21 January 2011

4. Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life: Volume 1 by Brian Lee O'Malley

A fun, quirky graphic novel. Of course the film came out in 2010 and as by its nature, a graphic novel is visual, it invites even more comparison with a film version than a novel. I did enjoy the film though, and was surprised when I read the graphic novel just how closely Edgar Wright stuck to the graphic novel in terms of the script and the visuals. This is the first of six graphic novels which cover how Scott Pilgrim defeats his girlfriend, Ramona Flowers', seven evil exes.

The plot is fairly well known as the film was very high profile and was all over various magazines and websites even if you didn't see the film itself. Scott Pilgrim is 23 and 'between jobs'. He's a self-indulgent, lazy hipster geek (he has the X-Man logo sewed onto his coat sleeve) but manages not to be massively irritating, which is an achievement for O'Malley in itself. His roommate, Wallace often expressed what we're thinking as the audience about how silly he's being about his crush on Ramona so the novel is pretty self-aware. The characters are both familiar and stylised and the action varies from the mundane to people rollerblading through peoples subspace highways.

The humour is quite quirky although not irritatingly so. It's quite an achievement for a graphic novel to be funny in a relatively subtle way as there is so little language so they often fall on the side of obvious visual humour. I think I actually appreciated some touches more because I had seen the film and I may have skimmed over them and not noticed them if I was reading it blind. It's rare that you can say that a film actually increased your enjoyment of a book but I think that may be the case here, for me anyway. Normally films are annoying because you can't help but picture the actors as the characters but in this case the actors look so much like their cartoon counterparts, it doesn't really cause a problem.

I thorough enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to reading the other volumes. It's a quirky, funny and entertaining graphic novel which manages the great feat of being enhanced by it's movie adaption.

3. Tall Story by Candy Gourlay

Another of the Waterstones Book Prize shortlist, Tall Story is a pleasant read with a vaguely exciting ending. Whilst it is a well written young adult novel, it's not one that manages to cross the line into being particularly enjoyable for adults.

The story is about a teenager named Andi who gains a half-brother from the Philippines, Bernardo, who is eight foot tall. The book alternates between Andi and Bernardo's perspectives which lends a nice tone to the novel meaning that it should be enjoyed by boys and girls. Bernardo relates what life was like in his village of San Andreas and his experiences with the village witch and her daughter. The villagers believe that he is the reincarnation of the giant Bernardo Carpio who saved the village from the severe earthquakes hundreds of years ago.

Andi is basketball obsessed and never misses a shot, despite being short. Her new school doesn't have a girls basketball team but when they meet Bernardo they want him on the team immediately even though he can't play.

The book covers Bernardo's life in the Philippines and his move to London and how he comes to fit in in his new life. You can't fault the underlying message of tolerance, acceptance and going after your dreams. The main characters of Andi and Bernardo are also very sympathetic and likeable - Bernardo is loyal, polite and selfless and Andi is confident in her own abilities and caring; all admirable qualities for teenagers to emulate.

It is interesting in its consideration of witchcraft and wish fulfillment - there is the idea that wishes do come true and as the book is not a supernatural book really, i.e. it's set in the real world, I worry about young people reading it and believing that everything will always turn out right in the end. In this book, villages can be saved by giants, illnesses can be cured and girls can play on boys basketball teams with the help of a bit of superstition and a wishing stone.

It is also an interesting look at life in the Philippines, but I'm afraid I am wildly unqualified to comment on how realistic it is.

All in all, I think pleasant probably is the best word for the book. Gourlay struggles to whack up the tension at the climax of the book - it could have done with a bit more suspense. It's well-written with realistic characters (largely) should be enjoyed by younger teenagers. However, compared to When You Reach Me, the other Waterstones shortlisted book I've read so far, it doesn't really measure up to the same standards. The book has been nominated for several awards and has rave reviews on Amazon and I must admit, I feel like I'm missing something.

14 January 2011

2. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Whilst my journey through Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety is ongoing, I have read this book. It has just been announced on the Waterstones Childrens Book Prize shortlist. (This may be a theme in my reading over the next week or so as I need to read them for work!) It won the Newbery Medal and the New York Times Notable Book award last year but I hadn't heard of the book or of the author.

To being with: I read it in one day which says a lot. Whilst it is not a long book, or a challenging read, it is gripping and wonderfully written. The twelve year old protagonist, Miranda, lives with her Mum in New York and one day starts receiving notes which reveal things that no-one should know. Miranda explains at the start of the book that she is writing a letter which the notes have asked her to write and that is all we know to begin with. Miranda describes her family, her friends, her school and the strange homeless man that lives on the corner near their apartment in an appealing, sympathetic voice and in very short chapters. Her Mum is preparing for an appearance on a TV gameshow, her friend Sal gets punched in the stomach by an older boy, she makes friends with an epileptic girl, she gets a job in her school lunch hour and other seemingly unrelated elements of a 12 year old girls life.

The difficulty in writing a good book review is trying to express what you liked or disliked about a novel without revealing too much about the plot. Blurbs on the back of books often fail because they either give away too much or don't really talk about the actual plot of the book in an effort not to spoil it. I am wary of giving away too much but the ending and the twist send literal shivers down my arm. Clever, unexpected, internally consistent (i.e. you could go back and read the novel again and it would make sense - I hate it when you reread a book and knowing the ending the book doesn't gel properly) and basically just beautifully conceived - the best kind of twist.

My only criticism is that the book is set in 1979 and there seems to be no real reason for this. I kept picturing it in the modern day and then getting confused when it referenced the year (which it does only infrequently). The setting doesn't really seem to factor into anything that happens except perhaps a small incident where a classmate is not allowed in a shop because she is black - but this incident equally does not really factor into the plot and doesn't really add anything to the story in my eyes. It doesn't detract from the novel though, rather just seems an unnecessary element.

It's a great novel and a massively successful young adult novel which is it's target audience, after all. I am looking forward to recommending it to students at school. Clever but not too complicated, easy to read but not patronising - it's pitched perfectly for it's audience.

When You Reach Me is a magical, engrossing book that will be enjoyed by young adults and older adults alike - engaging characters, a bit of mystery and a clever and satisfying ending.

12 January 2011

Books of 2010

I thought I would share the best ten books I've read this year in case anyone is looking for inspiration.. Because I really am a librarian through and through I keep a record of everything I read and as per that record here are the top ten of the year. On the whole I've not included young adult books I've read for work purposes, apart from one, which transcends that label and I think anyone of any age would enjoy it. They're not necessarily in order of 'worthiness' but just how much I enjoyed reading them/was engrossed in them. I would also love to know what other people thought of any they've read...

10. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
A vampire novel for those of us who despise the Twilight books and all the vampiric rubbish it has produced in its wake. Not about sparkly teenage vampires but about the original, Dracula. Lent to me by a friend and I was warned it was scary and it lived up to expectations. It's scary in a creepy, tense way not a horror type way, which isn't my sort of thing. Also is run through with a love of libraries, archives and history so right up my street in that respect. It also has a nice, although secondary plot-wise, romantic vein which is dramatic but not sentimental. 

9. The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
I am an avid fan of Audrey Niffenegger and read everything she writes. I got to meet her and have my copy of this signed in Oxford a few months ago and thankfully she seemed pretty likeable, albeit rather quirky. This is a graphic novel about a girl who decides she wants to become a librarian. It's got a bit of a unexpected, dark ending which I know some people found a little macabre. The illustrations are hand-drawn and unique rather than technically brilliant. A quirky little story which will again appeal to those who love libraries and reading.

8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I bought this because of an Amazon recommendation and was expecting it to be an easy summer read. Whilst it's not a hard read, it's less fluffy than I was expecting. It's set in the Deep South and is about a town where black women are the home helps and are left to raise white children but are not allowed to use the white toilet. It's written from three different women's perspectives: a white woman beginning to question the status quo and two black women helps, one younger and one older. It's funny but also moving - the ending is exciting, tense and satisfying. As it's all based in historical fact there is also the sobering element that this is really how people thought. A great, thought-provoking read.

7. One Day by David Nicholls
I loved this book, it was one I couldn't put down and read in one session from about the halfway point. The premise is that it covers the lives of the characters Emma and Dexter on the same day every year, starting whilst they are students in the 80s up until the modern day. The characters are realistic and sympathetic and the novel is funny and moving. I don't want to give anything away so I will leave it there. This is the book I registered to give away for World Book Night so hopefully there will be copies of it available soon!

6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
By far the best young adult book I have read this year (although How I Live Now by Meg Rosof is a relatively close second). It's set in a dystopian future where the country's districts have to send one boy and one girl to compete in the annual Hunger Games where they are forced to fight to the death until one is left standing with the whole process televised much like Big Brother. I must admit it didn't immediately appeal to me and I only read it after it won a children's book award and so many students were gushing about it to me and I read it in one night. It is totally unique and engrossing, incredibly tense and exciting. It's an easy read but the characters and plot are pretty meaty. It's also fairly dark - it is a book about children trying to kill each other. The other two books in the trilogy are equally exciting (Catching Fire and Mockingjay).

5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Such a beautiful, melancholy book - it's a book that changes your mood not just whilst you're reading it  but after you've finished. Again, I don't want to spoil anything but the book starts in a boarding school whose students are clearly different from normal children. The characters are so wonderfully created, the main character Kathy is so empathetic. It's not a very long book but it will totally draw you in to it's world which is almost like ours but not quite. Without wanting to sound too pretentious, the writing really is such gorgeous and Ishiguro is so adept at creating a specific atmosphere with his words.

4. Room by Emma Donoghue
I read this as it was the only book on the Man Booker shortlist that appealed to me when looking at them in Waterstones (apart from maybe The Finkler Question - has anyone read it?) It's a dark and oft-covered subject matter presented in a totally new and unique way. The protagonist is 5 year old Jack who lives with his mother in Room, as far as he knows Room is all there is to the world and everything he sees on the TV is imaginary. His mother was kidnapped when she was a teenage and is imprisoned in her captor's garden shed which has been turned into a prison. Donoghue says that she was inspired by cases such as Elisabeth Fritzel. Although obviously an upsetting subject, the story is told all from the perspective of Jack and so is funny, uplifting, moving and inspiring. The language is incredibly clever, Jack refers to everything as Bed, Lamp etc. as he thinks there is only one in the world. Not wanting to give too much away, an escape attempt made half way through was one of the most tense bits of writing I've read all year. I'm not a fan of the tacky, Dave Pelzer-esque child abuse stories but this is something truly unique. 

3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I know a lot of people who didn't really like this but I just loved it. I studied Tudor History a lot at university and actually wrote an essay on Thomas Cromwell so I was already interested in the subject, in fact I think the more you already know about Tudor politics and personalities the more likely you are to enjoy it as there are a lot of names and intrigues to keep track with. Mantel also uses the unusual technique of always referring to Cromwell as 'He' which is sometimes confusing and I know some people found it very annoying; however I found that I could just go with it and quite liked the unusual feel it gave the prose. The novel has an unusual arc in that it ends with the execution of Thomas More, rather than Cromwell himself (this is history, therefore not really a spoiler!). Cromwell is fleshed out as such an engaging and fascinating character and I cannot wait to read the second half of his life that Mantel is currently writing.

2. After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell
Lent to me by a friend, this book started a bit of an obsession with Maggie O'Farrell and I enjoy everything she writes although this has remained my favourite. It's another one where I don't want to give too much away although the title of the novel and the opening of the book makes it obvious that something bad has happened. It's as much as mystery as a romance - although the 'twist' is fairly easy to work out by a certain point, this doesn't lessen it's impact as the main character realises. It's got an engaging opening and a truly beautiful second half - incredibly moving. Definitely one for tissues at the ready. If you loved The Time Traveler's Wife, it's definitely worth trying this one. Just a beautiful, moving, romantic novel. 

1. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
Hands down the best book I've read this year. I love Jasper Fforde as author anyway and I would highly recommend his Thursday Next series (The Eyre Affair is the first in the series). This book really has everything; science-fiction, humour, romance as well as a wholly original plot. I've never read anything like it - it defies genre. Set in the future, the country revolves totally around what colours people can see. It's a difficult concept to explain as it works in the novel and in fact is a little confusing at the start but you soon work it out. I cannot recommend this highly enough - it's a massively clever plot with twists and turns, intrigues and an exciting climax. It does end of a bit of a cliffhanger though and the sequel's not been written yet...

11 January 2011

Matilda: The Musical

On Saturday I saw the new RSC musical production of Roald Dahl's Matilda at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford and was blown away.  (http://www.matildamusical.com/#/home/) My father-in-law had suggested it (and indeed treated us to the tickets thank you Cliff!) and I was so glad as I hadn't heard about it so might have missed out.

It was so good, I'm worried this is just going to be a long list of effusive compliments but nonetheless... Matilda has been adapted from the book by Dennis Kelly and the music and lyrics have been written by the comedian and musician Tim Minchin. The production has found a nice balance between staying true to the book and creating a successful stage experience. The staging is relatively simple (although clearly actually rather complicated and expensive in execution) with changing backdrops and clever touches like desks and chairs that rise from the stage for the school scenes. The songs are a worthy addition - my favourite has to be When I Grow Up which features children swinging over the audience of giant swings that have been lowered from the theatre roof.

The actors were superb. Three girls play Matilda, ours was Kerry Ingram who was adorable but also phenomenally talented. Her acting was convincing, her singing clear and despite everyone I know who has seen it professing 'their' Matilda to be the best, I don't see how anyone could surpass Ingram! The kids who make up her schoolmates were similarly impressive - super talented without venturing into grating precociousness. The set pieces with all the children dancing and singing were some of my favourite (the number whilst Bruce Bogtrotter is eating the chocolate cake is amazing).

The other actor worthy of note is Bertie Carvel who plays Miss Trunchbull and manages to combine the character's atrocious cruelty with humour. The costuming is impressive and Carvel does an incredible job of being a man portraying a woman who is almost a man. If you compare his performance to Quentin Blake's illustrations in the novel, it's remarkable how he has captured it right down to the way he holds his hand. He also manages some impressive gymnastic feats in the musical numbers. The moment where she swings round Amanda Thripp by her pigtails is remarkably realistic and cleverly executed.

All in all, a superb show. Funny, touching and clever, I would heartily recommend it and we are hoping to be able to get some last minute tickets to see it again before it moves to London at the end of the month.

6 January 2011

Cannonball Read Group Blog

Cannonball Read III has a group blog where everyone participating can post their reviews/links to their reviews: http://cannonballread3.wordpress.com/

5 January 2011

1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I asked for The Remains of the Day as a Christmas present having read Never Let Me Go, by Ishiguro, last year and being very impressed with it. Whilst I have to say I marginally preferred Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day lived up to expectations and proved Ishiguro to be an exceedingly talented writer in my mind.

The book is narrated by the ageing butler, Stevens, who has worked at Darlington Hall for the past few decades which is now under the new ownership of an American gentleman, Mr. Farraday. Farraday gives Stevens the opportunity to take his car for a brief holiday which forms the structure of the novel as Stevens makes his way to Cornwall to visit Darlington Hall's previous housekeeper, Miss Kenton. Over the course of the journey he reminisces about his life as a butler - the relationships with his employer and employees and the nature of being a butler, with 'dignity' a heavy theme throughout.

Stevens is an incredibly clever character; whilst technically rather humourless and proper, Ishiguro has managed to create a character who is engaging, likeable and humorous. An encounter on his journey where a village believes him to be a gentlemen is both touching, funny and awkward as are Stevens constant trials with the concept of 'bantering'.

An interesting minor plotline is that of his relationship with his previous employer, Lord Darlington. It becomes apparent that Darlington was working to try and repair relations with Germany in between World War 1 and 2 and came in for heavy criticism towards the onset of World War 2 for his friendly relations with Germany and the Nazis. I enjoyed Ishiguro's decision not to make a big deal out of it; the issue is important because of what it reveals about Stevens' character, not as a piece of political intriguing. Stevens meanders through the idea of loyalty, dignity and the idea that we should all do what we can to further peace and unity. When I write this is sounds awfully close to sentimental 'world peace' ideas, but it is careful and understated. His difficulties in finding a balance between his strong personal care for Darlington and the people he encounters negative feelings are often heartbreaking, when he himself cannot understand why he keeps finding himself denying having worked for Lord Darlington.

The back of the book touts a lost love and whilst his relationship with Miss Kenton is a important thread to the novel, it is by no means a romance. It is always just out of reach and is engaging in that the two characters obvious respect and care for each other never quite can get past the flaws of their characters. Their meeting in Cornwall is beautifully written.

It is difficult to express the beauty of the book as it's strength lies largely in Ishiguro's writing - he is a master of creating a mood with his language and the loveliness of the book comes from the writing and the carefully created main character rather than an exciting plot, indeed very little actually happens. Ishiguro is adept at creating a pervading melancholy atmosphere. Whilst it does not feel like a novel that one could 'spoil' per se, I do not want to give away any of the beautiful structure of the narrative but a moment near the end of the novel when Stevens meets Miss Kenton again is so mutedly melancholic without being overtly tragic that it really demonstrates Ishiguro's talent as a writer.

A unique, careful and wonderful novel.

Cannonball Read III

I am taking part in this year's Pajiba Cannonball Read (http://www.pajiba.com/) which is a challenge to read 52 books and review all of said books in a year. The reading part isn't so much of a challenge but I always mean to write reviews and never get round to it so I'm keen to take part to encourage myself to review what I read. Previously I've resorted to a mark out of ten.

This blog is therefore to be used for said reviews but I may well also post on other things of interest to me, namely cooking and possibly other bits and pieces.