from the start that there was only really one suspect- all they had to do was just track him down. So there was little detective work to do, especially seeing as Violent could sense his ghostly villainous whispers of self. And there was no huge climax, either- but I can't go into too much detail on that front lest I give something away.
It just seemed to my mind slightly irritating that she had so much help, either from her various companions or her own natural abilities, which seemed sort of like cheating to my mind. 

That said, the occasional interludes which appeared at random points throughout the story to provide insight into both the mind and the comings and goings of the murderer of all the young girls, were pretty interesting, especially seeing as a lot of the time they seemed to parallel Violet and Jay's encounters with the murderer and the frequently disappearing girls.

So, in conclusion, I'm kind of glad I read it, despite those few flaws which played a big part in the book.  Still, when it comes out I'll definitely read Desires of the Dead, because The Body Finder and Kimberly Derting respectively have potential to be truly awesome.  I'll be interested to see what Kimberly Derting does next.

In three words: anti climatic, romantic, hmmm.
Recommended for: fans of supernatural-type novels with pretty covers and lots of romance.
Rating: 2.75. (Should I really give things .25 and .75 ratings, dear blog? Not quite sure.)

Friday, 7 January 2011

Review: Burned by Ellen Hopkins

Dear blog,

Summary (from Goodreads): Raised in a religious -- yet abusive -- family, Pattyn Von Stratten starts asking questions -- about God, a woman's role, sex, love. She experiences the first stirrings of passion, but when her father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control. Pattyn is sent to live with an aunt in the wilds of Nevada to find salvation and redemption. What she finds instead is love and acceptance -- until she realizes that her old demons will not let her go.

Review: You may or may not know that I'm a massive fan of Ellen Hopkins, after reading her novels Crank and Glass (strangely, I never actually reviewed them, though I mention my fandom a lot). Anyway, my expectations for Burned were very high.
It was no disappointment.

Burned wasn't quite as...dark, I suppose, as the disturbed-and-disturbing Glass. That doesn't mean that Ellen Hopkins doesn't pack a punch in this one. She does. Though it's probably the one of her books that deals with the least- or at least *lighter* issues, dark things abound, sometimes until you feel almost claustrophobic, especially towards the end of the book, when it seems like there's really no way out for Pattyn in the midst of her misfortune. And, well, there isn't, really. Compelling as it is, Burned isn't the sort of book that the reader really enjoys (Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma springs to mind).

The way that Ellen Hopkins writes intrigues me.  She dares to do interesting, exciting things with her poetry; shape poems, double meanings, and in some cases poems within poems. It's pretty inspiring (at least to me, struggling to finish a couple of verse novels), and not once does it sound awkward or interrupted.  The whole thing flows continuously, kind of like listening to one long song in a way. 
I've read a fair few reviews from readers who've despised this book because they think it doesn't portray contemporary Mormon life in an accurate sort of way. I couldn't say whether they're right or not because I'm not LDS myself.  So I'll just kind of skirt round that and leave you to make your own conclusion on the matter.  So moving swiftly onwards and upwards. 

The heroine of the story is Pattyn, who is like her six sisters named after a military general from one point or another in American history.  She is- was- depends how you look at it- a nice character, though I found it quite hard to relate to her- which could just be because our circumstances are so different.  Still, she was one of those characters who changed, one of those characters who by the end of the book was completely different from the girl she had been at the start, and for that I liked her.  She had an interesting voice, or narration you could say; she seemed quite matter-of-fact, and never seemed very self-pitying yet didn't really possess a stiff upper lip.  Maybe it was her upbringing- for all her unruly actions, especially in the first part of the book, she almost seemed almost calm in the way she told her story. 

Burned is, among other things, a love story.  And the object of Pattyn's desire is Ethan.  He was nice enough, I suppose, but not one of those crushworthy fictional boys that I come across now and again *cough*YukiSohma*cough*Nate*spluttercough*.
Anyway.  I liked him, but that was probably only because I wanted so much for Pattyn to be happy and if he made her happy then I was happy.  Kind of.  Apart from the fact that he kills mountain lions- which is in fact pretty awesome-  he himself didn't seem to have any other vaguely remarkable characteristics.  

The ending is the thing that causes so many of the one and two-star reviews on Amazon, at least it seems so.  It's very vague, very uncertain and very agonising in the way that it finishes. Still, I think it was quite a fitting end.  The thing that leads up to the end (I won't say what it is) I definitely saw coming, but then I didn't see the ultimate conclusion- that is, the cliffhanger.   If you don't like the way it finishes, then go and watch an old My Little Pony video.  Alternatively you could do this after you've finished Burned, to cheer you up and give you some more hope for humanity. 

In three words: devastating, compelling, incredible.
Recommended for: everybody who hasn't read an Ellen Hopkins book yet; I think this is a good  introduction.  Wait until the Crank trilogy or Tricks for the really dark stuff. 
Rating: 5.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

In My Mailbox 18 or The One With Christmas

Dear blog,
In My Mailbox, as ever hosted by Kristi of The Story Siren fame.
So.  This is actually two weeks worth of books;
Burned by Ellen Hopkins (read; review coming soon)
Now I Know and The Toll Bridge by Aidan Chambers (Now I Know review further down the page)
Wait for Me by An Na
Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami (currently reading)
Matched by Ally Condie
Sea by Heidi R Kling
The Tension of Opposites by Kristina McBride
The Mark by Jen Nadol

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (not pictured, 'cause I forgot I had it until after I'd started writing this entry)

To conclude: a satisfying bookish fortnight. 

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Review: Now I Know by Aidan Chambers

Now I Know Dear blog,
So.  First post of 2011.  Feels like I haven't written an actual review in ages.

Summary (from Goodreads): Now I Know is all at once a compelling meditation on faith and religion—and the difference between the two—and an intense love story.
When a body is found hanging from a crane in a scrapyard, Tom sets out to investigate this strange case. Nik embarks on a research mission for a film about a contemporary life of Jesus. Then there’s Julie, a girl bandaged from head to toe and laid up in a hospital bed.
These three simultaneous plots— presented through a combination of letters, prose, poetry, jotted notes, flashbacks, and puzzles—are woven together into a provocative novel of mystery and self-discovery.
Like the other books in The Dance Sequence, Now I Know can be read alone or as part of the series.

Review: Following reading Postcards from No Man's Land a few months ago I've been quite the fan of Aidan Chambers.   Postcards  didn't quite live up to my expectations, but I was still intrigued enough to want to read the rest of the six-book Dance sequence, even though I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the rest of the series.  Well, Now I Know has restored my faith- no pun intended in relation to the subject of the book- in the Dance novels.

It's a strange little book in this respect; it's not actually narrated in any sort of chronological order.  It's a slightly confusing mix of letters, journal entries, transcripts and thoughts (not really unlike a Jaclyn Moriarty novel, I suppose). One part of the story seemed to be moving forward, while the other was kind of moving backwards with the same events...if that makes any sense.  Which I'm pretty sure it doesn't (but please give me a break. It's New Year's Day).  Anyway, by the time I'd worked this out, it occurred to me that it obviously wasn't that confusing, or else it wouldn't have taken so long for me to finally click which order the events of the novel were running in.  It didn't interrupt the flow of the story- nay, it was the flow of the story, and it worked well. 

Now I Know is very much a character-based book, for it has three central narrators: Nik, Julie and Tom.  In that order. I'll start with Tom first, seeing as there wasn't an awful lot to say about him.  Maybe  by calling him a central narrator I'm lying slightly, seeing as he can't have had more than forty-odd pages of the two hundred or so in the book, and for that he was probably the most disappointing thing about the book. He played a significant role, I'm sure, but perhaps if Aidan Chambers had spent a little more time writing from his perspective then I would have found him  a more likeable character.  Well, that's not to say that I disliked him.  Because he was so much of a two-dimensional character, I had no strong opinion on him.

Nik.  Now then.  At the start of the book, I actually kind of detested him and his general outlook on life.  Despite the fact that he seemed to play himself as the victim, he was actually one of those irritating people who looks down on Christians and other such forms of organised religion.  I don't see why he protested so much at playing Jesus in the film he was helping to make when, as the director of the film said, he acted like he was the son of God anyway; almost too clever and cynical, I suppose, for his own obnoxious good.  However, his encounters with Julie lead him to change into a much better person in many aspects of the phrase, until he was totally changed. He was open-minded, suddenly,  intelligent in as non-snarky a way as possible, and a pretty fascinating character to follow along on his spiritual journey (in the afterword of the edition I read, Aidan Chambers says that thought that Nik's name should be, well, Nik because the title was Now I Know. See?)

Nik had Julie to thank for all of this.  She was probably my favourite character in the book.  And what's not to like about her? She always had some sort of response to Nik's bitter put-downs of Christianity.  I felt kind of torn when I was reading her rambling monologues in the form of recorded letters to Nik, when she was talking about belief and Christianity.  Did I really buy into it or not?  Was I entirely persuaded to believe that there might be such a thing as a God, masculine or feminine (read the book and you'll get it)? Hmm.  It gave me a lot to contemplate, much like Nik I suppose.   She had many faces; one minute she was all serious and intense, wondering deeply into the human heart, and then the next she was lively, witty and utterly charming.

With the narrative told the way it was, it's hard to say where the climax of the story was; in terms of events, probably within the first hundred pages, but in terms of plot, and the way it all fitted together, it was conventionally towards the end (I hope that made sense). Which I loved.  The way everything fell into place, and the way that Nik and Tom's stories collided at the end was perfect in a "ta-da!" kind of way. It was hugely satisfying. 

So, in conclusion: Now I Know was everything that I wanted Postcards from No Man's Land to be, and it was no disappointment. And now I'm off to finish The Grapes of Wrath and South of the Border, West of the Sun so I can start on the next book in the Dance sequence, The Toll Bridge.
In three words: provocative, fascinating, deep.
Recommended for: teenagers who want answers.
Rating: 4.5. It would have been 5, had Tom been more well-rounded, probably.