31 May 2012

Review 40: Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans

"Stuart Horten - ten years old but small for his age - moves to the dreary town of Beeton, far away from all his friends. But in Beeton begins the strangest adventure of Stuart's life... He is swept up in a quest to find his great-uncle's lost workshop - a workshop stuffed with trickery and magic. There are clues to follow and puzzles to solve, but what starts as fun ends up as danger, and Stuart begins to realise that he can't finish the task by himself."

This is a lovely and fun book that is written with charm and wit and heart. The story of the below-averagely height Stuart as he begrudgingly moves to a new town and ends up solving a family mystery full of puzzles and tricks, magic and mystery. I feel like this would make a great children's TV show as Stuart races around Beeton, managing nosy triplet neighbours, quirky parents and a scheming enemy with a hapless magician sidekick.

First Line: "Stuart Horten was small for his age - the smallest boy in his year at school - and both his parents were very tall, which meant that when he stood next to them he looked about the size of an ant."

Why I read it: It is on the current Carnegie Prize shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of Rebecca Stead or Frank Cottrell Boyce. If you like quirky stories full of heart.

Review 39: Trash by Andy Mulligan

"Three friends. Raphael, Gardo and Rat. Living on a heap of trash, a lifetime of sifting rubbish. One day they find something extraordinary - a deadly secret. From that moment they are hunted without mercy. With danger snatching at their heels, the boys are chased from the city's dirty gutters to its wealthy avenues. But they can't run forever. They need a miracle."

I was far more impressed with this than I was expecting and it has gone down very well with my teenage readers as well. Whilst easy to read and relatively simple, it is filled with excellent storytelling, exciting twist and turns, wonderful characters and much to think about. A really worthy contender for the Carnegie prize this year and a novel that will be read and loved for years to come, I imagine.

First Line: "My name is Raphael Fernandez and I am a dumpsite boy."

Why I read it: It is on the Carnegie shortlist which I am currently reading and shadowing with my Book Club students at school.

Who I would recommend it to: I can hardly think of anyone who wouldn't fall for this book. An easy read with real depth, it's perfect for its intended audience.

25 May 2012

Review 38: Q by Evan Mandery

"Would you give up the love of your life on the advice of a stranger? A picturesque love story begins at the cinema when our hero - an unacclaimed writer, unorthodox professor and unmistakeable New Yorker - first meets Q, his one everlasting love. Over the following weeks, in the rowboats of Central Park, on the miniature golf courses of Lower Manhattan, under a pear tree in Q's own inner-city Eden, their miraculous romance accelerates and blossoms. Nothing, it seems - not even the hostilities of Q's father or the impending destruction of Q's garden - can disturb the lovers, or obstruct their advancing wedding. They are destined to be together. Until one day a man claiming to be our hero's future self tells him he must leave Q."

Q was almost exactly as I had hoped it would be. I wanted a quirky romance without cheesiness and that is largely what I got. Whilst there is plenty of whimsy from the characters, Q in particular, we also get a level of quirk from the time travel element. Our hero is visited at points by himself from the future which tries to answer the oft-asked question of whether we would go back and tell our younger selves to avoid mistakes we made. I say it was almost what I hoped it would be though, as I did feel a little let down by the fact that the quote on the front cover from The New York Times, which warns the tear-prone not to read it in public. I was hoping for an epic, heartfelt ending where as in fact it was gentle and sweet, which has its charms but I was hoping for something a little more emotionally charged.

First Line: "Q, Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, is the love of my life."

Why I read it: The beautiful cover caught my eye in Waterstones and I bought it for a train journey to London.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of gentle philosophical meanderings, whimsical romance and The Time Traveler's Wife.

23 May 2012

Review 37: The Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy

"Elizabeth Barber is crossing the Atlantic by liner with her perfectly adequate boyfriend, Derek, who might be planning to propose. In fleeing the UK - temporarily - Elizabeth may also be in flight from her past and the charismatic Arthur, once her partner in what she came to see as a series of crimes. Together they acted as fake mediums, perfecting the arcane skills practised by effective frauds. Elizabeth finally rejected what once seemed an intoxicating game, Arthur continued his search for the right way to do wrong. He now subsidises free closure for the traumatised and dispossessed by preying on the super-rich. The pair still meet occasionally, for weekends of sexual oblivion, but their affection lacerates as much as it consoles. She hadn't, though, expecting the other man on the boat. As her voyage progresses, Elizabeth's past is revealed, codes slowly form and break as communication deepens. It's time for her to discover who are the true deceivers and who are the truly deceived. What's more, is the book itself - a fiction which may not always be lying - deceiving the reader? Offering illusions and false trails, magical numbers and redemptive humour, this is a novel about what happens when we are misled and when we are true: an extraordinarily intricate and intimate journey into our minds and hearts undertaken by a writer of great gifts - a maker of wonders."

This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand it is clever and bold and intricately written, but on the other it is unpleasant to read; it doesn't uplift or inspire you but drags you down into the cruelty and intimacies of everyday human existence. I was fascinated by it, in the way you are with the somewhat repulsive creature you see in the aquarium, you can't stop looking at it even though it horrifies you. It is also difficult to review as things are revealed throughout the book that change the way you perceive the situation or characters and to spoil them would fundamentally spoil the book but it is difficult to consider your feelings about the book without revealing them.

First Line: "But here this is, the book you're reading."

Why I read it: It was one of the titles on the Orange Prize longlist that appealed, but not quite enough to buy it in hardback so I borrowed it from Solihull Library.

Who I would recommend it to: If you like to read heavy, post-modern literature that is challenging rather than enjoyable.

22 May 2012

Review 36: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

"Every year, the Scorpio Races are run on the beaches of Skarmouth. Every year, the sea washes blood from the sand. To race the savage water horses can mean death, but the danger is irresistible. When Puck enters the races to save her family, she is drawn to the mysterious Sean, the only person on the island capable of taming the horses. Even if they stay together, can they stay alive?"

First Line: 'It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.'

I'm a little torn about this in a very similar way to how I felt about Delirium by Lauren Oliver recently. The writing is carefully crafted and atmospheric but the pacing is off and the book takes too long to get going. The characters are largely appealing and the concept is refreshingly unique for the young adult market but I think the horsey focus put me off a little, as I'm not a big animal lover. I imagine that this will go down a treat with some teenager readers.

Why I read it: I bought it for my husband after seeing it on the Cannonball group blog, who took it on holiday with us to Iceland where I read it after I finished the books I brought with me.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of earthy, gritty books rather than high tech, futuristic worlds who like a strong heroine and difficult decisions.

21 May 2012

Review 35: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

"Great art is difficult - that's the motto of the family Fang. The family consists of Caleb and Camille (the parents), Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B). The family Fang create art: performance art, provocations, interventions - call it what you like. And many people certainly don't call it art. But as Annie and Buster grow up, like all children, they find their parents' behaviour an embarrassment. They refuse to take up their roles in these outrageous acts. They escape; Annie becomes an actor, a star in the world of indie filmmaking, and Buster pursues gonzo journalism, constantly on the trail of a good story. But when their lives start to fall apart, there is nowhere left to go but home. Meanwhile Caleb and Camille have been planning their most ambitious project yet and the children have no choice; like it or not, they will participate in one final performance. The family Fang's magnum opus will determine what is ultimately more important: their family or their art."

This was so close to being a favourite, I really loved so much of it and if it wasn't for the anticlimatic and depressing ending I would have adored it. This is a wonderful mix of quirky and brutally realistic with charming characters and a totally unique concept, which makes a nice change from paranormal romances and dystopias. Whimsical and beautiful and heartbreaking, it's a Wes Anderson film in book form.

First Line: 'Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art, their children called it mischief.'

Why I read it: I saw it reviewed on the Cannonball group blog and though it sounded right up my street so I ordered it from Amazon.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of quirky, unpredictable fiction with an solid emotional backbone.

17 May 2012

Review 34: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

"They say that the cure for love will make me happy and safe forever. And I've always believed them. Until now. Now everything has changed. Now, I'd rather be infected with love for the tiniest sliver of a second than live a hundred years suffocated by a lie. There was a time when love was the most important thing in the world. People would go to the end of the earth to find it. They would tell lies for it. Even kill for it. Then, at last, they found the cure."

In the future world of Delirium, love has been defined as a disease. When children turn 18, they are required to undergo a procedure that renders them immune to the 'delirium' before being matched with a member of the opposite sex in order to have children and contribute to society. Lena is 17 and eagerly counting down the days to her procedure, frightened of the disease that caused her mother to commit suicide when Lena was still a child. Oliver is adept at creating her world, she begins each chapter with a piece of documentation, an extract from the Safety, Health and Happiness Handbook or a poem from a banned collection. Oliver manages to write what is essentially a love story without making it sentimental and also managing to cover other bases and exploring family, friendship, loyalty, honesty and science amongst other themes. I didn't fall for it, maybe I've just read too many dystopian YA novels, maybe because I did find Lena a little uninspiring or maybe because I found it rather dragged in the first half, but Oliver's writing is undeniably beautiful. I will definitely be reading both the sequel to Delirium and her other novel, Before I Fall, as I think I would really enjoy her writing in a less saturated genre.

First Line: 'It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.'

Why I read it: I saw it in Oxfam Books and had heard it was a good entry into the post-apocalyptic YA canon.

Who I would recommend it to: Post-apocalyptic fans who enjoy solid world building. Fans of Divergent by Veronica Roth or Matched by Ally Condie

10 May 2012

Review 33: Planetary Vol. 2 - The Fourth Man by Warren Ellis

"This is Planetary. Three people who walk the world in search of strangeness and wonder, uncovering things others wise were left covered. They are the mystery archaeologists, explorers of the planet's secret history, charting the unseen borders of a fantastic world."

Whilst I don't love Planetary in the way I love Fables, it is a high quality story with plenty of complexity (if anything maybe too much, I struggled to work out what was going at times). I preferred this volume to the first and will definitely read the third and fourth volumes which complete the series as I am intrigued as to how it will all be wrapped up. The 'hero' is a bit too much like Warren Ellis' other unappealing and egotistical alpha males but the secondary characters, particularly Jakita and the Drummer, are excellent and we do get a bit more intriguing backstory to Snow.

First Line: "Jack Carter's dead."

Why I read it: I was lent Planetary Vol. 1 by a colleague and enjoyed it enough to want to find out what happened in Vol. 2.

Who I would recommend it to: Readers who would like to explore the world of graphic novels or fans of science fiction that tend towards mysteries and character rather than spandex and explosions (although there is some of that very much present).

9 May 2012

Review 32: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

"Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women forever. Dr Annick Swenson's work is shrouded in mystery; she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate. A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders's colleague and once a student of the mighty Dr Swenson, is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Anders's wife, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy plains of Minnesota and retraces her friend's steps into the heart of the South American darkness, determined to track down Dr Swenson and uncover the secrets being jealously guarded among the remotest tribes of the rainforest. What Marina does not yet know is that, in this ancient corner of the jungle, where the muddy waters and susurrating grasses hide countless unknown perils and temptations, she will face challenges beyond her wildest imagination. Marina is no longer a student, but only time will tell if she has learnt enough."

A careful and intelligent novel about science and human nature, I enjoyed reading a novel with such interesting, unpredictable characters and subtle themes. There are some heavy themes here but Patchett is rarely heavy-handed and manages to avoid it being an 'issues' book with a beautiful story and well written, realistic heroine. The settings are the other star here, Patchett's descriptions of both Minnesota and in particular Brazil are incredibly evocative, she creates worlds that spring up around you in beautiful detail. Also, I adore the title and the paperback cover (I wish I had hung on for it.)

First Line: "The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope."

Why I read it: I had it on my Amazon wishlist and when it was announced as being on the Orange Prize longlist I bought it. (It has since been announced as being on the shortlist).

Who I would recommend it for: Keen readers who look for careful writing and situations that escape the moral black and white. Fans of Kazuo Ishiguro, A. S. Byatt or Jeffrey Eugenides.

8 May 2012

Review 31: The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

"My brother believes he is being chased by a demon... a demon that makes things vanish. Carnegie Medallist Frank Cottrell Boyce transports readers from the steppe of Mongolia to the street of Liverpool in a story that is compelling, miraculous and laugh out loud funny."

This is a lovely, charming and quirky story of family and friendship. Cottrell Boyce also weaves in serious themes of refugees and self which lend the book a melancholy touch at times. The beautiful printing on exercise book notepaper with photographs means the entire book is a entirely enjoyable experience. The story was inspired by a true story, when the author visited a school that had a Mongolian little girl who was taken by Immigration Services with her family and never seen again.

First Line: 'I hadn't seen this photograph since the day it was taken, until now.'

Why I read it: I bought it for my library stock and couldn't resist the cover and the wonderful photos inside.