Sunday, 30 June 2013

Reading Round-up:

36. 'Queen's Gambit' by Elizabeth Fremantle: [5/5] A thoroughly enjoyable novelisation of Katherine Parr's years as consort to Henry VIII.

37. 'A Storm of Swords: part 2: Blood and Gold' by George R.R Martin: [5/5] Another great instalment to the Song of Ice and Fire series.

38. 'Sisterland' by Curtis Sittenfeld: [3/5] I had high hopes for this novel but found it fairly disappointing.

39. 'Claudia's Story' by Ashley Marie Witter: [4/5] A beautifully crafted graphic novel version of Claudia's plot line in 'Interview with the Vampire'.

40. 'Mandatory Release' by Jess Riley: [4/5] A thought-provoking novel set in a prison, that combines the dark side of life with the humour we need to invoke to survive it.

A slow reading month all in all but I'm not disappointed as I hit my target of 40 books in 2013! I can't believe I hit my target only halfway through the year. I wasn't actually expecting to read even 40 books in twelve months but I somehow managed it in six. Whatever I read now is an unexpected bonus.

What I've Been Reading:
'Mandatory Release' by Jess Riley

I was kindly provided with a free copy of this novel for review purposes by the publishers.

I'm going to admit straight away that what drew me to this novel was the comparison that has been made to the US prison drama 'Oz', which happens to be one of the most addictive and compelling TV shows I have ever watched. The idea of a novel set in a prison, following the lives of two prison workers really appealed to me and I was excited to give it a go. I love to try something new and this was something I'd never come across in a book before.

30-something teacher Drew Daniels is frantically trying to escape her life and finds the solution she's looking for in moving back in with her parents and starting a new job at the local prison teaching Special Ed classes. It's as far from her usual life of teaching at an expensive private school as she can manage and she thinks it could be the medicine she needs to help her forget her troubles. Drew has just re-entered the world of the singleton after living the cosy, settled life with long-term partner Ben. We don't really know what happened with the relationship but we do know it ended badly. Badly enough that she would want to return to the scene of her adolescent years.

On her first day at Lakeside Correctional, Drew meets Joe, a Corrections Officer ten years her junior but just attractive enough that it stops her from caring about the age gap. She also bumps into Graham, an old friend from High School who is now a Social Worker at Lakeside and has found himself wheelchair-bound after an RTA left him paralysed from the waist down.

What follows is your typical girl meets guy, girl falls for guy while another guy falls for her story arc. Now, I don't usually read these kind of novels, and there was a point about half way in to the novel where I was tempted to put it aside and stop reading - not because the novel itself was bad but because it just wasn't turning out to be my kind of thing. However, the mystery of how Drew's relationship with Ben ended kept me reading. Hints had been dropped and I was anticipating some dirty secret was about to come out in the wash. And I wasn't disappointed. And I'm really glad that I kept reading because at about the 3/4 way mark, I started to really enjoy this novel. The characters began to come into their own, the plot spun off in a few thought-provoking angles and I wanted to keep reading.

The format of the novel took a little getting used to. It was told in chapters that alternated from Graham's first person narration and a third person perspective of Drew's experience. While I would usually find myself wanting to read more of the female character's point of view, I actually found myself enjoying Graham's chapters more than Drew's. I loved Graham's voice, his sarcasm and pessimistic world view. I really felt as though I was getting inside his head, that I could identify with his experiences, while I felt as though I was watching Drew from a distance which made it hard to connect with her. 

The subject matter of the novel was quite dark, which is a personal favourite of mine when it comes to choosing reading material, and yet it had an uplifting angle to it. Graham, especially brought humour to the darkness and stopped the novel becoming merely a diatribe against the American penal system. I enjoyed the way Jess Riley brought attention to the flaws of the Prison system - the overcrowding, the chaos, the risk for the prison workers. And the way she did it without preaching. We got to see the flaws and the problems with our own eyes rather than simply be told about them.

This was a thought-provoking read that I'm glad I stuck with. At some point in the future, I will probably return to it and read it again with fresh eyes, knowing that it is a book I am going to enjoy. I found the pop culture references quirky and kind of fun - when a fictional character compares their situation to one of your favourite films (Freedom Writers) it's bound to make you smile.

I'd recommend this book for anybody who likes quirky humour, a bit of darkness and a story firmly rooted in reality. I'll definitely be checking out some of Jess Riley's earlier novels.


Monday, 24 June 2013

What I've Been Reading:
'Interview With the Vampire: Claudia's Story' by Ashley Marie Witter and Anne Rice

I have been a huge fan of Anne Rice's 'Vampire Chronicles' since I first discovered 'Interview with the Vampire' when I was 16 years old. She was the writer who introduced me to the Vampire canon and her writing has really influenced my reading habits.

While browsing through the graphic novel section at my local library, I came across this little gem, a graphic novel representation of Claudia's plot line, told from her perspective. I simply had to read this.

I've always been captivated by the idea of Claudia, of a child turned into a Vampire; a mind that grows from childish notions to an adult understanding of the world while trapped, frozen in time forever in the fragile body of a young child. How torturous it would be to remain a child forever, to have people treat you as an immature being when you are a decades old being, have seen a lifetime of change and several lifetimes of death.

This adaptation didn't really add anything to the story told in 'Interview with the Vampire', in fact it was pretty much just Claudia's scenes transferred from word to image. However, the images were so beautiful that I'm willing to overlook that. The drawings were in sepia throughout, with splashes of brilliant red to depict blood, whether the life-giving blood drained from victims or the blood tears Claudia frequently cries. I think the lack of colour was significant, added something to the story. Colour would have detracted from the storytelling, would have made Claudia's melancholia less dramatic and vivid.

I enjoyed this graphic novel and would recommend it to any fan of Anne Rice or even anybody who simply enjoys a good graphic novel.


What I've Been Reading:
'A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold' by George R.R Martin

The books in this series just keep getting better and better! As always, when writing a review of a book that is part of a longer series, I'm going to find it difficult to say too much without edging into the territory of the spoiler, so I'll try and keep this short and sweet. However, if you haven't yet reached this part of the series, you might want to skip this review as it will reveal things you don't already know.

This instalment picks up exactly where the last one left off, mainly because the two 'A Storm of Swords' books were originally published as one larger volume. 

Robb Stark is the King in the North but he has yet to deal with Lord Walder Frey, whom he slighted by choosing a bride for love rather than marrying the Frey daughter he had bound himself to back when the war was just beginning. Arya Stark is desperately trying to find her way home to her family but keeps finding herself in all manor of trouble, while her sister Sansa is still at the mercy of the Lannister's after being forced to marry Tyrion Lannister aka the Imp. Meanwhile Bran Stark is searching for the three eyed crow beyond the wall and his half brother Jon Snow is busy infiltrating the Wildlings as they attempt to breach the wall and make their way into the seven kingdoms.

Daenarys, on the other hand is busy building her army and liberating slaves as she makes her slow journey through the slave trading cities, always with invasion of Westeros at the front of her mind. Stannis Baratheon is busy with Melisandre, concocting ways of winning this war and poor Samwell Tarly is making his way across the frozen waste with Gilly and her newborn baby, desperately hoping to make it back to the Wall in time. And Jaime Lannister, that golden haired hero has found himself freed of the burden of his fighting hand and is going to have to re-build his life once he returns to King's Landing.

And then there's Joffrey, the character we all love to hate. He's still acting the petulant child with too much power and not enough restraint. His Grandfather, the Hand of the King is busy trying to reign him in but for how long can he hold him back. Can he stop him from becoming the next 'Mad king'?

The events of this novel are perhaps the most gruesome so far. There are deaths galore - many of which you will not have seen coming and will probably make you rant and rage at the book. This book is full of shocks and surprise twists and I think it's probably the best so far. I feel like it's definitely sent the series spinning off in a direction completely different to the one I had previously envisaged. I'm excited to get cracking with the next instalment and can't wait to see what evil little plot bombs Mr Martin comes up with next. But please, don't kill off anymore of my favourite characters. I don't think I could bear much more.


Saturday, 22 June 2013

What I've Been Reading:
'Sisterland' by Curtis Sittenfeld

I was kindly given a free review copy of this book by Random House.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I had really high expectations after having read 'Prep' several times and loving it even more on each re-reading, and enjoying Sittenfeld's second novel 'The Man of my Dreams'. Since I first found out about 'Sisterland' I've been itching to get my hands on a copy, desperate to see if it lived up to its predecessors. Unfortunately, I'm a little torn as to what my concrete opinion on this novel is.

The premise of this novel is an interesting one. Twin sisters Violet and Daisy Shramm grew up burdened with 'senses', a set of psychic talents including strong 'hunches', precognitive dreams and an unusual entity called 'Guardian'. While Vi openly embraced her psychicness, adopting it as a quirky personality trait and later, a unique business opportunity, Daisy pushed off in the opposite direction, abandoning her 'senses' and trying to become as normal as possible, firstly by changing her name to 'Kate' and then by becoming a married stay at home mom to two young children. But the twins are drawn together by their 'sense' of an impending earthquake due to hit their home town of St Louis on 16th October. While Vi tries desperately to spread the word and save people from danger, Kate withdraws into her own personal world, trying to keep things going amidst the chaos of her sisters rising fame and her burgeoning friendship with stay at home dad Hank.

The novel had a promising start - the idea of 'senses' really intrigued me and I was interested to find out whether Violet's earthquake premonition would actually play out. But what started well seemed to spiral into    a monotonous narrative of Kate's adult life with young children interspersed with lengthy flashbacks of her teenage and college years. 

If I'm honest, I started to find Kate a little boring and wanted to read more about Violet's crazy life. Plus, some of Kate's ideas and opinions were just so in contrast to my own that she seriously started to irritate me. I mean in the first scene, she is pretty much disgusted by Violet's bisexuality and attraction to women, and she's constantly looking down her nose at women her age who haven't yet had children. Plus, you've already introduced Hank as being black, you really don't need to drag out the racial differences in almost every chapter. Readers aren't stupid enough that they're going to forget his race when it comes down to the crucible of the plot.

Speaking of which, I spent most of the novel, hoping that Vi's earthquake prediction was going to be correct. I wanted her to have that, I really did. And yet the whole earthquake issue was sort of brushed over at the end of the novel. It felt sort of anticlimactic. I'd spent all this time waiting for this huge scene and was completely let down. I don't want to give too much of the plot away here but I will say that I wasn't impressed that what could have been a brilliant plot became a metaphor, a learning exercise. I wanted drama, chaos, destruction and what I got was an embarrassing secret that will be dragged out for the rest of Kate's life.

Like I said, I really wanted to enjoy this novel. And I did to a point. As always with Curtis Sittenfeld, the prose was beautiful and her description was incredibly detailed, giving the reader the sense of knowing St Louis without ever having to go there. But ultimately, the book was a bit of a let-down and won't be going on my favourites list alongside 'Prep'.


Monday, 10 June 2013

What I've Been Reading:
'Queen's Gambit' by Elizabeth Fremantle

The US cover art for 'Queen's Gambit' by Elizabeth Fremantle
I was kindly given a free copy of this book by Simon and Schuster for review purposes.

It isn't often that I read historical novels (although between the ages of 15 and 18 I became slightly obsessed with novels set in and around King Arthur's Camelot) but there was something about Elizabeth Fremantle's novel that really attracted me. I have vague memories of studying the Tudors in both Primary School and Secondary School and the time period always captured my imagination, especially the reign of King Henry VIII. There were certain things about him that fascinated me such as the amount of wives he managed to work his way through, the fact that he refused to acknowledge his daughters as legitimate, and perhaps most importantly, his role in the Reformation and as head of the Church of England. So of course, I couldn't miss an opportunity to read a novel set in the time of his reign.

Elizabeth Fremantle's debut novel, 'Queen's Gambit' is the tale of Katherine Parr, King Henry VIII's sixth and final wife. Widowed for the second time at the age of 31, Katherine dreams of marrying again, for love this time rather than the match-making that is rife in the court of King Henry. When she meets Thomas Seymour, brother-in-law to the King and close friend of her brother, Will, she thinks she's found herself the perfect match. She has begun to feel things she never felt for her previous husbands, is enjoying life and love. But the King has other plans.

On the lookout for his next potential wife, Henry Tudor finds himself drawn to Katherine's intelligence, wit and kindness. And so he begins an attempt to seduce her, showering her with lavish gifts and attention. When he eventually requests her hand in marriage, Katherine can do nothing but say yes. To refuse would be impossible and could cost her her life. And so she must once again marry a man she can not and does not love and cast the handsome and charming Thomas Seymour aside. And so begins Katherine Parr's tumultuous marriage to one of the most hot-headed monarchs in England's history. 

'Queen's Gambit' covers a span of five years and follows Katherine from the deathbed of her second husband Latymer to her own deathbed several years later. And what a crazy, action-packed five years those were for Katherine. Being wife to Henry Tudor isn't all that glamorous. He's a flabby, ageing grump with ulcerous legs who leaves the stench of decay in a room long after he's gone. Katherine must be both nurse-maid and bed-mate to Henry as well as the gem on his arm to be paraded in front of his court. She must be mother to his three children (all of whom lost their own mothers to Henry's short temper) and Meg, the stepdaughter she raised with Latymer, as well as trying to give Henry another son. But most of all she must be careful. She must not let Henry see her secret desire for Thomas Seymour, but most of all she must keep her Reformative notions private.

Katherine is a staunch Reformationist. She doesn't believe in Transubstantiation, she wants the bible to be printed in English, no longer only accessible to those of the highest education. She reads the banned texts of Luther and other Reformationist thinkers and meets secretly with Anne Askew, who would later be burnt at the stake for her opinions.

Katherine is a brave woman, a strong woman who manages to stay true to her beliefs and succeeds in outliving her tyrannical husband. And despite everything she goes through, she manages to never give up on love, on her love for Thomas Seymour.

Elizabeth Fremantle's depiction of the chaos, intrigue and romance of the court of Henry VIII is exquisite. Reading her novel, I felt as though I had truly been transported back in time, was getting a sneak peak into the lives of  public figures who have always felt so distant, so faded when presented to me in non-fiction format. I can't imagine just how much research must have gone into this novel. It felt flawless, seamless. There wasn't a single point where I paused in my reading to wonder if something was factually accurate. I simply suspended my belief and went with the flow, which is something only the best novels can get me to do.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, even found myself staying up late into the night to finish it, which is something I haven't done in a long while and is a good marker of how much a book manages to grip me. I would recommend this novel to anybody with even the slightest interest in the history of the Tudors. And I think it's a great gateway into the genre for anybody who doesn't usually read Historical fiction.


Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Why I love Young Adult Fiction...

When I was about nine years old, my mother started to realise that books for kids my own age were too easy for me and so didn't capture my attention. She made the decision to encourage me to read books aimed at an older audience, and inevitably I started reading teen fiction.

Back then (we're talking the late 90's here) teen fiction was mostly Judy Blume, Paula Danziger and their ilk. Some of the books dealt with big issues ('The Cat Ate My Gymsuit' is a prime example) and yet I never truly connected with the characters. Their lives seemed so distant from my own, their American up-bringing so alien in comparison with my 'it's grim up North' English childhood.

But, I did learn A LOT from these teen novels. Most of my sex education and information on puberty came from these books. I learnt about politics and bullying and feminism. It was an interesting education.

And yet I can't help but feel I missed out on something.

Today's Young Adult fiction is incredible. The market has evolved so much since I was a teenager. Young Adult novels are grittier now, full of strong female protagonists and subjects that would have seemed taboo two decades ago. Young Adult writers talk about suicide, rape, incest, depression. Their characters are gay or disabled, even dying in some cases. They are wise and full of passion. And they go on amazing inner journeys to find themselves. The characters in today's Young Adult fiction are inspiring. And I wish that these books had been around to help me on my way to adulthood when I was fourteen and struggling with my identity.

The Young Adult market is a difficult one. Writers have to cater to a core audience with a lot going on in their lives. Teens (especially boys) can be reluctant readers. So how do YA writers manage to pull in the fans? As I've already said, they're writing about the things their audience are dealing with themselves, the characters tend to be well fleshed out, as real as the people we know in our real lives. The writing is usually taut, fast-paced and gripping, and the plots are rarely flabby in the middle section like their Adult counterparts can be.

For me though, one of the things I like best about YA titles, and the thing that often draws me to them in the first place is the cover. YA books have amazing cover art. Take 'Paper Towns' for example. That's a great cover. Laid out on those presentation tables they have in book stores, it really caught my eye. It was the same with' The Moth Diaries', the beautiful cover just called to me.

I think the main reason I love Young Adult fiction so much is the realism, the fact that when I'm reading a YA title, I'm reminded of my own teen years. I can identify with and understand the characters. The books speak to me. 

And that is why I unashamedly purchase and read Young Adult fiction, despite being well into my 20's.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Reading Round-up:

24. 'A Storm of Swords 1. Steel and Snow' by George R.R. Martin: [5/5] A great addition to a brilliant on-going series.

25. 'Memory's Wake' by Selina Fenech: [5/5] A beautiful Young Adult fantasy title including images drawn by the author.

26. 'If I Stay' by Gayle Forman: [5/5] A sweet, thought-provoking Young Adult novel about life and death that had me in tears.

27. 'Darkhouse' by Karina Halle: [5/5] A seductively scary piece of writing. A brilliant opening to a series.

28. 'No Plot, No Problem' by Chris Baty: [4/5] A kick up the arse for flagging novelists.

29. 'Paper Towns' by John Green: [5/5] A deep and meaningful Young Adult novel that still manages to retain some humor despite its serious subject matter.

30. 'The Shining' by Stephen King: [5/5] A creepy psychological horror that will have you hooked.

31. 'Red Fox' by Karina Halle: [5/5] A brilliant follow-up to 'Darkhouse'. A fantastic continuation of the Experiment in Terror series.

32. 'The Benson' by Karina Halle: [4/5] An Experiment in Terror novella that manages to pack a scary punch despite its short length.

33. 'Rage' by Stephen King as Richard Bachman: [3/5] A now-banned book about a school shooting that really gets you thinking.

34. 'The Moth Diaries' by Rachel Klein: [5/5] A psychological horror that offers some substance to the Vampire saturated Young Adult market.

35. 'Horns' by Joe Hill: [5/5] A cleverly plotted mystery imbued with some amazing supernatural elements. Not all that scary but horror in the truest sense.

I also read two short stories this month which I didn't blog about because they weren't really that outstanding. If you're interested, they were 'New Girl (Anti-Heroes #1) by Louise Bohmer and 'NightmareZ Asylum' by Irma Geddon.

Looking back, it seems as though I really enjoyed the books I read in May. There are a whole bunch of five star ratings there. I can't actually believe I read 14 books either. That's got to be a record for me. And it takes me to 35 books read this year, which means that I'm only five books away from completing my personal target of completing 40 books in 2013. I'm not certain yet whether I'll up my goal or just consider it completed and enjoy reading as many books as I can. I'll have to wait and see how I feel.