Sunday, 28 April 2013

book review: the maze runner by james dasher

The Maze Runner by James Dasher
Genre: Dystopian YA
Rating: 5/10
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every thirty days a new boy has been delivered in the lift.

Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.


Apparently this is the first dystopian novel I've read this year. Things can only go up. I was SO disappointed with this. I really liked the initial concept and the idea that book 1 is actually setting us down in the middle of a broader narrative but the execution was INFURIATING!

I've never read a book more in need of first person narration! I can't believe I'm saying that because I tend to be a bit indifferent to them but anything would be better than constantly being told that the character was confused/frustrated/scared rather than having that be shown. All of his ~crucial~ decisions come from nowhere. To be honest all of the characters were pretty poorly drawn - put them in a line up and I couldn't tell them apart. There's only one female character and she's unconscious for the first half and when she finally wakes up she does little more than provide a tiny slither of necessary exposition.

Given that it's the first in the series and this book, through the convenient trope of memory loss, deliberately obscure the characters' backstory I could MAYBE have forgiven the weak ass characterisation if the plot and pacing and everything else had worked BUT IT DIDN'T. The story makes logical sense I suppose but for dystopias to work you have to have really great worldbuilding OR an immediate plot that is so engrossing that I don't stop to think about the broader world... 50% of the way through and little more world-building had been achieved than there was at 10% and the first half consisted of little more than Thomas whining and occasionally commenting that his spidey-senses were tingling. FAILED on both counts. In actual fact, 90% of the world building is done in the last 2% of the book!

Maybe worst of all was that, aside from the first night in the Maze, I predicted everything that was going to happen wayyyyy before the book/characters got there. This isn't because I'm super intelligent but because anyone who has ever read anything can see this stuff coming! At every ~revelation~ I rolled my eyes and shouted NO SHIT!!! There's a mysterious hole in the world...maybe they should go through it?!? A side-effect of the mysterious serum is memory recall. Guess what? Someone takes it voluntarily! There's a word in capital letters...oooh it's an anagram! The maze is constructed in 9 parts...Maybe it's a code?!

In short, a huge disappointment. On the upside, maybe the movie with its not too shabby cast will inject the story with some life and be one of those movie adaptations that actually betters the book...

Thursday, 25 April 2013

50 musicals challenge: high school musical 3

17 - High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)
Starring: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale,
Rating: 9/10
As seniors in high school, Troy and Gabriella struggle with the idea of being separated from one another as college approaches. Along with the rest of the Wildcats, they stage a spring musical to address their experiences, hopes and fears about their future.

Before I begin this review I highly recommend that you take the 4mins to watch this...

Now take in to consideration that, unlike the previous 2 HSM installments, this entire movie is made up of set pieces with that kind of production value! The result is a movie that is pretty much the definition of sunshine and rainbows!


There's a whole list of excellent things about this movie - the set pieces are awesome, the visuals are bright and beautiful, the singing/dancing is all wonderful, the characters are all kind and good (Troy Bolton would definitely make it on to my list of fictional boyfriends!), the story is straightforward and acknowledges the everyday anxieties of school leavers in a way that never condescends to them. In the end though, I love this movie because it makes me happy. It was so obviously made with love and it's so full of joy and it just makes me smile! If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it - leave your cynicism at the door and take it for what it is, a simple story of friendship and growing-up with colourful musical numbers!

Some of you may have noticed that my musicals posts have jumped from #7 to #17. Posting out of order makes the little OCD part of my brain tick but I was aware that I hadn't made any musicals posts in ages and I had the graphic for this one at hand! Now that I'm back in Exeter and have my desktop/Photoshop I'm planning on going back and posting mini-reviews of all the musicals I've watched in between, it'll just take a little time! You can keep an eye on what I've seen so far here.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

top ten tuesday: books i thought i'd like/dislike more than i did

top ten tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

top ten books i thought i'd like more/less than i did
I don't tend to finish books that I'm not enjoying or pick up books whose premise etc. doesn't immediately appeal so this top ten is probably better described as top 10 books that were overwhelming or greatly exceeded expectations! Also I've decided to split the list and there are only 9 books but the last one counts twice!

books i liked more than i expected

The Ask and the Answer - Patrick Ness
I read The Knife of Never Letting Go after hearing nothing but excellent things about it and I liked it a lot - it's a really interesting premise with good characters and it treats children and their experiences and relationships with respect. The Ask and the Answer BLEW ME AWAY. At it's most basic, TKoNLG is a 'journey' story - the characters start in location A and are trying to get to B - the plot is structured around the obstacles that they face on their way. In TAatA that structure is put aside, the tone shifts and the stakes become much higher. It's a book about children trying to reconcile their beliefs those of adults in a new order, it's about gender politics, it's about revolutions and war. It's FANTASTIC!

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
This isn't a book that I would normally pick up - I'm completely uneducated about Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and their traditions and experiences, I often struggle with literary fiction and despite being (or maybe because I am) a historian I tend to shy away from historical fiction set pre-1850 - but I was completely won over by the tone, themes and JSF's beautiful prose.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt
The beautiful American cover had a large part to play in me picking this up in the first place but I can very happily report that the cover is far from the greatest thing about this beautiful coming of age story. Read my full review here.

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour - Morgan Matson
I sometimes find that contemp YA all blends in to one another (which makes it great for summer reading but is often forgettable) but this stood out and is one of my favourite YA titles of the last few years.

books i found underwhelming

This Is Not A Test - Courtney Summers
This was one of my first reads of the year and it left me cold. I bought this after Elena @ Novel Sounds gave it a really glowing review but I never really got attached to the characters and found the book lacking in earned emotional weight.

FitzOsbornes At War - Michelle Cooper
I think this may have been a problem of expectation - I love the characters in this series and I have a thing for WW2 fiction so I was hoping for absolute wonderfulness. I think the biggest problem was the pacing which was all over the place and meant that certain sections dragged while other threads were tied together too quickly. It's by no means a terrible end to the trilogy, just underwhelming.

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
It turns out that I'm less in to urban fantasy than I thought!

Sisterhood Everlasting - Ann Brashares
If you're reading the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants books I recommend that you stop after 4! You can read my initial review at Goodreads.

the split vote = mockingjay by suzanne collins

So disclaimer: I ship Katniss/Gale. I also ship Katniss/Peeta. I fully approve of where those three end up at the end of MJ (and by end I mean pre-Epilogue because I refuse to acknowledge the epilogue's existence!) That being said, this books is a HOT FREAKIN' MESS! The stuff that is so great it hurts while the stuff it does badly is so fundamentally flawed it hurts too!

The good = Katniss/Gale and that's why if you stumbled into my THG tag on tumblr you'd see that at least 90% of the post feature me crying over K/G! It's the book in which they are the most physically together (AND THEY SPEND MOST OF THEIR TIME TOUCHING EACH OTHER!) but the whole time their relationship is being pulled to its limit by their respective attitudes towards the revolution: Katniss wants to win the revolution so that she can go home and get on with her life while Gale wants to win the revolution because they should never have had to live like this in the first place. Their arc in this book is based around their slow (and very reluctant) acceptance of the fact that their love for each other isn't enough anymore. That they don't end up together is tragic and devastating but it's the only ending that works. Basically, I LOVE THEM and MJ developed their relationship in a way I am still kind of amazed by.

By contrast, pretty much everything else is TERRIBLE! Totally demonising the revolution to provide a plot twist at the end is a cheap cop-out. The pseudo-'Games' through the Capitol are ridiculous and frustrating and a lazy way to kill off characters. Worst of all however is the way that Peeta is written which almost certainly wins the award for the most serious case of squandered potential in the YA genre. Given that he's supposed to be a main character having his character in this book go from being captured (and therefore absent and without agency) to mentally incapacitated (still without agency) to let loose in the Capitol at the height of the action (so absent again) is a MIND-BOGGLING authorial decision. His being hijacked is just THE WORST! Given everything that had happened to him in the previous books and what we discovered at the beginning of MJ there was already plenty of scope for him to have a well-developed trauma arc which would have problematised his relationship with Katniss - no more Capitol intervention required! In MJ Peeta is barely a character and the perfectly constructed politician-symbol-soldier triangle that P/K/G had formed ended up getting totally warped. I love the idea of 'Peeta and I grow back together' but we don't get to see that development and so the 'happy' ending is forced and unearned. Underwhelmed doesn't even begin to cover it!

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

top ten tuesday: book quotes

top ten tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

For this week's TTT we could blog about any previous themes - I haven't been doing this for long so there were plenty for me to choose from but as I'm still without Photoshop I figured I'd pick something wordy! (You can see the original post here.) This list fairly accurately illustrates my obsession with bodies and the physicality of emotion. I was going to write commentary to go along with these but none of it adequately described how these passages make my heart hurt.

top ten book quotes

The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman
And no matter how she struggled, she could make no headway. The force that carried her out was as smooth and powerful as water pouring over a weir; the particles of Dust were streaming along as if they, too, were pouring over some invisible edge.
And carrying her away from her body.
She flung a mental lifeline to that physical self, and tried to recall the feeling of being in it: all the sensations that made up being alive. The exact touch of her friend Atal's soft-tipped trunk caressing her neck. The taste of bacon and eggs. The triumphant strain in her muscles as she pulled herself up a rock face. The delicate dancing of her fingers on a computer keyboard. The smell of roasting coffee. The warmth of her bed on a winter night.
And gradually she stopped moving; the lifeline held fast, and she felt the weight and strength of the current pushing against her as she hung there in the sky.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J. K. Rowling
He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. How strange that in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive. But it would have to stop, and soon. Its beats were numbered. How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the Forest?

Written on the Body - Jeanette Winterson
Articulacy of fingers, the language of the deaf and dumb, signing on the body body longing. Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body. Your morse code interferes with my heart beat. I had a steady heart before I met you, I relied upon it, it had seen active service and grown strong. Now you alter its pace with your own rhythm, you play upon me, drumming me taut.

The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness
However clear she can hear my Noise, well, out here alone, away from the chatter of others or the Noise of a settlement, there’s her silence, loud as a roar, pulling at me like the greatest sadness ever, like I want to take it and press myself into it and just disappear forever down into nothing.
What a relief that would feel like right now. What a blessed relief.

Everything Is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer
Brod's life was a slow realization that the world was not for her, and that for whatever reason, she would never be happy and honest at the same time. She felt as if she were brimming, always producing and hoarding more love inside her. But there was no release. Table, ivory elephant charm, rainbow, onion, hairdo, mollusk, Shabbos, violence, cuticle, melodrama, ditch, honey, doily... None of it moved her. She addressed her world honestly, searching for something deserving of the volumes of love she knew she had within her, but to each she would have to say, I don't love you. Bark-brown fence post: I don't love you. Poem too long: I don't love you. Lunch in a bowl: I don't love you. Physics, the idea of you, the laws of you: I don't love you. Nothing felt like anything more than what it actually was. Everything was just a thing, mired completely in its thingness.

The Summer Without Men - Siri Hustvedt
It is impossible to divine a story while you are living it; it is shapeless; an inchoate procession of words and things, and let us be frank: We never recover what was. Most of it vanishes. And yet, as I sit here at my desk and try to bring it back, that summer not so long ago, I know turns were made that affected what followed. Some of them stand out like bumps on a relief map, but then I was unable to perceive them because my view of things was lost to the undifferentiated flatness of living one moment after another. Time is not outside us, but inside. Only we live with past, present, and future, and the present is too brief to experience anyway; it is retained afterward and then it is either codified or it slips into amnesia. Consciousness is the product of delay.

The Awakening - Kate Chopin
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

Atonement - Ian McEwan
In the years to come he would often think back to this time, when he walked along the footpath that made a shortcut through a corner of the oak woods and joined the main drive where it curved towards the lake and the house. He was not late, and yet he found it difficult to slow his pace. Many immediate and other less proximal pleasures mingled in the richness of these minutes: the fading, reddish dusk, the warm, still air saturated with the scents of dried grasses and baked earth, his limbs loosened by the day's work in the gardens, his skin smooth from his bath, the feel of his shirt, and of this, his only suit. The anticipation and dread he felt at seeing her was also a kind of sensual pleasure, and surrounding it, like an embrace, was a general elation - it might hurt, it was horribly inconvenient, no good might come of it, but he had found out for himself what it was to be in love, and it thrilled him.

Little Gods - Anna Richards
This was her shame; she loved the chaos of war. It wasn’t a theatre, it was a circus, and it had finally come for her. It could be something other than brutal and nonsensical, and these rare moments had to be savoured, enjoyed like English sunshine. Jean had seen the storm of limbs, the juggling of arms, heads, teeth - the moment when even the plainest human realises their extraordinary beauty before it is scoured off them by fire and raked by shrapnel. She now secretly suspected there had never been anything so perfect as her back before the bomb; as broad as a double bass and as sensuously curved, it had been unblemished. One of her scars even looked like a sound hole, carved beside the strings of her spine; an adornment rather than a wound. She added this to her pile of secrets, fearing that she was the only one who could see it this way; that she alone could love plainness with the fierceness of one who almost died before living.

Matilda - Roald Dahl
From then on, Matilda would visit the library only once a week in order to take out new books and return the old ones. Her own small bedroom now became her reading-room and there she would sit and read most afternoons, often with a mug of hot chocolate beside her. She was not quite tall enough to reach things around the kitchen, but she kept a small box in the outhouse which she brought in and stood on in order to get whatever she wanted. Mostly it was hot chocolate she made, warming the milk in a saucepan on the stove before mixing it. Occasionally she made Bovril of Ovaltine. It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemmingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.

What are your favourite quotes? Thinking of your favourites are there any patterns? Are you drawn to any particular theme or subject?

Thursday, 11 April 2013

book haul: april 2013

I've been at home on holiday from university for the last few weeks and while it's been wonderful for me, it's been EXCELLENT for my book collection! I don't think I've walked past a book shop without going in it this week and once I'm in the shop it's almost impossible not to buy anything! Luckily, most of my buys have been bargains! Here are my most recent buys:

I picked up A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius along with Mr Fox as part of a 2 for £5 deal at my local bookshop. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, The Art of Fielding and The Stranger's Child were £2 each at a clearance shop (yes, even that massive hardback!). Waiting For Sunrise was a charity shop find - I've been eyeing up William Boyd novel's since I saw the TV adaptation of 'Restless' a few months ago. I originally read Tell the Wolves I'm Home on my Kindle and knew that I wanted to have a hard copy so I ordered the US hardback edition - I was willing to pay extra because the cover is so much prettier than the UK version!

Of all of my new buys I'm most excited about The Crane Wife which I pre-ordered at the beginning of the year. I have a huge amount of respect for Patrick Ness and I loved the Chaos Walking trilogy so I'm thrilled that we're getting a double dose of new Ness novels this year (his next YA book comes out in the autumn). This is the first thing I'm planning on reading once I've made it through some of my dissertation work!

Has April been a good book month for you so far? Is the beginning of spring making you buy lots too?

Monday, 8 April 2013

book review: a world between us by lydia syson

A World Between Us by Lydia Syson
Genre: Historical, drama
Rating: 6/10
Spain, 1936. Felix, a spirited young nurse, has travelled to Spain to help the cause of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But she is also following Nat, a passionate young man who has joined the International Brigades fighting Franco. And George - familiar George from home - is not far behind, in pursuit of Felix ...

As Spain fights for its freedom against tyranny, Felix battles a conflict of the heart. With the civil war raging around her, Felix must make choices that will change her life forever.

According to the key on the back, A World Between Us is 50% Epic Romance, 25% History, 25% Drama. That, plus the fact that this book has been favourably compared to Code Name Verity and the Montmaray series, meant that I was really really excited to read this. In the end though I loved the concept more than the end product. It's by no means bad but for a book that had all the elements to be something that I loved (C20 war! Communists! Nurses! Romance!) it ended up falling a bit flat.

I quite liked the first half - the characters were engaging enough (make any of your characters an idealist Communist and I'm in!), using the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop was really original and interesting and the plot really zipped along. I really enjoyed the scenes describing the characters' first impressions of Spain - Felix's confusion regarding the relationship between church and state and Nat's descriptions of the Spanish countryside in particular. It was an excellent example of really efficient storytelling - there were no extraneous details and the story often jumped forwards by weeks or months and that tone/form worked not only in terms of pacing but in creating an atmosphere of the confusion and monotony of war. The problem in the second half however was that that kind of sparse storytelling doesn't really work if your climax/pay-off is intended to be emotional. It wasn't that the conclusion was unearned or inappropriate, it just didn't have the emotional weight I think it wanted. With romance as the key plot the payoff only works if the sense of yearning/conflict/indecision has been building throughout; as it was, nothing but the war seemed problematic or unforeseen.

It's quite possible that my expectations were too high. The book is relatively short (about 280 pages) and is being marketed as YA (though really there's nothing in it beyond the age of the characters that makes it uniquely suited to teen audiences) so that might be used as justification for its brevity/lack of more graphic war/love scenes but it had so much potential! If you're desperate for C20 war fiction in the same vein as CNV or the Montmaray series I'd give A World Between Us a shot but I definitely found the former more satisfying.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

book review: seraphina by rachel hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Genre: Fantasy YA
Rating: 7/10
Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

The mark of good fantasy, at least in my mind, is that pretty quickly the mystical/fantasy element disappears and the world becomes as real as any other and on that front this book really works; the world was so full I never doubted its plausibility. In a sense that's helped a lot by the fact that the basic setting uses medieval/early modern Europe as a cultural touchstone so anyone who's read other historical novels/watched period dramas can pretty easily fill in any of the gaps. Because the foundation is so solid and the dragon-lore described is so comprehensive, the book never really felt like fantasy, it was just a historical novel with dragons!

It's obvious that Seraphina is the start of a series in the sense that the world-building takes precedence over plot and for some people that could be a turn-off but I really liked the world so was quite happy! Seraphina herself is a perfectly amiable protagonist and while she's exceptional in many ways, she is quite ordinary in others. There is a romance storyline but it's quite understated and is hardly the driving force of the story - I didn't exactly get weak at the knees over it (and I wish that it hadn't resorted to 'love' so quickly) but it worked in terms of character growth so I don't begrudge it at all.

By far my favourite thing about Seraphina's character and the novel in general was the way she talked about music. Being a music scholar music is Seraphina's livelihood and her world is structured around it - her life (and so the novel) is full of dances and instruments, rehearsals and performances. More than that though music is a huge part of Seraphina's personal history and something from which she takes a lot of joy and comfort and I always found Hartman's writing at its most moving when she was describing the power of music:
There are melodies that speak as eloquently as words, that flow logically and inevitably from a single, pure emotion. The Invocation is of this kind, as if its composer had sought to distill the purest essence of mourning, to say, Here is what it is to lose someone.

Overall, Seraphina is a gentle and enjoyable read that would appeal to both fantasy lovers and people who enjoy historical fiction. I'll definitely be reading the sequel!