7.30.2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Beginnings/Endings of Books


This week's Top Ten Tuesday with The Broke and the Bookish is another thought-provoking topic: Top Ten Beginnings/Endings of Books. This one is going to be tough for me, I'll say that right up front. As I discussed in the last "Let's Talk" post, my reading has been slow and sporadic for the last couple of years, and the details of a lot of the books I've read are a bit fuzzy. I might not make it to 10, guys, but I'll do my best!

Beginnings:

1. Travels - Michael Crichton. One of the best first lines in the history of ever: "It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw." You just have to keep reading, don't you?

2. I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith. Another epic first line: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." The rest of the book lives up to the first line, drawing a picture of a sensitive, observant young girl caught up in an eccentric family. Her journal, as the title states,  captures life in the castle that she shares with her father, a washed-up literary phenomenon, her stepmother, an artist's model who enjoys communing (read: wandering around nude) with nature, her vain and ambitious sister Rose, younger brother who, despite everything is a pretty normal boy, the son of a former servant who is desperately in love with Cassandra, our narrator, and the dog. What is so endearing about the book is that although it depicts a quirky life that is miles from any semblance of normal, it is normal to Cassandra, so she writes it as anyone else would write about mundane daily affairs. I first fell in love with this book as a teenager and have never fallen out of it.

3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (though they're all pretty good) - JK Rowling. I wish these books had been around when I was a kid. They are superbly written, and magical in their own right. I feel like each of these books opens wide a door into a fantastic world and sets it up so all the reader has to do is walk through. It's impossible to start reading one of these books and not be instantly captivated.

4. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams. I'll admit right up front that I never finished this series - or this book. I think having it read to me as a child, listening to it on the radio and then watching the movie made the story too familiar to me, so the book feels as if it's going too slowly whenever I try to read it. It's hard to get swept up in it when I already know what's going to happen next. And this is sad, because had I stumbled across this series as an adult, I am positive I would have loved it. That said, the beginning of the book is masterful and hilarious.

5. Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene. The book this ends up being is very different from what you expect when reading the first few pages. It starts off stuffy, buttoned down, and unerringly proper, as its main character is described himself. But by the end of the second chapter, the book has done a 180 and suddenly our starched retired bank manager is swept into a world of smuggling, sinister characters and adventure. Excellently engaging read.

Bonus
The best first line of all time has to go to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. But I haven't read past that line, so I didn't feel like I could really include it....

Endings:

1. Harry Potter (pretty much every one) - JK Rowling. I wasn't disappointed in her once. She manages time and again to provide a satisfying (if sometimes tear-soaked) ending to each section of the story - the final book being, naturally, an epic conclusion. 

2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy - JRR Tolkien. This is a series I am so grateful to have read, but that was completely exhausting while reading it. The danger, the endless stream of hopeless situations and dire circumstances. It's a world descending into hell with one small hobbit its only chance at redemption. This was a story that is so impeccably written that to read it is to experience every harrowing moment of it. Which is, of course, the sign of an amazing writer, but for a story this long it really does take it out of you. But when you finally make it to the end with Bilbo and Sam, feeling as if you have struggled beside them every step of the journey, you will experience an amazing sense of relief. Not only that, but the story's finale is flawlessly composed.

3. A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving. Now, I read this one in high school, and honestly the memory of its details are fuzzy. But I do remember getting to the end of this book and feeling like the author had managed to pull of something amazing. I felt like the bits of the story snapped into place as I read and by the end I was deeply affected by the story. I should probably re-read it so I can get more specific!

4. The Twilight Saga - Stephenie Meyer. Say what you will about the quality of writing, the horrible role model Bella makes for young girls, the soppiness of the romance, the whole sparkling fiasco (and trust me, I've probably said all that and more), she does do a good job of drawing all the threads together at the end of the final book.

5. The Fault In Our Stars - John Green. Being a more contemporary super-star, you have probably all heard of this book. But if you haven't, trust me, you need to read it. This is one of the happiest sad stories I've ever read, and I have rarely fallen so completely in love with two fictional characters. Fair warning: You WILL require tissues.

I'm sure I could have done better if I were up on my reading, but that'll have to do for this week!

7.26.2013

Let's Talk: Your Reading Habits


This week's topic on I Swim for Oceans' weekly "Let's Talk" link up is a good one: Your Reading Habits. This might require a bit of thought.


I go through phases with reading. Sometimes I'm voracious, devouring book after book - sometimes one every couple of days. Other times I'll go a month without reading a single chapter. This pattern has been further complicated by my post-University slump. At the end of my degree my school reading load was pretty intense. There were times when I was reading the equivalent of a book per class each week - and while the topics were interesting, they were also often exhausting.


When I graduated about two and a half years ago, reading had ceased to be an fun, relaxing activity that I did for leisure and had become an activity I equated with "work." I developed a habit during my last year of school of reading the fluffiest, lightest and easiest things I could stomach (yes, I read the entire Twilight series one week) to give my brain a break. By the time I finished school, even this wasn't happening as much. I went into a bit of a book blackout. I would read a book here and there if it really interested me, but I certainly didn't manage the frequency or depth of reading that I had been used to pre-Uni.


I'm still struggling with this a bit, but have discovered a haven in Young Adult fiction. I select YA books that have a bit more maturity and depth to them (The Fault in Our Stars, Eleanor and Park) for some of my reading, I'm also starting to dip my toe back into "grown up" fiction - but lighter reads. And my love for reading is starting to return. I've also found myself becoming more and more interested in reading the news, and have developed a habit of reading news during my commute every day. I see this as a positive change as my mind is starting to feel more alert after a lengthy period of being completely burned out.


Now that I'm getting back into reading, I've gone a bit overboard in creating a never-ending reading list. My bedside table is creaking under the weight of my to-read stack and I'm back to my old habit of reading several books at a time. I tend to read whenever the mood strikes. I'll often read during breaks at work, and nearly always read for at least half an hour before sleep. If a book really gets its hooks into me I'll read it wherever I can - and with my trusty e-reader this includes buses, any type of queue, while waiting for an appointment - whenever I've got down time. I'll also happily curl up and spend a weekend day lost in some other literary world if the mood strikes. I don't make rules around when or how I read, becuase I'm determined to make it fun again. I do try to share my thoughts on what I'm reading with you, so I sometimes jot down impressions, comments and quotes while reading. I'm hoping that I'll slowly work my way back into reading more challenging (and rewarding) literature again, because I miss the feeling of closing the back cover on a book that has forever changed the landscape of my mind.

7.24.2013

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Things that Make Me NOT Read a Book


This was actually yesterday's link, so I'm a day behind - but better late than never! And this week's Top Ten Tuesday with The Broke and the Bookish is a great topic: What ten things make me NOT read a book?

This is going to require some thought, because a lot of the time the decision to pick up a book, to buy it - even to read it once it's bought - happens based on instinct or a whim. But there are some things that immediately turn me off. Some of them are good reasons not to read a book, others are a good reminder to me that I need to be more open minded. But I'm going to be honest with you here, so try not to judge me too harshly!

1. Cover.

Yes, I judge books by their covers. I know you're not supposed to, I know authors don't always even get to pick their covers - but I can't shake that snap judgement that happens if I see a bad cover. To me, books are not only the receptacles for stories, they're also objects to be appreciated in their own right. I've purchased books I know I'll never read because their bindings or covers were so appealing I couldn't NOT take them home with me. Likewise I'm sure I've missed out on some great writing because I couldn't get past a cover that just made me go "NOPE." Sometimes I'll go for a book if I've heard great things about it, regardless of the cover - so it's not like there's some sort of hard and fast rule. I just mean when I'm browsing in a book store and looking at rows of books I've never heard a single thing about, that's when this cover thing really comes into play. So there it is, for better or worse: I judge books by their covers.

2. If I don't like the main character.

This is particularly true of books written in the first person. If I can't feel a connection to the character, chances are I won't make it far in the book.

3. If it's super slow to get started.

I have trouble sticking it out if a book doesn't grab me within the first few chapters. I generally try to get to 100 pages, but if it's not good by then, life's too short to force it.

4. A genre I can't get into (like Sci Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Harlequin Romance)

I try to branch out into different genres, but these ones rarely draw me in. Particularly if the fantasy has time travel (the inconsistencies drive me CRAZY), the horror has creepy creatures living in the closet and if the romance has a Fabio-looking guy on the front. *Shudder*

5.Doesn't live up to expectations

It is possible to over-hype a book. I prefer people to under-sell, but say enough to get me interested so that when I actually read it it can BLOW MY MIND. Even if you loved it, build it up too much and you're setting me up for disappointment.

6. Complex/Dialectic language

I don't mind working to get into the rhythm of a bygone era (Dickens, Austen) but reading books written in an impenetrable dialect is just way too much work. A Clockwork Orange, anyone?

7. Too heavy

While I think it's important to read about the whole gamut of human experience, I don't want to read a big, long, depressing book that will leave me in need of a prescription for prozac. Again, life's too short, and there are too many more cheerful (or at least less depressing) books out there

8. Too fluffy or lazy writing

I don't mind the book equivalent of cotton candy or Kraft dinner from time to time. I discovered while in University that after a particularly gruelling semester, fluff was exactly what I needed. During my last year I polished off the Shopaholic series, the Sookie Stackhouse books and the entire Twilight saga. My brain may have rotted a bit, but it was a welcome break. However, just because a book is light and fun, that's no excuse for lazy writing. Don't employ the same phrases and descriptions over and over again. Don't get lazy with descriptions or leave bits of the plot  unresolved. Fifty Shades of Grey was a perfect example.

9. Condescending tone or whining

You might be a brilliant author, you might have tons of experience or a great education. But if you write down to me or take a whiny tone, I will take offense, and I will hate you. This is why I never managed to make it through Chuck Klosterman.

10. Poor cover blurb

You have to make us want to read the book! I know writing the blurb isn't easy. You have to give just enough info to create intrigue without giving anything away. And you have to sum up a few hundred pages in a few paragraphs. But if it's not done well, you're losing me right there. Eleanor & Park is an example of this - amazing book; terrible blurb.

I'm sure I have lots more, but that's it for now! What about you guys? What makes you throw down a book and snort in disgust? Head on over and link up!

7.21.2013

BOOK NEWS: Penguin Goes Graff


You may not know this about me, but in addition to being a book worm, I also LOVE street art. Love love. I've spent an incalculable amount of time wandering back streets and with my nose pressed against bus windows peering down alleyways most people do their best to ignore in the hopes of glimpsing a bright colour on a wall or a telltale flash of poster paper. I've traipsed around, camera in hand, through my city's back alleys and along train tracks - I've even crawled into abandoned buildings to take photos of murals on their walls.

So I nearly died when I stumbled across this article in the Guardian - Penguin is working with street artists to give graffiti makeovers to some of their novels. So. Fricken. AWESOME. I don't even care what the books are, I am in favour. The only thing better than this was when Shepard Fairey did these covers for Animal Farm and 1984. Go check out all ten for yourself, but here are a few more of my faves:




7.20.2013

AGENT 21: RELOADED - Chris Ryan


This is the second book in the Zak Darke Agent 21 series (the first being, of course, Agent 21). Rather than struggle to sumarize the story for you I'm going to let Chris Ryan introduce you to the plot of the book:


Sound exciting? It is. Like the first book in the series, this one goes from one action sequence to the next, with barely enough time to catch your breath. The setting is different, yet just as foreign to Zak. This time his mission involves sneaking on board the ship of a vicious outlaw.

I have to say that I didn't enjoy this as much as the first one. While I LOVE the idea of a teen spy, I didn't feel like this plot line utilized that aspect enough. They could have just as easily sent an adult to accompany him, and probably should have done so.

SPOILER ALERT

There are also several details that either just straight up don't make sense or that aren't adequately explained - like why on earth would a kid go fishing at the end of a pier at night (this is how he does surveillance since there's no appropriate cover)? Wouldn't that draw some attention? And his plan for dealing with the thugs who are holding the building site for the school hostage. Seriously? You're going to take their ammo in the night and then take their guns away? They'd just get more weapons or sneak into your tents at night and slit your throats. Very bad idea. There are more of these small points that don't make sense, but I didn't make a list of them. But overall they added up to me feeling like the plot wasn't adequately edited.

The part that really didn't work for me, though was the teen villain. In the first book Zak uses his age to befriend the son of the bad guy. In this book the bad guy IS a teen. It doesn't work for me. It's just too unrealistic.

END SPOILER

Overall I'd say if you read the first novel and enjoyed it, give this a go - just be prepared to work a bit harder on that suspension of disbelief thing this time around.

------

Book Title: Agent 21: Reloaded
Author: Chris Ryan
Edition: Paperback
Published by: Red Fox
Released: March 1, 2012
Genre: Young Adult, Espionage, Thriller, Fiction
Pages: 352
Date Read: July 15-18, 2013
Rating: 6/10

7.19.2013

LET'S TALK: Books That Would Make Great Movies or Shows


Linking up for the first time with one of my newly-discovered fave book blogs for a weekly series called "Let's Talk." This week's topic is one that I've been meaning to write about anyway - so it seemed like a great opportunity: books that would make great movies or TV shows.

I have a feeling this is going to be a long post, so you might want to pause here and go make yourself a snack or a cup of coffee. Go on, you'll thank me about 15 minutes from now.

Before I get started, let me just say that this isn't as easy as it sounds. Just because I love a book doesn't mean it'll translate well onscreen (*ahem* Even Cowgirls Get the Blues *ahem*). Some stories - particularly those with a magical realism element, just don't work when you try to make them into a literal interpretation.

That said, there are TONS that would be amazing. So here's my list:

1. Boy Nobody (by Allen Zadoff) and the Agent 21 series (by Chris Ryan). These are both thrillers that involve teens in roles that we've never thought of them in before: spies and assassins. I'm fascinated by this concept, and I love a good heart-thumping adventure.

2. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I loved the characters in this book, and I'd love to see them come to life.

3. The Alphabet Murders series by Sue Grafton. You know, A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar... those books. Mostly just because I love mysteries. And there are so many of them - it'd be a great TV series.

4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I love, love, LOVED Coraline. I picture this done a similar way, but a bit more dark and brooding, cos, you know, GRAVEYARD.

6. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. They did a very short-lived TV series of one of his books, JPod (shot at my university, btw) that I loved and was very sad to see cancelled. I think Microserfs would be a great one to put on film - the characters are so interesting and varied, and there'd be so much potential to do more with them. Or they could just bring back JPod. Either way.

7. News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is his non-fiction account of Pablo Escobar's abduction of 10 prominent Colombians (mostly journalists) in an attempt to evade extradition to and prosecution in the US. I was completely gripped by this book and read it with as much rapt attention as any good crime novel. Because of the historical element I think it would make fascinating watching.

I'm sure there are tons more, but that's all I can think of for now. Want to share your opinions? Head over to I Swim for Oceans and link up!

7.18.2013

What are "Inappropriate" Topics for Teens to Read?


This post is a response to a really interesting article I read on Book Riot by Kelly Jensen. The article is called "What Are Grown-Ups Afraid of in YA Books?" and discusses the reactions adults have to YA books that deal with "adult" topics like rape, abortion, gangs, sex, etc. Some adults feel that these aren't appropriate topics for YA books, going so far as to lobby for them to be removed from school curricula and libraries. Jensen debunks these claims, citing a range of very good points from the fact that difficult and "grown up" topics have always been present in books read by teens, that teens are living some of these so-called "inappropriate" situations in their day-to-day lives and that reading books on these topics will not, in fact, cause kids to engage in the behaviours they discuss. To really get the full experience, you should go over and read her article now, before continuing with my response to it. Go ahead, I'll wait.

------

Done? Okay, good.

The article really got me thinking. I've only recently started reading newly-released young adult books, and I was a bit surprised by the violence in some of them (Boy Nobody and Agent 21, to be specific). But I don't think it's something to be up in arms about, nor do I think teens shouldn't be reading them. For a few reasons.

First, Jensen's right, books we adults read as teenagers also included the same elements as the books that are being complained about. So did films and, as she pointed out, real life.

Second, while I don't remember there being as many YA books to choose from, or such a variety in my teen years, that could be because I wasn't reading them - by the time I was in high school I was reading adult books. Even in elementary school I read Underground to Canada, Forbidden City and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. These, while written for young audiences, deal with pretty hefty topics - including slavery and genocide. I read Go Ask Alice (a journal of drug addiction) and Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (the true account of a teen runaway turned prostitute) by the time I finished my first year of high school, along with various books by Jean M. Auel and VC Andrews. By the time I was in grade 10 I was reading Margaret Atwood, Stephen King and Tom Robbins, and by grade 12 I was reading The World According to Garp, She's Come Undone, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Dispossessed, which definitely have some adult themes in them. Incidentally my favourite movies were Pulp Fiction, The Basketball Diaries, Kids and Trainspotting. And I wasn't even a particularly precocious child when it came to entertainment.

The reality I lived in was anything but "teen-themed," even when I was a teen. I had friends who were sexually assaulted, who dropped out of school, who lived on the streets, who dealt drugs, who got pregnant at 13, whose parents abused them, who attempted suicide.... these were not topics that were foreign to me. Nor to anyone else I knew. And I didn't exactly grow up in a rough urban environment - I grew up in an idyllic small town full of hippies. You can't stop kids and teens from learning the ways of the world. And you're not doing them any favours by trying.

Another important point Kelly  makes is that books are interpreted by the minds of readers. The same book can produce very different images for different readers - and they are sometimes intentionally written to do so. I point to Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book or Coraline. One of Gaiman's many talents is the ability to write stories in such a way that the disturbing elements are implied. Adults, who understand these things, will know what he means. But kids won't. This is an impressive skill, and is what makes kid's and teen's books enjoyable to adult readers. Give the authors credit where it's due, because this is not easy, folks.

It's also important to note that while teens are impressionable when it comes to peer pressure, they are not idiots. And they do understand fiction. Just because a book or movie discusses topics such as gangs or abortion doesn't mean every teenager who reads that book or watches that movie is going to go, "Oh, okay, I guess that's what I should be doing then." Come on guys. Think back to yourself at that age. Do you seriously think that's how you would have been affected? No. More than likely you would have assessed what you were reading with your own sense of morality and right and wrong and decided whether you thought it was something that you should or shouldn't be engaging in. And isn't that the point? Doesn't literature provide a great way for teens to experience scary or horrible things, draw their own conclusions, and do so in a safe manner because rather than going out and doing it, they're reading about it? Isn't that why we ask them to read books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Animal Farm and the works of Shakespeare as part of their high school curriculum? These are not lily-white, censored, violence-free tomes either. The reading I did as a child and teen taught me a lot about the world. It also taught me a lot about myself. And that is an experience that has proved invaluable to me because it has taught me to put myself in other people's shoes, to understand the differences between people (and respect and value them) and, above all, to have empathy. Which has made me a better person.

I think it's important to give teens some credit. They'll generally read what they're ready to deal with. There were books I started reading, realized I wasn't comfortable with, and put back on the shelf. Hell, I still do that. It doesn't matter if you take books out of school libraries. There are bookshelves at home, public libraries and book stores. Kids and teens will read what they want to read.

And I, for one, say let them.

 UPDATED 20/07/13: 

I just came across this post on Stacked (an excellent book blog that you should check out if you haven't already) that includes a letter written by a 13-year-old girl who is responding to one of the people who is advocating banning the book Speak (by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the rape of a teenaged girl and its aftermath) from a middle school. It is amazingly insightful, articulate and rational. Here's a snippet that I found particularly affected me:

Dear Dr. Swier, I read the book 'Speak' at age 10...possibly 11, I can't really remember now. I'm thirteen now and have read countless books with much longer and detailed sex scenes than the 7 or 8 lines of "he hurts me he hurts me he zips up his jeans" in Speak. I like to think I make responsible decisions in my reading material as well as my (let's be honest here, nonexistent) sex life. My reading material isn't monitored by my parents or librarians; to be honest, most adults I know are pretty stoked that I read whatever I can get my hands on and think critically about each book.

Reading books with sex scenes has never felt "scandalous" to me, or "turned me on" at all. ("By golly, that was some good porn. Man, that girl got raped by someone she didn't know and lived her life in a depressed haze for the next year, too paralyzed to tell anyone what had happened! I think I'll go round up some of my teenage buddies now and see who'll have sex with me!") Some teenagers have sex sometimes. It's a fact. We know it, I know it, and you know it. Sometimes it's an issue, yes; I would like to argue that sometime's it's a non-issue as well, but that's beside the point. Ignoring the fact of teenage sexuality doesn't cause it to cease to exist. Instead, "squeaky-clean" YA lit and abstinence-only sex ed programs just create a bubble of ignorance around young adults. Trying to blind them to a true fact is ineffective; in fact, once they're eventually (and inevitably) introduced to sex, undereducation may be their downfall as they are more prone to partake in risky behaviors without knowing the consequences. LIKE RAPE. 

 
The letter continues on in that vein and is well worth reading in its entirety.

7.17.2013

BOY NOBODY - Allen Zadoff


Boy Nobody is the story of a teenaged assassin. Yeah, you read right. Think Jason Bourne, but the early, early years. Like Bourne, Boy Nobody is trained to kill high-profile targets in such a manner that no one suspects that they didn't die of natural causes. His typical modus operandi is to start at a new school, befriend the teenaged son or daughter of the target and spend a few months becoming part of their life in order to gain access to the intended target. By the time they die what appears to be a completely suspicion-free death, he just seems like a friend who happened to be visiting their kid at the time. And then he's gone.

He's good at his job. He's never had trouble completing an assignment on time and without a hitch. Until he meets Sam. Sam is the daughter of his newest target, the mayor of New York. But what makes this assignment different is the time-frame - he has only 5 days to accomplish what he normally does in a few months. And there are other complications - someone (who he thinks of simply as "the Presence") is following him for reasons he doesn't know. Possibly to kill him.

As the job progresses Boy Nobody discovers that the timeline and unknown shadow aren't the only complications - his own emotions are getting in the way. Something that has never happened to him before.

Will he complete the mission in time? Will he complete it at all? And what will happen to him if he doesn't?

------ 
 I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. I generally find that though I enjoy reading spy and assassin books, I have a harder time connecting to the assassin persona because of the moral quandry it evokes. Normally I find that I don't get as connected to the character, because I'm constantly reminded of their willingness to take a life.
Boy Nobody, however, allowed me to feel more sympathy than I usually do. Because of his youth and inexperience in much of the more "normal" aspects of growing up, he is less responsible for his actions than an adult in his profession. There is an undercurrent of "them or me" to his situation that leaves you feeling almost sorry for him that he can't have a normal teenager's life.

The plot was evenly developed for most of the book, and I rarely found myself skimming to get to the next big climax. There were a few stylistic issues that annoyed me a bit as I was reading, however. One being that the title of each chapter is also the first line of the chapter. I've spent so many years reading books where chapters are just numbered that my brain automatically ignores chapter headings and starts reading. While it looked really cool, I found myself constantly having to go back and start again because I'd skipped that crucial first line. Which wouldn't have been such a big deal, except that the chapters were so darn short! To give you an idea, in a 352 page book, there were over 70 chapters. Some are only a couple of pages long. So this did start to irritate me. 

The other thing that caused a bit of eye-rolling was the constant reference to some sort of unseen energy field that BN uses as a kind of sixth sense. He's constantly "extending his energy outward"(to loosely paraphrase) to figure out where someone is in relation to him, apparently something he was trained to do. But it never really explains what this means. Is it supposed to be simply a focus on detail? Listening with a trained ear to sounds that don't belong? Or is it supposed to mean that he's able to actually sense living bodies nearby? Either way, I would have preferred something a little less esoteric - particularly given how often this particular skill is referenced and used to get him out of a tight spot. 

These are my only complaints, however, and they're pretty minor ones. I'm frustrated that the next book isn't out yet (indeed, there's no news I can find on title or release date) because I really want to know what happens next!

------

Book Title: Boy Nobody
Author: Allen Zadoff
Edition: Paperback
Published by: Orchard Books
Released: May 23, 2013
Genre: Young Adult, Thriller
Pages: 352
Date Read: July 12-15, 2013
Rating: 6.5/10

7.16.2013

BOOK NEWS: The Robert Galbraith Subterfuge

If you're a J.K. Rowling fan, you've probably heard the buzz over the last few days since it was revealed that a relatively unheard-of crime novel by a first-time author called Robert Galbraith was, in fact, a product of the pen of none other than the Harry Potter creator herself.

My first reaction to the news was to say "Why?" Why would an author whose books are guaranteed success go to the trouble of hiding her identity just to tackle a new type of novel? Particularly when she just did so openly and in her own name with The Casual Vacancy? Is she worried it won't be well received, or worried that it will?

Though the book did alright on its own, news that its author was the creator of the universally-loved Potter series predictably shot sales through the roof.

The Guardian has this to say about it:

"When JK Rowling published a crime novel under a pseudonym earlier this year, she didn't have to worry about sales. The book did quite well for a piece of fiction by an unknown author; it got some good reviews and sold 1,500 copies, which is more than respectable for a first novel. But there was always the possibility of revealing the ruse or having it exposed by someone else, which is what happened at the weekend when the Sunday Times named her as the author. The transformation in the fortunes of The Cuckoo's Calling was immediate, with the book soaring from number 4,709 to the top of Amazon's bestseller list." - The Guardian

The Guardian article goes on to discuss what this says about the publishing industry - how bestseller lists are skewed to begin with by the inequity of promotional dollars spent on unknown or "minor" authors versus the "brand" authors whose names are immediately recognized, such as Dan Brown and Rowling herself. The infrastructure, to a certain extent, creates success or failure for authors by doing so.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what to make of the whole thing. At first I felt vaguely offended by her use of a pen name - as if she were trying to duck her fame and pretend to be something she's not by writing under an alias. But with further reflection, I kind of get it. Perhaps she just wanted to see what people would say of her writing in a different genre and for a different audience without the inevitable comparisons to her Potter oeuvre or any pre-judgment or ass-kissing by critics. Perhaps she just wanted honest reviews. And it's not like she's the first author to write under an assumed name - scores of authors (for many reasons) from Stephen King to Anne Rice to the Bronte sisters have done so - though usually from the outset rather than to obscure an already-successful literary persona.

At the end of the day, I am left with one question: Is the book any good? I intend to jump on the bandwagon and find out. If you've already read it (particularly if you did so before knowing its true author) I want to know what you thought of it!

Related reading:
JK Rowling publishes crime novel under false name
JK Rowling's book ruse is a cautionary tale for unknown writers (linked above)
10 Harry Potter Hallmarks Found in J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling
JK Rowling's crime novel becomes bestseller
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith – review
J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know
What did the critics really think of "Cuckoo's Calling" (before they knew it was by J K Rowling)?

7.14.2013

AGENT 21 - Chris Ryan


When Zak Darke's parents die of supposed food poisoning while on a business trip, Zak is left an orphan. Reluctantly taken in by his aunt and uncle, the only person left in the world who cares about Zak is his cousin, Ellie. He doesn't even have very many friends at school, where he spends a lot of his time daydreaming.

This isn't because he doesn't care about school; it's because he doesn't have to pay attention. Zak is a remarkably smart 13-year-old. He has a talent for mechanics, pulls straight As without even trying, loves to read, is athletically built and has a sixth sense for danger. These characteristics in conjunction with his lack of personal connections makes him the perfect candidate for a covert government program for which he is recruited.

After being whisked away from his remaining family and everything he knows in the middle of the night, Zak's entire life changes - literally overnight. As of the following morning is he no longer Zak Darke, but Agent 21. Instead of attending high school classes, he trains - physically and mentally - all day long. He has no contact with the outside world and as far as anyone he's ever known is concerned, he is as dead as his parents.

But as difficult as training is, it's nothing compared to Zak's first mission: To befriend the son of a Mexican drug lord, infiltrate his home, acquire proof of his underhanded dealings and help his team break into his compound. No assistance. No backup. No big deal.

-----

If your first thought is "hmmm, this feels familiar..." then I'm right there with you. Orphan. Living with unsympathetic relatives. Finds out he can be part of something amazing and awesome and leave behind the unhappy "home" he ended up in. Zak's first code name is even Harry. Yeah, definitely familiar.

But this time instead of learning to use magic, the boy learns to be a deadly and efficient spy.

Because Zak's first assignment is to go after a man who very clearly is not a nice guy, it's easy to root for Zak. There's very little grey area by the end of the story, and Zak's character is one that immediately evokes sympathy from the reader.

The book is written at a fast pace, with very little "down time" in which to get bored. I like this in a thriller. I don't want to be drawn out of the story, I want to go from one climax to the next. On top of that, the author is ex-SAS (British military), so he knows first hand the details of weaponry, combat strategy and what it feels like to be in a highly stressful, life-or-death situation. All of this comes through in the detail of his writing, and helps to set the scene flawlessly.

I'm really into the premise of a teenaged spy - it seems like such a cool twist. His age brings with it an aura of vulnerability and that also makes it easier to root for him. It allows a unique perspective in the writing that I very much enjoyed.


This is the first YA book I've read that deals with real-life danger (as opposed to supernatural). I was surprised at how well Ryan pulled it off. It still has all the detail required to make the danger clear and realistic. More detail than I expected, particularly when it comes to what the drug lord has done to those who betrayed him in the past - and their families. It's hard for me to put my finger on exactly what differentiates this from adult spy writing, but I think it's in the depth of detail (particularly on the violent and dangerous encounters), the less complex (though still completely engaging) plot and politics, relatively simple situational drama and the ease of identifying good guys from bad.

I'd definitely give this book two thumbs up. If you enjoy the intrigue of a good spy story or mystery, if you enjoy suspense and if you also are a fan of YA books, this'll be right up your alley.



----

Book Title: Agent 21
Author: Chris Ryan
Edition: Paperback
Published by: Red Fox
Released: 2011
Genre: Young Adult, Espionage, Thriller
Pages: 324
Date Read: July 11-12, 2013
Rating: 8/10

7.12.2013

THIS IS WHAT HAPPY LOOKS LIKE - Jennifer E. Smith


The story begins with a mis-typed email address that leads two strangers into an online correspondence that lasts for months before they ever have a chance to meet.

The girl, Ellie, lives in a small town in Maine whose only claim to fame is an over-abundance of lobster. She lives with her mom and works at an ice cream shop with her childhood best friend. A remarkably responsible teen, Ellie is working two jobs over the summer to save up money to attend a three-week poetry course at Harvard - her dream school.

Graham Larkin is about as far from small-town as you can get. Not only does he live in a mansion in LA, but, unbeknownst to Ellie, he's a movie star/teen heartthrob. But he's also lonely. At 17, Graham's fame and success has driven a wedge between him and his parents (both teachers) and he lives alone with only his pet pig, Wilbur, for company. When he accidentally emails Ellie and they begin corresponding, his newfound anonymity is not only a welcome relief, but give him a chance to feel like himself again for the first time since becoming famous.

When Graham's newest film is location scouting for a small town, Graham insists they pick Ellie's hometown in Maine so he can see what her life is like and, possibly, meet her face-to-face. But when the two finally do meet, things are far from simple - Ellie's past holds a secret that she will give up anything, even Graham, to protect.

------

I discovered this book one day when I was browsing the YA section at my local bookstore and completely fell in love with the cover. I honesty don't even remember if I read the blurb or not before picking up the book. But I am a sucker for a good cover - a tendency which has paid off with books I absolutely love over and over again. Unfortunately, this was not one of them.

When I first started reading, I was immediately struck by how obvious the plot seemed to be. A lot of it felt so familiar, from the celeb-falls-for-normal-person plot to the pressure to date another big star to the mixed-up identity when Graham first starts looking for Ellie (though thank goodness that wasn't drawn out or there would have been a lot of eye rolling) to the issues with the paparazzi... it all felt like pretty well-trodden territory.

The writing wasn't bad, particularly considering it's a YA book, but it also didn't draw me in immediately nor did it leave me feeling any type of intense attachment to the characters. I cared enough to finish the book, and I didn't dislike the characters, but I also didn't fall in love with them.

Overall I think part of the problem is that while a lot of YA books are written in such a way that they're appealing to both teens and adults (The Fault In Our Stars, Eleanor & Park), there are other YA books that are clearly just for teens. This is one of them. So I don't want to sell it short - I think that readers in their early teens will probably enjoy this story much more than I did. I can see how the now-predictable storyline would be more exciting if you haven't spend the last 20 years watching and reading romantic comedies. But since I am an adult reader, I have to say that this isn't making my top ten list this year, unfortunately. (Unless you're just talking about covers, in which case this one is totally cool.)

Final verdict? If you want a really light, easy-to-read book (particularly if you're looking for a book to give to a young teen), you will probably enjoy this quick read. But if you're looking for a book with a bit more edge or depth, this will leave you feeling a bit disappointed.

7.09.2013

ELEANOR & PARK - Rainbow Rowell


The GoodReads description for this book reads:

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, Eleanor & Park is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. 

Which, if weren't for the cover, would have made me say "meh" and move on. But this story is so very much more. 

Each of these characters is a unique misfit in their own way. Eleanor because of her crazy hair, pale skin and thrift store clothing; Park because he's the only half-Asian kid in school, delicately built and more interested in The Smiths than football.

The first time Park sees Eleanor boarding the school bus, all he feels is humiliation for her. He can tell just by looking at her that the other kids will be merciless. So can everyone on the bus - in fact, no one will even let her sit with them. Finally, after watching her stand awkwardly in the aisle for two stops, he gives in and tells her to sit with him. Just so he can stop watching her stand there. 

Not a romantic start or love at first sight. Quite the opposite. Their unlikely friendship is slowly born in complete and utter silence. Eleanor starts reading Park's comic books surreptitiously as she sits next to him on the bus every day. And for some reason Park doesn't quite understand, he lets her. He even silently hands one to her to borrow. And so it begins.



I won't say anything more about the plot, because part of the fun is in discovering it for yourself. But I will say that I read this entire book in a day. And that it made me have FEELINGS. Lots of them, and all in capitals. This may be a YA book, but some of the complexities are better understood when reading it as an adult. Which isn't to say teens won't get it - they totally will - just that there's so much depth here that there's plenty for adults to sink their teeth into as well.

Rowell has that rare ability to draw the details so aptly that you can see and feel everything in the story as it unfolds. The scenery, the cruelty teenagers are capable of, the complicity of home dynamics and the emotions of the characters. All of it is so empathetically written that it's impossible not to be drawn in. It's particularly evocative if you were around for the '80s (which I was - yep, I'm that old). Likewise the plot is consistently unrolled and at no point did I find myself wondering when they'd just get on with it, as I usually do at least once over the course of a novel. 

This is one of those books that I know will stick with me, and that I'll be sorting out my reaction to for quite a long time. Which is always the sign of an exceptionally well-crafted story. Next time you have a Saturday to yourself, crank up your fave '80s tunes and curl up with Eleanor & Park. But make sure you've got a whole day, because you will want to finish it in one go. And if you're hungry for more Rowell, check out her other book, Attachments, and her upcoming novel Fangirl. Oh, and follow her on Twitter, of course: @rainbowrowell.

7.08.2013

I'd Rather Be Reading...

It's Monday morning, I didn't sleep well and I really wish I could just go home and curl up in my nice, cosy chair because I have a whole stack of good books to read! Here are a few that are on my to-read-next list:
What would you rather be reading today?

7.06.2013

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES - Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl



Lately I'm finding myself embroiled in a lot of stories that take place in the Southern US, an area of the world known only to me through books and movies. In my mind I can feel the oppressive humidity, the mercurial weather, the misleadingly murky swamps that mask hidden dangers with sharp teeth.

In my imagination, the South is a place where appearances are important, where small towns closely guard the secrets of their ancestors, and where even the most buttoned-down townsfolk could be anything but what they seem. It's a fascinating setting for any story, but this one - well, it really couldn't have taken place anywhere else.

Ethan Wate has lived in Gatlin, South Carolina his whole life. The son of two intelligent, liberal professors, Ethan grew up in a house that viewed the library as a greater place of reverence than the church with books scattered everywhere. Though he fits in well enough at school as one of the stars of the basketball team, he's never quite felt like he belonged in Gatlin. He dreams of escaping the small town where everyone who stays is, in his father's words, "either stupid or stuck." He pins maps over his bedroom walls, adding pins for all the places he reads about in the books he hides under his bed. One day, he plans to embark on a road trip and see them all.

As the school year begins, he is resigned to spending yet another year trying to ignore the small-minded townsfolk. But on the first day of school a rumor goes around that there is a new student. Which in itself is something unexpected - no one moves to Gatlin. But to make matters even more interesting, the new student is Lena Duchannes, niece of the town's own Boo Radley, Macon Ravenwood. Before she even sets foot in school everyone is talking about and judging her. The whispers around town have long declared Macon to be an outcast - a figure of mystique whose lack of social inclinations and family history has made townsfolk wary. Not surprisingly, Lena is viewed with prejudice - and no small amount of trepidation - by her classmates.

Little do they know just how different she is. As Ethan falls into an accidental friendship with Lena (that quickly becomes something much more complicated), he discovers that nothing about her or her life is as it seems, and even his wildest imaginings are nothing to the truth. As the story progresses the two must grapple with their feelings for one another and the dark secret that Lena is trying to hide - a secret that could tear them apart and change them both forever.

----

I began reading this after watching the first 10 minutes of the film and finding that I just couldn't get it out of my head. I wanted to know what happened, find out what the secrets were and get to know the characters. (Though this could have just been the Jeremy Irons effect.)

My feelings toward this book ebbed and flowed as I read. I loved the setting as the book began - finely drawn, with just the right balance of evocative wildness and subtle menace. The story, too, drew me in and made me want to know more. But I found myself wishing that it had begun sooner in Ethan's life, that we'd seen what life was like when his family was whole so as to better understand his character. And while I love that a YA supernatural romance is being told from the male perspective, I didn't feel convinced by Ethan's voice and I found myself having difficulty connecting to Lena. I wanted to know what her side of the story was - what she was thinking, and how much she actually knew.

As the book continued I felt like the subtle hints early on in the book that I expected to be foreshadowing or important plot points that would become clear later in the book were left hanging. Even the important aspects or lines of the story that should have been developed just.... weren't. Most of the book was spent on exchanges of inner dialogue between Ethan and Lena's minds - all of which we'd heard before, and none of which did anything to develop the characters or the plot. I often found myself getting impatient with them whining about their fate and wishing they'd just do something about it already or at least shut up.

The characters (particularly Lena's family) that had so much potential to become more prominent later in the book or impart important information and were left as one-dimensional bit parts, most of whom may as well not have been in the book. I kept expecting at least one of them to step forward and turn into an important character who could move the plot forward, but they didn't. And don't even get me started on the townsfolk. They're all painted as stereotypical small-town, small- (and simple-) minded religious zealots. While I'm sure there are parts of the world where people are less tolerant than where I live, I find it hard to believe than in an entire town of people every single one of them was so extremely bigoted.

There are plenty of other details that bothered me, but I guess it boils down to a book that manages to be incredibly long but doesn't seem to make use of any of the details and dropped hints to weave a complex and satisfying plot or cast of characters. And while the overall concept has potential and is interesting, the execution of it fell flat.

As of yet I've only read the first book, so it's possible that some of the elements that would have made this a better reading experience are present later in the series. But on a stand-alone basis, I'd say this book settled at about a 3 out of 10 by the end. If you are okay with mediocre character development and an intriguing plot and set of supernatural mythology that have a lot of potential (but don't quite live up to it), you might find enough here to make it worth your time. If you're just looking for an entertaining read that will keep you well occupied for an afternoon, likewise give it a try. But it's not one I'll recommend or re-read, and I doubt that I'll make it through the rest of the series. Which is a shame, because I feel like this was almost an entertaining read. Almost.

7.04.2013

Reading: The Closest to Magic You'll Find Outside of Hogwarts


Though technically that's in a book, too, so....

I remember as a child when I first learned how to really read. Not just laboriously figure out what each word was and then have to go back and figure out the meaning of the sentence, but how to read well enough that I could see the story unfolding before my eyes. I think that experience (and every time I pick up a good book to this day) is the closest I will ever come to magic.

Books have not only entertained me, but they've taught me about the world - what different places are like, and how people live in them. They've also taught me about myself. I've learned how to identify feelings, connect them to events in my life and how to empathize with other people by first empathizing with the fictional friends I encountered on the page.

I can't imagine being denied this simple yet incredibly complex experience. It is something that has touched me, shaped me and made me who I am. It has allowed me to explore parts of the world and human experience I never could have otherwise. When I read about the skyrocketing statistics on illiteracy and the millions of children around the world who will never be given the opportunity to step into another world through some simple marks printed on a page, it makes me sad beyond describing.

And though I love a good movie and am addicted to TV (yes, I admit it), there will always be time in my life for books. I think I need to make more time for them, actually. If I ever have a family, I'll make sure my kids learn to enjoy reading - regardless of whether they're reading comic books, newspapers or novels. And I hope reading will take them to as many amazing places as I've been.

7.01.2013

THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH - Maureen Johnson



WARNING: Do not read this is you haven't read The Name of the Star!!! Trust me. You'll regret it.

Part two in Maureen Johnson's Shades of London series (find my review of the first book in the series, The Name of the Star, here), the book picks up where the last one left off. Rory Deveaux is recovering from her traumatic encounter with an angry ghost who re-created Jack the Ripper's murders one by one - leading to one final attack on Rory herself.

This book finds Rory in Bristol, practically under house arrest and watched every moment of the day by nervous parents. What she wants more than anything in the world is to go back to her life at Wexford - and to talk to her friends - the trio of secret service members who, like Rory, have special talents. They can see ghosts. So can Rory. But she can't talk about it - not to anyone. And not only because everyone else would think she was crazy, but because according to the Official Secrets Act she signed, she'd be breaking the law.

When she does finally get her wish, however, her life goes from complicated to complicated-er. (Yeah, I know that's not a real word). This time, however, Rory's the dangerous one. Her encounter left her with supernatural abilities even scarier the ability to see the dead.

In part two of Rory's story, life gets crazy all over again, this time complicated by the living. The book builds to a heart-stopping finale that comes straight out of left field and leaves you going, "Wait. Whaaaa????" and dying for part 3.

(Incidentally Maureen, if you're reading, when can we expect to get our eager little hands on part three of this series? Cos I'm not sure I can wait much longer.) A must-read. Oh, and don't forget to follow @maureenjohnson on Twitter.

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