Monday, 25 February 2013

book review: tell the wolves i'm home by carol rifka brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Genre: Historical(ish!) YA
Rating: 9/10
1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

I have a really vivid memory of watching 'The Tree of Life' at the cinema a couple of years ago and desperately wishing that I could trap myself in the experience. Sat in the dark in the company of strangers watching the 'origins of life' sequence with its awesome (in the literal sense) imagery and choral music, I was moved and overwhelmed. I was in the middle of something wonderful. Reading doesn't involve the same sense of sensory immersion; rather than wishing to wrap myself in the experience, the words and feelings invoked by books become embedded under my skin, they become part of me. It's not that they tangibly affect my daily life or drastically change my world view but they leave an indelible mark and add a little more shade to my experiences in the world. Last year was a good year for me reading-wise, I read a couple of books which profoundly moved me in this way: Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, Patrick Ness' Choas Walking trilogy and Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. Tell the Wolves I'm Home can most certainly be listed alongside those titles as one of my all-time favourite novels.

I started reading this while sat at a bus-stop the middle of Exeter; by the time my bus arrived I knew that this book was going to devastate me in the best possible way. I knew that I was going to be torn between reading it quickly so that I would know the characters and their stories as soon as possible and trying to savour it as you only get one chance to read something for the first time. I also knew that having finished it I'd want to both shout about it to everyone I knew and to keep it to myself, not wanting the world to tarnish or overanalyse something that moved me so much.

TtWIH is set in 1987 in the early years of the AIDS crisis though this isn't really a book about AIDS but about grief and growing up. Perhaps my favourite thing about this book is that it dealt with an age/time that tends to get forgotten about. In life (as in genres of literature) there is a tendency for us to skip from childhood to young adult, where childhood ends at 11 and adolescence remains the domain of 16 & 17 year olds; June is 14 and in light of her uncle's death, experiences the tension of the transition from one to the other very acutely. June is never naive or ignorant of the world but there's an openness to her character at the beginning of the novel - she's trusting and uses her imagination as a defence against the world. As the story progresses, the doubt of adulthood creeps in and her innate childishness begins to fade.

"Yeah, okay. I'll drop it," I said, and although I held it back with every muscle in my body, what I really wanted to do was cry. Not only because Finn had never told me about this guy, but because there was no way to ask him about it. And until then I don't think I really understood the meaning of gone.

As a 24 year old who still struggles with this, I found Carol Rifka Brunt's writing at its most compelling as she described June's difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that the adults in her life exist beyond their relation to her. At the beginning of the book June's internal world amounts to the time she spends imagining herself in the past in the woods, the external world she primarily understands through her relationships: she is in awe of her sister but finds her menacing and intimidating, her parents represent the cool rationality of adulthood and most of all, she knows herself to be Finn's favourite. Over time June is forced to realise that their characters are not constant or absolute; these keystones to her life are simply people and beyond the roles of sister/parents/uncle they are individuals each with their own feelings and relationships. As June moved from disbelief to panic & sorrow to acceptance my heart ached for her.

At times brutally honest, at others heart-warmingly sweet and always wonderfully observed, Tell the Wolves I'm Home is about loss - loss of loved ones, loss of childhood, loss of certainty - but remains full of love and is never without hope. Carol Rifka Brunt should be considered alongside authors such as Philip Pullman and Patrick Ness whose nuanced and respectful insights into the experiences of young people should be read by all.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

book review: the raven boys by maggie stiefvater

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: Paranormal YA
Rating: 8/10
“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

I've been meaning to read this for a while. I read (and loved) The Scorpio Races about this time last year and having heard good things about this I bought it for my sister the last time I sent her a care package largely so that I could steal it off her! With all the commotion around the reveal of the second book's title and cover the other week I figured that I should finally sit down and read it. I'm so glad I did but I WAS NOT EXPECTING ALL THESE FEELINGS ABOUT PRETTY RICH BOYS!

Sure, I couldn't explain what actually happens at the end and it's a little disorientating being thrown into a story with so many characters but I'm completely willing to forgive all that because I am so in love with the way that Maggie Stiefvater constructs characters! I am in awe of how carefully nuanced all the characters are. Being the main characters Blue and Gansey are the most fleshed out but I felt totally secure from really early on that all of the main characters were going to be developed and have stories beyond Gansey's quest and they did, every one of them broke my heart a little. It's a brave choice to have the love interest not be the primary POV character but it works here because the romance is not the dominant story thread (it starts as a plot-device and becomes another layer of character development) and as Adam sees himself as an outsider it's fitting that we primarily see Adam through Blue and Gansey.

It's safe to say that I have an insane amount of Gansey feelings! It's no secret by now that I love studious guys and boys who love history are always going to have a place in my heart so once we saw that side of him I was already a little soft! He's entitled, blunt and single-minded but he loves his friends so much and is guided by such a pure sense of purpose that I just LOVE HIM! All of the relationships are great but Adam & Gansey had me in tears more than once. I really loved how the class difference was addressed as a real issue and point of conflict in their friendship. YA often features wealthy protagonists (I understand the appeal, money allows for more extravagent adventures!) but completely ignores the problems of class and wealth. Here the money is convenient plot-wise (fancy apartments! helicopters! bribery!) but also informs the character dynamics and is a huge point of conflict for the boys. Watching their relationship start to collapse under the weight of Adam's insecurities and need for control was painful in the best way.

I thought that Blue/Adam was perfectly nice but I have absolutely no doubt that the romantic situation is only going to get more complicated and painful for everyone involved in the subsequent books and fangirls are going to cry and I CAN'T WAIT! There's a part of me that wants to cling to Blue/Adam simply for the sake of Adam's happiness and well-being but it's really hard not to project my extreme Gansey feelings onto Blue! I'm a little obsessed with how aware of Gansey she is and how she's slowly learning to see and understand him for who he actually is rather than the image he presents to the world. Plus, who can resist prose like this:
Gansey looked up at them and she saw in his face that he loved this place. His bald expression held something new: not the raw delight of finding the ley line or the sly pleasure of teasing Blue. She recognized the strange happiness that came from loving something without knowing why you did, that strange happiness that was sometimes so big that it felt like sadness. It was the way she felt when she looked at the stars.

September 17 can't come around fast enough!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

book review: just one day by gayle forman

Just One Day by Gayle Forman
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: 7/10
When sheltered American good girl Allyson "LuLu" Healey first meets laid-back Dutch actor Willem De Ruiter at an underground performance of Twelfth Night in England, there’s an undeniable spark. After just one day together, that spark bursts into a flame, or so it seems to Allyson, until the following morning, when she wakes up after a whirlwind day in Paris to discover that Willem has left. Over the next year, Allyson embarks on a journey to come to terms with the narrow confines of her life, and through Shakespeare, travel, and a quest for her almost-true-love, to break free of those confines.

I really enjoyed this! I thought that Allyson was a really well constructed character - she's flawed but always sympathetic and her ~growing pains~ (I hate that expression!) really rang true to me. Some of the writing was lovely and certain sentiments really moved me. I particularly like this bit towards the beginning:
I clap so that I can hold on to this feeling. I clap because I know what will happen when I stop. It's the same thing that happens when I turn off a really good movie - one that I've lost myself to - which is that I'll be thrown back to my own reality and something hollow will settle over my chest. Sometimes, I'll watch a movie all over again just to recapture that feeling of being inside something real.
I'm a real sucker for literature that deals with the experience of culture and the physicality of emotion!

There's nothing wrong with the book at all - though chasing a boy you've known for one day across Europe may seem far-fetched it's not too far from Felicity territory - but when I was reading this I couldn't shake the feeling that I wanted it to be different somehow. In the first half I really wanted it to be a Before Sunrise for young people! I wanted more detail about the day Allyson and Willem had together and then I wanted Allyson to go home and carry on with her life. I didn't need it to be a big epic love journey - I'd have been happy for it to be a standalone character study about a shy/reserved girl who makes a spontaneous decision which doesn't ~change her life~ in any material sense but helps her come to terms with who she is and what she wants. I appreciate the appeal of Just One Year the Willem POV sequel but honestly, I'm only really interested in Willem as a feature in Allyson's narrative! After that, I really wished that the 'college can be crappy' arc had been developed more - college/university is an area which has often been neglected by literature and I'm really hoping that the New Adult genre does more with it. Not having a great time at college is not an unusual experience and I think that more could have been made of the expectations vs. reality problem as well as the moving away from home/social anxiety issues rather than it all seeming to hang upon Willem.

I liked this a lot but I wanted the romance to be a catalyst for Allyson's personal growth rather than its end point! I'll be really interested to see which direction Gayle Forman takes things in Just One Year.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

50 musicals challenge: singin' in the rain

07 - Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds
Rating: 10/10
In 1927, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are a famous on-screen romantic pair. Lina, however, mistakes the on-screen romance for real love. Don has worked hard to get where he is today, with his former partner Cosmo. When Don and Lina's latest film is transformed into a musical, Don has the perfect voice for the songs. But Lina - well, even with the best efforts of a diction coach, they still decide to dub over her voice. Kathy Selden is brought in, an aspiring actress, and while she is working on the movie, Don falls in love with her.

Taster: Singin' in the Rain

This is my favourite movie of all time and I don't need any excuse to watch it! One of my biggest regrets is that I only saw it for the first time last year! Since then I've watched the film numerous times and saw the stage show in London and at the beginning of next month I'm going to see a showing of the film accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall which I'm super excited about! There simply aren't enough words to describe just how much I love this film! I remain shocked and appalled that in 2003 the British public only ranked this #6 in a countdown of the greatest movie musicals!*

Safe to say, Singin' in the Rain is all kinds of wonderful! It's impossible to be sad or angry or downhearted when watching it - it's the film equivalent of a bear hug! It's bright and colourful, full of beautiful costumes, incredible tapdancing and some of the best musical numbers ever performed on screen. 'Singin' in the Rain', 'Good Mornin'' and 'Make 'Em Laugh' are the most famous numbers but the others are all great - I'm particularly fond of the ballet-inspired segment in 'Gotta' Dance' which is staggeringly beautiful. The whole thing is full of charm and bursting with joy and is just the GREATEST! If this challenge inspires you to do nothing else I hope that it inspires any of you who haven't seen it to give it a shot - I guarantee you won't regret it!

*You can see the full list here.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

monthly roundup: jan 2013

At least from a pop culture POV, 2013 has got off to a pretty good start. I'm ahead of schedule in my challenges to read 50 books/watch 50 musicals this year. My reading pace has already dropped off a little but I'm hoping to get sucked in to some good YA this month so that should pick up!

books read
McFly - Unsaid Things...Our Story (5/10)
Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl (7/10)
Courtney Summers - This Is Not A Test (6/10)
Connie Willis - Blackout (8/10)
John Green - The Fault in Our Stars (7/10)
Connie Willis - All Clear (8/10)

new movies watched
Pitch Perfect (8/10)
Life of Pi (9/10)
Easter Parade (7/10)
Swing Time (8/10)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (6/10)
Annie Get Your Gun (4/10)



First Aid Kit - Winter Is All Over (Bauuer Remix)
Gabrielle Aplin - Please Don't Say You Love Me (Cyril Hahn Remix)
Katy B x Geeneus x Jessie Ware - Aaliyah
Metric - Gold Guns Girls (Glasnost Remix)
HAERTS - Wings
Misun - Battlefields
Theophilus London x Rihanna - Jump (Club Cheval Remix)
Avicii x Coldplay x Matthew Koma x Krewella - Teardrops (Troika Remix)

Friday, 1 February 2013

50 musicals challenge: les mis, 7 brides..., annie get your gun

04 - Les Miserables (2012)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried
Rating: 7/10
In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine's daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

See review.
In short: The film is beautiful, the music is wonderful, the performances are of varying quality and everything I cared about was in the second half. In no way terrible but a little underwhelming.

Taster: On My Own

05 - Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Starring: Jane Powell, Howard Keel, Jeff Richards
Rating: 6/10
In 1850 Oregon, when a backwoodsman brings a wife home to his farm, his six brothers decide that they want to get married too.

On paper I shouldn't like this movie - it's about a bunch of brothers who kidnap women to be their wives! If you're willing to forgive that though this is a perfectly pleasant movie. It's a little rough around the edges but full heart and good humour and it's easy to understand why children love it. Most of the musical numbers are okay but the real stand-out is the barn dance challenge sequence which is just beautiful! It's colourful and lively and just looks like a lot of fun!

Taster: The barn dance

06 - Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
Starring: Betty Hutton, Howard Keel, Louis Calhern
Rating: 4/10
The story of the great sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, who rises to fame while dealing with her love/professional rival, Frank Butler.

This didn't work for me AT ALL (which is why it doesn't get a picture!) It's racist, it's horribly sexist (she literally has to pretend to suck at shooting in order to get the guy! SO MUCH RAGE!) and I really didn't care about the romance. The only number between Annie and Frank with any real sexual tension is 'Anything You Can Do...' and weirdly it comes towards the end of the movie... It's the standard 'rivals become lovers' plot but in reverse and they still end up together!?! Not one I'll be rewatching!

Taster: Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better