Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A Review of the Rebel Belle series

The Rebel Belle series is a trilogy by Rachel Hawkins, who also wrote the Hex Hall series. Harper Price is a Southern Belle from Alabama, worrying about things like her grades, relationship, looks and future. But when she goes into the bathroom to touch up her lip-gloss, one of her teachers gifts her with superpowers, which she has to use to slay another of her teachers, who is attacking her. Soon, she learns that she has become a Paladin, who along with a Mage is charged with the ancient duty of protecting an Oracle. The Oracle happens to be the one boy she has hated since daycare, David Stark.

This series is fun, fluffy and lighthearted - not that that ever means bad, and I really enjoyed these books.

The plot is ridiculous, in a good way, so much so that it reads like a parody of "teenage girl with superpowers who has to keep going on to school while saving the world" stories, in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or magical girl anime.

In the first book, I loved the focus on debutante balls, and seeing Harper come to terms with her powers. I liked how in the second book Harper has to deal with the idea of how her entire life will be completely different from what she expected. And I don't think she has a wholly unrealistic reaction to the whole deal, either. Her whole life would revolve around David, and boyfriend or not, that's not a good way to be. I've always thought the third book in a trilogy has a really hard job, even harder than the second. It has to tie up loose ends, and provide a satisfactory ending to fans. Luckily, the book succeeded, and a road trip involving superpowered girls was exactly my cup of (sweet) tea.

Setting:
The unique culture of the southern states is given it's due in this book, making for an excellent setting. I know debutante balls and cotillions came out of a very sexist tradition, but they've always held a glamour for me in the way that only things that you don't have in your country can. I liked learning so much about them, and how the narrative spent so much time there. Other parts of the culture are celebrated, like the cuisine (hummingbird cakes and iced tea) and calling everyone y'all.

Characters:
Harper Price (yes, I hate the two last names thing, too) is one of the better protagonists I've read. It is rare that a female character is allowed to be beautiful and know it, and smart as well. The first thing she does when she learns about her powers is start researching everything to do with them. She might have been gifted with them, but she also needs to learn to use them well, too. She's a perfectionist, taking part in every extracurricular, getting perfect grades and always feeling like she has to look good. This could be a response to the death of her sister a few years ago, with Harper feeling like she needs to fill two shoes. This is also why she dislikes the idea of her powers at first. She had her whole life planned out, but her double life has caused her to re-write everything she ever expected of herself. However, she can be judgemental about people who's choices she doesn't agree with, such as people who dye their hair blue or wear a lot of piercings for example.

I also loved Harper's good relationship with her family. Although she doesn't always tell her parents the truth, sometimes out of necessity, she is obviously close to them. And her Aunts might be the best characters ever committed to paper.

David is the Oracle, and he's been that since birth. It's something he's always had to live with. However, he's also a modern teenage boy, and just wants to be normal. He's also known his whole life that people (called the Ephors) may come and kidnap him just because he exists. He never asked to be made Oracle. As a male Oracle, he's visions aren't always accurate, and it's a possibility that his powers might make him snap.

Bee is as good best friend. I like how she does start dating Harper's ex over the books, and there is literally no jealousy or bitterness between them. Said boyfriend, Ryan, is one of the good ones. Like the rest of them, he's a teenager caught in things that he doesn't understand. They all have little to no guidance about what they are attempting to do, and Ryan really feels this lack of tuition more than most of them.

There's also Blythe, who I don't want to say too much about because of spoilers, but she develops into one of the most fascinating characters in the story.

I would recommend this book to others who like teenage girl with superpowers who goes to school and saves the day stories.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

A Review of A Quiet Kind of Thunder

A Quiet Kind of Thunder is a novel by Sara Barnard, the author of Beautiful Broken Things. Stefanie 'Steffi' Brons has grown up with childhood selective mutism. As Rhys Gold, a new boy at her school, is deaf, her new head of year decides to introduce them. As they communicate, they start to understand each other better than they ever thought possible.

I really liked this book. However, I was just expecting Steffi to be a little quieter than she actually was.

Steffi talks more than the description 'I don't talk' would have you believe. However, it's often with people who she is comfortable with, and as soon as there is too much pressure on her, she will clam up. When she does talk with strangers, it's a big deal and a huge victory for her. She is still dealing with the after effects of her childhood selective mutism, and her own chronic shyness and anxiety. Something that seems basic to us, like buying something from a shop, is a huge achievement for her.

She has a dream, and it's an unusual one for YA fiction! She wants to work with animals, and study Zoology with Animal Behaviour. However, she has to fight for it, since her parents are worried she won't be able to handle university. It makes sense, as she's the sort of person who does prefer talking to animals than people. And she works in an animal shelter, which is good for her, but can we have more realistic awkward jobs in YA fiction that don't relate to the protagonists interests and are barely tolerable?

Rhys has this attitude where he thinks he should always be the one to take care of Steffi and that she should depend on him. What Steffi calls 'boy bullshit.' He's also got a low self-esteem. Like dude, come on, of course Steffi isn't going to think you're a 'burden.' I don't think he was a bad character however, and I thought it was a realistic way for a teenage boy to behave.

He's also into video games and wants to design them, which makes perfect sense. Video games weren't always something where you needed to be able to hear to get the full experience. However, I have noticed that my enjoyment from video games is increasingly tied to their auditory parts. Many of my favourite games are ones with stellar soundtracks or voice acting. I even know of a few where you need to listen out for audio cues to complete a part. Some aspects of gaming, like voice chat, will be impossible for Rhys. Imagine him working on a program that transcribes what someone is saying and places it into a chatbox during gameplay.

Anyone who has read Barnard's other book will not be surprised if I mention that female friendships are a strong theme in this book, and almost as important as the romance. There is Tem, Steffi's best friend, and while they have a bumpy part, they sort it out. And there's Meg, Rhys's female friend. After the first part of being confused whether she is his girlfriend or not, they get on well, and there is no jealousy between them. It might be the first time I've ever seen this in YA fiction, and I wish she'd had a larger role.

It's also partially educational, as the front and back covers in my edition display the alphabet and numbers in BSL. There's also a list of things you shouldn't say to someone who doesn't talk, and things like keeping your head still and facing a deaf person, so they have a chance to lip-read. It also deals with a few misconceptions, like the idea that BSL is 'for' deaf people.

The book goes into how therapy can help. Steffi's therapist is good with her and understands her small steps. She's also on medication, and it mentions how medication isn't always straightforward and doesn't always help, but it can make a difference. It's important to show people how useful therapy can be, since it's from fiction that people learn what they might need. From this, people might be more likely to speak up if they feel like therapy could help them, and to say something if they find they need a different therapist or medication, for example.

Spoiler: Is it me, or did anyone else think that Steffi's parents reaction to her lying and sneaking off to Scotland to be unrealistic? My parents would never have let me get away with something like that. /spoiler

I would recommend this book for more mature teenage readers. It does contain some descriptive sex scenes, and I feel they would better be able to emphasise with Steffi's anxiety issues. It also uses a fair amount of swear words. I don't personally think swear words are a bad thing - teenagers swear, after all - but I know some people have a problem with them. Also, the sex scenes are realistic - Steffi and Rhys discuss condoms, for example, something I think more teenagers need to see normalised.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

A Review of Love, Hate and Other Filters

I like how Maya is shown
to be using her camera
on the front cover!
Love, Hate and Other Filters is the debut novel by Samira Ahmed. Maya Aziz is in some ways a normal, American teenager, and in other ways inhabits a world totally different from her classmates. She is of South Asian descent and a Muslim, so she is trying to balance the weight of her parents expectations with the reality of life in 21st-Century America. After a terrorist attack on a civic building, in which one of the suspects shares her last name, Maya finds her safety and her future plans are both at risk.

Firstly, please, please read the reviews and opinions from people of Muslim descent about this book, and listen to their own experiences. I just want to add my voice to the people singing the praises of this book and telling everyone who will listen to buy it.

Maya gets my instant appreciation for having a dream. I liked how how dream of becoming a director is central to the plot, rather than in the background, too. It's also shown, constantly, through Maya's thoughts and conversations. She discusses film terminology in depth and often plans her life as a movie shot. She's determined, stronger than she knows and braver than she thinks. She's also delightfully sarcastic. I also liked both of her love interests. Kareem stays friendly with Maya, and offers her a brotherly relationship, which helps her often to sort her thoughts out. Phil is a little more of the traditional YA boyfriend - football player, in a relationship with someone else, pals with the jocks - but he has some real hidden depths. And Violet makes a very good supportive best friend - she doesn't get a lot of development, but she is always there for Maya.

There is a love triangle, but I feel like it works in this particular case. Maya sorts her feelings out quickly, and deals with it in a grown-up manner. I liked how Kareem, although he seems perfect for Maya on the surface, and would be considered ideal by her family, just isn't quite right for her. And then, as I said, he remains on good terms with her, after they break up. I loved Phil's dream to be an EMT, and the reasons behind it.

I love that there are lots of different sort of Muslim-American families represented. Not everyone of South Asian descent is the same, not every Muslim is the same, not everyone who practices Islam will practice it in the same way. I feel like this shouldn't need to be said, but it is sometimes good to have a reminder. One example of this is the difference in lifestyle between Maya's parents, and Hina, her Aunt.

It's a short book, a fast read, and I also feel like the story itself doesn't fully pick up until the half-way point. However, I feel like it needs the set up so that we could get invested in Maya, and her dreams and relationships. This way, we know exactly what she stands to lose from the attacks and the growing fear from her parents.

Spoiler: I did also appreciate the fact that the terrorist wasn't Muslim. It drove home the point that if horrible things can happen because the first suspect was Muslim, how much worse will it be the next time there is a terrorist attack from so-called Muslims? The suspicion was on Kamal Aziz solely because he was present at the scene, and a Muslim, showing how quickly they fall under suspicion. Afterwards, we find out more about the bombers home life, he gets a standard "troubled home life, quiet loner kid" backstory that is all too common when terrorists are found to be white. /endspoiler

So, where are all these YA protagonists finding these good jobs that relate to what they want to do, or are at least tolerable? When I was their age, I worked on my feet under fluorescent lighting in an ugly Domino's Pizza uniform, taking phone call orders. Where was my bookshop job?

This book does have many standard YA book tropes, such as love triangles, but I feel it will also appeal to fans of more serious YA, such as The Hate U Give. However, it needs to be said that it is a lot fluffier than The Hate U Give.

Friday, 29 December 2017

December Book Haul!

I seem to collect more new books during the festive season than at any other time of the year. Between asking for a few for Christmas, and getting vouchers to Waterstones and Amazon, I get enough to last me until... oh, about February. It's one of the only times of year that it feels worth me doing a book haul, since most months I either don't really get enough, or don't remember what I bought. I'm going from the top to bottom, and talk about why I bought these particular books.

The first five were bought from Waterstones on the 28th of December, with my Christmas vouchers.

Love, Hate & Other Filters: I've heard a lot about this book. Contemporaries with a social justice slant are pretty much my perfect books. One of the reasons I love to read is so that I can appreciate the experiences of people who's lives are different from mine. I have finished this one already and I loved it, it's one that everyone should buy.
Orangeboy: This was an impulse buy, in the buy one get one half price offer. I am hoping this will be a good book to read.
Chasing the Stars: I used to love Mallory Blackman when I was younger (we're talking +10 years ago, here) so I thought it would be good to read her again. Hacker was the book of hers I still remember coming back to often.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing: I read the first chapter or so of this book in the library, and I can't quite remember why I didn't take it out, as I did enjoy it. Plus, it was nominated for the Man Booker prize, and I know that doesn't always mean it was good, but it does look good.
Artemis: I loved Andy Weir's The Martian, so this was an easy choice. I was impressed with how his female characters were handled in his previous book, but I just wished they had more page-time. I am happy that his main character is a woman, and I trust him to write her well.

These next five I bought from Amazon with a Christmas voucher. I tend to use Amazon to buy books that I haven't been able to find in the shops. Either they haven't been published in the UK yet, or I just haven't seen them.

The Dazzling Heights: I did enjoy The Thousandth Floor, so I wanted to give the sequel a try.
Orange is the New Black: As a fan of the Netflix series, I'm also hoping this book gives me an insight into a place I'll (hopefully) never experience myself - women's prison.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making: I've had this book on my list since I first read it's way too long title. I mean, who doesn't want to read about fairyland and girls who can build their own ships? Boring people, that's who.
Lady Renegades: I've enjoyed the other two books in the Rebel Belle series, so I'm hoping this on lives up to them.
This Shattered World: Another sequel buy. I really really liked These Broken Stars, so this one has a lot to live up to.

The next three were my Christmas Day books. Essentially, they were the ones I pointed out to Dad, and he bought them and wrapped them up. I'm doing them as a trio, because it's a similar reason for all three.

Minalima editions of Peter Pan, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast: Every year, I say I'm going to read more classics, and children's classics are as legit as any other sort of classic. Minalima editions are beautiful, with amazing covers, illustrations and interactive elements. The only one of these I've finished is Peter Pan, and I didn't appreciate what a racist and sexist mess this book was.

The last four I got a few days before Christmas with a Waterstones voucher.

Carve the Mark: I'm not quite sure why I bought Carve the Mark. It was another buy one get one half price follow-up. I have liked it from the cover for a while, so we'll see.
A Quiet Kind of Thunder: I loved Sara Barnard's Beautiful Broken Things, and I've had a few people I really respect say good things about this book.
What Light: It was a very Christmassy themed book, and it seemed like the perfect time of year to buy it. I was struggling to get into the Christmas spirit, so I needed it. I have read this one, and I found it to be an enjoyable cosy Christmas read.
Dorothy Must Die: I love retellings, have I ever mentioned that? I also really like The Wizard of Oz, so I'm looking forward to reading this one.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

London 22/12/17 - Christmas Markets, SUSHISAMBA and Aladdin: The Musical

On the 22nd of December, I went to London to meet up with a friend of mine. Our plans for the day were to look around the Christmas Markets and stroll down the South Bank, lunch at SUSHISAMBA and Aladdin: The Musical in the evening. As normal with us, we ended up finding many other things just while walking around! Pictures under the cut.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

A Review of What Light

...I prefer the other cover.
What Light is a novel by Jay Asher, the author of Thirteen Reasons Why. Sierra's family grow and sell Christmas trees. For as long as she can remember, her family have moved down to California for December to sell them to local people. However, because of finances, this might be their last year of doing this. She always looks forward these trips, but she also misses her friends, Elizabeth and Rachel, and Christmas events back home. Still, she has Heather, her best friend over there and others she knows. When she meets Caleb, it looks like this might be the most interesting year yet...

If you've read my review, you'll remember that I wasn't overly struck on Thirteen Reasons Why. This opinion will probably be unpopular, but I liked What Light more.

I loved how Sierra's family business really allowed us to get into the season. Her life seems odd to everyone else, but to her, it's normal. It's comfortable, familiar and what she's used to. The idea of doing something different would throw her, from something that has been so constant in her life, and so tied to it.

I remember going down each year to pick my tree, from a Christmas tree lot. It was much smaller than the one described in the book, but popular, and people from neighbouring villages would come to this one. We'd go on clear days (not much fun when it's raining) so it was always a bit colder and crisper than normal. It was one of those where you could choose your tree, and they'd chop it down for you. It was part of Christmas, and we'd bring it home and decorate it.

Another point that I especially liked was more supportive female friendships. I know that Hannah not having supportive friendships was a huge part of Thirteen Reasons Why, but I love to see girls just being friends, sometimes making mistakes but always coming back together.

Most of my complaints relate to characterisation. I don't feel I know all that much about Sierra, even after reading. Apart from her use of words that teenagers don't normally use, or at least, that Asher thinks teenagers don't normally use, and her thing with peppermint mochas. She's going to take over the family business, but is that what she really wants to do? Does she ever feel conflicted about her role, or want to do something else? Annoying enough, the book sometimes gets close to bringing up these questions, but always veers away from them. What does she do for fun? Does she read, draw, does she listen to music, what music, what movies are her special favourites? You can tell a lot about a character from their favourite media. Does she have any quirks? Does the chainsaw sound set her teeth on edge or does she feel like the pine needles will prick her eyes if she gets too close?

Caleb would be Mr Too-Perfect, if it wasn't for his backstory. He gets more character development and backstory than Sierra by far. He buys trees for people who can't afford them with the tips he makes. I am glad that him attacking his sister with a knife wasn't just something he did when he was five in play, which wouldn't be too big of a deal. It is still recent enough and was major enough that I can see why it became a rumour that would spread in that type of town.

Also, there's something about Asher's writing style that just feels off. Very matter-of-fact, almost telling. It doesn't feel right. There's still a good and cosy Christmas story contained within these pages, however, so I didn't let it bother me too much.

Best read at this time of year with a peppermint hot chocolate, perfect for fans of cosy Christmas reads.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

A Review of The Start of Me and You

The Start of Me and You is a book by Emery Lord. Paige's first boyfriend Aaron died about a year ago. With the start of Junior year, she makes a plan to get herself back into the world. Dating again seems ideal, and who better than her long-time crush, Ryan Chase? But when Paige starts talking more to Ryan's cousin Max, will he be the one to pull her out of her slump? Or is that something Paige has to accomplish by herself, with a little help from others along the way?

Lord is rapidly catapulting herself to the top of my list of favourite authors. I loved The Names They Gave Us, and I loved this one.

Max is dismissed by Paige in the narrative as a 'nerd' but if you ask me, Max is the cool one here. He can't fake interest in a party and would rather sneak off to read a book and raises his hands to answer teacher's questions. But Max shouldn't have to modify his behaviour in order to fit into school social groups. I have been Max, bullied for liking things too enthusiastically, and I have been Paige, trying to hide them so I fitted in better. There is nothing cool about playing down your interests so people will like you more. To it's credit, the narrative does imply how ridiculous this attitude is, but it does so in a way that still feels natural from Paige's POV, as a teenager who still, on some level, believes this. And Max wears a Firefly T-shirt at one point, and he and Paige bond over the show. My precious children. Oh, and Max and I also think the exact same way about airplanes. That just being on one can make a nine hour flight 'fly' by because you are literally in the air and it's the coolest thing ever.

Paige in fact, has rather a few nerdy traits herself. She corrects her friends grammar and loves reading. An early chapter when she and Max find themselves debating Jane Austen loudly in class is a gem. In fact, every conversation between them makes it so you can feel their relationship developing. And extra bonus points to Paige having a goal, which she is actively trying to make a reality already, despite still being in high school. She wants to be a scriptwriter, so she reads books on scriptwriting to improve and has a script that she works on. She also is applying to a summer program in New York, for screenwriting.

Supportive female friendships give me life, and writing them seems to be a particular talent of Lord's. It's not just one supportive best friend, either. All three of the girls in Paige's circle come together to help each other in a crisis. It's not just everyone gathering around Paige, either - there's a good few times when she needs to help someone else in her group.

If the blurb didn't give away the fact that Max would be the love interest, I feel like most people would expect Ryan to have the role, based on conventions of the genre. It is still refreshing in YA to see someone not end up with their long time crush, because how often does that happen in real life? Max and Paige have a chemistry which seems to be take them out of the pages of the book from even their earliest conversations, and you can see Paige's feelings start to develop gradually, avoiding instalove. And their third-act misunderstanding actually makes sense, too. She also writes teenagers having positive relationships with parents, with realistic issues, who solve their problems together, as equals.

Lord writes about loss and grief so well that she could actually write the pamphlet on it. At one point, Max says "I was pissed at cancer after my Grandpa died. It was Cancer, with a capital C. Like it was a person who I could punch in the face, if only I could find him." And that's exactly it. I want to take revenge on Stroke. I was raised on good-vs-evil, good guys win stories. But here, I can't pick up a gun or sword and strike it down. It's not a battle I can win, it's just a series of circumstances which were the worst possible chain of events for Stroke. Also, could quite happily take that chapter where Paige's Grandmother has a Stroke, and rip it up. If I never read another chapter about Stroke, I'd be happy.

While Lord's books are romance-orientated YA, they are also a fantastic study of humanity at it's best and a coming-of-age journey, in which her characters really grow and develop. Recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in YA fiction.