29 April 2012

The Orange Prize

I always have a look at the Orange Prize longlist, shortlist and winner as an indication of excellent new writers and novels. I really enjoyed last year's winner, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht and was glad to have an exciting new author pointed out to me. I also really liked The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna and thought that the rest of the shortlist looked varied and interesting, although I didn't read any of the others.

This year I thought there were some really interesting choices on the longlist. I absolutely adored The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and was pleased to see it there. I had had my eye on State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and it's appearance on the longlist prompted me to buy it (my review will be up this week). I also have borrowed The Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy from the library, bought The Submission by Amy Waldman and am on the reservation list for There But For The by Ali Lewis. There seemed to be a great variety of genres and styles. I was really excited to see who had made the shortlist and was massively underwhelmed when I saw it. Patchett has made it on there but Morgenstern hasn't. To make matters worse, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is there. Edugyan was on the Man Booker shortlist and I really didn't like the two thirds of it that I read. I didn't even finish it, which is hugely unusual for me, I so infrequently don't finish books but I just couldn't get through it. So the fact that that was there and Morgenstern wasn't immediately made me feel as though the judging criteria weren't in line with my own personal preferences.

The books that have made it onto the shortlist, as well as Patchett and Edugyan are:
The Forgotten by Anne Enright
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Of those four, The Song of Achilles had caught my eyes as I enjoy historical fiction, but I had passed it over as the focus seemed to be on the romance and the other three didn't appeal either because of the focus on scandalous or illicit relationships. I'm sure that they are well written or have some literary strengths of some description but I think it is a shame that there seems to be such a narrow scope for the shortlist. Maybe I am judging them prematurely but they all appear to be traditional in structure and to focus on romance and said illicit affairs. For a prize that celebrates the best of female writers, I think it is a shame for the shortlist to be so narrowly romantic as it feels as though it is reinforcing the stereotype of what female writers can write about. Considering the variety and creativity of ideas on the longlist it is a disappointing shortlist in terms of scope.

I may try The Song of Achilles and Painter of Silence and I will almost definitely read the winner if I haven't already, and I hope to be proved wrong once I read more of the shortlist, but I hope that future Orange shortlists celebrate the variety and creativity in female writers rather than reinforcing stereotypes about women only writing about illicit romance, however high quality it is. To be honest, they lost me this year when they shortlisted Edugyan and failed to include the magnificent The Night Circus.

Reviews to books I've mentioned and read:
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht: http://acaseforbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/review-34-tigers-wife-by-tea-obreht.html
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna: http://acaseforbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/review-36-memory-of-love-by-aminatta.html
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: http://acaseforbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/review-49-night-circus-by-erin.html
Man Booker Summary 2011: http://acaseforbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/man-booker-prize-summary.html

26 April 2012

Review 30: VIII by H. M. Castor

"VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family's violent past and, once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII."

This is clearly a very well researched novel with a solid grounding in historical fact. The first half which focuses on Henry's childhood and adolescence is evocative and exciting but unfortunately Castor speeds through the rest of his life (and wives) too fast for readers who don't already know what happened to keep up. It also is in the unusual position of being a young adult novel where the protagonist is an adult for a large portion of the book, and is in his 50s at the end, which doesn't quite work for me. There are some dramatic devices that are overused and it casts Henry in a rather too favourable light but it is very readable and hopefully will encourage some younger readers to delve further into historical fiction and Tudor history.

First Line: 'I'm still half asleep when I feel strong hands grabbing me.'

Why I read it: My husband bought it for me from my Amazon wishlist. I studied Tudor history at university so am always interested to read perspectives on Henry VIII.

23 April 2012

Review 29: Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick

"Imagine that England is covered by water, and Norwich is an island... Zoe, left behind in the  confusion, survives there are best she can. Alone and desperate among marauding gangs, she manages to dig a derelict boat out of the mud and escapes to Eels Island. But Eels Island, whose raggle-taggle inhabitants are dominated by the strange boy Dooby, is full of danger too."

Why I read it: The author is visiting my school and I wanted to read a bit more of his back catalogue and this is his first novel.

The first three quarters of this book are strong but unfortunately it tails off somewhat and I found the end very underwhelming. Sedgwick wrote this, his first novel, of a disintegrating apocalyptic society long before it was in vogue, he of course did not invent the genre but was definitely ahead of the young adult trend for it. Zoe is a gutsy and strong heroine but I would have liked more detail about her family and the people she meets along the way who felt a bit more hurriedly sketched in. I would have actually liked this short novel to be longer and find out a bit more. It is rather unrelentingly miserable and I did find it rather depressing but if you're after a short, sobering read with plenty of action and a unnerving atmosphere then give this a go.

First Line: 'Zoe ran harder than she had ever run in her life.'

6 April 2012

Review 28: Wither by Lauren DeStefano

"In our brave new future, DNA engineering has resulted in a terrible genetic flaw. Women die at the age of 20, men at 25. Young girls are being abducted and forced to breed in a desperate attempt to keep humanity ahead of the disease that threatens to eradicate it. 16-year-old Rhine is kidnapped and sold as a bride to Linden, a rich young man with a dying wife. Even though he is kind to her, Rhine is desperate to escape her gilded cage - and Linden's cruel father. With the help of Gabriel, a servant she is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in what little time she has left."

A fast paced dystopian novel with a familiar story that has just enough variation from the plethora of apocalyptic fiction out there to recommend itself, although is clearly very derivative. There are a fair few plot and logic issues and some rather unsubtle characterisations but it is somehow very readable regardless. The real strength for me was DeStefano's descriptions of the world as it is as she ably conjures up a world where abductions and poverty sit side by side with extravagant wealth all wrapped in a frightened and desperate (although ill defined and created) world.

First Line: 'I wait, they keep us in the dark for so long that we lose sense of our eyelids.'

5 April 2012

Review 27: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

"Charlie is a freshman, and while he's not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Sky, introspective, intelligent beyond his years yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it. Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mix tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But Charlie can't stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective, but there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dancefloor."

I really liked this charming and witty book. Charlie is a wonderful character who is carefully drawn to strike that balance between realistic and entertaining enough to base a book around his feelings. Chbosky manages to really capture what it is like to grow up for nearly everyone as well as creating a unique story for Charlie as an individual. Some of the moments are so true and Chbosky captures some beautiful moments, it's a very quotable novel and a really great read.

First Line: 'Dear friend, I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.'

4 April 2012

Review 26: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

"At an exclusive girls' boarding school, a sixteen-year-old girl records her most intimate thoughts in a diary. The object of her obsession is her roommate, Lucy Blake, and Lucy's friendship with their new and disturbing classmate. Ernessa is a mysterious presence with pale skin and hypnotic eyes. Around her swirl dark secrets and a series of ominous and violent disasters. As fear spreads through the school, fantasy and reality mingle into a waking nightmare of gothic menace, fuelled by the lusts and fears of adolescence. And at the centre of the diary is the question that haunts all those who read it: Is Ernessa really a vampire? Or is the narrator trapped in her own fevered imagination?" 

I bought this for the school library thinking that it would go down really well with my students. I skimmed through the first pages just to see whether it seemed well-written and was hooked and ended up reading the whole thing myself before it even made it onto my library shelves. Klein really has a way with language, the book is super creepy and involving and you never quite know what is going on. The question at the end of the blurb about whether Ernessa is really a vampire seems flippant and silly when mentioned in passing it is in fact compelling and unnerving. This was a much better read than I expected and is very readable,  despite its flaws, and not your typical teenage vampire novel, in fact not really a vampire novel at all.

First Line: 'When Dr. Karl Wolff first suggesting publishing the journal that I kept during my junior year in boarding school, I though I hadn't heard him correctly.'

3 April 2012

Review 25: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

"Citizens of our beloved Democratic Republic of North Korea! Imagine the life of an orphan boy who is plucked from nowhere to be trained as a tunnel assassin, a kidnapper, a spy. He has no father but the State, no sweetheart but Sun Moon, the greatest opera star who ever lived, whose face is tattooed on his chest. Imagine he lives in our very own country, a model of exemplary Communism. A nation that is the envy of the world, especially the Americans. Where the only stories people need to hear are those blasting from loudspeakers to the glory of our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. Dry your eyes now, comrades! Prepare to hear the Greatest North Korean Love Story Ever Told. Warning: Any resemblance to real people and events may not be entirely coincidental."

Not due to any particular plan, I've read a lot of YA in 2012. I read a lot of YA generally what with being a school librarian and there being a lot of awesome YA around but normally I intersperse it with adult fiction more frequently than I have this year. The Orphan Master's Son is the first adult fiction I've read in a good few weeks and I really enjoyed getting involved something with a bit more depth and complexity with wonderful language as well as a superb plot.

First Line: 'Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!'