Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Dear blog,

Summary (from Goodreads): Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in fragile bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the thinnest. But then Cassie suffers the ultimate loss-her life-and Lia is left behind, haunted by her friend's memory and racked with guilt for not being able to help save her. In her most powerfully moving novel since Speak, award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia's struggle, her painful path to recovery, and her desperate attempts to hold on to the most important thing of all-hope.

Review: Right now I'm wearing shorts and a t-shirt, it's entirely humid and boiling outside and all the windows in the house are open.  I crave ice cream.  But Wintergirls is impressive (and slightly creepy) in that you can read it in this climate and still feel cold.  It totally leaps off the page.
Wintergirls is not an ideal summer read. It is not for the lighthearted. But it is one of the most disturbing, powerful books I've read in the last few months.

I think Laurie Halse Anderson took a risk with writing Lia the way that she did.  Her narration was cold and distant, like she was really keeping the reader at arms length.  She's one of those characters I didn't really like on a personal level, but totally had sympathy for anyway because of the downward spiral she fell into. I wasn't sure if I was going to like her, because I read Speak, one of Laurie Halse Anderson's contemporary "issues" novels, last year and I couldn't warm to Melinda however much I wanted to.  But Lia was interesting.  She had a personality, and just as importantly she had hobbies, which I think can sometimes get easily forgotten about in books dealing with contemporary issues: There's so much focus on one certain thing or event that defines the story, that the protagonists' background can get totally lost under everything else.  Naturally they're not the driving force of the story, but I still think that if you want to create an entirely likeable, fleshed-out sort of character, small things like hobbies can have a pleasantly surprising sort of effect.

The writing style took a little getting used to, as well.  There are lots of strikethroughs in the text, for example if she referred to her mum, then crossed out the world and referred to her as Dr. Marrigan to try and stop herself from getting too close to her.  It took a few chapters to adjust to that, but when I did it was a fantastic way of seeing into Lia's mind.  For a lot of the book she sounded cold and distant and slightly bitter.  Is it possible to feel like you're stood 100 miles away from someone, and there's just this big frozen wasteland between you, and still feel like you totally understand why they do the things they do and the entirely intense inner functionings of their mind? Lia is like that. I would run up to her and envelope her in a gigantic, entirely crushing bear hug, but I get the impression she would probably shove me away and ask what on earth I was doing. Oh, and, uh, she's fictional, so that also might stand in my way slightly.

But I digress.  The actual use of language, the choice of words and such, was fantastic for the most part.  It was entirely lyrical and flowing,  but there were a couple of points when Laurie Halse Andersen seemed to get almost too deep into all the similies and metaphors,  which made me busy trying to work out what she was saying I kind of forgot what she was actually comparing life/school/herself to in the first place. But aside from those few places here and there, the general flow of the words went pretty much uninterrupted. 

I guess my only real problem with the book was the ending.  Considering the rest of it was so hard-hitting and powerful, it left me feeling a little underwhelmed.  I mean, the actual turn of events were good, but I suppose that the way they were put across wasn't  as satisfying.  I can't really talk about it without giving it away, but it was quite hurried.  Like, once you'd reached the ending, that was the end and that was all there was to it, as opposed to going into more detail about Lia's gradual road on the way to recovery.

Still, I can totally disregard that because the rest of it was so intense, darkly poetic and thought-provoking.  It totally exceeded my expectations, as well, having only thought Speak was okay. But, anyway, this.  Wintergirls is totally unmissable.
In three words: Intense, haunting, cold.
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to gain insight into anorexia and self-harm. Book-clubs. Teenagers. Adults.
Rating: 4.5

Monday, 20 June 2011

How to Make a Packet of Minstrels Last the Length of a Novel

Dear blog,
Now for something completely different.
 To explain: The other day I was reading a list put together by the food company Innocent about how to make a bowl of popcorn last the whole length of a film.I was thinking about this, and how similar it is to those times you sit down with a novel and a packet of minstrels*, but then have devoured them all by the time you’re at page 50. 
I am going to remedy this for you, readers.  Here's a guideline; depending on what you're reading, certain events should indicate how many Minstrels you should eat and when.
Note: some packets of Minstrels are quite small.  Some novels are like 400 pages.  This is why I'm referring to the packets of Minstrels that you can get at the cinema, which are a little bigger.
Another note: Eating a packet of cinema-sized minstrels in one go is discouraged.  It will probably make you feel sick and therefore ruin the whole experience.  It takes me a few days to read most books, so this is a sufficient time to eat a packet of minstrels.

If I Stay- eat two every time the word “cello”, “guitar” or “band” comes up.

The Princess and the Captain- Eat two every time you wish Orpheus was real.

Forbidden- Save all the minstrels for the end, and then devour them all to comfort yourself.

This is All- Eat three every time you feel enlightened, learn something new or have gained new insight into something.

Looking for Alaska- three every time Alaska is drunk or two every time there’s a gorgeous profound quietly beautiful quote.

Becoming Bindy Mackenzie- have two every time you’re all, “Pure genius. Jaclyn Moriarty is one.”

The Broken Bridge- Eat three every time you’re like, “Why does Phillip Pullman need to write those sweeping epic trilogies when, fantastic as they are, he can write such an engaging, refreshing but simplistic YA book about a sixteen-year-old girl?”

Tokyo- Eat one every time the writing style, which tries so hard, too hard, to sound like the POV of an eighteen-year-old boy, makes you cringe.

Anything by Haruki Murakami- two minstrels every time you fangirl squee.

The Hunger Games or Catching Fire- Four every time someone dies or is brutally beaten.

Notre-Dame de Paris (okay it's not really a YA book, but I feel like it deserves a mention as one of my favourite books of all time)- Read the book first, saving all the minstrels until the end. When you’re done, melt them, pour them between the pages and then eat the book.

Anthem (again, not a YA book, but.) - Two every time there’s some mention of “self”, “identity”, or “ego”.

Twilight- two every time Edward says something along the lines of “But Bella, it’s not safe for us to be together!” or half a minstrel every time Bella describes his porcelain skin, smouldering eyes and the like.

Crank or Glass- Two every time Kristina/Bree smokes or abuses some sort of illegal substance.

Eunoia (again, not YA, but every poetry lover should read it)- three every time you’re like “Dayum, Christian Bök has a way with words.”

any of the Ichigo Mashimaro volumes- one every time you laugh, snort, or fall out of your chair in a fit of giggles.

*or Maltesers, crisps, smarties, a bar of chocolate or some of those Tesco mini brownies. 

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Review: Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Warning: There are spoilers in this review for both If I Stay and Where She Went.  If you haven't read them, which I suggest you do right now, you had better not read this review, because it gives away critical things.
Summary (from Goodreads): It's been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam's life forever.
Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard's rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia's home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future–and each other.
Told from Adam's point of view in the spare, lyrical prose that defined If I Stay, Where She Went explores the devastation of grief, the promise of new hope, and the flame of rekindled romance.

Review: So.  Where do I begin. 
If you've been following the blog for a while you may or may not know how much I've been going on about this book. I even contemplated taking an intense crash course in French so I could read it when it was released in France back in November. Alas, the Russian subjunctive and German subordinate clause have given me more than enough to worry about at the moment, and it was probably never going to happen, so I never did.
And then it was finally released here in the sceptr'd isle, so I read it in English, which is probably for the best anyway, because I doubt the fantastically haunting and spare writing style could be sufficiently translated into any language.

However, it's probably worth me mentioning that I was hesitant to actually start it, as soon as it was in my clutches: What if I didn't like it?  What would happen if Mia and Adam had changed from the awesome people they had been? What if them both being like that prevented me from not only disliking Where She Went, but If I Stay as well?  Most importantly, what would happen if either of them were killed off? 
But then my inquisitiveness got the better of me, and so I ended up tearing through this book in about two sittings. I guess it was kind of a combination of the fact that it was just so, well, amazingly done, and out of curiosity to find out what was going to happen next.  If I Stay was one of the best books that I read last year, and it was fantastic to see the stories of the characters I loved so much three years on.    And it's just as good as If I Stay, but for much of the book in a much more subtle way, I think.
Three years on, and Adam isn't at all like the passionate, enthusiastic musician that he was when we left him.  He's a perfect example of the cliché that is rock and roll, complete with an actress girlfriend, a house in LA, and thousands of fangirls across the world.  Strangely, although Adam's band has really taken off in Where She Went, and Mia was about to embark on a tour to Japan, I didn't feel like music was such a strong element of the book. I mean, music was the reason that Adam had become such a train wreck, and why Mia was in New York, but actually, directly, there wasn't that much of it.  In some respects this was kind of a shame, because to me that was one of the most powerful things about its predecessor.  It's a book not about events, or what makes up or leads up to events, so much as the events after the event; about the wheres and whens and whys and what ifs.  Does that make sense?  Ignore me if that makes things any easier.

It's one of those books that I couldn't really give a proper plot summary of. If I said to someone who asked me what it was about, or what happened in the book, I'd be like, "it's about a cello virtuoso and a singer in a band...and they used to be in love, and then she was in a car crash and lost her whole family..." but no, wait, that happened in the first book. What happens here?  "Well, uh, they find each other in New York City, and they spend the night together, and then they fall back in love,..." Yeah, it could just be me because I suck at summarising books, but at such a summary it doesn't sound like the most heart-stopping, gut-wrenching, turn-the-page-with-so-much-enthusiasm-you-almost-tear-it sort of book.  But oh, it is.  Very very much so. I read most of this while I was babysitting, and if one of the boys I was looking after had woken up I would have been like, "Wait just a second!  Mia's about to tell Adam why she never came back!"

Which is where we get to all the revelatory stuff.  The way the story is laid out is absolutely perfect; everything is gradually revealed, so that just when one thing is worked out or explained you're told about something else.  It's like unwrapping a present. There are so many layers and as you get deeper and deeper into the story, and you find out more and more, until you're just left with the one thing that really matters, the thing that you really want to know.  And, to me, it was an entirely sufficient explanation for why Mia just vanished from Adam's life after deciding to stay.  I felt a little twinge of dislike for her then, for doing that to Adam, but she had her reasons, and I totally get that. Gayle Forman has such a powerful way of writing about people and why they do the things they do.

I feel like I'm rambling a bit now, and that I can't really do it any justice. So. Just find a copy and read it and see for yourself. Laugh. Cry. Scowl. Cheer.  And be glad that Mia decided to stay and she went where she did.  And that probably sounds really cheesy, but it's true.

In three words: Powerful, revelatory, haunting.
recommended for: Everyone who wants to know what happened when Mia stayed.
Rating: 5

Sunday, 12 June 2011

In My Mailbox 25 or The One with the Armchair Travelling

Dear Blog,
IMM is hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren.
I got a lot of books this week, which is mostly the fault of the huge charity shop in the centre of town, which has shelves and shelves and shelves of secondhand novels. I've probably sung its praises before, and with reason.
A lot of the books I obtained are a sufficient transportation method to other corners of time and space; Japan, Korea, Greece, Russia, China and so on, which is entirely ideal because I've been wanting to read lots of books set abroad lately.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
The Last Day of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo (read, review here)
Ten Thousand Sorrows by Elizabeth Kim
We The Living by Ayn Rand
Beijing Doll by Chun Sue

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (she's reading this with her book club at the moment, and though I'm quite the Murakami fan I haven't read this one yet.)

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery (currently reading. Entirely fascinating, but pretty heavy going)

So, there you go.  I'm off now to push on with The Teahouse Fire and write poetry.  Over and out.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Foreign Language Friday: The Last Day of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo

Dear Blog,
I'm sorry I've been gone from the blogging universe from so long.  I was in Devon last week, and since then I've been entirely busy.
A note about The Last Day of a Condemned Man: This book is made up of one novella (id est, the title of the book) and a short story called Claude Gueux

Original Title: Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné
Original Language: French
Translated by: Christopher Montcreiff
Summary (from Goodreads): Victor Hugo, the shining light of French Romanticism, was an indefatigable campaigner against the death penalty. This unique anthology of his controversial writings on crime and punishment reveals the author's generosity of spirit and his pity for the condemned. However, as always in Hugo, a degree of endearing self-glorification is never absent. The Last Day of a Condemned Man, while not seeking to minimize its protagonist's responsibility for the murder he has committed, reminds the reader of the mental anguish endured by a man condemned to a cell. Claude Gueux is a documentary account of the martyrdom of a prisoner driven to crime by poverty, and to murder by the casual brutality of a head warder. Also included are Hugo's moving diary entries recording his visits to the prisons of La Roquette and the Conciergerie.
Review: So. One of the first things you should know about me is how much I love Victor Hugo. I read Notre-Dame de Paris last November and it was an entirely welcome break from the frenzy that is NaNoWriMo for a few days. 
Yes I am going somewhere with this.  When you're so in love with a book, when you've read it two or three times and highlighted your favourite parts and drawn little pictures it's easy to forget how thrilling it is to read a Victor Hugo book for the first time. Reading The Last Day of a Condemned Man there are some moments where you're just entirely blown away, like, "Oh my God, this man is a freaking amazing writer."  The writing,  the emotions and the tension are just so entirely enthralling, even though the impending death of the unnamed narrator leaves nothing a mystery.  Still, the pacing is pretty perfect and the build-up to his execution is entirely tense.

Both of the stories are something of a social commentary of French society in law in the day. We never really find out what the condemned man has done (there's one implication of a murder, but that's it), and there's next to no deep detail about the crime he committed, his past and his personal life. All we know is that he has a wife and a young child. In some scenarios and books I prefer it when books go into lots of detail about the character's past, but I think it worked really well here. The way you were cut off from the narrator, and there was just you, him and his impending death: he could have done something absolutely awful but it makes no difference to the reader.    Claude Gueux goes into more detail about the functioning  and dynamics of an early nineteenth-century prison, and there's less focus on the emotions.

While I'm talking about it, Claude Gueux is a short story, and alas it didn't live up to my expectations for two reasons. One: Although I too felt sorry for his plight, his imprisonment and his desperation, which were as excellently portrayed as in TLDOACM, it appeared to me that Claude just wanted his little friend back because he shared his food out with him and without the extra bread he was going to be hungry. Not even starving, just hungry, even. In all his speeches and pleas to the workshop manager, he always seems to mention the food, or lack thereof, first and his friend second. 
The second thing was the ending.  It gradually morphed into a long speech of sorts about the unfairness of prison life and how it could be fixed, the ideal path for improving the prison system in France, and the transformation was pretty gradual until about two pages from the end I was like, "Hang on a minute...this is meant to be about a prisoner..."  And although on one hand you're totally punching the air like, "Yes, Victor! You da MAN!"* it would be kind of nice if we could get on with the story.

Oh, and here's a delightful coincidence  I noticed. Claude Gueux= Age thirty-six. Claude Frollo, my favourite antagonist in literature= age thirty-six.  Claude Gueux= obsessed with the man who gave him his extra food. Claude Frollo= obsessed with a sixteen-year-old truant.  I'm sure Monsier Gueux is the great-great-great-great (etc. etc.) grandson of Dom Claude.

So, to conclude it was an entirely awesome return to Victor Hugo.  Now I'm off to order Ninety-Three and The Man Who Laughs.  (I know, no Les Miserables yet.  It intimidates me.  So many pages...)

In Three Words:  Insightful, fast-paced, enthralling.
Recommended for: people interested in law, human rights, and French literature.
Rating: The Last Day of a Condemned Man: 5, Claude Gueux: 4.
*I should not be talking about one of the most influential writers in French literature like this.