Wednesday 25 September 2013

YA REVIEW - 'Pantomime', Laura Lam (Strange Chemistry, 2013)

R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide. Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Pantomime (Pantomime, #1)Oh my, oh my. I remember reading a lot of glowing reviews about this one when it was first released so I feel rather stupid for only getting around to picking it up now. I've recently been in one of those mini-reading slumps. My current book was dragging me down. You know when you're ploughing your way through but really not enjoying it and every time you pretend you haven't seen it lying around, waiting to be finished, the guilt eats away at you as you reach over for the remote control and watch some mind numbing sitcom repeat that you could recite in your sleep because you've seen it so many times before?

Yeah that. This state of affairs scares me. It makes me think that I'm going off books. It makes reading feel like a chore. It is a bad business.

Which is why I chose to jump ship and start something completely different. And this one could definitely be filed under different. Or unique. Or unlike anything I've read before.You get the idea.

It's pretty special.

I'm the first to admit that I struggle with fantasy sometimes. I think it's a time thing - with books that paint a particularly strong picture, I need to be completely absorbed  fairly early on so they give me absolutely no choice - I HAVE to ignore everything else -  until I've turned the last page. Otherwise it's just not happening. I have distractions (kids etc), that will pull me off the sofa and then my relationship with that book will never be the same again and we'll probably revert to the state of affairs detailed above.

Hello book slump.

But you might have already guessed that this didn't happen with Pantomime. As well as reading those great reviews a few months back, I was also reminded about this title when I went to a seminar on LGBT characters and themes in YA. I'm afraid on this particular subject, that's all I'm going to say in relation to this book for fear of the spoiler demon striking me down with a bolt of lightening, but I can tell you that it not only manages to portray this issue in a non 'issuey' way but also does something completely unique with it.

I can't really say much else about the story - the synopsis above does a much better job of it than my garbled attempt would - but as with any book that I adore, it's the writing and the characters that are pretty much perfect here. The stories and journeys of Micah and Gene are moving, intriguing, passionate, teaming with sexual tension and heartbreaking in the best and worst possible ways. The world of the circus and Ellada is rich with gorgeous imagery, detail and intriguing supporting characters and it's one I can't wait to get back to when the sequel comes out next year.

So put aside your life for a bit and get taken over.

Monday 23 September 2013


This is the first mini review-type round up that I've done. I've avoided them up until now because I'd rather just write a full review to do a book justice. However, over the summer, my reading habits became so erratic and disorganised that I'm left with no choice - if I don't write down something about these books now, then there will be no words written down about them at all, and that would be a shame. I don't post about every book I read, but I I do try to review the ones that I think I have an opinion on, good or bad, and these definitely come under that category. You might start seeing a few more of these posts from me in the future...

We Can Be Heroes - Catherine Bruton (Egmont UK, 2011)

We Can Be HeroesI had a lot to say about this one, but it's been a while since I finished it and as time goes by, it becomes a bit more difficult to articulate all those feelings in blog form. But in short, I loved it. It's so refreshing when a book manages to explore 'issues' without making it obvious that it's exploring the 'issues' - when the story and the characters take precedence over the 'issues' but never belittling their importance in the process. This deals with the after-effects of 9/11 in a bittersweet way - an interesting take on grief and present-day attitudes to race and religion with a authentic and utterly convincing voice. My only criticism is that it was a bit too long, but other than that, highly recommended for slightly younger readers.

The 5th Estate - Rick Yancey (Penguin, 2013)

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)This is the problem with reading books that get a lot of great reviews - am I just setting myself up for disappointment? It's not that I didn't enjoy this one - it was an engrossing read, but I was expecting so much more. I don't read a lot of sci-fi, so in some ways, I don't think I'm the right person to judge, but some of the dialogue here was woeful. Think Starship Troopers, but with extra cheese. I liked the main character, Cassie and her story. That was, until a romantic element was introduced and just undermined the whole thing. He smelt of woodsmoke and chocolate. That says it all really. But my main problem was with the whole premise - as far as I could see, there was a far easier way to solve the whole 5th Wave thing than with the actual 5th Wave. I might continue with this series, I might not.

Hollow Pike - James Dawson (Indigo, 2012)

Hollow PikeReally enjoyed this one. In theory, I love mysteries. I grew up reading them. But for some reason, I've always been a bit weary about YA mysteries or ghost stories. Perhaps because there's nothing worse than a disappointing ending. But this one was more than satisfactory. Much more, in fact. Great characters, although I would have loved a bit more of Kitty, Delilah and Jack and I didn't have a clue what was going to happen next. Had a real Scream feel to proceedings, which in no bad thing in my opinion.

Monday 9 September 2013

YA REVIEW - 'Tomorrow, When The War Began', John Marsden (Quercus, 2011) (first published 1993)

When Ellie and her friends return from a camping trip in the Australian bush, they find things hideously wrong — their families are gone. Gradually they begin to comprehend that their country has been invaded and everyone in their town has been taken prisoner. As the reality of the situation hits them, they must make a decision — run and hide, give themselves up and be with their families, or fight back. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Tomorrow When the War Began (Tomorrow, #1)
I can't believe I'm saying this but I'd completely forgotten about John Marsden. Ridiculous, I know. The first book I'd read of his was when I was living in Brisbane, near a local library stocked to the hilt with titles from this Australian YA genius, so I had my pick of all the beautiful words. His contemporary stuff (ok, it's not strictly speaking up-to-the-minute contemporary) rocked me to my very core, making it even more astonishing that he'd fallen off my radar over the last 18 months. So when I saw the Kindle edition of probably his most famous book (is this his most famous book? Any Aussies out there, please feel free to correct me) on offer, all the feels came flooding back. I was surely in for a guaranteed gripping read, wasn't I? Well...

I was a bit disappointed with this one to be honest. It pains me to admit it, but there were times when it became a bit of an effort. How is this possible from such a brilliant wordsmith? And a brilliant wordsmith doing dystopian? Sure, there was plenty of the fantastic trademark prose peppered across the chapters, but I felt so let down by how this story panned out. Choosing to write in a diary format didn't really help with the development of the plot and the characters. We do get to know Ellie really well, and I loved Ellie - so self-assured and confident and comfortable in her own skin - but with such a large cast, most of the others blended into the back ground, especially the girls. We're given scant outlines of their personalities, but shown very little evidence of them in action, especially the best friend Corrie. The boys were slightly better developed, but I never felt a connection or empathy with any of them. Kind of a weakness in a story which uses a strong group dynamic as its base.

Another disadvantage of using Ellie's diary to convey the action was that I was left with no sense of tension or danger. For example, at one point Ellie is writing down how Robyn recounted her escape from the soldiers. A fairly dramatic incident you might imagine - and yet their in no drama whatsoever, because we know Robyn is safe because she is there telling the story! And sometimes, the whole thing felt a bit like I was reading a Bear Grylls-style survival handbook - pages and pages of detailed dialogue describing what they were planning to do, their contingency plans if something went awry, what they did, what they shouldn't do, what they might do but probably don't have time to do.....etc etc. Not exactly snappy.

And then the romance - I just didn't get it. It came out of nowhere and what might have been a fairly promising love triangle (and I'm not usually a fan of love triangles) was dispensed with rather quickly, which left me wondering why he even bothered with it in the first place.

But my main problem was that I just didn't buy it. Any of it. Would they really be so clueless about an impending war? Why would there parents be happy for them to disappear off camping if such a war was looming? And then once the war started, they still didn't have a clue who the invaders were? Really? Perhaps all these questions are answered in the other books in the series. I'm still not a hundred percent sure whether I'll be picking them up to find out.

Friday 6 September 2013

Obligatory Bloglovin Post

Two posts in one day is unheard of, I know, but I just thought I'd let you know that you can now follow me on Bloglovin...

<a href="">Follow my blog with Bloglovin</a>

And now, for your trouble, here's a picture...

Past on Paper: 1910s YA REVIEW - 'A Gathering Light', Jennifer Donnelly (Bloomsbury, 2003)

Torn between a loyalty to her grief-stricken, struggling family, her first experience of romance and a burning desire to be a writer, a sad event forces Mattie to piece together a local mystery whilst making an important decision about her future.

I've been thinking a little too much about how I approach this feature - am I going to focus more on their historical context or just how good the story is? Unless I have easy access to a time machine, I'm not really in a position to judge their historical accuracy. Is this even important when reviewing book? Surely whether or not it's a gripping read should matter the most. You might have already gathered that I'm still a bit undecided about all of this. Maybe I should just get on and review the book...

Well, I'm a bit late to the party on this one. Ten years late to be accurate. Jo told me to read it ages ago, but I'd been putting it of for some reason. This is always the way when I'm faced with an 'acclaimed' book - am I just setting myself up for inevitable disappointed? If I don't enjoy it as much as I feel I'm supposed to, does this mean I'm not getting it I'm being a bit thick? Or maybe I was just putting this one off because it has a bit of a boring cover. Probably a mixture of all of the above. God, I really need to stop asking all these questions and just get on with it.

I was definitely mulling over this a little too much, because it turns out there was no reason to worry whatsoever...

A Gathering LightSo here we are in the 1910s, in the US, in a place and period I know nothing about. The fact that whether I did or not is completely irrelevant is testament to just how fantastic this book is. With a historical novel, I think it can maybe go in one of two directions - building a story around a famous incident and having that dramatically impact on the characters and plot, or having the story just 'sitting' on its setting, absorbing attitudes and conventions of the time, but never being completely dictated by them. This book definitely falls into the latter camp - when we were introduced to Mattie and her surroundings, I was initially a bit wary that this was going to be overshadowed by ISSUES - attitudes towards women and race, for example - but it manages to explore these (which it should) without the brilliant central story getting lost at all. This is about Mattie and how she comes to make an important decision whilst being pulled in many different directions - a familiar YA set up and skillfully told with the perfect balance of plot, place, and prose. I was initially more intrigued by the real-life murder mystery element, but that's not what this book is about at all, rather it's used as a device to push Matt's story along and very beautifully it does it too.

I remained on the ladder, looking at the figurine in my hand. You're wrong, Aunt Josie, I thought. It's not pride I'm feeling. It's another sin. Worse than all the other ones, which are immediate, violent, and hot. This one sits inside you quietly and eats you from the inside out like the trichina worms the pigs get. It's the Eight Deadly Sin. The one God left out. Hope.

The time shift method to a little while to get used to, but once all the pieces fall into place, this is an unusual, mind-blowing bit of story-telling. I highly recommend it whether you're after some cracking historical fiction or not.

Monday 2 September 2013

Farewell Skins...My Thoughts on the Final Series

I haven't written this yet (obviously) but I'm going to go ahead and say that this will probably contain many, many spoilers so if you haven't seen any of Skins series 7 yet, I would go and watch it first. Or not, it's up to you. If you like spoilers, then reading this post might help you make up you mind whether you want to watch it or not. Anyway, the choice is yours...

Many moons ago (about 18 months or so), I wrote a post just before series 6 was screened about how much I love Skins and how it's once of the few things that makes me go a bit fangirly. My original point still applies. I'm definitely not it's target audience, but I do enjoy and appreciate good writing for and about teenagers, and Skins has always come under this general YA-ish umbrella. In fact, it was this TV show and not a book that first got me back into reading and wanting to write YA, so I hold it in great affection. When I first heard the details of this final series, I was intrigued. Perhaps a bit excited. Ok, very excited. I mean, Cook was back. COOK. My favourite of all the characters. And Cassie...oh, like,WOW...

One of the great things about Skins is that it always tries new things, and part of it's charm is that it doesn't always pull it off, but when it does, it's pretty much guaranteed I'll being watching it on repeat for years and years to come. So is the magic back? Well....

Cassie (Hannah Murray), Effy (Kaya Scoderlario) & Cook (Jack O'Connell) in 'Skins'

I saw plenty of stuff on twitter about how much people hated these episodes because they weren't 'Skins' and I guess by that they meant they weren't about going out on the lash, having inappropriate sex and odd but brilliant song numbers. Ok, all this was a large part of Skins, but this only worked because the great writing. So these were just as watchable because of the same reasons, yes? Erm perhaps not.

I'm all for depressing drama. I love a good Channel 4 grim-fest as much as the next person and these were certainly bleak in places. But a lot of the time I was just left wondering why they'd bothered. Skins was great at cliffhangers, but why bring these characters back if you're not going answer any questions? Just leave it at the excellent cliffhangers and be done with it. Effy's story in particular annoyed me. She was such a key part of the programme with some particularly dramatic story lines but to have no mention of them whatsoever just felt like they were cutting off their nose to spite there face. Ok, so people move on with their lives and change etc etc, but put into that character's context that doesn't necessarily mean it will make a more interesting story. And since when has Skins ever been about realism? (Hello Series 4). The weird inclusion of Naomi and Emily was just that. Weird. Ok, there's no reason why Effy and Naomi wouldn't become good friends after a certain period of time, but there's no reason why they would either. These characters had very little back story together and the cynical bit of my brain was left with the impression they they were only included to satisfy the legion of fans who would have rioted if they weren't. And let's not even get started on the story. Stock markets? Stock markets are boring. My opinion of them hasn't changed after watching these episodes.

And again with Cassie's story, it was all very pretty and they'd done a convincing job of evolving this character but it was just all a bit... why should I be interested in this story? She is doing nothing interesting. This does not interest me.

Cook's episodes were a better, mainly because something actually happened, but again, it just didn't pull me in like it used to. Saying that, there was one genuinely shocking, quite heart-breaking moment here that nearly made up for having to suffer the now-traditional inclusion of a Rubbish Skins Gangster with Hard to Pin Down Accent (see also series 3 and 6). Seriously, the Andrex puppy would have been scarier. It didn't help that I'd watched the excellent Southcliffe (also featuring a few Skins faces) just before seeing the last ever episode and this was an absolute masterclass in ramping up the tension. Even the most-nail biting of dramas would have looked laid back in comparison.

So am I glad they bought back Skins in this particular way? I would say on the whole, no. Although, one of the great things about Skins is it's willingness to try something different, and for that it should be applauded. Perhaps going over old ground would have been a mistake too. Or perhaps my expectations were too high. If I was watching these as standalone dramas, maybe I would have been more blown away.

For all it's faults, I'm going to miss Skins, but part of me is glad it's ended. So whatever future programmes are going to fill its rather sizeable boots, lets hope they're just as brave, memorable and fantastic as Skins was in it's heyday.

All together now...