Current Affairs, YA fiction

Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell – 9/10

I am writing this review 10 months after reading the book, so bear with me if some of it is a big vague!
“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
Eleanor knows what it’s like to be the outsider. Big red hair is just the first of her problems. When Park shows her a moment of kindness on the school bus, she finds a soulmate. This is the story of two misfits just trying to get by in the world.
It’s no secret that I loved Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, and I also read Fangirl this year. Part of what I love about Rowell’s writing is the effortless humour – it’s real, unaffected. I found the main characters a little unrelateable to be honest – they were such misfits that it was quite tricky to identify with them. That said, they are very sympathetic and pleasant characters to spend time with, and certainly vivid creations of Rowell’s. The relationship between them is built up very gently and slowly, which really suited them – they are both a bit quiet and not wanting to upset any kind of status quo.
The side characters are in a sense more one-dimensional which is all they needed to be – Eleanor’s mother is a victim, her stepfather is abusive, Park’s father is a bit distant and doesn’t really understand his son… all of them provide the necessary conflict for our main characters. I found Eleanor’s mother quite frustrating in her inability to perceive the abuse going on around her, but perhaps (my knowledge of domestic abuse is thankfully non-existent!) this is actually an accurate portrayal of a typical abuse victim.
Rowell manages to touch on a lot of topics in her books – this one includes not only the travails of being a teenager, and a misfit one at that, but also domestic abuse, gender identification, poverty, family conflict, comics and music (particularly of the 80s). This was actually pretty dark (or certainly darker than I was expecting) and doesn’t have the fairytale ending you sort of expect of YA books these days. I think it was really interesting that Rowell chose to set the story before the internet and mobile phones. Whether that enables her to draw on her teenage years more easily, or whether it facilitates a certain set of conditions she wants to explore, I’m not sure.
The setting is unremarkable – it’s not crucial to the story, it’s just a town in the middle of somewhere. All school buses and classrooms are equally cruel.
Personally I thought Attachments was better in some ways, and definitely more approachable for an office-resident adult, but this is a bigger, wider-ranging, more serious work – and I’ve failed to convey just how good it is in this review!
Other reviews: Semicolon, Book’d Out
Additional information
Copy borrowed from Mini-Me, who read it the same week. 
Publisher: Orion Books, 336 pages (paperback)
Order Eleanor & Park from Amazon*,Waterstones or Foyles
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
YA fiction

Looking for Alaska – John Green – 8/10

“But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”

lookingforalaskaI’ve read John Green’s latest and most promoted book, The Fault In Our Stars, and loved it, albeit with some minor reservations. I think this is better. Miles is the new kid at prestigious Alabama boarding school Culver Creek. Far from condemning him to being the social recluse he was at his old school, his roommate Chip (aka Colonel Catastrophe) takes him under his wing and introduces him to schooltime pranks, smoking, and the enigmatic Alaska Young. Alaska is hypnotic, unpredictable, trouble and generous…

I preferred this to TFIOS, even though TFIOS has been Green’s breakthrough book. Tragedy hangs over TFIOS inescapably; the whole plot is steeped in it. Alaska is much more everyday, full of the para-tragedy of the threat of expulsion, of being caught smoking or staring out the window or throwing up on your girlfriend. After the shock of the tragedy around which the book pivots, the characters’ reactions are credible without being predictable. Miles, The Colonel, Takumi, Alaska and Lara are a band of thieves, but a happy and warm-hearted group. They subvert authority while retaining fervent respect when they feel it is intellectually due. 

Green obviously has a gift for creating memorable teenage characters. Like Hazel and Augustus in TFIOS, I won’t be forgetting Miles Halter or Alaska Young any time soon. Their memories for last words and poety respectively (and The Colonel’s for capital cities), Alaska’s impulsive and spontaneous nature, her love of fast driving, fast food and fast friends; Miles’ timidity and strength under pressure. Importantly, they are quite different from his characters in other books – it’s hard enough to create a few characters like this band in Alaska. To resist the temptation to reuse them is commendable.

One of my objections to TFIOS was that 17-year-old boys don’t talk like Augustus does (or at least, none that I’ve ever met talk like he does). In Alaska, Miles often thinks lyrically, but speaks in a more typical manner. In LFA there is much less writing for the cute quote, the school study guide; the writing is both more straightforward and richer than in TFIOS.

“I was caught in a love triangle with one dead side.”

TFIOS was very good. This is better. Read it.

Additional information:

Copy borrowed from Mini-Me
Publisher: HarperCollins, 263 pages (paperback)
Order LOOKING FOR ALASKAfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
YA fiction

My Life After Now – Jessica Verdi – 7/10

“Relationships are not democracies.”

my life after now

This novel addresses the severely under-discussed topic of teen HIV infection due to unsafe practices. Lucy Moore contracts HIV on a drunken night out, and struggles with telling those closest to her. High school is tough enough with the new girl at school trying to steal your boyfriend, trying to win the part of Juliet, and figuring out what’s going on with your birth mother, without having to confess to your crush that you have HIV.

The characters are well written and the dynamic between the teenagers is good and strong and credible – as a YA novel, this does well. Tight knit community with fault lines? Check. Protagonist with dark past? Check. Bad behaviour creating conflict? Check. Even without the deep medical/behavioural topic, this makes a really solid teen novel. The perfect guy is of course not perfect, evil arch-queen softens a bit eventually, and nice guy doesn’t come last.

The HIV thing – I was actually really surprised by this. Verdi writes sensitively and delicately about this; Lucy really does screw up pretty badly, and then she suffers, and her parents suffer, and her friends suffer, and she joins a support group where the members face prejudice every day. Interestingly, she makes friends with someone who contracted HIV at birth from her mother, and has thus had a life of living with it, but at no fault. Verdi really does examine living with HIV from every angle (that one can within the remit of a YA novel).

On the other hand, the novel felt polemical – “look at how a stupid drunken mistake screws up a life” and “be nice to HIV-positive people”. Valid messages, no doubt, but a little exhaustively repeated here. Perhaps a YA novel, by definition of type, is less subtle than some of what I’m used to. Nevertheless, a tough story, well told, through a complex narrator with credible and sympathetic friends. Worth the read.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Order My Life After Nowfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
YA fiction

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green – 8/10

“Hazel Grace, could I, with my meager intellectual capacities, make up a letter from Peter Van Houten featuring phrases like ‘our triumphantly digitized contemporaneity’?”


From the blurb: Despite the tumour-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

From my first post (about 150 pages into this book):

First impressions: these kids are witty, and I love their conversation, but so far, so another teenage cancer-ridden love story. See similar misery novels: My Sister’s KeeperElsewhereBefore I Die.

I like the humour, the conversations are funny, but then I had An Issue With This Book: Augustus. He talks like no 17-year-old I’ve ever met. He talks like no man I’ve ever met. I know some quite humorous young women who can get about that many words per minute in amusing streams of consciousness out, but no men. I’m not trying to generalise here, find me an erudite loquacious teenage boy, never mind teenage cancer-surviving boy, and I will eat my metaphorical hat. And when I cannot believe the conversational talent of one of the main couple, things are Not Going To Go Well. Or so I thought – I’ve another 70 pages and sort of accepted it but it still bugged me. But now they’re in Amsterdam and drinking the stars and falling in love but it’s cute and complex and not totally sugar-laden because Hazel thinks of herself like a grenade and… stuff. Themes. Things that English teachers like to discuss.

Now that I’ve finished the book…

Major Emotional Upheaval point was kind of obvious, but still neatly done and Green doesn’t shy away from the ugly tragedy of cancer; two of the three main kids go through some pretty awful, harrowing suffering. I ended up not crying after all (after putting the book down for a week because I didn’t want to take it on a commute and end up bawling in public), but I think those less stony-hearted than myself would weep.

The characters are solidly built and funny, clever kids facing their own mortality far too early. The parents and extended families struck me as a little light, but part of that will be because they were simply not the focus of the story.

Generally excellent writing, many witticisms and clever lines:

“It’s hard as hell to hold on to your dignity when the risen sun is too bright in your losing eyes, and that’s what I was thinking about as we hunted for bad guys through the ruins of a city that didn’t exist.”

“I was wondering what ontologically meant. Regardless, I like it. Augustus and I were together in the Improbable Creatures Club: us and duck-billed platypuses.”

Definitely a good read – sweet, romantic, emotionally upheaving, generally restoring faith in humanity and families and friends while ultimately sad… I foresee this appearing on required reading lists for schools in about 3 years’ time – there are stacks of themes to discuss here.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed, sort of, from The Book Accumulator at Mini-Me’s behest.
Publisher: Penguin, 313 pages (paperback)
Order The Fault in Our Starsfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
YA fiction

City of Bones – Cassandra Clare – 4/10 (DNF)

““Can I help you with something?”
Clary turned instant traitor against her gender. “Those girls on the other side of the car are staring at you.”
Jace assumed an air of mellow gratification. “Of course they are,” he said, “I am stunningly attractive.””

In this first of the Mortal Instruments series, Clary Fray is happily going about her suburban New York life with her mother (squabbling) and her best friend Simon (not realising he loves her) when some demons turn up at her local nightclub. She receives a panicked call from her mother and goes into hiding with the local Shadowhunters, a group charged with killing evil daemons; but why did Clary have no idea about all of these magical groups if she is clearly a part of their world? But how can she see them if she’s not part of their world? Confusement.

Actually, as I write that synopsis I realised that Simon goes from not being able to see Shadowhunters and daemons at the start of the book, to being able to flirt/argue with them within thirty pages. So not sure what’s happened there.

I didn’t reject this quite as quickly as I gave up on Clockwork Angel, but I abandoned it for the same reasons: overdone romance and too foreign a fantastical world.

Within the first 169 pages (for thus far I did read), Clary has been totally oblivious to Simon’s enormous crush on her, found Jace both repellant and attractive, got jealous of Simon’s attentions to Isabella and defended him in a secret-crush-rather-than-old-friend way to Jace. We see the love square. OVER AND OVER AGAIN. WE GET IT. STOP HITTING ME WITH YOUR LOVE SQUARE OUCH OUCH OUCH!!!

Similarly, we’re in New York, in a club. But these kids are 16, please explain how they’re in a dodgy nightclub? Then there’s frantic running back to the apartment… But Clary stops at the red light? Really?

Oh and Clary thinks that Switzerland is between Germany and France. And no one, not even Shadowhunters FROM EUROPE, corrects her. Excuse me while I sob quietly in a corner.

I did keep reading it in little spurts after I’d given up on it but I thought I was just resuscitating a dead beast, so I gave up.

No thanks.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed from Mini-me.
Publisher: Walker, 485 pages (paperback)
Don’t order from Amazon, but if you must, I would appreciate it if you used the City of Bones (Mortal Instruments) link*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.
YA fiction

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins – 6/10

“People of Panem, we fight, we dare, we end our hunger for justice!”

District 12 is gone. Katniss has escaped from the Quarter Quell along with Finnick and Johanna, but Peeta was left behind and may be dead or being tortured by the Capitol. Gale is poor comfort to Katniss, given that they are stuck in underground bunkers and cannot hunt. And now the leader of District 13 wants to use Katniss as the face of the rebellion…

Mockingjay is at once a wonderful and unsatisfactory ending to the Hunger Games trilogy. The political revolution and the war that must come in order to end the Capitol are expected and necessary, but brutal and overcooked. So many people die. The huge final battle goes on for ever and you read faster and faster trying to get to the end of it and you end up getting lost because here’s another terrible thing – snakes! Treacherous ground! Mutts! Sirens! It’s a bit “here be dragons” except over and over and over again. Much like the last instalment of Harry Potter.

Gale and Peeta are both developed thoroughly as characters in volume three, and both discover very dark sides. Gale’s proficiency at war design is frightening; Peeta’s brainwashing is awful and terrifying – particularly as he never seems to fully shake it off. His strength becomes a liability, rather than the boon it was in the first two books. The love triangle is eventually resolved; I don’t think I would have minded which one she ended up with! But Mockingjay is full of personal tragedy for Katniss.

As in Catching Fire, Panem’s political system has some surprises for us. Coin, the leader of the rebels, is not all she seems. Katniss does something extraordinary towards the end of the book and is then isolated during its aftermath, so we don’t really see the aftermath very well.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed from Mini-me. Now borrowed by The Physicist!
Publisher: Scholastic, 391 pages (paperback)
Order Mockingjay Classic (Hunger Games Trilogy)
from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting costs.
YA fiction

Clockwork Angel – Cassandra Clare – 3/10

“That’s the same symbol that’s on the Dark Sisters’ carriage – that’s what I call them, Mrs. Dark and Mrs. Black, I mean…”

Having had a rather good time with YA literature pretty much any time I’ve read any (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Before I Die, Elsewhere), I thought I’d finally give in and try out one of Mini-Me’s favourite series. Being methodical, I thought I’d start with the prequel and carry on through the (currently) 4 volumes of the Mortal Instruments series…

Well, this was not a good start. I gave up on page 117.

While The Hunger Games was a well-crafted world to which a reader could easily relate, this was not only set in Victorian London but with a hefty dose of not terribly clearly explained magic thrown in as well. As a result, the setting was simply too remote to be able to make much sense of it.

The female character, Tessa, had a fair amount of get up and go about her, but nothing very special, no shining light that those around her recognise. Will was a male character written for teenage girls – full of infuriating grins and sarcastic wit.

And as for calling Mrs. Dark and Mrs. Black “The Dark Sisters” – I couldn’t believe the lack of effort given to that particular name; it dragged the target age group down to 5-8 year olds. At least call them Mrs. Black and Mrs. Shadow, or something!

Additional information:
Copy borrowed from my 15-year-old sister, who loves this series.
Publisher: Walker Books, 476 pages (paperback)
Order The Infernal Devices 1: Clockwork Angel from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting