Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Judy Blume Readalong - 'Forever'

I see the words 'Judy Blume readalong' crop up on my Twitter feed and my first thought is I'M THERE. Wouldn't that be everyone's first thought, surely? I had planned on my own read through of the Blume's back catalogue last summer after going to her talk at Waterstones in Piccadilly, but I only got as far as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing swiftly followed by Superfudge. Might get around to writing those reviews one of these days...

Anyway, when I saw Keris Stainton had organised a Judy Blume readalong in preparation for the author's appearance at YALC in July, I was grabbing my copy of Forever off the shelf before you could say 'no, I really don't want to take a look at Ralph thank you', because, yes, the first book to be read was Forever, and the Twitter hashtag was #readalongralph. Anyone who read this book in their youth (or indeed their adulthood) knows all about Ralph.


My own memories of Forever are vague to say the least. I remember Ralph, of course, and I remember the rug and the events which took place on the rug but other than that, it was all a bit hazy. Basically I remember the sex. When I first encountered this book I was about 11 and I couldn't quite believe there was a book that talked about willies, and now, as a 35-year-old reading this is 2015, I'm still struggling to get my head around that fact. It's so strange to think that a YA book written and published in the 1970s with this much frank sexual content probably wouldn't be published now (or would it? My instincts think not. Maybe I'm wrong). Does this mean we're regressing, or that teens want less-in your-face sex in their books? Or that (more likely) we're underestimating teenagers' abilities to grasp the realities of sex, downsides and all?

ForeverThis leads me onto the book itself. There is a lot to love about Forever, but I'm not entirely convinced it worked as whole. I remember when I went to her talk last year, she said she wanted to write a book about teenagers having sex where no one died, and this is the thing I appreciated most about it - a realistic depiction of teenage sex that feels just as relevant now as I imagine it would have done when first released, and the fact that this sort of frankness isn't rally found in most contemporary YA means Forever is even more vital today. I loved the trademark Blume sense of humour, the rich selection of engaging supporting characters and perhaps most of all, I loved the positive depictions of women and girls - a grandmother who once ran for Congress, a supportive best friend who's mother is a leading film critic, a anthropologist sister - all this is depicted in a very naturalistic way, just as it should be, because it is natural to be surrounded by strong, clever, supportive women.

But the fact that these supporting characters were so well depicted shines a light on the shortcomings of Katherine and Michael. They were just a little bit dull in comparison. Katherine made a lot of mature decisions but I never really understood what she saw in Michael. It's never really explain why he is THE ONE, the only really indication being that she loves him because he shows an interest in her - realistic, perhaps but still not very satisfying from a reader's point of view, and I think that same sentiment can be used to sum up Michael too.

Forever still feels like a very important book and I'm glad I revisited it. However, in writing a book about sex, some other things that would have made this a better read, like plot, took a back seat. So a vital book, yes, but by no means a perfect one.

Just quick request for publishers to please keep in the small, beautiful reminders that this is a period piece in future editions - Katherine's brushed nylon nightdress, her joy at the mushrooms embroidered onto her jeans, a teenagers' fondue party (although perhaps this would happen today in an ironic way) and the icing on the cake, Theo and his glorious moustache.

Long live Theo and his glorious moustache!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

YA REVIEW: 'This is Not a Love Story' - Keren David (Atom, 2015)

Kitty dreams of a beautiful life, but that's impossible in suburban London where her family is haunted by her father's unexpected death. So when her mum suggests moving to Amsterdam to try a new life, Kitty doesn't take much persuading. Will this be her opportunity to make her life picture perfect? In Amsterdam she meets moody, unpredictable Ethan, and clever, troubled Theo. Two enigmatic boys, who each harbour their own secrets. In a beautiful city and far from home, Kitty finds herself falling in love for the first time. But will love be everything she expected? And will anyone's heart survive? (Synopsis from Goodreads)

This is Not a Love Story
It's no secret that I love Keren David's books (see here and here) - I don't think there's any other author that nails the British teenage experience quite like she does. Although I've haven't reviewed it here, her previous book Salvage manages to balance realistic characters, engaging plot and heart-rending issues, something that I imagine is far trickier than it looks. I hate describing reads as 'issue' books, because it somehow feels like a disparaging comment rather than a compliment, with an automatic assumption that for a book to deal with tough or diverse issues, it has to sacrifice something in terms of plot or character. Ok, this has been true of some books but as This is Not a Love Story shows, just as Salvage did, it's more than possible to write about issues without sacrificing anything at all.

This where the similarities with Salvage end, however. Whereas that previous book put me through the emotional ringer by confronting some of the darker parts of society, This is Not a Love Story beams positivity and is one of the most refreshing books I've read in a long time. In fact, I can't think of anything it really falls into the same bracket as at all. Kitty's optimistic outlook on life is infectious and seeps through every page. I adored Kitty, but then I adored Theo and Ethan too - can't actually choose between them and wouldn't want to! This is the most realistic depiction of modern teens I've read in a long time - they're funny, emotional, they don't always have all the answers and they make mistakes, but then they move on. Their small expat community reminded me a lot of my gap year interactions many moons ago - you arrive in a new place, you fall in with a group and you get along with people no matter what your differences.

This is the first YA book I've read about Judaism and I loved the way it was presented as both a uniting force and common ground between Kitty and Theo, but also showed how religion isn't one dimensional - their upbringings had more differences than they did similarities and this connection wasn't the be all and end for them. Also, a shout out to the structure of the story - the added element of mystery ensured this a proper, bonefide page turner.

So whereas This is Not a Love Story isn't a love story (or is it?...), this review definitely is - a love story between woman and book (imagine a heart emoji right here - I don't how to do one on my desktop, sorry).

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Past on Paper: 1950s YA REVIEW - 'Out of the Easy', Ruta Sepetys (Speak, 2013)

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan to get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Out of The Easy
I'm resurrecting my Past on Paper feature! Hurrah! And seeing as this book is set in 1950 then it will hopefully be the first of many more 20th century-set book reviews (the books are set in the 20th century, not the reviews, obvs).

I've been on a historical fiction binge at the moment which inevitably led me to this. Unlike pretty much everyone else in the universe, I've haven't read Ruta Sepetys debut, Between Shades of Gray so I was coming to this one without any preconceptions apart from perhaps the irresistable-sounding synopsis - I mean, hello? 'Mysterious death', New Orleans in 1950 - how could anyone NOT be excited by this?

I'm happy to say it didn't disappoint in the slightest. In fact, it might just be one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction, YA or otherwise. This is largely down to the expertly balanced combination of intriguing plot, brilliant protagonist and a coming of age tale that got right under my skin. This is a YA that isn't afraid of the seedier sides of life, with sex, power and frustration filtering through it's every paragraph. 

There is an impressive array of complex supporting characters. Much like she has used this historical setting to bring an authentic background to the story, I feel like Sepetys has done the same with all the players in this tale - from Josie's various surrogate parent figures in the form of brothel madam Willie, driver Cokie and bookshop owner Charlie Marlowe, to the characters who drift in and out of the story in a way to create a richer picture. Without going into spoiler territory, the romance element feel almost like a bonus, not integral to the story, more like a happy side effect, and it was all the more refreshing because of this.

However the very best thing about Out of the Easy was Josie. The description 'bad ass book lover' may sound a bit cringey but it perfectly sums her up. More than aware of the cards her upbringing has dealt her, she remains focused and determined, using her experience of the slightly seedier side of the tracks to push her own agenda. 

I'd just like to thank Ms Sepetys for writing a book that bought me out of my reviewing slump and given me a renewed appreciation for the intricacies and power of great historical fiction (and great mysteries).

(Thanks to my old local bookshop, I have a copy of the US edition, rather than the UK, hence the photo)

Friday, 5 June 2015

Anna calling...

Hello there.

It's been a while.

I've just scanned through my recent (ahem) posts and have noticed that I titled a blog post similar to this one as 'It's been a while' but I feel it needs to be said again because it has. Again.

Without going into a huge amount of detail, the last year was, on the whole, a bit crap. We moved house twice, my dad died and a lot of things, including this blog, fell by the wayside.

The thought of writing reviews put me off reading books in the first place, and recently, without the pressure of making myself have an opinion on them, I've found myself enjoying books again. I've been reading a lot more widely than I used to and the result is that, in not forcing myself to review, I've actually wanted to to, as it the way of life sometimes. So I'm making tentative steps towards blogging again, not just writing about YA books this time, but also other stuff, including posts about my own writing, something that also fell by the wayside last year.

However, some good stuff has happened. We are now the owners of two gorgeous cats, I started posting a lot more pics on Instagram (cat ownership may or may not have something to do with this), and I'm starting to become a lot more active on Tumblr (well, more at the re-blogging rather than the actual blogging but it's a start).

Anyway, it's good to be back xxx

Friday, 29 August 2014

Friday Book Bargains #17

It’s been a while, and seeing as I’ve started blogging again I thought I’d do a Friday Book Bargains this week. For any of you unfamiliar with it, I write blogs for a shopping site that gathers together online voucher codes, and every now and again I have a look for book related ones like The Book People voucher codes and WHSmith voucher codes, so I can put them altogether in one post. The site is called My Favourite Voucher Codes by the way, and they give 20% of their profits to charity which makes them even lovelier.

Solitaire - Paperback - 9780007559220 - Alice OsemanYes, about those The Book People voucher codes. Lovely, lovely site and I normally start scouring it at about this time every year because it’s a great place to start stocking up on Christmas presents. So what YA have they got in at the moment?  Even before using any The Book People voucher codes I found the much-talked about Solitaire by Alice Oseman for £3.99, the Chaos Walking Trilogy (old covers) for £6.99 and the Rachel Cohn and David Levitan double whammy of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi & Ely’s No Kiss List for £3.99 each (brand spanking new covers). Oh and The Book People voucher codes currently get you 10% off your order if you spend £20 and if you order before the end of August.

Instructions for a HeatwaveI haven’t been on their site for a while but if you use WHSmith voucher codes, they’ve very helpfully put all their offers in one place. I had a quick peek at the clearance page using WHSmith voucher codes and there are a few gems at the moment. No YA unfortunately but David Mitchell’s Backstory autobiography in hardback is only £6 (was £20) and Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell is £3.99 (was £7.99).

The Maze Runner Book SetThe Works voucher codes are always plentiful and even if there aren’t any The Works voucher codes active, it’s always worth a look because the prices are so darn good. However, there ARE The Works voucher codes valid right now and you can get 15% off your order. You’ve probably noticed a few folk going nuts over The Maze Runner due to the imminent film release and they’ve got the box set for just £9.99 as well as classic in the making, The Book Thief for a mere £2.99. There’s the £10 required to use those The Works voucher codes right there.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

YA REVIEW: 'We Were Liars' - E. Lockhart (Hot Key Books, 2014)

Three cousins, Cadence, Johnny and Mirren, along with outsider Gat, make up the four Liars. The cousins are Sinclairs, born into privilege and promise and every summer they congregate on the family's private island. After a terrible accident, a damaged Cadence has to sift through the murky waters of her extended family to find out the truth about the incident...

We Were LiarsWhen I finished this, I stated on Goodreads that I probably wasn't going to write a review because the less you know about this book before you read it the better. Even though I didn't know any concrete facts, I had heard whispers on the breeze and even whispers can do damage to a reading experience such as this. But then certain books live on in your head long after you've finished them and they deserve to be praised. I've successfully managed to write a spoiler-free review of a book before, a similar sort of book that requires spoiler-free reading and I think I did an alright job if I say so myself. So here goes. If you really, really don't want to know anything else about We Were Liars before you start it, I suggest you stop reading here (but only after I've said you really need to think about starting it very soon)...

I'm rubbish with books that are steeped in hype. I become a very cynical sort and even more judgey than I usually am (not something I'm particularly proud of) but this makes it all the more satisfying when a book does live up to all the praise. Let's start off with the best thing about We Were Liars - the writing. It's sparse, but I like sparse. Why use five words when you can use one? And because this style is so uncompromising, the voice is too and I don't think it needs pointing out that this is a Very Good Thing indeed (but I will anyway - it is a Very Good Thing). Cadence is the perfect character to lead us through the lives of the Sinclair family - revered, but enough of an outsider to show them warts and all.

From my own experience, there is not much to relate to with the wealthy Sinclairs but as with all good storytelling, this didn't matter a jot. This may have been a book about rich white dudes but it was also a book about prejudice and the abuse of power and love, common themes in many novels but here used in a very clever way. It felt very old-fashioned in some ways, perhaps to do with the setting. On starting it, I kept getting flashbacks of scenes from Dynasty, but here there were less shoulder-pads and more shabby-chic preppiness. I guess this is all testament to the strength of the writing again and her amazing ability to build this world of privilege in such amazing and convincing detail.

There were a few things that made it not quite perfect - it slowed down quite a lot in the middle for me (that's all I will say about this because to say anymore would be alluding to those whispers on the breeze mentioned above) and I would have enjoyed a bit more detail about the other Liars at the beginning. This is quite a quick read and we're thrown into the middle of events early on - as a consequence, it took me a little while to get to grips with some of the characters.

But these are minor gripes. We Were Liars deserves all the attention it's been getting. It is a clever, involving story with plenty of mystery, and I'm all for clever stories, especially when they are told this well.

Friday, 25 July 2014

MG REVIEW: 'Murder Most Unladylike' - Robin Stevens (Corgi, 2014)

Deepdean School for Girls, 1934. When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia's missing tie. Which they don't, really.) But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident - but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there's more than one person at Deepdean with a motive. Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove a murder happened in the first place. Determined to get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again (and before the police can get there first, naturally), Hazel and Daisy must hunt for evidence, spy on their suspects and use all the cunning, scheming and intuition they can muster. But will they succeed? And can their friendship stand the test? (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells and Wong, #1)Although this book is set in 1934, I'm not going to put it in my Past on Paper feature because it just feels all wrong calling it historical fiction. Even though it's historical and a work of fiction.Yes, the voice very much depends on this particular time period but (and there's massive clue in the title here) this is very much in the realms of the mysterious for me. It pays homage to both Agatha Christie and her ilk as well as classic boarding school stories but somehow manages to be something else entirely.

First admission: the crime element wasn't the page-turner I thought it was going to be. Maybe it was the 'school girl investigators' angle because this subsequently put a bit of distance between the main characters and the other players or just that the plot didn't unfold quickly enough for me. Not really sure, but the book made up for it in other ways...

The cover design and synopsis gave the impression of something light-hearted - apart from that whole murder thing - and even though the tone was upbeat, it surprised me with an underlying darkness, not to do with the murder (maybe partly to do with the murder *resists urges to say MURDER in Taggart-like fashion*) but with the relationship between Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells, our two detectives. Hazel is the put-upon 'secretary' of their secret society who records everything in her casebook and describes the frustration and occasional upset the actions of her best friend cause. Daisy is definitely manipulative, possibly slightly sociopathic (can someone be slightly sociopathic?) but never boring. What kept me turning the pages was their 'friendship' - a very realistic depiction of how one personality can dominate another and it gave the book another dimension.

A good voice can make a book and here it never falters. Hazel is a very sympathetic character and the combination of her keen observation and naivety make her a great storyteller - I would have loved to hear more about her life in Hong Kong but hopefully this might be developed further on in the series. And even though this is Hazel's story, I hope Daisy and her background get featured in future adventures, especially after that little taster at the end...

Despite being the tiniest bit disappointed in the actual crime (although I applaud the clever resolution), this was a surprising mystery in more ways than you might think...