Tuesday 29 May 2012

YA REVIEW - 'Code Name Verity', Elizabeth Wein (Egmont UK, 2012)

A young, British spy has been captured and imprisoned in a German occupied chateau, nearing the end of the Second World War. She has accepted her fate but in order to endure her ordeal, she agrees to write down everything she knows for the next two weeks. Every code, every detail of the Allied war effort and every last memory of her friendship with Maddie Brodatt, an ATA Pilot enlisted for RAF 'Special Duties'. And so begins a story of a short, intense friendship where nothing is what it seems.

'"Fraulein Engel, you are not a student of literature', he said. "The English Flight Officer has studied the craft of the novel. She is making use of suspense and foreshadowing."'


Code Name VerityHow on earth do I go about reviewing this book? First off, let me explain to you exactly why writing this is going to be especially difficult - 

1) As any reviewer and blogger knows, when you finish a book that you love, you can only write READ THIS BOOK in so many ways, which doesn't make particularly interesting or informative reading. It becomes impossible to put down exactly HOW MUCH you love this book and no matter what you write, it can never do it justice.

2) How can I go about writing a review when, if you try and mention anything that happens past the first couple of chapters, you will henceforth be known as a PERSON WHO STEALS ENJOYMENT AND RUINS THE  MAGICAL READING OF THE MAGICAL BOOK?

3) There's just so much going on here. So much...where do I begin??? Maybe I'll just go for a little lie down....

No, I must stay strong, MUST WRITE REVIEW.

By the way, this book was made for the CAPS LOCK, if you hadn't already worked that one out. Ok, I'll ease of the caps from now on. Well, try to, at any rate... So, here goes...

First off, lets talk about the writing. The sophisticated style here got me thinking about the nature of YA and that whole big question about what constitutes YA. If you could ever pigeon-hole a 'crossover' book, this would be it. The voice here is impeccable, the plotting so intelligent and intricate, so much more so than plenty of adult fiction that I've read, yet I would never, ever, in a million years, say it would go over the head of any teenager. It is just simply a bloody good story, rammed full of suspense, drama and emotion, written by a master. It's that simple. So forget putting a label on it. Unless that label reads, THIS WILL BLOW YOUR MIND, or a similar sentiment.

Now let's talk about the whole historical fiction thing. If your brain recoils at the words 'historical fiction', I beg of you to still give this one a go. Yes, it is set in Second World War, and yes, the historical events shape the story, but, and I think this of any genre, if the writing is compelling and the story is well told, does it really matter when it is set? The thing I adored about the war setting is that it was never in the background - this was a story about people, first and foremost, but the horrors of warfare are never shied away from, and the very real fear is always at the forefront of the characters minds.

Which brings us onto the characters. Without giving too much away, the voice hear is blindingly good. On the first page, we get a measure of the character, her intelligence, her sense of humour, her turn of phrase. All the supporting characters are fully formed, three dimensional, living, breathing people. Which makes the whole thing oh so more devastating.

"I am in the Special Operations Executive because I can speak French and German and am good at making up stories, and I am a prisoner in the Ormaie Gestapo HQ because I have no sense of direction whatsoever."

I have mentioned the plot a few times. There was one point, nearly halfway through, when I thought I had the whole thing sussed and probably had a really annoying smug expression plastered across my face. Of course, I was about as far off the mark as it was possible to be. In most books, for there to be this many tiny little red herrings, well, it would become very annoying, very quickly. But here, they are so subtle, so skilfully placed, I was left gawping in wonder by the end. That is, gawping in wonder with tears streaming down my face. I just read the last line again before I started writing this, and even thinking about it now, well, I'm getting the snuffles, so I'll finish up.

First and foremost, this is a story about friendship and how it strengthens in times of hardship, how it shapes us and leaves lasting imprints. And that's all I'm going to say about this, for fear of leaking salty tears all over my keyboard.

So, this is a book for those who like mysteries, emotion, historical fiction, suspense, drama, humour, a fleeting touch of romance... I could go on... heck, it's a book for people who love books. And I'm sure you will love it as much as I did.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

YA REVIEW - 'Shooting Stars', Allison Rushby (Walker & Company, 2012)

Meet Josephine Foster, or Zo Jo as she’s called in the biz. The best pint-sized photographer of them all, Jo doesn’t mind doing what it takes to get that perfect shot, until she’s sent on an undercover assignment to shoot Ned Hartnett—teen superstar and the only celebrity who’s ever been kind to her—at an exclusive rehabilitation retreat in Boston. The money will be enough to pay for Jo’s dream: real photography classes, and maybe even quitting her paparazzi gig for good. Everyone wants to know what Ned’s in for. But Jo certainly doesn’t know what she’s in for: falling in love with Ned was never supposed to be part of her assignment. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Now I have this little thing that stops me from completely, one hundred percent, enjoying a heck of a lot of books that I pick up. No matter how lovely, astonishing, heart-breaking or mind-blowing they are, if they have even a slightly dodgy premise, then I just can't let THE FEELINGS completely takeover. This is especially the case with contemporary YA - I have to buy into it to fully invest in it, if you get what my drift.

Shooting StarsSo, when I read the synopsis for Shooting Stars, my sceptical muscle began to flex. Teenage paparazzo? Really? REALLY? I thought, no matter how skillful the plot and the writing, that I was going to have a few problems with this one.

Well, I'm pleased to say that, thanks to a rather wonderful main character, I got over that particular hurdle pretty quickly. In fact their wasn't really a hurdle to get over. So I was running with it all the way. (sorry). I really loved little Zo Jo. As well as wrongly assuming she was not going to cut the mustard in terms of a convincing character, I also assumed she would be intensely annoying. I guess I should stop making assumptions (it makes an ass out of...ok, I'll stop now). She had a lovely wisecracking, cynical edge, balanced with a sweet nature and she really worked. I am now very sure the streets of LA are teeming with tiny little wheeling and dealing paparazzi, god love 'em.

Her voice was brilliant. It reminded me of an old fashioned gumshoe detective trying to crack a case wide open - 

There wasn't a code of conduct and some people liked to play rough. Especially the full-timers; they hated the part-timers who liked to pap outside of their day jobs, even if their day job was school. I was new, I was female and I was a kid. Let's just say no one was splitting their lunch-box Twinkie with me.

There was a nice little dollop of romance too. My only complaint would be that I would have preferred a little more in terms of sizzle - there wasn't quite enough kissing for my liking, but the lip-locking that did take place was more than satisfactory.

 A couple of surprises here - the first I won't mention, because, well, it's a surprise and shall remain so. The second surprise won't get me shot for spoiler-spilling (I hope) - the story takes an unexpected serious turn and starts to explore some deeper issues that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a book with such a light-hearted tone. I welcome angst with open arms on most occasions, and this  didn't change here. I just felt that once Jo's big reveal had been revealed, everything was a bit rushed after. I would have maybe liked to see more time at the retreat and just a little more more exploration of Jo's issues. Although, saying that, the ending does provide the reader and the character with a satisfactory sort of closure.

I just have to mention, how brilliantly the way her relationship with her father was written. A strong example of hands-off parenting, if ever there was one, but there was still a very strong impression of a loving relationship and mutual respect. Writing from my own perspective, this is a very convincing father-child dynamic and was very well done.

I really enjoyed Shooting Stars - a light-hearted, romantic read with surprising hidden depths. And a magnificent main character. And I now know I have a real problem spelling paparazzo (that just took me three attempts).

I was sent this copy for review by the author

Thursday 17 May 2012

YA REVIEW - 'Preloved', Shirley Marr (Black Dog Books, 2012)

Amy has enough to deal with for one lifetime. A superstitious Chinese mother. A best friend whose mood changes as dramatically as her hair colour. A reputation for being strange. The last thing she needs is to be haunted by someone only she can see. Logan is a ghost from the Eighties. He could be dangerous. He's certainly annoying. He might also be Amy's dream boy. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't usually bother with the paranormal YA reads most of the time as I'm more of a lover of the contemporary YA stuff and I have more than enough of that at the moment to keep me busy for the next, oh, several decades, I reckon. BUT, when I read a few lovely bits about this one over at Wear The Old Cost, Vegan YA Nerds and The Readventurer, my interest was well and truly caught in it's ghostly looking literary net.

PrelovedA contemporary/paranormal/possibly slightly historical (?) YA. And an Aussie one to boot. Exciting times, indeed.

I say, 'historical', because there is a very strong 1980s theme (and this was 25 years ago, or thereabouts) (ok, that thought just made me feel ANCIENT, so lets just pretend the 1980s was only like 10 years ago, yeah?) - Amy's dead companion, Logan is from the Eighties. All the teenagers here, particularly Amy, seem to be obsessed with that decade. Amy's mum runs a vintage store which stocks many an Eighties garm. Cheesy slang is spouted on nearly every page. So if you're not that fussed about the Eighties, well, you might get a bit miffed after a few chapters.

This theme is a bit of a blessing and a curse for the book. Yes, if offers a strong hook for much of the action and the retro factor taps in to all the current love for electro and batwing jumpers. I was a little kid back then, a huge Kylie and Jason fan, and I saw The Princess Bride when it was in the cinema the first time around, so this brought a hint of nostalgia for me, personally. But, are teenagers today really THAT much into 1980s culture, to the extent that they have an 80s themed day and prom within the space of a week? That boys would have knowledge on the Jason Donovan mullet-styling circa 1988? I really don't know. Maybe they are. I'm genuinely interested, so someone this age, please tell me whether you know all the words off by heart to Too Many Broken Hearts. I could buy the fact that Amy loved the decade, but all of them? Mmmm.

Let's say something positive now - I adored Amy. She was a brilliant main character - self-depricating without being annoying, she had very realistic thoughts and fears that I think will ring true for many an 16 year old girl. Always feeling consigned to the best friend shadow role, with lots of angry, bad burny feelings, but not really sure quite what to do about them, using humour as a defence mechanism. All brilliant. And this was made all the better for the exchanges with her mum. A lovely balance of humour, sarcasm and genuine affection. My favourite Mum line - 

"Oooh, old age." Mum grimaced. "No way can I do a go-go dancer squat these days."

May be it was the fact these two were so well developed that the rest of the characters felt half-baked and confusing. Logan, for example. He spouts some cringy retro sayings and annoys her a bit, and all of a sudden she's in love with him and I wasn't quite sure how that happened. And therefore not particularly convinced by it. Also, Rebecca? What, just... what? That's it. Was she a bitch and were we supposed to forgive her? Was she popular or not? Would EVERY boy really fancy her if she was such a cow? Or was  she a cow? I'm really not sure. Just such a bloody confusing character that did not ring true in the slightest.

I really liked the plot twist in the end - very intriguing (if a bit rushed) and I was really happy that Amy and her mum's beliefs were not mocked - their attempts to overcome Amy's haunting were very moving. But for a book that contains ghosts and vintage shops, it was oddly lacking it atmosphere. I would imagine that sort of setting would be ripe for some descriptive, atmospheric writing, but a lot of it felt very flat.

So, mixed feelings about this one. Great mother and daughter relationship. Brilliant main character, but lacking a certain something. BUT, it does have a reference to Mr. Matey bubble bath, so I can forgive some of it's shortcomings.

Also, I have to say, a lot of this book reminded of something in particular from my childhood with very similar elements - 

GHOSTS. JOKES. AUSTRALIAN. 1980s. Yes, it can only mean one thing (I'm sorry if you can't get this out of your head for several weeks after).....

Oh, and I love a great YA book cover. And this one has to be one of my favourites. It is so lovely I just want to eat it right up.

This book was sent to me for review by Viewpoint Magazine.

Thursday 10 May 2012


Well, we're at the departure lounge, we've visited the duty free and the flight's now boarding. Time to put all the holiday pics on Facebook (ditching the more unflattering ones, of course), check out the tan line and hope our lift is their at the other end to pick us up from the airport...

So, lessons I have learned after completing my first theme month -

1) Don't schedule a theme month during school holidays if you have kids. School holidays = no working during the day = all work to be done in evening = less time for blog posts.

2) Umm, well that's about it, really...

Actually, I have really enjoyed this month, but as organisation is not my strong point, there is obviously stuff I was forced to leave out. (That makes it sound like I have draft posts just sitting on Blogger, destined never to see the light of day. What you and I really know is that I never actually got around to writing the bloody things in the first place).

I really loved writing my 'Let's Go...' posts and wished I could have done more. So many of my favourite destinations still left to be explored in the literary sense...Rome, Cambodia (not sure exactly how many Cambodian-set novels there are, but...) and last, but definitely not least, good old London Town.

I know it's a bit of a cop-out wanting to write about my home town, but this city is a dream destination for many a traveller and there is no shortage of London-masterpieces to peruse and weep over.

I now a section I've decided to call...

Books I Wanted to Read for Travelling Tales Month But Didn't Quite Get Around To It. But Will Do In The Future. At Some Point.

WanderloveWanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard

I was desperate to find a South/Central America set YA book, but stumbled across this one a little too late. Which is such a shame, because when I read the synopsis, I fell a little bit in love with it.

On the RoadOn The Road by Jack Kerouac

Quite a topical one, with the film adaption coming out soon. And how could I not have read one of the most essential travel reads, um, ever? I'm sorry, I don't know the answer to that question. *hangs head in shame*

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to CapetownDark Star Safari:: Overland Form Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux

I've never read any Paul Theroux *ashamed face* *again* and I also had a bit Africa shaped-hole in my theme month. This book should have filled that hole. It looks FASCINATING.

The journey is the destination : the journals of Dan EldonThe Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon

This is a collection of the journals of murdered photo-journalist, Dan Eldon. One of my friends owns a copy that I first read years ago at university and it has been burnt on my memory ever since. I have always meant to buy a hardback edition but never quite got around to it. This month seemed like the perfect opportunity, but, alas, funds did not permit :(
BUT I will definitely be buying and reviewing it in the near future. A beautiful, inspiring book.


Oooo, toughie.
Umm, aahh, weeelllll...RIGHT. DECISION MADE.

My travel pick of the month is.....*drum roll*

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd.

I don't think I can say anymore about how much I loved this, so you'll just have to read my review.

Well, that's Travelling Tales Month over for this year. Let's not mention about how this 'month' has gone over just a little bit. So, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. As much fun as it's been reading about travel, it's so just as much more fun doing the actual travelling. I hope I get the opportunity to do it again soon.

Monday 7 May 2012

TRAVEL MONTH REVIEW - 'Solace of the Road', Siobhan Dowd (David Fickling Books, 2010)

Memories of mum are the only thing that make Holly Hogan happy. She hates her foster family with their too-nice ways and their false sympathy. And she hates her life, her stupid school, and the way everyone is always on at her. Then she finds the wig, and everything changes. Wearing the long, flowing blond locks she feels transformed. She’s not Holly anymore, she’s Solace: the girl with the slinkster walk and the supersharp talk. She’s older, more confident—the kind of girl who can walk right out of her humdrum life, hitch to Ireland, and find her mum. The kind of girl who can face the world head-on. 

So begins a bittersweet and sometimes hilarious journey as Solace swaggers and Holly tiptoes across England and through memory, discovering her true self and unlocking the secrets of her past. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Now, when I was researching possible books for my travel month (I say month, but I realise this month is over-running somewhat. Let's pretend no one else has noticed), I soon cottoned onto the fact that finding a comprehensive list of YA travel fiction was going to be a pretty tough task. But I do not give up easily, oh no. I managed to track down a list of road trip-themed YA on Goodreads (close enough), but was slightly disappointed to find most of these were set in the good old US of A. Not that I have a problem with US road trips. I adore them. I want to do one, one day...*stares off into distance* BUT, I have already covered that particular mini-genre this month with my review of Amy and Roger's Epic Detour. And jolly lovely it was too. Just before I was about to through in the towel, I stumbled across this title a bit further down the chart of road-trips.

Solace Of The RoadEver since I finished A Monster Calls, I have been very intrigued by Siobhan Dowd's books. They seem to encompass everything I love about contemporary YA - sad but beautiful, as the lovely Jo from Wear The Old Coat would say. Somehow, this one had managed to slip under my radar - a ROAD TRIP but set in my homeland! Perfect. Because we all know travel just doesn't mean frolicking to far flung corners. And their are plenty of folk reading this book who would consider a road (and boat) trip from London to Ireland a far-flung travel.

So where do I start with this. SO MANY, MANY FEELINGS

I won't go into details of Holly's painful childhood, but please don't let the trauma put you off reading this. Yes, there are bleak moments, but this is no way an 'issue based' YA book. I have nothing against YA that tackles the rough stuff. I'm sure many a teenager finds comfort and, well, solace from this type of YA fiction. But sometimes, the characters come second to the issues being tackled. 

What I loved so much about this was the fact the Holly Hogan is first and foremost a human being, a teenager, a personality rather than a problem to be laid bare.

The reader is given an access-all-areas pass into her thoughts and feelings. We are told nothing, but shown everything. 

Her words are rattling together like the ice-cubes in her see through drinks.

Her journey starts when she discovers a wig tucked at the bottom of a chest of drawers belonging to her foster mother. It triggers a reaction and an impulse to journey to Ireland in search of her estranged mother. Her voice is convincing and powerful throughout. Never once did I NOT believe this was a young teenage girl flitting from emotion to emotion. 

The supporting characters are equally well-written. We are given the measure of all of them in just a few lines - foster mother Fiona - 'She was the kind of person who dresses poorer than she is...'. See - bloody genius writing. All of it. My particular favourite was the country music-loving, vegan trucker Phil. Or as Holly says, 'God on the road'.

Why is it so much easier to write about the flaws that I find in a book rather than all the beautiful bits? That is why writing this review has been so difficult - because this book is perfect.

I was Solace the Unstoppable, the smooth-walking, sharp-talking glamour girl, and I was walking into a red sky, ready to hitch a ride. I was crossing the sea and landing in Ireland. The I was walking up a hill to meet my mam, breathing in the morning air by the pint. This is how I thought myself into the sweet, soft day on the other side of the sea where the grass is green. That night and every other night for weeks to come, I traced the road.

After reading that, I don't think I really need to tell you how astonishing the writing is. It makes it all the more sad when I remember that the author is no longer here to write more sad but beautiful words. 


It feels a bit flippant to write about bog-standard travel tips in the context of this book. Holly's journey is very much a metaphorical one, so much more so than any other travel fiction I've read in the last few weeks. So, in a break from the norm, I'm going to let Holly describe her own thoughts about MY turf, my little corner of west London - 

Shepherds Bush, I knew from my travels with Grace and Trim, was on the tube. It wouldn't be green and lush with sheep and shepherds, it would be roads and fumes. In my head, I was already standing at the start of the motorway and sticking out my thumb.

Roads and fumes, yes. But so much more. Remember, it's also the end of a motorway as well as the beginning of one. So I will end my last travel month review by saying that one of the best things about travelling is coming back home again.

Saturday 5 May 2012

TRAVEL MONTH REVIEW - 'The Beach', Alex Garland (Penguin 1997)

Richard, a seasoned traveller, is passed on details of a secret idyllic island community on his first night in Bangkok. This starts a quest for an apparent utopia tha has far reaching effects on his perceptions, friendships and psyche.

So I couldn't really do a travel month without reviewing the most famous title in travel ficiton in the last 15 years now, could I? Well, I could, but it would have been a travel month with a great big gaping Beach-shaped hole in it. I first read this book in about 1998 when I started university. I was THE book to read at the time. Everyone had either been on a gap year on was planning a jaunt to South-East Asia and if you hadn't read this then you would have a copy shoved under your nose at every opportunity. Since then it appears to have become a bit of a modern classic, with the author going on to script UK and Hollywood blockbusters.

Escape through travel works. Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up, problems switched off. Broke armrest took precedence over broken hearts. By the time the plane was airborne I'd forgotten England even existed.

The BeachMy own memories of this are a little more vague and mixed, much of which has to do with a memory tainted by the truely dire film adaptation a few years after it's release. How can the director responsible for Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire produce such an awful adaptation? To be fair it's been a few years since I saw the whole thing, but it was on the telly a few months back and I got so annoyed with it that I switched off halfway through.

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about the film (but I will. A bit. You'll see why soon). Back to the book. I have to admit I wasn't particularly relishing the thought of reading this one again. My first impression when I found a copy on the library shelf - I DON'T REMEMBER IT BEING THAT LONG. That's never a good start to any book-reader relationship. I was expecting it, rather unfairly, to be rambling and slow-paced. Not sure why. On the plus side, I had genuinely forgotton the specifics of the ending. Which is a great thing when embarking on a re-read. This is why I am able to re-read Agatha Christie's on a constant loop and still being genuinely surprised when the perpetrator is revealed is the drawing room at the end. She did write A LOT of books, mind...
The Beach

So, The Beach. Well  I am happy to say that it was a brilliant, gripping read. In a book where most of the action takes place on an island where not an awful lot of obvious goings-on are, well going on, the pace is taut and the story fascinating.

The Beach  (Popular Penguins)The masterstroke is Richard. Our narrator is, the put it bluntly, a complete arsehole. But the skill is the fact that he is engaging arsehole and you want to hear more from him all the time. He thinks things that we all suspect we may feel ourselves, deep down, but would never admit to.Wouldn't want to be stuck on a desert island with him, mind. He slow descent into a rather dubious psychological mindset is subtle and believable. And shockingly done. The dropping in of a blunt statement here and there reminds us that this man is teetering on the edge.

...But I was also buzzing. It looked like the problem with our uninvited guests was about to be solved, and if that wasn't enough, I was also going to find out what happened when the dope guards caught someone. Better than that I was actually going to see it.

I think the reason that I loathed the film so much is that they tried to make the audience like Richard, and if not like, then sympathise with him, which completely misses the point of the whole thing, in my opinion. I mean, the Leonardo version gets the girl, for Christ's sake. Richard would NEVER get the girl.

All the the supporting characters are surprisingly developed, given there's quite a few of them. My only niggle was the female characters. Self-appointed leader Sal - the one character with such unconvincing dialogue - she's like a bad caricature of a cult leader - surely if someone's talks like this, you would be automatically suspicious of their motives? Also, Francoise, nothing against her, per se, it's just the key female characters here are all portrayed as arch-manipulators, which is a touch irritating and seems like the author seems to be ramming home a point. I love a well-written bad girl, but it's also good to have a bit of balance, I reckon.

Also, the ending. THAT ENDING. I don't think it will be particularly spoilery to say that they don't all exchange hugs and farewell presents, then disappear of to their respective homelands, with a future of exchanging witty emails and the like. The tension leading up to it was GLORIOUS. I really, honestly, could not remember the specifics of it and well, when it came I was like, really, REALLY?

No, but REALLY?????

It doesn't pull any punches, but felt like a massive cop out. I can't say anymore, sorry. Just read it and let me know what you reckon. Or let me know if you've had a ganders recently.

This book brings up so many questions that make my brain hurt. This is a good thing and I think everyone should read something like this every now and again. But avoid the film. Or you might end up writing off the book for like, 14 years or so and only reading it again when you feel like you have to for your travel month. And, well ,the rest is history.


BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I could go on. Um, don't listen to mad-as-fuck Scottish nutters who pass you strange maps in dodgy Bangkok hostels before they top themselves? Don't share your island 'paradise' with a bunch of militant drug lords? Um, don't be naive enough to think you can claim paradise as your own because paradise bites back in a big way? And maybe phone home once in a while to stop yourself going crazy. Oh, and there's really nothing wrong with following the usual backpacker trail, It's actually quite fun. That's why lots of people have done it. Duh...