26 April 2013

My Week in Books

This week (and a bit) I posted a review of Carnegie shortlisted In Darkness by Nick Lake, Women's Prize longlisted The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber, as well as my thoughts on the Women's Prize Shortlist (which was sadly missing The Marlowe Papers).

I finished The Forrests by Emily Perkins which I was really disappointed by unfortunately. It was very long and felt like hard work to get through and I would have been tempted to give up on it if it wasn't on the Women's Prize longlist, which had so far given me some of the best books I've read this year. The two main problems were the overwheming misery of the book and the female characters reliance on men, normally useless ones. I don't mind a bit of melancholy, in fact I really love it, but this was just miserable and lacking in any hope or joy.

I also read Jimmy Coates: Sabotage, the fourth book in the Jimmy Coates series by Joe Craig (I reviewed the first three here). This was my favourite in the series so far and I read it in a day needing to know how all the twists and mysteries were going to be sorted - of course being the middle of a series means a lot of them weren't and I've started the fifth book, Survival which is set to continue the pattern of each book being better than the last.

I also started May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes this week, the next book on the Women's Prize shortlist. I have owned this book ever since it came out but it's shortlisting has kicked it up to the top of the pile. I find Homes' writing very engaging and readable as well as thought provoking. It's blackly humorous and manages to fuse clever writing with a proper story and characters we care about.

I was very pleased to be approved for two books on NetGalley: Alex Woods Versus the Universe by Gavin Extence (which I put on my wishlist last week) and Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence by David Samuel Levinson.

We also had our #tweetckg discussion about In Darkness by Nick Lake and you can see the Storify of the discussion here. I also added too many books to mention to my wishlist but including Frances & Berard by Carlene Baeur.

25 April 2013

Teen Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Thank you so much to Erin, who is in Year 9, who wrote this wonderful review of Carnegie shortlisted Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I think you'll be able to tell by Erin's review, that she's pretty awesome: 

There are countless reasons why I loved Code Name Verity and the first was that it was based on the friendship between two girls in World War 2. I loved that the book was about their unlikely friendship because to quote from the book, “It's like falling in love, finding your best friend”.  The first part of the narrative is told by ‘Verity’ in the confession that she writes for the Gestapo in order to avoid another interrogation after being caught as a spy in France. Although in the confession she is meant to be telling the Gestapo everything she knows about British Intelligence operations, she ends up telling the story of how she met her best friend Maddie, who is a pilot, and their lives throughout the war.

Throughout the first part of the novel, ‘Verity’ tells us that she is a coward and that she wishes she could have been brave like the other prisoners who refuse to tell the Gestapo anything. However, the mere thought of another brutal interrogation by Captain makes her carry on writing with renewed energy.  As the protagonist I was expecting her to be strong and to withstand anything that happened to her and yet despite the fact that the she agrees to betray her country, I still found her brave and I was afraid for her.  What I loved about her report was that although she was writing in the first person, she writes about her best friend Maddie, and only refers to herself from Maddie’s point of view, which makes us closer to Maddie as well.

I grew attached to the characters and there were so many characters that at a first glance appeared to be evil but over the course of the book I was reminded that not everyone is who they appear to be. I loved how Code Name Verity was written because it showed you how people can have so many good qualities but can have flaws as well. I loved that the two heroines, ‘Verity’ and Maddie, were people you could root for whilst reading the story because it made the book seem more real and also it made me want to know what happened to these characters. As with any book we search for characters that are somehow similar to ourselves, and I felt like I found that I could relate to these characters despite never having been in any situation that they went through.

Code Name Verity is one of those rare and magical books that will stay with you even after you finish it and for days after reading it I would remember parts of it and want to cry. And that is how I know that this book is truly incredible. Code Name Verity is a book that I want everyone to read because if they read it I’m sure they would love reading as much as I do.

A brief thought about book snobbery...

There's been lots of talk about book snobbery recently after Matt Haig's excellent Booktrust blog (here). Matt writes a lot more eloquently than I could ever hope to and many people who are perhaps lacking in eloquence have already contributed to the discussion but...

I enjoy literary fiction very much and I also love YA (not that these two are necessarily mutually exclusive) - I like meandering, wordy books and I like fast paced, plot heavy books but the books that I truly adore, those that I fall in love with and have fundamentally affected me are those that fuse the two. I want soaring, beautiful, intelligent language but I also want characters that move me and that I care about and a story that takes me somewhere I've never been before.

Sometimes these books are literary fiction (The Unconsoled, Life After Life), sometimes these books are for children or teenagers (Maggot Moon, The Phantom Tollbooth) and sometimes they are mainstream, bestseller books (The Eyre Affair, The Time Traveler's Wife) and I really don't mind which genre or bracket anyone wants to put them in so long as they fill me with wonder.

All of us who love books and stories and words should rally together and encourage everyone to realise why we love them so much - whether that be through a unoriginal erotic book, a children's book, a graphic novel or a wordy challenging novel. The book that turns you into a reader is different for everyone, but I really want everyone to find theirs.

22 April 2013

Review: The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

'This poetry you have before your eyes: the greatest code that man has yet devised.'

"On May 30th, 1593, a celebrated young playwright was killed in a tavern brawl in London. Or so the official version goes. Now Christopher Marlowe tells us the truth: that his 'death' was an elaborate ruse to avoid his prosecution for heresy; that he lived on in lonely exile, pining for his true love from across the Channel; and that he continued to write plays and poetry, hiding behind the name of a colourless merchant from Stratford - one William Shakespeare."

I hadn't heard of this book before the Women's Prize longlist was announced but it was one that instantly appealed. I had the enjoyable experience of reading it without knowing much about it and whilst I had to really invest time and concentration on it, and it took me a while to read, I was thoroughly impressed and entranced by it. It is both witty and melancholy, gritty yet lovely. It's wonderful to read something so unique.

First Line: "What can a dead man say that you will hear?"

Why I read it: It was on the Women's Prize longlist, and I am so disappointed it didn't make the shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of fiction that requires some concentration and investment, but that is worth the effort. If you enjoy Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro. (Also fans of beautiful hardbacks.)

16 April 2013

Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2013

The shortlist for the Women's Prize was announced this morning:

- Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
- A. M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven
- Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behaviour
- Hilary Mantel: Bring Up the Bodies
- Maria Semple: Where'd You Go, Bernadette
- Zadie Smith: NW

It seems like a very strong, if high-profile, list. I have read Life After Life, Bring Up the Bodies and Where'd You Go, Bernadette and I loved all three. I think Mantel will have her strongest competition to date in Atkinson's Life After Life which I thought was, quite frankly, perfect. I absolutely loved it and I think I would choose it over Bring Up the Bodies. Whilst I can't say I liked it more that the other two, I thought Semple's novel was moving and quirky and I enjoyed it an awful lot. Those three books are three of the best I've read this year. I was very sad not to see The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber make the shortlist as I thought that was an exemplary novel and staggeringly well written and it's a real shame it won't get a bigger audience through being shortlisted.

The other three on the shortlist I already own but haven't got around to reading yet. May We Be Forgiven has been on my to-read list ever since it came out and I think is going to be the one I try first. I was very impressed by Kingsolver's The Lacuna, although I felt it lacked an emotional connection, and I loved White Teeth, although I read it when I was a teenager, so I'm hoping to really enjoy all of the shortlist.

It is, however, a very well established shortlist - Atkinson, Kingsolver, Mantel and Smith are very well known authors and have all won major awards before. Homes is well established amongst literary crowds and Semple is an established screenwriter, having written for Arrested Development. All of the novels had a lot of buzz around them when they were published unlike many of the rest of the longlist. However, books don't deserve to be shortlisted for major awards just because they are not very well known and the strength of the three novels I've already read makes me believe that it's a, perhaps unfortunate, coincidence that the most established authors have made the shortlist. And of course one could argue they are more established because they write the best books! Bring Up the Bodies and Life After Life are certainly two of my all time favourite novels!

I personally feel there's too much literary snobbery going on generally and I'm a huge believer that something can be both popular and literary. My favourite book is The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger which was a huge mainstream success and I really resent being made to feel as though this is a bad choice just because it is popular! I hated the snobbery around the Man Booker last year being too readable - we're on dangerous ground when a book being readable is a criticism. Books are there to be loved.

So, I'm excited to read the rest of the shortlist and to see who wins on 5th June. So far, my vote is for Life After Life.

15 April 2013

Review: In Darkness by Nick Lake

'An evil idea makes bad men of everyone who believes in it.'

"In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital, thirsty, terrified and alone. Shorty is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soley; men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret; a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost seven years ago..."

First Line: "I am the voice in the dark, calling out for your help."

In Darkness is a violent but careful novel set in Haiti that alternates chapters between 'now' - the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and 'then' - the late 18th century slave rebellion led by Toussaint l'Ouverture. Both perspectives are dark, intelligent and engaging. It's not a book that you enjoy as it is upsetting and too grounded in atrocities that really happened but it is moving, complex and impressive - I would highly recommend it. (It has a beautiful hardback cover as well).

Why I read it: I read it whilst it was on the Carnegie longlist - it has since been announced as making the shortlist (as I hoped and thought it would).

Who I would recommend it: If you want to be challenged and moved by a story. This is not for the faint-hearted but it is for those who like to be provoked and made to think by what they read.

14 April 2013

My Week in Books

This week I posted reviews of The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan and A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle. I also had the first of a new series of guest reviews from some of my teen students with Geek Girl by Holly Smale up first.

I also have finished, read or started four novels. I finished the magnificent The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber which has taken me a couple of weeks to finish as it's a novel to really invest time and concentration in. I found I much preferred reading it in long chunks than in ten minute quiet moments so I saved it for a couple of really long reading sessions so I could really get involved in the staggeringly beautiful writing - it had me giggling in pleasure at times at how well Barber puts words together. I really hope it makes it onto the Women's Prize shortlist on Tuesday.

I also read Patrick Ness' new adult novel, The Crane Wife which more than lived up to expectations. I'm a big fan of Patrick's young adult novels and whilst this is very different is still has Patrick's wonderful, uplifting way with words. Whimsical and melancholy , it's inspired by a Japanese folk tale and captures people in all their confusion, perfectly.

I just finished this morning The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion - a book I've been looking forward to for a while. I read it very quickly - it is very enga
ging and likeable and I really enjoyed reading something lighter and fun - although it's certainly no worse off for that and has plenty of more contemplative moments. It reminded me of
Q by Evan Mandery and Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore - celebrations of love and life and people.

I also started The Forrests by Emily Perkins, which is currently on the Women's Prize longlist. I'm about a quarter of the way through and I'm still making my mind up - I started it before The Rosie Project and got sidetracked by that but I'm giving it my full attention now.

I also added three books to my wishlist: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence and Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight.

Our Carnegie Twitter shadowing group is also carrying on and gathering momentum - I've thoroughly enjoyed doing this. Twitter has been absolutely wonderful in keeping me connected with home and with wonderful book people whilst I'm in Thailand and #tweetckg is a particularly fun part of this, so thank you to everyone who gets involved! You can follow or join in with the shadowing by looking out for the #tweetckg hashtag during our discussions on Wednesdays. Have a look at the schedule here: http://acaseforbooks.blogspot.com/2013/03/ckg-twitter-shadowing-schedule.html This coming week we're discussing In Darkness by Nick Lake, a review of which I'm working on at the moment and am hoping to have up before Wednesday. You can also look at the collated discussions on Storify, here's a link to this week's excellent discussion of Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner: http://storify.com/acaseforbooks/tweetckg-maggot-moon-by-sally-gardner

In other news, Matt Haig debuted the trailer for his new book, The Humans and I'm in it! You can watch it here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zX8V2OFHHbQ&feature=youtu.be

Teen Review: Geek Girl by Holly Smale

I have some wonderful students and some of them have very kindly agreed to write me some reviews of
books they've read recently. I thought it would be interesting to feature some reviews from the actual intended audience of some of the young adult books that I read and review. First up is the charming and funny Geek Girl by Holly Smale, which I reviewed here.

From here on, the words are all by Frances who is in Year 8:

Geek Girl is a brilliant book that shows dreams do come true; even if the dream isn't yours. Harriet is a self-confessed geek. She knows it, and so does everyone at her school - it's a shame that no one else, except possibly her stalker Toby, appreciates facts like, "Bluebirds can't see the colour blue."

When her best friend Nat invites her to the Clothes Show, one disastrous thing leads to another and Harriet ends up being scouted by a top modelling agency. They is when you start to feel sympathy for both characters because it's Nat's dream to be a model and Harriet's pursuing it - Harriet has stolen her best friend's dream by accident.

If you life was terrible and you got the opportunity to change it, would you? Harriet would. Harriet and her risk-taking Dad are whisked off to Moscow (by the nickname-giving Wilbur), and there it begins - Harriet's "New Life". However, when she gets back to England she is greeted by her bully Alexa threatening her, Annabel, her step-mum seems to have left, and Nat apparently hates her guts. Everything seems to be ruined, but Harriet luckily uses her intelligence to make some sense of it all.

I really loved reading Geek Girl as it was something I could really get into and Holly Smale's writing makes you really feel for the characters in every situation. Harriet was a really well written character (like all of them) and she was a heroine that I could root for and that was just one of the things that made it such a good book! Geek Girl was easy to read but still had a good, interesting story to it and it is one of my favourite books!

13 April 2013

Review: A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

'She'd tried to even the score, by saying Yes so often that the No would fade to nothing.'

"12-year-old Mary's beloved grandmother is near the end of her life. Letting go is hard - until Granny's long-dead mammy appears. Her ghost has returned to help her dying daughter say goodbye to the ones she loves. But first she needs to take them all on a road trip to the past."

If I had read A Greyhound of a Girl in a vacuum (not that reading a book in a vacuum is ever possible), not comparing it to the other books on the current Carnegie shortlist, I think this would be a more glowing review. However, whilst I really enjoyed it and was very moved by it, it didn't quite meet the heady heights set by the others on the shortlist. Undeniably capably written, but I felt it didn't really do anything new or exciting so whilst I would definitely recommend this but I don't think it's unique enough to compare to the rest of the Carnegie shortlist.

First Line: 'She hated the hospital.'

Why I read it: It's currently on the Carnegie shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: If you were moved by the themes of A Monster Calls and enjoy stories of mothers and daughters.

9 April 2013

Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

'I must remember how to be ordinary now that I'd seen the wonders inside me.'

"Rollrock is a lonely island of cliffs and storms, blunt fishermen and their fierce wives. Life is hard for the families who must wring a poor living from the stormy seas. But Rollrock is also a place of magic - the scary, salty-real sort of magic that changes lives forever. Down on the windswept beach, where the seals lies in their herd, the outcast sea witch Misskaella casts her spells, and brings forth girls from the sea - girls with long, pale limbs and faces of haunting loveliness. But magic always has its price. A fisherman may have and hold a sea bride, and tell himself that he is her master. But from his first look into her lovely eyes, he will be just as transformed as she is. He will be equally ensnared. And in the end the witch will always have her payment."

First Line: "The old witch is there,' said Raditch, peering over the top to Six-Mile Beach."

This is a careful and thoughtful story of myth, magic, family and loneliness. It is not fast paced and full of action, although there are some dramatic moments wonderfully full of tension. It is haunting and it really got under my skin whilst I was reading it. The only thing lacking for me personally was a main character I could invest it - whilst I enjoyed the way that none of our characters are clear cut heroes or villains, it did mean that there isn't anyone in particular to root for. I liked the non traditional structure and that it was different and intelligent. I would highly recommend this to adults and to teen readers who enjoy beautiful language and ideas as much as exciting plot.

Why I read it: It was on the Carnegie longlist this year. Whilst it didn't make the official shortlist, out of the longlist titles I read it have made my personal shortlist (link to Carnegie predictions post). 

Who I would recommend it to: If you enjoyed The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvator or The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff.