Wednesday 27 February 2013

Somebody gave me an award today!

I got a comment on my Hunger Games post from Ms Nose in a Book today, saying that she'd nominated me for the Beautiful Blogger Award, which I'm really chuffed about! Here's how it works:

1) Display the Beautiful Blogger award on your blog
2) Announce your win in a post and link back to the blogger who awarded you with it
3) Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers
4) Drop them a comment on their site/blog to let them know you awarded them
5) Post seven interesting things about yourself


* * * * * * * * *

Soo, here goes with the blogs:

A Wordless Blogger
Raising 5 Kids with Disabilities and Remaining Sane
The Librarian Who Doesn't Say "Shhh"
"Read it, Daddy!"
A Year of Reading
Dalton's Drivel
Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books
What Danielle Did Next
Pain and Triumphs - this is my best friend's blog. She's only written one post so far but she always gets a mention from me!
Words, Pages and Books
Kid Lit Frenzy
Mother Daughter Book Reviews
Boys Read
Readful Things

* * * * * * * * *

Interesting is such a subjective term and I am just a 'normal' person, but I'll try my best!

1) I have a PADI qualification to scuba dive up to 12m.
2) I can't watch 3D films as I'm blind in one eye.
3) When I was 13, a poem I wrote won a Harry Potter competition - I got a signed copy of the first Harry Potter book, as well as seeing the first film in Leicester Square cinema.
4) I love family history and, at one point linked myself to William the Conqueror! I've since deleted loads to make sure everything's accurate though.
5)  As a child, my dad once threatened to make me sleep in the garage because he caught me reading when I should have been sleeping... again!
6) I surprise people with my sense of humour - they expect me to be quite boring/innocent, but I've been told I have a very dirty laugh!
7) I tend to drive my family and closest friends wild because I hum a lot. I have got a lot better though, in my defence!

Tuesday 26 February 2013

I love a good dystopia!

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Published by Scholastic

Hunger Games

A fight to the death - on live TV. The game show where you kill or die, and where the winner's prize is survival. In District 12, where Katniss Everdeen lives, life is harsh and brutal, ruled from afar by the all-powerful leaders of the Capitol. The climax of each year is the savage Hunger Games - where twelve boys and twelve girls from each District face each other in a murderous showdown. When sixteen-year-old Katniss is chosen to represent her district in the Games, everyone thinks it's a death sentence. Only one person can survive the horrors of the arena. But plucky Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature...

I finished this book for the second time around 15 minutes ago, and I'm still missing being part of its world. Yes, it's that good. Actually, I read the whole book just today, which is why I have two posts so close together. The first time I read it, just before the film came out, I'd followed a friend's recommendation to read the books first, and devoured all three in as many days. I then had to give up my Kindle for a few days so that my friend could read it, and she was just as enamoured. I know my American cousins loved it too. Safe to say, it was very popular in my circle of friends! I have heard a couple of dismissive comments saying it's a rip-off of Battle Royale, but I haven't read that yet, so I'll reserve judgement.

Set in post-apocalyptic America, now known as Panem, the book very quickly sets Katniss, the protagonist, up as a fiercely protective older sister. So protective, she learnt to hunt, barter on the black market and generally help her family survive when their father dies and their mother is overcome by depression. So protective, she volunteers in her sister's place for the practically suicidal Hunger Games. It's not long into the book that the reaping takes place, but by the time it does, the reader knows all they need to about who Katniss is, where she's coming from, and also sets the scene for her dilemma over the coming books. You're rooting for her all the way, and the way Suzanne Collins writes from Katniss's perspective is extremely effective. I was constantly sympathising with her, while at the same time simply admiring how the cogs in her mind worked in helping her to survive. None of it seemed contrived.

I'm a really big fan of dystopias anyway, but I loved what this plot was based on. Collins has said that her idea for The Hunger Games came from reality TV, and what might happen if it got warped. In a society where it's almost impossible to avoid reality television, the plot becomes really contemporary, whilst also having a definite mix of Orwell's Big Brother in there. Having also read the next two stories before, I know it gets a lot darker, but I'll review those another time. (BRIEF SPOILER!) In the TV context, it's also really easy to see how anything that boosted ratings (the "star-crossed lovers") would be extremely powerful. It took me a while to get this, but actually, being torn between Gale and Peeta is quite understandable, given the different extremes she knows both under. I suppose comparisons could be made, but it's definitely no Twilight.

The pacing of the book is done brilliantly (hence why I've read it twice, both taking less than a day!). Collins controls the twists and turns of the plot as adeptly as the gamemakers. The main characters are really multi-faceted, and the important themes - action, politics, and yes, even love - all come out in sometimes unexpected places.

Having also seen the film, I'm really impressed with how well it translated across. Obviously, no film can ever compete with the level of detail and the reader's own imagination in a book, but it was good. I can't remember what I thought of casting at the time, but I must admit, I did see Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in my mind when reading the book this time. This may come across as a backhanded compliment, but Jennifer Lawrence seems to have the right level of awkwardness/social unease in front of the cameras that I associated with Katniss, and also fits the book's description.

It's time for me to stop rambling and say goodnight now, but please leave your thoughts in the comments. The Hunger Games is a brilliant book and I would thoroughly recommend it to everyone!

Changeling, by Philippa Gregory

Changeling, by Philippa Gregory
Published by Simon and Schuster

The first book in the thrilling YA sequence, Order of Darkness.

The year is 1453, and all signs point to it being the end of the world. Accused of heresy and expelled from his monastery, handsome seventeen-year-old, Luca Vero, is recruited by a mysterious stranger to record the end of times across Europe. Commanded by sealed orders, Luca is sent to map the fears of Christendom, and travel to the very frontier of good and evil. Seventeen-year-old Isolde, a Lady Abbess, is trapped in a nunnery to prevent her claiming her rich inheritance. As the nuns in her care are driven mad by strange visions, walking in their sleep, and showing bleeding wounds, Luca is sent to investigate and all the evidence points to Isolde's criminal guilt. Outside in the yard they are building a pyre to burn her for witchcraft. Forced to face the greatest fears of the dark ages - black magic, werewolves, madness - Luca and Isolde embark on a search for truth, their own destinies, and even love as they take the unknown ways to the real historical figure who defends the boundaries of Christendom and holds the secrets of the Order of Darkness.

I knew I had to read this book after this review alerted me to Philippa Gregory's foray into YA literature. I'm definitely a fan of her writing, having read a couple of her books, the most impressive, in my opinion, being The Other Boleyn Girl. I am a complete history geek, and had really high hopes, as I'm usually kept transfixed.

For the most part, I enjoyed it. I liked the mysteries that seemed difficult to explain, and the sense of injustice felt at Isolde's plight (a very plausible situation, back then) kept me interested throughout the book at what would become of her. It was also good when various characters (and not just Luca) were able to shed some light on the piece of the puzzle - it made it seem a little more realistic. I really liked the character of Freize, and how he reacts around pretty much everyone!

However, there was some sort of sparkle missing, especially given my expectations of the author. I couldn't put my finger on what it was this morning, when I finished the book, but I think I've got the gist now. This may be my natural cynicism, but it seemed as though Luca and Isolde were both a little too perfect - they're both great looking and have sexual chemistry, which, given that it's supposed to be staying relatively historically accurate, doesn't seem entirely appropriate, unless in later books they manage to resist each other.

Then, there are some moments that are only half-arsedly explained. (SPOILERS!) Firstly, it is suggested that Freize did not, as he said, release them from the dungeon, but no reason is given for this. Then, the werewolf is given as a little boy lost years before. All well and good, but can a wild child really be mistaken for an animal? I must admit, it stretched my imagination a little far!

Despite my criticism though, it wasn't a bad book, and I probably would read the other books in the series. The Changeling aspect was barely touched upon, which is odd considering it's the title of the book! The plot was good, and if the character development gets a little better, I will probably be rating them higher than this one!

Sunday 24 February 2013

Another classic I've only just discovered!

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Published by HarperCollins

"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird". A lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel - a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man's struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much. To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, an anti-racist novel, a historical drama of the Great Depression and a sublime example of the Southern writing tradition.

Well, February is definitely the month for discovering classics I've missed! For some reason, I'd always classed To Kill a Mockingbird in amongst the Agatha Christie genre of murder mysteries - not that I've read those either - and didn't know enough about it for it to have piqued my interest. Now I've read it though, I can see what all the fuss is about, and it's not surprising that, despite being published in 1960, it was still the 65th best-selling book of all time in 2012. Beware of spoilers!

The story is set in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, and is written from the perspective of Jean Louise 'Scout' Finch, who is between six and eight years old as the story progresses. The start of the book does an effective job of introducing us to all the characters. Scout lives with her widowed father, Atticus, a lawyer, her brother Jem (who is 4 years older than her) and Calpurnia, a black woman who acts as a type of mother figure. A friend, Dill, also joins them in the summer. The three children are intrigued by Arthur 'Boo' Radley, who lives in the house on the corner but is never seen outside. I really enjoyed this part of the story; it set the scene brilliantly, as well as helping me reminisce about my own childhood. Even if there is no 'haunted' house, children will always make one - at least, my brother and I did! With the limitless amounts of imagination children have, there will always be adventures to be had and 'monsters' to escape from.  There was one particular house, when we were around the same age as Jem and Scout, where they had a doorbell you pulled, like a cord. My brother Josh said it was a doorbell that made you scream every time you pulled it, so we obviously had great fun in pulling it, screaming, and running away. If by some fluke the person living there is reading this, I'm really sorry, but it still makes me laugh! There was also every Christmas, when we went carol singing. We had decided that the houses beyond the wood were richer than the others, and every year would link arms, lighting matches to try and find our way in the dark and telling ghost stories the whole time.

Once everything has been established, the book moves on to a case Atticus is defending. A black man, Tom, has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, part of a trashy white family with very poor education and even less money. This is where the casual prejudice of the time is evident - Jem and Scout have to put up with people calling their family a "nigger-lover" (sorry if that language offends, it is a direct quote and I mean no harm); Atticus faces repercussions for his whole-hearted attempt to save Tom; and many of the Maycomb women look down on the black community. However, there's still a touch of hope - the way Atticus defends Tom's case makes everybody think, a great feat in the setting where black and white people are in completely different classes. In this part of the story, I really looked up to Atticus, in his seemingly-infinite wisdom.

In the final part of the story, Jem and Scout finally get to meet Boo Radley, and it is here that the title of the book becomes apparent. In the middle of the book, after Jem and Scout get air-rifles, it is said:

When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn't teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn't interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, "I'd rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

"Your father's right," she said. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Obviously, not knowing what was coming, I thought the story must eventually be about the children shooting a mockingbird. The last page of the book, though, I realised that it was a lot more subtle and symbolic than that. The mockingjay is Boo Radley, the man who gives when he can and causes no harm.

I really wish I'd read this story as a child, to see what sort of perspective I'd have had back then. Reading as an adult means that, while Scout was a brilliant perspective, I was almost reading as an outsider. I could see her maturing, slowly fitting the pieces together to start acting like an adult, but at the same time it was an undeniably adult reading.  I really really enjoyed the book, but I have a feeling it's one of those multi-faceted ones where you read something different every time. I can't help thinking that reading it as a child would have been a lot more powerful. Does anyone who has read the book as a child and as an adult have any thoughts on this?

Also, good blog posts talking about this blog can be found here, here and here.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

The marvellous Quentin Blake

I heard on the radio that Quentin Blake was receiving a knighthood today. I've checked this out and can only find 2 stories on the net (with minimal details) to back this up, but it's still worthwhile talking about him. After all, he did become Sir Quentin Blake in the 2013 New Year's Honours List, and I'd think a child deprived if they hadn't heard of him. (EDIT: It's true - check out Twitter! @ClarenceHouse, @QuentinBlakeHQ or just see the pic here.)

As a child, I saw a lot of Blake's work through his illustrations of Roald Dahl's books, a staple of the average English classroom. Having done a little research, I found out that he used to be Children's Laureate between 1999 and 2001, which is awesome. This blog post mentions more about some of his work, better than I could.

While I've decided to read some of his books as soon as I can - as I'm ashamed to say I haven't yet - today's review is going to be one of the books he illustrated for Roald Dahl.

George's Marvellous Medicine, by Roald Dahl
Published by Puffin

George's grandma has some pretty odd views. In fact, she's not a very nice person at all. She thinks caterpillars and slugs are delicious and likes to crunch on beetles best of all. 

George can do nothing right in Grandma's eyes, so when it's time for her medicine he decides to give her a dose of his own special brew.

This was always my favourite Roald Dahl book, and I've re-remembered why now! It's deliciously naughty, and everybody can imagine gleefully mixing up a concoction to make a disliked person yell "Oweeeee!"

A couple of years ago, I was an au pair in France for three children: a boy aged 9 and two girls, aged 5 years and 9 months old, respectively. I remember I had a little bit of trouble getting the children to settle down and listen to me reading a book, and alas, with the girls, I wasn't actually successful. They were really intelligent kids, speaking French and German, with English as their third language. With the boy though - I'll call him L, as I haven't asked permission to use his name - he ended up loving this book. While there were some words I thought it necessary to replace so that he'd understand, he got really into it, and every day was asking me to read him another chapter.

It's all slightly cheeky, and very funny. There have certainly been people over the years I'd love to make a magical medicine for, and I remember L getting more and more excited as he firstly wondered what was going to happen to Grandma, and then was fascinated by all the effects the medicine had.

gmm gramThere's a real childish logic to how George goes about concocting his marvellous medicine, which I know appeals to many kids. She's got rotten teeth, so he'll put toothpaste in, and if that doesn't work, he'll paint them red with nail varnish. Genius! Here's one of his ideas:
"The first one he took down was a large box of SUPERWHITE FOR AUTOMATIC WASHING-MACHINES. DIRT, it said, WILL DISAPPEAR LIKE MAGIC. George didn't know whether Grandma was automatic or not, but she was certainly a dirty old woman."

Quentin Blake's illustrations really add to the story, particularly in the second half of the book, when the child reading it can see just how big the characters are getting.
The imagination is powerful, but even more so when mixed with these visual aids - see the picture to the right. I think the great thing about the detail of these illustrations - particularly Grandma's face - is that you can project feelings onto them. In the context of the story it's really easy to see her as a disgusting "old bird", but if it was slightly different, judging from the front page you could see her as slightly mischievous too. Or is that just me?!

However, I'm digressing. For an adult reading the book, the words dance off the tongue just like George, imagining he's casting a spell over his cauldron. I found that L's attention was thoroughly captured and he loved hearing the 'special effects' of all the whooshes and woweeees. There's also the magical and triumphant aspects - he's somehow created this cool concoction that has meant he's got his own back on his grouchy old Grandma and helped out his dad by enlarging all the animals. I think kids love those feeling of pride and revenge they get on George's behalf, while at the same time getting vivid images in their head that they'll remember for a long time - I know I did!

PS. I've just seen this awesome fact from The Puffin Blog:

When Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake worked together on The Enormous Crocodile in 1978, it was the perfect match. Quentin never knew anything about a new story until the manuscript arrived. ‘You’ll have fun with this,’ Roald Dahl would say. He’d then make lots of illustrations and take them along to Gypsy House. Did you know the BFG’s shoes were inspired by Roald Dahl’s own sandals? He sent them to Quentin Blake in the post!

Sunday 17 February 2013

I've finally read some Dr Seuss books!

Having spent far too much money recently on buying some more books for the kids, I finally got to let them pick what they wanted to read from a nice new pile (of second-hand books, mainly - my bank account is already crying a little!). I was quite surprised to find that Caitlin and Lewis both went for a Dr Seuss book; Caitlin for The Cat in the Hat and Lewis for I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!. I wasn't surprised for any bad reasons - it's just that I'd also bought Giraffes Can't Dance!, one of the World Book Day books this year, and I thought Caitlin would have been straight onto that one, seeing as she loves giraffes and dancing! I think on these books they loved the illustration on the front, and might even have been a little aware of the cat in the hat - I'm not sure! The illustrations in both books were awesome and really engaging.

The Cat in the Hat, by Dr Seuss
Published by HarperCollins

Cat in the hatWhen the Cat in the Hat steps in on the mat, Sally and her brother are in for a roller-coaster ride of havoc and mayhem.

I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!, by Dr Seuss
Published by HarperCollins
This celebration of the joys of reading encourages us to open our eyes and take pride in our reading, so we'll learn lots of stuff and end up succeeding!

We started off with The Cat in the Hat, which went down really well with the children. They identified really strongly with the idea of the naughty cat and things 1 and 2, and were able to answer questions at the end about whether they would have told their mum if something like that had happened to them. For the record, they would have kept quiet! Lewis especially loved the idea of being able to carry all those items - I had great fun getting him to find certain things.

We then went on to I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!. This one started off okay - I was able to test the children on their colours at the beginning, They also liked trying to close one eye at a time! I had to stop a little for that bit, seeing as I can only see out of one eye, but they loved trying - Caitlin could only manage to close her left eye, haha! After this point, it went downhill though. Lewis lost attention, and while Caitlin was listening, she didn't seem all that engaged with it. I think this is down to a couple of reasons. Firstly, for books aimed at their age range, I did find them fairly long, so expecting Lewis, particularly, to sit through 2 of them was probably asking a little much. Then, particularly with I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!, I thought there were possibly a few too many American references for them to grasp. They barely know about English geography, let alone being able to grasp Mississippi!

I had a quick scan of blogs talking about Dr Seuss and found this one, which gave a list of good Seuss links. There were 2 that I think Caitlin and Lewis will love - Seussville and The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That!I'm babysitting for an hour or so tomorrow, so I'll probably try them out. I've also recently discovered the Me Books app, which features loads of Ladybird Classics, and is really interactive. I can't wait to see if it manages to keep them quiet!

Monday 11 February 2013

A visit to Bristol

I visited my best friend in Bristol over the weekend. She's mother to the beautiful Vanessa, who is now 2 months old, and starting to get her own personality. Wonderful! Vintee (my friend) and her husband also live with his sister and nephew, who is almost 4. I haven't asked his mother's permission to mention his name, so I'll just call him N. He's a really bright boy, and so well behaved! N had a couple of his books in his bookbag, which I'll review below.

Firstly though, someone I follow on Twitter wrote a blog post looking for book reviewers. If that's you, take a look!

Elephant, by Petr Horáček
Published by Walker Books


He's fun. He's big. He's messy. 

He's ELEPHANT. And he's never too busy to play.

This was a really sweet, beautifully illustrated story that held N's attention. There was enough repetition for him to be able to anticipate what was coming (and so join in more), but then a cute little twist at the end that left him giggling. Recommended!

There's an Ouch in my Pouch!, by Jeanne Willis & Garry Parsons
Published by Puffin

Ouch in my Pouch

What is the matter with Willaby Wallaby?

Why is he sobbing, and throwing a wobbly?

Read this bonza billabong rhyme and find out just why one little wallaby is so cross.

This book wasn't bad, although I can't say I was the biggest fan. There's a lot of rhyming, which is good, but at the same time, they were  very easy to trip over. At one point, the words are arranged on the page to suggest bouncing, which looks good, but wasn't the most practical thing when I was reading it - I kept missing words! N enjoyed it, particularly the repetition of certain phrases (such as "there's an ouch in my pouch", obviously!). However, in parts it did seem as though he was slightly glazing over. Vintee and I got him involved when we could, but whether it was the unfamiliar Australian animals or just that the story was slightly above his level, there only seemed to  be a half-hearted enjoyment. Still, it'll probably be just fine when he's just that little bit older!

Saturday 9 February 2013

Where the books are

I'm on the coach to Bristol as I write this, so please excuse any bad formatting and lack of links - I'm using my phone! It's National Libraries Day today though, so I've been reading, and I couldn't resist!

I used to go to my grandparents' house every half term as a child. Those memories include Baffins Pond, where we'd always go, trips in the local area (the historical ones were my favourite), going to see Poppa when he was a tour guide at Forts Purbrook & Widley, and many others. A fond memory is being taken to the library when they were holding children's reading sessions; they'd have dress up days and get everyone involved. I remember a time when I dressed up as a pirate and told everyone my name was Jane. I was an odd child!

Maybe it's because I don't have any children of my own, but I never hear about events like that any more. Small libraries have limited opening hours, and just in general they appear to be fading out of social consciousness, which is a real shame.

I recently enquired to the library in Coulsdon about starting up, or helping with, a Chatterbooks group. The librarian told me that there hadn't been much interest when they'd started one before, so it was probably better to contact a library like Purley. I'm not blaming anyone in mentioning this; I just thought it sad that, in an area where there was numerous primary schools nearby, no children were attending.

This is such a shame. Part of what I love about children's books is doing all the silly voices and seeing the kids engage. I remember loving being read to, and also loved talking about books. That won't have gone away.

Does your local library still do events like that? In this time of e-books and technology, what can be done to revive the library?

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Book/puppet fun!

Snuggle Bunny, by Emma Goldhawk
Published by Silver Dolphin Books

Snuggle Bunny
Snuggle Bunny's feeling tired - it must be time for bed. Join in and help him as he gets ready to snuggle up tight.

Night, night, Snuggle Bunny!

Triple Trouble (Caitlin, Lewis and Harry) visited again today, running to me as soon as I got in the door. C & L immediately ordered me to read them their "favourite" book, although I did just about manage to hold them off while I ate my dinner! While they were waiting, they sat at their little table with this book in the middle, talking to the rabbit and generally entertaining themselves. It was unbelievably cute to watch!

When I finally got around to reading it to them, although (especially for Caitlin) the story was probably too simple, they really enjoyed it. Snuggle Bunny was being helped to wash himself, clean his teeth and brush his ears - they loved it! Harry, on the floor crawling around, was also transfixed. Next time I'm babysitting and it's just us two, I'm looking forward to letting him have a good old play too :-). Probably best it's read to him on his own, as to really appreciate it he'll probably need to dribble and chew on it a little bit, haha!

This book was a great buy - £7 off the RRP, and even without the story, the illustrations were good enough to hold their attention. Needless to say, they loved the puppet!

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Choices: Book or e-book?

How do you prefer to read, with an eReader like a Kindle or Nook, or with an old school paperback in hand?

Kindle or book? That's not as simple as one or the other. However, letting sheer numbers speak for themselves, I definitely voted e-book. There's always room in my handbag, I can accessorise (etsy is awesome), and (on a weird note), handling a Kindle doesn't make my hands completely dry. Then there's the shopping. Apart from the fact that I spend far too much money on several "small" purchases, I love the fact that so many books are within my budget, and I can experience the work of budding authors.

I will always love books: as the original post (to which I'm responding) mentions, having our favourite books on the shelf is like a work of art. I think I will always have books in my house - a library if I can - but I'm enjoying my easy access too much to be restricted just to paperbacks now. Don't get me wrong, I still explore the dusty old bookshops - it's a lot of fun! - but I now have a virtual bookshop to explore.

The way I see it is that we're lucky to have access to both - why go for one or the other? If I'm reading, I'm happy!

Monday 4 February 2013

The Fault in Our Stars: a grenade of great writing

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
Published by Penguin

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now.

Two years post miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.
I saw somewhere that the 4th of February was World Cancer Day, and thought I'd re-read The Fault in Our Stars so I could review it today. If you don't want to read a long review, here's my summary: Read. This. Book. It is perfect.

In my last review (of Beautiful Creatures)I was a little harsh about the portrayal of love stories in teenage/young adult fiction. The backbone of this book is that slowly but surely, the two main characters, Hazel and Augustus, fall in love. It's not some pre-determined, intense force that sweeps the characters off their feet. It's slow and steady, with a few set-backs, much like Hazel's breathing at times, if you like. As Hazel puts it, perfectly:
"I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once."
There's nothing glamorous - life goes up and down, it's sad and it's funny, it's not fair. It's real.

In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green introduces us to two extremely philosophical teenagers that have been through a lot more than most people, with the knowledge that there is only more hardship to come. He humanises something I know I have never really thought about - the feelings, and more specifically, the sense of humour cancer sufferers/survivors have throughout it all. I talk about the humour later, but something that really got the message across was Hazel finally admitting her biggest fear to her parents. Hazel, the girl who decided to become a vegetarian so as to "minimise the number of deaths I'm responsible for."
"'I'm like. Like. I'm a grenade, Mom. I'm a grenade and at some point I'm going to blow up and I would like to minimise the casualties, okay?'"
It was the realness of the characters that got me so attached. For the last third of the story, I was unabashedly sobbing (luckily, alone. The first time I finished this, I was on a bus). To be blunt (and a little bit gross), the best way I can describe the end of this book is like this. When I was a child, I'd be crying my eyes out over something or other, and my mum would be comforting me. When the worst was over, she'd joke that I'd better not have got snot on her jumper, which would make me laugh through the tears. I'm trying not to put spoilers in here, but the next quote, for example, happens just after one of the most poignant parts of the book. It lightens the mood without altering the seriousness, and at the same time reminding us that they are, after all, only teenagers.
"He smiled. Gallows humour. 'I'm on a roller coaster that only goes up,' he said.

'And it is my privilege and my responsibility to ride all the way up with you,' I said.

'Would it be absolutely ludicrous to try to make out?'

'There is no try,' I said. 'There is only do.'"
John Green managed to blend humour and tragedy perfectly. If you've read the book already, he wrote a blog post answering questions about the book - I'd recommend a read. I don't want to waffle, so I'll leave it there, but I'd wholeheartedly recommend The Fault in Our Stars - it's an instant favourite and already has a place in my heart. Don't forget the tissues!

Oh, and about the film that's apparently in the works - did anyone else picture Hazel as looking a little like Ellen Page in Juno? Maybe it's a similar attitude to life, but I could only see her as this!

PS - Sorry for anglicising the quotes - habit!

Saturday 2 February 2013

Is 'Beautiful Creatures' another Twilight?

Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
Published by Penguin

Beautiful Creatures

Is falling in love the beginning... or the end?

In Ethan Wate's hometown there lies the darkest of secrets.

There is a girl.

Slowly, she pulled the hood from her head. Green eyes, black hair. Lena Duchannes.

There is a curse.

On the Sixteenth Moon, the Sixteenth Year, the Book will take what it's been promised. And no one can stop it.

In the end, there is a grave.

Lena and Ethan become bound together by a deep, powerful love. But Lena is cursed and on her sixteenth birthday, her fate will be decided.

Ethan never even saw it coming.

I was made aware of this book when, at the cinema to see Les Miserables, I saw the trailer for the film adaptation. Apart from loving the song, which immediately went on my iPod when I got home (Seven Devils - Florence + the Machine), what I saw caught my attention enough to jot down the name and read the book.

Beautiful Creatures is set in the fictional town of Gatlin, South Carolina. Ethan Wate, from whose perspective the book is written, describes his town's residents as either "stupid or stuck", and can't wait to leave, bored with the banality of his life. Fairly soon into the book, the reader is pulled into his dream, where we meet a girl smelling of lemons and rosemary, in need of help. A girl who, although he hasn't yet met her, Ethan can't live without.

The girl is Lena Duchannes ("Duchannes rhymes with rain"), with black hair, green eyes, and mysterious powers that see her surrounded by the pathetic fallacy. It's often raining when Lena's upset, and at one point there's even a tornado. Lena's a Caster, a broader term for a witch that, within her family, also includes a palimpsest, a siren and an incubus. The main premise of the story is that Lena's family is cursed, and on the night of their sixteenth birthday each member of that family becomes 'claimed' as either a dark or light Caster. Lena keeps a count on her hand of how many days she has left until this night, but until she gets to that point, she's tormented by a Carrie-esque group of Gatlin-born-and-raised girls, alongside much of the rest of the town.

I read quite a good blog post on this a few days ago, although, sorry, I can't find it again for love nor money now! They pointed out that Ethan had a fair few feminine qualities (being very observant of Lena's clothes, for example), but that if the story had been written from Lena's perspective, it would have been 900 pages of teenage angst. I agree with that! It's easy to see why she would be feeling so fraught though - it is made clear that she has no control over which way she will turn. If she is claimed as a Dark Caster, the book says, her personality will completely change, and she'll no longer be able to see the family she has grown up with (apart from Ridley, I guess).

I did enjoy the story - it was fast paced, there was always enough going on to hold my attention, and there was a great twist at the end that I didn't see coming. I really liked the fact that Lena craved normality, even though it was, ironically, the thing that Ethan hates about his town. As a teenager with medical/weight/my share of social issues, I could really relate to the idea that, despite whatever else she had going on, she just wanted to be able to do what everyone else does, no matter how boring or basic it may seem. That really resonated with me.

More spoilers from this point!

I was also really fascinated with the character of Ridley. She came strutting onto the scene and automatically made my jaw drop, as I think she was supposed to. Even when we're told she's a Dark Caster, her struggle with good and bad always seems to be lurking somewhere. I thought it really added grit to the book that she and Lena were best friends all through their childhood - you can really tell that Ridley still wants what's best for Lena, even if that later translates to her trying to help Sarafine turn Lena towards the dark side. Then, later on, it's obvious she has feelings for Link, and even the darkness within her can't squash that. It's an intriguing conflict!

However, I think this book will only ever be a guilty pleasure, and that's because of the love thing. Now, I must admit, it's not as bad as the Twilight film (which sickened me, and put me off reading the books), where Bella and Edward meet and she's almost straight away "in love" with him. However, it's still obvious almost from the beginning that by the end of the book, Lena and Ethan will have said those 3 overused, under-meant words - "I love you". She's 15, and he's 16, by the way. The book manages to make it seem like their destiny by making their ancestors romantically linked, but I'm still not sure. I admit this may be because I'm slightly biased; I've never been in love, and didn't actually have a boyfriend as a teenager. Maybe it is really easy to fall in love, I don't know. To me though, being realistic is important - even in a fantasy book. As a reader, I need to be able to relate to the characters in some way, and it seemed like a cliche to make their feelings so intense, despite the events in the book.

Then, there's the ending. While I really enjoyed the twist at the end, it was over too quickly. There was so much build up to meeting Sarafine, only for her to die (it seemed like) 10 minutes after she was first introduced. Plus, what happened to Ridley? Technically, Lena didn't choose a side, so I do want to read further on in the series to see what happened to her - I'll be really disappointed if she's just forgotten about. As well as this, I want to know more about the name changes - why are they necessary, and do the new names fit them better somehow?

If you want to read more about Beautiful Creatures, I found some good reviews here and here.

Well, if you've made it through my rambling, I'm impressed! I know I haven't mentioned several important characters (Amma, for one), but I've covered most of the things I remember thinking about the book. Overall, I did like it and I'll be going to see the film, as well as reading more of the series, but I did see some parallels with Twilight. What did you think?